Sunday, May 6, 2012

"Technique is racist"

This is a passage from the delightfully funny novella Lucinella by Lore Segal, first published in 1976 by FSG and later reprinted by Melville House (this scene takes place at a literary conference that no one attends but the speakers):

"--and Lucinella," says Newman (I jump), "writes for her private phophylaxis, she says, the way she cleans her teeth--" 
"You know what I meant," I cry, shocked. I thought I was on his side! He's righter, surely, than the rest of us. "I only meant that writing has grown as deep as habit--" 
"Aren't you--" Betterwheatling tries again. 
"What I meant"--Winterneet leans toward Newman--"is that to refuse forms perfected by the past is like having to invent the bed each time you want to go to sleep." 
"Your forms," says Newman, "were created on the backs of blacks." 
"And women," cries Pavlovenka. 
"Aren't you confusing--" Betterwheatling says. 
"I'm talking," says Winterneet, "about the mastery of technique." 
"Technique is racist," says Newman. "Its purpose is to master slaves." 
"I'll never master it!" Pavlovenka promises. 
"Aren't you confusing the realms of poetry and politics?" says Betterwheatling, bending his neck into a U to force Newman's attention. 
"Poetry is politics," says Newman.

This is parody, of course, but nonetheless I sort of agree with Newman. Technique is racist, in the sense that we hold everyone to the standards of the hyper-educated, but do everything we can to keep black people poor and education expensive.

I went to a reading and talk by Thomas Lux yesterday, and I was disappointed to hear him espousing Collinsian rhetoric (he actually name-checked Billy Collins) to the effect that poetry should be "accessible," the poem should be "hospitable," and even that difficult poetry is "rude."

I don't understand this mindset. It's one thing to prefer a simple, straightforward, user-friendly, and personable poetics. It's quite another to turn your tastes into an ideology, to frame accessibility as some kind of moral imperative. How exactly are we supposed to manage the arts so that everything is equally "accessible"? And isn't "accessibility" almost entirely subjective, depending on one's education, class, race, sex, culture, and so on, not intelligence per se? Accessibility, as far as I'm concerned, is racist (and sexist), because it's defined so often by white men who assume that what is accessible to them is accessible to everyone. (Sorry to be picking on white men this week; fight racism with racism I guess.)

If you like "accessible" poetry (whatever that means to you), then write and read accessible poetry. But leave me my Stevens (not accessible at all), my Anne Carson, my Lyn Hejinian, my Kirsten Kaschock. You can have your Billy Collins.

41 comments:

  1. Yes. And the Collins view is, in my opinion, dreadfully muddled on its own terms. I find a lot of his stuff "difficult" to read -- his poems are often so bland and obvious that there is nothing enticing about them, no promise of magic, no reason to WANT to take the trouble. With Stevens, on the other hand, I feel like Amy Clampitt did: here

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    1. This part?: "...awed as I am by him and those longer poems, which I can get at only in bits--but then I find so much in the bits." Yes! I like that. It reminds me of something Liz Hildreth wrote in her interview with me on Bookslut:

      You know how if you’re bad at math, you think you finally understand a concept, and then you go make a sandwich, and when you return to your open book, you think, “Wait, what did I just say I understood?” But then when you sit with the book for another five minutes, chomping on your sandwich, you’re like, “Oh yeah, right, I get it.” So do you? With math, it’s easy. There are answers in the back of the book. But with Rilke, it’s trickier. Also, no matter how many times I read Rilke, it’s like I’ve never seen those poems before. I can’t recognize the poems by images or subject matter. I only know them by feel. Like when I enter into the poem and I’m three lines in, I think, “Oh, yeah, that’s the poem, the one that feels like [insert feeling].”

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  2. How did you end up at a Thomas Lux reading in the first place? Someone needs to pay for this!

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    1. It was hosted by Lighthouse, a writing center in Denver that both John and I have been teaching for/through. They are great people and put on some great events, though generally the writers they invite to visit are a bit on the conservative side for my tastes. I have always been sympathetic toward Lux, though, because he was an early champion of Bill Knott. And we had a good conversation with him about Knott after the talk. Sadly they are no longer much in touch, but were very close friends for years.

