Poetry and the Public Sphere
Addressing “When That Becomes This”
March 7, 2012
Mar 7, 2012
21 Min read time
David Micah Greenberg’s essay on two uses of comparison in poetry and politics, “When That Becomes This,” has provoked quite a bit of discussion among our readers since it was first published last summer. In the essay, Greenberg notes that both comparative modes “understand the limits of comparison,” while only one of them respects these limits as it brings its objects into relation. This more cautious mode of comparison honors the distinctness of objects juxtaposed, so that audiences can see how they correspond while remaining capable of appreciating their differences. The second of the two uses of comparison, however, “develops self-consciously false, totalizing comparisons among dissimilar things.” This is comparison taken to the extreme. Greenberg locates examples of the first kind of comparison in speeches made by Presidents Lincoln and Obama as well as in the work of Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. He identifies the second, more forceful usage as a practice deployed often by the political right and, sometimes, and perhaps ironically, by certain American experimental poets associated with the left.
Greenberg’s allying of conservative politics (represented in the essay by former Fox News pundit Glenn Beck) and progressive poetics (represented by renowned poet-critic Charles Bernstein) struck a nerve with more than a few of our readersâincluding Bernstein himself. Take a look at the article here to revisit Greenberg’s discussion, including his take on Bernstein’s celebrated poem “War Stories.” For many readers, the most controversial point Greenberg makes is his suggestion that to claim political force for experimental poetry on the grounds that its difficulty “gives readers the capacity to reject dominant discourses” is wishful thinking at best, a false comparison that disregards the very real distinctions between experimental writing and the actual work of political organizing. Such claims, Greenberg proposes, suggest a “utopian” counterpoint to Glenn Beck’s “apocalyptic” rhetoric, whose gestures are designed “to take the complexity of historical and political experiences of the twentieth century and bind them together in a totalizing gesture,” purportedly revealing “hidden similarities.” Greenberg comes down on the side of respecting difference in both politics and poetry, preferring a rhetorical approach that evokes “the feeling of the differential texture of social experience” rather than one that presents “ironic equivalences.”
After receiving letters from Bernstein and others, we solicited a few additional remarks, including a counter-response from Greenberg. These comments appear below.
In “When That Becomes This: Comparison in Politics and Poetry," David Micah Greenberg becomes the ironic victim of his argument against comparing apples to oranges. His essay elides the distinction between the rhetorical devices of political speech and defamiliarizing poetry. Greenberg is aware of the problem: “This comparison is unfair, as will be later claims that Bernstein’s rhetorical strategy may be set side by side with that of the U.S. right.” Still, he soldiers on, devaluing the poetic use of parataxis (juxtaposition), or anyway my use of it in “War Stories.” In his reading, there is nothing in my poem that “describes or evokes war and its harm in any specificity except an assertion of its jarringness. The aesthetic effect of this motion is toward totalizing, escalating, and assertively false consciousness.” “War Stories” explicitly traffics in false consciousness. It registers differences, discrepancies of scale, contradictions, and context-dependence in not only the rhetoric used to justify war but also those used to oppose it. At the same time, it also acknowledges the toll war takes on those caught in the crossfire. The effect of this constellation or array of shifting propositions, structured like a MÃ¶bius strip, is toward the negation of any totalization. Unlike the mainstream political discourse to which Greenberg compares it, the poem has no message capable of paraphrase. My model is Whitman’s great poem “Respondez!” which also traffics in the dystopian and in contradiction. “War Stories” was first published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on March 31, 2003, just 11 days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq; it was collected in Girly Man. The poem is available online. Read it and see if you agree with Greenberg that this work is comparable to Glenn Beck’s pronouncements or if this is like, well, comparing sitting ducks to red herrings.
• • •
I am writing in response to the piece by David Micah Greenberg "When That Becomes This" in your July/August issue.
The essay is a rather astonishing piece of sophistry. The “argument” seems to be as follows: Glenn Beck draws comparisons within a paranoid and totalizing political rhetoric; Charles Bernstein juxtaposes rhetorical phrases about war within the totality of a poem. Therefore Glenn Beck and Charles Bernstein are the same. We are to conclude their intentions are the same, the consequences of their utterances are the same, and their stances toward sincerity, irony, and critique are the same.
