THE CRITIC AS AGENT FOR THE CIA

“The poems tend to blur in the mind” (whose mind? How much courage does it take to say ‘my mind’?) ....  Judgments are rarely framed as expressions of the individual but as some Godly Absolute. Why do we allow this?—Sharon Doubiago, “Towards an American Criticism: a reading of Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us” American Poetry Review, Jan./Feb.,1983.

Not since Ginsberg's Howl has a book of poetry been so popular, and generated so much controversy, as Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us. I am not interested in either attacking or defending that book. I am interested, though, in looking at the kind of attack that book has provoked since such attacks are symptomatic of what passes for literary criticism in our culture. I choose the essay of one writer, not because he has much merit, but because his writing is typical of liberal criticism that disguises reactionary politics. John Holden—a poet, I saw a small poem of his in The Minnesota Review, and he writes criticism, at least two essays have appeared in The Ohio Review. In #29 he has an essay titled “Poetry and Commitment” focusing on The Country Between Us. I want to look closely at the essay to examine why the forces of reactionary criticism have been brought to bear against this book.

Early in his essay Holden reveals that he is unable to distinguish between “having” and “being”—an ontological distinction familiar to any reader of Marx and integral to recent literary theory. Holden appears anxious to make it clear that he has all the beliefs which he figures will endear him to his readers: he mentions “our current, right-wing political milieu” in the opening paragraph. He wants to make it clear that if you have any sympathies with the “Left” then he is on your side; he is not also a member of the right-wing “milieu.” This is the beginning of Holden’s strategy that reminds me of the two-man team of FBI investigators, one friendly and the other the tough guy. Holden assumes the dual role of emphasizing that he has sympathy for Forche’s “position,” handing her a compliment and then back-hands her by calling her names.

Holden quotes Forche: “What matters is not whether a poem is political, but the quality of its engagement,” and immediately begins the business of tearing into her stated position that it is not enough to have beliefs, opinions, ideas, good intentions—but what matters is what we do, since what we do indicates who we are. It comes as no surprise then that Holden's first critical remark is an aside indicating Forche’s choice of words is not only devious in intent but is also culturally passé: “Engagement, with its French, Existential echo, is itself a loaded word;...”  All words are loaded. Holden may want to restrict himself only to Americanisms, wrap his language round with a red, white and blue flag, but it seems more likely that he is fearful of connotation itself, fearful of language that extends beyond his control. Holden continues his sentence with “but in the context above its usage becomes rather more ambiguous than necessary.”  Holden refuses to suggest the obvious question: “Necessary for what?  and for who?”  How much ambiguity is necessary for who to misunderstand and for who to be needed as an authority to explain to those who do not understand?  Or is it the case that what he means by ambiguous is what he cannot control?  And it is here that Holden reveals a characteristic trait that surfaces like a nervous tic every time in the essay his security is threatened: he gets vicious and reverts to name calling or otherwise makes insinuations about Forche’s character: “As we read further, we begin to suspect that Forche’s vagueness of usage is deliberate....”   This statement by Holden is the beginning of a character assassination that he attempts with his other recurring strategy, the use of “we” to indicate a shared opinion against Forche.  Each time he mentions Forche’s call for the poet to be responsible, his language turns mean.

Here is Forche speaking about the consequences of her realization that she is a privileged person in the world; she cannot hide behind any rhetoric about being powerless: “We are responsible for the quality of our vision, we have a say in the shaping of our sensibility. In the many thousand daily choices we make, we create ourselves and the voice with which we speak and work.” Holden immediately follows with claiming that Forche is being deceitful: “Although Forche does not spell it out, the aim of her argument becomes apparent ...” and then comes down with the absolute statement in case the reader cannot pickup on such subtleties: “she is dead wrong.  It is precisely when the distinction between what is political and what is not breaks down or is denied that the quality of art declines.”  

Ignoring Holden’s reprehensible tactics and the sophistry of his argument, note how quick he is to assume that the reader shares the conviction that “the quality of art declines.” It is Holden who refuses to acknowledge that this kind of absolute statement is also political, is even a coercive technique and a political strategy (Forche’s popularity makes her a target in the same way the Nixon gang targeted John Lennon) and that it is supported by an ideology Holden expects us to accept as a given, somehow beyond criticism. For Holden it is a Godly Absolute that denying this distinction means “art declines.” And the degree to which we uncritically assent to his statement we acknowledge our surrender to Art as a category of political reaction. 

