CONCEPT OR THING?

Jim Behrle: He’s no Duchamp

The Kill List poetry phenomenon consists of a book (of conceptualist poetry) and the various responses to it by poets on, or not on, the list.

The Kill List is an actual list (four per page) of living poets with either “rich” or “comfortable” after their names.

The fake outrage by Jim Behrle—one of the poets (“comfortable”) on the list and obviously thrilled at the publicity for himself, and the chance to exploit it for more (ads for T-shirts, “comfortable” or “rich”)—is currently at the center of the hyper-self-conscious, intra-reactive, analytical, blog-storm.

Conceptualism’s first rule is: In the presentation of the work, thing comes first, whether it is Duchamp’s urinal or Josef Kaplan’s The Kill List.  The presentation of the object must be pure; there can be no visible authorial intent in the presentation of the object qua object.

Since pure objectivity can never be presented as such, however, the thing presented, the instant it is presented, moves in the public perception from thing to concept.

The moment the public shifts its view from thing to concept, a second round of narrowed public consciousness finds it once again to be a thing; this movement between thing and concept is the very engine of the known and knowing universe.

The Kill List itself will always be safe in its thing-ness.  Its validation as a thing grows more secure with each new round of conceptualist speculation.

If it were only a conceptualist work, in fact: a comment on drone killing, a Marxist commentary on middle-class po-biz, an examination of the nature of personal threat, an analysis of social awareness and identity based on simple inclusion and exclusion, it would merely fizzle out, intellectually and ineffectually, and quickly become yesterday’s news.

But because the book, The Kill List, exists as itself, as a “real list,” and was presented merely as that, it survives, forever swinging back and forth, in the public mind, between concept and thing.  Long after Obama’s drone “kill list” or Frederick Forsyth’s espionage novel, Kill List (the google champ) is forgotten, the poetry “joke” will be remembered.

Because this phenomenon exists only among poets, the Kill List, as a public event, is small.  Duchamp’s conceptualist joke rippled the pond of the general press.

Behrle’s “Penis List,” a short poem which jokes about po-biz penis sizes (Billy Collins, 4 inches) and calls poetry itself a large vagina, recently published on the website HTML Giant as a joking response to The Kill List, is hopelessly banal, because it is conceptualist (abstract) only and forgets the rule: life and art require first a thing, and then, only then, will the proper conceptual transmorgrification occur in the public consciousness.

In a bygone era, it was the technical, metrical wizardry of a work by Alexander Pope that was its immediately presented thing-ness—no idea was present except as it was launched in the minds of readers by physical arrangements of sound-harmonics, and these exist as solidly as the porcelain shape of Duchamp’s toilet.

We say Pope’s rhymes and Duchamp’s toilet, but in presentation, no owner (authorial intent) is visible—the public gets wind of a toilet in a museum, just as it gets wind of a specific set of verses which offend the public taste.

Offense is key here. The offending words either melt into air, or the villain who uttered the offending words is made to feel the cudgel of punishment upon frail flesh and blood.

But if the offense is an everlasting object, real fame is possible.

Advertisements

A NEW THEORY OF LOVE

bardot-denim-0112-de

Bridget Bardot: Bob Dylan’s first muse.

Most of us can go about our lives for long stretches—months, even years—before we spot a celebrity: a movie star, a model, a famous musician, a professional athlete.  They exist, however; they are out there; and spotting a celebrity, no matter how we pretend otherwise, gives us a little thrill.

There are some people, however, who are not celebrities, but who nonetheless have a powerful effect on us: we think of them—probably not consciously—as celebrities who somehow missed being a celebrity; they could be celebrities, we think; but they occupy ordinary places in life—like we do.

One thinks of the two ballplayers who were twins: one swung the bat a thousandth of second faster than his twin: he was the major league baseball star, and his brother, physically similar, unknown.  This is not to say the world is populated with potential stars, for humanity, as we interact with it, seems imperfect indeed, and even the celebrity can turn human in an instant.

The celebrity is rare, and also rare is the celebrity-who-is-not-a-celebrity, the ones we might be fortunate to call our friends, or even marry.

In this new theory of love, we are making the case that celebrity-thrill is love.

We are thrilled to discover a celebrity, living without fame, right under our noses, and we fall in love with them, and this, in fact, is what defines love.

In the reverse situation, our lover makes us feel like a celebrity—but, of course, if they are skillful enough to make us feel that good, they must possess celebrity charm themselves.

