Wednesday, March 05, 2003

Dear Ron,

Since it seems like yr blog has become somewhat of a forum as of late, I figured I forward you this email exchange and ask your opinion on the aesthetics of dissent...

I sent four poems, including the following, the most straight-forward of the bunch, to a student organizing a Poets Against the War reading in MA:

a black mirror for the capital


Decision can still the clock’s hands,
wrap the moment in a voluminous straightjacket.

In the room, six flights underground,
two men wear identical keys around their necks, waiting,

as though the gears of the earth could be silenced
by the flick of a wrist.

Rubble, a suffix for the burning city,
a coat stitched from the strikepads of empty matchbooks.


It’s clear enough:
the gutted chassis of a pickup in black & white.

& you’ve seen the girl, naked & screaming,
arms splayed as though she could take flight

from the road—from this heat.
The body shackles memory beneath the skin,

raises a map of welts:
the blueprints for a massive ark.


Will a sandbag stop a bullet,
keep a hot-air balloon from melting near the sun

Will staring at a solar-eclipse burn the retinas,
is the reflection in a puddle safe

Will the rats grow too large
to squeeze out from under the floorboards

Will Sacajawea haul her child
out of the prison of our new coin

Will she still point toward the river


Someone once asked me
what forgiveness feels like,

now I’d know to take my finger
& trace the mortar

between the bricks
of an abandoned fire station.

This was the student's reply:

      I'm happy to tell you that we have sorted through the submissions for the "Poetry in Protest" event, and some of your writing has been approved for the reading. Because of the density of most of your writing, we suggest that you only read a small piece of "a black mirror for the capital." We would like you to read only the first part of the poem, ending with "a coat stitched from the strikepads of empty matchbooks". We felt the rest of it, while good, was a bit too abstract for the setting.
      We are asking all participating poets to be at the West
Lecture Hall of Franklin Paterson Hall by 6:45 on the night of the reading, Thursday, March 6. We will get you seated up front at that time, and give you the details of how the reading will proceed (we haven't figured it all out yet). There will be a mic for you to use in case you're a quiet reader. You are encouraged to read slowly, and if you like you may say a few words about how you feel about the war before you begin your poem. We want this to be a relaxed and personal event, which is one of the reasons we opted for one of the smaller lecture halls. Looking forward to seeing you there. Email or call me with any questions.

Sean Bishop.

And here was my reply to Sean:

Dear Sean,

Let me say that it's great that you've been working on putting together this reading. It's an important event, important not because it gives folks a chance to read, rather in that it's able to offer poets a forum to publicly show their dissent against the atrocious policies of our current government; however, I'm a bit taken aback at your policing of the aesthetics of dissent. I'd completely understand if it were merely a question of time constraints, but to use a phrase like "too abstract for the setting," is problematic for me on two accounts.

Firstly, it seems to me to be a judgment not of the effectiveness of the poem to convey whatever it's attempting to convey, but a judgment of the notion of audience. I take it to mean that you want to make sure everyone "understands" the poems, that everyone is able to leave each poem with the sense that, yes, that poem is against the war, that yes, I get it, which is exactly the problem of war: it's not that simple.

Secondly, war is just about the most abstract thing to us Americans that there is. We won't see any of it on tv. Our lives will go on as usual, a bit foggy perhaps with the idea that people are dying somewhere. War really is the ultimate abstraction. That said, I wanted to let you know that I just wouldn't feel comfortable reading in such a setting and have decided that I won't attend the event. I hope it goes well, and again, it's great that you've been working to bring the event into existence.

Noah Eli Gordon

I'm just wondering where you stand on the issue of poetry of dissent, what is poetry of dissent? It seems like the last issue of the Poetry
Project newsletter took some of your comments out of context, so perhaps you could address the issue.


I asked Sean Bishop for permission to run his letter here, which he immediately gave with a couple of tiny edits, also suggesting that I should include his response to Noah:

    I'm sorry our decision upsets you, but I rather resent your remark about "policing the aesthetics of dissent." We had to make editorial decisions. These decisions were not always based entirely on the quality of the work (whatever that word means.) We weren't judging your capabilities as a poet, but yes, we were making some aesthetic decisions. The length of your poem was the largest factor in this. A short abstract poem can be appropriate for a reading setting, but yours is quite long, and we suspected the audience would be entirely lost by the beginning of the third page/section. Paul and I both felt that the piece began to lose its grounding after the first part, which is entirely capable of standing alone as a poem, and which is really quite striking all by itself.