When Holden calls the ending of one of Forche’s poem “hysterical” it signals at least two things: Forche has called for responsibility, the element of choice is integral to the poem; and, Holden is masking his opinions behind his choice of words, using words that are themselves so emotional that he hopes they will convince by coercion. Here is how the poem ends:

It is either the beginning or the end

of the world, and the choice is ourselves

or nothing.

 There are so many, too many, contexts in which this statement is anything but hysterical, but rather is a calm assessment of our condition. Nuclear war too readily comes to mind, but so does the condition of the peoples of El Salvador. And when we see this condition, the condition of abject horror and our responsibility for it, as one of being rather than of having, we can see the choice between “ourselves or nothing.”  We can see the terms of the choice are indeed accurate, it is a choice that we make each day in all of our activities.

After quoting from a poem by Auden, Holden tells us,

We don’t, of course, find many passages like thisin American poetry; but in the relatively few cases when American poets have renounced the inner life for immersion in ‘the struggle’ we find the same pained astonishment at the drudgery of revolutions, and a paralyzing self-doubt of the writer’s imminent loss of his or her own art.

Excepting the formal character of the sentence—its use of “of course” to make his questionable assertion appear already proven, his use of quotation marks to undercut the meaning of the very real struggles poets have involved themselves in; the either / or logic that creates a clever tautology: real poetry is inward poetry, attempts at outward poetry equal loss of art; “all (!) committed poetry” is flawed—excepting even these strategies of persuasion, the sentence states a lie, a lie that is continually propagated by all who seek to keep American poets quiet, helplessly confined to teaching creative writing classes write poems about writing poems about the inward struggle. Holden wants us to ignore such voices involved in the struggle of being an American in all of its manifold responses, responsibilities, voices of poets like: Langston Hughes, Tom McGrath, Meridel Le Sueur, Kenneth Fearing, Kenneth Patchen; he would have us pretend that the poets who, like Forche, use their inward looking to see with clarity outward have not written exceptional political poetry: Jack Hirschman, Denise Levertov, Maurice Kenny, Robert Duncan, Robert Bly, Diane Di Prima, Amiri Baraka, David Henderson ... .The list goes on and on. Excellent poets all, and all involved in “the struggle.” And it is just these poems: “During the Eichman Trial,” “For Chile, 1977,” “Passages,” “The Light Around the Body,” “Doan Ket”—which illustrate that excellence.

The position Holden takes, the ideology of the poetry of aggressive imperial capitalism, is another variant of l'art pour art, and in too many critics’ hands, as in Holden’s, it becomes a case of the Grand Inquisitor in academic drag. For our political economy it is the CIA which functions to insure religious orthodoxy in the practice of Capitalism; for our art economy it is the critic who allows himself to become the agent of conformity, the agent who enforces esthetic orthodoxy, fearful of that most important existential position, that it is people, living and breathing people in a given time and place who make judgments about matters esthetic. For Holden statements that are “moving” are thereby “naïve”; if an “utterance... has the ring of authentic anguish” it isn’t “good art.” He would have us believe that esthetics is an implicitly neutral judgment, but it in fact his brand of esthetics paralyzes the poet: “Under the stress of total political engagement a person's art is apt to break down.” Approximating medical terminology he implies that such a poet’s sanity is suspect, and to imply that speaking of “total political engagement” describes Forche’s position maligns her statements about the necessity to hold ourselves accountable in our successes and our failures for the actions that we do make, actions that do have political consequences of course but more importantly are actions that simply illustrate our humanity.

Responsibility and choice. And again Holden calls names. The poet is hysterical: 

Like the other examples above, this passage, too, is so overwhelmed by a sense of hysterical immediacy, that it tempts one to look hard not only at Forche’s ambiguous assertions that ‘what matters’ in a poem is ‘the quality of its engagement,’ but at some of the assumptions that underlie it, particularly her theory of composition.

Holden uses the now familiar ploy: saying “one” instead of “me” and the implied acceptance of his position as being universal; but more interesting is his statement about “immediacy” since this seems to be the key to unravel at least some of the reasons why Holden is fearful of Forche’s poetry. Forche speaks of how she had to relearn to see, relearn to feel with her complete body, before she could be a reliable reporter of the reign of terror our government has established in El Salvador. What she regained was the immediacy, what Holden calls the “hysterical” immediacy, of her senses.  Forche’s poetry has helped us to see how a poet is able to work her way through her “esthetic” conditioning; she shows us the degree to which words ultimately fail us, and thereby draws needed distinctions. If Holden fears this immediacy who would he most likely hold up as a model for an acceptable poetry? Who else buy the academy’s favorite, the poet’s poet, that arch-political-reactionary, Wallace Stevens. And here, again, here especially, Holden reveals how his fear influences his criticism.

