I'd like to teach you all a little saying
And learn the words by heart the way you should:
I don't say I'm no better than anybody else
But I'll be damned if I ain't just as good!
Ammiel Alcalay poses a powerful challenge to me and to all American poets in the interview section of from the warring factions, which I also mentioned yesterday:
During the "Camps War" in Lebanon, for instance, we did vigils at the al-Hakawati theater in East Jerusalem. A number of the actors had relatives caught in a situation where local religious authorities had given residents permission to eat human flesh because of starvation caused by an absolute siege. Besides the emotions of the people involved, the director had to figure out ways to incorporate this reality into the possibility of the performance. It boils down to an almost ancient view of thingsart shouldn't primarily be about beauty but about pain and suffering. At the same time, one has to use positions of privilege in the structure of this society to illustrate how one can give up those privileges voluntarily, or put them in the service of things other than self-promotion. I find it deeply disturbing, for example, that you can read a lot of innovative poetry from the last decade without even getting a hint that two genocides took place in the world. I can't hink of an American poem marking the age the way Charles Olson's 1946 poem "La Préface" did, with the lines: "My name is NO RACE' address / Buchenwald new Altamira cave," and "We are born not of the buried but these unburied dead." (my emphasis, 177-78)I've quoted at such length because I think you need that context to understand the source of Alcalay's profound seriousness and what registers as his nearly unimpeachable moral authority. But even if extracted from that particular historical situation, the boldfaced words present a two-pronged challenge that no one should be able to lightly refute.
I don't really have a problem with the first part of Alcalay's statement, because it seems to me that any experience of genuine beauty in art is only discoverable or intelligible against the background of historical pain and suffering that art is a deliberate act of estrangement from. As Adorno puts it in his essay, "On Lyric Poetry and Society," "The [lyric] work's distance from mere existence becomes the measure of what is false and bad in the latter" (Notes to Literature, Vol. I, 40). The beautiful is always a critique of the unbeautiful. Artworks that are presented in a falsely naive, deliberately dehistoricizing context (a context which might be created by the artist or simply submitted to by him or her) will not be beautiful in this sense but merely opiates, indistinguishable from and therefore in support of the status quo. It's not always easy to identify which artworks and poems are "valid" in this sense, of course, and a lot of critical dust gets kicked up when people step forward to try. This is why Alcalay stresses the importance of including that background of historical pain and suffering in the work: in from the warring factions he does this not just thematically (the book is a kind of narrative about imperialism, covering the Roman Empire, the first Gulf War, and most especially the massacre at Srebenica) but by building his text from historical materials, that is, the language of those who made that history (in every sense of the word "made"). His list of sources is nearly four pages long and includes the words and works of Percy Shelley, Dick Cheney, Hannah Arendt, Jack Spicer, Saddam Hussein, Jerry Estrin, Sacco and Vanzetti, Virgil, Dryden, Hanna Batatu, The New York Times, and many, many others. Alcalay has a vivid and visceral need to found his writing on historical consciousness, which in from the warring factions leads him to the extreme of producing a text that is not really his writing at all. Here he writes about his response to poets who were also political prisoners like Abdellatif Laabi or Faraj Bayraqdar, who in prison "wrote poems on cigarette papers with ink invented from tea and onion leaves, using wood splinters as a pen" (172):
"[W]hen writing like this enters not only my frame of consciousness but my being, I want to know how to situate myself, in my own language, at my own moment. I find myself involved in figuring out the different kinds of resonance writing can havewriting that has a collective, historical resonance and writing that resonates back in on itself, as so much American writing does, to tap our isolation. This makes history crucial for me at all levels, from the personal and familial to the collective.Indeed it does. Part of the interview is devoted to describing Alcalay's extraordinary childhood: playing badminton with Charles Olson; going to hear the likes of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Dexter Gordon; befriending painters like Hugo Weber; reading through back issues of his parents' (his father was a painter) magazine collection (Black Mountain Review, Evergeen, Kulchur, Yugen, Floating Bear); writing to Ginsberg and Diane Di Prima and getting short or long replies; etc. As an adult he has been an activist on many fronts: protesting Vietnam, distributing literature for the Black Panthers, working with Palestinian activists in Israel in late eighties, etc. The work experience he mentions supplements both his political credentials and his credentials as a poet and translator, as when he writes of "my practical bent and experiences in a variety of vocationsas auto mechanic, auto body worker, truck driver, carpenter, building super, laundromat manager, etc" (190). This list exists in dialectical tension with another list of the various "positions of privilege" or "roles" Alcalay has held: "scholar, teacher, journalist, poet, critic, activist" (182); presumably his working-class "vocations" have been preserved even as they were overcome in his assumption of these intellectual "roles," synthesized into the "job" (dare I say "career"?) of "cultural worker."
One's biography becomes very much part of the story (173).
