An exchange on Thomas B. Byers's "The closing of the American line: expansive poetry and ideology." (response to Thomas B. Byers, Contemporary Literature, vol. 33, p. 396, Summer 1992) (includes reply)
I wish to correct a few errors of perception, and fact, in "The Closing of the American Line: Expansive Poetry and Ideology," by Thomas B. Byers [Contemporary Literature 33.2 (Summer 1992): 396-415]. Early in his interesting essay, I was pleased to see Professor Byers criticize detractors of Expansive poetry like Diane Wakoski and Wayne Dodd for "their failure to give attention to the movement's poems themselves." But as his argument develops, I increasingly have the impression that he has chosen poems for discussion to support a preconceived point of view. Examples include his rough judgment of Dana Gioia's "Cruising with the Beach Boys" and his interpretation of verses by Timothy Steele, which he turns to "in placing Steele politically." I believe his reading of Steele's lines is wrong, and tenuous at best. Gioia's poem is held up to support this assertion: "They [Expansive poets] also repeat much of what they objected to in the confessional workshop lyric: the narrowness of theme, range, and context; the exclusive focus on the author's personal experience; at worst the reduction to [quoting Dick Allen] 'anecdotes in which the author shows off how sensitive he or she is" . Professor Byers softens his criticism with a footnote of praise for Gioia's ability to write "deeply moving personal lyrics" but still insists that "there is little to choose, in terms of focus, between these poems and the free-verse lyrics that the Expansivists so harshly criticize." The subtle, sarcastic irony in Gioia's poem, in my opinion, sets it apart, and there are other important poems by Expansive poets that refute this claim. Is Professor Byers aware of them? No, apparently.
Later in his essay, Professor Byers's bias becomes more unseemly. On pages 411-12, he levels libelous charges of sexism and racism against Frederick Feirstein. "In his Manhattan Carnival," Byers writes, "the antagonist to love is feminism, or in the protagonist's words, ~Libber's rage.' ... He also refers to blacks as ~monkeys.'" Byers commits the grave error of assuming that a fictional character's comments in a narrative poem represent the views of the poem's author. I can assure you they do not. The protagonist of Manhattan Carnival, a disturbed individual suffering through a terrible divorce, both employs and is assaulted by street talk one finds everywhere in New York City. Such talk includes racist and anti-Semitic elements, and rather more of the latter than the former. Given Byers's line of reasoning, I'm surprised he chose not to call Feirstein, a practicing Jew, an anti-Semite as well. Suffice it to say he misses the point. Manhattan Carnival is a study in personal cruelty and cultural intolerance.
Byers also indicts Frederick Turner for racism, relying for evidence on Turner's book-length poem The New World. Specifically, he refers to the "Amos-and-Andy dialect" of the Kingfish character. Byers is guilty of another dangerous leap here, one that makes me wonder if he also considers racist the Berryman of The Dream Songs. In Turner's poem, Byers fails to see that the character in question actually serves as the poem's moral authority, sarcastically employing an objectionable dialect to harass the protagonist and others. If Byers did not choose work for discussion to jack up his preconceived views, I wonder why he did not discuss Frederick Pollack's epic, The Adventure (elsewhere, he favorably mentions Pollack's criticism), which I consider more representative of the narrative goals of Expansive poetry. Again, I suspect he does not adequately know the work. Whether he knows it or not, in his comments on Feirstein and Turner, Byers either indulges in irresponsible criticism, or he does not know how to read narrative poems.
If Professor Byers is interested, I would be happy to provide him with a comprehensive reading list of poems, books, and essays, which would assist him in achieving the scope and comprehension he lacks. In this ongoing debate, I am still waiting for the essay that deals fully with the poems themselves, the poems written by the diverse authors identified as the promoters and practitioners of Expansive poetry. An essay like the one I envision will be the essay that matters most, just as ultimately the poems themselves will either validate the movement or consign it to a footnote in the history of late twentieth-century poetry in America. Splitting hairs about the leftness or rightness of traditional forms and debating the movement's ideology (as if one ideology fit so many writers) is blowing smoke that temporarily obscures this central fact: in the end, the poems themselves will decide the case.
Finally, as the publisher of Story Line Press, I must correct a factual error. At one point in Professor Byers's essay, I am referred to as "the publisher of the movement's Story Line Press." Contrary to what this statement implies, the Press neither was launched by the movement nor exclusively promotes or serves its various agendas. Story Line has published one volume of critical essays on the movement, a second essay anthology including some of its members, and eight books of poetry by authors associated with its inner circle. In addition, Story Line currently has fifty other books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction in print.
Sincerely, Robert McDowell
Dear CL Editors:
Over the years I've never responded to what critics have written about my poetry. But then I read Thomas Byers's essay "The Closing of the American Line: Expansive Poetry and Ideology,' which purports to be an unbiased piece of scholarship, partly about my work. Because Byers's scholarship is actually inept and his dogmatizing libelous, I thought it important to clear up his errors and distortions. Confusing fictional characters in my dramatic poem Manhattan Carnival: A Dramatic Monologue with the author and misunderstanding the nature of satire, Byers attempts to present me as a sexist and a racist.
Though Manhattan Carnival clearly satirizes gender and racial stereotyping, Byers nonetheless writes this: "In his Manhattan Carnival, the antagonist to love is feminism, or in the protagonist's words, ~Libber's rage,' which he identifies as (not politics but) ~Fashion.' He tells his beloved, ~I need two children sucking at your tits,' and he gets the satisfaction of hearing her brand herself ~a bourgeoise bitch.' He also refers to blacks as ~monkeys.' It would be interesting to hear him sort all this out aesthetically and politically' .
