Friday, 4 January 2019

Offensive poetry

Summer 2017's "Poetry Review" has a feature on poetry that causes offense, with articles by Kathryn Maris (Transgression and transcendence: poetry and provocation), Vahni Capaldeo (Punishable bodies: poetry on the offensive) and David Wheatley. Poems by Tony Hoagland ("The Change", etc), Frederick Sedel, Craig Raine ("Gatwick"), Bobby Parker, Alan Jenkins ("Heritage"), Shivanee Ramlochan, and Catullus are mentioned.

Elsewhere

  • There's Dave Coates' On the Pale Sun of Toby Martinez de las Rivas. The poet's written a response
  • According to the NY Times, Anders Carlson-Wee (white) wrote a poem in the voice of a homeless person begging for handouts, offering advice on how to play on the moral self-regard of passers-by by playing up, or even inventing, hardship. His attempt at black vernacular didn't go down well. The poem was published in "The Nation" who later apologized for it.

Here I'll try to check-list some factors that affect the severity of such incidents and their aftermath.

Intent

Was the poet aware that offense might be caused?

  • Perhaps they didn't realise - Times change, cultures have different outlooks. Words in particular go through fashion changes. "Queer" is one example. It may now be "claimed" by gays, but in the old days it was insulting. Even now it may still be used insultingly.
  • Perhaps they realised, wanting (gratuitously?) to cause offense. Art has a history of wanting to shock. In her article Maris writes "Provocation for its own sake can be tedious. For me, however, the most exclusionary and dangerous poem is a boring one, the one that gives up on any hope of engagement. Provocation, for all its perils, for all its potential for failure, is an indication, at the very least, that the poet desires to make a connection."
  • Perhaps they knew, but thought they'd covered themselves sufficiently. There are various ways that deliberately offensive material might be excused -
    • The offensive matter may be included in order to attack it - e.g. putting the words into a villainous or stupid character's mouth
    • It's Art, so anything goes - as long as it's good art, as long as "it has enough technical and imaginative conviction to transcend its transgression" (Maris)
    • It's erotica not pornography
    • The author belongs to the group they're offending

Impact

  • Is the target an individual or a group? Generalised mockery is risky (not all Poles are plumbers, not all Essex girls are "Essex girls", etc). Generalising about (or making fun of) professions seems less serious - you're allowed to mock IT staff and top executives.
  • Does the piece make fun of others' views or of innate characteristics? If fun is made of a trait that someone has little control over (race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, skin-colour) it's worse than mocking their views on (say) Brexit.
  • Is the target "fair game"? Satire defends itself this way. One can make fun of Trump's hair but not a fellow poet's, or baldies in general. You're allowed to mock racists, homophobes, etc.
  • Is the target unconcerned? If only third-parties care, perhaps no offense has been caused
  • Is the target defenceless? Is there a right of reply?
  • Is the offense widely broadcast?
  • Who has exposed the offense? - Is there a witch-hunt? Is there an attempt to gain publicity? Has someone been rummaging through through old poems (by TS Eliot say, or Ted Hughes) until something's found?

Outcome

  • Is an apology enough? It wasn't for Salman Rushdie.
  • Should the offender's writings be avoided? Can a bad person write good poetry, or at least poetry that others can learn from? Did Pound's views on Fascism make "On the Metro" a bad poem?
  • Should writers self-censure? It's safer not to write poetry that could offend but how easy is it to do? For example, any piece that involves an abortion can cause offense, even if the woman suffers afterwards. Who should control a writer's work? Where should respect/tolerance for others' opinions end?
  • Is it remiss of critics to condemn the words only of those who won't react by using sticks and stones. Surely there are far more influential, powerful people to criticise.

Comedy

Similar issues affect comedy. Making bad taste jokes about 9/11 on 9/12 wouldn't have been wise. Even now, only Jews (if that) can joke about the holocaust. Any joke about dying can upset someone who's just received bad news. A joke that Ellen Degeneres made about piggy backing Usian Bolt so she could run faster was chastised on social media for evoking the memory of slavery.

Some comedians feel they're being forced underground. A US TV documentary, 'Can We Take A Joke?', suggested that comedians could be at the forefront of a battle against a new assault on free speech. The press-notes point out that “While people have always found something to be offended by, their ability to organize a groundswell of opposition to — and public censure of — their offender has never been more powerful. Today we’re all one clumsy joke away from public ruin.

I think comedians are more politically correct nowadays - more confessional and self-denegrating than before (safer options, used by poets too), with fewer mother-in-law and drunk Glaswegian jokes. I don't think it's harmed the quality of the comedy.

Conclusion

We have a greater awareness of how prejudices develop and how they're sustained by minor aggressions, etc. We're more aware of the variations in people's sensitivity to bullying.

But as pointed out above, it's also easier nowadays to record a clumsy off-air aside, to react loudly even to accidental transgressions, to spread opinions virally before there's been a chance to correct misunderstandings.

Sub-cultures, each with different moral outlooks, are more likely to have access to each other's output, and have more ways to complain about it.

So perhaps poets need to be more cautious nowadays, not least when exchanging views at the bar after a reading. After all, constraints can aid creativity.

p.s. Soon after I posted this, Issue 40 of "The Dark Horse" arrived. In his editorial, Gerry Cambridge writes "Poetry ... seems increasingly an arena governed and to some degree imperilled by thought-police ... The atmosphere is one of nervy compliance to the dictated mores of outraged opinion". Rob A MacKenzie has an essay about the Martinez incident that's well worth reading.

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