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Verse vs. America

Posted 4/25/2001

Michael Corbin skitters all around the reasons why Americans don't read poetry (Books, April 4). In the end, though, like almost all essays with a similar theme, he ends up blaming the audience for being too crude, undereducated, and distracted by trash culture to appreciate the subtleties of poetry. In fact, the reason people avoid poetry is that the form has abandoned relevance and purpose. The reasons are twofold.

William Carlos Williams, who was admittedly brilliant, was the progenitor of a form of free verse that did for poetry what Picasso did for painting: He made it look easy. The result was a flood of horrible verse by so-called poets who couldn't pass the English portion of the GED. Meaning and connection were replaced with the pornography of sentiment.

The second reason is that poets quit trying for pertinence and communication. The last American poem that was both popular and good was Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," which spoke to an entire generation of Americans. Ginsberg took Shelley's directive that poets should be the unacknowledged legislators of the world seriously. What poet of the last 30 years has even come close to attempting to communicate with a broader audience in that manner?

The poetry community can whine all it wants about how underappreciated it is, but the fact is that decent art will find an audience. Until poets abandon their artistic martyrdom and start trying to make the form relevant and meaningful, most Americans will, like myself, place almost no value on poetry or poets. Instead of blaming their audience for failing to understand them, they should try to understand their audience and the world in which they live.

Jon Parker
Ellicott City

Michael Corbin's article is a well-made squib. An ex-pat American at a British university, I am always struck by the number of people who read poetry here; in my town most adults with a college education, and a great number without, know a poem or three by heart. America could do with better readers of poetry. Of course, America could do with kids who could divide by a two-digit number.

Yet all the contemporary poets I love to read are American. Yes, there is a great deal of the bad-faith versifying around, but perhaps that's the price we pay for the beacons of American poetry today. If cushy professional jobs and Xeroxed mediocrity give us a Walt Whitman every hundred years and a Louise Gluck every 50, who are we to haggle? Gluck, like many other inspiring poets of her generation, was a student of Stanley Kunitz. Is the peace that would be created by Mr. Corbin's suggested moratorium on writing and teaching poetry adequate compensation for the genuine voices that, singing now, must go silent?

Simon DeDeo
Cambridge, England

Suitable for Framing
As a gallery owner in Harpers Ferry, W. Va., who had a showing of Greg Fletcher's work, and as a writer who has reviewed innumerable art shows in Loudoun County, Va., and the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, I would like to commend Phil Andrews' review of Fletcher and Leslie Schwing's current show at the Craig Flinner Gallery (Gallery, April 18). Andrews manages to capture the longing and regret that both Schwing and Fletcher bring to their work without indulging in sentimental written nostalgia, which both of them avoid in paint and pastels that chronicle the disappearance of old Baltimore. The reality is that beauty sometimes happens in the midst of destruction and entropy. Fletcher and Schwing know how to look at such scenes consciously, and Andrews does justice to their acute observation with his eloquence. Rarely does one writer look at the work of another and not see something he or she thinks could have done better, but in this instance all I can say is that, having a deep familiarity with the work of both artists, I wish I had written Andrews' review myself.

Georgia Caldwell DuBose
Harpers Ferry, W. Va.

Hall Right
I've read Wiley Hall III's column regularly for the past few years and have always had an opinion of his opinion. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don't. In either instance, however, I've observed that his perspective is usually thoughtful and well reasoned.

His recent column regarding the incident at St. Paul's School for Boys (Urban Rhythms, April 11) was quite thought provoking. The connection he made between the seemingly isolated incident and the more global application of appropriate, proportional, and effective discipline has a great deal of merit.

You've done your job well, Wiley, and forced me to look at an incident from another perspective. I certainly hope this column gets the attention it assuredly deserves.

Bill Derbyshire

Hall Wrong
I've always appreciated and related to Wiley Hall's columns. However, I hate that he wrote on April 11, ". . . because that's what one does with animals. You slap them across the snout, rub their noses in the mess, and get down to their level."

This is a mean thing to say--"down to their level"--like we are so much greater beings than animals? Taken out of context or not, this is a terrible message to give people. I feel that you should have used a subject other than animals for your theme. Essentially, you are making the statement that all animals are bad but only some people are bad. If trained properly by caring guardians, animals will behave properly. I take it you were referring to dogs. Dogs can only focus on one thing at a time. That's how their minds work. You have to catch them in the act and correct them right then if you expect them to understand why they are being punished, and to learn from it. And you have to be consistent. You should not hit, yell at, or rub a dog's face in its own mess. Rubbing a dog's face in its own mess is cruel, redneck, and insensitive behavior. It accomplishes nothing but causing psychological damage to the animal.

Try being sensitive to animal abuse the way you are about people abuse. Dogs are helpless without us. I don't know specifically what laws there are against animal abuse, but there should be laws against making these types of references in published writing.

Brian George

Reparation Preparation
Personally, I believe reparations to African-America for 244 years of slavery and its fallout are justified (Urban Rhythms, March 28). Gee, even the U.S. Capitol was built by slave labor! But I also believe the U.S. ruling establishment will never vote for reparations as compensation for historic exploitation and its contemporary social consequences. Too many of those in power feel the same about African-Americans and reparations as your correspondent, Dennis Lynch, who wrote, "I have never supported the enslavement of others, enslaved others, or profited from the enslavement of others" (The Mail, April 11). They forget that capital has a history. Every dollar bill we spend today has ancestor dollar bills that were circulating at the time of slavery. If you deny that capital has a history, take a look at those who jet-set around the world on inheritances from long-gone wealthy ancestors.

