Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Against Identity Poetry, For Possibility

As a black person, as a gay person, I am other to the social norm of heterosexual whiteness. Poetry, a stereotypically exalted and also, or therefore, marginalized realm, is often seen as other to the abjection, social and psychic, that blackness and gayness too frequently represent in our society, a debasement too often acted out on black and gay bodies. Poetry is also other to the utilitarian, means-end rationality of capitalist society. Poetry’s otherness enacts an escape from or a transformation of racial and sexual otherness: it embodies an otherness of inclusion rather than exclusion, of possibility rather than constraint. Poetry presents the possibility of an otherness that is liberating rather than constricting: it offers the prospect of an alienation from alienation. In his great essay "Lyric Poetry and Society," Theodor Adorno proposed that poetry presents the alienation of language from its alienation in everyday use: by turning language away from its use as a mere medium of exchange, poetry returns language to itself. Poetry’s otherness to my own multiple socially defined othernesses is a space of freedom, where lack becomes pure potential.

For this reason, I have always intensely disliked what I call identity poetics, the use of poetry as a means to assert or claim social identity. The impulse to explain poetry as a symptom of its author's biography or its social context is pervasive these days, including among authors themselves. But that has always seemed to me a form of self-imprisonment, neglecting or even negating the possibilities poetry offers not just of being someone else, anyone and/or everyone else, but of being no one at all, of existing, however contingently, outside the shackles of identity and definition. Poetry is, among other things, a way of opening up worlds and possibilities of worlds. It offers a combination of otherness and brotherhood, the opportunity to find the otherness in the familiar, to find the familiar in the other. The various (though not various enough) constructions of identity poetics shut down the multifarious possibilities poetry offers in favor of mere self-reflection, and at that, reflection of a reified, simplified self much less complex and interesting than the several selves we each are at any given moment and through the course of the various lives we live simultaneously. As the poet Thomas Sayers Ellis has urged, “Admit that there’s more than one of you, and surprise and embarrass all of yourselves.”

Ideally, one writes poetry as an act of exploration, as a venture into the unknown. (As Yeats wrote, out of what one knows, one makes rhetoric; out of what one doesn’t know, one makes poetry.) Too often today, though, writers want simply to “express” the selves they have decided that they are or have, and readers demand to see themselves (or what they imagine as themselves) reflected back to them. In Ann Lauterbach's incisive words, “The idea that the act of reading expands and extends knowledge to orders of unfamiliar experience has been replaced by acts of reading in order to substantiate and authorize claims and positions which often mirror the identity bearings of the reader.” Identity poetics is boring, giving back the already known in an endless and endlessly self-righteous confirmation of things as they are. It is also constraining, limiting the imaginative options of the very people it seeks to liberate or speak for. If one follows the assumptions of identity poetics through, saying “Here are the gay poets, here are the black poets, here are the straight white male poets, and everyone just reads the poets who match their demographic classification,” not only could a white person have nothing to say to a black person, or a straight person to a gay person, but a black person could have nothing to say to a white person, or a woman to a man. So there would be no reason for a white person to read anything written by a black person.

I have never looked to literature merely to mirror myself back to me, to confirm my identity to myself or to others. I already have a self, even if one often at odds with itself, and if anything I have felt burdened, even trapped, by that self and its demands, by the demands made upon it by the world. Many minority writers have spoken of feeling invisible: I have always felt entirely too visible, the object of scrutiny, labeling, and categorization. Literature offered a way out of being a social problem or statistic, a way not to be what everyone had decided I was, not to be subject to what that meant about me and for me. But even if one has a more sanguine relation to selfhood, Picasso’s admonition should always be kept in mind: art is called art because it is not life. Otherwise, why would art exist? Life already is, and hardly needs confirmation.

