Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Annals of Contemporary Verse

I hope that my indulgent readers can believe that my intentions for this week’s essay were good.  I had identified a topic (category: “general interest”) that might have bored you but was unlikely to antagonize you.  The entire country is inundated in waves of vitriolic controversy, everywhere amplified by screaming headlines, screaming demonstrators, and screaming heads on television programs.  We could all do with a holiday from politics, and from those widening manifestations of it known as the Culture Wars.  But I made the mistake of beginning my day by perusing the newspaper, wherein I found an article thus titled: “The Nation Magazine Betrays a Poet—and Itself,” by Grace Schulman, a former poetry editor at that magazine.  As I am a lover of poetry, as well as a professor of it, this caught my eye.

            It might seem unlikely that a story needing so much preliminary explanation could be of much weight, but here goes.  The Nation, historically one of the country’s important voices of left-wing politics, though fallen on hard ideological times, still has a small cultural following.  A recent issue included a short poem by one Anders Carlson-Wee, a name previously unknown to me, as are the names of most obscure young American poets.   The poem is slight, but I thought pretty interesting; and I’ll tell you about it in just a minute.  But first you need to know what happened.  The Nation has two poetry editors, a number that might seem excessive in terms of the journal’s marginal role in the contemporary literary scene.  Both of these women found the poem praise-worthy and recommended its publication.  But what is called a “Twitter storm” soon led to what is called a “critical reappraisal”.  After finding on their phones outraged comments from self-appointed spokespersons of various “communities” they concluded that Carlson-Wee’s poem—far from being good—was actually bad, really bad, probably racist, certainly “ableist,” and unquestionably appropriationist.  Culturally speaking, that is.  So the poetry editors actually published an apology in their journal for having published the poem!  That sentence probably requires two exclamation points, one for each editor.  But then what would I do with the fact that Mr. Carlson-Wee himself twittered out an abject apology dripping with socialist self-criticism?  That one merits a haud credibile.

            What was all this about?  I attach, obviously for “fair use” pedagogical purposes, the full text of Carlson-Wee’s poem as I find it on the Internet.  Though lacking the disciplinary constraints of a conventional sonnet, it is fourteen lines long.  Like, say, a Browning monologue, this poem has an imaginary voice, a voice that a reader will likely suppose is that of an uneducated but savvy black street person. This voice offers on the basis of personal experience cynical advice concerning more and less effective ploys for that species of passive panhandling characterized by down-and-outs sitting on the sidewalk while holding a cardboard sign identifying the sitter’s particular circumstances and/or difficulties.  As a literary critic I find the situation interesting and daring.  Though not without offenses against both lexicon and narrative plausibility, the poem has an ethos that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.  It certainly tries to “give voice to the marginalized” and “invert hierarchies” and do other good stuff like that.  It actually invokes something of the complex discomfort that I (and I suspect many others in the demographic of actual readers of the Nation and other journals of similar intellectual ambition) not infrequently experience on the streets of New York.  I think it’s a pretty good shot at socially conscious art.

            Yet both the poetry experts at the magazine and the poet himself turned on a dime when upbraided by censors.  In a blinding flash they grasped the profound political incorrectness of what they had done.  They had allowed a white man to drop from his declarative sentences various forms of the verb to be, a colloquial feature of non-standard dialect in the speech of millions of his fellow citizens.  They had let stand the word crippled, a barbaric linguistic fossil painful to the differently abled.  Above all they had not guaranteed that the poet “stay in his lane”.  They had allowed, nay encouraged, an artistic attempt beyond solipsism, one in which the artist attempted to imagine something other than himself.   In his tweeted mea culpa the poet wrote: “I am beginning a process of talking to people and reevaluating what it means to make art in this world from a place of privilege….I will be donating my publication honorarium to Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness.”  It is no mean feat to grovel and virtue-signal in the same utterance, but Mr. Carlson-Wee pulls it off.

            I thought of the writing assignment required of the child Augustine.  This young Roman boy was made to write a lament in the voice of Dido—a woman, a queen, a Carthaginian!  I thought of Max Eastman’s book entitled Artists in Uniform, in which he delineated the cruel victory of Marxist dogma over a brilliant poetic efflorescence.  I though of such triumphs of the imagination as Gulliver’s Travels and The Memoirs of a Midget by Walter de la Mare.  And I felt that I would weep.

If you got hiv, say aids.  If you a girl
say you’re pregnant—nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick.  People
passing fast.  Splay your legs, cock a knee
funny.  It’s the littlest shames they’re likely
to comprehend.  Don’t say homeless, they know
you is.  What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop.  If you’re young say younger.
Old say older.  If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it.  Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice.  Don’t say you pray,
say you sin.  It’s about who they believe
they is.  You hardly even there.
                                    Anders Carlson-Wee