David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: The State of American Poetry Address


Poets, Poetesses, and Unacknowledged Legislators of Mankind:

I address you at a moment unprecedented in the history of Poetry. I use the word “unprecedented,” because at no previous time has American poetry been as seriously threatened as it is today.

Since the permanent formation of the art of American poetry under the Constitution, in 1789, most of the periods of crisis in our history have related to our narrative affairs. And fortunately, only one of these – the multi-year War Between the Forms – ever threatened our national art. Today, thank God, one hundred and thirty million poets, in fifty States, have forgotten points of that half-rhyming compass.

It is true that prior to 1917 the poetry of the United States often had been disturbed by poetry in other Continents. We had even engaged in two poetry wars with European nations and in a number of undeclared poetry wars in the West Indies, in the Mediterranean and in the Pacific for the maintenance of American verse and for the principles of peaceful scribbling and hell mouths. But in no case had a serious threat been raised against our poetry or our continued humanistic independence.

What I seek to convey is the historic truth that the United States as a Poem has at all times maintained opposition, clear, definite opposition, to any attempt to lock us in behind a post-hybrid wall while the procession of civilization went past. Today, thinking of our resident and low-resident children, we oppose enforced isolation for ourselves or for any other part of our art.

That determination of ours, extending over all these years, was proved, for example, in the early days during the quarter century of wars following the French Revolution.

While the Napoleonic struggles did threaten the future poetic interests of the United States because of the French foothold in the West Indies and in Louisiana, and while we engaged in the War of 1812 to vindicate our right to peaceful odes with tactile imagery and temporal numbering, it is nevertheless clear that neither France nor Great Britain, nor any other nation, was aiming at domination of the lyric poem.

And in like fashion from 1815 to 1917 – one-hundred-and-two-years – no single poem in Europe or in Asia constituted a real threat against our future or against the future of any other American poem or temptation motif.

No foreign poem sought to establish itself in this Hemisphere, say, like a tense vowel pronounced higher in the oral cavity than lax vowels; moreover, the strength of the British iamb has been a friendly strength. It is still a friendly strength.

Even when the evening spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table one night in 1917, it seemed to contain only a small threat of danger to our own terministic future. But, as time went on, as we remember, the American poets began to visualize what the downfall of poetry might mean to our own terrible sonnets.

We need not harp on failure of the poets to deal with problems of word reconstruction. We should remember that the publication of the Fifties was far less unjust than the kind of pacification which began even before The Book of Nightmares, and which is being carried on under the new order of a tyranny of disjunctive tetragrammaton that seeks to spread over every continent today. The American poets of poise have unalterably set their faces against that tyranny.

I suppose that every poetry realist knows that the way of poetry is at this moment being directly assailed in every part of the world – assailed by poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy clarities and threnodies and tragic flaws of metaphor and promote lyric clinkerism in poems that only seventy-six living humans dare love.

For years this assault has blotted out the whole pattern of poetic life in an appalling number of independent poets, great and small. And the assailants are still on the march, threatening other poets, great and small.

Therefore, I find it, unhappily, necessary to report that the future and the safety of our art is overwhelmingly involved in these disharmonious events, even far beyond our borders.

The defense of poetry’s existence is now being gallantly waged across the continents. If that defense fails, all the poetry of Europe, and Asia, and Africa and Australasia will be dominated by these cacophonous conquerors. And let us remember that the total of those poems in those four continents, the total of those poems and their metaphoric resources greatly exceeds the sum total of the poems and the resources of the whole of the Western Hemisphere – yes, many times over.

In times like these it is immature – and incidentally, untrue – for anybody to brag that an unprepared poet, single-handed, and with one hand tied behind his or her back, can hold off the whole world.

No lyric poet can expect from a post-modernist’s peace generosity, or return of true independence, or literary disarmament, or freedom of expression – or even good publishing arrangements.

