Uttering the Holy: On Poetry and Politics

09/17/2014 04:40 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

Not long ago, I was talking to a group of people who all happened to be in book clubs. I asked them if they ever read a book of poems as part of their club. They all pondered this for a moment before saying, almost in unison, "No."

"Why not?," I asked

Another pause.

"I don't know," one responded. "I mean, no one's ever suggested it."

"I would," another said, somewhat reassuringly, "I just wouldn't know where to begin. I don't think any of us would."

It was this conversation I recalled as I read Juan Vidal's recent lament, "Where Have All the Poets Gone?" -- a provocative take-down of the current poetry establishment and, as such, a much-circulated essay in poetry circles. Mr. Vidal poses a number of questions, but his main one is this: "I'm wondering why the words of today's poets don't pack the same weight and influence as works like [Allen Ginsberg's] 'Howl.' Sure, people are still writing, but gone are the days of poets having to answer for what they so explicitly set before us.

That is a pretty good question. Why don't the words of today's poets pack the same weight and influence as works like "Howl?"

Mr. Vidal may have mixed metaphors there, but his inquiry into the effect, the impact, of poetry is one that has nagged me for years. I actually wrote about this not long ago in these very pages, but that doesn't mean that I have any answers. In general, I would say poetry has never been a discourse that affects policy change. For instance, it would be unlikely a congressman or a city council would cite a poem as motivating legal reform the same way they might refer to a newspaper article or a documentary. That isn't to say that poetry is not political or important, or that it can't galvanize people. We know it is and can and does.

As with "Howl."

I always think of that poem as a timely text whose tone, ideas, and urgency perfectly expressed what a growing demographic was feeling. It said what no one else or nothing else could. Ultimately, that is poetry's great strength.

"Howl" is now thought of as a form of activist poetics primarily because of what happened outside it. It is, as far as I know, the only poem in American history to get another poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who published the poem), thrown in jail. It is hard to imagine that happening in 2014. That a publisher could get incarcerated for publishing a poem is a testament to the fact that in 1956, poetry was actually dangerous. And, as we all know, where danger goeth, readers followeth.

But, Mr. Vidal's question about the impact of poetry is valid, and it extends to our larger expectations for the arts. For example, we don't expect the opera to respond to political events, just as we don't expect the ballet to speak truth to power. I'm not even sure we assume our fiction will take on political issues or be the voice of protest. So, is there something uniquely powerful about poetry that makes it particularly able to activate both our aesthetic and political senses?

I think there is.

And, I think this is the real engine driving Mr. Vidal's complaint. Poetry is so necessary, so capable, so deeply moving, it should, many think, be doing more.

So, why isn't it? Well, that's a complicated question. It was Walt Whitman, who said "To have great poets there must be great audiences too." He understood that in order for poetry to alter the social order, democracy must be ready to respond to poetry. Right now, democracy is not ready to respond to poetry. Right now, we do not think poetry is dangerous. Right now, most people think that poetry is too much like the world -- weird, complex, and just too hard to understand. But, I promise that's not the case.

America, I want you to know that your poets have your back.

Our poetry -- which is your poetry -- is relevant. It is like the world but in the best ways: its beauty, its significance, its moments of clarity, come to you in flashes. And with even a little bit of work, it will come to you in longer, more sustained, more glorious bursts.

Right now, we need some bursts.

Martin Heidegger once wrote that "in the time of the world's night, the poet utters the holy." It may not be the world's night, but it sure feels like it might be dusk.

And so, before it gets darker, respond to poetry's call. If, like the readers I was talking to, you don't know where to start. That's okay. Begin where it's free. At the websites for the Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets you can search by topic. Want poems about breakups? You don't need Taylor Swift, go here! Eager for some lines for your teenager, Poets.org has got you covered. Halloween is coming up; if you're itching for a poetry version of a horror flick, check out the Poetry Foundations section on "Ghosts and the Supernatural."

But if like Mr. Vidal, you want politics in your poetry, your options are just as good. State of the Union (50 political poems by American poets) is an excellent anthology. Brenda Hillman's highly political but highly readable Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire won a number of awards, including the prestigious Griffin International Poetry Prize. One of the comments responding to Mr. Vidal's essay mentions Sam Hamill's wonderful Poets Against the War and my own book 99 Poems for the 99 Percent: An Anthology of Poetry as examples of of contemporary poetry that takes on social and policital issues. My goal in 99 Poems for the 99 Percent was to demonstrate that American poetry can do and is doing exactly the kinds of things Mr. Vidal fears are missing.

To be sure, we are at a crossroads. Poets and audiences need each other. As a member of both groups, I am ready to rise to the occasion.