Sunday, November 18, 2012
Deadism by Kevin Young
It happens every few years, perhaps oftener: we get the article, widely and usually well published, that declares poetry dead. Usually the accompanying sound is less a lament for this premature pronouncement than a jig on poetry’s prepaid grave. Rarely did I hear such an essay sound more like an Irish wake or a New Orleans jazz funeral, two sounds I think poetry should aspire to more often. A raucous solace.
Instead, poetry is dead.
I disagree; I plan wild essays; I respond point by point, debunking and spelunking.
But tonight, why not – poetry is dead. Let it be dead; let us write as if we are already dead. If poetry is dying, then let’s write a poetry pronounced D.O.A.
Perhaps it is because I have witnessed too many deaths these past few years, but I have tried to write a poetry of life, against those deaths and even Death in general. Maybe. But it also seems to me some of the same folks who think poetry is dead, or proceed without it, turn to poetry in crucial moments: at a death, or a wedding. Poetry as invocation, as ceremony.
For years I felt poetry was not ceremony, but the daily thing. The dirt. It is an everyday, not an occasionally. I still think it is. But perhaps the only way to make this truly true is to write a poetry that is not like death, but is death: surprising yet inevitable, everyday yet far-off in the future, an ever-present that we still manage to forget. In this, it may resemble jazz – or is this simply because, as Ralph Ellison says, “life is jazz-shaped”? Death may be jazzed-shaped too, just ask Gabriel and Satchmo in their cutting contest.
The only way to find out is to write a dead poetry.
I am not taking this lightly: I am not suggesting a poetry of suicide (don’t do it), or of homicide (give that up); I am not suggesting a poetry celebrating war, or ignoring war, or a poetry of a war that we celebrated too early our victory in, and now cannot ignore. (The deadening of poetry is celebrated too early and often too.) A dead poetry does not believe in “-cides” of any kind; it believes in insides, in soul and sorrow, in silence and also the singing that is against such.
Deadism believes that poetry should capture the living language; it just knows that we should write in dead languages too.
Write not like something endangered – not like a spotted owl –or reintroduced into the wild, but dead already. (The poetry of "They’re coming to get us,” the poetry of the horror movie I’ve seen too much of, the poetry of lament, of victimization, or worse, of declaring the various and nefarious threats to freedom, equality, blackness, or justice, seems to take to much pleasure in watching the killer even as it shouts out warnings in the theater. This poetry is over, but unfortunately not yet dead.) Write not like a coming extinction, but like the extinction already. That said, do not write like a dodo, something more rare and flightless – but like a passenger pigeon, a poetry once plentiful and ever-present and so therefore killed off.
Do not write a poetry of rarity, or of rarification, but of never again.
Do not even write this poetry but find it, come across it, and step over it. The helpless ant that in the end can lift more than ten times its weight: that is a poetry.
Maybe what we need is an undead poetry – not to take death back from poetry, but to take death back from death itself. A poetry of shambling power, devouring everything it its path. A vampire poetry that will live forever, sexy and dangerous and immortal, shape-shifting when necessary.
That bat in my friend's toilet (true story) a poetry. That dog. That mewling cat caught under my house that left sometime in the night: a poetry. It is hard to find, and harder to coax out, but will one day emerge on its own.
In the meantime, a poetry that speaks from the mouths of those gone that aren’t really gone, a poetry of ghosts and haunts. Of haints: not ain’ts. Dead is something you can be, after all, is not itself an ain’t. The ain’ts I’m afraid are here, among us living.
Instead there’s haints, which our poetry should be: hainting, hard to pin down, glimpsed but believed. That’s the poetry I believe in. A poltergeist poetry that moves things, and us, when we least expect. . .
Deadism like those movies with voice-overs that sound not only dead, but by the end you find out are from a dead man: the one not ready for a close-up, but floating in a pool, the one who knows what he can’t know but tells us anyway. A poetry not of witness, or of victimhood, or of experience or innocence, but of the moment after: write like a saint, not the picture of a saint. Write like the bone in the box, the relic to be kissed. Better yet, write like the saints that have been officially declared saints no more; write like something once holy, now decanonized and attempted to be forgotten. Write not like remembering, but the forgetting. . . write like something you don’t mean to be erased but one day know will: then let them try.
Someone I read said Johnny Cash (bless his heart) didn’t write like a saint, but as a sinner, which meant someone who could be redeemed. That’s right, it seems to me. And one of the most powerful things was his album, after the album he thought he’d die in – the sequel to good-bye. (The Man Comes Around) is just as powerful, if not more than, the goodbye itself.
We should write a poetry that is after the goodbye, that is not the long farewell but the hello after. The hereafter – a word that in itself is undead, both here and gone at the same time. I’m a long gone daddy – and being here, and being gone, seems what we need now. . . the talk of someone whose time is up, and who knows it – but talks anyway.
Only by writing a dead poetry, a zombie poetry, can the thing come back to life, not so much reborn as born for the first time. Maybe we got it all backward: we die, then we live? Only poetry knows for sure.