Since Mr. Greenberg's essay is in itself an instance of comparison within a false totality, perhaps he is parodying the whole notion of comparison. But he pursues an agenda of writing poetry criticismâafter all, he says he is going to be unfair (as if that were enough to excuse him from being unfair) and he is unfair to Bernstein, supposedly not to Beck.
Is this what constitutes poetry criticism in the Boston Review these days? Criticism that skips over reading and representing poems in favor of ad hominem attacks? That is quite a disappointment after the magazine's distinguished record of thoughtful commentary on contemporary writing.
• • •
Here is a typical paragraph in Greenberg’s essayâan account of “Tea Party” thinking:
. . . comparison taken to its extreme has been one of the right’s dominant rhetorical modes. See Glenn Beck, or the writings of W. Cleon Skousen, which Beck has promoted. Progressives are socialists, who are also fascists. Opposites of the political spectrum are identical. Nazi medical experimentation on humans is equivalent to modest health-care reforms. Beck’s repeated lie that “In God We Trust,” and not E Pluribus Unum, was the founders’ motto for this country is emblematic of the underpinnings of this rhetorical strategy. Whereas the founders’ motto suggests distinctions that need to be acknowledged in order to achieve unity, the Eisenhower-era motto is a blanketing call to one faith.
The fuzziness and sleight-of-hand of this paragraph take one’s breath away. “Comparison taken to its extreme,” we learn, “has been one of the right’s dominant rhetorical modes.” What does “the right” mean here and throughout Greenberg’s essay? If the Tea Party is “the right,” what is the mainstream Republican party and how do they differ? Did George W. Bush similarly take “comparison to its extreme?” Did Reagan? Does “the Left” never take comparison to its extreme? Marx and Lenin would have been surprised to hear this.
The sentence that follows, “See Glenn Beck, or the writings of W. Cleon Skousen, which Beck has promoted” would not be acceptable in a Freshman English paper. As it happens, I’ve never heard of Skousen: who is he? And just what are the comparisons he and Beck have made in print or on TV? The assumption here is that, oh well, everyone knows what Beck thinks. In the next sentence, we learn that Beck sometimes dismisses “progressives” (for Greenberg, equivalent to right-thinking people, although the case is never made) as fascist, sometimes as “socialist,” much to Greenberg’s dismay, since he evidently knows Fascism and Socialism to be opposites. But the fact is that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was fascist, even as the word NAZI stands for the “National Socialist Party.” These references referred, of course, to governmental control as opposed to free enterprise, and there is thus plenty of precedent for confuting the two terms. Next we learn that for Beck, “Nazi medical experimentation on humans is equivalent to modest health-care reforms.” This may or may not be the case, but where is the evidence? What precisely has Beck said on this issue and where has he said it? And finally, Greenberg refers to “Beck’s repeated lie” that “In God We Trust” (which he calls “the Eisenhower-era motto”) and not E Pluribus Unum, was the founders motto for this country.” Again, it’s more complicated: “In God We Trust” was printed on U.S. coins as early as 1864; it was by no means an “Eisenhower-era motto.” If this were the worst “lie,” Glenn Beck has told, we could breathe easily. But then again Greenberg has already asserted, earlier in the essay, that although Obama’s Cairo speech made valid comparisons, “his perpetuation of war and human rights atrocities has by now completely undermined its aims.” Greenberg says this as if it were simple fact. But who says Obama committed “human rights atrocities?” Where is the evidence for this damaging assertion?
Indeed, if anyone here deserves to be called Glenn-Beckian, it is Greenberg himself, constantly eliding, as he does, important distinctions and offering no evidence whatsoever for his assertions. He repeatedly implies that we all know what Glenn Beck stands for, don’t we? We don’t have to spell it out! In the same vein, Greenberg declares that Bernstein’s “War Stories” “asserts that war is a series of transformed pop-culture platitudes, gas-guzzling SUVs, etc.” Look again, Mr. Greenberg. An aphorism like “War is never having to say you’re sorry” is not at all a pop-culture platitude but a slightly skewed and ironized version of what, say, George W. Bush actually believed: that if you fight back against the enemy at least later you know you’ve responded to force with force, that you won’t have to regret your inaction. Where is the pop-culture platitude? It’s all only too real.
