Showing posts with label Matthew Zapruder. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Matthew Zapruder. Show all posts

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Matthew Zapruder


@ Kelly Writers House

April 2014


Saturday, March 08, 2003

Matthew Zapruder objects:

Dear Mr. Silliman,

I was one part amazed, and one part appalled, to read the recent entry featuring the disagreement between Noah Gordon and the organizers of the reading to protest the war in Northampton, MA.

Where to start? Well, how about with what the hell does the "aesthetics of dissent" mean? That's the mother of all straw men if I've ever met her. Is the implication of the use of that term that the organizers were trying to make (or were the unwitting victims of, in which case policing seems like the wrong, yet perfectly passive aggressive, term) firm categories about what kind of poetry is acceptable to protest the war, and what isn't? Come on, does that really seem plausible, or to the point? Isn't it more likely that they were doing the best they can to hold an event with a bunch of readers for an audience probably not used to listening to poetry, and making the judgment (to which Noah is of course, since we still live in a democracy, entitled to disagree) that his poem wasn't going to work in this particular situation?

"Policing the aesthetics of dissent?" Holy unnecessary jargon, Batman! It seems that the organizers were pretty clear, not to mention polite, in expressing that they just thought that Noah's poem wasn't going to work in that context, because of its "density" (i.e. the more elusive relationship it has than your usual anti-war poem to protesting the war). Agree or disagree, but they are the ones who are responsible for throwing the event, and making it work, and they honestly seemed to think the poem wasn't appropriate for the venue or situation, which seems like a very reasonable thing to think about given the fact that this is not a poetry reading for Noah, but a WAR PROTEST. If I wanted to get up and read a ten page poem about a wilting flower as an allegory for this war's effect on democracy, I think the organizers would be pretty well within their rights to tell me to go find something a little less brilliant to read.

And holy naked act of self promotion, Batman! Call my a cynic, but I don't think that the fact that at least one of these parties (the other being dragged in clearly against his will) is willing, if not eager, to share his correspondence (not to mention his poem) proves anything about anyone's "best possible intentions." For, lo and behold, in the guise of a discussion on the "aesthetics of dissent," we end up discussing ... Noah's poem! I also love the repeated reference to Sean Bishop as a "student" organizing a reading against the war. Whose student? Noah's? Noah Gordon also happens to be a student, of the MFA Writing Program at UMass, which is a very fine thing to be, and certainly doesn't stop anyone from being a good poet and publishing worthy poems long before getting a degree. Yet I have the inescapable feeling that what really pisses Noah off (in a polite and patronizing way) is that a student had the gall to judge his work, or at least its potential effect on an audience. Frankly, the politics of that situation seem a lot more hierarchical and problematic than worrying about anyone "policing the aesthetics of dissent."

This is particularly evident in the part of Noah's letter which discusses the abstraction of the war. This just seems like a clever point to make, with at best tenuous relevance. Is the fact that people in the U.S. tend to apprehend the war as an "abstraction" (i.e. something that's not "real," but just an idea, which in a way seems the exact opposite of the problem -- people aren't thinking ENOUGH about the ideas and rationales for this war, and just accepting the given terms) somehow a justification for Noah reading an "abstract" poem, whatever that means? What a weird kind of mimeticism.

And does Noah really accept the definition of his poem as "abstract" (which it isn't, as you correctly point out)? Those of us who teach know that when a student says a poem is "abstract," what they really mean is, "I don't know what you're talking about, and/or why you've bothered to say it." It's mainly a word to hide the word "bad" behind. In this case, to give the organizers credit, what I think they meant was that they felt the relationship between the anti-war sentiment and the imagery and general mechanisms of the poem wasn't clear enough for the situation of this particular reading.

They may be right or wrong in their judgment (I personally think there's some good stuff in the poem, but it's kind of histrionic and self-righteous ... it seems to treat the whole war as a personal problem for the poet, which is the thing that makes writing political poetry really really hard). But here's the real point: if the motivation to read at a war protest is, in fact, to protest the war -- and not to read our latest poems to a lucky, albeit captive, audience -- then I would think that even if the organizers were so horribly misguided as to incorrectly judge the possible effect one of our brilliant poems would have on said audience (which by the way, they have taken the time, responsibility, and trouble to assemble), then perhaps we could put up with their lamentable short-sightedness and stupidity and figure out another way to put our queer or otherwise shoulders to the wheel.

The fact that Noah decided not only not to read another poem, but not even to attend, makes his whole motivation more than a little suspect. I don't want to sound crude, but what's more important to Noah: Noah's poem, or protesting the war?

Well, I can think of other reasons why a war protest in Northampton might be a waste of time ... talk about preaching to the converted. If there is a poor sucker living in that town who actually is in favor of the war, I almost feel sorry for him, if he hasn't already been garroted by a hemp friendship necklace. So one may ask, if one is still reading, why am I wasting my time with this?

