Poetry Should Hurt
“Poetry should hurt.”
I don’t remember where I heard that, but it was part of an argument for using language in poems that startles, shocks or makes the reader uncomfortable. I have remembered the phrase and used it to justify to myself word choices in poems which I second-guessed as too raw or “unpoetic”.
In a world of political correctness, cultural sensitivity, and unintended microaggressions, I normally find that careful language is not a steep price to pay to be respectful to my fellow humans. I will use your pronouns or describe you as black instead of African American, or vice versa, if you prefer. It costs me nothing.
But when language takes precedence over context or meaning, I see a problem.
I ran across a link to this poem by Anders Carlson-Wee, entitled ”How-To”, published in The Nation — along with an apology from the editors for publishing it. The poem, they said, contained offensive, harmful, ableist and disparaging language. You should click that link and read the (very short) poem and decide for yourself, but my opinion is that this is unfair.
The poem, in my interpretation, is making a statement about the tendency of people to only find a person deserving of help if there is a “good reason,” such as pregnancy, disability, or age, rather than simply because they are a fellow human being seeking help: “If you a girl, say you pregnant — nobody gonna lower themselves to listen for the kick.”
I suppose I could understand how a shallow reading may result in interpreting the poem as mocking, urging folks to pretend to be ill or disabled in order to scam the sympathetic. But why would anyone write that in poetry form? There’s more meaning there. Even a casual reader of poetry could discern that, I would think. But when the poet proudly posted a link to his work in a now-deleted Tweet, nearly every reply was a harsh, resounding rebuke of the writer — which told me to take a closer look.
I still don’t find it offensive.
“How-To” is an uncomfortable piece of poetry. But at a time when ever-more stringent work requirements for welfare and food stamps are finding favor in an effort to weed out the undeserving poor, the poem makes an important statement. The starkness with which it does so is good poetry. The poem is startling in its bluntness, but it disparages no one — no one except those who require a certain level of physical infirmity before they are willing to assist their fellow man.
There is one area in which I will acknowledge a problematic choice on the poet’s part. In addition to the “ableist” criticism, many called out the white poet’s use of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). This is a valid critique, a conversation to have about cultural appropriation and the use of “black voice” by a white author. One Twitter user called it “literary blackface”. When I read the poem, I imagined an older homeless man advising younger people, those new to the streets, on the best way to make themselves visible and sympathetic to passersby. Perhaps due to the language used, I did envision a black man speaking. But is this offensive and harmful, as the critics say, or simply a well-painted picture? I’m willing to listen. But I’m not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater and call the entire work “hot garbage”, as some have.
In the de rigueur apology issued following the backlash, the author stated that he intended the poem as a statement on the invisibility of the homeless, along the same lines on which I read it. It is not enough to be homeless and struggling; one must also be aged, sick, or physically infirm to get be seen as worthy of help. I think that message was a worthy one, and effectively expressed through this work. I didn’t think there was anything to apologize for. But he did apologize, and said that the criticisms were eye-opening (a phrase which was promptly pointed out by a response Tweet as also being ableist).
I am a liberal. I am a leftist. I believe “political correctness” is just treating people with respect. But here, I draw a line. It’s not that I don’t think there can be such thing as offensive poetry, but this isn’t it. This poem has a point, and disparaging, mocking, or marginalizing the disabled is not it. The issue among critics seems to be that the disability is portrayed at all, rather than why it is portrayed, and that is unfortunate.
I find it a further absurdity that even after the editors apologized for publishing this work, Fresno State professor Randa Jarrar called for them to resign, along with all other white editors, for publishing these harmful words.
You remember Randa Jarrar; she’s the one who made headlines when she cheered the death of Barbara Bush.