I interview the great American poet & translator, A.E. Stallings, in this issue of Alexandra Quarterly! Besides poetry & translation, her expatriate status at the crossroads that Greece is now, and her role as a classical scholar outside of the university, makes her an essential poet for our times. Available as of this moment!
A scene from my defunct career in defunct bookstores in this country where a rock star holds the Nobel Prize for Literature, adolescents at university lecture their professors, and a reality TV star is President: two colleagues I rarely saw in the poetry section were scanning the spines for ethnic sounding names, pulling the promising prospects out to check the author photos. When they found a winner, they moved it to the National Poetry Month display where it gathered dust because readers don’t poems to promote any poet’s kind.
If they had bothered to open the books, could those booksellers read an anonymous poem? Could they appreciate it? Or would they have to suspend judgement until they find out who wrote it? What if they know the poet is a wonderful human being, the oppressed kind of face & wears dresses, Maya Angelou, perhaps? Could they tell the poem is sentimental, flat prose? If they know the poet is a horrible human being, an oppressor-colored, penis-dangling fascist like Pound, could they still hear a beautiful line, appreciate ingenious technique, or understand a unique insight? Or if they find the poet is wrong in idea, shape & color, would the poem be in all ways at all times wrong? And if they find right-think, right-shade, right-orifice-count, would the poet be to them necessarily a great poet in every poem they write? Could they even possibly read a newly discovered poem by a poet who lived a thousand years ago in a land no one knew existed or will they see a blank page until a historian finds the poet's bio?
No. Sorry. If you cannot read a poet without seeing their author photo or guessing their ethnicity from their name or reading their bio (how do they like sex? What are they wearing? Are they our kind? Does he cheat on his wife? With whom?), you are not reading poetry. You are gossiping about poets.
Have you heard this one yet? From the Best American Poetry/secretly-white-poet debate (wherein Sherman Alexie defended himself against accusations of intentionally publishing a white male poet by explaining all the melanin & genitals editorial quotas were met) and more recently in Marie Claire: America is “awash” in great poetry, “creative genius” is dirt common in the US, you can’t swing a dead cat in this country without hitting a Shakespeare, so it’s no loss to choose your poets by their names & bios.
I would rather not be the one to elaborate on how little value any poet’s work could have if it can be so easily replaced by any other’s. I would rather not be the one to point out how many millions in student loans are collected by “gatekeepers” from students told there is something worthwhile about the humanities, only to be told, once the check’s cashed, it is melanin, genitals, moral rectitude, political correctness, and an adjunct’s dream of tenure that matter. I’m not the best person to argue academics are not scammers who found they can’t make a living writing poems, so they make their living teaching others to write poems. I would rather be the one who, like the kings & billionaires with their diamonds, have held in my mind a Shakespeare sonnet and knew it was worth more than glass, even if I never get a leftist professor or student to notice.
Even academics who assume the most important line of a poem is the one that appears on their resume do not have the hiring committee in their heads when they read for joy, for love, for beauty, for edification, or for pleasure. Even they might recognize the radical value of Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind if no one tells them what happened to his first wife. I almost feel sorry for moralists who must reject all or none of a poet when other readers can accept a poem, a line, a phrase…. Those who choose by poet, not poem, may applaud the correct poet for promotion, but are they so impoverished they’ll spend their own cash and time slowly and carefully falling in love with a dull poem to promote the poet? Will they? They won’t.
Yes, they might refuse to even look at a poem if they know a white male holdover from the sexual revolution wrote it, but what influence on the culture could such narrow-minds have?
How many would-be readers will bother with a poem published for the poet’s benefit when Game of Thrones is available on HBO? Can a teacher convince students they should turn off the TV for a poem when the teacher would happily dump that poem for a different author photo? Why shouldn’t the teacher just do what students do and drop poems altogether?
Can you imagine? Are we that culture?
Today there is this tweet from a HuffPost editor with a PhD in rom coms (really?):
“Our goals for this month were: less than 50% white authors (check!), Asian representation that matches or exceeds the US population (check!), more trans and non-binary authors (check, but I want to do better).”-- Chloe Angyal Verified account
@ChloeAngyal It's pronounced 'angel.' American Australian. @HuffPost Deputy Opinion Editor, @theopedproject teacher, @ZachWahls fan. I've got a PhD in rom coms (really).
That counts as liberal now. That’s why Hillary counts as Democrat as she brags about her appeal to the GDP-makers and how women who don’t like her are just mindless vote-drones for their husbands. Try to start a union in a country where brown, female, trans, gay bosses are called radical, liberal, Democrats, oppressed, while white, male, family-supporting workers are called oppressors. Try to start a union in a country where workers are parsed & divided & taught in school to resent each other. Good luck.
Something I have noticed about people who claim minority privilege: they are rarely minorities. They join the herd with the most conservative and conventional claims of their culture. The black church & Hispanic Catholics commonly embrace religion as the legitimate giver of law. Climbing corporate ladders to material wealth is their most common goal. Even when expressed in criticism of society, they see themselves as meritocrats whom racism holds on the bottom rungs or that sexism cheats of pennies from their middle-class paychecks. Even when they resent “white” “male” “Eurocentric” culture, they are almost always blithely, cynically, unconsciously conservatives who vote Democrat as they await the Republican Party’s disavowal of racism, sexism, and homophobia.
