I am not Turkish. I am Jewish. In the fifties most Jews in Turkey were Sephardim and spoke Ladino Spanish. But I am not a Sephardi; I am a Persian Jew. My parents had moved to Istanbul on business, and I was born there in a Jewish neighborhood. But I learnt no Ladino, barely u nderstood it. Jewish kids in the neighborhood thought I was Moslem, an outsider. At home, my parents spoke Persian with each other, which also I barely understood. Brothers among ourselves spoke Turkish. My mother spoke in an immigrant's broken Turkish to me (my father barely spoke to me at all). Turkish became my mother tongue. I spoke Turkish in the street. I was, linguistically, most comfortable with other Turks, who mostly despised Jews. My speech became almost Turkish. Loving a language not completely my own was my first act as a Jew. And, despite my almost accentless speech, my first act of rebellion was to tell my Turkish friends I was not one of them. I was a Jew.
II. Explorations Towards a Writer's Block
In 1959 I left the hurly-burly of Turkey, its rich vein of bigotry and psychic resonance behind. Though I did not focus on it then, I left my mother tongue behind, which is Turkish, which I am not. In 1961 I decided to become a writer. As an American writer my first act was self-immolation. I had to destroy the Turkishness in me, feel, hopefully one day, dream in English. If I had a thought in Turkish, I aborted, nicked it. I chose not have a thought exist unless originating in English, a language which overwhelmed me because I had said my first words in it only six years before. The result was a writer's block which lasted about ten years during which I wrote three or four poems a year all under ten lines. My first breakthrough occurred with The Bridge, a long narrative poem which took me five years to write (1970 - 1975).
III. Thought, Speech and Acts
Now, as a thinking adult in English, I speak it with an accent. I speak Turkish also with an accent. Turkish is an unaccented, flat language, with vowels of equal length. The accentual rhythms of English interfere with my Turkish. When I speak, Turks think I am a Cypriot or Armenian, an outsider. I must spend weeks in Turkey, speaking no English, for my accent in Turkish almost to disappear. My business is antique Oriental rugs, which is dominated by Persian Jews. My Persian has improved incredibly. I can speak the daily business lingo, its bargainings, lies, theatrics, jokes (at which I am very good), without effort; but I am illiterate in Persian. Occasionally, one of the merchants, knowing I am also a poet, recites a Sadi or a Hafiz poem, which is completely incomprehensible (and slightly repulsive) to me.
I find the first two letters of "America" infinitely stirring. It means "pussy" in Turkish and "I am" in English. It resonates with a tension between motherhood/sex ("Am" is also "mA" in reverse) and identity. As I write down these thoughts, I notice suddenly that "Am" distorts the natural syllable break of the word. It accents "A-merica." Not only do I speak English, but also, mentally, in my mind's eye, hear it with an accent. The true power, even nature, of American English for me is accented, buried in this accent: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard...."
The true power of language, its well of inspiration, for me, lie in its conscious or unconscious errors, cracks, imperfections. I am a poet, an American poet, because I have a defective ear. And, first lesson: this defect is the source of my possible talents and their limitations. But why not a poet in French or Turkish or Persian, all languages I knew before English?
V. Jewishness and Accent
Last year I attended a workshop on being a Jewish writer, run by Joel Lewis. In his meticulous way, Joel presented the participants with a range of alternatives, poems containing chicken soup and Matzoh balls (gemutlich), tailors and the Shtetl (Isaac Bashevis Singer and "Fiddler On The Roof"), Lewis Warsh's wonderful poem about the movement from the Lower East Side to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, pre-war European poems in translation about the conflict between the Yiddish and goyish cultures, and translations of haunting Holocaust poems by Primo Levi. I am not an Ashkenazi Jew. Though I share the underlying paranoia of the outsider of every Jew, Turkey was never invaded by the Nazi's. I never ate matzo balls at home. In strictly European or main-stream American terms defined by the workshop, there is little Jewish in my writing. Am I not Jewish then? A nonsensical question since I am Jewish. In that workshop once again I felt, as I felt among Jewish kids in Istanbul, an outsider who spoke not the same language.
Then, how am I a Jewish writer, how is writing poetry in American English my version of Jewish Writing?