Byers uses the word "protagonist," but either out of carelessness or maliciousness he never mentions that Manhattan Carnival has a subtitle, "A Dramatic Monologue," and that the protagonist is not me but a fictional character named Mark Stern. He also neglects to mention that Mark Stern is a comic character who is both satirized and stands back and makes fun of himself. If he could not get the satirical intent of the poem itself, he surely could read what X. J. Kennedy said in the first sentences of his preface to the book: "In the beginning you will meet Mark Stern, a man estranged from his wife of ten years, as he wakes up with a nurse he picked up in a bar, a woman given to grisly platitudes. ~Doesn't screwing make you feel alive?' she chirps, and at once you know you're in the hands of a master satirist." Instead Byers would have CL readers believe Manhattan Carnival is a bigoted political tract. As is apparent from a close reading of the quote from Byers above, Byers slyly glides from "he" to "him" meaning me, as if I'd have to sort out aesthetically and politically what a character says at the height of his mania and distress. Reading fiction for fact is a very dangerous procedure, yet Byers amazingly does just that, either out of ignorance or feigned ignorance or both.
But Byers's main blunder, or tactic, is his decontextualizing of lines, losing in the process their complexity and satirical intent. To easily illustrate how decontextualization can accomplish this, if in like manner Byers were to quote only "Every woman adores a Fascist, / The boot in the face" and eliminate the context that gives these lines a sardonic tone, he would be making a similar case for Sylvia Plath being a sexist and racist!
This is how Byers applies such a method to Manhattan Carnival. Here are the "racist" lines from Manhattan Carnival, but in context and narrated by Mark Stern, whose monologue this poem is:
Another crash. This time there's no escape. Helpless I watch as wreckers mug and rape The Greek Revival houses, one of which We swore we'd buy when we were old and rich. Fierce crowbars pry the floorboards' tightened knees And hammers smash the husband on the frieze Above the mantel in our living room: And at the entrance where a stately brougham Once champed, a metal trough receives the litter; And in the scaffolding the monkeys titter: "Who's got the power now to call me ~boy'?" "Hey, look at this!" "That's Kikey, Jr.'s toy." "We could get something for it, it's antique." "The toilet's gone, I gotta take a leak." "Piss on that wall. I'll hide you with my back." "Let's see their money hold back this attack. Bonzai! Go suck my cock, ol' bankrupt Jew." "Come down and fight!" I shout up, "I mean you!" "What's that?" the pisser cocks a quizzing head Then, laughing, waves me off, "You punk, drop dead." "If you can fight as well as you can piss..." He shouts, "You're late for your analysis," And straining lifts his drill to show his prick And shuts me up by shattering our brick.
"Monkeys" for Mark means macho white men, infantile men whom he satirizes throughout the poem. Here it should be clear from his reaction that he hates these construction workers who are wrecking Greek revival houses (symbolizing civilization) in the way they would attack a woman. Women for Mark embody civilization.
That "monkeys" for Byers refers to blacks, I would think is an assumption that Byers makes, and I would ask him to consider if he himself holds such a stereotype and is projecting it onto not only my character but me. If one were further to decontextualize this passage after Byers, then one might as easily conclude that I am an anti-Semite because the character on the scaffolding calls a Jew "Kikey, Jr." and stereotypes Jews in regard to money. Given Byers's scholarly methods, he would find me a racist for using "kike" here and in other places in the poem.
Not only the theme but the very plot of Manhattan Carnival is in part built on characters acceding to and in conflict over gender stereotyping. Mark and Marlene have divorced because Mark wants children and she wants to experiment with an open marriage. Yet Marlene has found her way to a much older man who has robbed her of her independence and has encouraged her clinging to the stereotype of an infanfile woman. The whole monologue is plotted around Mark's plea to Marlene's better self to leave him. Mark argues that by involving herself with a sixty-year-old banker she is not experimenting but regressing to repair damage to her childhood, as he himself has regressed in his own actions. He illustrates to Marlene one of the ways he's been regressive and why for a long time he couldn't have children:
I wanted to be taken care of, poor Enough to make my father right, a man! We lived inside a mirrored garbage can. Each day I grew more passive, you more wild. The child is only father of the child.
Mark understands that his infantilism and masochism had a lot to do with her leaving him. But he also wants her to understand that it was her infantilism that led her, not to mothering herself through raising a child, but to a paternalistic man:
I want to see a toy boat disembark Imaginary insects from the pond Who strut to Alice, hand poised like a wand. I want to drink from fountains at the Met. I want to nibble nuts, sip anisette Together at The Stanhope's French cafe You painted, furred, me sporting a beret. That was your fantasy, to sit like swells: Primped, feminine, your thoughts all bagatelles And me the waiter's tyrant, me John Wayne, Me Tarzan, you - a Woman's Libber - Jane.
Why didn't I indulge you, play your mother? Instead I ridiculed you, "Find another Sugar-daddy. What ~Libber'? You're a kid." I didn't know how true that was, you did. A sixty-year-old man in banker's clothes, His veiny calves, I'm sure, in gartered hose And in his buttonhole, each day, a rose.
Not only the content btit the form of the comedic and explosive triplet suggests his anger at her misuse of feminist principles to justify what feminists would most abhor, affecfing a stance of liberation while enslaving oneself.
Toward the end of the poem comes the phrase which leads Byers to conclude "the antagonist to love is feminism, or in the protagonist's words, ~Libber's rage.'" Mark and Marlene have gone into a cafeteria that comically, to Mark's chagrin, reminds him of a bank and the horrible banker. When Marlene accuses him of being a sexist for ordering food for her, he mocks her picky earnestness and his own earnestness in attacking her fashionable and trivializing use of feminism:
"This place is awful. Ceilings like a bank. Enormous champagne bottles. And this swank Wallpaper from the thirties! Even time Is marketed these days. Jesus, now I'm Chattering nervously - like our first date. Waiter? We'll both have the roast beef hot plate (Just as we had it then), coffee with cream ... I ordered without asking from a dream, Not from my ~piggish maleness.' Oh Marlene, Stop preaching. We're repeating our last scene: You breathing hard from Libber's rage, not passion, Me mocking my arch-enemy: Fashion. Please, let's pretend we're not destroyed by time Or social change. A man is in his prime At thirty-five and, God, I feel half-dead, Reduced by half, like our half empty bed ..."
