“Empathy . . . is crucial to writing effective poems” -- Teresa White
“No tears come
1. Empathy & Finding the Poetry inside the Burkha
This view of empathy as a version of politeness is at best a basic-level description of some of the signs of an empathetic approach to others. But it’s not definitive and in fact is so basic it can be misleading. As the Greek origins of the word empathy suggest (the word derives from "empatheia" which means passion and "pathein" which means to experience or vicariously suffer someone else’s distress or pain), empathy is a discomfiting experience because it destabilizes one’s own life by infecting it with, and thereby forcing/allowing one to feel, the extremities (passions, stresses, etc.) of another life. Although such an experience’s consequences can include a newfound gentleness toward the other, they also can include disorientation (think of Jesus, the ultimate empath, suffering the world’s agonies on the cross while screaming, “Father why have you forsaken me?”) or dislocation from one’s era (think of John Brown who, because of his empathy for enslaved Africans, embarked on a justified course of rebellion against the nation’s way of life but in the process found himself increasingly distanced from the mainstream).
Nobody should be naïve: empathy is a road toward danger. How could it be otherwise? Once you start entering into others’ psyches and feeling what they feel, there’s no end to what you might learn vicariously: the rapist’s sincere gentleness with young children, the lively and impressive imagination inside a proudly worn burkha, the abortionist’s deeply felt love of life, the pain of the anti-Asian racial humiliations that shaped Cho Seung-Hui killing spree at Virginia Tech. Empathy isn’t very empathic if those with whom you empathize belong only to the easy-to-empathize-with category. While many U.S. poets might find it easy to empathize with an old women mugged for her purse, they find it far more difficult, if not impossible, to feel, within themselves, all the cumulative pain and suffering boiling inside the militant Muslim’s understandable loathing of western culture.
Of course, poems dealing with such topics have been written in the U.S. and even have appeared in some of the more prestigious literary journals, but statistically their number is irrelevant. Like a patient in one of Freud’s case histories, when it comes to certain topics American poetry in general has chosen unconsciousness over awareness in order to preserve its sense of itself as “good,” “non-extremist” and only “appropriately angry.” In doing so, it has forgotten that empathy isn’t a matter of condoning or rejecting certain mindsets, but is rather a matter of getting inside them, feeling them, comprehending them so one can move closer to a fuller understanding of the world Those U.S. poets who attempt this are a minority and for the most part are rejected (except sometimes in token ways) in favor of the mewling coming from the “better” poetry journals.
Julia de Burgos (Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems, Curbstone Press, CT,1996), Sharon Doubiago (Hard Country, West End Press, MN,1982 and South America Mi Hija, Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, PA, 1992), Robert Hayden (Collected Poems, Liveright, NY, 1996) Sonia Sanchez (homegirls & handgrenades, Thunder Mouth Press, NY, 1984 and shake loose my skin, Beacon Press, MA, 1999), Gary Soto (New and Selected Poems, Chronicle Books, CA, 1995), Janine Pomy Vega (Mad Dogs of Trieste, Black Sparrow Books, MA, 2000), James Wright (Collected Poems, Wesleyan Univ. Press, CT, 1971) are just a few examples of some of the poets scattered across the country who over the last 30-50 years have played an important role in trying to derail the death train that carries what’s best of the U.S. cultural spirit toward a neo-Auschwitz designed specifically for incinerating poets’ brains. However, their and others’ heroism in this regard, as admirable as it is, is ultimately depressing because it stands out precisely because of the lack of similar efforts from most members of the so-called poetry establishment.
Still, depressing or not, their efforts should be memorialized. Or even more importantly, learned from.
I’ll give one example.
Adrienne Rich’s “To Ethel Rosenberg” (Adrienne Rich, The Fact of a Doorframe, The Quality Paperback Book Club, New York, 1994, p. 286-290), although it lacks some of the qualities of her best poems, is nonetheless a piece rich with insight when it comes to the relationship of writer to other. This richness is of special note because it is arrived at not through a simplistic empathy but through an unfolding realization of the difficulty of empathy.
The poem begins with Rich’s account of a trip she took to Europe as a young woman during the months leading up to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s 1953 execution in the U.S. for espionage. The poet sees Ethel Rosenberg, unlike husband Julius, as being punished not just for the political crime of national disloyalty but also for the gender crime of wanting “to distinguish herself” (italics in original), to free herself from what was expected of her as a woman. This belief leads Rich to feel an affinity with Rosenberg whose execution, which occurred one week before Rich’s wedding, she views as a prefigurement of the death of her own freedom in marriage, a union stemming from family pressure to uphold gender tradition. But if the execution prefigures the poet’s later loss of freedom, it also reflects back on Rosenberg’s original loss of freedom in her own marriage as her hope of becoming “an artist” died and she instead became a
At this point the poem seems set to establish the gender role issue as the adhesive that holds together Rich’s view of female bonding. But although the poem does persist in meditating on this issue as it tries to penetrate more deeply into Rosenberg’s life, the poem’s trajectory is different than might be expected. This different route first appears in the author’s indication that something might be wrong with her intellectual understanding of the shared pain of -- and therefore, by implication, the mutual understanding between -- all woman, given the fact that when thinking about Ethel Rosenberg it is necessary to admit
This anguished admission comes from Rich soon after her attempt, a few stanzas previous, to conjure how the transgressive Ethel might fit into the contemporary world —
Rich comes up against a wall here. It’s not just that there’s no reasonable way to know the answers to these questions, but it’s that the questions themselves are problematic, are in fact acts of aggression, attempts to impose on the object of the author’s attempts at empathy a way of identifying rebellion that has more to do with the author than with Ethel Rosenberg.
