The following essay was first published by Pacific Coast Review (2004), then in an updated and lengthier version by the Modern Review, which kindly paid a $150 honorarium. Over a period of no less than five years, I attempted in vain to get the essay published in just one of the many, many academic literary journals based at and supported by an American university or college and usually the National Endowment for the Arts. Optimistically, I believed at least one sufficiently open-minded English professor/editor in the country had to exist. Apparently, I was wrong. Well, perhaps not, for I'd failed to submit the article to the Endicott Review, whose faculty editor, Dan Sklar, proved unusually open.
The Cold Passion for Truth Hunts in No Pack1
Democracy and Literature: the Case for Parrhesiastic2 Poetry, Writing, and Art3
The idea that there is a conflict between free speech and the academic community fundamentally misunderstands both the goals of higher education and the nature and role of free speech.
Commitment does not exist as an abstraction; it exists in action. This is what it is about: Everything we do is either functioning within the system as it exists, or challenging the system. It is as simple as that. So when one examines literature, or when one creates literature, one is either following an established order and functioning within it, or one is bucking that order, challenging it, questioning it. […] The question which naturally arises in some minds is: “What is the relationship between the writers who function within the system and the writers who challenge the system?” […] There is almost no dialogue at all, no communication at all—with negligible exceptions—between these two groups of writers.
—Dennis Brutus, “Literature and Commitment in South Africa”
This essay has been in a continual state of expansion over the past five or six years, thanks to new data and input mostly from “established order” partisans. In an earlier, much shorter version, it was published (2004) by a small, non-academic literary journal, Pacific Coast Review. However, “established order” proponents, in my humble opinion, need to be exposed to it, which is why I continued in vain, searching for that very rare academic literary journal believing the literary agora should be open to all ideas, not simply to those originating from the “established order.”
My ambition has been, in the words of the South African poet Dennis Brutus, to “dialogue” with that order. In general, the essay is a plea for poets (and other writers and artists) to seek inspiration from purposeful criticism of that order, as opposed to inspiration from mere “exulted indolence.” Vibrant criticism is, after all, the cornerstone of a thriving democracy. The essay constitutes a plea for at least some poets (and other writers and artists) to behave differently by manifesting the courage to “go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways” (Emerson) and to let their lives “be a counterfriction to stop the machine” (Thoreau), as opposed to merely assuming academic and/or literary career positions and thus having their lives serve rather as lubricants to keep the machine rolling. It is an appeal for experimentation with the idea of integrating parrhesia (i.e., criticism that risks) into verse and prose. It does not argue that all poems and other writing and art must be parrhesiastic in nature, nor does it argue that parrhesiastic works are necessarily better than those created from “exulted indolence,” though one might evidently conclude that such works would likely be more beneficial to the de jura democracy, while less to the de facto oligarchy.
Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka underscored that “criticism, like charity, starts at home.” In that light, parrhesiastic poets and writers ought to consider, for example, creating texts critical of the intellectually-incestuous literary “established order” (i.e., Academic/Literary Industrial Complex) and its aberrant tendency to indulge in backslapping and self-congratulating (e.g., "one of the nation's best literary magazines” [Alaska Quarterly Review], “one of America's, and the world's, most significant literary journals" [Agni], and“simply and unobtrusively one of the best.” [Ascent]). They might also wish to explore the self-aggrandizing and self-serving notions perpetrated by literary functionaries of that order, including Poetry magazine editor Christian Wiman, who stated “poetry is a higher art than prose” and “requires a kind of exalted indolence, the touch of the gods, pure gift” (NY Times, 11/20/04).
In “University Poetry, Inc.” (Poetry, July 2002), Professor Neal Bowers, former guest editor of Poetry, noted “Within the corporate university, poetry as a noble calling is as quaint as the muse. Both have been displaced by a calculating careerism, and the whimsical-grueling-joyous-painful work of poetry has been transformed into a routine job” and “ironically, all those self-styled radical poets of the Fifties eventually became our postmodern academics.” Bowers offered a solution for poetry in that essay: “Poets already situated within the academy can consider a mid-life career change or opt for early retirement. They can take a few years off to write novels or nonfiction or nothing at all just to clear their heads of university gibberish. It won’t be easy to walk away from a life that is familiar and comfortable, but worthwhile goals are never attained without sacrifice.” It is obvious why Bowers and many others like him choose not to fight the “university gibberish,” as he termed it. In a letter sent to me regarding his essay, Bowers also noted, “I hope I made apparent my own feelings of complicity in the ruinous association between poetry (and the rest of the arts) and the academy. I'm in my late 50s, looking forward to early retirement […].” One must wonder why the Socratic daemon does not inhabit the soul and guts of poets like Bowers. I too am in my late 50s but cannot look forward to early retirement or even pension because over the years as a professor and poet I have been compelled to speak out regarding the “university gibberish” that so many other poet professors end up perpetuating by their complicit silence.
The solution suggested here in my essay, as opposed to the one published by Poetry magazine, is for the poet to become an activist, as opposed to a waiting-for-early-retirement, passive participant in the perpetuation of literary and university “gibberish” and indulging in the “exalted indolence” proposed by the current editor of that prestigious magazine, which now possesses corporate financial advisors and managers to deal with the $175,000,000 endowment inherited from a drug-corporation heir.
By the way, it is interesting to note that English professor Steven Wingate, founder and editor of University of Colorado at Boulder’s divide (“We are committed to fostering creative and intellectual debate, and to placing side-by-side ideas which would not easily rest together elsewhere.”), determined the “core” of my essay to be “right on the money,” while its “vituperative nature […] obscures its essence.” In other words, the essay is on target, even though its very essence is more or less incomprehensible. Egregious breaches in logic seem to increasingly characterize the modus operandi of “established order” literati. At least that has been my general observation over the years.
Perhaps equally as troubling was the response sent by University of Louisiana (Monroe) English professor William Ryan, editor of Turnrow. However, in the beginning, Ryan was surprisingly favorable:
I find myself in the curious position of agreeing with many of your points and with much of the responses of editors. For that reason, it seems to be an interesting project for the way it provides a record of discourse in which we can discern implicit assumptions about poetry in the current literary community. Whether or not you “bait” editors to get responses, the responses are here, on the record for anyone to read who might be interested in studying such assumptions. The art philosopher H. Gene Blocker in Philosophy of Art, at the end of a brilliant chapter on contemporary aesthetics and the question what is art? seems to throw up his hands and observe that art is what it is determined to be at the time by the art world. Your essay and its citations offer a glimpse into what defines that world. We will consider it for publication and get back to you in short order. Jack Heflin, my co-editor, is out of town till May 24. Normally I defer to him on matters of poetry (and he to me on fiction). Decisions about nonfiction we somehow make between us. But since your essay concerns poetry and poetry criticism primarily, I expect that his opinion will rule finally. We’ll read it together when he returns.
Then came the final (unsurprising) decision: “We decided against your essay. Thanks for the submission and good luck finding a place for it.” Since no explanation for the change of heart was included, I challenged Ryan in an email, noting that a professor-friend of mine had asked after I informed her about the rejection: “Why do you think he said the complimentary things he said instead of simply saying this piece is not right for us?” “Because he read it and thought it was good,” I’d responded. “But even more so, he thought he wasn’t a member of the ‘established order’ herd. But when push comes to shove, academics usually prove to be precisely that: of the herd.” Angered by the comment, Ryan then accused me (the essay) of “petty partisan politics,” “doctoring of the evidence,” and “faulty scholarship,” though he did not provide any examples of “faults” and “doctoring.” Furthermore, he declared, “I think Solzhenitsyn would be appalled by this autocratic doublespeak and elitism disguised as dissidence.” Then, as if out of nowhere, he became confused, like Wingate before him, as to the focus of the essay: “So what’s the point, beside the baiting process and the consequential name calling and pigeon-holing and the all-but vicious attitude and the painting of an entire community with an oversimplified and overly broad brush?”
Clearly, the idea of parrhesiastes in literature and in academe is simply far too shocking for perhaps the large majority of professors and poets to comprehend, for it implies that collegiality and civility not be accorded priority over truth telling in ones immediate surroundings and would necessarily bring an end to the comfortable life of tenured professor poets.
