In a recent study, “How We Value Contemporary Poetry: An Empirical Inquiry” (College English, November 2010) authors Bob Broad and Michael Theune seek to redress what they see as the “largely ignored issue of evaluation in contemporary poetry”[i] by means of an “empirical investigation of the specific values which, one supposes, lie at the heart of such judgments.”
The methodology Broad & Theune employ, while ostensibly the creation of an imaginary editorial board, shares much in common with the creative writing workshop format. Broad & Theune claim “our study illuminates and explores the criteria by which this group of 7 poets, teachers, editors and critics judged the 12 contemporary U.S. poems laid before it. We analyzed their discussions comprehensively and systematically to reveal the evaluative dynamics presented in this essay:
In the end, both the research question and research methods we have pursued are straight-forward. The question: How do we judge poetry? The method: collaboratively judge some poems, carefully listen to and document the conversation, and analyze the discussion record to reveal the criteria and dynamics at play.”
“How We Value Contemporary Poetry” is useful in showing some of the characteristic debates and shared assumptions held by a largely under-40 generation of poet/professors, and lends some useful insights into the kind of teachers one may expect should one decide to enroll in an MFA or Ph.D in Creative Writing (Poetry). Implied, but not directly problematized, is that contemporary teachers, editors and critics (most of whom have a dog in the race and are poets themselves) read and value contemporary poetry based on significantly different standards than poetry dubbed classic, canonical, or otherwise written by a non-contemporary (a phenomenon worthy of further study for the empirically minded).
I detect, however, several glaring methodological errors that need to be considered: 1); The presumptive arrogance of the vague “we value” in the title. 2) the assumption that reading as a group (emphasis B&T’s) a collection of page-based poems written by individuals is more authentic or accurate than reading them alone 3); the unquestioned methodological asymmetry that occurs when critics know the name of the authors, but the critics and judges are unnamed; 4) the narrow selection of work chosen; 5) the arbitrary, and clearly non-representative, demographic make-up of the participants; 6) the marginalization of issues of class and labor, even in the section entitled “Readers Contexts: Body, Gender, and Class.” 7) and, perhaps most endemically, Broad & Theune’s unquestioned and reductive (mis)understanding of “The Reader-Poet relationship.”
When Broad & Theune ask the participants to evaluate their ethical and emotional relationship with “the poet--not the poem, not the persona, but the poet” on the grounds that “this cluster of criteria marks a strikingly personal connection between the poet and the reader,” they come perilously close to discrediting any findings their study may suggest. Aside from B&T’s elevation of the word “poet” to an ontological category rather than simply referring to “the author of this poem” (a fallacy they are, granted, not alone in perpetrating), and thereby excluding the wide range of what is often referred to as “Language” or “post-language poetry,” they even deny the readers and critics who participate in this study any emotional or ethical relationship with either the poem or the persona, which many canonical and contemporary poems demand or at least invite and cry out for. By such evaluative standards of “reading” in Broad and Theune’s focus group, the best of Emily Dickinson or Shakespeare would not be able to be grasped. Certainly every “I” in every Emily Dickinson poem must be the poet, Emily Dickinson, at least according to the recent Billy Collins edition of "Emily Dickinson." [ii]
In the first place, the “we” who “values” in the essay’s title would not come off as presumptively arrogant were it in the title of a poem or an excerpt from a novel--as the “we” would be more specific to the characters in the piece rather than connoting (and denoting) a generalization--however Broad and Theune disclaim any bid for generalization in their conclusion. Taken together with the other methodological blindnesses, the word “we” at its most accurate refers much more to the two (ostensibly impersonal, transparent and omniscient narrators) than to any of the participants or characters in this piece, who are presented as largely one dimensional figures, who aren’t even allowed the autonomy the pronoun “they” would provide them.
Because the participants’ real names aren’t used, the reading conventions of fiction must come into play in order to understand what work B&T’s piece is doing. By such standards, this collection of individuals the narrators have gathered together is far less scientifically grounded and elaborated on than Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author or even the Gilligan Island 7. Furthermore, the assumption, so clearly emphasized in the narrative voice, that reading poems as a group (emphasis B&T’s) will give us a more accurate sense of debates over evaluative criteria than having an argument through emails or essays, or even “answer poems,” is spurious at best.
The logic behind this assumption might have been more apparent had the narrators selected at least one “exquisite corpse” or collaboratively written poem to discuss, but since all the poems discussed fall into a rather narrow range of the last century’s dominant form of the one-or-two-page page-based lyric (with a few minor variations, a “prose poem,” a “jazz poem”)---the kind of poem that more often does its most important work alone, in (the astral plane of) solitude, the narrators’ failure to account for the very asymmetry of their study practically guarantees a flattening out of any truths that emerge.[iii]
Since the critics or characters remain anonymous, but the names of the writers of the poems (as well as of the study itself) don’t, B&T’s method could be seen as pulling the curtain back to reveal the inner workings of the increasingly standard “blind submission process.”[iv] At the same time, since the poems aren’t even really quoted (or even given web-links to), the poems themselves are devalued as bearers of knowledge in a way that could lend credence to many of the arguments toward the poetry-contest biz by Foetry.Com, for instance. This methodological hubris goes out of its way to invite the “ad homimen” fallacy as admissible evidence in the court of critique, for better and worse.
