Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Walks with Paul Celan

Posterity deals some strange cards to the dead poets. Consider e.e. cummings — someone as lighthearted and playful as he was would probably cringe at having become the poet most often used to torment reluctant students in ninth-grade classrooms across America. Or, at the other end of the light-hearted/heavy-hearted continuum, consider Paul Celan. His gnomic, cryptic poetry and his status as a Holocaust survivor color our interpretations of his 1970 suicide by drowning, often making it into a statement about the inadequacies of language to the horrors of experience. Celan becomes a kind of larger-than-life figure, less a man who lived and suffered in dark times than an icon, a kind of literary saint, or a marble statue in the soft and saddened shadows of a hushed and somber shrine. You get some of the flavor of this from the title of John Felstiner's (generally excellent) biography of Celan: Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. Here, Celan the individual fades, and he becomes a representative, standing for all poets, all survivors, all Jews. It's a heavy load to lay on Celan's shoulders, and it's a load that the French poet Jean Daive does his best to lighten in Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan, originally published in 1996 and newly translated into English by Rosmarie Waldrop.

Daive's book is one of those genre-defying works the world needs more of: part notebook, part memoir, part literary essay, it gives us Daive's experience of Celan's works, and of Celan's company, often during the walks the two took together in the St. Germain and Latin Quarter districts of Paris — the dome of the title must, I think, be the dome of the Panthéon that towers on a hilltop over these neighborhoods. I'm not even halfway through it (I received a copy in the mail yesterday, and started reading it this morning), but I'm enthusiastic enough I feel the need to say something about it right away, and I think I see what Daive is up to. He's trying to give us an intimate portrait of Celan the man, not a hagiographic image of Celan as the triply-iconic "Poet, Survivor, Jew" we get in Felstiner's book. This is not to say that Daive doesn't see Celan in all of these roles, just that he's out to honor the memory of an individual he knew as an individual, rather than to burnish the statue we've placed in the shrine of Celan.

Much of Under the Dome is written in the form of short observations, juxtaposed without any seeming order. But this notebook quality is a bit deceptive, and as one reads one begins to see the highly composed nature of Daive's book: passages repeat, with variations, certain images come up again and again in different contexts, and sometimes two passages are spliced together, creating a new resonance between the two observations. Here, for example, is one of the images that Daive uses to humanize Celan:

Avenue Emile-Zola: the empty apartment he has occupied for a week now. In the bathroom he bends over the tub, dips his left hand in the water: underwear floats up. Laundry. "You'll excuse my finishing the laundry?" With his smile.

We need an image of Celan like this one, I think, to remind us that the legend was also someone who lived day to day. But the genius of Daive's approach is to bring images like this back later, and combine them with the mythic moments in Celan's life, as he does a few pages after the laundry episode:

The brutal shock of his disappearance. I "see" the jump into the Seine. I can see it. And I see again his laundry soaking in the tub Avenue Emile-Zola, his hands stirring the soapy water. With elegance and determination.

We get the legend, and we get the man, and the two images are bound together by the visual rhyme of the body lost in the Seine and the water immersed in the tub. As the reference to Celan's everyday elegance and determination makes plain, this isn't simply a matter of deflation, of bringing the icon down. It's a matter of respecting the reality of the man, and not losing him in the bright glare of legend.

Celan's work is much-mystified, but Daive, who knows the Celan canon better than almost anyone, offers what seems to me like very good common-sense advice about reading Celan. Here, for example, is a passage I wish I'd read before going to a gathering of Chicago poets intent on reading Celan together a couple of years back:

Apropos Windgalle and Treckschutenzeit
        Wind gall         Bargetrekking time

    All the words are composites. The second term always the most important. The verb is tied to the second term. There is a vertical sense.

    Paul Celan chews a word like a stone. All day long. It produces word-energy. It all goes into the energy of his composite words. Here we have his biography.

    Paul Celan invites the reader to travel inside the word (voyage, labyrinth).