VI. A Jew Without Accent
The seed of an answer occurred in a confrontation over Jabes, whom the workshop presented, at least to the American eyes, as the king of Jewish literary artists, the creator of a "book in exile." I began to understand what is Jewish about me by analyzing what is false, phony about Jabes, how seeing Jabes as the ideal European Jew implies a negation of me, and other non-Western-Europeans like me, as Jewish writers. Jabes and I have similar backgrounds with radically different choices to our Jewishness. Therefore, I must progress with a short critique of Jabes.
Jabes exists in the United States essentially because Derrida "discovered" him: Derrida discovered, "authorized" Jabes; therefore, he exists. Jabes did not have an independent prior recognition. It is absolutely essential to see that Jabes would not have existed in the States without the authorization of Derrida.Therefore, a critique of Jabes is in fact a critique of Derrida, and, consequently, a critique of the mainstream American intellectual's concentration on Europe. Why did Derrida discover Jabes? Was it a lucky incident that every artist in his or her garret dreams of? Not at all. By "discovering" Jabes Derrida was legitimizing himself. They have both North African backgrounds, are both North African Jews, a fact with inescapable linguistic ramifications. Derrida spoke French among Arabs, that is to say, the language of the colonialist. When he moved to mainland France, he chose, linguistically and in terms of his career, the side of power. He became one of the "flowerings" of French prose.
Growing up in Egypt, Jabes also spoke French. Jabes's French, as an Egyptian Jew, is the language of the privileged class in Egypt, the privileged island of power, surrounded by the Arabic "sand." Jabes's French is like Tolstoy's War and Peace and Anna Karenina, where the main characters are aristocrats and supposed to speak French among themselves, not Russian. That's why whole sections of these novels, written in Russian, read like silent translations.
Jabes also, like Derrida, moved to France. His theme of "linguistic exile" is not, essentially, the Jewish or mystical theme of the diaspora or distance from God (Hashem); but his distance, exile from the less privileged people he was surrounded by and left behind, and their language, Arabic. Arabic, at least psychically his true home (if he played with other kids in the neighborhood), has no influence on Jabes's French. His French has no accent. If it did, it may not be accepted because purity is a French ideal closely linked to a central tradition and resists accents. Egypt appears only as a decorative metaphor (with a touch of the intellectual-exotic: sand, desert, oasis, etc., "arabisme," acceptable to post-Napoleonic French taste) in his work. As I see it, Jabes has to experience his own "writing" as a discontinuous series of immediate experiences, without memory, memory as negative space (a key aesthetic point for him, for Derrida and for American poets influenced by both) because, underlying it, there is a chaotic political choice: a Jew choosing the side and the language of privilege instead of the underdog. Jabes's Judaism is false (assimilated) because its real home, "Hashem," is Arabic which he emasculates by prettifying it. Judaism is a fashionable gimmick to hide his severance from his past, his memory of political choice, his experiences of childhood.
When Derrida "discovers" Jabes, he ignores this most crucial linguistic (therefore power) choice they both make. In a perceptive talk he gave at the Poetry Project in 1992, David Shapiro said that under his "revolutionary" demeanor, Derrida is essentially an academician, achieving a new flowering of exquisite French prose. I had a personal experience of that when, about a year ago, I attended a Derrida lecture at the 42nd Street Graduate Center. His ninety minute speech expounded, ethereally, subtly, how a "gift is not a gift" if acknowledged as such, the mere consciousness, "material utterance" of the act disqualifying it from being such. I also learnt that Derrida was charging $ 20,000.00 for his week visit to the United States. Derrida "discovers" Jabes because Jabes also is, in his ethereal, filigree prose, potentially, a similar kind of star, who has made a similar fateful choice. Derrida's "discovery" is in fact an act of self-justification.
