Poetry and politics share at least two uses of comparison: one serves an expansionary vision of the world, the other, retrenchment. Both understand the limits of comparison, but the first treats these deferentially, as part of a strategy to bring to mind differences among forms of experience. The second develops self-consciously false, totalizing comparisons among dissimilar things, even as it decries inappropriate comparisons when employed by antagonists. Ironically, both the U.S. political right and some leftist poets at times employ the second strategy, although for opposite goals. The Tea Party’s success in claiming the national midterm debate relied in part on this world-obliterating rhetoric. But it might be the first that better supports action by the left, not because it is tentative but because it imagines that readers may set down the poem and see.
Invoking and questioning comparison at the same time is a common device in poetry and politics. Shakespeare’s mistress’s eyes are “nothing like the sun”; in the sonnet comparisons mount only to be rejected as inadequate, moving to the conclusion that she is past literary devices, a star that lights the lesser world in which language resides, from below: from the place of the real. In Republican presidential primary debates, Ronald Reagan emerges as an object of veneration whose mention reflects glory on speaker and audience. But the speaker avoids sacrilege by making the comparison between Reagan and himself explicit or unequivocal, avoiding the appearance of attempting to usurp Reagan’s identity, even as he attempts to assume the former president’s mantle. Al Gore’s speech on the eve of Barack Obama’s official nomination at the 2008 Democratic National Convention recalled another Illinoisan in Congress—Abraham Lincoln—seeing both as heralds of change, but at the same time listing cautiously how we might even know that there is a parallel between the two and that a historic moment was upon us. In doing so he raised enough questions about Obama’s relationship to the original that the audacity of comparison was muted.
Comparisons involving trauma may also declare their limitations. In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln brings to mind the Revolutionary War only to admit doubt about his ability to bring historic significance to the event: “But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” The field is dedicated not with words but with blood the speaker has not (yet) shed; what soldiers have done may not be accomplished through rhetoric. But while action alone may establish hallowed ground, words may dedicate the living to the original task of freedom. The speech establishes a form of chiasmus in response to sacrifice: only through sacrifice on behalf of freedom can ground be made sacred, yet rhetoric can inspire future action. The audience becomes a thinking partner in setting out a sacred space; distinguishing it from the non-sacred, political space presidents occupy; and understanding the relationship between them.
In some cases the comparison of historical events poses a threat, only to be resolved through acknowledgment that events may not be measured against each other, even as they can exist in the same public sphere. Obama’s 2009 speech at Cairo University, on U.S.-Arab relations and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is an example, though his perpetuation of war and human rights atrocities has by now completely undermined its aims. At the time, however, many Arabs were listening, and the address was both to them and to Israelis. In it Obama describes the use and denial of history by both sides:
Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed—more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, it is ignorant, and it is hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction—or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews—is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.
On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people—Muslims and Christians—have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations—large and small—that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.
Like Lincoln, Obama uses chiasmus. The first paragraph starts with the world’s inability to stop the suffering of the Holocaust, which leads to the state of Israel; it is “baseless” to deny this suffering or seek Israel’s destruction. The second says that the contemporary suffering of Palestinians is “undeniable,” and this suffering and dislocation also must be acknowledged in their ambitions for statehood. Each paragraph creates a narrative of the relationship between suffering, hope, and national ambition, but in reverse order. This mirroring accentuates the sense that the experiences of the Holocaust and Nakba (“catastrophe,” the Arabic term for the Palestinian displacement and exile from what is now Israel) are parallel to each other, but that they may not be compared against each other, as the trope “on the other hand” is one of deliberation, differentiation, and judgment, not one of comparison by way of measurement. A glass separates them.
Comparison taken to its extreme has been one of the dominant rhetorical modes of the right.
The threat that the Holocaust will be measured against the Nakba produces both the tension and the resolution in the speech. Two iconic events of suffering are juxtaposed to make the point that suffering is the thing that may not be used against other peoples: it belongs uniquely to each people. The vigorous denial of others’ suffering, the assertion of deeper victimhood that erases the others’ claims—this, the speech suggests, is at the root of conflict. The shadow of comparison within Obama’s speech emerges only to bring to mind the independent validity of different claims, and the hope that they may speak to each other. In other words, it was a careful speech, careful both not to exceed the accepted bounds of comparison, but also careful because this rhetorical structure mirrored its political objective—recognition of parallel lives, a two-state solution.
Care was not the rhetorical mode rightist commentators employed toward that speech or toward Obama in general—obliterating rage was, as it remains today. On Fox News, Charles Krauthammer said:
The real damage is philosophical. It was once again, over and over again, apologies and moral equivalence. At the beginning, he apologizes for colonialism and imperialism. The United States was never a colonial power, or even the holder of the League of Nations mandate in the Arab or the Muslim world. And then he goes into the moral equivalence. I’ll give you one example. He speaks about, with Iran, how on the one hand, we had a hand in a coup in 1953; and on the other hand, they had been involved in some nasty stuff over the last 30 years. So, on the one hand is American involvement in an action by Eisenhower executing a Truman plan 55 years ago. On the other hand, you’ve got 30 years of ongoing terrorism against the United States and the world, the taking of hostages, the proxy killing of Americans in Iraq and elsewhere, the developing of nukes, and the threatening of allies with nuclear weapons. (emphasis added)
“Equivalence,” Krauthammer’s accusation about the speech, is comparison taken to an extreme. He claimed that Obama transgressed against what must not be said, against comparisons that should never be made because they are morally repugnant. The appeal of this denunciation is its capacity to stop discussion. But equivalence was not Obama’s strategy—juxtaposition and the hope for mutual respect undergirded his rhetoric, and this most inflamed Krauthammer. Although Obama did not repeatedly use the construction “on the one hand / on the other hand,” it is this device of evenhandedness, differentiation, and a refusal to compare that Krauthammer most detests: he projected it everywhere in his assessment of the speech.
It is revealing that Krauthammer decries equivalencies and unfair comparisons because comparison taken to its extreme has been one of the right’s dominant rhetorical modes. See Glenn Beck, or the writings of W. Cleon Skousen, which Beck has promoted. Progressives are socialists, who are also fascists. Opposites of the political spectrum are identical. Nazi medical experimentation on humans is equivalent to modest health-care reforms. Beck’s repeated lie that “In God We Trust,” and not E Pluribus Unum, was the founders’ motto for this country is emblematic of the underpinnings of this rhetorical strategy. Whereas the founders’ motto suggests distinctions that need be acknowledged in order to achieve unity, the Eisenhower-era motto is a blanketing call to one faith.
Beck’s is not simply a strategy of developing false comparison, designed to inflame supporters and shift the terms of debate. The agenda is to take the complexity of historical and political experiences of the twentieth century and bind them together in a totalizing gesture—an apocalyptic gesture. It is apocalyptic because it purports to uncover (from apokálypsis, “revelation”) the hidden similarities among seemingly dissimilar things—black nationalists, the Council on Foreign Relations, Woodrow Wilson, the Federal Reserve—while also eliminating any distinction among them that would appear through consideration of their practice or substance, their actual experiential texture. Clearly socialism and fascism are different, and Beck knows it, but the mobilization of hatred overcomes the audience’s sense of these manifest differences. The strategy is apocalyptic also because its emotional model is the Book of Revelations and its eschatology. Destruction is coming, and the rhetoric of the right embraces it.
Comparisons are the business of poetry, and political poetry faces especially significant choices about the use and limitations of comparison. Poetry’s terrain is the commonplace of experience and consciousness. Of experience, see descriptive or confessional lyricism, the turn of a moment toward insight or despair. Of consciousness, read poets in experimental traditions, who employ fleeting, dissociative thought or image. Experimental poetry is often framed as political by virtue of its implicit subjects, formal inventiveness, and remove from the literary marketplace. But within any poem, how its substance is oriented toward the field of action is not predetermined and forms the core of its politics. At stake within each poem is how consciousness may be enlisted toward action.
For some experimental poets, the aggressively apolitical in substance and practice is identical to political engagement.
Poets use many strategies of situating the everyday with the political. To see two, compare experimental poets Charles Bernstein and Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. This comparison is unfair, as will be later claims that Bernstein’s rhetorical strategy may be set side by side with that of the U.S. right. But I make the comparison because Bernstein’s rhetoric is emblematic not just of one experimental mode but also of a certain type of critical reception to poetry—one that employs a totalizing, and perhaps despairing, hope to direct the substance of consciousness, experience, and art in its dailyness toward political goals.
Also addressing war in the Middle East, Bernstein’s “War Stories” is a litany, a tradition that encompasses both John Ashbery’s “He” and Christopher Smart’s biblical hallucinations. But “War Stories” is contemporary, as the poem asserts that war is a series of transformed pop-culture platitudes, gas-guzzling SUVs, etc. It starts:
War is the extension of prose by other means.
War is never having to say you’re sorry.
War is the logical outcome of moral certainty.
War is conflict resolution for the aesthetically challenged.
and continues for nearly a hundred more comparisons (“War is an SUV for every soccer Pop and social Mom. . . . War is not ironic”), mounting to:
War is here.
War is this.
War is now.
War is us.
There is an implicit dramatic movement. Early jokes, especially ones that make aesthetic comparisons (“War is the extension of prose by other means”), give way to more earnest statements of the inadequacy of language to convey the magnitude of war: “War is not a metaphor. / War is not ironic” (although the entire poem is itself ironic and metaphorical). There is a rhetorical movement from denunciation to a statement of something more essential, a comparison at its extreme in a statement of identity and collective guilt rooted in recognition of U.S. violence: “War is us.” The denunciation is of those who accept war as banal, employ banalities to justify it—Rumsfeld: “Stuff happens”—and in doing so bring it into the commonplace, denigrating experience itself. But there is, tellingly, nothing that describes or evokes war and its harm in any specificity except an assertion of its jarringness. The aesthetic effect of this motion is toward totalizing, escalating, and assertively false consciousness—false because this last statement of identity applies to the reader who cannot imagine war as a result of seeing the poem and so must imagine her or himself instead.