    On the on hand, the composite noun — on the other, no verb is given. Paul Celan does not give the verb.


    Absence of the verb: the verb is absorbed into the energy of the composite noun.

I can't really think of a better introduction to Celan's poetry than that. And I can't think of a better introduction to the hauntedness of the man, the constant sense of loss that he endured, than the following brief paragraph, and the even shorter section that follows:

To recollect a Sunday we spent together. Took the bus as far as the Opéra. The Saint-Lazarre area. The theater. Then went into a café where Paul notices a woman sitting among the crowd. Her face drawn. Pale. He falls back, as if frightened. Pushes me. We rush out. In the street he tells me "Her face reminded me of a friend who died."

High alert during all our encounters.

One could imagine a different kind of poet offering a very different reason for rushing out of a café at the sight of a woman (indeed, I've been with such a poet more than once, fleeing a bar or coffee joint to avoid the fallout from his ill-advised romantic entanglements). But Celan is not a poet haunted by eros: he's a poet haunted by ghosts, by the voices of the dead, and here we see how this has left him permanently on-edge and raw-nerved in a world that too-constantly reminds him of the enormity of his losses. Literary criticism often approaches Celan's sufferings in terms of the debate with Adorno about whether there can be poetry after Auschwitz. Daive gives us a much less abstract, much more palpable sense of the damage that had been done to Celan. We don't get Celan as a chapter in the history of literary thought, here. Daive's gift to us is the presence of the man himself.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Being There: Facebook vs. Danny's Tavern

Robert Archambeau: I was all set to blog about Nicanor Parra and Roberto Bolaño, but talked my ideas out late last night after too much coffee at my favorite breakfast-for-dinner joint. Signs now point to no bloggery today: consider yourselves spared, people of earth!

That, people of earth, was my Facebook update this morning, but it seems I'm not much of a prophet: I'm blogging after all. Not about Parra and Bolaño, though: rather, I'm posting a Facebook exchange I had with Seth Abramson shortly after posting my update about the two Latin American poets and the late-night breakfast. Strangely enough, given my recent talking-out-live those comments that might have gone into a blog post, the exchange with Seth was about the relative importance of live and virtual discussions of poetry.

As I was scrolling around on Facebook, I ran across this, a provocative update of Seth's, apparently intended as a response to the developments in Chicago-area poetry that Kent Johnson, the present humble blogger, and others had been blogging about, as well as to Steve Burt's Chicago-heavy roster of "New Thing" poets. Those of you who don't waste hours in online social networking might be surprised by Seth's use of the third-person to describe himself. Rest assured he's not emulating Caesar's Gallic Wars: Facebook's format sort of encourages you to write this way:

Seth Abramson: thinks one can't apply pre-internet school-creation models to the Internet Age. Proximity is no longer a prerequisite for an aesthetic school. There is no New Thing or New Chicago School. Poets are inspiring each other from great distances, and to think it requires sharing a bar with someone to be like-minded/mutually-inspired is to take a literal view of how art moves that hasn't been relevant since 1980.

Seth, a veteran of many internet conversations, followed this up almost immediately with the following comment, designed to prevent people from jumpily assuming he was out to attack anyone's poetry:

Seth Abramson This is not to, in any way, denigrate the poets now being associated with those schools, who are (many of them) extraordinarily talented. Their work simply cannot be aligned, however, merely on the basis of either Flood Editions (The New Thing) or Danny's (NCS), etcetera. The world's a lot bigger than that now. Bigger than Chicago. Bigger than a single excellent independent publisher. We need to think about schools in new ways, and not listen to those who would have us trying to re-create cultural artifacts from the 50s and 60s.

Ah! I thought. This is interesting! And it's made all the more interesting in that it's a comment being made at exactly the same point in time that a bunch of Chicago's poetry people have gathered at the Hyde Park Art Center for a day-long conference on the poetry of our fair city (a conference I'd have been part of if I hadn't dinged up my leg in a cycling accident that still has me stuck with limited mobility for several more weeks).

