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Maria Damon

Making the World Safe for Poetry
(or, How Is Anne Waldman Different from Woodrow Wilson?)


In a certain sense, the process of emancipation
is as old as the invention of the arts.
                    — Giorgio Agamben


In what has come to be one of her signature utterances, Anne Waldman says that her life’s work is to “keep the world safe for poetry.” This is a remarkable statement in many ways, some of which I hope to explore in the following meditation on the role of politics & feminism in Waldman’s work. Her oft-quoted statement assumes a certain tension between “poetry” and “the world,” implying as it does that poetry is threatened by the world, and that something needs to be done to the world to make it safe for poetry, or that some safety has been won but must be vigilantly tended to “keep” it that way. My first thought is that this is a neat counterpoint to Plato, who felt that the world as he envisioned it, that is, the ordered and regulated world of the ideal Republic under the guidance of its philosopher kings, was in fact threatened *by* poetry — so threatened, in fact, that “she” — Poetry — must be banished from the polis in order to ensure the serene functioning of its political machinery. I take it, then, that to some extent Waldman means that it is not the natural world but somehow the political world — the republic, the world of the polis, the walled city that is also an empire and a complete governmental unit — that is at odds with poetry’s wellbeing. Although the republic is res publica, the public thing, it seems frighteningly private when envisioned as a walled city, and Waldman’s resolutely public poetics, liberating in its exilic exultation, seem in fact to go the political world one better in claiming a space for a more truly communal enterprise than Plato offers — one in which poetic practice itself — and by this I mean not just the writing and publishing of poetry but the performance of it on all levels, the fostering of poetic communities, the dissemination of poetry into the public consciousness, the promotion of poetic consciousness itself — becomes a kind of politics. It becomes the world. The way to make the world safe for poetry is to make poetry comprise the world. (And this she has done metonymically by naming St Mark’s Poetry Project’s journal The World.) Etymologically, “world” means “the age of man,” and, under utopian conditions, poeisis, or the process of making, would come to inhabit every aspect of human activity as long as there are humans. Looked at in a certain way, this is already the case; we’re already as enlightened as we’ll ever be; we have only to realize it. What threatens poetry is our blindness to our always-already status as poets. How do we go about waking up the world? Taking its parodic cue from Woodrow Wilson’s 1917 speech, in which he committed the U.S. to World War I in the name of making the world safe for democracy — and about which more, and more skeptically, later — Waldman’s talisman phrase needs to be looked at not only as a whimsical up-ending of normative politics, but as participating in a long tradition of communal/ political/ rhetorical and, yes, poetic experiments in living and theorizing an unalienated life, in which culture, affective experience, economic livelihood, and politics all function in sync with each other at nobody’s expense. By imagining that poetic practice can offer a model for a harmonious, life-enhancing, egalitarian community that spreads far beyond the confines of, say, a community of practicing poets as narrowly defined, Waldman joins with some of the notable cultural theorists of the West who take up an argument for or against poetry as an inherent enemy or foundational friend of the state, including Plato, Shelley, Matthew Arnold, William Morris, Peter Lamborn Wilson, Amiri Baraka, Giorgio Agamben, etc., etc.

Several more utterances in the vein of “making [or keeping] the world safe for poetry” also offer crucial insights into the question of Waldman’s poetic practice as politics. In an interview with Randy Roark featured in Vow to Poetry: Essays, Interviews and Manifestos, Waldman makes a few key statements resonating with this sense of mission involving poetry and “the world.” Her statements are echoed in the book’s title, indicating how serious and public a commitment this is: “Early on,” she says, “I took a vow early on to never give up on poetry or on the poetic community — to serve as a votary to this high and rebellious art” (107). Later on in the same interview, she claims that she is reiterating this statement in the following one: “As I’ve said, I took a vow to work with anyone, any situation through the ‘vehicle’ of poetry. And key here is the larger vision of an enlightened community or society based on compassion and generosity; generosity which is the ‘transcendent friend.’ I put my life to this” (110).