We are smitten with someone’s beauty—we feel they are so beautiful that they could be a model, but we don’t care that they are not, for it is the beauty we love—but it is the idea that they could be a star which is how we measure them, which is what makes us love them—it is the same excitement we get from fame—the fame, even though it is not “there,” is what gives us that thrill which drives our feelings of love.

Love is not, then, as traditionally thought, a desire, a weakness, a hunger, an urge, an addiction, a need to fill an absence.

Love is a celebration, an excitement brought on by celebrity and fame.

We can certainly convince ourselves, in moments of weakness, that the traditional model of love (addictive urge) is the truth, for hunger afflicts us daily.

But the recluse, who is truly a recluse, does not feel love, even as the need continues for food and sleep.

Love belongs to the social, and what is more social than fame?

The latest love statistics from Japan support Scarriet’s thesis: large percentages of young people opting out of sexual relationships; the government worried about declining population; high percentages of Japanese men and women no longer interested in love or sex; the urge for love and sex literally drying up—in a society bombarded with virtual-reality celebrations of cute/sexual perfection, a futuristic society overwhelmed by cartoon celebrities.

The latest poetry buzz—stirred up by the poet Jim Behrle—concerns a book, The Kill List, which is driven by one thing: who is on the “list?”

Is it any accident that poetry lost its public just as Modernism decided poetry and love (always linked) didn’t really need each other?

We might reject this view as superficial, but we do so at our peril, for here’s the truth:

Love is love of fame and love of fame is love.

HERE WE GO AGAIN: SCARRIET’S POETRY HOT 100!!

Dark Messy Tower

1. Mark Edmundson Current Lightning Rod of Outrage

2. David Lehman BAP Editor now TV star: PBS’ Jewish Broadway

3. Rita Dove She knows Dunbar is better than Oppen

4. Matthew Hollis Profoundly researched Edward Thomas bio

5. Paul Hoover Status quo post-modern anthologist, at Norton

6. Don Share Wins coveted Poetry magazine Editorship

7. Sharon Olds Gets her Pulitzer

8. Michael Robbins The smartest guy writing on contemporary poetry now–see Hoover review

9. Marjorie Perloff Still everyone’s favorite Take-No-Prisoners Dame Avant-Garde

10. Natasha Trethewey Another Round as Laureate

11. Ron Silliman The Avant-garde King

12. Tony Hoagland The Billy Collins of Controversy

13. Billy Collins The real Billy Collins

14. Kenneth Goldsmith Court Jester of Talked-About

15. Terrance Hayes The black man’s Black Man’s Poet?

16. William Logan Favorite Bitch Critic

17. Avis Shivani Second Favorite Bitch Critic

18. John Ashbery Distinguished and Sorrowful Loon

19. Stephen Burt P.C. Throne at Harvard

20. Robert Hass  West Coast Establishment Poet

21. Harold Bloom Reminds us ours is an Age of Criticism, not Poetry

22. Helen Vendler She, in the same stultifying manner, reminds us of this, too.

23. Dana Gioia  Sane and Optimistic Beacon?

24. Bill Knott An On-line Bulldog of Poignant Common Sense

25. Franz Wright Honest Common Sense with darker tones

26. Henry Gould Another Reasonable Poet’s Voice on the blogosphere

27. Anne Carson The female academic poet we are supposed to take seriously

28. Seth Abramson Will give you a thousand reasons why MFA Poetry is great

29. Ben Mazer Poet of the Poetry! poetry! More Poetry! School who is actually good

30. Larry Witham Author, Picasso and the Chess Player (2013), exposes Modern Art/Poetry cliques

31. Mary Oliver Sells, but under Critical assault

32. Annie Finch The new, smarter Mary Oliver?

33. Robert Pinsky Consensus seems to be he had the best run as Poet Laureate

34. Mark McGurl His book, The Program Era, has quietly had an impact

35. Seamus Heaney Yeats in a minor key

36. W.S. Merwin Against Oil Spills but Ink Spill his writing method

37. George Bilgere Do we need another Billy Collins?

38. Cate Marvin VIDA will change nothing

39. Philip Nikolayev Best living translator?

40. Garrison Keillor As mainstream poetry lover, he deserves credit

41. Frank Bidart Poetry as LIFE RUBBED RAW

42. Jorie Graham The more striving to be relevant, the more she seems to fade

43. Alan Cordle Strange, how this librarian changed poetry with Foetry.com

44. Janet Holmes Ahsahta editor and MFA prof works the po-biz system like no one else

45. Paul Muldoon How easy it is to become a parody of oneself!

46. Cole Swensen Some theories always seem to be missing something

47. Matthew Dickman Was reviewed by William Logan. And lived

48. James Tate For some reason it depressed us to learn he was not a laugh riot in person.

49. Geoffrey Hill His poetry is more important than you are

50. Derek Walcott A great poet, but great poets don’t exist anymore

51. Charles Bernstein A bad poet, but bad poets don’t exist anymore, either

52. Kay Ryan Emily Dickinson she’s not. Maybe Marianne Moore when she’s slightly boring?

53. Laura Kasischke She’s published 8 novels. One became a movie starring Uma Thurman. Who the hell does she think she is?

