Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Hating the Other Kind of Poetry

Hot news, people—the latest issue of the reborn Copper Nickel has arrived, fresh from the good people at the University of Colorado.  It has Tony Hoagland, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, John Koethke, Kevin Prufer, and translation portolios by Yi Lu, Christina Hesselholdt, and not one, not two, but three poets from Uruguay.  Who could want more? No one! But there is more, including an essay I wrote called "Hating the Other Kind of Poetry."  It deals with sectarianism in the poetry world.

Here's a section from near the end, in which I talk about the attempt (and it can only be that) to get beyond our own assumed values and habitual tastes as readers: 

Conquistadors and anthropologists

            The Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski once wrote with apparent sympathy of a group of people who believed fervently in their own ideals and disdained those of others, saying:

A few years ago I visited the pre-Columbian monuments in Mexico and was lucky enough, while there, to find myself in the company of a well known Mexican writer, thoroughly versed in the history of the Indian peoples of the region.  Often in the course of explaining to me the significance of many things I would not have understood without him, he stressed the barbarity of the Spanish soldiers who had ground the Aztec statues into dust and melted down the exquisite gold figurines to strike with the image of the Emperor.  I said to him, ‘you think these people were barbarians; but were they not, perhaps, true Europeans, indeed the last true Europeans? They took their Christian and Latin civilization seriously; and it is because they took it seriously that they saw no reason to safeguard pagan idols; or to bring the curiosity and aesthetic detachment of archeologists into their consideration of things imbued with a different, and therefore hostile religious significance. If we are outraged at their behavior it is because we are indifferent, both to their civilization, and to our own.’

Kołakowski was, however, playing devil’s advocate—since, for him, the better angels of European civilization were not the conquistadors, but the anthropologists.  “The anthropologist,” Kołakowski writes,

must suspend his own norms, his judgments, his mental, moral, and aesthetic habits in order to penetrate as far as possible into the viewpoint of another and assimilate his way of perceiving the world.  And even though no one, perhaps, would claim to have achieved total success in this effort, even though total success would presuppose an epistemological impossibility—to enter entirely into the mind of the object of inquiry while maintaining the distance and objectivity of the scientist—the effort is not in vain.  We cannot completely achieve the position of an observer seeing himself from the outside, but we may do so partially.

Like the scholar C after he heard my irritating paper at the conference years ago, when confronted with that which is alien to our sensibilities we may make the attempt to stand outside ourselves, and in doing so see something other than an object of disdain.  Indeed, we may get a kind of doubled or even tripled vision: we’ll know the thing we’re looking at—a poem, say—on something like it’s own terms, as well as on ours.  Moreover, we might discover something about our own assumptions—our assumptions and, one hopes, ourselves.


There's more.  The essay is in Copper Nickel 21, Fall 2015.  A modified version will also appear as the afterword to my book The Kafka Sutra.

UPDATE:  The article is now available online here.

Cover by Mark Mothersbaugh. You know, from Devo.


  1. Perhaps the last true European was that unfortunate conquistador into whose gapng gullet the Indians poured molten gold.

    Or perhaps the last true European is the Hungarian bishop, who perceives in the present the return of the infidel, sweeping over the continent crying the war cry of a false god, to crush the dying civilization of the Christians.

    Or perhaps it's the camerawoman who took down three fleeing refugees with two adroit kicks to the fibula, while filming them.

    Terence Patrick Winch: Music for Earthlings

    1. You're making much the same point Kolakowski makes.