Finally, Greenberg objects to “War Stories” because “There is, tellingly, nothing that describes or evokes war and its harm in any specificity except an assertion of its jarringness.” Wow! Is poetry (or, for that matter, fiction) required to detail the “harm” war causes in all its specificity? Is all war literature by definition anti-war literature and if so, what does Greenberg do with The Iliad? War and Peace? Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March? Yeats’s “Easter 1916”? Is there really one and only one correct way to write about “war”?
Greenberg’s own totalizing rhetoric is on display throughout. If one doesn’t like a poemâand certainly he needn’t like Bernstein’s “War Stories”âone simply invokes the Tea Party. Why not Hitler or Mussolini while we’re at it! I am astonishedâindeed shockedâthat the Boston Review would publish so fatuous and poorly argued an essay.
• • •
David Micah Greenberg’s essay claims a resemblance between the formal operations of a poem by experimental poet Charles Bernstein titled “War Stories” and the shortsighted verbal pyrotechnics of the conservative Right (represented by Glenn Beck). To be fair, he does not claim symmetry between them. The making of symmetry is precisely what Greenberg is seeking to avoid. His argument yokes Bernstein with the Right not because of what they think but because of how the thinking manifests itself: he objects, I believe, not to the position taken but to the way in which taking a position limits the political efficacy of writing a poem.
To take a position in politics is a necessity, though any of our most empowered politicians can’t bear to do so. This is frustrating. To take a position in the formal operations of poetry is not impossible, but it means, immediately, to understand that the ground under your feet is constantly shifting. This is, to poets, anything from frustrating to amusing to joyful to hateful. I think first of poetry’s great walkers, from Basho to Wordsworth to Pessoa. And Frost’s rambles always take him, and his characters, places they did not intend to go. Poetic devices of comparison are complicated even without bringing in histories of violence in the Middle East, because they call upon our imagination to use similarity to remember both similarity and difference. The operations of poetic form ask the same thing of us. Students are easily seduced by the notion of a one-to-one correspondence between form and content, something along the lines of claiming that the iambic line is the same as the heartbeat, or that the thinking stops when the line ends. As readers, we know that both of these things are sometimes true. But they are sometimes false: without variation there is no form to see. Form is not likeness, but a medium. Poetry is not about seeking secure positions and one-to-one correspondences between form and content, but about getting involved in the moral messes language requires us to make every day.
I am not saying that Charles Bernstein avoids such messes. I think the problem is quite the opposite: Bernstein’s reiterative and choral revaluation of the word “war,” in the formal structure of “War Stories,” focuses attention solely on how language has been abused and, therefore, on how language is abusable. He hangs a lantern on that fact. It becomes the fact of the poem; it becomes louder than the material of the poem. The mind of the reader endures a litany of live and dead comparisons between war and other things in a beautifully dizzying variety of dictions that repeatedly display and prove this point, lucidly understood in intellectual history by Plato, Emerson, Wittgenstein and othersâand lucidly undergone by so many poets.
I don’t disagree with this point, but I prefer poems that locate the crisis in a human body the same way I prefer politicians who take positions and change them to those who forge a false consistency. John Maynard Keynes was once asked combatively in the middle of an interview, “Do you change your mind every time the facts change?” He replied, “Yes. What do you do?” Greenberg’s two examples, Bernstein and the less familiar Dragomoshchenko, both invest themselves in politics as a form of thinking. In this way, they feel to me (as much of the best of Language poetry has begun to feel to me) Late Modernist, committed to the operations of form as registers of consciousness. And in Bernstein’s poem there is this simple delight merely in seeing what the structure of language can do.
But there is something both frustrating and alluring about the fact that Bernstein only wants us to watch him doing certain things in his poem: speaking, thinking, writing. He calls us in as witnesses to culture itself. The things we are asked to witness appear to exclude other things (the life of the senses), and even if they do not, the poem does not locate its interest in our individuality, but rather in a different kind of commentary.