54. Louise Gluck X-Acto!

55. Rae Armantrout “Quick, before you die, describe the exact shade of this hotel carpet.”

56. Heather McHugh “A coward and a coda share a word.”

57. D.A. Powell “Of course a child. What else might you have lost.”

58. Peter Gizzi Take your lyric and heave

59. Marilyn Chin Shy Iowa student went on to write an iconic 20th century poem: How I Got That Name

60. Eileen Myles Interprets Perloff’s avant-gardism as mourning

61. Lyn Hejinian As I sd to my friend, because I am always blah blah blah

62. Nikki Finney Civil Rights is always hot

63. K. Silem Mohammad This Flarfist Poet composes purely Anagram versions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Fie on it.

64. Meg Kearney Lectured in public by Franz Wright. Still standing.

65. Noah Eli Gordon Teaches at Boulder, published by Ahsahta

66. Peter Campion A poet, a critic and a scholar!

67. Simon Ortiz Second wave of the Native American Renaissance

68. Maya Angelou She continues to travel the world

69. Lyn Lifshin “Barbie watches TV alone, naked” For real?

70. Ange Mlinko Born in ’69 in Philly, writes for The Nation

71. Jim Behrle They also serve who only write bad poetry

72. Elizabeth Alexander She read in front of all those people

73. Dorothea Lasky The Witchy Romantic School

74. Virgina Bell The poet. Do not confuse with burlesque dancer

75. Fanny Howe Wreaks havoc out of Boston

76. Erin Belieu Available for VIDA interviews

77. Ariana Reines Another member of the witchy romantic school

78. Jed Rasula Old Left poetry critic

79. John Hennessy “Too bad I felt confined by public space/despite her kinky talk, black net and lace”

80. Timothy Donnelly “Driver, please. Let’s slow things down. I can’t endure/the speed you favor, here where the air’s electric”

81. Clive James His translation, in quatrains, of Dante’s Divine Comedy, published this year

82. Danielle Pafunda “We didn’t go anywhere, we went wrong/in our own backyard. We didn’t have a yard,/but we went wrong in the bedroom”

83. Michael Dickman Matthew is better, right?

84. Kit Robinson “Get it first/but first get it right/in the same way it was”

85. Dan Beachy Quick “My wife found the key I hid beneath the fern./My pens she did not touch. She did not touch/The hundred pages I left blank to fill other days”

86. Ilya Kaminsky Teaches at San Diego State, won Yinchuan International Poetry Prize

87. Robert Archambeau Son of a potter, this blog-present poet and critic protested Billy Collins’ appointment to the Poet Laureateship

88. Kent Johnson Best known as a translator

89. Frederick Seidel An extroverted Philip Larkin?

90. David Orr Poetry columnist for New York Times wrote on Foetry.com

91. Richard Wilbur Oldest Rhymer and Moliere translator

92. Kevin Young Finalist in Criticism for National Book Critics Circle

93. Carolyn Forche Human rights activist born in 1950

94. Carol Muske Dukes Former California Laureate writes about poetry for LA Times

95. William Kulik Writes paragraph poems for the masses

96. Daniel Nester The sad awakening of the MFA student to the bullshit

97. Alexandra Petri Began 2013 by calling poetry “obsolete” in Wash Post

98. John Deming Poet, told Petri, “We teach your kids.”

99. C. Dale Young “Medical students then, we had yet to learn/when we could or could not cure”

100. Clayton Eshleman Sometimes the avant-garde is just boring

ANOTHER SCARY SCARRIET POETRY HOT 100!

