In my undergraduate poetry workshop this semester, one of my students recently submitted a poem called “Fake News.” It began with a simple three-word line: “What is Real?” The question is banal, to be sure, on the level of the sentence; yet it is a very important one to ask in terms of aesthetics, philosophy, and politics. In a certain way, it is the question. In his manifesto Reality Hunger (2010), David Shields has argued, “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.” As in aesthetics, so in politics: politicians are very much in the business of smuggling their versions of the real into their rhetoric, policies, and legislation. If, as Percy Bysshe Shelley famously argued, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” then politicians are the unacknowledged artists, if not con artists. Here’s some reality: “Criminal aliens and gang members have used our weak borders to gain entry into our country.” Here’s some more: “Violent smugglers are exploiting our laws and porous borders for their own gain.” These statements come from a “fact sheet” from www.whitehouse.gov, which explains why President Donald J. Trump has recently declared a national emergency at the southern border. There is certainly a lot of smuggling going on—in artist studios, in writers’ colonies, and in the White House.
These days I’ve been mostly reading poets who, to quote Shields, have been “breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work” as I am finishing up a book tentatively entitled “Extending the Document in Contemporary North American Poetry” (forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press.) I have to admit that I’ve smuggled very tiny chunks of that manuscript draft—as well as other manuscripts—into this reading list though the rhetorical situations of these various writings are all different. My book studies contemporary poems that prominently include found documents and interpolated texts. What are documents, after all, but “chunks” of textual reality? Documents, of course, can be both banal and important. They bore us; but they also perform actions (“NOW, THEREFORE, I, DONALD J. TRUMP, by the authority vested in me […] hereby declare that a national emergency exists at the southern border of the United States”) and compel people to take action. Documents languish in archives, forgotten and unread, receding into what George Oppen called, in his clever play on Shelley, the “unacknowledged world.” Perhaps most importantly, documents fix inscriptions into place so that we can call renewed attention to them, so that we can argue with them and build upon them—crucial activities, I think, in this age of fake news.
Poetry can’t be “news that stays news,” as Ezra Pound said, if we don’t read it in the first place, if we don’t keep it alive in our memories.