Rich’s effort to use the executed spy to highlight her own (Rich’s) feminist interests could well signal that the whole effort at identification has been a sham, an attempt to exploit the dramatic Rosenberg story for the author’s own purposes. But not only isn’t this the case, the author’s/narrator’s willingness within the poem to indicate that her efforts at empathy have been contaminated by her own projections says more about empathy than many poems that claim to successfully empathize with others. Additionally, when Rich subsequently backs away from the attempt to definitively define Rosenberg she ends up empathizing with Rosenberg in a way not possible unless one constantly wrestles with the fact that empathy is never more than a hair’s breadth away from degenerating into a recreation of the other in one’s own image. Consequently, Rich’s moment of greatest empathy with Rosenberg is that moment when the author acknowledges that she must now back away from that empathy, that she must set Rosenberg free from her (Rich’s) aggressive authorial desire to empathize with her, since that effort runs the risk of spilling over into a reformulation (recreation, distortion) of Rosenberg’s concept of revolt that prioritizes making it more palatable to late 20th century thinkers (the timeframe of the poem’s composition) over fidelity to the historical Rosenberg.
Having gone this far, Rich now goes one step further. She recognizes that this other, this woman “with secrets she has never told,” isn’t remote from her because of these secrets but is in fact revealed through these secrets just as surely as she is revealed through everything else about her. In other words, Rosenberg’s incompletion (the fact that she isn’t fully knowable to us) is paradoxically the very thing that completes her in Rich’s eyes.
This is the Ethel Rosenberg with whom Rich ultimately empathizes. The other Ethel-objects, the more “complete” ones that are easier to use or project upon in various ways, they have been rejected.
2. The Great Sucking Mess: Empathy as a Democracy of Themes
There are millions of subjects to feel and write about, ranging from how the universe began to the size of a goldfinch’s beak to the U.S.’s possible relationship to Pakistani terrorism in Kashmir. In spite of this, many U.S. poets spend more time coming up with reasons not to write about certain things, particularly anything remotely political and/or deviating from the “acceptable” range of political debate, than they do wading out into the great sucking mess of uncensored reality in search of what is there: glimpses of form, structure and wisdom that only the allegedly chaotic (i.e., that which is beyond received knowledge and/or fashionable knowledge, etc.) can reveal.
Sometimes it seems everything is lined up against the truth-obsessed. Even language. Maybe especially language. Without a language adequate to the task, analysis and evocation are impossible. And this is the problem, or part of the problem, we’re faced with, since historically language constantly drags its feet, can’t keep up with things.
As Thomas McGrath wrote (North Dakota Quarterly, Fall, 1982)
But it’s not just language’s continual state of verging on outmodedness and therefore requiring repeated daring acts of renewal for survival (which is one of the reasons Mallarmé called successful poetry “the language of a state of crisis”) that is the problem, it is also language’s constant socialization by institutional forces that wrecks havoc on our capacity to see clearly.
To fight this second tendency, it isn’t sufficient to adopt a pose of moral superiority with regard to government spokespersons and the media. The idea that understanding some of the government‘s and media’s distortions renders us immune to distorted thinking ourselves is self-defeatingly egocentric. No matter how intelligent we think we are, we are the products of forces that dominate us more than we dominate them.
Take as an example the 2003 scene of Iraqis joyfully cramming into al-Firdos (Paradise) Square in Baghdad as they welcomed U.S. troops. This scene, displayed around the world on hundreds of millions of television screens, reached its highpoint when the pro-American Iraqi crowd toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein. But as it turned out, the scene was far from spontaneous. As later video footage showed, the square was far from crammed and was only made to look so by shrewd editing. Secondly, the “local” Iraqi crowd wasn’t local, but consisted of many Iraqi exiles flown in just for this occasion by the U.S. military. Thirdly, the scene was cordoned off by coalition military troops to make sure no unfriendly Iraqis disturbed the theatrical production in the square.
Many people now know this. Yet realizing that this scene was a media/military construct and not a spontaneous event doesn’t prove that those who now understand this fact have pierced the government’s lies and consequently come up with a alternative view to the Iraqi war. In fact, given the almost complete absence of anything socially disruptive in the west’s current antiwar movements, it becomes clear that “knowing” something’s wrong with the media’s depictions of the war, and maybe even knowing that the war is wrong, hasn’t led to society-shaking challenges to the government’s war policies but rather in 2 other directions, both of which redefine dissent in ways that render it valueless.