Regarding Wiman’s comment on poetry as a “higher art,” the literary establishment in today’s America seems to be copying, more and more, the music, sports, and film industries’ search for potential celebrities and, in that sense, how can poetry be considered higher at all? The need to find and create celebrities is incited by monetary avarice, the very fundament of capitalism, which has always sought to render art and literature as mere diversionary entertainment, thus defusing that potentially powerful and systemically-devastating voice, and in that sense mimicking leftist totalitarian regimes, which also sought to defuse the contrarian voice of art and literature. For their complicity, celebrity poet public entertainers and performers are being paid scandalously large sums of money and showered with all kinds of prizes and accolades. Who knows how much Maya Angelou, Billy Collins, and Robert Pinsky, amongst others, have banked over the years? As for former poet laureate of Rhode Island C. D. Wright, she received a whopping $500,000 from the MacArthur Foundation. Highlighted on a website listed by the Academy of American Poets is an example of her “exulted indolence”: “Lead me; guide me to the light of your paper./ Keep me in your arc of acuity./ And when the ream is spent./ Write a poem on my back./ I’ll never wash it off.” As tenured professor at Brown University, Wright hardly needs the money. The 2004 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize gave $100,000 to Kay Ryan, though the three poems used to illustrate her work on Poetry magazine’s website could hardly be considered exceptional, let alone great. Note the first five lines of the first poem “Repulsive theory”: “Little has been made/ of the soft, skirting action/ of magnets reversed,/ while much has been/ made of attraction.”
It would be quite difficult indeed to find a known poet today on the edge of creativity, “warring” with society. With that regard, James Baldwin argued in “The Creative Process”: “I am really trying to make clear the nature of the artist’s responsibility to his society. The peculiar nature of this responsibility is that he must never cease warring with it, for its sake and for his own.” It is frightful to think that the tremendous amount of money being poured into poetry by, amongst others, the Poetry Foundation, NEA, NEH, and MacArthur Foundation will probably serve to kill dissidence in the ranks (and especially from outside the ranks) to the extent that reality will become: “The peculiar nature of this responsibility is that he must never begin warring with it, for its sake and for his own.” By the way, this essay was sent to Poetry magazine several years ago, not for publication consideration, but for comment. Wiman has yet to respond.
As for establishment literary journals, many receive thousands of dollars each year from the NEA and don’t really even need the money, especially those with university support, whereas The American Dissident, “a literary journal in the samizdat tradition of writing engaged against the Machine and providing a forum for examining the dark side of the Academic/Literary Industrial Complex,” created and edited by me, cannot even obtain ten dollars from the local Concord Cultural Council, let alone from the Massachusetts Cultural Council or NEA. As mentioned, Poetry magazine inherited 175 million dollars. How much of that money came from successful, though dubious, drug lobbying in Washington? How “dangerous” is Poetry magazine and the poets it seeks to publish with regards the de facto oligarchy, its set hierarchy of literati, and especially its omnipotent Washington drug lobbyists? There, of course, lies the answer.
Passing through Buchenwald several summers ago, how could I not wonder what if… what if more people (more academics and poets!) had spoken out on the little things before they became big ones? “If nobody speaks out, who will?” had written Primo Levi. As is, we can be assured for the most part that poets and writers of the “established order” will not, especially if it means risking career and/or perquisites. Indeed, one must wonder to what extent literary careerism in America has been adversely affecting the quality and puissance of literature today.
On another note, for the literary “established order” to approve of caricature and criticism of known politicians, while not that of known poets, writers, academics, and literary reviews, is hypocritical. The latter, enjoying certain notoriety, should on the contrary not only be open to, but embrace, caricature and criticism. “Our critics are our friends, they show us our faults,” had remarked Ben Franklin. Indeed, an intelligent mind ought to be able to feed on criticism, respond to it with logical argumentation, and even grow and learn from it, rather than react with visceral rejection and indignation, or reason the unusual criticism constitutes an instance of impoliteness. “When criticism is placed off limits as ‘disrespectful’ and therefore offensive, something strange is happening to the concept of respect,” wrote Salman Rushdie in “Censorship Is Harmful.”
Unfortunately, the literary establishment, on the whole, would apparently tend to disagree with both Franklin and Rushdie and would have surely sided with the old Union of Soviet Writers, which had challenged Solzhenitsyn during the 1960s. Interestingly and quite sadly, the pattern described by the latter and brought to the Union’s attention corresponds uncannily to that observed over the past decade regarding the criticism I’ve lodged against the literary establishment—not Soviet, but American.
Check for yourselves: during the last ten, twenty or thirty years, has rational argument ever been used against any dissident? No, never, because no such arguments exist. They always reply with curses and slander. Such was the “answer” to Sakharov. And just as empty was the “answer” to Heinrich Boll. But most often total silence has been the answer… (The Oak and the Calf)
As for “total silence” here in America, again consult the list of over 50 academic or pseudo-academic literary journals that rejected this essay.4 The challenge confronting known poets, writers, academics, and literary reviews is thus not only to open up to criticism, but also to embrace and encourage it, and to otherwise brave the real world without the cocoon of built-in self-protection and preservation that prohibits, amongst other things, naming names. If we do not name names and otherwise expose the intellectually corrupt, what is going to encourage the latter to behave otherwise? This very essay was rejected by The Chronicle of Higher Education because “some of the contents (e.g., your exchanges with the editor of another publication) wouldn’t be appropriate.” Senior Editor Jeanne Ferris refused to be precise with regards the evasive term “appropriate,”5 though evidently naming names immediately rendered the essay not “appropriate.”
Briar Cliff University English professor Phil Hey, an editor of Briar Cliff Review, read this essay and argued that I “slander [s] good people who—believe it or not—are actually working to make the world a better place.”6 Yet Bunnin and Beren in Writer’s Legal Companion note “a truth statement, no matter how damaging, can’t be libelous.” Did Professor Hey even attempt to prove any statements in this essay untruthful? Not at all. Rather than reverting to knee-jerk self-censorship, poets and professors need to educate themselves and their students7 with regards the law. Imagine Adrianna Huffington’s New York Times Bestseller Pigs at the Trough if it were not jam-packed with actual names of porcine corporate CEOs. Why has it become acceptable to denounce them, while unacceptable to denounce intellectually-bankrupt and whoring editors, publishers, professors, and poets? Naming names is, after all, a patent form of quality control. What would François Villon’s poetry have been if Villon had not named names? Indeed, let Villon serve as an example, rather than a mere subject of an academic conference, thesis, or literary society. French magistrate, minister, and holocaust survivor Simone Veil argues in favor of naming names: “Si tout le monde est coupable, personne ne l’est.” [If everyone is guilty, nobody is.] Let us be reminded that great poets of the past, including Horace, Byron, Pope, Shelly, and Swift, named names… directly in their verse. Byron, for example, hammered the poet laureate of his time: “Bob Southey!/ You’re a poet, a poet laureate,/ […] ‘A dainty dish to set before the King’.” Horace praised poets of the past for naming names: “The poets Cratinus, Eupolis, and Aristophanes,/ And the others who wrote Old Comedy, used to name names:/ They felt perfectly free to describe the rascal and thief/ As a rascally thief, the lecher as lecher, the cutthroat,/ Or anyone with a bad name, as deserving his real/ Reputation.”
In an effort to publish a different opinion on what poetry and poets could and perhaps should be, I wrote a letter, including samples of my critical writing, to Garrick Davis, editor of Contemporary Poetry Review—“the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world”—because Davis was seeking “interested critics to submit their work.” Davis’ initial response was a curt: “Perhaps you could send along some of your other pieces—something less strident in tone?” His reactions to virulent questioning and challenging of the “established order” are perhaps typical, which is why they are included here. Regarding the “strident” remark, I challenged Davis in the following letter:
It is often visceral anger regarding some injustice, hypocrisy or obsequiousness to literary celebrity that tends to push me to write in the first place… and that ineluctably tends to set the tone. I have often received similar comments regarding my "tone" to the extent that I created a poem around the theme quite some time ago. As stated previously, I simply thought it might add a new dimension to CPR if in fact you were to permit one of your many contributing reviewers to write in—an apparently highly unusual—“strident” tone. After all, poetry and criticism thereof ought to include non-strident as well as “strident” tones, n'est-ce pas? Too much civility will inevitably push mediocrity and serve to bury truth. The seeming automatic censorship of anything “strident” has become an important problem in American poetry and writing today. Did not the foremost literary critic of his time, Ralph Waldo Emerson, argue in favor of “strident” tone by declaring that we ought to "go vital and upright and speak the rude truth in all its ways"?
As that poem I wrote states, the tone IS the message IS the tone. That is the undeniable reality. In order to get published, I have attempted to diminish the tone by excluding four-letter words in my writing. Apparently that has not diminished the tone sufficiently. True, I have not excluded the naming of names. But did not Villon and Solzhenitsyn, amongst others, name names in their writing?Besides, the names tend to be literary celebrities who should be criticized and not simply praised. Voltaire understood more than most the stagnation of a forced ambiance of praise: "Les éloges ont un parfum que l'on réserve pour embaumer les morts." By the way, the “strident in tone” essay I sent on poetry was published by the News & Record, the daily newspaper of conservative, Bible-belt Greensboro, North Carolina. I hope you might discuss with your panel of decision-making readers the points I make here in this letter. I hope you prove to be open to such discussion. It is more than evident that “strident in tone” or “wrong tone” has become a common euphemism for “rude truth” in matters of poetry and literature in general. An analysis of any college literary textbook would most probably support this point. The “tone” comment permits one to simply not address the issues evoked and is a clear example of killing the messenger and ignoring his message. It enables one to avoid debating issues that need to be debated and to turn off the brain and not even attempt to determine if in fact the message was truthful or not.