For my own part, I am most interested in what seems to me a mid-word of poetry more fluorescent than either a Bernstein, who appears to want me to have one experience in order to examine the way I use language, or a Dragomoshchenko, who wants only to refresh my ability to have an experience at all. There are poets whom I read for their intimacy and lack of fear of emotional engagement: Carl Phillips, Robert Hass, Jorie Graham. This is not an exhaustive list, and probably no more than a mood driven by the fact that this morning I’ve been reading late Robert Lowell. Reading these poets, I engage with their consciousnesses, their experiences. I see what is similar and feel my difference. In Phillips, the hesitations of the body to undefend itself in erotic seduction involve the reader in an imagination of agency itself. In Graham’s meditations on perception, every fact picked up can become a fact made irrelevant and discarded. They do not wear the potential abuse of language as a postmodern predicament, which is not say there are no postmodern predicaments in their poems. They just go about their business, seeing how language fails to mean the truth consistently and effectively for very long. Watching their bodies pressed into the service of their minds means engaging with each of them on the level of citizenship as well. Why does Robert Hass always want you to know the name of the street he’s walking down? Well, he kind of wants you to be there. But he wants you to be there by not being thereâto remind you of the powers of your imagination.
Greenberg calls “political” that which articulates in a poemâunderneath, within, or on top of the poemâ“how consciousness may be enlisted towards action.” I’m an imitator, and I find this easier to discern when I can actually see a person engaged in action, however small. On one hand, this is a matter of styleâI must be some kind of Romantic. But on the other hand (and here I am trying to equivocate gracefully, like President Obama), I am dubious, for reasons of poetry, of taking a position towards language that would suggest I am less interested in using the system than in describing how it is used. Bernstein’s poem, to me, is less dangerous than potentially inert or, strangely, only a register (ironically) of playful delight. Greenberg talks at length about Bernstein’s use of symmetry, but what’s also striking is his use of anaphora, which, from Whitman to C.D. Wright, is the regenerative voice of the oral tradition. To make “War is” the repeated phrase is to repeat not just a state of mind but, in some sense, mind itself. This seems less like an elitist gesture than an overplayed gambit. I suppose a person might argue that war itself is an overplayed gambit, but that’s actually the elitist position. I agree with the President in his Nobel Prize speech about that: “We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.”
As a writerâand as a citizenâI am less interested in positioning than I am in thinking. If we lived in utopian communal villages maybe we wouldn’t need national health care, and if that happens I might change my mind. My politics is not about single issues, and my participation in poetry can’t be about ideas, however in love with some of my own I threaten to become. I prefer to criticize the system of language not only within it but also within the confines of my life. I feel most vivid and undefended there. By that, I mean “smartest.”
• • •
The issues that David Micah Greenberg raises in his essay on Charles Bernstein are perhaps the largest and most urgent in contemporary poetics. I have been responding to similar forums for a while, but today I feel that everything I think may be in flux due to the parlous state of the country and the discussion around Occupy Wall Street, or possibly that I have so much to do domestically and professionally and around responsibilities to individual works of art and creators that if I must say anything right away about poetry and politics in general I'm liable to scratch my eyes out.
• • •
Thanks to Boston Review for soliciting exchange and to those who wrote, especially Charles Bernstein. Stephen Burt brings in context. Katie Peterson reflects on commitmentâto a cause and to a definable position. Marjorie Perloff questions my assumptions. Bernstein describes method. After responding to each I will try to characterize the broader conversation.
Stephen Burt mentions Occupy Wall Street. This context is important and it will be nice to read more from him about it. His mention of OWS raises a hope about this exchange, expressed here in a flawed analogy to movement-building. I always felt that one of the harder parts of being an organizer was conflict among those who had broadly shared aims: coalition partners, well-meaning elected officials, or constrained and sympathetic bureaucrats. I found that getting work done sometimes meant fighting all the time, not with targets, but with allies who in turn fought with me, because conflict was sometimes needed to resolve disagreement, move forward, or part ways. While some conflict was personal and unproductive, it could sometimes open my organization and me to better practice. What OWS shows is that New York activists were never able or willing to engage in a tactic that was clearly right in front of usâit was a Canadian magazine that started the call to occupy. As Burt says, more work is to be done. Some minor part of it involves culture, and some of that cultural work is âinternal’ and may produce conflict even as it hopes to look outward.