1. Natasha Trethewey   Beautiful! Black! Poet Laureate!
2. Billy Collins  Still sells…
3. David Lehman  Best American Poetry Series chugs along…
4. Stephen Burt  Harvard Cross-dresser takes Vendler’s mantle?
5. William Logan  Most entertaining poetry critic
6. Christian Wiman  He’s the “Poetry” man, he makes me feel alright…
7. Sharon Olds  Sock-in-the-gut, sexy frankness…
8. Tracy K. Smith Young Pulitzer winner
9. David Orr  The New York Times Poetry Critic…
10. Harold Bloom  Not sure on Naomi Wolfe; we know he abused Poe….
11. Matthew Dickman  OMG!  Is he really no. 11?
12. Anne Carson  Professor of Classics born in Toronto…
13. Dana Gioia  Famous essay still resonates & not a bad formalist poet…
14. Jorie Graham Judge not…
15. Rita Dove The Penguin Anthology really wasn’t that good…
16. Helen Vendler Almost 80!
17. John Ashbery Has he ever written a poem for no. 16?  Where’s the love?
18. David Ferry This translator is almost 90!
19. Kevin Young We hear he’s a leading poet of his generation…
20. Robert Pinsky The smartest man in the universe…
21. Cole Swenson  The Hybrid Queen, newly installed at Brown…
22. Marjorie Perloff  “Poetry on the Brink” praises cut-and-paste…
23. John Barr Financial leader of Poetry Foundation and poet worth reading?
24. Seamus Heaney  The inscrutable Irish mountain…
25. Geoffrey Hill  A mountain who is really a hill?
26. Robert Hass  West-coast cheerleader.
27. Stephen Dunn  Athlete, philosopher, poet
28. Laura Kassichke  Championed by Burt.
29. Mary Oliver  The John Clare of today…
30. Kay Ryan  Come on, she’s actually good…
31. Don Share  Riding “Poetry” gravy train…
32. W.S. Merwin  Noble, ecological, bull?
33. Dana Levin Do you know the way to Santa Fe?
34. Susan Wheeler Elliptical Poet.  At Princeton.
35. Tony Hoagland Has the racial controversy faded?
36. Mark Doty Sharon Olds’ little brother…
37. Frank Bidart The Poet as Greek Tragedian
38. Simon Armitage Tilda Swinton narrates his global warming doc
39. D.A. Powell He likes the weather in San Francisco…
40. Philip Levine Second generation Program Era poet
41. Ron Silliman Experimental to the bone, his blog is video central…
42. Mark Strand Plain-talking surrealist, studied painting with Josef Albers…
43. Dan Chiasson Influential poetry reviewer…
44. Al Filreis  On-line professor teaches modern poetry to thousands at once!
45. Paul Muldoon If you want your poem in the New Yorker, this is the guy…
46. Charles Bernstein Difficult, Inc.
47. Rae Armantrout  If John Cage wrote haiku?
48. Louise Gluck Bollingen Prize winner…
49. Ben Mazer 2012 Scarriet March Madness Champ, studied with Heaney, Ricks…
50. Carol Muske-Dukes California Laureate
51. Peter Riley His critical essay crushes the hybrid movement…
52. Lyn Hejinian California Language Poet…
53. Peter Gizzi 12 issues of O.blek made his name…
54. Franz Wright Cantankerous but blessed…
55. Nikky Finney 2011 National Book Award winner 
56. Garrison Keillor Good poems!
57. Camille Paglia  She’s baaaack!
58. Christian Bok Author of Canada’s best-selling poetry book
59. X.J. Kennedy Classy defender of rhyme…
60. Frederick Seidel Wears nice suits…
61. Henri Cole Poems “cannily wrought” –New Yorker
62. Thom Donovan Poetry is Jorie-Graham-like…
63. Marie Howe State Poet of New York

64. Michael Dickman The other twin…
65. Alice Oswald Withdrew from T.S. Eliot prize shortlist…
66. Sherman Alexie Poet/novelist/filmmaker…
67. J.D. McClatchy Anthologist and editor of Yale Review…
68. David Wagoner Edited Poetry Northwest until it went under…
69. Richard Wilbur A versifier’s dream…
70. Stephen Cramer His fifth book is called “Clangings.”
71. Galway Kinnell We scolded him on his poem in the New Yorker critical of Shelley…
72. Jim Behrle Gadfly of the BAP
73. Haruki Murakami The Weird Movement…
74. Tim Seibles Finalist for National Book Award in Poetry
75. Brenda Shaughnessy  Editor at Tin House…
76. Maurice Manning  The new Robert Penn Warren?
77. Eileen Myles We met her on the now-dead Comments feature of Blog Harriet
78. Heather McHugh Studied with Robert Lowell; translator.
79. Juliana Spahr Poetry and sit-ins
80. Alicia Ostriker Poetry makes feminist things happen…
81. William Childress His ‘Is Free Verse Killing Poetry?’ caused a stir…
82. Patricia Smith Legendary Slam Poet…
83. James Tate The Heart-felt Zany Iowa School…
84. Barrett Watten Language Poet Theorist.
85. Elizabeth Alexander Obama’s inaugural poet.
86. Alan Cordle Foetry changed poetry forever.
87. Dean Young Heart transplanted, we wish him the best…
88. Amy Beeder “You’ll never feel full”
89. Valzhyna Mort Franz Wright translated her from the Belarusian…
90. Mary Jo Salter Studied with Elizabeth Bishop at Harvard…
91. Seth Abramson Lawyer/poet who researches MFA programs and writes cheery reviews…
92. Amy Catanzano “My aim is to become incomprehensible to the machines.”
93. Cate Marvin  VIDA co-founder and co-director
94. Jay Wright First African-American to win the Bollingen Prize (2005)
95. Albert Jack His “Dreadful Demise Of Edgar Allan Poe” builds on Scarriet’s research: Poe’s cousin may be guilty…
96. Mary Ruefle “I remember, I remember”
97. John Gallaher Selfless poet/songwriter/teacher/blogger
98. Philip Nikolayev From Fulcrum to Battersea…
99. Marcus Bales Democratic Activist and Verse Poet
100. Joe Green And Hilarity Ensued…

