About a month ago we witnessed the most sensational and newsworthy event in the world of poetry to occur in this century. If you haven’t heard a thing about it, well, that may be an indication of just how thoroughly irrelevant poetry has become in our world. If you’re interested, you can read a bit about it here:
Or in any of hundreds of other essays the scandal inspired. In brief, what happened was this: a middle-aged white man who could not get his poetry published began submitting it under a female Chinese name, and one poem that had been rejected forty times under his own name was published in Prairie Schooner, then chosen for The Best American Poetry 2015. At this point, in the contributor’s notes at the back of that book, he revealed his real identity. As a result, he was violently attacked as an evil “appropriator” of an oppressed group.
What struck me at first was that nobody seemed to see a problem with anyone or anything other than this one particular poet. My first impression, on hearing about this, was that it was yet another example of that subtle form of racism, Orientalism. Sort of like the movie Kumare, where a young man from New Jersey puts on a costume, speaks in an Indian accent, and every ridiculous thing he says is taken as some deep and profound truth. That is, my initial reaction was that the bigger problem was in the subtle racism of the editors, who assumed an unremarkable poem must be somehow deep and profound because it was written by a Chinese woman.
But before coming to a decision on the matter, I decided I ought to actually read the poem, and consider what the editor of The Best American Poetry 2015 had to say about his choice. I will say that while I still believe there is likely a bit of subtle racism (and sexism) at work in the poetry industry as a whole, there seems to me to be an even bigger problem that this incident has exposed. More than anything else, it can help us to explain why poetry as a whole is a dead genre today, why nobody but other aspiring poets and creative writing professors would ever bother to read it. To put it as bluntly as possible, the entire poetry industry, it seems, has come to be nothing but the pathetic reproduction of two small parts of the Romantic ideology: what Wordsworth calls the poet’s “more than usual organic sensibility,” and the discovery of “similitude in dissimilitude.” For Wordworth, accepting these beliefs was essential to the production of a more historically specific conservative ideology, in which we were asked to feel deeply not act politically, to develop individually not transform socially. The poet’s semi-divine nature and the belief that we are all deep-down the same regardless of class or culture were simply necessary mythology in support of poetry’s reactionary project. No more than trivial truisms today, if that’s all that poetry has to offer us is it any wonder nobody reads it but other poets?
To take the second point first, consider Sherman Alexie’s blog post on the choosing of this poem. He is frank about his intentionally trying to include more “poems by women and people of color,” and so to giving such writers closer attention for that reason. Fair enough, as far as I’m concerned. However, what is troubling is his description of his thoughts on looking over the poem after he found the author to be a white man named Michael Derrick Hudson. He says that “as part of [his] mission to pay more attention to underrepresented poets” he “gave this particular poem a close reading” and he “found it compelling.” Now, as a teacher of English Literature I would suggest that it is exactly the process of repeated close reading that makes any poem really compelling—but let’s set that aside for now. The next point Alexie makes is the most troubling to me: “most important, it didn’t contain any overt or covert Chinese influences or identity” In fact, he “wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European and classical Christian imagery, and marveled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives.” The point here, it seems, is that this poem seems interesting mostly because it reveals that the best Chinese women poets sound exactly the same as a middle-aged white male librarian from the Midwest! In Wordsworth’s terms: similitude in dissimilitude! Deep down, at the really important level where we talk about nothing but personal relationships, flowers and insects, we are really all the same, and that’s what poetry is all about!
No need for poems that urge political action, or point out the implacability of subtle forms of discrimination, because underneath we all love European culture (captialism, perhaps?) and we all feel the same things. That this is the recipe for political quietism invented in the Romantic period is, I hope, clear enough. It works well to silence those “underrepresented” groups in the most insidious way: telling them they can be heard, but only if they play the game, and sound just like the Universal Poet of the present poetry industry.
To move on to the second point: the goal of poetry then becomes to prove that one is indeed a special kind of human being. Wordsworth claims that a poet is born with a greater degree of “organic sensibility,” and we may not use those terms exactly, but the underlying message is the same. A poet is one who is more sensitive, feels more deeply, and just does have the right kind of taste, the proper aesthetic perception of the world. If she can only prove she has this, it will instantly free her from the horrible threat of a life of work. Aesthetics is the path of escape into a pure and apolitical life of the mind, a life lived feeling deeply and beautifully.