The Americans essentially accept Derrida's version of Jabes, which is uncritical and distorted, a version which, subliminally, reinforces Derrida's views, including his flaws and limitations as a writer, as "natural," "universal" truths. To stress Jabes's Jewishness (which to me, without an Arabic imprint, is a fashionable "flavor") above everything else about him is very deceptive (and American writers should resist it) because it short circuits, passes by (as Derrida intended) the political dimension of his choice as a writer. Jabes's Jewish mystical theme, I believe, is a mask covering a political theme, his choice to leave the third world of Egypt and Arabic behind. Seen from this angle, Jabes's "Jewishness" has a strong "Western," colonialist dimension, as Paul de Mans's pure, "non-political" deconstructionism, the American intellectuals such as Harold Bloom have discovered to their horror, has Nazi roots.
From the same angle, isn't the central act of Albert Camus' The Stranger, the Proto-North-African French work, a racial murder, an Arab murdered by a white man, a stranger to the Arab, on the beach; and the protagonist's act obfuscated, erased, treated as a foil, the responsibility for it done away with, intellectually justified in the misty mystifications of Existentialism, in The Stranger's amoral "style"? The protagonist, the stranger to the Arab, is "rationalized" into the stranger to himself. Camus's Existential lobotomized style and Jabes's sophisticated Arabisme: parallel acts of political, moral obfuscations set a generation apart. Must a North African Jew always do the dirty work of the white man just to be accepted inside France's glorious halls?
VII. A Jew With Accent: Ambiguity Towards Power, the Fate of the Un-assimilated Jew
Ambiguity towards power is, in my opinion, the contemporary Jewish theme, what every Jewish writer, consciously or not, willingly or not, must face. This ambiguity is embedded in Jewish history, in Jewish identity, in the conflict between its myths and history. Despite its protestations, the Torah is history written by the powerful, a nation chosen by God, taking somebody else's land to make its own. On the other hand, the history of the diaspora is the history of the victim, the dispossessed, the Galut, the progroms, the Holocaust. Where does the Jew's allegiance belong? Does the contemporary Jew ally himself with the powerful or the victim? Though this conflict has become explicit after the birth of Israel, it was implicit, as Jews embraced assimilation and moved physically out of the Ghetto, in the Diaspora also. Often, economically, Jews belonged to the privileged class; but culturally, and linguistically, they were the outsiders, the underprivileged. As Jews, Derrida and Jabes erase, ignore, escape this ambiguity. Their choices are absolute, on the side of power. Jabes's and Derrida's writings are accentless, unambiguously French. They represent a Jewish style of assimilation, identification with power. They hide, and their American admirers overlook, the political dimension of their writings.
VIII. What Is Then Accented Writing?
What is, then, writing which has an accent? It is a writing which does not completely identify with the power, authority of the language it uses; but confronts, without glossing over, the gap between the user and the language. Such writing reveals an ambiguity towards power: the writer chooses to embrace a language (because of its pervasive centrality) which he/she knows is not quite his/her own, is insufficient for his/her inner purposes. Accent in writing has little to do with explicit theme or semantic context; it rather has to do with texture, structure, the scratches, distortions, painful gaps (in rhythms, syntax, diction, etc.) caused by the alien relationship between the writer and his/her adopted language. Accent is cracks (many unconscious, the way a speaker is unaware of his or her accent when speaking, does not have to create it ) on the transparent surface.
Accented Jewish writing embodies, rather than erases, this ambiguity towards power. By doing that it creates its accent. Kafka, to me, is the first modern, European writer who reveals the Jew's ambiguity towards power in terms of an accent in the texture of his language. His language of choice as a writer is not Yiddish or Czech but legal German (that of an intricate legal brief), a double embrace of power: first of the cultural mainstream, second, that section of it which codifies its power. But Kafka's accent subverts that legal code, divests it of its meaning, turns the language of the powerful into a language of the victim, of alienation. To me, Kafka's subject is a stylistic dialogue about the ambiguity of power, between the powerful and the victim, a sadomasochistic elaboration of the Book of Job, the chosen man of God also chosen as a victim. Interestingly, Kafka's fiction (as opposed to his diaries) has very few direct references to Jews, almost no semantic, but only stylistic, Jewish content.
