Poetry and Capitalist Cultural Entrapments
The recent deaths of Wanda Coleman, Alvin Aubert, and Amiri Baraka led me to think about what we lose and what we inherit when writers die in a message
To Those Who Grieve the Death of a Poet
If you dream you are a star
More than a grain of dirt
Declare your poems to be
More than teaspoons of water
Dropped into a raving sea
You are more a fool
Than language has named you.
You worry death to death.
Your encrypted bones
Can, should you let them,
Lead you to bless the body
With the balm of love.
Recall. Spirit speaks
Echoes in the canyons of mind:
Struggle. Nothing has ended
Change. Struggle. No peace arrived.
Struggle until the end. The end
Qualifies you with death
To mourn and bury the dead.
January 16, 2014
The message is a communication to an unknown addressee. I know that I intended to say we lose a unique voice when a poet dies and inherit an obligation to continue the work of rewriting the world in our own voices. Who listens? Who learns? I don’t know. Does the message only become a poem as the result of unpredictable engagements? I don’t know. If the latter is the case, I prefer that the message prevails, that it inspires a transformation of sorrow into altruism.
I remind myself that human beings are mortal particles of consciousness in our universe, necessary only for other human beings. We are at once subjects and objects to be loved or hated by human beings by virtue of what we offer in language and action. That is all. Other life forms and inert matter need neither us nor our speech acts, despite our bloated myths of human superiority and arbitrary beliefs about spiritual links with supreme powers that may or may not exist in time. ISMs, especially planetary and cultural capitalisms, have addicted many of us to abject misery and primitive aesthetics. Flattered to embrace maximum ego and minimal reason, many particles of consciousness believe freedom is interchangeable with enslavement, that form trumps content.
I am meek enough to be tutored by poets who have departed for elsewhere. Coleman says brutal realities should be weapons. Aubert cautions that radical outbursts ought to be trimmed and nuanced. And Baraka tells me to disturb the blindness of peace until it can give birth to truth. They mentor me in traditions. It is to Baraka’s language, Aubert’s language, Coleman’s language ---all of it ---that I can turn to reshape my sorrow for the death of poets into forms of literary and cultural work which do not apologize for being at once political and aesthetic. Some of that work depends greatly on my motions as a particle of consciousness.
The message ultimately is about literature in a world enthralled by capitalist cultural entrapments. By reinventing Marxism in his own image, Fredric Jameson theorized these entrapments two decades ago. Indeed, a few of his ideas about the always already changing present in Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) deal appropriately with the malaise of the 21st century: the discovery of beauty in a photograph of a starving child. The surrealism in Jameson’s premises about the status quo inspires genuine disdain for the bad faith of elitist assumptions. An exquisitely crafted villanelle about a roach is not more important than a less pristine sonnet on rape. Capitalist cultural entrapment argues the opposite is the case.
Jameson’s insights about the cultural pathology of late capitalism fail to convince me that human beings have abandoned primal agency in some fluke of evolving. His assertions are unfortunate but legitimate examples of the pink mentality at work. Poets who still have black fire know all too well what pink mentality spawns. It is in the best interest of amoral global capitalism that the bulk of the world’s population be unable to articulate the horrors of everyday life, so stoned should they be with doses of trivia and technical entertainments. This best interest is the bane of poetry, so cultural entrapment tantalizes the least engaged poets with trinkets of achievement. This is not Jameson’s argument, but his work does make recognition of perverted motives possible. And he speaks more honestly than some intellectuals who dress their ideas in post-post-colonial garb and post-racial footwear. He had the decency to admit that his theorizing was an experiment not a truth. Jameson is not a poet, but he does inform us about the gravity of the choices poets make.
What engaged poets have the option of rejecting are postmodern suggestions that any iteration of history breaks the chains that bind us to humanity and responsibilities. Jameson spills the beans because his own immersion in capitalism is utterly translucent and rhetorical, remarkably Western. I have lived in the West most of my life and have intimacy with its foibles and motives. Innocence is not an option.
We are responsible for the surplus of evils we manufacture, for the paucity of good we produce, for our penchant to renounce our histories. We are free to sell our souls for bitcoins; free to author our own damnation; free to deny the burdens of tradition and to lust after the bliss of absolute innovation; free to smirk at the bearing of witness by those who value humility; free to pretend truth-telling efforts are prescriptive instruments of torture. No doubt, prayer in the tradition of George Moses Horton and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper or meditation on the outer limits of inner space “liberates” a small number of poets from slavish cultural entrapments. Blessed are those who pray, for they have epiphanies about the absurdity of being human. They may not be able to prevent "forgetting" from happening, but they do have the agency to retard its happening too rapidly. Poets who know what tradition means pray frequently.
January 23, 2014.