Enquiry: Essays on offensiveness, risk and the risqué
Part I: The risk of taking risks: Tony Hoagland, Claudia Rankine and ‘The Change’
I want some of my poems to alarm people with their subjects and attitudes. I think poems can be too careful. A poem is not a teddy bear […]. Finally let me say that I think my poem “The Change” is not “racist” but “racially complex.”
– Tony Hoagland
When asked what his thinking was while working on the poem, my colleague said this poem is for white people. Did he mean it was for white people to see themselves and their thinking? He did not say that. He said it was for white people.
What I heard was, I don’t need to explain myself to you, black girl. And though the last time I looked in the mirror I looked like my black mother, and not how she looked when she was a child, I was transporting the language of the poem, black girl, to refer to myself, and getting even angrier. And though I realized this was me thinking as him, and not in fact him speaking, when offense is being taken offense is heard everywhere, even in the imagination.
– Claudia Rankine
I’m on Tony Hoagland’s side of the big argument of whether [‘The Change’] is appropriate or not, simply because we want more white people to take risks, not less.
– Terrance Hayes
Tony Hoagland’s controversial poem ‘The Change’, in which a female tennis player, “a big black girl from Alabama”, bears “cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms, / some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite” was preceded by at least one other poem that seriously flirted with bad taste. ‘Adam and Eve’, from Hoagland’s 1998 collection Donkey Gospel, features a sexually aroused male speaker who is denied penetration by the “her” in the poem. “I wanted to punch her right in the mouth” is the way the poem opens. “I wanted to punch her right in the mouth and that’s the truth.” Hoagland, in articulating the thoughts of a hypothetical man who is refused sex at the “crucial moment” was generally considered to be making an acceptable, if uncomfortable, creative move. The speaker doesn’t punch the woman in the mouth. On the contrary, he uses a clever parallelism to illustrate the inverse power dynamic between men and women: “[…] the woman thrills with the power of her weakness / and the man is astonished by the weakness of his power”.
The poem is a dramatic monologue, nestled among other unmistakable dramatic monologues. The ‘real’ Tony Hoagland is safely distanced from the laid-bare ugliness of his speaker’s psychology. Except the speaker’s psychology isn’t ugly, not after the “punching” comment. It’s a self-aware speaker who wonders “Am I allowed to say that, / that I wanted to punch her right in her soft face?” This poem is suspicious of desire (“As long as there is desire, we will not be safe”) and insists on truth (“Until we say the truth, there can be no tenderness”). Hovering uncomfortably between lyric and monologue, the ‘I’ may be a persona, but it’s a thinking persona, one that is not a million miles away from the poet who creates a distortion, version or exaggeration of the self.
‘The Change’, which appeared in Hoagland’s collection What Narcissism Means to Me (2003), contains another uncomfortably situated ‘I’ who not-too-flatteringly describes the parodically named black female tennis player as “hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation / down Abraham Lincoln’s throat”. ‘The Change’ triggered a public exchange between Hoagland and his former colleague Claudia Rankine, who condemned the poem, and Hoagland’s remarks about the poem, at a conference in 2011. The letters between the two, which are preserved on the Academy of American Poets website, reverberate in Rankine’s Citizen (2014) and in her ongoing Racial Imaginary project.
The reverberations can be felt also when American poets now ask themselves what is and isn’t permissible. “There’s a line between being usefully offensive and just bad”, Rachel Zucker speculates in a two-hour interview with Terrance Hayes in episode 18 of her podcast Commonplace. Almost inevitably Hoagland comes up in the conversation. “It’s a good poem”, Hayes says of ‘Adam and Eve’. “[Hoagland] is working out impulse and desire […] But with ‘The Change’, I saw him trying to make a similar effort, but underestimating the weight of history.” That ‘The Change’ was a miscalculation by a skilled poet who thought that gender and race could be interchangeably subversive is forgivable, Hayes believes. “Is Tony Hoagland a racist or putting out racist views? I would say no. He wrote a bad poem.”