IX. The Essence of American Sound, Can It Be the Music of Diaspora?
Why did Kafka write Amerika, why was he attracted to the subject of the United States? German also accents Am-erika. What did he hear in the word Oklahoma? A wild, alien, distant sound in German, Oklahoma! At the same time, an intimate sound, one of the rare words in English with vowel harmony, which is also, I imagine, in Czech. Kafka hears in Oklahoma the alien ground in which his private soul can nest itself, the synthesis between the powerful and the victim. That is why he associates his open-ended, endless nirvana of liberation in the Theater (Noah's Ark) of Oklahoma. What is the word Oklahoma after all, but the imprint of the Native American, the victim, the invaded in the language of the master. American English: the language which embodies that peculiar combination, victim and victor possessing the same language, yoked together by fate.
Using American English as a poet is the outsider, the victim, embracing, emulating the language of the master, being constantly beset by the ambiguities of power.
X. American Poetry, The Poetics of Accents
What makes this poetry different from others, from French, from English? Here lies its radical ambiguity: American English, as a poetic language, is not a mother tongue in the usual sense but a pseudo-mother, step-mother tongue. It can have no tradition, its vocabulary no public or mythical, only personal, private resonances. It is the language of pervasive power, without resonance, of authority in which the immigrant, the victim must speak. Writing poetry in American English is a continuous act of translating from a radical inside or from a radical beyond. Its well of inspiration is always outside, never in the mining or contributing to the flowerings of a tradition. The reading and the writing of American poetry must always be discontinuous. Accepting a central, authoritative tradition undercuts its balance of power and victimhood.
Even to the powerful, American English is unstable, its power ambiguous. When the Puritan, for example, spoke English, the Puritan saw himself/herself threatened by the geographic and moral wilderness around, which even destabilized the inner certitudes. His/her language is defensive, doubting its ability to embrace, cope with the darkness beyond the ring of light, the ring of reason.
That alienation, instability between writer and language, a radical skepticism about its ability to reveal inner truth constitute its essential nature. The relation of the poet to the language is inescapably confrontational. American English is the quintessential unnatural, insufficient, weak language which the writer has to bend, distort, to translate into, to interject his or her vision. To me, three nineteenth century writers, none of them Jewish but white protestant, embody this accented writing: Hawthorne, Melville and Dickinson. Hawthorne's Puritan English prose is tortured, twisted to assimilate both the wilderness beyond on the continent and the wilderness within. (Read the first pages of House Of The Seven Gables; it is Henry James at his purest. All of Henry James and more is in it.) Melville's compulsive, encyclopedic lists of whaling lore crack up, can not contain the nihilism at the core and must spill into splintered moments of black vision which masquerade as narrative. Dickinson invents a language which only pretends to be English and must be read over and over again to be stripped into its message, a violent sadomasochism. Words are private emblems, the syntax unstable, constantly shifting, not quite an "English" syntax, the smooth "hymnal" surface hiding, shafted with a sadomasochistic violence. All these works are written by writers, though white Christians, for whom the given language is not really their own, not really their "natural," mother tongue.
Contemporary Jewish writing, embodying the ambiguous relationship to power, is therefore a specific example of American writing. Emily Dickinson, the Protestant spinster completely at home at Amherst but completely out of it, is to me the American poet, the Jew, the sister/neighbor in exile, whose enigmatic, excessive, possessive, distant, recalcitrant company I can take only a few poems at a time.
XI. To Be a Poet Or Reader of Uncanonizable Poetics
American poetics is asocial, therefore, uncanonizable. I am not talking about changing the canon, therefore creating a new structure of power; discontinuous means uncanonizable. I must apply the principle of quantum mechanics here. The moment a style or a poet is canonized, therefore gaining a privileged mainstream position, the language written in that style loses the tension between power and victimhood and stops being American. Writing poetry in American English is not a trade or guild activity to be taught at special schools or communities (while making movies or T.V. shows is), but an act of personal survival.
Reading American poets is essentially following a series of distinct, discontinuous personal strategies in language. Tradition in the European sense is an illusion in American poetry. Even the "newest" French or English writer writes with a hope of one day becoming a "classic." Thinking of the future, or even in the traditional sense of the past, thinking of a continuity, are ruinous for an American poet or critic. Therefore, Jabes and Derrida, masters of academic style, tools to create a new canon, have no relevance to an American poet unless as abject objects to be attacked.