But then the thought of what they did to their marriage makes Mark despair, and in his desperation, in jerky phrases, he becomes at turns serious, then gross, then manicky Responding to the tragedy implicit in his tumult, Marlene becomes self-deprecating and guiltily calls herself a "bourgeoise bitch." Far from getting "the satisfaction of hearing her brand herself 'a bourgeoise bitch'" that Byers says "he" does, Mark tries to dissuade her from it, and even from calling herself a hypocrite, because at this point in the poem, he understands as she does the reasons why she betrayed herself:
"I haven't slept around much - funny phrase - Although it is like sleeping: sex, these days ... Thank God you left him! ... How could I have guessed? ... You thought an open marriage suited me? I lied to you to save some dignity!... I've needed you no more than I need breath ... Of course I'm changing - quickly into death. I need two children sucking at your tits. I need each mortal inch of you, your fits Of baby-talking, bargain-hunting; fears Of poorhouse, workhouse, welfare ... I'm all ears. Loneliness makes me blabber ... I feel That too about you, that you had to steal Affection ... Don't call yourself 'a bourgeoise bitch, A hypocrite!' You needed something rich To nourish you. I couldn't ease your hunger ... I don't know why he needed someone younger!
It's not until the next section, when the desperation and manicky feelings dissipate, that Mark gets to the depths of what he feels, the depression in it, and his sense of their tragedy. They are in Central Park and looking at a cage where deer have been beaten. He compares the deer's being abused to the damage done to their childhoods and therefore futures by abusive parents. The abuse Marlene and he have suffered has always angered him - helping to motivate, for example, his anger at the abusive construction workers which Byers blithely read as racism. It was child abuse that ultimately was responsible for their remaining children so long, and for their emotional inability to have children of their own. But out of his depression Mark grows hopeful that both of them will be able to overcome what half-destroyed them. (This poem, after all, is a comedy ending in remarriage):
"You see those cherry blossoms bridesmaid white, Those bluejays half-embracing, half in flight, These pigeons shameless in their mating-dance? We have to give ourselves another chance? And next year after failure, give another. Let's have that child. You're stronger than your mother. Whose hopes, intentions aren't ruined by time? And chronologically we're in our prime. In other words Corinna what I'm saying: We're crazy, wounded, but we are a-maying."
It should be obvious from this that my intent was to create, as Bakhtin puts it, "a carnival sense of the world." In a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, Aileen Kelley says that Bakhtin defines that sense as "a grasp of the primal realities of existence - growth, decay, metamorphosis, rebirth, and above all the impermanence of all human structures and power" [24 Sept. 1992: 45]. Byers, a humorless ideologue, but one who admires Bakhtin, astoundingly misses that sense and, in doing so, has misled CL readers. I trust my placing the lines he quotes back in their proper context will make the "carnival sense" of Manhattan Carnival clear.
Yours truly, Frederick Feirstein
Dear CL Editors:
I do not usually reply to the kind of political attack exemplified by the one entitled "The Closing of the American Line: Expansive Poetry and Ideology" in Contemporary Literature, but certain particular circumstances prompt me to say something. This something is not so much a reply as a note of encouragement to other poets who might be disheartened or intimidated by the attempt at control and punishment through lies that this article represents.
The first circumstance that motivated this response was a small domestic incident. I had returned from a trip (advising a business group on ways for developing countries to meet environmental standards while improving their social and economic conditions) and my wife - who is of Chinese ancestry - passed on to me the news that some literary commentator had called me a racist and a sexist. A friend had been sent a clipping of the piece and had phoned while I was away. My mixed-race son overheard the conversation and said with a certain distress and perplexity: "How can you be a racist?" If the author of the CL piece has read my poetry as carefully as he claims, he must be aware of the ethnic mix of my family, and thus his attack must have been quite reckless, relying perhaps on my known disinclination to squabble in print to get by with his insinuations.
A second circumstance is my own history as having been a Communist in my youth, and thus understanding very well the methods of the left. Contemporary Literature's essayist uses several techniques that I remember: the selective use of quotation out of context; the attempt to divide the opposition by insinuating that the most threatening part of it has a cloven hoof under its caftan; the outright lie; the distortion; and the direct moral accusation. Such methods were used, for instance, by the Communist Czech authorities before the liberation to discredit Vaclav Havell and by the contemporary Chinese authorities to smear the leaders of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. The much milder, but spiritually identical methods of the American left cannot kill, starve, exile, or imprison authors - but they can, as has been done to many writers who did not meet the standards of political correctness, keep them from getting certain kinds of academic employment, influence the panels of endowments, and control some periodicals, reading circuits, summer conferences, and writing schools. I myself have been able to circumvent these techniques fairly well; but other writers have felt the pain of being denied a job they deserved and wondered why their work has been received in such deadly silence, and it may help them feel better to know that what they suspect is not a paranoid fantasy but business as usual. I used to feel that the most dignified response was to ignore such maneuvers; but there comes a time when one should for a moment ignore the invitations of art and intellectual discovery and blurt out the plain truth about what is going on.
