Poetry and the Politics of Self-Expression

You say, as I have often given tongue
In praise of what another’s said or sung.
‘Twere politic to do the like by these;
But was there ever a dog that praised his fleas?

William Butler Yeats

Some years ago, a mentor of mine put forth the argument: “Would you try to build a cabinet when you did not posses even the rudimentary woodworking skills or knowledge of the tools necessary to build the cabinet? Of course not, then why do so many people think they can write poetry without an iota of preparation?”

Still, many do. “Pop vocalists pose as opera singers. Important art museums exhibit installations that the cleaning staff mistakes for trash. Obscenity-riddled recitations, imposed over rhythm tracks, are reckoned to be music.” (Sarah Bryan Miller, St. Louis Post-Dispatch) So why should poetry be held to any standard – other than the “validation” of its author and his inalienable right to self-expression?

Numerous surveys, declining SAT scores, and classroom anecdotes have established that many (and their numbers are growing) young Americans can barely read, cannot spell or do arithmetic, and know next to nothing of their own history; but they do not let mere ignorance get in the way of self-expression. And this popular wave of “self-expression,” more often than not, takes the form of poetry. This is not to say that we’ve become a nation of Whitmans, Dickinsons, and Frosts. Far from it, the result of this self-expression is far more likely to fall into what a friend of mine refers to as “solipsistic prose arranged in random line breaks.”

Many, if not most, teenagers write poetry. Most of it is bad. Fortunately, this poetry, like many communicable childhood diseases such as mumps, chickenpox and measles, afflicts its authors for a short time and then they are forever immune to the pathogen. Of course, these “poems” are sincere, but as Oscar Wilde advised us, “all bad poetry is sincere.” These “journals” – notebooks filled with angst, self-loathing, raging egotism and cryptic marginalia – are then shut forever, packed away in mom and dad’s attic, forgotten, and if there is any justice in the universe, eventually incinerated.

Occasionally, a well-meaning English teacher in a misguided attempt to promote “self-esteem” (of which self-expression is an ancillary component) encourages the young poets to explore their feelings and present these exercises in therapeutic catharsis in some sort of school-sponsored publication. There seems to be little harm done on the surface, but in the ego-centered world of the young and semi-literate, this practice only creates the illusion that there might be a talent denied – cruelly suppressed by the capricious, unfeeling (and profoundly unjust) critical standards of the literary establishment.

In a recent article entitled “Hip Hop vs. Hip Not: The struggle for Poetic Validity in the Halls of Academia,” a locally acclaimed hip hop artist, writing under the style “Abiyah,” argues for the acceptance of hip hop poetry by the “Eurocentric” gatekeepers of our universities’ English departments. It might be an interesting argument, however, it seems Ms. Abiyah has arrived a little late to the party. The gatekeepers have been sent home, replaced by the functionaries of postmodernism, multiculturalism, and gender studies. I shouldn’t think “hip-hop” should have too long a wait to be welcomed into the hallowed halls of academia. (Why exactly they seek this “validation” is a bit of a mystery as they have attained fame, fortune, and public acceptance far beyond the wildest dreams of “academically approved” poets.)

But, my point is not to argue the relative merits of hip hop or any other genre of poetry, it is about self-expression, and Ms. Abiyah has some interesting things to say on that matter:

Certainly, there are basics of poetry that may need to be learned, but the learning of these techniques may inhibit rather than enhance the Hip Hop poet’s ability to express himself or herself. Academia or academic settings tend to discourage the Hip Hop poet, especially those who are innovative and experimental. Poems cannot and will not be created by recipe. In a classroom setting, particularly one focusing on creative writing, pre-emptive judgment calls by an instructor on the validity of a student’s poetry can be extremely detrimental. The instructor must be well-versed in cross-cultural contexts in order to fairly interpret each individual student’s poems.

If one were to strip away the highly shellacked multicultural mumbo-jumbo, this passage could be reduced to the single line of an iconic pop reference; “We don’t need no education.” Imagine, if you will, the temerity of a teacher who would actually want to teach rather than “interpret” his students’ poems! Ms. Abiyah generously concedes that students “may” need to learn some “basics of poetry” but that should never, ever stand in the way of a young poet’s need to express herself, regardless of how ill-conceived and poorly executed this form of self-expression might be. After all, any form of criticism might prove to be detrimental to the fragile psyches of these fledgling sons and daughters of the Muse.

