Dear CA Conrad,
a response from Benjamin Hollander to CA Conrad’s “From Whitman to Walmart,”
[note: Benjamin Hollander sent me this because he cited material from my book, Reading Race, and he wanted my perspective on his point of view. He has tried first having a private dialogue with CA Conrad and Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog by sending both a version of this email, but it seems no response is forthcoming from either. It also seems that Conrad's words will be part of discussion at the new iteration of the Berkeley Poetry Conference, starting June 15, Conrad's piece is cited here:
Go to Monday
What most people I agree with politically and whose politics are considered progressive don't even realize is that, when it comes to poetry or education, in terms of their values and roles, these people are curiously looking in the rear view mirror, acting a bit like the Victorians—for whom the aim of the poem was to edify or enlighten--which is fine if you want to remain a Victorian and attach that era's ethos to the social purpose for the poem: if, that is, you need the poem to have a social purpose. You should know: so-called progressive educators and poets in North America are replicating Victorian values when they suggest an education (or a poem) should build moral character and civic identity or, even worse, be the engine for an economy.
As some naive readers of Whitman need him to be in service to American moral values and unexamined national ideologies, some critics who say "fuck his racist poems" need the poem to be representative of an unimpeachable moral character. Both needs seem reductive.
(Please be clear: I am not defending Whitman. Perhaps it has to do with my not being born in this country and thus into a particular kind of American English and rhetoric, but I have never been drawn to his poetry. I’m still figuring out why this is the case.)
Which brings me to your piece, "From Whitman to Walmart." To your desire to "fuck these (Whitman) poems." To your desire to expose and uncover the underbelly of the populist yet (we should know because you enlighten us) racist Whitman. But you may not want to stop there.
Have you read--well, it was written many years ago-- the scholar A.L. Nielsen's book., Reading Race. When it came out in 1988, I remember how illuminating it was in its exposure of racist white discourse at the heart of the most so called liberal poets’ poems which use charged details of black life to represent that life as "natural" to the race. For Nielsen, no modern and contemporary white North American poet gets off "clean" when it comes to replicating racist discourse--they all do it-- except, perhaps, for Oppen and Olson.
This is particularly the case in the chapter where Nielsen addresses Duncan, O'Hara and John Wieners, and how Wieners, in his Hotel Wentley Poems, as an outsider, as gay, feels he can appropriate blackness as outsiderness, or as "the exotic and primitive, " but always in relation to morbidity and death--see his “Poem for Cocksuckers"--which reproduces certain assumptions about black life as "natural". Nielsen writes:
Even while identifying himself with blackness, Wieners will follow white tradition in identifying that same blackness with morbidity. He writes in another poem:
Some black man looms in my life, larger than life.
Some white man hovers there too, but I am through with him
Some wild man dreams through my day, smelling of heroin.
Some dead man dies in my arms every night
The black man who looms in Wieners' life is clearly the same one that loomed in the earlier poetry of Tate and Warren….
The presence of such images in contemporary verse attests to the tenacity of discursive formations. The racial stereotype persists as a functioning sememe in the speech acts of white people.
I hear you are editing Wieners' poems. Will you say, in the afterword to your edition of Wiener's poems, (as you said of Whitman) "I see you much clearer now old man, and you are just like the other [white neo-liberal closet] racists where I grew up. Fuck your poems!” My guess is you will not. Is Wieners--and I could list dozens of white poets—also, as you write, "the underside of the rock that America has so beautifully constructed to fool the world." There are many ways "to confront ,” as you write, “the fictions we find ourselves walking inside," to confront the poets we create fictions about, but what does that mean, really?
Don’t’ mistake me: I love Wieners’ poems, but under your watch, well, should I talk about "The lies we call his (Wieners') poems?" because of the white “discursive formations” about African-Americans he replicates and of which he might be unaware (I am reminded of Baldwin’s statement: “It is [their] innocence which constitutes the crime”)? More than me, will you be talking about it in your afterword to the Selected Poems of John Wieners, since your awakening to the racism in Whitman’s writing should not stop there, when it can be brought much closer to the present, to the work of poets who, like Whitman, we admire, but whose poetry is not averse to the variations on the racist discourse you condemn?
Further, what are the implications of your point of view for my reading and teaching of other poets, when the subject is other than race, but just as heated? Do I stop, for example, reading or teaching Frank O' Hara's “Ave Maria” to some of my aspiring lower working class community college student poets from all ethnicities who at times compose their own moral borders around a poem?
O'Hara's poem is powerful because it is disturbing on multiple levels, but he would be open to the charge of pedophilia based on that poem and on how you evaluate poetry. I was almost raked over the coals by some students when I read it:
And then I took them to Catullus.
Yes, as a Jew, in 1970, when I was reading with admiration Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era, and recognizing both Kenner's and Pound's and my professor's arrogance about the heralded elder poet, I could also have "fucked Pound's poems," the anti-Semitic lies which are his poems, or I could have stopped this reflex and actually learned something by reading Olson's "This is Yeats Speaking," where he addresses North American readers about their self-righteous rage at Pound's treason and, by implication, his anti-Semitism, as he does in his letters to Pound. What Olson as Yeats says bears hearing:
We have not yet shaped, because we have denied this civil war, a justice with sanctions, strong and deep enough to measure the crime. Our own case remains unexamined. How then shall we try men (Pound) who have examined us more than we have ourselves? They know what they fight against. We do not yet know what we fight for….
Olson as Yeats defends Pound. Why were the details of United States sponsorship of and links with fascist activities after the War something which Olson alone, among the poets, uncovered, and which Pound was onto? “Our own case remains unexamined,” Olson wrote, his knowledge of the “deep politics” involved in U.S. fascist activities no doubt a result of his position in The Office of War Information’s Foreign Language Section, from which he resigned. And so, though he knew Pound was crazy and had these half-baked racist and anti-Semitic and economic views, he also knew Pound was onto something about the deeper politics in America, despite his lunacy.
To play on Ginsberg, I fear a generation of poets NOT destroyed by madness who are so wonderfully aware and socially conscious of a poet's and poem's morals that they have forfeited anything but the decorative poem or the poem they feel comfortable with: a generation quick to pull the policing trigger on the gunslingers who are more than a bit mad in their views but the urgency of whose poetry and prose needs to be read...., for all sorts of reasons, including their lies and what they might reveal to us.
“Our own case remains unexamined.”(Olson as Yeats)
Fuck poems/and they are useful (Amiri Baraka)
"The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a counterpunching radio." (Spicer)
one poetry cannot be
more true than another
it can only be more convenient
In this ancient coastal town
the men have turned into Victorian young ladies
They work their samplers of acid
and do their poetry and polish their bootees
With your logic, would you “fuck the poems” of Baraka, whose poems some see as diatribes of lies, as quickly as you would Whitman's? You have some kind of demanding truth telling litmus test there, for the poem.