NYTimes: A Poem in The Nation Spurs a Backlash and an Apology

A bunch of freaks, all of them. Opulence sounds like a good thing until it starts to vomit up this kind of dregs. Because you’ve got to be overfed for generations to come up with something like this.

43 thoughts on “NYTimes: A Poem in The Nation Spurs a Backlash and an Apology

  1. Well, it’s not a real poem, anyway — has a ridiculous cadence and no rhyme scheme at all.

    It’s so bad it should have been published in “The Atlantic.”


    1. “Well, it’s not a real poem, anyway — has a ridiculous cadence and no rhyme scheme at all”.

      Good Lord, Dreidel. As someone who teaches English literature, I can’t let that silly statement pass. The poem is indeed terrible (as I also say below) but it’s not terrible because it lacks a rhyme scheme or strict metrical pattern. And I do like formally strict poetry (there is nothing like a well-crafted sonnet) and I believe that free verse is overused today–largely out of laziness (like the poem in The Nation). But there is amazing free verse poetry in the English language. Formal experimentation is at the heart of the modernist project and poets shouldn’t abandon the impulse to rethink the possibilities offered by poetic language and verse. Without experimentation or innovation, we are only left with the vapid, cloying poetry of Robert Frost at best and commercial jingles at worst.

      Below I leave you with the final movement from T.S. Eliot’s exquisite “The Hollow Men” (1925). It’s better to read the entire poem of course but this last movement really shows how free verse poetry can open up aesthetic and intellectual possibilities.


      Here we go round the prickly pear
      Prickly pear prickly pear
      Here we go round the prickly pear
      At five o’clock in the morning.

      Between the idea
      And the reality
      Between the motion
      And the act
      Falls the Shadow

      For Thine is the Kingdom

      Between the conception
      And the creation
      Between the emotion
      And the response
      Falls the Shadow

      Life is very long

      Between the desire
      And the spasm
      Between the potency
      And the existence
      Between the essence
      And the descent
      Falls the Shadow

      For Thine is the Kingdom

      For Thine is
      Life is
      For Thine is the

      This is the way the world ends
      This is the way the world ends
      This is the way the world ends
      Not with a bang but with a whimper.


      1. Yes, my mother also taught English literature, so I’m familiar with T.S. Elliot and various other English/American poets who didn’t bother to rhyme their verses. You’re correct that Elliot was vastly better than Robert Frost.

        On the other hand, the best poem in the English language (definitely Edward Fitzgerald’s so-called “translation” of RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM) managed to be profound and aesthetic and to have a rigidly adhered-to metric pattern and to follow an accurate rhyme scheme and to even throw in a lot of clever alliteration for over one hundred verses:

        They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
        The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:
        And Bahram, that great Hunter – the Wild Ass
        Stamps o’er his Head, but cannot break his Sleep.

        With Earth’s first Clay They did the Last Man knead,
        And there of the Last Harvest sow’d the Seed:
        And the first Morning of Creation wrote
        What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.

        No contest! 🙂


        1. Dreidel, you’ve got to find this short story by OHenry about the American fellow who discovered the Rubaiyat. It’s priceless. I’m sure it’s online for free.


          1. Yeah, “The Rubaiyat of a Scotch Highball,” quite amusing, already read it. O’Henry wrote very entertaining stories when he wasn’t in prison for embezzlement.

            Unfortunately, his characters, like almost everybody who quotes from Fitzgerald’s RUBAIYAT), invariably choose the wrong verses. Everybody likes the dopey teenage “love story” final verses about having a picnic and drinking wine and making out in the park — and they miss the overall tone of the poem, which is a cynical acknowledgement of the transient meaningless of human existence.