The question of the relation of virtual networking and actual face-to-face contact became more vexed when I received, via Facebook, a Blackberry-sent note from Larry Sawyer, saying he was down at the conference. I messaged back, asking him to tell Ray Bianchi and Bill Allegrezza that I wished I could have been there. I was sure there were interesting conversations taking place down at the Art Center (and due to take place at Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap or some nearby taco dive later) of which I simply wouldn't be a part. At the same time, I was privy to Seth's online comments, and semi-involved in the Hyde Park event via Larry's trusty Blackberry and the good graces of Facebook. Which kind of proximity, real or virtual, mattered most? I typed out a reply to Seth:

Robert Archambeau: I agree that proximity is less important than ever, but I don't think it's completely over with yet. Let's call it residual and declining rather than obsolete. Like CDs.

The other big factor that remains, even in the internet age, is the whole old-school tie thing: networks of people who went to grad school together seem to be pretty important. The campus could be the new unit of literary history for a while.

Things got a little muddled after that, as Seth and I cross-posted (not that live encounters lack such confusion: had Seth and I met live, in, say, that favorite hang of Chicago poets, Danny's Tavern, we probably would have had to repeat ourselves over the din of the assembled literati, hipsters, and assorted bar barnacles):

Seth Abramson: Robert, I'm glad you mentioned this--I was about to add a comment about Kent Johnson's reference to Iowa. It's odd to think I would be more influenced by (say) Iowa classmates I never, in many instances, workshopped with or socialized with than--great example--Ron Silliman, whose work I first discovered through his blog. I am, without a doubt, an Iowa poet more influenced (now) by Silliman than any student I studied with at Iowa. MFA programs don't really traffic in influence in that way; my classmates all had their own visions. And Peter Gizzi affected me the most of any professor I had--and he teaches at UMass.

Seth Abramson: To add to my above comment, Robert: I mean to say that what happens between MFA students happens primarily, I think, post-graduation, not on campus. Those networks b/t peers who also become lifelong friends and cooperative readers. Brown--not Iowa--is actually the very best example of this.

Robert Archambeau: What I mean is this: people are likely to be in contact with the poets they met in grad school, likely to bear some relation to their prof's work (even if it is rejection), likely to stay in some kind of touch, likely to publish one another over the years, etc.

I take your point about you and Silliman. But I also think that even now, our face-to-face contacts still exert some influence. I think about the people I knew at Notre Dame, who almost all think of John Matthias as a hugely important poet. Very few people who went elsewhere seem to feel that way. And this is true even in a time when physical proximity is in decline.

Robert Archambeau: Looks like we cross-posted, Seth, and are more or less in agreement about all this.

Seth Abramson: I do agree--we must "meet" those who will influence us. Many of those "meetings" take place online or via books we read (i.e., often it is a unilateral "meeting" whose other half may never know it's even occurred). MFA programs allow some of these meetings to happen, even if the actual influence will exert itself over many off-campus years of contact through phone, e-mail, blog, or book publications. Kent's essay about the New Chicago School was so literal about "place" that he required all members of a school to be within not just driving distance of one another, but reasonable driving distance. Does this mean Peter Gizzi (Brown) is no longer influenced by Lisa Jarnot (Brown), because they both went there but then moved off to their own lives and pursuits (while remaining friends)?

When I left for more coffee, the conversation was still going on, with contributions from Angela Genusa, David Groff, and others. I'm hoping to check in on it later: I'm as interesting in hearing what went on there as I am in finding out what happened in Hyde Park. For now, at least, both kinds of conversations matter.


In other news, Johannes Goransson makes some important points about "Double Gesture," an essay I wrote for Boston Review about Lars Gustafsson and Frederik Nyberg, Swedish poets of different generations.

