Stephen Burt’s ill-tempered reply to David Biespiel’s call for poets to participate more in life outside the ivory tower is a stark example of how far our faith in poetry has fallen.

Burt is about as far away from Shelley’s “A Defense of Poetry” as one can get:

“Writers who overemphasize the power of poetry in particular, or the power of rhetoric in general, [Burt writes] to solve public problems risk underemphasizing the power of facts…”

Can you imagine Shelley saying that we “risk underemphasizing the power of facts…”?

But, never mind Shelley, why would anyone indulge in such tepid rhetoric, the limpness of which is downright embarrassing?

First of all, Burt’s reasoning is hopelessly circular: what about the “risk” of “overemphasizing facts” and thus “underemphasizing poetry?”

Secondly, since when did poetry imply a hatred of facts? Why is Burt preaching this red herring?

If Burt is saying not all poets are good enough to bring their sensibilities as poets into other areas of life, he is certainly making a very good case for himself. The art of rhetoric seems to elude him.

A clue to Burt’s wretched pessimism might be gleaned if we examine this again: “Writers who overemphasize the power of poetry in particular, or the power of rhetoric in general…”

Unlike the soaring Shelley, Burt is unable to reconcile “poetry in particular” with “rhetoric in general.”

It’s really no wonder, then, that Burt finally takes Biespiel’s essay personally, and Burt defends himself thus:

“I have made telephone calls or knocked on doors for at least one Democrat in nearly every election (including Congressional midterms and the St. Paul, Minnesota, city council) since 2000.  That volunteer work led me to write poems I would not otherwise have written.  But those poems did not do much to unite America, elect progressive officials, or fight climate change; I hope that they will last because some people like them (though the odds are long).”

Burt can find millions of examples (not just his own) in which “poems” do not “fight climate change.”

But isn’t this precisely what Biespiel is saying:  that we ought to bring poetry in all its aspects more into contact with public life?  Burt is attempting to refute Biespiel’s solution by merely pointing out the problem—which suggests the solution!

Burt assumes writing a poem requires a very narrow set of skills that has very little to do with solving larger problems of life, but this is the sort of thinking which naturally takes root in an ivory tower.  By taking this view, professor Burt, successor to Helen Vendler, can forever ‘prove’ that poetry has little to do with life, and with a certain smug satisfaction, tell Biespiel to be on his way.

We know the qualities shared by some poets and outstanding citizens: wit, imagination, curiosity, boldness, vision, ingenuity, and erudition.  What is wrong with wanting to spread these qualities around?   If Burt is correct, and none of these qualites in the poet pertain anywhere else, we probably ought to ignore Biespiel and, at the same time, stop reading poems.

Biespiel’s exhortation may be quixotic, but only if we submit to a very limited and limiting notion of poetry.   We could, in response to Biespiel’s suggestion—which may come down to: how do we make poetry respectable in the public square again—smile, nod, and agree in a helpless sort of way, but Burt’s bitter attack: where does that come from?  Is it because Burt is saying, in essence, “How dare you try and make poetry respectable!  That’s not its purpose!”    Does Burt really feel there are no Shellean qualites shared by poets and exceptional human beings?   How can one argue, as Burt does, against such an assertion, when Shelley has almost singlehandedly made it a truism?  Does Burt believe that a poet must have a certain cramped, dwarfish nature in order to write poems, and is Burt really making, with eyes wide open, this sweeping and negative assertion against Biespiel’s hopeful, simple and general good?

I hope not.  But it sure looks that way.



  1. Comment Field Bully said,

    July 15, 2010 at 4:45 pm

  2. Marcus Bales said,

    July 15, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    “… Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger. …”

  3. The Noochie-Coochie Man said,

    July 15, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    Facts are simple and facts are straight
    Facts are lazy and facts are late
    Facts all come with points of view
    Facts don’t do what I want them to
    Facts just twist the truth around
    Facts are living turned inside out
    Facts are getting the best of them
    Facts are nothing on the face of things
    Facts don’t stain the furniture
    Facts go out and slam the door
    Facts are written all over your face
    Facts continue to change their shape

    (from the song “Once in a Lifetime,” performed by Talking Heads)

  4. July 16, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    Marcus–Good job with that link. I, too, reacted to the quoted Burt material above by thinking “Jesus, this guy has no idea what leading cognitive scientists are saying about the nature of political rhetoric.” Lakoff’s “Political Brain” is another good work on this topic.

