Civic Passions

Piotr K. Gwiazda

Over the past thirty-five years, in the era of globalized economy, culture, and increasingly politics, US poets have taken it upon themselves to perform the role of public intellectuals. In doing so, they raise important questions about poetry and its social value. In my new book US Poetry in the Age of Empire, 1979–2012, from which this essay is adapted, I trace the extent to which poetry, as a language-based art form and an affect-producing tool, imparts knowledge about today’s rapidly changing world. I also consider the predicament faced by every American poet gifted with civic ambition: How to write poems for people who don’t read poems.

Poetry, like any social practice, is tied to its enabling institutions, and there can be little doubt that over the past thirty-five years, if not half century, its primary enabling institution has been the university.1 However, I want to suggest that the academic context has also significantly influenced many poets’ approach to the writing of poetry itself. By this I hardly mean the rise of the so-called workshop lyric from the 1970s onward – any more than the texts I discuss are examples of the workshop lyric. Neither condemning nor celebrating the centrality of academia to contemporary poetic production, I simply note its practical implications to US poets in terms of their ability to engage, through their art, with major social and political issues of their era.

Poets like to fantasize that they write for their dead precursors or for posterity. But the fact is that contemporary poets’ primary audience (or at least individuals with whom they regularly interact in their specific professional capacity as poets) consists of large, ever-growing numbers of students. These students often come from different social, cultural, or even national backgrounds, bringing with them different ideas about poetry, language, and “the question of being together.”2 Something happens when poets, especially those gifted with civic ambition, meet regularly with their readers in a setting that is assumed to be pedagogical. Certainly Horace’s advice to combine pleasure with usefulness seems attractive again. So does Bertold Brecht’s unique ability, as Terrence Des Pres notes, to be “didactic and lyrical” at the same time.3 As academic and literary professionals, contemporary poets often find themselves in situations that entail not only transmitting knowledge but sharing what Walter Pater called “intellectual excitements.” Being part of the academic system allows them to reassess not only how they communicate with their audience, but how they structure their very relationship to it.

Even a glimpse at the examples of political poetry by the nine poets discussed in my book reveals that their authors do not declare their love for their country, nor do they sing panegyrics on their favorite politicians. Shaped by their experiences in the anti-war, women’s and gay liberation, and civil rights movements (Pinsky, Rich, and Baraka) and by the end of the Cold War and the turbulent first decade of the twenty-first century (Spahr, Lerner, Jarnot, Nowak, Boyer, and Toscano), they instead ruminate upon America’s duplicities – its pretense to act in the name of peace and freedom while pursuing its own military and political agenda, its self-image as an exceptional nation despite its many domestic failures. Based on the scope, lucidity and sheer vigor behind their poems, we might conclude that American poets writing in the age of Empire take an unambiguously adversarial position toward their subject matter – whether by “subject matter” we mean specific actions of the government, moral failings of their fellow citizens or the American national ideology as a whole. 

But that would be a partial, unsatisfactory conclusion. It seems to me that their engagement with national and global politics is far more complex – and likely to entail more ambivalent positions. “It is the note of uncertainty or even dismay that I am looking for, the imagination’s troubled recognition of its own involvement in the spectacle of power,” says Thomas R. Edwards at the beginning of his study of public poetry in English from the late sixteenth century to the late 1960s.4 In his book-length essay “Poetry, Politics, and Intellectuals,” written for The Cambridge History of American Literature, Robert von Hallberg makes a similar point, arguing that US poets who gravitate toward politics are likely to “express some degree of complicitousness with their adversaries . . . Poets should realize that intellectuals as a group are not altogether separable from the state itself.”5 

This recognition of complicity with the state and/or with larger, less scrutable configurations of power is what especially interests me in US Poetry in the Age of Empire. As I try to show, Pinsky, Rich, Baraka, as well as their successors Spahr, Lerner, Jarnot, Nowak, Boyer, and Toscano (among others), offer incisive critiques of the United States. As they do so, they engage imaginatively and intellectually with the discourse of patriotism – a “calm passion” (according to David Hume) that nevertheless can instigate powerful emotions like pride and shame. Not that these poets are willing to discard their social hope; as they examine root causes and entertain utopian hopes, they view the present moment as the horizon of the future. As creators of civic poetry, to use Lowry Nelson, Jr.’s definition, they are “concerned with community, that is, with cohesion, duty, honor, honesty, belongingness, and communal survival.”6 At the same time, these poets are acutely aware of the limits of their own ability to oppose the actions of their government or to challenge the economic structures that they themselves, as poets, to some degree help to perpetuate. No matter how skillfully and eloquently they express their protest against the status quo, they can do very little, as poets, to change the status quo. No matter how much time and energy they devote to political activism (and many of them do), they can only bear witness to, not shape history.

As critics like Edwards, von Hallberg, and Nelson maintain, the most interesting public-themed poems tend not to express openly conformist or antagonistic views. Rather, precisely because they are civic poems, they usually embody more nuanced positions. Here is von Hallberg again:

Distinguished political poetry, as I see it, challenges the political opinions of its audience; it does not merely extend the blunt discourse that is routine in political controversy. The best political poetry draws lines differently than the newspapers do, and this is exactly the challenge to its audience. Political poets can make categorical thinking difficult. Poets who are satisfied with rousing simplifications or confirmations of their audience’s views sell short the possibilities of their art.7

It would be hard to disagree with von Hallberg or much improve on his definition of political poetry. But as I think he would be the first to admit, while many poets try to challenge their audience’s political opinions, few actually succeed in doing so; his chapter on “Politics” in The Cambridge History of American Literature is basically a survey of poems written in the past fifty years that spectacularly fail as “political poetry” as he defines it. Poets cannot, on the one hand, express their complicity with power, as von Hallberg suggests even the best American poets of the post-World War II period frequently do, and on the other hand attempt to transform established ways of thinking about politics. They are neither servants to power as Plato describes them in The Republic nor “unacknowledged legislators of the world” as Shelley fantasizes in A Defence of Poetry. (W.H. Auden was not far off the mark when he said that the phrase “unacknowledged legislators” describes not the poets but the secret police.) Rather, poets are individuals who pay close attention to the world around them – even to something as quotidian as the newspaper, the radio, TV, and now the Internet – with the intention to come up with artistically viable responses to it. I say “artistically viable” because the commitment to aesthetic value is ultimately the only thing that distinguishes poets who write about political matters from journalists, historians, and political scientists.

