February 19, 2003
Acknowledged Legislators: A Rant

[I ripped this from Kasey Mohammad's blog lime tree, but first I asked him in an email whether I could post it on Circulars and included some of my own feedback on the post. This sparked a little debate, much of which, I think, will be appearing on his blog.]

I sense that the poetry community is in a sensitive transitional period right now. By "the poetry community," I mean all the thousands of people who write poetry and who are increasingly more aware of each other's views and activities than historically ever before thanks largely to electronic technology. And by "sensitive" I mean simultaneously very promising of increased dialogue and cooperation, and very delicately poised on the brink of bitter conflict. It seems trivial to use such a phrase when the world is poised on the brink of a much bitterer conflict, but it is especially that larger conflict, along with poets' responses to it, that has advanced this transitional phase dramatically in the past month or so.

If you go to today's Washington Post, you'll find an obnoxious editorial by Richard Cohen on the Poets Against the War movement. Never mind his predictable "bad manners" take on the scuttling of Laura Bush's little poetry party; never mind his ignorantly dismissive attitude toward poetry itself; what is really striking is Cohen's explicit acknowledgement that poets have been at the vanguard of the anti-war effort, that they are actually influencing public opinion. Poets making a difference! And poets of all camps!

Of course, within those camps, mutual opposition still rears its head. Some people have made a big deal out of the way in which Sam Hamill has selectively represented the poets he finds most noteworthy or illustrious in his web "chapbook." This is understandable: it is a very safe, mainstreamy gathering of names, and does little to acknowledge alternative approaches to poetry, etc. But it is his website, and he had the idea first--and more importantly, it has done some good. I am almost as impatient with poets on "my side" who grouse about Hamill's poetic conservatism in this situation as I am with the real conservatives out there who discount poets' (and everyone else's) resistance to war. Today I heard a poet whose work I admire and to whose politics I am generally sympathetic refer to those who have contributed to Hamill's site as "lame-o's." This kind of misguided purist negativity is the last thing we need right now as a community of objectors. Shame on you, unidentified poet!

The transition I mentioned earlier is one that could be dramatic: poets could go collectively from a reputation for obscurity and irrelevance to one for engagement and activism. Or they could succumb to the temptation to hurl divisive invectives at each other over their "jism-splattered" (thanks for that charming image, Jim Behrle) computer screens. (Oh, and Jim is not the unidentified cranky poet mentioned above.)

Suppose it had been birdhouse-makers instead of poets who had made the big media splash by gathering 9,000 birdhouses and statements of conscience against war on Iraq. Do you suppose that within the birdhouse-making community, there would be intense backbiting and controversy over whether the correct birdhouses were being chosen for inclusion? Maybe, but I doubt it. Now even Billy Collins has spoken out against war; is it really helpful to worry that maybe as a result of this his poetry might be taken more seriously or something like that? Shouldn't we just be glad that arguably the most visible public figure in contemporary poetry has taken advantage of his position to make his opposition known?

Let's make this as clear as possible. In comparison with the impending loss of thousands of human lives, poetry--what kind of poetry, what about, how many syllables, intentional or nonintentional procedures, blah blah blah--is really really insignificant. The only significant thing about poetry in such a context is its potential use as a blunt instrument, a symbolic bludgeon, an abstracted blob of conceptual splat that gets a job done. Bad, good, difficult, rhyming, containing no words with the letter "p": that don't matter so much. Reactionaries like Cohen in his Post column and dissenters within "experimental" groups all choke on the same fallacy: that American poets' authority to speak out against governmental policy stems from the quality of their work, instead of where it does come from, which is their constitutional right as Americans to voice their opinions on whatever the hell they feel like! The fact that they are poets is incidental. The best thing that could come of all this is that poets come to be perceived as workers like people who do all other kinds of jobs, as concerned citizens who live in the real world like everyone else and can see beyond the details of their specialization to more pressing matters.

After we avert the atrocity Bush and his owners are pushing for, then we can sit around and decide which poets should get which medals for the poems with particularly high aleatory merit or superior hexameter that totally helped stop war more than any other. In the ugly meantime, let's put our collective collectivities to the wheel and get over ourselves.

Posted by Brian Stefans at February 19, 2003 02:34 PM
Comments

Poetry's role as demystifier is what this war crisis might reawaken. That would be as important as any apparent short-term mainstream gain in poetry's "stature," as vanguard of the antiwar movement.

Posted by: Louis Cabri on February 19, 2003 10:33 PM

Kasey, if I understand you, I think I disagree (as I disagreed with Gary Sullivan's rant on the poetics list that made some of these points). It's just that I think these sentiments perpetuate the idea that poetry and politics are *different* -- well, Laura Bush thinks they are too. What you seem to be saying is that we should, first, demonstrate, write editorials and post articles to Brian's website, and then, after the war is averted or happens anyway, we can go back to our "poetry," where our concerns should be, you know, metrical. But for me, more and more, my poems are my politics and vice versa (by which I don't mean propaganda). I'm writing a long article about this, but . . . am I misunderstanding you?