Also, Henry Gould continues his meditation on manifestos, which began as a letter about an essay I wrote for Poetry about the future of manifestoes.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Chicago Poetry Conference, plus What George Oppen Means to Me

This just in from the "I Wish I Could Make It But I Still Have Mobility Issues After That Bike Accident" desk: Bill Allegrezza, who puts on the ever-interesting "Series A" events at the Hyde Park Art Center, has outdone himself, putting together a mini-conference on Chicago poetry. Here's the schedule:

Series A Conversations: Mini-Conference on Chicago Poetry

Saturday, Sept 19 in Chicago at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell, Chicago. All events take place in the 4833 studio room.

New Media Poetics—Film and Poetry
(with a film screening)
Francesco Levato, Moderator
Kurt Heintz, Julia Miller, Eric Gelehrter, and Nate Slawson

Other People's Poetry
Tim Yu
Srikanth (Chicu) Reddy and Judith Goldman

Poetry and Place
Raymond Bianchi and Garin Cycholl,

Poetry Publication--Founding, Editing, and Distributing a Print Journal
Chad Heltzel, Moderator
Jennie Berner, Garrett Brown, Tasha Fouts, Jennifer Moore, Sara Tracey, and Snezana Zabic

Rapid Poetry Reading
Bill Allegrezza, Moderator

Larry O'Dean
Tim Yu
Kristy Bowen
Srikanth (Chicu) Reddy
Quraysh Ali Lansana
Ray Bianchi
Kristy Odelius
Garin Cycholl
Chad Heltzel
Dan Godston
Simone Muench
Nick Demske
and many others!

In the great tradition of our bootlegger city, you're invited to BYOB.

"The conference is not associated with any university or organization except for Series A (which is not really an organization at all)," says Bill Allegrezza, "feel free to come and throw your voice into the conversation and perhaps join us afterward for food and drink." That attitude captures a lot of what I think makes the local scene special just now.


In other news, the new issue of Mimesis is out (with some content also online). It includes an essay of mine, which begins like this:

Writing the Impossibility, or What George Oppen Means to Me

In the eyes of others a man is a poet if he has written one good poem. But in his own he is only a poet at the moment when he is making his last revision to a new poem. The moment before he was still only a potential poet; the moment after, he is a man who has ceased to write poetry, perhaps forever.
— W.H. Auden

When, as a student with vague ambitions in the direction of poetry, I ran across those words from The Dyer’s Hand, I underlined them with unusual care and paused for a moment, pencil poised to make some kind of significant comment in the margin of the book. In the end, all I could write was “yes.” I’ve never really gone beyond simple agreement in my thoughts on the passage, but Auden’s statement has stayed with me for two decades, during which time I’ve accumulated the usual small hoard of indicators that one is, in fact, a poet: graduate degrees, journal publications, book, teaching job, a modest prize or two. But all along I’ve been haunted by doubts about just what we’re doing when we write poems. Why do we do it? I’ve seen the piles of submissions surrounding editors’ desks, and know for a fact the world is suffering no shortage of the things. We no longer live in an age when aristocrats commission poems to celebrate battles the way they commissioned painters to line their halls with flattering portraits. Rarely do we find a poet who, like Milton, sees poetry as a way to justify the ways of God to man. The bourgeois reader no longer turns her yearning eyes to bearded, sad-eyed sages like Tennyson to learn How to Live. And, with the possible exception of a few hacks employed by the greeting card industry, the market takes no real interest in poems. Their raison d’être is far from obvious. On a bad day, I think poetry is (at least for me) impossible.

I’m not alone, either. Recently I heard that an American poet I admire, Gabriel Gudding, was thinking of giving up poetry. The author of two well-received books, Gudding certainly wasn’t failing as a poet, but for some reason he seemed to feel that poetry was failing him. He’s part of a long tradition of poets who’ve concluded that going on in poetry was simply impossible: there’s Matthew Arnold, for example, who gave up poetry for criticism, as did Paul Valéry for a time. There’s Basil Bunting, who took a long hiatus from the art, and there’s Laura Riding Jackson, who left poetry behind to concentrate on her prose. William Empson quit writing poetry. So did Arthur Rimbaud — probably the most famous defector from poetry — when he concluded that poetry was a weak way to rebel against his parents, and took to running guns instead.