Harold Bloom's paradigm of anxiety of influence, the poet struggling with his linguistic father-predecessor, is wrong. With the possible exception of Allen Ginsburg and Whitman, I know no American poet who has created truly original work as a "flowering" of a previous poet. In a radical sense, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Melville, Stein, Reznikoff, Zukofsky, Creeley, Ashberry have no American beginnings or ends. The contemporary attempt to create a new canon around, for example, the figures of Mary Rowlandson, Jonathan Edwards, Dickinson and Stein is to misunderstand their work. The accents (in Susan Howe's word, "hesitations,") in Dickinson's, or any other poet's writing, are unreproduceable, completely idiosyncratic. To think that Stein's repetitions or Ashberry's mellifluously expansive meditations are linguistic tools bequeathed to later poets in terms of a "flowering poetic tradition" is wrong-headed. In American poets these are outside trappings of idiosyncratic, personal solutions, accents, that can be completely ignored by and are only marginally useful to another poet. What unifies the poets is their unchanging, confrontational, aggressive relationship to their language. None of them is writing in his or her mother tongue and must therefore distort, accent it to make it his/her own.
XI. Accented Relationships Among Poets: Is There No Influence Then?
Creeley calls Zukofsky "the teacher of all of us," but Creeley does not imitate or expand on Zukofsky's poetic style. He undercuts it by creating hesitations, weaknesses (accents) in its architecture. Creeley mishears Zukofsky's reading of his own poems by "hearing" stops at his line breaks. To do that to a Zukofsky poem (to a lyric like "Songs Of Degrees"), in essence, is to demolish (to add excessive stops to) its sound architecture. But vocal hesitations at line ends (independent of syntax) is the core of Creeley's poetic sound, the power of its vulnerable intimacy. In essence, Creeley's relation to Zukofsky is confrontational, accented. What he learns from Zukofsky is, I think, to turn the language he is born to, English, into an alien, slightly abstract structure of sound he can crack, poke into. What he learns from Zukofsky, is American English.
Zukofsky, a foreigner, teaches Creeley, the Puritan, English as a foreign language, a structure of power Creeley does not completely own. At his most original Creeley subverts Zukofsky's powerful architecture of sound to interject his weaknesses, hesitations. For Creeley Zukofsky is the alien, the outside which softens the smug nastiness, the male chauvinism of the early poems in For Love. It brings them ambiguity, restraint, by turning their power driven misogyny inward, into a language of vulnerability and pathos.
XII. The Music of the Victim Is the Language of the Unnamed
In American poetry the father (tradition) and the mother tongue (the language of intimate and evocative words) are split. This confrontation makes the American poem an attack into the unsayable (socially and spiritually). To evoke what is unnamed is, always, to evoke what is not in the physical body of the language, in its material music. The language of weakness, of the unnamed, must have a Puritanical bias, "Thou shalt not worship graven words." The poet's instinctive love for words, their physicality, is suspect, must be restrained.
The music of words (of their plasticity) is tradition. The music between words is the language of the outside, the unamable. That's why Zukofsky, whom Creeley calls the poet with the perfect ear, can be, maybe must be, tone deaf. That's why Dickinson, the supreme American poet, has so few quotable, physically luscious lines. American poem is anti-musical, can not preen its physical achievement like a peacock. Once again, Whitman sticks out against my theories like a sore thumb.
The American poem (and poet) is always trapped in the space between words, in the crack between his/her vision and the language he/she is using, in the discontinuity (as opposed to cultural unity) between the self and his/her language. His/her soul belongs to somewhere else. That is why if he/she is influenced by another poet, that poet is almost always from another language, French, Indian, Turkish, German, Spanish, Japanese, etc. Or, more often, the mother lode of influence is another medium, cubism or abstractionism in painting, Jazz, photography, movies, T.V., etc. American poems are continuous acts of translations from another language or medium or both. In this process, the languages of origin (Chinese, French, Vietnamese, Turkish, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, etc.) or aesthetic philosophies are not hierarchical, canonical, but coexist on the same level. No language is superior over another language. Surrealism is no more relevant than Sufism, deconstructionism or anthropology than Zen, glyphs than photographs, the poets Yunus Emre, Zbigniew Herbert, Xavier Villaurrutia than Arthur Rimbaud.