This blinding series of equivalencies echoes one type of critical response to experimental work: that which pays little attention to the experience of reading the poem, and to the conditions that it attempts to illuminate, and which instead attempts to establish an identity between the project and its politics, often in very general terms. For example, one of the most common claims about experimental literature is that it is a literature of resistance. In Bernstein’s critical writing, it is this experimental form that makes the poem political. But what, or rather, how does it resist, if the terms it generates are not remotely in the same sphere as the forces it opposes? Bernstein argues that engaging with difficulty itself gives readers the capacity to reject dominant discourses.
But clearly there is a difference between the difficulty, abstraction, and dissociativeness of experimental writing, and the work of political organizing, which requires not just inventiveness but also clarity, concreteness, and relatedness. Perhaps the disjuncture between the poem’s substance and what it purports to be is part of a broader program, one that recalls Beck’s strategy, described above. To claim that the aggressively apolitical in substance and practice is identical to political engagement is a totalizing, utopian (not apocalyptic) stance, a hope to see, in the unfettered stuff of consciousness, the terms of liberation.
In his writing, Obama, like Lincoln, challenges audiences to create space for experiences different from their own.
There are other modes experimental writing uses to develop relationships among spheres of existence—of consciousness, sensory observation, and the political. Dragomoshchenko, a St. Petersburg poet and frequent collaborator of the U.S. poet Lyn Hejinian, is limitedly available in English. One of his poems, “Possible Symptoms,” translated by Genya Turovskaya, is emblematic of a different type of comparison. The poem starts with the most inanimate and insensible of objects, stones, and asks whether it is possible to see them for what they are, without relying upon comparison:
To see this stone and not experience indecision
To see these stones and not to look away
To see these stones and comprehend the stoneness of stone
To see these stone stones at dawn and at sunset
But not to think of walls, no, not to think of dust, or else, deathlessness
To see these stones at night and think of the reverie of wasps in liquid solutions
Accepting as evident that, at the thought of them, stones
add to their essence neither shadow, nor reflected light, nor conquest.
To see these same stones in thunder, see them as you see the pupils of Heraclites
in which the agamy of stones resembles shards.
To examine the nature of resemblance, without resorting to symmetry.
To turn away and see how stones hover—night for their wings,
This is why they are higher than seraphim, hurtling as stones toward the earth
Burning in the air, as hair burning from a bridge
In the same way that stones present the material world at its least translatable—suggested by the phrase “to comprehend the stoneness of stone”—war and violence also bring to mind the limits and the power of language, as the suffering they create is fundamentally incomprehensible. For Dragomoshchenko the refusal to compare is also the refusal to “add” to “conquest.” Instead the poet intends to honor suffering by leaving it untouched. But the mind also cannot help but interpret and develop images of comparison between these stones and different spheres: “thunder”; “the reverie of wasps in liquid solutions”; “the pupils of Heraclites,” that philosopher who saw opposites as they define each other. Images of violence also emerge as separate embodiments of these original, untranslatable states of being: the war in heaven (falling angels) and more contemporary aerial assault, “burning in the air, as hair burning from a bridge.”
War and stones are not similar to each other, even though it is within the power of the mind to yoke them. That is why the invocation “to examine the nature of resemblance, without resorting to symmetry” has such power: it asks for a form of comparison that does not excessively constrain either object. The poem lays out the essential dissimilarity of the natural worlds, the worlds of consciousness (“the reverie of wasps in liquid solutions”), and the worlds of violence. The end of the poem, like “War Stories,” asks how these facets of experience may be brought to the same mind:
What is it? How is it translated? What is the measure of the past?
Where does it come from? What is its motive?
Yes, I do not hear: such is the pendulum’s string.
Reverberation of vision.
The narrow sail of the sand.
Unlike Bernstein’s response to this problem, which asserts ironic equivalencies, Dragomoshchenko’s rhetorical mode is to interrogate comparisons, and it ends not with solipsism (“War is us”) but with sight. Although there are limits to the sense—“Yes, I do not hear”—the last lines do not just assert the “reverberation of vision” but an actual sight: wind moving through sand in a way that appears like a sail. What cannot be seen, the wind, is made substantively visible—one medium complements another: sand and breath. This is analogous to poetry’s power to illumine media different than itself, in part by interrogating the nature of these resemblances, and Dragomoshchenko develops this analogy in a way that is also a concrete, visually arresting image.
The problem with our poetry and our rhetoric is not Bernstein. Nor is the Tea Party comparable to the experimental left. But I do compare their strategies, and both to Obama’s best rhetoric, the rhetoric so often contradicted by the substance of his actions. Obama is a better writer than most because, like Lincoln, he challenges audiences to create space for experiences different from their own. The left’s poetry is not always positioned to do so, to present or at least evoke the feeling of the differential texture of social experience, in order to counter those who would obliterate reality and human life when they do not serve them.
A question for the left is whether it has developed a critical vocabulary that can fully differentiate between work that generically “stands” for politics and work that makes room to address the political spheres: literature that can expose suffering and make it seem possible to act against it, possible to see what needs to be done while expanding the possibility of seeing.