On the BBC World Service early this morning there was a cluster of talkers, apparently of some note (I don’t remember who they were—it was four-fifty in the morning, Two Notch Road was dark and steaming, and I was busy trying to wake up for the gym), lamenting that there are no rebels anymore. One musician admitted that there were no musicians that one could call rebels like Bob Dylan or Bob Marley. The commodifying of rebellion was killing all rebellion. The final comment was provocative—the true rebels are the men and women who are strapping bombs around their bodies and detonating them in large crowds—these rebels are conservative believers but people who are acting against the status quo. By the time I turned into the wide parking lot of the gym I began to wonder what was so appealing about being a rebel. Bob Marley and the Wailers singing:
I’m a rebel
Soul rebel
I’m a capturer
Soul adventurer...
kept running through my head.

I like to tell poets that without risk there is no real poetry. I am not sure I am talking about rebellion here. But rebellion demands some risk. So I wonder if I take risks. I do think about the consequences of some of my poems when I am planning a reading set. I always thought twice about performing “Fat Man”, a poem about nuclear holocaust and American imperialism, during the months after 911. A rebel would not think twice. I went through an annoying series of back-and-forths about my manuscript Impossible Flying before it was published—I was deeply concerned about the impact it would have on my family. I did not feel like a rebel, then. And tonight I told a commissioner of a piece I am working on about HIV/AIDS in Jamaica that I was not sure I wanted to take a crew to Jamaica two days after the general elections and a few weeks after Dean because it is may not be entirely safe. A rebel would say, damned the torpedoes (or the nine millimeters, you get my drift) and go for it. Rebels like to say, “I don’t care what anyone thinks, I am just going to do what I have to do.” I rarely ever say that. I can’t recall when last I have said that. But I end up doing what I think is important, I end up going against the grain, I end up challenging what is already there. But a rebel? I don’t know.
Rebellion, though, can be caught through the osmosis of childhood influences. It is hard to have been raised in Kingston in the 1970s by a Marxist father and a daring clear-eyed Africa woman willing to marry a Jamaica and to travel a few thousand miles away from family and friends to live in an alien country and not have a hint of rebellion. It is hard to have been brought up with the mythic fables of a father facing deportation and of him tossing out CIA agents from his home without thinking that maybe rebellion is the way people live. Hard, too, to have grown up during the austere days of socialism when national pride was predicated on the willingness of people to suffer deprivations and inconveniences for the sake of independence and the fulfillment of a dream of cultural ascendancy—the days when, as a teenager, those of us who were clearly middle class, self-identified as working class (even now saying I am middle class smarts), and would have never been caught showing off about material possessions and such the like. Not cool. Not rebellious. And all those great rebellions taking place around us were monumental. Ali mouthing off after his resistance to the Vietnam war, and winning fights against people who were clearly not rebels; Bob Marley conquering the world with his trickster wit and hardcore sense of faith and pan-Africanist sensibility (I don’t come to bow, I come to conquer); our rejoicing when an afro haired woman became Miss Jamaica; Michael Manley standing up to the aligned nations and happily talking to Fidel Castro when we all knew we would pay for this dearly; the West Indies cricket team, with Vivian Richards in a knitted rasta wristband, demolishing the English team to become the most dominant cricket power in the world—yes, those were rebellions, and why wouldn’t I be a rebel after that?
The truth, though, is that rebellion will not always be useful, nor will always make sense in the short and long run. But for me, rebellion is satisfying. I became a Christian as an act of resistance and rebellion. It was my act of shifting the ideas around what a person can believe even in the midst of a larger act of rebellion. The standard around me, the conservatism, if you will, was atheist and orthodox. My faith was countering this. Indeed, I found strength in being misunderstood, in being laughed at, in being warned against this act of foolishness. I was a Pan Africanist, a non-capitalist Christian—in my head I was shattering all kinds of stereotypes and this was heady stuff. It still is.
But rebellion is always dependent on what exists around you in the same way that irony is predicated on a shared sense of the norm. I have no idea what my rebellions are today. I am ot sure if I have any rebellions. Perhaps rebellion is for the youth.
One of the talking folks on the radio this morning said that he had spoken to the Marley sons and asked them how they thought their father would feel to find that there were not more rebels of his ilk around. I was not interested in their answer. I was fascinated by the audacity of the question. He was calling Marley’s children non-rebels. He was calling them status-quo folks. He was dissing them, as far as I could tell. And he thought nothing of it. Maybe he did not even think it was a diss. Marley, I suspect, would have told him two choice words and left him stranded. They apparently answered. Were they rebellion against rebellion?
There are rebels everywhere, no doubt. Kenneth Goldsmith is a rebel, isn’t he? He has been rebelling all over the blog with is images, and his aesthetics. Indeed, a lot of rebels blog these days. They blog and they u-tube. Maybe that is the problem. Too many rebels. I am happy with just enough rebellion to allow me to ask questions about most things, to imagine what is behind the motives of others, to never take anything someone says for granted or at face value (with a few very crucial exceptions), to not be afraid of being different—in fact to relish it in some ways (except these days I will wear a suit and shoes); to continue to write poems and blogs that make me worry big time just before they are about to be published.

Originally Published: August 21st, 2007

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...

