The Mid-Range Symptom
The writer of this piece, Johnny Payne, is the Director, Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary's University. Check out his book Confessions of A Gentleman Killer.
Amanda Gorman is a symptom, not the problem in itself. Commercial publishing in america has long had a strong philistine component. The Blockbuster syndrome was already being lamented in the 80s. One of its arguments is that this approach publishes what people want. Yet, when it’s convenient, the Big Five book publishers tout themselves as taste makers, capable of educating the reading public through a selective array of “literary” fiction titles. Forget for the moment the odd need to make “literary” a sub-category of fiction. The business model was supposedly one in which the blockbusters, rather than being depicted as arrivistes, were portrayed rather as noblesse oblige. Their other job, besides selling tens or hundreds of thousands of copies, was to prop up prestige titles and allow them to win over an audience without having to turn an immediate profit.
This model was always suspect, and it has never been conclusively established that this was the case in practice. It is doubtful that funds were systematically repurposed to other titles; rather, they slushed over. More often, these relatively cheap to acquire titles were given little promotion, offered tiny advances to their authors, and were remaindered after a year, when they broke even or posted only a small loss, enough to be covered by a tax write-off. There was nothing to subsidize, really. Rather, these “prestige” titles were an inexpensive way to market the press as a whole, as when an oil company donates to United Way or to a “green” organization, “disavowing” its ruthless capitalistic nature and rapacious despoliation of the environment. And some of those titles, the ones kept in backstock, might be raised from the dead if they ever caught on in universities, coming into vogue because of certain political causes, ethnic groups, or simply changing public interest that happened to bring their subject matter to the fore. McDonald’s had the angus burger —my favorite— on the menu for a couple of years, but in the end, it didn’t suit the taste of the American Public and it got dropped off, despite my protests. No matter, as the quarter pounder kept the bottom line healthy.
All the same, in the earlier days of this model, White Noise, Blood Meridian, Neuromancer and A Confederacy of Dunces were able to find their way into the hands of mainstream readers, proving that the appetite for works that challenged sensibilities existed. Someone in the editorial suite was not only exercising corporate responsibility but was perhaps reading with the level of absorption that Ben Wasson brought to Faulkner’s Sanctuary, or the junior editor Stanley Kauffmann lavished on unknown Walker Percy’s extraordinary The Moviegoer. It is difficult to imagine either of those novels commanding that early, patient attention now.
MFA programs are not necessarily the devils they are often made out to be. Some are innovative, provoke thought and experimentation, and operate outside of a dominant ideology of method and process. At a minimum, they promote literacy and proficiency to many who otherwise simply would not reach an expert level of writing. Nonetheless, in structural terms, they tend to conform to the role of producing a professional class of scribes, of the kind described by Angel Rama in The Lettered City, carrying with them a bureaucratic aspect of perpetuating the text necessary to conducting the labors of empire. Commercially, in terms of how they relate to the publishing infrastructure, MFA programs serve as a pre-publication machines, serving up both the blockbusters needed and the secondary stratum of books that keep the enterprise going, in image and substance.
Out of that mutual dependency eventuates a model of teaching and writing that encourages middle-of-the-road fiction, essays, and poetry, which in turn breaks down into subsets marked by gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other types of individual or group identity deemed saleable. This could be something as specific as confessional literature about sexual promiscuity, abuse, or drug addiction, ending with moral uplift, or fall into broader categories prompted by the ascendancy of a movement such as Black Lives Matter. More often, it manifests as non-controversial mid-range affirmations or laments, but those which fall short of provoking the critical thought and reflection that could lead to real controversy, the kind that goes beyond something that can boost one’s number of followers on Instagram and translate into further sales, without ultimately impairing the reputations of either author or publisher as mainstream propositions. The publishers are less interested in advocacy than in self-advocacy, not committed to any lasting social agenda or program of political action, and they would rather appeal to surface images of those phenomena that might appeal to purchasers. Direct action for publishers is mercantile, not militant.
In the absence of an aesthetic that is well-defined, these changing objects of poetic or fictional fascination in the ever-turning kaleidoscope pressed to the eye of the publisher, surface is all that exists. The very idea of integrity, subjective though it might be and running the risk of “exclusion,” has been abandoned in favor of a deference to outside circumstances that are ceaselessly in flux in their quasi-literary value to a press. The current trend in Afro-centric or Latinx-centric literature is merely that, a trend, and the idea of its transcendence is impaired by the economic relativity that underwrites it. It has displaced a set of preferred authors, possibly ones who deserved to be displaced for intrinsic reasons. But the fact that the real reasons are extrinsic ensure that this cadre, too, will in the long term, or even the medium term, also be displaced.
