March 29, 2003
Barrett Watten: War = Language
The war is language,
like magic for power on the planet
—Allen Ginsberg, “Wichita Vortex Sutra” (1966)
If the first casualty of war is truth, the weapon of choice for its destruction is language. Tautology: “A war is a war.” We are caught in a barrage of language that is meant to destroy our capacity to interpret what is said, to make rational judgments, to evaluate moral choices, to visualize what is going on, to think the unthinkable, to remember, to imagine an alternative future, to connect to others, to use language for all its purposes, to convey content, to express emotion, to reveal its own signification, to make noise. Non sequitur: “Reassurance and Safety Fashion Show in Detroit: Valerie Hillery came because she is concerned. Not scared, she said, just concerned ‘because anything can happen.’” This destruction of truth by language as a military objective is being undertaken in multiple and reinforcing ways, primarily by the selection of metaphors and frame narratives that lock on to interpretive targets (what you are encouraged to think) so as to exclude collateral damage (anything else you might think), reinforced by their stultifying redundancy such that language is emptied of anything but its dumbed-down signification. [. . .]
Personification: “‘This is the head-of-the-snake conundrum,” said one senior official who was deeply involved in the planning for a post-Hussein Iraq.” Euphemism: “‘No one wants to commit themselves until it is clear regime change is happening.’” We are being saturated with the language of war games, policy scenarios, press conferences, official narratives, insider speculation, all scripted to be conveyed as if their assumptions were shared by everyone. “American military officials said the American soldiers had killed about 450 Iraqis and destroyed more than 35 vehicles. There was no word on American casualties.” At the same time, this language depends on a circularity in which the undeniable evidence of power (jets take off from aircraft carriers; military hardware lines up at the border; news media records surgical bombing campaigns; barefoot prisoners of war submit to troops) is juxtaposed with unavailable evidence of mysteries that may never be revealed (foremost among them, weapons of mass destruction as the rationale for war). For Gen. Tommy Franks, “there is no doubt that they exist” is equivalent to “our victory is sure.” Objective pseudo-facts are invented on the spot to explain rationales that have failed: that southern Iraqis have not revolted in support of the invasion = presence of “fedayeen,” so new to the public relations campaign that Gen. Tommy Franks cannot pronounce it. Metonymy: a “fedayeen” is a dark cipher, a shadowy particular that explains any event that does not go according to predetermined script, the antagonistic element that denies us our destiny. For it is a circular truth that everything can only go according to plan, a sublime blueprint known only to those closest to power: providence unfolds in mysterious ways. Narrative: “‘The moment the security apparatus of the country crumbles, the people will rise up,’ he said.” When will we convene a war crimes tribunal for the abuse of language, seen as a universal good? “Mr. Rumsfeld said today: I am very reluctant to run around the world encouraging people to rise up. . . . But I hope and pray they’ll do it at a time when there are sufficient forces nearby to be helpful to them rather than at a time where it simply costs their life and it’s a wasted life.” Driving to Kansas State University in Wichita, in a Volkswagen bus in February 1966, talking nonstop into a tape recorder as he listened to radio reports and took in the road signs along the way, Allen Ginsberg had a prescient vision of the condition of language we are in. Poetry: “Has anyone looked in the eyes of the wounded? / Have we seen but paper faces, Life Magazine? / Are screaming faces made of dots, / electric dots on Television—fuzzy decibels registering / the mammal voiced howl / from the outskirts of Saigon to console model picture tubes / in Beatrice, in Hutchinson, in El Dorado / in historic Abilene / O inconsolable!” The critique of the language is the first place to begin to attempt remove the veil to perception that has been imposed on us and to see things as they are. Pseudo-rationality based on lack of evidence or supporting argument: “It is difficult to conceive the volume of supplies required for a large combat force or the difficulty of delivering them where they are needed in a timely fashion.” We need to take the mechanized hardware of the language of war apart—by locating alternate evidence in multiple media, by questioning the pseudo-objectivity of its delusional conclusions, by unpacking its embedded metaphors and narrative frames, by thinking otherwise. Creative use of non sequitur: “War—what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” We need to place our critical negativity in the language that surrounds us, as Allen Ginsberg did 37 years ago, as it is obvious the situation of language we are now in has grown even worse. Critical intervention: “The war is not the war; it is language.” To dismantle this war, in its causes and consequences, we must begin with language itself.
Read at a Day of Reflection on the War on Iraq, Wayne State University, 26 March 2003.
Posted by Brian Stefans at March 29, 2003 01:24 PM
Watten's is a cute conceit. If Rumsfeld came out and did a briefing with hand puppets, would hand puppets need to be dismantled? Would "Puppets = War?" If Tommy Franks brough semaphore flags out to brief us on the latest highlights, would those flags be our enemies? Or the next time Bush gives us a thumbs up would you say, "To dismantle this war, in its causes and consequences, we must begin with thumbs." What we *must* do is various, fleeting, evolving, and impossible to adorably formulate. Words and poems aren't killing the Iraqis or American marines. Guns don't kill people, bullets do. I'm all for dismantling the war, but which war are you fighting? Poems may be louder than bombs, if we dropped poems on Iraq they might also surrender. Perhaps quicker. Words and poems don't kill. War is humanity at its most speechless, ineloquent, unimaginitive. Fight the real enemy.
What about consent? Doesn't that necessitate a use of language? And dissent, as well. Your arguments against the war, and mine, are framed, argued, narrated, and figured. And that is as it should be. We need to reverse the structures that have made the war seem inevitable, inescapable, and normative.
OK. But should the Iraqi people fear Bush's words or his bad boys and their bad toys? A poem already is an implicit rejection of our intentions in Iraq, a good poem at least. Our poems ought to challenge ourselves and our readers, yes. I'm saying language is our ally, our weapon, language is on *our* side. Ultimately, their arguments being so uninspired and transparent, language will be *their* downfall.
Bush's providential narrative--and this is as old as Plymouth Plantation--is what is attacking Iraq, reinforced by weapons of mass destruction. The narrative is at once "America" as a political instrument and a composite of any number of embedded metaphors that circulate in the culture, without notice. The premise is that the war is the only possible course of action given its presuppositions. It is the presuppositions that must be drawn out, one by one, and challenged.
Okay, Barrett, so after you point out that Bush is using "America" or any other term as a political instrument to accomplish dirty deeds, and is thus abusing language like mad, then what? How does that stop the missiles from being fired? How does that prevent the killing?
Do we really need proof of language abuse in order to realize that this butchering is wrong and to do something about it?
I'm more confused about *how* to prevent this shit from happening again and again than I am about Bush's crafty use of embedded metaphors. I assume most people who are against the war feel the same way.
"How could it have happened? The most terrifying response we got to this question was the most innocent one. People told us that they were unaware of what was happening, that they did not know. I never believed this, and I would not accept this response from anyone." -- Dorothee Soelle, "The White Rose, Munich 1942-1943"
Decoding information is part of knowing.
Exposing the flimsiness of the metaphors helps people decode propaganda.
These are some of the tools we need to use to speak to people whose compassion will not allow them to support this war once they know the truth about it.
In attempting to reduce Barrett Watten's "War=Language" to a "cute conceit," Jim Behrle posits "hand puppets... semaphore flags... thumbs up..." as alternative means of communication by which the administrators of this war (Rumsfeld, Franks, etc.) might get their *message* across to the public (the last, thumbs up, is the only likely alternative, given who's doing the talking, and we'll probably see it on TV if we already haven't--unless they trot out the Minister of Silly Walks with some semaphore flags, which they might as well).
I'd like to point out that, though not conventionally spoken or written "language" per se, these are all commonly shared and comprehended forms of communication based on signs, gestures and other linguistic and paralinguistic structures and systems. They constitute language (though I have to admit I'm, uh... at a loss to exhaustively define "language" [no shit]), and furthermore only attain their full potential (which is only limited by the mortality of language-users) as communication (in this case, propaganda) as they are translated & interpreted in the minds and mouths of viewers into spoken and written, traditional "language."
The repeated use & repetition of such language, no matter how it is ultimately expressed (and the bombs themselves have a grammar and syntax, constitute a message -- shock, awe, etc. -- as well as being violent language-ending, life-ending physical realities for those on the wrong side of the GPS signal, the TV screen, the President's last speech), creates the conditions for the possibility of war.
Without language, there's no war. Dogs smell each others' asses, mark their territory and strike submissive or aggressive poses complete with growls and barks--it's near language, quasi- or proto- --but we don't call the resulting dogfights "war." War requires something more than the mere physical reality of violent combat--it requires language and all that language does. War=humanity; war=tools; war=language; war=cities; war=culture.... Peace also requires more than the mere & momentary absence of war.
I like Jim's point from a pragmatic "well, enough theory, what do we need to *do* about this" point of view, but I also know that on the protesting Left (and, in many cases, Right) as well as the war-mongering Right (and, in many cases, Left), a reductionary tendency is always at work and must be continuously checked. It's just as visible in protest signs as in White House press conferences. Though on this last point, of course, given the ludicrous imbalance in effective power between the two sides (though there ain't only two), the White House drowns out the protesters as far as *most* Americans are concerned, whether the protest consists of signs and chants or direct action.
And the fact that *most* Americans, unlike poets and artists on the nominal Left, are "with" or "behind" the "president" on the war is where language might be of the most importance in stopping this war and, just as importantly if not more so, creating the conditions for the possibility of *peace* in the future (and peace also =language, =culture, etc.). The big problem seems to me to be how to change the ways in which we use language as a nation (wait--fuck "nation"), as a culture, as a society, as individuals.. so that "most Americans" (and "most French," "most Iraqis" etc.) won't fall for the reductionary rhetoric of bad government, or of anyone or anything else for that matter. I could be wrong, but have to believe that this is the only way to begin to "end war" (if even possible, I mean, c'mon).
This might be where poetry has the most potential for changing "hearts and minds" (pardon that bit of regurgitated vile rhetoric)--it's a great way of demonstrating that language DOES NOT REALLY equal the world or anything in it, thought it is irreducibly PART of the world and everything in it (at least it is as long as human beings are around). That the world is infinitely more complex than language or humans can hope to comprehend (though it takes language to understand the fact of its/our own limitations) and that this fact calls upon us not to *reduce* the world but *expand* language (what good poetry does) to bring us more fully *into* the world (and vice-versa), *into* ourselves, into understandings about the relationships between ourselves and the rest of the world... until we realize that language (with all its/our capabilities & limitations) both does & does not =us & everything we do, and that war is the result of our--and language's--worst failures. And we have to use language to talk *with* and *to* people--even the ones with whom we most strongly disagree--not *at* them or *for* them--and that's not at all easy, that's a struggle that will outlive us all, as will war.
And yeah, it's all cold comfort when the bullet (from the gun, trigger pulled with some degree of intent, intent made possible by language--language of people, both individuals and "the" people) empties your own personal head of your own personal brains. At least I think it is, never having been shot in the head. At least I don't think I've been.
(I cannot confirm or deny that I have been shot in the head.)
By the way, Charles Bernstein and his daughter said most of it (almost all) yesterday at the Bowery Poetry Club in an amazing (anti-)war poem consisting of many many lines starting with "War is..." (including something like "War is the inspiration for thousands of bad anti-war poems"). I don't know where you can get it in print, electronically, digitally or post-digitally--maybe it will appear on Circulars or elsewhere shortly).
The Real Enemy
One way the war is being conducted is through assumptions that are taken for granted, as part of the discourse though only rarely expressed directly. When there is opposition to the war, expressed directly, it is often contained by these very assumptions. We can go back to the formulation that contained dissent in the first Gulf War: "You can't hear them." Now, there is admittedly widespread dissent, and Iraqi resistance, and civilian casualties, but all these "negatives" will be contained eventually, they assume, by the final supercession of a preordained narrative. That narrative has theological overtones (for a well-drawn account of these, see Garry Wills in today's NY Times). What does this mean for counter-practice, for resistance to the war? Not to rely on any form of self-evidence because that is rapidly integrated into the preexisting assumptions. But to create and widely disseminate counterdiscourses--both creative and critical--as the basis for a life practice of "thinking otherwise." However crudely, this is what Ginsberg and the 60s were able to accomplish. Teaching the 60s--or any form of historical awareness--should go together with inculcating linguistic awareness. Raising consciousness as a critical and creative act as an entailment of a new mass movement, which has begun, is what is going to end the war and lay the basis for a new oppositional politics. BW
re: this engaging conversation and "peace requires more..." Our children are undereducated. Often there is no history in the history books. If we don't have an analysis, on the most basic levels, how are we going to act effectively to oppose our technocratic oligarcy that under the name of god (note here languagae critique) commits genocide? We (and I don't mean only poets or intellectuals but certainly including poets and intellectuals we who understand the terror that is happening) have serious responsibilities. This is it, people. (Apologies for "speaking at"). One can not persuade others to take action in opposition to their government, if those others believe the (mis)representations of corporate media. Most of the people in my classrooms have never heard of media critique--until they find themselves in my class. How do we encourage an activism that will last? How does one build on the activism now present? There are many answers to this, and one of them, certainly, is to increase language and visual media literacy. Literacy includes reading the New York Times and the local news critically--if you can't see the lie, you don't know the extent of the betrayal of the truth. If one can't "see" it's unlikely that one is going to stick one's neck out and act. In my opinion, Watten's analysis is right on--and , since I co-organized the Day of Reflection" (see WSU Faculty Committee for Peace and Justice in the Middle East) in which he spoke, I can tell you that the large audience of students, many of whom later told me that they were grateful for it) benefited from his talk. So what do I mean by benefit? His talk helped them to wake up to the propaganda that aims to make us stupid and to silence us all. Take courage, write (poetry, analysis, letters), educate, go out into the streets and stop this war--for the rest of y/our lives--that's what it's going to take. There will not be a modicum of peace or change of agenda unless we insist on it from now until the day we drop. It's time for all of us who happen to have the horrendous responsibility of being U.S. citizens to grow up and get smart--which also means helping others get smart ( the poets know how language works)--so that we can argue in word, deed, and action for the end of U.S. atrocity and power domination. All we have is our language (our many language--including discourse--and language of alarm/"speaking at"/or out, and the language of interpersonal relationship/"speaking to" and with) and our bodies to do this with. Carla Harryman
To teach and to write (poetry and criticism) as counter practice, to apply such as actions against a larger, hegemony of aggressive rhetorics such as now with this war (or any war) is a tall order. One example now is how many of the students in my classes here at University of Texas at Arlington have already been co-opted by military mindset-- ROTC is paying for their college--and are, then, an immoveable audience. They are also very persuasive in their "fuck Iraq" perspectives, their immoveable silences and their uniforms, during classroom discussions. This is a kind of complication, an inroading by government/even corporate interests, that makes it hard to teach resistance. These are students who could not otherwise have even thought about going to college: single parents, working class and poor, often from "minority" communities (though hardly minority in population/quantity here in the Dallas metro area). Language is bloody then, we're born into it, we can strategize with it through various means and actions, but these have surprising limits in real life/lives.
