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From Poetry Magazine

Against Freedom, Against Censorship, Against Experiment, Against Tradition, Against Witness, Against The Self: Against American Poetry

By Laura Kasischke

Laura  Kasischke

[Note: Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Laura Kasischke’s “Two Men & a Truck” and “The Wall” appear in the March 2015 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.]

Obviously, I’m not going to argue against any of these things in a blog post. To do so would be pointlessly self-defeating (as opposed to self-defeating with a purpose, which I’ll save for another time); however, I am going to argue that everything we’ve supposed about where we were headed, ought to be headed, ought not to be headed in the American poetry of the last twenty-five years has changed, and that we need to decide, individually and collectively, what this means for the poetry we will read and write in the next quarter century.

Briefly as a child I believed what I was told, that God could read all of my thoughts, so I’d better be careful. Eventually, self-censorship of my thoughts got old, and I understood that even if this was the case, probably not that much could surprise God if He could read everyone’s thoughts. So, just as briefly, the freedom was thrilling. I logged some bad thoughts until the thrill wore off. After that, I was just thinking.

Briefly as a child I believed what I was told, that you ought not to discuss money, religion, or politics in the company of people whose opinions on these matters you didn’t know. Then, I went to college, where I talked all I wanted, and was encouraged to do so, and often found myself spouting off about things that I realize, in retrospect, I knew very little about. I stopped doing that after I offended quite a few people who were smarter than I was and whose company I might have really enjoyed had I not pissed them off. Now, I consider the point of stating my opinions (usually) before I open my mouth.

But let us say I wake up one day and find myself in a world with a collective brain and mouth. The brain feeds directly into the mouth. Through this mouth—anonymously or not—I can say anything I want. I can tell the truth to power, or I can lie to the weak. I can post doctored photographs of you doing unspeakable things. You can do the same. We can see and hear it all. Pretty much any opinion or act or accusation we want to share with one another, we can, with the exception of a few things that might, after a very long time, catch the attention of the FBI. But let us say that until the invention of this worldwide web of expression, I’d been like that child, and believed there would be consequences if I thought or said certain things. And now there are none. Let’s go a step further and say that I had been, before this web was woven, a writer or lover of poetry, and that I’d believed that there was something poetry needed to rebel against, or witness, or (even silently or obscurely) to protest…

Well, now what?

It’s always been the case, naturally, that there were plenty of horrors and injustices taking place on any block in any town in this country. Of course, these were often not nearly as exotic for the purposes of poetry as the horrors outside our borders—or so we thought. But, now, no American needs to be drafted and sent to Vietnam or awarded a Guggenheim to witness massacres, stonings, beheadings. There’s an app for that. Google Images: “body parts” “starvation” “torture.” There’s a multi-page Reddit thread devoted entirely to expressions of regret about having watched the video of Daniel Pearl’s beheading. All these years later, people are still posting about having seen it, complaining that they can’t sleep. About “witness,” many of these posters have come to the website to warn others not to. Don’t witness. No good will come from it.

But I can watch anything I want. I can say anything I want. I can publish any poem I write on the internet any time I want. I can write within some tradition (however I wish to define it), or I can write in defiance of any tradition. I can consider my audience or spit in its eye. Just try to stop me.

On January 29, 1933, the skeleton of an infant was found in an eagle’s nest in a tree in Finland a couple of miles from the farm from which an infant had disappeared two years earlier. Nearly every American newspaper that printed a report of this did so under the headline “An Eagle’s Meat.” There were illustrations of a baby in a lacy gown being flown through the sky, dangling from talons.

This was supposed to be funny, I think…

Ah, how far away Finland must have seemed! Not our baby! Not our eagle! Not our tree! Was this, perhaps, the ultimate isolation? Should we have felt more privileged to have it? Or more burdened?

When King Louis XVI was executed, he walked with great purpose, of his own volition, to the guillotine, and then he turned to face the crowd gathered, cleared his throat, and spoke out to them in a strong voice, “I die innocent of all of the crimes of which—“

The drums were ordered to start up then, and even though the king went on and on, no one could hear what he was saying.

Does such silence imposed by the din come with some kind of obligation?

For better or worse, in my poem in this issue, “The Wall,” I was writing about this. It’s just a little, true story. I heard a man crying on the other side of the wall in a hotel room. Of course, it crossed my mind to turn up the sound on the television so as either to give him some privacy or myself some peace of mind. It also crossed my mind to go knock on his door and see if he was alright. The reason I didn’t do the former is, I think, because I was both curious about him and had some poet’s notion of witness (in other words, I smelled a poem in it). And the reason I didn’t go knock on his door was because I myself had, on a number of occasions, cried in hotel rooms, and I knew for sure that the last thing that would have helped me would have been to have a stranger who’d overheard me in the middle of the night knock on my door.

When Mary Queen of Scots was executed, on the other hand, she stopped on the gallows and stripped off her clothes until she was wearing just scarlet gloves and a black bodice. She smiled at her executioners. It took them fifteen tries to get her head severed from her neck. Who cares what she said?

I should speak for myself. This, I feel pretty sure about: The path I’m on as an American poet has nowhere new to take me now because of the changes of the last twenty-five years—changes not in poetry, but in everything else. These are deep woods we’re in. Dark days. Is there any way to describe it without such beautiful clichés? Everyone thinks she’s living in the End Times, of course. But somebody always is.

Poetry impulses, like fashion statements—Oh, little darling, you thought you were so groovy and new. But let’s get out the old photo albums and take a closer look at you!

Because it’s done. All the old manners and morals and all the novel reactions to them. The new has to be made new, we know, blah blah, but what was always the impulse toward poetry must still be there, waiting patiently for us, too, or there can be no new. Right? The worst thing they told us in Sunday school was that Jesus had loved us so much that He’d opened His arms as wide as He could, and died.

No. Poetry has not expanded to take us in, and died of it. It wasn’t poetry if it could have, if it did. No. It’s done the opposite. It’s shrugged us off. It’s closed us out.

Still, surely, if we decide we need to do so, we can find our way back in, and it will let us back in, and then we can start the process of starting over again, from the true beginning—which is right about now, it seems to me, and right here on the X marking the spot right below our feet. We just haven’t seen it, stubbornly standing on it instead, looking around for an audience.


Postscript: All historical facts I cite here were found on that instant source of unimpeachable facts, the internet. Wherever I was able to find a more colorful fact, I used that.

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Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015 by Laura Kasischke.