THE END OF RACISM

With the re-election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency, America really seems poised for an end of racism.

Yea, that ugly thing: racism.  Just about over, folks.  Not: Racism is over if you, driving your hybrid, want it.   No: Really and actually over.

Because it’s not something you can argue about.   It’s bigger (or smaller, really) than you—who want it to end.

Let’s not quibble about how much the whole issue is one of perception (it largely is) or how much bad stuff will continue to happen in its name (all kinds of shit will continue to happen in the name of everything).

Support for Obama (if we might make this generalization) does not translate into love for someone who happens to be black, but for success, humanity, family, and common sense as manifested by someone who happens to be black.

Millions and millions of supporters of Obama fault blacks who feel sorry for themselves and feel they are entitled.

Obama Fever is, most importantly, a celebration of black success.  And since even those who did not vote for Obama are on the same page as those who did vote for Obama, that is, in terms of being in favor of success, humanity, family and common sense (to put aside age-old, complex, political disagreements for a moment) we have to say things have never looked rosier for putting this crass, divisive issue (racism) behind us.

In this context, the biggest issue in American contemporary poetry over the past year is Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff’s honest take on Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, published at the end of 2011.  These two distinguished women critics, without much ado, came out and said quite simply: too many blacks included by a black editor.

The world didn’t end, riots didn’t occur; there were no fistfights.  Not even a shouting match.  There were some disagreement in respectable journals.  That was it.

This has to be good news.

Right now there are two strands in American poetry: Perloff’s, who believes, with Ezra ‘Make It New’ Pound, that progress is the most important aspect of poetry, not good poems per se, and Vendler’s, who is more willing to embrace a standard (based more or less on pleasure) against the uncertainties of poetry’s vicissitudes.

Dove was beaten by both these cudgels, accused not only of bean-counting, but sloppy scholarship, and even outright incompetence (in her Anthology  introduction). Vendler and Perloff were severe (nasty, really) in their criticism.

But we find Dove being pretty astute here:

Anthologies are usually arranged chronologically, with the occasional half-hearted attempt to suggest literary movements…Harlem Renaissance, Black Mountain school, the Beats. It’s the proverbial catch-22: Present the poets in sequential order, and each poem touts its wares standing alone, at the expense of knowing the conditions that spawned and nurtured it; one result of this method is that a love poem from 1908 will invariably sound stilted when compared to this month’s similarly inclined but less accomplished lyric. On the other hand, any attempt at a delineation of trends and events coincident with a generation of poets inevitably founders, for there are so many exceptions to whatever grid one tries to superimpose on such living, breathing material: Sara Teasdale was ten years younger than Robert Frost but died thirty years before him, so we’ll never know how she might have evolved as a poet…

Dove clearly knows the issues—Vendler and Perloff could both learn from what is written above, even as we might ask: should the anthologist be that concerned with “movements” and “conditions” and how a poet might have “evolved?”  Shouldn’t the poems speak for themselves, as poems?

Dove is correct; should a “grid” prevail, it’s no longer an anthology.  Dove’s anthology seems to be fretting unnecessarily, though, and yet it is precisely Perloff’s conceptualevolutionary view, which Dove obviously shares, that gives rise to Dove’s concern.  Vendler’s complaint (which Perloff quietly seconded) that Dove included “too many poets” was merely unfair.

We think the assault on Dove finally did not have a big impact because Dove’s selections—especially from the second half of the 20th century—are manifestly weak: here is the elephant in the room, the unspoken issue of which everyone is aware, yet helpless in the face of: how did American poetry become separated from public taste?

Poetry is not primarily theory on a blackboard; it lives or dies in the public arena. When poetry becomes a quibble in the classroom, or a mere affront on taste, it won’t survive in the national consciousness—and in America since about 1930, it (meaning the poems) has not.

The poetry anthology, as an index of poetry at large, appeals to a wide audience, like a national election.

The people have spoken.

The issue is not blackness.

It is success.

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12 Comments

  1. December 27, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    Yeah, America may be poised to end racism. Arguably, it has been poised for some time. But don’t confuse that with the end of racism. It’s still very bad out there.

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 30, 2012 at 4:46 pm

      Coffee,

      Peel the onion and it may not be racism at all. The patient may be suffering from something other than feelings of…racism.

      Tom

      • December 30, 2012 at 7:34 pm

        In some cases, maybe. But this country – and, indeed, the world, has hardly advanced beyond racism.

        Look at European inability to deal with immigrants from North Africa and Turkey.

        I have friends in our local Thai community and I can tell you that underneath that onion is not something else, but racism towards Hmong and Laotians and (for those from Bangkok) people from northern Thailand.

        My own family – who are tried and true southerners – let’s just say that old prejudices die very hard.

        I am a very, very, very, very long way from saying that racism is near ending. All I’m willing to say is that it’s not as bad as it used to be in some parts of the world.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    December 30, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    Coffee, “European inability to deal with immigrants” is a general statement. Why should a few yahoos be seen as the norm? Plus immigration inevitably involves issues which have nothing to do with race. And again, a yahoo is a yahoo for a variety of reasons and deeper reasons than what might be termed racism. Racism is certainly part of a certain habitual conversation–but I think it’s often a symptom of something else. Was the British oppression of the Irish racist? Or something deeper? Tom

  3. theflarfgeneration said,

    January 1, 2013 at 9:38 am

    The greatest thing I learned from flarf is that all racism is ironic.

    • BasicBitchHipster said,

      January 1, 2013 at 9:48 am

      It has lifted a heavy burden from all of our minds.

    • thomasbrady said,

      January 1, 2013 at 3:10 pm

      Irony requires three elements: sameness, difference, and finally, the ironic part, that which is different by being the same, or the same by being different. You’ve identified one element, racism—to simply call it “ironic” doesn’t make any sense. It must be ironic in some manner; it is impossible for one element to be ironic.

      Happy new year.

      • Nicholas, Esquire said,

        January 2, 2013 at 12:17 am

        The other element clearly is not-racism.

        Nice try.

        • Nicholas, Esquire said,

          January 2, 2013 at 12:59 am

          Oh, and Happy New Year to you and yours, Tom.

        • thomasbrady said,

          January 2, 2013 at 12:15 pm

          But where’s the irony?

  4. Diane Powell said,

    January 8, 2013 at 5:21 am

    Thomas,

    I live in the Deep South. Would you mind googling Dent Myers, or the “Wild Man’s Shop?” You live in New England. There is a difference.

    Of course, things have improved. But I certainly would not declare an end to racism.

  5. thomasbrady said,

    January 8, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    Diane,

    My point is that racism is now asshole-ism. That’s progress.

    Tom


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