The Poetics of Tragedy – By Christopher Kempf

Christopher Kempf on Elliot Rodger, Seth Abramson, and Art’s Role in Tragedy

At 5:34 a.m. on May 25, less than 36 hours after Elliot Rodger killed seven and wounded 13 in a shooting spree in Isla Vista, California, The Huffington Post ran a poem by Seth Abramson that “remixed” the words of Rodger’s rambling and misogynistic YouTube manifesto, using, as Abramson explained it, “each and every word Rodger spoke in that hateful oration — and no more.”

The poem, “Last Words for Elliot Rodger,” drew instant criticism across social media and the blogosphere, where readers excoriated it as a hastily conceived and misogynistic exercise in self-promotion, an opportunistic stunt manufactured by Abramson and The Huffington Post to generate internet publicity. On Flavorwire, Jason Diamond argued that the poem came “too soon” on the heels of the Isla Vista shootings, accusing Abramson of “getting [his] Google ranking up using questionable techniques [and] bad experimental poetry.” Writing for VIDA, an organization of writers dedicated, as the group’s mission statement puts it, “to exploring the critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women,” Laura Sims called Abramson’s poem “click bait,” contending, “beauty can be wrested from the ugliness, but it requires time, skill, and sincerity of purpose.” And Omnidawn Publishing, the press behind the annual Best American Experimental Writing series Abramson edits, announced that, while they “respect free speech,” they are “dismayed, disheartened, [and] distressed” by “the use of Elliot Rodger’s words in this way.”

Much of the criticism surrounding “Last Words …” shares this concern with the insensitive opportunism of Abramson’s poem, yet absent from every piece of writing about the poem — from 140-character, hashtagged takedowns to longer, more sophisticated responses like that of Sims — is discussion of the poem itself as poetry, as an aesthetic work demanding, as all serious art does, the careful critical attention that lies at the heart of the literary discipline. The objections to “Last Words … ”, that is, suffer from the same carelessness of which Abramson himself is accused, foregoing sustained intellectual discussion of the poem — as misogyny, as response to tragedy, as art — in favor of a reactionary political correctness that masks itself as progressive or feminist concern for the victims but in fact occupies a rather conservative position with respect to art and culture. The outcome of such a position is the categorical dismissal of art that takes risks, art that challenges the canons of what can and cannot be said in a poem and who can — or cannot — say it.

Art offers us a more thoughtful and meaningful response to tragedy, challenging those regimes of language that have perpetuated violence.

I am neither defending nor denouncing Abramson. Rather, my attempt is to re-focus the discussion surrounding “Last Words …” back on the poem itself, and, in so doing, to lay out carefully and in detail the aesthetic and political assumptions underlying our responses to tragedy. For we do no service to ourselves as a literary culture when we condemn writers as opportunistic or appropriative or misogynistic without close attention to how their writing functions within the systems of rhetoric in which we exist — without attention, one might say, to how poems work and why.

One can’t help but question the assertion that Abramson chose poetry — far from a popular art form in the United States — as the most effective method to drive up his Google ranking. Likewise, the attempt on the part of Diamond and Sims to link the poem’s aesthetic and ethical merit to the length of its composition process — including, presumably, contemplative reflection — seems a rather crude hermeneutical maneuver. There was no widespread concern when Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Rock Me, Mercy” ran on NPR a day after the Newtown shootings, nor when Poets For Living Waters began accepting submissions in the days following the BP oil spill. In fact, such efforts were lauded by a poetry community a tad too eager, perhaps, to accrue for itself the cultural cachet that tends to come with its causes célèbres.

To be sure, Sims’s post on the VIDA website, “Writing Murder: Last Words For XX XX,” stakes out an important position in the discussion around Abramson’s poem. Sims points out, for example, that “Abramson was hastiest […] in not considering gender before writing the poem — namely: his own and the killer’s.” Given Rodger’s unabashed and obvious misogyny, Sims suggests, and given too that most murders are carried out by men, “it’s especially difficult,” she writes, “for a man to have a stake in appropriating the language of a murderer.” Sims’s remarks perhaps too closely police, at least for my taste, who can and cannot write about violence and how, but they nonetheless explore in necessary ways the relationship between art and violence, helping to advance the conversation about how writers can ethically and effectively engage with tragedy.