The third circumstance is that the world itself is changing, and I no longer feel that it would be irresponsible to advise other writers to disobey the commands of their superiors. What the CL essayist intended as a Tiananmen will, I believe, turn out to be a Moscow 1991 August Coup, revealing the utterly bankrupt and ludicrous state of an intellectual left that has not said anything interesting at all for twenty years. In fact the greatest danger that the CL piece presents is that in calling the Expansivists right wing, it is giving the right wing a good name, and that we will be deluged with support from a quarter that we do not desire. I have several times expressed my profound disagreements with the right wing in print - for instance in chapter 2 of Beauty and throughout Tempest, Flute, and Oz. My position - and that of others who are called Expansivists - is clear: we are seeking a new dimension of discourse and ideas and moral action, in the belief that the left-right axis is itself the largest part of the problem. But the author of the essay - "four legs good, two legs bad" - seems incapable of holding more than two things in his head at once. The point is, you who are breaking the old rules in your work - by choosing the richness of old rules and then making entirely new worlds out of them - are clearly the future, and those who are attacking you with increasing hysteria are like those wretched drunken bureaucrats changing the name plates in the Kremlin as their troops joined the demonstrators.
Readers of "my" epic poem Genesis will recognize the methods of our bold essayist in the regime of the Ecotheists. I knew that this kind of attack would come, and was, as it were, forewarned of it by the future poet of the poem. In a way I was hoping it would come, as the final sign that we were all on the right track. It was really luck that those methods should, in this piece, have been so literalistically deployed and flimsily disguised. More usually the attack will masquerade as a lofty critique of technique or in a torrent of poststructuralist jargon. (All the more reason to pay close attention to the genuine criticism of one's peers.) I have elsewhere shown the intellectual emptiness of "postmodern theory" - that congress of mayflies - to which the essayist appeals as ultimate arbiter, and do not need to repeat it here.
The CL essay is indeed almost too easy a target. Since what passes for close analysis is mostly aimed at my work, I shall leave to their recipients the little gems of vacuity and ideological automatism aimed at the others. (I did find especially amusing the author's utter incomprehension of the rich and boisterous irony of Frederick Feirstein's Manhattan Carnival; in calling Feirstein a sexist he dismisses what is one of the most richly drawn and sympathetic female characters in American poetry, Marlene. I also enjoyed its mealy-mouthed contortions as it attempted to belittle Dana Gioia's artistic mastery. Gioia, a second-generation Mexican-Italian-American with a Native American grandfather, makes an unlikely "elitist.")
The essay's treatment of the economic and social ideas I played with in The New World is a classic of left-wing distortion. The imaginary society I envisioned, was no utopia, but one possible half-tragic historical development in the aftermath of the collapse of the nation-state - a collapse that does not seem perhaps as unlikely now as it did when the poem was written in the late seventies. In calling it "patriarchal" the author of the CL piece tells only half the truth; it is simultaneously matriarchal. It is, as he says, aristocratic, but in exactly the sense Jefferson intended when he wrote of the natural aristocrats of democracy. The essay complains that the society I have invented has castes but fails to mention that the choice of one's caste is totally voluntary, and I believe readers would be fairly evenly divided in which caste they would choose, given the complex package of perquisites and disadvantages offered by each - a division confirming the psychological basis of the idea itself. There is indeed a hierarchy of loyalty and voluntary obedience in the poem, by which the CL essayist is scandalized. Perhaps, since his academic affiliation implies that he is a professor, he has a guilty conscience: there have been few institutions more stratified and hierarchical than the university, and every academic day our professor-author gives out commands, penalties, obiter dicta, and prohibitions to his student inferiors, all backed up by a system of grades with cruel existential and economic consequences for those who do not please him, and very little recourse or appeal to a second opinion - a regime far harsher than the entirely voluntary system of patronage I invented for my Mohican County. But perhaps only academics are pure enough at heart to rule and lead.
The CL essay - and this is the art of the distorting omission - points to certain policies in my imagined republic that resemble conservative ideals. However, it neglects to mention that in Mohican County private real property has been abolished (with the exception of land actually in use at any given time by a household), all money is recalled without compensation at regular intervals, all legal punishment must be with the consent of the person who is punished, and warfare has been reduced almost to the status of a game - all, one would have thought, dangerous left-wing ideas. But regardless of the total imaginative context, it is enough to press certain buttons and the ideological police salivate as automatically as Pavlov's dog.
The article manages to imply that I am opposed to abortion; on the contrary, though I regard abortion in the late stages of pregnancy as a grave and sacrificial act, I believe in a woman's right to choose and have said so publicly, for instance in a recent article in Harper's. The passage the essay cites to show that I am a racist is edited so as to leave out its whole point, which is that if there are racial differences - as one would expect whenever there have been isolated inbreeding populations - they are very minor, and that the ideal racial policy would be widespread miscegenation to bring about both hybrid vigor and the demise of racial prejudice. I cannot be accused of not acting on my beliefs in this respect. The policy of the American left, by contrast, seems presently to be to preserve racial separation, perhaps in order to prolong the racial hatreds and social inequalities by which, through blackmail, it earns its bread. Capitalists have employees; it seems only fair to the left that it should have welfare clients, and the more the better.
In giving my character Kingfish - who turns out essentially to be the Fisher King, and the closest thing to the Lord God Almighty there is in the poem - an "Amos and Andy" accent, I felt I was striking a blow against prejudice. I was updating the ancient tradition of wise fools and divinities disguised as the marginalized, melding it with the myth of Parsifal and the wounded king, and giving the story an American dialect. Perhaps the essayist despises such accents, but that is his problem, not mine. No doubt he would prefer his blacks speaking the Queen's English; there are plenty of those in the poem as well. The hidden logic of the author can only be that since he believes blacks really are inferior, as demonstrated by the "inferior" qualities of black dialects, it is tactless to remind "them" of it. Kingfish's accent is a moral challenge to the "Parsifal" character, James Quincy, to distinguish reality from appearance - a test which James passes and the writer of the article, predictably, fails. For him, blacks are "them"; for the poem, and for me, blacks are "us."
