Friday, October 8, 2010

Politics and the Compassion of Art

     In my College Writing class, I am trying to teach my students the notion of counterargument. As I have always been suspicious of this notion, I have not simply offered them a black and white definition for the term. Truth be told, I'm not very good at black and white definitions. I am suspicious of most of them.
     So, I sort of talk around it in class. I talk to them about the notion of "complicating" an argument. Of offering alternative points of view. Balanced perspective, I say. Symmetry. or – Understanding  that there are other perspectives your reader will expect you to, at least, acknowledge, if not engage. I talk, too, about the idea of reconsidering your thesis once all the facts are in.
     I'm not sure if it's hitting home. I could just tell them what I was told: "Counterargument: Include a reason why someone might disagree with your opinion - and refute that."
     Refute that. 
     Reel it in and dismiss it. Mention it, cast it aside. Those are the strong arguments. 
     But I don't believe that. I believe the strongest arguments come from a sense of engagement with other perspectives. If it means that the argument, ultimately, only seems weighted towards a conclusion, then that’s fine. In my mind, those are the most engaging arguments, anyway.
     So, it seemed like divine confirmation, that after Kazim Ali’s incredible reading at the University of Michigan tonight, during the dinner conversation with the MFA students, he broached the area of political involvement. More importantly than fellowships, he reminded us, we have to find a place in the world to contribute in these troubled times. We must be engaged, he said. Involved.
     Kazim Ali is the author of several books of poetry and essay, including recent works Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities on Wesleyan and a book of essays: Orange Alert on University of Michigan Press. Knowing that Ali's work, particularly his essays, take on the difficult subject matter of language and (mis)translation, of otherness, of queer desire and the navigation of both multi-religious acceptance and spiritual embrace, I have always been curious about the pure lyric of his poems. The unabashed beauty in them. The resistance, it seems to me, to a kind of preaching that I think a lot of well-intentioned poetry falls into.
     "Do you," I asked him "separate your political self from your poetic self?"
     "No," he said "though I don't think I write political poetry."
     "No. Which is why I'm asking. How do you keep from leaning toward moral imperative in your work?"
     I told him that when I was more engaged in political activities, I felt like my writing suffered. Horribly. 
     "Maybe I think of the poetry as a way of complicating my own arguments." 
     And here, I knew exactly what he meant. Surprised, excited, mystified that he used this phrase. The very phrase I had used, almost as subterfuge only hours prior, in class.
     "Poetry," he said "as much as activism, demands compassion. And I am above everything a humanist. It is compassion that drives me, not judgment. So while, for example, I am certainly pro-choice and will probably always be, I can understand, when I look at those photos at the pro-life rallies, of discarded babies, or when I talk to friends who have been traumatized by their decisions to have abortions, even medically traumatized, I can see the other side of this story. And I can write that into my work. Because the work is mostly about compassion. And the lyric, the mystery, then is part of that process."
     Years ago, I left my activist circle, largely because I felt like we spent too much time judging others and less time being compassionate about people's situations. Less 'helping' and more 'raging'. I am still listening to some of my more compassionate friends from that time and have a lot of respect for them. But I guess I figured the rage sounded better in my poems. Not in the imperative, but in the language itself. 
     And here, I feel I've been given some license. A kind of permission (which as a cultural-Catholic, I suppose I always hunger for), to feed beauty back into my lines in a hunt for a kind of lyric justice. What comes now, I can’t say, and won't testify. I'm a creature of slow change. But I'm grateful to Kazim for these words. I thought others might be, too.

1 comment:

Paula Mendoza-Hanna said...

had to comment... if only to say:


(tho, I'm awful with only's, so...)

I *love* that that idea-- of poems complicating our own arguments. Of poems throwing that necessary wrench in the all-too smooth-running machine of morals, of clear judgment.

Rage is sexy, narcotic. Righteousness, easy. But compassion...

compassion's damned difficult.

Thanks for this.