Present Past Tense
Interviewed by Kent Johnson in 2002, Eliot Weinberger said:
The Trade Center attack will not alter the autobiographical, anecdotal, therapeutic poems of the workshops; it will merely add another subject. But it will be interesting to see what happens, if anything, on the progressive front. Their poetry has been a kind of decadent modernism and their politics has tended toward an academic pseudo-Marxism that is completely oblivious to politics as the rest of the world knows it: the infliction and alleviation of suffering. Meaning is not a capitalist construct, as they claim, but meaninglessness is, and 9/11 was an explosion of meaning in the prevailing media-fantasy unreality of the nation.
Meaninglessness as a capitalist construct. The daily flood of trivia, applauded by such “radical” poets as Kenny G, has become a staple of our media, but it’s not just fluff that gets dished up daily, and here lies the real insidiousness. Presenting in a rapid, endless succession, scandal, fried chicken, bullshit, bombs, boobs, earthquake, four wheel drive, waterboarding, singing contest, actually a pretty good documentary on the Irish in 19th century America, awesome breakfast burrito deal and more scandal, the media flatten everything and nothing sticks.
What to make of a poetry that constantly pivots away from itself? That invites nonsense, and when meaning is created, refuses to let it linger? What of a poetry that does not allow significance its proper duration, that shuns context, in sum, a poetry that imitates television, especially cable TV with a remote control for accelerated derangement? Is this poetry radical, complicit or merely inevitable due to neurological damages inflicted by said appliance?
Living inside such media-induced miasma, poetry is no longer possible, really. Sure, a reading may attract 20 uncomfortable, shifting chairs, and a yawning commuter may glance at some cutesy haiku overhead, but the current mind is no longer capable of meditation or reflection, those slow and silent processes that allow a poem to truly matter. The average American watches four hours of television a day, listens to constant music, and there's also the internet with its Facebook, texting, twitter, email and excellent porn, etc, to distract him. Two or more of these activities are often indulged in simultaneously. In a third of American households, the television is never turned off. If a poem can squeeze in sideway in such climate, it will likely just flit by, to make room for yet another ephemera, and another, and another. Conversation itself has been degraded. There is hardly a place to talk, especially one without sonic distractions. In a culture hostile to thinking, speaking and hearing, the poem has no chance.
Imagine a public that could be inspired by a poem such as this:
Debasement is the password of the base,
Nobility the epitaph of the noble.
See how the gilded sky is covered
With the drifting twisted shadows of the dead.
The Ice Age is over now,
Why is there ice everywhere?
The Cape of Good Hope has been discovered,
Why do a thousand sails contest the Dead Sea?
I came into this world
Bringing only paper, rope, a shadow,
To proclaim before the judgment
The voice that has been judged:
Let me tell you, world,
If a thousand challengers lie beneath your feet,
Count me as number thousand and one.
I don't believe the sky is blue;
I don't believe in thunder's echoes;
I don't believe that dreams are false;
I don't believe that death has no revenge.
If the sea is destined to breach the dikes
Let all the brackish water pour into my heart;
If the land is destined to rise
Let humanity choose a peak for existence again.
A new conjunction and glimmering stars
Adorn the unobstructed sky now;
They are the pictographs from five thousand years.
They are the watchful eyes of future generations.
--Bei Dao, as translated by Bonnie S. McDougall
That audience is gone, I’m afraid. I don’t know China, but poet Zhang Er, co-editor of Another Kind of Nation: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Poetry (Talisman 2007), told me that a Bei Dao is no longer possible in that country. The mass media have taken over. The only political voices with a public belong to a few journalists and rock stars.
Dissidence as entertainment. We’ve been there for a while, haven’t we? At the biggest corporate bash of the year, the Who earnestly belted out “We don't get fooled again,” yet no one guffawed and spat out nachos. At a White House soirée, grizzled peaceniks Joan Baez and Bob Dylan performed for our bankster-funded (and yet another) war president. Before strumming, Queen Jane even gazed at Obama and cooed, “Mr. President, you are much loved.”
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss is right. But, but, but, I can hear a chorus rising, this one is so much more articulate! A symbolic victory must count for something, no? He is black. Our usually lugubrious gated community was positively orgasmic with a kind of self-congratulation as the American version of Carlos Menem was elected. Where now, where now? Don’t stay tuned.
Images from my photo blog, State of the Union: Chicago; Philadelphia; Philadelphia; Los Angeles.
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...