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Bring Back Excellence

Greg Glazner and Jon Davis

The Yasusada poems call attention to a crisis: many editors and readers have lost interest in judging a poem's "excellence" because they see "social representation" as more important--and more real--than aesthetic considerations. But the success of several recent hoaxes suggests that social representation is at least as troublesome to pin down as "excellence" ever was. The "memoir" My Own Sweet Time, "a lively gutsy story of an urban Aboriginal girl," turns out to be the work not of a person named "Wanda Koolmatrie," but of Leon Carmen; The Education of Little Tree, a widely-hailed "Cherokee memoir," was actually written by a man of dubious tribal connections who was also a vocal member of the Ku Klux Klan; and Famous All Over Town, a prize-winning "Latino" novel by "Daniel Santiago," turns out to have been written by a white male. Not only is it sometimes difficult to tell whether a piece of writing arises as a genuine expression of a given culture; it's also clear that worldwide communication is changing what few truly coherent cultures are left. So to anchor texts exclusively in the cultural is to anchor them in the ambiguous and the eroding.

The Yasusada poems underscore both of these problems. One suspects that in several cases, editors published the poems not primarily because they seemed "excellent," but because they seemed to present the suffering of an actual Japanese Hiroshima survivor. But oddly, the character Yasusada does not represent a monocultural Japanese person to begin with. Instead, he is a character deeply influenced by numerous cultures. Note Yasusada's interest in Roland Barthes and the American Beat poets, and his studies of "Western Literature"; note, as well, a poem like his "Sarcophagus and Maracas" which describes mariachi musicians at Peace Park.

Michel Foucault's writings, which focus exclusively on uncovering social power structures, lurk in the background of this confused literary scene. Foucault's writings have spawned two distinct but compatible groups--one group (mainly editors), believing that the correct biography can yield accurate cultural representation, devote themselves to redistributing power by publishing the historically disempowered, and another group (mainly critics) scrutinize literary works solely to uncover the author's relation to power. The first group prints Yasusada poems and becomes angry when the biography proves false; the second group reduces complex literature to its social origins and the author's position. To see just how extreme such reductions can be, read in the March/April issue of the American Poetry Review the essay "Obscenery," which uses Foucault to argue that Robert Hass's poem "Meditation at Lagunitas" is "really no different in essence from . . . [a] Jockey ad," since both supposedly reveal an "in" group of elitist readers and viewers; that is, both allegedly reveal the same sort of social power structure. Or browse almost any journal of literary criticism and see the predominance of interest in how power is represented in literature and the near absence of interest in literature itself.1

Working from less-confused theoretical assumptions, we might define two parallel projects for literature. In the first, writers would illustrate cultures. Given the speed at which separate cultures are vanishing, the value of this project is obvious--though it might require a dishearteningly rigid system of background checks for authors, and it certainly would require the relentless verification and falsification of claims about the cultural practices of a given people. But the project would offer crucial insight that might otherwise be lost forever.

The second project would be the creation of a true multiculturalism, a project which, despite current rhetoric, has not been seriously attempted by many writers, scholars, or editors. Since it's impossible for most people to return to the pure culture of their origin, the hope for this project is a transcultural one: that on extremely rare occasions the poet can both use local materials and transcend them. The imagination, not cultural verisimilitude, would be central. Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva articulates the hope succinctly:

A poet may write in French: he cannot be a "French poet"--that's ludicrous. The reason one becomes a poet is to avoid being French, Russian, etc., in order to be everything. . . . Yet every language has something that belongs to it alone, that is it.

On rare occasions poetry rises through the local conditions of Czechoslovakia or Chile or the United States or elsewhere and gives us something so deeply human that we are all enlarged. Poetry is a radical tradition that often locates its power in the breaks in culture, not in culture's confines. Though we are white American males, we are "represented" by the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda, Jorie Graham, Robert Hayden, Adrienne Rich, Arthur Sze, and a host of other writers--all of whom allow us to imagine realms of experience that might otherwise remain closed to us.

Any Foucauldian literary theory that denies the centrality of the imagination also denies ethics--a fundamental human enterprise rooted in the capacity to imagine others' suffering. It's a short walk from these denials to a complete Balkanization of human experience.

Writers, editors, and critics need to work toward constructing a true multiculturalism: an international poetry driven by the concern for what is deeply human and aesthetically compelling. "Excellence" would have to return, despite the fact that standards for such a complex range of work would never achieve anything approaching certainty. The project would have to remain permanently open to revision. But the fact that poetry has risen out of cultures worldwide suggests that deep commonalities already exist. We should pursue them.

In this new, shared space, the main issue raised by the Yasusada poems would be whether or not they presented a compelling imaginative vision. Failure would remain a serious matter--it would amount to nothing less than the trivialization of terrible human suffering. But the pressure would be on the writing, not on the origin of the writer. In such an environment, the poems could either succeed or fail--no matter who wrote them.


1 For a more thorough attack on Foucauldian theory than space here allows, see our editorial in the forthcoming Countermeasures 6. A lengthy discussion of the Yasusada poems appeared in Countermeasures 5.

Originally published in the Summer 1997 issue of Boston Review



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