Saturday, July 26, 2008

What rhymes with thug?

Mark's post below serves some food for thought.

What other poets throughout history have reputations as being real jerk offs or worse?

Does having artistic talent provide a free pass for scurrilous behavior?

What about our buddy here to the right?

Mr. Pound was an unabashed Nazi collaborator.

Comments please – who belongs in the rogue’s gallery of poetic despots?


Anonymous said...

I wonder if some would categorize Günter Grass this way.

I have sympathy for the Germans who were "following orders." I believe we are all fallible; just look at what's happening in the US today, how unashamed people are about the genocide we perpetrate on Iraq. I can't condemn half our country for its ignorance. Likewise, I can't condemn the circumstances of ordinary Germans.

But I think Grass's circumstances were vastly different from Pound's; it's not a fair comparison.

Ultimately what matters to me as a reader is that what I'm reading is interesting. What matters to me as an intellectual is a full, honest, stimulating and realistic examination of ideas.

Anonymous said...

Should have written, "I can't condemn the Germans because of their circumstances."

pottygok said...

Here is some more on Pound and Facism:

This is a public moral character qualm, but I'm wondering if we can judge poets by their private issues as well? Some of the greatest poets in the world have been adulterers, abusers, theives, accomplices to murder, possibly even rapists and pedophiles, depending on which definition you use. Should we judge these folks, some of whom have been dead hundreds, if not thousands, of years by what they did in life, or by what they left behind as their legacy? We are not even 100 years away from the Holocaust. What will people think of Pound in 2040, or 2140? Will his work still be considered worth studying, let alone his political and social life?

Also, what about poets who have changed their stance, one they realized that what they were saying is immoral, if not evil. For example, many of the Black Arts Movement poets (Baraka, Sanchez, Giovanni, etc.) have blatently anti-white and homophobic verses from the 60's and 70's, but now many of them have publically apologized for these points of view, and even written verses that condemn these points of view. What in the 60's and 70's may have seemed like a political necessity is no longer valid, so should we condemn these poets for what they once believed, or evaluate them as they are now?

Anonymous said...

There are poets who've done unacceptible, reprehensible things (like Markk's Karadzic). There are others who've had sometimes understandable "moral failings" that future generations might not consider moral failings (e.g. Oscar Wilde's consensual affair with adult Lord Alfred Douglas, which led to his imprisonment for breaking England's "decency" laws). But there are also doctors, politicians, teachers, construction workers and others who've fit into every area of the moral spectrum. I don't believe ANY talent or position (Poet? President?) should "provide a free pass for scurrilous behavior." But I wonder how fair it is to judge folks in the past based on the standards of today. Should we judge Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz by the motion picture special effects standards of today? Or should we discount Socrates as a fool because he believed (as most of his contemporaries did) that the sun orbits the earth? No. Should we even apply such analogies to moral issues? For instance, what about Socrates' likely buggering of teenage boys? In ancient Greek society (unlike Wilde's England) this was permitted, even (if I recall my history correctly) encouraged - kinda like the German citizen's engagement in Naziism. Does this make the Greek buggering of boys (or the Nazi-ism of the average German) more understandable? Yes. More morally acceptable? I don't think so. We can (and perhaps should) have a modicum of understanding and sympathy, as Kathy expressed, for folks who didn't know any beetter or simply went along with the crowd (perhaps out of fear or cowardice) without at all endorsing or excusing their behavior.

In the case of Pound, if I judge his poetry by today's standards, I don't think it measures up. But judging by HIS day's standards it's bold and brilliant. I don't know enough about his biography to make a moral judgment (admittedly, I haven't read the links yet). But I think his poetry should be judged on its own merits. His moral character or lack thereof should have little bearing on how we judge his poetry. You can condemn the man, but still appreciate and even admire his art.

But I'm talking here of a dead poet. I'm much more forgiving of dead poets (and I admit a hint of apparent hypocrisy here - and suspect I may be wrong to have this double standard). When it comes to living artists, we should be held to a higher moral standard. (I'm not talking about things like getting drunk and acting a fool, but serious moral issues) I might buy a volume of Pound's or Socrates' works - but I generally refuse to support living artists who engage in the same "moral failings." We living artists have a moral duty, I believe, to give voice to the oppressed, not aid to their oppressor - whether the oppressor is a political leader like Karadzic, a terrorist, a racist, or a rapist (I'm not referring to the falsely accused, but to the true criminal).