Hayes and Zucker continue:
Zucker: Can you write a good racist poem?
Hayes: A persona poem, sure. Patricia Smith has done it: ‘Skinhead’. But it’s not really clear that the persona is working.
Zucker: I don’t want to see a white person write that persona poem.
Hayes: That is the risk! As Gertrude Stein says, “If it can be done, why do it.” So it’s like, only do the shit that can’t be done. That’s a very basic Gertrude Stein argument […] [The poem] is under more pressure when you get into zones of race, class and gender but it’s still the same. There’s nothing you can’t do, you just have to do it well […]
Zucker: Can you think of a poem that’s totally offensive, or offensive to you, that’s a really good poem?
Hayes: No. That’s paradoxical […] I would never attach “offensive” to anything that I made and wanted to share with people.
Zucker: You’re saying that if it’s a good poem, it wouldn’t be offensive to you.
Hayes: Exactly. It might have offensive stuff in it, but I would not use “offensive” as an adjective for any piece of art that I’ve ever made. Transgressions and transcendence, that’s really what we want, when we think about art. The status quo is real, the main floor is a real floor, but then there’s transgression, which is like the basement […] and then there’s the attic, which is transcendence. What else is there?
Part II: Offensiveness as performance: Frederick “A naked woman my age is a total nightmare” Seidel
I like writing disagreeable poems, or certainly don’t mind if a poem strikes someone as unpleasant […] I like poems that for all the power of the sentiments expressed, and all the power to upset and offend, are so well made that they’re achieved things. However much they upset you, they also affect you.
– Frederick Seidel
In contrast to Hoagland, who (despite the hullaballoo surrounding ‘The Change’) is an admired and well-liked figure, Frederick Seidel is the moustache-twirling villain of American poetry. Seidel avoids the poetry scene, doesn’t teach or perform, rarely gives interviews, apparently has a great deal of money – and his poems were creating stirs even before the publication of his first book, Final Solutions, in 1963. That Seidel, who is probably the most famously offensive poet in America, isn’t mentioned in Zucker’s discussion of offensive poetry is possibly a testament to how insufferable many American poets find his work, and how satisfying it might be, for some, to erase this privileged and acutely provocative figure who also has ardent fans.
In an interview with the editor of The Paris Review, Seidel announces, “I loathe England and the English […]. There is something about the English I find grand and superb, that I envy and that I despise.” Ambivalence flourishes throughout Seidel’s oeuvre, ambivalence about everything: women, money, class, cities, love, himself. Ambivalence flourishes, and so does shame.
Shame and offensiveness are two sides of the same coin. If you reveal your most shameful thought, such as “I wanted to punch her right in the face”, you risk being rejected by your listener, who may find such an admission offensive. When the Confessional poets wrote about sex, divorce, alcoholism, pills, madness and suicide, they ostensibly took the risk of offending their readers with such uncomfortable revelations. But readers were a little thrilled. And was that prurient thrill actually shameful? Had the writer’s shame been transposed on to the reader? And what if a poet such as Seidel writes an overtly offensive line about a woman’s body, like “A naked woman my age is a total nightmare”? Such a line may cause a reader shame. It won’t cause every reader to feel shame – I can imagine one or two older male poets nodding and wishing they had the chutzpah to expose this ‘truth’ so plainly – but a woman who has repeatedly absorbed the message that ageing is disgraceful may feel shame.
But in Seidel’s poems, that feeling of shame lasts only briefly, like a sting or a slap, because Seidel understands the effect he’s having, and takes measures to temper the discomfort, while also satirising and ‘shaming’ himself. Seidel’s poems are like performances of absurdist musical theatre. They wear tap-shoes and sing with blatantly terrible and darkly comic rhymes that come out of nowhere and disappear. They repeat themselves to the point of farcicality. “I repeat my themes” he writes self-referentially in Ooga-Booga (2006), arguably his most offensive and successful collection, the one in which his infamous line is repeated incrementally over two unrelated poems. Like anything that is repeated often enough, the phrase becomes a cliché: it has no meaning, and if it has no meaning, it cannot cause offence.
