Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Inviolable Voice

I seem to be posting pretty sporadically, as I assumed I might once I ended my term as poet laureate. I am not idle, though. My excellent successor s Vermont state poet, Chard deNiord, and I are working on an anthology of Vermont poets, ouyr little state having the most such citizens per capita of any in the nation.

I also recently published my book of mini-essays, "What's the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long," available from Green Writers Press. And on the 1st of this month, my twelfth poetry collection, "No Doubt the Nameless," was issued by the terrific Four Way Books of NYC. Here is a link to the Author's Page posted by the staff there:

The ugliness of the current political season deeply disturbs me, and there follow some meditations on one aspect of it, the bashing of immigrants. I am working on a talk that I'll present in Bled, Slovenia come May.

In May, and for the eighth time, I will attend the annual meeting of PEN in Slovenia, the best organized thing of its kind I know. In addition to readings, presenters are asked to address the migrant (and immigrant) crisis that faces the West. As I consider what I’ll say, I find myself reflecting on what strikes me as a disturbing moment in American political history. Here are some reflections.

The citizens of my nation, which I do love, may sometimes fall into the belief that our land has an exclusive hold on virtue; nowadays, some also find that the ever so slightly left-of-center inclinations of Barack Obama have threatened the country with ruin, moral and otherwise. I admit this strikes me as nonsense.

The U.S. still has a number of virtues, and high among them, at least until lately, has been its receptiveness to immigration. This seems apt, of course, in that the only Americans who can claim to be truly indigenous are our so-called Indians. Though I am no social scientist, I would urge, in fact, that some other assets that America has historically displayed-- improvisatory agility, inventiveness, relative disregard for social station-- owe themselves to the rich variety of cultures we encompass.

There has never been a single, definable American culture. For some, this is an impediment: our lack of monarchy and established religion famously drove novelist Henry James, for example, to Europe; but for others, including me, there is a hybridized glory in our most significant cultural achievements– like jazz, tap or hip-hop dancing, and even, though I haven’t space to linger on this, most of our greatest literature. And that glory is at least partly accounted for by the multivalency of our cultural life.

It therefore greatly pains me that a nation of immigrants should now seek to slam the door against all manner of prospective newcomers. How, one wonders, can someone named O’Malley, or Zukofsky, or LaSalle, or Belli, or Feinstein, or for that matter Trump– how can any of these insist on excluding people named Hernandez or Hussein or Said? For a U.S. citizen to demonize whole categories of people (Syrian, Central American, Mexican, what have you?) smacks disturbingly of fascistical logic. I have the dreadful suspicion that my country is sliding toward the sort of thought that ushered in the Holocaust: namely, that if things are going ill in my country, then it must be the fault of some group disloyal to its national character. America’s current socio-economic problems are legion, yes, but many angry people are now blaming them on some of the poorest and most defenseless people ever to have sought refuge on our shores. Why such citizens should hold these struggling souls accountable for their woes, rather than faulting the fabulously wealthy, who, by virtue of brute economic power, have clearly been far more responsible for those woes than any other faction—well, that’s beyond me. Even more absurd is their imagining a Messiah in Donald Trump, the very personification of extravagant wealth.

Even apart from the moral issues connected to it, there are certain indisputable contradictions in our newfound exclusiveness: while so much talk is of the crime and terrorism that will accompany certain categories of immigrants, an American’s chances of coming to mortal harm at the hands of one of his or her native-born, gun-toting compatriots are literally 5,000 times greater than of dying at the hands of the people we are being told to curse. One also hears that illegal aliens are taxing our social service capacities and are thus a mighty burden on American taxpayers. So far as I know, there is no credible study to ratify any such claim; what is clear is that, without immigrant labor, the cost of many American products would soar so astronomically as truly to hurt the taxpayer. Even here in Vermont, the dairy industry would likely founder without Latin-American labor; the prices of fruits and vegetables grown in places like Florida or California, to use a more dramatic example,  would rapidly rise beyond the reach of all but those same ultra-wealthy Americans.

But for the moment, needless to say, it is Muslim immigrants who have become our whipping boys, no matter the sad irony that the U.S has killed many, many more Middle and Near Easterners with our ill considered wars and our drone attacks than citizens of ours have been killed by Muslims of whatever sort, including terrorists. And yet...

And yet, having allowed all this, I do at the same time harbor some contrarian reflections on the issue we’ll be discussing in Slovenia. The program description suggests, for instance, that "we need not repeat the hopes that so-called normal Muslims, those living in Europe and North America and already adjusted to Western standards, can calm the terrorists, although these fighters of the Caliphate represent only a small minority of the Muslim community."  Really? Have I missed some reason not to repeat those hopes? I confess to disappointment in prominent Muslim leaders’ abidingly tepid condemnations, at home and abroad, of extremist violence. One can comprehend a concern for their own personal safety, and I don’t meant to sound sanctimonious;  I’m not sure how I myself would behave in their positions. But such worries never deterred the likes of Martin Luther King.