(At this point I must confess to being perplexed by what is meant by “pre-emptive judgment calls.” In a flight of fancy I envisioned a harried teacher exasperated with his students’ unwillingness or inability to learn, taking aim with personal sized heat-seeking missiles at the more offending miscreants.)

Of course the gem in this is the sentence, “the instructor must be well-versed in cross-cultural contexts in order to fairly interpret each individual student’s poems.” Besides being a sterling example of the doublespeak of multicultural prosody, it leaves open the question of quantity. Just how many “cross-cultural contexts” must an instructor have under his belt in order be worthy of guiding (no criticizing, mind you!) our rights-sodden youth? Ten? Twenty? I cannot help but wonder whether, had I been more insightful in my misspent youth, I would have demanded that (fully expecting that my rights would be honored!) my instructors should be well versed in the intricate meters of the 18th century Gaelic poets which best represented my particular cultural context. Even now, I am brought to the brink of weeping knowing that the power elite’s unjust criticism of my garbled syntax was merely a cultural imperialist agenda to eradicate the vestiges of Hiberno-English from my speech and writing.

All this leaves me wondering how, in the bad old days before political correctness became the law of the land, these little darlings would have fared with raw, unfiltered criticism. I once had an editor (who had obviously skipped his sensitivity training) tell me that I should rewrite my article before I threw it away. Stung, bewildered, and dismayed that he did not think every one of my musings was twenty-four carat gold and that I needed a paycheck that Friday, I set about rewriting the article. Three things occurred: my editor received a coherent, if not brilliant, article he could put in front of his readers, I learned I could take constructive (or for that matter, any other) criticism without too fine a point on it, and I got paid. Perhaps my stock on the self-esteem exchange plummeted momentarily, but as with so many things, I got over it. This same editor was also fond of telling me that writers should have the hides of rhinoceroses and that when he was finished with me, I would be at least an armadillo.

With the advent of the Internet and inexpensive publishing programs, writing poetry has been thoroughly democratized. Never mind the fact that the demos can barely register anything beyond a yawn, scratching its collective head while wondering what in the world were they saying? In short, anyone who wants to be published can. Still, many fail to muster the minimal effort this requires. One should, I suppose, never underestimate the power of indolence.

Small “literary” or “culture” ‘zines now flourish like mayflies in the spring, and enjoy equally short life spans. Their detritus litters cyberspace as well as the physical world. Within half an hour I could find dozens of these screeds to ego driven self-pity, but for the sake of brevity I shall present one particularly egregious specimen:

“i’m (sic) trying to get out there,/to make myself known,/ i dont (sic) read other poets/ afraid they’ll mess up my flow.”

God forbid three thousand years of accomplished verse should “mess up” his flow. The reader, if she is prepared to ignore the lapses in grammar, punctuation and syntax (and after all, they are outdated elitist modes of discourse designed to subjugate their individuality) is left only to conclude that she is dealing with (a) an egomaniac of unparalleled proportions, (b) willful ignorance of unparalleled proportions, or (c) a paranoid amateur who is simply too lazy to pick up a book.

Hardly an inducement to read further, I would think.

Talent is a funny thing. Well-honed and practiced, it can delight and enrich the human experience in ways very few things can, while ill-prepared, undisciplined talent can only aspire to disappointment and eventually, tragic waste.

For those of you who might be less than charitable in regarding me as an “elitist,” “reactionary,” or my personal favorite, “cultural imperialist” (I have visions of a snappy uniform, perhaps some sort of crown, maybe?) or any number of tired invectives that those who cannot be troubled to mount any sort of intellectual response would use, I have this to say: Hey, I’m only expressing myself!

Barney F. McClelland’s work has appeared in Electric Acorn 2001 (Dublin), The Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Aura Literary Arts Review and The New Formalist. In 2001 he was awarded the KotaPress Anthology Award for Poetry. In his spare time, Mr. McClelland enjoys reading the works of dead white European males, smoking cigarettes, and plotting revenge.

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