“Church and State” (guest posted by Rauan Klassnik)

Posted by @ 12:13 pm on March 17th, 2009

or “Michael Schiavo’s Negative Review of Matthew Dickman’s All-American Poem” (“The Anti-Whitman or Out of Many, Me, Me, Me: Matthew Dickman’s All American Poem.”)

[A guest post (hopefully the first of many) by Rauan Klassnik -ed.]


Michael Schiavo has written a very passionate and very negative review of Matthew Dickman and his poetry.

In the aftermath of his review Michael Schiavo has stated that he doesn’t “plan on doing negative reviews, especially of this intensity, often. But (he) will do so when necessary. And this was necessary. Big picture.”

Michael has also since written that Dickman’s poetry is not even worthy of being called “shit.”

“To even describe these poems as shit is to assign value to them. Shit is the root of things, rids the body of toxins while building up the natural world that surrounds us. It’s part of nature, part of a process that has meaning and power behind it. It’s disconcerting to hold in your hand something that rightly shouldn’t exist.”

all-american-poemSome people aren’t too excited about negative reviews. But I’m all for them. As Benjamin Button (in one of the most boring movies ever) says, walking towards Daisy and consummation: Absolutely!

We absolutely need negative reviews. Absolutely! Absolutely! Absolutely!

I mean, c’mon, who doesn’t want to walk towards, embrace and climb into bed and make love to Daisy (Cate Blanchett)?

So, it’s agreed: we need negative reviews.

But, seriously now, the negative review should be fair also. Smart. Well thought out. And it should not, as it exposes shit, be full of it too. (And when I say “shit” here I mean the bad kind. The toxic kind.)

Schiavo’s negative review is to a certain extent successful, but, unfortunately, it is also, at its heart, prescriptive, fanatical, and self-righteous. It is, at its heart, full of shit.

Schiavo begins his review by stating that the

“Phenomenon of the Dickman twins, Matthew and Michael, and specifically Matthew’s first book, All-American Poem, is too powerful to ignore. The collection is so very bad and the method by which the Dickmans have foisted themselves upon the American poetry establishment——and, in turn, by which the poetry establishment has foisted them upon the American public——should be looked at closely.”

Okay, fair enough so far. Schiavo is calling bullshit. And good for him. I want people to call bullshit. And, as Schiavo himself is saying, we need people to do it.

Schiavo then walks us through (in prose peppered with some clever and entertaining phrases) how the Dickman twins have conned their way to the top. He also quotes long passages from All-American Poem and goes on at length about weak line breaks, weak syntax, selfishness, and childish superficiality.

So, in a way, so far so good. But Schiavo is not just writing a review to expose bad poetry. Schiavo is a man on a mission. A man full of opinions of what “rightly” should and should not exist. What we should and should not do. A man quick to climb up on a stage and lecture.

No, that’s no quite right. A man quick to climb up on to a soapbox and preach.

Here is Schiavo at his worst:

“If you’re brazen enough to put the word “America,” or any variation thereof in the title of your book or poem, you better bring to bear all the intelligence of spirit that the word evokes, whether to retrieve from ourselves the greatness of our nation or to point out its horrifying transgressions and correct them. This has always been true but it is exceptionally so in 2009, in the gathering darkness we face from within and without, when we now, more than ever, need to recognize ourselves and our abilities..”

This, in a word, is crazy.

It is prescriptive.

Threatening——“you better.”

Excessive and farcical——“in the gathering darkness”.

Deluded——“all the intelligence of spirit that the word evokes.”

And it smacks of a teenager who’s just discovered sex——“now, more than ever”——and can’t imagine that anything so incredible and special has ever happened to anyone else.

(The “sex” here is Schiavo standing up in the “gathering darkness…within and without” and spewing his dictums all over us.)

Fuck “America!” What the hell does any writer owe the word “America?” For that matter what does any tax-paying, law-abiding artist owe America?

That was Schiavo at his worst. (And me at my angriest.) Here’s Schiavo nearly at his worst:

“ ‘We can sit quietly on a blanket’ he writes in the title poem, ‘watching the transcendentalists come and go, talking / of Henry David Thoreau.’ He co-opts one of the most famous passages in English-language poetry (written by a British citizen), not to show his affection for one of the most well-known native philosophical movements in this country but to illustrate, as he repeatedly does throughout the title poem and others, how mysterious and far away his America is, how disconnected he and everyone else is from the nation. But instead of proposing alternatives or answers, paths by which we might reclaim the spirit, he abandons us. How does this lift up a people? How does this shatter the mold? How does this transform the soul?”