The article is especially slimy when it comes to feminist issues. It dismisses as a token the central female character, Ruth, who not only ends up as the president of Mohican County but also marries the central black character, Antony, after the death of her first husband. She is drawn with a closeness and sympathy that I believe came from the center of what gifts I have as a writer; but perhaps the essayist knows better. In no way does she give up her career to be a wife; and even if she did, is it now forbidden to depict in a fiction women who do so? The article complains that she fakes an orgasm; have no women ever done so? Should no writer ever mention such a thing? Would it be sexist to depict a man pretending to enjoy sex with a woman?
In the poem I do indeed explore the issue of just inequality, by which the article writer is piously shocked. Perhaps he believes that every basketball player in the country should get a turn playing for the Lakers, that my paintings have as much right to hang in the galleries as Georgia O'Keeffe's, or that Einstein should not have got the Nobel Prize. I really have little patience with this sort of thing. It insults our intelligence; it is as morally vapid as a smile button. Inequality in human gifts and achievements is a fact, and society must deal with it justly and compassionately, not pretend that it is only the result of social conditioning. Consider the great Indian mathematician Ramanujan who, without education, wealth, or social background, made fundamental discoveries in algebra. Or consider any case where mercy supervenes upon justice, or gift upon a strictly equal system of exchange. It was precisely the fact that poetry has not for so long dealt with issues of this kind in its own way, through the miracle of fictions and the deep intricacies of metaphorical and musical language, that has led so many poets to seek a new path.
What is especially breathtaking about the kind of big lie technique employed by the article is its automatic assumption that it is the left that has a monopoly on compassion and speaks for the oppressed, the voiceless, and the disadvantaged. History has shown that there never has been a better instrument than leftist ideology at the creation of victims, the silencing of all other voices than its own, and the establishment of an apparat with arbitrary advantages over the masses. And as for the wolfish "compassion" of the left, we should now know it well enough. It makes even the callous ruthlessness of the far right seem mild by comparison. Since I must obey the injunction not to speak of one's own "good works," I cannot defend myself against the essayist's insinuations about my moral failings. They do indeed exist, and they are probably as grave as anyone's; but they are not the ones he thinks they are. I can only appeal to the judgment of those who know me and my actions, perhaps especially the women poets and intellectuals I have labored to bring to public attention.
But the point of this discussion is not to defend my life; nor is it even to defend my work, which I believe needs no defense but for the limits of its author's talent. Rather, it is to throw into bright light the techniques of the embattled literary-academic establishment as it faces the exhaustion of its ideas, and to share that perception with others who might think themselves alone. The great plague of the isolated but genuine artist is self-doubt, the nagging suspicion that despite the quiet voice of one's artistic insight, perhaps one is wrong and one's critics are right. That uncertainty comes out of a generosity and honor of the mind that discounts its own opinions on the grounds of conflict of interest, but be assured: the ideologically correct critic harbors no such weaknesses. Some writers pay for a little adventure of the imagination and intellect by a rigid, and basically frightened, adherence to the pieties of the time. But perhaps they pay too much. Perhaps they need to trust in a fundamental human morality more, and fashion, and social construction, a little less.
What this analysis demonstrates, I believe, is the creaking mechanism of an ideological machine that is clearly falling apart. It would almost attract our pity if we did not remember the astonishing cruelty and callousness of its more prosperous days. There is nothing more to fear from it now; we need only free ourselves from its inner manacles of timidity and lip service. We should not, and in the future will not, need even as ramishackle and ad hoc a grouping as the Expansive movement to point out that writers are now as free to follow their genius as at any time in the last ninety years.
I cannot possibly take up every point of contention, or answer every charge made against me, without going on far too long. So I'll have to be selective. On many issues, such as the clash between Robert McDowell's and my own judgments of Dana Gioia's "Cruising with the Beach Boys," I'd simply invite readers to measure the opposing positions against the texts of the poems under debate. However, in connection with Gioia's poem, and with my choice to discuss Frederick Feirstein's Manhattan Carnival and Frederick Turner's The New World but not Frederick Pollack's The Adventure, Mr. McDowell questions my selection of examples. In fact, my choices were guided by the Expansivists themselves. I discussed Gioia's poem not only because I find it exemplary of one significant tendency within the movement, but also because Expansivist critic Robert McPhillips calls it "the strongest example" of the "voice that the New Formalists most characteristically strive for ... in their personal lyrics."(1) The fact that it won a prize from Poetry also made it seem especially noteworthy. I chose Feirstein's and Turner's poems both because they were highly praised in Expansivist criticism and because they were authored by two of the movement's recognized founders. While Mr. McDowell's essay "The New Narrative Poetry" discusses The Adventure, Frederick Pollack is not mentioned in Feirstein's "The Other Long Poem" or Wade Newman's "Crossing the Boundary: The Expansive Movement in Contemporary Poetry," nor did Pollack contribute to the Kenyon Review group of essays on the "new narrative," the Crosscurrents special issue, or the Expansive Poetry anthology. Hence the other poets seemed more central to the Expansivist movement as a movement.
Since Mr. McDowell's charges of "bias" in my readings of Turner's and Feirstein's poems largely (indeed at times uncannily) echo the complaints of the authors themselves, I will address these charges when I reply to the poets' own responses. On the importance of discussing the politics of poetry or of the Expansivist movement, Mr. McDowell and I are likely to continue to disagree. However, I yield to his objection to the phrase "the movement's Story Line Press" in my essay. I meant this to be a shorthand way of saying that the press has promoted the movement's agendas, but I erred in using a phrase that could be construed as saying that it has done only this, or that it is the property of the movement. I apologize to him on that score, and I sympathize with his desire to have the record set straight.
Frederick Feirstein's response charges me with both a specific and a general misreading of his Manhattan Carnival. The former concerns the "monkeys" passage, which Dr. Feirstein quotes extensively in his response, and on which he comments in two illuminating paragraphs where he attributes to me a reading error that would indeed be egregious. Lest I be accused of quoting him out of context, let me urge the reader to reread both paragraphs in their entirety now. Feirstein says that for his protagonist, Mark Stern, the word "monkeys' ... means macho white men, infantile men whom he satirizes throughout the poem.12 Since Stern does not exist as a human being, but only as a textual figure, I take Feirstein's gloss as a declaration of authorial intention - not that Feirstein himself thinks of macho white men as monkeys, but that he intends that his character's use of the term be understood as referring to such men.
