Monday, April 26, 2010

How not to write while incredulous


In the crypt of poetry, the niche occupied by the language of the Arkansas man of letters John Gould Fletcher (1886-1950) is tiny and hidden, even though it happens to be permanent. From now to the end of history, Fletcher will always have been the only writer who was both one of the original Imagists and then one of the original Southern Agrarians, but in each of the two coterie conflicts that defined his reputation he enlisted on the losing side. When the Imagist movement fractured, he remained loyal to Amy Lowell, not Ezra Pound, and when the Agrarians' time was up he chose southern obscurity with his friend Donald Davidson over northern and national fame with his friend Allen Tate. Today, the Fletcher pages in Bob Blaisdell's anthology Imagist Poetry look no worse than the others, but there's little reason to read them.

However, for a moment in 1933, history took notice of Fletcher's language when it accidentally dropped into a larger context.

On December 27, 1933, The Nation published a letter in which Fletcher asked northern liberal readers to consider the trial of the Scottsboro Boys in the context of white southern culture. The Scottsboro Boys were nine African Americans, aged 13 to 21, who on March 25, 1931, had been arrested on board a freight train in Scottsboro, Alabama, in the company of two white women. Their trials for rape were to drag out from 1931 to 1937, and from the beginning Fletcher was convinced that they might well have been innocent. But his letter to The Nation asked readers to think about a larger issue than that mere courtroom technicality. At stake in this trial, Fletcher explained, was not a handful of black lives but the concept of white southern culture itself -- a concept made out of stern, tragic grandeur.

We in the South do not legislate against the Negro as a class. Whether he is a rich man or a poor field laborer, his status is the same. Unlike Massachusetts, which did Sacco and Vanzetti to death not because they were guilty (they were not) but because they had agitated for better conditions of life among the industrial proletariat, we do no Negro to death because of his political affiliations. But we are determined, whether rightly or wrongly, to treat him as a race largely dependent upon us, and inferior to ours. Unquestionably certain Negro intellectuals, such as James Weldon Johnson, suffer from such discrimination. For them, we have of recent years encouraged the building of great schools and universities. We believe that under our system the great majority of the race are leading happy and contented lives. But our system, we admit, has one defect. If a white woman is prepared to swear that a Negro either raped or attempted to rape her, we see to it that the Negro is executed. (734)

After all, Fletcher concluded: ". . . justice is in itself an abstract matter, and as every great lawyer knows, has always to yield to the morals, the usages, the customs and conveniences of a living and functioning community" (735).

The editors of The Nation were dumbfounded. Of course Fletcher was saying nothing that he and his Agrarian colleagues hadn't said three years earlier in their manifesto, I'll Take My Stand. Of course, too, I'll Take My Stand had little to add to the still older ideas of such English conservatives as T. S. Eliot and G. K. Chesterton. But the sheer airy abstraction of Fletcher's formulation still struck the editors as incredible. Starchily, the editors protested in the third person: "They take the most rigorous exception to the conduct of the Scottsboro case in Alabama, not because they are primarily interested in class justice or injustice, but because it is an example of egregious particular injustice" (735). Their shock took verbal form in the headline of the correspondence column: "Is This the Voice of the South?" On January 17, 1934, they published and summarized a further body of correspondence in reply.

This, however, offered only an equivocal answer to their question. Wrote John W. Wilson of Leesburg, Florida: "In regard to lynching I very strongly feel that mob violence must be most heartily condemned. . . . As to the justice meted out by Southerners to the Negroes as a race and individually, I believe on the whole it is very good. Perhaps in a few thousand years we of the South, both white and Negro, will have reached a higher plane of civilization, and a different or better justice may be possible" (75). As of January 17, 1934, The Nation's museum of contemporary language had only vagueness to show. Bravely, however, the editors asked one more question on December 27: "Justice to Germany?"

The answer to that was not vague at all. The six letters published below the head were in complete agreement. No, said the letters; justice was not being done to Germany, because The Nation was bullying the Hitler regime. As David Lukens Price of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, put it:

. . . I am not quarreling with the side [The Nation] takes, but if it is prompted by a sense of fair play and justice for all, should it not present information about the Hitler Bewegung that, if not favorable, is at least unbiased? Its insinuations that the new leaders are men without conscience -- in short, cruel, inhumane, selfish, and even immoral, lacking one redeeming characteristic -- I resent. (736)


Subject to uncontrollable rages and incapacitating depressions, John Gould Fletcher was in and out of mental hospitals all his adult life, and his death was a suicide. About David Lukens Price I know nothing, but another letter in The Nation's six-letter Briefwechsel was signed by a locally well regarded Indianapolis attorney, Herman W. Kothe, and a third was signed by a Harvard graduate student, Hillis Kaiser. Some historical circumstances permit retrospective explanations, but others don't. Perhaps all we can do is look at the words of those cases wordlessly, as if they were pictures. Here, have a JPEG. Click twice to enlarge. See John Gould Fletcher briefly appear before your eyes, then vanish again on the third page.


On September 11, 2001, something strange happened to English: the Language poet Charles Bernstein was rendered coherent by an attack of incredulity. The short suite he published about the catastrophic event bravely carries on the Language game with its title, "Some of These Daze," but after that its whole ludic architecture retracts itself into a newly secreted shell of reinforced, pre-deconstructed freshman comp.

The section called "Report from Liberty Street," for instance, is in prose with a prose title, and almost its only attempt at verse consists of a one-sentence paragraph printed in heavy-handed bold italic and repeated like a refrain: "They thought they were going to heaven." Just before the end comes one more attempt: a cliché quote, almost jokily stale in its context: "The lone and level sands stretch far away." (They were Arabs, get it?)

But then, at the very end, comes a parenthetical datum, perhaps the saddest line of all in this pathetically inadequate artifact: "(September 18 - October 1, 2001)." It's as if the poet had given up on his art; as if he believed, in extremis, that Adorno was right -- not just right for his moment in history but right forever -- about the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz; as if he believed that when the rubble gets real, the grammar and syntax had better get back to freshman orientation and a tutorial in the idea of wie es eigentlich gewesen.

But after all, when we're confronted by words we can't bring ourselves to believe and, after that, wordlessnesses we can't bring ourselves to believe, what is left except, in words we know no longer mean, to cry, "They (we, I) take the most rigorous exception"?



Bernstein, Charles. "Some of These Daze." Girly Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006) 17-33.

Blaisdell, Bob, ed. Imagist Poetry: An Anthology. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1999.

I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. By Twelve Southerners. New York: Harper, 1930.

Johnson, Ben F., III. Fierce Solitude: A Life of John Gould Fletcher. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.

"Scottsboro Case." The Reader's Companion to American History, ed. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.