D.A. Powell's mention of Etheridge Knight had me reminiscing: In 1984, when I was 20, I hung out at a Philadelphia bar called the Bacchanal, especially on Mondays, when they had their poetry readings. I had written so few poems, I could memorize them all. During the open readings, I'd recite my poems without paper, clutching a bottle of beer, with my eyes closed. The applause I got gave my confidence a big boost--like Gertrude Stein said, "What an artist needs most is praise." After a few weeks of this schtick, the organizer scheduled me for a feature reading with, trumpets and drumroll, please, Etheridge Knight! Shit, man, here I am hobnobbing, featured, dude, name on the same flyer with a legend, mind you. Universal fame then decades of creative intensity and fertile, gestating leisure, not to mention endless nookies, can't be too far away, I thought. Minutes before the reading, as I was drinking a Rolling Rock at the bar, Etheridge walked over.

"You ready?"

"Yeah."
"Are you a poet?"
Annoyed, I stared at the man, "I'm reading with you and I'm not a poet?"
"Just answer me. Are you a poet?"
"Of course I'm a poet!"
"OK, so let's go read then!"

It didn't take me long to realize Etheridge had no money. A visit to his apartment confirmed it. He was living in Logan with his girlfriend, and I bought a yellow tin of jasmine tea as a present. We had dinner that night. The fact that Etheridge managed to exist outside the system was very inspiring to me, C.A. Conrad, Tom Devaney and many other young poets in Philadelphia. We also admired his life experience. Etheridge would jokingly call me, "professor," although I had no college degrees and was also dead broke. I was a filing clerk, an office and house cleaner, a window washer, a gallery technician and a house painter. I didn't get my first teaching job until four years ago, when I was hired by Bard College. Since then, I've taught at U. Penn, Naropa and the U. of Montana. So I became a professor, after all. Etheridge also turned academic when he earned a bachelor’s degree in American poetry and criminal justice from Martin Center University, in 1990, the year before he died. Knowing Etheridge was very sick, I phoned him in Indiana.

"Goodbye, Etheridge."

"Goodbye, professor."

Originally Published: June 14th, 2008

Linh Dinh was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1963, came to the U.S. in 1975, and has also lived in Italy and England. He is the author of two collections of stories, Fake House (Seven Stories Press 2000) and Blood and Soap (Seven Stories Press 2004), and the novel Love...

  1. June 14, 2008
     joe banford

    These days, it seems we can't exist outside the system. To reminice: I saw Etheridge at Bacchanal read with James Baldwin, shot glasses at hand. They kept their sets short, ending with comical pieces. Arms around shoulders, they returned to the bar. Etheridge said all poetry was celebration. That beautiful moment was poetry.

  2. June 14, 2008
     dwayne

    Another observation is that the system can't exist outside of poetry. And it's a testament to poetry, I think, to have Etheridge Knight memories appear on the Poetry Foundation blog, where they rightfully belong.

  3. June 14, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    I don't know why people are so keen to idealize poetry. Besides Tennyson, poets have never existed "outside the system," unless by virtue of independent wealth. Does every art collect such romantic banalities? The woods of Arcady are dead. Get over it.

  4. June 15, 2008
     Don Share

    Etheridge Knight & "The Song of the Happy Shepherd" in the same thread! As WBY also said,
    "To the cracked tune that Chronos sings, / Words alone are certain good..."

  5. June 15, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Yes, well, I suppose there is safety in derision. ;)

  6. June 15, 2008
     Brian Salchert

    Don't Ask
    1. Frogs
    hippity hop
    kerplop kerplop
    -
    2. Logs
    "The woods of Arcady are dead."
    There aren't even any crumbs of bread.
    -
    3.

  7. June 15, 2008
     Mark Wallace

    Linh, considering your post and the previous one by D.A. Powell, I remain unclear as to whether Etheridge Knight was living his life consciously outside normative jobs which would perhaps have provided him an income and health care or whether like many other people his attempts to make a better living had failed or been denied by a social system that has long ignored the ill and destitute. I don't know enough of the story of his life to answer that question, but do you? Or anybody else here? He and the woman he lived with must have been able to find at least enough money to continue eating and, perhaps, paying (however minimally) for the place where they lived. Does anyone know how they were able to do that?
    Answers to some of these questions might make it clearer as to whether, or in what degree, the conditions in which he was living were a function of conscious choice or of a lack of options.