If you mention, besides its name, any of our country’s important events, symbols, movements, etc, etc, then Michael Schiavo expects you to “show (your) affection.” (Here to my mind comes the image of a dog licking its master’s feet.)

But why is it anyone’s duty to have to “lift up a people?” To “shatter the mold?” Or to “transform the soul?”

Or to propose “alternatives or answers?”

I’ve heard this maxim many times (you shouldn’t criticize if you don’t have an answer or alternative) but it’s just flat wrong.

There is plenty of bad poetry that criticizes and destroys without providing “alternatives or answers,” but just because it isn’t providing “alternatives or answers” doesn’t mean it isn’t or can’t be good or great even.

With Schiavo it’s all about betterment. But what about pleasure for its own sake? Decadence? Just rolling around in it? How about, even, auto-mutilation?

A Few More Thoughts and Observations

Here are some other things I’d planned to write at length about and may well do so later:

walt_whitman_small1) Walt Whitman.

Schiavo, in his blindness, gets Walt Whitman wrong. (Or at least chooses to present a very limited view.)

What we do get from Schiavo regarding Whitman is that he “contains multitudes that contradict” (a platitude repeated billions of time) and that he had “empathy” and “sympathy” for the people he walked among and in which he could “conjure…spiritual forces.”

Whitman, though, is also a monster, a liar, and a con-man. Throughout Leaves of Grass the great poet is, among other things, trying to gain your confidence. Win you over. And much of the time it’s with empty, vague promises.

Whitman plays to your fears. Reassures you. Puts his arm around you. Whispers in your ear. “There, there,” he says, and “just trust me.” And he licks into your ear.

Even though it would make for interesting and appropriate reading (especially since “con-man” is one of the charges brought so heavily against Matthew Dickman) Michael Schiavo is unable to conceive or talk of Walt Whitman (a kind of All-American high priest or even Jesus figure) in really complex and accurate terms.

Schiavo, to be fair though, does acknowledge the “confidence game” aspect of America. But he just doesn’t see it (or acknowledge it) in Whitman.

Whitman, for Schiavo, is a White Knight on a White Horse.

Schiavo, it would seem, sees himself in much the same way.

A White Knight come to inspire and transform and disabuse.

2) Christ Martin: Humane and Honest.

In the comments stream following Schiavo’s review Chris Martin (one of the poets Schiavo holds up as a counterpoint——one of the poets Schiavo says “have galloped into the frontier on their own, with only their native wit for a shield”), asks a question and then answers it:

“Why should we care if Dickman writes poems to get laid or score prizes? Because we care about poetry that does something to make the world a more honest, interesting or humane place.”

Poetry that makes the world a more honest and humane place?

Schiavo and Martin are demanding a socially correct sort of poetry,
and for them, it seems, other types of poetry shouldn’t “rightly” exist.

3) Misogyny

For some reason this is a particularly hot-button topic that sets Schiavo off.

I’m not saying that the Dickman passages quoted in Schiavo’s review reflect a utopian interplay of the male and female sexes (nor of course should they), but they certainly don’t warrant Schiavo’s heavy-handed and overstated charge of “misogyny.”

Schiavo would, I am sure, say that you can’t write misogynist poetry. But man-hating or woman-hating poetry can of course be good or great even.

4) Church and State

At an off-site reading at the most recent AWP (Chicago) Brenda Hillman exhorted the members of the audience to actively protest our country’s involvement in the Iraq War.

She talked about going into her Congressman’s office in D.C. And then she urged us all to do the same sort of thing. To get, like her, involved.

Good for you, Brenda. And include this sort of thing in your poetry if you want. (Though I’m not a fan of most political poetry I certainly won’t tell you what you can and can’t write about. Or how you should or should not do it.)

Talk to people at the bar about it. Talk to people at dinner afterwards. Stand up at a political rally and talk about it.

But using your position of poet and your opportunity on stage behind a microphone to foist it on us is just irresponsible.

There are a million worthy causes (starving kids in Africa, The AIDS epidemic, Ovarian Cancer Awareness, America the Beautiful, etc, etc.) and I don’t want, when I’m at a poetry reading, to be lobbied about any of them.

In the next room there was a pool table. I went in there, leaned against the wall, and watched them play.

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