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  3. I do think the question of accessibility (in writing, music, art, etc.) is among other things a political or ideological question. I also think that a poem or other creative work can be difficult and still be accessible. Accessible means, to me, that there's a way in. And there's a difference between making a piece of writing accessible and making it stupidly simplistic.

    The power of the Pythagorean theorem is that it always works
    A baseball game can be difficult to follow if you haven't seen one before. It takes some time and attention to follow the action of the game, learn the intricacies of the rules, appreciate the excitement and the drama of a good game. People who like baseball aren't put off by the fact that it can be difficult to follow at first.

    Regarding the comparison or contrast between learning math and reading a poem (whether Rilke or whoever else), something else that figures into this for me is that generally speaking, the goal or object of math and science is to create results that can be repeated (theoretically at least) an infinite number of times; whereas the goal or object of poetry, art, music, etc., is to create something that is essentially unique.

    The power of the Pythagorean theorem is that it always works: the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle always equals the some of the squares of the other two sides. On the other hand, even if everyone were able to write Hamlet or paint the Mona Lisa or write Beethoven's 9th symphony, that wouldn't be the point, and in fact it would tend to reduce the power of the created work if it could be recreated exactly (written again, painted again) an infinite number of times.

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    1. "A baseball game can be difficult to follow if you haven't seen one before."

      Yes, and the more one watches baseball, the easier the game is to follow. Similarly, the more poetry one reads, the more likely one is to understand more complex poetry, and (probably) seek it out. So "accessibility" is also dependent on exposure. Here I think a lot of poetry is comparable to classical music, where it can _seem_ inaccessible to an untrained/inexperienced ear. Most of the music we hear on the radio doesn't teach us how to listen to classical music.

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  4. I'm just stumped by the power of prescription in this case. What can it mean that poetry "should" be accessible? Even if in some sense "the best" poems are the ones that everyone can find a way into (and if there is such a thing), isn't pluralism obviously the way to go? Aren't we richer to live in a world where there are "easier" poems and "harder" poems, etc.? In fact there is no shortage of either I should think.

    I am baffled by the suggestion that you "should" crowd one end of a spectrum when it is possible to let flowers bloom all over it.

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    1. Agreed, I too am baffled, but this is the rhetoric. There was also the implication that modernism, on balance, was bad for poetry. They ruined it!

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  5. major premise: poetry is politics
    minor premise: politics is death
    conclusion: poetry is death

    "I mean, the theme of poetry is death. The theme of literature is essentially misery leading to death. They asked Freud, 'What is the aim of life?' Death is what he says. So that’s the subject of poetry." (Billy Collins)

    All my writing is about "girls have breasts" and "life has misery leading to death"--i.e., sex and death. But then sex is death--la petite mort, breaking on through to the other side...and sex is politics, as Vidal says...

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    1. The French Exit is certainly about deaths, little and otherwise.

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  6. I think many serious poets are dismissive of "accessible" poetry because they think it's easier to write and therefore lowers entry barriers. (I happen to think they're wrong about it being easier to write, but that's not the topic.) If "accessible" poetry is the standard, then every Tom, Dick and Harry will start writing it, and the currency of poetry will be debased, or at least that's the fear. The current tribe of American poets has built high walls around poetry. They would love for it to have a more mass market appeal, but not at the cost of lowering those walls.

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    1. I don't dismiss or dislike "accessible" poetry (in fact I think my poetry is pretty accessible, but there is no consensus on this, because -- guess what? -- it's subjective). I think there is room for all kinds of poetry and all kinds of poets.

      My problem with Billy Collins' poetry is not that it's accessible but that it's simplistic to the point of being condescending. For good accessible, I'd recommend Bill Knott's earlier work. Or Frank O'Hara.

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    2. I agree about Bill Knott and Frank O'Hara being "good accessible," in the sense of the discussion here. Also Audre Lorde and Etheridge Knight and Anna Swir.

