David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Something More Than Style

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Earlier this week, while speaking to some younger poets, I became intrigued with their nascent fascination, to the point of headiness, with all things poetically elliptical, non-linear, and disjunctive. I say intrigued, but in my heart it felt more like exasperated.

Listening to them, I realized that it was as if style —not form, not argument, not civic experience, not love or death or sorrow or sex or history, not life lived as life, not confronting life or yearning for knowledge of what it means to be living living in an actual, you know, geographic county that concerned them — but style and style alone was to be the subject of their art, or subjectlessness.

Decent writers, all, sure. Young, quite likable writers at the beginnings of their literary lives. So, ok, they’re searching. The glare of fashion is bright. But the decency of both their desire and their writing seem to be leading to a dystopian poetics and to poetry that adheres to a ventriloquism of self-disgust.

I note this state of affairs as a banal moment in American poetry. These young writers are victims, really, of bad models. That is all.

But this state of affairs is quite disturbing, especially with the news during the last few hours of the release of a smuggled video of Chinese poet Liu Xia reading two of her poems from her apartment in Beijing where she is under house arrest (living some 200 miles from the prison where her husband, Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, is serving an 11 year prison sentence) and the death, in Mexico City, of Argentine poet Juan Gelman, whose son and pregnant daughter-in-law died during the 1970s after being abducted by paramilitary government officials.

Liu Xia, who has not been charged with a crime but is under house arrest nonetheless, has never been known for being political prior to her incarceration. According to the BBC, the “new video of Ms Liu’s poetry reading was recorded for an event held in New York City on 14 January, honouring Ms Liu’s work and calling for her freedom.” She lives without phone or Internet access. Her requests to walk in a nearby park have been rejected by police. Her poetry is concerned with life’s simpler pleasures and observations of nature.

Juan Gelman’s poetry is more political than Liu’s, concerned more with social and political themes. He was 83 at the time of his death. His writing was fiercely critical of Argentine injustice, especially the so-called “dirty war” of the 1970s and 1980s conducted by the military dictatorship and secret police against civilians and political dissidents, a war defined by government kidnappings, torture, and the fates of thousands of “disappeared” citizens.

I do not mean to make the “eat your vegetables because there are starving children in India” argument. But, also, c’mon. While many of the world’s poets are deeply preoccupied with war and hierarchy, with exploitation and power, there is a pervasive sinisterlessness in American poetry. There is hash and rehash of the quotidian, an alarmlessness, a niche of the nada. Deftness has become a substitute for compassion. Style a stand in for thinking and feeling. Self-destructive forms are now glorified over measured insight.

I’m generalizing. But I’m not mistaken either. My problem is that I recoil at ice-cold poetry.

Which, I suppose, brings one to the death, this week, of Amiri Baraka, the American black nationalist movement poet whose racial indignation inspired two generations of African American poets. Since the news of his death, I’ve been leaning toward writing about his poetry and personality. But my Facebook timeline has filled up with so many friends of mine, poets all, who are deeply saddened by his death. Out of friendship to them, I’ve been dodging it. And will do so here except to say that Baraka’s activism, in my view, was also, unfortunately, tethered to an inflammatory art. I agree with Stanley Crouch who finds Baraka’s poetics to be “an incoherent mix of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia…anarchy and ad hominem attacks.” And yet: I give Baraka credit too, despite his devotion to “poems that kill.” It’s this: He wrote a poetry that confronted the living world, and the world was forced to take notice.

Because so many poets face extreme violent risks in the world — and I do not mean the false risks extolled in America’s writing workshops — there is a need for American poets to own up to and reject our sheer terrorlessness, to reject aesthetic fetishization in favor not only of examining the barbarism of human experience but also in being less existential and more confrontational of our own complicity in favoring an art of theory over an art of life.

You want disjunctive? We live in civilization of extreme savagery. Exhibit A: We shop for the the cheapest Chinese goods and gift-wrap them for our children while the Chinese government imprisons its poets. In other words, you want poetry based on a theory that language has no meaning and the author is annihilated? Tell that to the workers outside the Gdansk shipyard for whom the word “strike” is not just life-affirming but life-threatening. Language means something. Tell that to the lone man in Tiananmen Square facing down the tanks for whom the word “stop” means something.

You want non-linear? In 1990, twenty years after he was executed and buried in a barrel filled with sand and cement, Juan Gelman’s son’s remains were finally recovered. His daughter-in-law’s remains have never been recovered. His granddaughter, born before his daughter-in-law’s presumed execution, was found alive in 2000, having been handed over to a pro-government family in Uruguay.

While American poets are searching ceaselessly for the next severed, disjointed poetic form, Juan Gelman was writing poems about non-linear cruelties and the insanity of a terrorized existence in a, dare I say it, style that is unambiguously categorical.

Yeah, one more conference panel extolling the self-imprisonment of the poet ought to be coming down the pike any hour now. While imprisoned or exiled poets dare to write with clarity and argument.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women, which was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. His book of essays A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry received the Frances Fuller Victor Award. More from this author →