 It is not just that Stevens is one of our most politically reactionary poets. And it is not just an accident that he is such a favorite in the state-supported writing classes, favorite, that is, of the instructors in those classes. Why should it be otherwise? Most of us know enough about the criticisms of political economy to see that, “The ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class, etc.” This is not news. But what is surprising is that Holden should be so bold as to apologize for Stevens’ racism (but then, perhaps it is not so surprising given “the prevailing right-wing milieu” that Holden cites and here gives support to). However, if we share Holden’s fear of immediacy then Stevens becomes for us a poet who explains away any feeling of responsibility for the words we write. For what is most lacking in Stevens is a sense of audience, and it is this audience that may have kept Stevens honest to his language. Holden tries to disarm the reader’s objections that Stevens is a racist by acknowledging that Steven’s use of “nigger” is reprehensible. But then he excuses Stevens because “the poetry is good.” (!)  Once again Holden resorts to assertions as if they were based on fact (Steven’s poem “is brilliant” —Holden’s emphasis, in case we haven’t gotten the point yet), once again he calls on his hidden ideology that this esthetic judgment is absolute and obvious. For a moment imagine that Stevens is reading his poem about “A nigger tree with a nigger name.” And imagine he is speaking before an audience of Blacks.  Or even one Black man or woman.  One of equal sensitivity, equal intelligence, and of the same generation —a Paul Robeson, Zora Neal Hurston, Langston Hughes.  Holden would ask that we believe the tension generated in our imagination, the tension that operates whenever images are evoked by words, in this case the tension around the image of “magnolia” would be greater, more powerful, more relevant to the poet’s situation as a responsible language user than the tension of his use of “nigger” in this context which could evoke images of lynching as well as countless other associations. An audience such as this may not have been enough to make Stevens rethink his own prejudices, rethink how words can have meanings he has not fully considered in their many impacts and how these meanings point to the limits of his command of language. Whether Stevens world or would not have reconsidered those words is of little consequence, but the fact that he did not take the chance tells us something about Stevens, something about the kind of poetry he wrote, and the poetry Holden prefers.  An audience, and a poetry designed for a real audience, has the possibility for being response/able. The imaginary audience projected by Stevens and Holden calls forth an equally imaginary poetry. Perhaps Holden is “only” intimidated by Forche’s very real audience, perhaps he is “only” jealous. Whatever the reason, he uses the club of esthetics to try to reduce Forche’s poetry to cant.

Forche is quoted again by Holden, Forche on responsibility; again Holden calls her shrewd (shrew-d?).  Then he claims she is narrowly sectarian: “That art which does not embody her ideology to the letter is worthless ....” According to Holden, Forche is shrewd, dogmatically sectarian, hysterical, naive, deliberately devious, and her perception is distorted because “of a terrible religious fixation.” All of this “hysterical” name calling in an essay ostensively devoted to a defense of value-free esthetics. Holden’s use of “hysterical” is especially interesting since it occurs so often, 5 times. It seems somehow appropriate that Holden use such a term to describe a woman poet, it is doubtful he would have done the same to describe a male poet he does not like or feels threatened by. Holden is making of Forche an example, the lesson is there for other poets, certainly for women poets: “Stay in line.  Keep quiet.” But for a poet like Forche that lesson will be lost. I say this because it is obvious to me that Forche is a lover, and the strength of her political poetry comes from the strength of her love. When later in the essay Holden speaks approvingly of the love poetry of Neruda, he shows an equal misunderstanding of one of the greatest poets of our time.  The depth of the love informs the strength of political conviction; it cannot be any other way. Holden illustrates the extent of his own inability to love by his distortion of one of Neruda's most famous poems. He uses invective, and the word “invective,” to describe Neruda’s “The United Fruit Co.”, demonstrating the poverty of his own emotions and the words used to describe them. I challenge Holden to point to any invective in that poem, a poem rich in allegory, and parody, and, yes, even humor; and above all, accurate in its language.