  8. June 15, 2008
     Brian Salchert

    Mark Wallace's goodly question sent me on one of my usual searches
    through which I found a short but useful bio of Etheridge Knight at the
    Modern American Poetry site.

  9. June 16, 2008
     Linh Dinh

    Hi Mark,
    Etheridge Knight had a handful of visiting-poet teaching jobs, but nothing long term. Besides those and reading gigs, I doh't know how he made money.

  10. June 16, 2008
     Linh Dinh

    Hi Mark,
    Etheridge Knight had a handful of visiting-poet teaching jobs, but nothing long term. Besides those and reading gigs, I don't know how he made money.

  11. June 17, 2008
     Lucia

    "normative jobs that would have perhaps provided health care"...Tom Clark's predicament shows us how shakey this system is under the best circumstances.

  12. June 17, 2008
     john

    Michael,
    May I commend to you the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas, William Carlos Williams, Arthur Rimbaud, and Wallace Stevens? As far as I know, they never held posts in academia or publishing. There are lots of others too.
    I don't know about Arcady, I do know some lovely, living woods if you're curious.

  13. June 17, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    In fact, what I was objecting to was the romanticism of imagining that there's some "system" out there waiting to co-opt all the groovy poets -- the vulgar fantasy that art exists outside its social conditions of production, or is a priori subversive. You bring up Stevens, the paragon of writing within the "system" -- the bourgeois poet par excellence, at the mere mention of whose name Adrienne Rich launches into an extemporaneous screed against the patriarchy. (No matter what she's doing: she could be ordering food at a McDonald's drive-thru.) I'm just tired of people not wanting to do any work when they think about the relation of poetry to society. And there's something pathetic about rehashing Weathermen slogans on a website run by the Poetry Foundation.

  14. June 18, 2008
     john

    The last time I was hanging with Adrienne, we went to the McDonald's drive-thru too! I think she's mellowed, though, because when I made the mistake of mentioning dear Wallace, she just belched and laughed. I nearly spilled my Diet Coke, I was so taken aback, but I did prefer it to a screed.
    Seriously, I don't get the Tennyson reference -- I mean, Poet Laureate and all.
    Linh, what did you mean by "outside the system"?

  15. June 18, 2008
     Linh Dinh

    Hi John,
    Many American writers spend nearly their entire life within the academy, undergraduate then graduate school then, if all goes well, a teaching gig at some university. Without getting into the drawbacks of such an arrangement, that's what I mean by the system.

  16. June 18, 2008
     john

    Hi Linh,
    That's what I took you to mean, but I don't blame Michael for hearing an SDS echo in the word "system."
    Thanks for the clarification. And the nice post.

  17. June 18, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Ah, well, that wasn't clear to me. I was suggesting that no one but Tennyson ever lived off his writing alone.
    But I don't know how to reconcile these two statements: "It didn't take me long to realize Etheridge had no money"; "The fact that Etheridge managed to exist outside the system was very inspiring to me." As Mark intimates, it might have been better for Etheridge Knight if the system had accommodated him. How is suffering in poverty preferable to teaching at a university? I still think there's more than a little fetishization of purity & authenticity here.

  18. June 19, 2008
     Sheryl

    Good poets are working at menial labor jobs this summer and working part-time without health benifits all over the country. Bad poets often teaching poetry classes without having published a book, running small presses and helping their Ivy league or ranked school friends get ahead . There is nothing romantic about it, especially when horrible poets with networking flair have jobs, feign authority and are blindly followed due to white guilt. Plugging in minoriities for the sake of having minorities without really knowing who writes well and who doesn't is the current system. I wonder if Ethereidge had student loans that were left unpaid. Diversity for diversity's sake is dangerous, but it is the "new" collective. Individuality is lessened and the group dominates like a mob. But I didn't read the post above as romantic, but rather interested in the fact he was outside of the system. The system is broken.

  19. June 19, 2008
     Sheryl

    Oops. I meant,
    Bad poets are often teaching poetry classes without having published a book, running small presses and helping their Ivy league or ranked school friends get ahead . There is nothing romantic about it, especially when horrible poets with networking flair have jobs, feign authority and are blindly followed and even glorified due to white guilt.
    All we can do is plug away and write. All of us.

