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This item is taken from PN Review 224, Volume 41 Number 6, July - August 2015.

‘Despite his controversial personal views, which have clouded his reputation in recent years,’ the BBC announcer said, ‘a stone to commemorate Philip Larkin is to be unveiled in Westminster Abbey.’ It cannot escape the notice of independent-minded writers and readers that what is called public opinion, with its nostrums and committees, has gone far in the field of reductive enforcement. Instead of adding curmudgeonly, sexist Larkin to the noble dead, an ideological purge might better be administered, the corner re-paved with writers all of whose opinions are pukka. (Can the word pukka safely be used in this context?)

The Mexican newspaper Milenio, in its supplement Cultura (6 June 2015) carried an article by Heriberto Yépez entitled ‘Se expande la crisis de la poesía gringa’. The title translates itself: ‘The crisis in gringo literature is widening’. Yépez links the names of two American writers, Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, to reach a sweeping conclusion about the fragmentation of modern American poetry. Unlike Chilean and Mexican poetry, which he portrays (implausibly) as ‘unitary’, American writing is segmented: there is a ‘mainstream’ (which appears to be the Spanish for ‘mainstream’) and, against it, experimental currents that, though ‘relatively multicultural’, are ‘dominated by whites’.

The term ‘gringo’ is used here in a way new to me, to mean not the culture of the United States but specifically a white ‘patriarchal’ tradition, a familiar Uncle Sally in contemporary critical discourse. Black and Asian and Hispanic (but not Jewish) traditions are a different matter. The word ‘gringo’, historically a term of abuse, here becomes a term of racial description apparently acceptable in a significant cultural journal. Yépez uses it to accuse Goldsmith and Place, and through them a broad experimental constituency, of a racist agenda.

Not that American, even gringo, critics have given much recent quarter to Place and Goldsmith. In retrospect they appear harbingers of the Rachel Dolezal drama that unfolded in June before a world audience broader than the one that reads experimental poetry or (more numerous) reads about it. The names of Goldsmith and Place are better known than their work. Best known, at this point in the narrowing history of creative experiment and expression (one hesitates to speak of ‘free speech’: not what is said but what underlies what is said, the context in which it is spoken, is what is meant), are their formal misjudgments as judged by their also theorised and politically engaged critics. In trying, as they say they were doing, to foreground issues of race, they are stigmatised as racist.

Place’s project was to tweet passages from Gone With the Wind in order to draw a breach of copyright suit from the literary estate of Margaret Mitchell and compel the American Judiciary to defend the book’s racist language and content in defending the inviolability of copyright (a property issue). An imaginative strategy, if not a scintillating tweet-trail. The targeted, institutional antagonists refused to engage. Place generated antagonists from what she thought was her own constituency. People decided to take offence at the tweets. They had to sign up for them in an act of ideological masochism.

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) petitioned to have Place – poet, conceptual artist, defence lawyer – fired from a key selection panel. ‘We acknowledge Place’s right to exercise her creativity,’ they generously declared, ‘but we find her work to be, at best, startlingly racially insensitive, and, at worst, racist’. They reveal their full hand later in the petition: ‘AWP’s stated desire for inclusivity and diversity in the panel makeup requires an atmosphere of trust on the part of POC, LGBTQIA, and Disabled panel applicants, and Place’s racially insensitive, if not downright racist, projects violate that sense of trust. She furthers her career on the backs of Black ancestors – the hands that filled the master’s pockets now fill hers. We ask that you remove her from her position of authority over writers of color.’

The acronyms make it clear that the AWP lives in a world of categories and abstractions. No mention of talent or imagination, development and growth. The political objective is – not to give offence. In a culture of criticism and contrariety, they say, there can be no trust. Non-LGBTQIA have no purchase. When jobs come up, gringos need not apply.

The Los Angeles Times made a proposal so reasonable and modest that it had to be ignored. ‘Free speech, and art, can be messy. The better solution for AWP: Re-instate Place and build a panel discussion around the intersections of art, racism, and offensiveness.’ That’s gringo talk.

In March at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, at the Interrupt 3 conference on poetry and the digital world, Kenneth Goldsmith, under a large projection of Michael Brown, the teenager killed by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, read – or rather, performed – the young man’s autopsy report. Twitter – a favoured tool of Goldsmith’s – soon took, and spread, the umbrage he had given in appropriating this testimony for performance.

Brian Droitcoeur was present. ‘How could he, a white man, use black suffering – the murder of a black teenager by a white cop – as raw material for his own work? Many revisited the critiques that have been leveled at Goldsmith for excluding poets of color from the history he writes to frame conceptual poetry – a poetry that repurposes non-­literary texts as literary ones – as a contemporary avant-garde. Against this background, Goldsmith’s choice to read Michael Brown’s autopsy was especially galling. He was swiftly and viciously condemned.’

Returning to Yépez, does Goldsmith’s conceptual literary gesture equate with Place’s? Are they really aspects of a similar phenomenon of appropriation and irony? Does writers’ colour debar them from exploring the most intractable moral conundrum of the age? If they are to be critiqued, and I am myself uncomfortable with Goldsmith’s experiment, is it on grounds of their colour or something else to do with form, appropriation, opportunism, a corruption in the very conception of the conceptual poetics? Are the objections categorical or aesthetic? If the former, then the odds is truly gone for poetry.

Advertent and inadvertent violations of unwritten codes have led to resignations, expulsions, abject apologies, and a rigid caution in speech, in thought, in art. Gringos are called to account after centuries of what is lazily dubbed ‘patriarchy’, as though achieved poetry obediently connived with the hegemony of its age and did not have built in to its very forms a mechanism of resistance and correction.

The contemporary puritanical Zeitgeist, having built a bonfire of gringo vanities, turns away from the illiberality of other citizen cultures in the interests of social inclusivity. One triumph of academic theory appears to be this modern oxymoron in which readers and writers are held to very different account in accordance with accidents of race, gender and religion. The so-called dominant culture has long been a minority, but it is shy to say so, shy to insist that its values retain value, its literature and culture, which have for centuries been in enriching communication with other cultures, other colours, past and present, retain value. Attaching pejorative labels alters the perception of value but not the value itself, assuming such a thing as value survives in the activity of reading and writing. And if it doesn’t, Larkin’s stone will not be laid until 2 December: public opinion still has time to stop it.

This item is taken from PN Review 224, Volume 41 Number 6, July - August 2015.

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