On March 30, Nick Piombino posted the following on his blog, Fait Accompli:
"David Hess and Jim Behrle have weighed in on Barrett Watten's call for a critique and analysis of the reasons the present administration have given us for going to war (see -Circulars-). All have ignored the quiet voice of Masha Zavialova whose recent statements on the list were the most cogent because she lived through all this in the Soviet Union. Masha feels there is real work to do for poets in "taking the shit" off what our leaders have to say. But this will take even more time, as poets have immediately clashed as to how to go about working together. One group wants to deconstruct what has been said in order to become more constructive, the other group wants us to say or do something more constructive right away. Are these positions very far apart?"
Nick's plaintive question, "Are these positions very far apart?" strikes me as disingenuous.
He has been reading the poetry news, and he certainly must know that at the heart of this growing discussion is the notion, clearly conveyed in recent statements by proponents of the "deconstructive" approach (most prominently Silliman, Bernstein, & Watten), that a certain "advanced" poetic practice --one which self-consciously takes the ideological status of language as thematic sine qua non-- is of greater social, historical, and political value than the more formally conventional kinds of responses that have flourished in the U.S. poetry world (notably via PAW) in response to the imperialist war.
The statements, in fact (see Bernstein's "Enough" and entries at Silliman's Blog on the "poetry of quietude"), have been stunningly haughty, quite open in suggesting that anti-war poets who write in "mainstream" modes--who use, in Bernstein's disdainful terms, "righteous monologue" and "digestible messages"-- inevitably play into the hands of those forces that would "discipline and contain dissent."
This elitist posture, as I pointed out in earlier response, is frankly embarrassing. Moreover, and more consequentially, it stimulates sectarian division just when the building of dialogic strategies and ethics in the cultural community is an urgent matter; it projects the "superior" nature of one relatively small poetic formation, ignoring, against all evidence, that the forms of poetic resistance that most writers and readers make use of in times of political exigency are ordered from the forms of everyday language-- forms which naturally tend to be pointed outward in addresses of partisan reference, and not inward in deconstructive analyses of cultural ideologemes. Given this fact, some fairly obvious questions could be posed to Watten, et. al. : Whose poetry was, or is, more "politically" relevant: Stein's or Neruda's? Zukofsky's or Hikmet's? Mallarme's or Brecht's? Was Vallejo wrong to abandon the hermetic poetry of _Trilce_ when he wrote the great popular poetry collected in _Espana, aparta de mi este caliz_? Does, say, Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" have the effect of disciplining dissent because it is written in a prosody and syntax similar to that used by Kipling or other pro-imperial poets?
That's not to suggest that the poetry of a Stein or Zukofsky is without political value, nor, much less, that the kinds of writing practices advocated by the first-generation Language poets are irrelevant. To the contrary-- their poetry and criticism has much to contribute. But culture (it's a somewhat obvious proposition) is informed by a diversity of reading formations, and these negotiate and manipulate their semiotic environments in complex and mutually impacting ways. An effective poetics of resistance will be likewise diverse, and informed (at least provisionally) by attitudes of mutual tolerance and respect. Call it a Total Syntax of Poetic Resistance-- one that recognizes axiological values as fluid, contingent, and not necessarily counterposed in their utilities, and which refuses, consequently, to grant privilege to any particular mode of compositional attention.
But in that regard, the so-called avant-garde in American poetry is far away, right now, from leading the way.
Here's a basic lesson in the politics of language. If one is going to raise an effective critique, one might well begin with an accurate account of the language practice one is criticizing. A vast amount of discussion in and around "avant-garde" poetic circles fails precisely to respond accurately to what it is, in fact, reacting to--and we see the day in, day out repetition of what Lyn Hejinian called, so long ago, "chronic ideas." There is, secondly, a fantastic degree of narcissism in such discussions, so that really what is being debated is a matter of filling time and space with the sound of one's own voice. Finally, there is a notable degree of paranoia as well. All of these--lack of objectivity, narcissistic investment, and paranoia--prevent debate from advancing beyond the cesspool of its own excremental fascination. I am not posting on the topic of the relation of language to war to get into a debate with a bunch of guys with nothing but a lot of time on their hands, some chronic issues that go back for decades, and personal vendettas that they relive ad nauseum. Thanks to Roddrigo Toscano for this worthwhile quote from Gramsci: "Every political question is a pedagogical question." And pedagogy, in the widest sense, is what I'm interested in inculcating, disseminating, and collaborating with others in. BW
All right, Barrett, we hear you. Good luck with your project.
This is one of the more useful exchanges I've seen, and I thank all the participants thus far.
As I'm in the midst of a review of Ammiel Alcalay's "from the warring factions," allow me to quote some of his ideas that bear directly on the discussion. He's talking about the "pervasive monolingualism" in current American literary culture, and he says
"For a writer not to know and engage several other languages seems to me to be like a musician playing only one note, or a painter who has decided to just use blue crayons. I read Hebrew, what used to be called Serbo-Croatian, French, Spanish, and Italian and I struggle with Latin and Arabic, but I still don't think it's either particularly remarkable or nearly enough, given how common this is for many in the rest of the world. Most of all, a monolingual consciousness allows cultural and governmental commissars to assume and promote limited perspectives and be secure in knowing that there is little basis for deeply rooted social or cultural resistance, especially to lies and stereotypes. This is internalized; it is also reproduced socially across the body politic, from the campaign against terrorism to a special on foreign presses I recently saw in the magazine *Poets and Writers* in which the section on Israel featured only white Ashkenazis. . . . While so many students are out there doing hyper-theoretical work on a limited number of texts, we still don't have a map. People need to go back and do a kind of socio-linguistic and cultural atlas of what has taken place and continues to take place in this country. It would be revealing and might dislodge assumptions about who and what we are or claim to be."
Alcalay's book is ambitious, difficult, and well-worth the time. Check it out.
Not to slip into my "predictable 'decap popa' routine" but I'm arguing that bombs, missiles and co. are a worse and more immediate problem than addressing the way language has historically been constructed to create an American society that believes it has the right to overrun the earth manifestly. That language construct *does* suck, as does all of the equivalent rhetoric, but stopping the bombs, missiles and invading marines first should be a priority.
Both Kent's and Barrett's models of dissent are necessary, both are welcome and urgently sought at grim times like now. Hell yeah for *all* dissent. It's a little silly to expect "mainstream" poets to act suddenly like "avant-garde" poets because the Bush Administration invaded Iraq. Or vice versa. I'd prefer many voices, many different voices, saying, "stop this war" in as many ways as it takes. Will poems ever say that loud enough to people that matter (Administration? American public? Each other?) Who knows? We're poets, that's our job. Punch the clock.
That's a fascinating response.
The usual strategy from Language poetry quarters is to respond to any challenge toward its theoretical "authority" with passive aggressive silence.
But a certain nerve seems to have been struck here and you have retched in reflex most remarkably!
Anybody read Azar Nafisi yesterday?
March 27, 2003
Words of War
By AZAR NAFISI
WASHINGTON — These days I am often asked what I did in Tehran as bombs fell during the Iran-Iraq war. My interlocutors are invariably surprised, if not shocked, when I tell them that I read James, Eliot, Plath and great Persian poets like Rumi and Hafez. Yet it is precisely during such times, when our lives are transformed by violence, that we need works of imagination to confirm our faith in humanity, to find hope amid the rubble of a hopeless world. Memoirs from concentration camps and the gulag attest to this. I keep returning to the words of Leon Staff, a Polish poet who lived in the Warsaw ghetto: "Even more than bread we now need poetry, in a time when it seems that it is not needed at all."
I think back to the eight-year war with Iraq, a time when days and nights seemed indistinguishable, and were reduced to the sound of the siren, warning us of the next air attack. I often reminded my students at Allameh Tabatabai University that while guns roared and the Winter Palace was stormed, Nabokov sat at his desk writing poetry.
My Tehran classroom at times overflowed with students who ignored the warnings about Iraq's chemical bombs so they could reckon with Tolstoy's ability to defamiliarize (a term coined by the Russian Formalist critics) everyday reality and offer it to us through new eyes. The excitement that came from discovering a hidden truth about "Anna Karenina" told me that Iraqi missiles had not succeeded in their mission. Indeed, the more Saddam Hussein wanted us to be defined by terror, the more we craved beauty.
If I felt compelled to keep rereading the classics, it was in order to see the light in the eyes of my students. I remember two young women, clad from head to toe in black chadors, looking as if nothing in the world mattered more than the idea that "Pride and Prejudice" was subversive because it taught us about our right to make our own choices.
Among my scribbled notes from those days, I found a quote from Saul Bellow about writers in the Soviet work camps. To my friends in the United States who are skeptical about the importance of imagination in times of war, let me share his words: "Perhaps to remain a poet in such circumstances is also to reach the heart of politics. The human feelings, human experiences, the human form and face, recover their proper place — the foreground."
And so a new war has begun, though this time it is my adopted country and not the country of my birth that is fighting Iraq. Nothing will replace the lives lost. Still, I will take some comfort now as I did then by opening a book.
Azar Nafisi, a fellow at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, is author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran."
Certainly at present there are questions of both "language" and "languages"--of "road maps" already preconstructed in language, and of what might happen otherwise in the space between languages. At the Wayne State event, I referred to Gen. Tommy Franks's brutal mispronunciation of "fedayeen" ("fedaheen"), and was corrected in turn by Arab students in the audience--what I pronounced as a single syllable, "yeen," is more like two, "ye-in." And then there is the history of the word itself, in cultural contexts Gen. Tommy Franks I am sure is either unaware of or denies entirely. In the spirit of open inquiry into the politics of language, such exchanges are possible. BW
I was taken aback by Kent's post when it first appeared on the ubu list and responded in there (briefly).
What I see in it (to elaborate) is an attempt to link a blog post on Nick Piombino's site -- probably read by about 50 people a week -- to some argument about whether Stein is or could be political, or whether Mallarme is more political than Brecht, etc. and some failure of the avant-garde.
The answers are entirely irrelevant. But certainly, if his argument is that we all have to put down our own particular interests in what, specifically, we feel poetry does in the world because there is a war, than it wouldn't matter that Mallarme was or was not more political than Brecht -- what matters is that they can both appear on the Poets Against the War site, and probably have the same effect. Which is for the most part -- individually, as poets -- none.
I think the point is that, for the poet that does want to do something effective regarding the war -- and by no means do I think every or even any poet has to write "political poetry" (though of course I would want every person to somehow come around to my views on the war) -- that one must write poetry in a way that is consistent with whatever he or she has been doing as a writers. Being fake or throwing away our personalities, talents and special pools of knowledge right now doesn't make any sense.
If a person is a "complex" poet, one who writes in a style that is polyphonous, maybe uses different languages, maybe uses a few big words, suggests a college education, I don't see any reason for that person to write simpler poems or anthems -- they should write for a language community of people who like that stuff. Likewise, if a person has a great sense of humor, can play guitar or can rap, can convey things to large crowds, can read a particular poem to different audiences effectively and gain the trust of audiences that are allergice to anything suggesting "privelege," that person need not learn how to write utilizing terminology from the political sciences or be able to do shout-outs to Ferdinand Saussure.
I have nothing agains the Poets Against the War site at except perhaps for their use of statistics in their promotional material. I don't think it's such a great argument that there are 12,000 anti-war poems on the site if noone is listening to them. I'd rather have one or two great anti-war poems that angered or inspired many people (or maybe that united the members of a particular community) than numbers. Numbers are for votes and polls; my sense is that writing a poem is a "little extra," something trying to make an effect that goes beyond numbers (important as they are); to feel that we have to write poems that would be “understandable” to that same number of people it would take to vote Bush out of office is absurd.
I think it's an open field about what kinds of poems these can be: critiques, songs, satires, prayers even, etc. The point is to be creative, and try things that are not being tried (the PAW site itself, of course, is an instance of that).
We can all agree that the poets reading this site, or this post, are not out in the field helping the wounded, witnessing events live, building or dismantling bombs, etc. So why do we have to repeat this basic truth over and over again?
My mother was 6 years old when the Korean War started, and 9 when it “ended,” but certainly we don’t sit around the house talking about how futile it is to water the flowers, take pictures of the baby or march in New York -- you water the flowers, take pictures of the baby, and march in New York, that’s what you do. And if you have a chance to do something more and an inclination, you do it.
If Brecht were alive today, I don't think he would be happy doing photo-ops and taking out ads in the New York Times, nor would he be satisfied throwing up a website like this one. But worse, I don't think he would be trying to articulate that there is some great conspiracy led by the "disengenous" Nick Piombino (with whom I marched in the protest here in New York) and the language poets to "stimulate sectarian division just when the building of dialogic strategies and ethics in the cultural community is an urgent matter."
I think he'd be writing aggressive, idiosyncratic works that would be annoying but enlivening, memorable and charismatic, humanistic and ideological, some of which contribute to a culture of dissent and wisdom regarding the government, world affairs, the future, the economy, etc. Ok, so we don't have a Brecht right now; please tell me what we do have, and let's use it.
P.S. If Nick Piombino -- NICK PIOMBINO -- either in his blog or in person, is not trying to "build dialogic strategies and talk to people about ethical strategies", then golly I must be misunderstanding my New York accents -- I must be nuts, frankly. I've rarely met a nicer man, nor one more thoughtfully engaging.
I would say that neither is poetry a test of politics, nor is politics a test of poetry. There's a long history here of their explicit engagement, so let's study up. But there's also an unacknowledged history of tacit conclusions that inform what I take to be aesthetically conservative misgivings about not being a poet first, then political. We will never know what our history is, until it happens, and that includes our canonization as poets with whatever degree of politics. There was a position taken by Robert Creeley in the 60s--and one can check this in his interviews--that took the primary abuse of language in the Vietnam War to be that of political poets, e.g., Robert Bly, though he was not named. And Creeley seemed more compelled to comment on that misuse of language than to address the deformed language of the war. One would never say that the attention to language in *Pieces* was not missed by poets in the period, and as I've argued in writings on the 60s, it was precisely the conjunction of lingual attention and oppositional politics that made the Language School *not* just another moment of abstract art. I would, at the present, rather spend time thinking about the questions of cognitive framing and consent, and thinking otherwise as dissent, than worry about what ratio of poetry and politics will turn out to have been representative of the best of both. At the Wayne event, there was a quite amateur poem read by an Arab student "non-poet," as she said, and I was moved by it at that time. The problem with 12000 poems on a web site is that it's an uninteresting way of presenting the work, and hence less than politically useful. Aesthetics, then, becomes an art of communicating in difficult circumstances. BW
All right, babies, we love you. Best of luck with your endeavors.
12000+ anti-war poems on a web site is at worst as "politically useful" a display of dissent as blocking traffic in Boston or San Francisco for a half hour, uninteresting as their presentation of poems may be. It's as useful as sending e-mail petitions or refusing to pay one's taxes this year. I don't like the "Poets Against the War" site and don't wish to defend their tastes. But the dissent therein is legit, and as powerful as most other avenues I've seen employed this go-round. I’d suggest we’re all struggling to cope with ways to make a difference, and finding that even our best shots leave us powerless to stop this madness.
