Friday, June 22, 2007

the state of poetry

The announcement that President Bush is considering an early closure to the prison in Guantanamo Bay has been accompanied by news of the release and forthcoming publication of 22 prisoners' poems. The collection, Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak (University of Iowa Press, August 2007), has roused a fair deal of commentary on translation, bad poetry, and the particular threat posed by the "code" of poetry. Among the commentaries is one by former poet laureate, Robert Pinsky, which is the subject of a Mike Nizza's blog in The New York Times on June 20 Pinsky, in an interview on PRI's The World, cast doubt (and judgment) on the artistic merit of the poems: "“I havent found a Mandelshtam in here,” he said, referring to the great Russian poet who died in a Stalinist labor camp." Nizza's piece echoes the general concern that the media has with the "goodness" of the poems--this was for example the first question asked by the PRI interviewer (hear interview; Pinsky, although he refers to the urgency of the poems, nonetheless seems unable to escape the idea of greatness. There is also a news blurb in today's Washington Post:

Do They Write In Iambic Pentameter?

The following might be the first bit of uncontroversial news out of Guantanamo Bay. Prisoners at the U.S. military prison there can now add “poets” to their (questionable) resumes, the Wall Street Journal reports. "Poems From Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak," an anthology, will be published in August by the University of Iowa Press. It would probably be unfair to call them tortured artists.

The transparent assumption behind the goodness reveals itself in the ghost meter reference to "iamic pentameter." The Wall Street Journal (see the article also for two of the poems: "Humiliated in the Shackles" by Sami al Haj and "Is it True?" by Osama Abu Kabir), which ran the article on their front page on June 20, 2007, included a quote by Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, a Defense Department spokesman: "While a few detainees at Guantanamo Bay have made efforts to author what they claim to be poetry, given the nature of their writings they have seemingly not done so for the sake of art. They have attempted to use this medium as merely another tool in their battle of ideas against Western democracies." What is so incredible about the above bytes is the aesthetic grounds upon which the argument for moral goodness also lies--or perhaps better, the aesthetic grounds upon which moral goodness is waged. Given the conditions of censorship and translation, it remains remarkable that such a valuation of goodness could even be made, particularly by Pinsky--who notes but passes over the fact that the poems are prohibited from being published in the original and the translations had to be done by those with secret-level security clearances, rather than literary translators.

Leonard Doyle's article in The Independent reports that "As far as the US military is concerned: "poetry ... presents a special risk, and DoD [Department of Defence] standards are not to approve the release of any poetry in its original form or language." The fear, officers say, is that allegorical imagery in poetry may be used to convey coded messages to militants outside." I thought about this line a bit last night--the idea of the coded message, the double meaning which poetry is seemingly especially well-equipped for; it was this that I thought might begin to get at my feeling of the paucity of poetry that "does" something today, to reference Yeats, in passing, and other greats who posed questions about the silence of poetry--something I think about when I think about the 400 plus poets that Brecht dismissed as "useless" in 1927. This is another story, but I wanted to keep it in mind.

The collection of poems was organized by defense lawyer Marc Falkoff after he received 2 poems in letters from inmates. These poems, like many others, remain classified; only 22 will be published in the collection. He refutes the idea that there is a "real" risk involved in the censorship of the poems and states: "If the inmates were writing words like 'the Eagle flies at dawn,' the censors might have a case, but they are not. I fully accept their right to stop any coded messages to militants outside. But what the military fears is not so much the possibility of secret messages being communicated, but the power of words to make people outside realise that these are human beings who have not had their day in court." This thread--the "risk" of the code is picked up on by "liberal catnip" in her June 20th blog On the other side, though, there is just hatred, I think, like allahpundit in hotair, and like this blog Debbie Schlussel (Best Conservative Blog 2005 finalist), which mocks the sentimality generically associated with poetry.

I don't know why I find the conceptions that people have about poetry in this discussion so compelling--and I'm not sure either why I feel that in some way the politics of this situation is more delicate than it might first seem. Perhaps one of the reasons is that the question of poetry provokes the need for more sensitive reading practices--and indeed, this seems to be exactly the thing that is so easily targeted by both the far right and defenders of the idea of democracy. The distinctions between these positions seem much less clear once the aesthetic pronouncement of "bad" poetry has been made. On the other hand, there is Ariel Dorfman's message of hope, which asserts the universality, primeval, and originary practice of poetry. And that is, on the other hand, something to think about as well.

image: pin with Brecht slogan, Ruth Hecht (owner, father inscribed words from never-found poem)

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