Davis seemed to retreat slightly. Perhaps logic, despite my being an unknown critic, wielded a certain power after all. In his brief response, Davis argued “Your tone—whether strident or desperate or angry—is not disagreeable so long as the tone has authority, in the true sense—authority in terms of right reason, proper judgment, and so forth.” Since Davis requested, I sent him two additional essays, including this one. Davis responded: “I'm sending these last two essays along to one of our associate editors for a second opinion. I'm still digesting them myself, but check back with me in about two weeks—we'll discuss them in detail then.” I waited three weeks, then contacted Davis, who did not respond. Nearly two weeks after that, I wrote again, citing two famous authors hopefully to incite a response.
"Look at your editors of popular magazines," had noted Thoreau. "I have dealt with two or three of the most liberal of them. They are afraid to print a whole sentence, a round sentence, a free-spoken sentence."
"Here in America 'to be different' is almost tantamount to being a traitor," wrote Henry Miller. "Though our publishers will tell you that they are ever seeking 'original' writers, nothing could be farther from the truth. What they want is more of the same, only thinly disguised. They almost certainly do not want another Faulkner, another Melville, another Thoreau, another Whitman."
Several days later, I wrote yet again, noting how I enjoyed reading the interview Davis had published (October 2003) with Christian Wiman, who, to my surprise, seemed to confirm the very observations noted in the two essays sent to Davis, which had apparently perturbed him. Just the same, Wiman’s critique had been advanced several harsh steps further in them. Wiman had remarked in the interview:
It seems that the institutional patronage networks have, in some sense, co-opted poetry—or, at least, poetry criticism. A system designed to sustain and recognize artists has, in many ways, been perverted into its opposite. […] Hasn't the whole system, from the Pulitzer to the smallest press award, become ridiculous? […] A poet-critic should be passionate, partisan, maybe even a bit crazed. […] Contemporary poetry criticism seems to me so obviously anemic, incestuous, timid, and dull that any voice with a trace of authentic passion and authority comes as quite a shock.
Again, one must wonder how somebody can make a statement like that, then behave in the contrary. Why would somebody do that? Eventually, Davis responded: "A poet-critic should be partisan, yes, but in your latest essay ('Cold Passion') I'm not quite sure what you're favoring. It sounds less poetical, than political or social, this rebellion that all poets should embrace—and sometimes it sounds rather like self-promotion: 'As for me, periodic unemployment and intellectual challenging of colleagues, poets, editors, journalists, cultural council members, amongst others, have thrust me sporadically on the edge. I know what on the edge is… and sometimes, when really bad, it does not favor writing at all.'”
"If we both agree that MFA poets turn out crap, as a rule, then what poets would you replace them with? You seem to be arguing for your brand of poetry—which is fine, as long as your brand is better than theirs. Is it?"
Needless to say, I was somewhat incensed that my essay, radical in tone and substance, had elicited such sparse debate and wrote back several times, addressing each of Davis’ statements.
But what does “poetical” mean? Does it mean apolitical and asocial to you? I favor incorporating sociopolitical subject matter on a more personal level stemming from personal involvement and risk… in poetry. Clearly, my essay stipulates there must be another alternative to the Pinsky-Collins-Gluck academic, safe, diversionary, well subsidized, and politician-friendly poetry.
When you mention “self-promotion,” clearly, anybody who writes anything and seeks to publish it is guilty of “self-promotion.” You are guilty of it by publishing CPR. Are you not?Why do you pin that on me and not on Christian Wiman or Pinsky or Collins or Gluck? Can you, will you, answer that? I simply wanted the readers of that essay to know that its author actively engages in what he writes about. You conveniently label that “self-promotion” to avoid debate. At least the poet who speaks truth to power, though guilty of “self-promotion,” still speaks truth, upsets, and deranges the corrupt, even if slightly, and hopefully gets readers to think and even act. You seem to hold double standards, which by their very nature must block logical argumentation.
I did not write “MFA poets turn out crap, as a rule.” I do not necessarily agree with you on that observation. In reality, I have rarely read MFA poets, professors or students, so could never make such a statement and have never done so. What I clearly wrote in that essay was that I doubted MFA professors encouraged their students to question and challenge all things literary, including the very professors themselves. What poets would I replace “MFA poets” with? It is clearly a matter of personal taste. In fact, our whole argument is nothing but a matter of subjective, personal taste. For me, I want to read a poet who has something profound to say, as opposed to a poet like Paul Muldoon who likes to play with words, etc. Personally, I am moved by very, very few poets.
You mention: “You seem to be arguing for your brand of poetry—which is fine, as long as your brand is better than theirs. Is it?” Again, this is a matter of personal taste. I'm not going to say yes or no. But why should my personal taste be shut out from what academics consider to be valid poetry? Why would you keep my ideas of poetry out of CPR, which seeks to illustrate the diverse ideas and criticism regarding poetry? If indeed you would exclude my ideas and criticism, which are evidently quite very different, then I find that sad, if not downright hypocritical.
Unfortunately, Davis closed the door entirely on debate and discussion, a common reaction perhaps of academic poetry editors in general. In this light or rather darkness, poet Charles Bukowski wrote in “the poetry game” that “the boys/ are on the telephone/ again/ writing letters/ again/ to the publishers and/ editors/ telling them/ who to edit and who to/ publish./ the boys/ know that either you/ belong or you/ don’t./ there’s a way to do it/ you see/ and/ only a few know how to/ do it/ the right way./ all the others/ are out/ and/ if you don’t know/ who’s out/ or/ who’s in/ well/ the boys/ will tell you/ again.” […]
Eventually, Davis informed that three of my letters had been placed on his website (www.cprw.com) in response to my having placed the entire correspondence on that of The American Dissident (www.theamericandissident.org). One of those letters was spitefully truncated to entirely eliminate the ideas, summed up from this essay. Why would a poet-critic at the helm of the “largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world” wish to censor poetry criticism? The answer clearly lies in this essay, which constitutes a challenge to the “established order,” as well as an experiment in the First Amendment. Should I be ostracized for being critical of that order? Garrick Davis and, no doubt, most other “established order” editors would firmly believe so.
Cite, for example, Casey Hill, editor of well-known NewPages.com, who, when I dared express concern that his online list of literary journals seemed to be undemocratic and ivory-tower elitist, responded: “We will not engage in any further emails with you.” Because his response was so typical, I sketched a cartoon to illustrate it and posted it on The American Dissident website, then informed him.
Surprisingly, he engaged in one more email. Besides the typical name-calling (e.g., “dork,” “American Pisser and Moaner”), he wrote: “We are a ‘filter,’ although you clearly have more fun with the word ‘censor’.” But what is the difference? Well, “filter” implies that adult children can be reassured they will only be exposed to smiley-faced PG literary journals. And what, I asked, were his qualifications to serve as Grand Filter of American literature? He never responded. What is sad is that most, if not all, of the academic literary editors listed on that site probably don’t even have the sense to ask such a question? Perhaps the real interest of NewPages.com is not literature, but rather business and money. “In the grand scheme of things, every mention of NewPages.com on the web contributes in some small way to our overall page ranking with the major search engines, so thanks for that too, eh?”
When I read Peter Davison’s review of Paul Muldoon’s, Moy Sand and Gravel, in The New York Times Book Review several years ago, I was abruptly reminded that something was seriously wrong in the world of poetry. The book “shimmers with play, the play of mind, the play of recondite information,” wrote the reviewer, though complaining that some of the language used was so obscure that one needed to keep a thick dictionary handy, or perhaps an entire university library, to decipher it. Some poems, he mentioned, seemed like “artificially enriched, overinformed doggerel.” But what really touched me were his remarks that “It doesn’t matter if the reader hasn’t a clue what these words mean. Their sounds alone evoke a certain meaning, which the poems’ momentum carries forward through clever use of rhyme.” It was as if the reviewer were trying to shrewdly justify “doggerel” and high pedantry because the poet in question was the Pulitzer Prize winner.
Hemingway wrote: “Dostoevsky was made by being sent to Siberia. Writers are forged in injustice as a sword is forged.” Yet so many American poets today, at least the known ones, the prize winners and laureates, seem rather forged by MFA writing programs and/or mentors forged in cushy academic positions. Nevertheless, academe can be a most interesting place to experience injustice, but how many poets do experience it there? MFA programs could be more valuable if they taught and encouraged students to question and challenge everything that has to do with literature, including MFA professors themselves, anthologies, laureates, prizes, programs, festivals, workshops, and the sacred canon itself. Surely, it does not take genius nowadays to analyze and underscore the proliferating platitudes plaguing poetry in academe.