However, although she believes that she is repeating herself, to never give up on poetry and to never give up on people are not necessarily the same things. In other words, to paraphrase these vows in terms of the opening statement: “to make the world safe for poetry” is not the same thing, at least on the face of it, as “to make the world safe through poetry.” Poetry as an end — that for which the world needs to be made safe — and poetry as a means — a “vehicle” for making the world safe — are not immediately identical. In fact, historically and conventionally there has been a split between the disinterestedness of aesthetics and the engagement of politics, and much polemical, theoretical, and intuitive work has been involved in establishing a harmonious and non-utilitarian relationship between the two. It takes some work to understand how and if, in fact, poetic and political practice are necessarily implicated in each other. What is the relationship between maintaining poetry as an autonomous sphere or category of being, a divine and fragile condition in dire need of activist preservation (like Woodrow Wilson’s vow to “make the world safe for democracy”) on the one hand, and on the other, using poetry as a vehicle for the liberation of all sentient beings? Is Waldman’s poetic practice sufficient as a politics? Intuition dictates that safety for poetry and safety through poetry are both identical and distinctly different. Theory suggests that this paradox is worth unpacking. One might hypothesize that when ends and means become the same — or substitutable for each other — one shifts from politics into theology or spirituality, or from a Platonic worldview of individuality and hierarchy to a Heraklitean one of substitutability and equality. When Waldman says she will work with anyone, she moves beyond a politics or a feminism based on identity, and she does this, I would argue, through a Buddhist ethics that allows ends and means to be the same, the path — and a Buddhist concept of community that brings poetry and politics together. Spirituality, in other words, is the means by which poetry and politics become cofoundational for Waldman.

In his abstract and beautiful meditation on “the coming community,” philosopher Giorgio Agamben relates the following, startlingly moving, anecdote (forgive me for quoting at length, but it’s important — and so groovy!):

      Toward the end of his life the great Arabist Louis Massignon, who daringly converted to Catholicism in the land of Islam, founded a community called Badaliya, a name deriving from the Arabic term for “substitution.” The members took a vow to live substituting themselves for someone else, that is, to be Christians in the place of others.
      This substitution can be understood in two ways. The first conceives of the fall or sin of the other only as the opportunity for one’s own salvation: A loss is compensated for by an election, a fall by an ascent, according to an economy of compensation that is hardly edifying....
      But there is also another interpretation of Badaliya. According to Massignon, in fact, substituting oneself for another does not mean compensating for what the other lacks, nor correcting his or her errors, but exiling oneself to the other as he or she is in order to offer Christ hospitality in the other’s own soul, in the other’s own taking-place. [We can think of poetry’s exile from the republic as a means by which poetry becomes an animating force, forced to dwell in intimate recesses of consciousness rather than in the public regulated sphere.] This substitution no longer knows a place of its own, but the taking-place of every single being is always already common — an empty space [with or without makeup] offered to the one, irrevocable hospitality.
      The destruction of the wall dividing Eden (Heaven/ poetry) from Gehenna (Hell/ politics) [i.e., the marriage of heaven and hell, which was such an important trope for the Beats] is thus the secret that animates Badaliya.... Badaliya presents an unconditioned substitutability, without either representation or possible description — an absolutely unrepresentable community.
(Agamben, The Coming Community, 22-24; emphasis in original)

While I can’t address all of its multiple valences and relevancies here, and I’m not sure I fully understand it, this quite remarkable passage resonates with at least a couple of aspects of Waldman’s double-edged vow: first, the notion of commitment to spiritual service — and more specifically: spiritual service through creating in oneself the negative capability (that most poetic of all conditions, according to at least one of the Romantics) of either living as someone else, or as a vessel for poetic means of liberatory transmission; and second, the notion of undifferentiation between beings. To never give up on the poetic community, to work with anyone or any situation through the vehicle of poetry, to be willing to exile oneself in the service of others, this is generosity, the transcendent friend. To replace or inhabit someone who has become dead to poetry and to life, in order to reanimate and reopen their hearts to life and to poetry. In fact, Anne Waldman’s poem “Revolution,” from the early volume Baby Breakdown, concludes:

It is so important when one dies you replace her
and never waste a minute
(Helping the Dreamer, 24)

Though the metaphor here is reincarnation through the trope of the relay race, it occurs in a context in which the point is that the entire universe is connected through “energy filling life / and bursting with joy all over the screen / I can’t sit still any longer!” (Helping the Dreamer, 24) — so replacing someone on her death, or when her proverbial “race is run,” is a graceful, expansive act of solidarity and collectivity rather than an imperialistic, invasive soul-stealing.