The first of these directions is the spectacle as substitute for political action. This ritual is exemplified by the massive street demonstrations that periodically agitate for the war’s end but in reality are nonprotests because their organizers, obsessed with insuring their spectacle’s success as a spectacle (success = tens of thousands or millions of people in the street), grant the policy-makers and their allies against whom the demonstrators are ostensibly demonstrating the right to dictate what the protestors are and aren’t allowed to do. This compromise guarantees, from a certain perspective, a perfect solution. The status quo’s representatives endure an outcry against them, although it is an acceptable and non-threatening one that vilifies them while ultimately leaving them alone. On the other hand, although the organized protest accomplishes nothing substantive in terms of policy change, it does allow the organizers to publicly revel in their supposed sensitivity to the horrors of war. Meanwhile, those who participate in the protest (as opposed to organizing it) are allowed to express their opposition to the war as theatrically as they like -- just as long as they adhere to the limits established in pre-march meetings between organizers and public officials. Consequently, regardless of whatever diversity of opinions concerning protest the crowd might have, the demonstration is reduced to being an exercise in the allowable. The colorful banners and madcap signs, the protesters dressed as clowns or sleazy politicians or marching on stilts, the painted faces everywhere, the college students improvising on makeshift drums (old pails, toy buckets, joint compound containers, whatever) -- all of these things, this vast carnival of self-expression, are the ingredients of the peace movement’s love-in for itself, its substitution of feeling good about itself for the more painful tasks (e.g., thinking outside the box, confronting the police, clogging the entrances to government buildings, etc.) of taking actual risks to stop the war it claims to hate. In spite of the fact that the vast majority of such a demonstration’s participants may authentically ache to end the war, their desires in this regard are preempted by the fact that they have been herded into a hologram of sorts that creates the illusion of action without actually allowing action In this way the spectacle devours people’s sincerity in order to nourish itself and thrive. And so this demonstration, like a poem consisting of dazzling metaphors and tight language-control but nonetheless having little of value to say, becomes a caricature of the creativity it supposedly exemplifies.
The second dissent-destroying method that has seduced many of today’s alleged dissenters is the interiorization of political action ritual. This method, although related in some psychological ways to the first one, is a more private act that reconceptualizes protest as an individual act of witness rather than as a public act of rebellion against something perceived as wrong or evil. The essence of this reconceptualization is that it designates the self, as opposed to the physical world, as the terrain where all battles over judgments, policies and moral nuances are fought and concluded. In other words, wrestling with the rights and wrongs of military policy becomes more like a monk in his cell waging a private battle with the forces of good and evil than like a social activist developing a plan of action for changing the world. In fact, as the result of this interiorization of political struggle, traditional methods of confronting power recede in importance as they are increasingly replaced by relatively comfortable ones that reject risk -- i.e., reject any kind of nonviolent or violent confrontation with authority that might result in personal discomfort. Consequently, protest assumes an increasingly benign individual quality that is judged more by etiquette standards than in terms of its efficacy in bringing unnecessary -- even illegal -- killing to a halt. So, rather than take to the streets, one sits at a desk and writes a postcard or sends an email to a government official outlining one’s personal opposition to the war. Alternately, or maybe additionally, one stands alone -- or possibly with a small handful of similar people --on a roadside while holding a sign announcing one’s opposition to the war. This is not to say that all people who do such things act in bad faith. On the contrary, many are characterized by an admirable simplicity, even a purity, in how they protest war. The problem in not necessarily these people themselves, then, but rather that the leadership of the antiwar movement as a whole enforces a dissidence etiquette that prohibits other forms of protest from being considered.
Ultimately, though, even an antiwar movement that is basically nonconfrontational has its moments of victory, of triumphing over “those who are wrong about the war policy.” This is done, not by changing policy but by pursuing, and periodically or permanently achieving, the thrill of believing in the mental superiority of the movement’s participants compared to their opponents. Those within the movement who use it for such self-inflation are the ones who are most devoted to acting out the interiorization of political action ritual. Belonging to this group are those who experience the smug cynicism of believing they are right about the war’s contradictions while so many other “less intellectually capable” citizens are wrong. Additional protesters of this type feel deeply satisfied for a different reason: they are convinced that they’ve outthought the war policy’s authors by identifying that policy’s flaws in spite of the policy-creators’’ efforts to confuse them. That this mental victory has no impact whatsoever on the actual war seems of little interest to these particular folks.
All this is political. But also not political. It is about war, yes, but also about the relation of ideas to action, about the connection of language to meaning, about the interplay of mass culture and socialization, about the me-firstism that operates at all levels of our society, about the institutionalization of dissent, and about elaborately constructed social rationales whose purpose is to teach us how to censor ourselves so subtly that we aren’t even aware of how much, how many topics and themes, we flee from in order to pursue the ultimate objective -- i.e., a perfect inaction that seems (falsely) so alive.
None of the vocabularies we use -- not the ones of words, not the ones of actions, etc. -- can be taken for granted. They all constrain as well as liberate. Without constant tending-to and reinvention, they become dead weights on our backs, forces that shape us rather than forces shaped by us. Inattention to this fact inevitably leads to lack of new ideas, ineffective actions, absence of drive or beat (tala, duende), lack of clarity. Unexamined self-expression is often nothing more than inherited expression spruced up with faddish language and “modern” concerns.
It is in this sense that what the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer said of language can be said of all of our methods of communication: that it is wrong to see it merely as a tool of self-expression since it often, given the logics built into it, “does our thinking for us.” Building on this, he argued, “All theoretical cognition takes its departure from a world already preformed by language. The scientist, the historian, even the philosopher, lives with his objects only as language presents them to him.” (Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth, Dover Publications, Inc., NY, 1953, pp.16 and 28).
When such an analysis is applied to the political challenges facing writers and activists during this period of U.S. military involvement in both Afghanistan and Iraq, light is shed not just on this particular moment in history but on the whole issue of how the nature of dissent, and the tactics/languages uses to express it, is never a given but is always in a state of flux, tumult, evolution.
Let me use civil disobedience as an example.
In terms of political activism, CD is one of the methods of self-expression/protest that had been developed over time. Initially developed as a protest tool by Gandhi in South Africa, then transplanted by him to India where he used it as India’s anticolonial struggle’s the defining tactic, it was later adopted by Martin Luther King. King used it both as a tactic (marches, sit-ins and so on) for confronting Jim Crow power in the south and as a way (in Christianized form) of conceptualizing moral struggle: although the objective was to topple segregationist power and those who held it, King expected civil rights activists to refrain from acts of personal aggression against opponents of black equality.