That said, I do believe in redemption - and there are numerous cases where artists and others have eschewed and evolved out of their past ignorance, shortcomings, mistakes, etc. This should be applauded.

Forgive the long comment - these are just some of my rambling thoughts this morning. As I re-read it, I ask myself, "What the hell do I really know?" and remember Lao Tzu's observation: "He who speaks does not know, and he who knows does not speak." ;)

Anonymous said...

I love this discussion.

Adultery is not a crime, but a decision not to honor a personal contract between two individuals.

I think as a person ages, he/she forgives more crime. One acquires more experience and personal failures and becomes thus more understanding of the "moral" failures of others.

Were I an African American today, I think I'd absolutely hate whites. I'm disgusted by us. So I don't think there's anything wrong with appreciating Baraka & others views' about the matter from the 60s & 70s. The homophobia is less understandable but I can't help but feel that one should be able to write what one wants, that to be honest about one's viewpoint is healthier than not. I don't think what someone did 30 years ago has much relevance to what they are today.

One person's freedom is another person's crime, and we are ever hasty to try to control others in the realm of speech and symbolism, and this is antithetical to my sense of freedom & personal authority.

J.E. Stanley said...

Regarding the statement: "I have sympathy for the Germans who were 'following orders.'"

"Following orders" excuses nothing. Never has. Never will. Your sympathies may lie with the Nazis and their followers. My sympathies will remain with the millions upon millions of men, women and children that they raped, tortured and murdered. "Lebensraum" be damned.

Anonymous said...

J.E., I am of Jewish heritage. I do not believe in Nazism. I just think life & situations are too complex to condemn people. We all have evil & self-righteousness in us. We can try to persuade people to change, but we must be able to see evil in ourselves as well as others lest we become what we fear. The impulse to punish and scorn without self-reflection worries me. Cases in point: the US genocide of two million Iraqis over the past two presidential administrations & the de facto concentration camp the Israelis are creating out of the Gaza Strip.

J.E. Stanley said...


I understand that life, and the situation in early 20th Germany, are and were very complex. I minored in political science in college (including courses that dealt exclusively with 20th century European politics).

However, the complexity of the situation does nothing to validate your opinion that, because they were "following orders," the perpetrators of genocide deserve our sympathies. And, since only a very few were charged with war crimes, I don't know why they would need (or have any use for) our sympathies. Likewise, the complexity of the situation does nothing to invalidate my opinion that it's mainly the victims of genocide deserve who deserve our sympathies.

As far as "becoming what we fear," it's a long way from criticizing or condemning the Nazis (or, for that matter, any other government that abuses human rights) to becoming like them. Silence equals acquiescence and only serves to strengthen oppressive regimes.

Anonymous said...

You and I are perpetrators of genocide. People continue to die in a land our government occupies, sanctioned by our tax dollars... my own brother plans to return to fight (O my hurting heartbreak, my love, o my little brother, why?) I wonder if he has killed, or how many. We are not doing much to stop this, are we?

Where is our compassion for people who make mistakes, who are simply blinded by ideology? Why only have compassion for victims? In advocating only for victims and eschewing perpetrators, a zealot loses sight of humanity. It's a black/white, either/or, winner takes all perspective.

There is more than enough love for all.

It's a classic case of clashing ideology: the impulse to punish rather than love, reform and co-exist.

My sympathies for the pressing quotidian circumstances of the day do not detract from my anger over the crime. My love for my brother does not detract from my horror at what he does.

Love the person, hate the crime.

By the way, I've stopped owning a car and moved out of the US largely because of my aghastness at the situation.



Anonymous said...

The free passes for scurrilous behavior are available at the check-in desk. You can pick up as many as you wish on your way into this world or at any time during your stay.

Please note that a free pass only gets you past your own sense of what is scurrilous or not. Some will find this very convenient as they have no sense of right or wrong. Some will find that their behavior doesn't match up with the majority idea of decency and do it anyway. Some will be so steadfast in their beliefs they will ignore what the majority tells them and do what they think is right, whether anyone agrees or not.

Some people just dont give a damn.

When entering the main living area some of you will be given an "artistic talent" kit that is contained within a nice Gucci "Don't give a damn about what anyone thinks" bag. This bag may help you innovate and do things that many other people aren't doing because they care about what others think. Some will take the contents of their bag out and throw their bags away because they don't like the bag.

Some people just dont give a damn.