      Several times over the years, when I've been talking with people who say they "don't understand" poetry, who have been more or less put off or turned off by it, I've shown them poems by Miroslav Holub, and each time they've been excited and engaged by his poems right away.

      A few poets whose work I've sometimes found "difficult," in at least some sense, and who I nevertheless like to read, are Barbara Jane Reyes, Mina Loy, Vincent Ferrini, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and some of Olga Broumas's more recent work.

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  7. Elisa:

    I think there are some fallacies in your essay here. On the one hand, you denigrate a notion of "white intellectual" culture, while at the same time despising a poetry of condescension. Anyone who "tries" to write out of racial objectivity is chasing an illusion.

    Is Wallace Stevens "racist"? You can say there's conscious racism, and then there's unconscious racism. Was Keats "unconsciously" racist?

    Hip-hop is consciously, deliberately racist.

    The whole notion of "racism" wasn't even invented until the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. People of the West simply assumed there were inferior races. Was Shakespeare being racist in Othello? If you accept that notion, then you can dismiss the whole history of Western culture preceding circa 1970.

    Poetic technique has nothing to do with racism. Langston Hughes wrote poetry that was perfectly accessible. You can set up a structure and call Robert Lowell racist because his background, his speech, his preoccupations, are all of a certain supposed class. But you can do the very same thing with Komunyakaa. If both are "technically" racist, then perhaps there is no escape from the dialectic of racial disharmony. Walter Benjamin would have liked that.

    Poets tend to defend what they're capable of. That's true of Lux, whose poetry has always been blandly accessible. He could be a stand-up comedian, like Billy Collins. That's entertainment, not writing.

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    1. Hi Curtis,

      Thanks for your comment, though I can't say I'm sure what you're really getting at.

      Nowhere do I say that black writers can't write accessible poetry or can't use technique. My point is that "technique" by definition has to be learned and so it can be used by gatekeepers as a filter.

      I think it's a little silly to try to find ways of calling Langston Hughes or Komunyakaa or even hip-hop racist; reminds me of people thinking feminism is sexist. You can't hold persecuted groups to the same standards as the people in power.

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    2. Also, to be clear, I certainly did not denigrate intellectualism. Intellectualism is not incompatible with pluralism.

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  8. My point, which is perhaps obscured, is that in the context of difference (as a condition), no one can really escape being partisan. So-called intellectual objectivity is an illusion. We're all "unconscious" racists, even when we think we're self-consciously unbiased. In fact, being "unbiased" is just a PC notion of phony good behavior.

    Feminism is reverse sexism. In its most vigorous forms, it is just as sexist as the old forms of sexism.

    All of which is not to say that reaction of one kind or another doesn't serve a useful purpose. Feminism has accomplished a great deal, and thank goodness for that. But institutionalized hatred and reparation are no less repugnant than the old power centres they're designed to destroy.

    To deny the co-active motivations of all participants in a context of distrust, is to miss the point. Wallace Stevens and Langston Hughes were contemporaries within a system of difference which implicated them both equally. It's as much a mistake to favor one over the other--no matter who is the underdog--as it is to ignore any individual faction.

    Step back.

    (Thanks for responding.)

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    1. Of course objectivity is an illusion, bias is inescapable, etc., but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to be less biased, and try not to legislate our subjective opinions into moral laws.

      I think you are absolutely wrong that feminism is "reverse sexism," though. This is the definition of feminism: "the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men." "Equal" being the operative word.

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    2. Just have to chime in my agreement that feminism is absolutely not "reverse sexism." Equality is definitely the operative concept. Another definition of feminism I find useful is the one offered by bell hooks that feminism is “The struggle to end sexist oppression.” And the operative word there is "end"--feminism is certainly not replacing one form of sexist oppression with another; its aim is to end ALL sexist oppression.

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    3. Thank you Kathy.

