In a book aptly titled Iowa, (the death star of foetry?) the following lines are proffered by the Blog Harriet bully and poet Travis Nichols:
His thin story happened then while coat and pant cuffs flapped around a step-father and half sister. The memories true or not against him seem to be turning to steam, as I turned, all the while thinking of chewing out alone eventually through the ghostly meats.
We’ve seen far better work scribbled extempore from our English Comp. students. Does this pitiful poetry excerpt from Mr. Nichols explain his Harriet Blog bully behavior? Are they related?
Of course they are.
When high becomes low and low becomes high,
Distinctions end and all’s one: beauty’s truth and the foul-smelling lie.
Today the reigning pedagogy is to aspire to a niceness that sees goodness and beauty in everything; the result is a universe created by the mind of David Hume, where bodily sensation and doubt are all that exist, where the old enchantments and the old heroics and the possibility for new enchantments and new heroics, fade away in a welter of darkness, despairing laughter and confusion.
Scientific truths do exist; the David Humes of the world have not done away with them, and self-pity and doubt is not my message even as I point out the sorry state of certain contemporary niceties of culture. Travis Nichols’ wretched intellectual character is finally of no importance, nor does it finally matter how the Poetry Foundation chooses to run Blog Harriet, which seems to be successfully aping Ron Silliman’s cut-and-paste service at present.
Morals cannot finally be about morals, nor poetry about poetry. All attempts at moral self-analysis (whether universal or local) are too little, too late, for doubt never leads to anything but more doubt; rising from the ashes is a better strategy than accepting partial criticism; if wrong is not entirely overthrown, that wrong only comes back stronger; it needs but one small doubt of its wrong to succeed. Small exceptions bedevil every moral design, and their smallness is what allows them to ruin our chance for a heaven of happiness on earth, or in the poem.
So Plato was right to make beauty and the good the same in every aspect of mind and body; the good person can make bad poetry, for the good is more important than poetry at last, but just as true is that the bad person cannot make good poetry, and this is true not because poetry is important in itself, but only because poetry allows beauty and the good to separate for a moment, so that we know ourselves, which is to know happiness: for happiness is why the self, and the self’s ability to make poetry, exist.
Because poetry cannot finally be about poetry (and thus the cry, “it’s about the poetry,” when uttered, is always wrong); poetry exists as poetry only when it furthers the Good, i.e., the happiness of others. The unhappy person cannot make others happy (unless they are making a divine sacrifice—good luck with that) and this is why Travis Nichols bullying others when Blog Harriet was a truly interactive blog (he chose to censor intelligent contributions based on his simplistic sense of ‘playing nice’) will translate into wretched poetry written by Travis Nichols.
This is not a matter of morals so much as physics. This is pure science, yet we still live in the dark ages in this respect, because we still believe bad people (or simplistically nice people) can write good poetry. They cannot.
This is the great moral dilemma. If bad people cannot write good poetry, how shall the bad person be made good, for only with poetry, in the sense Shelley meant: imaginatively going out of oneself and identifying with others, can a person be made good? The answer is nothing less than: the child must be given no chance to not become a poet, to not be imaginative. There is no vocation that is not poetic, no training that should not be poetic. Imagination, as Shelley understood, subsumes all.
And this is why Letters should be as free, open, uncensored, and democratic as possible; why poets should not be allowed to hide behind their professional reputations any more than critics should be allowed to scorn behind a critical veneer; and why pedantry of a professional turn should never be allowed to censor, regulate, and proudly reject the amateur. And this is not because everyone should be nice, or no one should have to wear, or not wear, shoes. It is because the poetry is the method to be nice, and to know nice, just as unity and consistency are tests for truth. Do biographies confute this? Do great poets sometimes have foul reputations? Check the reputation—it is most likely a lie. If a great poet was deemed guilty of personal wrong, check the ‘wrong;’ was the poet wrong, or were the worldly opinons and actions of the poet’s surrounding accusers wrong—perhaps in ways not immediately known? Or, if the poet is a vile person, check the poetry—is it really good? Of course this throws us back upon a world of the uncertaintities of individually flawed judgments, which is precisely why we need to give those individual judgments as much freedom, as possible.
Systems and institutions act as gate-keepers to keep riff-raff out and royalty in, but what if the royalty are also riff-raff? What if there’s no need for gate-keepers because the ‘gate’ no longer has any validity? Even if we agree that private property is sacred and civil authority necessary, do we also agree that critical health in Letters requires the same sorts of safeguards? Or not? Do the necessary safeguards to property and civility also apply to poetry? I would think not. Why then, do so many poetry professionals, who are the first to clamor for revolutionary justice when it comes to issues of property and civil reform, put up walls when it comes to freedom of speech where they live? It’s easy to pretend to ‘fight a system’ (the American capitalist one, for instance) when that system is so vast that the ‘fight’ is not finally having any affect at all, except verbally and abstractly. But as soon as freedoms begin to rattle personal, aesthetic, and pedagogical windows of the actual place where the poetry professional lives, the ‘revolutionary avant-garde theorist’ quickly transforms from 1792 Wordsworth to 1845 Wordsworth, from revolutionary to conservative, and so conservativism forever reigns, from tradition to police action to police action. There’s always one side that needs another side put down. The cause of this is easy to see, but difficult to change, because it relates to the cause itself, the ultimate failure—on all sides of the social, religious, politicial spectrum—of the imagination. In our minds, the other side is always wrong.
This is what we saw in 2010 at Blog Harriet and Silliman’s Blog: Poetry professionals shut the door on speech.
Scarriet may not have the clout of a Poetry Foundation or a Ron Silliman.
But we’ll still be here, talking.