It may well be that poetry is, at this late date, an impossible art. But even if that’s true, it’s no reason to give it up. That’s what I learned from one of poetry’s great prodigal sons, the Objectivist poet George Oppen, who gave up poetry for decades before finding his way back. For Oppen, the problem was one of isolation. He yearned to connect to the world, but at the same time saw poetry as an isolating activity, setting him apart from others. The surprising thing is that he never really let go of the doubts that drove him away from poetry. Instead, he found a way to make art out of them.

Subscription and ordering information for Mimesis is available here.


And finally, in news from the "probably of no interest to anyone," I've finally joined the 21st century and turned the comments feature on for this blog. I think the decision had something to do with Bill Allegrezza's comment above about people adding their own voices to the conversation.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The New Chicago School

So there I was, leafing through some of my old notes on Carl Sandburg, Theodore Dreiser, and Nelson Algren, pulling together a plan for the next installment of the seminar I'm teaching on the literature of Chicago, when an email from Kent Johnson dropped out of the sky, announcing his post on what he's calling The New Chicago School of poetry. Dragging myself out of the past is never easy: it's like answering the call of the alarm clock and pulling myself out of dreamy reverie and into a world where things are actually happening, and I'm called on to play my own part. But Kent's post is worth shaking yourself awake: he spells out, more convincingly than anyone I've seen yet, just what it is that's been happening (and something has definitely been happening) in the literary life of our city.

A couple of years ago Kevin Killian's quipped that, when young poets ask him where to go, he says "Chicago is the most exciting scene around. Years from now we'll be looking back at the early 21st century and wishing we'd all relocated there at this time in poetry history," and I think he was on to something, although just what it was that was happening remained a bit obscure. Around the same time, Bill Allegrezza and Ray Bianchi released their anthology The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Millennium , putting forth a range of poets and groping toward a sense of what is most vital in the city's poetry at this point. Two younger poets, Adam Fieled and Steve Halle, also made attempts at defining the city's new poetic scene. Fieled ventured the term "Chicago Eliotics" for a group of formal-yet-experimental types including Allegrezza, Bianchi, Eric Elshtain, Simone Muench, Larry Sawyer, Jordan Stempleman and myself. Halle edited (and still edits) Seven Corners a blog-journal devoted to showcasing the work he finds most exciting from Chicago and environs. Attempts at definition came from the realm of Respectable Authority, with the University of Chicago launching an annual symposium on Chicago poetry, and Harvard's Steve Burt giving a special tip of the hat to Chicago-based poets in his Boston Review article "The New Thing," which put neo-objectivism at the heart of what is new and vital in American poetry.

Noble attempts! But Kent has, I think, come closer to getting at just what has been most characteristic (and, to me, most fascinating) about the poetic vortex that's been gathering around Chicago for the past few years. Here's how Johnson begins his piece, called "The New Chicago School::

My proposal: That the closest thing we presently have to a “School” of younger, rigorously innovative poets in the U.S. (one that stands closest chance of being retrospectively seen as akin in significance to the NY School in its first-​generation, proto-​formation years ... is what I’ll call the New Chicago School. It’s a list of accomplished, experimental writers, more poetically focused as a collective, per­haps, than the contents list of the City Visible anthology of a couple years back, and more geographically focused, too, inasmuch as all the poets have roots in the city...

He then names names, including (out at the edge of things, in an uncertain netherworld between poet, critic, and scholar) that of the current humble blogger:

William Fuller, Ed Roberson (these first two the elder fig ures of the group), Anthony Madrid, John Tipton, Devin Johnston, Peter O’Leary, Robyn Schiff, Bill Allegrezza, Dan Beachy-​Quick, Michael Robbins, John Beer, Arielle Greenberg, Lisa Fishman, Jesse Seldess, Nick Twemlow, Suzanne Buffam, Srikanth Reddy, Jennifer Scappettone, Francesco Levato, Eric Elshtain, Jennifer Karmin, Leila Wilson, Nathalie Stephens, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Garin Cyncholl, Joel Felix, Chris Glomski, Erica Bernheim, Larry Sawyer, Patrick Durgin, Joshua Corey out in the suburbs, Tony Trigilio, Daniel Borzutzky (though some thing of a separate case, the work of these last two, perhaps)… and a gaggle of brilliant scholar-​editors associated, past or present, with the Chicago Review, along with Robert Archambeau, on the outskirts of town at Lake Forest.