As we all know, King’s nonviolent tactics produced startling mass actions that helped pave the way for a less racist America. But it’s also true that just as his use of these tactics was gaining wider acclaim within the country and also internationally, those tactics pushed up against the limits of their effectiveness. When in 1965-1966 he brought nonviolence to Chicago in an effort to confront that city’s segregated housing and education problems, the effort was fraught with mounting dilemmas that included failure to connect sufficiently with Chicago’s white liberals and growing black disenchantment with his leadership. As in most northern cities, Chicago’s blacks had a different sensibility than their southern brethren, one more driven by the rhythms of giant industrial complexes and the frequently claustrophobic tensions of inner city living. Just as over the years the blues had morphed from a southern, more rural-based acoustic phenomenon into a plugged-in electric one that often featured guitar solos that sounded like a factory lathe’s noise had been miraculously transformed into a musical hereness that had nothing to do with southern deltas, so the political instincts of northern blacks were also different than those of southern blacks. The north, featuring giant cultural cauldrons like Chicago’s south side and NY’s Harlem, had become the site over the decades of endless experimentation in how to construct art and social-economic analysis in distinctly urban ways out of “fringe materials” -- pawned saxophones, street slang, the oppression of failed dreams, familiarity with the multiple meanings of the world “jailed.” This was NOT a turf designed for Dr. Martin Luther King to conquer. Instead, it was more open to northern-ghetto-savvy organizers from groups like the Nation of Islam or Black Panthers. Rural speechifiers didn’t cut it here. Ironically but not surprisingly, King’s problems in the north mirrored the weakness of his Indian model, Gandhi. Although Gandhi is correctly praised for playing a pivotal role in organizing India’s independence movement, he had a lackluster track record when it came to relating to industrial workers, developing a mutually respectful relationship with dalits (untouchables, India’s underclass) and identifying with urban populations.
At any rate, Chicago marked the beginning of civil disobedience’s decline in the U.S. from a vital tool for provoking social change into one that was increasingly performed by rote as an institutionally acceptable way of expressing dissent. As the civil disobedience tactic entered this stage, it became part of that type of self-expression which, in Cassirer’s words, “does our thinking for us” by automating dissent and turning it into a predictable pattern in such a way that it increasingly bureaucratized protest rather than giving expression to the full range of demonstrators’ frustrations and angers. Although civil disobedience still had its moments -- for instance, the anti-apartheid sits-ins/arrests organized by TransAfrica outside the South African Embassy in DC in the 1980s -- such moments were blips on the radar screen. The tactic’s overall trajectory was a decline into irrelevance and the formulaic. For the most part when it is used now, it is done so in a highly orchestrated way in which police and activists act in tandem as cosponsors of a political action in which no one is overly discomfited.
Not that there haven’t been attempts to shake things up by moving beyond bureaucratized notions of dissent.
The U.S. wing of the antiglobalization movement of the late 1990s and the first years of the new millennium is an example. In its decentralized, often flailing-about but nonetheless dead-serious way, it drew inspiration from multiple sources, many of them creative reinventions of old struggles. One such source was the Zapatista indigenous people’s movement that emerged in Chiapas, Mexico in the early 1990s. Part guerrilla army, part resurrection of an ancient culture, part paean to the creativity of the human spirit, the Zapatistas attracted worldwide attention as exploited Mayans struggled with their country’s government. The Zapatista’s credo that “we rose up not seeking power, not because of a foreign mandate. We rose up to say, ‘We are here,’ ” (Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, Our Word Is Our Weapon: Selected Writings, Seven Stories Press, N^Y, 2001, p. 169) resonated with many U.S. activists and cultural workers because of how it stripped revolutionary struggle, and the risks associated with it, down to a single unchallengeable essence: the ignored’s right to have their existence acknowledged. Given the impact of such thinking on many U.S. activists, it isn’t surprising that a 1998 anarchist antiglobalization flyer turned up on the streets of DC, quoting among other things this line from Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos, “In all of my poems I undress my heart.” This getting-emotionally-naked idea was central to the emerging antiglobalization movement because it exemplified, if not for all at least for many of its participants, a belief that prefabricated articulations of outrage and inherited strategies for change had to give way to articulations and strategies born of the current era’s own painful realities.
And these realities were painful. Although from a CNN perspective the antiglobalization movement’s concerns often seemed distant from daily US life, at a less media-mediated level the connections were much clearer. On the one hand you had millions of youth preparing for entrance into a workworld from which many better-paying jobs were disappearing and being replaced by lower-paying service jobs. As this occurred, households and often whole communities were wrecked as factories closed or corporations refused to honor contractually agreed upon benefits for their retired. It was in such contexts that Americans increasingly heard of U.S. corporate misadventures overseas, misadventures that often reflected U.S. business’ desire to make money offshore while bailing on workers’ economic interests here at home.
Take U.S. corporate activity in India as an example. Long before the Enron scandal broke in the states, the company was under attack in India during the 1990s for paying law enforcement officials in Maharashtra state to crush the protests of villagers and activists who opposed Enron’s construction of a natural gas power plant in Dabhol near the Arabian Sea. Some of the assaults on people were brutal, including the beating of a pregnant women who was dragged naked from her bathroom, flung on the ground outside and clubbed by a gang of police officers.