SCARRIET’S POETRY HOT 100!!

All ye need to know?

1. Rita Dove—Penguin editor reviewed by Helen Vendler in the NYRB
2. Terrance Hayes—In Dove’s best-selling anthology, and young
3. Kevin Young—In Dove’s anthology, and young
4. Amiri Baraka—In Dove’s anthology
5. Billy Collins—in the anthology
6. John Ashbery—a long poem in the anthology
7. Dean Young—not in the anthology
8. Helen Vendler—hated the anthology
9. Alan CordleTime’s masked Person-of-the-Year = Foetry.com’s once-anonymous Occupy Poetry protestor?
10. Harold Bloom—you can bet he hates the anthology
11. Mary Oliver—in the anthology
12. William Logan—meanest and the funniest critic (a lesson here?)
13. Kay Ryan—our day’s e.e. cummings
14. John Barr—the Poetry Man and “the Man.”
15. Kent Johnson—O’Hara and Koch will never be the same?
16. Cole Swensen—welcome to Brown!
17. Tony Hoagland—tennis fan
18. David Lehman—fun lovin’ BAP gate-keeper
19. David Orr—the deft New York Times critic
20. Rae Armantrout—not in the anthology
21. Seamus Heaney—When Harvard eyes are smilin’
22. Dan Chiasson—new reviewer on the block
23. James Tate—guaranteed to amuse
24. Matthew Dickman—one of those bratty twins
25. Stephen Burt—the Crimson Lantern
26. Matthew Zapruder—aww, everybody loves Matthew!
27. Paul MuldoonNew Yorker Brit of goofy complexity
28. Sharon Olds—Our Lady of Slightly Uncomfortable Poetry
29. Derek Walcott—in the anthology, latest T.S. Eliot prize winner
30. Kenneth Goldsmith—recited traffic reports in the White House
31. Jorie Graham—more teaching, less judging?
32. Alice Oswald—I don’t need no stinkin’ T.S. Eliot Prize
33. Joy Harjo—classmate of Dove’s at Iowa Workshop (in the anthology)
34. Sandra Cisneros—classmate of Dove’s at Iowa Workshop (in the anthology)
35. Nikki Giovanni—for colored girls when po-biz is enuf
36. William Kulik—not in the anthology
37. Ron Silliman—no more comments on his blog, but in the anthology
38. Daisy Fried—setting the Poetry Foundation on fire
39. Eliot Weinberger—poetry, foetry, and politics
40. Carol Ann Duffy—has Tennyson’s job
41. Camille Dungy—runs in the Poetry Foundation forest…
42. Peter Gizzi—sensitive lyric poet of the hour…
43. Abigail Deutsch—stole from a Scarriet post and we’ll always love her for it…
44. Robert Archambeau—his Samizdat is one of the more visible blogs…
45. Michael Robbins—the next William Logan?
46. Carl Phillips—in the anthology
47. Charles NorthWhat It Is Like, New & Selected chosen as best of 2011 by David Orr
48. Marilyn Chin—went to Iowa, in the anthology
49. Marie Howe—a tougher version of Brock-Broido…
50. Dan Beachy-Quick—gotta love that name…
51. Marcus Bales—he’s got the Penguin blues.
52. Dana Gioia—he wants you to read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, so what r u waiting 4?
53. Garrison Keillor—the boil on the neck of August Kleinzahler
54. Alice Notley—Penguin’s Culture of One by this Paris-based author made a lot of 2011 lists
55. Mark McGurl—won Truman Capote Award for 2011’s The Program Era: Rise of Creative Writing
56. Daniel Nester—wrap your blog around my skin, yea-uh.
57. Yusef Komunyakaa—in the anthology
58. Adrienne Rich—in the anthology
59. Jeremy Bass— reviewed the anthology in the Nation
60. Anselm Berrigan—somebody’s kid
61. Travis Nichols—kicked us off Blog Harriet
62. Seth Abramson—poet and lawyer
63. Stephen Dunn—one of the best poets in the Iowa style
64. Philip Levine—Current laureate, poem recently in the New Yorker  Movin’ up!
65. Ben Mazer—Does anyone remember Landis Everson?
66. Reb Livingston—Her No Tells blog rocks the contemporary scene
67. Marjorie Perloff—strutting avant academic
68. John Gallaher—Kent Johnson can’t get enough punishment on Gallaher’s blog
69. Fred Viebahn—poet married to the Penguin anthologist
70. James Fenton—said after Penguin review hit, Dove should have “shut up”
71. Rodney Jones—BAP poem selected by Dove riffs on William Carlos Williams’ peccadilloes
72. Mark Doty—no. 28’s brother
73. Cate Marvin—VIDA and so much more
74. Richard Wilbur—still hasn’t run out of rhyme
75. W.S. Merwin—no punctuation, but no punk
76. Jim Behrle—the Adam Sandler of po-biz
77. Bin Ramke—still stinging from the Foetry hit
78. Thomas Sayer Ellis—not in the anthology
79. Henri Cole—poetry editor of the New Republic
80. Meghan O’Rourke—Behrle admires her work
81. Anne Waldman—the female Ginsberg?
82. Anis Shivani—get serious, poets! it’s time to change the world!
83. Robert Hass—Occupy story in Times op-ed
84. Lyn Hejinian—stuck inside a baby grand piano
85. Les Murray—greatest Australian poet ever?
86. Sherman Alexie—is this one of the 175 poets to remember?
87. Geoffrey Hill—great respect doesn’t always mean good
88. Elizabeth Alexander—Frost got Kennedy, she got Obama
89. A.E. Stallings—A rhymer wins MacArthur!
90. Frank Bidart—in the anthology
91. Robert Pinsky—in the anthology
92. Carolyn Forche—in the anthology
93. Louise Gluck—not in the anthology
94. Keith Waldrop—his Hopwood Award paid her fare from Germany
95. Rosmarie Waldrop—her Hopwood helpled launch Burning Deck
96. C.D. Wright—born in the Ozark mountains
97. Forrest Gander—married to no. 96
98. Mark Strand—translator, surrealist
99. Margaret Atwood—the best Canadian poet of all time?
100. Gary B. Fitzgerald—the poet most likely to be remembered a million years from now