What keeps such literature in the spotlight is its capacity to “disturb” or excite just enough for purposes of giving the social media matrix a shake, mild or strong, for however long that shake will profitably last. Books are less profound than they are “optimal.” Even the reading experience has been infected more and more by cults of personality, rendering even the sincere social consciousness of authors an after-effect, rather than a strict cause, of writing. Newly privileged authors, irrespective of any other sociological facts about them, are conditioned to aim for the middle, and ideology becomes a cachet, almost a cologne.
Until this mid-range syndrome is broken by sharp, dialectic, polemical writing that dares to offend, not only commercial authors, but the so-called independent presses who operate on essentially the same model in order to compete, will continue to perpetrate quasi-literature, the kind everybody loves but nobody remembers.
To return to Gorman: her ascendancy is not benign. Political doggerel has suddenly become sexy to the nation, eclipsing the possibility for poetry to be read or understood beyond a minuscule segment of the population. Granted, poetry has never had a large audience. But at least it was merely ignored by many. Now that doggerel has been appropriated as metonymy for poetry as a whole, or even literature as a whole, by virtue of its declamation at the Super Bowl, the inauguration, and the plans to publish her unedited three volumes of poems in editions of one million copies each. Gorman is less a flash in the pan than the apotheosis of a gradual and systematic degradation of the medium. That means the production of poetry at large in the u.s. is eclipsed at one swoop, rendered irrelevant, save the most adolescent knockoffs that might result, most probably consigned to the status of distant satellites, except for a few other clone-like “stars” who will emerge with mindless, sledge-hammer buoyancy.
The effects are pernicious, degrading poetry to something even less than the homilies of the like of Billy Collins, or in an earlier generation, Yevgeni Yevtushenko, whose mediocre crowd-pleasing pablum now seems positively elegant by the Gorman standard. Her elite modeling contract, achieved on a good-looking, ready-made celebrity model, enhanced by her hand jive and her wholesome, I’m hot but not like the consumptive Kate Moss, girl next door radiance, coincides, fortuitously for her publishers, with the cynical, national cooptation of the radical aims of Black Lives Matter. What’s said is that Gorman is seen as the apotheosis of that movement, when in fact she is its defanged avatar, representing moderate politics combined with an utter lack of literary merit.
The justifying argument that Gorman is a performer and in that resides her talent is a weak one. Slam poetry was already vibrant in the 90s. Before that, the Beats, in the 50s. It can, if one wishes, be traced all the way back to African griots, Indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, Greek choral strophes, and countless other oral tradition verse performances, ever since humans possessed “spoken word.” More immediately, since the 1980s (earlier if you count Gil Scott Heron), hip-hop has cast a massive performance shadow, albeit with music, representing an explosion of the performance poetry sensibility and like most popular music, some is brilliant, much tedious. Yet even hip-hop does not nakedly compete with the audience for poetry. It remains to be said that the millions of copies of Gorman’s writing are set to be published—as writing, not as performance—therefore, it should be judged as writing and not by any other standard. And the writing is not naïve. It is simply insipid in its perhaps unwitting embrace of demagogic rhetoric celebrating, in hortatory fashion, vague aspects of democracy in rhetoric easily coopted by anyone along a broad spectrum of facile political thought.
She is the washed-out version of Langston Hughes’s scathing “Let America be America Again”:
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek— And finding only the same old stupid plan Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that ancient endless chain Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil. I am the worker sold to the machine. I am the Negro, servant to you all. I am the people, humble, hungry, mean— Hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers! I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream In the Old World while still a serf of kings, Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true, That even yet its mighty daring sings In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned That’s made America the land it has become. O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas In search of what I meant to be my home— For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore, And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea, And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me? Surely not me? The millions on relief today? The millions shot down when we strike? The millions who have nothing for our pay? For all the dreams we’ve dreamed And all the songs we’ve sung And all the hopes we’ve held And all the flags we’ve hung, The millions who have nothing for our pay— Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
Does Hughes’s language veer toward the plain? Surely it does. Is it aimed toward a populace that doesn’t normally read poetry? Also true. He is adopting the speech of the common person, but this straightforward, possibly declamatory prose is thoughtful, strategic, explosive and radical in intent. Its message of social justice is far more relevant than Gorman’s weak paean of second-hand language, her vapid talk of “heroes.” Gorman’s so-called poetry doesn’t even provide a bridge to a renewed reading of Hughes’s withering vision of a failed democracy. Its feel-good vibe is the absolute antithesis of what Hughes’s verses stand for. It calls out no one. Yet surely a false equivalence to him is being posited, if not consciously. Our worst nightmare is that Gorman might be taught in schools someday, whether as an “american” or “African-american” poet.
Some poets have taken up the mantle of complex, critical, idea-rich verse, such as Safiya Sinclair and Tyehimba Jess, and show a path toward a quality of consciousness that says something meaningful about the state of the state. Authentic poetry is out there, among the mid-range dreck. It simply has to be emulated and must be read, if publishing practices are ever to let us get beyond the fetishes and the false idols.