    My guess is that Burt is a typical neoliberal intellectual, like most of his socio-economic class (note: his proof of his political bono fides is that he works for candidates from the democrat party). This faction, led by the “policy-wonk” Clinton since the 90’s, has always relied on a strategy of arguing facts. But according to the work of scientiists like Lakoff, people make their political decisions based upon hard-wired emotional frameworks and inherited familial scripts based around concepts like “authority” or “responsibility.”

    If you combine this area of cognitive work with the “meme” concept articulated by Dawkins, Shelley’s famous declaration begins to seem harder to deny, even if it is perhaps untrue in the literal sense: No, probably individual poems or groups of poems are unlikely to convince the electorate to reject corporate funded politicians, or push for sustainable agriculture, or rational and compassionate foreign policy. But if you accept the work of Lakoff and his peers, it becomes undeniable that language at the figurative, evocative level has a whole lot more influence on shaping the attitudes and opinons of human society than language at the literal level does. Figurative, evocative language is the realm of the poet–the poet is, therefore, “the unacknowledged legislator.” Not, literally, the swells who publish in APR and tweet for Harriet. But those who are deliberately, strategically employing poetic language in the public realm.

    The right-wing has always understood this–it’s why they can win elections, even though a very small minority of the voters actually even agree with any of their policies.

    Given the desperate situation humanity has worked its way into, it would seem to some that the moral obligation of those who have been gifted with the ability to use “figurative” language skillfully might lie somewhere beyond simply chasing awards and publications and teaching positions. Political work would obviously mean more than simply “making phone calls” to argue on behalf of the democrat party’s (dubiously) superior policy positions.

    Exactly what that might mean is difficult to determine–it’s been no walk in the park for me over the last decade or so, trying to figure it out. But the daunting nature of that true call from the Goddess is probably what accounts for the hysterically defensive nature of Burt’s response to Biespiel.

  5. Marcus Bales said,

    July 16, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    You campaign in poetry and govern in prose — Mario Cuomo is credited with phrasing that insight that way, but it’s been known since the first power-grab by a slickster who triumphs over a brute in a proto-human tribe, I’m sure.

    Jonathan Haidt (pronounced ‘hite’) has had some interesting things to say on this, too:

    “…the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way. When Republicans say that Democrats “just don’t get it,” this is the “it” to which they refer.”

  6. thomasbrady said,

    July 16, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    “The theory of chance, or as the mathematicians term it, the Calculus of Probabilities, has this remarkable peculiarity, that its truth in general is in direct proportion with its fallacy in particular.” –EA Poe

    Anyone familiar with chemistry knows the combination of two elements will create a third which owns no characteristics of the first two. “Facts” will change in all sorts of different dynamic ways.

    All great scientists (and the list is very, very long) are essentially poets. I choose Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907) at random, a fascinating guy involved in a number of practical scientific advances.

    Mendeleev used Sanskrit when he produced the first working Periodic Table of Elements and, using his table, predicted properties of elements yet to be discovered.

  7. Al Cordle said,

    July 17, 2010 at 4:05 am

    I still remember one poet’s defense when I first noted Stephen Burt’s creepy connections to Vendler and Graham. The poet said something like: but Burt seems like a stand-up guy. He even volunteers for the democratic party.

    Is that supposed to make me think Burt’s a _good_ person? No. It just emphasizes that he made all of the right political moves to get where he is.

  8. notevensuperficial said,

    July 19, 2010 at 3:13 am

    For me, the apposite – albeit rhetorical – question is whether facts ever are present except rhetorically.

    If you want the facts that support your perspective to be compelling to other people, you’ve got to make them that way – that is, compelling.

    You’ve also got to debunk the lies (counter’fact’s) of your political opponents by making their counterfactuality clear – that is, compelling.

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