This kind of thing raises my hackles a bit and brings me back into the Sullivanesque space of feeling chastened and unregenerate. It seems to me that one of the privileges Alcalay enjoys, and one which he is not prepared to relinquish, is the privilege of his background, which appears quite extraordinary to this white boy from the suburbs whose privileges are more conventional. How much of Alcalay's authority derives from the ways in which he can claim to be authentically bohemian and therefore free of the the preprocessed illusions that impede the vision of the middle class? Alcalay's stance is deeply moral, but as a stance it also appears stiff, suspicious of pleasure (look at the tap-dancing I had to do to save beauty from the first part of his formula), and more than a little humorless. And this most progressive of poets is not immune to nostalgia, in this case for the time of his growing up in an America that was less "standardized":
Time is more directed, particularly if you're middle-class, and the mass media has managed to encase experiences in a stock set of imagery that, almost literally, envelops experience. There are less chances to encounter eccentric people, less places of idleness, places where conversations can take place. There is a big difference between a Barnes & Noble and the kinds of bookstores I used to hang out at as a teenager in Boston, like the Grolier or the Temple Bar. I was somewhat of a delinquent and didn't find school very useful. There were periods when I divided my time between the streets, where a lot was happening, movies, a garage where I worked, pool halls, and bookstores. The Grolier was then owned by the legendary Gordon Cairnie, and he even encouraged me to skip school! It was quite something to be a teenager and see Conrad Aiken step[ out of his apartment above the shop in the morning, to meet the likes of Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder, John Wieners, and so many others (178).I don't begrudge Alcalay his memories, nor do I deny the potentially revolutionary force of nostalgiabut I do get tense with unhappiness when I think about those who would condemn or dismiss me because I grew up middle-class in a suburb, a teenager who didn't have these quintessentially urban experiences. Nobody encouraged me to skip school and if they had I would have wandered in a wasteland of malls, backyard pools, and comic book stores (which I did anyway). School was all there was: it became my escape, it became my habitand now I'm thirty-two years old and I'm still in school. If there's a saving grace to my situation it's that I'm in school not merely as a means to an end (though I will not disingenously claim that I'm unconscious of or uninterested in such possible ends as a good academic job) but as an end in itself, as a way to live the bookish life I desire and to connect with others who are similarly bookish. Which brings me back to Alcalay's challenge, worth repeating at this late date in the post: "one has to use positions of privilege in the structure of this society to illustrate how one can give up those privileges voluntarily, or put them in the service of things other than self-promotion" (178).
The first part of this strikes me as requiring an almost saintlike or at least Levinasian abjection before the Other. People who genuinely do this earn my awe, but they seem to have taken a few steps back from humanity as I've experienced it. George Oppen genuinely put this into practice when he stopped writing and became a labor organizer and then a soldier (putting himself into that disciplinary apparatus, much less risking his life, must have been an act of almost unimaginable self-abegnation); but he returned to a more recognizable writer's life (his career) when he began writing and publishing again. I can't think off the top of my head of other examples among American poets who did this aside from Laura Ridingwho wasn't exactly a leftist and who also returned to managing her career late in life, in a far more waspish fashion than Oppen did. Me, I guess I'm just another sinner, wary of the ways in which my class privileges might implicate me in injustice but certainly at least not willing to claim I've renounced them when I haven't. That leaves us with the second half of Alcalay's challenge; and there I aspire to do some good, in spite of the nature of the MFA system I'm a product ofa system whose purest products go crazy trying to sell the nearly unmarketable commodities that they've leaned to turn themselves into. Am I doing it yet? Am I living in the best way? Insofar as I don't have a ready answer to those questions I'm subject to censure and chastening. But I am unregenerate in my belief that writing which challenges or extends conventions of thought, of language, of image processing is of immense value, and that those challenges can take more forms than Alcalay directly acknowledges: certainly he seems to have omitted laughter from his arsenal, though he has not omitted the beautiful from his heap of historical materials:
unite yourselves with us in size and grandeurBut I'm not going to stop with "beauty needs no defense," though beauty in the critical, Adornoesque sense I've used it doesn't in fact need any defense. I am awakening to the call to be of service, to use the privilege I've been given for something beyond the mean little goal of preserving that privilege. What forms my answer to that call will take I don't know. And ultimately I will be the only judge as to whether I've answered it with sufficient fearlessness, rigor, and love.
seek the plentiful harbor diligently collect
history written in bone examine these earliest
artifacts the first examples the last vestiges
keep the continent from being blank a place
of imprisonment dumb with the question
four sevenths of agricultural production
taken over corn carried on their backs
seventy miles one fo the first desparate [sic]
years as a gift long before anyone assumed
we made a mistake in trying to bear witness
all this wonder all this newness the body
wrapped in bark the vessel polished with the
tooth of a beaver a gift from the departed
smoked in a lobster claw alders lichen
bloodroot and sumac how we played
compelled and blind our claim no emptier
than questions of industry and idleness
survivors of our expectation the law of the
ladn recollected carefully in the hollow the
ambition to come to meaning before inquiry
the itinerant faces of defeated ancesters [sic] crop
up again adrift think of their names like our
hands shadows at the bottom of the sea (108)