Meanwhile, the poem, novel, song, screenplay or stand-up routine better know its place as a “primary text,” (sublime object) and speak its sermon quickly and get out of the way to be given the once over twice and not try to talk back to the faceless world unaccountable (like pictures of naked female strippers with the male voyeur’s faces blacked out). Neither can Broad and Theune justifiably disclaim any authorial responsibility for the narrow selection of work chosen (#4) because this clearly is a direct result of the non-representative demographic make-up of the participants they chose (#5), hiding under the cloak of empiricism to claim they are merely recording and reflecting rather than promulgating or propagandizing.
Although this study purports to show an unfiltered, unmediated, transparent debate on poetics, it’s important to realize that Theune & Broad’s set-up, a room full of white males (seemingly mostly under 40 or at least 50), with one American writer of Indian decent and one woman, already includes a glaringly biased demographic---one not even representative of the America portrayed by Republican Presidential Primary Dog & Pony debate show, much less the creative writing programs or the poetry scenes I’ve operated in, in which there’s much more gender (if not racial) parity.[v]
Because of this methodoligical bias, Theune and Broad’s study unwittingly casts the one woman, “Trina” into a double-bind situation, in which she must either let the males’ gender assumptions slide or risk coming off as more dogmatic than she would likely be in a more equal, and safe, situation. B&T’s portrait of Trina glaringly contradicts her own statement about her pedagogy as a creative writing teacher, which embraces a “holistic contact model” of teaching poetry--a workshop method that, in her words, encourages students to take “hold of the reins” and get “control of what they’re trying to do,” so that they ask “is the poem meeting its own contract that it’s setting up for itself, versus whether or not it’s a successful poem ‘for me’?”[vi] Thus, this study may very well tell one less about any of the participants, including Trina, who emerges as the most consistently articulate and assertive, than it does about Theune and Broad themselves.
B. Beyond Tokenism? (Gender And Race)
When the subject of gender is broached, the character "Trina" directs her anger against (or deflects it towards) the male participants and the poems they select, rather than on the male authors of this study who were responsible for choosing the panelists. We have no way of knowing whether “Trina” did raise such objections to the terms of the study itself or whether B&T are blind to this criticism or simply edited out such objections from their transcript.
A similar tokenism occurs when it comes to race or ethnic identity, but the character of Ravi has more of a “sameness” approach to race than “Trina” does to gender: “I feel caught between my identity as a young American poet and as a writer of Indian descent...Lately my work has moved away from any sort of identification with a national or cultural group whatso-ever, and I imagine this will continue.” Ravi clearly does not see himself as uncomfortable, or other, in a room of otherwise white men as Trina does. Whether or not this stance is a transcendence of race (in the sense that Louis Simpson denied the value of any poem not written by a white that is noticeably written in a way that makes the reader aware of his ethnic identity), or a form of “passing” that could be seen as self-loathing, is left up to the reader. We simply don’t know enough about “Ravi” as he is presented in B&T’s study.
“Ravi” does criticize “History, Hollers, and Horn” by Sterling Plumpp on Louis Simpson’s grounds for “its reliance on ethnic identity.” By contrast, Trina, who doesn’t like the poem based on aesthetic criteria, finds that ethnic identity trumps her own aesthetic misgivings and redeems the poem: “I feel like this is a poet who’s confident giving voice to this kind of poem; this is the poet who needs to be writing this kind of poem.” Broad and Theune’s decision to include these very vague (and almost empty) quotes by both Ravi and Trina instead of some more specific points one supposes Ravi and Trina must have made in their discussion is especially unconvincing for a study that purports to give us insights into how critics and editors value contemporary poetry.
Ravi and Trina could be arguing about almost anything--there is no need for the Sterling Plumpp poem to mediate their conversation. The only thing we need to know about the (placeholder) poem for the purpose of this empirical inquiry is that it is a “jazz poem.” According to Trina, Plumpp has earned license to generate “another jazz poem” because of his age: “He’s an elder, he’s one of the guys who started doing this....If you were doin’ it in the sixties you still get to do it now.”
