Pablo Neruda is perhaps the greatest example of a people’s poet, and he gained popularity through both his poetry and his public service. In the US, Langston Hughes was a people’s poet, writing in a vernacular that spoke to, for, and of democratic values. From his poem “Democracy” (1949): “Democracy will not come / Today, this year / Nor ever / Through compromise and fear.” Hughes’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, in 1953, during the McCarthy era of harassment, certainly demonstrated this belief, and sealed his fate as poet and citizen, the kind of poet David Biespiel, in the May, 2010 issue of Poetry seems to be calling. Hughes was both poet and public figure, and the activities encouraged one another.
Biespiel’s call for poets to engage in the Democratic process of public discourse, service, and persuasion borrows its title from the Woody Guthrie song “This Land is Our Land.” Guthrie, like Hughes, spoke in a vernacular for and of his community. How many of the poets Biespiel addresses write in a vernacular that qualifies as a democratic language, in words that speak to, for, and of a community, in words that everyone understands? This would seem to be an important prerequisite for public discourse. Biespiel goes outside the US for his primary example, Vaclav Havel, whose “literary background…increase[ed] the moral authority he summoned in his civic and political life.” But Biespiel mentions Wendell Berry’s 1975 “The Specialization of Poetry,” reminding us of our favorite Buckminster Fuller theme: specialization leads to extinction. In short, today’s poets may be too narrow, not well-rounded enough in background, experience, or temperament to answer Biespiel’s calling, and they may be nearly extinct on the public discourse front.
In any case, one of Biespiel’s reasons for his claim that poets are best positioned to speak to democratic ideals, that “poets are uniquely qualified to speak openly in the public square among diverse or divisive communities,” is “poetry’s ancient predisposition for moral persuasion,” but we are not convinced that poets are any better equipped than the average citizen to persuade. But that is both the risk and the opportunity – and that being the case, poets had better say what’s on their minds, but not because they are any better equipped than the rest of us. “We permit free expression because we need the resources of the whole group to get us the ideas we need. Thinking is a social activity,” Louis Menand said in the close to his The Metaphysical Club. “Democracy is an experiment,” Menand concludes, “and it is in the nature of experiments sometimes to fail.” It’s that possibility of failure that gives poets the best reason to come out of whatever literary closet they happen to be writing in and develop a truly public voice to accompany their poetic vision and voice.
Meantime, we were thinking of what an all-time administration of poets might look like, and we came up with this draft (not all positions have been filled): President, Charles Bukowski; Vice-president, Marianne Moore; Secretary of State, Langston Hughes; Secretary of Commerce, Lawrence Ferlinghetti; Secretary of Labor, Bob Dylan; Secretary of Homeland Security, e. e. cummings; Presidential speechwriter and press secretary, William Faulkner; Secretary of Health and Human Services, Sylvia Plath; Attorney General, Wallace Stevens…. You get the idea. It’s not exactly what Biespiel was talking about, but try it with the poets you know. Maybe we’ll provoke a response.