Power Grabbers of Literature

HISTORY DOES repeat itself, but in vastly different ways. The patterns are there if you look for them.

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The ship of culture– even of literature– floats placidly along, but below deck revolution is taking place. All is conflict. The takeover of the ship is of a Gramscian variety– one room at a time.

SIMULTANEOUSLY occurs a struggle within the revolution itself, the pertinent question there being: Who controls it?

It’s a truism that in revolutions the communists devour the anarchists. (See Russia 1918; Spain 1938.) Philosophically, this is happening in the English language poetry scene– Control Freaks taking over, seeking to eliminate all who hold the opposite viewpoint. To shut down those who believe poetry– art itself– is imaginative commotion. Who think the way to attain this is through unrestricted expression. A vanishing attitude being squeezed between Left and Right. For the Control Freaks– the Poetry Cops and their go-along-to-get-along acolytes– this casual attitude is dangerous.

(The P.C.– Poetry Cops– are extremely casual about the poetry itself– but not about what it says, or who says it!)

DIFFERENT patterns from the past occur throughout the ship. One is a last gasp reaction of the (academic) aristocrats, similar to what happened in Russia during the civil war of 1919 between “Reds” and “Whites.” It’s what the noise of Jordan Peterson, Claire Lehmann, Quillette Magazine and their allies is about. This is doomed to failure. You can’t reimpose an ancien regime.

The question remains–

WHO CONTROLS CHANGE?

Old power structures are beginning to crumble, and a new paradigm in which a multiplicity of voices and identities hold authority is emerging. 

This is a quote from an article at Dispatches Poetry Wars, one of the new literary outfits struggling to get to the forefront of radical change in the poetry field. The key to their mindset is to “hold authority,” because that’s what the poetry wars they promote and document are about. Publicly denouncing alleged abusers like Joseph Massey is a means toward that end. It’s not about the poetry. For thirty years or more it hasn’t been about the poetry– which is why an Anders Carlson-Wee poem in The Nation won’t find too many defenders, because in truth it’s not very good. It’s political posturing more than poetry.

IT’S NOT SURPRISING that most if not all of the writers being attacked or taken down by MeToo advocates the past six months or last few years have been on the Left– because that’s all who inhabit the scene. (Not surprising that both Joseph Massey and Anders Carlson-Wee have had poetry in the faux-Leftist magazine The Nation, which publishes short examples of the dwindled art on their site, in-between splashy ads for hyper-priced Alfa Romeos.)

What a Dispatches Poetry Wars is about is the total politicization of the art.

I’ve read their manifesto. I have to say, I agree with much of it. It could’ve been distributed fifteen years ago by the Underground Literary Alliance and no one would’ve been surprised. But let’s understand why these fellows are using activism– for the same reason the ULA used activism: To increase their profile. To upend the literary scene and become a credible player within that scene. With DPW however I smell a trace of phoniness– in that they don’t really want to liberate “autonomous” zones (safe spaces). They don’t actually support unruly, “wild poets,” because otherwise they wouldn’t be joining the chorus of Poetry Cops eager to remove from the scene the work of all those who scribble or act outside the lines of acceptable behavior. (A Rachel Custer, say.) But they do see in which direction the parade is headed. They call for Robespierre-style denunciations and more denunciations.

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–we’re appalled by the silence emanating from institutions that have supported this person and granted him platforms from which to extend his predation.

A LITTLE CHECKING reveals that Dispatches Poetry Wars is run by two older white guys, Michael Boughn and Kent Johnson, who have ties of their own to the established poetry world. Boughn (if it’s the same Boughn) seasonally teaches at the University of Toronto, Jordan Peterson’s old stomping grounds. Kent Johnson (if it’s the same Johnson) has received grants from the heart of the cultural establishment, including a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship and a PEN grant.

I suspect their position is analogous to that we outlined here of Boston Review editor Joshua Cohen. Unleash the mob and it may someday turn on yourself!

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(Titanic paintings by Karl Beutel and Henry Reuterdahl. Portrait of Maximilien Robespierre by Labille-Guiard.)

-Karl Wenclas for New Pop Lit NEWS

Should Writers Be Purged?

LITERARY EDITORS AND PUBLISHERS are divided over the question of whether or not a writer’s work should be purged over misbehavior imagined or real taking place outside the sphere of the art itself. We may well be in the minority for answering, “No.”

Another question inevitably arises during such censorious periods: Where does the purge end?

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For instance, should Ezra Pound, founder of literary modernism, be deleted from memory banks and lit-history books? Should every award granted him be expunged?

(We addressed the question here in our yet-to-be-resumed All-Time American Writers Tournament.)

What do you do with a host of classic-but-problematic writers whose lives or art would today be considered beyond acceptable bounds?

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ARE WRITERS BEING BLACKBALLED?

We have the case of poet Joseph Massey, accused earlier this year of harassing women. According to Massey,  this was based on anonymous, distorted, and fictitious allegations. His chief accuser is a poet who had a two-year affair with him. I haven’t looked into the substance of the claims. Massey did admit, in a Facebook apology which was later taken down, to having issues.

WE’VE SEEN in the Junot Diaz controversy that an apology isn’t enough.

Joseph Massey, well-regarded though he’s been, lacks as big a name and reputation as Diaz. After the allegations, accompanied by an article or two about the matter, Massey’s work was deleted from The Academy of American Poets website, including an essay written about his work. Joseph Massey was also deleted from The Poetry Society of America, where he’d been announced as “New American Poet” in 2009. Down the memory hole.

NO DOUBT there are many flawed individuals within the walls of the literary scene, as there have always been. Some seriously flawed. As there have always been in the arts, period. History shows that many of the best artists, writers, composers, musicians, have been in some ways disturbed, wrestling with demons in the world, and within themselves. An argument can be made that it’s part of experiencing the world with more intensity than the rest of us. To feeling, raging, and suffering more than “normal” people.

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(Some will regard this as mere excuse making.)

Do we delete them and their work, all of it?

HOW MANY of the rest of us writers and poets have misbehaviors in our backgrounds which could someday be exposed? A few of us? All of us?

Do we all submit to background checks before submitting our work, just in case?

In this hyper-regulated day and age is the following statement obsolete– or does it still have relevance?

Let the one among you without sin cast the first stone.

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-Karl Wenclas for New Pop Lit NEWS