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Andrew Szilvasy 08-15-2018 07:42 AM

"The Atlantic": How Poetry Came to Matter Again

Orwn Acra 08-15-2018 08:12 AM

I sometimes like the poems of Sharif, Chen Chen, and Danez Smith, though I find the latter two often anti-intellectual, narrow-minded, and Americentric. The less said about Sharif's propagandist "Persian Letters" poem the better. Recently a friend, who lives in Abu Dhabi and travels widely, was speaking to me about how American writers take identity politics as a universally acknowledged fact, when really it is accepted by a small percentage of people and only within the Anglosphere.

Identity politics can be dismissed on Marxist grounds (Asad Haider explains it well here, though he is definitely not the first to do so). In literature, one reason I dislike the poetry of identity is because identity deals in the general—being gay or brownish—and not in the specificities of the individual, which cannot be reduced to identity. Identity is what you call yourself because of other people and society; the opposite would be what the cat at the end of T. S. Eliot’s The Naming of Cats is doing: “When you notice a cat in profound meditation / The reason, I tell you, is always the same: / His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation / Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name: / His ineffable effable / Effanineffable / Deep and inscrutable singular Name.”

The current movement will pass. I am not surprised that poetry is more popular than in times past, but then again, more people are in writing programs now than ever before. Most of the poets mentioned I find unimaginative; and I already know what it's like to be gay and brownish, so I am not sure what their poetry offers me.

Andrew Szilvasy 08-15-2018 05:42 PM


I do like the Haider article. As an ardent lefty myself, and someone who constantly tries to be an advocate in my school, I find some some of the recent Twitter explosions (say, surrounding Anders Carlson-Wee's not great poem in The Nation) interesting and challenging.

I find some stuff to enjoy in all three--though, in the case of Smith almost entirely when I hear him read his own poems and almost never on the page. (In the case of Sharif, is this the poem you're talking about: [Persian Letters]).

I think for a long time poetry ceased having "popular" poets. There wasn't a way in for people who had one major talent but not another. When you think of almost every major era--even Modernism--there was a popular poetry that was actually, you know, popular. Sometimes popularity coincided with talent. Byron is an easy example. Very frequently it didn't. But those popular poets allowed an entryway into the good poets--it kept poetry both ephemeral and important. That strikes me as something the industry has lacked pretty much since the novel took over. Our culture (and I'm generalizing) with it's lac of attention span, should ultimately have a similar reading market to the eras where could read: shorter pieces that engage and draw people in. I think the popularity of poets--even if it's based solely on racial/sexual/gender identity at first--is what, at first, draws people in, it helps poetry in general.

John Isbell 08-15-2018 05:48 PM

Hi Walter,

Interesting post. Turning to civic engagement, protest in the US often seems to me to choose consumer paths: purchasing choices, product boycotts, sooner than demonstrations or organizing for elections. I have a little experience on this topic, having run a presidential campaign in Monroe County, IN back in 2003-04, and done door to door canvasing often enough. This hand in hand with the slow death of the American union movement. Perhaps the US does a better job of producing informed consumers than informed citizens.

On a parallel track, what people refer to as identity politics feels to me suited to just this cultural moment. I'm not sure I can express this better; I'm just trying to situate the movement in terms of political theory. Clearly it has improved the world in its role as a continuation of civil rights. What is that quotation - one person oppressed is everybody oppressed? The sum of human happiness has increased in measurable ways through the work of identity politics, such as marriage equality in the US.

All this quite independently of any aesthetic question, though those are worth asking. But I'm interested in the political theory, and the consumer question.


Update: cross-posted with Andrew, who does a much better job of addressing the aesthetic questions than I do. I'd argue though that popular poetry is alive, well, and quoted daily by tens of millions in the guise of music lyrics...

Mark McDonnell 08-16-2018 01:15 AM

Hi Walter,

I think I pretty much agree with you. Of course, it sounds better and more palatable coming from you (gay and brownish) than it would from me (white and straightish). And I can't think of a better way to put it than from the voice of Eliot's cat haha.