Everything you do here will be tightly welded onto the fruits of your labor. Whether you are a saint or a sinner, your work will be tied to you no matter what. This is an unfortunate thing because many times you don't even feel it's your personality making what you're making- instead it feels like a compulsion or a need or, God help you some kind of extraterrestrial or supernatural force. Regardless of how good what you make is, or what your intention was when you made it, people will be unable to separate the two and your work will be judged as "the work of an asshole".

Your death-personality is stronger than the fruits of your labor.


We hope you have fun messing around with things here. Do what you want, just understand that everything has consequences. If you don't care, you will go far, but will be hated. If you care, you will be loved by everyone and disappear into being what everyone loves.

Some people just dont give a damn.

If you are very unfortunate, someone will come along and write about you after you are dead. Because your death-personality is so interesting, all of your asshole traits will be exhumed and your "asshole death-personality" will become so strong it will outlast everything. If you are very lucky, someone will come along and write about your work after you are dead. They will not pay any attention to your personality or your alcoholism or your homosexual affairs or your bigamy or weird political beliefs or how your father beat the hell out of you when you were a kid.

They will write about the things you made. Could you have made those things without being an asshole?

How can you be an asshole when you're worm food?

Some people just dont give a damn.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Anonymous! I love you. ;)

Nick Traenkner said...

Anonymous was me.

I really like that of Ezra Pound's poetry I can understand. As for the rest, I love the language and the voices. As far as his personality, there are things I've read about his personality that I like and things I don't.

I thought that bringing up Ezra Pound's politics in a poetry discussion is a poetic Godwin's law. I used to get in arguments about Pound on Usenet in the 90s and it never turned out good.

michael salinger said...

Ah - but it is my understanding that Godwin's law is only invoked when the comparison is directed toward an entity that was not a verifiable Nazi.

i.e. comparing Bush to Hitler.

I figured by throwing out the fat one down the plate we could open up the discussion to T.S. Elliot or Ted Hughes treatment of their wives, Buckowski’s general slovenliness, or even locally Cy Dostal's infamy.

Anonymous said...

Whoa! Cool comment, Michael!

I knew Cy a long time, and I had a lot of long, rambling conversations with him at his life's end. To some, he seemed, at least toward the end, not a terrifically nice person. I have seen him go after poets in the PLGC workshop, but maybe they needed going after. He couldn’t tolerate arrogance or sentimentality. Sometimes you couldn’t figure out what he was ticked off about.

From some of the outrageous things he told me, he may have had a touch of dementia very late in life, though if so, he was very high functioning. Ultimately, though I think not. He may have been trying to amuse me by shocking me. His family of origin sounded harsh and bizarre. He didn’t take care of himself, that was for sure.

He also got in his own way as a poet. I think he neglected his own talent: considered writing poetry "a disease from which I sometimes have periods of remission.” Yet I had a lot of loyalty to Cy; I felt he was a person maladapted to this life, unable to tolerate the ambiguities of living. He raised three kids with almost no help from their mother(s). He encouraged my writing, although he could be as ascerbic with me as with those on whom he did his little tap-dance of sarcasm. Once he identified one of my poems as a “dead cat poem,” and I buried the damn thing (poem, not cat).

But anyway: poets, thugs -- hm. I read somewhere that poets have a very high rate of mental illness, more than any type of other creative artist. Let’s consider Stephen Todd Booker, who murdered Lorine Demoss Harmon and has been on death row for about 20 years. His poetry (written in prison, go figure) has appeared in Kenyon Review. His first book, Tug, was published by Wesleyan University Press. Here’s a sample from a New York Times article:

Only twice in twelve long years
Has the Self in me transformed
To weighing less than a cent,
And blended with the evening,
Or heard ringing in my ears,
Or seen a star do its thing,
Umbrellaed aloft on air.
Swooping into a huge swarm
Of mosquitoes and gnats, there,
On velvety wings, I went
Gliding and eating until
Chilled to my buoyant marrow,
Convinced not to eat my fill,
To leave some for tomorrow.

So, what’s surprising? Does beauty equal goodness? We think a criminal has to be stupid, illiterate, or unable to create loveliness? We think sin is a breach of taste? We aren’t surprised when the occasional beauty queen turns vicious, or when an atypical top athlete acts violent -- why should we think people are all good or all bad? Does a good poem excuse the desire to murder people? Do we think there are no real-life Hannibal Lectors?


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau