The Identitarian Delusion

Gerry Cambridge

Pugnacious certainty.

In July 2018 The Nation published an apology/retraction by its poetry editors for printing what I thought a modestly interesting poem by the young poet Anders Carlson-Wee; an apology not because the poem wasn’t better, but because it was written in the voice of an American panhandler speaking in what its critics interpreted as African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and using the “ableist” verb “crippled.” The poetry editors wrote: “[…] we hold ourselves responsible for the ways in which the work we select is received.” They then apologised for the “pain caused to the many communities affected by this poem.” Anders Carlson-Wee, who seems an interesting writer, and has a first book appearing from W. W. Norton in March 2019, issued a public apology on Twitter, and stated that he was “re-evaluating what it means to make art in this world from a place of privilege.” An African-American linguistics professor at Columbia University, John McWhorter, writing in The Atlantic Monthly, put up a defence of the poem’s use of AAVE, but to no avail. The poetry community, or at least one segment of it, had censoriously spoken.

In November’s Poetry magazine, Don Share published “From ‘Titan / All is Still’” by Toby Martinez de las Rivas, a seven-page excerpt which ended with a graphic featuring an image of a black sun (also the title of Martinez’s second collection from Faber), superimposed over a text block composed of the repeated word “Judgement” in italics. Poetry, as it does frequently with work published in its pages, tweeted, all innocently, a brief extract with a link to the poem online on 23 November 2018. Shortly after, outraged Twitterati descended like a bunch of starlings on a field of cast grain. The black sun was latched onto as a fascist symbol; the poem itself was portrayed as fascist in intent. Individuals with PTSD claimed they were “triggered” by the poem. Demands were made for the editors to explain themselves. On 27 November Poetry tweeted, somewhat worthily, “To our readers: We have been listening” with a link to an explanatory statement by Martinez on the magazine’s website. The concession seemed to backfire spectacularly. The poet was criticised for not stating outright that he was not a fascist, even though he had linked to an essay in PN Review which made this very point. Calls for the editors to explain Martinez’s inclusion were repeated. Don Share, Poetry’s editor-in-chief, and usually a daily, prolific tweeter, as of this writing (11 January 2019) has made no posts on his Twitter timeline since 24 November 2018.

I am not an habitual Twitter user, but the little I have noticed in regard to this matter has been, frankly, astonishing. The Martinez excerpt in Poetry has had sections quoted out of context: a comfortless and in some ways horrifying image such as “the white irradiate city” has been taken in the most literal terms as a valorisation of white supremacy when, to my reading and in context, confirmed by Martinez’s own account, it is an image of terrible sterility. Some commenters’ tweets dropped the “Young” from the title of the Martinez poem “Elegy for the Young Hitler” and then convicted the poet in the easy court of Twitter on the basis of this new, imagined title. Recently I noticed that the Dave Coates blogpost, which Rob A. Mackenzie responds to in his essay “Fascism and Criticism,” has had a link appended to it; clicking through brings up a photograph of a white supremacist, wielding a placard featuring the image from the floor of Himmler’s castle discussed in Mackenzie’s essay, as if this were proof of something. In reality it reveals only a notable lack of similarity between the image and the Martinez black sun that would be plain to an average seven-year-old. What is one to make of all this? Poetry, an art once considered a free space for intellectual, emotional and spiritual enquiry and exploration, seems increasingly an arena governed and to some degree imperilled by thought-police. The ability to invent, or re-imagine, such as would be extended to any novelist, is being constricted. Only the personal, autobiographical lyric, preferably dealing with trauma which has, naturally enough, a sort of guarantee of authenticity, can be thought – perhaps – to be risk-free.

In regard to Poetry magazine, seeing an editor who has been instrumental in opening up this major venue in American letters to manifold voices, orientations and ethnic diversities reflective of the great cultural mix of America, even if that may be seen by some as at the expense of quality, has been both instructive and deeply ironic. Even a trendsetter such as Poetry has felt it had to make a response to reader reaction. The atmosphere is one of nervy compliance to the dictated mores of outraged opinion; a wariness of stirring up offence-culture. Yet one cannot keep everyone who decides to open themselves up to the art of poetry, as a reader, happy – not even some of the time. In that sense The Nation’s editors’ statement that they are responsible for the “ways” in which their readers receive a poem strikes me as not only extraordinary but unachievable. The implication, taken in the context of their apologia for the Anders Carlson-Wee poem, is that they are accountable for the unforeseen “negative” reaction, on whatever grounds, to any poem published under their editorship. Well, good luck with that. Editors of poetry are certainly responsible for what they publish. And they may well make mistakes. Beyond well-defined and obvious limits, however, such as evident provocations or devil’s advocacy, they cannot be responsible for reader reaction. How can you be responsible for something you have no control over, particularly with an art such as poetry which utilises as part of its substance the indeterminacy and ambiguities of language, symbol and image? How, beyond the limits above, can you control how the words are received? And, why would you want to? To avoid Twitter outrages – which, presumably, are considered important by those at whom they are directed only when they reach a level as to make them uncomfortable? Poetry editors, no matter how distinguished or experienced, are not omniscient. Are they now custodians of readers’ psychological health? Has poetry now become an insipid branch of the wellbeing industry?

The result will be, initially, a closing down of the possibilities of the art to something cowed, tamed and neutered such that it will never risk causing offence, except in the most current, politically correct of ways of course.

Poetry is not a vessel for virtue signalling, for the display of what a good person one is. Any mature artist knows this. What I find breath-taking in the contemporary poetry climate, characterised by the critique of Martinez’s poem in Poetry, is the conviction of rightness, indeed righteousness, by the commenters. There is little looking to the mote in one’s own eye there. But if the practice of poetry as an art teaches one anything it is that everything is singular; everything is complicated. One must refuse, as Robert Frost said, to falsify the ambiguities, and such refusal takes courage and steadiness. The singularity of a genuine artist is of course a threat to ideologues of whatever stripe, whether of the Left or of the Right, who would try to subsume everything into one encompassing identity. As C. H. Sisson, quoted in an introduction by David Wright to a Penguin selection of Edward Thomas’s poems said, “All desire for the truth is revolutionary.” That is to be found in the workings out of one’s own thought processes and character, at the most intimate levels. It does not lend itself happily to easy and simplistic denunciations which are more remarkable for their pugnacious certainty than for any insight they may contain.

From the editorial of Issue 40 of The Dark Horse (Winter/Spring 2019): 

The Editor of The Dark Horse, Scotland’s leading poetry journal, Gerry Cambridge is also an essayist, print designer and typographer, with a background in natural history photography. He lived in an Ayrshire caravan for twenty-five years before leaving to become a Brownsbank Fellow in Hugh MacDiarmid’s former home for 1997–1999. His most recent book is The Light Acknowledgers & Other Poems (HappenStance Press, 2019). In his early twenties he was, as far as he knows, one of the youngest ever regular freelancers, specialising in nature articles, for the UK Reader’s Digest, which at the time (the 1980s) had a monthly circulation of 1.5 million copies.