Because I’m sentimental, and also a bit of a masochist, I turned up at a poetry reading in Greenwich Village several weeks ago to support the publication of a book of poems by a buddy from my grad school days–I’ll call him Brad. He’s an exceptionally gentle soul who writes minimalist free verse, which is not exactly my cup of tea, so I didn’t have high hopes for the evening’s performance. But I was looking forward, in any event, to saying hello to an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in years.
The reading took place at a high-floor loft on Union Square. There were perhaps 40 folding chairs arranged in even rows; half the audience had taken their seats as I entered, and the other half was still milling around the wine and cheese tables.
The first person I recognized was Brad’s wife, whom I’ll call Dana. Dana is a published novelist and literary critic; I hadn’t seen her in at least a decade, and as soon as she noticed me, she called out my name. We hugged for a moment, lied to one another about how young we looked, and she asked me what writing projects I was working on. I told her I was putting together the proposal for a book tentatively called Liberal Fallacies.
Her jaw dropped. “You’re joking with me.”
“No, I wrote a novel a few years ago, but that didn’t make much money–”
“It’s just a working title.”
“Oh no . . .”
“Don’t tell me you’re a right winger!”
“That’s not how I think of myself,” I said.
“Tell me you don’t support Bush!”
“Well, I do support him. I wish he were more articulate–”
“Oh my God, you’re a right winger!”
She punched me playfully in the right arm.
“I’m not sure right wingers would want to claim me as one of their own. I wrote a column last year arguing in favor of legalizing gay marriage–”
Dana punched me again, harder. “How could you be a right winger?”
“Well, I did support Bush’s decision to go into Iraq–”
“Oh my God!” She now began punching me, for emphasis, between words. “How (pow) could (pow) you (pow) support (pow) Bush (pow)?”
“I don’t support every decision he’s made–”
She turned to the half dozen people sitting within earshot. “Did you hear that? My friend Mark supports Bush.”
A middle-aged Asian woman looked up in disgust. “Don’t you read newspapers?”
“Actually,” I said, “I write for newspapers.”
She spun her chair around to face in the opposite direction.
I turned back to Dana, but she had walked off. The expressions on the faces of the audience members who’d overheard the exchange ranged from merely disdainful to furious, so I stepped away slowly and went to find Brad. I spotted him a minute later. His beard had turned gray; otherwise, he looked the same. He gave me a hug and told me how glad he was that I’d come. He was too nervous about the performance to ask me what I’d been doing with myself–and for that, I was grateful. Afterwards, I found a seat in the back row.
The reading began five minutes later. Brad was the first to the podium, and I sat and smiled for 15 minutes as he read his minimalist observations about squirrels and sparrows and trees, and I dutifully applauded when he finished. He was followed by a chubby-cheeked fellow whose real name I would mention except that I don’t want to risk swelling his book sales beyond the copy I bought to write this column (which should bring the total to about 14). Suffice it to say he’s an English professor at a major university in New York City–a university whose research grants and sabbaticals, he acknowledges at the end of his book, “have helped make this work possible.” The book itself carries blurbs from fellow nobodies, back-cover ejaculations of this sort: “[He] writes his poems on an invisible surface that breathes and grows. It’s like watching good poetry happen. It goes and goes. A little tense, but wonderful for it.”
Cheeky Boy stepped to the microphone and began to recite a long free-verse poem about a trip to SeaWorld with his seven-year-old son. Alternating his son’s cutesy comments on marine life with his own hackneyed notions on postmodernism, C. B. rambled along inoffensively for a few minutes. Then, suddenly, the poem took an overtly political turn. It began with a series of pseudo-intellectual asides on United States history, the kind designed to elicit nods of approval from readers of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky: “I think the Reagan / Revolution / begins when so few / support / New Deal-style / employment programs / during economic slumps / of the mid-and late seventies.”
The audience nodded approvingly.
C. B. then brought us closer to the present: “I finally see / as Fahrenheit 911 makes you / feel, / though you thought / you already felt. / I should settle for academia not killing me.”
Ah, yes, academia . . . the university system C.B. acknowledges at the end of his book for its generous grants and sabbaticals. Except now, at the podium, he declares, “Proficide is a crime / only recently named.” He notes that the downside of tenure is that it ties professors to one “plantation / so employers / have a cheap, stable work force.”
And then this metaphor: “The university can be / one big / Florida election–overlooking / or lying about evidence / misinterpreting rules, / stonewalling, not / admitting error / so turning more / and more wrong / until it’s / full blown / inhuman torture . . . / this whole 14th Amendment thing–the way Bush v. Gore / uses the right to vote to take votes from African- / Americans, again, like Groundhog Day, / you know, because Florida / has no uniform way to count votes, / but then it stops it from / being corrected / because never mind.”
The poem winds down with nostalgic lines about Bobby Kennedy and the Vietnam Era and about Henry Kissinger wanting to be God–which provoke more nods of approval from the audience.
As C. B. ended, to a rousing ovation, I slipped out the back door.
I recount the experience now not to exact revenge for an unpleasant evening on a rag-tag group of artsy mediocrities but rather to raise a question: How could a room full of published poets, wannabe poets, and poetry fans–in other words, people of average to slightly-below-average intelligence–turn out to be of a single mind on the subject of politics? Even in Manhattan, the mathematical odds against such a gathering would seem astronomical.
The answer, I suspect, has to do with groupthink and with the state of poetry in the United States. It is an absolute rule of aesthetics that as the formal constraints of a genre are cast aside, judgment within the genre becomes more and more subjective. Think of it this way: If I set out to write a Petrarchian sonnet and mess up the rhyme scheme, you can point out the error. But how can you tell if I’ve screwed up free verse? As judgment becomes more and more subjective, recognition depends less and less on inspiration and technique. Brownnosing, rather than craft, becomes the poet’s stock and trade. What is the common characteristic of the dozen most notable American poets today?
Their ability to work a room.
If you’re a struggling poet, therefore, right-of-center politics is not an intellectual option; it’s bad manners, a social faux pas. The propositions that George W. Bush is a miserable excuse for a president, that Republicans are evil money-grubbing bastards, that religious conservatives are actively seeking to establish a legislative theocracy . . . these function as conversational currency. If you cannot agree to them, you cannot shmooze; and if you cannot shmooze, you cannot gain entry into the brownnosing, pal-publishing, blurb-spewing universe of American poetry.
It’s a pathetic, grotesque development.