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A Conversation with Ian Keenan
American poets have become politically irrelevant, for the most part. Like everybody else, they still have political opinions, but there are no real public venues for them to express these, not that they’re all that interested in reaching anyone beside other poets. The last American poet to create a public stir was Amiri Baraka, and this was thanks to the fact that he was a New Jersey Poet Laureate. If not for that mostly ceremonial post, his 9/11 poem would not have been noticed. In light of this situation, it’s interesting to consider the uproar surrounding Gunter Grass’ “What Must Be Said.” As Martin Earl pointed out, American poets have remained strangely silent about this controversy, so I want to have your take on all this, since you are among the most politically astute of American poets.
I have enormous respect for the literary output of Grass and Baraka, and for the political insight sustained for, in Grass’ case, eight decades now and for Baraka almost as long. Baraka, John Ashbery, Bernadette Mayer, Anselm Hollo, and Ron Silliman should in my view be considered for the Nobel but at times have had difficulty winning over their compatriots. I am reminded of the fame once bestowed on witches in European towns, with the exception that media outlets don’t have to win the support of the townsfolk: a poll shows the German public believes Grass is correct but the political leaders of the left and right there condemn him. To be publicly smeared is the surest sign of literary vitality, but even that can be potentially meaningless. Grass appears to have offered his first mild criticism of Israeli settlement building during his third visit to the country after the Yom Kippur war, saying then that West Germany should provide military protection to Israel whenever needed. Around that time, Allen Ginsberg wrote for his delightfully irreverent collection Mind Breaths All Over the Place the poem “Jawah and Allah Battle,” which opens with a reference to the Israeli nuclear program and then humorously and affectionately notes the tragic diversity of Jerusalem’s pilgrims and longtime residents. With Jesus and Mohammad both ascending within blocks of Solomon’s temple, you could say humanity’s handled it well.
It has been known for decades that Grass was in the Hitler Youth at age eleven and joined the military to escape his father at fifteen, and his recent memoir disclosed his assignment in the course of his service to the Waffen SS (which he didn’t, in fact, volunteer for, which Martin Earl mistakenly alleged), which sent him to the Russian front where he neither fired a shot nor worked in the prisoner of war camps. He was detained by US forces after the war and then shown for the first time pictures of the extermination camps, commencing his lifelong obsession with issues of complicity and denial thereafter. Brecht, of whom Grass said “fitted his work into a classical mold,” in fact wrote many earnest, polemic poems of this sort, to answer Earl’s contention that the poem lacks for Brechtian irony, which abounds in Grass’ novels and in the play The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising, centered around a stage director, inspired by Brecht, that deems a workers’ revolt not sufficiently theatrical. Grass was more influenced by the German-Jewish author of Berlin Alexanderplatz “..since writers are never self-generated, but come from somewhere, I wish to say that I came from this Alfred Döblin..”
I’m sure that Grass hopes that those who, like Earl, call a possible preemptive strike against Iran “absurd” are proven correct, but Israeli cabinet members have said such a strike is no bluff and amongst others, Jeffrey Goldberg warned in the Atlantic after visiting with leaders “(Israel) will not be asking for permission” to bomb facilities “sparking lethal reprisals, and even a full blown regional war.” If that’s intended merely as a threat to Iranians it’s also a threat to anyone concerned for their well-being, and rather noteworthy when writers are told not to discuss it. Last Sunday, Israel’s military chief of staff said his forces are ready to attack. Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker last June that Iran had begun building a weapons system during their war with Iraq, not directed at Israel, but halted the program in 2003. Veteran reporter Gareth Porter uncovered an offer delivered by Iran to the US that year for full nuclear inspections and no further material support to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah in exchange for diplomatic recognition.
At the time of President Bush’s Axis of Evil speech in January, 2002, reformers in Iran were on the rise, a gallon of gas in the US averaged $1.60, and the US economy was booming. Since then, Iran’s GDP has quadrupled due to rising oil prices, growth that promises to continue despite diplomatic isolation. The US is a leading oil producer but a much larger, more diversified economy, so the oil sector is turning record profits while the rest of the economy suffers from higher production costs and less consumer spending, with an International Energy Agency warning last month that oil prices “have the capacity to tip the global economy back into recession.” Oil companies don’t have to lobby as much for sanctions with Netanyahu working as hard as he does to that end, on the receiving end of the whispered blame. The success of the first meeting of the P5+1 talks with Iran provides hope this can all be resolved peacefully.
If Grass can be complicit in Hitler’s extermination camps, for which he was not even aware of, then what are we to make of American poets who openly support Obama, and even perform for him, although his war crimes are out in the open? For pointing out the obvious, that America is a rogue state that mass murders, loots and tortures worldwide, an American poet can be ridiculed as hysterical, such is the obliviousness and complicit equanimity that pervade this land. As another example of our selective political outrage, consider how Pound is still singled out for censure, when Franklin D. Roosevelt aligned our country with Josef Stalin, or “Uncle Joe,” as he was familiarly dubbed, or that Gertrude Stein thought Hitler should win the Nobel Peace Prize. Though Pound’s anti-Semitism is certainly inexcusable, at least he was prescient in obsessing over the criminal banks as the agents that would bring this country down, as is happening right now. In any case, past criminal states at least tried to hide their crimes against humanity, but in this age of instant and ubiquitous media, and uber sophisticate and sexy propaganda too, I should add, a kind of magic, our government merely rebrands war of aggression as “humanitarian intervention” or “kinetic military action,” kidnapping as “extraordinary rendition” and torture as “enhanced interrogation technique,” and the matters are dropped, or challenged only on the fringe where the hysterical hang out. So as our wars for profit and/or Israel continue, many American “progressives” are working hard to reelect a War-Criminal-in-Chief who is also a Nobel Peace Laureate, since we are truly dwelling in an upside down world, per Eduardo Galeano. Obama is “the lesser of two evils,” they claim, although his major policies differ not at all from our previous War-Criminal-in-Chief. Of the poets you mentioned, Ginsberg and Baraka have managed to become public intellectuals, that rarest of American phenomena, with Ginsberg more so than Baraka, and both have maintained an intense political focus throughout their careers, and to a degree unmatched among major American poets, with the exception of Clayton Eshleman perhaps. There are many factors that have contributed to the diminution of American poets and render them invisible to the public, but can some of the blames, at least, be aimed at them? Or, to put it another way, what can an American poet do to become more relevant?
