poem index

Negative Capability: How to Talk Mean and Influence People

Written by

Tony Hoagland
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Year

2014
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Lying here together goes back so far....
it becomes still more difficult to find
words at once true and kind,
or not untrue and not unkind.
                —Philip Larkin

Meanness, the very thing which is unforgivable in human social life, in poetry is thrilling and valuable. Why? Because the willingness to be offensive sets free the ruthless observer in all of us, the spiteful perceptive angel who sees and tells, unimpeded by nicety or second thoughts. There is truth-telling, and more, in meanness.

Take, for example, the William Carlos Williams poem "The Last Words of My English Grandmother," a narrative of almost documentary objectivity.

There were some dirty plates
and a glass of milk
beside her on a small table
near the rank, disheveled bed—
Wrinkled and nearly blind
she lay and snored
rousing with anger in her tones
to cry for food,

Gimmee something to eat—
They're starving me—

Williams is mean here in the sense of minimal—this scene is undressed, un-spin-doctored. Left on our own, without the narrator's managerial help—without a tone, or backstory, or a confidential commentary—we are stuck as uncomfortable witnesses to human ugliness. If anything, there is, perhaps, the slightest edge of contempt implicit in the scene: the unlovely reality of the old woman, and the evident neglect of her caretakers, who have not cleared the plates, do not speak kindly of human nature. And, since the title has told us that the old woman is the speaker's grandmother, he too is implicated. Williams's stoical style perfectly serves the drama of contesting wills which emerges, and the ruthless truth about power at the poem's center:

Let me take you
to the hospital, I said,
and after you are well
you can do as you please.
She smiled, Yes
you do what you please first
then I can do what I please—

There is truth-telling in meanness, but that is not all of it. Meanness is also an aesthetic asset for its flavor of danger. Nothing wakes us up like menace—Menace refreshes. When a poem becomes aggressive, it rouses an excitement in us, in part because we see that someone has broken their social shackles. We feel intoxicated by that outlaw freedom, and we covet it for ourselves. We also alertly intuit that we ourselves might be next on the hit list. Bad manners, we know, tend to be anarchic. At best, we will be caught flatfooted, left behind by the speed of the accelerating nastiness. At worst, we may find ourselves under attack.

What alertness we feel when Marianne Moore turns her scintillating gaze towards the second-person pronoun in "Critics and Connoisseurs."

I have seen this swan and
I have seen you; I have seen ambition without
understanding in a variety of forms.

That willingness to make the occasional stabbing motion gives Moore's poems some of their great vigor. A wizard of tone, she is expert at floating vaguely ominous abstractions, and it gives her work an unpredictable edge which keeps us intent on following the progress of her fierce abstract sutures. She motivates us to pay attention. Moore is always assertive, but she is not always aggressive—and some of her poems suffer for it. "The Mind is an Enchanting Thing," one of her most-anthologized poems, suffers from too little ruthlessness, with its Mary Poppins tone and imagery of butterfly wings. If that poem were more tart, it would better represent both the mind, and Moore.

Meanness seems to heighten the powers of discrimination, and the language such discrimination requires. Meanness is a sort of literary endorphin, an exhilarating glandular stimulant. Repression and expression are, after all, the great partners in poetry, and when suppressed truth comes out, it tends to burst forth, with the energy of a fire hose, breaking through the compartments of social discretion—it floods. When it does, we gather at the disaster to gawk. Stephanie Brown, in her first-rate book, Allegory of the Supermarket (1998), is uncommonly interested in—and skilled at—the tones and uses of mean. Her poem, "Mommy is a Scary Narcissist," whose title itself establishes a passive-aggressive spin of quadratic complexity, is a good example:

C'mon, I shouldn't need to mention
   blepharoplasty.
Her mauled face is a part of the shared horizon.
I don't need to mention the lift, the tuck,
   the lipo.
(A Trinity.)

The smile-ever-smiling is a part of the position.
This is Mommy's supposition:
Sexy. Sexy. Sexy. Everlasting and in high-tonus
   stance. Decisions
Belong to dads, men, boyfriends, bartenders,
   chance.

Mommy looks good when she prays in the chapel.
(ferns, lush foliage, candles, rose petals, and
   flattering paints)
Harder than the other mommies. No one stays.
(She looks into the baptismal font deeply,
   passionately, and long.)

Mommy tries to love, Mommy tries to get a job.
Not very hard, the outside world knows that,
   but Mommy doesn't.

