Given the ability our poets have to write poems that penetrate differences and discover connection, and given poetry’s ancient predisposition for moral persuasion, surely America’s poets are uniquely qualified to speak openly in the public square among diverse or divisive communities. That’s why for an American poet to be something like a subversive today would mean not pushing further inward into the huddles of poetry, but the opposite. The poet who engages democratic dialogue and political life is the renegade, while the one who lives on the margins, settles into tenured existence, or remains committed to engaging only other like-minded types has aligned himself with something that in its best, purest, and most satisfying form is bourgeois comfort. What’s missing in our Republic’s public discourse is the poet’s mastery of reflection. The — I swore I wasn’t going to use this expression, but here goes — “unacknowledged legislators of the world” is one of poetry’s great, self-glorifying characterizations. But perhaps some acknowledged legislating on behalf of mankind wouldn’t be such a bad thing either — for poetry or for democracy.
- David Biespiel, from his article "This Land is Our Land" in the May 2010 issue of Poetry. You can read the whole thing here.