Anders Carlson-Wee had a fourteen line poem called “How-To” published in The Nation magazine on July 24, 2018. Should we say, “good for you, Anders! What a coup!” Why no, we should not. We are not allowed. If we congratulate Anders, or if we have enjoyed the poem in any way, we are as bad as he is. The preferred response these days is to throw up one's hands and shout, “j'accuse!” Such a poem is no longer to be tolerated.
Here is the offending poem, in its entirety:
If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,
say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick. People
passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee
funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely
to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop. If you’re young say younger.
Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hardly even there.
(My sincerest apologies to the Copyright Gods, although I don't think that Anders would mind. I'm on his side, after all.)
The poem caused a giant shit-storm in multiple communities and among desperately sincere social justice warrior wannabes. There were letters to the editor and torrents on social media, and the kerfuffle made the New York Times this morning. The two main problems were identified as: 1) a white poet attempted to use black vernacular; and 2) an able person included the word, “crippled.”
Let's look at the cripple problem. The complaints seem to have revolved around the mere use of the word “cripple,” which is now judged to be disparaging and ableist language. Ableist! Can you even imagine? That is a word now! For all I know, poor Anders may himself have a limp, or even mild cerebral palsy, but I don't think even that would excuse him in today's hypercritical climate. No, the world must be purged completely of such words, all of them. I have never seen a list published; please let me know if there is such a list. Let me know so that I can ignore it, when appropriate.
I would probably use the term “handicapped” myself, at least in my personal discourse. Or maybe “disabled.” Handicapped, after all, includes mental and emotional conditions that rise to the level of pathology. Even there, one could be mentally handicapped without being mentally disabled. There are gradations to everything. What's a poor writer to do?
How about the cultural appropriation problem? How about it? Is it a cultural emergency when a white writer attempts to use “black vernacular?” That is a slippery slope. Does that mean that we must remove “Huckleberry Finn” from the catalog? Or must we only purge it of all dialog sections. How about a suburban, Harvard educated black American poet? Would she be able to use the black urban vernacular of big city thug life? That's a serious question. Here's another one: if she were writing a novel, would she be able to use the vernacular English of a white housewife from another part of the country? How about the broken English of a recently arrived immigrant? Would the ethnic information about the immigrant have any bearing on her permission to “attempt to use” it?
What a fucking mess.
The poem is a first person narrative. Are we now to impose all of the constantly shifting rules of political correctness on every character in every fictional narrative? Oh, honey, that ain't going to happen.
Can we agree that there is a difference between using offensive words in personal conversation, live presentations, dialog presented in quotes in fiction writing, and third person fictional narratives? There is also a difference when the word is used in poetry, with similar gradations if the word is used in the first, second, or third person. Each situation requires viewing through a different lens.
If I write a novel, and one of the characters uses the totally offensive term, “nigger,” in quoted dialog, am I to be publicly condemned and required to apologize from the deepest depths of my heart and soul? That is going to happen within a year or so. You may wish to begin sharpening your knives in preparation.
I think that it's a pretty good poem. I'm no critic, but if I were assigned to debate the proposition, I'd rather have the “this poem is fine” side than the “this poem is a racist, ableist abomination” side. I've written poems myself that are a lot more offensive than this one. I wrote them for effect; I chose the words carefully. I stand before you now as a licensed, experienced attorney, and I've been some kind of junior academic for over ten years, teaching university classes. Before that I was a worker at various jobs, many unsophisticated. Before that I was a teenage borderline hooligan in the Borough of Queens. Before that I was a boy in a very rough working class neighborhood of New York City. Which of these vernaculars am I still permitted to use? How about in fictional narratives or poetry? How about in blog posts about the old days? In my own speech, I was never comfortable with “nigger,” but it was a commonly used word in my milieu. Not only as a noun, but as an adjective, “niggerized,” which applied to anything that had been decorated in an elaborate way, no longer being limited to having anything to do with black Americans. (A white man could have a niggerized motorcycle, with lots of chrome and extra lights and reflectors.) We definitely called stupid people stupid back then, and cripples were cripples, and that was universal. Interestingly, faggots were not homosexuals. They were boys who would not fight back or stand up for themselves. Am I barred from reminiscing about these old customs? It's my own vernacular, after all.
I stand four-square for artistic freedom. Anders Carlson-Wee should be free to write his poem in any manner that he sees fit. It's his Goddamned poem! Those are his words! To oppose his right to express himself in his own art is nascent fascism. It's a mini-book-burning. Leave the man alone. Making him, and the poor poetry editors at The Nation, grovel, begging for forgiveness, makes you look ridiculous. That our culture has descended to embrace this kind of drum-head rhetorical criminal trial makes us all look ridiculous.
So, that's how I really feel about it. Some days I'm very happy to have a blog.