REPORTER AT LARGE: MARILYN CHIN AND AFAA WEAVER AT THE GROLIER

“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg.  The last American poem to be famous?

Poetry tells of larger things, and it is entirely in the telling that it succeeds or fails, to tell of those larger things. If Poetry tells of a small thing: the fashion or style of someone’s appearance, or of a large thing: war, history, law, it will all be big or small, or significant, or insignificant, because of how it is told. Poetry is the ‘telling’ game, and what is told does not finally matter in poetry.

The smallest matter gets our attention if it is told to us by a friend; if a stranger wants to tell us something vital and personal, we are less interested—this is the rule of friendship; we may even tell the stranger to shut up, or go away, even if the news is important to the stranger.

Telling has rules and nuances governed by the complexities of the life we are living.

How we tell something may impact what we tell, and if how we tell impacts what we tell significantly, we have moved into the realm of art: rhetoric, poetry, song.

If everyone were friends, we would not need government. Government protects strangers from each other.

A poem, if it is really good, demands, because it is good, that strangers experience it, too.

However, unlike government, poetry isn’t necessarily for strangers.

Poetry, like gossip, like heart-to-heart talks, can simply be for friends only.

The only time a poem can be ‘known to strangers’ (famous) is if it deals with the business of strangers, and the business of strangers pertains to one of two things: 1) some extravagant aesthetic pleasure or 2) the government’s role of protecting strangers from each other.

(We could add a third: Pedagogy concerns strangers. Poems in textbooks can make a poet famous, and when the New Critics’ Understanding Poetry was one of the few, this did make a huge difference—but that was over 50 years ago. Scarriet has discussed this angle elsewhere, so we’ll leave it aside for the time being.)

The first—aesthetics—has withered away in terms of poetic fame: how poems traditionally tell what they tell is no longer a standard for a large audience: we only understand aesthetic excellence in context; when that context no longer exists, widespread appreciation is no longer possible. The Bee Gees became big in 1967 because they sounded like the Beatles; the Bee Gees did not sound exactly like the Beatles, but the Bee Gees succeeded within the parameters of a recognized template. Popular music, as unique as any particular song might be, succeeds in terms of a template. The popular song, or the popular music concert, meets the popular criteria of ‘extravagant aesthetic pleasure,’ based on a template: whatever the lights, singing style, dancing, lyrical content, personal appearance, etc. happen to be. What used to make poems famous: rhyme, meter, and other rhetorical devices which mark telling as exceptional within poetry’s traditional template, no longer exists in criticism and practice. The experimental has unstrung the bow. There is no longer any way of telling whether a poem as a poem, is excellent or not.

The second—impact in the sphere of government—since the withering away of the first, is now the only route to poetic fame, and the facts prove the case. “Howl,” the last poem to achieve some degree of fame in the United States (if we do not count Plath’s suicide) was read by the government (judged as obscene or not) before it was read widely by the people. The same is true of Fleurs du Mal; the French poet Baudelaire’s template-shattering poetry was published—and examined by government censors—one hundred years before “Howl.” True, Baudelaire rhymed, but translated into English, the subversive, prosaic content became the manifest effect and major influence on poets like T.S. Eliot. The ‘poetry template’ was still in place for poets like Frost and Millay, appreciated in their time, but over the last 50 years or so, the template has been eclipsed by pure content—thus it is no longer possible for poetry to be famous as poetry, since content generates interest everywhere, and poetry has no ownership of content in any competitive sense at all.

Stephen Burt, in his just published New York Times review of Patricia Lockwood’s second book of poems declares that “Rape Joke, ” the poem that went viral on the web last year, is the least funny poem, and not the best poem, in her collection. “Rape Joke” tells of Lockwood being raped by her boyfriend, and the painful, ambiguous, non-legal aftermath.

It is true that Lockwood’s poem has not been ‘read by the government,’ but it is about sex, and sex as potentially regulated—or not—by the government has reached a threshold of interest, and is the essential content of “Rape Joke.”  I was raped. Doesn’t anybody care? This is the deftly turned plea of “Rape Joke.” It is a cry for government attention on a serious level. We must protect the vulnerable in a legally representative manner in this specific area: sexual freedom collides with sexual harm in a way which puzzles and perturbs the law, just as “Howl,” which had to be judged by legal officials, puzzled censors of public morality. Is this OK? Do we need to be protected from this?  This question—asked specifically of “Howl,” is a question for strangers—it is not a question for friends only—and is thus a ticket to fame.

There’s a line dividing the country now, a line so prominent and defined that it is spilling into discourse of every kind: secular progressives versus religious right-wingers increasingly steals into every conversation.

But the debates that boil over in a far-reaching manner are characterized by profound legal ambiguity: a lot of strangers are certain, but divided, even within the context of the Constitution.

