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.