An important caveat that underlies the celebratory nature of this exploration: how is one to safeguard the non-invasiveness of this model of spiritual/ political/ poetic community? After all, many utopian visions, like Woodrow Wilson’s for example, have become the basis for rampant cruelty and coercion on a global level; not only did that famous speech mark our entry into the World War, but that moment and that war ratified and sacralized the modern nation-state and its borders (and with every border an army) as Ron Silliman has pointed out (personal communication, 1/ 3/ 02). This was the war that led to internationalism, though as a supplement rather than alternative to nationalism; Wilson’s embrace of the brand-new Soviet Union as an ally is particularly striking in the speech — and of course was not to last. Expediency and imperialism marred his utopian vision of global democracy. Another significant caveat of a different order: in order to avoid a narrowly generic understanding of poetry, I am using the term in its broad sense of “the poetic” — in this community, a kind of exalted performative energy that takes place primarily, but not exclusively, in language. But in trying to avoid reifying the genre of poetry, I am putting into play another dangerous resonance — that of the charged performative energy harnessed by fascist and other dictatorial leaders in the interest of aggressive dominion. I would say that poetry’s ridiculousness — the wildness of Anne’s performances, for example, or the excesses of some spoken word performers, or the incongruity of, say, Maya Angelou or Robert Frost reading at presidential inaugurations, or Allen Ginsberg’s holy folly — this ridiculousness, and poetry’s resistance to institutionalization, save it, possibly, from the fall into fascism. But I must admit I am torn analytically between seeing poetry as one among many discourses as a way of saving it from having to bear too heavy a salvific burden, and agreeing with Anne that it is a “high and rebellious art” to which one dedicates one’s life.

In any event, language must be the basis of community, especially a community based on poetic practice. When poetry is valued as anti-discourse, as it has been in many Western concepts of culture, it is privileged as the counterpoint to Platonism, as I have suggested Waldman does; like jazz, poetry becomes a model for a well-functioning community. Poetic anti-discourse is dependent on the fragmentation of capitalism, modernity, and individualism, to which it counterposes social cohesion. In Anne Waldman’s poetics, this social cohesion, this poetry/ community is one that is random and open, unlike the model offered by, say Lynne Cheney of the NEH, Matthew Arnold, or Plato himself. Why should we cede the political utility of poetry to the right? As suggested above by Agamben, the idea of a non-statist, non-imperial form of community can be found in early Christianity; and one could say the same about a contemporary Buddhist sangha or any other host of alternative utopian micro-communities, the kind that Peter Lamborn Wilson/ Hakim Bey writes about so effectively. The refuge vows — “I take refuge in the Buddha, in the dharma, in the sangha” — suggest that community is a key condition of the possibility of enlightenment.

Moreover, working with anybody through the vehicle of poetry resonates strongly with one of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s epithets or kennings, namely the “lion’s roar” (and if Waldman isn’t a Leo, she should be — just look at her wardrobe!), a fearless statement that “there is no state of mind that cannot be worked with.” To eschew the double negative we could rephrase saying that “any state of mind whatsoever is workable, can be worked with.” There’s that concept, that word again: any. Anny — Anne. Any: Not only infinite substitutability, but infinite inclusion. A bodhisattva works for the liberation of any and all sentient beings. (The lion’s roar is a flamboyant aural image of fearlessness, and echoes the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie logo — Leo the Lion roaring — which 1916 image comes from the Columbia University fight song “Roar, Lion, Roar.” Leo Goldwyn-Mayer promises you that you are about to enter a world in which anything is possible — and entering an auditorium for a Waldman reading is somewhat the same experience. Roar, Manhattan lioness, the lion for real. The text enwreathing Leo’s roaring image reads “Ars Gratia Artis” — “art for art’s sake,” or, possibly, “skillful means is its own recompense,” or yet again, “The pleasing art is that which is art’s.” What does this have to do with poetry and anyness? Precious little, beyond invoking the New York School’s fondness for the movies and its exhilarating combination of high and mass culture, and more generally, evoking the relationship between poetry and pleasure/ leisure, which is key to any enjoyment of community.)

The any-ness central to this range of philosophies and practices resonates further with the random pleasures celebrated by the New York School poets, of whom Waldman is a younger member — the classic “I-do-this, I-do-that” desultoriness of Frank O’Hara’s poetry, for instance, where internal and external phenomena are all equally transient, equally valued; in fact, they produce each other. One thought or perception is as good as another, and could be occasioned by any sensory stimulus. Agamben uses the word “whatever” (the Italian qualunque) as his equivalent of “any,” and this coincidence with the randomness of contemporary American vernacular works another appropriate thread into this texture of inclusive non-particularity. Entities characterized by “whatever” or “any” are individuated without being individuals — that is, they are singular without being characterizable and/ or judgable by moral, ethical, or identitarian criteria that would clump them into systematizable groups. They are phenomenologically experienced as separate, but they are not essentially separate, or identifiable with others along certain criteria: female, New York poet, gentile, Leo.