The first sentence of the response's next paragraph explains my reading of the epithet as racist as "an assumption that Byers makes ... [perhaps because] he himself holds such a stereotype and is projecting it onto not only my character but me." Taking the author at his word concerning his intention, I want to introduce a possibility he omits - that his intention has not been successfully encoded. Readers have no direct access to authors' minds; we decode their texts. The contexts of this process, however, are not only internal to the text; they also include the larger cultural field of the shared language. In diction as in every other aspect of language, cultural codes both precede and constrain authorial intentions. Thus the relation of blacks to monkeys resides not in my own idiosyncratic projections, but in a long and shameful history of racist slang - a history that Dr. Feirstein implicitly recognizes when he calls the figure a "stereotype."
However, "monkeys" is not always a racial epithet. The question then becomes whether I was projecting when I identified this particular use of the word as racially coded. I think not, and the reason why is to be found in the very next line of the poem, which is also the first utterance by one of the construction workers: "Who's got the power now to call me ~boy'?" I took the speaker here to be citing (in order to oppose) white racists' use of the word "boy" to deny African-American men a recognition of their manhood. It may be that Dr. Feirstein didn't intend to invoke this racial/racist usage: given what his response says about infantilism as an issue in the poem, it is conceivable that he actually imagined this speaker as white. But if he did, he hasn't attended adequately to the cultural resonances of the words he has chosen. The juxtaposition of "monkeys" and "boy," together with the powerful history of racist usages involving both terms, sets up "noise on the system" - noise that invites the reader to conclude that the construction worker is black, and therefore that the protagonist's use of "monkeys" is indeed a racist epithet. If Dr. Feirstein didn't want the reader to reach these conclusions, then he needed either to avoid this juxtaposition or to have his narrator somehow make it clear that the character was not black. To put my view bluntly, if there's a misunderstanding here its source is not my projection but Dr. Feirstein's own lapse (given his testimony as to his intention) in conscious control over his text.
More generally, Dr. Feirstein (seconded by both Mr. McDowell and Professor Turner) objects that, decontextualizing individual passages and ignoring the fact that the poem is, as its subtitle proclaims, "A Dramatic Monologue," my reading misses his satiric intent and "confus[es] fictional characters ... with the author." Most of all, I have failed (or nefariously refused) to recognize that the narrator-protagonist, Mark Stern, is "a comic character who is both satirized and stands back and makes fun of himself." I infer from this that if there are moments when Mark Stern is racist or sexist, at these points the author means for us to understand that he is not Stern and that he is in fact satirizing his character's prejudices.
Whenever a tale is told by a character (or in third person but from a character's point of view), the question of ironic distance between author and character arises. Of course, many protagonists do speak for their authors - not so much in biographical terms, perhaps, but in attitudinal ones - and in these cases the differences between the former's and the latter's positions are relatively inconsequential. Generally speaking, if the reader is not to identify the protagonist's perspective with the author's, there are moments when the ironic distancing is marked, so that the reading may proceed with the appropriate "distrust" of the character. I believe I can locate such moments not only in obvious cases such as Robert Browning's "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" or W. H. Auden's "Unknown Citizen," but in more complex ones such as W S. Merwin's "I Live Up Here" or Herman Melville's notoriously slippery "Benito Cereno." But I can't find them in Manhattan Carnival, particularly with regard to Mark Stern's attitudes toward women. There's no point where I see Feirstein as recognizing and separating himself from what I take to be Mark Stern's pervasive sexism - or at least no point where I see him as inviting the reader to react to it as more than a minor foible, or a "natural" and justified reaction to Stern's woes.
That Feirstein has an attitude toward Stern, and that it is at least in general one of acceptance, is recognized by X. J. Kennedy in his preface to the poem, when he says, "Stern, for all his hang-ups, is a hero; and it's beautiful to watch how Feirstein brings him home at the end." Feirstein's response quotes the opening two sentences of the preface to invoke Kennedy's testimony that the poem is a satire: "In the beginning you will meet Mark Stern, a man estranged from his wife of ten years, as he wakes up with a nurse he picked up in a bar, a woman given to grisly platitudes. ~Doesn't screwing make you feel alive?' she chirps, and at once you know you're in the hands of a master satirist." Contrary to Dr. Feirstein, I think that in certain ways this scene and Kennedy's commentary on it work for, rather than against, my argument. I agree with Kennedy that the scene is satiric. However, as his assessment suggests, the satire is against the woman, whose language here and throughout the scene is vapid and cliched. Kennedy doesn't give any indication that Stern is being satirized, nor do I find any in the poem. Rather, in pointing out the woman's banality the narrator is positioned on the side of the satirist, against her. Here is a bit of Stern's description of the scene; the passage begins with a statement by the woman and continues with the protagonist's thoughts about her, spoken to himself and, in apostrophe, to his imagined, absent wife:
"Marriage is for the birds." But who expresses feelings in those words? Stockings, torn underpants litter the floor. And who's that leering from our bedroom door? Some empty-head I picked up in a bar. Those words - she said them last night and, "You're far Gone hubby. Nurse must bandage baby's heart." But when she came, I smelled a silent fart.
Part of the point, I take it, is that Mark Stern is still grieving for the breakup of his marriage, so that any other woman seems a poor substitute for his ex-wife (again, please refer to the opening two pages of the poem for a fuller sense of the context). There are two important implications here. First, Stern and the author share a negative view of the woman in the scene. Second, if there are any excesses in Stern's expression of his contempt for her, they are supposed to lead us to sympathy with him, because they are signs of how badly he's been hurt. In my view, however, he comes across as misogynistic, not only in his language, but in the fact that he went through with the pickup even while feeling an active loathing for the other person. Now, it may be that Dr. Feirstein in fact wants us to find Mark Stern as repellent here as I do find him. But I don't see any sign that the author is trying to establish this sort of distance from the character, and hence my experience as a reader is that I find myself resisting not only Stern but his creator.