Increasingly, verse seems to have become synonymous with clever wordplay. Style or forme—with obligatory clin d’oeil literary minutia and “accepted” subjects—seems to have come to dominate meaning or fond, and in some cases (e.g., Muldoon) completely annihilate it. Why have poets therefore expressed surprise that poetry has become less and less popular, though oddly poets appear to have become more and more numerous? How might the poet raise him or herself and his or her poetry upwards and out of the paradigm-restricted, esoteric intellectual quagmire of “exulted indolence”? How might the poet better serve the citizenry and democracy, as opposed to the self and Academic/Literary Industrial Complex?
How might the poet become more responsible as a citizen and do more than simply “work the poem” in the name of poesy for the sake of poesy and quantity of production over quality? How many poets, both known and unknown, can say they are on the edge today? Not the cutting edge of forme, whatever or wherever that is, but rather on the edge of society in some manner or other, perhaps not always but certainly periodically. Evidently, situations of being on the edge are numerous and various in degree and charged with tension and certain emotion. On the edge is perhaps not the best place to be when writing a cold essay on some aspect of technology or business-to-business communication. However, with regards poetry, it just might be a damn good place. Think of Rutebeuf alone on the edge of dire poverty in the 13th century; Villon on the edge of the gibier de potence, donjon, and exile; Rimbaud on the edge of anti-bourgeois propriety; Jeffers on the double axe of war; León Felipe on the edge of the Franco dictatorship; Sylvia Plath on the edge of mental breakdown; Reynaldo Arenas on the edge in a filthy Cuban jail, Saro-Wiwa on the edge of prison and the gallows; numerous anonymous Soviet poets on the edge of the gulag, and even Nobel-Prize winner Pablo Neruda on the edge of being hunted down in the forest by government authorities. What is clear is that on the edge is a great brewer of tension and emotion. As for me, periodic unemployment, no health insurance, no pension, and intellectual challenging of, amongst others, colleagues, poets, editors, journalists, and cultural council members have thrust me sporadically on the edge. “En ses boyaulx verse eaue a gros bouillon,/ Bas en terre—table n'a ne tresteaux—./ Le lesserez la, le povre Villon?” [Into his guts hot water was poured. Low upon the ground—neither table nor trellis had he. Will you leave him there, poor Villon?] was written on the edge. How can one not feel the depth of emotional potency in those lines?
How many poets, both known and unknown, are rarely if ever on the edge? How many are rather comfortably buffered by job security, publication success, literary prizes and grants, contented family lives, and general recognition? Have not far too many poets, both known and unknown, indeed become too contented, inbred, backslapping, and self-congratulating? Have they forgotten the adage: no pain, no gain…to which we might add, no fear, no risk, no visceral indignation? Whatever happened to the poète maudit in American society? Why will a poète maudit likely never receive a Pulitzer Prize or monetary gift from Prozac, Inc.? And how might continuous comfort and success affect the poet and poetry?
It is perhaps high time that poets shake things up a bit. In that respect, what an excellent source of inspiration Rimbaud! Part of the poet’s responsibility ought to be to derange “established order” thought patterns and institutions, especially when stagnant. Yet why do so many poets today shun controversy? Indeed, in academe, the most important hiring credential seems to have become collegiality certified by three letters of recommendation, as opposed to creativity and critical thinking. In a society gone awry, where truth and justice suffocate in the back of the bus, money and celebrity monopolize the front while, in the middle, the unquestioning populace—perhaps poets should not be seated there smiley-faced, but rather standing and wielding swords as controversial figures. For the sake of the democracy, perhaps poets need to heed Emerson and indeed “go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways.” The Athenian democracy depended on truth-telling parrhesiastes. Perhaps ours too depends on them.
Risk is where writing perhaps ought to be. Wherever risk may be entailed, fraud and hypocrisy are usually sufficiently proximate to tweeter the nostrils. Let Villon again serve as an example. In the 15th century, lèse-majesté (subversive speaking out and/or writing against leaders and even institutions) and heresy constituted crimes often severely punished. Yet Villon chose not to remain silent, risking his very life. Derrick Bell, Harvard Law School scholar, who also dared speak out and risk his career, offers a valid explanation.
Often, the desire to change the offending situation which is beyond our reach may be an incidental benefit and not the real motivation. Rather, those of us who speak out are moved by a deep sense of the fragility of our self-worth. It is the determination to protect our sense of who we are that leads us to risk criticism, alienation, and serious loss while most others, similarly harmed, remain silent.
Fearing the gallows, Villon ended up formulating, via a mix of jargon and jobelin, what many consider to be not only the most enigmatic poetry but also the most audacious work ever published. Whenever there is any sort of risk involved, most poets, however, tend to shy away and, in that respect, really are no different from the average citizen. Why therefore should the latter admire the former? Perhaps poets should stand out from the crowd—and not simply because they have been given the podium to speak at a university or poetry reading. Perhaps poets should manifest courage, be critical of all things, be risk-taking parrhesiastes, and indeed become distinct as truly praise-worthy figures.
Imagine if many poets, rather than so very few, actually stood upright and vital and let their lives “serve as a counter friction to stop the machine,” in the words of Thoreau, at personal risk with regards matters of intellectual corruption in their immediate surroundings, rather than letting their lives, that is their writing and thoughts, serve as lubricant to keep the machine rolling. That might very well effect change higher up, removing, even if slightly, the current pall upon our democracy—certainly a lot more change than that effected by the “friendly” projects of poets laureate Pinsky, Collins, Gluck, Kooser and, no doubt, Hall. In an interview published in Poets & Writers magazine, Robert Birnbaum asked the latter: “What are you most looking forward to about this appointment?” The laureate responded: “Probably the sale of my books.” Imagine if many poets were motivated like George Orwell: “When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” Unfortunately, most seem rather motivated like Donald Hall or Paul Theroux, who noted: “I write to be happy. I write for joy.”
Evidently, the writing, essays and criticism of poets, who dare question and challenge the machine's multiple taboos, must ineluctably implicate and incense the lubricants, that is, those who do not dare. Most poets do not speak out with regards the intellectual fraud festering, for example, at the local high school, college, business, cultural council, police department, literary society, newspaper, courthouse, prison, library, hospital, or town hall. Indeed, most poets do not dare criticize anything that may entail personal risk, which may very well render their work ineffectual, if not irrelevant, in the long run. How easy to criticize the president of the nation and high-level cronies. But how difficult to criticize those who might have the immediate power to exert direct influence upon the poet, including the boss, fellow poets, academic colleagues, MFA writing program instructors, grant-according cultural council members, literary prize judges, speaking-engagement organizers, editors, publishers, librarians, local influential politicians, school principals and/or college presidents. Poets must of course continue to attack distant ignominy but should first find the courage to criticize the dishonesty in their own métier, circles, art, and immediacy.
Today far too many poets have become gregarious and seemingly incapable of acting or speaking alone, instead bowing, curtseying, and otherwise speaking nicety before the intellectually fraudulent. Poets have willingly diminished themselves by being so easily contented with ordinary socializing with like-minded conformists in circles, clubs, salons, festivals, and academies, veritable bastions against independence of thought and harsh critical eyes. Poets have become so easily duped and so easily tamed by prizes, publications, contests, nominations, titles, and questionable laurels. Why do they not question and challenge them, instead of ogling them with beggar’s eyes? How easily they have fallen. In their presence, I personally find it increasingly difficult to remain politely silent.
From time to time, poets should learn to muster the courage to stand alone against the herd, be it the literary herd, academic herd, celebrity herd, or whichever. They need to experience the wondrous energy produced by the friction of interior conflict between the fear warning not to and the courage hopefully, once in a while, prevailing. They need to learn to harness the energy of conflict and create poems from it, poems of combative fond, as opposed to poems of forme, often superficial indeed. The poem that shouldn’t be written is the poem that must be written. Too many poets are paralysed by the fear of offending, laying prone like Pavlovian dogs, salivating at the thought of the next bone raise, the next bone promotion, the next bone reading invitation, the next bone publication, the next bone grant, and/or the next bone in-residence. Poets need to rethink their ideals: “rude truth” over bones!
From the lacklustre, boring, passionless Prozac-sponsored poets, we’ve seen the other extreme of manic-performance, methamphetamine slam poets. But where is the progress in moving from one form of court-jester-like diversionary entertainment to another? Albert Camus underscored in “L’Artiste et son Temps ”
De quoi parlerait-il [l’art et la littérature] en effet, aujourd’hui? S’il se conforme à ce que demande notre société dans sa majorité, il sera divertissement sans portée. S’il la refuse aveuglement, il n’exprimera rien d’autre qu’un refus. Ce double nihilisme a affecté une grande partie de la production contemporaine qui est celle d’amuseurs ou grammairiens de la forme, mais qui, dans les deux cas, aboutit dans un art coupé de la réalité vivante.
[What, in effect, would it (art and literature) speak about today? If it conforms to what is demanded by our society on the whole, it will serve as diversion without consequence. If it blindly refuses society, it will express nothing other than refusal. This double nihilism has touched a huge part of modern literary creation produced by entertainers and rhetoricians of forme, but which in both cases ends up in an art cut off from real life.]
