I’ve really taken my time having a go at Sean Patrick Hill’s review in Rain Taxi of State of the Union, the political anthology published by wave books. I know there’s been a tempest here about nepotism in the poetry world which I think is exactly as serious as nepotism anywhere else. But who is Nepot. Why do we name a vice after him. Most importantly I will confess to being one of the poets in the anthology Sean reviews. But I really don’t mind that he didn’t mention me or my terrific poem in what he wrote. I was far too busy researching him. I checked out his bio and his poetry to see who is he to be claiming to have a corner on knowing what the political in poetry is. I’m investigating the deep background to the dense harrumph through which he ventriloquizes this piece. Where’s Sean coming from. That’s my question.
His poems, kind of prosy, are gentle nature poems with an aesthetic burnish. So when I read his review of the State of the Union book I’m not more confused I’m depressingly lulled by instead how predictable his review is/was. His own work does not seem “political.” He begins the “review” like this: “…let’s be clear at the outset: for the most part, the generations of American poets writing today have experienced little of the world’s political strife beyond what they’ve gleaned from the proliferate media. From a casual look at the biographies of poets appearing in The State Of The Union: 50 Political Poems, one can’t help but admit that they speak from a certain privillege.”
That’s so full of assumptions that simply quoting him might be enough. I could stop. I could put a few beats or bullets zinging behind his grandiloquence and I think I’ve got it made, but wait it gets even absurder. “It is notable, even regrettable, that only one poet in the collection, Brian Turner (Ho-Hum) served as a soldier in an actual war zone.”
Since he does ultimately do the typical round up of who and what he does and doesn’t like in the book (Sean is a good boy after all and this is a review, despite the bombast he excitedly frames it in.) But the reason I’m writing is my own feeling that his frame is why he wrote the piece and so it not his poetic opinions (which were thin) deserves my attention.
I wondered what else (besides being a soldier) is considered political to this writer. I mean I noticed what wasn’t. Rape? Why isn’t rape considered political by Sean Patrick Hill? Isn’t rape part of war. I mean war everywhere. War in America for instance. I mean if the percentage of female contributors in State of the Union is in keeping with the rest of America it’s probably pretty high i.e. I’m thinking about the number of us who have been sexually assaulted. Should that be in my bio? Do homosexuals have any purchase on the world’s political strife. Guess not. Even though we see them hung in Iran. I think you have to be hung (internationally) to be taken seriously in this review. Be hung with a gun at war I mean. I know one gay contributor whose lover was murdered for being queer. That’s not political. I mean unless it appeared IN THE BIO.
So there’s a gross essentialism going on here in one single regard. Man at war. Instead of talking about the complexity of the question that frames the book he’s reviewing – what is a political poem today and how do we describe, experience, understand the intimate balance going on between information, sentiment and aesthetics that determines how we read a poem and whether it even seems political to us (because isn’t the notion of “the political poem” a complex projection and reception of self and selves onto the moving surface of the poem in its time? I think so. Isn’t every political anthology a new thesis of that. ) Sean has avoided the philosophical and aesthetic questions of the review he is writing to instead not so indirectly suggest that poets as a class are insipid. He cites as his one authority on that point, the critic and translator Eliot Weinberger. Sean’s own poems contain trips to Spain where maybe real political things are occurring unlike here. Like during the Spanish Civil War. Lorca was a political poet. Get it. He died. That’s a real poet. War becomes a new kind of romantic test here.
Whereas because I (and here I really mean “I” as a class) am a published poet and a former college professor he assumes we’re all middle class at least and have no experience with sexual abuse, sex work, discriminatory health care, bad education for being born in an unprivileged family… assumed we didn’t go to Vietnam nor our brothers or our friends, or our dads. Or feel the effects of it. Socially, economically. Our dads didn’t go to world war two and come back ruined and drunk and any activism of the mind or the body hasn’t been practiced by any of us here.
Sean didn’t serve. Is that the problem. Or he has a completely complicated relationship to class which he’s unwilling to discuss. Did anyone ever tell him a review isn’t a therapy session. The essence of his warm up (and closure) is the indirect corralling of all of us in the book into the state of his own embarrassed disconnect to the world’s strife and his consequent feelings of mediocrity. Because Sean feels mediocre we are all mediocre. That’s where the personal becomes political to him. It’s viral this lousy feeling he has about himself. He’s passing it on. The identification of Brian Turner as one who’s been in an actual war zone identifies him as a true player. That’s so extra-poetry. This is an anthology of political poems, not a veteran’s anthology. Being a soldier is political. This is new. New like Siegfried Sassoon. Being a college professor is not. You know why? Sean is one. This piece screams that what I hate most about myself is that I have a job. He sides with critic and translator Eliot Weinberger “in decrying the failure of American poets to engage politics on a deep level. Weinberger points to their willingness to work for the very society they accuse – as tenured professors, as grant acceptors, as silent contributors to the status quo. He even goes so far as to call these poets “wards of the state. “ Now I have nothing against poets and critics living on inherited wealth like Eliot Weinberger but it’s hardly a position to be scornful from. Tell you the truth what I would consider a political poetry anthology at this point in time is one in which poets and critics talk honestly about their own economics. I have sat at least at one table with Eliot Weinberger and another poet also supported by his family and they both talked disparagingly about teaching. I guess it was the rest of us being to polite and slightly embarrassed for them instead of calling their bluff and saying but you guys are rich that made this moment both sickening and possible and memorable. It was their privilege to assume that we wouldn’t call them out. I have nothing against rich people per se. I love some quite a lot. The ones I know. Work is not a shame. Wealth is not a shame. Lying is.
In the end Sean leaps to history, the great judge. The easily appropriated chorus. He shamelessly quotes what an “Irish Republican prisoner said about the Nobel ribbon around Yeats’ neck: “If he wrote the sort of poetry that told the truth he’d be more likely to have the other kind of noose slipped around it.” I love that Yeats was a pussy stands as Sean Patrick Hill’s final assertion - using a Republican Soldier as his sock puppet. Yeats was a pussy. Real men know that. Well that must feel good. Maybe Sean’s a political prisoner at the school where he adjuncts. Lots of us know the feeling, Sean. It’s political, too.
Eileen Myles was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was educated in Catholic schools, graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and moved to New York City in 1974 to be a poet. They gave their first reading at CBGB's and then gravitated to St. Mark's church where they studied with Ted...