Monday, June 1, 2009

The "Education" of This Poet (1): Primer


For the past few days, at the invitation of the editors of the online journal Linebreak, I've been a guest blogger; the work I did for that very welcome gig was inevitably connected with writing I've been doing for Mindbook for the past several months. Therefore, with the permission of Linebreak, I'm reproducing those entries. Be sure to visit Linebreak to see the excellent work they're publishing.

Certain kinds of introspection are less like meditative journeys and more like putting one’s hand into an ant colony. For me, thinking about my early experiences with the official educational process is an exercise in ant excavation: painful, revelatory of ugly inhuman things, and generally uncanny. To revisit there, for me, is to reenter a narrative that has the dark numinousity of a primal scene, simultaneously repellant and fascinating.

It’s impossible for me to know how I would be different had I grown up in another place (for present purposes I leave out of account the possibilities in growing up in other times)—or whether I would be different, in any fundamental way, at all. I have grown, over subsequent decades, into a selfhood that I experience less as a unitary thing (like a potato or a stone) than as a semi-random composite, like a coral reef. This composite has turned out to be a reasonably fertile medium for poetry and other kinds of writing. To what extent poetry is its necessary product I can’t say; whether I would be a poet had I not undergone the education that was given me I can’t know. All I know is how it was and how it is. For other writers, the “education of the poet” as a subject has been mostly either prescriptive or descriptive; in my own case, it takes the form of a cautionary tale, and the majority of the caution is directed at me and me alone.


I have written elsewhere, at some length, in poems as well as prose, about the place that was my jumping-off point from nonbeing: eastern Mississippi, a farming community, from 1950 onward. My family was sufficiently typical there to be virtually invisible by reason of protective coloring—literally coloring, given the state of race relations in that place and in those days. Basic facts: 1. we were white folk; 2. white people owned, and controlled, just about everything there was in that place; 3. white people were a distinct minority of the population, which was approximately 70-30 black to white. These three simple facts give rise to wide-reaching and, to say the least, unpleasant social dynamics.

For present purposes it is not necessary to rehearse the whole history of race relations in America. Suffice it to say that I lived through a vital transition point in our history—the Civil Rights Movement—beginning on the wrong side of it, and I lived through it first in my nerves and muscles and belly and bowels more than in my mind. Institutional education, never completely disinterested or impersonal in the good sense, never “objective,” was complicit in the maintenance of the status quo. This too I have written about elsewhere, limning out the basic principle of education in the context of institutional racism from the side of the racists: that the process centers on mentally blinding one’s children. If African Americans were, in that particular version of the weird old America, invisible, they were only so by reason of the blindness of white people. Therefore it was the “God-given duty,” as it was perceived in that place, to pluck out one’s children’s eyes.

This process was never explicit, and for the most part was not conscious. If one had said to my fifth-grade teacher, “You are blinding these children,” she would have been shocked and outraged, and would have denied it—in perfectly good faith, in terms of her own consciousness. She was not blinding anyone, as far as she knew—she was teaching us math, English, history. The power of Jim Crow was rarely exercised (on us) personally: it was a collective phenomenon pressing itself on us not from any center, but from every periphery. Foucault would have understood it perfectly as a situation in which

Power relations are both intentional and nonsubjective. If in fact they are intelligible, this is not because they are the effect of another instance that “explains” them, but rather because they are imbued, through and through, with calculation: there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives. But this does not mean that it results from the choice or decision of an individual subject; let us not look for the headquarters that presides over its rationality; neither the caste which governs, nor the groups which control the state apparatus, nor those who make the most important economic decisions direct the entire network of power that functions in a society (and makes it function); the rationality of power is characterized by tactics that are quite often explicit at the restricted level where they are inscribed (the local cynicism of power). . . . [T]he logic is perfectly clear, the aims decipherable, and yet it is often the case that no one is there to have invented them, and few who can be said to have formulated them: an implicit characteristic of the great anonymous, almost unspoken strategies which coordinate the loquacious tactics whose “inventors” or decision-makers are often without hypocrisy. . . . (The History of Sexuality, volume 1, 94-95).

I have spent most of my adult life—while in the midst of other, at least apparently unrelated activities, far from my point of origin—thinking through the ramifications of the initiation my elders gave me into the world, how I had to reject the world I was given and the self that went along with it, and build a “new” one. There is a great deal to be said about that process, and I have already said a great deal about it. For the most part, the journey was negative and the process painful. I have detailed that via negativa elsewhere, because it seemed important to me to cast light on a subterranean journey so that others could see a largely unexplored cost of racism—the cost to the children of the racist.

For now, I want to do something different: I want to revisit positive moments in my early mental formation, the things, people, events, accidents, that gave me windows into a different way of thought, signposts toward an unimagined future. In particular I want to tease out, as best I can, the materials that amounted to my early education as a poet, however far I may have been from understanding that I was in fact becoming a poet.

It is my plan to write a series of posts, each taking up a different thread in each post, exploring a different avenue, or facet, or strand, or element of an inchoate, unreasonable, feckless process. As far as I can tell, I am who I am by accident, and the temptation to impose order on accident is as unavoidably human as it is mistaken, but I can at the very least pay tribute, and give thanks, to those well-nigh imponderable and ghostly forces that came to my aid where I lived so beautifully disguised to myself as a blind child.

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