Posted by: Joe Safdie on February 21, 2003 05:08 PM

It's interesting to me how your "rant," Kasey, dovetails with my own on this site, regarding certain circuits of influence I call "dialogic" - I was making an attempt to turn a perceived involution amongst "poets" (per se) into a more dispersed conversation able to retain some of the special(-ized) benefits of poetry (per se). It's one thing to identify as a poet and to then be of two minds re: how to identify efficaciously with respect to resistance to the current disaster (and it is nothing short of a disaster). It's another thing to organize a "world-wide" circuit (namely, something like Circulars) of "poets, artists, critics respond[ing] to U.S. global policy." As for Brian, one will have to point to Circulars to understand how he identifies as a poet, if they're at all serious about understanding his work. One will also have to table the question of efficacy until some level of understanding is thus reached. Your rant seems to blur these two questions: what works, what works well. The danger of the first question is its potential entailment: quantify your resistance. The danger of the second is offering an answer without the context of an answer to the first. That's the bind. The suspicion, which I think we share, is that "poetry" becomes an alibi to avoid the first question. But, as Darren (I think) suggest, poetry can be a way to mobilize that question, i.e., to allow for provisional answers which will then allow for actual, qualitative resistance to occur.

Posted by: Patrick Durgin on February 21, 2003 06:09 PM

Poets are, of course, infamous backbiters and infighters. After all, poetry is a mug's game, in Hart Crane's words, where rewards are few and competition fierce. But I see ample grounds on which to base complaints about the quality or the poetics of much of the anti-war poetry increasingly in the public eye. Unlike Neal Pollock, I don't want to shut anyone up. Everyone who opposes the war should speak, and every additional voice may be, when all's said and done, a good thing. But it's worth considering what form that voice should take, i.e. why a poem? Especially considering that poems take longer to craft than most forms of writing, and that many poets normally impose some kind of rule on themselves like "I don't publish a poem unless I've sat with it for 6 months," the enormous number of anti-war poems (by necessity topical and hot-out-the-printer) seems odd. I'm afraid many writers are framing their dissent in verse only because they consider themselves "poets" by habit. Or, as the cynic in me says, because the war provides a career opportunity, as poets accustomed to reading before two dozen friends can now address audiences of hundreds, whereas essayists or editors or graffiti artists (and why isn't there more damn graffiti!) cannot. Seems to me that fewer poems of higher quality, endorsed by thousands of other writers, would better serve than thousands of hastily written poems endorsed by their own authors. How to agree on what poems are of "higher quality" is difficult, yet we all seem to agree that certain poems by Blake, Whitman, Auden, etc are good, so why not find some among the present pool. Let me also add that I recently read a terribly anti-semitic letter full of misspellings, bad grammar, and barely-literate writing. Of course, I loved it, as it became an eloquent argument to serve my case. If undecided people read anti-war poems they find laughable, which side is being served?

Posted by: Eric Gelsinger on February 22, 2003 08:20 PM

Very nice blog

Posted by: Mike on November 29, 2003 07:14 AM

This back and forth is an important concept to understand in C programming, especially on the Mac's RISC architecture. Almost every variable you work with can be represented in 32 bits of memory: thirty-two 1s and 0s define the data that a simple variable can hold. There are exceptions, like on the new 64-bit G5s and in the 128-bit world of AltiVec

Posted by: Martha on January 18, 2004 07:33 PM

Let's take a moment to reexamine that. What we've done here is create two variables. The first variable is in the Heap, and we're storing data in it. That's the obvious one. But the second variable is a pointer to the first one, and it exists on the Stack. This variable is the one that's really called favoriteNumber, and it's the one we're working with. It is important to remember that there are now two parts to our simple variable, one of which exists in each world. This kind of division is common is C, but omnipresent in Cocoa. When you start making objects, Cocoa makes them all in the Heap because the Stack isn't big enough to hold them. In Cocoa, you deal with objects through pointers everywhere and are actually forbidden from dealing with them directly.

Posted by: Bennett on January 18, 2004 07:33 PM

This back and forth is an important concept to understand in C programming, especially on the Mac's RISC architecture. Almost every variable you work with can be represented in 32 bits of memory: thirty-two 1s and 0s define the data that a simple variable can hold. There are exceptions, like on the new 64-bit G5s and in the 128-bit world of AltiVec

Posted by: Margery on January 18, 2004 07:34 PM

The most basic duality that exists with variables is how the programmer sees them in a totally different way than the computer does. When you're typing away in Project Builder, your variables are normal words smashed together, like software titles from the 80s. You deal with them on this level, moving them around and passing them back and forth.

Posted by: Lancelot on January 18, 2004 07:34 PM

The most basic duality that exists with variables is how the programmer sees them in a totally different way than the computer does. When you're typing away in Project Builder, your variables are normal words smashed together, like software titles from the 80s. You deal with them on this level, moving them around and passing them back and forth.

Posted by: Elias on January 18, 2004 07:35 PM
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