  20. June 19, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Oh, please. And, guess what, lots of bad poets are working menial jobs, & lots of good poets are teaching poetry classes. "Without having published a book" is rich: which is it, the system is broken, or the system is a reliable index of poetic value?
    But hey, I got nothing against ressentiment. And I feel sorry for those minorities getting "plugged in for the sake of having" them. Or, wait, I think I get Flarf now!

  21. June 19, 2008
     Linh Dinh

    Hi Sheryl,
    Etheridge had no student loans because he spent his youth in the army, in the hospital, on the streets, then in prison.
    I spent my romantic youth cleaning toilets and scraping old paint. Occasionally I got to calk.

  22. June 19, 2008
     Sheryl

    Yes, in my opinion the system is not a reliable index of poetic value. The internet is not real life.

  23. June 19, 2008
     john

    These fights between academics and (I confess, economically resentful) anti-academic romantics reminds me: Harriet is large, she contains multitudes.
    I am guessing that the historical Harriet would be more sympathetic to the Weathermen than the perfessers. It's possible that she might succumb to the inherent flattery of the perfessers trying to pass off her generation's innovations as up-to-the-minute. Or she might be annoyed; I don't know.
    I think it's funny -- the equivalent of a 1913 perfesser passing off Tennysonianisms as up-to-the minute. We know with what scorn Harriet's pals would have greeted that spectacle!
    Also funny: In my romanticism, I didn't see Linh's post as particularly romantic. But I can see how someone else (a perfesser, say) might. I think you tipped your hand, though, Michael, and revealed your own ressentiment (against which you wisely have nothing) with your angry tone.
    Linh found inspiration in another poet's dedication and independence. Maybe it's romantic, but it's not advocating poverty for others (as some academic Marxists are wont to do), and there's nothing wrong with it. I will apologize if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty confident that he wasn't valorizing our health care system either.
    Perfessers might try to convince us that art isn't inherently romantic. Resist, I say, resist!

  24. June 19, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Yeah, Pound, Stevens, Yeats, & Eliot: the veritable blueprint for the Weathermen.
    I don't really understand how I'm trying to pass off Tennysonianisms, nor do I know what they are. What I'm trying to do is argue (from a hard-left perspective) that aestheticizing poverty is useless.

  25. June 19, 2008
     john

    No, no, academics today aren't claiming Tennysonianism is contemporary; the intended analogy was between Conceptualism today and Tennysonianism in 1913. ("a 1913 perfesser.")
    American modernism was heavily anti-academic, Williams and Rexroth probably being the most hardcore, but I'd bet that Pound had surly things to say as well. I'm not totally anti-academic; I'm tremendously grateful to my poetry professor, and I'm glad he has a job.
    I agree about aestheticizing poverty.

  26. June 19, 2008
     john

    A few more points.
    Linh: "The fact that Etheridge managed to exist outside the system was very inspiring to me."
    Michael: "As Mark intimates, it might have been better for Etheridge Knight if the system had accommodated him."
    Linh: "Etheridge had no student loans because he spent his youth in the army, in the hospital, on the streets, then in prison."
    Point one: Nothing Linh said romanticizes poverty in itself. There's nothing wrong with finding inspiration in someone's resilience in the face of poverty.
    Point two: Of course it might have been better for Etheridge Knight if the system had accommodated him. Unfortunately (and I'm sure Michael would agree) the system doesn't accommodate millions of people, poets or not.
    Point three: In such a situation, the university system as constituted is part of the problem. It's an entrance barrier into the system, not an insurmountable barrier, but one with a high correlation to a potential student's class of origin. The system literally is not constituted to accommodate everybody who could benefit from it.
    My alma mater (University of Michigan, 4th generation) lost a lawsuit brought in part by a philosophy professor that eliminated affirmative action based on a student's race. The lawsuit pointedly left in place affirmative action based on a students' family's donations to the school, and based on the student's parents having been students. If my son and an African American student were to compete for a spot at U-M, the affirmative action policy dictated by the U.S. Supreme Court, against the wishes of the university, would allow the university to favor my son, because I went there, as did my mom, as did her dad, as did his parents (as well as my dad and his dad).
    Yeah, Michael, it would be better if the system had accommodated Etheridge Knight. The idea that anybody here disagrees with that is way off.
    I do have an anti-academic streak. Linh didn't want to go into the drawbacks of a lifetime in academe, but I will touch on one point. The university offers a limited experience of society, and a broad experience can be good both for a person and for his or her poetry. Note: "Can be." Note also: "experience." Not "view," not "understanding" -- experience. This is not fetishizing purity or authenticity. It's fetishizing life.