Alexie points out that all but one of the poets he chose for the collection is a college professor. Most of them list their MFA credentials as well. The world of poetry today is just one of the last bastions of the old Romantic ideology, trying desperately to make literature continue to work as proper ideology of capitalism. As Eagelton describes it: “a stress upon the sovereignty and autonomy of the imagination, its splendid remoteness from the merely prosaic matters of feeding one’s children or struggling for political justice…the ‘transcendental’ nature of the imagination…could offer the writer a comfortingly absolute alternative to history itself”(Literary Theory, 17-18). What Romanticism promises is that with enough attunement to the proper aesthetic appreciation of things as they are, we can be saved, transported out of the sordid demands of the quotidian, and given what we really deserve without having to work so hard for it.
This ideology is a powerful way to keep any oppressed group in line: if you don’t have the advantages of the rich, it is because deep down you don’t deserve them. Of course, to have the “proper aesthetic sensibility” always means nothing other than to share in the dominant ideology—you have the right taste when it is the taste of the ruling class.
If poetry is dead today (and it is, there’s no “if” about it—the only poets are college English professors, most of them teachers of creative writing; their only readership is one another), the reason is that it is only struggling to produce a pathetic dead ideology. Try talking critical theory with a poet, and see what he says! Nothing makes ideologues more furious than the discourses that demystify their ideologies. But they hardly need fear. Poetry today is too obviously Romantic ideology to require the effort to deconstruct it; critical theory can mostly leave it alone, as does the rest of the reading, and thinking, public.
To offer a few examples of how this ideology works, let me point to the death of what used to be called “blue collar poetry.” Consider the kinds of things written today by poets presenting themselves as having working class origins. There’s no Muriel Rukeyser there. No attempt to produce an ideology for the working class. Instead, we get an assertion of why they are special, and deserve to be freed from the working class.
Consider these recent poems.
In “Why I Don’t Work Construction,” Aaron Rudolph explains that while doing manual labor “poems would stammer/like aces from my sleeves,” and he would “recite Millay.” He doesn’t write about the experience of such work, but about why he is too aesthetically sensitive for it. He teaches at a university in Oklahoma.
Although he is sometimes presented as a “blue collar poet,” having worked in the automotive industry, Bob Hicok’s poems certainly do not produce anything that might be called a working-class ideology. Instead, in “Calling Him Back from Layoff,” his sensitive awareness of the poverty of the unemployed is presented as a sign of his superior worth, of his position as the poet. There’s no call for the workers whose children are starving to unite in protest; in true Wordsworthian fashion the suffering of the poor is an opportunity for deep feeling in the poet, and in the reader of the poem.
Sandee Gertz Umbach, who comes from a family of Pennsylvania steelworkers and whose book The Pattern Maker’s Daughter was published by Bottom Dog Press in their “Working Lives Series,” does very much the same thing. In the first poem in the volume, “The Pattern Makers,” she wishes that her father could have been freed from his work in the steel mills because he belonged sitting on a hill painting sunrises. Skilled labor is the consolation prize for those who don’t get to produce art. The poet, of course, earned an MFA.
Is there any poetry out there, any writing of any kind, producing an ideology in which to live the world of work, instead of a fantasy of escape from it?
The role of critical theory is to explain what ideology a cultural practice is producing, how it does so, and whether it is an ideology we ought to want. The goal of poetry remains to produce some ideology. However, poetry today is producing only the very worst kind of reactionary quietism, and then the poet-professors lament the philistine ignorance of the masses who won’t read them. But the ideology that poetry produces today is just a banal reassurance that ironically detached contemplation, if we are superior souls, will give us all the enjoyment we need—and if we’re lucky, a paycheck as well.
This, it turns out, is exactly the message of Hudson’s poem at the center of this whole controversy. As he explains it, he wanted to “suggest Original sin, or at least that echt-human feeling of being wrong most of the time. And how getting things wrong goes back a long, long time for us.” We should be left with an ironic, bemused appreciation of the fallibility. Once again, poetry teaches its lesson: never think, never act, we can’t do such things anyway. Just feel, but with ironic detachment, and you will be the same as everyone else, and oh, so special!
Surely there’s no point in paying too much attention to the poetry industry as it exists today. It is killing itself with its childish narcissism anyway. But is there any hope for the writing of poetry outside the domain of the MFA-creative-writing-professor? Can anyone today still do anything with a poem other than make a plea for his own special sensitivity? If so, I would like hear about it.
(Image: The Death of Chatterton, Henry Wallis 1856)