I said earlier that in their response to the developments in national and global politics from the mid-1970s through the first decade of the twenty-first century poets take it upon themselves to perform the role of public intellectuals. But it is a relatively modest type of intellectual I have in mind – not a “universal” intellectual who claims to know something about everything but a Foucaldian “specific” intellectual who works and acts within a particular professional sector, for example the university.8 This type of intellectual seeks equality, justice, and truth but doesn’t hesitate to take sides in what Foucault calls “real, material, everyday struggles.” “To have an impact on his or her contemporaries,” writes Cary Nelson in Manifesto of a Tenured Radical, “an intellectual may have to identify explicitly with one side of a cultural or political controversy. For some that may seem partly anti-intellectual, but it is often the only alternative to irrelevance.”9 This statement strikes me as an apt analogy for what I believe many poets today (most of whom, as I noted earlier, spend much of their time in the classroom) try to accomplish in their texts. If they want to succeed as poets, they must use tools specific to their art. They must challenge their audience’s views but also channel their audience’s emotions. They must speak for others as well as with others.

This kind of moral clarity, based on the premise of common relation, is a basic feature of civic poetry. After all, the realm of politics is highly charged with emotions, often openly shared emotions. Our ability to form judgments about specific political issues and even politicians is also largely guided by emotions.10 Moreover, if we adopt a broader definition of the political as to include the experience of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and class – what Muriel Rukeyser once described as “the thick of life . . . the references and associations of life . . . the network of our lives”11 – we will realize that poets are particularly well equipped to express our basic sense of who we are, not only as individuals but as members of community or different communities. Poetry, in this sense, never runs the risk of becoming mere doctrine or propaganda. It can never be reduced to its message. Rather, it continuously asserts its status as an important art form whose medium is language – a tool and system of communication that indeed largely shapes the references and associations of life. 

Considered from this standpoint, poetry may not appear, as Jarrell claims in “The Obscurity of the Poet,” as indispensable as air or food. It may only minimally, if at all, shape the course of political events. However, it may assert its social value as a mode of communicating feelings and thoughts in public. It may be able to teach us something about our relation to others – whether lovers or neighbors, family members or fellow citizens, or even the whole of humanity.

Piotr K. Gwiazda, US Poetry in the Age of Empire, 1979-2012, published 2014 by Palgrave Macmillan, reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.

1 As Alan Golding notes, the university is “where the reading of poetry mainly takes place – an institution dedicated to the making of meaning and to the maintenance and dissemination of reading conventions.” Alan Golding, From Outlaw to Classic: Canons in American Poetry (1995), 160.

2 See Bill Readings’s claim that since the university can no longer be seen as the primary institution of national culture, it “becomes one site among others where the question of being-together is raised.” Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (1996), 20 (emphasis in the original).

3 Terrence Des Pres, Praises & Dispraises: Poetry and Politics in the 20th Century (1988), 119 (emphasis in the original).

4 Thomas R. Edwards, Imagination and Power: A Study of Poetry on Public Themes (1971), 6.

5 Robert von Hallberg, “Poetry, Politics, and Intellectuals,” in The Cambridge History of American Literature, vol. 8: Poetry and Criticism 1940-1995, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch (1996), 28.

6 Lowry Nelson, Jr., Poetic Configurations: Essays in Literary History and Criticism (1992), 148.

7 von Hallberg, 26.

8 For the use of the term intellectual in this essay, and in connection with this distinction, see Foucault, “Truth and Power,” in Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, vol. 3: Power, ed. James D. Faubion, trans. Robert Hurley and others (1997), 126-27.

9 Cary Nelson, Manifesto of a Tenured Radical (1997), 147-48.

10 “If who one loves, fears, loathes, envies, or pities is not simply the product of accident but reflects a person’s values and perceptions, then emotions in some way enact a person’s attitudes toward the world. An emotion, in its appropriateness or inappropriateness, is a response that can reveal those fundamental commitments that provide an orientation for a practical life. When seen as an integral component within the practice of judgment, emotion can come to be something other than the tyrannical force that Gorgias celebrates and that Kant sought to outlaw. Instead, emotion can be a source of knowledge, enabling both discrimination and action, and any account of thought that hopes to be adequate to the complexity of the human mind needs to go beyond an understanding of reason as a transpersonal or formal mode of inference and incorporate emotion in an appropriate way.” James L. Kastely, “Rhetoric and Emotion,” in A Companion to Rhetoric and Rhetorical Criticism, ed. Walter Jost and Wendy Olmsted (2004), 223.

11 Rukeyser says this in a film documentary They Are Their Own Gifts (1978) directed by Lucille Rhodes and Margaret Murphy. Compare with Terry Eagleton’s definition of the political: “I mean by the political no more than the way we organize our social life together, and the power-relations which this involves.” Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), 194.