Of course, the other possibility is that other readers may not share my reactions to this scene or may see it as insufficient support for my negative view of the character. But there are many other passages that reinforce my sense of Stern's pattern of misogyny: we could, for instance, review his numerous references to "cunts" and "twats" or examine systematically his various expressions of contempt for "Women's Lib." But here I'm simply inviting more quarrels over details. For me these quarrels would all center on two issues: are the things Mark Stern says evidence of misogyny or other variants of bigotry? And if so is the text's implied author adequately distanced from the character to allow us to see the poem as standing apart from its narrator's prejudices? Clearly Dr. Feirstein and I would, in most cases, give opposing answers to these questions. The best way I can offer to resolve this - and I suspect this will come as a surprise to Frederick Turner - is to urge anyone interested in this controversy to read the poem and come to her or his own judgment about it and about the accuracy of my comments on it.
Turning to Professor Turner's response, I will try, for the most part, to ignore his personal attacks and address myself to matters of substance having to do with texts. Suffice it to say at the outset that I categorically deny his charges that I have used "lies," that I "believe ... blacks really are inferior," or that my essay was "intended as a Tiananmen." Beyond that, I must point out some misrepresentations, on his part, of what my essay says. I begin with his claim that I called him "a racist and a sexist." What I said was this: "The New World, besides being explicitly classist, is also racist and sexist" (411). I stand by this assessment. But I want to remind readers that my judgment is of a published text, not of a person, and was explicitly stated as such. This matters to me partly for reasons of decorum: my essay was neither intended nor phrased as a personal attack. It also matters for reasons of professionalism: whatever the faults of the essay, it did not pretend to a comprehensive knowledge or assessment of Professor Turner, his attitudes or behaviors, outside the evidence of his texts.
Nonetheless, I can imagine how Professor Turner might find this distinction inconsequential (even though I do not), so I can see how he could rewrite my textual judgment into a personal one. I cannot, however, understand his other misrepresentations. For example, he claims I appeal to "~postmodern theory' ... as ultimate arbiter." That I do not do so is made clear in my essay (see page 404). When I later invite the Expansivists to "put their traditional humanist values to the test of postmodern theory" (413), the suggestion is offered as one of several, and I don't specify how the test should come out. For the record, I do take postmodernism's critique of humanism seriously, and I am largely persuaded by it on the issue of what constitutes human selfhood. But I am not fully satisfied with postmodern theories, particularly in relation to questions of the body, of agency, and of ethics and politics.
In his sixth paragraph, in a passing shot at my remarks on Dana Gioia, Professor Turner says, "Gioia, a second-generation Mexican-Italian-American with a Native American grandfather, makes an unlikely ~elitist.'" Turner's placement of "elitist" in quotation marks suggests that he is quoting me. He is not: in fact, neither that word nor "elitism" appears anywhere in my text. If I had charged Gioia with elitism, citations of his parentage would not refute the charge. But the fact is that I didn't. Surely Turner has enough quarrels with what I did say to confine himself to those.
One other such matter: in his eleventh paragraph, Professor Turner brands me "especially slimy when it comes to feminist issues." One of his particulars concerns my representation of a decision made by his poem's heroine. "In no way," says Turner, "does she give up her career to be a wife." Here is what I said: "Later, the female hero's ~act of generosity / splendid and terrible, to last for a thousand years," is to quit her political campaign and fake orgasm, both for her husband" (411). We evidently have no quarrel about whether or not she fakes the orgasm (though we do differ on the political implications of that "fact"). Here, then, are the lines concerning which the accuracy of my paraphrase is under dispute:
But now a high cold spirit blows in her; the breath of an act of generosity splendid and terrible, to last for a thousand years. And she quits her campaign that moment, and cares not that her name cannot now be removed from the ballot, and rides to Wolverton Hill ...
to meet her husband and "feign" for him both "a change of heart" and sexual fulfillment (The New World 100-101). Does she "quit her political campaign," as I claimed? Yes, she does. Does this end her career? Finally no, it does not. Did I say it did? No.
Turning to other matters, let me say that I read Professor Turner's account, in his second paragraph, of his "small domestic incident" with some distress. It makes a strong appeal on grounds of both ethos and pathos, an appeal to which I am not immune (nor would I want to be). And of course his wife's racial background gives a special resonance to his comparison of me to the Tiananmen Square butchers. Nevertheless, the account adds nothing to his case in terms of logos. As I read the paragraph, it invites us to be baffled as to how anyone could accuse its author of having written a racist poem, given the composition of his family. There are, however, several things wrong with the underlying logic here. First, it implicitly equates racism with the taboo against miscegenation, at least insofar as it suggests that repudiation of the latter guarantees that what one writes will be free of the former. Yet surely it goes without saying that racism takes many other forms as well. Second, this logic assumes that people who are not prejudiced against one particular race are free of all racial bias. Third, it assumes that individuals' personal relationships and their public utterances will be consistent in these matters. Yet again, the truth is otherwise. For instance, as Alan Golding recently reminded me, Ezra Pound's friendship with and generosity toward Louis Zukofsky coincided with Pound's public anti-Semitism. Finally, if we accept the notion that marriage to a woman of another race proves that a man is not a racist, why wouldn't we also have to accept marriage to a woman per se as proof that a man is not a sexist?
