Do No Harm

Don Share's recent resignation letter from Poetry magazine contained a fascinating claim that poetry was a promise - a promise to the reader to ultimately do no harm to them. Writing in the context of having published a very long, probably mediocre, and offensive poem filled with racist slurs, by a young, privileged, white American poet, in his famous magazine, this makes a noble sense. At a time when systemic racism is a vital issue to confront, editorial decisions have meaning - symbols matter, and time and space given over to less important themes or concerns can appear to be, or actually be, hurtful, and damaging.

Share was writing primarily as an editor, willing to take responsibility for his selections and choices, but he is also a poet, and a scholar, whose expertise relates to Seneca and, in the modern period, Basil Bunting. Bunting, a disciple of Ezra Pound, could hardly agree with Share's idea of harm, nor would the stoic Seneca, since the stoics believed harm only resides in the mind of the person who decides to accept pain. Stoicism directly confronts slavery, sees it as an evil, but one that any free person can avoid, by suicide. No man is a slave who has control of their own mind, according to this ancient worldview. Bunting and Pound, meanwhile, as modernists, would have seen poetry and poetics as confrontational acts, hugely engaged with language, history, and politics, unafraid to do or say what they felt needed doing.

2020 is not the time to re-evaluate modernism in toto, or maybe it is, but it is surely important to at least acknowledge the extraordinary cultural shift that occurs, if we begin to ask of all our poems, and by extension, other literary works (songs, stories, plays, fictions), that they never harm us. This is not a new issue - trigger warnings are often required now in educational settings. That seems, to this essayist, a decision best left to the students and teachers themselves, who may find such warnings helpful, and is, properly, an extra-literary choice. To ask for a warning is not to ask that the works not exist - it is to place the work in a safe context to be analysed properly, just as we expect viruses or radiation to be shielded from the scientists who study them.

There is a long and once-admired line of avant-garde modernist writing, what Cyril Connolly, the great editor and critic and writer, once called The Movement - which stretches from Baudelaire and Rimbaud, up to, at least, Orwell and Koestler. The main aim of these plays, memoirs, novels and poems, written in French, German, and English, among other European languages, was to 'blast' pre-conceived notions, challenge fixed views, and to react to the new, urban age of mass war and technology emerging. These works are often uncanny, strange, discomfiting, shocking, and offensive - they transgress.

Using Dadaist, expressionistic, surrealist, Marxist, or Freudian ideas and techniques, to grossly simplify, modern writers established many modernisms as new ways of creating art, and rethinking and re-experiencing existence. It is hardly possible to read modernist classics, such as Ulysses, Benn's poems, Kafka's stories, or Orwell's warnings, and NOT BE HARMED (though it can be said the women writers of the modernist period were usually less reactionary). Ibsen, Proust, Yeats, Lawrence - all explore sexuality, society, and the demonic internal energies of the soul or psyche - in highly disturbing ways.

We cannot lose the value of these works, or mislay their provocations - they laid a groundwork for our current world, and its writings. This is not to say the fascism, anti-Semitism and casual racism of many of these writers is exemplary - it was not, however it fuelled the writers at the time. But even here, there is a warning - Kipling's jingoism was admired and praised at the time on Empire, precisely because he did not harm the accepted values of his readers. Owen DID challenge the vision of war, and is now considered the greater for it.

No one likes the idea of aiding or abetting a bad person, or someone with unpleasant ideas or opinions, and it is therefore perfectly natural to want editors to only publish work that expresses helpful, inspiring, positive, and good ideas and opinions. For the time being if not longer, this means publishing work that does not 'centre' white privilege, or deny the horrors and evil of racism, which is systemic. There IS a genocide against African-Americans, Malcolm X was correct to say that - and Kanye West repeated it in his new song a few days ago. However, precisely why Kanye and X are to be valued is because they did not hold back, or wear kid gloves, or mince words. Franz Fanon, the greatest writer on anti-colonialism, is effective because he is not shy to say what must be said against imperial crimes, and he is upsetting to many readers who do not want to lose their positions of racially-held privilege.

Powerful writing must always reserve the right to be dangerous writing. No revolution ever was achieved with only lambs - you need lions and tigers - as writers, and on the barricades. The truth is, Share may have forgotten that poems can do harm - so long as the harm is to the correct enemy of the text.

As Jonathan Swift showed, in his world-shaking satires, if the reader IS the enemy, then the reader should have a mirror held up to them, so they can see their true selves, and correct their ways. Animal Farm, the greatest 20th century fable, worked because, like with Paul Beatty's satires, it rings true, offends, shocks, but is also GREAT ART.

Maybe the main sin of an editor is to publish writing that is weak or ill-conceived. However, if our books can no longer include references to crime, injustice, cruelty, deprivation, evil, or upsetting things, then they will not be able to do battle with the world, and the writers and readers who reside therein, who sometimes must be temporarily harmed, to be cured of what ails them. This used to be called catharsis, by the ancient Greeks, and it is why tragic and horror stories, from Frankenstein, to Dracula, to All Quiet On The Western Front, Cronenberg, and Get Out, are so desired and potent - the shock factor can work wonders.


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