I appreciate that “Trina” goes beyond a New Critical or Deconstructive approach by talking about the larger context, and surely she gets much deeper than this--but the way Broad & Theune (re)present her statements so that they fit within their methodological framework renders her into someone who “would rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”[vii]
Damned with faint praise: such tokenism puts Plumpp in exactly the same double bind that B&T’s experiment put Trina. One could almost hear Plumpp respond, “with frenemies like this...” This happens a lot in the poetry biz, but you don’t hear too many African Americans complaining--1) because you don’t hear that many African Americans, who clearly write from race and class, in the so-called “mainstream” anymore, [viii]and 2) if you complain too loud, you won’t even get published, grants, and jobs, even as a token. Trina herself may not be ignorant of the Black Art Aesthetic & ethos, but the other white males (including B&T) reveal no knowledge of it. The absence of an African-American on this panel (or among the dramatis personnae) becomes especially glaring.[ix]
In addition, the assumption that “if you were doing it in the 60s, you get to do it now” is ageist and hypocritical. Even if Trina herself is a post-generation X’er, it sounds like Michael McClure or many other 60-something white people in Berkeley who act like, and sometimes even blatantly say, “don’t try to do all the things we did when we were kids; we learned our lesson so you don’t have to.” In the picture B&T paint of Trina, older forms, usually originating in Europe or White America, are still acceptable today, but the newer specifically American form of the jazz poem (or for that matter the blues poem) is not acceptable for anybody who started writing these poems in the 70s, 80s, 90s, etc.
It’s absolutely irresponsible that B&T would excerpt them from Trina’s comments, as if this was the study’s last word on the subject. Their empirical “distance” prevented them from asking (or admitting they asked) follow up questions, nor did any of the other participants. It’s not entirely accidental that the inner-city back communities and working middle class have been progressively economically devastated since the time characters like Trina started invalidating the jazz poem, and the Black Art Aesthetic(s) themselves.[x]
C. Gendered Readings? ”Personals”*v “Short Order Cook”
According to B&T, “many contexts that shape our evaluations of poetry come from culture, history, or our perception of the poet whose text we are reading. At other times, however, readers themselves provide powerful contexts that determine their poetic evaluations.” This is how they frame their question about how do “readers’ bodies’, and especially genders, affect their assessment of a text’s poetic success.” Inherent in this question is a misunderstanding and conceptual conflation of the words “sex” and “gender.” It’s a feminist commonplace (if not universally agreed upon) that the difference between a female and male body is a difference in “sex” while it is precisely questions of culture and history that make up most discussions of “gender difference.” The essentialism in B&T’s evaluative criteria ignores the distinction between “the body” and how the body is represented as a context, even by oneself. The two are not always the same. By trying to separate culture and history from the question of “body,” B&T’s findings become of limited value as science, or as poetry criticism.
As a case in point, Broad & Theune claim that the male critics respond positively to Jim Daniels’ “Short-Order Cook” because of its portrayal of “the satisfaction of intense, masculine, manual labor” while Trina “does not share their bodily experience of the poem, and as a result it leaves her uninterested and uninspired....Trina’s appreciation of C. D. Wright’s “Personals” rests partly in her sense that Wright’s poem emerges from and expresses a woman’s “bodily experience.” Trina’s praise for “Personals” is explicitly gendered:
The poem’s in a motel room, it’s on a road trip, it’s eating pimento cheese, and as a woman poet for whom this stuff is very much a part of what I do and what I’m interested in [...] I connect to a poem that’s talking about writing from different levels, like writing from a woman’s body and writing from the bodily experience, I’m glad to see that, too....’Personals’ feels like it knows where it’s been, it knows where it’s going, and it’s settled down.”
In contrasting the participants responses to “Personals” and “Short Order Cook,” B&T conclude:
“Interestingly, what Trina comments on concerns not the poet’s gender, age, or ethnicity, but rather the setting (motel room), subject matter (eating pimento cheese), and the strong body/gender connection those features create for Trina...Trina, by contrast, finds very little to admire in “Short-Order Cook.” “This poem, it’s never aiming to be smart particularly, and it’s also never aiming to be beautiful. I feel like if you’re not going to give me either of those, I don’t know what to do….”
Notice that Marty and Dennis, both of whom have been working class men, identify with and admire the Daniels poem and its narrator. Trina pushes back with a strong critique of “Short Order Cook” based explicitly on aesthetic criteria: intelligence and beauty...When Trina, in turn, sings the praises of “Personals” and its pimento cheese, written “from a woman’s body,” Paul and Ravi--whose bodies are male--resist and puzzle over why Trina sees this poem as “fresh” and “mature.” As powerful contextual criteria, demographics--including gender--play a prominent role in shaping poetic evaluative deliberations, especially concerning body.”
I am astonished that College English, which ostensibly places a high value on the written art of critical thinking, would let such a fallacious conclusion, that does not even follow from its reductive premises, be published. They generalize from a very personal connection Trina shares with C.D. Wright’s poem to conclude that all women poets stay in motel rooms, eating pimento cheese, and need poems that are “settled down.” From equally limited data, they infer that Paul and Ravi, because of the maleness of their body, don’t relate to, or identify with, the cheese eating motel-staying settled persona. B&T fail to give more information of the no doubt heated debate that went on as the men “resist and puzzle” over why Trina finds cheese poems “fresh” and settled down motel poems “mature.”