But that is not to say reparations for slavery is forever beyond reach. I believe it is basically a matter of developing a correct political strategy--a realpolitik approach to the problem. Since I am not black, I don't have a first-person experiential perspective. But my idea is that African-Americans should cease viewing reparations as a sop to victims of past miseries and start seeing it as icing on the cake of a future position of strength. In other words, to realize reparations, African-America should transform itself into the weighty political-economic power that its numbers in this society suggest it can be. While not forgetting the past, it should eagerly assimilate the business, academic, scientific, and cultural underpinnings, white-European as they may be, of mainstream power in this society. Once attained, such a level of participation in American society will carry with it more than enough clout to realize a hefty reparations payout, if at that point in time there is still a burning desire for it.

Herman M. Heyn

Wow! Wiley Hall III really knows how to get people fired up! His column on slavery reparations has certainly touched a raw nerve. It seems that whenever he talks about issues pertaining to money, some of his readers get very excited.

This year, German corporations are belatedly making restitution to their slave laborers from World War II. Why can't U.S. corporations that directly benefited from American slavery make restitution too? Since records from the 19th century are somewhat incomplete, instead of making reparations to individual families, the guilty corporations could make reparations available to struggling nonprofit organizations. A good place to start would be financially desperate rural and inner-city nonprofit hospitals, along with underfunded housing organizations such as Habitat for Humanity.

But what sickens me most about the reparations debate is that slavery is alive and well throughout the world--now, in 2001. This evil force in human history certainly didn't end in 1865. Am I exaggerating a bit? All you need to do is visit and see for yourself. What's most shocking is that slavery exists in this country! Today slavery in the United States goes by the name "involuntary servitude." The only difference from the past is that today it's illegal, very secretive, and involves fewer people. It's victims are unwitting men, women, and children from a myriad of foreign countries.

Ultimately, slavery is about making money. Take away the profit motive, and slavery will never occur in the first place. With this in mind, I wish Wiley would get off his high horse and start doing his homework. He didn't bother to mention a single word about present-day slavery. Hey, Wiley, what about restitution for victims of slavery living in the here and now?

Dan Greifenberger

I've had it. I'm sick and infuriated with the racist (that's right, I said "racist") responses to Wiley Hall's column.

Let's start with what Dennis Lynch (note the last name) had to say. He referred to affirmative action and related programs as being unprecedented, as if that was a negative. God forbid we should do something good and necessary just because there is no precedent. (There was no precedent for curing polio either, but that did not deter us, did it?) Then he falsely says that such programs are a failure. That is dead wrong. Like any government program, affirmative action has severe glitches, but on the whole it's helpful and necessary. Compare it to Reconstruction, 1868 to 1876, which was expensive and corrupt. However, after it ended we entered the lynch-mob/Jim Crow/back-to-the-whipping-post phases of American history (and it took about 84 years to even begin to get past that phase). And how costly was that hell?

Then Thomas Platt got his licks in. Let's just say Mr. Platt needs a serious history lesson, starting with President Lincoln's second inaugural address.

Finally, Leo Williams entered the fray with a so-called history lesson. Thanks, Leo. I thought Mr. Hall had already clearly explained the meaning of the term Uncle Tom (Urban Rhythms, March 21), albeit in different words.

As a white man, I find all of your attitudes disgraceful. There is no white pride here, just shame and embarrassment. Some whites often make fun of black folk's use of the English language--but then I find those same Caucasians' knowledge of social studies to be truly pathetic.

Matti Nadol

Stowe Blind
Some history for Mr. Leo Williams on his detraction of Wiley Hall III's "Uncle Tom" abandonment: Harriet Beecher Stowe invented the character and the cabin in a moral treatise against human bondage that became a work of art. Uncle Tom's Cabin, unfortunately, has become synonymous since the 1960s as a book about weakness, blind servitude, and sellouts--specifically among blacks. However strong the perceptions have become, I urge everyone to read the novel, and not just rely on secondhand reports about it.

Uncle Tom was a Christ figure (blasphemy!) created by a little white woman from Ohio who had never seen a plantation yet sowed the seeds for a Civil War to come. If you think this is an exaggeration, Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying as much himself. It's a shame that Tom's story has been corrupted by political movements in much the same way as Jesus Christ gets twisted and torn. Both suffered, sacrificed, and died for the sins of others. Don't believe me? Read the book. Published almost 150 years ago, this novel is relevant today. For instance, in it a Northern abolitionist who can't stand black people herself argues incessantly with her Southern cousin, who insists that his slaves are an essential part of the family. The views on that "peculiar institution" sound eerily similar to today's white conservatives and liberals arguing about affirmative action. Even if you're uncomfortable with the material, read it for Uncle Tom. He's a hard man to forget.

Daylin Louderback

You're Welcome
Your article on the Oyster Genome Project (Mobtown Beat, May 31, 2000) helped lead to the passage of House Bill 189, which limits the introduction of transgenic fish in Maryland (see Thanks.

Dan Morhaim
Maryland House of Delegates, 11th District
Owings Mills

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