David Biespiel has an article on the Poetry Foundation site (originally published in Poetry's May issue) in which he bemoans the loss of political discourse among poets, bemoans the evaporation of civic awareness and accountability, bemoans the tribalism and isolation which has washed over the poetry and public landscapes. He bemoans a great deal.
While I don't disagree with Biespiel's central thesis, that poets have generally recoiled from the political elements of public discourse in favor of a bathroom sink love-fest, his easy culprit (the poet) and the unfocused grandeur of his solution (truth, power and suffering) suggest a lack of honest consideration.
An editor who uses anecdotal accounts of their interactions with submitting writers to demonstrate that writers are mercury-poisoned prima-donnas, is like a person who hangs out at a single's bar and then complains about the shallow conversation. The editor and the shallow writer share one thing in common: the shallow publication. Look, after thirty years of editors asking, nay demanding, that poets produce reflective, solipsistic, lyrical codes, you can't expect to clap your hands and turn all the poets into Robert Lowell. It doesn't work that way. Editors do more to shape poetry than poets.
Further, Biespiel (wearing his Poet hat, now) glances over the change that public political discourse has undergone in recent decades. Poets aren't the originators of our aversion to political discourse. Most everyone is ducking that particular chat, and has been for years. Political conversations seem to occur primarily in two modes, now: privately, between like-minds, and in the circus of TV news panels.
While discourse is on the defensive, activism is doing just fine. Activism, however, has come to mean "the public action of the frightened and ill-informed" and "smug, empty gestures to warm the heart of the giver." Biespiel, though he pretends to champion political discourse, alludes continually to activism, and not any activism, but "liberal" activism. His submerged point seems to be, "Where have all the Democrat poets gone?" That's not discourse, man, that's recruitment.
We're working our way out of the personal-is-political era, and working our way back to the communal-is-political. Not just poets, but many folks in America, increasingly feel an urge to reconnect, to commune, to converse. We are doing this not through activism, but through a reconsideration and rearrangement of our daily lives. Community is becoming more central to what characterizes a fulfilling existence. Conversations are opening up. I have friends who I disagree with all the time, and I really appreciate their presence in my life; I appreciate that discourse and I want more.
Biespiel, by connecting civic, public discourse to the most contentious and divisive of political issues, is essentially promoting something wonderful and noble in the terms of its most difficult eventuality. It's like describing the virtue of marriage by articulating the misery of divorce. Biespiel rails against the balkanization of the poet community, and then, without irony, he draws a line in the sand: "The American poet must speak truth to power and interpret suffering. And just as soon as the American poet actually speaks in public about civic concerns other than poetry, both American poetry and American democracy will be better off for it." Apparently, there are two types of poets: the ones saving democracy and the ones who are indifferent to the potential super powers locked inside their words. As absurdly grandiose as this statement is, I don't disagree with his tacit point that writing poetry about poetry is not a good way to engage an audience.
I can think of no vaguer, more mushy exhortation than "speak truth to power and interpret suffering." If Biespiel had said, "Stop writing about yourself like you're some kind of lonely Christ, and go out and write about anything else on the face of this giant planet," I'd applaud. But no. He talks about truth and suffering. Just what poetry needs. More "truth." More "suffering."