Shortly before Ohio's Democratic primary, Tom Buffenbarger, the head of the machinists' union and a supporter of Hillary Clinton, took to the stage at a Clinton rally in Youngstown to lay the wood to Barack Obama. "Give me a break!" snarled Buffenbarger, "I've got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies crowding in to hear him speak! This guy won't last a round against the Republican attack machine." And then the union rep delivered his coup de grace: "He's a poet, not a fighter!"
Fortunately, this insult to the sacred mysteries of Poesie didn't go unanswered--within a few days, the poet John Lundberg angrily riposted at the Huffington Post , declaring that he "would be happy to step outside" with Buffenbarger to show him that poets can indeed mix it up. (Smart money is on Lundberg, as Buffenbarger appears to have lost several dozen battles to the combined forces of Little Debbie and Sara Lee.) Yet what was most interesting about the Clinton supporter's remarks wasn't their inaccuracy or intemperance, but the way in which they neatly summarized two assumptions often made about contemporary American poetry and contemporary American politics. Loosely speaking, these are:
1) That poetry is passive, swoony, and generally not in the business of "doing things."
2) That politics is active, gritty, and comparable to war.
Many objections can be made to these assumptions, but it's important to note first that poetry and politics are both matters of verbal persuasion--that is, both have strong connections to the art of rhetoric. Admittedly, poets and politicians are typically trying to persuade us of very different things, yet the two worlds have far more in common with each other than either does with, for instance, the world of Brazilian jujitsu. In light of that, one would think poets might get a little more respect from political speakers, and that political speakers might refrain from comparing their purely verbal existence to the decidedly non-verbal world of physical violence.
But they don't. Instead, the relationship between American poetry and American politics is confused and confusing, with politicians sometimes describing the highest moments in political life as "poetic" ("I have a dream"), and other times offering up poetry as a symbol of empty talk. And of course, American poets are even more conflicted. Rare is the poet who doesn't view himself as deeply invested in political life, and yet the sloppy, compromised, and frequently idiotic business of democracy--which is, for all its flaws, the way most political changes occur in this country--rarely attracts the attention of our best poets. Is this the inevitable order of things? Or are all the talkers simply talking past each other?* * *
We might first ask: Why are they talking about each other at all? We don't spend much time wondering what poetry has to do with neuroscience or television writing or college basketball, yet these are important areas of American life that involve assertions about truth, form, morality, and the nature of culture--all subjects regularly claimed as...