Perhaps poetry needs to be more than “divertissement sans portée”and can be more and has been more as illustrated by Rutebeuf, Villon, Rimbaud, Jeffers, Saro-Wiwa, Neruda, and others. Perhaps it is time to make poetry matter in America. The way to do this is not via massive government and corporate-sponsored media blitz organized by the establishment Academy of American Poets and promoted by Poets & Writers every April. On the contrary, something radical is imperative.
Perhaps poets ought to become true advocates of the First Amendment by actively effecting experiments in free speech and expression, the riskier the better. What more appropriate material for poetry than that obtained from the edge of conflict? Poetry journals could encourage poets to come out of the comfy closet, now and then, by publishing in each issue a rubric devoted to poems stemming from such experiments in free speech. Now and then, I’ve passed that idea to Kevin Larimer, editor of Poets & Writers, who simply refuses to respond. Perhaps poets (and academics), more than any other human beings, ought to speak out in public, contemplate what taboos limit the subject matter of their poetry, and smash them openly. They need to choose free expression over courtesy, that is, courtisanerie and curtsey. Bravo to those poets invited to read at the White House, who warned they’d read anti-war poems. Just the same, why did the chief politicians invite them in the first place? Obviously, those poets must have been doing something wrong, must have been perceived not as potential troublemakers, that is, “rude truth” tellers, but rather as certain genuflectors. After all, hadn’t Bill and Hillary Clinton invited them for the Millennium celebration where they read tame, innocuous verse? But their protest was herd protest, self-serving—a mere publicity act—without personal risk, and not staged on the local level. “I am engaged and cannot be polite,” had written Henry David Thoreau. Well, most poets tend to be polite and cannot be engaged!
Poems that risk are desperately needed today to stem the tsunami of swill flooding the market! Poems written on the edge are urgently needed! Poetry that risks something on the part of the poet has become so very rare. Let poets risk ostracism from the backslapping and self-congratulating poet mass! That shouldn’t be very difficult at all. For simply speaking the rude truth, for example, I became persona non grata at Stone Soup Poets in Cambridge, then at Walden Pond State Reservation, the Festival International de la Poésie de Trois-Rivières, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, Bennett College, and Fitchburg State College, where an order of no-trespass was issued against me and is still valid today. Regarding Walden, I was incarcerated in Concord for a day for protesting the absence of free speech, then later threatened with further incarceration for doing the same. Yet as poet, what else could I have done, simply accept the status quo? Too much general risk-less critique on the state of affairs in America is sent my way, as editor, on a daily basis. While such poems might be nice, they will never be as potent as critique of something closer to the poet in question.
The American Dissident, the semiannual literary journal edited by me, seeks to serve not as another venue for risk-less verse but rather as a forum for the few poets who dare speak the rude truth and who have become ostracized in one way or another from the Academic/Literary Industrial Complex, including National Poetry Month. In opposition to the army of functionary, team-playing, and networking poet spokespersons—who create veritable refuse heaps and reams of diversionary, vacuous verse in service of power—, a title and hierarchy-free, loosely-knit corps of activist poets injected with the courage to speak truth to power, now and then, and otherwise daring to risk in the name of the First Amendment needs to be formed. Its prime goal would be to strengthen the American democracy. It would oppose the Academy of American Poets, its executive director, its 19 sub-directors, its 18 chancellors, its vice president, its treasurer, its two co-secretaries, its chairman’s circle of wealthy donors ($2500), its benefactors ($1000), its patron members ($250), its sustaining members ($100), its associate members ($55), its contributing members ($35), its corporate sponsors, its corporate money, its dubious prizes, its questionable awards, and its absolute contempt for unapproved, outside criticism.
Let the new breed of activist poets be known by herd members (i.e., faculty herd members, reading-circuit herd members, publishing herd members et al) as the ones most likely to manifest the courage to “stand up and go vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways” to all the little corrupt bosses and public-servant crook-cronies festering the nation. Infused with uncanny courage, the activist poet might indeed be looked upon by the public as really a special kind of person, not some diversionary entertainer holding a mike at the public library or on HBO or shaking hands with Bill Moyers or reading cutesy, flaccid verse on the 6 p.m. PBS “Jim Lehrer News Hour.” Unfortunately, the poet today seems to have become nothing more than a scribe, a scribbling beaver of mass-produced verse, no more courageous than Joe-average. In fact, the poet—excessively gregarious, comfortable, inbred, and self-congratulating—has become average and otherwise quite incapable of standing alone on the edge and against the herd. Let the new breed of activist poet be identified with courage and the First Amendment, and dare bite the multiple, fraudulent hands that feed him or her cash, privilege, publishing opportunities, promotions, prizes, engagements and letters of recommendation. Let the new breed of activist poet dare break that Faustian deal.
Regarding the Festival International de la Poésie de Trois-Rivières (Canada), I was the only one out of 150 invited and remunerated poets to openly criticize the poets and poet administrators themselves in the context of several poems, which I read in front of the chief organizers and invited poets. Needless to say, the latter quickly distanced themselves from me. However, a number of young, uninvited poets personally congratulated me. There is always hope with youth… but then something seems always to happen to youth: the machine eventually purchases with efficacy most young souls. Examine the aging ex-hippies today, for example, Ringo Starr advertizing for E-Schwab Investments, Sting for Jaguar, Peter Coyote for Oracle Software, and Bob Dylan, parading around in limousines and Victoria Secret braziers. What about John Lennon (“we’re gonna have a revolution…”) living in a luxury townhouse and Allen Ginsberg settling down in, not howling at, Brooklyn College? To be sure, if the majority of academic poets like Ginsberg had been true parrhesiastes, academe would not be as it is today, that is, largely corporate co-opted, authoritarian, and money-oriented with a modus operandi of rampant self-censorship, lack of free speech and expression with impunity, and the escalating use of poorly-remunerated adjunct instructors who are not even accorded health-insurance benefits, let alone job security. It would serve as a training ground for citizens, as it should be, rather than one for material and money-obsessed careerists and functionaries.
By the way, the very idea of risk occurred to me at the Festival International. I’d just finished reading several poems in the crowded café-bar Le Zénob when a young uninvited poet approached and congratulated me, then asked if I’d look at some of his poems. So, I read a few of them, then spoke the rude truth. What else could I have spoken, esteem-building pap? “Le risque, c’est ben ça,” I said. His poems were cliché love poems. ”Le risque, si ton poème ne risque rien, c’est un poème sans risque.” To my surprise, the poet was not angered. Unlike him, however, partisans of the Academic/Literary Industrial Complex do not take well to criticism. Six years later, I still have not been invited back to that festival despite yearly requests. Not one publisher in Quebec would publish my critical account and poems regarding my experience there. The “established order” phenomenon of intellectual corruption and cowardice is not just an American one.
Finally, poets would do well to heed Hemingway’s statement on the forging of writers. They’d do well, now and then, to experience injustice first-hand—not second or third-hand—rather than comfortably slip into the writer’s rattrap of creating society-friendly, filler-type versification. What really and truly astonishes and reviles is how so many poets settle so easily into that trap and into autocratic regimes including those reigning over the Academy of American Poets, the NEA, and the nation’s universities. They shudder star-struck before poet celebrities and kowtow shamelessly to literary mandarins. Things have become so bad today that most poets will likely not even be able to comprehend this essay. Indeed, my experience has been that most, to whom I’ve mentioned the parrhesiastic concept in correspondence, tend either not to respond at all or respond with denigrating epithets, as if labelling me “egotistical” and “self-serving” will make the concept disappear.
“Salvo casi di incapacità patologica, comunicare si può e si deve” [Except in cases of pathological incapacity, communicating is possible and must be done], wrote Primo Levi in I sommersi e i salvati. One must thus wonder about the nature of the pathological blockage of so many poets and academics regarding their duty to communicate. One must also wonder why they insist on closing the doors of debate to unapproved critics. By doing so, they show their real colors… of staunch intolerance. “L’intolleranza tende a censurare, e la censura accresce l’ignoranza della ragione altrui e quindi l’intolleranza stessa: è un circulo vizioso rigido difficile da spezzare” [Intolerance tends to result in censorship, and censorship increases ignorance in the reasoning of others and therefore intolerance itself: it is a rigidly vicious circle, one difficult to break], wrote Primo Levi. Perhaps the only explanation for the intolerant rejection of the concept of parrhesiastes as applied to the poet is that it implicates the very spinelessness of those who wish to negate it… and nobody perhaps more than a poet or academic hates being exposed in that sense.
1The title for this essay is borrowed from a line in “Be Angry at the Sun,” a poem by Robinson Jeffers.
