Footnote on a Footnote
Some Thoughts on Kevin Young’s Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News
By page 330, in his exhaustive 560-page book, Young confesses he’s “more than frustrated, weary I suppose” to be dealing with so much bunk. He goes on to say that “revealed, or rather, exhausted, the hoax devolves to dreary kitsch.” Here he’s echoing—let’s not call it plagiarizing—a statement by Ruth Kluger made a bit earlier in the book, commenting on phony Holocaust literature. She says, “but when [a passage in this false literature] is revealed as a lie, as a presentation of invented suffering, it deteriorates to kitsch” (298). Young, in the quote above, seems to be expanding on this statement to include all “hoax” literature as kitsch.In a book full of sweeping statements (and bad puns, such as: “like porn, the goal of the hoax is to see just how long you can keep it up”), it’s easy to accept such statements as truisms (107). Here’s another one of those larger statements, one that comes early in the book: “While it is fine to write as someone else—and at times powerful and necessary—it requires skill and ethical considerations, even if writing about one’s own family” (109). This sounds perfectly reasonable. But there’s a tension here, between so-called kitsch and the literary persona, one not explored in this encyclopedic book that muses on myriad instances of bunk and sacrifices depth for breadth. Here’s one example.
While denouncing Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada as “’yellowface’” (239) and a “fake tale” (240), he quotes Marjorie Perloff and supplies a footnote (number 15), where she mentions Kenneth Rexroth’s Love Poems of Marichiko (484). For those unfamiliar with this reference, Rexroth created the persona of a young Japanese “contemporary woman” named Marichiko and presented the original Japanese and the English translation of her poems. Here are two of “her” poems:
You wake me,
Part my thighs, and kiss me.
I give you the dew
Of the first morning of the world.
Your tongue thrums and moves
Into me, and I become
Hollow and blaze with
Whirling light, like the inside
Of a vast expanding pearl.
Eliot Weinberger, in “At the Death of Kenneth Rexroth” (Jacket 23, August 2003) calls these poems “extraordinary” and goes on to say, “The Marichiko poems, together with the Li Ch’ing-ch’ao translations, are masterworks of remembered passion. Their only equal in American poetry is the late work of H.D. . . . ”
Given that Young dismisses “’the Yasusada,’” with another bad pun, as “not about turning Japanese but about whiteness,” it’s rather strange that he does not find Rexroth writing as a young Japanese woman the same way (240). Here’s what Young says in the footnote about Rexroth’s persona: “Rexroth’s poems were once pitched as translations from a Japanese woman, but I don’t think that makes them a hoax—the gesture is by now a familiar one that doesn’t so much define the hoax as it is one the hoax borrows from” (484).
What exactly is Young saying here? What does he mean by “gesture”? Is he referring to the use of Rexroth’s persona? How can it not be a “hoax,” to use Young’s term, when he’s denounced scores of such works in Bunk? The central thesis of Young’s book is stated many times: “this book’s larger point: that quite regularly, faced with the paradox of race, the hoax rears its head” (382), linking race and hoax. But not here? Could Young be admitting that the persona, even if the author is not identified, is not always a hoax? Could he be amending his earlier statement on persona, when he said: “While it is fine to write as someone else—and at times powerful and necessary—it requires skill and ethical considerations, even if writing about one’s own family” (109)? Could he be admitting that the “ethical considerations” can be sticky and that persona poetry, once “revealed,” is not always kitsch?
I’m thinking of David Dwyer’s Ariana Olisvos: Her Last Works and Days, one of the few “hoaxes” Young neglected to write on in Bunk. Dwyer had submitted some of these poems as the work of a ninety-two-year-old woman named Ariana Olisvos to a poetry contest sponsored by Aphra on aging and “her” poems were printed. When the judges found out that the poems were written by a man, they were horrified: “With the whole world open to him, we find David Dwyer’s fraudulent entry into our enclave morally and politically offensive and artistically distasteful.” To his credit, Dwyer includes this condemnation of him and the “hoax” in the acknowledgments of Ariana Olisvos. Knowing this, does the book “devolve to dreary kitsch”? Here’s what Andrea Dworkin had to say about the book: “These poems are beautiful, passionate, and pure-chiseled in ice and fire, the raw truth of life bravely imagined and magnificently rendered. I admire them, I treasure them, and I love them.”
I’m also thinking of Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada. Is the poetry of Yasusada merely “pidgin,” as Young claims (240)? Or are they “wonderful works of writing,” as Ron Silliman claimed? I’ll leave it to readers to examine the poetry of Doubled Flowering and make up their own minds (though Young might say I sound like P.T. Barnum here, luring rubes with elephant dung on their shoe soles behind the tent). Such issues, however, deserve more than cursory treatment.
While there is much to admire in Bunk, and it comes at a time when the Associated Press publishes a much needed “A Look At What Didn’t Happen Last Week,” there are also many sweeping statements. Nuance is often sacrificed, as for example when Young says, “For literature, we too easily forget, plagiarizes life” (428). Statements such as these are too simplistic, and don’t get at the complexity of literature, especially poetry. As Young reveals in footnote number 15, one person’s kitsch might be another’s “extraordinary.”