To Broad and Theune’s credit, their findings do have a classical symmetry, at least in one respect: Just as the men resist and puzzle over Trina’s apparently visceral and heartfelt connection with “Personals,” Trina, with seemingly equal emotional force, is uninterested and uninspired by “Short Order Cook,” which she claims is neither smart nor beautiful. Here, aesthetic taste, “novelty within fashion,” clearly trumps, or exists prior to, the rigid gendered-body dualism B&T provide. When B&T claim that the men relate to “Short Order Cook’s” portrayal of “the satisfaction of intense, masculine, manual labor,” that comes from the “gut” and “wrestles with intelligence,” they draw the fallacious conclusion that because the words they use are often gendered male (wrestle, gut), that therefore they see such labor as being a Short Order Cook as gendered male.
The problem with this “fair and balanced” account is that it ignores the significance of “class” for the men except as a form of local color, a mere adjective to the masculine noun. While class consciousness is absent from “Trina’s” excerpted assessment of the poems, it is more important to the men. Nick likes “Short-Order Cook”... “because it discusses something very few poets write about: work.” “And Dennis agrees: “Yeah, work. Crappy work.” B&T downplay the significance of these quotes because it would threaten the reductive conclusion they make about the classlessness of the gendered body. Had B&T directed their questions in such a way that “class” would have been more present in their criteria for contexts, quite different conclusions, from the same limited data, would be equally plausible.
Through the window of class and labor, these comments take on a different emphasis: Trina identifies with the consumer while the men identify with the worker, the manual laborer. [xi]Put in this context, the panel reveals the men and women equally reveling in a 1950s MGM musical fantasy of the kind of division of labor not only permitted, but almost imposed, during that time:
Men bring home the bacon from their job as a short order cook, so that their smart and beautiful wife can go on tour and eat pimento cheese. The woman in “Personals” seems to like the arrangement as, in contrast to the one-income family and stay-at-home mom ideal of the 1950s, she has to be out working too---but unlike the men, she doesn’t call it “crappy work.” The men don’t seem to mind being drones, though---they are getting to work their muscles as an end in itself, but they might have a tendency to want to write a song called “Respect” when their wife tells them they’re not smart or beautiful--but thanks for the money anyway. Lest we feel Trina comes off unintentionally snarky, don’t forget the woman (a wife and mother) feels unappreciated too.[xii]
In my admittedly theatricalized reading of the data B&T present, gender and class come together, or are reunited after being un-necessarily separated by B&T’s analytical method. Given the current economic depression, with an awakening class consciousness in America coming into focus, albeit slowly, the class dimensions of the producer/consumer dynamic may come to stand beside the gender studies as an equally legitimate form of contextual critique.
4. “Casual About Violence?” (Discussion Of A Poem By David Berman)
I also read “Democratic Vistas” primarily in the context of work, culture, labor and history (if not race, gender and the body). So, I was very surprised to discover that such readings of the poem were entirely off the map for B&T. Instead, in commenting on David Berman’s “Democratic Vistas,” Trina gives “her most direct and sustained defense of identity politics as a contextual criterion firmly rooted in history, ethnicity, and gender (emphasis added):
"There’s something very twenty-something-white-male about this poem...I’m sorry, but there’s a long history of poetry, and it’s got a lot of twenty-something white males in it, and I do feel like there’s a little bit of evening of the playing field that needs to be done now....That said, obviously one can be a twenty-something white boy and write an incredible poem. But [Berman’s poem] is reveling in its twenty-something-white-boyness, and that to me is politically problematic. And it’s so snarky, this poem. It’s a particular kind of twenty-something white boy--a GenX, Reality Bites, twenty-something, white-boy rocker.”
Whereas the “ad hominem” fallacy may serve Sterling Plumpp (and debatably C.D. Wright) well in Trina’s estimation, this fallacy seems to be the primary criteria in damning Berman’s poem outright (rather than the faint praise Plumpp’s poem earns from her). Some of Trina’s attitudes toward Plumpp’s jazz-poem are much more like her attitude towards the 20 something white male’s prose poem. Not just the ageism, but her aesthetic hostility to music and the Black Art Aesthetic. She’s not a racist,[xiii] but on an aesthetic level her attitude is the same as Ravi’s--jazz might be too much of a “black arts” form, but she’ll graciously make an exception in Plumpp’s case, but not in a Gen-Ex Jewish rocker. You can almost hear B&T smirk as they set her up for this ridiculous position so that the real person Trina is based on probably wouldn’t even recognize her reflection were she not already tipped off.
If you happen to know that (by some definitions) David Berman was a “rock star” when his book of poetry came out in his early 30s, you are certainly entitled to bring that external context into your assessment of something you find troubling about the poem, especially given that B&T’s question asks her to talk of her relationship to the “poet” rather than the persona or the poem, but if you’re going to talk identity politics and wider contexts, wouldn’t you then need to look more closely at the poem or even the body of a person’s work before you snipe about the lack of emotional responsibility in this one particular space-clearing poem?
When the poet treats a ‘tragic event [with] casual cleverness,” as Paul describes the Berman poem, Trina calls it speaking, or writing, from “privilege” and this leads her to devalue the poem.