In contrast, Diamond’s Flavorwire post ultimately prohibits any aesthetic response at all to tragedy. “Tragedy isn’t your canvas,” he writes, “no matter how deep and profound you think your work might be.” It’s always “too soon for tragedy,” Diamond says, going on to argue that the #YesAllWomen hashtag created to raise awareness of the sexism women encounter, “represented the only conceivable way [he] could think to respond to something like the horror that took place in California.” This is an incredible proposition. The only possible response to a persistent and increasingly threatening culture of violence in this country is a Twitter post?  If this is indeed the case, American culture — to say nothing of its democracy — faces far more pressing problems than its poetry.d

Irrespective of its heavy-handedness, Diamond’s refusal of a place for tragedy in poetry is nonetheless part of a lengthy tradition of concern over poetry’s often problematic, sometimes “ambulance chasing,” relationship to public suffering. Theodor Adorno famously argued in 1949 that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and before him Paul Celan lamented poetry’s inability to escape the tragedies of the second World War, asking, in a poem called “A Leaf, treeless,” “What times are these/ when a conversation/ is nearly a crime,/ because it includes/ so much being spoken?”  Like these statements, the contemporary prohibition on writing about tragedy, of which Diamond is part, has the unfortunate effect of closing down discussion of how we might ethically and effectively explore, as poets, the relationship between language and violence. The alternative, cordoning off and fetishizing tragedy, ultimately perpetuates the violence that leads to it. These are poems that need to be written, and they need to be written well.

So how then does Abramson’s poem, “Last Words for Elliot Rodger,” succeed or not as an aesthetic response to the tragedy of the Isla Vista shootings? There are, as the objections have suggested, real problems with the poem. But it is if nothing else a virtuoso formal accomplishment, repurposing Rodger’s words to the letter, often in quite moving ways, and without once shading into nonsense; this alone belies the contention that Abramson simply dashed off “Last Words …” without careful, scrupulous aesthetic attention.

Addressing Rodger in the opening stanzas, for example, Abramson manages a radical act of empathy with him while at the same time refusing the sinister logic of his worldview. “Life has attracted me,” Abramson says,

                   life has denied me; forced me to give, forced me to take;

spoiled me, tried me, hit me; desired me like a girlfriend, treated me like a sex

crime. I will never give up. I will never be stuck inside life.

A little later Abramson writes that “loneliness is torturous, but unfulfilled desires are not an injustice,” a fierce rebuke of Rodger that nonetheless imagines and creatively renders the aberrant psychological motivations that too often in our culture lead to violence.

As Robert Duncan suggested in 1971, the function of poetry is not so much to oppose evil — in which case it would become didactic and ideological, the opposite of art — as it is to imagine it. “What if Shakespeare had opposed Iago,” Duncan writes in a letter to Denise Levertov, “or Dostoyevsky opposed Raskolnikov — the vital thing is that they created Iago and Raskolnikov [so that] we begin to see betrayal and murder and theft in a new light.” We might say the same thing of Abramson’s treatment of Rodger, that it allows us to see in a new light the misogyny and egoism and nihilism of a killer whose logic the poem at the same time questions. “I looked down. (All have had to.),” Abramson writes in one of the poem’s defiant, incantatory sections. “I looked up. (All have had to.)// I looked into me. (All have to.)// One, two, three, into the well!”

At these moments the poem is almost Eliotic, bleakly yet powerfully imagining the evil of our world — one thinks of The Waste Land — before enacting for us the utter breakdown of that world. As the poem concludes, its syntax unravels into the constitutive, syntactical parts of language, heaped together and refusing to cohere into meaningful utterance. “And in the well,” Abramson writes:

    For, against; up, down; these, these instead; why, because; would,

actually; in, through; more, half; would, have; exacting, other; all of it, all of you;

to, for; on, after; they, your; this, there; my, their; these, those; I, you.

Pronouns, prepositions, deictics — the lines posit language as a field of power in which the social contradictions of our culture are played out. It’s a seeming glitch in the system of language, a demonstration that for all our carefully constructed rhetoric — Rodger’s and our own, in opposition to him — what we are reduced to, in attempting to deal with tragedy, are vectors of pure opposition, pure force.