            The characters in the O’Henry tale and the alleged original source of Fitzgerald’s poem
            (which is actually composed mostly of anonymous ancient Persian verses that Fitzgerald “translated” beyond recognition to get the proper meter and rhyme scheme) do have one thing in common: They’re all drunks


  2. The worst thing he did was apologize.
    Apologizing is the worst thing a person can do in that situation., it’s like dropping blood into the water hoping it will scare the sharks away.
    The best thing to do is to say something innocuous (but inarguably true that makes a person who attacks it look weird).
    “No one is required to like my poem.”
    “My work is what it is.”
    “I speak for myself and no one else.”
    “My work is not a documentary.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like the last one particularly. And heck, isn’t the poem a critique of the donors and of what they’re thinking regardless of what they say?


  3. P.S. The AAVE isn’t done well, it’s true. And I am a problem because I find the crime to be more of an esthetic one. Can men write women characters … ?


    1. Yeah I was wondering if it was even supposed to be AAVE or something else…

      What I find scary are sentences like: “disparaging and ableist language that has given offense and caused harm to members of several communities”

      What harm? What communities? It’s all mumbo-jumbo like a child pretending to be a magician and chanting nonsense (I’m reminded of the Ruth Rendell novel where a young guy is convinced he has magic powers and spends hours doing spells and magic rites in his room).

      there’s also: “we hold ourselves responsible for the ways in which the work we select is received.”

      Which is full blown psychosis, no author or editor is responsible for how a work is “received”. Way to appropriate other people’s outrage you worthless jr high drama freeks..

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely. “Language that caused harm” is the scariest thing. Because it leads to very bad places. Of course, this is spreading because it’s attractive to learn a couple of slogans and get so much power over people.


  4. “…A Poem in The Nation…”

    I have not been able to find the poem itself. Is it in the paper copy of The Nation? If so, which issue? I don’t remember seeing it.


    1. 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.



  5. What stood out to me was the last sentence here:

    // When we read the poem we took it as a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization. We can no longer read the poem in that way. \

    This seems like a battle over interpretation in which one side rolls over because of supposed displeasure of some readers.

    Do not know much about American press but such editors’ statement assumes a critical mass of The Nation’s readers are unhinged fanatics.

    Why not say that “disparaging and ableist language that has given offense” precisely is needed to convey the poem’s point?

    Also, the editors are practically begging to be fired with “this decision means that we need to step back and look at not only our editing process, but at ourselves as editors.”


    1. Yes, The Nation is read by people who speak and think this way. But more mainstream publications are doing the exact same thing. The NYTimes, The Atlantic, etc. Remember how I said recently that the war for the public discourse has been clearly won by one side? This is what the victory looks like. But it’s only the beginning.


    2. Actually, this sort of language seems to me like new territory for the Nation. Until recently they were far tougher than that. The real problem with the editors is that they chose a bad poem, with all the poems that exist. I just sent some poems off to journals but have no idea how they will be received, because so much of what is liked often seems so poor to me. I am not sure these are the best, so maybe they will have good luck.


  6. Regarding our previous conversation on academic censoring out of fear, here is a not academic example of (not religious) censoring.

    // I have never met anyone willing to admit they self-censor out of fear. That would make them look weak. And I’m congenitally incapable of noticing how I look to others

    I have self-censored out of fear.
    Of course, academia is not high school in which self-censoring as an inherent part of the job.
    However, I’ve also heard about self-censoring from academics in Israel. Not in a direct fashion, but I am perceptive to such clues.


    1. I self-censor out of fear in academia. It used to be in papers, now it is in class. I am not just talking about being diplomatic. Also, in my most recent article copyeditors put in all these qualifying words for every affirmation. Is becomes may be, etc. Professors used to do that to my papers, and teachers before that. They like to take out references and direct statements, and put mealy-mouthed and unsupported suggestions in their place.


      1. The exact same experience here. I was trained to write in a strong way. My teachers worked hard to get me to stop qualifying every statement in the Russian style and said that if you can’t state your claims forcefully and stand behind them, you shouldn’t be making them. And now I’m told I should unlearn all that.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. // I was trained to write in a strong way. My teachers worked hard to get me to stop qualifying every statement in the Russian style and said that if you can’t state your claims forcefully and stand behind them, you shouldn’t be making them.

