June 11th, 2014 / 11:50 am
Web Hype

“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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  1. JakeLevineSpork

      Like all things Abramson, it was shit. On the real. I know this and I didn’t even read/listen? to it. I don’t know if publishing something in the wake of death is opportunistic or not, but it seems kind of douchebaggy. In Korea is still sort of shut down in the wake of the tragic sinking of Sae Wohl or 세원 or “time”. I was at a bar and a song came on and we started to dance, and the bartender was like, “it is disrespectful to dance in the wake of tragedy.” And I didn’t realize that. But then I sort of did. So I don’t think it is wrong. Douchebaggy and opportunistic, maybe, wrong, definitely not. Although who the fuck has time to read / listen to that shit? To Abramson I say, Kudos for making it, the Ted Cruz filibuster of poetry, but in the service of what?

  2. Donald Dunbar

      The best piece written in response to the whole thing was certainly Corey van Landingham’s “This Isn’t About Elliot Rodger”


      in which she exactly dissects both Diamond’s fluff-rant and Omnidawn’s substanceless CYA tumblr post.

      Nobody is going to make a case for Abramson’s poem because the conversational space is simultaneously too charged (from the tragedy itself) too snarky (about Seth Abramson himself) and too slight (in terms of the commentary) for most anything of value to be written safely.

      That said, there’s still plenty of interesting conversations to be had around the poem:

      How much time should we as artists cede to “reporters” and “commentators” in the wake of a tragedy?

      Is “reporting” and “commenting” more ethically responsible in the wake of a tragedy? Is it ethically responsible to confine our contributions to a corporately owned story to FB posts?

      What exactly has made Seth Abramson such a persona non grata? I missed the all the allegations of, say, sexual harassment (that, say, Derek Walcott has been… forgiven? for? http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1191209/Derek-Walcott-hound-dog–flirting.html )

      & more–some of which you bring up here, Rauan–but Jake, I’ve read great articles by you; what are you contributing to the conversation here?

  3. reynard seifert

      i’d rather watch a dog lick its nuts for 14 hours

  4. JakeLevineSpork

      Don, you are right. That was a gut reactionary response and didn’t really add anything to what Rauan had said.

      By sloppily reappropriating this particular language, Abramson is more or less making true what Charlie Simic called the “the appearance that a poem is written in only a couple of short hours”ibid. Or, if you look at the reasoning on HuffPost that coincides with the post he made about it, it basically is saying that Abramson can accomplish in just a few hours what other poets take lifetimes to do– elevate, twist, or pulverize language from the banal, cliche, and violent world it normally occupies. As co-editor of “America’s Best Experimental Writing” or whatever it is, Seth should know better. That is cheapening and stupid and deserves rebuke.

      I guess I feel that, like Corey’s article where he quotes Orr, I think Ed Hirsch’s sentiment that poetry is, while not limited to, but best when it helps people to feel more deeply. Expand the range of human emotion, or at least express the range in some form. Poets have always sampled, borrowed, and cut language. I don’t think it is particularly experimental to do so, and to warrant the “experimental” or “avant” tag to re-appropriation or in this case, reification. Abramson is trying to “save” the language from being abused?, but I agree with Zizek who wrote in a recent article in Poetry Magazine?, language needs to be terrorized. But this isn’t terrorism. This is a parlor trick of cheapened language which already has been abused.

      “Elliot, you slay me.

      And I love you.

      For you gave you. All of you.

      Every you.

      You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You.”

      That’s offensive. Period. If someone wrote that in a workshop, any of us would take them to town. Fuck that noise. Whoever wrote that (or in this case rearranged, yippidee doo) is fucking irresponsible.

      Poetry does not live on some island separated from society. It cannot appropriate the world it lives in and pretend like it doesn’t come from that world, just like the language being reappropriated cannot be completely extracted from a body, just like organs transplanted from a body never completely forget their original DNA. That’s the shit here. The person that doesn’t understand that shouldn’t be editing an “experimental writing” book or pretending to write in the name of poetry, even at the Huff Post. But maybe that has more to do with the quality and nature of people who work at the Huff Post.

      There’s a long list of Abramson related fah fah on the internet. I like this one best: http://sonorareview.com/2010/10/10/1977/

  5. deadgod


  6. Ryan Sanford Smith

      Ehhhh. What’s silly about this is how quickly people are willing to sacrifice their supposed artistic ideals when it becomes easy to shit on someone they already don’t like. If this poem had been constructed by one of HTMLgiant’s lovedolls, they’d be applauded for their daring/bravery/insight/blahblahblah.

      Whatever anyone thinks of it (would I call it a ‘great poem’? I don’t know what that is), it wasn’t boring and has clearly prompted a lot of complex conversations about the ‘role’ of art in the landscape of tragedy (as if it has a role anywhere!), and those are two things I can’t say about poems I read 99% of the time, so kudos?

  7. Rauan Klassnik

      I like of course the “blahblahblah” :)

  8. Brendan

      I’m kinda nitpicking here but the point you bring up in the second to last paragraph seems dubious. Like, you might be able to make an argument that if Abramson’s poem is unethical, then the criteria for unethical creations is too limiting. But I don’t think you can argue that ethical standards shouldn’t limit art in any way. That seems pretty obvious as soon as you start to dream up yucky examples of unethical art. Right?

  9. Rauan Klassnik

      right?? — I dunno. kinda.

  10. Jeremy Hopkins

      [A few non-linear thoughts]
      1. I think the whole thing is subject to the interests of the critics/viewers/public. Critics wonder if the work is too _____. Some laymen would surely not bother to even wonder this, instead dismissing the work. (I’ve basically dismissed the work in that I don’t wish to view it.) A value judgment resulting in such a dismissal is not inherently less important or significant than any critical consideration. One hopes people will be mindful, but they are not always so.
      2. Art is not inherently “about” taking risks. ‘Risk’ is something undertaken by artists, not by the objects of their creation.
      3. The ‘ethics’ of art are not necessarily separate from any other sort of ethics. One could argue that ethics are ethics, which wouldn’t necessarily allow or prohibit such distasteful art. Given the fact not all potential viewers will have the same ethical sense & structure as the artist, it is impossible to establish an all-inclusive evaluation (I think).

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