Consider the List
[Note: This post is part of a new series on the Editors' Blog. Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry's current issue. Rebecca Hazelton's "Trying Fourleggedness" appears in the December issue.]
Kill List, a digital chapbook by Josef Kaplan, recently incited a minor online kerfuffle in the poetry community. Responses ranged from the amused to the indignant, from the outraged to the intrigued. While most readers seemed happy enough to dismiss the work as flippant, insubstantial, and nakedly attention seeking, several responses were more considered. Of those, Spencer Short’s, appearing on Coldfront, was one of the more generous:
In Kill List, as in U.S. policy, the uncertainties underlying how we sort target from non-target are exacerbated by the vagueness of the categories themselves. What constitutes “rich”? What constitutes “comfortable”? The black box of government secrecy finds its reflection in the tautological black box of Kill List’s relentless sorting. The binary is always insufficient. Its shortcomings make clear both our epistemic failure and the inevitability of collateral damage.
Short’s analysis is insightful, but far from the typical reaction. A quick survey of tweets, blog posts, and comment threads indicate that most people reading the poem didn’t see Kaplan as questioning binaries, or even making a distinction between “rich” and “comfortable” at all. Rather, they read the poem as making a distinction between “rich and comfortable” and everyone not on the list. By likening the listed poets to the alleged terrorists of President Obama’s kill list, Kaplan suggests (on behalf of all non-listed poets) that to be comfortable or rich is to threaten poetry itself, to destroy the poetic way of life, which is properly one of discomfort, if not poverty. The Romantic notion that a concern for financial security is antithetical to art did not sit well with many working poets, either on or off the list, and it was a combination of this implicit judgment and the sheer presumptuousness of the project that caused what ruckus there was.
Of course, Kill List can and probably should be taken as at least partly humorous. Everyone’s indignation is part of that humor. After all, Kaplan need not necessarily be speaking on behalf of poetry as a whole. Kaplan’s tongue-in-cheek inclusion of his own name suggests a self-reflexive airing of personal poetic insecurities, the mocking tone highlighting the speaker’s ambivalent jealousies of other poets. Furthermore, the categories presented are not just insufficient, but laughably so. “Rich” for most poets isn’t rich, after all, and Jewel, James Franco, and Patti Smith aren’t just poets. They have day jobs. As for “comfortable,” there are certain “comforts” that greatly facilitate writing: food, housing, safety, child care, and time. Idealizing “discomfort” as an artistic virtue presents something of a Catch-22 for most writers, especially if they have dependents. Of course, "rich" and "comfortable" can be read in a number of non-economic ways, such as pertaining to talent, effort, style, subject, etc, all of which complicate the poem’s superficially simplistic position if pursued.
But regardless of readers’ anger or amusement, responses tended above all to be fleeting, a trend Joyelle McSweeney notes in her Montevidayo post, "Some Comfortable Thoughts: Inger Christensen’s Alphabet as Kill List," arguing that the poem's very disposability is part and parcel of its concept:
This is a great poem for Facebook, for conversations heatedly engaged upon and then abandoned because other pressures such as the need to sleep or shop or nuke a burrito became more compelling. The deleting is part of the ‘reading’. This concept will self-destruct. Unlike a drone.
McSweeney goes on to liken Kill List to Inger Christensen’s book-length poem alphabet, citing the ominous “smoothness” of each, like a bomber gliding silently overhead. The comparison is both exceedingly generous to Kill List and rather unfair. It is true that both works are ontological investigations, attempts to catalogue and characterize existence while highlighting the deficiencies inherent in that process. However, whereas Kill List interests itself in certain relationships between poetry, commerce, internet culture, and (more distantly) contemporary warfare, alphabet engages all of existence in a masterful display of formal and conceptual artistry. As Christensen’s catalogue of that which exists compounds (the number of lines in each alphabetic section is determined by the Fibonnaci sequence), the reader becomes acutely aware of the impossibility of completing such a catalogue (the book ends at "n" -- had she completed the project, section "z" would have been 196,418 lines long, resulting in a book of almost 26,000 pages). While Kill List is formally self-contained and self-completing in its constraint, alphabet extends beyond itself, permitting not only far greater conceptual reach and resonance, but also a great deal more formal inventiveness and variety.
This is not to say that Kill List is not a serious poem with merit in its own right. Its ambitions are simply different from those of alphabet. Unfortunately, Kill List's fundamental strength is also its greatest weakness—that is, its successful embodiment of its own concept. If alphabet is an encyclopedia, Kill List is a listicle, the clickbait mainstay of bloggers the world over, and both the controversy Kill List incited and its subsequent dismissal operate as commentary on the superficiality of such internet exchanges. As McSweeney puts it, Kill List "invites us to consider an idea, and invites us to turn that idea over and over for as long as the idea interests us. Then it invites us to delete the idea."
This embodiment of concept is elegantly and knowingly accomplished, yet it doesn't change the fact that the work is largely disposable. Indeed, like much conceptual art, it operates so completely as concept that it need hardly exist to function; to hear of it is to know it fully. This is emphatically not the case for alphabet, which demands intense, sustained attention.
The paradox that confronts Kill List is a familiar one: can a work of art convey tedium without itself being tedious? Is it permissible to depict glorified violence as a critique of the glorification of violence? Can a poem that embodies flash-in-the-pan fleetingness, the tissue paper insubstantiality of contemporary experience itself be substantial? And is the measure of its success how quickly we forget?
Rebecca Hazelton is the author of Fair Copy (2012), winner of the Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry, and Vow (2013), from Cleveland State University Poetry Center. She was the 2010-11 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison's Creative Writing Institute; and winner of the “Discovery”/Boston...