Brown's ability to be both subtle and brutal springs directly from her willingness to be unpleasant. It helps that she has a keen eye for culture and understands its continuity with selfhood. She knows that the "mauled face is a part of the shared horizon," but that knowledge doesn't cause her to go soft on anyone. The spiky hostility of "Mommy" is omni-directional. It is what "I shouldn't need to mention" that thrills us most in the main character description: we recognize that combination of pathos, willful self-deception, and cunning. Likewise, we recognize the aggression in the speaker's voice: the impure, long-fermented alloy of intelligence, victimhood and resentment. Then there is the disconcerting ventriloqual way in which the repeated "Mommy" phrases work—"Mommy tries to love, Mommy tries to get a job"—so that they seem to emanate from inside the Mommy-figure herself. It's not just that this poem breaks the primal commandment to Love Thy Mother; there's something visceral and invasive in the manner of the breaking. Brown's speaker operates aggressively, with a fine-tuned knowingness about internalized sexism, American self-indulgence, and mother-child psychology. Only a very mean speaker could be so, so, so...observant.

Brown is unusual in contemporary poetry for her willingness to be thought ill of. In fact, it's significant that ugly-truth-tellers are much more common in our fiction than our poetry. Much of our mainstream poetry is confined by an ethic of sincerity and the unstated wish to be admired (if not admired, liked; if not liked, sympathized with). American poetry still largely believes, as romantics have for a few hundred years, that a poem is straightforward autobiographical testimony to, among other things, the decency of the speaker. And, for all the freedom and "opening up" engendered by Confessionalism, to be uninhibitedly mean, we all know, is itself prohibited. Welcome to Poetry City: Hurt someone's feelings: Go to jail.

The problem with such civility is that it excludes all kinds of subject matter which cannot be handled without contamination of the handler. American poetry of the last few decades has specialized in empathy, and many extraordinary poems have been written in that spirit—but all that warmth has banished the cold eye of the prosecutor. To some extent, the decay of fierce analytical thinking in our poetry has been an outgrowth of the culture of Nice-ism.

It hasn't always been so. Once upon a time, Meanness was poetically permissible, even celebrated. Satire rejoices in the lampooning of human nature, in telling tales of vice and folly. Juvenal and Villon, Chaucer and Swift, Ben Johnson and Catullus—the poets of social satire slander their enemies, mock their neighbors, and tell tales on their lovers with glee. Spitting, punching below the belt, and face-slapping for them was a source of creative energy and pride. Here's the opening of Juvenal's Second Satire, still savagely fresh nineteen hundred years later:

Northward beyond the Laps to the frozen
   Polar ice-cap
is where I long to escape when I hear high moral
   discourse
from raging queens who affect ancestral peasant
   virtues.
An ignorant crowd, too, despite those plaster
   busts
of Stoic philosophers on display in their houses:
intellectual perfection in their case means
   hanging up
some original portrait—Aristotle, or one of the
   Seven Sages.
Appearances are deceptive: every back street
   abounds
with solemn faced humbuggers. You're
   castigating vice,
you, the most notable dyke among all our
   Socratic fairies?
                                (Peter Green, trans.)

But few, if any, want to get their hands dirty these days, and it costs us. Consider, just for an example, the subject matter of race in America. Why hasn't racial anxiety, shame and hatred—such a large presence in American life—been more a theme in poetry by Caucasian-Americans? The answer might be that Empathy is profoundly inadequate as a strategy to some subjects. To really get at the subject of race, chances are, is going to require some unattractive, tricky self-expression, something adequate to the paradoxical complexities of privilege, shame and resentment. To speak in a voice equal to reality in this case will mean the loss of observer-immunity-status, will mean admitting that one is not on the sidelines of our racial realities, but actually in the tangled middle of them, in very personal ways. Nobody is going to look good. Meanwhile, of course, American black poets have been putting the nasty topic on the table for a long time, in very personal ways.

In a wild, hilarious book, Joker, Joker, Deuce, Paul Beatty, a young African-American poet, explores the ins and outs of literary ethnicity with savage kind of wit. Written in a hip-hop style, satire is a multi-use tool in Beatty's searching social surveys. What is exciting about Beatty's poems is not just their keen eye and considerable verbal dexterity, but the wide latitude of his targets. Yes, he definitely is an Angry Young Black Man, and yes, he likes to make fun of what he calls the "North American Whitey," but he is equally satirical about the complicated politics of Behaving Black. In his long poem "About the Author," for example, Beatty parodies American consumerism and the iconization of Martin Luther King:

but everybody's talking about a revolution
including four fab white guys
in skinny ties
whose music used to sell tennis shoes
    pre-spike

just do it
you mean do it to it no no that won't fly in iowa
if only martin luther king was still alive

i can see it now organ music a choir
he'd be wearing red white and blue gym shoes
       saying

       this is mlk
       when i'm marching on Washington
          yes   lord
       coolin my heels in a Birmingham jail
       backpedalin in memphis    mmmmm
          hmmmmm
       running from german shepherds in selma
       cheatin on my wife in hattiesburg    yes
          suh
       i thank god i wear air integrationists
          crossover trainers by nike

       hallelujah

In another section of the same long poem, the speaker satirizes his own simplistic versions of racial injustice:

       we used to come home on college vacations
       pissed and miffed at the system

open the fridge

       there aint no koolaid
       see mom how fucked up shit is

that's when sylvester come home
fresh out his yellow construction foreman pick up
    truck
he'd dust the country music off his dungarees
reshape the chicago in his afro

look at the anger in our teary visined eyes
smell the hurt on our beer-drenched breath
and say

revolutionary thrills
without revolutionary skills
will get you killed


the mud on my shoes
the arthritis on your mothers fingers
1000 hours of cosmetology school
nigga dont you see self hatred paid for your
   education.

Meanness clears the air of sanctimony, falsehood and denial, of our sentimental, ideological wishes about how things are alleged to be. Because it does not intend to forgive nor ask forgiveness, because it does not imagine reconciliation as an end, meanness has an advantage over other kinds of discourse. Free of the complex accommodations required by "presenting a balanced view," or Being Fair-Minded, opinion can fly with original, sometimes unerring force.

At its most radical, meanness can even have the quality of metaphysical straight-talk. Some parables of Kafka, certainly, and the stories of Flannery O'Connor, offer superb examples of metaphysical meanness. Czeslaw Milosz also has written many poems which view humanity from a chilly altitude, with great clarity but little charity.

In the first two stanzas of Anna Akhmatova's poem "Twenty-first Night," translated by Jane Kenyon, human affairs are seen from a great and weary distance. The poet directs a scornful, condescending gaze at the endless human preoccupation with romance:

Twenty-first night. Monday.
Silhouette of the capital in darkness.
Some good-for-nothing—who knows why—
made up the tale that love exists on earth.

People believe it, maybe from laziness
or boredom, and live accordingly:
they wait eagerly for meetings,
fear parting, and when they sing,
they sing about love...

But the secret reveals itself to some
and on them, the silence settles down.
I found this out by accident
and now it seems I'm sick all the time.

Akhmatova is like the dark sister of the fairy godmother: she doesn't merely want us to know that love doesn't exist, that we've all been duped; she wants to emphasize that those who do believe in it are probably stupid and lazy, and that they belong to a long, generic tradition of stupid and lazy people. Her scathing, casually delivered pronouncement describes much of life, all of reality TV, and whole chapters of anybody's personal history. Its cold authority is thrilling.

Thrilling, yes—but if the poem ended after two stanzas, it would seem narrow of heart. If the poetics of empathy can sometimes be simple-minded, satire also can be blind or petty, full of self-satisfaction without self-examination. The conclusion of Akhmatova's poem, which raises it to greatness, is the admission of her own sickness of spirit, her own romantic disappointment. The resonance of the poem becomes truly full when it admits a kind of empathy. But not, we might note, until the first two stanzas have enacted their stylish evisceration of the romantic, untainted by the whiff of confession.

In poetry, as in life, meanness almost always has a personal flavor, and perhaps it is even more admirable for its lack of detachment. The mean speaker is not retired from the battles of selfhood, removed to some philosophical resort where experience can be codified in tranquility. She or he is still down in the dirty human valley, fighting it out with the rest of us. In that way, the mean speaker may possess more convincing credentials than a kind or wise one.

In Akhmatova's fierce lyric complaint, a resonant vision has been distilled from the speaker's experience. It has been rendered, clear and caustic, with wit and skill. But the part of the self that has died to get it has left its flavor behind, and, even in translation, the bitterness seeps through, sweetly vengeful, like a worm in the vodka.

"Negative Capability," from Real Sofistikashun. Copyright © 2006 by Tony Hoagland. Reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.