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Pretending to Disrupt, Merely Distracting: Plundering Privilege in the World of Poetry

By Amy King

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It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me and knows I grew up steeped in the south’s Bible Belt culture of racism that I am compelled to reflect on the surrounding culture, specifically within the poetry community, in light of a white supremacist framework that is being publicly identified and articulated across the nation today. Some reduce this framework to one of economics, but that is only one facet of a system that has a long, nuanced history in this country, initially founded by grotesque imperialist acts—literally abducting approximately 12 million people—and then developed as a holocaust—legally enslaving, massacring, raping and torturing the abducted for more than 100 years—that is typically remarked upon and dismissed as a “period of slavery” in America.

While we have Jewish Holocaust museums detailing Germany’s holocaust in order to understand, remember and learn from so we may avoid ever remotely replicating it, America shamefully refers to our own nightmare as a cursory footnote that is “long past.” This recurring dismissal negates attempts to consider the ongoing effects of both the horrifying events that made up that period as well as the stultifying effects of silencing those who attempt to articulate and address its continued, present day impact and influence on the living. In other words, the originary events were atrocious, but the ongoing attempts to negate efforts to identify the attitudes and impulses that carry on is a terrorism the country at large refuses to acknowledge and grapple with. If we don’t name a problem and even cursorily develop a large and difficult dialogue, we are severely restricted in how we might prevent and correct its present day impact.

Just as we are witnessing a resurgence in the country of civil rights activity since Trayvon Martin’s murder, and even more clearly, since the convergence of the public in Ferguson over the murder of Michael Brown, we are also hearing more voices speaking out against injustices in the poetry world that are simultaneously shining spotlights on the systemic machinations of a community that is not immune to the white supremacist culture it is embedded within and even, at times, governed by. Smaller, seemingly more subtle assertions of privilege are what enable the entire system to sustain and remain intact.

A speculative overview is due. Does the poetry world accommodate the white supremacist outlook that values lives on a hierarchical basis? Check. The institutionalization and ongoing maintenance of the literary American canon reflects a severely imbalanced and at times anemic valuing of voices—and therefore experiences and perspectives—from being most worthwhile to not worthy of consideration. Whose voices and ideas are deemed necessarily taught and often immortalized, and how are those voices identified, and more importantly, by whom?

As a poet, I know I’ve grown up understanding the power of poetry critics like Harold Bloom, Helen Vendler, and Marjorie Perloff to draw attention to a poet’s work and deem it important to the public, educators and students alike. Respectively, Vendler and Perloff have played considerable roles in tracing both the “right” and “leftist” veins of poetry, generally speaking, akin to the conservative versus liberal arms of politics. Vendler has focused on outlining the lineage of those lyric poets that are primarily white and numerously male, while Perloff has been responsible for guiding us through what she defines as the “avant-garde.” Her authorship alone of the “Avant-Garde Poetics” entry in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics is indicative of her role in defining and defending that lineage. As a result, both Vendler and Perloff have enjoyed establishing their visions by selecting and positioning poets that get anthologized and invited to highly regarded teaching positions and lecture series, and are offered paid public performances both within the academy and by reputable satellite affiliates of the academy such as museums, literary organizations, etc. They, in part, get to tap the work that is the “most important” poetry going and in turn aid those poets in advancing their careers and their values.

What is even more indicative of the white supremacist current that underwrites the way this hierarchizing system functions is how it recently united these two critics, who are notably polar opposites, in their critical efforts. Vendler early on invited poet Rita Dove to the proverbial table by supporting her former student’s work publicly. One can discern Vendler’s more recent annoyance at Dove for not playing the obedient “token” role when Dove defined her own landscape of the literary American poetry canon in her recently edited Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry beyond that which Vendler would have approved. In other words, Dove did not tow Vendler’s line out of some misguided expectation of gratitude, and Vendler used her considerable microphone to put her on blast publicly for broadening the scope of American poetry using a powerful instrument: Penguin’s anthology. Perloff also took Dove to task in a similar vein, worrying over Dove’s focus on what is “populist,” which is thinly-veiled code for “voice,” which only privilege pretends is universal. Whose voice is read as universal? Typically, the white person’s perspective is anthologized and taught as “universal” while the voices of people of color are historically marginalized by omitting them and also siphoning them off into African American and Native American studies and magazines that aren’t mainstream and are geared towards presumed readers of such work, notably only those who identify with the writer, as if white readers simply will not be interested in poetry by African Americans or otherwise. Evie Shockley in “Shifting the (Im)balance: Race and the Poetry Canon” writes:

[Dove’s] vision differs from either [Vendler’s and Perloff’s] so substantially, it would seem, that it is invisible to them. They can see race, however—Dove’s, anyway, and that of some of the poets she includes—and upon this convenient hook they hang much of their aesthetic and intellectual discontent. What makes race not simply visible here, but convenient, handy, useful?

Later, Shockley implies the factors and underlying white supremacist thrust that I wish to more generally outline; specifically, biased responses surfaced by Dove’s inclusion of more African American poets as part of the literary American landscape are really the problem, couched within the criticism that she’s given “less space” to previously widely-anthologized white poets:

If Dove’s editing does in fact “shift the balance” (or imbalance) of attention between the usual suspects and other poets who have till now been relegated to the canon’s shadows, it is not the fiat Vendler implies it is… If certain “better-known authors” receive less space than they have in the past, it is so that today’s students can better know other authors whose importance has been obscured by factors quite apart from their aesthetic abilities or achievements.

How dare Dove sacrifice certain white poets, even just in fewer pages though still included, for the sake of adding in the works of lesser known African American poets? An anthology is a snapshot of American poetry and a way to whet appetites by introducing poets to readers that they might go on to read further, but one wonders for Vendler and Perloff if those poets don’t represent the “universal voice” of white perspective and values. In fact, they may even challenge or undo it, as Shockley suggests later in her excellent essay on the subject.

So what happens if that system—and those who hold the power within it—are challenged at the core? Even worse, what happens when the “leftist” arm of poetry—the avant- garde—that is tasked with challenging status quo values fails to do so, and instead, simply uses and, in so doing, reinforces the system whose values and very structure it pretends to want to dismantle?

I contend that while Perloff in the past couple of decades has certainly brought some worthy poets to light that have offered challenges to mainstream poetic values, her latest efforts not only stand in stark contrast as a shining example of that which decidedly does not challenge those values; the mechanisms she uses to promote and help put them in place illustrate her complacency with and utilization of the power structure to do so.

The many poets who have raked Conceptual poetry over the coals have done so, not because these “poets” have done something so innovative that it’s shocking—they’ve been taken to task so frequently now because these Conceptual Poets stand out as a stark, brazen example of how the system can elect to embrace mediocrity if it comes dressed in the “correct” signifiers and conveys certain values that warrant the blatant use of privilege to assert them as part of the lineage Perloff has spent much of her career defining.

Perloff inadvertently reveals the flaws—and blatant privileging—in her own efforts as she attempts to position Kenneth Goldsmith’s work in a tradition where the lyric continues to evolve in a variety of ways and generative poetry is challenging and expanding that definition; she attempts to read Goldsmith’s Traffic in the lyrical mode, despite Goldsmith himself declaring that his work need not be read but simply thought about for its ideas. Essentially, Goldsmith asserts that his work belongs to that of a “thinkership” where readers are simply meant to focus on the idea of it rather than trying to read it. Perloff is at pains to include his work, along with Vanessa Place’s, as the next major step in the avant-garde of poetry, and in so doing, she has enough difficulty in explaining why this work is worthwhile that she attempts to force their appropriating squares into the circles of a challenging lyricism.