      Here are some interesting thoughts from Zach Schuster on why feminism represents egalitarianism in general, and why MRAs ("men's rights activists") have it wrong:

      http://whaleswithpails.tumblr.com/post/20362145690/why-mras-are-bullies

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  9. "Accessible." What are you supposed to do, build a wheelchair ramp to your poem? Dumb it down for Desmoinesians--is that the idea? State how you feel directly and literally instead of suggesting it symbolically? If so, you can't write "Only a maze can remember your hair of buttered blowguns" (Knott, for those who don't know). But where do you draw the line, excuse the cliche? Do you have to change "despondent" to "sad" because the former might be beyond the ken of Potlatch, Idaho? Change the name of the person you're addressing to something more ethnic, like a standardized test that uses "Fernando" in every other story problem? What about people who HAVE a literary education, who WANT to work when they read? What are they supposed to read? Just write any way you want and don't worry about what the reader will "get," I say.

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    1. Yes, I'm still waiting to see the checklist of logistical guidelines to ensure that your poem is accessible enough.

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  10. Andrea Dworkin argues "all heterosexual sex in our patriarchal society is coercive and degrading to women, and sexual penetration may by its very nature doom women to inferiority and submission."

    That would be an example of extreme feminism--of the kind I was referring to above. "All heterosexual sex is coercive and degrading." I would characterize that as an extreme position.

    Carrying that kind of extremism into the literary sphere, one might posit Adrienne Rich as a deeply reactionary writer, for whom the act of writing was a preeminently a sexual struggle against male oppression.

    Is it possible to be free of such sentiments (sexual, racial, class) and still function? I doubt it.

    Artists tap into the deepest recesses of our unconscious nature(s), where rationality doesn't prevail. Sylvia Plath and Jack Gilbert and Robert Creeley and Rae Armantrout are great writers precisely because they can access their most profound psychological nature. That isn't about being "fair" and "equal" and "unbiased" and politically correct.

    Art versus politics. I may vote for Obama but still enjoy Frederick Seidel. Baraka may despise me, but I still find much to appreciate in his poetry. And Adrienne Rich was a wonderful poet.

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    1. Oh, I see. Silliman linked to me, that's why you're commenting here.

      Why let an "extremist" example define your concept of feminism? There's a big fat fallacy right there. You're just looking for reasons to dismiss the whole cause.

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    2. Someone--Lyle Daggett, I think--said that accessible means there's a way in. I like that, but I doubt that's what the Axis of Accessibility means by accessible. They're not looking for ingress to the house; they want a different house. Suppose they say "Your poem is obscure. How do I get into it?" & you say "Try reading it aloud & appreciating the aural appeal of the words instead of thinking about what they denote. Try getting into it that way." Will they say "Oh, thanks, I just didn't get what you were up to"? I don't think so. What they really want is for you to write a different kind of poem--or to stop writing poetry altogether.

      (I'm not ignoring the conversation about feminism.)

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    3. The Axis of Accessibility! Yes, I agree: "What they really want is for you to write a different kind of poem"

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  11. Elisa:

    Probably, the more I say here the deeper I'm going to step in it.

    I'm not anti-feminist. Just the opposite.

    What I'm arguing for is a deeper level of understanding, one that takes into account not only our desire for justice, but an acknowledgment that art can't be judged by politically attractive criteria.

    Would you be satisfied by a criticism of Plath's Ariel from any obviously biased point of view? Obviously, one wants to appreciate it on a much higher level than that. But how do we get there? Is Ariel a tragic book because its author was a casualty of the war between the sexes? Or is it an example of a mind raised to a limit that makes all such partisanship somehow beside the point?

    Yes, I visited through Silliman's link. Would you prefer I had never read your piece, and never commented? Or is the fact that I came by that route somehow a clue to my opinion?

    I'm not letting any extremism define my "concept." You insisted that feminism was not sexist, or "reverse" sexism. I think it's fairly obvious that much feminism is deeply into reactionary distrust and even hatred. That doesn't account for the virtue of feminism, or its basic historical analysis--with which I agree.

    I do disagree with your take that "technique" (poetic technique) is racist and sexist. I think there's a fundamental misunderstanding there--one which a lot of people make. If we say that Langston Hughes is a "Negro American writer" or an "African American writer" and that he "uses" jazz and ghetto slang as "techniques" in the struggle for racial identity and framing and liberation, we've really put him into a very tiny box. And that's a mistake, because he's a much more interesting mind and writer than that.

