The Inhuman Art of Dying vs. Poetry's Grief Police

by on Mar.17, 2012

"We no longer study the art of dying." -Sontag on Peter Hujar's photos/"Dying is an art, like everything else." -Plath

The Minnesota State Arts Board recently rejected a grant proposal I wrote for the manuscript I’m finishing about the alligator attack that led to the death of a close friend of mine (I’ve written about this project here).  The offensive yet illuminating thing about this rejection is that I got to hear an audio file of the judges discussing my work.  I was offended not because the judges questioned my abilities as a poet.  Aside from my ego suffering a few bruises, I could’ve probably handled a standard critique given that I’m a lowly MFA student still fresh from the workshop.  What the judges mostly assessed, instead, was the moral status of my project.  They objected to various aspects of the poetry—including its violence, melodrama, and “cartoonish[ness]”—and accused me of appropriating my friend’s death the way corporate media did.  They wanted a “cooler treatment” of the subject matter.

What bothered the judges above all was my focus on the spectacular circumstances of my friend’s death, and the fact that the manuscript thematically orbits around the attack itself.  One panelist called my “energetic” relationship with the gator outright “inappropriate.”  Another suggested that the poems, by failing to adequately acquaint the reader with my friend, lacked a sense of grief:

It’s not just the science that’s lacking, the grief is lacking.  And I think he’s being mastered a bit by his own subject.  Maybe a little bit by ambition, although maybe that’s a dangerous supposition to make, but yeah, let’s hear about this woman, the relationship, and the grief, and then you can tell me about alligators.

At first I took this criticism to be simply another example of the extreme bias in US literary culture toward humanist authenticity and interiority; the judges made no mention of a “speaker” performed by the poet, as if there were no room in elegies for the use of a persona.  I’ve been thinking, though, that the judges’ criticisms have broader implications.  Without dwelling too much on my manuscript, I want to highlight the politics of grief that inform prescriptive comments like the ones above, a politics Judith Butler writes about beautifully in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence :

What grief displays, in contrast, is the thrall in which our relations with others hold us, in ways that we cannot always recount or explain, in ways that often interrupt the self-conscious account of ourselves we might try to provide, in ways that challenge the very notion of ourselves as autonomous and in control.  I might try to tell a story here about what I am feeling, but it would have to be a story in which the very “I” who seeks to tell the story is stopped in the midst of the telling; the very “I” is called into question by its relation to the Other, a relation that does not precisely reduce me to speechlessness, but does nevertheless clutter my speech with signs of its undoing.  I tell a story about the relations I choose, only to expose, somewhere along the way, the way I am gripped and undone by these very relations. My narrative falters, as it must.

Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.

Butler’s words, I think, are just as much a description of writing from states of grief, desire, violence, and vulnerability as they are an account of grief.  This is going to sound like Montevidayo 101, but I think it’s worth repeating that by writing, we lose control of our narratives, and inevitably end up thwarting not just our intentions for a poem, but also the way we conceive of ourselves and our bodies as bounded, autonomous entities shaped through free will.  Butler elaborates:  “Perhaps mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation (perhaps one should say submitting to a transformation) the full result of which one cannot know in advance. There is losing, as we know, but there is also the transformative effect of loss, and this latter cannot be charted or planned.”

To insist otherwise, in this sense, and refuse to be mastered by one’s subject (as per the judges’ diagnosis of me) would be to deny how “passion and grief and rage, all of which tear us from ourselves, bind us to others, transport us, undo us, implicate us in lives that are not are own, irreversibly, if not fatally.”  Butler argues that such policing of grief determines not only whom we can grieve for, but also which lives are considered worth grieving for, which lives get to be called human.  Americans are thus forbidden to mourn for Iraqi war victims in the media insofar as these victims are, and must be, considered expendably subhuman.

I want to stretch Butler’s point here because I think we should be allowed to grieve for whatever forms of life command our longing–including the nonhuman ecologies we’re killing and the species that inhabit them.  I want to say that it’s unethical not to grieve for, and try to somehow access, any needless death.  I want to create art in which even I, as the artist, can die and become something else in the midst of my obscene adornment.  Like Candy Darling on her deathbed, or Alice Notley in all her unruly works of mourning, or David Wojnarowicz with his censored visuals, I want to create an art of dying that petals and bejewels the body threatened or in decay, that makes the body contiguous with the poem.  An art of dying that does not restrain itself according to what falls within the slippery category of the human, much less what it is humans think is permissible to grieve or how “authentic” grieving is done.  It is because I do not know what grief brings that it transforms me into a bird, into a bullet, into a tuberous root in the ground.