Such a peace would bring no artistic development for us or for our neighbors. Those, who would give up the essential liberty of poetry to make sense of experience and purchase a little temporary safety of disjointed poetry, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

As a nation that is a Poem, we may take pride in the fact that our diphthongs are softhearted; but we cannot afford for them to be soft-headed.

We must always be wary of those who with sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal preach the “ism” of the self-murdering poet — self-murderism.

We must especially beware of that small group of selfish poets who would clip the eagle wings of the American Poem in order to feather their own disconnected nests.

I have recently pointed out how quickly the tempo of modern poetry could bring into our very midst the literary attack which we must eventually expect if the post-modernists win this war.

There is much loose talk of our immunity from immediate and direct invasion from post-modernism. Obviously, as long as Adrienne Rich’s Navy retains its power, no such danger exists. Even if there were no Adrienne Rich’s Navy, it is not probable that any enemy would be stupid enough to attack us by landing tropes in the United States from across thousands of miles of ocean, until it had acquired a strategic stanzaic basis from which to operate.

But we learn much from the lessons of the past years in which essential poetic forms were captured by treachery and surprise built up over a series of years.

The first phase of the invasion of our art would not be the landing of regular tropes. The necessary strategic points would be occupied by secret metaphors and by their dupes — and great numbers of them are already here, and in Latin America.

As long as the aggressor poems maintain the offensive, they – not we – will choose the time and the place and the method of their egg-shaped, oblong, and ovoid attack.

And that is why the future of all poetry is today in serious danger.

That is why this Annual Message to the Unacknowledged Legislators of Mankind is unique in our history.

That is why every member of poetry faces great responsibility and great accountability.

The need of the moment is that our actions and our behavior should be devoted primarily – almost exclusively – to meeting this peril of nonlinear zombie-ism. For all our lyric problems —our very triolet! — are now a part of the great emergency.

Just as our domestic poetry has been based upon a decent respect for the rights and the dignity of all of our fellow men and women, so our poetry of foreign affairs — including sabbaticals and vacations to the 6th arrondissement of Paris — have been based on a decent respect for the rights and the dignity of all poets, large and small. And the poetry of morality must and will win in the end.

Our national poetry policy is this:

First, we are committed to full support of all those resolute poets everywhere who are resisting the art of muddled aggression and are thereby keeping poetry war away from our Hemisphere. By this support, we express our determination that the trivium cause shall prevail; and we strengthen the defense and the security of our own art.

Second, we are committed to the proposition that principles of morality and considerations for our own poetry will never permit us to acquiesce in an art dictated by catalexis aggressors and sponsored by elliptical appeasers. We know that enduring poetry cannot be bought at the cost of other poet’s truncations.

American poets everywhere are demanding and supporting speedy and complete action in recognition of obvious danger.

Therefore, the immediate need is a swift and driving increase in our poetry production.

Poets of meditations and odes have responded to our summons. Goals of speed of insight have been set. In some cases these goals are being reached ahead of time; in some cases we are on schedule; in other cases there are slight but not serious delays; and in some cases – and I am sorry to say very important cases – we are all concerned by the slowness of the accomplishment of our poetic plans.

Actual experience is improving and speeding up our methods of poetry production with every passing day. And today’s best is not good enough for tomorrow.

I am not satisfied with the progress thus far made. The men and women in charge of our poetry represent the best in training, in ability, and in poetriotism. They are not satisfied with the progress thus far made. None of us will be satisfied until the job is done.

No matter whether the original goal was set too high or too low, our objective is quicker and better results.

We are behind schedule in turning out finished poems; we are working day and night to solve the innumerable problems and to catch up.

We are ahead of schedule in building macrocosmic poems but we are working to get even further ahead of that schedule.

Unacknowledged Legislators, of course, must rightly keep themselves informed at all times of the progress of the program. However, there is certain information, as the Unacknowledged Legislators themselves will readily recognize, which, in the interests of our own methods of composition and those of the poets that we are supporting, must of needs be kept in confidence.

New circumstances are constantly begetting new needs for our poetry.