Like Andrew I'm an 'ardent lefty', or instinctively feel I am, though having looked into the Anders Carlson Lee controversy I do begin to wonder what that means. I didn't find the debate around his and the magazine's forced apologies interesting and challenging, I just found it pretty unequivocally disturbing that they felt it necessary to make them. I wonder (Andrew) why you felt it necessary to add the editorial 'not great' to your link, as if this softens or justifies the ridiculous treatment the poem/poet received.

Generally, however well-intentioned, I tend to look on poetry (or anything for that matter) which claims/seeks to speak for a 'group identity' with some skepticism. I'd far rather be invited into a unique and private universe.

Edit: having said this, I should also say that I'm not familiar with the three poets mentioned in Walter's opening paragraph. I did watch the youtube clip Andrew linked to of the Danez Smith poem ('Dinosaurs in the Hood') which, like a lot of spoken word, seemed more akin to good political stand-up, which seems a better medium to me for cathartic collective identity.

John Isbell 08-16-2018 04:03 AM

OK, I read the Atlantic article. It's hard for me to get any sense of the poets discussed there other than from the extracts cited, since the whole piece reads like a long publishers' blurb. Forget William Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquillity”: Guzmán’s poem was an almost instant eulogy - this does not inspire the sense that we are reading an impartial witness to the scene.


Michael F 08-16-2018 06:44 AM

Well since Eliot and Wordsworth are getting some play, I guess I'll quote some Auden. He said what I would.

A poet’s hope: to be, like some valley cheese, local, but prized elsewhere.

Andrew Szilvasy 08-16-2018 06:49 AM


Originally Posted by Mark McDonnell (Post 423760)
I wonder (Andrew) why you felt it necessary to add the editorial 'not great' to your link, as if this softens or justifies the ridiculous treatment the poem/poet received.

Hi Mark,

I found the debate interesting because I saw a lot of it on Twitter. Some of it really was brought up points that I hadn't thought of. I found it challenging because I still couldn't bring myself to think that Carlson-Wee did something that he needed an apology, and yet he still did. As did Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith.

I specifically mentioned the quality of the poem because that should be the foreground of a reading: the poem was raised up and published in the journal, despite it's mediocrity, in part because of identity politics; for that very same reason it was torn down.

As for the treatment, I think there are interesting questions, and specifically Americentric questions, about blackface and minstrel-shows. All the language of appropriation is, to my mind, unconvincing; I'm more interested in the former, and what those lines might be. Here's John McWhorter on it.

(The "ableist" language Burt and Smith apologized for, given the context, is frankly absurd.)

Mark McDonnell 08-16-2018 06:58 AM

Andrew, well why didn't you say all that? ;) But thanks for the clarification. I clearly read things other than your intended meaning into 'interesting', 'challenging' and 'not great'.


Fwiw I quite like the poem. It's an amusing irony that many of the professionally offended (white) people who caused the furore on social media would no doubt happily describe themselves as 'woke'.

John Isbell 08-16-2018 07:58 AM

Hi Andrew,

Interesting link. It ends "JOHN MCWHORTER teaches linguistics at Columbia University", which does a fair job situating the frame of reference he brings to bear on the question of Black English. Similarly, I was at a Chomsky talk some years ago where he described Black English as in linguistic terms an independent language with an independent set of rules.
So much for neutral linguistic observation. As for the sociological question, well, it's fascinating, and McWhorter does a fair job reviewing it to my mind. Here in the Rio Grande Valley, the choice between Spanish and English is similarly fraught. Some people will be happy to hear Spanish, some offended; getting that choice right requires experience and focus. For instance, in my classrooms, students are startled when I begin referring to Spanish to explain French or German; it takes a moment to break the ice of stereotyping and show that these are world languages from a common family, and learners will in fact learn quicker if they have Spanish under their belt and available. But with the ice broken, then that choice can become a matter of confidence and pride.
As McWhorter indicates, what the Dalai Lama calls insight certainly helps when faced with questions like these.


Update: Found my quotation. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” - Dr. Martin Luther King.

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