Since the poet is also a singer, guitarist and songwriter, there’s a complex relationship between their poetry and song lyrics, which are not always casual about violence. [xiv]If anything, many of this writer’s song lyrics rub your nose into the trenches of contemporary horror at least as much as Kent Johnson’s “Baghdad” poem does, though more often on the domestic front (especially if I am permitted the equally ad homimen argument about Berman’s heroic stand against his estranged father's “Center For Consumer Freedom”). I understand the convention that does not consider song lyrics to be equal to a “real poem” that may stand on its own on the page, but that doesn’t mean that by some definitions, and by many of the criteria Trina claims to believe in, Berman’s song lyrics--even merely on the page--would fit the description of “poetry” more than what she calls this snarky, metadramatic prose poem.[xv]
Trina was not ultimately able to convince the male participants not to vote for this poem. The male critics, however, come off even less convincing: none of the poem's defenders (Dennis, Ravi, James, and Paul) articulate any reading against Trina’s substantive criticism; they like it because they like it, but it turns out what Paul calls Trina’s “straight-up democratic dismissal” is more profoundly a response to something in his poem.
Her contextual awareness of the author’s day (or night) job is more profoundly rooted in the “post-Virginia tech sociohistorical context.” [xvi]Since B&T never make it clear just how “Democratic Vistas” could relate to that massacre of April 16, 2007, I had to take a take another look at the poem to try to figure out what she means. It took awhile. I never remembered any David Berman poem that could be cavalier about mass murder:[xvii]
The narrator was shot by the sniper he was describing
and I quickly picked up his pen
What luck, I thought, to be sitting up here in the narrator's
tower where the parking lots look like chalkboards and the characters
scurry around or fall down and die as I design it.
Then I started to read the novel I'd inherited and didn't like
what I discovered.
Most of the characters were relentlessly evil, taken right off the bad
streets of the Bible.
The narrator would interrupt the story at all the wrong times, like a
third wheel on a date, and deliver shaky opinions like "People who
wear turtlenecks must have really fucked-up necks."
He would get lost in pointless investigations, i.e., was Pac-Man an
animal, so that when we returned to the characters many pages
later, their hair had grown past the shoulder and their fingernails
were inches long.
In support of the novel, I must say it was designed well. The scenes
were like rowhouses. They had common sidewalks, through which one
could hear the faint voices and footsteps of what was to come.
I've lived those long driving scenes. Everyone knows how hard it is,
after you've been on the road all day, to stop driving. You go to sleep
and the road runs under the bed like a filmstrip.
I also liked the sheriff's anxious dream sequence, where he keeps
putting a two-inch-high man in jail, and the tiny man keeps walking
out, in between the bars.
After a sleepless night he's awoken by the phone. There's a sniper in
the University tower. The sheriff stands before the bathroom mirror.
Drops of Visine are careening down his face.
They are cold and clear
and I can count them through my rifle scope.
This persona poem, in contrast to a “transparent poet” poem, inherently complicates any “gut” reaction to tone--but B&T’s criteria allow no room for the convention of persona-poems. Because of the narrow lens which B&T mediate their subject responses, they run the risk of elevating the incidental and marginalizing the essential. It would appear that the source of Trina’s criticisms in the poem centers on one one word: the word “Sniper.”
“Trina acknowledges the seriousness of the last half of Berman’s poem. Then she moves quickly into a condemnation of the poem’s “casual violence” and lack of “emotional responsibility…. [At the end of the poem] it’s taking itself more seriously again. One of the things that this poem does, which is rooted in a kind of privilege, is it can be casual about violence. Read this poem in the context of Virginia Tech. It’s a poem that’s sort of casual about its power, and it doesn’t make any really searing connections to the emotional responsibility of the speaker."
I read the poem as primarily about the “narrator” who is written of in the third person and, for the purposes of the poem, is synonymous with the book the poem’s speaker was a character in, and is now reading. Trina seems to read the poem primarily as about a literal sniper. For Trina (in May 2007 at least), the word “sniper” is a red flag. So while I try to read the poem in the terms it sets up for itself--as primarily about the crappy book the speaker is reading, and try to figure out if the speaker’s assessment of the book/narrator is accurate, Trina’s reading makes me wonder if a twisted student could be triggered to violence by this poem. This gives me pause, because as a writer myself I don’t want to write something that, even unintentionally, may trigger such violence. Because we’re not reading “Democratic Vistas” by the same conventions for reading, it makes me wonder: am I reading it wrong? Is she? Both? Neither?
Am I mistaken in seeing the “violence” in this poem is clearly verbal, textual, metaphoric and dramatic? In my reading, if the narrator had been shot (and not killed, but rendered briefly unconscious) by the photographer he was describing (and if the final line’s “rifle scope” were to be changed to something like “camera obscura,” the effect of the poem would be almost identical (except less dramatic, and perhaps less offensive to readers like Trina). Trying to put myself in Trina’s position, I can see the phrase “What Luck!” in the second stanza may make the poem seem too irresponsibly casual. But since “What Luck” is spoken by the sniper, who is anything but a reliable narrator, the tone of “casual violence” is appropriate for such a cold blooded killer. Maybe the poem is not explicitly condemning the sniper’s violence, but it is certainly not defending it. If the poem had started with the third stanza, after the initial “Sniper” framing device is largely exhausted and the focus is squarely on the narrator and his or her “novel,” it doesn’t seem Trina would object as strongly to anything in the poem itself.
