Nam si vos omnibus imperitare vultis, sequitur ut omnes servitutem accipiant?
(Tacitus, Annales XII, xxxvii)

30 Oct 2009

Partisan politics, personal animosity and poetry

A (Re-)Statement of Editorial Principle and Intent

Allowing political orientations to determine whose poetry one reads is the infallible sign of a poetastical mind, for the poetaster always treats art as secondary to other more important considerations.

Putting politics first and art second is exactly what these folks do, so, QED - they are poetasters: political animals who dabble in poetry as a secondary interest. Since poets are strongly individual, those who run and hunt in packs cannot be poets, by definition.

— Mark Allinson, Poet

The constant obsession of a particular group of partisans with certain poets whom they accuse of racism and genocide-denial often, in my experience, results in attacks on me as an editor for publishing the poetry of such alleged think-crime evil-doers. The hectoring bullying and threats frequently resorted to by these trollish partisans are a real blight on poetry. The world is full of people who others think are not nice, who are problematic, who we don't like, who behave badly, who say things we think are vile, and so on. We can't stop the show every time someone takes exception to someone else. That attitude is unreasonable and unworkable.

And — gasp! — the truth is that LOTS of poets (with many honourable exceptions) are themselves not very nice people. Some are self-obsessed, narcissistic, opinionated, loud-mouthed, monstrously selfish; some are lustful, intemperate, devious; some are tired and emotional, abusive, envious, petty-minded, untruthful; some are greedy, needy, stupid at times, controversial at others; some are perjured, murderous, bloody full of blame, savage, rude, cruel, not to trust; had, having, and in quest to have, extreme; some are dead-set barking mad. Ban them all? Shall the only poets we are allowed to read be those on a safe, sanitised, politically-correct list dictated by a particular claque of tricoteuses? I don't think so.

We each have different and often opposing ideas about what is acceptable, nice, poor taste, unspeakably evil, and so forth. Many of these partisan agenda-trolls I've referred to hold views that just as offensive and destructive, in my opinion, as those they allege to be held by the objects of their denigration. I too have political and moral views: for example, I find people who justify or support CURRENT acts of genocide and genocidal war crime to be even worse than those who deny past genocides (whom I also condemn). And I have genocide-deniers very close to home here in Australia, including the recent Prime Minister John Howard, much of his electoral base, and his favourite historians Geoffrey Blainey and Keith Windschuttle.

In Australia, it is alleged that Professor Keith Windschuttle, editor of Quadrant (where Les Murray is the poetry editor) has acted as a genocide-denier in books such as his Fabrication of Aboriginal History in relation to the genocidal destruction of Australia's indigenous population. His argument is based on evidential grounds philosophically very similar to those deployed by holocaust-deniers such as David Irving. This alleged denial of the attempted genocide of indigenous Australians is an issue which is very close to my heart, as is the similar horrendous treatment of the indigenous people of Palestine by those who illegally occupy their land. Yet here is a pillar of Australia's intellectual establishment who claims that what most of the intellectual community recognise as an ongoing act of genocide never actually occurred.

I totally disagree with Windschuttle and find his views repugnant and his methodology deeply flawed. Imagine though how indigenous Australians feel about this issue. They have been massacred, poisoned, raped, driven from their lands, deculturated, had their children taken from them, have been dispossessed, and are now told that it all just never happened. Should I then refuse to publish non-political work by Windschuttle (if he offered it, which is fairly unlikely), or by Les Murray (gulp! — I have!), or any poet who has published in Quadrant? That would include practically every Australian formalist poet of any standing, and many from overseas (gulp!— again, I have published poets who've appeared in Quadrant, such as Stephen Edgar, John Whitworth, Geoff Page, Alan Gould, and others). Should I wage a campaign of harassment against Les Murray and all who admire him or publish him, or publish next to him, or who are published by him, since Murray is associated with an alleged genocide-denier??