          I heard the same thing about writing in English from an Israeli English literature professor.
          He said that qualifying words don’t help and that a claim either stands or not.


  7. “Overfed” is right. I’m offended anyone thought it was profound enough to be published outside of a high school arts magazine. Of course someone begging will try to play on your sympathies. The mangled vernacular issue seems secondary.

    Sometimes I find it hard to believe I have ancestors for whom dairy products and sugar were a sign of prosperity and for whom sweets were a very special occasion food that you ate first before dinner. Has anyone involved ever seen a homeless person or beggar in their lives?


    1. The poem is definitely not a great work of art. If somebody took it apart for its numerous aesthetic failings, I’d be happy. But this? It’s beyond dumb. I don’t want to say the word Soviet again but it is very similar to Soviet flare-ups against Prokofiev, Pasternak, jazz or The Beatles.

      There was this stupid little rhyme that was delivered completely seriously: Today he’s playing jazz, and tomorrow he’ll sell out his country and all of us.

      Problem is, Soviet people were made to do it by real terror of one of the worst totalitarian regimes in history. These idiots, however, are volunteering.


  8. It’s not a great poem, but it does denounce that victim mentality, doesn’t it? At least Katha Politt (spelling?) responded well to it by saying the response reminded her of a re-education camp.


      1. Your value, as a person, is tied up with your status as a victim, your lack of “privilege” in various “intersectional” ways. That is the “victim mentality.” It is a critique not of people who might suffer various misfortunes, but of the way that the official liberal discourse needs to identify each person with a particular label of that kind. I think the poem does this overtly and with some effectiveness, but its execution is not great (poetically speaking.).

        Liked by 1 person

        1. The funny thing is that the very folks who are berating this poet for appropriating the voice of a black homeless person are guilty of doing the same. They are appropriating the outrage that is not theirs to feel. I’d guess that homeless people have more serious concerns that poems published in The Nation.


          1. Right, there’s the appropriation of rage, too. This all reminds me of the recent Portland tortilla controversy, where white girls made and sold tortillas and other white people called it cultural appropriation.


            1. The poem is terrible: clumsy and lacking in any aesthetic value. But I think the apologies that the editors and the poet offered were absolutely absurd. Judging by their hysterical self-flagellation, you would have thought that they kicked a series of African American homeless children after cooking and eating their puppies. Completely over the top and ridiculous. And it’s also fine if people thought the poem lacked taste. I actually agree that the poem was a bit crass in the way it portrayed homelessness (and seriously: does anybody actually say “cripple” anymore?) Once they saw the poem was garnering attention, the editors should have just invited and published responses and perhaps allowed the poet a follow up. statement We should be able to have a civilized debate in the public sphere about the social functions of an artwork. But abject grovelling because the ridiculous Roxanne Gay had a twitter tantrum is not how to stage such a debate.

              As a side note, the term that is now starting to give me hives is “harm”. All of a sudden “harm” is everywhere. Once I started looking out for it, I notice the term constantly. I know have a knee jerk responses to it. If someone says “harm”, chances are no harm was done.


              1. Right now on my Facebook feed, undergraduates are self-flagellating for having used the term low key without realizing it is (as they claim to have learned) part of AAVE and therefore hurtful for white people to use. I want to say that the terms high and low key come, if I am not mistaken, from technical language around lighting and pitch, and have been in general use since the 19th century. I really don’t think they’re originally African-American vernacular, even if they are now in hip-hop language. There are a lot of other words and meanings in American English that are from AAVE, like bad, bogus, cat, cool, dig, funk(y), hip, jazz, raggedy, and many, many more. Do we really have to do all this separation and ghettoization of languages and vocabulary now?

                Liked by 1 person

              2. I’ve never heard this one, and yeah, it’s full on crazy. I don’t get this, to be honest. With all the major issues people could be talking about, they obsess on this kind of stuff? It’s just weird.


              3. “Right now on my Facebook feed, undergraduates are self-flagellating for having used the term low key without realizing it is (as they claim to have learned) part of AAVE and therefore hurtful for white people to use.”