I guess I want to know what makes Watten's stance timely or specific to Gulf War II. If you are, as it sounds like you are, simply defending and underling the work you and others have already done, and continue to do, then why is your recent speech important for us at this moment?
I reacted to the final lines of your speech: "'The war is not the war; it is language.' To dismantle this war, in its causes and consequences, we must begin with language itself." The word *must*, for me, stands out. Why is there only one route for dissent, one route that you and others possess, but is denied most?
If I must "study up" as you suggest, maybe it's because your answers are dusty. I've said it before, and I say it to everyone who considers themselves poets and owns a mirror: "What have you done lately, and why is that better than what I've done?"
Re "study up": I simply don't want to rehearse the Brecht/Lukacs debate, or that between Aragon and Breton, etc., even as such histories are all, and should be, part of our poetic/political toolkits.
Re "12000" poems: agreed this is an important form of dissent, although I think at this point e-mail petitions are counterproductive and I don't circulate them.
Re my "speech": I had hoped it would be an example, in context, of "thinking otherwise." And I think what is of continuing value in avant-garde practice is the contesting of embedded structures of language, and providing a counter to them.
Re "must begin with language": inevitably so, as language--the language of the media, of the workplace, of the teaching situation--has become militarized to an astounding degree. The full ramifications of that have yet to be addressed, and it is not an easy question--to describe the structures one is caught within, interpellated by. This is where I think aesthetic practice is indeed political--at the level of embedded assumptions that precondition consent. And the structures of power that inculcate and perpetuate them. This is not meant to be prescriptive, nor is it a presumption of merely literary value or exclusive political agency.
Thanks for all of your comments and your speech. I've appreciated the give and take and have felt quite challenged by what you've written.
Be well, fondly.
O if the mind could always change the heart!
It strikes me as a bit odd that, after Barrett Watten's initiation of "War=Language" with a quote from "Wichita Vortex Sutra" and his several subsequent references to Ginsberg, no one has resumed discussion of Ginsberg and his very successful poems addressing war & resistance (they successfully entered "the mainstream" while maintaining an amazing level of nuanced & impassioned critique--they did, in many ways, what we're talking about poetry needing to be able to do).
So if we're looking for a practical model of how the apparent gap between theory & praxis, word & deed, talk & walk might be bridged in fighting this war & the more general state of war visited upon the world by American-led consumer-capitalist-militarist-media spectacle, why turn our backs on what Ginsberg's work offers in a dash to make ourselves feel important (or smart, or clevah, or serious, or whatever's going on in some of the posting above--not to belittle, but there's belittlement inscribed in some of the attack-language above).
Why veer off so quickly into, say, "fairly obvious questions" that "could be posed to Watten, et. al." about "Whose poetry was, or is, more 'politically' relevant: Stein's or Neruda's? Zukofsky's or Hikmet's? Mallarme's or Brecht's?" Why rather tired questions such as whether "Language poets" have retreated into a theoretical redoubt and can't/won't connect to "the mainstream," or whether "12000" poems on a Web site are politically efficacious, or whether some largely imaginary version of the old "avant garde" is failing to lead and should make way for some equally imaginary notion of an emerging new generation... I feel Jim's sense of urgency--"don't you know there's a *war* on!"--but question the direction that urgent sense is taking this discussion and any actions or further words it may lead any of us to.
Not that the above-cited aren't important questions, but some of it seems like unnecessary infighting right now, as I assume everyone posting to this discussion is fundamentally anti-war and pro-poetry. Perhaps there are other issues underlying that can be better dealt with separately (as I'm sure they will be anyway--to the blogs, citizens! To your blogs!). And not that we shouldn't bring into play and use any & all effective means of combatting the bad language & actions being brought to bear on Iraq and on world-wide resistance to the War--we need to marshall and use everything we've got, but less like a disorganized and squabbling group of doomed guerrillas and more like an important--if small--part of civil society that recognizes its responsibilities and capabilities and uses them as effectively as possible.
Ginsberg & "Wichita Vortex Sutra" manage to address the ways in which our language makes war possible in America, makes America so war-like, and they do so in a way that isn't alienating or unnecessarily complex with regard to the "mainstream," even as it locates a main source of the language=war problem right *here,* with us, with *U.S.,* all aswim in the mainstream...
(apologies for flush-left destruction of the poem's actual line positioning in below excerpt, but Moveable Type isn't very field-composition friendly):
While this American nation argues war:
conflicting language, language
proliferating in airwaves
filling the farmhouse ear, filling
the City Manager's head in his oaken office
the professor's head in his bed at midnight
the pupil's head at the movies
blong haired, his heart throbbing with desire
for the girlish image bodied on the screen...
Is this the land that started war on China?
This be the soil that thought Cold War for decades?
Are these nervous naked trees & farmhouses
of oriental anxiety molecules
that've imagined American Foreign Policy
and magick'd up paranoia in Peking
and curtains of living blood
Are these the towns where the language emerged
from the mouths here
that makes a Hell of riots in Dominica
sustains the aging tyranny of Chiang in silent Taipeh city
Paid for the lost French war in Algeria
overthrew the Guatemalan polis in '54
maintaining United Fruit's banana greed ...
I think what I want to get at is that we have here *one* very valuable example of how an American poet did exactly what we need--work that doesn't reduce the complexity of the situation *and* that isn't "elitist" *and* that works effectively against the "mainstream" of language abuse pouring forth from the media and gov't... *and* can introduce history to American readers who may not know who Dulles is but who know (at least a little, I hope) who Colin Powell and Rumsfeld are ... it's a very physical and active work that demands you use your body if you really read it. It's fully engaged. It's the kind of poem to read to the ROTC students who don't want to think about it, it's the kind of poem to read to address the painful confusion so many of us feel, knowing we're complicit no matter what in what happens in Iraq though we are resisting, seeking ways to sustain our resistance and advance it...
Why did this discussion turn away so quickly from this kind of poem, this poem, and what it has to offer us now? I'm not sure, but perhaps it can return (in the spirit of Circulars, which, huge props to Brian, is also a concrete example of what we can and should be doing)...
More "Sutra," with one slight change for new time's sake:
American Eagle beating its wings over Asia
million dollar helicopters
a billion dollars worth of Marines
who loved Aunt Betty
Drawn from the shores and farms shaking
from the high schools to the landing barge
blowing the air thru their cheeks with fear
in Life on Television
Put it this way on the radio
Put it this way in television language
Use the words
"A bad guess"
McNamara made a "bad guess"
"Bad Guess?" chorused the Reporters.
Yes, no more than a Bad Guess, in 1962
"8000 American Troops handle the Situation"
Black Magic language,
formulas for reality--
Terrorism is a 9 letter word
used by inferior magicians with
the wrong alchemical formula for transforming earth into gold
--funky warlocks operating on guesswork,
handmedown mandrake terminology
that never worked in 1956
for gray-domed Dulles,
brooding over at State,
that never worked for Ike who knelt to take
the magic wafer in his mouth
from Dulles' hand
inside the church in Washington:
Communion of bum magicians
congress of failures from Kansas & Missouri
working with the wrong equations
Sorcerer's Apprentices who lost control
of the simplest broomstick in the world:
O longhaired magician come home take care of your dumb helper
before the radiation deluge floods your livingroom,
your magic errandboy's
just made a bad guess again
that's lasted a whole decade.
I'd like to respond later to Brian's surprising misreading of my post and also to some of what Barrett Watten says in his last when more time. Just a brief comment regarding what Barrett says below (and I'm glad the tone has become less personal and vindictive-- let's keep it that way).
BW says: "The problem with 12000 poems on a web site is that it's an uninteresting way of presenting the work, and hence less than politically useful. Aesthetics, then, becomes an art of communicating in difficult circumstances."
This would be a simplistic way of judging the project and its broader, potential impacts, I believe. The poems, for example, aren't locked up on the site--many of them have been reproduced widely, here and abroad, and continue to be. The Nation Press will be publishing a 100 poem anthology from the gathering, for one, and that is likely to attract considerable attention. As example from personal experience, the poem I posted at PAW has circulated in unexpected ways, and Monthly Review, even, America's venerable socialist journal, has requested to reprint it. That a journal like Monthly Review, which to my knowledge, has never given much attention to the "relevance" of poetry has decided to do a special section of poetry against the war is of some note-- *and*, I would suggest, provides the opportunity for writers (not least writers like Barrett, Silliman, etc.) to open some useful discussion with new circles about the ways in which "aesthetic practice is indeed political," as Barrett puts it.
Though I don't have time to respond fully right now, the relevance of Ginsberg's take on public language--and how to intervene--was precisely why we read it--as a multi-voiced entity rather than as a single embodied bard--at Wayne State. It was a terrific vehicle to make the point about the importance of language/media critique in the war. And in fact, we could not think of a better poem to read as a group statement, though it would be very interesting to consider alternatives. It's openness to multiple readers, for one thing, was surprising--different passages could be voiced in quite different ways. And there is a fair amount of thinking about Islam in the poem, which is odd because the "other" at the time was Vietnamese. BW
[This is twelve hours out of date--I wrote it Sunday--but for what it's still worth here it is...]
Two quotations, the second illustrative of the first:
“When there is opposition to the war, expressed directly, it is often contained by these very assumptions.”
“I support our troops--I support bringing them home!”
--paraphrase of various anti-war signs & arguments in media.
This exemplifies the containment of dissent. The boundary in question is nationalism; the outside to it hardly exists within mainstream American political discourse. “I don’t support our troops because...” No--this can’t be said!: Within the discourse of pluralist, liberal nationalism, the best one can do is to say “I don’t want any more deaths than necessary but given that people have to die, better them than us.” And as soon as you say “I support our troops...” you’ve said the rest, willy-nilly, within nationalism.
What can’t be said: “I support our troops as predominantly working-class people trying to make their way in the world and being exploited and killed as a direct result of Bush administration policies, policies which they have little choice but to support (not to mention that they’ve been deprived of information by our corporate media)...”
What can’t be said: “I don’t support our troops: they volunteered, they joined an organization the essence of whose mission is to kill people from other countries; they accepted a job description which included possibly getting killed; given these facts why are their lives more sacrosanct than those of Iraqi civilians who, being civilians, by definition did not make such a choice?”
The corruption of civic discourse argument was raised by Orwell in the 40s; it’s hardly associated exclusively with language poetry. But pace Orwell, ethical use of language does NOT equate with basic sentence structures, active verbs, etc (oh, the pathos of that list...) International politics is complex, complexity makes people nervous,slogans and the binary fundamentalist worldview are simple and clarifying; a certain kind of anti-war rhetoric simply opposes Bush’s bipolar reductionism on the same level, therefore reinforcing a systemic impoverishment of debate. Auden’s “Epitaph on a Tyrant”: “the poetry he invented was easy to understand.” The tyrannous rhetoric of simplicity: “How long?” (Bush asks rhetorically) “As long as it takes!”
Jim, David: you guys have a powerful intuitive point--what use sectarian polemics at a time like this? But many poets are located within institutions (we might debate whether the metaphor "embedded" is appropriate here), and their action is mediated by these institutions: they’re language workers, in departments whose professional expertise pertains to language. I doubt Barrett believes his action at the level of language is unmediated. [My own sense is that direct political persuasion--that is, any direct persuasion which within the existing binary political system can be deemed “partisan”--when offered by a professor to students, due to the inherent institutional power-relation of teaching will have counterproductive effects--hence the need for ad hoc forums...] What‘s more, the idea that we can write the “politically relevant” popular poem--to address Kent’s point--that reaches a public to whom it is transparent....well, isn’t it pretty to think so. Such a act’s not self-evidently available. Look at how, for example, the “Not In Our Name” Lincoln Center reading was taken by the media--as the occasion of satire, mockery, as proof of the out-of-touch arrogance of poets--in other words, the current position of poetry vis-a-vis various institutions was inescapable. (Or look at the fate of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, way back when...)
Now, acting as a citizen is a different question....
"I guess I want to know what makes Watten's stance timely or specific to Gulf War II. If you are, as it sounds like you are, simply defending and underling the work you and others have already done, and continue to do, then why is your recent speech important for us at this moment?'
What makes it relevant, at this time, is that it was read in a public forum in front of a diverse audience that might not have heard the difficulties couched in these terms before.
I was there at the reading and and counted a number of fresh faced students, who don't know or really care who 'Barrett Watten' is. This wasn't simply a case of preaching to the poetic choir. Perhaps you are overly familiar with the politics of poetry and its social praxis but to many there is only a vague awareness that manipulation occurs at the level of language. Or if they are aware they are not able to articulate it in ways that might lead them to debate it with their mothers,uncles, friends.
What I see Barrett and Carla doing is working damned hard to challenge students to see poetry as more than just pretty words and private, emotional expressions. For those students it wasn't dusty rhetoric.
Now is that going to stop the war? I have no idea. But, if the Vietman protests taught us anything it is that speaking/singing/chanting/marching, at the least, builds a dynamic and a momentum that encourages those on the fence to think about issues in a different light. At best it can change the direction of history. The 'real enemy' is people who do nothing. And the 'cute conceit' is to sit back and criticize those that try.
There's been some very interesting discussion on this.
My initial post seems to have been taken other than I intended by a couple people, including Brian, and especially Barrett, who became quite angry, so I wanted to clarify a couple points:
First of all, I didn't intend the remarks to be a criticism of Nick Piombino, whose writing I've admired, though I see how my use of the phrase "strikes me as disingenuous" may have given that impression. My phrasing, frankly, was out of a sense of frustration that the barely-veiled scorn in recent pieces by Bernstein and Silliman toward more "populist" modes of poetry seemed to be papered over by Nick's comments. And this attitude of elitism is to me the crucial point.
I think my piece makes clear that I *don't* see issues pertaining to the "politics of form" along generally binary lines: I never said that the kind of poetry one tended to see at PAW was more politically useful than the kind of analytical composition advocated by Barrett-- "the contesting of embedded structures of language, and providing a counter to them," as he so nicely puts it. I said I thought that kind of work was good and that the Language poets and others had made crucial contributions. I've always said that, even when being polemical elsewhere in regards to other issues related to experimental poetry.
My point, again (and the more that gets said, the more obvious I think it becomes), is that prominent spokespeople for Language writing have been advancing the position-- directly as Bernstein and Silliman have done, more indirectly, as Watten has done at Circulars-- that their poetry/cultural practice is of weightier intrinsic value than the poetry and practice of poets writing out of narrative, speech-based, less "semiotically deflected" kinds of language-- everyday, communicative language, I mean, like the kind used in Langston Hughes's poems, for example, or Whitman's, or Reznikoff's.