Other U.S. corporate “invasions” of the subcontinent had their own styles. In 1995 the W. R. Grace corporation won patent approval in the west for a fungicide it had extracted from India’s neem tree. The patent’s problem, as critics saw it, was that it gave the company sole power to develop and sell a product that ordinary Indian farmers and peasants had been extracting from the neem tree on their own for centuries. A similar move to gain ownership of something that has been in the hands of Indian (and Pakistani) farmers for centuries was Texas-based Rice Tech’s patenting in 1997 of Basmati rice, a crop which, having been grown for generations by subcontinent farmers, is also an important Indian export.
Corporate bio-piracy’s attempts to take over the products of other nations is an act of violence against the peoples of the relevant nations just as certainly as Enron’s use of local police and other hired thugs to assault those who stood in the way of its Dabhol power-plant plans was an act of violence. As the budding U.S. antiglobalization movement soon learned, the responses in developing countries to such behaviors was often diverse. Sometimes legal tactics were employed (as in the court challenges to W. R. Grace’s right to patent neem-based products) while at other times different tactics were employed. As an example of the latter, during an action in the 1980s an apparently berserk mob of peasants defied the power of local government and Karnataka state’s forestry department by destroying thousands of eucalyptus seedlings. Why did they do this? Because the Karnataka government, in order to secure favors from the World Bank and other international agencies, had agreed to a large eucalyptus planting project in the state, a project not for the benefit of the state’s population but for foreign paper pulp and rayon companies that needed eucalyptus wood for their production processes. The fact that eucalyptus trees drain enormous amounts of water from the soil and therefore have a negative impact on nearby farmlands had slipped local government politicians’ minds. So farmers took their own action. The dictates of global capital didn’t interest them. Control of their own environment did. And they didn’t consider the destruction of others’ property (in this case, eucalyptus trees) a flaw in their commitment to ecological intelligence. (For more information on this incident, see J. K. Suresh, “Response to Technology in the Karnataka Peasant Movement” in The Peasant Movement Today, Sunil Sahasrabudhey, ed., Ashish Publishing House, New Delhi, 1986, p. 168)
Awareness of such realities, and others like them, played a role in the multiple perspectives U.S. protestors brought to the 1999 Seattle actions against the WTO conference being held in that city. No wonder this burgeoning movement hit Seattle’s streets with a chaos of ideas and tactics that were equal parts educational and disorienting. Legal acts like the AFL-CIO-organized march for labor rights as well as illegal acts like organized vandalism co-existed with in-between tactics like civil disobedience actions that were more disruptive than the more programmatic CD actions that had become commonplace in protest politics over the years. By the time it was over, intersections had been blocked by crowds and sit-ins, black-clothed anarchists had broken store windows, nonviolent protestors and violent protestors had argued, the police had tear-gassed them all and beaten some, and the WTO meeting had been completely disrupted. The antiglobalization movement which hadn’t existed previously in the public mind did now. It had arrived. Although not, as we have already seen, without internal controversy. Having dominated Seattle’s streets for a few days with a frenzy of disparate actions, there was nothing “nice” about the antiglobalization protests. Wild almost to the point of foolishness and self-defeat, they were nonetheless, for better or worse, an explosion of legitimate rage in search of a language or languages for challenging power not formulaically but disruptively, head-on.
As a writer and political activist who has been regularly involved in activist and writer projects since my 1968 army discharge, I have made more than my share of misjudgments. Nonetheless, it has become clear to me that breakthrough writing and breakthrough political actions often require the same thing: a violent wrenching-free not only from the obvious biases of one’s own era but from the invisible restraints on thinking/action that one doesn’t see.
I know from experience about not seeing things. Example: a year following the Seattle protests, I was my state’s coordinator for Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign. Convinced that his third-party Green campaign might produce the momentum necessary to drive the analysis and energy displayed at Seattle forward, I threw myself into my work. Yet during the years following the Nader campaign I eventually concluded that one of that campaign's biggest consequences wasn't the one constantly debated --i.e., did such campaigns prevent Democrats from winning -- but was rather its negative impact on mass movement building in the U.S. Many of the campaign's younger activists were drawn from the anti-globalization movement, draining that movement of its growing creative mass in such a way that it never recovered. Neither the Nader campaign at that time nor the later antiwar movement matched the anti-globalization movement's mix of serious analysis, multiple visions of activism (from anarchist/rowdy to mainstream), intensity of internal debate and independent spiritedness. Whatever the antiglobalization movement’s shortcoming, it was more dynamic/creative as a movement than the progressive projects that followed it. Consequently, one of the Nader campaign's unintended results was a flattening of political dissidence, making protest more symbolic and circumscribed and less threatening. As a result, by the time the Iraqi war began the Nader campaign's influence on movement building was already making me question some of the antiwar movement's tactics, not because I felt superior to the tactics-developers but because I saw in some of my own past work the roots of these (what I believe to be) tactical errors. In this sense my criticisms were (and remain in part) self-criticisms.
All of the above is part of the mess of existence into which we too often don’t want to wade. But want to or not, we should go there. It is, after all, like everything else, the stuff of poetry -- it is part of the swamp of the real. It is in fact the only zone where heaven’s scent actually can be smelled. That it’s mixed in with some pollution and filth doesn’t destroy the scent, it merely gives it an unexpected pungency.
Too bad so many poets don’t want to write about it. (Where are all the poems about the events I’ve just discussed? Well, here’s at least one. Actually it’s a fragment from an Anti-Flag song that echoes Subcomandante Marcos’ assertion that the Zapatistas rose up only to say, “We are here.”)
I have to step back for a minute.
