POETRY AND THE POLITICAL: This Land is Our Land
by Sam Biespiel
from Poetry Magazine, April 30, 2010
In the squares of the city—in the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office—I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me.
America’s poets have a minimal presence in American civic discourse and a minuscule public role in the life of American democracy. I find this condition perplexing and troubling—both for poetry and for democracy. Because when I look at American poetry from the perspective of a fellow traveler, I see an art invested in various complex, fascinating, historical, and sometimes shop-worn literary debates. I see a twenty-first-century enterprise that’s thriving in the off-the-beaten-track corners of the nation’s cities and college towns. But at the same time that poetry’s various coteries are consumed with art-affirming debates over poetics and styles, American poetry and America’s poets remain amazingly inconsequential to the rest of the nation’s civic, democratic, political, and public life.
This divide between poet and civic life is bad for American poetry and bad for America, too. Decade after decade, poetry slips into its fifteen-hundred-copy-print-run oblivion and scattered identities on the Internet, and we hear not one chirrup about it from the leading thinkers or writers who have access to a dialogue with the greater public. The culture-consuming audience that should provide poetry’s best readers has scarcely noticed its diminishment. Or if they have noticed, they have also come to feel excluded, unconcerned, and dismissive because they believe that American poetry has become so esoteric that figuring out the differences among the warring poets and styles is wholly unnecessary for leading a culturally rich or civically engaged American life.