This Peculiar Age, or: When Poems Kill

The Nation is an American magazine of left-wing politics and culture founded in 1865. It is the longest continuously-published weekly magazine in the US.

One day in the future, both this poem and the reaction to it will be seen as a curious example of a very strange era (and a fallow period) in American politics and culture:

Editor’s note: On July 24, 2018, The Nation and its poetry editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, made this statement about the poem below, which contains disparaging and ableist language that has given offense and caused harm to members of several communities:

As poetry editors, we hold ourselves responsible for the ways in which the work we select is received. We made a serious mistake by choosing to publish the poem “How-To.”  We are sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem. We recognize that we must now earn your trust back.  Some of our readers have asked what we were thinking. When we read the poem we took it as a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization. We can no longer read the poem in that way.

We are currently revising our process for solicited and unsolicited submissions. But more importantly,  we are listening, and we are working. We are grateful for the insightful critiques we have heard, but we know that the onus of change is on us, and we take that responsibility seriously. In the end, this decision means that we need to step back and look at not only our editing process, but at ourselves as editors.

* * *

If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,
say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick. People
passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee
funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely
to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop. If you’re young say younger.
Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hardly even there.

5 thoughts on “This Peculiar Age, or: When Poems Kill

  1. I know you don’t like the Left very much anymore, but I’m a bit disappointed that during the past months you’ve somehow started to fall for the most tiresome New Right tropes, i.e. attacking transgender activists or proponents of LGBT right. Mostly in your FB and Twitter accounts, but it’s starting to drip through in your blog as well. Bizarrely enough, I myself have been a critic of identity politics when it went mainstream, but now since everyone from major newspapers to third-rate neo-Nazis YouTubers are attacking usually only the most extreme outcomes of it without looking closer at its origins, I somehow tend to defend it. Quite strange, innit?

    If I remember correctly, you once said that you pay attention to all media, no matter what their political affilication is. Then how come you always have a very soft spot for the extreme Right – like the Gatestone Institute, PI-News, Junge Freiheit or recently even Sezession -, while you always ridicule mildly left-winger papers? If you’d give equal credit to all sides, then you would also recommend articles by, say, Jacobin in the USA, or Jungle World, Neues Deutschland, konkret or taz in Germany. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Why is that? My personal theory is that since the migrant crisis you started digging deeper into the lunatic fringe of the right-wing side of things, since you agreed with them on the issue of immigration, but then ended up also agreeing with them on other issues – even to the point of digging questionable ‘scientists’ who write esoteric stuff about IQs and ‘race’.

    I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but I know countless people who stopped reading your blog at that point, saying stuff like “It was a very good blog, until Andrew started getting political”. I know that by writing about clickbaiting topics like immigration, Islam, feminism etc. you’ll get a whole new set of readers and commenters, but bear in mind that you’ll also lose your old crowd.

    1. Doctor Benway,

      I have no idea, how you gathered the information that lead to your comment.
      But since I cannot really tell how you got to your scathing judgements, I am somewhat curious to learn how you arrived there.

      »I know you don’t like the Left very much anymore…«
      First, I think, nobody who is above 20 years old (and not only in age, but also in regard of his cognitive abilities) “likes” entire political movements — or if so, he will know about the irrelevance of his emotional involvement to anyone else
      Second, as far as I have learned when I was about 14, you usually get much more upset about the unpleasant developments among those people/movements you generally relate to — rather than those among people/movements you already find disconcerting.
      Hence, if anything his critical remarks about the left shows his affiliation or interest in the left, rather than the opposite

      »Then how come you always have a very soft spot for the extreme Right – like the Gatestone Institute, PI-News, Junge Freiheit or recently even Sezession —, while you always ridicule mildly left-winger papers? If you’d give equal credit to all sides, then you would also recommend articles by, say, Jacobin in the USA, or Jungle World, Neues Deutschland, konkret or taz in Germany.«

      I find that argument quite flimsy, since I don’t see Andrew’s blog as part of the Paritätischer Wohlfahrtsverband.
      And while the Neues Deutschland and Jungle World may occasionally have some interesting articles, they both have become REALLY fringe projects, barely anyone notices. Why should Andrew?
      And when it comes to “konkret” — there is rarely any article in it which is not just narrow-minded gibberish written in an ideological jargon which is hard to even translate into reasonable German.
      I occasionally try to read it. But it is really tough, because you constantly have to ignore logic and facts.
      Andrew occasionally hints/links to “Jacobin” and “taz” articles; so that part of your accusation is flat wrong anyway.
      And while I might not like the political direction of the Junge Freiheit (I consider myself on the left as well) — it is certainly not an “extreme right” paper. Have you ever read a right-wing paper in another country?
      Sure: if you stand on the bottom of a steep valley, even a mild knoll appears like a peak. So, seen from the extreme left, even the Süddeutsche is a Nazi paper, I assume.
      And: when did you read a quote or link to the “Junge Freiheit” in Andrew’s blog? When?

