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New poetry wars

Correspondent Letter: About the Arrogance of American Conceptual Poets in Racial Issues.


This year, American poetry has reached the newspaper columns with a frequency we have not seen for decades, but in a deplorable way. In March, at Brown University, Kenneth Goldsmith read Michael Brown's autopsy report as a poem, easily edited, to end with an image of the deceased's genitals. Goldsmith, who is white, became famous for copying mostly conceptual art from the 60 century. Brown, who is black, became famous for being killed by Ferguson police in 2014, which led to local and national riots that helped to give the racial justice movement a new boost. Goldsmith has been hiding behind his own stupidity for a while; this time it couldn't save him.
Two months later, it became known that cut-and-paste artist Vanessa Place, who is white, has tweeted the entire novel Tatt av vinden, including the novel's raw, black daily speech. The project has been ongoing since 2009. It is part of the story that the poet has also previously resorted to racial provocations, with minimal censorship.

Social power. Not any more. Suddenly, Places's direct reclamation of racist language reached the national news. Parallell with black live mats movement was with one Goldsmith's racism there as an open wound: Place and Goldsmith enjoy high reputation among the avant-garde's trivial tail. Under pressure, Place is slashing its organizational role for the American Writing Program's annual conference. But she still clung to her place at the Berkeley Poetry Conference, a comprehensive event 50 years after the epic original. The organizing committee decided to keep her. Almost all participants – Mexican, Black, White, Asian American, Palestinian-American – withdrew. The conference disbanded and was replaced by a smaller event focusing on race issues.
Poetry had somehow captured and compressed the ruling atmosphere, which with nauseating clarity displayed an ingrained white sovereignty. The claims came. Defending with "freedom of speech" is tasteless: This is not about legality, but about social power. To defend himself with “this is an artistic comment om race »is ignorant: We have a long history of racist art that allows for such a disclaimer. In fact, it is the story that is most interesting and demoralizing here.

The roles of poetry. We already know the contradiction between a mainly white, avant-garde tradition and marginalized societies. It reflects the "poetry wars" of the 70s, where "experimental" literature was set up against poetics associated with the new social movements and their identity categories. This was, of course, a false opposition. And it is falsehood that makes it true, because by contrasting aesthetics with identity, whiteness disappeared, it became abstract and universal – as if whiteness is not itself the most deadly identity. The idea that white intellectuals were free to experiment with formal and aesthetic interventions, while marginalized societies were expected to reproduce the smallest constituents of exclusion as poetic content, was a distorted reflection of a real difference in degrees of liberation, autonomy, power. And of a real debate about political approaches and what role poetry can play.

Permanent exclusion. Today's recurrence is even worse. The avant-garde of the 70's at least claimed to have a revolutionary horizon. As of today, the celebrated "conceptualists" are apolitical. Conceptualism is not experienced as an aesthetic disinterest, but as a lobotomy. This makes it easy to choose a site, if you have the luxury of being able to choose. But it is just as demoralizing to see how quickly the intellectual innovations of the last 40 years have been forgotten. Insightful progress has been made in thinking about race, class, and gender as a whole, both in general and when it comes to literature. Many highly educated blacks, coloreds and women have argued against the old idea, one that was largely enforced by liberal reformists, that greater inclusion in capital and capital institutions, greater literary representation, a seat at the table, can be a cure. The idea returns anyway. And there is a reason for that: the persistent exclusions that still linger. They are murderous. As long as the civil war continues, there is little indication that poetry will be able to solve these questions.

Clover is a poet and editor of Commune Editions, as well as a professor of English literature and critical theory at the University of California Davis.
Clover is an American author.

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