I seek from literature an image of who or what I could be, of what the world itself could be, an image of the “as if” rather than of the “as is.” The greatest literature has always engaged in the generation of new realities, not the reiteration of the same old given reality. I think most literary minded people, if asked, would agree with such a statement: and yet black writers are held (and many hold themselves) to a different, double standard. “Write what you know” becomes a trap, as if there were a fixed terrain of what one can or should know, and as if the possibility of writing what one does not know might not be the most exciting of all. As Stephen Owen writes, “We have been informed that we are radically ‘of’ our age, or culture, or gender, or class, [or race], and not of another; we can go elsewhere only as tourists, cultural voyeurs. If we believe such a story, we will accept our assigned places, submit to our limitations, and repress the hope that we can go back to where we were, or stay where we choose, or even change and become other, except as we are driven hopelessly forward by history’s inertial machine.”


Nicholas Manning said...

A great post, as always, though ...

The "as is", it seems to me, is a very narrow definition of identity. For I am, at all times, what I am, and perhaps also what I would like to be? Isn't my desire - my becoming - as much a part of my "actual" self as my static ontology?

"Identity" doesn't seem to me then to fundamentally exclude the “as if”, confining itself to the pure “as is.” Rather, the "as if" is complexly contained within the "as is", and the two may (must?) work together in a dynamic dialectic, the one "unwinding" the other.

If poetry, in an Adornian sense, "returns language to itself", we must thus first have an idea of what this originary, initial, primary language may resemble.

The point where such particularities and universalisms - in this case, of identity - cross, intersect, and mutually modify one another, is changing and complex. "The various . . . constructions of identity poetics shut down the multifarious possibilities poetry offers in favor of mere self-reflection". This seems very harsh to me: isn't this "shut down", this confinement to a set of real-world possibilities, perhaps simply necessary, given the fact that language does not, very unfortunately, currently occupy this utopic, originary state that you, Adorno, and others, postulate and perhaps aspire to?

So, to criticize such "identity poetics" so strongly, is it not somewhat to confuse the ultimate goal of poetic practice with its unfortunate, actual, pragmatic realities?

Moreover, is this confusion not perhaps in the end detrimental to the attainment, one may hope, of this utopic linguistic/identitarian status?

"Identification" is perhaps a means towards "non-identification", not an end? To begin by pure non-identification, doesn't one run a gamit of quite dangerous political/poetic risks?

Jonathan said...

I'm not sure I understand Nicholas Manning's response here. I'm not sure one should have to wait until some perfect linguistic utopia is achieved before questioning a certain kind of identity politics. Just who gets do decide what is "necessary" in the "pragmatic" sense in the meantime? Isn't Reginald asking for a recognition of complexity, in the face of an identitarian position that would negate that complexity?

A. C. Hacker said...

Found this article by chance, or perhaps destiny (if there is such a phenomenon) played a part. I concur and do not have sufficient words to express my gratitude for someone else saying what I have always felt living in this country. Today, I refuse the easy and linear labels, the categories that seem so easily brandished about. I am a woman—a multiracial, multiethnic, bilingual individual, who has traversed many landscapes (both geographical and psychic) all of my life. I also agree that identity literature (as it is often presented) can be boring. In fact, I have come to view it as limiting and even debasing of the self. After my own explorations concerning this issue, I have come to understand that I am an amalgam, a compounded hybrid, and feel enriched by it. I can be anything at anytime, and that is good; it makes me grow, move forward. I want to read, learn and write not only from this multiple self that is my “identity” but from the place of the “other” (whatever that is since we are all part of the human race) as well.

mgushuedc said...

I guess I need an example of a good identity poem to understand better what you're describing.

In the meantime reading what you do want poetry and literature to do (or have yourself do as part of it) reminded of no one so much as Sterling Brown.

Compare these: Virginia Portrait; to Sallie, Walking; Rain, The Last Ride of Wild Bill, and Southern Road.

Reginald Shepherd said...