38 comments for this entry:
  1. Lucas de Lima

    As for more policing, I was going to mention Don Mee Choi’s note in the new Kim Hyesoon about how an editor asked her to change the word “hole” in a poem because of its negative connotations. The “hole,” as Don Mee explains, is a reference to the bombing inflicted during the Korean War. Also I think Johannes’ idea of atrocity kitsch is all over this.

  2. adam strauss

    I like that you advocate elegy and persona meet; at-first I was a bit befuddled, and then it hits: “Crusoe in England”!

    It seems like “Lycidas”! may not fare well with these judges.

  3. Lucas de Lima

    Adam, thanks for the examples! I should revisit them, or in the case of Milton, read for the first time.

    Ever since I saw the documentary about Candy Darling and learned that it was she who wanted her hospital room decorated, and make up applied to her face, I’ve been obsessed with that photo…

  4. adam strauss

    It took me years to like “Lycidas”—but for a while now I’ve been a for-sure convert. I love the Plath quotation with the photo.

    Have you read Brian Teare’s book Pleasure? It, I think, does some gorgeous work with elegy.

    Back to “Crusoe…”–I love how it’s not a for-sure elegy until the very end; the delay, and then the plainness of the moment, totally floors me.

    Ok, now, and this cld easily be dumb, I’m imagining Fever 103 as an elegy,or varient of; those old whores’ petticoats which the speaker sheds on her way to paradise, they seem like a kind of shedding, a recognition of a prior self, a goodbye.

  5. Jason Lester

    It’s interesting how excess and lack operate in their discussion of your work. They object to your poetry being “cartoonish” and wish the dramatic content of the work was “cooler,” while at the same time note a lack of science, lack of grief – and notably lack of character development: “let’s hear about this woman, this relationship, and this grief.”

    It would seem that you have given them “Adonais” when the board wanted “In Memoriam.” Interestingly, Shelley considered “Adonais” his “least imperfect” work (I had to pause and think about that phrasing), as rather than elegy or record of memory it was first and foremost “a highly wrought piece of art.”

  6. Johannes

    Jason makes an insightful observation. This excess-lack is one of the key facets of anti-kitsch rhetoric: it’s always too much and not enough. Or: it’s one of the facets of Taste. “Cartoonish” and “corporate media” are of course code-words of kitsch, low culture, lack of taste. The reason why this is so important is b/c it’s the way Art is policed.

    Possibly, the key statement Lucas makes is that he wants art that “petals or bejewels the body threatened or in decay.” That is to say, you want to open the body up to art’s influence. This is the kind of stance that so often get treated as “unethical” or “immoral” in contemporary literary discussions: we shouldn’t want to “aestheticize violence”, we are always told. As if there’s something dangerously flippant about art’s “petals” and “jewels.”

    What is that danger? Possibly that it makes us “inhuman.”

    Possibly that we lose the proper “distance.”

    Possibly that it turns us all into Candy Darlings.

    It’s interesting how it becomes almost impossible in these criticisms to differentiate ideas about interiority/subjectivity from aesthetic critiques. To be “mastered” by the incident seems to be code for, you’re not in control, you’ve given up your agency, your “individuality”. But at the same time, you’re too “ambitious.” Too much of an individual.

    It’s also interesting to me that their reaction to “judging” Lucas’s application is to be critical, to police Lucas and his art – to make sure they establish that it is “inappropriate”. Why the need to police like that? It seems to be the MO of so much workshop pedagogy as well as criticism/reviews: is this appropriate? What is wrong with it? How does it fail to comply? Not everybody has to be given the awards, but why this need to tell Lucas why he’s so inappropriate? Why do people in positions of “judgement” (for admission in to CW programs, in Workshops, in prize boards, writers of reviewers) so often see this as such an important function?

    Also, Adam, I agree about Lycidas. I’m teaching it next week next to Richard Greenfield’s Iraq poems.

    Johannes

  7. Kent Johnson

    Johannes,

    Richard Greenfield’s Tracer is a really fine book. And I’ve got to say I’m proud that my Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz directly helped inspire it, as he acknowledges in this post at his blog a couple years back. Explaining the linkage between the two books, he quotes from a review Josh Corey wrote about LPAA and then goes on to say some very interesting things about the poetics of war, some of the controversies that emerged in the poetry community at the beginning of the Iraq invasion, and other things. Would recommend you use this post with your students, along with Greenfield’s tremendous book. Many of the observations here are still very current:

    http://symptoms-of-theories.blogspot.com/2010/03/josh-corey-on-tracer.html

  8. James Pate

    Really interesting post, Lucas.

    I recently watched Godard’s Made in USA, and I was struck by how, as with virtually all of his films, the violence has a cartoonish aspect. Belmando killing himself by painting his face blue and winding dynamite around his head in Pierrot le fou, for example. Or, in Made in USA, the death scene at the end being played as if it were a break up scene (“You have stolen my youth, Maria”.)