Rappers as poets are a good example. They use the most conservative poetics of English language meter & rhyme on subjects common since Sappho and Beowulf to angrily declaim conventional lust, love, money, love-of-money, status, power, and sometimes even God. They call this “African American Culture”. If, however, a black poet can’t get a record contract so decides to teach, they might drop rhyme and embrace instead one of last century’s American poetics common today. Then they call yawns racist.
Then they call the preference for literary values “white privilege”. They miss the point. What makes any “white privilege” a privilege is that it is good. If it were not good, it would be a white detriment. In poetry, privileges are strewn around like dollars dropped from an airplane. Anyone can pick them up. Unlike almost everything else, the best poems are the least expensive to obtain. The worst are pricey. Hamlet can be found in a dollar edition, free online or in any library. The late-comer language poet coughing up 1980’s rhetorical hairballs or the identity poet ranting about micro-slights will set you back much more. A black American professor may not be able to get cops to let her jaywalk, but she can read any poem the dead white males squirreled away.
Statistically and morally, so small a sample as poets & those who appreciate poetry (a subset of those who still read poems at all) need not mirror the larger society of 320 million Americans. Consider, for instance, the tiny sample of a rich politician’s family where five sons and one father outnumber the lone mother. And all are cis-gender whites. Is such a family necessarily sexist/racist/bigoted? Should they be forced to adopt some girls and children of color? Or is it legitimate for such a small community to be formed on a principle of inclusion by love? And if inclusion in a family can come through love for this child, why can’t the privilege of inclusion in a reader’s mind come through love of this poem? Or must society’s standard mores of all-inclusion be forced on every dissenting minority however small?
The minority to which I belong is called Michael Odom; one of those smallest, least accepted, most ignored, and most often disdained minorities: an individual. Think of me as intersectionality gone exponential. The more intersections, the smaller the sliver of self I have left for any one category. Add race to sex to gender to disability to class to socialization to intelligence to attractiveness to self-confidence to status to geography to… to… to… and to each category assess degree and gradation…. and soon you are erasing me every time you reduce me to an identity.
It is the unusual, the educated, the honest, the questioning, the expressive, the poet, who is excluded from society. Creative and critical thought from a broad perspective can make one the Cordelia of any family, the Cassandra of any city. That is why education in the humanities once attracted outsiders mostly. It was not job training. It was not preparation for inclusion at all. Was it elitism? Snobbery? Only in the sense that wisdom is unusual, beauty is strange, and the excellent is, by definition, a minority.
And, no, not an exclusive minority. Not when schools & classics & libraries are deemed necessities in a democracy to commoners like me. Logic, skepticism, and artful expression are empowering. Three centuries ago, they felled the aristocracy, separated the church, and put republics in the place of power. An individual empowered by skepticism can stand before the authorities of culture & society, religion & politics, status & economics, and prove them all wrong (speak truth to power as opposed to, say, ignorantly ranting in the faces of the earnest). Empowerment through learning is available to any & all who can walk into a library. That is why Shakespeare’s legacy includes Black American women of the 20th Century like Gwendolyn Brooks & Marilyn Nelson.
Poetry is never a privilege. It is a demand one makes in rejecting what is due one’s kind by economics. To be made a partially prepped employee is the only equality to which most can aspire in a school system managed by overpaid business executives and dominated by leftist professors who have shoved aside poetry in their long march through the institutions. They envision nothing more for their students than a climb up the corporate ladder to be crowned with a McMansion in the suburbs and a revolution somehow along the way.
The few who give poetry enough time & effort to master it (as we expect of pop singers on American Idol where the culture still excludes the hilariously incompetent) are a tiny minority. Yet the fists of the mob insist editors count up the colors and genders of each contributor to make the demographic of every table of contents match the demographic of the country. But literary appreciation is not a child’s matching game: color to color, gender to gender. The ability to tell one’s story is a rare gift, rarer than any ethnicity.
Would-be writers in their first creative writing class answer criticism with a plaintive “but that’s how it happened”. The competent teacher responds: “how it happened is not necessarily how it works as a poem.” The same lesson reworded: the person it happened to is not necessarily the person with the insight, perspicacity, and skills to write it. Art does not come packaged with the genes for melanin or genitalia and to write is to defer to the readers’ right to judge what enters their heads. To write dull prose randomly hacked to suit the wide margins of your psyche-dump is to legitimize your readers’ nap. That’s true even when the poem would have been important had a more talented poet written it.
Do I hear the identity politician scream “cultural appropriation”?
First, if they are talking about those rock stars who never had or never would buy & read a book of poems but demand nonetheless they be taken seriously as poets, alright. I see that. But that’s not what they mean, is it?
Second, demanding readers take a dull poet seriously as representative of a culture will convince an honest reader the culture you thought to promote has no interesting contribution to offer.
Third, there is only one culture in the open mind. My mind does not belong to you and if you put your culture in it, it becomes my culture. Welcome to reality. Sorry if it triggers you, but that’s what learning is. That’s what education was. That’s what the hungry life of the vital intellect is: what comes to my mind, what I bring to my mind, what I seek for my mind, what is and comes to be my mind is mine.
And fourth, there is only one culture in our 21st Century world. Whether buildings in New York or Washington are bombed or rock fans are mowed down by automatic weapons in Paris or British girls are sex trafficked in Telford or women are gang-groped on New Year’s Eve in Cologne or your neighbor’s daughter is murdered by her father for wearing yoga pants… is decided by the beliefs of people in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Syria…. That is not Eastern culture or Western culture or Islamic culture or Secular culture. That is our culture.