Although everything above is accurate, there are still some underlying factors to be clarified. The factors I’m talking about here pertain to the specific issue mentioned at the beginning of this section -- i.e., the tendency not only to resist full empathy with other people, but also the tendency not to empathize with reality in general, with all its phenomena, facts, themes, etc.
Part of the answer to why we resist the fullness of reality lies beneath the socialization issue and has to do with thought itself, the very process of thinking, or -- maybe more accurately -- how we look at/don’t look at this process.
A few words about the process. Before proceeding, first we have to remember that this process is multidimensional, consisting, as it does, of interrelationships between perception, thinking, ideas and language. Yet in spite of this multidimensionality, the thought process is also singular, that is, it is an organic movement from the rawest sensory input to conceptualizations based on that input. But this isn’t all. We can’t forget that thought exists within an historical context -- i.e., the issue of how we think goes beyond us as individuals and even beyond the era we live in since it relates to how we as a species have handled the ongoing (evolutionary) challenges with which consciousness has forced us to deal.
Ironically, the species’ handling of these challenges has led to a certain amount of nonthinking precisely where you wouldn’t expect to find it: right in the middle of the thought process itself.
In his book On Creativity (Routledge, New York, 2004), the physicist/philosopher David Bohm (no relation) addresses the problem of how our very way of thinking -- and the intuitions and logics that allegedly drive that thinking -- in fact sabotages our intelligence. It does this, Bohm argues, because either as the result of some evolutionary miscue or species’ arrogance or laziness we don’t investigate how our thinking and the language through which we theoretically express this thinking exist in a state of fragmentation characterized by the fact that ideas and the mental activity that produces them are locked in a state of alienation from each other. This alienation exists because of our failure to remember that thought is an unfragmented process with a very specific function: to organize our perceptions around our interests/needs in such a way that we are moved (through feelings, urges, other thoughts, etc.) to take that specific action or actions we believe will best suit our purposes. When we forget that this process is thought and that its various parts (e.g., perceptions, arrangements of perceptions, the production of actions, and the creation of feelings designed to foment those actions, etc.) can’t be artificially separated into independent units, our thinking falls into a state of fragmentation. It is then that we mistake ideas for physical phenomena actually present within history rather than seeing them (ideas) for what they are -- thought’s ATTEMPTS within the mind to make sense out of what it sees “outside.”
Bohm views this problem of misidentification as a form of fragmentation in which the contents of thought are detached from the process that created them; as a result, he contends, we are prevented from experiencing thought for what it is: “one long uninterrupted flow.” He believes this problem is historical, millennia-long, and ever more dangerously widespread.
Although stated cumbersomely, Bohm’s point is simple. We perceive things (e.g., a table). Depending on our needs (e.g., to write, to move in a straight line from here to there, etc.) our thought process organizes what we perceive into an idea (e.g., the writing pad should be placed on the table, the table should be moved to the left, etc.) which motivates us not only to think of these options (i.e., placing pad on table, whatever) but in fact to physically act out the option we determine to be most relevant for us at that moment. Ideas like the table is for writing or the table can be moved to the left aren’t intrinsic to the table as a thing-in-itself but are merely thought’s attempts to organize perceptions into ways pertinent to our needs or interests at a given moment or under certain circumstances.
To forget this -- i.e., to mistake an idea for a thing by allowing the “content of thought” to become detached from the “overall function” of thought -- is a problem that according to Bohm haunts all of us, from the secretary to the scientist to the patriotic bigot to the intelligentsia in general.
Example. For the patriotic bigot, Bohm says, the problem starts when the bigot mistakes the content of a particular thought (i.e., the notion that people “belonging to different nations or ethnic groups and having different customs” than he does are “inferior beings”) for a real-world phenomenon or fact of life (something built-into existence). The bigot subsequently proceeds to transform this “reality” into a factoid (unit of information based on the alleged fact or facts at hand) which “proves” that his idea of who is and who isn’t superior is correct. Once the thought process reaches this point it then mechanically/chemically produces an emotion that allows the thinker to feel (via an excitement or urge or conviction) “the motivation to treat them (those from different nations or ethnic groups, etc.) in a manner that would be fitting to their supposed inferiority.”
Example 2. The mistake made by the patriotic bigot -- that of confusing part (an idea) of the thought process for something outside the mind in the world -- isn’t confined to the undisciplined. To illustrate this point, Bohm cites the scientist who “experiments with instruments on the brain” but who “must inevitably come to confused, illusory and deceptive” conclusions because “his own thought and language share in the general fragmentation.”
Given such confusions at the most basic levels of how we see the world and respond to it, it requires an amazing degree of self-deception for some poets and other writers to rely on their “gut instincts” and personal “mental strength” when deciding what it is and isn’t appropriate to write about. Less intellectual arrogance and more self-questioning are what’s needed. When we add to the confusions already cited the further problem that the language we use not only lags behind (as McGrath pointed out) historical development but also has been socialized on English Department assembly lines throughout higher education, the monumentalness of the challenges facing those who want to evoke the fullness of reality becomes clear.
So how, someone might ask, can poets accomplish this, can they write about the full range of themes at their disposal, given the current condition of thought and language?
Answer: We can’t. Which is why we have to get down to basics and start clarifying things. Empathy. Love. Justice. Beauty. Each word taken back and reanimated is a step forward.
This isn’t a new battle. It’s cyclical, historical. Revolutionary.
3. Status Quo Empathy & the Rot of the Imagination
Robert Pinksy, the nation’s ex-poet laureate, has lauded the “intense concentration on individual consciousness” in American poetry (Pinsky, Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2002, p. 62). Unfortunately while doing this Pinsky didn’t point how, more often than not, that concentration is part of a process of narrowing down individual consciousness into a socially acceptable version of itself as opposed to expanding that consciousness into something larger than itself.