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    1. Frankly, you sound very confused to me. I can't argue with you any further because it's not clear what point(s) you are trying to make. If you're "the opposite" of "anti-feminist," then don't say that "Feminism is reverse sexism."

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    2. No one is using a rhetoric of technique to put Langston Hughes in a box. Strawman strawman strawman.

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  12. Okay, last try.

    Let's be simple.

    Do you think Wallace Stevens's Harmonium is a tool of white supremacist oppression of minorities? I think that would follow from your remark that "technique is racist."

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    1. Of course I don't and no, it doesn't follow from that unless you take the comment completely out of context and bend it to your will.

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    2. Allow me to clarify for future readers who may be as willfully obtuse as you are being: "Technique is racist" is a funny line I borrowed from a satirical novel. It's an intentionally "extreme," as you would say, and provocative formulation of the point that I was trying to make, which was: "we hold everyone to the standards of the hyper-educated, but do everything we can to keep black people poor and education expensive." The post is about standards, and the way we use standards to enforce oppression and maintain the status quo. There is no implication that any one poet or their poetry is racist. If you see that in the post, you made up your mind before you got here.

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    3. Racism is, in its largest sense, the institutionalization of inequality based on supposed or alleged racial or ethnic differences. Sexism, in its largest sense, is the institutionalization of inequality based on supposed or alleged gender differences.

      An essential question underlying this discussion is, who holds political power, and in whose interests are they using that power?

      No, feminism is not "reverse sexism." The statement by Andrea Dworkin quoted above *may* be extreme (though I don't think it's possible to determine that without discussing the context of her statement, which is certainly relevant); but it is not the same thing as a government that cuts health care programs for single mothers and low-income pregnant women, or a corporation that systematically pays women less than men who are doing the same work, or an invading army that uses rape of women as a means of political oppression.

      The key word here is "oppression." A piece of rap music may say angry things about white people (or about specific actions about some white people), and again some of the things the piece of rap music says may be extreme in some sense (though again we need to include the context before we can say one way or another); but that's not the same thing as a government cutting the budget for civil rights enforcement, or a police department systematically targeting people of certain racial or ethnic groups for arrest and harassment, or a criminal "justice" system that imprisons people or certain racial or ethnic groups in vastly disproportionate numbers.

      Also, as an aside: I don't in fact know offhand when the word "racism" was first used, but certainly the * concept * of what is now called racism -- and organized public opposition to it -- existed before the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. To pick just one example, the anti-slavery movement of the early 1800's was, after all, among other things an anti-racist movement (whether or not the word "racist" existed at the time; and there are documented attempts at revolts and escapes by African and African-American people who were held as slaves in the western hemisphere, going back at least as far as the late 1700's.

      These things are, it seems to me, relevant to the discussion here...

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    4. Thanks so much, Lyle -- appreciate everything you've said here.

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  13. Since Lyle Daggett's post is directed at statements I made above, I feel some compulsion to respond to them.

    Limiting the definition of racism and sexism to the phrase "institutionalization" is gobbledygook. Racism and sexism have existed for thousands of years, and they still exist today. There is nothing "supposed" about racial or ethnic differences. It is those differences which define what we now proudly call "difference."

    I am attempting to draw a distinction between how words like "racism" and "sexism" are used in different contexts. Elisa proposed--half seriously as I think she says, since she was just responding to a quotation--that "technique" (that is, literary or poetic technique) is a form of racism. It isn't important to my critique that Elisa partly or completely believes this. I was mostly trying to argue against the notion that any writer's technique (his or her style, mode, etc.) could be accurately or usefully characterized by the use of such loaded words. It is one thing to describe the effective significance of a writer's work as "racist"--it is quite another thing to find in the literary style (or technique) the elements or seeds of a "racist" ideology.

    I characterized Elisa's remark about "technique" being racist as an extreme form of left reaction. She chose to regard that criticism as an attack on racial equality or feminism, when what I was attempting to point out was that without any specific applications or tests, such assertions become the occasion of vague and unhelpful obfuscation.