And the problem, as I see it, aside from its inherent elitism, is that this position is by and large ahistorical-- idealist and quasi-Romantic even, in the way it turns a particular compositional inclination (one by now, let's be honest, considerably "interpellated," to use Barrett's word, by the ISA of the academy) into a kind of cultural categorical imperative. It assumes that the work of demistifying the "embedded structures of language" is primarily a job to be done by *a certain group* of legislator poets, able to show what's behind the veil of the culture's Signs, when, in fact, such ideological labor is always a task complexly carried out through a variety of means and practices, discourses and struggles, undertaken by different reading and writing communities, mutually impacting and interpenetrating others in always-changing and unpredictable ways.
For instance, the underappreciated avant-garde poets of the 20's and 30's rescued by Rothenberg were doing important and revolutionary work in exploring the hidden energies and possibilities of language. But, if in different ways, so were the less theoretically inclined militant poets of the same period recovered by Cary Nelson, who came out of an obviously different tradition-- and their work, as Nelson has shown, had significant political impact not only in the most immediate sense, but surprising and under-recognized impacts on the development of later alternative poetics in the U.S. Each poetic "formation," different as it was, and in its own ways, advanced the work of exposing the linguistic structures of consent. That new, even aesthetically coherent tendencies of ideologically engaged poetry might emerge from phenomenons like PAW can't be ruled out, and there is no reason experimental poets should be discouraging such a possibility via a priori determinations about the relationship between textual form and historical worth.
Anyway, to be clear: I am not taking issue with Language poetry or questioning the commitment of poets associated with it. I am just suggesting: Keep doing the work you feel called to do without belittling the efforts of those who feel called to work in different ways.
First, thanks Kristine for the on-the-ground observer's report of the Wayne event and its political possibilities/limits.
Nick raises the question of what kind of language, or what view of language, may be helpful in understanding the vast array of preconditioning and disinformation now being undertaken. A summary is beyond me at the moment, but a couple of areas for consideration would be: structural metaphors (after Lakoff et al.); semantic frames (after Fillmore); discourse construction; and narrative (particularly unstated assumptions of providence and victory as = to narrative teleology). If we look to avant-garde practice, there is a various history of engagement with these linguistic levels. Narrative, unfortunately, has been underdeveloped, and here I can point to Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, and Kathy Acker's work as often overlooked in discussions that circulate around Language School aesthetics and politics. Not only is there a gender bias here, there's a formal bias, and the two are connected.
To continue, I don't see how proposals for political intervention that assumes one kind of analysis are so easily looked at as precluding others. What logic would determine this? And why in discussions of the Language School, do we have such a persistent complaint centered around perceived loci of male-dominant power, ignoring a much wider context of work? What a disservice to those of differing viewpoints and lingual attentions! Silliman's and Bernstein's views are their own, and may be admired and/or criticized as such, but facile Language or generation baiting persistently refuses to read the breadth and depth of work continuing to be made available.
Finally, there are many forms of activity possible, and now ongoing, where I live. See, for instance, Carla's journals of recent activities in Detroit, or the front page of the Oakland County Eccentric of last week, which quoted one Asa Watten and his fellow students who staged an ad hoc demonstration in downtown Birmingham, saying "War is not business as usual." Good point--let's not keep beating the same old aesthetic horses, please.
Barrett Watten said in his last post:
"To continue, I don't see how proposals for political intervention that assumes one kind of analysis are so easily looked at as precluding others."
Good. This would be the main point. As we work to build a united front of cultural work, let's avoid language that gives the impression that others are being precluded. As we deconstruct the metaphors of consent, let's be vigilant of the effect our own metaphors have inside the cultural community.
Thanks for your reply to the discussion on BW's speech. I feel like I'm doing just the opposite of what you write. I feel like it's legit to criticize anyone who thinks there's only one way we *must* fight this war against the war, and I question anyone's priorities to dismiss some acts of dissent while underlining their own. You're correct to suggest that it's wrong to fight poetic battles now. I'm saying the same thing. It's just as legit to question B.W. than it is to agree with him wholeheartedly. I'd like to find a way to stop the bombs, so would you and B.W.. I'm glad you and he are doing it your way. I am doing it my way too, and maybe not in ways you can appreciate, so it's wrong to imagine that all I do is sit back and criticize. It shows you don't know me at all. I could accuse you of the same thing, but why? Why withhold your last name? I've been public and tried to understand where Barrett was coming from. I'd ask you to do the same. Don't half-enter the fray. It's time for everyone to go on the record, to be heard and to listen.
"I'm Nobody-Who are You?"
Not trying to be facetious but don't see how not posting my last name necessarily indicates that I'm merely half-committed. I know your full name. Cool. I'm not a public figure nor am I a poet (gasps from the audience, murmurs of discontent, cries of foul play), so who really cares if my name is Kristine Doolittle or Esmerelda Fullofit?
On to more important things... I responded to your criticism of Barrrett, in part, because you didn't present anything constructive that you were engaged in as an antidote to the same old arguments. As for my not really knowing you at all, no duh. I did indeed judge you based on what you put out.
Seems to me you're playing a game here. We're all devastated by the destruction and grief and injustice of this war. And we're all responding to it the best we know how. I cannot believe that you think the word *must* in Barrett's piece is meant to be taken as a call to ignore all other levels of discourse or to only focus on one aspect of what is being perpetrated in our name. Nothing wrong with being critical, agreed, and I never said it was wrong to fight poetic battles (?) just think you're fighting bogeymen that aren't there.
So we shouldn't half enter the fray? Ok, then what have *you* done lately? I'm sure it is important cuz in these times bullshit intellectual dramatics have little, if anything, to offer.
This space is here to react to Barrett's speech, which I've done. Maybe Brian could set up another message board to beat one's chest about our own contributions to the anti-war movement.
The bullshit isn't coming from my end. For all I know your name is Kristine Watten. If you and the "fresh-faced" students of Wayne State got a lot out of Barrett's speech, great. Look elsewhere for my constructive responses and drop me a line if you can find your last name. The real work isn't happening on message boards, among anonymous snipers.
A typical case of "don't call up what you can't put down," I think. I forgot to warn people about Kristine--she's ferocious, a veritable volcano, and when she gets going you'll never hear the end of it. She'll pursue you with e-mail messages to the far corners of the earth. This is Detroit, after all.
There is an issue of gender politics, here, yes? And of the kinds of masculine energy that goes with such challenge behavior. I would hope more women would be interested in posting to these discussions, but this sort of exchange tends to discourage that. Who would want to get involved at such a level?
Ok, this comments section is closed. Let's move on.
I've been asked by a few people to reopen this comments section, and so it's open again.
I've always encouraged people posting comments to the stories here, but I fear that when it gets too out of control, then people are just turned off. I also don't have time to read everything that's posted, and was afraid it was getting beyond me, the only one reading everything on the site -- I can't write huge lectures on civility in electronic discourse, and they've never proved terribly useful in the past.
So I ask people to take a deep breath, think twice before writing, etc., in a group effort to make our discussions not just of value to the participants, or to poets, but to the several hundred people who check in here daily who are not poets, artists or literary scholars. Exercise a little "sweetness and light," in the words of Matthew Arnold, and it'll all be fine...
Re Matthew Arnold, here is an example of "the best that has been thought and said" in today's NY Times:
"Since the war began two weeks ago, the people of Baghdad have been exposed to a reality so stark, so astonishing, so overwhelming, that those who have witnessed it have struggled to find words adequate to express what they have seen.
"To have been in Berlin or Dresden or Hamburg in the last months of World War II would surely have been more ghastly, for the sheer numbers of casualties caused by the Allies' bombing.
"But American air power, as the 21st century begins, is a terrible swift sword that strikes with a sudden precision, in most cases, that moves even agnostics for words associated with the power of gods.
"Along with this, life under the bombing has continued to roll forward with an everyday nonchalance that, in its own way, has been as hard to adjust to as the bombing."
Where to begin with the horror of this "educated" purple prose, this self-congratulating paean to the poetics of war? The fact that it is open to rhetorical analysis is entirely circular: the author has been to college (probably even read the romantics), and was taught the "sublime." His approach to the deity is a fawning flattery to the reality of power that he can only name but never contest, and that is communicated directly to the reader. And yet, at the same time, life goes on--it is really incredible how those benighted residents of Baghdad, who never read a line of Wordsworth, keep on going about their daily lives. The message, then, is dual: American power is so great, you can't do anything about it; and the victims of this power are thereby reduced to the status of human ciphers who can do nothing about it. The reader has a choice: side with the gods, or with the nonentities they would reduce.
Right now we are being barraged with language and images to this effect in a way that parallels, but of course could never equal, what is going on on the ground. We are marching to "victory," and if you do not get with the rhetoric, you are going to be isolated, irrelevant, and destroyed. The rhetoric of war--actually, the poetics of war in its self-focusing redundancy--is exacting compliance with a brutal, final, destructive power.
It is interesting that first hint of violence toward our local vociferousness against the war--the display of a "No War" sign prominently on our suburban lawn in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, a neighborhood where many American flags are displayed (though not so many as after 9/11, or during the first Gulf War, I am told), occurred this morning, when the sign was removed. Some months earlier, Asa's display of a flag which read "Hope" was countered by the word "Fear" scrawled in red paint on his car. But between those two events, there was an illusion of civility. I think that may be about to change.
I'm sorry. May I quote this--I'm sure I will hear, or maybe not, but just know, that all Barrett Watten meant was that we (we being women) wouldn't deal on such a petty level--that exchange that almost closed the commenting, but, you know what, it doesn't matter, b/c you say something, and it is responded to. I mean, he should have italicized "this."
"There is an issue of gender politics, here, yes? And of the kinds of masculine energy that goes with such challenge behavior. I would hope more women would be interested in posting to these discussions, but this sort of exchange tends to discourage that. Who would want to get involved at such a level? BW"
WHAAT? You'd think he'd (you'd) know better than to articulate this way. I wonder if anyone would like to talk about how LANGUAGE has its effects on culture, that being of the "male, abstract, public" sphere as opposed to the domestic and private ones of the ladies here at home or the mothers mourning their decapitates or the WOMEN poets doing all they can to be political--meaning to challenge the orientation of their own language--at such levels, at such levels--we are encouraged to be ignored--we are encouraged to act like Anne Waldman or we are encouraged to give voice to text like the anonymous Kristine, or to be joked about as objects of affection, or to be exploited as media sob stories. WAR=LANGUAGE, WAR=LANGUAGE, WAR=LANGUAGE.
Then on the other hand, it is intimidating--THIS LEVEL OF DISCOURSE--not b/c the exchange resulted in a catfight of "whose activism is the right activism," resulting in such a masculine energy. I'm sure BW knows that "masculine energy" dominates the discussion anyway--even in the women that post--b/c there has been a war with language for a while now.
"Irigaray's philosophy of the feminine begins with the Lacanian theory of the Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary - the Real as the place of the mother and death, the Symbolic as the domain of law founded on the Name-of-the-Father, and the Imaginary as the effect of the Symbolic in consciousness and imagination. As Irigaray reads the situation, Lacan's symbolic order - the condition of language - is fundamentally masculine and patriarchal; it speaks the imaginary of men and is organised according to the law of the symbolic order which subtends it. Anything outside the domain of the symbolic order effectively has to be translated into its terms; in other words, its other as symbolised is really the same as itself. Or else, the other (like death, or the feminine) is so radically different that no symbolic means are available for it to be communicated."
Per my post above, David Perry's on Ginsberg, and Corina Copp's today: the remedy for the moment of discourse about war is not Ginsberg poems, no matter how much the poems might want a better world/answer and no matter how many times repeated like a mantra. With all due respect to Ginsberg and to David Perry, no Ginsberg poem recited in a classroom over and over is going to help that woman ROTC-indoctrinated student counteract the effects of being appropriated into the service in order to *gladly* sacrifice herself for Bush's war. She can't hear us. What to do?--nothing (a rhetorical question)? That seems to me the cross-roads question that contextually applies widely here: what to do with the divisiveness and rhetorical cowardliness (in Congress, for example) that is rendering our country's usual avenues of debate useless at the moment when we most need to think critically and debate carefully and intelligently. How to get those whose positions are adverse to our own to listen and to be *persuaded* that there are better ways to sort out differences than by war? I wish it did take only Allen Ginsberg.
How much aggressive, inflexible rhetoric should one take from an indoctrinated student/soldier in an educational community before one responds in kind or gives up and walks away? Such a question indicates, is dependent upon this: a choice can be made. Collectively we are quickly running out of that privilege: choicing about the relation between language and political action, but the choice is not as simple as selecting *either war* or *language*, which is how the construction of equivalency, "war=language" leads us to think.
But more devastating than that realization is this one that moved me when Jim Berhle began his critique: while we bat words around in sophistry and posturing because we have such a choice, *real people in real lives* are dead and dying. They were not dead or dying before that 48 hour ultimatum was sent by Bush. Then, voila, they were. We did not prevent their deaths. Why? These dead and dying are/were caught in situations where they had/have no choice. Many of them are women and children who have been traditionally socialized to assume they have no choice in such public venues as debates. The world indeed has a long way to go on that count. For the dead and dying as a result of war right now, there is no language there is only war. The point is, How can we make our objections to this slaughter be heard? --granted that so many of us are doing everything we can. But language in any of its manifestations cannot equal war. There is no equal sign between language and war. There is only the reality of war, and the increasingly narrow *possibility* that language about it can stop it. One is a reality. The other, a possibility, only. Please throw out the deceptive = sign. Period.
As for gender, language, and war: yes: *this sex which is not one* has once again demonstrated its inadequacy and occlusions. It is not "one" if being one is to unify disparate elements--there is no unifying rhetoric here. There is divisive posturing that, from the evidence above, has bounced around the issue and the questions rather than attempting in a unifying way to listen to dissent and respond in ways that not only answer these urgent questions but also, and here's the thing: DO something useful to stop the slaughter. Aristotelian: War provides death. If language provides possibility, then language should be working double hard now to discover what the possibilities are; it should be concentrating on unifying elements toward a better answer, not posturing. There is no equivalency between language and war. Language can be disseminated and brought to bear only possibilities. War kills and steals, period.
Was that a strong enough demonstration of masculinist rhetoric? Rate me.
Hey Chris M. +
I wasn't suggesting Ginsberg be read to the ROTC students over and over, rather that we take "Witchita Vortex Sutra" as one example of a ~kind~ of very effective anti-war poetry, and specifically as one which clearly addresses the relationship between power and language, especially the abuses of them which prepare the way for war. The idea being that we can learn from it, that's all. And use what we learn. Come up with many different ways to voice resistance, to build it, to put it into action. Informed in part as poets by Ginsberg's work and practice. That's all. Dang.
"They were not dead or dying before that 48 hour ultimatum was sent by Bush." -- Well........ hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died in the past 10 years or so due to the US-led sanctions on Iraq since Gulf War I. Perversely, the strategy of sanctions, ostensibly designed to put pressure on Saddam's dictatorial regime, ended up giving Saddam new means of control over the Iraqi population--the selective allocation of food, medicine and medical equipment. The US and UN colluded with Saddam in the deaths of these people. They appear to have done it in the name of regional "stability," preferring until recently to let the dictator keep the country together for a while longer (and if it weren't for Bush et. al. the world--and most Americans--would be just fine with continued sanctions, whatever the "cost" in human suffering and lives).