  27. June 20, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    John, I agree that the affirmative action that's needed in the university system is class-based, & I certainly don't need a tutorial on the Bollinger cases. I simply don't understand kneejerk anti-academicism. I spent ten years outside the academy between the time I got my MFA & the time I entered a doctoral program -- unemployed for much of that time. "Experience" is something else that's all too easily fetishized, but I will note that "a broad experience" of "life" is available to academics as well.

  28. June 20, 2008
     Rich Villar

    1) Frankly, I think the idea of academia as a system of poet support is largely a myth. There are thousands of MFA's and Ph.D.'s being churned out on a regular basis (myself included) and there are simply not enough jobs to sustain them all. And the majority of posts that DO exist fall into the kind of menial existence that Sheryl Luna describes. I think she's right on the money (no pun intended). It's not uncommon for your average young poet struggling "in academia" to be teaching three or four adjunct jobs, even if said poet has multiple books out, talent notwithstanding. That's not academia, that's Wal-Mart.
    2) I think if there's something to be said about fetishizing poverty, it's that some academes and poet-critics might look at a poet like Etheridge and think to their white-privileged, tenure-tracked selves, "Observe, colleagues. A black man who wasn't sanctioned by academia. And he seems to be talented! Quaint." and then write with gusto about how he was plucked from his prison-soaked obscurity to the top of American letters, my my, let's all kumbaya on how American poetry takes care of its own. Right. Where was the American poetry establishment when Amiri Baraka was getting his head split open by Newark cops in the 70's? For that matter, where were they when he was being stripped of the poet laureate position in New Jersey? Ah, they may have feigned some outrage, but I didn't see anyone calling for Governor McGreevey's uncultured head on a platter...though they may have put in a call or two to see if the position might be opening up soon.
    3) Sorry, I get worked up sometimes. Comes with being a romantic.

  29. June 20, 2008
     Rich Villar

    ...by fetishization of poverty, of course, I meant to say "fetishization of purity." Sadly, it doesn't change my point much.

  30. June 20, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    What a tangled thread we weave.
    Rich, I'm not sure this is even a caricature, as it's so divorced from reality: "some academes and poet-critics might look at a poet like Etheridge and think to their white-privileged, tenure-tracked selves, "Observe, colleagues. A black man who wasn't sanctioned by academia. And he seems to be talented! Quaint." and then write with gusto about how he was plucked from his prison-soaked obscurity to the top of American letters." I don't know who you have in mind, but if you know of any academic or poet-critic who's ever said anything like this or maintained that "American poetry takes care of its own" (sounds ominous), I'd like to hear about it. And for the record, Knight was never elevated to the top of American letters. He's not even in the latest edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern & Contemporary Poetry. I guess I don't see whose points you're responding to. Who exactly is defending the "American poetry establishment"?

  31. June 20, 2008
     john

    Kneejerk is a funny word.
    The Knee Jerks would be a good band name.

  32. June 20, 2008
     Doodle

    Terry Eagleton, in the 19 June London Review of Books tells this story:
    "Hans Eisler proposed an allegory of the Frankfurt School (which had been founded by German commercial capital) in which a rich old man, disturbed by poverty in the world, sets up an institute to inquire into its cause. The institute duly reports back that the cause is himself."

  33. June 20, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Verb. Sap., eh, Doodle?
    I'm really not certain whom these comments are aimed at, but as I seem to be the only one objecting to the portrait of noble suffering in the original post, I'll assume that some of them are floated my way. What I don't get, therefore, is how a lowly grad student got nominated Defender of American Poetry Establishment. I make, oh, thirty grand a year, & worked, until recently, as a contributing editor to Chicago Review -- not, last I checked, a bastion of establishmentarianism.

