A pleasantly surprising turn to yet another foofaraw over forbidden speech

Updated: Feb 8, 2019


Maybe you heard about the foofaraw at The Nation over publication of a poem by a young white poet who used black dialect and ableist language (the word "crippled") in addressing the theme of homelessness and begging. To what should be no one's surprise, a social-media mob rose up to howl in outrage at this bit of cultural appropriation and other offenses, whereupon the magazine's poetry editors issued an abject apology that sadly can be described as groveling, and the poet himself did likewise in a prudent but less than heroic move.

We might have expected better from The Nation, a venerable publication founded by abolitionists in 1865. For more than 150 years the magazine has been a principled voice from the left, "home to tenacious muckraking, provocative commentary, and spirited debate about politics and culture," and a champion of intellectual freedom. This honorable legacy now stands held in abeyance.

The poem "How-To" by Anders Carlson-Wee is an okay poem, nothing that knocked me out, but decently crafted, addressing a serious subject in a serious manner. The use of black speech strikes me as reasonably well done, as is attested by John McWhorter in a fine article on the subject at The Atlantic (There's Nothing Wrong With Black English).

Writing in dialect can be a mistake. It is easy to get it wrong, difficult to do it well. That should be the basis for critique. Criticism goes off the rails when boundaries are set up to designate what language can be used or themes addressed by certain classes of individuals and what is off limits. I am inclined to rise up and howl myself when self-appointed commissars of language presume to dictate what is permissible to be thought and said.

The episode took a heartening turn with the eruption of backlash against the backlash, not just from the usual suspects on the right whose day is made by this sort of thing, but from comrades on my wing of ideological bird. Numerous comments on the The Nation's website supported the poem and questioned the apology in no uncertain language. Katha Pollitt, a contributor to The Nation since 1980, called the apology "craven" and said it "looks like a letter from a reeducation camp." I agree. Grace Schulman, The Nation's poetry editor from 1971 to 2006, wrote a fine opinion piece published by The New York Times. This passage sums up her position:

During the 35 years that I edited poetry for The Nation magazine, we published the likes of W.S. Merwin, Pablo Neruda, May Swenson, Denise Levertov, James Merrill and Derek Walcott. They wrote on subjects as varied as lesbian passion and nuclear threats. Some poems, and some critical views, enraged our readers and drove them to drop their subscriptions.

But never did we apologize for a poem we published. We saw it as part of our job to provoke our readers — a mission we took especially seriously in serving the magazine’s absolute devotion to a free press.

We followed a path blazed by Henry James, who in 1865 wrote a damning review of Walt Whitman’s “Drum Taps,” calling the great poem “arrant prose.” Mistaken, yes, but it was James’s view at the time. And it was never retracted.

Maybe these principled responses along with the recent decision by the editors of The New York Times to stand by their hiring of Sarah Jeong (see Week's End Thoughts & Reflections, August 4, 2018) represent small steps toward reclaiming a commitment to intellectual freedom that is under siege from individuals cloaked in the mantle of progressivism whose rhetoric and tactics conjure up the spectre of show trials and cultural revolution.

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David Matthews

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