The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

The Republic of Poetry by Martín Espada

WW Norton & Company. 

In the realm of the academic/literary established-order, political poet usually means leftist dogmatic PC poet.  Unfortunately, dogmatic always implies a wall in the face of uncomfortable truths.  The political poet dubbed thusly by the academic/literary established-order usually and oddly is an integral part of that order.  Thus is Martin Espada.

Martin EspadaLife can be easy for professors when they go, not against, but with the academic grain, never questioning or challenging the corrupt university hand that feeds them.  Their reward is usually a protective cocoon of title, tenure, lifetime salary, and colleague buttress against outside criticism. For a professor poet like Martin Espada, it can also include publication opportunities, speaking engagements, prizes, and even fame, thanks to the ubiquitous academic/literary established-order machine. That "good" life, however, is surely no life for a poet. "Let your life be a counterfriction to stop the machine," had declared Henry David Thoreau. For Martín Espada, however, his life has become a lubricant to help keep the machine operating.  Espada has been a tenured professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for many years.  At that university, speech codes and hatred for vigorous debate have become par for the course.  The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has accorded U. Mass. a speech code rating of Red, the worst such designation.  How has "political poet" Espada reacted to that dismal record?  Well, I sent him several emails with that regard.  Unsurprisingly, he refused to respond.  Was he too high and mighty or simply too hateful of vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy? 


By choosing to become the machine's sycophants (proponents), Espada and so many other fame-achievers like him, including Snyder, Hass, Collins, Angelou, Dove, Giovanni, Wright (does it matter which one?), Gluck and Pinsky, have become poet eunuchs. 


To achieve Espada's renown, one must avoid speaking the rude truth and “bombarding the palace” (see his poem below).  One must also make a Faustian deal with the machine.  Several years ago, by the way, I protested in Acton, MA during an evening where Espada was anointing academic poet C. D. Wright with the Robert Creeley prize.  My protest flyer contained a cartoon critical of Creeley, labeling him “Beatnik Poet Academic Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.”  “If it isn’t fun, it isn’t a poem,” had written Creeley.  Espada’s wife approached me, complaining the cartoon had made Creeley’s widow weep.  Espada himself never had the courage to come out to face me.  “Creeley really helped Martín get tenure,” argued the wife, as if that fact somehow made Creeley great and that greatness rubbed off on the husband. 

In any case, the poem that is also the title of Espada's collection is astonishingly poor.  One would have expected much more from a big publishing house like Norton... or perhaps not.  The poem describes an ideal land of poets.  Unfortunately, Espada doesn’t seem to even be aware that he exists in that ideal land, where the poet has life-time job security and gets taxpayer-paid sabbaticals, reading invitations galore, eternal praise from colleagues, and is buffered from external criticism like mine.  The first stanza is the following:

In the republic of poetry,
a train full of poets,
rolls south in the rain
as plum trees rock
and horses kick the air,
and village bands
parade down the aisle
with trumpets, with bowler hats,
followed by the president
of the republic,
shaking every hand. 


Espada’s wife had proclaimed her husband to be somewhat of a radical, someone who dared speak out… but about what?  Obviously, he does not speak out against the fascist left's grip on U. Mass.  Does the above verse sound like a poem written by a radical?  Hardly at all!  To express Espada's true reality, I’ve rewritten the entire poem in satire.  But first examine the last stanza of the poem: 

In the republic of poetry,
the guard at the airport
will not allow you to leave the country
until you declaim a poem for her
and she says Ah! beautiful.


In reality, the "guard" in the republic of poetry is the Academy of American Poets… and she won’t let you in until you can write something as grotesquely banal as “The Republic of Poetry.”  In fact, she'll simply censor you, if you write something that might actually question and challenge the bitch.  That's what happened to me (see Academy censorship).  If Espada isn't already an Academy chancellor, no doubt he is ardently aspiring and networking to become one like his buddies Creeley and Snyder. The following is my satire of the “The Republic of Poetry.”  If technically it is not as adroit as Espada's, intellectually it is at least far more truthful.  For the academic/literary established order milieu, however, technical adroitness is far more important than truthfulness.

The Ivory-Tower of Poetry
In the ivory-tower of poetry,
a line full of tenured poets,
worms south in the rain
as plum trees chuckle
and dogs lick themselves,
and student bands
parade down the aisle
with trumpets, with black caps,
followed by the president
of the university,
shaking every tenured hand. 

In the ivory-tower of poetry,
professors print vacuous verse
on fine-paper serviettes,
latrines in restaurants
use odes for toilet paper
from snail to seaweed,
and tenured poets eat for free. 

In the ivory-tower of poetry,
tenured poets read to the baboons
in classrooms, and all the primates,
poets and baboons alike, scream for joy.

In the ivory-tower of poetry,
tenured poets are provided with a stipend
to shower the student center
with inoffensive poems on bookmarks                                
and the sycophants in the cafeteria
rush to grab a poem
fluttering from the sky,
blinded by weeping.

