The poetry editors of The Atlantic apologized recently for a poem they had accepted and printed. They say the poem “caused harm to members of several communities.” The author, a young white man named Anders Carlson-Wee, adopts the vernacular of a homeless black man in “How-To.” It drew outrage from readers who saw bad things at work in it. “Know your lane!” tweeted another poet. Carlson-Wee himself publicly apologized. I’ve read the poem.
It seems to me that a writer of fiction or poetry should be permitted to inhabit, to voice, and to body forth any persona that’s conceivable by human ingenuity. How much the effort succeeds or fails is another matter, but it’s an esthetic call, and one that may change for better or worse over time. There would be no guarantee against mockery or bad art, of course. Hatred and mediocrity are as endemic to the human condition as viruses are. Yes, Vachel Lindsay is much discredited. I’m not sure how John Berryman’s reputation is holding up. I was reading and admiring his “Dream Songs” when he jumped off the bridge. But it seems reductively censorious to condemn out of hand an artist’s good-faith effort to occupy an imaginative space in another dimension as an act of straying from his or her “lane.” Do such efforts in the best instances tread in the domain of empathy somehow? The heaven I’d like to live in is where invention runs free.
In the purgative, quandary-infested world I do live in, rabid debate and snarkery run free (amplified by prominent voices on Twitter and elsewhere) around issues of race and gender. If it’s verboten to do voices across ethnic lines in writing, is it also damnable on stage and screen? In stand-up? It seems to me there could be potential value lost in popular and high culture if the answer is yes.
And so…, having spilled sententious highmindedness here in defense of artistic license, I still feel conflicted about the legitimacy (or wisdom) of trying to talk in another person’s dialect. I indulged in a hip-hoppish-sounding, tongue-in-cheeky bit of tomfoolery several years ago that makes me wince now. Not to mock but to garner a chuckle. I’ve given much of my life to mastering other tongues, but I’ll never try again to ape another American dialect. There’s trouble enough speaking in one’s own voice. I have a playlist of hip-hop music I enjoy, but I’ll leave the lingo to the cognoscenti and their adepts.
(Reference: Grace Schulman, “The Nation Magazine Betrays a Poet — And Itself,” NYTimes, 8-6-18.)
[Copyright (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.]