June 4, 2011
Mix It Up: Poetry Beyond the White HouseBy Robert Klein Engler
Recently, the rap-artist Common, whose real name is Lonnie Rashid Lynn, was invited by Michelle Obama to present his "poems" to an audience of students. Neil Munro, writing in the Daily Caller, claims, "The event will also massage Obama's ties to the influential arts-industry, which relies heavily on government funding."
Bill O'Reilly has a different slant on Common's White House visit. O'Reilly writes, "The problem is that Common ... has glorified convicted cop killers Joanne Chesimard and Mumia Abu-Jamal."
Later, in defense of Common's White House visit, Mrs. Obama lectured a group of Oxford students as to why the rapper Common warranted an invitation.
We had a poetry session and we invited young kids in just last week from all over the country[.] ... Everybody from poet laureates to hip-hop folks, being able to mix up the world in that very interesting way, the White House allows you to do that.
Even with Michelle Obama's defense, there remains a problem with Common's poetry that goes unnoticed. Has anyone called the White House and told them poetry is at an end?
We were told twenty years ago by Arthur C. Danto, art critic and professor at Columbia University, the visual arts have come to an end. Professor Danto wrote, "That is what I mean by the end of art. I mean the end of a certain narrative which has unfolded in art history over the centuries[.]"
Danto maintains that, "As far as appearances are concerned, anything can be a work of art." Following this line of thought, the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen described the 9/11 attack on the United States as "the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos."
If it were up to Danto, events in the art world would happen removed from White House influences. But even in the 60s, politics played a role in art and contributed to writing the final chapter of the traditional art narrative. Surprisingly, according to Frances Stonor Saunders, modern art was a CIA propaganda "weapon."
Saunders writes, "The Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art -- including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko -- as a weapon in the Cold War." During operation "long-leash" many artists were unknowingly supported by CIA money.
What Saunders does not report is that ideas about art may turn into their opposite over time. Gospel music becomes rap. CIA meddling in the arts turns into a contemporary progressive dictatorship of the arts. Like the Mujahideen, the arts we once supported, have now turned against us.
Why pick a winner
Just as the history of art came to an end in the 1960s with CIA money and Warhol's Brillo box, sometime during the 1970s the traditional poetry narrative came to an end, too. Some argue poetry suffered a serious heart attack as far back as 1923, when William Carlos Williams wrote about his famous "red wheel barrow."
The generation maturing in an exhausted culture created by the struggle and ruin of WWII and its aftermath is more likely to be credited with the end of art than anyone else. It was this generation that turned against Western values and ideas. Peace, love and, tie-dyed T-shirts took the place of Nazi skulls and insignias of lightning. The defeat of Nazi nationalism led in turn to the tyranny of Globalism.
Today, when an ordinary reader picks up a copy of The American Poetry Review, or hears one of rap-artist Common's poems, he may have trouble explaining to a friend the difference between what is a poem and what is not a poem. All the while, literary critics like Michelle Obama, tell him a mixed up the world is a good thing.
But a mixed up world, a world with a chaotic narrative, presents its own contradictions. If everything is permitted, if every poem is of equal value, as progressive critics insist, then a poetry contests is politically reactionary.
There should be poetry lotteries instead of poetry contests. A judge, who may be an affirmative action arts administrator, should not impose her judgment on a schizophrenic who shrieks, "This is my poem."
Let writers send in poems, some written on cardboard with crayons. We'll toss them all in a drum, give the drum a good spin, and then have a blindfolded literary critic draw out enough pieces to make a nice size book a university press will publish.
The end of poetry should bring an end to all those "Best Poetry" anthologies, too. They probably won't be missed by anyone outside New York City, anyway. When there is no standard, there can never be a "best" poem.
A poetry Pandemonium will also happily usher in the end of awards. What does a Pulitzer Prize mean when there is no meaning? We can now give each other awards, or better yet give yourself an award. "I am the best poet in America," the homeless man on the Chicago street corner declares while writing with a red marker on the bus stop bench.
If poetry is available on a bus stop bench, why read a book? Statistics about readership suggest many prefer a simpler kind of progressive propaganda, anyway -- they prefer rap to sestinas.
Travis Nichols cites some revealing data in this regard. "Poetry is in trouble," Nichols writes. "At least according to the NEA and Newsweek. 'In 2008, just 8.3 percent of adults had read any poetry in the preceding 12 months.'"
Almost as an afterthought, the report noted that the number of adults reading poetry had continued to decline, bringing poetry's readership to its lowest point in at least 16 years.
It doesn't matter that readership is at a low point. Today, writers advance by the right politics, not the right words, or CIA money. With the merger of American poetry with liberal politics, the poet as victim emerges as the most important metaphor to link poetry to an audience.
To recognize this merger of art with politics is not to say victims shouldn't have a voice. It is to say artists should be recognized by their voice, not by being a victim.
Nevertheless, African-American poets, lesbian poets, women poets, Chicano poets, drug addict poets, HIV positive poets, they are all marketed as poet/victims. The only poet/victims liberalism does not recognize are the victims of liberalism itself.
Forms of life
The end of poetry and art is not just a new narrative. It is also a narrative that has unintended consequences. It is a narrative that undermines the entire poetry project, to use a soiled terminology from Heidegger, who, by the way, capitulated to the Nazis.
To write about the end of poetry is to also write about how traditional forms of life that made the poetry narrative possible are disappearing because of global market and political forces. Both Communism and Capitalism advance forms of globalization that undermine traditional narratives.
Progressive critics who announce the end of the arts want to make room for a new narrative wish to make the world safe for progressive propaganda. They would replace integrity, proportion, and clarity with broken shards, bloated forms, and mud; all for the sake of revenge against Western civilization.
Will traditional forms of life, grounded in nature and human nature, survive somewhere, if not on Manhattan or in San Francisco? It is possible, but these traditional forms of life will stand outside the social, educational, and political structures we are building, today.
To trust that human nature will lift up a generation to judge the works of our generation as silly and folly, is to make and win a bet we may not be in a position to collect. The Manhattan Marxists who promote multiculturalism from their university offices and magazines may get their wish in the short run.
Manhattan Marxists may succeed in bringing Pandemonium from Portland to Pasadena. After the mix-up, others may mature to realize all the bombast was phony and as deceptive as Common's lyrics, "Yo Troy I'ma come on the rhythm with a little bit of Communism."
For a new generation there may be an eleventh commandment: Do not turn your neurosis into a metaphysic. Before that new generation arrives, what of someone who hopes to be a poet? He still reads the old narrative and writes the story of the human heart. What will he do now that poetry is at an end?
He could get a small house of cypress wood on some Louisiana bayou. There, as the moon rises on a cool night and tangles in the Spanish moss, he waits. Clouds move across the moon like a hand that erases.
Robert Klein Engler lives in Des Plaines, Illinois and sometimes New Orleans. Many of Robert's poems, stories, and photographs are set in the Crescent City. His long poem, The Accomplishment of Metaphor and the Necessity of Suffering, set partially in New Orleans, is published by Headwaters Press, Medusa, New York, 2004. He has received an Illinois Arts Council award for his "Three Poems for Kabbalah." If you Google his name, then you may find his work on the Internet. Link with him at Facebook.com to see examples of his recent paintings and photographs. Some of his books are available at Lulu.com. Visit him on the web at RobertKleinEngler.com.
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