Take these lines from Pinsky’s own poem, “An Explanation of America” (Robert Pinsky, The Figured Wheel, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1996, p. 159-205), as an example.
Whereas nothing Malcolm X, street hustler and ex-con turned genius anti-racism organizer, ever said was uninteresting or lacking in rhetorical power, Pinksy manages without apparent effort in this quote to turn him into something blander, undisruptive. He does this in a number of ways. First, he undermines Malcolm X by suggesting he agrees with him (“America is . . . a prison”), only to diffuse this assumed agreement by implying his own intellectual superiority via the assertion that there is more to the prison idea than Malcolm comprehended -- “. . . the world and all its parts / Are also prisons.” According to Pinsky, those “parts” include the self, which from his perspective similarly deficient in all of us, thereby giving us all equal status as prisoners and sufferers. Whether intentionally or not, this successfully dilutes Malcolm X’s claim that blacks have special reasons for considering themselves prisoners in the U.S., Pinsky then further condescends to the antiracism advocate by stating that his (Pinsky’s) one-upmanship is not meant “to diminish / Anything that he (Malcolm X) meant about his country.” This disclaimer is almost immediately shown to be false by the following lines which, with their tone of disengaged observation, subvert Malcolm X’s vision by turning his deepest insights into the nature of U.S. racial violence into a poetic language that is blandly sociological without a hint of the antiracism analyst’s legendary oratorical fire or his searing, prophetic intelligence. Consequently, what Pinsky has done by the end of the quote is reinvent Malcolm X as some sort of gentrified ex-soothsayer with early Alzheimer’s who no longer remembers how hot revolt’s fires can get.
The failure of vision that is necessary for distorting a figure like Malcolm X the way Pinsky does is made clear, oddly enough, by Pinsky himself. In Part 2 of the same poem, he discusses the Greek hero Odysseus as follows.
It’s significant here that in Pinsky’s rendering, Odysseus’ goal amidst the “perils of a foreign place” isn’t to gain a knowledge or understanding of that place but merely to convert it into part of the road home and the rediscovery of the familiar. This single-tracked thought -- i.e., of “his survival and progress home” -- is what Pinsky describes as the “demand on the imagination” that centers and illuminates all Odysseus’ efforts. As if to make sure there is no doubt what he means, Pinsky stresses that this choice of focus (i.e., toward surviving the unfamiliar, not understanding it) is counter to, and in lieu of, any potential hope of “knowing the place.” Given that this is Pinsky’s belief, it is ironic that the inclination to return to the familiar and preserve the self is exactly what drives Pinsky, a white poet, when he writes about the experience of entering the “foreign” territory of Malcolm X’s black nationalistic thinking. Instead of accepting Malcolm X at face value, Pinsky, no doubt unconsciously, instead prioritizes “surviving” the black analyst -- i.e., his goal becomes, not knowing Malcolm X, but rather using him as a road back to Pinsky’s own (i.e., familiar to himself) way of viewing the world. Consequently, Pinsky becomes a neo-Odysseus, keeping his non-black self intact while threading his way through “The ways and perils of a foreign place” when that place is a psychological/political one: Malcolm X’s ideas on U.S. racism, the permanent underclass, American expansionism and the need for black revolt.
Another writer relevant to this discussion is Sam Hamill. Hamill, a poet with innumerable books to his credit, is also known these days for being one of the leaders of Poets Against War as well as the editor of a 2003 book of the same title published by Thunder's Mouth Press. Given Hamill’s status as a widely published poet, a visible opponent of the nation’s Iraq policy, and his 30-years-plus stint as Copper Canyon Press editor, looking at two of his antiwar poems is an instructive way to illustrate what I meant in an earlier paragraph when I described empathy for others in the current poetry scene as being more or less confined to an “acceptable,” fairly tepid range of identifications.
Here is Hamill’s poem “State of the Union, 2003.”
Content-wise this isn’t a bad poem from a humanitarian perspective. It is specific, simply stated and filled with sympathy for children in the war-torn middle east where Jerusalem, holy in the eyes of Jews, Muslims and Christians, incarnates the fractured, violence-torn quality of so much of the region’s life. According to Hamill, the area’s hostilities seem endless, going on and on “like a bad habit.” Beaten down by the region’s turmoil, the children have turned into pathetic grotesques whose eyes haunt the poet like “black moons reflecting emptiness.”
But as the poem evolves, the narrator’s grief undergoes a transition. Immediately after the eyes image just quoted, the narrator announces wearily about those eyes, “We have seen them a thousand times.” This hint of emotional exhaustion isn’t surprising given our knowledge that the narrator, like us, has been repeatedly exposed to similar TV images over the years. Yet surprising or not, this weariness, adopting a more complex tenor in the final stanza, becomes troublesome as the poem concentrates increasingly less on middle east suffering and more on the narrator’s angst, about the pain that has been inflicted on him by what he has seen and how he now wants to protect himself from that pain. The narrator accomplishes this by refusing to watch the president speak on TV because he “can’t bear to look / at the monuments” in the president’s eyes -- i.e., his sensitivity to suffering makes him turn away from the sight of more proof of the president’s eagerness to use military aggression to secure his place (signified by “the monuments”) in history. In one fell swoop here, the narrator has established his moral superiority to the president while simultaneously edging the children’s suffering out of the poem and replacing it with his own. He is the center of the piece, he is the hero. This poem provides an excellent example of how what Pinsky referred to as the “intense concentration on individual consciousness” that allegedly characterizes U.S. poetry is often nothing more than narcissism. In this case, empathy redesigned as a form of self-absorption.
