Monday, April 30, 2007

Useful Idiot

In Anne Winters’ poem Sixty-Seventh Street: Tosca With Man in Bedrock, the poet juxtaposes the world of opera and those who can afford to attend such cultural events against the image of an inhabitant of the workaday world employed in dangerous and thankless employment and whose life is one of desperation, all for the benefit, of course, for those at the opera. It is a purely economic poem, with the technique of concrete imagery to create an impression in the reader’s mind. That this poem is purely economic is of no great import, but when one has read more of her poetry (her only two books are The Key to the City and her latest The Displaced of Capital), it is easy to comprehend the philosophy latent behind her stylistic and well-crafted poems. She is an unapologetic Marxist who applies Marxist literary theory to her criticism while excusing herself from it. Her latest book, fittingly titled The Displaced of Capital, focuses on New York City, where most of her poetry concentrates. On the cover, there is the grim black and white photo of an old tenement building with clothing hanging from a line, amid the sooty atmosphere of the city. Already, one senses one is about to enter a world of despair.

The title poem concentrates on the fact and plight of immigrants, especially those from Central and South America, who have come to the United States because, she implies, of the cruelty of capitalism, especially American capitalism. They are, in her poetry, the displaced and devalued:

‘A shift in the structure of experience . . .’

As I pass down Broadway this misty late-winter morning, the city

is ever-alluring, but

thousands of miles to the south

the farms of chickens, yams and guavas

are bought by transnationals, burst into miles

of export tobacco and coffee; and now it seems the farmer

has left behind his plowed-under village for an illegal

partitioned attic in the outer boroughs. Perhaps

he’s the hand that emerged with your change

from behind the glossies at the corner kiosk;

the displaced of capital have come to the capital.

The place is downtown Manhattan, the symbol of international commerce that was once illustrated by the World Trade Center, which also symbolized not only the free trading of capital, but the free trading of ideas. Her imagination travels beyond the stifling environs of Manhattan, but not to wander, rather it screams to escape and its destination is to Central and South America where these transnational corporations that trade on Wall Street have demolished the little farmer, thus the creation of the displaced of capital. Because of this, she says, he must leave his country, devastated by capitalism, and come to the capital of capitalism where he is humiliated and devalued, living in some illegal housing arrangement in a neighborhood somewhere far, thus having a commute that grinds him further down. The city wants them, she says, but for a day and then ejects them into outer oblivion.

It is a feat of poetic powers to be able to accurately illustrate such devaluation, the man from an unknown country who once was a farmer and owned his own farm (a property owner, which would not exist in the Marxist world) now has to work in the middle of the grinding city in a cramped kiosk selling magazines, newspapers, candy and other convenience items; and the lack of a face to be seen is amplified by his becoming only a ‘hand that emerged’ in a transaction that is symbolic of the crass capitalism that Anne Winters’ decries. It is this same capitalism that was responsible, she plainly states, for the plowing over of his farm. And what could he have done, but come to the country that is synonymous with capitalism and such practices, the United States, and to the city that is the financial capital, New York City. Such an accurate illustration works upon the reader, but not in the manner that Anne Winters wishes it would; the craftsmanship is applauded. That the reader may be impressed by the truth of the description, then throw the book down at this juncture in moral outrage at the capitalist system and experience extreme remorse at the fact that he is living in the prosperous United States that is responsible for the displacement of this and all immigrants, this the ambition of the description.

Such is the Marxist worldview Anne Winters espouses. But one raises the question: Does Anne Winters not recognize the fact that if it were not for capitalism she would not have had a publisher; would not have been employed by the University of Illinois at Chicago where she teaches poetry, literary translation, as well as the bible as literature; also, that if it were not for capitalism there would be no Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and its generous sum of $25,000, which she was rewarded; or that she would not be able to live her successful life residing in Evanston, IL, that well-manicured suburb of Chicago? The poem continues with more contemplation upon the displaced:

The displaced of the capital have come to the capital,

but sunlight stems the lingerie-shop windows, the coffee bar

has its door wedged open, and all I ask of the world this morning is to pass down my

avenue, find

a fresh-printed Times and an outside table;

and because I’m here in New York the paper tells me of here:

of the Nicaraguans, the shortage of journey-man jobs, the ethnic

streetcorner job-marketers where men wait all day but more likely the women

find work, in the new hotels or in the needle trades,

a shift in the structure of experience.

What is the reader supposed to make of this? Yes, the reporting of her morning and her actions can be seen by the reader, but her sympathy for the displaced seems rather disingenuous, thus unconvincing. She is distant from these victims, her implication, of capitalism, seeing them only as facts in a New York Times article, that bastion of MSM liberalism. All she asks, she says, of the world, is to enjoy a cup of coffee at an outside table at some trendy café and to read her New York Times, which depresses her because of what it tells her, of ‘here’ and its numerous displaced. The ability to show compassion for her subjects fails, partly because of the excessive emotion she attempts to include and the hypocrisy of her stance. “All I ask is to enjoy myself,” she does not say but says so, “in my own elite, liberal-mindset world. I’ll not recognize the fact that I am benefiting from capitalism, which is the root of all evil.” It fails also because of the error of her philosophy. She continues her disingenuous and hypocritical stance:

A shift in the structure of experience

told the farmer on his Andean plateau

“Your way of life is obsolescent.” – But hasn’t it always been so?

I enquire as my column spills from page one

to MONEY & BUSINESS. But no, it says here the displaced

stream now to tarpaper favelas, planetary barracks

with steep rents for paperless migrants, so that they

remit less to those obsolescent, starving

relatives on the altiplano, pushed up to ever thinner air and soil;

unnoticed, the narrative has altered.