The program description also asserts that Islamist terrorism "has its source in a deep and fundamental rage against the West and its continuing exploitative tendencies in the Near and Middle East, as well as its pervasive belief in the superiority of Western civilization."  Well, western exploitation in the Middle East is undeniable, even reprehensible, and surely does have something to do with the violence we are witnessing; and yet the planners and perpetrators of the events of September 11th, 2001, of each of the more recent attacks on U.S. soil, and of the Paris massacre seem all in fact to have been quite well-heeled and well-educated; indeed, quite a number have benefited greatly from the abundance of the western world. What I’m stressing, then, is that their motives appear to have been far less political than religious, or, more accurately, that their politics appear to have been determined by religious fundamentalism, as unbending in its contemporary radical-Islamic avatar as it was in the militancy of Christians during the Crusades. The Caliphate, in a word, insists upon the superiority of its own culture. From my perspective, the mere fact that we, Westerners for the most part, will be able to have such an open conversation as the one I look forward to in May– well, that may not be an automatic proof of relative superiority, but at this stage in my life it will do until some better proof comes along.

I should admit that to play historian or social scientist takes me out of my depth. Let me turn, therefore, to some matters about which I do know a bit. Our program asks, "What can we, as writers and intellectuals, contribute to this relationship, that must grow into dialogue?" I am all for dialogue, and am far from thinking it impossible with all Islamic people, a few of whom I include among my friends. Frankly, however, I think we live in a fairy tale world if we imagine the likes of the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, or Bokol Haram are the least interested in dialogue. Their views of the true, good, and beautiful are, from what I can tell, absolute and non-negotiable.

Yet we are further asked, ”What role must literature and culture play in resolving the conflict between Middle Eaterner and Westerner?” Most of us are lucky enough not to live in a system such as the old USSR’s, say, in which –as Joseph Brosdsky once said in a journal I edited– merely to describe a flower accurately felt like a political act. But in much of the west, and certainly in the U.S, we face a subtler difficulty: namely that neither the authorities nor the public at large are likely to be swayed one way or another by anything like fiction or poetry, simply because those arts go largely unnoticed. To that extent, our better writing strategies likely involve newspapers or, more accurately in our day, social media, as opposed to the so-called creative arts. But even online activism, to name it that, proves problematic, for at least two reasons. The first is that social media find Einstein in the same house as the village imbecile: thus, if two disparate accounts of the same thing are broadcast, there is no determining which will strike a broad readership as more compelling. In the U.S., this was exemplified by the idiotic controversy over President Obama’s birthplace. Those who chose to label him a Kenyan were simply not to be dissuaded by indisputable proof of his birth in Hawaii. The social media’s second great liability is that, just as oppressed parties may use them, so may their oppressors, a sad fact illustrated by the ill-starred Arab Spring and by frequent manipulations of information in China, for instance.

So it may be that more direct political activism– street demonstrations, more vigorous support of  candidates we believe in, and so on—are the likeliest avenues to such success as we may may find.

But let us imagine a literature that was an effective tool of change. My surmise is that, like socialist realism, it would, qua writing, be bad or tepid in any case, simply because art founded primarily on an aprioristic agenda is usually doomed to inferiority in my view.

All this may sound as though I urge political or social nonchalance upon the artist, urge him or her to be a little Nero, playing the violin as Rome burns. Not at all. In fact, exactly the contrary. Any poet who stayed innocent of the great migrant crisis would be no poet at all. An artist must be as open as possible to all manner of observation, and must be jealous of those observatory powers, because the threats to them are myriad. To allow that openness to be usurped by anything –even the noblest political or moral conviction– is by my lights suicidal.

Here is a remark, which resonates with me, by my dear friend, poet Fleda Brown: "I’ve long since quit worrying about whether writing itself is a worthy use of my life. Whether it is or isn’t doesn’t change my inclination to do it. Anyway, I’m positive that it matters, words themselves being small bulbs buried under the soil, small grenades."

I hope that Fleda is right, but in any case, I know that a willful effort to make my poems "political" or "relevant" will serve no one: not me, not my reader, and not any cause I subscribe to, including a sane and compassionate attitude toward those disrupted by violence, along with the development of a non-hysterical stance toward terrorism.

The only thing I really know to do is to beat at my keyboard. If what results is an explosion, I must accept that. If I am moved by a bloom or a bird or the birth of a grandchild, these are what I need to bring forth. The point is, we writers need to sustain belief in our own voices, and in their autonomy– not to the point of perversity or narcissism, but right up to those points. If we allow our voices to be controlled by dogma, even virtuous dogma (if there be such a thing), we might as well be writing advertisements or propaganda. We need to believe that our sincerest testimonies matter, even if we cannot define how that may be in any definitive way. We need to agree with American poet William Carlos William's assertion that

  •   It is difficult
    to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
            for lack
of what is found there.