RACIST!

 

A poem by Tony Hoagland published nearly 10 years ago is making news.  Claudia Rankine decided to make an issue of the poem’s racism recently, both directly to him, and, more recently, in public, and Tony Hoagland responded to her by saying she is naive for being offended.  Here’s the poem:

The Change

The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine.
In the park the daffodils came up
and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade.

Sometimes I think that nothing really changes—

The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,
          and the new president proves that he’s a dummy.

But remember the tennis match we watched that year?
Right before our eyes

some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—

We were just walking past the lounge
and got sucked in by the screen above the bar,
and pretty soon
we started to care about who won,

putting ourselves into each whacked return
as the volleys went back and forth and back
like some contest between
the old world and the new,

and you loved her complicated hair
and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,
and I,
I couldn’t help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,

because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips

and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
               so unintimidated,

hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,
like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission.

There are moments when history
passes you so close
                you can smell its breath,
you can reach your hand out
                    and touch it on its flank,

and I don’t watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre,
but I could feel the end of an era there

in front of those bleachers full of people
in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes

as that black girl wore down her opponent
then kicked her ass good
then thumped her once more for good measure

and stood up on the red clay court
holding her racket over her head like a guitar.

And the little pink judge
               had to climb up on a box
to put the ribbon on her neck,

still managing to smile into the camera flash,
even though everything was changing

and in fact, everything had already changed—

Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,

and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.

—Tony Hoagland, Graywolf Press, 2003

Let’s be clear about this: No one can discuss racism without being racist while doing so.  This is the very nature of the topic.  The best one can do, when it comes to racism, is to be either as absent from it as possible, or as present in it as possible.  

