Friday, January 30, 2004

Toyed with the idea of getting the CTA shower curtain, but decided the ability to compose "L" poems while bathing wasn't worth the aesthetic sacrifice.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

As I wandered the dark yet strangely new prairie alone, it was still nice to be missed.
Apologies, all, for the long silence. It's been a particularly crazy month--I was in Milwaukee two weeks ago and Toronto last week, and I'll be in Massachusetts next week--but I'm hoping all that will be settled pretty shortly.

And, thanks to Chuck Stebelton, I have my first Chicago poetry reading in about, oh, a decade or so: Myopic Books in Wicker Park, on Feb. 29. (I hope this isn't an omen: one reading every four years?) Hey--is that really me up there right before Gabe Gudding?

Sorry I missed Ron Silliman out here last week--I hear those "poor Chicago" poets packed the house just to prove Ron wrong.

Friday, January 09, 2004

Actually, a couple of years ago the paragon of the New Earnestness was an old boy-genius college classmate of mine, Jedediah Purdy, whose book For Common Things earned him a number of awestruck but mildly condescending notices and profiles, most of which focused on the idea that he was against our age of irony. I must admit I have yet to read Jed's book, but the reviews made me feel a little bad for him; he's a sweet and smart guy, but the general gist in the press was that for such a young man to be so impossibly, well, earnest meant he had to be either hopelessly naive or some kind of charlatan.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Hey Stephanie: how can you be so sure I'm not Tim of the New Earnestness? I like new stuff, and have been known to be earnest on occasion, despite my traditional association with the eye-rolling forces of irony.

I was going to make some cutting remarks about what a "new" earnestness might be and didn't Wilde already do a number on that, and didn't the Beats and confessionals clean up anything that might have been left over. But I guess that would just prove the point.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Sudden realization of using this Poetics list discussion as a crutch to generate material for the blog. Bad technologically retrograde blogger. Bad.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

My response a few days ago on the Poetics list to posts by Kirby Olson and others on divisions or "separatism" within the left was not meant to suggest that Kirby or anyone else was actively advocating the expulsion of all minorities from the U.S. But it was meant to suggest that much of this discussion seems grounded in a nostalgia for a culture free of conflict and difference--a nostalgia that is being expressed largely, here as elsewhere, through an anxiety about the "foreign."

So while I appreciate Kirby's efforts to clarify his position in response to what I said, I'm still disturbed by statements like Kirby's from yesterday ("Denmark and Sweden have a lot more foreign influx than Finland does, and consequently more problems"); or, in the parallel Lord of the Rings discussion, something like Matt Keenan's suggestion that Tolkien writes "of a time when there wasn't a question at all of there being races per se...Wasn't it a better world in a way?"

I guess I am "misreading" Kirby's, Haas Bianchi's, and others' posts, in the sense that they are motivated by the ostensibly larger goal of articulating a unifying strategy for the American left; but what I can't help continuing to see is the ways in which such discussions of disunity tend to regard racial, gender, and sexual difference as somehow responsible for the left's divisions. Whether such differences are described as racial or "cultural" makes little difference if, as in Kirby's argument, these differences are seen as absolute. Kirby's position--that, say, a lesbian and a Black Muslim could not even speak to each other--strikes me as far more pessimistic and essentializing than anything an activist of either group might believe, if only because members of such groups don't enjoy the luxury of leading entire lives untouched by those who are not like them.

In short, the logic that blames minority or feminist groups for the left's disunity is perverse: ethnic and feminist activism arises precisely because such groups have previously been considered outside political discourse, and "identity politics," however maligned it may be now, has to be understood as a response to a political system that first constructs racial, gender, and sexual categories and then fails to extend citizenship equally to all of them.

What we've seen over the past three decades is not some kind of splintering but an emergence of new groups and sources of energy on the left, along with the sometimes difficult process of understanding how, if at all, such new organizations can work with more hidebound ones like the Democratic Party. (That the Democrats are hemorrhaging on both left and right--from the Green insurgency in 2000 to defections of Southern Democrats in Congress--suggests that the problem is not so much with the left per se but with the Party and its standard-bearers.) It's often claimed that contemporary college students are politically apathetic and inert, but I think it would be more accurate to say that students are much more likely today to become active around specific issues--the environment, university labor relations, affirmative action--and the left has to embrace this new landscape and form coalitions across it rather than bemoaning it and waiting for the emergence of a new political messiah. The Dean campaign, driven in part by opposition to the Iraq war but now sprouting tables and buttons on campuses everywhere, is a great example.