    One way to test the validity of a proposition is to apply it to one or another writers whose style is known. One application might be in trying deconstruct William Carlos Williams's style (or "technique") as "racist." Another might be in trying to demote Wallace Stevens along class grounds. These are possible tests of the proposition that "all technique is racist." It sounds silly when you apply it, as it should, because no writer's "style" is inherently "racist." It's an absurd statement. Because writers may be prejudiced or biased or bigoted, does not therefore mean their "technique" is racist, or sexist. People and governments may be racist, but words, or styles of language, aren't. Williams and Stevens didn't write in order to reinforce a status quo of racial or sexual oppression; but even if they had, trying to find in their "technique" a racial or sexist quality would be impossible. It's like saying that the use of good grammar is an insult to people who are illiterate.

    That's the problem I was attempting to expose. "All technique is racist" is the kind of remark one might hear uttered in intellectual company as a challenge thrown down. It has a provocative ring, and a certain PC concision. But on closer examination, it falls apart. It's the sort of irresponsible attitudinizing that leads to false choices.

    No one who had any serious feeling for literature would make such a remark. And of course it was taken from a "delightfully funny" novella. There are probably scholars who have actually tried to make that argument.

    But it does make for interesting discussion.

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    1. I repeat, since you show no evidence of having read, in full, or understood either the original post or my followup comments: The post is about standards, and the way we use standards to enforce oppression and maintain the status quo. There is no implication that any one poet or their poetry is racist.

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  14. Elisa:

    You said:

    "Technique is racist, in the sense that we hold everyone to the standards of the hyper-educated, but do everything we can to keep black people poor and education expensive."

    I disagree with this assertion. It's not about "standards" but about the implication that literary "technique" could be inherently "racist" in content or effect. Technique--the use of language to a desired effect--is not in itself racist or sexist. The argument of any text may well be overtly racist or sexist, but its technique cannot be. Where is this "technique" to exist except in the writing of individual writers? Unless you're claiming it's "in the culture" or the collective unconscious.

    You talk about enforcing oppression. Who exactly (or what) are you referring to? Thomas Lux's work? Where?

    Actually, I think it is you who are confused, in attempting to draw parallels between literary technique, racial and sexual oppression, and "accessibility." It's not at all clear what you're trying to say about any of these things. Read your own text, and ask yourself what you've said. How does your statement demonstrate the enforcement of oppression through literary "technique"? Readers can't be expected to see through your language to what you really meant. You have to say what you mean.

    "There is no implication that any one poet or their poetry is racist." You mean you didn't offer any examples of writers who did. Perhaps my point is that since you didn't, you weren't willing to test your assertion.

    I think the point is worth making, even if you refuse to take any responsibility for your own initial proposition.

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    1. Once again, I'm not talking about anyone's poetry. I'm talking about people in positions of power (for example, Billy Collins or Dana Gioia) insisting that all poetry be "accessible" -- but who is defining what's accessible? People who are already in power, of course. Your accessible is not the same as my accessible.

      Similarly, people in positions of power (the ones who award grants and book prizes, decide what gets put on college syllabi and who gets hired for full-time teaching jobs, etc.) make decisions based on perceived "technique", which means that the oppressed, poor, and undereducated are going to be seen as always already artistically inferior. "Technique," like accessibility, is defined by the people in power.

      Is that clear enough for you?

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  15. Curtis, this blogger has been a sport in engaging with your questions and remonstrances so far but I think it's time to call it a day, don't you? You've both had your say and enough is enough; if you haven't found common ground yet you're not going to. Move on.

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  16. Elisa:

    Thank-you for the clarification--it's really what I was looking for, and it answers my question. I was not trying to be argumentative at all. What you meant to say, and initially wrote, were not the same thing. Though I disagree with your position completely, it's too big a topic to discuss usefully in a blog comment box.

    Cheers.

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    1. I do think it is what I said, but fair enough. Someone yesterday pointed me to an essay by Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) from the '60s that made much the same case. I may post an excerpt here.

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