I want to finish with this exercise that is quickly becoming distasteful to me, but I need to look at the example of what Holden proposes as successful political poetry, a poem that before he presents to us he prepares us for by calling it “a truly  excellent political poem.”  Holden praises a Louis Simpson poem for being authentic to the experience of the occasion of its writing but only because that experience is conspiratorial and as long as the experience results in a poem that declares: “We were all sitting there paralyzed,” which is the condition Holden’s emotional restrictions allow him to relate to and to desire for others. And as it must be with repression, the puritan in Holden surfaces with a vengeance. He fears strong emotion. He fears that emotion capable of moving us. “Anger, fear, outrage: these emotions are so apt to distort the perception of an individual .... We recoil...but it is the very ‘passionate intensity’ of that engagement which corrupts their authors’ artistic engagement.” While Holden can be so dogmatic about excising strong feelings from “good” poetry, he is very fair in his acknowledging in the Simpson poem the feelings of those who man the machineguns, manufacture the explosives, and even, by extension, the man who is the model for Forche’s “The Colonel.”  For Holden, Simpson succeeds because Simpson’s humaneness is displayed when it results in “a moral torpor” and “paralysis.” Holden is speaking of Forche’s poem “The Return” —not surprisingly the poem which forcefully calls for the poet to look at her own responsibility for the conditions in El Salvador and for her own writing. This poem, Holden is especially anxious to discredit. He calls attention to Simpson's statement, “It is complicated being an American” as justification for paralysis. Compare this “sophistication” (or chauvinism, as if it is not just as complicated but also dangerous being Salvadoran, being Guatemalan; or imperial since “American” only describes one part, in Simpson’s use, of the Americas) compare this to what Forche reports in  “The Return”:

Your problem is not your life as it is

in America, not that your hands, as you

tell me, are tied to do something.  It is

that you were born to an island of greed

and grace where you have this sense

of yourself as apart from others.  It is

not your right to feel powerless....

 

 It is not your right to feel powerless. This is an example of what Forche means when she says, “We are responsible for the quality of our vision, we have a say in the shaping of our sensibility.” It is the opposite of paralysis and it is what Holden seems to fear most. Holden wants us to believe that people, us included, are not responsible for “the social system which created and sustains the villa”  —it apparently just is. He wants us to accept that “all (!) humans ... succumb,” and that “physical and moral torpor is identical, mutually explanatory”, that the revolutionaries —Marti, Sandino, Ungo —who act under the same “hot Tuscan” sun are deviants, somehow outside of human nature. This is certainly what our government wants us to believe, what with the help of critics like Holden it has nearly succeeded in making us believe --that poets have no responsibility for their lives, that they accept, even incorporate into their esthetic theories, their paralyzing powerlessness.

The last poem Holden uses to dismiss Forche’s is Charles Simic’s “The Prisoner.”  Holden’s treatment of this poem is worth looking at in some detail since it directly concerns both Holden’s theory of what is good poetry—“inward” compared to “engaged”— and what I take to be his theory about the importance of audience. Holden uses Simic’s poem to try to convince us that vagueness is equivalent to genuineness, that vagueness gives a poem a universal quality. And Simic’s poem is sufficiently vague. It is unlikely, given the evidence in the poem it is almost a certainty, that Simic is referring to a real prisoner. It is doubtful it is a real man he knows. This is an example of one of the imaginary “inner” poems that Holden considers as the only kind that are good poetry. But how much difference is there between the imaginary and the lie? How can we believe Simic when he says, “He [the prisoner] is thinking of us (“us” also is imaginary— “I am imagining him thinking of me imagining me being with a woman.”). But this increasingly further remove from the real is less disturbing in itself than what it reveals about Holden. I have already claimed that Holden is puritanical in his fear of strong emotions. But it is here that Holden reveals the primary reasons why I chose to call this essay “The critic as agent for the CIA.” I mean by CIA both the ideas of utilizing covert strategies and doing the propaganda work for the government. I doubt that Holden is really in the pay of the CIA. But how much does that matter? Ask yourself what would the difference be? Would his essay restricting the parameters of what is “good” poetry be any different? Would he write any less shrewdly in dealing with a poet whose work threatens the government's foreign policy? But I also refer to Holden’s puritanism. For Holden, fear of emotion is fear of the body. It is an attempt to subjugate all feeling to the control of the Central Intelligence Agency, that fearful “agency” that dominates our esthetics and our thinking. Holden fears the body and consequently fears any poetry that allows the body to enter and determine the poem's movement. The mind, the central intelligence, can easily be paralyzed; the body resists and also reminds us of our communion with all peoples who resist.

