Poetry Is Now

A New York-based essayist, poet and translator, Eliot Weinberger is on 91st Meridian's board of advisors.

Statement for "Poetry is News" conference St. Mark's Poetry Project, NYC, 1 February 2003

I am both pessimistic and optimistic about what's happening and briefly, or not so briefly, I'd like to say why: First, I take the word "politics" in a very narrow sense: that is, how governments are run. And I take the word "government" to mean the organized infliction or alleviation of suffering among one's own people and among other peoples. One of the things that happened after the Vietnam War was that, in the U.S., on the intellectual left, politics metamorphosed into something entirely different: identity politics and its nerd brother, theory, who thought he was a Marxist, but never allowed any actual governments to interrupt his train of thought. The right however, stuck to politics in the narrow sense, and grew powerful in the absence of any genuine political opposition, or even criticism, for the left had its mind elsewhere: It was preoccupied with finding examples of sexism, classism, racism, colonialism, homophobia, etc.. —usually among its own members or the long-dead, while ignoring the genuine and active racists/ sexists/ homophobes of the right—and it tended to express itself in an incomprehensible academic jargon or tangentially referential academic poetry under the delusion that such language was some form of resistance to the prevailing power structures—power, of course, only being imagined in the abstract. (Never mind that truly politically revolutionary works—Tom Paine or the Communist Manifesto or Brecht or Hikmet or a thousand others—are written in simple direct speech.) Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan was completely dismantling the social programs of the New Deal and Johnson's Great Society—creating the millions of homeless, the 25% of American children who live in poverty, the obscene polarization of wealth, and so on. (And the poets, typically, were only moved to speak up when he cut the NEA budget.) Clinton might have had a more compassionate public face, but essentially the political center had shifted so far right that today the Democratic party is to the right of any European conservative party, and the Republicans just slightly to the left of a European national front party. We may never live to see an American president as left-wing as Jacques Chirac. The main result of almost thirty years of these so-called politics on the Left is that there are now more women and minorities in the Norton anthologies, And we all know how to pronounce "hegemony"—surely a great comfort to the 6 million people, predominately black men, currently in the prison system, or the teenage girls in most places in America who need an abortion and there's nowhere to get help, or the parents and babies who create the statistics of by far the highest infant mortality rate among the technological nations, or the 20% of high school seniors who can't find the U.S. on a world map.

The good news about the monstrosity of the Bush administration is that it is so extreme and so out of control that it has finally woken up the left, and once again we're talking about politics as the rest of the world knows it, about people getting slaughtered, people being hungry, and people deprived of basic human rights—and not about language as a capitalist construct or queer musicology. The best news of all is that very young people—the generation of the Zeroes—after the decades of MTV and Nintendo somnambulism, are being politicized by the collapsed economy, the prospect of a reinstituted draft, and the realization that their sneakers are made by child-slaves in the Third World. Every political youth movement has its own culture—look at the 30's, the 60's, or radical Islam today. It will be extremely interesting to see, and utterly unexpected to find, what culture this youth movement produces: What will be their ideals and practices, their music and poetry, or even their dress? I have a feeling that we won't have a clue, and that their response may well be a sort of iconoclastic asceticism, not unlike radical Islam, impervious to corporate takeover, and completely alien to their parents. [One of the hardest things for people my age to understand is that this is not 1967 all over again, that things are going to be very different, and that, if we don't learn to listen, we are going to end up being, as our old formula goes, part of the problem and not part of the solution.] I take this gathering as a kind of union meeting—the union of writers, mainly poets—and it seems to me the primary question for us is: things are going to be happening with or without us, are we going to be part of it, or are we going to continue to talk about essentialism at the MLA and finding your voice at the AWP?

Poets in times of political crises basically have three models. The first is to write overtly political poems, as was done during the Vietnam War. 95% of those poems will be junk, but so what? 95% of anything is junk. It is undeniable that the countless poems and poetry readings against the Vietnam War contributed to creating and legitimizing a general climate of opposition; they were the soul of the movement. And it also resulted in some of the most enduring poems of the 20th century, news that has stayed news indeed. The second model is epitomized by George Oppen, who as a Communist in the 30's, and a poet uncomfortable with the prevailing modes of political poetry, decided that poets should not be treated differently from others, that the work to be done was organizing, and so he stopped writing and became a union leader. The third model is César Vallejo, another Communist in the 20's and 30's. He refused to write propaganda poems—he wanted to write the poems he wanted to write—so to serve the cause he wrote a great deal of propaganda prose. The first model (political poems) is the most common, and no doubt the one we'll be seeing the most, and frankly it will come as a relief from all those anecdotes of unhappy childhoods and ironic preoccupations with “surface." Oppen, of course, was a kind of secular saint—and most of us are too egotistical to take a vow of silence. But it is the example of Vallejo that seems to me the least explored. People who are poets presumably know something about writing. So why does it never occur to them to write something other than poems?