He lists other groups (especially of younger poets) before asking "From a poetic standpoint, what would justify the set?" After making the obligatory gesture toward the limits of any broad definition, he offers the following idea of what connects this group:

....it’s held together by a vibrant, active scene and certain broad affinities of poetic predisposition and — quite often, and with the necessary exceptions — affect. The tilt is towards a “scholarly,” brainy, less “pop-cultural” and more self-​consciously “critical” mode than tends to be the case around St. Mark’s, for example. And, I’d argue, the work by and large tends to be more thematically ambitious, more novel and challeng ing in its registers and forms, more earnestly in tune with the international than the work of the younger NY scene, still largely caught, the latter, within tonal frames of the hip, the pop, the vernacular, the anecdotal, the flarf.

Kent's on to something here: his thesis is certainly true to my own, previously inarticulate, sense of what makes Chicago poetry more than just poetry written in the greater metropolitan area. Kent's article is up online, courtesy of Bobby Baird at Digital Emunction. It's got big shoulders.


In other news, John Matthias (along with Michael Anania an intellectual and artistic godfather to untold numbers of Chicago poets) seems to be ramping up for a full-scale prose memoir, with autobiographically-based pieces appearing in the recent issues of Harvard Review, Parnassus, and Chicago Review. Be the first on your block to collect the set!

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Shamans of the G.O.P.: Health Care and Hysteria

As the tide of frothing-at-the-mouth anti-health-care-reform whack-jobs begins to recede a bit, many of us in the not-entirely-irrational community find ourselves asking questions that are, in one way or another, versions of "What the hell was that?" How, after all, could so many people have so much passionate intensity about a reform bill about which they clearly know next to nothing?

The answer, I think, lies less in the realm of ordinary political analysis, and more in the realm of anthropology. To get a sense of how the kind of mass hysteria we've seen at dozens of town-hall meetings can be conjured into existence, we need look no farther than Claude Lévi-Strauss' classic Structural Anthropology — specifically, the passage in which he explains the function of shamanism in tribal cultures.

Here, Lévi-Strauss makes a distinction between normal thinking and pathological thinking, and describes the traditional shaman’s role as a socially necessary intermediary between the two modes of thought:

In a universe which it strives to understand but whose dynamics it cannot fully control, normal thought continually seeks the meaning of things which refuse to reveal their significance. So-called pathological thought, on the other hand, overflows with emotional interpretations and overtones, in order to supplement an otherwise deficient reality….We might borrow from linguistics and say that so-called normal thought always suffers from a deficit of meaning, whereas so-called pathological thought (in at least some of its manifestations) disposes of a plethora of meaning. Through collective participation in shamanistic curing, a balance is established between these two complementary situations.

So, when we're thinking "normally," we face a world in which there's a surplus of phenomena and a lack of understood significance. We see things, we don't quite understand how they work or what explains them, and we try to fill in the blanks. We try to figure things out, and spread light into those obscure and darkened corners of the map labeled "here dragons be." When, however, we're thinking "pathologically," things go differently. We begin with a surplus of emotions — fear, say, or anger, or aggrievement — and we look for something to which we can attach those emotions. One of the more important functions of the tribal shaman, for Lévi-Strauss, is to offer an explanation of the world that A) satisfies our "normal thought" desire for an understanding of how things work, and B) that takes our free-floating "pathological thought" emotions and attaches them to a definite object.