  34. June 20, 2008
     Rich Villar

    Ah summertime, when the poets have time to battle again. It's like watching those kneejerk marigolds bloom.
    Let's see if we can't untangle your web, Michael. Really, I think the one specific thing of yours that I responded to was the idea that poverty (the purity of poverty?) is somehow fetishized when a poet simply admires another poet's ability to operate outside "the system." That's how I read your comment. If that's not what you meant, I apologize. Nonetheless.
    I was challenging two key concepts here: one, your definition of fetishizing as it relates to poor poets, and two, the idea that academia is indeed a viable support system for poets...something which seems to me a larger concept. I further suggested an alternate definition for fetish: namely, that there might be some critics in academia apt to fetishize Etheridge's experiences...or the experiences of a poet LIKE Etheridge...for their own personal gain, to be able to say they were the first to look past the poet's unfortunate circumstances and see the purity beneath the thug. This seems to me to be the one comment you've taken the most to heart, and I'll admit, phrases like "American poetry takes care of its own" and "elevated to the top" were an unfortunate bit of hyperbole...though not altogether invalid ones, in my view.
    Have I heard such fetishizing assertions made in the past? And along racial lines, no less? Of course I have. It's rather difficult to leave out Gwendolyn Brooks and Dudley Randall from Knight's career narrative, but at least one poet-critic managed to do it, in public no less, and assign the role of Knight's benign patron to a different, less threatening set of facilitators. Am I going to name names for you, Senator? Don't hold your breath.
    I'll admit, one critic's fetishization is another critic's mere misinterpretation, and I'm willing to admit at least a little bit of reasonable doubt as to the aforementioned critic's motivations. As you should know, poets don't always know the full score when it comes to tracing histories or reading criticism. But my heroes didn't always live to ripe old age, and some of their stories were changed to fit certain interpretations and histories. Thus, I am sensitive...perhaps to a fault...to how some critics choose to engage with the record. And there is something sinister to the fetishization of poverty, a point which I think we may agree on, but with different reasons why. Knight is simply a touchstone for me because of the incident I personally witnessed, but I'd wager there are other examples out there.
    To the point about academia as safe haven: Well, it just ain't. Colleges and universities are increasingly hiring SuperAdjuncts willing to teach multiple sections of both creative writing and composition (chemistry, stats, and remedial counting a plus). Talent is nice, but you better have an MFA to back that talent up. And an MFA without specialties, awards, and multiple publications in multiple genres, along with two dollars, buys you a cup of coffee and a string of jobs that don't add up to anything remotely safe or stable. I don't know how Etheridge may have fared in this system, but the rest of us are just a little bit freaked out.
    There ya go, y'all. Enjoy your caricatures. I'm going to bed.

  35. June 21, 2008
     Rich Villar

    Ah summertime, when the poets have time to battle again. It's like watching those kneejerk marigolds bloom.
    Let's see if we can't untangle your web, Michael. Really, I think the one specific thing of yours that I responded to was the idea that poverty (the purity of poverty?) is somehow fetishized when a poet simply admires another poet's ability to operate outside "the system." That's how I read your comment. If that's not what you meant, I apologize. Nonetheless.
    I was challenging two key concepts here: one, your definition of fetishizing as it relates to poor poets, and two, the idea that academia is indeed a viable support system for poets...something which seems to me a larger concept. I further suggested an alternate definition for fetish: namely, that there might be some critics in academia apt to fetishize Etheridge's experiences...or the experiences of a poet LIKE Etheridge...for their own personal gain, to be able to say they were the first to look past the poet's unfortunate circumstances and see the purity beneath the thug. This seems to me to be the one comment you've taken the most to heart, and I'll admit, phrases like "American poetry takes care of its own" and "elevated to the top" were an unfortunate bit of hyperbole...though not altogether invalid ones, in my view.
    Have I heard such fetishizing assertions made in the past? And along racial lines, no less? Of course I have. It's rather difficult to leave out Gwendolyn Brooks and Dudley Randall from Knight's career narrative, but at least one poet-critic managed to do it, in public no less, and assign the role of Knight's benign patron to a different, less threatening set of facilitators. Am I going to name names for you, Senator? Don't hold your breath.
    I'll admit, one critic's fetishization is another critic's mere misinterpretation, and I'm willing to admit at least a little bit of reasonable doubt as to the aforementioned critic's motivations. As you should know, poets don't always know the full score when it comes to tracing histories or reading criticism. But my heroes didn't always live to ripe old age, and some of their stories were changed to fit certain interpretations and histories. Thus, I am sensitive...perhaps to a fault...to how some critics choose to engage with the record. And there is something sinister to the fetishization of poverty, a point which I think we may agree on, but with different reasons why. Knight is simply a touchstone for me because of the incident I personally witnessed, but I'd wager there are other examples out there.
    To the point about academia as safe haven: Well, it just ain't. Colleges and universities are increasingly hiring SuperAdjuncts willing to teach multiple sections of both creative writing and composition (chemistry, stats, and remedial counting a plus). Talent is nice, but you better have an MFA to back that talent up. And an MFA without specialties, awards, and multiple publications in multiple genres, along with two dollars, buys you a cup of coffee and a string of jobs that don't add up to anything remotely safe or stable. I don't know how Etheridge may have fared in this system, but the rest of us are just a little bit freaked out.
    There ya go, y'all. Enjoy your caricatures. I'm going to bed.