      »even to the point of digging questionable ‘scientists’ who write esoteric stuff about IQs and ‘race’.«
      I would be very interested in learning about your knowledge in these areas and how you earned the merits to put quotation marks around scientists.
      As a fellow German (and all you write and how you write leaves no doubt you are a German as well), I have my reservations about the whole I! measuring as well. However, I find it extremely daring to claim it all “esoteric stuff”, just because I don’t like it.
      But maybe you are “vom Fach” — then I would appreciate your reasoning why this can’t be taken seriously.

      »I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but I know countless people who stopped reading your blog at that point, saying stuff like “It was a very good blog, until Andrew started getting political”.«
      You know countless people of that sort. Literally: countless people.
      I assume Andrew will be delighted to learn that his blog was read by countless people. 🙂
      However:

      »I know that by writing about clickbaiting topics like immigration, Islam, feminism etc. you’ll get a whole new set of readers and commenters, but bear in mind that you’ll also lose your old crowd.”«

      How is it that immigration, Islam and feminism are “clickbait”, if the opinions/observations uttered contradict yours? I assume it would be alright, if Andrew just defended the relatively unreasonable clickbait you can read/hear/see in all other papers like the ones you mentioned above plus the GEZ financed, power cementing emo news.

      Regards, Q

      ps: First I admired your choice of pseudonym, btw, because it creates an interesting contradiction between the bitterness of your accusations and the cynicism of WSB’s figure. However, the excitement quickly faded after I discovered the actual source.

      [Just to clarify: I am reading Andrew’s blog for, I would guess, 11 or 12 years. So I should have noticed the same tendencies, I assume.]

    2. Heck, I post about whatever captures my interest, and it’s pretty random.

      I rarely post about day-to-day politics, it bores me. Although you would not *believe* how much posts like that shoot up my clicks. If I posted about how outrageous what Seehofer said about Hofreiter was, or vice-versa, people would go nuts. But after years of carefully monitoring the German political scene, I’m convinced that those are trivial, time-wasting distractions. Whatever Seereiter says about Hofhofer has zero policy implications, it’s Kabuki.

      So I try to concentrate on the policy. I try to articulate points of view that I don’t think are getting the attention they merit, especially in the German press.

      I almost never post about “feminism” as such, the topic doesn’t interest me. Nor do I post about Islam, as such, because I don’t care much about it.

      Immigration, on the other hand, I find quite interesting. I have posted a lot about it, and I think those posts have held up extremely well. Germany’s immigration policy is a disaster area, and politicians of every party now openly admit this. I like to think I contributed to that clarity of focus. Every prediction I made in 2015 has come true in spades. I never use moronic exaggerations like ‘invasion’ or Eurabia, or horseshit about European politicians ‘capitulating to the Muslim hordes’.

      My politics haven’t changed, I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the welfare state. And I am familiar with th extensive literature which shows that mass uncontrolled immigration poses a direct mortal threat to the welfare state. It’s out there, read it and be enlightened.

      I also think extreme forms of identity politics pose a direct mortal threat to the welfare state. They constantly redirect debate from core issues of distributional justice to various ethnic factional grievances, with disastrous effects. Read Mark Lilla, and you’ll see what I think.

      And this post is, if you ask me, a perfect illustration of the absurd and threatening extreme of identity politics. Look at the language of the poetry editors — it’s 100% identical to “self-criticism” during Stalinist show trials. They are terrified of losing their jobs and positions! And they also invoke the sinister, mindless cant that words are violence and can “harm” people, which I genuinely, no-bullshit believe is one of the most dangerous ideas that ever emerged from “critical” thinking in the late 20th century. It’s done so much mischief it would take a lifetime to list it. That illiberal piece of horseshit deserves to be aggressively attacked every. single. time. it. emerges.

      Don’t agree? Fine! Start your own blog, and start a debate. I love debates!

  2. It would be nice, if there was a link to the original source. Because I can absolutely not comprehend, which ‘communities’ might feel hurt by this poem and what in the world their reasoning might be.
    This poem is a quasi-Brecht piece, nobody gets offended by Brecht, not even a Shapiro or Crowder! Or at least that’s what I thought.

  3. This

    “We are sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem”

    is appaling. Why should poetry editors apologise for the alleged psychological effects of the work they publish? Surely, their concern should be its – dare I say it? – artistic merit.

    It is also appaling because it is brimful of hubris and thoroughly essentialising. “The pain we have caused to the many communities … ” Like, every single member of them? Wow, you are powerful! And these communities all think as one body? I hope they don’t, because that would be a nightmare indeed (luckily, this is unlikely).

    No Selbstkritik, but another grand gesture of fake repentance. Which makes the whole thing even worse!

    Anja

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