Baraka and Grass have spent decades making provocative statements about political ideology but they cause more of a stir when they incorporate information they read on the internet, because facts have become more subversive than opinions. The public will only tolerate certain war crimes if they don’t know about them, if the only critique is from Republicans saying Obama doesn’t go far enough. Whatever the Twitter generation around the world comes to believe about the size and role of government, they have the potential to demand transparency unprecedented in human history.
I don’t believe the answers to literary questions lie in the prescriptive: Samuel Beckett, for instance, participated in both the Spanish Civil War and the French resistance but pursued an original, personal literary project, a decision few question now. Robert Creeley was asked to write a protest poem during a Vietnam War march and replied: “I don’t want them in my words.” Jean Genet was able to make a social impact on issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, and colonialism without resorting to conventional form or dogmatism. George Orwell couldn’t get his attack on Stalinism, Animal Farm, published during World War II while Britain was allied with the USSR, but it was heavily promoted when Britain pivoted to the Cold War. He then gave people a language to describe when high tech totalitarian crossed a certain threshold (1984), and the common term Kafkaesque gives a name to conditions accompanying the ascent of bureaucracy. There is the bitter reflection on civics, usually for posterity, of the exiled Dante putting the corrupt politicians in a ditch next to the hypocrites in the Eighth Circle of Hell, or the retired pol Stendhal in bed with his syphilis telling us what he really thinks. As I’ve been thinking about Günter Grass today, the novel of Döblin’s that actually influenced him the most was Wallenstein, based on a dramatic trilogy by Frederich Schiller. Schiller’s “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry” essay from 1795 partially explains how poets like José Martí during the Cuban revolution against Spain, Louis Aragon during the French resistance, Václav Havel in the Czech resistance, René Depestre in Haiti’s 1946 insurrection, Adam Mickiewicz resisting Russian rule of Poland, Ernesto Cardenal of the Sandinista revolution, and so on and so forth who were able to enunciate, often underground or in exile, a “sentimental” ideal of a national character and language in the face of foreign imperialism, something that poets do well and the public in those instances comes to appreciate, as opposed to the “naïve” who operates within the established order without recognizing or expressing an alternative, something that poets generally don’t do as well.
Regarding writers’ more odious political or racial viewpoints, I’ve never witnessed anyone using Stein, Heidegger, Hamsun or Benn to promote Nazism, and it’s very rare for someone to use Pound to promote anti-Semitism or Fascism, in part because those political viewpoints are naturally contradicted by the characteristics of their literary works, so I think people should learn all they can from such writers. Literature is sanitized from error at the expense of literature. It’s natural to seek out a writer that’s right about everything so that you feel good and don’t have to think, the sort of lethargy that becomes unsustainable.
I actually don’t think transparency matters a whole lot now, because many of the crimes of Washington and Wall Street are either committed right out in the open or have been exposed, and yet our public and trepanned intelligentsia have remained largely lethargic. In spite of the 99% solidarity proclaimed by the Occupiers, only a relatively small and, up to now, impotent minority really gives a damn, but as our national situation worsens precipitously, this number will grow, and that’s what gives me hope. In any case, our political lethargy can be partly attributed to the fact that we know, if only half consciously, that we are all beneficiaries of our empire’s crimes. I mean, if not for these oil wars and our petrodollar racket, it would be a lot harder to drive that SUV to, say, a poetry reading. It’s no exaggeration to say that everything an American owns has been purchased through the barrel of the largest gun the world has ever seen.
When I speak of a “Twitter generation,” which is a terrible name for a generation, I speak of a large part of the population that self-directs and shares without borders their consumption of information. There were no Democratic primaries this year, but on the Republican side, a majority of voters under thirty voted for an anti-war candidate, and whatever one thinks of him and his other views, that marks a potential shift in public opinion, perhaps a framing of public discourse between accountable small government and accountable socialist models. Even setting the ethical considerations aside, you can’t assume that US policymakers have a reliable process for determining when foreign empire building is in the national interest, or whether limited sectors are amassing power and acting in their own interests. As I said before, oil and defense got rich during the Bush-Cheney years, leaving the rest of the country in the worst economy since the Great Depression. The economy was doing much better in the 1990s when it was less militarized, had less debt and more public money spent domestically. To argue that, of course, is to attempt to reconstruct a conservative model, like Ezra Pound in the Adams and Pisan Cantos, complaining in 88 “Bellum perenne” (perpetual war), chronicling how after the American revolution, the first three presidents struggled against military dictatorship and foreign debt, with Jefferson writing to Governor Jay “An equilibrium of agriculture, manufactures, and commerce is certainly become essential to our independence.. These are the true limits.. To go beyond them is to increase our dependence on foreign nations, and our liability for war.”