  36. June 21, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    "To the point about academia as safe haven" -- this is exactly what I'm wondering at. To the point? What point? Who made it? Not I!
    Or, as a musty old establishment poet put it: "Strange point, & new! Doctrine which we would know whence learnt."
    If you can't tell the difference between objecting to facile anti-academicism & claiming that the academy is a "safe haven," then I got nothin' for you.

  37. June 22, 2008
     john

    No, Michael, no. The anti-academicism isn't facile. You have wounded me! My anti-academicism is -- well, I do have facility with it, I admit -- but it is well considered and thorough! And well balanced with a healthy respect for what the academy does well, the benefits it confers and the intellectual sustenance and stimulation it can provide. I may be a jerk, but my knee doesn't.
    I do admire your romantic self image of lone brave-soul-ism -- "I seem to be the only one objecting to the portrait of noble suffering in the original post" -- well. Better not to mention poverty, is that it? Your only objection seems to be aesthetic -- that it's cliche to find inspiration in another artist's dedication and resilience. It's a funny thing about human feelings -- they don't always attain originality and rigor!
    Maybe an academic training can help us attain the discipline to suppress tasteless feelings.
    Good luck!

  38. June 22, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Hoo boy.

  39. June 23, 2008
     john

    Michael,
    You have asserted that Linh's romanticization -- if that's what it is -- of Knight's poverty is objectionable. If you have a case to make (beyond your aesthetic distaste for banalities, an inarguable matter of taste), you haven't done it.
    When I said I agreed with you about the aestheticization of poverty, I meant in general -- Tom Waits comes to mind -- I wasn't agreeing that that's what was going on here. Linh was a very young man. He admired Knight as a person and a writer. They became friends, and their friendship lasted until Knight died. Rooting the writing in specificity and intimacy, Linh avoids banality and generalization. Without generalization, there's no advocacy, there's no, "Hey, ain't poverty cool." The post says, *this man*, Etheridge Knight, was cool.
    If you have a case to make, make it.

  40. June 23, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    John, you either haven't read all my comments or aren't convinced by them. I really don't care which one it is, but I'm not going to repeat myself.

  41. June 23, 2008
     john

    Michael,
    You've been repeating your objections repeatedly! You just haven't backed them up with an argument. When you see an argument as to why your central objection -- to the portrait of noble suffering -- doesn't hold water, you pout.
    Just so you know.
    You have been repeatedly sarcastic about someone's friendship, about one person's esteem and affection for another. If you don't want to be thought a jerk (that handy word you half-introduced into the thread), you should have a good reason. You don't.

  42. June 23, 2008
     Linh Dinh

    Hi John,
    To elaborate a bit: I was inspired by the fact that someone with Etheridge Knight's background could become a celebrated poet. I was an immigrant writing in a second language. My parents hate books. As for CA Conrad, he explained to an interviewer, "When you come from white trash, there's not a lot of pressure to be a lawyer or dentist, or whatever, and let me tell you, you don't know freedom until no one expects anything from you." At 44, CA works as a cashier at a Barnes and Noble, which is hardly romantic, but he is the author of one well-regarded book, Deviant Propulsion, with another coming soon from Chax Press. Etheridge was a survivor and a self-made writer. For trash like me, CA Conrad and others, he was a natural beacon. Thank you very much, Mr. Knight.