Thanks to all for your comments. Like Jonathan, I am not sure that I fully understand Nicholas Manning's comment. I will say that I believe this piece makes clear that identity is a complex and multifarious thing or process. That is one of my objections to identity politics and identity poetics, that they police what one can and cannot be, say, and do, imposing a limiting definition of what it means to be ("authentically") black, female, gay, what have you. (Straight white men get to be the unmarked universal subject.) Jonathan makes this point well in his comment, as does A.C. Hacker in hers. I too reject those easy and limited labels, whether imposed by black people or white people.

And while obviously one's desires are part of who and what one is, who one wants to be is precisely what one is _not_--otherwise, one wouldn't _want_ to be that, one just _would_ be. According to Lacan, identity is premised on precisely that lack, the gap between who and what one is and what one wishes to be, one's imago or ego ideal.

Another commentator asked for examples of "identity poems." Historically, I would point to the work associated with and deriving from the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, by poets such as Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Haki R. Madhabuti (ne Don L. Lee), and Amiri Baraka (who wrote much more interesting work when he was LeRoi Jones), all of whom wrote/write poems largely about the proclamation, affirmation, and definition of a (to my mind) reified and rigid "black identity." I refrain from mention of more contemporary figures, because I don't want to get myself into trouble. :-)

Too often black writers only receive recognition and acknowledgment when they dedicate themselves to being "black writers," representatives of the race. Even Rita Dove, who had been writing fine books of poetry for years, only achieved fame with _Thomas and Beulah_, her first identifiably "black" book.

Thanks to all for reading and commenting. Good night.


Sheryl said...

I agree with much of what you've said and at the same time it raises concerns, one being that people don't necessarily read my book because of such concerns being lumped into anti-identity rhetoric. There is an underlying complexity in some identification in that artists may want to question static views of identity. Perhaps one identifies in order to share the complexities and difficulties, and the assumption that art is irrelevant to experience is very popular now, not the reverse. It seems too that I agree that poets are viewed in a particular light when the work itself is what should matter more than generalizations about what one should write and what one should not write. And boy do I have concerns about identity politics and people with no talent usurping poets who take poems themselves seriously. It does seem to me loud noise-making identity poets usurp others when they claim to speak for others and induce white-guilt simply to further their own goals of power rather than art itself. So, I'm on the fence. I don't believe writing about experience is necessarily a cop out in terms of poetry. But the assumption that people who write about experience as an ovserver in the new endless bashing of a first person "I" that may or may not be overly simplistic and self-centered indulgence is something that is very popular and again, without direct discussion of specific poems and poets the whole thing turns and turns on itself like a dog returning to its own vomit.

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Sheryl,

Thanks for your comment. I would never say that "minority" writers cannot or should not write out of their own experience. Much of my own writing comes out of my personal experience. But that experience, along with many other things, is the raw material of my art, not its meaning, definition, or criterion of value. (And, as my piece indicates, that experience is more complicated that can be encompassed by simplified notions of social identity.) That material has been transformed; my poems are neither personal nor sociological documents. As I have written, too often minority writers are expected, and expect themselves, to be spokespeople for whatever a reified version of whatever identity they have claimed or been assigned, and their work is judged almost wholly in those terms. It is that kind of straight-jacketing to which I object.

I'm not familiar with the anti-identity rhetoric to which you refer. In my experience, the insistence on identity as the be-all-and-end-all for minority writers is, if anything, stronger now--it is just assumed and not even argued for.

I don't know how to take your last statement, but I am quite sure that I am not engaging in such a distasteful return. And in my response to an earlier comment I did bring up several specific examples.

Take care, and thanks for reading and commenting.

all best,


Sheryl said...

I didn't mean you were returning to vomit, I meant that the whole scenario leaves us all in knots with little resolution when we generalize, which I myself slip into.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your elucidation/comment on my blog. This post has caused much useful reflection.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Reginald, You have found a home in Art exactly because Art isn't Life. While that is true, Art is rejuvenating and spirit sustaining as nothing else in life. That is why the Church has relied on paintings, icons, sculptures and soaring hymnody.

Editor said...

"I write to find out what I think." (Anne Carson)

"I think therefore I am." (Descartes)

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