As I said, American English is neutral with no personal, cultural associations. No more is this more clear than in Emily Dickinson. What do sun, father, Hunter, He, God, etc. (all images of authority) mean in her work? Nothing. They are essentially blank emblems, a chain of Moby Dicks, completely stripped of their traditional associations, around which the poet weaves her barely decipherable soul. Under the deceptive music of a hymn, of a little embroidering lady, the blankness of these crucial images liberates/unhinges the syntax in the poems, completely privatizes it. What is Moby Dick after all? An attack on whiteness, an asocial, self-destructive pursuit of the unnameable, which all the lists, all the encyclopedias, all the charts, all the lore of the country can not name. Call me Ishmael, the poet, who (I) must a tale unfold/ Whose lightest word... I am thy father.... Seems, madam? No it's. I have that within me which passeth show.... Others trappings and suits of woe..."
The unnameable, ineffable, the radically inner implicate, require, fate a confrontation with the father tongue. The music is in the ensuing unhinging.
XIII. A Writing Block Revisited
During the ten years before The Bridge, my first long poem, I was learning American English. I was not, as I thought, uprooting what is Turkish in me; but I was learning the potent, cool neutrality of American language into which I can pour my Turkish soul. My mother tongue is Turkish, but I can not write in Turkish. Against its heat my heart feels like a vulnerable moth. I first chose to be a Jew (and not to be assimilated) as a rebellion, an act of self-empowerment against my mother tongue. I came to the United States as a Jew. The ten years I thought I was erasing the Turkish in me (my writing block), I was actually building the language, the tool, American English, which will empower me to receive, reintegrate my Turkish soul. As a poet, American English took the place of my Jewishness. In fact, American English and Jewishness to me are one.
I embraced American English as an act of empowerment. But as an American poet I saw I have no power. Not only that, but I saw, at the end of my writer's block, that I have no subject but what is Turkish in me. Like every American poet I saw my inspiration come from outside. And that inspiration is my state of vulnerability, my mother tongue. Here, at this focus of my step-language, I encountered the mixture of power and weakness, empowerment and marginality, privilege and victimhood, white heat and coolness. To fight the white heat of mother tongue, I must accept the isolation, victimhood of American poet. I save my woman's heart in the heartless, remote neutrality of American English; my heart prevails in the tell tale signs I impose on American English. The imperfect match creates cracks, breaks. These imperfections, insufficiencies, errors are also the focus of absolute power, intensity, the center of the experience of an American poem where empowerment and victimhood are unified.
Turkishness, Jewishness and American poetry, the unholy knot of my poetic identity, coactive, where each side pulls against and sustains each other, like the undulations of a high wire act, of a somersault. How can one think of identification with, influence by your predecessor. Embrace, emulate, pay heed to another poet, and the whole act collapses. The energy of an American poem is centrifugal, outer looking, partly an tense escape. Each poet is a discontinuous Lautrec high wire act. Think of a tradition, the whole act collapses.
Like Jabes and Derrida I am a Jew born in the third world. My difference from them is that, as writers, they chose to be assimilated Jews, chose to be assimilated into a powerful center, identifying with the power of French cultural center. I chose to remain a Jew. After ten years in the desert of a writer's block, I learnt to accept the Arab in me, my discarded slave mother, Hagar, the Turk, the bastard Jew, speaking in American English.
The sylopsism of American poetry changes not only the concept of tradition, but the concept of influence. The relation of the poet to other poets is opportunistic, a series of avoidances, redirections caused by collisions; but strong poets, like a runner back, weaving their circuitous routes against obstacles to reach the end line. The concept of influence as identification with a tradition is unthinkable. The tension of an original American poem is always centrifugal. While the used language creates one center of gravity, the poet's inner gravity pulls away from that, is somewhere else. As an outsider, like a magpie, my relationship to others are opportunistic and arbitrary, unclassified, free of tradition. My influences are like a series of reactions to a minefield, weaving against obstacles, surviving a collision against a superior force if I must. Here is the circuitous route of my collisions which determine the shape of my growth as a poet: Shakespeare's Sonnets, the Turkish poet Orhan Veli, Tolstoy, the Turkish poet Cemal Sureya, Andrew Marvell, Thomas Browne, Swift's A Tale Of The Tub, Turkish folk poetry, Kleist's Marquis Of O...," Japanese poetry, the Scottish philosopher Hume, the Turkish Sufi poet Pir Sultan Abdal, "Ode On A Grecian Urn," T.V., American movies Dump Sung, Chang Is Missing, Raising Arizona, Blade Runners , the Chinese movie House Of The Red Lanterns, the Japanese director Atami's The Funeral, amateur photography, the philosopher Francis Bacon, Wittgenstein, logical positivism, Roland Barthes, Ezra Pound's "The Seafarer," Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, Seferis, Kafavi, the Turkish poet Orhan Arif, etc.