The early poem in which this endless substitutability is pushed to its limits and reveals the being-in-language of the thing supposedly exhaustively described is, of course, “Fast Speaking Woman,” an anaphoristic tour de force in which Waldman inhabits every possible nuance of every possible imagining of “woman” until the word itself dissolves and loses meaning, becoming a mantra that points beyond itself rather than a description of a series of different women-in-one. She has claimed that in the piece, composed for oral performance, she wanted to “[tell] all the kinds of women there are to be, interweaving personal details... with all the energetic adjectives I could conjure up to make the chant speak of/ to/ for Everywoman” (Fast Speaking Woman, 35). However, as repetition disengages the signifier from the signified, language is allowed to slide — to evoke Lacan’s famous image of the unconscious — along an endless chain of signification, as one visuoverbivocal fragment suggests the next: “I’m the acetate woman / The acetylene woman” (22); “I’m the redundant woman / I’m the incumbent woman” (24); “I’m the vexed woman / I’m the woman put a hex on you” (22); “I’m the Valkyrie / I’m the vermillion woman” (22), etc. Thus the term “woman” itself, though she might have intended it to become more and more solid, actually becomes less stable and more diffuse each time the word is said. The poem is a sort of limit case for examining Waldman’s feminism, because it can be read both as a womanifesto that grandiosely claims to represent all women, and as an incantation that dissolves the very category it posits — that is, it can be read as phatic or vatic. “Fast Speaking Woman” is both second-wave feminist and post- or third-wave feminist (but not anti-feminist — a kind of feminism that is not mired in gender perhaps), identitarian and post-identitarian, political and Buddhist, aggressive and transcendent, appropriative and self-canceling; these are not necessarily in irreconcilable opposition — but whether they can exist fully at the same time is open to question. The pairing of appropriation and self-cancellation is one worth looking at a bit more closely, as in the poetry world, the dangers of appropriation have lurked around the corners of some of the most ambitiously expansive and apparently generous poetic movements, among them surrealism and ethnopoetics. Waldman cites “the Mazatec Indian shamaness” (2) Maria Sabina as inspiring this chant; already one’s politically-correct-suspicious-of-ethnopoetics-hackles might start to rise. “I’m the Ibo woman / I’m the Yoruba woman” (4) ... “the gypsy woman” (19) ... “the Navaho in velvet” (21). Oh, really? Sez who, kimo sabe? Is this Woodrow Wilson peeking out from the velvety shadows? This is too strong. Though it hits some imperialist notes in its practice and rhetoric, even the in-hindsight naively universalist enthusiasm of 1970s feminism, in which this poem participates, is not comparably pernicious to a declaration of war, especially given the anti-war activism of many of the above-mentioned feminists, Waldman included. Moreover, the way in which Waldman slides along the chain of signifiers almost literally, through the sonic adjacency we have come to associate with Louis Zukofsky’s homonymous translations, suggests less an imperialist take-over of every female subjectivity known to man, but a speed-skating race through the language that ends up uniting all words (and hence all people) in some kind of loose network that affiliates them all without making them give up their separateness. That is, the “I’m the... woman” is a repetitively exhaustive cleansing rather than a proclamation; the endlessly nuanced Heraklitean refrain, “water that cleans as I go,” “water that cleans as I run,” “water that flows as I go,” etc., indicate a process of being freed from, as much as inscribed by, an imprisoning identity. Again, poetry’s endearing ridiculousness, its excessiveness, undercuts whatever sinisterly triumphalist possibilities are to be discerned here. Put differently, Anne’s hyperbolic antics have an element of self-cancellation — humility in the very act of apparent grandiosity — a willingness to look completely outlandish, impossible to take seriously — from which Wilson’s dignified self-effacement behind the language of state (a kind of faux humility) is to be sharply distinguished. One can imagine Waldman enjoying, rather than being undone by, an Ibo or Yoruba woman’s retort: “I’m the millionairess, I’m the retired talk show comedienne, I’m the American performance poet...” etc. The spirit of engaged and exuberant repartee, as in rap lyrics or poetry slams, rather than the shoot-to-kill spirit of American world leadership, informs the politics of this poetic practice.