Sometimes Seidel’s repetitions behave like a mischievous ‘id’ that surfaces despite being pushed down. In other poems, such as the title poem of his most recent collection Widening Income Inequality (2016), his super-ego rises up to give him a slap:
I live a life of appetite and, yes, that’s right,
I live a life of privilege in New York,
Eating buttered toast in bed with cunty fingers on Sunday morning.
Say that again?
“Say that again?” sounds like the words of a reproachful parent, but the line also sounds permissive.
“Eating buttered toast in bed with cunty fingers” is lifted from Henry Green’s novel Loving (1945). In another apparent provocation, Seidel periodically appropriates lines, and in one case borrows an entire poem in Bolton dialect, ‘Fred Seidel’, substituting his own name for the name of the character in the original. But here the adjective “cunty” also brings John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, to mind, the seventeenth-century poet of the Restoration court who profusely used the word “cunt” – eight times alone in ‘A Ramble in St James’s Park’. Rochester’s rhymes are often performative. In ‘Observations on Tunbridge Wells’ he uses the three-line monorhyme, an effect Seidel also sometimes uses:
But turning his head, a sudden curséd view
That innocent provision overthrew
And without drinking, made me purge and spew.
Shit with a cunt!
The prince was blunt.
Shit with a cunt.
(‘Dick and Fred’, Seidel)
Seidel, like Rochester, is a satirist. His satire is signalled through bad rhymes, offensive lines and gratuitous repetitions. This kind of signalling has a long tradition. Hipponax, a Greek poet of the sixth century BC, used a ‘limping’ metre called the ‘choliamb’ to signal vituperative or raunchy verse.
But Seidel is also more than a satirist, and I think his humour, offensive though it usually is, can indicate vulnerability. ‘To Robert Lowell and Osip Mandelstam’, from his second collection Sunrise (1979), refers to the last sighting of Mandelstam eating from a garbage pile near Vladivostok. A ghastly image in an otherwise sunny and wistful poem, Mandelstam on the garbage pile is perhaps a way of showing the violence of the passage of time. The poem’s jaunty tone becomes an ironic backdrop for a tender elegy for Lowell, whom Seidel knew well. Sometimes dark humour obscures a wound.
In 2015 Craig Raine was disgraced on the internet for his poem ‘Gatwick’ published in the London Review of Books. Like many of Seidel’s poems – and like many poems not by Seidel – Raine’s ‘Gatwick’ is concerned, partly, with the passage of time. While the pitchforks were out on Twitter, I tried to take a more forgiving approach, having learned that sometimes the burn of an offensive line is temporary, and that offensiveness can occasionally be purposeful.
Neither was the case with ‘Gatwick’, unfortunately. Despite Raine’s slightly artificial rhymes, he did not signal, as Seidel usually does, any awareness of unsavouriness. ‘Gatwick’ was neither performative enough nor wise enough to get away with the comparison made between an idealised twenty-two-year-old woman and her mother, whom the author seems to view with revulsion:
(I choose to ignore
her mother’s pelvis, large bore,
and the two foot span
of her hefty can.
Which is older and wider,
and also lurking inside her.)