Madeleine Albright, when asked in an interview if she thought the sanctions were worth the price of hundreds of thousands of lives, said that she thought it was worth it. What happened to this woman to enable her to be able to say that? What has happened to this country that such callous disregard for human life as a matter of policy didn't have us out in the streets in ~1998~? How much of it is ascribable to language? One whole shitload, at least.
An estimated 250,000+ died under the sanctions. All this time the US & UK were regularly bombing Iraq (albeit in the "no fly zone"). The people who died under the sanctions died of starvation and illness, not language and not bombs, though the sanctions would have been impossible ~without~ language (and bombs). One trick of language to be noted here is that a ~real war~--sanctions are a kind of siege, which is warfare--killed over 250,000 Iraqis and you're telling us that "*real people in real lives* are dead and dying. They were not dead or dying before that 48 hour ultimatum was sent by Bush. Then, voila, they were."
So what's going on? Is it that a trick of language that lets us get away with believing--even for a few seconds--that ~until~ bombs start falling and US troops cross into Iraq there's no ~war~? "Sanctions," such a harmless sounding word.... No--they're economic warfare, and they killed more people than it looks at this point like the bombs will.
Gen(d)eral question: Is the kind of challenge constituted by an assertively stated phrase like "Rate me" typical of masculine or feminine speech? Or both? ... I don't know why, but I get this crazy mixed-up image in my head when I read "rate me" of Madeleine Albright, Condi Rice, Dick Cheney and Paul "Nosehair" Wolfowitz all clad in S&M gear beating a naked, androgynous Persian slave boy with lengths of rubber hose that they just took out of their frosty beer cooler, chanting "Rate me, rate me, rate me!" as an energy-industry-appointed "human rights commissioner" sits in the corner, clutching at his crotch and rolling his eyes in torment and pleasure. (Enter Ashcroft in child's Mickey Mouse Halloween mask... lights go down, sound of bombs detonating off stage, grim laughter and screams).
Well, dang to you too, I guess, but I don't even know you. If by that last little burst you were wondering if anyone could respect you in the morning, the answer is no. I didn't think Circulars was a forum where response to Barret Watten's speech included S+M fantasies: I'm only going to say this once time: the S+M stuff is a cheap shot and you know it; it's completely out of place with me specifically, and in this forum generally, I hope. But do read on:
On Ginsberg: granted, Ginsberg's work is to be learned from. And that fits in the *language is possibility* category. We're in agreement on that. Basically, that pedagogical strategy works for a lot of situations, and over time is a worthy goal, sure. But it doesn't work for the situation I was asking about. Oh well. Guess we've got to find something else that will work.
On Albright: to her credit (though for me she sort of fits in with other privileged grande dames of politcal b.s. who made many folks' lives hell, such as Margaret Thatcher) she also said just prior to the *physical fact* of the US invasion of Iraq that she was not in favor of and did not condone the administration's drive to war, and specifically, this invasion.
On the historical developments leading to this current situation: You are very persuasive when describing the situation and the circumstances because you do so far more holistically than I had. That made me think. I want to recognize that, yes, the suffering did not begin when our wonder boy Bushie sent an ultimatum and then executed it. The distinction I want to make here, though, is that the execution of the ultimatum closed off one more possibility for the rest of us to dissuade our politicos from invasion. This is a physical fact: full invasion of Iraq by US military. There was no turning back once the order was given to the military to go forward. Prior to that it was not yet physical in the same way; it was still on the order of talk (language, possibility). With the invasion it became physical reality and it did so for far more people in Iraq, as well as for US troops. The physical reality became more consequential than it had before.
These distinctions are, of course, all far more complex than language itself as mode of possibility, and its active domain, rhetoric, in its dependence on categorical thinking, can handle or help. But as the old saying goes: it's all we have. Language possibility, and rhetoric as full of choices, by which I mean that language/rhetoric can be used to strategize possibility, in order to sustain the hope, for instance, of not repeating mistake(s) of history again. The success would be hard to measure, no?--given that the means of measuring are also the mode. For problems such as this one, especially with its consequences for real people in real life, the critical perspective depends, I think, on being able to shift ones thoughts between past, present, and projections of future. To dwell on only tracing how the situation came to be is to make ones thought and analysis susceptible to the trap of blaming, a rather comfortable little place to be because it makes one feel right, thus justified. To recognize the path of development of a momentous event or crisis is interesting intellectually, too, but it also serves to distract attention from the current moment, when we need to be able to understand quickly what to do and how to be effective and responsive, both in word and in deed.
Thanks, all. And thanks to BKS for providing this forum.
Hi Chris +
Actually, I think we're in agreement about most things, not just that we can learn from Ginsberg. And I know the frustration you refer to trying to talk to someone who is totally closed to what you're saying--the example of the thoroughly indoctrinated ROTC student, say. We do have to try something else, and we have to try to understand how that student came to believe what he or she believes and thinks in order to deal with it, which brings us to the larger question that's been raised here of how language (in a broad sense) works to create the structures in which the student-example can ignore your (or Ginsberg's or anyone else's) pleas to understand that we are complicit in the killing of innocent people, that war is emphatially not the answer and must be stopped. We might not be able to convince said student, but we might well be able to work for larger changes that will make such attitudes less likely in the future... a function of education, as much as anything, as Carla Harryman and others have pointed out. What is the Bush administration doing to further degrade public education? Can we consider this part of their general strategy, part of a larger "war"? Maybe we should--I think a lot of Bush people do.
On Albright, I agree that if she were helping to call the shots (with Gore in the White House?) the invasion wouldn't have taken place. She probably would have supported the sanctions regime and containment as a better way of managing Saddam, Iraq and the region, continuing also the low-key but nevertheless effective destruction of Iraqi lives. This point still bothers me... the fact that we seem to want to be able to define "war" as something clear to us--bombing, invasions, shooting and killing. Does this help us feel that we can decide on a clear response? Easier to feel self-righteous? Good, not evil? Separate from "the real enemy"? I know that I've indulged in plenty of self-righteous anger as the bombs have fallen.... And it's something I have to check in myself continuously. On the other hand, we need *more* outrage, but for it to stick it has to be backed up by something else, something less reactive.
And the move to define "war" as primarily bombs etc. is especially interesting in that the Bush people use every chance they have to stress that this is a "new" kind of war that will go on for a very long time... we won't even know when it's over... it involves special forces, psy ops, high-tech weaponry, billions of dollars for the weaponization of space... billions of dollars. That Iraq is just a phase. What else is going on while the news is full of the shooting war? Don't forget the war on drugs (merged with that on terror) going on now in Columbia, to name *one* other nightmare (it's also an extension of the ongoing European war against indigineous peoples and culture in the Americas, but let's cut bait on this for now...).
We do have to choose our battles (as they say, nice war metaphor there, just slipped right out without a thought).
And I agree very much with: "For problems such as this one, especially with its consequences for real people in real life, the critical perspective depends, I think, on being able to shift ones thoughts between past, present, and projections of future." But I don't think anyone in this discussion is seriously suggesting *only* "tracing how the situation came to be" and thereby falling into "the trap of blaming, a rather comfortable little place [where] one feel right, thus justified." Though I do think that frustration among people who, like the people on this list, generally agree, at our apparent inability to stop the current warring in Iraq is leading some of us to redirect our frustration and anger toward one another. So for my part, I'll try to be less... snide.
I also agree that to spend too much time trying "to recognize the path of development of a momentous event or crisis is interesting intellectually, too, but it also serves to distract attention from the current moment, when we need to be able to understand quickly what to do and how to be effective and responsive, both in word and in deed."
So perhaps this discussion can move toward a more productive inquiry into what *can be done* to keep attention on the current moment ~without~ losing historical perspective and how to effectively respond.
(Anybody going Thoreau and not paying taxes this April, or know of folks who aren't? Just curious--no need to name names, but a timely issue, and folks are looking for other ways to resist...)
As for the "S&M fantasy"--you weren't meant to be personally implicated. As you note, we don't even know each other, so I couldn't squeeze you in, though the role of human rights commish is open. (Should I put a little winky smiley-face emoticon here...? Shit ... that was snide, wasn't it.. sorry...). But seriously (yet still in light of a joke--bad, dark, black, stupid, whatever, yet still a joke, or perhaps a half-assed Burroughsian or Pynchonesque or South-Parkish "routine"), I don't think it's out of line to choose a different mode of discourse to attempt to illuminate--or at least gesture at--a link between tough-guy talk (tough talk in general--not yours specifically, though "rate me" was provocative) and the kinds of unfathomably disturbed psyches that fuel the domination-mad & power-mad Bush administration (and also fueled Clinton's, even, though with a different style & cast of characters). S&M is a charged nexus of power, control, violence, desire, language, symbolism... but I don't know if the scene was really S&M, as the Persian slave boy is *not* consenting... OK... I'll stop now.... Apologies for the offense; not intended as a personal attack.
Love from the vortex,
Hum deee dum....
Well, I was gonna go get my scorecards and magic markers in order to systematically "rate" everyone's post according to their internalizing of the Master Narrative (think: megaphone sound, or movie announcer), but I can't get this Nirvana song outta my head, darn it, so I'll pass on the rating for now and just sit here and be disconcerted for a minute.
Wait. Ok, there.
I do agree with you on some levels--my intent on positing Irigaray was not to create an other in a realm in which there are already so many. My intention was to communicate; that is DO-ing something, although I broke a few nails DO-ing it (jk), but communicating about language and ALL its possibilites, including its exclusions and limitations (which are so often "embedded" in arenas other that our own and therefore destructive--which is one of the reasons we are struggling to re-orient language in the first place, hopefully). Sorry for the run-on. I do have a lot more to say--in some ways I feel like your "masculine rhetoric" is quite dismissive. Not talking just about gender, but almost with that opposite idea in mind--to be more encompassing. Ah well.
Henry, what are you doing in there?
Ralph, what are you doing out there?
I guess everyone's answer is: debating, with more and less politesse, what kind of poetry one should be writing. A fine topic...and a form of civil obedience, as long as the debate maintains a static communty. What would happen if all the poets on this list who live in New York suspended their debates for a day? Let's say, for the sake of argument, that day is tomorrow -- that there is no better time coming later for us to put our bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels -- that we were desperately needed to do more than debate, and do things in addition to writing. "An ad-hoc coalition of activists from over 35 New York City student, community, religious, and labor organizations will target the Carlyle Group, 56th Street and Fifth Avenue, on Monday, April 7 at 8 a.m. to protest the war on Iraq. Activists chose Carlyle as the target for a day of non-violent civil disobedience to draw attention to corporate profiteering from the war." Time for the debate society to beat its words into ploughshares, if only for a day.
I offended you and didn't mean to. I was unclear: the challenges implied by "masculinist rhetoric" and the idea of ratings (to see who is gaining or winning) was not to you. The choice of terms I made were from last minute afterthoughts about the impressions left by the drift of talk here. I apologize for not clarifying it more--probably it should not have gone into my post.
My response to your post is that I'm glad you brought up how troubling this and other debates are in terms of gender, language, and war. Please go on.
Instead of catching up with the discussion, I was with about 800 to 1000 very cold Detroiters (post ice storm last night) who took our banners from Tiger Stadium down Michigan Avenue, past rows of emptied buildings, very few spectators or other people on the street, and not enough media, to Cobo Hall. But it was still worthwhile, and I'll do it the next time and try bring more with me.
I'd like to think more about Ginsberg's example as a political poet--in a strong claim, the "most effective political poet America has produced"--and what it would mean to reinterpret his position in the present. My reading of Ginsberg generally does not align with the positivity of embodiment--the countercultural notion that the straights are repressed and the liberated are not, and so that's a politics. Because *that* position does not translate--I don't see many people taking off their clothes at art events to make a statement--a major portion of Ginsberg's own rhetoric is, more or less, dated. The multi-voicedness of the reading--breaking up the unitary, embodied voice--was a response to that. At the same time, the 60s in general were able to identify refusal of war with broad cultural transformation. On what terms could that be enacted today? Sex radicals against war, etc.?
Chris & all,
I've been rereading many of the posts above and feel that I've overreacted on a couple of points. I'm not trying to shut down dialogue, and think that some of my agitation has been due to what I've seen as moves which have threatened to shut it down, limit its scope. I make such moves myself--as has been noted, it's in the language and inscribed in (all of) our use. The question of gender as it relates to war and language is crucial and I too am glad it's been brought up. Apologies for any misreadings, willful or otherwise, and for any provocations meant in to further discussion that may have been taken otherwise.
The municipal poet
and the state poet
are arguing about who could take the federal poet.
While this is going on the federal poet
is pulling gold out of his nose.
(Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Brazil, 1902-1987)
no value at all
It doesn't light a halo
around your head
it lights up no
corner of your dark flesh
(not even the suffering
that lights rememberance
of a joy).
You suffer, a wounded
dog suffers, an insect
poisoned by DDT.
So your pain is greater
than the pain of that cat you saw
with its back broken by a stick,
is that it,
dragging itself yowling through the gutter
without even being able to die?
Justice is moral, injustice
is not. Pain
makes you coeval
with rats and roaches
They peer out at the sun
and deep down
in their disgusting
bodies in shit
want to be content.
(Ferreira Gullar, Brazil, b. 1930. Gullar was the president of one of the Brazilian communist parties. He spent the years 1971-1977 in exile in Buenos Aires.)
Thanks, Chris Daniels, for turning this back to poetry.
[i hope that it's ok for me to post these poems here, a space reserved for discussion - but the poems are political, after all... if there are objections, i'll post them from time to time]
jeez, sorry... i put the 1st version up, and it really sucks...
i'd just gotten back from the march in oakland, sunstruck, all fired up - shouted myself hoarse along with about 8,000 or so other east bay wierdos, punks, yuppies, rockers, ancient lefties, commies, rastafarians, mexican kids chanting in spanglish, Waitresses Against the War, couples with infants, a ragged marching band made up of what looked to be male and female surfers and bikers and highschool kids... ah, the bay area!
it was peaceful, no problems,the cops were cool
it's good to feel like a citizen again
the best sign was held by the guy who runs the oakland tool-lending library:
Stop Mad Sheep Disease
strangest booth at the speeches: The International Bolshevist Tendency
there was a marching gamelan orchestra carrying a huge gong - their sign: Bronze, Not Bombs
i got home, posted the first poem, dashed off the second, and instead of saving it for later so that i could fix it up, i must have posted it in my rush to go to the laundromat before it closed
well, here it is again, much improved - forgive the anti-climax...
no value at all
It doesn't light a halo
around your head it
doesn't light up any
corner of your dark flesh
(not even the suffering
that lights rememberance
of a joy).
You suffer, a wounded
dog suffers, an insect
poisoned by DDT.
So your sorrow's greater
than the sorrow of that cat you saw
with its back broken by a stick,
is that it,
dragging itself yowling through the gutter
without even being able to die?
Justice is moral, injustice
is not. Sorrow
makes you the same
as rats and roaches
that peer out at the sun
and deep down
in their disgusting
bodies in shit
want to be content.