  43. June 23, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Jesus wept.
    John, this is what I wrote:
    But I don't know how to reconcile these two statements: "It didn't take me long to realize Etheridge had no money"; "The fact that Etheridge managed to exist outside the system was very inspiring to me." As Mark intimates, it might have been better for Etheridge Knight if the system had accommodated him. How is suffering in poverty preferable to teaching at a university? I still think there's more than a little fetishization of purity & authenticity here.
    That's the only point I've made in this thread, & it involves an argument. I don't know why it's inspiring to have to grind away in poverty: the whole point of Marxism is precisely that it's not, & the whole objection to identity politics from a left perspective is that poverty is not valorizable & "poor" is not a condition to be proud of or aspire to. The point is to eliminate poverty, not fetishize it.
    You don't think Linh was fetishizing it -- implying that Knight was noble for working at menial jobs, "free" from the clutches of "the system." You don't think that anti-academic ressentiment has anything to do with the frequent denunciations of the university system here on Harriet & in like forums.
    I no longer care. When a comments stream degenerates to the point that it's just two jerks talking past each other, it's probably not worth reading.

  44. June 23, 2008
     john

    Michael,
    I do thank you for clarifying. And yes, we disagree, and are unlikely to budge: You see an objectionably generalized valorization of poverty, where I see a specific circumstance of lived experience.
    I am guessing that Harriet's unfortunate time delay with its comments caused you to miss Linh's last comment. But it probably would not have mattered, as he has already agreed that there's nothing romantic about working in demeaning jobs.
    Your telling Linh that he was wrong to find Knight's life story and poetry inspiring leaves my question unanswered: Would it have been better for him to have suppressed his inspired feelings, criticized them as too identity-bound and not sufficiently . . . revolutionary? (I'm sorry, I don't know what the positively contrasting adjective would be in this instance.)
    Telling people in our present unrevolutionary (or un-millennial) circumstance -- where racial, sexual, gender, ethnic, and class prejudices abound -- that they should ignore their own identity -- is reactionary. It serves the status quo. It serves the American myth that justice and identity blindness have been achieved, which, precisely because they are ideal and not achieved, is a reactionary stance. Identity politics indeed: If you talk about yours, I will heap sarcasm upon you!
    A professor taught me that. (An African American feminist, to be exact.) (I didn't meet her; I read her book.) (Patricia Williams, "The Alchemy of Race and Rights" -- great book.)

  45. June 23, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Actually, as Walter Benn Michaels, John Guillory, & others have pointed out, identity politics is a way of deflecting attention from the single most determinant form of injustice in American society, which is precisely class. If you redistribute the holders of wealth -- so that, say, African-Americans hold a proportionate amount of it & are proportionally represented among the richest five percent of Americans -- you still haven't done anything about the fundamental problem of the inequality of income distribution. 5% of the population still controls 95% of the wealth, but now more of them are black. Capital loves diversity: existing social structures can accommodate racial & sexual affirmations of identity without undergoing meaningful change. The Secretary of State hasn't been a white man for over a decade. Anti-identity politics doesn't argue that justice has been achieved -- quite the contrary, it argues that identity politics is a means of ensuring that it won't be. We have a "black" presidential nominee, we nearly had a woman. Think we'll ever have a poor one?
    I'll read Williams if you'll read Guillory's Cultural Capital or Michaels's pop-critical The Trouble with Diversity.

  46. June 23, 2008
     john

    Grouping people by category -- whether class, race, sexual orientation, gender, religion -- becomes a problem when it effaces or seeks to efface individual experience. If you're talking about demography or statistics, that's fine, but that's not what we're talking about here -- which is individual experience.
    Of course, Linh's post was about class, not race. CA Conrad, a white poet, and Linh Dinh, an Asian poet, found inspiration in Etheridge Knight, a Black poet. You're telling people they should efface their class experience.
    As you know, there is a high correlation between race & class in this society. People should explore whatever aspect of their identity they want to. Including, of course, Frederick Seidel too.

  47. June 23, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    John, people are grouped by category -- primarily by social class. Society depends upon it, whether it "becomes a problem" or not. How on earth you could conclude that I'm "telling people [to] efface their class experience" is beyond me: they couldn't do so if they wouldn't to, as it's what determines their experience. I'm saying, rather, that we should understand that class is such a determinant to a far greater extent than other identity-markers are. The Marxian gamble is that the economic sphere trumps & determines all the others. We don't need to hash out that argument here.
    I'm not as interested in "individual experience" as you are. It's the fetishization of individual experience that gave us liberalism in the first place. I think the idea of people "exploring aspects of their identity" is perfectly nauseating.
    For the record, I'm sure as hell not telling anyone to do anything, & were I interested in doing so, Harriet would be pretty far down on my list of appropriate forums.