In Nabokov’s Lolita, the sexualised young heroine is pedestalised whereas her middle-aged mother, Charlotte, is knocked down by a car. This paradigm works so effectively and hauntingly because it illustrates, all too plausibly, a man’s predatory, appropriative desire for youth on the one hand, and his ambivalence towards the archetypal ‘mother’ on the other. There are exactly two roles a woman can have in the Lolita universe: she can be scrutinised, idealised, exploited and abused; or she can be scrutinised, mocked, exploited and disposed of. Putting aside Nabokov’s wit and satirical tendencies for a moment, I would insist that reading Lolita is a particularly uncomfortable experience for a woman because the female reader is reminded that, in the eyes of some men, she will always be fitted into one horrible category or its horrible opposite. This is not to say the novel is not great or that it should not have been written, but merely that women readers may receive its messages differently to male readers. When Raine gives us his version of ‘truth’, which is that a beautiful young thing hurtles tragically towards middle age, towards the possession of a “hefty can” (the American slang is presumably used because the word ‘arse’ didn’t rhyme) and no male gaze to live for, he sounds like an earnest version of Humbert Humbert. It’s not necessary to point this out, but I will: the over-the-hill mother is likely to be much younger than the speaker, who announces himself in part 2 as “Craig Raine the poet”.
Perhaps Raine imagined a male audience when he wrote ‘Gatwick’. Perhaps he was wondering what Tom Stoppard would think of his new poem. That his female audience was not at the forefront of his mind is no crime: it is a poet’s prerogative to write for whatever audience he or she imagines. And to his credit, Raine does show self-awareness in the final two stanzas:
I can say these things, I say,
because I am a poet and getting old.
But of course, I can’t,
and I won’t. I’ll be silent.
Nothing said, but thought and told.
Except he doesn’t pull it off as successfully as Hoagland’s self-aware speaker does in ‘Adam and Eve’ because the damage has been done: his dichotomous way of viewing women is out of the bag. Raine’s insistence, in his subsequent defence of his poem, that he was exposing the passage of time and the porousness of borders, and not a moment of misogyny, seems unconvincing. Elsewhere in the poem he tried out a Seidel-ish move – “She is maybe 22, / like a snake in the zoo” – but took off his tap shoes too soon. Raine took a risk and miscalculated in one particular poem. One miscalculation doesn’t make him a bad poet – on the contrary – but a renowned poet’s error comes with more exposure than a lesser-known poet’s.
Raine belongs to a lineage that includes the poet and critic Ian Hamilton, who admired Lowell and believed ‘truth’ to be paramount. This reverence for ‘truth’ made some poets in Hamilton’s circle, including Raine, among the most audacious English poets of the 1980s. Raine’s contribution to British poetry has been substantial, and he is as entitled as anyone to take risks, so I regret that his poem was criticised so excessively. But perhaps Raine needed to be told how ‘Gatwick’ could be received by some of his audience, perhaps he’d not have known otherwise.
Part III: The Subjectivity of Offensiveness, or Thank You for Swallowing My Cum
A poem does not have to be nice
– Rita Ann Higgins
I recently spoke with the founding editor of an online journal called Thank You for Swallowing, a magazine described as a “web-based intersectionalist/feminist journal of protest poetry”. It takes its name from a Bobby Parker poem that appeared in Best British Poetry 2015 (Salt), ‘Thank You for Swallowing my Cum’. I would classify Parker’s poem as a cross between Whitman, the New York School and an episode of The Simpsons. The grateful speaker gives an ‘I-do-this-I-do-that’ account of sharing the news with everyone and his mother (literally), that a woman swallowed his “cum”.
The poem recoils from a poetic model that I might call the ‘ecstatic lyric’. Although it’s not exactly an ironic poem, it uses a kind of bathos: the tone is charged and jubilant but the subject matter is crude. It plays against a poem like Deryn Rees-Jones’s ‘What It’s Like to Be Alive’, a lyric that leans unironically on Romantic forebears, its language and imagery (which includes ejaculate fluid) infused with a feverish sanctity.
Parker’s gentle poem did not offend me, though I did wonder about a passage where the speaker affects an Indian accent that was a little like Huffy Henry’s blackface interjections in Berryman’s Dream Songs. From some female readers, however, the poem elicited a gamut of complaints. A few said it reminded them of “street harassment”. The main grievance, however, was that the unseen female object had no discernible function aside from being a receptacle for a man’s bodily fluids.