One could also profitably point to the poem “Makeup on Empty Space” as a similar performance in which gender markers adorn a subjectivity beyond gender, beyond even subjectivity — possibly what psychoanalytic critics call “the real” — the emptiness that, according to Buddhism, and according to Agamben’s Badaliya, is the heart of understanding. Against Wilson’s commitment to kill for democracy, Viet Namese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “If you have to choose between Buddhism and peace, choose peace.” Thus, unlike Christianity, Islam, and, more recently, Judaism, Buddhism can theoretically never become a political dogma around which to organize local, statist, national, or international activity or even aggression, though it has done so, in Sri Lanka and Tibet. For Waldman, spiritual values are the bottom line from which politics and aesthetics — poetic practice — arise. This conviction, which I believe was intuitive in the early days of living out the “vow to poetry,” has become more explicitly and thoroughly incorporated into Waldman’s poetic activities as she undertook the formal study and practice of Buddhism, particularly Vajrayana Buddhism, whose “crazy wisdom” and tantric ecstasy can be mistaken for grandiosity and excess by the Western-identified outsider/ onlooker.

Turning to later poetry I would indicate the collection Marriage: A Sentence as a highly successful feminist exercise in a different vein, a powerfully witty send-up-cum-critique of a virtually ubiquitous social institution, a collection that celebrates non-heteronormative domestic arrangements (in its intertextual reliance on Stein, for example) as well as regaling us with the hegemonic redundancy — the excesses — of the bourgeois marriage embraced with such ironclad insistence by politicians of every stripe as the “cornerstone of American society”: “Marriage marriage is like you say everything everything in stereo stereo” (25). Even the Penguin marketing division seems bent on reading this as an endorsement rather than a critique: “The overall drive in this radically innovative work is an impulse to restore and maintain the spiritual life of marriage....” I prefer to think of it as a reminder that alternative communities can flourish without state-sanctioned procreative bonds, without normative sentences, without “sports utility vehicles” and “couples working hard in their breeding sex.”

Since I really haven’t given old-fashioned, mytho-matriarchal feminism much airspace here, let me dwell on one final term of Waldman’s poetic practice, that of the “vow.” In the author’s note opening the volume Vow to Poetry, Waldman spells out her etymology of the word “vow.” Related to the Latin for “vote” (thus immediately implicated in politics), the word also becomes, playfully, she says, linked to vowel and voice — thus immediately implicated in poetic practice — both of reading aloud and figuring out mellifluous eye and ear rhymes. However, I haphazardly came across an equally appealing etymology from Snorri Sturlusson’s Prose Edda, a set of literary rules and myths from thirteenth-century Iceland. In a list of the norns, or goddesses, he announces the ninth norn named Vár: “...she listens to the vows and compacts made by men and women with each other; for this reason such agreements are called várar. She also takes vengeance on those who break their vow.” As if this weren’t meaningful enough for an examination of Anne Waldman’s political thereness, “the tenth [norn] is Vör; she is so wise and searching that nothing can be concealed from her. It is a proverb that a woman becomes “aware” (avör) of what she gets to know” (60). This homonymously suggestive source yields a rich set of associations for this meditation on feminism and politics chez Anne Waldman: the notion of a goddess in charge of vows, whose name is so close to the sound as to almost be “Vow”; and a hyper-aware, super-wise goddess, Vör, whose name is almost the same as her sister’s but for a trick of the vow/ el. The implied kinship between commitment and wisdom, through the sibling relationship of these goddesses and through the near homonymity of their names — the sliding of their signifiers into each other — suggests that she who guards over vows and presumably keeps them knows more than most. The ensurer of the keeping of vows is a foundational community position, and there is certainly something hieratic about the way Waldman enacts her vow and her trust; she symbolizes the seriousness of her responsibilities, as well as carrying them out, by conducting herself like a goddess.

Is Plato responsible for politicizing poetry through exclusion? Waldman in performance seems to embody the Poetry whom Plato exiled from his republic because her powers threatened to divert philosopher-kings from the serious business of maintaining their power, and to divert the people they ruled over from their subordination to rational wisdom: swirling and almost demonic in her flamboyant drapy clothing and her at-times otherworldly voice and pocomaniacal movements, this dakini-yogini is poetry herself in the wilderness, but not begging to come back at all — in no need of a defense of poetry mounted by a non-poet, as Plato with such teasing but genuine affection offers as olive branch — but having constituted her own singularity, her own poetic community on the outskirts of the walled city, happily visible and audible, and working her social changes on the republic from this liminal and elevated outpost. If poetry encompasses all activity of all sentient beings, as the last of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths (the reality of the path, or the “way”) suggests, then the path is the end. Making and then keeping the world safe for poetry means making/ keeping the world safe through poetry.

Maria Damon photo

Maria Damon

Maria Damon teaches poetry and poetics at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of The Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Vanguard Poetry, and co-author (with Betsy Franco) of The Secret Life of Words, and (with mIEKAL aND) Literature Nation, E.n.t.r.a.n.c.e.d, Eros/ ion, and pleasureTEXTpossession.


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