Every now and then, it seems as if American society will get a clue. Whether it be the Occupy Movement of a few years ago pointing out that… ummm… yeah, economic inequality is a thing or the Black Lives Matter protests of late 2014 and 2015, this country doesn’t lack for righteous anger. In general, though, some combination of police repression, bad reporting (most Americans still think that Occupy ended because it fizzled out, when it was actually militarily suppressed), and a one-two punch of marginalization and co-optation by the Democratic Party means that these things tend not to go anywhere. And the hard right wins another election (the 2014 midterms at the time of writing). And union membership sinks further into the single-digit percentages. And the universities increasingly resemble white-collar vocational schools designed to serve the corporate “knowledge economy.” And once a day or so, the cops kill somebody.
So no, for all the exhilaration I and thousands of others might feel stomping down FDR Drive with our fists in the air, there’s no revolution brewing in the United States. I don’t care what your copy of Workers Vanguard, The Socialist Worker, Challenge, The Internationalist, or whatever other commie magazine you may have picked up at the demonstration says, not only is there no revolution, but the likelihood of any of those dipshits ever forming a “workers’ party” or whatever with the remotest chance of coming to power is nil. The reasons are obvious. Would you want to live in a place run by that twenty-year-old with a stack of leaflets and a tone in her voice that lets you know that mansplaining isn’t just for men anymore? Me, neither! I don’t have a solution. If I did, I’d start my own group called the Workers’ Socialist Proletarian International Party or some shit like that. Or maybe something less lame.
The resolution of the problem of the fuck-you-what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it American two-party system is unlikely to come from me, right now, anyway–or from Bernie Sanders. That guy, at best, will do surprisingly well in a primary or three and allow left-liberals to pat themselves on the back for “pushing Hillary to the left” as they dutifully vote for her in 2016. So in all probability, I’ll keep going hopefully to demonstrations without expecting all that much to happen in the grand scheme of things, even while trying to write down what does transpire. If I think about poetry in these circumstances, it’s not only because I write the stuff, but because there seems to me to be an analogous disconnect.
The way American poetry has reacted to the recent crises has been… mixed. In the case of many Establishment journals, the reaction, to the extent there has been one, has often been remarkably tin-eared. Take “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri” by millionaire poet Frederick Seidel, which includes lines like this:
Reminds me of the story of the man who had nipples
Where his elbows should be and whose skeleton
Was on the outside of his body.
The guy walks into a shop on Madison to buy some clothes
And buys some and walks out wearing them
Wearing them and into the Carlyle bar.
One of the waiters, originally from Algeria of all places,
Recognizes him and says with the strong accent
He has despite many years of living in the United States:
A man has disappeared inside his corpse.
His corpse has disappeared inside a cause.
Those last two lines are really good, but they come after a lot of Seidel’s go-to glibness. It isn’t so much objectionable as deracinated, as Seidel goes through his usual I’m-a-rich-asshole-but-know-it-and-am-slightly-liberal-anyway shtick. Racist? Not really. One of Seidel’s best poems? No. The best possible first response from a major American literary outlet? No. There is place for the meandering thoughts of somewhat self-obsessed privileged white males, but as is so often the case of late, Seidel’s shtick gets in the way of the event.
But then there’s Kenneth Goldsmith, who, to be fair, was always kind of a dipshit. “Experimental” poetry, of late, has become less of a new vocabulary and more like one of the later sequels of Police Academy–same old thing, just more gratuitous. Duchamp already called a toilet art. Dali and Buñuel sliced that eyeball. Throbbing Gristle already put a picture of Auschwitz on an album cover. Goldsmith, whose antics include such inanities as “printing the internet,” is to the broad tradition of avant-garde poetry what Woodstock 1994 was to Woodstock. Goldsmith recently got in trouble, and rightfully so, for “remixing” the autopsy report of Michael Brown in a thirty-minute “poetry” performance at Brown University, ending on the line, ” The remaining male genitalia system is unremarkable.” Calls of cultural appropriation and racism soon lit up the internet, which Goldsmith gleefully retweeted.