Outside of the Australian context: by the logic of the agitpropsters, then, shouldn't I refuse to publish the poetry of Philip Larkin, if he miraculously sends me a submission? We good citizens should close Larkin down. We should all relentlessly attack and defame anyone who admires or even mentions Larkin's poetry. We should pressure, libel and harass people who had work in The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse which he edited, demanding that they remove it. I'm talking about that same Philip Larkin who wrote
Prison for the strikers,
Bring back the cat,
Kick out the niggers —
How about that?

Who referred to West Indians as 'black scum' and wished the apartheid South African police could come over to UK to sort them out.

Whose father was enthusiastically pro-Nazi and had a little model of Hitler on the home mantelpiece which gave a Nazi salute when a button was pressed. Philip Larkin openly supported some aspects of Nazism right through WWII.

Who advocated that Britons vote for Enoch Powell, much admired by BNP types, the "Rivers of Blood" politician who opposed immigration and anti-discrimination laws, and wanted to keep Britain white.

Philip Larkin, who was anti-semitic and homophobic — although he DID avidly devour (and write) pornography salaciously depicting schoolgirl lesbianism, as well as photographs and texts privileging buggery and oral sex with schoolgirls by a "headmaster": pornography which he used to share around with other poets such as Robert Conquest.

Who was sexist and misogynistic and who frequently opined that women are stupid and inferior.

Who wrote "No subsidies for Gay Sweatshirt... or wogs like Salmagundi" (ie. Salman Rushdie).

And there's plenty more shockers on Larkin, and on other iconic, past and present, much-admired poets as well. Do we really want to get into all that? Does it really have anything to do with poetry? If so, by someone's lights or other, every poet in the world must be debarred.

Larkin's letters revealed not only a collector of dirty pictures but a man whose right-wing opinions sometimes accompanied flagrantly racist language. Larkin's epithets joined Eliot's arguable anti-Semitism and Pound's undoubted fascism as fuel for the over-familiar debate: Can a bad man be a good poet?"

— Stephen Burt, 'History takes a second look at Philip Larkin'

Larkin was clearly a racist homophobe with Nazi tendencies and pedophiliac inclinations. His œuvre and all approving references to him must be eradicated. The poet who wrote 'Aubade' and 'The Whitsun Weddings' should be outlawed and his poems, essays and novels suppressed, and all those who have read his works and, worse, praised them, should be counseled, re-educated, or outlawed.

I doubt anyone would seriously argue along those lines. But if I can be allowed to publish or admire the non-political works of associates of alleged genocide-denier Windschuttle, or the poems of racist, anti-semitic, homophobic, sexist, nazi-sympathising, misogynistic, pedophiliacly-inclined, rather nasty Philip Larkin, or fascist Ezra Pound, or anti-semitic T.S. Eliot, then why are these extremely non-PC poets exempt from the agitprop fatwa but certain other poets not? Is selective outrage at work here? Does it perhaps all boil down to sheer personal animosity?

I will not be intimidated by the Bovver Boys and Girls who routinely use troll-tactics to harass and vilify me for publishing non-political poetry by particular poets in a context that has NO political connotations whatsoever. I could not go on as an editor if I excluded a poet's work just because of whatever opinions she is alleged to have expressed elsewhere than the work itself, or because someone else is waging a personal vendetta against her, or because a particular claque of hard-line activists tries to intimidate me from doing so. And nearly always in my opinion the people who do the shouting and denigrating are far inferior in their ability to write poetry than the poets they target for harassment.

Attempts to coerce opinion are ALWAYS counterproductive. They turn people against the would-be coercers, as they have myself, and many others to my certain knowledge. And the supreme irony is that whenever these extremists wage one of their sordid coercion campaigns, visits to the magazine concerned immediately and markedly increase, and submissions increase dramatically too, with many who submit work or send letters commenting on how turned off they are by the attempts to sabotage peaceful, non-political poetry publication. The lynch mob is actually giving even more exposure to the very poets it is attempting to banish into oblivion! I suppose I shouldn't complain about that since it boosts both readership and range of contributors: but God! — these trolls are not very bright, then, are they?

