“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?
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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 poetry’s turf. Yet the connection between poetry and politics interests us in ways that the arguably more obvious connection between poetry and linguistics does not. Why? ”
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