Never, however, get caught in the middle

When you are caught in the middle you are half-human, half-animal, for racism is exactly where the human and the natural meet, where society and skin, intersect. 

Racism is the Devil at the Crossroads.

Tony Hoagland took a few moments out of his life to write a racist poem, and, duh—he is now being called a racist.  

Tony Hoagland took a little walk, and, tempted by a misty shape, took a wrong turn.

As Jim Behrle astutely put it, Hoagland has “spinach in his teeth” and the spinach in his teeth has been pointed out to Tony by his now former-colleague, Claudia Rankine.  According to Behrle, Tony should be grateful.

Apologize, and take the spinach out of your teeth, Tony.

Claudia Rankine is less involved, finally, than Tony Hoagland, for she  represents only the inevitable discovery of Tony Hoagland’s sin.

Claudia’s hurt, whether she knows it or not, is not for herself, but for Tony; her pang of hurt and recognition was her realization that she had been called by the fates to bear witness to Tony’s wrong.

The fates are never racist.

Only the devil is.  

Claudia Rankine is not the subject here; she is merely the other shoe falling.

Claudia Rankine is the other half of the middle which Tony Hoagland unfortunately strayed into.

Never get caught in the middle; never be both in and out of the racist topic.  And secondly, the racist topic makes the speaker on it racist.  These are the two iron laws.

When you go to the Crossroads, you will always meet somebody.

Now there have been voices on the web during this little firestorm, wise voices, pointing out that Hoagland is not the person speaking in the poem—and, by the way, Hoagland clearly is not the speaker of the poem—, and that the poem bravely and thoughtfully explores the issue of race and the changing perception of race in the media, in Europe and the United States, in sports, and among shallow, fashionable people, and the poem is universal enough to include every thoughtful person in its sweep.

What these voices say are true.

But these voices merely murmur like the sly shape which tempted Tony to his fate in the first place.  These voices cannot save Tony Hoagland, for they are merely saying, “Tony ate spinach an hour ago;” they cannot take away the reality and the embarrassment of the spinach sticking out of Tony’s teeth.

Wishing to scrap the New Critical dictum that the poem is not directed to anything outside itself, but succeeds or fails on the strength and flexibility of its own inner mechanisms, the Tony Hoagland School, wishing to find avenues of escape from the death-pale chill of the New Critical, audaciously pokes and prods the edifices of the outside world until brown chunks and organic pieces crumble into and grow in the very center of the poem itself, and when something like this happens to Tony Hoagland, such as the Claudia Rankine Incident, the New Critical Death’s Head, like a grinning English Queen, says under its breath: See?  I told you!  The world will ruin the transparent poem every time!  But here’s a lesson for you—at the Crossroads!  Mr. Naive!

The more racist you are, the more New Critical you must be.

Even the bravest and the most innocent of hearts who leave the New Critical castle will die, like those millions and millions of confessional poems from 1960 onward, whose poets spoke their souls in prose about every intimate subject under the sun.  What variety!  And now, what dull death!

In his recent piece on the Rankine Incident, Jim Behrle writes, “I am racist,” but, “it’s something I work on every day.”  Behrle needed to say this.  Otherwise Behrle couldn’t, with impunity, write of the Rankine Incident:  “Tony Hoagland is among the most undertalented and overrated poets in America.  Seems like he’s an asshole, too.”

Behrle instinctively knows one cannot walk into a racist discussion like a toddler walking into traffic. 

You are either aloof, or guilty.

“I am racist…”

It’s the iron law.

THE POETRY PROJECT

Don’t they mean the Bedbugs Project? Or the Wino Project?

When I told the famous poet Jim Behrle the Poetry Project was a stupid name he invoked tradition to defend it: “It’s been around for 45 years.”  It might be a stretch to equate 45 years with tradition, but hell, why not?  Jim Behrle’s no T.S. Eliot, but no one is, and Eliot’s been dead since the Beatles’ first LP and the Poetry Project is as old as 1965’s Yesterday, which, by the way, blatantly rhymes as much as any rap song, but you might say Yesterday is elegant rhyme, but in the 3 Stooges 1934 Columbia Pictures episode that rhymes, there’s slapping and rapping. (It’s the episode where Larry gets married, despite his lifetime membership in the Woman Haters Club.  Jackie, Tom and Jim are the boys’ names in this early Stooges show.)