2The essay was not at all influenced by the ancient Greek tradition of parrhesia, which had only come to my attention after I’d written it. Having rewritten the essay many times, I did subsequently add the term. I was quite astonished how perfectly my ideas meshed with it. Note, for example, the following statements taken from Foucault’s Discourse and Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia:
If there is a kind of “proof” of the sincerity of the parrhesiastes, it is his courage. The fact that a speaker says something dangerous—different from what the majority believes—is a strong indication that he is a parrhesiastes. […] Someone is said to use parrhesia and merits consideration as a parrhesiastes only if there is a risk or danger for him or her in telling the truth. […] For instance, from the ancient Greek perspective, a grammar teacher may tell the truth to the children that he teaches, and indeed may have no doubt that what he teaches is true. But in spite of this coincidence between belief and truth, he is not a parrhesiastes. However, when a philosopher addresses himself to a sovereign, to a tyrant, and tells him that his tyranny is disturbing and unpleasant because tyranny is incompatible with justice, then the philosopher speaks the truth, believes he is speaking the truth, and, more than that, also takes a risk (since the tyrant may become angry, may punish him, may exile him, may kill him). […] So you see, the parrhesiastes is someone who takes a risk. Of course, this risk is not always a risk of life. When, for example, you see a friend doing something wrong and you risk incurring his anger by telling him he is wrong, you are acting as a parrhesiastes. In such a case, you do not risk your life, but you may hurt him by your remarks, and your friendship may consequently suffer for it. If, in a political debate, an orator risks losing his popularity because his opinions are contrary to the majority's opinion, or his opinions may usher in a political scandal, he uses parrhesia. Parrhesia, then, is linked to courage in the face of danger: it demands the courage to speak the truth in spite of some danger. And in its extreme form, telling the truth takes place in the "game" of life or death. […] In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.
3This essay was not written as a response to Dana Gioia’s hyped “Can Poetry Matter?” Evidently, however, it could have been.
4As an example of this near “total silence” reaction, consider the list below of “established order” literary reviews and entities. My hypothesis was and is that the latter would and will react vis-à-vis this essay with total silence (form or non response) or at best poorly concealed anger. The anger usually reveals itself where logical and cogent argumentation is replaced by shooting the messenger. Why do establishment reviews and entities tend to react thusly? With rare exceptions—there must be one or two, n’est-ce pas?—, they do not and will not consider work submitted by writers unwilling to play the networking game and otherwise make the Faustian pact with the Academic/Literary Industrial Complex. MFA programs perhaps serve more as vehicles for networking than anything else. Inversely and adversely, the networking requisite will serve to exclude certain writing and writers to the detriment of American literature and democracy.
To date, this essay was submitted to the following which have mostly responded via form rejection or not at all: Academy of American Poets, American Letters & Commentary, Antietam Review, Atlantic Monthly, Bayou (Dept. of English, University of New Orleans), Boston Review, Boulevard, Brick: A Literary Journal (Toronto, Ontario), Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing, (encourages submissions from those “skeptical about the value of poetry”), Chronicle of Higher Education (Denis Hutton, editor of “Arts & Letters Daily” refuses to even list The American Dissident), Confrontation (Long Island University), Contemporary Poetry Review, Context: A Forum for Literary Arts and Culture, Cortland Review, Colere (Coe College, Cedar Rapids, IA), Critical Review, Danforth Review, Divide (University of Colorado at Boulder's Program for Writing and Rhetoric), Professor Judy Doenges, (Chair, Creative Writing/Poetry Search Committee, Department of English, Colorado State University, Fort Collins), Downtown Writer’s Center (Cazenovia, NY), Folio (Dept. of Literature, American University), Frank, An International Journal of Contemporary Writing and Art, Forth Magazine, Gobshite Quarterly, Georgia Review (“The ideal essay [for GR] is a provocative, thesis-oriented work that can engage…) Joseph Harris (Duke University, Director, Center for Teaching, Learning and Writing), Journal of Democracy, A Journal of Prose and Commentary (Ohio University), Jubilat (University of Massachusetts), Kean Review (Kean University, NJ), Left Curve, Lilies and Cannonballs, Lost Roads Publishers (Brown University), Lullwater Review (Emory University), Luna Negra (Kent State University, “Looking for fresh voices that aren’t afraid to take risks.”), Maisonneuve Magazine (Montreal, Quebec), Massachusetts Cultural Council, Massachusetts Review, Marlboro Review, McSweeney's, Michigan Quarterly Review, Midwest Quarterly (Pittsburg State University), Minetta Review (NYU), The Minnesota Review: A Journal of Committed Writing (Jeffrey Williams, Poetry Editor, English Dept., Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburg, PA, “social or political issues”), Missouri Review (form card with “this is not for us” scribbled on the bottom),The Modern Review (Ontario, Canada), New Delta Review (English Department/Creative Writing, Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge), New England Review, New Madrid (MFA program at Murray State University), Nidus, a journal of contemporary art and writing (University of Pittsburgh), Ninth Letter (University of Illinois—Urbana), North American Review (University of Northern Iowa), Northwestern State University (Dr. Lisa Abney Acting Head of Language and Communication, Natchitoches, LA), OnTheBus, Palanquin Poetry Series (University of South Carolina—Aiken), Poetry (Christian Wyman, Ed.), Poetry Salzburg (University of Salzburg , Dept of English and American Studies Austria ), Poets & Writers, Poetry Daily (www.poems.com - “the worlds’ most popular poetry website),” Poetry Flash (Berkeley, CA), Queen’s Quarterly (Queens University, Ontario), River City (English Dept., U of Memphis Dr. Mary Leader, Ed.), Dr. James Schiffer (Department Head, Department of English), Professor Harold Schweizer (Chair, Department of English, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA), Scrivener (McGill U), Sewanee Review, Stand Magazine (Virginia Commonwealth University), Sonora Review (University of Arizona, Dept. of English), The Sun (Baltimore, MD), Tacenda, Threepenny Review, Turnrow (English Dept., University of Louisiana at Monroe),University of Maine at Farmington (Patricia O’Connell, Humanities Dept), Valparaiso Poetry Review (Valparaiso University), Virginia Quarterly Review, Web del Sol.com, West Wind Review (Southern Oregon University).
As for The Georgia Review, see editor T. R. Hummer's letter (as well as my rebuttal letter) below, which essentially damns the essay as “not good enough” and for “its unoriginality.” In that sense, his critique in itself is unoriginal. Yet what could one possibly expect from a comfortably-inserted, “established order” poet-editor confronted with the concept of risk? After all, it was certainly not risk and the virulent exercise of free speech that enabled him to ascend to his position in the Academic/Literary Industrial Complex.
5As for Senior Editor Jeanne Ferris’ comment, I responded in a brief email:
Well, I'd gladly chop down the essay and eliminate the exchange with the other editor to get it published in the Chronicle. I'm quite open to editing. Perhaps, however, the real reason for the rejection is the harsh message regarding academics? The simple suggestion that academic poets might consider becoming activist poets and RISK criticizing those in power, RISK writing poetry in that sense, is evidently much too radical. I've just finished editing a cahier spécial on François Villon who did name names in his poetry and thus dared commit lèse-majesty and heresy at the RISK of his very life. It seems today that both lèse-majesty and heresy still exist here in academe. I'm not suggesting that academic poets RISK their lives… but just something... and to do so by writing the rude truth. I'm currently reading Solzhenitsyn's The Oak and the Calf. Ponder, if you will, what that Nobel-Prize winner RISKED in comparison, for example, with our Pulitzer-Prize winner Paul Muldoon. Evidently, RISK would be a unique concept in academe, but how to get it into academe? How not to frighten academics with such a bold concept? Thank you for your attention.
Unfortunately, Ferris decided to nip the fragile debut of debate in the bud:
I'm sorry to say that my colleagues didn't feel that your piece would work for us, and I can't encourage you to submit a shortened version. And I'm sorry to say, too, that because of the press of work on pieces that are appropriate for us, we can't take much time to discuss pieces that aren't right. I've already devoted more time to your manuscript than I typically do to those that we have to turn down.
6Tenured English Professor Phil Hey (Briar Cliff University—IA) also made the following comments with regards the essay. My 15 years of full-time teaching experience in Academe leads me to conclude that his thinking is not exceptional, but rather representative.
Point 1: You demand that everyone be "on the edge," when in fact very few people of any occupation are on the edge.
Point 2: You by reflex devalue anything that doesn't fit your formula for what poetry ought to be.
Point 3: You slander good people who—believe it or not—are actually working to make the world a better place.
Point 4: You seem unable to make your argument calmly. As I believe Samuel Johnson put it, “you do not reinforce your argument by raising your voice.”
In vain, I refuted Hey’s points.
Point 1: On the contrary, my essay does not demand everyone be “on the edge.” It simply suggests that poets ought to consider the experience for the sake of their writing and the American democracy.
Point 2: My essay does not state that only poetry written on the edge is good.
Point 3: [My in-text argument clarifies that the definition of slander is purposeful prevarication and that it is the accuser’s burden to prove purposeful prevarication.]