If the U.S. Constitution explicitly protects the free exercise of religion, not sexual activity, and if religion promotes chastity, all sexual issues, including issues like gay rights, women’s rights, reproductive rights, will bump up against the government, whether it is explicitly a legal issue, or not. “Rape Joke” fits into this category. In the past, with obscenity trials, the subversive in the work may have been a genuine factor, but when freedom, and government regulation of freedom, is the overriding concern, the role mentioned above: ‘government protecting strangers from themselves,’ becomes paramount. Patricia Lockwood may be subversive, but her rapist is more so.

To repeat: fame is possible only when strangers are impacted—either aesthetically or in terms of government. If “Howl” and “Rape Joke” succeed aesthetically, it is impossible to tell in any immediate or measurable way. The legal issue is what perches on the bust and remains.

The Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision recently caused a stir, precisely because of a legal controversy which refuses to be resolved.  Protected religion, promoting chastity, denies sexual rights and even condones bullying of gays, according to some: but is the bully at fault, or Christ? The city of Salem, in reaction to the Hobby decision, severed a contract with Gordon college, a Christian institution, and Salem’s mayor was applauded on Facebook when she advertised that she was donating five dollars to a North Shore Gay Youth Center for every call of complaint received in her offices, calls apparently fueled by a prominent right wing author and media personality. The argument here is that Christianity, protected by the Constitution, promotes bullying of gays; therefore the Constitution promotes bullying of gays. Amendment to the Constitution, anyone? Legal division feeds uproars of strangers more than anything else.

Last evening we had the pleasure to attend a poetry reading in Harvard Square by two poets, both in the activist mode: Marilyn Chin and Afaa Weaver: one starting out as a poor immigrant from Hong Kong, one as a frightened kid from America’s black ghetto. Weaver, the black man, brought to his audience at the Grolier Poetry bookstore, Chinese nature poetry, and Chin, the petite Asian woman, blues and rap inflected libidinous poems. They were lovely together, and questions rained down upon them from the rapt, standing-room-only audience following the reading.

In the question and answer session, Weaver, who just won the Kingsley Tufts Award of 100,000 dollars, and read from his 12th collection, The Government of Nature (U. Pittsburgh), spoke in restrained accents of the African slave trade, the diaspora which he called truly the worst holocaust, for its 18 million estimated deaths. Marilyn Chin, who teaches in California, in town to promote her latest book, Hard Love Province (W.W. Norton), a dynamic collection of elegies and yawping utterances in a fermenting hybrid of songs/forms, called herself an “activist”—as poet and teacher—and being in her presence, one really feels it springs from her whole being: she’s not just playing at this; she’s a mother in the flesh giving birth to this, forever and always. Which is not an easy thing to do. There are pauses after she makes a joke or says “okay, okay!” in which life, plain life, intervenes: and a little voice whispers: is this Chinese Poet Activist Mother thing—for real? It is.

Marilyn Chin is almost famous for her poem which begins:

I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin

“How I Got That Name” tells us her dad named her for Marilyn Monroe, adding that no one questioned his impulse because we know “lust drove men to greatness, not goodness, not decency.”

Marilyn Chin, by putting her finger on “lust,” slyly takes on male poets like Whitman, Pound and Ginsberg, all famous for poems which “list.” We know why Marilyn Monroe was famous, and yet the name itself is famous, and millions of strangers are named Marilyn. The themes of “How I Got That Name” are many; some are: fame and lust and being named, and ‘that name’ rather than ‘my name’ is the key, perhaps, to this very teachable poem, and it would be deliciously ironic if “How I Got That Name” made Marilyn Chin truly famous at last.

Marilyn Chin likes to banter between poems; she enjoyed teasing Weaver, her ‘big brother.’ Laughing, she looked at him as she punned multiple times on the word sin (sincerity) making reference to Weaver’s Chinese scholarship: Sinologist. It was quite an evening.

Weaver, stoic and solid, is just as fascinating as a person, though he doesn’t ooze the energy of a famous person like Marilyn Chin does. Weaver appeared quietly happy, but one could tell that here was a physically large man who had been laid low a time or two in his life by forces beyond his control. The Tao Te Ching saved Weaver’s life when he was in his 20s, a college dropout learning to be a poet, working long years in a Baltimore factory.

Race—and every attendant cultural nuance—is at the heart of Weaver and Chin’s politics. Racial bigotry is still on America’s radar, but in terms of fame, in our era, it hasn’t got a chance against sex, and this is because fame has little to do with history and everything to do with contemporary legality. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution leave no room for debate—at least legally.

This has nothing to do with ‘sex sells,’ per se. Chin writes quite a bit about sex—even with haiku, in her latest collection! But this alone will never lead to poetic fame. Now if a book is banned for sex, that’s another manner. That will make you famous.

 

 

 

 

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