When Holden uses Simic’s poem and plays it against Forche’s “The Visitor” he reveals himself not just as critic-as-puritan but also critic-as-torturer. He is someone who revels in the conviction that “the pleasures of life as a winner—as a de facto oppressor— are too great to turn down....” Holden refers to Simic’s poem. Remember, this is not a real prisoner, not a real injustice, not one perpetrated by CIA-trained death squads in El Salvador for instance, but one imagined to “clarify the obscurely sensed connections between the routinely pleasurable feel of your life and your knowledge that, at this very moment, there exist prisoners whose suffering you would just as soon put out of your mind,” [what better way to drive us all out of our minds, by driving us out of our senses?!].  Holden’s own words:

The speaker recognizes the injustices of his pleasure

—of all (!) pleasure— but would certainly not trade

places with the prisoner. If anything, the speaker’s

contented realization that he is not in the prisoner’s

shoes sharpens his capacity to savor the moment.

 Only a critic who fears pleasure, fearful of his own body, could dare summon up the specter of another’s torments to satisfy his own intellectual passion by overcoming his own intellectual impotence. Sadism, intellectual sadism. Holden gets credit for uttering one of the most fearful, most shameful, lines of literary criticism. How very different from Forche’s healthy desire to take responsibility that extends her concern for the prisoner even into such mundane activities as grocery shopping,extending the language of poetry into our daily lives.

Holden ends with a dismissal of ‘The Visitor.” This in view of Reagan’s policies in Central America is especially revealing of Holden’s motives. Forche, during a poetry reading at the University of Cincinnati, told of freeing the prisoner referred to in the poem. This is exactly the kind of agitation that Reagan & Co. are fearful of poets discovering to be within their power. The ruling orthodoxy, and let’s call it what it results in, the rightwing political orthodoxy of the English Department, by keeping poets confined to their inwardness, becomes an extension of the State Department. How different is this act of real creative writing by Forche’s students from the usual busyness of “creative” writing classes! It is worth looking at Holden’s responses to Forche’s poem in some detail.

First of all, the poem: Forche’s understatement is masterful. No blood and guts to shock (or to excite, in Holden’s case) the reader. What Holden must find offensive here, and so very dangerous to those who fear language's power, is the matter-of-fact statement: “There is nothing one man will not do to another.”  For it is the power of this realization that can open the eyes, re-educate us North Americans, and move us to action. Holden claims that Forche “loses some moral authority” because she ends the poem with “information ... already well known by anybody familiar with history.” What Forche accomplishes though is a re-vitalizing of this familiar information. She enables us to re-see what we “worldly,” “sophisticated” viewers too quickly pass off as inevitable and, hence, beyond our control. Her allowing us to share her re/vision is what we need to most thank her for. Holden accuses Forche of simplifying the relation between the speaker in the poem and the prisoner. And it is here where Holden is being either very shrewd himself or very naive. One of the unmistakable aspects of this poem is that this relationship is very clear. She knows who the prisoner is. The physical presence of Francisco is unmistakable. She is the visitor. It would be intellectual suicide —purposeful killing of a responsible part of the mind—to assume the liberal position of maintaining that “we are all prisoners” or, as Simic does it, to invent an imaginary prisoner and “discover” his relation to him/it. The speaker is the visitor. She cannot exchange places with the prisoner because he cannot change places with her. He will always be a prisoner in all the physical realizations, the stench, the cruelties, the longings, unless she, since she fully accepts herself as visitor, helps, acts, as she did, for his (and her) release. She denies her powerlessness, her paralysis, and her distance, and saves a life, and writes a poem, not about an imaginary other but about a real prisoner and her real position as visitor.

I would like to be able to dismiss Holden as easily as he does Forche. I did not intend to write as much as I have about his essay. I do not want to grant him so much importance. Perhaps he aspires to be, but he is not after all the Jeanne Kirkpatrick of verse. But I see him as being typical, typical of the critics, poets, creative writing teachers, who in their privileged positions and fearful of their own real skills as writers try keep poets quiet, persuade them to be non-engaged, attempt to paralyze them in a place outside of space and time, an inward eternity, in some sort of endless “moral stupor.” Such a state guarantees that poetry will end up in service with the forces of privilege and power which oppress the masses of the peoples of our world, and unmistakably oppress us along with them by restricting our ability to know what it means to be human.