But Goldsmith is privileged and will have nothing to do with generating a “voice” of his own and acknowledging his own identity and all that gives him access to—such shirking is a privilege white people may enjoy. We have no need to assert our experiences and perspectives as white; they are universal and thus our race and privilege is best left invisible and therefore unquestioned and unchallenged. I can shed the assignment of how I am publicly perceived and therefore treated and received in my poetry because I do not have to be concerned with how I will be marginalized or dismissed by race—nor do I need to admit or address the advantages that identity entitles me to. So the outright denial of the existence of one’s own voice, while publicly proclaiming the right to appropriate voices and experiences not his own, is a very privileged and racially-entitled position: a white supremacist one. Vanessa Place actively does the same, and in fact, is currently mounting her own campaign asserting her right to appropriate voices and, as a result, denounces critical reaction to those appropriations as attempts “to censor her.”

Let me elaborate. Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place have pronounced their work as anti-lyrical. They both also appropriate voices and experiences that are not their own, excerpting and re-presenting those voices as their own work. Perloff has taken up and validated these “writing acts” as the latest in the line of the avant-garde, the line of poetics that presumably challenges the status quo order as it is perpetuated. However, what Goldsmith and Place are doing is actually nothing new; white America has a longstanding tradition of appropriating and sanitizing experiences and voices not our own—removing the sting and challenge of those voices— and re-presenting them as something we either own or control.

Jazz stands out as a blatant example of this American tradition, but we continue to colonize and lay claim to others’ experiences in all facets of American culture from fashion to rap and hip hop to dance moves to you name the arena—there’s a white person claiming a right to ownership of ideas and aesthetics and speech acts we did not originate or create. What Goldsmith and Place have done is enact an essentially status quo American tradition of white entitlement at its most transparent: selectively excerpting voices from context, sensationalizing and thereby reducing those voices, often to stereotypes, for the benefit of drawing attention to the appropriators, by laying claim to and re-presenting voices that evolved from experiences they did not endure or participate in—and then shaping those voices as their own “work.” What Perloff has done that has inspired vast response is take such an obvious American tradition in the exercise of systemic white privilege and positioned and promoted it as the antithesis of what it does: instead of challenging the status quo, it simply uses, benefits from and therefore reifies the underlying white supremacist power structure.

Conceptual poetry is hardly part of an avant-garde tradition that challenges and changes the values of the status quo. Even with all of their appropriations of race-related subject matter, Conceptual poetry has embraced a colonialist tradition and has not offered up any kind of redemptive disruption in how things function on the level of white supremacy; the ConPo of Place and Goldsmith has only served to illustrate white supremacy at its starkest by selling these two as radical poets—and rewarding them in the process. Ha. Their work has simply been a distraction, often an offensive one, thanks to Perloff’s participation in calling attention to and advancing such traditionally American appropriative moves. Her participation in writing such mediocrity into this facet of the canon has incited more response than they likely would have received independently because, most strikingly, her efforts reveal how the overall system works and how privilege functions, once again, to promote ineffective work that pretends it does otherwise.

The bald fact that white voices, experiences and values continue to be privileged in poetry above voices of those who have historically been denied access and public exposure, inclusion in anthologies, invitations to microphones, etc, resonates as one example in the larger culture where those lives are also limited, manipulated and stereotyped. Today, we continue to see unarmed black people harassed and massacred on a daily basis due, in part, to the inability of white people to recognize their humanity. This is a recognition that only comes when we read and hear a range of voices, values and experiences, especially ones that are different from the traditionally “universal” white experience. Systemic privilege and exclusion needs to be exposed and addressed in many arenas in America, from education to politics to poetics. As news from Ferguson bears out more deaths of black people tonight, I am reminded of a quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s essay, “How It Feels To Be Colored Me”: “The position of my white neighbor is much more difficult. No brown specter pulls up a chair beside me when I sit down to eat. No dark ghost thrusts its leg against mine in bed.” The onus of change is weighted for white people, especially those of us still using systemic privilege and power and those benefiting from it to figure out how to share it. Whether that means sharing a seat on a bus or a microphone and stage, whether that means joining a public protest on the streets or on the page or including overlooked poets in an anthology, it is up to white people to advocate for that which, even at risk of discomfort, is right.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Tuesday, August 11th, 2015 by Amy King.