(Ferreira Gullar, Brazil, b. 1930. Gullar was the president of one of the Brazilian communist parties. He spent the years 1971-1977 in exile in Buenos Aires.)
I'm wondering what y'all think of the many artists who are doing the sort of critique that Barrett is talking about above but within the context of 1) detourned posters that use imagery from the 40s and 50s (WWII era and Korea -- see the new Propaganda Remix project I just posted) and 2) the creators of alternative websites like http://whitehouse.org, or satirical sites like the Onion, that pretty much turns over everything coming out of the WH press office in real-time, without any of the cultural baggage -- the "elitism," the pieties regarding "tradition" -- associated with "poetry" (and I mean poetry that is not actually being read or written, but the category of "poetry" in cultural parlance, even among those who read it).
What do the poets have to offer that is not being offered by these sites, which, if flawed because the humor suggests a sort of fatalistic attitude toward political agency (or are simply juvenile), at least contributes greatly to a field of dissent that anyone, including the oft-noted ROTC student above, could wander and perhaps have his/her mind spun? Also, could the boldness of troubling the very legaility of creating an alternative White House web site somehow be inspiring and suggestive of more poignant forms of "hacktivism" -- the fake dow chem sites for example?
Does the discussion so far split between 1) the embedding of war in language; the way consent is manipulated; the possibilities and limits of dissent; the gender politics of a use of language; the "war" in language itself as a politics that alienates, disperses; the limits of language in relation to the physicality of events and suffering in general; as opposed to 2) the poetics that would result from one's relation to these questions; the kinds of poetry appropriate to war and to the specific situation we are in; the specific examples of poetry, from Ginsberg to the just-cited Brazilian poet, in relation to that which exceeds the scope of poetry, the war? It was surprising to me that raising the first question, the relation of war to manipulated language, and the idea of a counterpractice, was initially responded to as being a specific and exclusive claim to a poetic practice--one that is blind, in its own linguistic or aesthetic or political assumptions, to the unrepresentable reality of what it would address. The equal sign was seen as an illicit linking with authoritarian consequences; what we need is a slash or disconnect. Or a negation sign: "war ~ language."
I think there is a strong misreading here, which sees a focus on language as a claim for authorship and hence of authority, where authority is the first thing to be contested and precisely what authorship in the name of language masks. Another way to say this is that any form of authorship entails, in specific ways, both a relation to the language in which it is embedded and an authority. That is in once sense a possibility for the work--what can be disseminated or can have any kind of effect that does not come with some claim of authority (this even goes for anti-authorial, chance-generated practices)? At the same time, any such authority entails a negative effect, of alienating precisely those with whom communication is intended. The logical consequence of this debacle would be a poetry of witness, of standing outside a reality that cannot be easily bridged, and of indicating an ethical (non)relation to it. I take it that is what the Brazilian example does, and there is a certain genre of political poetry that is cast in that mold.
The "war = language" formulation takes another risk, which is to operate in and through one's embeddedness in the structures of language that are being manipulated for consent to the war. These structures are many, overlapping, multivoiced, indeterminate, but overall coerced into a kind of illicit unity that is the reality of force. In other words, it does not matter that Bush's many rationales for the war are faulty or incoherent or contradictory; he has the force to back them up. One aspect of language-centered writing is that it uses language in a way that is often contradictory; then how are we to distinguish the critical effect from a reinforcement? And how to build any kind of opposition to the real war, going on right now, in this manner.
An answer can only be given by an example, I think. Here, Ginsberg provides a good one: of writing *in situ*, embedded in language as he drives toward a college reading where he will perform as the beaded guru, acting out for the college crowd. There is much to be analyzed in that moment. One thing that could be noted is Ginsberg's use of the available signage along the road, or the headlines in local newspapers he sees when he gets into town, or what he hears on the radio. Language is "out there," yet its mode of signification *is* the war. Ginsberg wants to counteract that effect with an equally material practice, a countersignification.
I think there is a lot of current writing, even of the last two or three decades, that addresses this directly. I am thinking of Bruce Andrews's use of public language, which he turns back in a form of negation. I might also think of Roddrigo Toscano's multilinguaged works in a similar way.
But this is not all that must be considered in terms of the possibilities or limits of authorship. I was just reading student papers, and came across this sentence, from a student who was describing the authority of his English teacher: "Mr. Webb was a dictator who controlled his classroom like Saddam Hussein controls (controlled) Iraq." This student is quite intelligent, but on the fence or even pro-war when it comes to the present moment. But his stance is at the same time confusingly oriented around strong anti-authoritarian feelings, which are visible in his equation of Mr. Webb with Saddam Hussein. (This would be an example of "war = language," would it not?) My job is to get him to think otherwise, and I can't do it by being simply an alternative authority figure telling him what to think. How to approach this problem?
This paradigm has something to do with the possibilities and limits of working in and with the language in which we are embedded. It takes authorship to organize such a critique, while authority is immediately entailed. All the critical negation in the world cannot take away a built-in defect in communication here.
Solidarity is one answer: the building of a community. Perhaps, then, one answer is the discussion undertaken here itself: thinking through the embeddedness of language not from a position of single-authorship but of multivocal perspectives. Is there a politics here?
Of course language is more physical than we are allowing for: if you do think about this within ("within" being limiting) gender politics, the *disseminating* of language with an object of possibility seems powdery; I see all of the arguments spreading thin as Ginsberg rallies the college kids. That's past the point--the argument about direct action being oppositional to the discussion of war being embedded in language. ("the limits of language in relation to the physicality of events and suffering in general.") I think it does relate to the "feminine rhetoric" quite a lot in the sense that the basic argument is pertinent: women poets are women poets, they are not just poets without some applied political correctness; an undertaking of their poetics often leads to experimental writing, yes, breaking form *to break form* (i.e. traditional form, i.e. form as defined by poets of the male gender). But of course, no matter the course of choice for this experimentation, the idea's that language needs to be re-framed, not just re-structured, and well, that may or may not be happening (I'm still just worried that I only make 75% of the dollar, so). So can we disseminate as we re-form? Or does one come before the other? I do think websites like whitehouse.org are supposed to reach those that are quick to react to visuals, esp. familiar ones, and so you have the impressive if not offensive "propaganda posters." They're dealing with both sides of the spectrum--giving us examples of the present moment, I guess--in showing one poster with a little girl looking at a picture of her mother, a US Soldier, saying something along the lines of "I'm glad I wasn't aborted, so I can die just like my mommy did;" then there are the posters a bit closer to what women "are supposed to be reacting to," clutching the actual 1950's roles in order to make a point, and there you have protesters in pencil skirt-suits and the text (again, something along the lines of--I'm too lazy to go look at the actual site: "Lazy American!") "What's all the fuss ladies, go back to the kitchen!" So of course we're confused, society's confused, and my take is that the REAL place a woman writer exists right now as she posits a poetics, or a politics for herself--is still in the blood, and in the death, and in the birth--and in different cultures, this cycle of life is more or less valued. When writing to cause an effect, a rift in the system, I first examine in what context my language is coming from--then putting pen to paper is stating authority--I don't think that is so awful. The whitehouse.org site is certainly stating authority; they are also being informative, at the very bottom of things, be that information biased, but as we know, what isn't. But if we can't locate that authority--in a poem, in an editorial, we can't create our own and so forth. And so the past and the present do intermingle; not to be too Faulkner-esque, but I feel like I'm sitting backwards in a train moving forward, and well, I don't about "there is no language, there is only war" in relation to people who are actually dying and/or watching bombs fall, because I wish the context of our thinking were different. I talk about this being a religious war and I think it may be so--in that in death, authority goes to the women, b/c we *are* choosing to abort or not abort now that our babies grow up to be cowboys; is that what giving birth is/will be coming to? How propaganda is disseminated is so active it matters little what it even says, doesn't it? It's quantitative, esp. with everyone all confused as to what soldier goes where in the media game. But if I think in terms of the future--the far-flung future--poetry will outlast ("it keeps going, and going") the energizer bunny and the media, and I do believe that, and I do believe the authority will be located there as well, because others may then have the chance to *learn,* for good or bad, I suppose. Are we still learning? Should I still be working in the present moment? Obviously, but everything's so...get ready...circular! That doesn't mean we're just gonna regurgitate though, or that our arguments WILL turn into dust, but I want a physical language, and so. So equal sign can go; I think a slash would be good. //// Do I make any "sense?" I hope to wander around sense a little bit, and fuck it up.
The notion of wanting a "physical language" seems both new and old, to me. Eg., I read a post to the wom-po list yesterday by Gloria Frym, explaining that there is today in Oakland a Women's Wailing not only in protest to war, but to show affinity for many women in the middle east right now whose only vocal--physically vocal--recourse is the wailing that traditions both poetic and patriarchal will allow them. It's a very old way and poetic too if understood as persuasive and physical. I'm not sure where my wailing levels might be in a real way, but I know that there is something to it in terms of symbolics: why else would I even attempt to enter this kind of forum?--I'm pushed to point of wailing, albeit in some other form here. So there might be something to think about in all that re: poetics as persuasive and as physical and ancient.
It's not a phenomenon that altered the course of any war, however, at least not in the first, more pragmatic levels. I think, though, that my relief to seeing Chris Daniels' translated poetry above is related in that there is both immediacy and economy in such political poetry which for audience (to be persuaded) in turn taps into something deeper that is both rhetorical and available to all (in terms of gendering though differently for each, as well). There's a certain kind of gut-economy availed in the use of both body action and sound as potential (or "possibility for") action--rather than the more static, "circular," structure of the discourse of traditional debate, which is what we all in some ways find frustrating here, I think. That's also what I see as the molasses and brick gumming up the discourse of formal political debate (congress & etc.). Debate can't get away from itself as a formal means of persuasion--maybe--but poetry can--maybe? That seems really simplistic but who knows?--it also seems to be what makes the humor in an Onion move people. Very economical effect indeed when all it takes is the extreme contradiction of only one little pic of Bushie wearing combat fatigues poised for battle. Everyone knows that never happened--in fact it calls up the whole history of how it didn't happen, too. Nice.
In other words, it makes everyone think twice about the dire situation, which is what we want our uses of language to do. On the other hand, if I were that *hypothetical* rotc student and was hoping not to get killed in war, or if I had just gotten shot, I might not care too much about that pic and its humor afterall.
But then, back in the classroom, she might be rhetorically swayed by other economical yet analytical means I had not thought about until reading these posts and repeatedly questioning why she seems so stubbornly unavailable as a viable audience. Even if she's already been indoctrinated to war as action that the usual pedagogical methods or any other mode of language cannot dissuade, then certainly with a military mindset a taxonomical approach should work. Thus I had to get a little *circulars* myself and comb through my training to unearth this very handy means to promoting learning about propaganda and persuasion generally: Aristotle's modes of appeal (logos/ethos/pathos) although as false a categorization as any other known, certainly do give most students pause to listen and think. The modes do give folks something like a tool, as it were. But the modes are not poetry, in fact they were the answer to poetries perceived as dangerous. Alas, poor poetry!--what its been through just to say and do what it can. Alas, too for the real of today. Such is my wail.
I do think there's a point about the massive materiality of current propaganda--akin to the $300 million in advertising it took to elect Bush and the vast sums being poured into military hardware. The rhetoric of war becomes the ability to blow up the enemy's 2500 hypothetical tanks and still keep one's own (how many? I haven't seen that figure). If language is material in this sense, all that matters is how much of it is emitted. Numbers count. We need to get people out onto the streets. That certainly is something that poetry has not been much concerned with (except Ginsberg, again, after the "King of the May" events of 1965).
But then there is materiality as in: materially embodied condition. Ululating as an embodied sound when signification fails, though ululating does signify in context. Here we get back to the issue of embodiment in poetry: the basis of an expressivist poetics, that it comes from an embodied condition. Again, Ginsberg's poetics were first and foremost one of the body, and language could be signifying or a-signifying (as with Sanskrit syllables) and still be, contextually, effective.
My point in writing on Ginsberg and the 60s has been that Language poetics begins right there, with the dissociation of signification from embodiment. Why was that necessary or good? Because the insistence on embodied presence seemed to imply an authority in the poet, not in the poet's diagnosis of or response to the war. The analysis of the war that produced its rejection finally boils down to an embodied response, but this did not necessarily communicate an analysis. And we need now to communicate our analysis, not only register our rejection of the war.
In a cultural context, mourning may be accompanied by ululating, yes. But we are not *in* a context any more. We're between contexts, and there is an equal necessity to position our speech as well as to respond to what may be perceived--the war--from that position.
I, too, wonder if this makes sense in terms of feminist poetics--between immanence and culture, let's say. Irrigaray makes most sense as French, not as "woman," would be one way to put it. There is not "one" rejection of patriarchy, as either historical or cultural, is another.
Communicate our analysis, yes. The 60s idealized as a model of protest?--particularly fraught and questionable: first, the sixties protest era depended not on the peace/love mid-class college crowd (though that's what it's known for now) but on a long history of plodding but persistent and powerful agitation from African American civil rights planners. They did the set up, and that score is still not settled as I'm sure we all can agree.
And true, "women's lib" also surfaced in the 60s but it also had a long parturition. Nonetheless, many of the 60s participants and sympathizers were already or quickly rendered moot and often silent due to also being the "caregivers" of the (perceived as) more viable, thus more 'true' 'voices' of the times (excepting a very few, Angela Davis comes to mind and she is still very much a viable presence, I believe). And that's only a wee bit of gender critique on that period.
Although questionable on these counts, however, I still say thank goodness the events of that time period occured at all because at least it gave us (historically and overly generalizedly) *something* by way of models to go on. On the other hand the shortcomings of that cultural moment and its legacy are only too clear to the generation of new poets, as Behrle and others have made clear in the protestations of being appropriated into the larger, now understood to be, traditionalists of language and poetry schools. They need a little room to breathe, ya know?
What comes to mind right now in terms of a "history as by-the-way" more questions about poetry made viable as cultural critique formed *with an audience* (it has more audience now than ever before, but what's being done with that?). I guess that's partly what all this hullabaloo is about. I think we need to continue to work on that--with our students, as well as to stay tuned to the other rhetorical domains that impact on physical realities and politics. And to give folks some room to breathe so they can create their own ways of being in the poetic tradition (or not)!
Thanks, all, for listening. Thanks, "Mr. Arras," for the forum.
June 19, 1916--
We have developed the plasticity of the word to a point which can hardly be surpassed. This result was achieved at the price of the logically constructed, rational sentence, and therefore, also, by renouncing the document (which is only possible by means of a time-robbing grouping of sentences in a logically ordered syntax). We were assisted in our efforts by the special circumstances of our age, which does not allow a real talent either to rest or ripen, forcing it to a premature test of its capacities, as well as by the emphatic elan of our group, whose members sought to surpass each other by an even greater intensification and accentuation of their platform. People may smile, if they want to; language will thank us for our zeal, even if there should not be any directly visible results. We have charged the word with forces and energies which made it possible for us to rediscover the evangelical concept of the "word" (logos) as a magical complex of images . . .