Although better written, another Hamill poem, “Sheepherder Coffee,” also illustrates the same tendency: the antiwar poem as a vehicle for using the suffering of war to establish the author’s/narrator’s sensitive nature.
This poem is fairly tightly written and I like its imagery and also the poem’s message: let’s rethink what we’re doing from Afghanistan to the Gaza Strip to Iraq. Yet in spite of my personal liking for the poem on a content level, the poem as a poem possesses no duende, isn’t what you’d call fly, doesn’t come close to being daring. In fact, as an antiwar poem it’s peculiar because it says nothing with which a pro-war advocate couldn’t agree. The lines pertaining to current conflicts merely suggest the uncontroversial proposition that because of these conflicts there are many Palestinians, Afghanis, Tibetans and so on who suffer either as refugees, military causalities or the inhabitants of economically devastated areas. Such a statement is less anti-war than it is anti-lively -- it has no spunk, no frisson, nothing that leaps up at you, shakes you by the shoulders and makes you pay attention. An antiwar poem that just about anyone, regardless of ideological persuasion, can agree with isn’t likely to force many people into the discomfiting experience of interrogating themselves about how much more they might be able to do in the fight against the war.
But as in Hamill’s first poem, this poem ultimately turns not on the issue of current U.S. military policy but rather on the issue of the author’s/narrator’s character. He is, we gather from the poem’s first four stanzas, a man who has evolved from a young hearty outdoorsman who liked his coffee “strong and bitter” into a person who now looks back on that youthful image of himself and sees in it something he did not see then: an affinity between that rugged youth and a series of generic types -- e.g., displaced Palestinian, Afghani shepherd, war-zone widow, etc. -- each of whom must be tough in their own way to survive. None of these types are fleshed out in any detail. They exist merely to be commented upon by the author as he steers the poem toward the inevitable finale in which he establishes himself as a folk philosopher (“There are fewer names for coffee / than for love”) and as a stoic who understands other stoics (the war-pounded who “drink, / thinking, waiting for whatever comes”).
Again, as in “State of the Union, 2003,” we have here a poem that, although it was published as an antiwar piece, turns out to be more an advertisement for the author’s/narrator’s alleged sensitivity than it is an attempt to evoke something substantive about the conflicts to which it alludes.
Empathizing with those caught in these conflicts requires writing far more exploratory and profound than this.
Ultimately, however, this isn’t just a matter of writing “political” poems. It is also a matter of struggling against socially reinforced self-censorship in general, so that nothing is viewed as outside the parameters of the acceptable in terms of subject-matter. Poetry and other artistic genres can be built on and extracted from anything -- love, rectums, a morning cup of coffee, politics, car wrecks, valve-boring machines, neocolonialism, incest. We don’t need more coy narrators or above-the-fray sensibilities in today’s poetry, we need more confrontationalists -- confrontationalists with reality.
It was such fullness, such all-encompassingness, to which Langston Hughes referred when he said poetry was
In a different but related context, one dealing with the relationship of black middle-class intellectuals to streetlife and so-called lower-class culture, Hughes once provided a simply worded picture of the kind of psychological opening-up required to get at the black community’s fullness.
For Hughes, the "near intellectuals" are cut off from the upheaval like, born in the shadows, lower class vision of existence that boiled all around them. These highbrows, Hughes suggested, had deluded themselves into believing they were the community's only thinkers, whereas in reality they were only near thinkers, not real intellectuals, not people who (to use the dictionary's term) "showed mental capacity to a high degree." According to Hughes' view, these snobby gurus' mental capacities, far from being highly developed, were stunted because of their refusal to confront reality's multiple faces, which, in combination, were too complex, intoxicating and unnerving for the undaring near intellectuals to bear. Driving through the streets in cars closed to the outside world, these men and women did not hear jazz's truth searching riffs or the blues' elucidations of the complexities of human pain. As a result, these would be philosophers lived in a state of perpetual self contradiction: they disdained the very engagement with life that was required in order to fathom the realities, analyses and poetries that teemed in the streets, clubs, workplaces, apartments and alleys all around them.
Hughes’ comments don’t just pertain to class differences within the black community during the first half of the 20th century. Psychologically, what he says pertains to writers in general. Too many poets today suffer from the distancing he describes. They are cut off. Unimmersed. They’re word specialists who preserve their skills’ “purity” by keeping them remote from allegedly dangerous subjects.
Fortunately we have some writers who don’t suffer from this malady. I mentioned a few of them at the beginning of this essay. Another is spoken word artist Shailja Patel who in her poem “Eater of Death” (click the link to read the whole poem) crosses over into the other with an unnerving completeness. Speaking in the voice of an Iraqi mother moments after her children have been killed during a U.S. bombing mission, she says:
As the poem continues, the narrator, still deranged with grief and having gone hungry for days, ravenously eats food from an American care package while imagining she is eating the meat of her own children’s flesh, ironically given back to her by the country that killed them, a country, it is implied, deluded into believing that acts of mini-charity somehow offset the horrors it inflicts on an already beleaguered people:
Teresa White (Gardenias for the Beast, Two Steps Publishing Co., WA, 2007, p. 174), is another writer who, although in the following short poem she doesn’t employ imagery that evokes war’s immediacy, nonetheless jolts the reader into an awareness of how we are all dirtied by what goes on in our name.