In the ivory-tower of poetry,
the guard at the gate
won’t let you into the university
until you declaim a poem for her
                        and she says Ah! beautiful.

The back cover of Espada's book is unoriginally loaded with blurbs.  “Espada means ‘sword’ in Spanish, and in these new poems Martín Espada wields the sword of his poetry like a veritable Zorro,” writes Samuel Hazo.  But in reality Martín’s espada is as limp as it gets, and the poet wields it like a veritable sin cojones
Sadly, not one poem in this entire collection was written from personal conflict with the power structure, the one paying Espada dearly.  Not one poem involved personal risk.  Not one!  To become part of the literary-establishment order machine one has to write inoffensively.  Espada writes of the 1973 coup in Chile, but I'd much rather read a poem written by a poet who risked his skin during that coup.  So many tenured professor poets, sitting comfortably in their wainscoted offices, write poems about the Iraq war.  And, yes, Espada writes those too as in “Blues for the Soldiers Who Told You.”  But who wants to read a poem written by a professor poet living in a tenured cocoon about a war in which he hasn’t even fought.  As Charles Sykes wrote in Profscam, “Tenure corrupts, enervates, and dulls higher education.  It is, moreover, the academic culture’s ultimate control mechanism to weed out the idiosyncratic, the creative, the nonconformist.”  That is precisely what it does regarding the poet. 

The first section of this book contains poems written around Espada’s visit to Chile, especially Neruda’s Isla Negra estate, including “Rain without Rain.”  “The celebration of a century since Neruda’s birth/ brings pilgrims by the thousands to his house […],” writes Espada.  And so what?  The same goes for Elvis and one day no doubt for Paris Hilton.  Mobs do not necessarily determine literary greatness.  That poem ends rather pitifully:  “At the tomb, a woman silent all along/ steps from the circle and says:/ I want to sing.  Neruda.  Poem Twenty./ Then she climbs atop the tomb and sings:  Tonight I can write the saddest verses.”  (Does she sing that to the tune of West Side Story?)  It is time we stop glorifying the poets, especially when that glorification is self-serving. 

The second section of the book is basically more of the same, though not Chile.  “I want to write a poem about this coat,/ with buttons and pockets and green cloth,/ a poem useful as a coat to a coughing man,” writes Espada.  Good luck, for the last thing a coughing man would want is a poem.  In “You Got a Song Man,” Espada praises both himself and his buddy Creeley hovering around Thoreau’s gravesite.  “[…] Drive, you said, because poets must/ bring the news to the next town:/ You got a song, man, sing it.  You got a song, man, sing it.”   But what they are both singing is I want to be a famous poet… and not much else.  Is that really “news”?  If it is, it’s old news.  Espada would do well to contemplate not Thoreau's gravestone, but rather what Emerson wrote on Thoreau:  "No college ever offered him a diploma, or a professor’s chair; no academy made him its corresponding secretary, its discoverer or even its member.  Perhaps these learned bodies feared the satire of his presence."  Evidently, they certainly do not fear the satire of Espada's presence! 


In nearly every poem, the word “poet” appears.  “We have no words for you,” begins the eulogy for yet another poet, Komunyakaa. Yet Espada manages to find words and fill up the page with them.  In another poem, yet another eulogy to a poet, Dennis Brutus, who fought hard against Apartheid, spent time in jail, then ended up on the lucrative American-university circuit, where no doubt Espada bumped into him.  “Did you know, that forty years later,/ college presidents and professors of English/ would raise their wine to your name […]?”  Well, Brutus should be asking himself, if he’s not already dead, what the hell he did wrong to have such dubious people do that. 

“Advice to Young Poets,” is particularly disturbing, for Espada as tenured English professor lectures, year after year, to herds of young would-be poets in his creative writing classes.  What is his advice to the young herds?  “Never pretend/ to be a unicorn/ by sticking a plunger on your head,” he writes.  Well, that will keep President William Bulger happy.  Oh, I forgot, he left U. Mass. with a million-dollar settlement.       

Overall, these poems will be cherished by the likes of Ariel Dorfman (“What a tender, marvelous collection…”).  They will not stir up anything at all, except the excitement of established-order literati, who tend to win a lot of national prizes, and indeed Espada isn’t shy about letting us know about his “numerous awards.”  As our democracy continues on its downhill plunge, do we really need more poets like Espada manning our university classrooms?  Here is my Advice to Old Poets:  Tenured poet is an oxymoron. 

                                                                                                                                                                                         —The Editor
Date:  Sun, 2 Dec 2007 14:15:29-0800 (PST)
From:  "George Slone" <>  
Subject:  The Republic of Poetry

Dear Professor Martin Espada, English Department, University of Massachusetts :
For a critical review, as opposed to an established-order, business-as-usual hagiography, of The Republic of Poetry, consult The American Dissident website. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful idea to distribute that review to your creative-writing students?  It would certainly present a very different perspective, one of encouraged questioning and challenging, as opposed to university-as-usual encouraged ingurgitation of dictated icons and canon.  Think about it, unless of course it’s too late for that. 

[No response.]