  1. August 22, 2007

    Dear Kwame,
    Nice to have you back; it was getting lonely here!
    Reading your thoughts on rebellion I thought of this William Carlos Williams poem:
    The bank is a matter of columns,
    like convention,
    unlike invention; but the pediments
    sit there in the sun
    to convince the doubting of
    investments “solid
    as rock”–upon which the world
    stands, the world of finance,
    the only world: Just there,
    talking with another woman while
    rocking a baby carriage
    back and forth stands a woman in
    a pink cotton dress, bare legged
    and headed whose legs
    are two columns to hold up
    her face, like Lenin’s (her loosely
    arranged hair profusely blond) or
    Darwin’s and there you
    have it:
    a woman in front of a bank.
    What the bank stands for and what the woman stands for are utterly contrasted. This is in a line of poetry stretching back to Sappho, who famously declared that "Some say thronging cavalry, some say foot soldiers, / others call a fleet the most beautiful of / sights the dark earth offers, but I say it's what- / ever you love best." It’s an assertion of the value of a relatively powerless individual against institutions of might. The finance world thinks it’s “the only world,” but to Williams the woman and her child are greater than it, and no less important than Lenin or Darwin. It’s not trying to cast the woman in the pink dress as some sort of subversive, but it’s a declaration of loyalty to what she signifies (and perhaps to feminity itself) as against what he calls "convention."
    Is this rebellious?
    Because I think as poets, as children of Sappho, we’ve already cast our lot with that woman and her child. Even if you don’t start out as a cultural critic, you end up as one, because of the vast discrepancy between what you hold dear and what the rest of the world (well, America...) holds dear.
    This is in large part why I don’t think Kenneth was a rebel; actually I thought he was taking great pains to point out that he is only trying to bring poetry in line with the art world, which is already in line with capitalism (what other meaning could those photos of Madonna and Koons have?). Certainly he “rebelled” against the ingrained prejudices of a navel-gazing poetry establishment, but in the larger picture he and, say, Alfred Barr–an unapologetic capitalist who would like to see poetry elevated to the same status other pure products of America enjoy–would understand each other very well.

  2. August 23, 2007
     Emily Warn

    Dear Ange and Kwame,
    Great posts. I thought about them yesterday as I walked home from work along Lake Michigan–the white-sails-on-blue dream we hold dear on one side, the blasted traffic of commerce and convention (Lake Shore Drive) on the other. Does rebellion arise from our need to escape these oppositions, to find a way out through some idea that melds them and so alters this reality? If that’s the case, then rebellion is a constructive force. Even the suicide bombers who kill and maim themselves and others do so out of the belief that it will alter the present moment. (Though I think they are misguided because the future that results from such horrific violence breeds more violence.)
    Or is our continual unrest with reality, with convention, a mark of an adolescent culture? For example, was my longing to quit my job and join a tank-top-and-bikini–well more like spandex low-riders–volleyball team the same as William’s longing for the blond with the good looking legs? By that I mean, am I attached to some fantasy that I prefer to shouldering responsibility? And isn’t it a sense of responsibility exactly what our still very young country and culture lacks? What if instead of believing either in being a rebel or in the conventional dream of acquiring goods and money, we worked and believed in the long view, in the importance of transmitting what is best in our culture, the art form of poetry say, across generations? Here I think we can learn something from a poet such as Gary Snyder who locates himself within a 5,000-year, rather than 200-year poetic tradition. In an interview in which he talks about Williams, he echoes Ange in saying that poets cast their lot with what human and non-human beings hold dear. (On some level this is also how rebellion works; in posting Koons and Madonna, Kenneth provoked a response in us that forces us to acknowledge each other.)
    “He [William Carlos Williams] said art is about conviviality. I saw instantly that this goes past the idea of the solitary, romantic, lonely artist suffering for his art, which I never trusted. And the acknowledgment that artists have a role in society, which is to contribute to the community – to the heart of the community.
    To take Williams’ statement that people “die for lack of what is found there,” I think this means lack of open-heartedness, lack of sweetness and tenderness to each other. But then a little later I saw that meaning also as ecological, that openness not just for the human community but for the natural community; it’s for our immediate neighborhood of all the other species, all of us passing through time.”
    --Gary Snyder on Williams
    Gotta go to work. Bye, Emily

  3. August 23, 2007
     Emily Warn

    Also, someone posted a great comment to Kwame and Ange's post, but did so anonymously. Just a reminder that we need you to enter your name and valid e-mail address for us to publish your comments. Otherwise we have no way to clean out all the spam.

  4. August 23, 2007
     Kenneth Goldsmith

    Oy vey, Ange. You're painting with a mighty big brush here. What's next? My relationship to poetry and international banking conspiracies?

  5. August 23, 2007

    Oh Kenny, don't get sensitive on me now. Madonna and Koons were rebels for asserting that "depth" is a middle-class pretension. That is certainly money talking.
    An anonymous poster wrote, "But we always return to the dilemma of rebellion as an act against the status quo. Easy enough. the problem is defining the status quo, isn't it? When we have clearly defined ideologies--Marxism, Capitalism, Evangelical Christianity, we think we can define the status quo; but it remains quite complex. I really like the Williams' poem--the plain-speaking considered tone of the thing, and the juxtaposition you talk about; but her rebellion has to be her bare legs, yes? Everything depends on her bare legs.”
    I agree (wearily) that rebellion depends on the status quo, but that the status quo changes fast depending what company you're in (and again, Koons and Madonna seem apropos).
    But are we really at the point where anytime a man mentions a woman's legs it's prurient (or is it just WCW)? In fact, what is moving about the poem is his treatment of her *face*, as worthy as Lenin's or Darwin's. Not to mention both her legs AND head are bare, a connotation of freedom don't you think? It's the woman's carefree mien, rocking the carriage while engaged in non-purposive talk, that moves Williams. The eroticism stems from that mien, not bare legs alone.
    Given our culture (no thanks to Madonna & Koons, etc.) I can see why some are cynical about the power of eroticism, femininity, etc. to suggest an alternative value system.

  6. August 23, 2007

    I also wanted to point out to Kenny that the insistence on avant-garde historical progress in poetry is indistinguishable from capitalist planned obsolescence. An old criticism, but one that I haven't seen disproved yet.