  48. June 23, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    n.b. that should read, of course, "if they wanted to."

  49. June 23, 2008
     john

    Correction acknowledged: You're not telling people to efface their class experience.
    You do wax sarcastic about someone talking about his.
    Repeatedly invoking expressions of individual aesthetic experience and preference -- "banality," "nausea" -- in a denunciation of individual expression -- it seems dandyish, if it's conscious, but I'm not sure that it is.

  50. June 23, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    OK, this has been real, but every time I try to respond to you you call me a dandy or something, which is just weird. For the record, nobody said anything about denouncing individual expression, & nobody denied that people have individual aesthetic experiences. We were talking about affirming identity -- which seems to me an empty exercise. In the course of doing so, I denounced the notion of affirming the individual as such. Do I need to explain the difference between expressing oneself on a blog & celebrating diversity & individualism in the broader public sphere? Or between "talking about" class experience in a totally generic way & trying to understand experience qua determined by class?
    For some reason you're terribly offended by my sarcasm, which says more about you than it does about me. As I said before, I don't care. I feel pretty stupid having responded to your baiting as much as I have, & am finished with this pseudo-conversation. I'm afraid I don't even have the stomach to read any response you may have to this last post, so feel free to let loose.

  51. June 24, 2008
     Don Share

    OK, my fellow armchair intellectuals, I toss into the ring something Hannah Arendt said forty years ago (in The New Yorker, of all places!):
    "... no society can properly function without classification, without an arrangement of things and men in classes and prescribed types. This necessary classificaiton is the basis for all social discrimination, and discrimination, present opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, is no less a constituent element of the social realm than equality is a constituent element of the political. The point is that in society everybody must answer the question of what he is - as distinct from the question of who he is - which his role is and his function, and the answer of course can never be: I am unique, not because of the implicit arrogance but because the answer would be meaningless."

  52. June 24, 2008
     john

    And exactly *what* are you, Mr. Share? Hmm? A pot-stirrer, sir?
    More importantly, what kind of a poet are you? A red one? A blue one? Or a purple one? (My apologies if I've forgotten a category.)
    Paging Mr. Borges. The services of your Chinese zoologist are wanted here.
    "Armchair" cuts me to the quick. I'm a chaise longue dabbler!
    (You'll have to excuse my silliness. Of course categories exist, and have influence! Who ever said otherwise? Or should this have asked, what ever said otherwise?)

  53. June 24, 2008
     Don Share

    John, nobody needs me to stir the pot on Harriet, that's for sure!!
    (I think I'm a polka dot poet, or maybe even a polka poet, but it would be vulgar to draw attention to myself by saying any more.)
    And wouldn't you know it - I've been trying to figure out just how to come by a good chaise lounge for months - any suggestions? Department stores don't seem to carry them anymore, and though there's actually a website that sells them, I'm naturally suspicious...
    Yrs. for the other, and other-wiseness,
    Don

  54. June 25, 2008
     john

    Don,
    I appreciate your discretion and refinement, qualities I lack.
    I was struck by Michael's belief that the group blog of the Poetry Foundation is not part of the broader public sphere. It occurred to me that, to my knowledge, I have never met anybody who comments at Harriet. I have privately e-corresponded with a handful of correspondents. And then I remembered -- I'll actually be in Chicago Friday night, passing through town to catch my old friend Mickle Maher's play "The Strangerer," which is being put on by Theater Oobleck, which I co-founded with Mickle and others more than 20 years ago. If you don't know Oobleck, they're terrific, and Mickle's writing is brilliant.
    Anyway, I would be delighted to meet you and/or Michael Robbins (if he's still based in Chicago) before or after the play, shake hands, and buy you both the beverage of your choice.
    Here's info on Mickle's play:
    http://www.theateroobleck.com/
    Don't know if the invite would be of interest to either you or Michael (or any other Chicago-based Harriet-eer), but, in any case, best wishes with the chaise.
    John