                The common, standard English term “low key” is supposed to be Ebonics now??? What deranged ivory-tower imbecile declared that?

                I suspect that Ebonics speakers occasionally use words like “the” and “what” and “over there” as well — so shouldn’t those words also be off-limits now?

                This is just TOO MUCH!! All of a sudden I agree with Clarissa that some ideas are so stupid that they’re worth shouting about.


              4. I live where you hear Ebonics all the time and I occasionally use some of the terms. They’re expressive and don’t always have exact equivalents in standard English. “I don’t want to rent that raggedy apartment.” “I’m going to clean this funky-ass kitchen.” “I have been knowing that for two weeks” (Yes, I could say “I have been aware of that” but “I have been knowing” is more intense and immediate, if you want that effect). I haven’t gotten complaints from real life Ebonics speakers. Maybe I’m missing something.


          2. I don’t know whether they’re appropriating “outrage” or not. Some critic might be a former homeless person who publicly begged.

            Homelessness is a real problem. Vets and LGBQT people, especially teens are more likely to be homeless. People with severe mental illness are on the street. But you wouldn’t know that from this teapot tempest.

            House music dance break :

            Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless) lyrics

            When it comes to the song itself, the lyrics came straight out of reality. It’s about a woman who stood in front of the Mayflower hotel in Washington, DC, on Connecticut Avenue. My sister worked in the hotel and I’d walk past this woman around once a week, and she looked fine. She didn’t look like she was homeless. She always had a full face of makeup and black clothes and she’d be singing these gospel songs. I used think, “Well, why don’t you go and get a job instead of asking me for money?”

            Then there was an article on her in the paper! It said she’d just lost her job in retail, and she said that she thought if she was going to ask people for money then she should at least look presentable. And that changed my idea of homelessness…

            Relatedly: That’s why the ripped and distressed jeans fashion trends never made sense to my parents or other relatives.


            1. To go from homelessness to the position of a rich, spoiled brat who has the time to rage against a silly poem on Twitter – and they say social mobility is dead. :-))


              1. To clarify, my parents and relatives didn’t understand the trend because only very poor desperate people walked around with ripped clothing. Ripped, distressed clothing is the kind of thing you can wear if you have no inkling of being poor or homeless or being mistaken as such.


  9. Cultural difference moment:

    I would’ve never guessed the poem was criticized either because of the word “crippled” or “a white poet’s attempt at black vernacular” which I didn’t even recognize as such, thinking poor uneducated people of all colors make grammatical mistakes.

    I expected the poem to be attacked because of its portrayal of beggars as manipulative liars, faking pregnancy or disability (“say you’re pregnant … cock a knee funny” ) or pretending to be underaged (“If you’re young say younger”), instead of finding a job.

    Reminded me of a Russian TV program telling not to give money to beggars since many of them are put to beg by their handlers who collect the money at the end of the day.

    I am surprised nobody has criticized the poem for this. Moreover, the editors claim that “we read the poem we took it as a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization.”

    Is my reading not more obvious than theirs?


    1. It is without context, yes. But there is a certain focus on the self-involved attitude of the person being approached.


  10. “part of AAVE and therefore hurtful for white people to use”
    This sounds like an attempt to keep Blacks ghettoized. For a few generations now AAVE has exerted a strong influence on informal mainstream American English just for the reasons you mention – a lot of it is very expressive and fun to use.
    If non-blacks give up all traces of AAVE then the stigma against it (and its users) will only increase.


    1. That’s a good point. I love word games and word artistry. My Russian is extremely creative because it’s fun to come up with new words. And it’s true that ghettoizing AAVE will prevent many people from experimenting with this kind of artistry. And for what? What’s the gain?


    2. Also, I don’t think using a language that has been influenced by AAVE (as informal mainstream American English has) is the same as blackface, minstrelsy, etc. There are also a lot of Spanish and French words, Yiddish and Native American ones, it’s what happens…


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