XIV. Why American English Is Different from Other Languages And Has No Overtones?
Because it is an oval. Language is not the producer of myth in the United States; movies, T.V., popular music are. Words play a subservient position in American culture, in movies, in T.V., in music. In their legendary abuse of script writers movie moguls instinctively knew that. Is there a twentieth century American poem as resonant as the face of Humphrey Bogart, the breathless blondness of Marilyn Monroe, the fight over a plate of steak between John Wayne, James Stewart and Lee Marvin in "Who Shot Liberty Valence" or, politically, as potent as Murphy Brown giving birth to an illegitimate child on T.V.?
T.V.'s influence is the most profound. It has altered contemporary epistemology, what is truth and how it is to be perceived. It abolishes the distinction between inner and outer (the foundation of American poetry), private and public, true and false. The underlying assumption of T.V. is that there is no difference between home (the living room) and the inside of the box (the world at large the box contains), between the front and the back of the lens, this fusion affecting the concepts of sincerity and truthfulness and truth. T.V. style reflects this radical change of epistemology; therefore, T.V. style is the reverse of American poetic style, which is based on the radical difference between the inner and outer. The new reality reflected in the T.V. style may have enormous ramifications for American poetry; but these are questions for another paper. Let me just make a few preliminary remarks.
The purpose of T.V. style is to diminish the resistance between the inside and the outside the box, to make the screen so transparent as if porous. (The movie Poltergeist deals with this phenomenon.) Minimalism is at the bottom of this style. T.V. language is minimalist. How few memorable phrases can be attributed to those considered masters of T.V., Reagan, maybe Clinton, both Teflon figures. Verbal contradictions do not diminish them. Reagan can misquote facts at infinitum. Clinton can make mutually exclusive proposals. What unifies them is not their facts, their fire, but the image of their "affability," a minimalist value if ever their was one, their image that they are one of the people (outside and inside the box are the same). But affability is an essential value of unity when American reality is a wrenching multiplicity of interests. The two great American myths are immigration, "nation of immigrants," and unity, "the United States." T.V. is what sustains them both, balances this oxymoron; it creates the visual and stylistic trick that holds the nation together. Transforming, fusing it into the myth of "belonging," creating an aura of belonging, T. V. turns alienation into a state of power, empowerment.
The true language of America is not American English, but T.V. T.V. is the gravitational center of culture. If an American poet wants to embrace a tradition, he/she should not embrace an American English poetic style, but the style of T.V. An American poem can be a confrontation between the minimalism of a T.V. style (which itself has numberless variations, genres, structures, etc., and is therefore infinitely suggestive) and the idiosyncratic perversities of an inner vision. Its power may lie in the cracks, fault lines this confrontation causes. These distortions on the minimalist surface are its accent. For instance, my poem "Heartbreak Weekend In Atlantic City" is a series of discrete, transparent scenes; but the scenes follow each other in perverse, askew, disjointed, arbitrary ways. The accent is in the sequence they create. It belies, undercuts, interiorizes the solidity of the poetic/the T.V. surface. The true influences on this poem were a horrifying visit to Atlantic City, which the poem records, and the compulsive, arbitrary changing of channels by remote in front of T.V., that is, a confrontation between personal experience and the cool, pseudo-neutral image, which is the true American language.