My essay offered two major grounds for my charges that The New World is racist. One is the depiction of the Kingfish character, with his Amos-and-Andy dialect. Mr. McDowell charges that I "fail ... to see that the character in question actually serves as the poem's moral authority, sarcastically employing an objectionable dialect to harass the protagonist and others." But I didn't "fail" to consider this; I just don't think Kingfish really comes off that way. That is why I said, "While Turner might argue that the character is a sage and the dialect simply a comic effect, I do not think black readers will agree" (411). Professor Turner's response on the dialect issue appears in his tenth paragraph, which reads in part as follows: "Perhaps the essayist despises such accents, but that is his problem, not mine .... The hidden logic of the author can only be that since he believes blacks really are inferior, as demonstrated by the ~inferior' qualities of black dialects, it is tactless to remind ~them' of it." All of this assumes that the Kingfish character's speech is simply a fair and accurate representation of Black English. My point, however, which I thought would be clear from "Amos-and-Andy," is that I think it is not fair or accurate, but stereotypical and demeaning. Though I do not pretend to the authority to speak for them, I still think black readers are likely to share my view. If they do, will Professor Turner explain this by saying that they too believe that they really are inferior?
Professor Turner's closing statement on this matter formulates one crux of our differences on race: "For him [i.e., Byers], blacks are ~them'; for the poem, and for me [Turner], blacks are ~us.'" If I read him correctly, Turner thinks my sense of differences between white and black readers is itself subliminally racist. I, on the other hand, think his assertion that "blacks are ~us'" in this context suppresses real historical and social differences linked to the historical and continuing oppression of black people by whites. I also think that such differences are likely to result in disagreements between Professor Turner and most black readers as to whether or not the Kingfish characterization constitutes "a blow against prejudice."
The other element of the poem that my essay (411) cites as racist is the dual claim that "racial differences include ~depth or subtlety, / noble simplicity, style or humor or brilliant / sensuality, sharpness or might of the mind,' and [that] all of these differences ~were chosen,' sociobiologically, by the races ([The New World] 77)." Evidently, judging both by the poem and by paragraph 9 of his response, Professor Turner is disposed to believe that this claim is probably accurate. In my view, on the other hand, the notion that such things as "depth" or "sharpness of mind" are "racial differences" at all, and the further notion that these ostensible racial differences are biological, are both false.(3) It is also my view that both of these false notions about racial differences in personality are racist, and particularly that both lead pretty much inevitably to the stereotyping of individuals along racial lines. Professor Turner, I take it, believes that I am wrong about racial differences, and that in any case his poem's next page (78), with its endorsement of intermarriage, should dispose of any charge of racism here. Believing that I've formulated both positions accurately, I leave it to readers to decide not only who is right, but whether my essay was unfair on this matter.
The whole question of biology as opposed to social construction is also crucial to my quarrel with Professor Turner's notion of "just inequality." Defending this notion in his response, he states the general principle that "Inequality in human gifts and achievements is a fact, and society must deal with it justly and compassionately, not pretend that it is only the result of social conditioning." I agree that society must be just and compassionate, but I think that serious inequality in human "gifts" is very often more myth than fact, and that dramatic inequality in human achievements, though it does in fact exist, is very often more a result of unjust circumstances (such as hopeless poverty) than of innate factors. When such inequalities are perceived as reflections of differences between races, social classes, or genders, I believe that they are pretty much always either mythic or circumstantial (or both). Hence justice and compassion should begin with a true commitment on the part of society to eliminate as much inequality as possible by enabling change in the circumstances that produce and perpetuate it. Therefore, in my view (though I take it not in Professor Turner's), policies based on the constructionist position tend to be more just and compassionate than those based on the biologistic one. I would also note that, generally speaking, my position is more typical of the left, his of the right.
There are many other matters I'd like to address, but I will allow myself only one further point in reply to Professor Turner. He accuses me of writing my essay in an "attempt at control and punishment" as part of "an ideological machine" of "astonishing cruelty and callousness" that seeks to "silenc[e] all other voices than its own." This "machine" is posed against "the isolated but genuine artist .... of a generosity and honor of the mind," whose side is represented, presumably, by Turner himself. I'm not sure, in this light, what I was supposed to do in response to his various texts. Keep silent? Affirm his vision? Or perhaps confine myself to an analysis of the elegant rhythmic effects of his attack on the "reigning liberal tyranny" (The New World 36)? Of course, if my intention had been "to silence other voices," the most effective thing for me to do would have been not to write about these poets at all, and simply to let their work sink into oblivion, as far better poems are doing all the time. Professor Turner published an explicitly political poem (more than one, in fact), as well as a number of political essays. I wrote an adversarial response to his texts' politics. For this, I am accused of intimidation, tyranny, sliminess, lying, distortion, intellectual automatism and bankruptcy, vacuity, moral vapidity, hysteria, mealy mouth, and even, by implication, the desire "to prolong ... racial hatreds and social inequalities" for personal gain. I am compared to "drunken bureaucrats," "mayflies," "Pavlov's dog," and those who ordered the slaughter in Tiananmen Square. Thanking the editors of Contemporary Literature for allowing me the opportunity to reply, I leave it to the readers of the various texts at issue, and especially of this exchange, to decide exactly who is trying to bully whom.
(1.) Robert McPhillips, "Reading the New Formalists," Sewanee Review 97 (1989) 94. (2.) I feel sure Dr. Feirstein does not mean to imply here that the "monkeys" epithet itself appears elsewhere in the poem, because (unless I've missed something for which I recently reread his entire text) it does not. I note its absence because other uses of the epithet in other contexts might have confirmed his claim about its sense. (There is, to be sure, one use of the simile "like apes" on p. 12, but it doesn't seem to me to contribute much to the point at issue one way or the other.) (3.) For a convenient summary of the kinds of scientific analyses that underlie my position, see Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father's House (New York: Oxford UP, 1992) 34-39.
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|Author:||McDowell, Robert; Feirstein, Frederick; Turner, Frederick; Byers, Thomas B.|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1993|
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