Tea Party Rhetoric in Poetry of the Left: Responses to David Micah Greenberg's Boston Review Essay

By Harriet Staff

We recently mentioned an essay published in the Boston Review, written by David Micah Greenberg and entitled "When That Becomes This: Comparison in Politics and Poetry," which compares strategies in the poetry of the experimental Left with those of the political Right.

Today, Greenberg's essay has been addressed by Marjorie Perloff, Charles Bernstein, Stephen Burt, Susan Stewart, and Katie Peterson, in a forum at Boston Review. Near the end, Greenberg provides a counter-response, thanking Bernstein in particular, and responding to each in full. Of Bernstein, he writes:

He is right that my essay might be poorly judged by its own standards, in that it both juxtaposes and compares apples and oranges—rightist political commentary and some leftist poetic strategies. To make a single poem emblematic of an entire rhetorical paradigm is additionally unfair. After these concessions (and more could be made), the only question worth asking back relates to his explanation that false consciousness is illuminated by this poem. I think I correctly identified this strategy in the essay. You were right to be against the war. My question is whether you would write a long anti-war poem again in this mode, knowing what you now know about the war’s real effects. What would you now say about war that does not hold up a mirror to a detestable nothing?

Bernstein's poem "War Stories" was set in the original essay as an example of a rhetoric often employed by the Right; and moreover one that is even totalizing:

There is an implicit dramatic movement. Early jokes, especially ones that make aesthetic comparisons (“War is the extension of prose by other means”), give way to more earnest statements of the inadequacy of language to convey the magnitude of war: “War is not a metaphor. / War is not ironic” (although the entire poem is itself ironic and metaphorical). There is a rhetorical movement from denunciation to a statement of something more essential, a comparison at its extreme in a statement of identity and collective guilt rooted in recognition of U.S. violence: “War is us.” The denunciation is of those who accept war as banal, employ banalities to justify it—Rumsfeld: “Stuff happens”—and in doing so bring it into the commonplace, denigrating experience itself. But there is, tellingly, nothing that describes or evokes war and its harm in any specificity except an assertion of its jarringness. The aesthetic effect of this motion is toward totalizing, escalating, and assertively false consciousness—false because this last statement of identity applies to the reader who cannot imagine war as a result of seeing the poem and so must imagine her or himself instead. [Ed. note: Bernstein's poem concludes with "War is here. / War is this. / War is now. / War is us."]

This blinding series of equivalencies echoes one type of critical response to experimental work: that which pays little attention to the experience of reading the poem, and to the conditions that it attempts to illuminate, and which instead attempts to establish an identity between the project and its politics, often in very general terms. For example, one of the most common claims about experimental literature is that it is a literature of resistance. In Bernstein’s critical writing, it is this experimental form that makes the poem political. But what, or rather, how does it resist, if the terms it generates are not remotely in the same sphere as the forces it opposes? Bernstein argues that engaging with difficulty itself gives readers the capacity to reject dominant discourses.

Perloff's response to Greenberg rejects his complaint with a lack of specificity:

Finally, Greenberg objects to “War Stories” because “There is, tellingly, nothing that describes or evokes war and its harm in any specificity except an assertion of its jarringness.” Wow! Is poetry (or, for that matter, fiction) required to detail the “harm” war causes in all its specificity? Is all war literature by definition anti-war literature and if so, what does Greenberg do with The Iliad? War and Peace? Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March? Yeats’s “Easter 1916”? Is there really one and only one correct way to write about “war”?

Greenberg’s own totalizing rhetoric is on display throughout. If one doesn’t like a poem—and certainly he needn’t like Bernstein’s “War Stories”—one simply invokes the Tea Party. Why not Hitler or Mussolini while we’re at it! I am astonished—indeed shocked—that the Boston Review would publish so fatuous and poorly argued an essay.

For Bernstein's response, and the rest, read on here.

Originally Published: March 7th, 2012