Though T.V. style is the very antithesis of American poetic style, they are also eerily similar. In both one encounters the co-existence, balance of alienation, victimhood and power, empowerment, belonging. In both there is a tendency for austerity of means for maximum effect. This basic oneness makes T.V. and its stylistic aura such a potent inspiration for poetry, T.V. a genuine poetic anti-tradition. T.V. language (like American English) is oval because it is an oxymoron, half true and half false. It is not a perfect match. It requires, like a football ball, an excessive embrace, a compulsive, defensive act to be owned. T.V. is the true language of the United States, its white screen our Moby Dick, and the poet's function is to explode, to embrace and be consumed by it. What is "Heartbreak Weekend At Atlantic City" after all but to see within the hard, glitzy surface of Atlantic City image (posters, architecture, etc.) a radical interiority, intimations of compulsive infantilism ("Atlantic City Restaurants," "The Architecture of Atlantic City," etc.)
The fate of the outsider, poet, Jew, women, etc., with no daily used mother tongue, is infantilism. It is weakness. The true power of words, in American language, on the other hand, is anti-mythical. They are, an American poem is, private, individual tools to assert one's existence, identity by projecting onto, cracking the myth, surface of affability. It is in this destructive function that words (or poems) become empowered.That is why, American poetry must be discontinuous. Unity in multiplicity (T.V.'s affability) is the only American myth. The attempt of certain poets to create myths (Charles Olson, for example) fall flat because the American words are too private, solipsistic. The moment the language gains mythic resonance, it becomes preempted by the omnipresence of T.V. The figure of Blake or Rimbeaud or anybody else, Stein or Dickinson, as a myth creator is very seductive; but I think irrelevant.
XV. The Social Position Of an American Poet, Of an American Poem
The hardest and most important lesson for an American poet to learn and accept, and exploit, is the subservient position of words in American culture. To choose to be a poet is by definition to be a victim, an outsider. To choose American English is to choose an infinitely suggestive medium of self-definition, not of myth-making or public, institutional recognition. There can not be a canon, tradition, however rearranged, to which an American poet may belong. After essentially obligatory lip-service in high schools and colleges, poetic experience (both the writing and reading of it) involves the cracking up, exploration by one poet or reader (alienated by his/her addiction to words) the language of another poet. That relation between text and reader can not be the casual, institutional relationship that exists between movies, T.V. and their audiences. When a poet says, "I want to put demands on my reader," he/she is acknowledging, being or without being aware, this peculiar gap. He/she is actually asking for more than the innocent tone of the demand implies. He/she is asking another psyche to leave its skin (not an easy or particularly enjoyable experience) and jump into the blankness of another's language, to glean private resonances of a complete other in its constructions. This is its whiteness.
The American poet must be interested in everything except a national poetic canon bequeathed to him or her. What gives life to a American poem/poet is a continuous infusion of otherness: other arts, other media, poets of other languages. For instance, Dickinson loves the bees and flowers in her garden, the Amherst landscape. Reznikoff is obsessed by the miseries of 19th century industrial America. Tony Towle loves music. Stein's closest friends were artists. I am obsessed by Turkey and the Sufism in Turkish love poetry. But none of us, I think, became poets, instead of novelists, painters, horticulturalists, etc., because of these concerns. These infusions create the illusive tissue of reality, order, transparent surface, into which the poet may puncture his/her inner demons, which must remain unnameable. For instance, Dickinson's true home is not the Amherst landscape, but the intimations among the cracks in her distorted syntax, the sex and violence lurking among the bees and flowers in her garden. The inner demons of each poet may be different, but the demon which unites us all is the excessive, non-social attachment to words, which by itself makes the poet an outsider, a victim. Each poetic achievement is a struggle, by means of words, to achieve primacy, power, a self-contradictory act like squaring the circle. An American poet is one addicted to words and who is fated, because he/she wants to, to say the unnameable. It is a continuous attack on white, white whale, white screen, white language, a sign of weakness and alienation. The entire energy, power of his/her work derives from his or her rebellion against, refusal, as a user of language, to accept this social inferiority of language (and the unnamability of his/her inner existence) and his/her compulsive cumulation of facts, minutae of smoke screen to counter it.
Copyright © 1993 by Murat Nemet-Nejat Special thanks to " The Exquisite Corpse" (P.O.Box 25051, Baton Rouge, LA 70894) where this essay is first published in 1993 for the permission to republish it.