Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Poetry Controversy, “Free Speech” Debates, and the Power of Poetry

The recent controversy in the poetry world, centered around Barren Magazine firing an unpaid editor (Danielle Rose), is interesting and thought-provoking in a number of ways.  To briefly recap, Rose tweeted this on Sept. 3, 2021:


This led to widespread Twitter contention over whether or not poetry can be “powerful.”  Many replied that poetry was indeed quite powerful for them, in various different ways.  Barren came down on the “poetry is powerful” side of things and fired Rose, issuing the following statement on Sept. 4:

Before I get into what I think is noteworthy and thought-provoking about all of this, I want to firstly say what is not.  This is not some kind of “free speech” issue, and it is not a question of whether Rose was being “censored” or “canceled” by Barren.  The magazine has every right to put forward its own particular literary vision, and they have no obligation to continue to work with someone who doesn’t share it.  Rose’s position was unremunerated, and she does not appear to have been harmed by the parting of ways (aside from receiving a few not-especially-nice internet comments).  If anything, as she herself has pointed out, her profile and stature may even have been increased:


Whether or not she actually now has “power” is of course open to question, but to frame this as a “cancellation” or some similar silliness is, in my opinion, absolutely the wrong way to look at it.  Not only that, but doing so gives succor to right-wing trolls who want to say that “politically correct” “liberals” wield some kind of undue, despotic influence in the cultural realm — and indeed in the wake of this recent brouhaha, some commentators have tried to claim just that.  This reveals the flawed thinking behind many contemporary “free-speech” or anti-“political correctness” arguments.  Ostensibly, they defend the principle of free speech against supposed attacks “on both sides,” and assert the primacy of the Western values of debate and democracy, but in reality the argument more often than not becomes a stick with which the right attempts to undermine the credibility of progressives or of the left.  Even certain well-meaning people have been duped into avouching the bogeyman of “cancel culture,” but you have to ask what does their investment in “the principles of Western democracy” really signify in our current moment?  Note that the Prøud Bøys (for example) define themselves as “Western chauvinists.”  (Of course I believe in free speech and democracy; I’m simply pointing out that to frame the Rose/Barren rift as a free-speech issue is a massive red herring, which has wider, perhaps unintended consequences.)  (For further discussion of the spurious argument against so-called “political correctness,” see here.)

All of that said, the degree of uproar over Rose’s tweet was surprising, and I do think that Barren’s response was overblown, even if it falls well within their rights to fire her.  Rose’s initial statement, as many pointed out, was not very dissimilar from W. H. Auden’s oft-quoted line (from his poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”) that “poetry makes nothing happen,” and as such was a relatively uncontroversial notion that poets have been debating in some form or another for decades (even centuries).  Certainly, to my mind, this is hardly a fire-able offense.

But at the same time, others began pointing out the ways in which poetry can be, indeed is, powerful, and I agree that poetry is powerful both personally (many would say it’s given their lives meaning, perhaps even saved their lives in one way or another) and in building community.  I think what Rose was talking about was the way that some poets might impute to themselves, or to poetry generally, a level of importance that it doesn’t have outside of their own perhaps insular poetry circle (and of course there are numerous different poetry circles out there), and I think she was trying to puncture that inflated sense of self in the broader context of the society at large.  Poetry does often seem to be completely ignored by what Rose termed “the general population,” and so it is always a good reminder to check ourselves and our egos, especially in the face of the relative lack of attention to poetry “out there” in the wider world.

It is also, however, good to be reminded of how powerful poetry really is for the minority of us who practice and read it, and I affirm all of the various expressions of that that ensued.  Moving away from such eminently valid individual attestations of the importance of poetry, two particular texts come to me that further articulate the power that poetry can have.  One is Audre Lorde’s essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” (1977), which I return to frequently.  While I realize that I am not Lorde’s primary audience in that essay, with my own position(ality) in mind I am nonetheless always struck when she writes,

Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.  It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.
 …
The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am.  The Black mother within each of us — the poet — whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.  Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary demand, the implementation of that freedom. (38)

Here, not only does Lorde delineate the power of poetry as personal, political, and beyond, she also critiques those very same Enlightenment values that the Western chauvinists invoke in their quest to uphold white supremacy — the notion that “logical” debate is an inherently positive value (i.e. rather than one that historically tends to benefit white, male, privileged property-holders).  Actually, while Lorde skillfully exposes the tyranny of rationality (here expressed in the Cartesian mind/body split of “white father” thinking), she goes on to identify the fusion of thought and feeling as the best framework for approaching both poetry and political action, and her essay is one of the best I can think of that expresses why, as her title argues, poetry is not a luxury but a necessity in the lives of many.  (Even Auden, in his poem, went on to assert that poetry is “a way of happening, a mouth.”)

The other text is Gary Snyder’s The Real Work: Interviews & Talks, 1964-79 (1980).  In a 1977 interview, Snyder responds to the Auden line by pointing out that poets “are out at the very edge of the unraveling cause-and-effect network of a society in time” (71).  For Snyder, poets do have a social and political function (and what is “power” if not the function of politics?), though it might be out of the mainstream discourse and thus unrecognized as powerful.  Snyder goes on to elaborate that poets are also
tuned into other voices than simply the social or human voice.  So they are like an early warning system that hears the trees and the air and the clouds and the watersheds beginning to groan and complain a little bit. . . . They also can hear stresses and the fault block slippage creaking in the social batholith and also begin to give out warnings. . . . Poetry effects change by fiddling with the archetypes and getting at people’s dreams about a century before it actually effects historical change.  A poet would be, in terms of the ecology of symbols, noting the main structural connections and seeing which parts of the symbol system are no longer useful or applicable, though everyone is giving them credence. (71)

For Synder, poets are (or can be) a kind of advance platoon (even a century in advance) of cultural experimenters who critique existing certainties and in their work register the limitations of dominant narratives.  Both Snyder and Lorde see poetry as existing at least partly in the realm of the dream, and thus point to non-Cartesian, non-rational means of making meaning and even making arguments.

In a way, this is the true sense of the term “avant-garde” — to make that new meaning through new forms of art and modes of living (rather than avant-garde in the mere sense of now-recognized stylistic departures) — Lorde’s “dream and vision” and “skeleton architecture.”  What is becoming increasingly clear, wherever you stand in the recent Rose/Barren-related exchanges (and again, I don’t think it’s an either/or situation), is that political systems and social values, no matter how much “everyone [supposedly] is giving them credence” (per Snyder), which privilege a dominant class and thus inherently oppress others (whether classes of people or even non-human animals and nature), should no longer be given such credence — in poetry or elsewhere in the social discourse.

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