The charges of racism, the faux-clinical, vaguely lynch mob-like treatment of a dead black body, have been dealt with elsewhere. The politics, however, are not unattached to the aesthetics. Avant-gardeism, despite certain proponents’ claims, has no inherent political stance and, indeed, frequently drifts rightward over time. (Look at what happened to the Italian Futurists.) Goldsmith keeps the épater but forgets the le bourgeois bit, instead taking the more “transgressive” (because monumentally dickish) shot at poor, oppressed black people. Also, such “conceptual” bullshit makes even those of us who favor public money in the arts to cringe a little bit as we think about how many thousands of dollars went into getting seventy-five people into a room to hear and see Goldsmith playing the Thunderdouche.
On the other hand, Poetry did in April run an issue focusing on BreakBeat, predominantly black poets, though with a drivel-slinging Kenneth Goldsmith essay parked like a squad car at the back of the issue. The content was mixed, with, on the one hand, effective verse by the likes of T’ai Freedom Ford:
shush the rebel
in your throat, that ghost of punk funking
dark circles in the pits of your polo.
resist the impulse to shittalk your way
through ranch dressing and lunchroom throng.
to what comes across as a mash-up of half-digested Black Power rhetoric from the 1960s (with a dash of Blaxploitation) from, in this case, Krista Franklin’s rather grandly titled “Manifesto, or Ars Poetica #2”:
…To those who would sleep
through the wounds they inflict on others, I offer pain to help them
awaken, Ju-Ju, Tom-Toms & the magic of a talking burning bush.
I am the queen of sleight of hand wandering the forest of motives,
armed with horoscopes, cosmic encounters & an X-Acto knife. My
right eye is a projector flickering Hottentot & Huey Newton, my
left eye is prism of Wild Style, gold grills, lowriders, black dahlias,
blunts & back alleys….
Sure, fuck it, I’ll put my fist in the air. Even at the issue’s weaker points, though (and some poems were more effective than others), the contrast of the issue’s directness to the magazine’s usual fare was notable. I think at least one of Ocean Vuong’s poems pissed its pants. The issue’s weaknesses–periodic tendencies toward didacticism, cliché, and demagoguery–are a weakness of genre intimately related to “spoken-word” poetry’s strengths of directness and insistence on a visceral connection with an audience.
But the contrast between the April issue of Poetry and most issues of Poetry was all too clear, by which I don’t mean to say that one was great and the other sucked so much as that Don Share’s National Geographic-style sampling of different kinds of poetry–this month British poets; that month conceptual poets; slam poets up next, etc.–has led to, well, ghettoization. The intent is anti-parochial. The result is further balkanization. Even if the roughly sixteen million people who currently admit to giving a damn about poetry constitute less than five percent of the American population, that is still a shit-ton of people. The various poetry factions do not rub shoulders all that often, though, and I have the frustrated sense that if I’m not encountering vital, relevant, and profound poetry about the unfolding economic, political, and ecological catastrophes in this country, it’s not because they don’t exist, but because they simply aren’t where I can see them.
However, I suspect there’s something else. Between a general liberal-leaning allusive quietude in the poetic “mainstream,” more “edgy” poets (think Michael Robbins, or, more quaintly, the langpo crowd) addicted to nihilism, identity politics-driven tub-thumping in various quarters, etc. ad nauseam, there’s an intersection of antiquated politics and ossified poetic strategies. Perhaps it isn’t surprising, given that despite all the anger in this country over ecological devastation, rich assholes, racist, armed-to-the-teeth cops, and Bible-thumping Bozos, the 2016 election will look less like a choice than a Faustian bargain; the camera crews will leave; and the rent will go up. Maybe under such circumstances it’s unreasonable to ask the unacknowledged legislators to do much better than those who can declare war, levy taxes, fund roads, and declare August 7 to be “National Lighthouse Day” (I did not make that one up). A sandbagging attitude is understandable, as is trying to keep alive the quixotically flickering flame of the 1960s. But there should be a freedom in being unacknowledged, too–the ability to think beyond some editor’s Facebook wall and the deluge of 2016 emails, articles, blog posts, and memes that will come through the transom in a crescendo of talking points for the next seventeen months.