Point 4: This is essentially an evasive non-argument and an example of shooting the messenger, labeling his tone, the wrong tone. Whatever tone one might subjectively determine the message to be is, of course, wholly irrelevant to the argument.
7The student editor of The Point (Fitchburg State College) wrote the following regarding my naming names in a highly critical essay of the college I’d submitted as professor at the college: “I simply refuse to print your story because I don't want to get sued, you may be aware that there are slander and liable [sic] laws in this country and I believe that anything you have to say is slander and liable [sic]. Let me ask you a question, has any reporter from any newspaper ever contacted you about this incident that you keep referring to? Has that ‘interview’ ever led to a story being printed? If so please photocopy it and send it to me, I would like to see what newspaper is so ill-educated that it would believe the ramblings of a half-crazed luantic [sic] such as yourself!” The student paper refused to print any of the numerous essays I’d submitted critical of the college.
Georgia Review (T. R. Hummer)
Monday, May 10, 2004
Dear G. Tod Slone:
Thank you for sending your essay “The Cold Passion for Truth Hunts in No Pack” for consideration here. Your essay, by its nature, presents a rhetorical challenge and potential trap for any editor to whom you send it, since clearly the essay might in its next incarnation make whatever response I give it part of its argument—the fate of Garrick Davis! It’s an interesting strategy. In any case, let me assure you that I don’t mind if you quote me in the next revision, or expansion, of the piece; you have my permission.
Your essay concerns itself with the state of American poetry, and your concern is not misplaced, though in my opinion it is exaggerated. Without being very clear about the distinction, you assail both contemporary poetry and contemporary criticism of poetry; my own opinion is that poetry and criticism are two very different things—related, yes, but different. Your piece errs by not making a clean enough distinction. And while much of what you say about the state of criticism, particularly reviewing, seems quite right to me, I can’t agree with your condemnation of the poetry itself—thought there is plenty of poetry that I find uninteresting or downright bad, there is also plenty that I judge to be rich, vital, exciting, and (yes) original. You paint with a very broad brush, and the range of contemporary American poetry resists that by its very nature—it’s notoriously difficult to generalize about. Your argument is very general, and overall quite abstract. That is one of its main weaknesses.
For me, though, the greatest weakness in your essay is its unoriginality. Poetry is a frequent intellectual whipping boy (excuse me: whipping person). Relatively recent pieces that take much the same tack as your essay (that academia is ruining poetry, that prizes, grants, etc. etc. are ruining poetry, that poetry is ruining itself), as you probably know, are Joseph Epstein’s “Who Killed Poetry,” which appeared in Commentary a decade or so ago, and Dana Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter” which was published by Atlantic Monthly around the same time. Though their essays assume different rhetorical stances from yours (and from each other’s ), the gist of the complaint is exactly the same. The problem seems to be that poetry has become available to too many practitioners; shouldn’t it, after all, belong to an elite? And, paradoxically, by virtue of having so many practitioners, it has lost its readership: shouldn’t it, after all, belong to everyone: (Nobody who makes this argument ever manages to resolve its inherent paradox.)
Epstein and Gioia are a little more vague than you about who the elite should be—a sort of priesthood, in Epstein’s view, it would seem. For you, the elite is that of the edge. Whether Epstein or Gioia would agree with that assessment or not I don’t know. What is of interest to me is that you make common cause with them—perhaps without knowing it, or maybe in full cognizance of the fact: I can’t tell from here. Those two of course are obvious cultural conservatives (Gioia, as you know, has been rehabilitating the National Endowment for the Arts to make it palatable to the Bush constituency, with signal success: quite a gig for a poet who wonders whether poetry can matter!). in terms of the charges laid, your argument is indistinguishable from theirs. From that point of view, I find it most uninteresting, except insofar as you purport to speak as a radical, while they are just the opposite.
Finally, it seems to me that the best way to judge the “authority” of your piece—Davis invoked that term, I believe—would be to look a t your poetry. You conveniently attached one of your poems to your essay. I have read it, several times—which I would not have done had I not been preparing to write to you—and it is (in my opinion, at least) very weak indeed. Speaking now not as an editor but as one poet to another, I have to complain that it is, alas, entirely abstract (not necessarily a fatal flaw in a poem, but here quite problematic); it is, further cliché-ridden. Rhetorically, it is so very heavy-handed that I—and most readers, I think—want to cry out at the end, “God save us all from all preachers, especially this one!” In short, the poem is so unsuccessful that it entirely undermines the core of the argument of your essay. Le risque indeed.
In sum, The Georgia Review declines to publish your essay—not because of its message, or because of its tone, but because it’s not good enough. I wish it were. I would be delighted to publish the manifesto that this essay thinks it is. “What good is a poetry that does not change nations?” Milosz declares, and I am with him. I would be with anyone who could make it so.
I wish you all the best—with this essay, withy your poetry, and with your project. Sincerely,
T. R. Hummer
Subj: Rebuttal Letter
Date: 6/1/2004 9:49:12 AM Eastern Daylight Time
Dear T. R. Hummer:
My “unoriginal,” “most uninteresting,” and “not good enough” essay evidently angered you. How could it not have? It is after all an undeniable condemnation of comfortable tenured poet-academics and their acolytes. Regarding the latter, Emerson noted in “Self-Reliance”: “It is easy enough for a firm man who knows the world to brook the rage of the cultivated classes. Their rage is decorous and prudent, for they are timid as being very vulnerable themselves.” Thanks to your letter, I have included a new first paragraph to my essay in an effort to render as unambiguous as possible the essay’s purpose.
The essay is indeed a “rhetorical trap”—thank you for the term—, and you have willingly bitten the cheese. But you are quite wrong to think it was a purposeful rhetorical strategy. It was not and is not. My strategy is a simple parrhesiastic one. I loathe rhetorical strategies for they often have no other purpose than to evade the truth, albeit wittily.
You err with regards the patently exposed purpose of the essay, which is to present another alternative. What is so terrible and “unoriginal” about that? On the contrary, I have yet to read an essay putting forth the same idea of integrating parrhesia into poetry. Yet you choose not to comprehend that simple point, but rather to shoot the messenger, deeming it “unoriginal,” “most uninteresting,” and “not good enough.” Shooting the messenger is itself an unoriginal rhetorical strategy, one evidently favored by academics when criticized and when lacking cogent counter-argumentation. Since you deem the essay “unoriginal,” direct me to just one other essay that makes the same plea for parrhesia regarding poets and poetry. No doubt, you will remain silent on this point. Deeming the essay’s argument to be “quite abstract” and thus weak is ludicrous. The argument, on the contrary, is as concrete as can be! Deeming it “very general” and thus weak is equally ludicrous. Sure, it might be general, but that does not make it flawed.
Shoot the messenger… because his message ineluctably makes you look bad! Yes, I shall incorporate your letter with my rebuttal in the appendix of the updated version of the essay because it supports the very points made in the essay, especially with regards academics, who curiously (or not so curiously) experience great difficulty comprehending it. Of course, one could easily conclude that it is therefore simply incomprehensible. But there is certainly another explanation: Overly developed superegos, created by implacable conditioning—in your case, academic and literary—tend to block logic and clear argumentation, leaving those thusly afflicted with no other recourse than to shoot the messenger. The essay is visibly an example of out-of-the-academic-box thinking.
Contrary to your assertion, my concerns are not at all “exaggerated” with regards poetry, American, Quebecois, or whichever. Clearly, the genre has been coopted, denaturized, sanitized, departmentalized, and especially professionalized… in the corporate sense of networking, team playing, self-congratulating, backslapping, marketing, celebrity pushing, and denial. You have not read my essay carefully. It is not an attack on all contemporary poetry, nor on all contemporary criticism. It is rather an assailing of the refusal of academics to publish other points of view, especially critical, regarding poetry. Contrary to your assertion, my point of view is obviously unique.
You mention Garrick Davis as an example of someone nabbed in my “rhetorical trap,” yet you choose to ignore the various points made in my correspondence with him. You choose to avoid the main point that my criticism will be kept out of the academic presses and not be included in “the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world.” Your argument that it is “unoriginal” is quite unoriginal itself and serves as a paltry reason to silence my critique, which nevertheless managed to elicit a full two pages from you. Now, if it were indeed so “unoriginal,” you would not have spent the time denouncing it. That is proof in itself… and I think you know that.
Why not publish the essay? Clearly, it would provoke thought and writing… as in your two-page letter. After several decades, it is still disturbing for me to witness academe’s unabashed closed-mindedness. I came into the academy thinking quite naively that it would be an agora where discussion, debate and fervent exchange of ideas and critique were encouraged, not discouraged. I do not ask you to agree with my criticism of poetry. Why must you agree with it to give it voice? Why not have the courage and wisdom to present the idea, as one of many ideas, in the academic agora? Why instead do you choose to exclude and demolish it, albeit with gravely deficient reasoning, into inexistence? Why do you have trouble with the ancient Greek custom of parrhesia, but not with ancient Greek poetry? Why not a mélange of the two? Why keep that idea out of the debate?