I’m not trying to explain away the poem’s violence---I just locate it in the narrator at least as much as the sniper. After all, it is the narrator who created the sniper. Look at the way the novelist neglects and mistreats his characters in stanzas 4,5 and 6. In the real world, this is not a crime punishable by death, but to a reader and critic, it’s a crime punishable by something just as bad: ignoring it, putting the narrative down and writing your own instead. That may not be what a sniper is, but it is what this sniper does.
A sniper is a marksman who shoots targets from a concealed position, from distances exceeding the capabilities of regular personnel. [xviii]Guttersnipe is a person of low character. It is also a verb. To Snipe: the act of shooting someone a large distance away, to make malicious, underhand remarks or attacks. If someone criticizes you, they snipe at you. A sniper is a critic. In “Democratic Vistas” the “narrator” is a sniper, and the narrator is a “sniper.” A narrator, especially an Omniscient narrator (as in the Bible) also shoots from a concealed target, from distances exceeding the capabilities of the regular characters; sometimes the narrator makes underhand remarks or attacks on the characters who are helpless to defend themselves.
In How We Value Poetry, Broad & Theune are the narrators (unseen, but seeing in “the narrator’s tower”). The 7 participants are their characters. Sometimes the characters Snipe. Trina snipes, and I am sniping against Broad & Theune in this piece of writing. Just as Broad and Theune, as narrator, cast “Democratic Vistas” into the role of sniper, Berman’s “book review” poem is an accurate description of the failings of Broad & Theune’s “empircal inquiry” (which isn’t ostensibly a novel, but it acts like one more than non-fiction, and a not very good one at that).[xix]
After all this, I still don’t read “Democratic Vistas” as being “casual about violence,” but even if it were, sometimes there is ethical value in being casual about violence, especially if that violence or anger is your own, and could be directed to yourself: some call it catharsis, others call it a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility.” I admit to being puzzled to the claim that this poem lacks “emotional responsibility.” Trina never actually defines what she means by this vague term in B&T’s piece. Perhaps looking at the poem Trina seems to prize most will help me understand what she means by that term.
E. “Still Life With Influences” (Joyelle McSweeney)
I see many similarities between Berman’s “prose poem” and Joyelle McSweeney’s “elliptical lyric.” Both “Democratic Vistas” and McSweeney’s “Still Life With Influences” have titles that refer back to literary and/or art history, and both speakers are put (or put themselves) into a relationship with an artifact from the cultural past:
Still Life w/Influences
I stood at the modern knothole,
my eyes on the pivoting modern stars and naphthalene
green turfs and surfaces.
Behind me the stone fleur-de-lis
sank back over the horizon,
carving a fleur-de-lis-shaped track in air
that spread into a bigger hole.
Up on the hill,
a white tent had just got unsteadily to its feet
like a foal or a just-foaled cathedral.
Down on the beach, ten black whales were crashing
slowly, through themselves,
draped in wet bedsheets.
The bedsheets smoked into the air.
I opened my palm. A green edifice opened there.
It seemed to breathe but that was air breathing for it,
lifting a corner or a column.
Goodbye, my thirteenth-century.
I folded the money away.
What do ye do when ye see a whale?
I sing out.
According to B&T:
Trina praises Joyelle McSweeney’s “Still Life With Influences” for “calling back in history. It’s an allusion and...I trust the seriousness of that move. That brings the strange wackiness of this poem into focus for me and makes it feel solid.” The poem’s strong rootedness in history, nature (it refers to a whale), and other texts (allusion) gives Trina confidence as a reader and leads her to trust the poet. The closing of “Still Life...” also wins Trina’s loyalty because, in contrast to other postmodern “wacky” poems in the packet, she says, “the tone, rather than feeling glib or snarky, feels reverent to me.” Trina illustrates how honorific connections with texts, nature, and history, and a reverential and hymnal quality all set up the poem to enact what Trina calls “inevitability.”
Although the poems employ different well-worn contemporary styles, they were both clearly written by younger people (perhaps for their MFA thesis), and they both set themselves in primary relation with an older, patriarchal authority figure and/or institution. McSweeney’s “Modern knothole” is like Berman’s “narrator” and “turfs and surfaces” are like the characters where the characters scurry about from the perspective of Berman’s narrator’s tower. McSweeney’s speaker responds both to Melville’s Moby Dick [xx]while Berman’s “sniper” could be the later Walt Whitman looking back on “Song Of Myself” from the perspective of his “Democratic Vistas.” Both narrator and knothole are emblems of what the young speakers are trying to rewrite.