There are approximately 8000 poets registered in the Directory of American Poets—are there even four or five who have written an article against the Bush Administration? Most of us can't get onto the Op-Ed page of the Times—we'd never displace Condoleezza there—but most of us do have access to countless other venues: hometown newspapers, college newspapers, professional newsletters, specialist magazines, websites, and so on. All writers have contacts somewhere, and all these periodicals must fill their pages. Even poetry magazines: Why must poetry magazines always be graveyards of orderly tombstones of poems? How many of them in the 1980's, for example, even mentioned the name "Reagan"? How many of them today have any political content at all? I've been writing articles since Bush's inauguration for translation in magazines and newspapers abroad and, if nothing else, they at least help to demonstrate that the US is not a monolith of opinion. Foreign periodicals can't get enough of Americans critical of Bush—which is why the collaboration of such supposedly antiwar poets as Robert Creeley and Robert Pinsky in the recent State Dept. anthology was so grotesque. If, as they claim, they wanted to give Americans a human face, there was no end of other forums abroad—they didn't have to do it as flunkies for Bush. More tellingly, the only public condemnations of that anthology have come from foreign newspapers—American writers were either indifferent or afraid of alienating a future prize jury. In English, I send my articles out via e-mail. It's one of the best ways, and certainly the easiest, to publish political writing in this country. Send it to your friends and let the friends, if they want, send it on. Let the readers vote, not with their feet, but with the forward button. The last time I was here at St Marks, in 1994, I was practically laughed off the stage for saying that the major organizing force of political opposition in the future was going to be the internet. Now of course, it's a banality. The internet has completely changed all the rules. It's how the like-minded instantly find each other; it's the one national and international forum that has been—so far—impossible to control; and it’s practically the only source of opposition information and opinions from everywhere in the world: not only immediate access to the foreign press, but also—if you really want to give yourself nightmares—to the endless reports available from the Department of Defense and right-wing think tanks. That still-unrecognized prophet, Abbie Hoffman, said, almost 40 years ago, that if you want to start a revolution, don't bother to organize, seize a television station. With the internet, we are all our own TV stations and publishing companies and newspapers. The potential is limitless: Trent Lott was brought down by a weblog; all the doubts about the war that are seeping into the general public began on-line; and just this week even lovely Laura's Poetry Tea got canceled thanks to an e-mail petition. There are 8000 poets in the Directory, and Anne Waldman and Ammiel Alcalay, a month ago had trouble coming up with a list to invite to speak here. One eye may half-open when, like Laura's party, it directly involves them, but most American writers have lost the ability to even think politically, or nationally, or internationally. In all the anthologies and magazines devoted to 9/11 and its aftermath, nearly every single writer resorted to first-person anecdote: "It reminded me of the day my father died..." "I took an herbal bath and decided to call an old boyfriend..."Barely a one could imagine the event outside of the context of the prison cell of their own expressive self. (Or, on the avant-garde, it was a little too real for ironic pastiche from their expressive non-self.)

We are where we are in part because American writers—supposedly the most articulate members of society—have generally had nothing to say about the world for the last 30 years. How many of those 8000 poets have ever been to a Third World country (excluding beach vacations)? How many think it worthwhile to translate something? How many can name a single contemporary poet, not living in the U.S., from Latin America or Africa or Asia? In short, how many know anything more about the world than George Bush knows? After thirty years of self-absorption in MFA and MLA career-mongering and knee-jerk demography and the personal as political and the impersonal as poetical, American writers now have the government we deserve. We were good Germans under Reagan and Bush I; we were never able to separate Clinton's person from his policies and gave him a complacent benefit of the doubt; and the result is Cheney and Rumsfeld and Ashcroft and Perle and Wolfowitz and Scalia and Rice and their little president. They can't be stopped, but I do think they can be slowed down.