    And some critics have loudly objected to this. Godard, they argue, does not take violence seriously. Or he plays with violence without thinking out its truly horrific dimensions. But my own take is that Godard (and Pynchon is similar in this regard) actually makes us all the more aware and alert to violence through such cartoonish effects. By not placing violence within the usual humanist context and by not representing violence in the “serious” manner used by most European art cinema, he makes the violence “new” so to speak…The violence, ironically, seems all the more violent because of the artifice, the cartoonishness…

    James

  9. Bill Maze

    Nobody has ever said this person’ work was unethical. That’s because it’s normative.

    The work is completely distanced, numb – completely normative, which is to say “inhuman.”

  10. Bill Maze

    The fake hypocritical grief after 9/11, for instance = “majority,” “normal.”

  11. Bill Maze

    Not that the theatrical grief of sociopaths couldn’t be a pregnant subject for some literary scholar…

  12. Lucas de Lima

    Adam,

    Yes, Brian Teare’s book is beautiful, and it actually helped me steer my project in some ways in part because I’m also writing about HIV. I’m tempted to think though that the judges would be fine with Teare’s writing for the same reasons why they’re opposed to mine. I don’t write as elegantly as him.

    Jason and Johannes,

    Thanks for pointing out these contradictions; I love “a highly wrought piece of art.” The part about me being too ambitious is really striking, and sad; that’s the last thing I’d say to any of my students. Another judge also said that she doesn’t think I know what I’m doing, which as I say here is in many ways my point. I like occultism and mystery, not mastery. Not only that but there is no way to master the event my project centers on. It is a limit-experience that verges on the sublime.

    James,

    I’ll totally watch that Godard film. I think it’s a key point you make about the artifice itself being that which actually “restores” violence and ironically does justice to it. I bet Deleuze would agree.

    Bill,

    I don’t know why you’re hiding behind your alias, but you’ve missed Judith Butler’s point that the human is itself a normative construct that numbs us to injustice. “Just one of the boys,” indeed. I do like your stitching together of “theatrical grief” and “pregnancy.” Even when you bite my feathery breast I will be your gay earth mother and cry your bloody tears for you until you remember what it was like, in your last life, to be a baby gator crushed in a heron’s bill.

    Lucas

  13. Bill Maze

    Oh, and in the future, I’ll be referring to all editors, or people who don’t like my work for any reason as “police.”

    Yrs,

    Just one of the boys

  14. Lucas de Lima

    There’s also something to be said about myth in this discussion. Isn’t that genre also cartoonish and violent highly wrought art with heroes, foils, and foes.

  15. Bill Maze

    Lucas,

    A sophist as usual. I haven’t missed Butler’s point at all.

    I don’t assent to any relation to you, either as animal or human, and I’d appreciate you desist in violently trying to force one.

  16. Johannes

    This post – though it’s more concerned with the aesthetic judgments of the panel than the structure of grant-giving – also might connect to the most recent Blaze Vox controversy, caused by the NEA’s denial to an author published by Blazevox b/c it’s a “vanity press”:

    http://www.buffalonews.com/entertainment/columns/colin-dabkowski/article769272.ece

    Johannes

  17. Johannes

    Kent,
    Thanks for the link. I actually gave a talk at that conference and I remember Richard’s paper.

    Johannes

  18. just one of the boyz « * secret amazon

    […] by Feng taken from comments in this post: […]

  19. Bill Maze

    Hi Johannes

    I’m a reader of this blog. I don’t often comment unless I’m responding negatively to something, which is a shame because I often enjoy and/or agree with many of the ideas put forth. I share many of the fixations here, though am often seeing them from wildly different angles.

    You’ve brought up something I often wonder about though, and that is the difference between these ideas cast against the world – as real phenomena and actions in people’s lives vs these ideas cast against the (narrower?) world of academia, in which they are often (though certainly not always!) underfunded, or even somewhat philosophically embattled.

  20. adam strauss

    I’m not too sure about these judges being cool with Teare’s poems; I agree there’s some duh gorgeous surfaces at work,, but is it just me or is there a very-very gnarly current coursing through too? I feel like that book fuses nostalgia to dangerous sex, which strikes me as a position some might find atrocious. I could be misreading–but I remember moments where it seemed like the dying person is turned into an object of erotic lust/memory.

    Reversal: perhaps the gnarliness is hidden enough to please judges.

    I hope all’s well

    and Yay to In Memoriam–gorgeous!

  21. adam strauss

    Johannes–I love that you’re teaching “Lycidas” next to contemporary work–cheers to not working chronologically! Which is not to say without logic!