If you're thinking this sounds a lot like the finding of scapegoats, you're on to something. Consider the situation in Germany leading up to the Second World War: a defeated and impoverished people wanted to know how they fell so low (a "normal thought" desire for an explanation); at the same time they harbored a lot of anger, resentment, and fear, the proper causes of which were complex and difficult to locate. A talented but completely unscrupulous and immoral group of politicians could go far by offering both an explanation for German defeat, and group of people upon whom to focus anger and fear. Of course those politicians did go far, coming to power while blaming Communists, Jews, Gypsies, and others for the state of affairs. That this explanation wasn't valid wasn't really relevant: it allowed people, as long as they didn't think too hard, to satisfy the desire for an explanation of things (normal thought), and it allowed them to project their anger and fear on conveniently vulnerable scapegoats (pathological thought). The propagandists of the new regime were, in effect, performing a particularly evil version of the shaman function. That they performed this shamanic function with modern media and technology contributes to the particularly uncanny combination of the technological and the atavistic that was so characteristic of the horrors of the holocaust (as Martin Amis so memorably put it, the German political powers “found the core of the reptile brain, and built an Autobahn that went there").

While the current situation differs greatly in scale and in general evilness from the German example, both represent moments when the shamanistic function comes to the fore in modern politics. I mean, think about it: there's an awful lot of free-floating anxiety out there now, in post-9/11, post-economic meltdown America, especially among some Republican constituencies, who until recently have had a harder time finding a focus for their negative emotions than Democrats have had. (The issue for Dems is easy: Bush is the bad guy. Focus of negative emotions found, explanaiton of our woes located). Where are people who don't want to blame Bush & Co. to locate their negative emotions? How are they to explain the sad state of affairs in our country? The G.O.P., and their allies in the insurance corporations, have some very sharp people handling their publicity, and they seem to have made a deliberate decision to direct people's anxieties toward a particular objects: the federal government and the idea of socialism in connection with health care. Both the federal government and socialism seem remote to most Republicans (familiarity with someone or something makes it harder to turn that person or thing into a scapegoat), and both come pre-equipped with negative connotations, connotations manufactured or magnified by decades of public relations efforts.

"Why do you feel uneasy? Why are you afraid?" ask the shamans of the G.O.P. "Because the socialists and the federal government have been out to get you! And before you know it they'll haul you before a death panel!" The fact that this is false doesn't rate: it's satisfying to both the normal and the pathological thought-processes. It doesn't have to be true: it works. Or so you might think if you're unscrupulous, and don't mind the fact that millions of people in this country go uninsured.

Frank Luntz, for my money the most powerful Republican shaman (or, in more conventional terms, "political consultant") is the great architect of this strategy. He's quite bright, and his book Words that Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear is depressingly on-point most of the time. He's the one who said, of the idea of expanding access to health care, "we have to turn this into a government takeover." It's his strategy that we see when those red-face, screaming people pop up at town-hall meetings. They're angry, they're afraid, they're insecure. And, ironically, their insecurities have been quite successfully attached to a reform bill that would, objectively, make them a hell of a lot less economically and medically insecure.

I wish I knew what to do about this, but really, I'm pessimistic. After all, we live in a country where scapegoating has a tradition going back to the Salem witch trials, and that in modern times has manifested in the Palmer Raids, the House Un-American Activities Committee, Reagan's talk of welfare queens, Lou Dobbs' anti-immigrant screeds, and the big scare around gay marriage. It's hard to fight this sort of thing with reason and evidence, since so much of what's involved is pathological rather than rational. And, perhaps foolishly, one hesitates to put on face-paint pick up the shamanistic rattles and snake-charms and work shamanistic strategies for one's own side. I mean, most of us just don't look good in wolfskin robes and ancestral totem masks.


In other news, the good people at Poetry are running a bit of a debate about my piece on the (temporary) obsolescence of the manifesto in the back pages of the current issue, with contributions by Henry Gould, Ange Mlinko, Michael Marcinkowski, as well as my own weak and fumbling response.