Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Deep Divide

Aaron Belz


September 7, 2012

By Aaron Belz

Because I am a poet, most of my friends on Facebook are poets. I’ve given readings with them, attended conferences, shared hotel rooms, corresponded, collaborated, argued—agreed. I’ve read and reviewed their books, and they mine. I know a few poets who aren’t on Facebook, but not many. Recently I was friended by my old, real-life friend Philip Levine, the multiple award winning former U.S. Poet Laureate. Facebook now knows no age or rank. 

Last week’s GOP National Convention in Tampa summoned unimaginable rage among my poet friends. I didn’t watch the convention. I read it through their eyes, via my Facebook feed. Many of them struck the common-man-versus-big-business theme: 

No help for 9/11 workers, cutting veteran benefits, no liability for oil spills? What happened to accountability? Oh yeah, that's for the little people. (Stephanie Elliott) 

I honestly don't understand how any average American can vote for Romney. Do you really trust CEOs to be setting tax codes, labor laws, environmental laws? (Anon.)

Some eloquently lampooned the convention itself, touching on themes of racism and rhetorical hollowness: 

So the Republican convention begins with a crowd of delegates shouting down a Puerto Rican speaker and a guy throwing nuts at an African-American camera operator and saying "this is how we feed animals." This is what the party of Lincoln has come to. (Robert Archambeau) 

Every time Mitt opens his mouth an empty set of parentheses falls out—a sausage skin waiting to be filled with attestations of his goodness as father, provider, and all of that jazz—none of which has anything to do with being the president of the US. (Jesse Glass) 

To be fair, a number have also been criticizing Obama, usually for his centrism and failure to live up to expectations. But what I wonder when I read so many posts against the GOP, and by some of the smartest, most imaginative and articulate people I know, is whether there’s even a chance of common ground in political dialog between the American left and right—its creative class and its business class, that is. 

If you object and say the divide is regional, pointing out the red and blue areas of a political map of the United States, I’ll tell you that almost all of the poets, artists and musicians I know live on the coasts or in blue urban centers. Those are the places our culture is produced and our leading periodicals are published. If you say the divide is between rich and poor, I’ll say that most of the poets I know are not rich. The arts are no longer a product of the leisure class, but of the academic class. If you say the divide is between Christian and non-Christian, I’ll admit: most of my poet-friends are not Christians. But consider that a majority of artists and poets in the church also lean Left. So it’s not just a matter of where you live, how much money you make, or what faith-creed you endorse; it’s also matter of whether you’re in business or the arts.

In The Republic Plato famously defined poets as “the imitator of that which the others make,” coming in third after God and human craftsmen. Because poets work in “appearances only,” which are neither ideal nor real, they spread vice and illusion and ought to be banished from the republic. So posited Plato, and while we don’t believe that (do we?) Plato identified a fracture that’s really there. 

For Americans on the right there is a seemingly inherent distrust, or at least a misunderstanding, of not only the left but of our nation’s poets and artists. It stems from a misapprehension of the role of the imagination, the creative mind, in forming society. How should we listen to poets? Is their work important to the republic? A poet myself, I’m not sure how to answer these questions. But it seems that once the shouting subsides, we ought to hold a parley. 

—Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”