     You wrote that you thought this was less a judgment of the effectiveness of the poem to convey its message, and more a judgment of the audience. In truth, both are true. We don't want everyone to "get" what every poem means, or to know with certainty that a poem is "against the war." We do want them to understand the bare bones of the poem: what is it talking about? where is it? how does one image lead to another or engage in dialogue with another? the messages insinuated from the imagery and language of a poem do not need to be comprehended immediately, but for the purposes of a verbal reading, we felt a certain sense of continuity was necessary.

     Yes, war is an abstract concept for Americans. No, the war is not simple. Perhaps I should have used a better word than "abstract" to explain your poem, but the only other word I could think of was "convoluted", which sounds like an attack. I'm sorry you won't be attending the event. You seem to feel that we were searching for a particular aesthetic, and anyone who didn't fit into that aesthetic was rejected, which simply isn't true. We have formalists, slam poets, and everyone in between reading at this event.

Best wishes,
Sean Bishop

I should say at the outset that I think both Gordon & Bishop are motivated here by the best possible intentions – and their mutual willingness to share this correspondence reflects that.

Having said that, the poem & correspondence itself raises questions. While I think it is possible enough to argue that the poem loses a little focus in its third section, the second – clearly grounded in part by Nick Ut’s infamous 1972 photograph of nine-year-old Kim Phuc with her clothes burned off by napalm – can hardly be called either abstract or convoluted. It’s one of the most widely recognized visual images associated with the atrocities of war.

What I do hear in Bishop’s words, especially in his second letter, is a question of intelligibility & yet if I look at the text of Gordon’s poem, no such problem even remotely exists. So I go back to Bishop’s own words, noting that he argues that the event would have “formalists, slam poets and everyone in between.” That’s an interesting phrase, precisely because it describes only a narrow segment of the literary community, maybe 25 percent of the possible range. My immediate association was to the way in which television, & PBS in particular, has tended to represent the political left through people like Mark Shields, a Democrat in name only who positions himself well to the right of center. Thus PBS can have debates between the center and far right and pretend to be representing the entire spectrum of ideas.

Bishop underscores my association in his second letter when he suggests that a reader would not get “the bare bones of the poem.” To not get the bare bones suggests a reading problem as well as fairly stunning lack of historical memory. If anything, the second section’s association of Vietnam’s brutality with other instances of devastation – I think it’s possible to associate the “gutted chassis of a pickup” with both the first Gulf War & the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, an ambiguity I believe Gordon intends: the final image of the “abandoned fire station” is being set up this much in advance.

Bishop’s phrase reminds me of all the times I’ve heard language poetry – I’m not suggesting that Gordon is in any way a langpo or even post-langpo – described as difficult or unintelligible or, in the words of Robert Swards immortal review of Clark Coolidge’s Flag Flutter & U.S. Electric, printed in Poetry back in March, 1967, “a psychedelic outpouring,” “verbal hop-scotch,” & the ever popular “chic, trivial piling up of images.” Bishop doesn’t go this far with Gordon, but he doesn’t need to. The problem in some ways reflects Kit Robinson’s wise observation that the only people who ever found language poetry difficult were a group of graduate students who no longer knew how to read. Having read my own work in the Maximum Security Library at Folsom, I know that Robinson’s take is generally accurate – there’s nothing difficult about such writing unless one brings preconceptions about poetry to the text that render all but a very narrow range fairly opaque. I’m going to test this again tomorrow, when I teach seven fifth-grade classes at a suburban middle school here on the Main Line.

School environments of course are notorious – with reason – for their lack of openness to the new. One can simply read the reviews of the student John Ashbery in the archives of the Harvard Crimson, an online archive that goes back to the 19th century. But at least Ashbery & Koch were noted as student writers there – Creeley appears to have been the invisible undergrad.

I have no idea what Bishop’s aesthetic commitments might be, whether he positions himself in that tiny conceptual slice between slam poetics & formalism – two genre that depend mostly on the same literary devices, contextualized differently – or in the far broader terrain where the bulk of American poetry has thrived for the past two centuries.

With regard to Gordon’s final question of the forum in the Poetry Project Newsletter, I’ve heard about the forum from several people – one contributor wrote me an apology – but I actually haven’t seen the issue, the first one I seem to have missed in several years.

On a more positive note, the poem I contributed to Poets Against the War finally has appeared on its database, missing only its title (sigh).