Crank Watch: Cinna the Poet
In the world of warblogs, as in the world of George W. Bush, you are either with us or against us. This goes double for you blogdamned poets.
Andrew Sullivan's April 5 entries dwell upon this poem by Frank Bidart. Originally deeming it a "Sontag Award Nominee"--the sobriquet Sullivan usually applies to that which he deems traitorous--Sullivan only somewhat relented when a few readers pointed that the poem might be, well, complex.
Entitled "Curse," the work in question is clearly inspired by the destruction of the World Trade Center. It uses the device of alternating roman and italic type to suggest two points of view. It is not a stretch to perceive these as the POVs, alternately, of the terrorists and the terrorized. The poem closes: "Out of the great secret of morals, the imagination to enter the skin of another, what I have made is a curse."
My take is, Bidart showed each party desperate to make the other understand its suffering, thus furthering the suffering of both. To put it thus, of course, is to reduce it. Some novelist, I forget who, said that if he had wanted to send a message, he would have written a message, not a novel. Certain artists are a little more transparent, but Bidart clearly isn't one of these. And poetry is famously harder to pin down than prose.
At Sullivan's site, though, the question comes down: Is he with us or against us? "I remain convinced Bidart was having it both ways," sniffs one correspondent. "i.e., why aren't 'we' (the evil West) able to use moral imagination to feel what the bombers felt? See what I mean? Clever."
No, another answers, "it makes a good deal more sense that this curse is directed at the terrorists (or the fundamentalist mentality) and their 'rectitude.'"
"Mr. Bidart, if you're out there," Sullivan finally demands, "and have caught wind of this, would you write me to let me know? Or are we all too post-modern to care what the poet actually meant?"
Whether Bidart is up to the job of explaining poetry to pedants is anyone's guess. But I find it interesting that as Sullivan insists on political clarity from poets, he finds much to admire in President Bush's recent, foggy statement on Israel.
Even Bush booster Daniel Pipes finds the President's statement baffling, but Sullivan deems it "clear"--then works through its text like a tea-leaf reader: "The president significantly didn't set a time-table for Israeli withdrawal," says the erstwhile advocate of unambiguous verse," and Colin Powell won't be in Israel until the end of next week. So Israel has some lee-way, and should find a way to get out as effectively as possible." What would getting out "effectively" mean? Through Arafat's HQ?
At the New York Post, John Podhoretz limns Bush further: "Significantly, following Bush's condemnation of him, Arafat's name did not reappear in the speech...If anything, the president implicitly endorsed the notion that the Israelis might do everybody a favor by exiling Arafat." But that's a very different thing from saying "Arafat must go," isn't it?
It is understandable that, faced with such a delicate crisis, a president would use a little creative indirection. Why then are poets not afforded the same understanding?
In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare showed a mob setting on one Cinna, who has the same name as one of Caesar's assassins. "I am Cinna the Poet!" he protests, to which the crowd replies, "Tear him for his bad verses!"
Shakespeare has much to teach us. But first, we have to know how to read.
April 5, 2002