Katie Peterson raises important issues about what it means to take an explicit political position in life and in poetry and whether a function of poetic language is to enact a type of mature changefulness: “Poetry is not about seeking secure positions and one-to-one correspondences between form and content, but about getting involved in the moral messes language requires us to make every day.” I appreciate that she responds substantively to my argument and does not think I equate experimental poets and the political right. I would differ slightly when she says I argue that, “taking a position limits the political efficacy of a poem.” I can understand why she believes that I warn against position-taking, as the positively-portrayed Dragomoshchenko poem is obscure and the Bernstein poem is more explicit. What I meant instead to suggest was that sophisticated poems can convey the experience of commitmentânot unbending or unlearning, but a sense of clarity about the self’s relationship to the work and to the other. I think Dragomoshchenko’s language has this effect. I agree with Peterson that this type of language does not avoid witness and does not ignore its own limitations. I also agree that this can occur in different modes of writing, and not just the experimental.
Marjorie Perloff questions the essay’s assumptions, and I agree with her characterization of many. I did assume that readers knew enough about Glenn Beck that I could assert without extensive documentation his use of false and outrageous comparison. I do assume that fascism and socialism have different ideologies and institutions despite the word socialism in the Nazi party’s name. I assume that many but certainly not all Boston Review readers call themselves progressives. (I do not assume that I share Perloff’s ideology or that we have ever practiced politics similarly.) I also assume that many experimental poets, including Bernstein, consider themselves leftist. The essay argues that we need to understand the âresults’ of experiments themselves and not merely assert a broad relationship between experimental methods and the public sphere. I assumed that readers would be familiar with the Obama Administration’s policies of assassination, its drone attacks that kill civilians, and its retreat on GuantÃ¡namoâeven if they do not agree that these are human rights atrocities. I assume that in a short essay, provocative juxtaposition can pose questions about method, but am not concerned that any reader attentive to the argument would think that I compared Beckâas a person or in his political projectâto Bernstein, or that the next step in comparison was Hitler and Stalin. At the same time, I never assumed that outrageous comparison is exclusive to the right, as the essay described how the poetic left sometimes uses outrageous comparison. I do not assume there is one way to write about war. However, one might have assumed that a letter from one of the most powerful and taste-making critics in the United States would address substantively and not derisively an argument about how we describe war when the nation is at war.
Charles Bernstein gently and accurately points out the excesses of my essay and describes the circumstances under which “War Stories” was written: as a cry against the Iraq war in its first days. He is right that my essay might be poorly judged by its own standards, in that it both juxtaposes and compares apples and orangesârightist political commentary and some leftist poetic strategies. To make a single poem emblematic of an entire rhetorical paradigm is additionally unfair. After these concessions (and more could be made), the only question worth asking back relates to his explanation that false consciousness is illuminated by this poem. I think I correctly identified this strategy in the essay. You were right to be against the war. My question is whether you would write a long anti-war poem again in this mode, knowing what you now know about the war’s real effects. What would you now say about war that does not hold up a mirror to a detestable nothing?
Writers have brought up political context (Burt), personal experience (Peterson), and poetic method (Bernstein). Here is a brief attempt to bring these topics together: Giorgio Agamben argues that western politics are inscribed by an ancient Greek distinction between two terms, both of which are loosely translated as “life” in English. “Zoe” refers to “bare life,” the fact of existence and what poets sometimes illuminate in the beautiful fact of consciousness. In contrast, “bios” refers to human life as it is lived in the cityâas it is experienced in a public and political context. To rest on false claims, as do many contemporary rightist commentators, is to contribute to a public power that can destroy bare life and lived experience. To rest on the falsity of claim-making, as do some leftist poets, is to reassert experience, but in terms that are submissive to violent power, because they cede this public sphere. This is not to say that the two strategies are equivalent. It is to say something worse, which is that weâand here I include myself as a poetâhave often retreated from the public to a more private terrain. But poetry at its best can articulate a relationship between bare life (image, consciousness, emotion) and the public sphere (ideology, political practice, social observation). One need not exclude the other. How poets accomplish this is a matter of method, but I think about works spanning narrative, commentary, and poetic modes, like Musil’s The Man without Qualities and Hejinian’s Oxota: A Short Russian Novel. Reclaiming a more public space while maintaining the ground of experience seems like an important project.
—David Micah Greenberg
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March 07, 2012
21 Min read time