Just as Berman’s use of the word “sniper” could be accused of being casual about violence, so does McSweeney’s poem casually mention the horror of what the Modern Knothole did to the planet (the fleur-de-lys could also suggest sex). McSweeney’s “just foaled cathedral” (a pony, or a cathedral that just gave birth to one) is “up on the hill” like the narrator’s tower which reduces characters to the relentless evil of many in the patriarchal logocentric dualism of the Bible. Just as Trina claims “Democratic Vistas” gets more serious in the second half, so does “Still Life With Influences” when the tragic violence of what the modern knothole has done to the whales is emphasized. The whales have been neglected and mistreated by the modern-knothole in “Still Life With Influences” the same way the characters have been neglected and mistreated by the narrator in “Democratic Vistas.” If McSweeney’s speaker can be said to speak for the whales against the backdrop of the modern knothole, so does Berman’s speaker try to defend the characters (the ‘small people’ as the CEO of BP put it) against the narrator.
McSweeney’s piece reaches its dramatic and lyric climax in the penultimate stanza: “I opened my palm. A green edifice opened there./It seemed to breathe but that was air breathing for it,/lifting a corner or a column.” This feels very similar to Berman’s stanza, placed structurally at almost exactly the same point in the poem, about the sheriff who keeps “putting a two-inch high man in jail, and the tiny man keeps walking out behind the door.” In both cases, the material edifice (whether money in McSweeney’s poem, or the analogous jail in Berman’s) is proven to be ineffective in trying to capture that which they can’t control, and in that space, the lyric sensibility is revealed.
I don’t mean to explain the differences away between these two poems. While the speaker of McSweeney’s poem simply folds her (or his) money (the green edifice) away and quotes from Moby Dick, Berman’s sniper is too busy criticizing the narrator who in his opinion misrepresented him (or her). The lone shooting (though not necessarily killing) of one fictional character called a narrator is certainly different from the mass atrocities committed by the modern knothole (and not simply towards whales), and I’ll leave it to you, dear sniper, to determine which atrocity is worse, and whether McSweeney is less or more emotionally accountable for what she portrays than Berman is.[xxi]
The speaker of “Democratic Vistas” refers to the sheriff’s tears as “cold and clear.” Too cold and clear, and that’s why the narrator’s prose isn’t very convincing to this sniper. It also seems ultimately why Trina doesn’t like the poem, but none of the characters in How We Value Contemporary Poetry acknowledge that Berman’s speaker anticipates that criticism, and addresses it. Since this prose-poem is a “negative book review” in drag, the speaker doesn’t offer much of a positive alternative, and I can understand why that leaves some readers feeling unfulfilled or even cheated.
Certainly, I liked poems like this much more when, as a twenty-something white male busker, I sat in James Tate’s workshop alongside David Berman. I wouldn’t defend this as one of my favorite poems or songs Berman’s written--But I understand all to well the need of the young to talk back to their elders, even if they end up repeating the same mistakes.
My reading of both these poems is far from exhaustive, and I don’t expect either author to find them accurate. I especially slighted their “music,” but neither of these poems really sing for me--not that that is a necessity when I read a poem on the page. Poems about tears don’t make me cry (unless I was already crying), and poems about snipers don’t make me want to snipe anymore than poems about whales or well-wrought pieces of fiction that try to pass themselves off as Empirical Inquiries. Both poems are excellent scribbling in a period style. Trina reads McSweeney’s poem as a “singing out” (while singing out isn’t even the intention of Berman’s poem).
Ultimately it’s this aesthetic of “singing out” that accounts for Trina’s belief that McSweeney’s poem harbors an “emotional responsibility” Berman’s lacks. One might be willing to grant the convention of what 20th Century American Free Verse poetry, en toto, refers to as music did it not usually accompany a hostility toward actual--non-metaphoric--music; a fallacious, elitist assumption most “poetry” gate-keepers adhere to into the 21st century. Who knows? Sterlling Plumpp’s Jazz Poem might have even made the top 5 had the fans of “rock star” Berman heard it performed?
Sadly, all this talk about ethical responsibility and context comes down, as it usually does in most “legitimate” discussions of contemporary poetry to aesthetic preference. Ethics and aestethics get so tangled in How We Value Poetry in ways that does neither criterion justice. The fault lies squarely with Broad & Theune, rather than with any of the participants. This piece does nothing to convince me that any attempt of Empirical Inquiry on how we value an art/communication form as potentially infinite as poetry (even the narrower field of contemporary American poetry) can possibly succeed.
Chris Stroffolino, 2011
[i] “the fog of silence and mystification” to which the Literary world has, in Barbara Hernstein Smith’s words, “exiled the entire problem of evaluation.” Broad and Theune’s essay originally appeared in College English, Volume 73, Number 2, November 2010
[ii] This “Popularizing” Modern Library Classics edition reverts to normalized punctuation and changes phrases like “where children strove” to “where children played.” (as well as does away with what would today be called her “elliptical” punctuation). A life can’t be a loaded gun, Plath’s Daddy can’t be Hitler--trust me; Shakespeare must equal the character named Hamlet; Blake or Stein of course would probably not even be called poets--see Berryman’s “Professor’s Song.”