How might they feel about Alan Jenkins’s ‘Heritage’, a rhyming poem with Hardy-esque echoes and a female object who might as well be a sperm receptacle? “An hour before, I’d fucked her from behind”, the male speaker notifies us. She wipes herself with a discarded Kleenex and, at breakfast, while the male speaker contemplates his “circumcised” sausage, she hardly touches her congealing eggs. We learn almost nothing else about the female object. But that poem doesn’t offend me. Like Parker’s poem, it has enough technical and imaginative conviction to transcend its transgressions.
I coaxed the editor of Thank You for Swallowing to explain further: what was so deeply upsetting about that poem? An American of approximately my generation, she jogged my memory of high-school locker-room cruelty and slut shaming, particularly (in her part of the country, she says) of “girls who swallow”. Parker’s poem excavated, for her, the sexual shaming she witnessed. Because shame and offensiveness are connected (as I suggest earlier), she reasonably found the poem offensive.
Unlike Raine, who tried to defend his poem, Parker apologised online with more contrition than I believe he owed. His willingness to listen was commendable enough, in contrast to some of the men who rushed to his defence and dismissed his detractors’ concerns, as though they had no right to them.
And while not entirely agreeing with those detractors, I’m sympathetic. Poems can trigger offence in individualised ways. New Zealand poet Hera Lindsay Bird’s ‘Keats Is Dead So Fuck Me from Behind’ ends with a jibe at Bill Manhire. Though it’s an in-your-face poem, it’s not an offensive poem – but Bill Manhire might justifiably consider it to be. And were Philip Larkin alive today, he might feel affronted by Sinéad Morrissey’s ‘On Balance’, a caustic response to his own poem ‘Born Yesterday’ (which evidently offended Morrissey). There are poems that cause me ‘subjective offence’; and there are poems that come so close to the darkest areas of my psyche as to be almost unbearable. Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), with its themes of liver toxicity and pharmaceuticals, invaded the territory of my own shameful hypochondria, prompting fear mixed with revulsion, and thrill too. But isn’t that what poetry should do: take you into uncomfortable zones?
I seem to be almost addicted to provocation in the poems […] Poems that are safe and are about nothing and risk nothing – I hate those poems.
– Rachel Zucker
Is provocation harmful or valuable? Are provocative poems gratuitous, indulgent and faddish, or do such poems have the potential to activate psychic or political change? When Claudia Rankine, in Citizen, forces the empathy of a reader by using the pronoun “you”, so that “you” are the black listener to whom these macro- and micro-aggressions are being recounted: doesn’t this serve a constructive purpose? But Rankine’s Forward Prize win in 2015 seemed to offend at least a few individuals of the old guard. One disgruntled editor asked, “Why does everything have to be so ‘right on’?” Another editor was insulted by her audaciousness in writing “prose”: he seemed to feel that Rankine wasn’t permitted to overstep the decorum of lineation.
The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein invented a technique she alludes to in ‘The Importance of Symbol-formation in the Development of the Ego’ (1930), an essay about a little boy she calls “Dick”, whom she observes through his playing with trains. “It had been possible for me, in Dick’s analysis, to gain access to his unconscious by getting into contact with such rudiments of phantasy life and symbol formation as he displayed,” Klein explains. Having (she believed) gained this access, she communicated to the patient what she considered to be his most repressed thoughts. While “Dick” was playing with the trains, Klein said, “This is the ‘Dick Train’ […] The Station is Mummy. The ‘Dick Train’ is going into Mummy […] it is dark inside Mummy.” While many found this approach shocking, Kleinian analysts continue to use the technique in the belief that exposing a patient’s most difficult-to-countenance feelings will pave a way towards enlightenment and recovery.
Provocation for its own sake can be tedious. For me, however, the most exclusionary and dangerous poem is a boring one, the one that gives up on any hope of engagement. Provocation, for all its perils, for all its potential for failure, is an indication, at the very least, that the poet desires to make a connection.