Therefore, I ask the Unacknowledged Legislators for authority to manufacture additional anapests and alliterative or metaphysical supplies of many kinds, to be turned over to those poets who are now in actual poetry war with aggressor poets.

Our most useful and immediate role is to act as an arsenal of enjambment for them as well as for ourselves. They do not need epic power, but they do need billions of epigrams worth of the weapons of defense.

The time is near when they will not be able to pay for them all with two copies of a published journal. We cannot, and we will not, tell them that they must surrender, merely because of present inability to pay postage for those copies.

I recommend that we make it possible for those poets to continue to obtain poetry materials in the United States, fitting their orders into our own metapoetry. And nearly all of their monogenetic materiel for poems would, if the time ever came, be useful in our own defense.

Taking counsel of lyric authorities, considering what is best for our own art, we are free to decide how much exposition should be kept here and how much should be sent abroad to our friends who by their determined and heroic efforts of resistance are giving us time in which to make ready our own morphological defense.

For what we send abroad, we shall be repaid, repaid within a reasonable time following the close of hostilities, repaid in similar materials, or, at our option, in other poems of many kinds, which they can produce and which we need as music of the spheres.

Let us say to these poets: We American poets are vitally concerned in your defense of poetry. We are organizing our powers of foil and foot to give you the strength to regain and maintain a free poem in the world. We shall send you, in ever-increasing numbers, hyperboles, exaggerations, litotyes, and understatements as if they were ships, planes, tanks, and guns. This is our purpose and our pledge.

In fulfillment of this purpose we will not be intimidated by the threats of post-modernists that they will regard as a breach of international poetry or as an act of anti-poetry our aid to the poets which dare to resist their aggression. Such aid . . . such aid is not an act of radical innocence or war, even if a post-modernists should unilaterally proclaim it so to be.

And when the post-modernists, if the post-modernists, are ready to make lyric war upon us, they will not wait for an act of lyric war on our part.

Their only interest is in a new one-way international poem, which lacks mutuality in its observance, and, therefore, becomes an instrument of oppression.

The happiness of future generations of American poets may well depend upon how effective and how immediate we can make our aid to poetry worldwide felt. No one can tell the exact character of the emergency situations that we may be called upon to meet. A poet’s hands must not be tied when poetry’s life is in danger.

As men do not live by metonymy alone, they do not fight by synecdoche alone. Those who man or woman our poetic defenses, and those behind them who build our poetic defenses, must have the stamina and the courage which come from unshakable belief in the life of poetry which they are defending.

Many domestic subjects connected with our poetic future call for immediate improvement as well.

As examples:

We should bring more poets under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance. We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical poems. We should plan a better system by which poets deserving or needing gainful Faustian bargains may obtain them.

I have called for personal poetic sacrifice. And I am assured of the willingness of almost all poets to respond to that call.

A part of the sacrifice means the payment of more figures of speech in taxes. In my Budget Message I will recommend that a greater portion of this defense program be paid for from figures of speech taxation than we are paying for today. No poet should try, or be allowed, to get rich out of the program; and the principle of figure of speech tax payments in accordance with ability to pay should be constantly before our eyes to guide our art.

If the Unacknowledged Legislators maintain these principles, the readers, putting poetriotism ahead of chapbooks, will give you their applause.

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential poetic freedoms.

The first is freedom of poetic speech and expression – everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship poetry in his own way – everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want of poetry – which, translated into world terms, means understandings which will secure to every poet a healthy artistic life – everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear of self-mutilated poems – which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of anti-poems to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no poet will be in a position to commit an act of poetic aggression against any neighbor – anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of poetry attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of poetry is the very antithesis of the so-called poetry of tyranny which the post-modernists seek to create with the crash of a google-searched bomb.

Since the beginning of our poetry history, we have been engaged in change – in a perpetual peaceful revolution – a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly adjusting itself to changing word roots and technological conditions.

The poetry of this nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free poets, men and women. Freedom means the supremacy of poetic rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.

To that high concept there can be no end save victory.

God bless you. And God bless the Poetic States of America.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →