Autumn 2000

On the poetry of Dan Featherston
       by Richard Deming

World News
Dan Featherston
Potes & Poets Press

Here we are, already ankle deep in another election year. Another year in which mainstream politics gets more and more homogenized, and the possibilities of a progressivist Left seem to get watered down. One of the problems that continually plagues the political Left is that it is made of so many conflicting impulses, all of which make a unified front largely impossible. For the Left to know what the "Right knows," it would have to participate in the downside of democracy-the homogenizing of difference.

How is this relevant to a poetry review?, you may be asking at this point. One of the more frustrating hang-ups of much of American poetry is the resistance to political poetry. I happened to read Dan Featherston's World News during the same week that I watched the highlights of the Republican
convention. Featherston's book is moving certainly, but it's also exacting. The poems bear witness to various atrocities at large and domestically, but also bear witness to the role that liberal Democratic
ideology plays in the atrocities of genocide and cultural imperialism. Each time we turn on the television we become complicit, enmeshed even, in those acts of political torture or genocide. Featherston's book does make a stand and attempts to say something-to say something about the poetics and artifice of politics that can empty out the humanity of events. The subtext of World News then is that the idea of "art for art's sake" that still lingers in the aesthetic tastes at large is not only dangerous but keeps the potential ethical importance of poets and poetry being from acknowledged.

But I've only just finished reading a lecture by Rorty about the cultural left (included in the recent Achieving Our Country). It's a relatively scathing critique in which he writes that "the cultural left offers ideals such as participatory democracy and the end of capitalism. Power will pass
to the people, the Sixties Left believed, only when decisions are made by all those who may be affected by their results . . . . When they [are], capitalism as we know it will have ended, and something new will have taken its place."

Here's where the problem is, as Rorty sees it:

"But what this new thing will be, no one knows. The cultural Left still
skips over such questions. Doing so is a consequence of its preference
for talking about the system rather than about specific social practices
and specific changes in those practices. The rhetoric of this Left
remains revolutionary rather than reformist and pragmatic. Its insouciant
use of terms like "late capitalism" suggests that we can wait for
capitalism to collapse, rather than figuring out what, in the absence of
markets, will set prices and regulate distribution. The voting public, the
public which must be won over if the left is to emerge from the academy
into the public square, sensibly wants to be told the details . . . . It
wants to be told how participatory democracy is supposed to function."

"The cultural left offers no answers to such demands for further information, but until it confronts them it will not be able to be a political Left." He concludes by saying "we should not let speculation
about a totally changed system, and a totally different way of thinking about human life and human affairs, replace step-by-step reform of the system we presently have." We need, in others, to stop a cycle of critique and actually implement structure of change,

Now I'm not offering this as something I wholly give consent to, but there is a explanation of why the efforts of the Left may be hitting an impasse. It need not offer a unified, transcendental truth (besides the belief, in terms of classical liberalism, that cruelty is to be avoided at all costs)
but it ought to come together in offering a vision of how things can be accomplished-a plan rather than a system. Rorty positions his argument by saying that cultural Left has tended, since its entrenchment in the academy, towards dizzying degrees of abstraction. It does this since it seems to have given up its commitment to reformist activism for the spectatorial distance of cultural criticism. I put this out mainly because it is an issue that I feel I need to wrestle with and feel although it may
not be wholly true, there is an element that gets to me. That New England Protestant work ethic no doubt.

I will say however that a pragmatic aesthetic would be one that that in fact confronts not only the conservatism of the Right but as well the cultural Left's "preference for talking about the system rather than about specific social practices and specific changes in those practices." Mired
in metaphysics, words sound as if a long way off. It is in their ordinariness (a vexing term but useful because its vagueness), their use value, that words arise from and form community. If we think of community as historical groups of individuals who are bound together by a shared set
of complex, language involving practices, we see that these infinite possibilities of life arise out of the possibilities latent within the intricacies of language use. "Selfhood," then, is the frame of reference
we learn to work within when trained in the language of our community; learning that language means learning the assumptions and practices with which that language is inseparably bound and from which its expressions get their meaning. Poetry and poetics can act as addressing specific social
practices by foregrounding the interpretive process of reading. At stake in this process is meaning itself. But process may not be the best word to use, "action" may be the more apt. By working w/ the materials of language both poet and reader see that language is an action and that reading, and
hence meaning making is not simply a transference or transaction. In its resistances and transgressions and redressing of "words" as "actions" a progressivist and pragmatic aesthetic would rely on conversation and negotiation. By leading words back to this conversation (out of dogmatic or programmatic stasis), language is restored to the immediacy of a (participatory) democracy and the community itself thereby regains its ability to mean, as the individuals of the collective are able to reinvest their commitment to the mores that language shapes and makes possible via communication. Since language is woven into the pattern of human activity and character, poetry can be reformist by investigating new possibilities.
Such would be a place to start step by step reforms, by changing perceptual and cultural templates. In that way perhaps, poets are unlegislated acknowledgers. At the very least, as Emerson said "we want a philosophy of fluxion and mobility." In that "want" is both need and lack.

This brings us around to a discussion of World News, a recent collection of poems by Dan Featherston, published as part of A.BACUS series published by Poets & Potes Press. Featherston has woven together a subtle and insistent lyric voice with the flat statement of various documents,
documents such as a New York Times article on the civil war in Rwanda, NATO war Briefs, and Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation. The poetry here is invested in bearing witness, one could say, but somehow that has come to feel like a phrase of appropriation.
Instead Featherston's work entrenches itself in the utterance of horrible genocides. "who isn't shipwrecked in mortal" asks the poet in his poem "In Gericault's Raft of the Medusa." Indeed, in these poems, the conflation of "objective reportage" and poetic lyricism serves only to foreground the
inseparability of various discourses. Language is an entanglement by which all humanity is complicit in its successes and its brutalities. As Featherston also writes in the same poem, what a man signals

regarded as gull wing, cloud wisp, white cap,
stuffing the hole in the sky where men drown
daily, drawn down through the appearances.

The critic Richard Poirier has said that poetry may not change the world, but it may get people to feel like changing the world. Although political poetry has come under fire (excuse the pun) lately in various circles, Featherston has chosen to do more than stand idly by, writing subjectless,
or even solipsistic, poetry.

Perhaps the most powerful and risky poem is "Columbine." The poem's timing is disconcerting, even disturbing given the proximity to the events that occurred at the Colorado high school. In it Featherston again weaves together various texts-this time news reports, Congressional depositions,
and various sources on Italian comedy. The formal allusions to Williams's Patterson permeate the poem, which employs allegorical figures-Media, Harlequin, and Father-War to locate the violence of the situation in the mytho-poetic consciousness of the time. He writes:

They were only children!
Fed into Moloch who is, now,
Children cannibalizing children,
Children putting on trench coats
Sewn in Father-War's factories:
Dachau, Hiroshima, high schools
Balkanized, mimicking
Pantaloon's propagation,
Who say of their children
But they are columbine!
turn away in the love-hate turbine.

In this one passage from the long poem, Featherston telescopes out from the immediacy of the Columbine shootings to the atrocities that occur daily throughout the world, that violence is not isolated but is everywhere and all somehow connected, even if indirectly. Columbine then is seen in this
context as not singular but metonymic. Indeed all violence becomes metonymic in World News as Featherston confronts the worst of things, making poetry a medium for acknowledging the world as it is. All violence becomes the same violence.

As one would imagine the "Media" figure doesn't fare well, but Featherston foregrounds the ethical complexity of "world news." These tragedies are also money-making events for the media: that is perhaps the worst grotesquerie of all, that the networks profit from reporting slaughter, here or anywhere in the world. And yet, we still tune in. To minimize the tragedy at Columbine in the pursuit of his larger agenda would be an easy trap for Featherston to fall into. He masterfully avoids that pitfall, and instead makes us aware, painfully aware of the scope of all acts of cruelty, and there is nowhere that our own involvement in cruelty isn't somehow a factor.

Poets like Dan Featherston, and collections such as World News go a long way towards making the reader aware of the artifice of politics and the poetics of ideology. In this way, poets can be more than spectators. Featherston is certainly more than a spectator-it is his lyric vision and the communtarian commitment of his collection that reminds the reader that poetry is, in fact, a public act. In its manipulations and negotiations of empathies, metaphor, and the language where we discover ourselves and the world, poetry allows us to confront our own self-fashioning. And if that means publishing our own meanness (as Thoreau would call it) and the evidence of our larger complicities, so be it. It is the unblinking empathy and the counter-weight of politically minded poetry such as that found in World News that we can turn from solipsism and centristic presidential campaigns to action in the world, for the world.

World News is available through Small Press Distribution or Potes & Poets Press, 181 Edgemont Ave., Elmwood CT 06110



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