[iii] I served on various editorial committees in the past with a similar consensus model was institutionally required. Almost always the result was stalemate and a more tepid form of compromise. If a magazine has 70 pages to fill, and 7 editors, why do 4 of us have to agree on all 70 pages in order for a piece to be included? The result was often that the work any given editor was most passionately for would be excluded and, instead, the magazine was filled with the pieces we could all “kinda sorta” stand behind. Is this what is meant by democratic negotiations? I don’t think so; it feels like censorship to me. Wouldn’t it be far better to allow each of the 7 editors ten pages to pick the pieces each feels more passionate about? The senior editor feared the journal would lose its identity this way, and I saw his point. So, as a compromise move, I suggested to that even if we chose 50% of the poems my way, and the other 35 pages your standard way, it would be much more of an improvement. It may even be the best of both worlds--it wouldn’t be too far out there to lose our existing readers, but it would be more eclectic and populist and representative. The senior editor still nixed it.
[iv] the rise of the “blind submission process” in the literary world parallels the increased privatization of reality, in which a government that is at least partially accountable to the people in a democracy is replaced by a plutocratic corporatocracy accountable only to its impatient short-term profit-oriented stockholders
[v] See the 18/18 male/female split in our 1998 anthology, probably the best thing about that New (American) Poetry anthology (Talisman House)
[vi] In my experience on both sides of the workshop format, I’ve always found this to be the most useful, open and non-dogmatic approach.
[vii] Martin Luther King, Letter From Birmingham Jail
[viii] In a performance piece called “Questionnaire” I wrote almost 20 years ago, I wrote: “Why do you see so many native Americans protest against the Tomahawk Chop, but hardly any one protest against the Tomahawk Missile?” I thought I choose the phrase “why do you see?” very carefully, but still received criticism, but only from white people.
[ix] Stroffolino, “Notes on Pedagogy” Imaginary Syllabi, Ed. Jane Sprague (Palm Press, 2011)
[x] Compare the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 1972 edition with the 1988 Norton Anthology. In the former, you can see a growing acknowledgement of the wealth of many lyric poets of the Black Arts movement-for instance. In the latter, many of these writers were silently replaced with white or Asian-American writers. The 21st Century revision continues the trend, with no sign of reversal--especially given the economic realities and the re-segregation of America over the past few decades. For a useful short, concise, introduction to a (more male?) Black Art Aesthetic, see Baraka/Jones, “Hunting Is Not Those Heads On The Wall.”
[xi] ...not that you have to be “Blue collar” to be “working class”
[xii] I love the way Aretha Franklin changed the meaning of Otis Redding’s “Respect.”
[xiii] and we don’t know if she’s Jewish, or if that identity is important to her
[xiv] compare “Democratic Vista’s” narrator’s tower, for instance, with the “sad king trapped in his golden room” in a 1996 Silver Jews Song (“Black and Brown Blues”)
[xv] When considering the relationship between Berman’s poetry & song lyrics of the 1990s, a model could be found in Shakespeare’s division of labor between poetry and his lyric drama in the 1590s, but also in the relationship between Romeo & Juliet and Midsummer Night’s Dream written roughly simultaneously (c. 1595). At this point in his career, Shakespeare didn’t fully trust or believe in the ostensibly more legitimate genre of “tragedy” and the only way he could write Romeo & Juliet with a straight face was to have the safety valve of Midsummer Night’s Dream, his most metadramatic visionary play, which has an element of satire that was seen as ‘snarky’ by some who demanded tragedies.
[xvi] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/16/us/16cnd-shooting.html; the panel occurred on May 19, 2007, less than five weeks after this massacre
[xvii] Here, B&T’s failure to connect the comments more blatantly with the poems is most glaring. One cannot assume that the reader will seek out the poems on their own, nor even that looking at the poems would shed deeper insights into their criticisms.
[xviii] In the wikipedia entry for the word sniper, there’s a picture of a 20-something male Sniper Team in Afghanistan Today, the word is big in J-Pop and gaming--it’s the new godzilla in a way. The verb “to snipe” originated in the 1770s in British India. term was skirmisher. Snipe is also the unsmoked edge of a cigarette and a wading bird.
[xix] Someone asked Harold Bloom if he’s planning to do a Freudian reading of Shakespeare, and he responded he was writing a Shakespearean reading of Freud; a similar dynamic occurs in “Democratic Vistas;” it may seem flippant, but it leaves a lot of room for the suggestive intelligence so we can see the reflection of many situations in it, especially situations that are obsessed with the evaluation of art, as this panel is. One wonders if Trina didn’t like it, because it hit too close to home
[xx] as well as an unnamed 13th century writer--perhaps Rumi or Marie De France?
[xxi] B&T claim “some readers feel especially critical of the “cuteness” of Amy Gerstler’s “Montage of Disasters” in the post-Katrina United States.” In post-BP Gulf Disaster socio-historical context, I could see how some would object to the lack of emotional responsibility in McSweeney’s so-called “singing” as adequate ethical responsibility. Ultimately, I don’t blame Berman any more for Virginia Tech than McSweeney for BP.