Want mo' poetry? Well then Gitmo poetry!

I heard it first on KALW, a story prompted by the Wall Street Journal on poetry written by Guantanamo detainees to be published in August by the University of Iowa Press. Not surprisingly, any number of screechingly conservative critics have chimed in, appearing to range in response from derision, mock Gitmo poetry contests to "how dare the liberal media humanize these sick bastards."

As usual, like college freshmen drunk with their acceptance into some Greek franchise (that is, now part of a larger scheme of things), these bloggers are so eager to express their newfound confidence that they overstep and miss the obvious. Which is -- yes, sigh, go ahead and write this down. But you wouldn't have to if you just opened your eyes -- most so-called poetry sucks. Really bad. If you don't already know this, read the lyrics from songs you thought were cool five years ago. My apologies in advance for bursting that bubble. Now, imagine someone doing it for the first time, under duress, as if the conditions of life they face was itself a kind of art.

The Gitmo poetry I heard was no exception. Here's an example, excerpted without permission:

When I heard pigeons cooing in the trees,
Hot tears covered my face.
When the lark chirped, my thoughts composed
A message for my son.
Mohammad, I am afflicted.
In my despair, I have no one but Allah for comfort.
The oppressors are playing with me,
As they move freely around the world.
They ask me to spy on my countrymen,
Claiming it would be a good deed.

Uh huh. What about those pigeons again? And that lark? Is he ok?

If I seem callous, it's because I have this in mind about art. Once we raise our own experience to this form, we surrender it, in some part. It is no longer ours to claim in the same sense as before we committed it outside of ourselves. We have, at best, some moral authority as author, which readers and critics allow in varying degrees. We do have as much stake in interpretation as any reader too, yes, but not more. The guy starts in on birds, implores his god, complains about the oppressors. Make this thing birdless and godless, and it's a (less hysterical) version of what his detractors would say about him. So what.

This poem isn't more special because we know the circumstances of the author, even though that might be the only reason we'd read it. Nor does it heighten the effect of mediocre expression to know what the author is going through, although we might mistake our feeling for his experience, as we imagine it, for the impact of the poem itself.

You can compare work of this sort to about what you get from a college freshman whose most significant life event might ever remain adolescent ("Love so flows from my heart's emotion / Rushing down these falls to your wide blue ocean"). Or from an R&B speak-song that devolves into verbal diarrhea ("You know, baby...it's like...when we bought Red Vines...at...Spider-Man 3...and I felt in my pocket...for that...extra quarter. You gave me...that dollar bill...You had change from Wendys...and when you said..."99 cents"...I know you meant it...99 cents."). Or from your average bored housewife taking a turn in the coffeehouse scene (A poem from my heart that I gave you before / and you took it and told me you think it's a bore / Are you giving less because I give so much more? / Why don't you take the couch, and I'll take the door?)

Let's dispose of the notion that suffering and extraordinary circumstance are what make fine poetry. It's like saying sharp knives and double-clad pots make fine cuisine. They can help, sure, but they hardly guarantee fine results, and they certainly aren't essential, however widely used. By the same token, you can't throw just anyone into a muggy, sweaty box, deny them proper nutrition, civil and human rights and somehow forge Maya Angelou out of your garden-variety Muhammad Ansar. If that's all it took, we'd get a whole lot more good poetry out of rural Mississippi than we do.

The innate power by which we receive and interpret experience matters. The drive we have to express that experience also matters. And what abilities and skills we can apply to shape our expression in art : through a pen, a musical instrument, a dance, or any other form, does matters. These are the means by which we persuade readers, both to see things as we do and to merit their attention. And if it that experience seems banal or amateurish, then it is. But it has little to do with the gravity of experience itself.

Still, poetry is the kind of thing many of us are willing to give a shot, at least if it comes within range and doesn't stay for too long. I suppose that's what the conservative hate blogs are worried about, that blood-boiling manipulation of an art form -- which they must suddenly value, otherwise why the rush to demean it? -- and possibly creating sympathy for these freedom-hating rag-head fanatics who don't deserve an audience, what they deserve is to be kicked in the face and bitten by dogs for killing innocent people!

(No single blogger I read actually wrote that. I did compile that last sentence, though, from previewed bits and pieces of my search results. As a whole, people, you got issues if you think detainment at Guantanamo with no legal rights only scratches the surface of a detainee's due. Not to dampen the call for blood, but bear in mind, these people have not been charged with crimes yet. This is the real world, not some fantasy episode of Walker, Texas Ranger.)

Here's why I recommend you read or at least listen to some of these poems, somewhere, some time. And yes, for the very reasons your hate-bloggers tell you not to. It will demonstrate that a suspected terrorist with no gun, no hope, no outlet for his desires, and no protection beyond the tolerance of his enemies, is but another sad, scared, desperate creature who wants to go home. Failing that, he looks for emotional refuge in poetry, like any college freshman trying to cope with a bewildering, overwhelming experience in which he has no control, no power, and no way to compel our thoughts on it.

Not what I'd call the face of terror.


GETkristiLOVE said...

So, is this like the time you told me that I don't have to have something bad happen to me on a climb to write about it?

I agree that most poetry sucks.

Skylers Dad said...

The extent of my poetry skills begin and end with "There once was a man from Nantuckett"...

But that's why I have friends like you with great skillz!

Michael said...

GKL: It's exactly that, hon.

sd: Lots of gangs want me because I'm pretty good with a Bo staff.

vikkitikkitavi said...

Did that Gore Vidal blurb really say “At last Guantánamo has found its voice”?

That's worse than the poetry.