The PC police are ruining poetry

A mediocre poet wrote a mediocre poem. The Nation decided to publish it.

In a normal world, criticism of the poem, and of the poet, would center on the quality — or lack thereof — of the work. But we don’t live in a normal world anymore.

Anders Carlson-Wee’s 14-line poem “How-To” is not much more than a collection of indiscriminate ramblings. Percy Shelley, he is not. But neither was it offensive.

Apparently, the Twittersphere disagreed. And in the wake of criticism, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, the Nation’s poetry editors, penned an apology that was longer, and significantly more disappointing, than the original poem. They claimed to have made “a serious mistake by choosing to publish the poem,” and insisted they were “sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem.”

The poem reads as Carlson-Wee’s top tips to the homeless on how to secure donations. He advises those who live hard lives to say they are even harder: “if you got hiv,” Carlson-Wee writes, “say aids.” “If you’re a girl, say you’re pregnant,” and so on.

That the editors chose to capitulate to the loud voices of an ever-growing mob is bad enough. That they chose not to stand by a person and a poem they decided to publish is even worse. But what’s most disturbing is this: “Some of our readers have asked what we were thinking. When we read the poem we took it as a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization. We can no longer read the poem in that way.”

What the editors have effectively announced to the public is that they, people who presumably have some training or background in the study of poetry, cannot stand by their interpretation of a poem once they have had their eyes opened to the critiques of an activist mob.

Spend five minutes in a high-school poetry class, and you’ll learn that great — and even mediocre — poetry is layered. That multiplicity of meaning and of interpretation is precisely the point. But now there’s only one way of looking at things. Write a poem that someone, somewhere will interpret as offensive, and the hordes will descend.

The left has been silencing voices it disagrees with for a long time. First, it was the far right. Then it was centrists. Now it’s anyone — even a good soldier of the left — who dares to once open their mouths and contradict the illiberal zeitgeist. Not even comedians get a pass.

For a while, it seemed that this determination to control speech would limit itself to the political sphere. But there’s no denying that it has fixed its aim at art.

The editors had a perfect opportunity to stand by the poem, and the poet, and say that criticism or letters to the editor were one thing, but that they would not be cowed into issuing any sort of apology for daring to publish art that offended some people.

But they failed — and the poet, Carlson-Wee, failed as well. He pinned his own apology on his Twitter account, writing that he “intended for this poem to address the invisibility of homelessness,” but that it clearly “doesn’t work.” He went on to apologize for “treading anywhere close to blackface,” which is apparently what we now call it when people write from the perspective of others.

Carlson-Wee called the fact that he did not “foresee this reading of the poem and the harm it could cause . . . humbling and eye-opening.” He’s now “reevaluating what it means to make art in this world from a place of privilege.”

Poets have often gone against the grain and earned their share of criticism. During his lifetime, and in the immediate aftermath of his death, much was made of the unconventional life choices that Percy Shelley had made. His critics were preoccupied by his philandering and his unapologetic atheism, qualities that were not as tolerated or smiled upon as they are today.

In one of his greatest essays, he mused: “I have found my language misunderstood like one in a distant and savage land.”

We are living in savage times. If only our artists would stand up and say so.

Daniella Greenbaum is a writer living in New York.

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