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June 11th, 2014 / 11:50 am
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“These are poems that need to be written” — (More on the Abramson Debacle)

In the Los Angeles Review of Books’ online Marginalia Christopher Kempf breaks, I guess, some new ground on the Abramson Debacle (ie, about Seth Abramson’s 14-hour poem, Last Words for Elliot Rodger):

1) The main thrust of Kempf’s essay (borne out of looking at and discussing Abramson’s poem “as poetry, as an aesthetic work demanding, as all serious art does, the careful critical attention that lies at the heart of the literary discipline”) is that poems should be written in response to tragedy but “they need to be written well.”

2) Kempf completely dismisses Diamond’s Flavorwire post because it “ultimately prohibits any aesthetic response at all to tragedy.” He is, on the other hand, more sympathetic to Laura Sims’ VIDA article because she “explore(s) in necessary ways the relationship between art and violence, helping advance the conversation about how writers can ethically and effectively engage with tragedy” but is concerned hers is “a rather conservative position with respect to art and culture” and that “(her) remarks perhaps too closely police, at least for (his) taste, who can and cannot write about violence and how.”

3) Kempf then brings in Duncan, Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky to bolster his support of “art that takes risks, art that challenges the canons of what can and cannot be said”:

As Robert Duncan suggested in 1971, the function of poetry is not so much to oppose evil — in which case it would become didactic and ideological, the opposite of art — as it is to imagine it. “What if Shakespeare had opposed Iago,” Duncan writes in a letter to Denise Levertov, “or Dostoyevsky opposed Raskolnikov — the vital thing is that they created Iago and Raskolnikov [so that] we begin to see betrayal and murder and theft in a new light.” We might say the same thing of Abramson’s treatment of Rodger, that it allows us to see in a new light the misogyny and egoism and nihilism of a killer whose logic the poem at the same time questions. “I looked down. (All have had to.),” Abramson writes in one of the poem’s defiant, incantatory sections. “I looked up. (All have had to.)// I looked into me. (All have to.)// One, two, three, into the well!”

At these moments the poem is almost Eliotic, bleakly yet powerfully imagining the evil of our world — one thinks of The Waste Land — before enacting for us the utter breakdown of that world.

4) Kempf, after praising certain elements of Seth’s poem, goes on to argue that “Last Words for Elliot Rodger” is a sloppy poem with real flaws. IE, that the poem isn’t “written well.” Kempf’s best point, I think (and a point that others have seized upon), is that the poem which purports “to be an address to Rodger” comes off, at times, “like an address from him.”

5) The poem’s “most problematic,” though, according to Kempf, when it’s “callous” and “opportunistic”:

“Last Words …” is most problematic, however, in its final section, which begins with Abramson asserting — and remember that this is addressed to Rodger — that “I love you.” “For you gave you,” Abramson says. “All of you.” Framing Rodger as a selfless, misunderstood martyr, the lines seem not so much radical empathy as commemoration. And it gets worse as Abramson, in that same section, resorts to cheap punning — “Elliot, you slay me,” he says — in what feels like a forced and deliberate attempt at provocation. It’s a callous line, appropriating the suffering of Rodger’s seven victims and their families and re-fashioning that suffering as some kind of gruesome comédie noire. Abramson was not slain that day by Elliot Rodger, and the fact that he turns into a punch line those who were killed leaves this poem, quite rightly, open to the charge of exploitation. It’s at this moment where the poem seems most opportunistic, tactlessly using the Isla Vista tragedy as aesthetic polemic and in so doing converting human suffering into a sophomoric, “let’s shock the bourgeoisie” provocation.

It’s at this moment, too, where one could almost give credence to Diamond’s claim that tragedy is not a “canvas” on which to make art, that when it comes to aestheticizing suffering we’re almost always better off in silence. And while Sims’s contention that men can’t “have a stake” in the language of violence seems an overly reductive, scorched-earth approach to the relation between aesthetics and tragedy, Abramson’s poem helps us to see that there are unethical ways to write about such violence, including the appropriation of very real emotional suffering for aesthetic purposes without careful, self-conscious acknowledgement of why and how such appropriation is being carried out.

But art can do better. It’s art — and poetry specifically, I think — that offers our culture a more thoughtful and meaningful response to tragedy, challenging those regimes of language — be they misogynistic, racist, or classist — that have perpetuated this violence, and creating in the process a more human, more compassionate grammar with which to talk about and understand ourselves in relation to tragedy.

6) I haven’t seen anyone call Seth’s poem a great poem. And, yes, it seems difficult to write a great poem about a tragedy in 14 hours and publish it within 36 hours of the tragedy occurring.

But I think Kempf, when he brings in ethics, is falling into the same trap of saying what you can and can’t do. (Abramson himself was purporting to use poetry to heal and understand. And, after the fact, he suggested, that poetry could operate as a first responder: How silly, really, though, Abramson, mind you, hasn’t often been lauded for either good social or aesthetic judgement. But, let’s forget about Abramson for just a second.)

If Art is really about taking risks then why is a critic limiting the range of the risk taking?? Should an artist be discouraged from conceiving and disseminating a “creation” because it doesn’t meet “ethical” standards ?? (All poetry’s “exploitation” in some way or another. To some extent or another. It’s a slippery slope, folks.)

7) I kinda liked Kempf’s article but I think he becomes as prudish and limiting as the people he set out to criticize. And I think he could have criticized Seth’s “aesthetic” effort even more. Like said it was shit, for example.

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