Some Thoughts about Poetry and Censorship

I’m not sure why, but last week a random thought about poetry popped into my head. It may have been triggered by hearing about a book that had been turned into a movie or was going to be turned into a movie.

And I thought, ‘I wonder if singers/composers/record companies ever buy the rights to poems with the plan to turn the poems into hit songs.’

It seems like it would be a good SAT analogy question:

“books are to movies as _______ are to songs”

or at least it seems like it should be a good SAT question.

I’ve written before about how I think of song lyrics as a form of poetry, and it seems like the reverse could be true as well; poetry could be a form of song lyrics or at least the basis for them.

It seems like it would be a win-win for the poet and the singer. The poet has another outlet for his or her poem, and the singer/composer has a new source of lyrics to set to music.

So while my mind was trying to sort through those thoughts, today I came across a story in the Wall Street Journal that looked at how some major publications have recently backed down from criticism.

The one that relates to this current post is a story about the magazine The Nation, and how it apologized to its readers for a poem it published this summer. I’ll reproduce the poem here, and then share why The Nation apologized for it, and reader reaction to the apology.

The poem is about a street hustler offering advice on how to panhandle.

How-To by Anders Carlson-Wee

If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl, 
say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick. People
passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee
funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely
to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop. If you’re young say younger.
Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hardly even there.

Here is the response a couple of weeks later by the poetry editors of The Nation:

As poetry editors, we hold ourselves responsible for the ways in which the work we select is received. We made a serious mistake by choosing to publish the poem “How-To.”  We are sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem. We recognize that we must now earn your trust back.  Some of our readers have asked what we were thinking. When we read the poem we took it as a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization. We can no longer read the poem in that way.

It was the first time in the 153-year history of The Nation that it apologized for one of the poems it published.

As I wrote in my blog post about poetry, Wikipedia defines poetry as a form of literature that uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language—such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre—to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning.

I think poetry is meant to elicit strong emotions, to get the reader to think about what the words are trying to convey. Whether you agree or disagree with the words used in the poem above shouldn’t be the criteria for publishing a poem.

Did the poem use words to make you react emotionally and to get you to think about what the poet is saying? If so, then bravo for a job well done.

I think that’s what happened here. As the WSJ points out, the use of dialect in the poem suggests that the hustler is black, drawing complaints that the poem is racist. Because the hustler suggests faking a disability, it was condemned as “ableist.” The poet, Carlson-Wee, who is white, was also accused of “cultural appropriation.”

Just because a poem suggests that someone fake a disability does not mean that the poet is suggesting such behavior is appropriate. This would be analogous to charging the author of a best selling thriller involving terrorism with being a terrorist.

There are currently 22 comments on The Nation‘s apology; not one of them was in favor of such a decision.

Add me to the list.

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