Wednesday, March 09, 2005

I'm not in a mood to suffer fools gladly, which is why I'm glad to see this intelligent Ashbery review by Meghan O'Rourke over at Slate. Much better than the nonsense Charles McGrath was spouting this weekend. On a more serious note, there's the pernicious calumny against Ammiel Alcalay and others that Lisa Jarnot is calling our attention to. Here is the letter I just sent to both Campus Watch and The American Thinker, as Lisa has suggested:
Dear Sir or Madam:

I read Alyssa A. Lappen's essay "Poetry, terror and political narcissism" with mingled dismay and irritation. I am a poet who has published one book and has another on the way; I am also a PhD candidate at Cornell and was present at the November 2002 Cornell University panel that Lappen alludes to. The "shameless diatribe" against "remarkable, remarkable... [American] ignorance" that she attributes to Alcalay has been met by a diatribe of surpassing shamelessness and all too unremarkable ignorance that ends with nothing less than a call for censorship (apparently Campus Watch's most favored method of "improving" our universities). I am not going to defend Alcalay's ideas here because he is more than capable of doing that himself; I will remind Ms. Lappen, however, that to be opposed to Israeli policy against the Palestinians or even to be anti-Zionist is not to be anti-Jewish or even necessarily anti-Israel. (For the record, I myself am Jewish.) Just as opposition to American foreign policy can mean an intense commitment to the Enlightenment ideals that inspired this country's founders, so can opposing destructive Israeli policies mean a deep love for one's fellow Jews and a wish for their long-term survival, as well as a capacity for empathizing with the suffering of others. "You're either with us or against us" makes a good sound bite, but it doesn't begin to address the complexity of the moral situation that Israelis and Palestinians are caught up in and that in a real sense holds the entire world hostage today.

Albert Einstein once said, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." Neither politics nor poetry are as simple as Lappen wants them to be. Both are or ought to be about imagining alternatives to the world as history has given it to us; they ought to serve as affirmations of the diversity of human subjectivity. In Alcalay's case, that means uncovering histories that have been covered up and giving them new life in his writing. He presents an alternative to a media culture that, working in cahoots with a government that has a huge stake in the control of information, likes to make everything simpler. For Lappen, Alcalay's real crime is the mingling of politics with poetry, which she declares to be "a window on the human soul"--a concept sufficiently abstract and lofty as to protect poetry from being polluted by politics--and vice-versa. Improving on Auden, she would claim that poetry SHOULD make nothing happen; instead, "Alcalay and his type draw together extreme leftist sharks and deliberately encourage misunderstanding, misapprehension and anarchy." Leaving aside the contemptuous "his type" which carries historical overtones of both anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism, I am willing as one of that "type" to stipulate to one of Lappen's accusations: the encouragement of anarchy. Not in the chaotic and violent sense that Lappen misapprehends, but in the original Greek sense of "no rulers." Thinking for yourself ought to be a value that even Campus Watch could applaud, but apparently any act of thinking, speaking, or writing that does not reaffirm the world picture offered by Fox News verges on treachery. However, poetry isn't about affirming pictures, even Alcalay's. Poetry breaks up calcified habits of speech and thought in order to enable us to see language, and the world-in-language, anew. Put another way, if poetry is "for the ages" then what use is it to us? William Carlos Williams: "It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there." I find it telling that Lappen makes no references to Alcalay's actual poetry. Either she hasn't read it, or else it contained news she couldn't use: that the world is complex, that political and economic injustice are real, that the enemy--every enemy--has a human face.

Poetry does make something happen, even if it's only to enrage those with extreme right-wing political agendas. I for one am pleased to hear it. And if you're making an enemies list of anarchists, poets, peaceniks, and intellectuals, I'd be glad if you'd add me to it. It is a roll of infinite honor.


Joshua Corey


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Carmenisacat said...

Dear Josh,

First...I want to thank you for mentioning me in the past and in such a friendly manner.

Secondly however, as an absolute victim of Muslim Bashing by the great Silliman himself...a fact that seems just 'so silly' to those not affected by it...

what have YOU to say?

I do agree with you absolutely in this post but it is very clear to me what actually happened.

And Silliman hates muslims. That much is absolutely clear to me now. I only wish I'd have known that when I started visiting his blog...I would have avoided it like the plague.

Carmenisacat said...

Oh...get a spam blocker would you.


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