Hey, Fickle Readers! I hope everyone had a peaceful holiday. (I myself got to visit my young cousins that I haven’t seen in two years. Then I slept for about 24 hours. But that’s another story.) I also hope that no one out there shopped at Wal-Mart, or at the very least only bought $1.25 worth of stuff and was sure to use up a lot of their store toilet paper and napkins, because I’m annoyed that Wal-Mart has screwed up yet another of my holiday experiences by forcing my older cousin (whom I also don’t see very often) to work on what ought to be a sacred, patriotic day of rest for everyone and not an orgy of buying and stampeding and consuming. (But, of course, we know what’s sacred to the CEOs and shareholders of this great country, now don’t we? Yet I digress…)
Since Thanksgiving and the Capitalist Orgy that Follows is now over, I thought I’d check in and see what’s happening in the poetry world these days. And what did I find but a sad, sad attempt by The Paris Review to plug into the spirit of protest over the events happening in Ferguson, Missouri. Now, I’ve been trying to avoid writing about Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a Ferguson police officer, and that officer’s inevitable escape from justice, even in the form of a trial, because I know that if I start talking about the whole thing I’ll get so enraged I won’t be able to stop. (For instance, I’m sure I could write for an eternity on how what happened in Ferguson is EXACTLY the sort of government-sponsored violence that Tea Partiers have been warning the American public about for years, and yet they’re HAPPY about officer Darren Wilson’s exoneration because those same Tea Partiers also HATE AND FEAR BLACK PEOPLE. And how the supposedly inconsistent results from Michael Brown’s autopsy and/or the eyewitness testimony given at the scene of Brown’s death are all completely irrelevant in their inconsistencies, because, you know, grand juries are only supposed to send cases to TRIAL, and the place to hammer out any problems with results and testimony is in a TRIAL, which the “prosecutors” involved in evaluating Darren Wilson’s potentially criminal actions clearly wanted to avoid at all costs, so much so that they put NINE white jurors on the grand jury…AAAAND you can see how my post gets away from me at light speed.) But since poetry is kind of my thing, and since the politics of poetry along with writing in general is always of great interest to me, I thought I should really comment on, or provide an antidote for, The Paris Review‘s latest foray into the political arena. Mostly because–all snark and/or ranting aside–the poem chosen by the editors of said elite journal to represent Ferguson is really, really not very good.
Frederick Seidel’s “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri” (which you can read here via a link that won’t add to the website’s incoming traffic) is quite a mishmash of surreal imagery, shoutouts to baby boomers and white liberals about the civil rights movement, and the occasional weak platitude about racism (“Skin color is the name. / Skin color is the game. / Skin color is to blame in Ferguson, Missouri.”). While I’m usually not averse to including Mars or other strange allusions in poetry, it seems somewhat unfathomably insensitive to take an event in which an 18-year-old African American took six bullet wounds to his body (that’s two fewer wounds that John Lennon died from–yeah, I can do baby boomer references, too) and transform that event into a detached, quasi-satirical, acid-trippy riff in which the message seems to be both “racism is bad” and “I wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County.” (Yes, that’s an actual quote from the poem. Seidel also observes, “Some victims change from a corpse to a cause,” a sentiment I’m sure Brown’s parents would have found thoroughly comforting as their son’s body underwent three different autopsies.)
I want to be clear when I say that I don’t think only certain poets can write about certain kinds of events, or that famous old white-guy poets can’t ever tap into the experience of the poor, brown, broken, or oppressed. I will say, though, that if you’re a famous old white-guy poet, especially one who’s just picked up his 2014 Hadada Prize (whatever that is), and if you try to capture the voice of a town you don’t live in which also is suffering from ugly, violent racial tensions, you might want to do more than phone in some self-absorbed historico-political diatribe–especially when there are many, many other poets out there who could represent the voices of the poor, brown, broken, and oppressed, and most likely all of them could do that better than you.
So what can you, as a reader, do if you want to read poetry about the issues raised by Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson? I’ve already highlighted Jason McCall’s “Roll Call for Michael Brown” in an earlier post. Danez Smith recently re-published two poems, “not an elegy for Mike Brown” and “alternate names for black boys,” in buzzfeed.com; both pieces are powerful and thought-provoking and show no interest in sentiments we’ve all heard before. Or, if you’re determined to look at Ferguson from an old-school perspective, take the advice of amazing poet and novelist Sofia Samatar, skip over Seidel and go back to Langston Hughes, whose “Let America Be America Again” manages to make about twelve times as many original insights into the problems of race as Seidel, even though Hughes’s piece comes to us from eighty years in the past.
UPDATE: Apparently, great minds think alike. And certain great minds kick the asses of other great minds in terms of thoroughness. (No, don’t try to imagine that mixed metaphor. It’ll only hurt your brain. Trust me.) Check out this far more extensive list of poems that are better than Seidel’s on poet Jeanne Obbard’s lovely web site, The Poetic License. Thanks for the shoutout, Jeanne! I only wish our virtual meeting were under better circumstances…