Because first of all, as should be obvious, I disagree with everything that Noah has said, and just find the hypocrisy and self-righteousness really annoying. Also, when I see a poet self-righteously complain in a public forum about whether his poem was suppressed or not, under the guise of defending the right of poetry to be able to do whatever it is that he thinks his poem is doing, while bombs are about to fall on Iraq, as a poet I feel embarrassed. And third, because poets ought not sit with our arms folded pretending that all poetry is equally apprehendable (regardless or difficulty of syntax, or unfamiliarity of imagery, etc.), and that anyone who can't see that is a cretin. On the contrary, it's our job to try to help educate and prepare our readers for the next new thing. The way we do that is by making an implicit contract with them: if you promise to listen carefully, I will promise to make something that hangs together in some way, and (here's what's important here) exists for a reason other than to promote myself.

To turn this situation into a discussion on aesthetics, or the nature of dissent, seems disingenuous and self-absorbed, which is particularly upsetting given the stakes. For whatever reason, the organizers didn't want Noah to read his poem. I don't think they're suppressing dissent in the least: Noah could have read a different poem, or (god forbid) a poem by another poet, one that would have been more easily apprehendable to the audience at this reading. Or he could have just gone to the reading and clapped when other poets read their poems. And if he thinks that this particular poem is such a great way to protest the war, why doesn't he get up and read it in the middle of Main Street?

It seems evident that there is a time and a place to fight this battle, and a war protest is neither. I realize that with this last sentence I am going to open myself up to all kinds of attacks ("when IS the right time to defend poetry?" "what's the real battle we're fighting here?" "isn't the struggle for clarity of language, versus easy propaganda?"). In fact, I've listened to "My Back Pages" probably too many times, as have we all ... here's to hoping we can all be a little bit older, if not wiser, than that now.

Matthew Zapruder

Zapruder appears not to agree with my presumption that Noah Eli Gordon is “motivated here by the best possible intentions” – as in fact I think both sides in that exchange are. What I found troubling – and the reason I thought to include the correspondence, poem & all, in the blog – was precisely the point that Zapruder blithely accepts with regards to the poem:

they just thought that Noah's poem wasn't going to work in that context, because of its "density" (i.e. the more elusive relationship it has than your usual anti-war poem to protesting the war).

The problem – and this is why it was important to include Gordon’s text – is that the claim of density or elusiveness patently isn’t true. And, if it isn’t, then the rest of Zapruder’s argument more or less dissolves into smoke. For the claim to be true, the Northampton audience would have to be not merely focused more on the war than on aesthetics, but functionally illiterate.

I agree completely with Zapruder – & I think Gordon agrees also – that stopping the war is far more important than any poetry reading. But I’m concerned about a practice that would edit out a poem that would not have been either dense or particularly elusive at a protest for World War I. What bothers me about it is how neatly this dumbing down of density fits into a broader pattern of behavior that dates back decades now, of treating progressive writing, from the modernists to the current post-avant community, as though it were difficult – & thereby excludable – when, in fact, that is not the case.

Such behavior is part & parcel of the (not very) benign neglect that underlies not merely the sort of editorial malfeasance one associates with the likes of a Helen Vendler, but even, alas, with the Poets Against the War project. If one sees the broader spectrum of poets who have contributed to its website, the poetry that is part of its official “chapbook” is notably skewed toward the school of quietude – the principle exceptions are Robert Creeley, Phil Whalen* & a pair of Beat generation chestnuts, Lawrence Ferlinghetti & Diane Di Prima. Even the project’s Poem of the Day selection, intended to bring out a broader representation than the chapbook’s ”selection of especially powerful poems and statements by prominent poets,” to date has managed only one poet generally associated with the post-avant world, Kent Johnson. We wonder if the Poets Against the War editors recognize that Margaret Wise Brown, the author of Goodnight Moon, which Johnson’s poem gently parodies, saw herself as an active follower of Gertrude Stein & was writing within a framework of progressive educational theory.

This sort of intellectual bad faith has become so widely & deeply associated with the broader school of quietude that it, in fact, always needs to be publicly pointed out whenever & wherever it shows up. Not only is such erasure profoundly anti-democratic & inherently dishonest in & of itself, the process reinforces – just as the establishmentarian poetics of the school of quietude do – the larger social forces that argue always against social change & for a traditionalism whose sole justification is inertia.** From the perspective of the poets who commit such misdemeanors of editing, this dumbing down is merely self-contradictory and self-defeating behavior. For the poets who are consistently disappeared by this process, it’s invariably a painful reminder of the structural inequalities at the heart of the “American way.”

* Whalen deserves extra credit for submitting his work while dead.

** It’s no accident that the great antiwar poet of the Vietnam era was Allen Ginsberg & not, say, James Dickey or Robert Bly or Donald Justice, all of whom also wrote antiwar poetry.