And ultimately in this poem only “I” and “of” remain, pronoun and preposition enacting for us that central, structural opposition between the self and the society “of” which it’s a part. Here is the poem’s close:

I.

“I showed my will. I treated you to it. I have been it. I am it.”

I. I.

“I am that which I have been. I am all of it. All of that. All the while. Every while. I am I, and of I.”

Of. Of. Of.

Of Of.

Of.

Echoing two of Western civilization’s most foundational texts — one hears in these lines strains of Nietzsche and Exodus both — the passage at the same time demonstrates the reduction of language to a kind of animalistic grunting, a site of power the savagery of which is belied by the veneer of grammar we lay over it. In attempting to respond to tragedy, Abramson suggests, we’re forced to fall back on our own unsatisfying, superficial rhetoric, the failure of which mirrors the failure of and the gaps in Rodger’s warped and violent logic.

Poetry is in danger of shrinking back into the lesser themes of which it has suffered in the past.

If “Last Words for Elliot Rodger” attempts to examine the role of language in our cultural response to tragedy, and if it seeks, in so doing, to trouble the line between self and society, between Rodger and ourselves, the poem sometimes leaves too intact and unquestioned Rodger’s misogynistic rhetoric, the effect of which is not only to further disseminate such rhetoric among a wider audience but, perhaps more dangerously, to elevate misogyny to the level of aesthetics, to call hate speech art. Purporting to be an address to Rodger, the poem at times seems more like an address from him. “I had it in my power to destroy a sorority house,” Abramson writes. “To reduce it like a god. And it was unworthy of me.” Such a statement — and there are others — seems more like a direct quotation than a “remix” of Rodger’s words.

“Last Words …” is most problematic, however, in its final section, which begins with Abramson asserting — and remember that this is addressed to Rodger — that “I love you.” “For you gave you,” Abramson says. “All of you.” Framing Rodger as a selfless, misunderstood martyr, the lines seem not so much radical empathy as commemoration. And it gets worse as Abramson, in that same section, resorts to cheap punning — “Elliot, you slay me,” he says — in what feels like a forced and deliberate attempt at provocation. It’s a callous line, appropriating the suffering of Rodger’s seven victims and their families and re-fashioning that suffering as some kind of gruesome comédie noire. Abramson was not slain that day by Elliot Rodger, and the fact that he turns into a punch line those who were killed leaves this poem, quite rightly, open to the charge of exploitation. It’s at this moment where the poem seems most opportunistic, tactlessly using the Isla Vista tragedy as aesthetic polemic and in so doing converting human suffering into a sophomoric, “let’s shock the bourgeoisie” provocation.

It’s at this moment, too, where one could almost give credence to Diamond’s claim that tragedy is not a “canvas” on which to make art, that when it comes to aestheticizing suffering we’re almost always better off in silence. And while Sims’s contention that men can’t “have a stake” in the language of violence seems an overly reductive, scorched-earth approach to the relation between aesthetics and tragedy, Abramson’s poem helps us to see that there are unethical ways to write about such violence, including the appropriation of very real emotional suffering for aesthetic purposes without careful, self-conscious acknowledgement of why and how such appropriation is being carried out.

But art can do better. It’s art — and poetry specifically, I think — that offers our culture a more thoughtful and meaningful response to tragedy, challenging those regimes of language — be they misogynistic, racist, or classist — that have perpetuated this violence, and creating in the process a more human, more compassionate grammar with which to talk about and understand ourselves in relation to tragedy.

That’s what poetry can do. And that’s why the willingness of other writers to condemn Abramson without close, critical attention to his poem is so dangerous. Because it points to the terrifying possibility that poetry will turn its back on tragedy entirely, that the risk of censure will be so high — and the censure itself so personally and professionally damaging — as to prohibit engagement with those issues most central to our culture at this moment. In the absence of support for challenging, risk-taking — which is not to say sloppy and exploitative — work, poetry is in danger of shrinking back into the lesser themes of which it has suffered in the past, of being trapped, that is, in a navel-gazing examination of the lyric self. Poetry, as David Perkins puts it, will be “so on the defensive” that it “retreats into acknowledged littleness,” returning its attention to flowers and fields, to vanishing youth and doomed beauty.

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