The world’s priorities have changed, the universe’s nonetheless, and the human psyche, and they have all conspired together and informed the South American farmer that his traditional way of life no longer matters, and that he must, in order to survive, abandon his field. In fact, corporate America has forced him from his fields and his way of life. What will replace it is probably American industry followed by American or American-owned retail businesses that cater to tourists, employing and underpaying the native citizenry, while industry scores the land of its nutrients and steals the wealth, investing nothing into the local economy, and polluting the community. One must ask Ms. Winters another question: What is the New York Times, yet not another global corporation that must make a profit? Her emphasizing the MONEY & BUSINESS section does not illuminate for the reader any profound perceptions, but only an act she employs in her poem to highlight the fact of a worldview she despises, and it is nonetheless a very easy target. Another question: Does the poet not recognize that capitalism has raised the living standards of most of the people of the world? (We do not need to wait for her answer; in fact, it is given.)

Anne Winters fails to consider any of the myriad reasons why these immigrants have decided to come to America, from corruption in their native countries, to extreme poverty, which is a result of terrible government corruption, to suffering under a caste system (India), religious and political persecution, lack of upward mobility, failed economies, dictatorships and numberless others. Under Anne Winters’ dream (which is really a nightmare) society, all of these problems will exist, and they are not invisible to the clear-eyed who can easily look back to the Soviet Union, and then to Cuba and to Venezuela. Besides being disingenuous in her sympathy for these ‘victims’, it is not too difficult to realize that the poet is basically anti-Western civilization. She continues,

Unnoticed, the narrative has altered,

but though the city’s thus indecipherably orchestrated

by the evil empire, down to the very molecules in my brain

as I think I’m thinking, can I escape morning happiness,

or not savor our fabled ‘texture’ of foreign

and native poverties? (A boy tied into greengrocer’s apron,

unplaceable accent, brings out my coffee.) But, no, it says here

the old country’s ‘de-developing’ due to its mountainous

debt to the First World – that’s Broadway, my café

and my table, so how can I today

warm myself at the sad heartening narrative of immigration?

Unnoticed, the narrative has altered,

the displaced of capital have come to the capital.

Evil empire? In a poem that for the most part is well-written, holding up despite some clumsy lines (‘but though the city’s thus indecipherably orchestrated’), and can be appreciated even though the philosophy is Marxist, the term ‘evil empire’ is unexpected. It is unexpected because it is a failure on the poet’s part to find a better adjectival phrase. One is not surprised at the choice to employ this phrase, however. The phrase has lost all of its meaning, only because of its overuse and abuse the past number of years by the Left. It is an empty phrase that is hurled for any purpose randomly. And for a poet of Anne Winters’ capacity and distinction, one is let down by her lack of imaginative power and her choice to grasp at the easiest phrase she could find. It is lazy writing resulting from lazy thinking.

But ‘evil empire’, why? Anne Winters is willfully neglecting to observe the good that has resulted through the policies of this ‘evil empire’. Were it not for American foreign policy, the Soviet Union would have continued to expand and export its destructive force; old Europe would have been buried under the Soviet machine; Saddam Hussein would have still been fomenting violence and supporting terrorism; South and Central America would have fallen to Marxists; China would have had no real push towards capitalism; South Korea and Japan might have been overrun by North Korea; Grenada would have become the next Cuba; and life for millions around the globe would have been intolerable.

This ‘evil empire’ is forbidding her, she tells us, from savoring her morning coffee and the ‘texture’ of poverties that are evident before her, i.e. the displaced. That is an insult to the immigrants, to refer to them as a texture of poverties. The language debases them and dehumanizes them. Are they merely poverties? Language like this is only economic and it is not unexpected coming from a poet who is a Marxist, for that is how a Marxist views the world and people, only in economic terms. For them, people are statistics. Her coffee is then brought out by a ‘boy tied into a greengrocer’s apron’; this is not just a boy who works at the greengrocer’s and who is wearing the apron that he must wear while working, but he is a slave being used by the capitalist system and he has no choice because he is tied into the apron. The pity from the poet is false, and she also ignores the fact that the employee can make a choice to work or not to work.

Another factor, she says, that has driven the boy at the greengrocer’s and the many other immigrants to America is because their countries are ruined (‘de-developing’) by their debt to the First World. One thinks back to the international campaign last year by Sir Bob Geldof and Bono to write off debts owed by developing countries, specifically those in Africa. What kind of fiscal responsibility does this teach? What kind of incentive does it inspire in those who truly are concerned about impoverished nations but are unwilling to give because they know that many of those countries are run by corrupt and oppressive regimes and those in power (Robert Mugabe, for one) are getting off scot-free? ‘First World – that’s Broadway, my café/and my table,’ is the poet pointing at herself and saying “Bad Anne!” Again, false guilt, and showy, because it comes from a pure lack of understanding of economics and, more importantly, the immigration issue.

But Anne Winters is not alone in contemporary poetry to hold this perspective. It seems that in order to rise to any respect, especially of Anne Winters’ stature in the higher echelons in the world of poetry and to maintain that certain status, one must adhere to these Leftist views, and it is tellingly so when The Nation is one of the central players in the world of contemporary poetry. When poetry consciously attempts to be political, it is the worst kind and it is used like a hammer to hit the reader over the head with, insulting the reader and his intelligence. In the same way that liberal politicians demand that voters leave important questions of morality and foreign policy at home when going to the ballot booth, these poets of the Left expect, or rather demand that readers put aside their moral imaginations. And that would only end in cultural suicide. One does not wish for poetry to be submissive to whoever is president and whichever party is in the majority; but for poetry to be relevant again, it must challenge society with a moral imagination. But with the Marxist and anti-Western philosophy espoused by Anne Winters and many others, and their lack of moral imagination, they continue to be Lenin’s Useful Idiots.