Jewish World Review Oct. 4 2002 / 28 Tishrei, 5763

Better nude than crude?

By David Twersky | North Carolina has a higher standard for its beauty queens than New Jersey does for its poet laureates.

At least North Carolina has a standard.

Miss North Carolina, Rebekah Revels, was dethroned following a report she had posed for photographs in the nude.

Garden State poet laureate Amiri Baraka won't resign willingly, and at first blush can't be forced to resign, despite having read a poem accusing the Israeli government (among others) of having advance knowledge of 9/11 and warning 4,000 countrymen to stay away from the twin towers. He also said, as report in my home paper, The New Jersey Jewish News, that Ariel Sharon was supposed to have been in the World Trade Center but stayed away.

Better nude than crude, though even better neither than either.

Gov. James McGreevey rightly denounced the poem as anti-Semitic and called on Baraka to resign.

The Baraka story broke in The Jewish Standard, which serves readers in Bergen and northern Hudson counties.

Since then it has attracted national attention, shaping up as a conflict between those who believe a poet should be held accountable for his verse and those who believe in the distinct function of the poetic voice.

(We shudder at the idea that it could run as a story on Al Jazeera: "Official NJ poet endorses 9/11 conspiracy view popular in Islamic world.")

Actually, if state lawmakers act with dispatch, they could put an end to the whole affair, which has added to the multiple embarrassments afflicting the state.

We don't mind hairsplitting debates, but the first point to be made regarding Baraka is that we don't fancy his distinction between being anti-Israel and being anti-Semitic. True, one can support positions held by Palestinian moderates or those of the broad Israeli peace camp as a friend of Israel and the Palestinians. But this is decidedly not where Baraka places himself.

Responding to McGreevey's denunciation of him, Baraka denied that he was anti-Semitic, claiming to be merely anti-Israeli. "If you criticize Israel, they hide behind the religion and call you anti-Semitic," Baraka said.

Well, it depends on what you mean by anti-Israeli. There's a world of difference between the "Israel should be willing to leave the territories and recognize Palestinian self-determination" kind of criticism and "There shouldn't be any Israel at all" kind of criticism.

As the late Irving Howe once said of poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, "There's the kind of anti-Semitism that says, 'I don't want him in my club,' and the kind that says, 'Let's kill him.' There was a difference between Eliot and Pound."

Under the guise of opposing the policies of the Sharon government, much of the virulently anti-Israel Left has climbed back out of the hiding they went into with the advent of the Oslo peace process.

We also believe Baraka most certainly should have the mantle of state legitimacy removed from his clearly unworthy shoulders. This is not a case of free speech or art for art's sake.

The brouhaha has caught lawmakers and administrators by surprise. It seems no part of the statute addresses the possibility that, once installed, a poet laureate might have to be removed.

The lawmaker who coauthored the original bill establishing a poet laureate position tells us it's all up to the Council for the Humanities to reconvene the poets panel that picked Baraka.

But interviews with members of that panel indicate they will not act to remove Baraka. Moreover, an official with the council says it's all up to the state legislature.

We think the state legislature should therefore take up as an urgent item of business a proposal to amend the statue in order to provide for the current circumstance.

All of this reminds us of nothing so much as the decision in 1948 by a panel to award the first (and, as it would turn out, only) Library of Congress Bollingen Prize in Poetry to Ezra Pound for The Pisan Cantos. (Coming in second was Paterson by the Garden State's own William Carlos Williams.)

The distinguished panel included arguably two of the most important poets of their time, T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, as well as Robert Lowell, Conrad Aiken, and Robert Penn Warren, among others.

Karl Shapiro at first went along with the majority, then dissented, beginning a career-long dispute with the modernist establishment over the award.

Pound was the father of modernist poetry. Eliot dedicated his epic 1922 poem, "The Waste Land," "to Ezra Pound, Il miglior fabbro [the greater craftsman]" because Pound had edited and revised the poem that famously begins, "April is the cruelest month." But he was also virulently anti-Semitic (there was no Israel for him to hide behind, and, anyway, Pound bought into the fascist worldview of Jewish conspiracies), broadcasting anti-Semitic and anti-American talks from Mussolini's Italy during World War II.

After the war, Pound was charged with treason but was acquitted by reason of insanity. For the Bollingen judges, the issue was the autonomy of art: "To permit other considerations than that of poetry achievement," they wrote, "would in principle deny the validity of that objective perception of value on which civilized society must rest."

This put them in the position of arguing that civilized society rests on an "objective perception of value" that allows for a deranged (and dangerous) lunatic to receive the nation's highest poetry award.

The storm soon broke.

Art critic Clement Greenberg wrote in Partisan Review that "life includes and is more important than art, and it judges things by their consequences."

Peter Viereck wrote a widely read critical piece in Commentary arguing that one could not effectively separate Pound's anti-Semitism from his Italian wartime radio broadcasts. Then the Saturday Review published a piece by Robert Hillyer, "Treason's Strange Fruit," which tried to link participants to a "Jungian Nazi conspiracy."

A New York congressman, Jacob Javits, called for a congressional investigation. The net effect was to stop government support of the arts for two decades. In this case, we should act with dispatch - both to clear the air fouled by Baraka's insane charges and to ensure that "civilized society," and state government, remain active in the arts.

So there you have it. An Ezra Pound in blackface who should be as discredited as the old minstrel shows. Coming out of the Beat, Marxist Left, and black nationalist movements. Simultaneously a major poet (we are told) and an offensive idiot, taking the filthiest vile off the Internet and spewing it right back at ya.

The bill establishing the position states that "the poet laureate of the State shall promote and encourage poetry within the State."

Ironically, as he proved himself unsuitable for the job, Baraka got us all thinking about poetry.

Now lawmakers have to overrule the poetry judges, even as Supreme Court judges meet to decide the fate of lawmakers and their laws.

Distracted by our roller-coaster Senate race, it may be difficult to keep anyone's attention focused on Baraka. We make this pledge to you: We shall stay focused.

JWR contributor David Twersky is managing editor of the New Jersey Jewish News. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, David Twersky