November 21, 1916--
Note about the a criticism of individualism: The accentuated "I" has constant interests, whether they be greedy, dictatorial, vain or lazy. It always follows appetites, so long as it does not become absorbed in society. Whoever renounces his interests, renounces his "I." The "I" and the interests are identical. Therefore, the individualistic-egoistic ideal of the Renaissance ripened to the general union of the mechanized appetites which we now see before us, bleeding and disintegrating.
Yes, Virginia, there is history. Perhaps one remembers Williams's formulation, from slightly later than Hugo Ball (and influenced, in the main, by dada), of the "traditionalists of plagiarism"--which he opposed to the "new." But that "new" was ever and only historical, which is what made what was "new" about it. We are in a situation where creative work always needs to return to the point where everything that has gone before is merely citational, at the same time that it acknowledges the stunning lack of historical knowledge in the culture at present. Bush's incoherent rationales for the war are argued precisely in relation to the general lack of historical knowledge. It is not possible for writers to be outside this lack of history as a historical fact. This relation, between history and the poetics of the "new," is something that I've been exploring in both poetry and poetics--see, for instance, *Bad History* and the recent issue of *Qui Parle* on the problem of "New Meaning." *Bad History* is an historical work that deals with the historicity of the present. Traditionalists, from this perspective, are precisely those who return to lyrical poetics in denial of any historicity. Breaking the mold means breaking out of the confines of aesthetic strategies that prevent a response to the present, and that is always an historical question. Insofar as they comprehend this double bind of history, language-centered poetries (and many others foregrounding the constructedness of other, mixed, or hybrid media, as Brian Kim Stefans notes--see, for instance, Tom Raworth's collage works on this site) are prime movers of historical critique and aesthetic innovation.
Um... forgive me but I can't resist: by "Yes, Virginia..." you mean this Virginia, right?
"I am reading Henry James... and feel myself entombed in a block of smooth amber."
And as for history, it's been like that ever since?
We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:
I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no History. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a History?
Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, Virginia, there is a History. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no History! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in History! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch History, but even if you did not see History coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees History, but that is no sign that there is no History. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No History! Thank God! He lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
Two poems just received on the war, one by Kit Robinson and one by Rae Armantrout.
April Fool’s Day
As we thumb through the world news pages
We feel like we're back in the middle ages
Some Christian soldiers with God on their side
Now have the whole world terrified
Our young men and women in uniform
Was it for this that they were born?
They are beautiful strong and brave
They should be at work or in school not trying to save
The reputations of a few old men
Whose arrogance goes back to when
The federal government took Indian lands away
And put the people on reservations to live out their days
The Indians are a great warrior race
And many still serve in the military today
But once again they have been betrayed
As the U.S. Armed Forces penetrate
The sovereign nation of Iraq
In an unprecedented, unprovoked attack
“The outcome is certain,” the President said
I wonder what put that in his head
No outcome is certain, this we know
Except that the ranks of Al Quaeda will grow
With the pain and suffering of ancient Bagdad
Loss is the lifeblood of jihad
While generals scratch their heads and think
In Basra there’s no fresh water to drink
“We didn’t plan in our war-game drills
for irregular enemies,” General Wallace spills
We thought we’d be welcomed with open arms
As liberators removing the people from harm’s
Way when in fact since 12 years ago
They’ve mourned their war dead and suffered under embargo
Meanwhile where are the WMD’s we went to war about?
We know they exist without a doubt
Why? Because Saddam made ‘em
With stuff he got from Rummy and Reagan
Bush Younger thought he could get carte blanche
From the UN Security Council to launch
An all out attack but this miscalculation
Has led to America’s isolation
Having squandered the whole world’s sympathy
After 9-11 we are now seen on TV
From Kamchatka to Madagascar
As a dangerously out-of-control aggressor
So much for diplomacy, Mr. Powell
Should throw in the proverbial towel
While he still has a shred of credibility
Meanwhile if we love life and liberty
There is something each of us must do
Sooner or later you’ll say so too
War may be short, occupation, long
And bitter and bloody and totally wrong
As we see all this happening before our eyes
It is not too early to organize
To bring our young men and women back
U.S.A. out of Iraq!
We love our cat
for her self
regard is assiduous
for she sits in the small
patch of sun on our rug
and licks her claws
from all angles
and it is far
to "balanced reporting"
though, of course,
it is also
the very same thing.
(thanks to the authors for their permission to post)
Remembering one of the first lessons we learn in the study of literature: identify the conflict. Is it Man (sic) vs. Nature ... Man vs. Man ... or Man vs. Himself? Our stories are about war.
Reading Gloria Steinam again. She calls herself a fat woman who happens to be skinny right now. When we experience peace, are we a warring culture in between wars?
I am looking for poems and works about peace (please email firstname.lastname@example.org). Not anti-war poems. My hope is that if we can understand how we feel and think about peace, the human race might be a little closer to creating it.
Thanks so much for your essay, Barrett. And thanks to all who have discusssed it.
Just want to note that this discussion seems to have taken itself up elsewhere on Circulars, in case this has gone unnoticed, in the recent Robert Kocik post (complete w/ Hugo Ball, even).
Kocik's "The Surgeons General admits a great deal is known about sickness while very little is known about health."... puts me in the mind of Sharon Harris's suggestion that we might gain more--or at least something new (even if only new to us, or some of us) from studying "peace" rather than freaking out in feedback loops on "war."
Again, re: Harris and a few other previous comments & questions on how "language" relates to "*peace*" (hopefully the two are not, as someone like anarcho-neoprimativist John Zerzan argues, mutually exclusive), it seems good idea to turn slightly, for a time at least, to discussion of how language structures and relates to useful idealized notions of what the "best of all possible worlds" might be (presumably *peace*, though itself an incredibly slippery word & concept... and can we do so without falling into the countless potholes on Utopia Parkway?).
If we accept, if only for the sake of mutual exploration of the issue (*not* "just for the sake of argument"--that being a rather warlike locution, methinks, assuming 2 or more "sides" duking it out for "victory"), that War=Language, then where does that leave "peace"? What does peace = ?
So--how do we *fight* for peace? Does it require fighting war (in the several senses that might be taken), and doing so by "whatever means necessary?" Any militants in the house (I'm guessing not)? Comfily invested liberals? At this point, many feel, I think, that the "peaceful protests" we've seen around the world have not worked... this discourages many to point of inaction, while it might set others off in ever-more aggressive tactics of direct action, subversion and sabotage (which, increasingly, threatens to get one "disappeared" as a "terrorist" or "material supporter" if not now then maybe a few years from now...).
Barrett Watten asks above "is there a politics here?" in the context of "solidarity" & "community." It seems to me that there's maybe a partial politics or a jalopy-hybrid... but that it's hard for us to feel like there's a real opportunity at this point for effective solidarity (except in limited senses withn the various ghettoes of dissent, where the approx. 25% of America that does not support the war talks to itself, according to most current polls & the spin put on them by the mainstream media). Perhaps a more unified (yet not homogenized) peace front needs "the vision thing"--it's tough to be anti- all the time, and it's tough to attract new people to the... uh, *cause*, without a practical "vision." (This language is hard to use--big marches creep me out no matter what they're for or against). Unfortunately for us and most of the rest of the world, the marketeers in the White House have lots of "vision" and, more importantly, the bandwith to cram their vision into the remotest crannies of all our brains continuously... how to counter *their* "peace" and "freedom" and all that noxious doublespeak...?
Turning to Mr. Arras, one good, though limited, way (there have to be many) is certainly satire, parody, detournement... but as has been noted, these may be less effective in our particular historical moment than ever before. You're just as likely to see competent "avant-garde" or "subversive" techniques in mainstream advertising as you are on an intelligent political site. This mode of critique is also primarily negative, in that it points out what's wrong, rarely positive beyond implying that if things weren't like they are they might be better (but they'd probably be worse). Our spectacular economy seems to have neutralized a lot of previously subversive methods. Plus, you might offend someone "on your side" just as easily as you might spin the mind of the mythical ROTC student who happens upon your detournment or parody or what have you.... (as happened, for example, with the altered WWII posters up elsewhere on Circulars).
Forgive me for lurching away from a cleaner concentration on poetry (and thanks for the poetry added to the mix--the Kit Robinson & Rae Armantrout most recently). But the posited "language=war" equation that started this all off sort of bites off... pretty much everything.
What did that Jim Behrle say way back when? ... "What we *must* do is various, fleeting, evolving, and impossible to adorably formulate"? -- that sounds like *life*, war & peace included (tho I must add, I find it a pretty sweet little formulation in & of itself).
And having now successfully defeated myself in argument, I claim victory and retire to my garden.
My snowed-under garden.
Hi David et al...
I was thinking, when asking what relationship these parody/satire sites had to do with "poetry" and the present argument, would be the suggestion that poems, through form and whatever elements of persuasion in them, would offer a countering "vision" to that put forward by the Bush speech-writing team.
I guess the oft-noted ability of a poem to reconcile opposites -- is it Coleridge who said that genius is the ability to hold two perfectly opposite thoughts in the head at the same time -- is what I think would make it of use in such a time when negativity and positive vision must somehow be provided simultaneously, useful in the heat of struggle and worthy of contemplating in repose (if that formulation isn't too neat).
Think of how often names like Churchill and, in our circles, Auden have been raised in public discussion recently. Is there a useful rhetoric -- in the wake of punk rock, the Onion, hip-hop, Fox News, etc., all the (in their way) forms of language that suggest a violence and an impatience with "rhetoric" -- a way of articulating these sorts of aspirations in ways that seem (scuse the term) "sexy," robust yet uncomplicated, non-reductive yet palpable to the many -- ambiguous, yet inspiring the challenge to figure it out?
I'm for the carnival model of "dissent," which is what I think the site aims to express -- yes, clearly someone didn't like the posters, but I don't think I'd be interested in sanding away the edges for the sake of a pragmatic, temporarly populism, since after all this is just the beginning. I certainly don't want to offend anyone -- I didn't make the posters myself, but they struck me as partaking in a phenomenon that is gaining some momentum.
Why use these old-timey images -- is it a backlash against all the WWII films by Spielberg/Hanks, etc. that were coming out starting 5 or so years ago? Isn't it curious that , after several years of "hard-hitting" Vietnam films, we should finally start cheering ourselves up with WWII movies (and what happened to Korea)? I think the poster makers picked up on this apparent bridge to the fifties that the nineties was trying to create (Todd Haynes got it a different way; we get it through the O'Hara etc. fetish.)
We can talk all we want here, I'm quite sure that whatever cultural forrms dissent takes will not be predicted by us. We can just hope we notice in time to participate.
Not to dissuade us from talking, just that we should keep our eyes peeled...
the like-minded levitate
to spooky quarters
betwixt furnaces. coal
grows like gauze.
what abuts this frequency
can hold out forever
like victims of the
that's going 'round.
we fetch the paper,
a rude endeavor,
and are stoked thusly.
I never met a grizzly
crime scene I didn't
deserve for keeping
quiet, you'll kiss the
homely girl you asked out.
encircle a once-fair city.
heat makes an impression.
based on options, it's
best to stay blank.
footholds built for failures.
whence balance becomes whine
certificates get waxed.
cruise in an awe some
might dub marvelous once
deadlines are welcome.
it took a while to notice
the opposition, hair in
cornrows. thanks all
for dismissing the precious
instantly, without service.
online, separated by buttons
we might jump the hex.
who withers oughta pay
and leave a terrible tip.
kids and I worry over
your offering past reason.
what officials call a win
feels like a grave blooming.
it's their birthday, rubbed
orange, preparing to spill
across some sour unmade
beds. call someone's father.
The posters, I would assume, use WWII images because they refer to the "greatest generation," the one identified with the equivalences "getting rid of Hitler" = "getting rid of Saddam," the "allies (many) = the "allies (US and UK)," and the "Axis powers" = "the axis of evil." The duality here is indeed a characterization of the attempt by political forces to obscure the nature of the present war by appealing to earlier ones where consent was greater, as must be obvious. It also becomes a condition we are in, of a continuous duality in that there are many forms of social participation that everyone engages in, therefore consents to, even they may wish otherwise to withhold consent. I am thinking of Michael Douglas at the end of *Falling Down*--the white man on a rampage, trying to get things right once and for all--when he is told, by the cops who have finally cornered him, "You thought you were the good guy, but you're really the bad guy." Michael Douglas's character wants to be in two ethical states simultaneously; he is driven by the logic of this contradiction. Is there an analogy here to Keat's "negative capability"--a criticism of Coleridge, who supposedly didn't have it (and therefore had to foreclose on conflict prematurely), an eerie overlay of something that is good for poetry (being in simultaneously conflicted states) and bad for everyone else (the dual consciousness that we see everywhere in the war--that "we are a peaceful nation" as we blow more people up)? How poetry (and other forms of art) figures out how to deal with the difference is, will be, significant.
Two powerful poems by Jim Behrle above, a real classical cut to them, no cuteness present, their language thoroughly adhesive to their (gasp!) Personal occasions, their meanings pushed tautly out by the intent of *difficult thinking*, pushed out so intensely that what ends up as the vestment of the form (which is the music of the form) is a (gasp again!) Feeling that feels as if it couldn't have been otherwise. I don't know Jim's poetry very well yet, but these two would certainly be examples of what Zukofsky meant by sincerity. The poem as thoughtform, as *need* demanding to make itself manifest.
Forgive me for that flight of enthusiasms. But compare Behrle's poems to the two by Robinson and Armentrout sent in by Barrett. Are these examples of the ideology-dismantling poetry he proposes we need? They are not bad, really, but they aren't very compelling, and they certainly aren't "challenging": Robinson's is a less able and interesting version of Calvin Trillin doggerel; Armantrout's is an example, precisely, of preciosity: a quaint example of "quietude" with a cute twist of closure that proposes something fairly cliched about the bias of the mainstream media.
I thought Perelman's poem in the Philadelphia Inquirer (?) and here at Circulars was very good. I'm sure Barrett has written some interesting ones. But these? One wonders: Are they really instances of the kind of poetry Bernstein, Watten, and Silliman advocate as that demanded by the times? What do these really "do" better than, say, a "political poem" by Katha Pollitt or W.S. Merwin, or whomever.
If this is what we mean by "taking the mechanized hardware of the language of war apart," [sic] I'll take Neruda any day.
I'm interested in the concept of "antinomy" in the psycho-logic of paranoia and responses to the war. In both, there's a misestimation of the object as both confirming and denying the self, simultaneously. I suppose the parodic effect of the posters Brian is discussing works that way, particularly because they are "emptied out" of the pernicious logic that contains such dualisms in the real event. I'm speaking of formulations such as "we are a peaceful nation" (we feel secure) and "we'll bomb the hell out of them" (we are unstable and aggressive). Both are true simultaneously in their reinforcements of participation in the war. We see this also in logics of the sublime--the newspaper reporter quoted above both tries to capture the destructive force of the bombing as a rhetoric, and is immediately reduced by it. This is where the formal intervention of poetry begins to get interesting--in the larger logic and rhetoric in which it operates, in calling out unstated assumptions. This is not mere lyricism but an analysis of being in language even as it is deformed in the here and now. There is a real necessity for poetry in modes that take and re-think, re-work the current deformations of language and thought we are in.