Finally, I'm glad Kirby brought up Charles Olson. What's most interesting to me in Olson is not those moments where he's trying to hold it all together (in Poundian, authoritarian fashion) but those more diffuse moments where the poetic landscape turns into a kind of map you can wander around in without being told where to go. It's less the epic and assimilative than the local and personal--thinking through, rather than somehow beyond, identities--that appeals to me in Olson's work--the sense of working in a very particular place and situation, and that you can't write a Republic without sitting in a little gloom on Watch-House Point.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Now the Poetics list doesn't even seem to be publishing my posts. I think it's a conspiracy: keep those separatists down.

Saturday, January 03, 2004

Sigh. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the Poetics list hasn't exactly risen in defense of my post from Thursday, where I was just trying to express my frustration with the tendency, even in the most ostensibly liberal circles, to regard the political voices of minorities and women as "separatist," demands for special treatment that distract from more important political goals. I guess this has to be a legacy of the late 1960s, when the new left saw itself coming apart and when many must have chosen to lay the blame at the feet of movements like black power and feminism (forgetting that the civil rights movement was one of the primary moral forces behind the new left).

But in any case, Mark Weiss suggested that perhaps I didn't get the point (though his response--universal health care is "more appealing to the majority" than, say, subsidizing low-income schools--suggests that I did), while Haas Bianchi seconded his position.

Some good sense did come from Walter Lew, who noted that allegedly "small" groups are usually just seeking the basic right to survive.

My response:

Walter Lew is quite right: if the most vulnerable programs were those that benefited the smallest groups, then the most vulnerable program of all would be the Bush tax cut, which hugely benefits only the wealthiest. Yet the Republican Party has successfully sold the nation on the idea that these tax cuts are good for--you guessed it--"the whole of society."

My argument here isn't that one should never focus on policies like universal health care and protecting Social Security, which are crucial goals for the American left. But I do take profound issue with the tactic of blaming the left's weakness on "separatist" groups that are too "small" to be representative; this sounds suspiciously to me like Bush's dismissal of millions of anti-war protesters as a "focus group."

The environment, feminism, civil rights--these are not small issues, nor do they have small constituencies. The Democratic Party is perfectly willing to exploit these constituencies at election time (e.g. the unwavering loyalty of most African-American voters to the Democrats), even if it doesn't do much for them the rest of the time.

Haas notes that "the goal on the left should be extending rights to everyone." Exactly--and last time I checked, the poor, women, people of color, and gays and lesbians were included in "everyone." Or, to put it a different way: the left has to be defined by its belief in the most inclusive possible definition of "everyone," in seeing what is left out of policies ostensibly pursued for the good of all.

The left at its best is not monolithic politics but coalition politics. I can't imagine a group concerned about civil rights or providing medication to low-income elderly that isn't also concerned with universal access to medical care. The American right has long pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy that scares the mainstream left into shedding its more "radical" elements--the attacks by both Republicans and fellow Democrats on an anti-war candidate like Dean are only the latest example, but Dean's success ought to be the perfect riposte. I'd like to think that the left could pursue both universal health care and civil rights, both Social Security and protection for the poorest citizens. What disturbs me in this discussion is the confidence that the interests of "the majority" is going to be served by renouncing the left's commitment to speaking up for the most vulnerable elements in society--a group that's not so small as it might appear.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Isn't it disappointing, as Kirby Olson suggested yesterday on the Poetics list, that the United States is not more like Finland--98.7% white--or that the rest of us "others" have not yet been driven out by the harsh climate or repeated beatings.

And it's also convenient that the American left is able to continue to blame its failings (as it has since the end of the 1960s) on those "separatist" groups--Kirby Olson's and Haas Bianchi's catalog includes African-Americans, feminists, gays and lesbians--that have worked to open up American politics to a full range of voices. (It's ironic, in this respect, that Bianchi would follow up his take on the left's "splintering" with a post bemoaning the all-Nordic good guys of Lord of the Rings.)

I don't pretend to have a solution for the challenges to the left that Bianchi, Olson, and others have usefully put forward. But I certainly don't think that the left is going to succeed by seeking to turn back the clock to a moment of imagined unity, or by casting out its one of its most vital constituencies: those groups that have historically been disenfranchised by racism and sexism. I'm not sure there's much place for me in a left that looks like Finland--that's a left that sure isn't going to produce a "new Lincoln."