My essay is a plea for a new kind of poet and poetry. I do not state that all poets should stand on the edge, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt to give it a try. I do not state that only on-the-edge poetry is good, though clearly it is the only poetry that stands any sort of chance, even if miniscule, of changing nations.
You err by arguing that my essay errs because it does not make a clear distinction between poetry and criticism. As far as I am aware, nothing dictates that poetry and criticism cannot coexist in a poem… nothing, that is, with the exception of academic conditioning. Why must criticism be excluded from the poem? Evidently, such a notion serves academe and corporate society in general. Poets of the past have mixed the two together to form very potent poems. In my essay, I cited examples. What have you to say about Villon’s “Ballade du Guichetier”? Nothing? And what of Neruda’s Canto General? What of his “Poetas Celestes,” a very damning poem of academics, amongst others? Nothing? And what of Nicanor Parra, who conveyed his manifesto in the form of a poem? Nothing? Angel González underscores in his essay, “Poética: defensa de la poesía social,” the faulty logic in your assumption.
Hay quien dice que ese tema [lo socio-crítico], más que poético, es tema de editorial periodístico, de ensayo, o de panfleto. El argumento no me parece serio. Todo lo que es tema de un poema puede serlo de otras cosas, por supuesto. También podría decirse que la poesía religiosa no es válida porque aborda temas más adecuados para pláticas y sermones, y que a la poesía amorosa le ocurre lo mismo, en nombre de que sería más eficaz decir las palabras de amor en una carta dirigida a la novia, la esposa o la amante. Esos argumentos revelan poco talento o mala fe.
In case you cannot read Spanish, I shall translate… but please force yourself not to get fixated on the quality (tone) of the translation. Concentrate rather on the message and its logic.
Some say that the theme of socially-engaged critical poetry is not really a poetical one, but rather that of a newspaper editorial, essay or pamphlet. However, the argument does not seem serious. Anything can constitute the theme of a poem. If not, one could easily argue that religious poetry is not valid because its themes are more appropriate for sermons, and that the themes of love poetry are more apt for letters written to girlfriends, wives or lovers. These arguments reveal little talent and bad faith.
You have the sense to use the word “judge” and that is rare, for most academic critics and literati in general would not use that term. In fact, you are the first and only academic with whom I’ve come into contact to use it. And I have been in contact with many academic poets and have read much critique. They would simply state, as if objectively, that one poem is great while another “weak.” I detest that kind of false objectivity, for poetry must be and is subjective. Can you really imagine that a poem you find “exciting” would excite me… and vice versa? Exciting you and those like you should not constitute the sole criterion for judging a poem excellent… or “weak.” Think about that.
You err by stating I argue that prizes “are ruining poetry.” That’s not at all what is written in my essay. I simply urge poets to question and challenge the prizes, rather than take them for granted as they tend to do. Regarding poetry, academe is running the show for one reason: money. Academe is perverting poetry, thanks to the money at its disposal. The corporation is perverting academe, thanks to money. Prove me wrong here! The equation is becoming increasingly conspicuous... at least for those not being fed the money. How much cash does your review receive? Plenty, no doubt. The American Dissident receives nothing. (Sure, you could simply dismiss that by shooting the messenger.) National Poetry Month refuses to even list it. Why? Because it doesn’t have a glossy cover? Because it doesn’t use expensive paper? Or because its contributors and editor don’t possess the proper networking contacts? Can you see the pattern? Or is your overly-developed superego still keeping your eyes from seeing?
You err by stating I make the same arguments as Gioia, Epstein and other’s. Clearly, if those poets made the same arguments and took the same stands as I do, they would be like me… unemployed, blacklisted by academe, and rarely if ever published in academic or quasi-academic literary reviews. Can you follow that logic?
Regarding the term “elite,” I decided to remove it from the essay. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. Nevertheless, my essay does not affirm that poetry should “belong to an elite.” I do not make “common cause” with Gioia, knowingly or unknowingly. How aberrant and twisted of you to compare me with a conservative, politician and university-friendly poet like Gioia. Again, you seem to show little originality in your rhetorical strategy of shooting the messenger. Why do you knowingly or unknowingly seek to adulterate my idea of parrhesia and poetry? Well, academics cannot read my essay with clear and open minds because it inevitably implicates them as cloistered cowards… at least the very large majority of those who cannot read it without jumping to conclusions. By the way, what difference between a Clinton-poet like Maya Angelou and a Bush-poet like Gioia? For me, there is little difference at all.
Oddly (or perhaps not), I observed the very same inability to read a text without jumping to conclusions or wild extrapolations in students at Bennett College (NC), where I recently taught. They could not read with clarity my parrhesiastic essays and poems published regarding their college… and, shamefully, their professors and college administrators encouraged this! One might conclude that spontaneous blindness tends to occur in the mind of the reader when confronted with a text that questions and challenges the beloved orthodoxy that grants self-esteem. This, I believe, is what has happened to you. Open your mind and soul to this concept… and you might grow from it.
Again, your erroneous assumptions and conclusions with regards my essay can only be explained by the simple fact as mentioned in it that you personally feel implicated. What other reason could there be? When was the last time you, as an academic, ever RISKED in the parrhesiastic sense? The chances are you have never thusly RISKED. Sure, you could be an anomaly in academe, but I think not. Apropos, one such anomaly contacted me recently and has decided to use The American Dissident in a class he created on American dissident writers. He is an associate professor of English at one of the state colleges in Georgia… and represents a glimmer of hope.
As for the poem included in appendix, you conveniently chose to take it out of its parrhesiastic context. But even so and out of context, it is not as “weak” (and I commend you for stating your subjectivity with its regard) as you would like to think it is. Evidently, how could you judge it otherwise? Is it not a clear and indisputable j’accuse against you and others like you? Just the same, the poem was evidently included in appendix, not as an example of great poetry, but rather to illustrate that I put my money where my mouth is, that I do practice what I, uh, “preach.” It was obviously meant to be preachy because it was mocking the very “preachiness” of the college president. How did you ever miss that? (See above for the answer!)
What is the measure of a not “very weak indeed” poem? Why not include as a criterion for measuring the potency of poems, not only the intricacy, cleverness, or suitability of style, but also the ability to conjure strong emotion? That “very weak indeed” poem angered the president of the college and provoked the dean to renege on her promise to write me a letter of recommendation. In ancient Greek times, a leader was deemed good if able to withstand the visceral truths spoken by parrhesiastes; if not, he was deemed a tyrant. My poem served to reveal the kind of leaders in charge at Bennett College.
Your opining for the herd of poet and academic readers is fine and no doubt accurate. The very large majority of them would no doubt agree with you regarding the poem. But it is still a poor excuse for prohibiting the expression of my idea of a poetry-parrhesia fusion in the academic agora. By the way, I’ve heard your “preacher” argument many times before. It is another “unoriginal” example of shooting the messenger… with cutesy witticism. Now, send me one of your poems! But that you wouldn’t do because we both know what kind of poetry you no doubt write—poetry that affects and moves nobody… nobody, that is, except poet networkers and others who might depend on your hand for publishing-credit or letter-of-recommendation feed. The evidence regarding my poem supports that it was not “weak,” for it did move the college president, dean and others not daring to “go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways.” Indeed, how could such people do so and simultaneously hold on to their positions? How can tenured poet-academics do so without risking loss of funding, grants, sabbaticals, and other perks?
Finally you have not been honest at all regarding the true reasons why you chose to reject my essay. Besides completely evading certain issues evoked in it (e.g., naming names, parrhesia, and the uncanny similarity of Solzhenitsyn’s detractors with American academic detractors, including yourself), you absurdly state you would have been delighted to publish it if it had been “good enough” and that you are with Milosz regarding “What good is a poetry that does not change nations?” As for the latter, at least I try in that sense. But you don’t even do that much, do you? Only an academic suffering from intense denial could make such statements. Why would you ever want to publish a “good enough” essay that condemned your very modus operandi, your very source of self-esteem? At least be honest with yourself and admit you would never let such an idea into the academic agora if you could help it. Unlike you and the large majority of networking poet-academics, I do have the courage to publish negative criticism of my work and modus operandi. As mentioned, I tend to grow from such criticism (certain thoughts in this letter serve as proof), whereas the very large majority of networking poet-academics would likely rather wallow in denial and stagnation in safe fiefdoms of security, literary and other. In my heart and soul, I do believe true poets are parrhesiastes in the traditional Greek sense. I do not believe a true poet can be anything else. There is a difference between poets and poetry writers. I am a poet. What are you?
PS: Of course, I am quite open to criticism and hope you might wish to continue this dialogue (and w/o resorting to shooting-the-messenger rhetoric).
G. Tod Slone, Ed.