I suppose I shouldn't respond to a post about my poem, but... I'll just say that I wouldn't make a big claim for it myself as "the kind of poetry we need now." And it isn't especially characteristic of my writing. It's an "occasional" poem done with an op-ed page in mind. Now I'm sorry I allowed it to be placed in the midst of what is apparently an argument where it is bound to be used as an example (if not a hockey puck). Oh well.
Following Rae's caveat, there are interesting and particular things to be said about her poem as an "op-ed" piece, which I take Kit's to be also. These are time-valued, situated polemics. They are, as well, historical in ways that other kinds of lyric aren't. That is, they refer to and reflect on the historical moment. That is a value, to be explored alongside formal and aesthetic questions. And it may also be noted that history enters into literature in various ways. There are quick, immediate responses and long-term negotiations. *Bad History* was begun a year after the Gulf War and written over the next five or so years. Kit's poem, particularly, has the kind of hollowed-out feeling that goes with so much media language, but turned in a differing political direction. Rae's expores the grotesqueness of contemporary ideology--the complacency with which everyday life persists in the face of blatant distortion, a.k.a. "balanced reporting." The reason to post the two poems, finally, was to encourage political intervention in contemporary writing, and to invite more of the same.
Will Post-War = Language?
All night waking to the sound
of light rain falling softly
through the leaves in the quiet
valley below the window
and to Paula lying here
asleep beside me and to
the murmur beside the bed
of the dogs' snoring like small
waves coming ashore I
am amazed at the fortune
of this moment in the whole
of the dark this unspoken
favor while it is with us
this breathing peace and then I
think of the frauds in office
at this instant devising
their massacres in my name
what part of me could they have
come from were they made of my
loathing itself and dredged from
the bitter depths of my shame
--W. S. Merwin
Trying to Write a Poem Against the War
My daughter, who’s as beautiful as the day,
hates politics: Face it, Ma,
they don’t care what you think! All
passion, like Achilles,
she stalks off to her room,
to confide in her purple guitar and await
life’s embassies. She’s right,
of course: bombs will be hurled
at ordinary streets
and leaders look grave for the cameras,
and what good are more poems against war
the real subject of which
so often seems to be the poet’s superior
moral sensitivities? I could
be mailing myself to the moon
or marrying a palm tree,
and yet what can we do
but offer what we have?
and so I spend
this cold gray glittering morning
trying to write a poem against war
that perhaps may please my daughter
who hates politics
and does not care much for poetry, either.
-- Katha Pollitt
I'm sick of the name dropping -- "what Zukofsky meant by sincerity"!? Sincere about what? You seem to be reading sincerity into the formal concerns, with no idea of the content -- yeah, based on what you write, I'd take Neruda anyday, too -- but what did Neruda write?
Hey BW --
I confess that "Kit's poem, particularly, has the kind of hollowed-out feeling that goes with so much media language" doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement -- not sure why you would connect it with media language at all, actually, as some of it seems to figure people like "Powell" as types in a morality play rather than media events.
My tendency is to agree with Kent that it's doggerel of sorts, though that's not necessarily pejorative. It seems to me that Kit's trying to do a Mackie Messer (Brechtian) thing and put some of the most banal (or simply uncomplicated) of lefty truths into rhyming quatrains, but excluding any kind of real (read "absorptive") wit from them, so as to keep the reader outside, observant. (Brecht, if I remember correctly, put the Communist Manifesto to verse.)
But I confess that, were this to be an accurate description of the "method" here, it seems a condescending approach, since were the poem aimed at someone not as inundated with the same political convictions (if that's the right term) as we are, then it would have to have some more charismatic charm to it to "win" over someone coming from potentially oppositional viewpoints -- lack of affect has never been a particularly successful, uh, affect in politics or "the media" -- just ask Gore.
Were the poem to be "aimed" at us -- and that's the only perspective I can interpret with any certainty, being a member of this "us" -- I find a poem that I might not want to finish -- the rhymes seem a little self-satisfied to me ("made 'em / Reagan"?).
I don't know why I suddenly decided to write literary criticism this afternoon, but I confess that the wind has been taken out of my sails a bit by the most recent "news" from Iraq. Not sure what the site is for, what the next stage is, etc., so might as well think about poems.
Speaking of poems with history in them -- and BW's phrase "other kinds of lyric," which is so ambiguous but rings with a certain disapproving tone, as if a lyric could ever ignore the fact of its place in history (remember Adorno on the lyric, that Baudelaire could be read more politically than much "people's" verse) the collected poems of Robert Lowell is about to be published, and I'm wondering what issue, if any, can be taken up with his use of history in his book History, which strikes me upon rereading (I'm reviewing it for PW) as an admirable piece of work.
We might not like the personalities in there (or the personalities of Lowell's friends, who are in there), but the scope is huge, the vision bold (if a little too Christian and moral), etc., and the technique (imagery, meter) formally challenging, as Browning-like as anyone could be in 1960, but also impersonal, in counter to the intimacy with which he voices his personages. Is the Lowell lyric part of the "other lyrics"?
Not asking lightly -- Ashbery and ludic poststructural "politics" replaced the foregrounded "transparent" politics of Ginsberg and Lowell around 1970 (with noticable exceptions in Rich, etc.); seems like some of us here are regretting this course of events, or questioning the once deemed inevitability of this development.
Well, Adorno was explicit in his condemnation of lyric verse for other purposes, i.e., propaganda or explicit political reference. In one post above, I mentioned Creeley's interview from the 60s complaining, about the time of the Berkeley poetry conference, of political verse (after the Kennedy assassination, but in the VN period) as the kind of offense that WCW meant when he spoke of the government of words. That judgment certainly has its own historical weight, but it also works to obliterate a significant countertradition of left aesthetics, either continental or American, that includes history and polemic.
Brecht is a good example of what Kit is trying to do, as is Langston Hughes. Many of the latter's suppressed (and now recovered) 30s poems have the kind of empty feeling that goes, I think, with the anti-absorptiveness of the alienation effect. This is, in any event, an aesthetic possibility that Kit has been exploring throughout his career--of a kind of anti-lyrical literalism that, in different ways, breaks the frame of the Adornean lyric, even as he has written a great deal in *that* mode, very effectively. The work has not been acknowledged for its particular contribution and stylistic innovation--partly because Kit was never averse to poking at the lyric's boundary in favor of what it is, in Adornean terms, supposed to criticize, just by doing what it does--the reified lifeworld. I.e., Kit's aesthetic lets the reified lifeworld into his poem, in order to, as Zukofsky so aptly put it, "think with the things as they exist."
Adorno's formulation, while a critical success in helping specify what makes the modernist lyric what it is, really does not account for enough differences of lyric practice. It works best for the "symbolist" tradition that leads through modernism; it cannot account for the "bleed into history." Brecht's is the much greater, and more significant, aesthetic--and he frequently trades on doggerel in his agitational mode. I noticed, along these lines, a recent Creeley poem circulating that uses a kind of "busted up blues" to make an antiwar point. There is a wide range of similar effects out there, and there ought to be a way of critiquing them that doesn't just add up to the lyric.
I don't think there is the kind of succession you mention--Ginsberg transparent, Ashbery opaque. The evidence is that Ginsberg was dealing with the opacity of language in considerable depth (and wondered why he didn't write more like Ashbery, in fact; see *Indian Journals*), and there is a long history of ludic abstraction's involvement with history, as in Stein in the 1930s, when she became undeniably popular.
Back to Kit's poem: since I didn't post it as a target or a hockey puck, I didn't feel an immediate need to "defend" it. I was interested in it, and wanted to put it out, since it was indeed timely. What I like about it, a great deal, is precisely what is irritating about it as a "so-called work of art." It is, in fact, a straightforward account, in ironically ramped-down versification, of a series of positional statements, which, put together, claim the self-evidence of a politics. Obviously, most of the media is working to fragment and destroy the coherence of such politics. That is why I like to see them all together, in the same place, with their imaginary tongues stuck out. They are unabashed in their presentation of opinion; they are convinced in their agitation. This is not about being "deep" in any way, but cheeky and flaunting. I should also mention an interest in an eminem-like enjambment of rhyme, as well as a Michael Franti-like use of left rhetoric in a funked sound environment, as possible influences.
On the current situation in the war, a.k.a. "victory," I received the following link and found it sobering:
I've decided to post the Robinson and Armantrout poems on the main site since, after all, poems live and die by their readers, and I don't see any point in us knocking around behind the scenes, as it were, about their respective qualities -- again, not to discourage this kind of thinking, but I think the poems should be read, out there, beforehand.
Barrett had written to me days ago suggesting I do this, so I'm assuming that this is permission of sorts from the poets themselves.
I'm not sure that Jim Behrle's poems were comments on this thread -- "the like-minded levitate / to spooky quarters" strikes me as an indictment of sorts, but of the Rummy crowd or ourselves is unclear -- so they'll stay here for now unless I hear from Jim saying he thinks they belong on the main page, which I'm happy to do.
I agree with Rae that poems should not be treated like "hockey pucks," nor for that matter should individuals or their works, which are so often reduced to mere tags. Foucault talked of certain writers, like Freud and Marx, as being creators of discourses, thus we know what "Freudian" means, roughly, but it seems unfair to use these types of terms in the context of _evaluating_ the body of work -- one doesn't say that Freud was a bad thinker because he was "Freudian," one describes what "Freudian" thinking is and then says it's bad, or good.
Likewise for Silliman, Zukofsky, Neruda -- that's the essence of discussion, thinking _into_ something without abuse of the vulnerability it has for being _partly_ known. Everything has to be reinvented prior to its sojourn under the microscope, and I have no taste for condemnation of someone's creative work. Why bring more unahappiness and sense of helplessness into the world?
Anyway, I'd like to "close this thread" and have it migrate to the Robinson / Armantrout piece. This thread is getting too huge, it takes forever to download. The page can be found here:
I agree with Brian that the thread is unwieldy and had thought of suggesting a "war and language" discussion site where it might be continued--but let's move over to Kit and Rae's poems to continue this discussion. I have just received two poems from Lyn Hejinian and would like to bring them in to the discussion with her permission. I also had some comments on the Merwin and Pollitt poems as species of the genre "lyricism" and will make them there.
In the less than two weeks of discussion on this thread, the political landscape has indeed changed. Nothing has changed in terms of my opposition to this dirty (highly efficient) war. But there may be a change in terms of the tolerance for dissent. An article in the NYT today ominously labeled San Francisco the "den of dissent" and was full of so-called radicals recanting their views. If they don't do so, and continue their interventions, can we expect a different attitude toward noncompliance? Another round of the Palmer Raids? Vigilance.
I will see you next door. Thanks to all for engaging in this discussion.
Your are not the only one.
Watten's essay is excellent, incisive, with necessary urgency. Quite a few of the responses have seemed somewhat beside the point to me, uncertain in partial disagreement. My feeling is that many readers are unsure how to respond to a critique of war-maker's language that is so solidly in a tradition of clear thinking = speech, with appropriate modifications which take into account the specific contemporary situation. An idea that has been so central to so much experimental poetry -- that transparency of language is an illusion serving the interests of capitalism in reproducing ideologies -- is side-stepped if not contradicted in Watten"s essay, which has much in common with Orwell's "Politcs and the English Language" in valuing clarity. A readeer who responded a while back to Jean Houlihan"s slamming of experimental poetry (my choice of an unsatisfactory general term) as meaningless, said in frustration (Houlihan was outrageous) that there was already too much sense and meaning, that meaning helped bring about the Gulf War. I have some idea what he meant, and I don't discount the importance of that perspective; what I want to point out is that this view tends to equate transparent language, too-recognizalbe meaning, with language disconnected from referents, or positing nonexistent referents, language which uses euphemism to deny realities. I think there is an important difference. In the latter case, the recognizable phrases easily digested, the circular or otherwise falsely infallible logic, cannot so effectively further the bombs if the US population sees through this language with the help of contradicting information. That words have been intimately tied to the enabling of the bombs is incontrovertible. However, a radically different discourse, one which Bush could not have used in the service of making war, is not, for that reason, useful in disabling the utility of the discourse of power. That discourse, I believe, has to be directly met in order to be countered. It seems to me that Barrett's essay says, or implies, something similar. The means which he believes will be effective could be construed as "traditional" by those whose poetics involve a breaking up of conventional discourse, or an investigation of discourse which takes it apart to examine its working. Because his ideas seem at least proximate to traditional response to the obfuscation of meaning in discourses of power. What I hear is an urgent and powerful insistence that a direct response to lies and misinformation ( I mean direct in the sense of finding ways to demonstrate and publicize the existence of the lies, the existence of contrary and contradictory information) is right now necessary, however such a response might be configured in the politics of poetics. I' m not trying to warp his thought in my ideas' direction so that I may welcome Barret to "my side" (of course my saying this does betray a qualm that I may in fact be somewhat guilty of this). My own ideas about discourse have been ambivalent to say the least since the days I pored over "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourses of the Human Sciences." I am excited and made more hopeful by Barrett's essay, regardless of the pertinence of these remarks.
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Ethics is not necessarily the handmaiden of theology.
Note the new asterisks whenever we reference favoriteNumber, except for that new line right before the return.
Our next line looks familiar, except it starts with an asterisk. Again, we're using the star operator, and noting that this variable we're working with is a pointer. If we didn't, the computer would try to put the results of the right hand side of this statement (which evaluates to 6) into the pointer, overriding the value we need in the pointer, which is an address. This way, the computer knows to put the data not in the pointer, but into the place the pointer points to, which is in the Heap. So after this line, our int is living happily in the Heap, storing a value of 6, and our pointer tells us where that data is living.
When a variable is finished with it's work, it does not go into retirement, and it is never mentioned again. Variables simply cease to exist, and the thirty-two bits of data that they held is released, so that some other variable may later use them.
Inside each stack frame is a slew of useful information. It tells the computer what code is currently executing, where to go next, where to go in the case a return statement is found, and a whole lot of other things that are incredible useful to the computer, but not very useful to you most of the time. One of the things that is useful to you is the part of the frame that keeps track of all the variables you're using. So the first place for a variable to live is on the Stack. This is a very nice place to live, in that all the creation and destruction of space is handled for you as Stack Frames are created and destroyed. You seldom have to worry about making space for the variables on the stack. The only problem is that the variables here only live as long as the stack frame does, which is to say the length of the function those variables are declared in. This is often a fine situation, but when you need to store information for longer than a single function, you are instantly out of luck.
Earlier I mentioned that variables can live in two different places. We're going to examine these two places one at a time, and we're going to start on the more familiar ground, which is called the Stack. Understanding the stack helps us understand the way programs run, and also helps us understand scope a little better.