  22. Kent Johnson

    Johannes, I’m really glad you are teaching Richard’s book, which is surely one of the most powerful U.S. poetic responses to the wars. It needs more consideration than it has yet received.

    And thanks for that link on the BlazeVOX outrage. As Ammiel Alcalay nicely put it today, after I pointed out the Buffalo News article to him:

    “hmmm, so, i guess that would disqualify the collected poems of ted berrigan, since money had to be raised to print it? by the family?”

    Kent

  23. Bill Maze

    Feng is another one of Ariana’s creations. Here she is displaying a painting of a decapitated wolf’s head from a few months back – in a great and noble act of empathy, I presume.

  24. Kent Johnson

    Just a speculation, don’t intend it as anything more than that, but I do wonder: Is it possible that the bizarre tragedy itself, Lucas, the singular horror of it (its reptilian nature, say, the very stuff of B-movie death-by-dismemberment flicks), is just too much for most people’s concept of poetic elegy? That the “problem” the judges had with your book really had little to do with your poetic handling of the matter (for how could they judge in any kind of comparative way–WHO has ever before “handled” such a topic in the history of poetry?), and almost everything to do with the unspeakable event? Poets are NOT supposed to be eaten by alligators in the middle of the night. To state the fact of it is so impossible it even almost sounds funny. Or embarrassing. Does that make any sense? Poets win prizes by writing elegies for people who die in natural ways, or at least in “acceptable” ways: car crashes, suicides, even murder by other human beings. But how does one deal with a poet literally being taken apart, out for a swim at night, by a species of being that was around with Tyrannosaurus Rex? I really think this has something to do with it. Stuff like this belongs in bad movies for popular fun, not in the Real. With your topic, you are writing not just about death, but about something that is in pure, dark excess of our common understandings of life, if that makes any sense. Reading those comments by the judge, I can almost see him or her speaking the words with hands over the eyes.

    So I’d say it’s brave of you, even though I haven’t read your book, obviously. I remember hearing about this horrible event.

  25. Bill Maze

    Kent,

    Cool ageism/sexism, bro. We wouldn’t expect any less from you.

    Bravery has nothing to do with it. Obviously.

  26. Dan Hoy

    This is apropos — another poet failing to follow proper mourning protocol at the memorial reading for a dear friend of hers (and called a “selfish twat” for this failure):

    http://freedrunk.tumblr.com/post/16266137355/mourning-protocol

    There is no appropriate response to death or to the trauma that is non-nothingness (i.e. existence) — people who assert otherwise are frauds.

  27. Bill Maze

    Danhoy,

    Although what you say is somewhat true (and I never pointed to one “appropriate way” myself, if you are addressing me) – there are indeed people who use “grief” to manipulate. Sociopaths, for instance. And there is nothing “fraudulent” about pointing it out. On the contrary.

  28. Lucas de Lima

    Adam, good point, I agree with your reversal about Teare’s book.

    Kent, I don’t think we’re thinking of the same death (my friend wasn’t a poet). But thanks for the note of encouragement. I think you’re totally right about the B-movie aspect of such an event, how in their eyes it becomes both a cheap thrill and “too real” when you write a whole book about it. This suggests the cynicism of these judges: they don’t think the sublime has a place in poetry, as if poetry just couldn’t handle such “ambition.”

  29. Bill Maze

    Okay, so it was alluded to I was “old” by someone more than twice my age, that I was “a fraud” by someone who has a blog called “fame will make you free” (and etc), and that I was “cynical” by an abusive sociopath.

    Well, I’m not cynical. I hope this conversation may have illuminated a few things for anybody out there. Ciao.

  30. Dan Hoy

    @BillMaze

    My “fraud” comment wasn’t directed toward you at all, I only scanned the other comments, it was just a general aphoristic thing about the relation between behavior (mourning) and the uncanny (death and life).

    Also, the blog I linked to isn’t mine, it’s a tumblr gossip rag.

  31. Bill Maze

    Okay Dan.

    I will be sure to be texting at your funeral; seems appropriate. 🙂

  32. Kent Johnson

    Lucas, that’s very strange. I assumed this concerned the young poet who was killed a few years ago in Florida. The poet was in her early twenties, had a blog, and had published in some zines a bit. She had left a party late at night and went swimming alone in a backwater. And I cannot remember her name.

  33. kim

    The science is lacking? Science of the gators, or what? That whole statement is some kind of wonderful absurd, suggestive of the type of media mass produced grief “thing” for sale they’re apparently opposed to. Maybe you can incorporate it somehow in your elegy. Good luck!

  34. Lara Glenum

    Um, maybe I have wax in my ears (or bullets), but Bill, did you just say Feng is one of Ariana’s creations?

  35. Lucas de Lima

    Bill is actually a creation himself. None of my judges were Republican politicians from California, though they might as well have been!

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