Since I began editing and publishing the works of others, I have consistently and forthrightly stated my position on these matters. For me it is the most basic principle of poetic and editorial integrity to publish the work, not the person. One example of my statements on this issue is in my answer to Question 8 here, in Nic Sebastian's interviews with editors on Very Like a Whale. Yes, I would publish a good poem by the Spring-Heeled Terror of Stepney Green!

When I am being a poetry editor, I am not at all being Your Special Friend. I don't care what vile, hurtful things the mean man or nasty lady said to you, or said about you; or what wickedness they wrought seven years ago; or how you've suffered and suffered at the hands of persecutors; or how sternly you disapprove of their opinions or lifestyle. I do not share your Manichean view of the struggle of Good and Evil (in which you, of course, are of the Good party), which struggle is being waged apparently on the front of poetry publication; and I am not going to take sides in that struggle. I care only about one thing: the poem in front of me.

You might ask: why don't I just solve the problem by not publishing the alleged Evil-Doers' poetry? — Well then I have just capitulated to a group holding a gun to my head. And what is to stop some other faction from using the same tactics to demand that some other poet be banned? I just cannot run a poetry magazine under that kind of threat.

And if the next response is: why do I not just dislike the Evil-Doers' poetry? Well, that's not the truth. In my editorial judgment the Evil Doers concerned write good poetry often enough to make their poetry better than other poems submitted for the same issues.

I would have thought all of this is just basic editing ethics. At least people can send me poems and know that I will select them strictly on the value of the poetry as I see it. I truly believe that kind of morality and integrity is crucial to the role of editing. You don't just say, 'Oh that's a good poem but because it's by so-and-so I'm not publishing it.' That (to me) is unethical, corrupt.

I think it's rather like exam marking. We mark the students' exam essays blind, both at school and for the state-wide HSC. If I gave a student 18/20 for an answer, and then when I convert the student numbers to names I learn that the student is Biffo Brannigan, who's a real bloody shite, I do not believe that assessment of his personal life entitles me to change his mark, which he has won fair and square. Indeed I would be in deep shit with the Board of Studies if they discovered I'd done that. And quite rightly too.

Listen up, agitpropsters: will I continue to publish poems by people whose thoughts you or I agree or disagree with? Or whose characters seem problematic or not? Or whom you or I like or do not like, whoever they are?

Too bloody right I will! As long as those poems are the best poems available. I will continue to publish, without fear or favour, the very BEST poetry submitted to the magazines which I edit, applying no other criterion than the poetic quality of the poem concerned. Get over it.


Paraglider said...

I've even heard it said that Francois Villon wasn't a very nice bloke, but I can't believe that, can you? Hang on in there!

RHE said...

I had occasion to quote from Yeats's "The Scholars" in another context this week, but it seems appropriate here, too:

Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk their way?

Writers can make uncomfortable companions. As can bricklayer, tax accountants, and professional jai alai players. In the wee small hours of the morning I used to wonder why so many of the Modernists were so damned unsavoury--Pound, Eliot, Yeats, Lawrence, et al.--until it dawned on me that I had no good reason to think they were unrepresentatively unsavoury. If I stopped a man at random on the street and somehow elicited a frank statement of his views, would he be sounder on blood-lust than Lawrence? on the International Jewish Federation for the Promotion of Usura than Pound? I wasn't sure then. I'm still not.


Caratacus said...

François Villon not altogether nice? D.H. Lawrence a bit vigorous in the Strange Opinions department? Philip Larkin an Orangeman? No, no, no gentlemen! Poets are all lofty beings who say wise and noble things. They do not have a bad or non-Politically Correct bone in their bodies. Think Shelley! Byron! Shakespeare! Goethe! Angels all!

posthumous said...

now, if only every ass wrote great poetry...

Caratacus said...

Richard, I disagree. I've never met a professional jai alai player who was anything less than a saint.

Caratacus said...

Postie, Have you not read Apuleius? The 'Hymn to Isis' is pretty out-there.