The Poetry Project’s website wraps itself in the “tradition” (nyuk nyuk nyuk) of John Ashbery:

Since its founding [in] the late ’60s, the Poetry Project  has been a major force in contemporary American literature. It’s not just an  institution but an entire social sphere, where poets and their readers can  mingle freely, listen to each other, and come away with new ideas. The current  worldwide interest in American and especially New York poetry is a direct  result of the presence of The Poetry Project at St. Marks Church. – John Ashbery

Do we believe John Ashbery when he uses phrases like “major force” and “come away with ideas” and “current worldwide interest?”   Of course we do. If Ashbery isn’t purifying meaning, who is?

We must take Ashbery at his word, because we discern no winks, no smirks, no eye-pokes, no fun.  “Major force!”

The next blurb on the website is courteous enough to explain the importance of the Poetry Project:

The Poetry Project has, over the decades, provided poets with a safe haven, laboratory, and stage. These, combined, have activated and preserved our various ways of thinking and linking language to ourselves and to the world. Remarkably, the Project has never stopped reinventing itself as an institution: that is, it has allowed the currents of poetic innovation to inform its choices and decisions. In this, it is as unique as it is irreplaceable.  – Ann Lauterbach

Now we’re getting somewhere.   They give a “safe haven” to “poets.”  So they are a charity house. If you are a “poet,” and are running from the police, you go to them, or, if you need a meal and a clean bed and you are a “poet,” they are there for you.  Shall I remember this, the next time my wife throws me out of the house, or the bartender throws me out of my bar?

What can this mean, though:

“Remarkably, the Project has never stopped reinventing itself as an institution: that is, it has allowed the currents of poetic innovation to inform its choices and decisions.

Does this mean my rock of charity could turn to sand? What in the world does “poetic innovation” have to do with a meal and a warm bed?  Here I find my faith in the institution, in Ashbery and Lauterbach’s sincerity, slipping.

“Innovation,” as we all know, is the fine print in every contract: that may have been true yesterday, but poetic innovation makes it impossible to say who will be our friends tomorrow!

Faith forever topples into the ditch of “innovation.”

We already have our doubts about the venerable Poetry Project, and suspect it is a private club posing as an open one, playing hide-and-seek behind “poetic innovation” and terms like “safe haven, laboratory and stage.”

What if Melville made the Poetry Project his “safe haven” or his “stage,” rather than the wide, wide ocean?

What “poet” would seek the “innovative” illusion of an institutional promise of a “safe haven?”

The Poetry Project?

That was yesterday, and yesterday’s gone.

If my critique seems unfair, sullen, or rash,  it is in the spirit of Voltaire.  I seek to eliminate, rather than cultivate,  middlemen in poetry.  Recall the inscription on Voltaire’s church at Ferney:

Deo erexit Voltaire.

Voltaire erected this to God.

WELL, DUH.

The following quotes were taken from the “Poetry Foundation’s 15 most-read Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine articles.”

“America’s poets have a minimal presence in American civic discourse and a minuscule public role in the life of American democracy.”  —David Biespiel (no. 6)

“The most prevalent poetic representation of contemporary experience is the mimesis of disorientation by non sequitur. Just look into any new magazine. The most frequently employed poetic mode is the angular juxtaposition of dissonant data, dictions, and tones, without defining relations between them. The poem of non-parallelism—how things, perceptions, thoughts, and words coexist without connecting—is the red wheelbarrow of Now . . .”   —Tony Hoagland (no. 5)

To write a good poem about an ugly thing, as Seidel does often, is not to write an ugly poem . . .”   —Molly Young  (no.2)

“Since very few non-poets read poetry, it makes sense that our audience is 98 percent poets. And poets are more easily manipulated than most artists. Our art is based on the most subjective of terms—it rises and falls based on nothing tangible. One minute you’re Mark Van Doren, the most important poet in the world. The next you’re Yvor Winters, mostly forgotten.”   —Jim Behrle  (no. 1)

No suprise these sentiments (which by now are truims) on the zeitgeist of American poetry were the most-read.

Yup:

poets have minimal presence 

disorientation by non sequitur

ugly poem

our audience is 98 percent poets

The most-read Poetry Foundation sentiments of 2010:

Tiny, incestuous, impotent enclave of poets reading non sequitur, hoping against hope that a good poem on ugly isn’t ugly.

 

IS JIM BEHRLE GETTING LAID THIS WEEKEND?

He better.

Behrle’s hosting a Boston poetry marathon reading with 88 poets reading for 8 minutes this weekend.  88 poets for 8 minutes.  Cute.

“36 poets will read over the course of 10 hours.  Behrle will sit through it all.” —The Boston Phoenix July 30,2010

What torture.

Jim, tell us if you get laid, at least.

We wanna know.

%d bloggers like this: