“Was this book banned in the United States?”
That had not been the first question I anticipated from my graduate students at Central China Normal University this June, and it turned out to be a question not to be answered with the simple “no” it seemed to elicit.
From my first visit to China five years ago, I have never quite known what to expect. I could say that about any of the universities I visit, about my own for that matter, but the anticipation attaching to China cuts differently.
Shortly before my first trip to Wuhan, where I keynoted the conference of the Chinese American Association for Poetry and Poetics and then gave a series of lectures in the Foreign Languages School of CCNU, the country’s Ministry of Education, it was reported in the New York Times, had promulgated a list of “unmentionables,” topics that professors were not to discuss in their classes. We have no such list in the American academy, and yet there have been episodes of professors fired for things they’ve said in class, and even for things they’ve posted on social media. And while I’ve caught my share of flack for positions taken over the years (was even declared “anti-white” on a few student evaluations, something I was glad my mother found so amusing), I’ve never had my livelihood or my freedom threatened directly as a result of my teaching.
So I have been somewhat surprised, from that day to this, that nobody in China has ever made the slightest effort to control anything that goes on in the graduate seminars I have been teaching in American literature. Call this, not “White Privilege,” but perhaps visiting American privilege. I imagine such privilege might vanish should I propose to teach a course on poetic responses to Tiananmen. (Note that today I need only type that word for an American audience to know what I am talking about. I type it knowing that in China, the government bots might well flag such mention for closer inspection.)
But one of the intriguing things about going to teach in China is the sheer unpredictability of such things. Two anecdotes by way of illustration: When I was in China last year, I traveled to Guangzhou to give a lecture. One of my hosts accompanied me to the train station to make sure I negotiated the terminal and got on my return train successfully. There was, as there would be at Penn Station, a large crowd gathered around the gate to the boarding area waiting for Security to open it. Once it was opened, though, nobody paid the slightest attention to the posted instructions for entrance, or to the poor men in uniform who were trying to guide them in accord with those rules. My host laughed and remarked, “we are supposed to be an authoritarian society, but nobody follows the rules.” Second anecdote: During my second Wuhan visit, Professor Anna Everett of U.C. Santa Barbara also came to deliver two lectures. Out of the list of potential topics she had supplied, her hosts selected her lectures on the ways that the Occupy movement had used social media to organize. The day after her second lecture, we learned that the protest movement that had sprung up in Hong Kong (you may recall their umbrellas) had elected to name themselves “Occupy Central.” But though a Dean of Journalism had spoken up during the Q & A for the value of government protections from the “dangers” posed by the internet, nobody seemed at all concerned with the direction the discussion had taken, and some of the students were quite vocal in their debates about the value of social media to protest.
We can be certain that all of this was being monitored. But we were getting lessons in the spontaneous creativity of the masses along with our lessons in the unpredictability of party control. (One of my visits coincided with a major anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. I learned that people had taken to referring to those events as May 35th as a humorous way of confounding the ever-scouring web bots.)
The Great Firewall of China prevented my visits to the New York Times web site, and yet every evening I was able to download that day’s New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times directly to my Kindle. The Firewall was built to stop visits to Facebook, and yet I was able to connect easily to the Slingbox back at my home television and watch anything I cared to see.
The message is that the government will select when and where it flexes its muscles. The people will select the grounds on which they will respond. The result is an endless dance, a constant testing of the permitted and the rebellious.
So that when I proposed that this year’s seminar would be titled “American Poets in the Political Moment,” with all poems to be selected from the recent Resist Much / Obey Little collection, I really didn’t know what to expect. On the one hand, it might be thought, though by whom I wouldn’t venture to guess, that the authorities in China would be happy to have me teaching a poetry of resistance to the U.S. administration. On the other hand, this was a course under the sign of Whitmanian resistance, a poetics of disobedience.
That first day’s meeting was given over to historical and cultural background, explaining how the electoral college made it possible (twice in recent memory) for a candidate to lose the popular election and win the office, and how the history of slavery had played a role in giving us an electoral college in the first place. In response to the student who asked if Resist Much was banned in the USA, I gave a detailed response outlining the workings of the first amendment, followed with the old joke about how in the United States we don’t jail our poets, we just ignore them. But as I walked away from the seminar room that day, I was thinking over what might happen in the U.S. if I tried to teach this same course. In the current climate, I would no doubt be met with charges that I was using my classroom for partisan purposes; I might very well be told that I could not limit my course to poems opposing the sitting president.
I’d have thought that would not be such a difficult demand to meet. There have always been conservative poets in America, including accomplished poets on the far Right. But American poetry is in an interesting period in that regard; precious few conservatives among our poets are writing paeans to Trump. Were I to teach my course in the U.S.A., I might have to include on my syllabus the work of Joseph Charles McKenzie, of the Society of Classical Poets, who writes:
Come out for the Domhnall, ye brave men and proud,
The scion of Torquil and best of MacLeod!
With purpose and strength he came down from his tower
To snatch from a tyrant his ill-gotten power.
Now the cry has gone up with a cheer from the crowd:
“Come out for the Domhnall, the best of MacLeod!”
That one achieved notoriety across the internet as many mistakenly took it to be The Donald’s official inauguration poem. And then there’s this:
Public security is the most important consideration
Donald Trump is the real leader
People love him so much
Nationalism is the priority.
Though the fact that I had to go to a poet in Burma (and one known as the “Buddhist face of terror” at that) is one indicator of how little there is to chose from in a search for poetic “balance” for such a non-partisan course.
But while none of the graduate students in China asked me where the pro-Trump poems were, they were clearly intrigued by the existence of a 738 page volume of poems written in resistance to the inauguration of Donald Trump, openly circulated with no repercussions (though this is exactly the kind of thing that makes Trumpers try to abolish the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities), By the time our course had concluded, there was a substantial online collection featuring similar poems of resistance, and America’s poetry mainstream had weighed in with Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now, published by Knopf. There are, by my count, only two poets who appear in both Resist Much, and Resistance, Rebellion, Life, and those two are represented by the same poems in each volume.
I would be remiss, however, if I did not take note of one Trump/China-related phenomenon. In celebration of the Lunar New Year, Ivanka Trump dressed her five-year-old daughter, Arabella Kushner, in expensive Chinese drag and made a video of the child reciting Tang Dynasty verses in Mandarin. The video went viral. Typical of Chinese responses was this one posted on Weibo: “I particularly dislike Trump but his children and grandchildren are all quite cute.”
Resist Much was, as I realized on first opening the book, an excellent introduction to American political and cultural history as well as a stunning sign of poetry’s active speaking back to minority rule, and so was the perfect anthology for a graduate seminar in China titled “American Poets in the Political Moment.” A book that opens with Lorenzo Thomas’s still relevant answer to Frost, “Inauguration,” and closes with Whitman’s “Respondez!” (“Let everyone answer! Let those who sleep be waked! Let none evade!”), serves as a veritable encyclopedia of forms and ripostes.
As I do in all my stateside seminars, I had the students take turns at presenting poems they selected from the anthology, and if they sometimes didn’t quite get some of the subtleties of American idioms, they were audacious and diligent in their work. I think I was most surprised when one of the students chose to analyze my own contribution to the book, “Leaving Trump.” In my own student days, I usually followed the defensive tactic of making presentations on those things the professor was least likely to know about. This student pursued the title of my poem “Leaving Trump” back to its origin in Taj Mahal’s revision of the Sleepy John Estes song “Leaving Trunk,” which supplies the structure for all but the last stanza, where the poem makes a sudden shift from Blues to Gospel. Another student sparked fervent discussion with her presentation of Michael Copperman’s “Rosa Parks By Outkast.” She reminded the class who Rosa Parks was, and who Outkast was (is? Do we know now?), followed Copperman’s meditations on the moment as they weave in and out of the chorus: “Ah ha, hush that fuss /
Everybody move to the back of the bus.” But she didn’t leave it there. It’s long been recognized that listeners often mistake the full import of a song’s lyrics, locking into the chorus and missing the verse. (Think of the Reagan campaign’s appropriation of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”) My Chinese student asked if there isn’t a certain ironic tension between Outkast’s invocations of Parks and the rest of the lyric: “Bull doggin’ hoes like them Georgetown Hoyas.” Well, yes.
We found a lot of ironic tension in America. Poems by Michael Boughn (one of the anthology’s editors) and Ed Sanders could have formed an entire course in themselves. I still have memories of watching Sanders don his wired gloves to produce synthesizer tones as he chanted the doggerel that opens “Protestant Mean Streak”:
Cotton Mather was a mean old shit
He thought the streets of Salem
were swathed in witches’ spit
Mather is exactly the bundle of contradictions that makes America what it is. He was an early proponent of inoculation, which many of his contemporaries thought witchcraft, but we owe Mather’s contribution to early American health practices to his observations of his slave. The Sanders poem traces our “mean streak” from the Puritans, through the depression era of Grapes of Wrath right up to the interventions in El Salvador. Following Sanders through the banking practices of Depression era America opens up, too, that other meaning of meanness, that miserliness that sometimes marked the Puritanical, and that so often has led directly to the shabbiness of bare life in America. “Protestant Mean Streak / recapitulates phylogeny.” Michael Boughn’s “Lollipops,” in responding to Sanders, connects patronage and Trumpian greed to the long history of “a system to shape hate into visible / formations intent on extending control / over the doctrine of grace.” It’s a squalid history ranging, again, from Puritan New England into the far reaches of the shafts of Trump Tower. Boughn’s poem digs into Winthrop’s journals, anatomizing that first Governor’s joy at the slaughter of “licentious Anne Hutchinson” and her family after they had been driven from the future city on a hill. This opened a discussion of why Roger Williams and company had removed themselves from the “Massachusetts Plantation” with its lands stolen from Indians, its witchcraft hysteria and its religious intolerance. Williams published The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience. John Cotton fired back with The Bloudy Tenent, Washed, and Made White in the Bloud of the Lamb, answered in turn by Williams in The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy by Mr. Cotton’s Endeavour to Wash it White in the Blood of the Lamb; of Whose Precious Blood, Spilt in the Bloud of his Servants; and of the Blood of Millions Spilt in Former and Later Wars for Conscience Sake, That Most Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, upon, a Second Tryal Is Found More Apparently and More Notoriously Guilty, etc. (Talk about your “poetry wars.”) Williams was also the author/translator of the indispensable A Key into the Language of America, which generations later was the basis of a work by Rosmarie Waldrop. The community of dissent against the dissenters that Williams formed as Rhode Island quickly came to be designated “Rogue Island” by his Massachusetts disputants, and that is where Anne Hutchinson found herself in exile.
And here was the crucial point for our seminar. Much as Emerson eventually drifted beyond the confines even of Unitarianism, Hutchinson before him had taken John Cotton’s Free Grace advocacy to a point that Cotton himself was unable to follow, to a place where even he could afford her no protection. Just as the structure of the Jeremiad outlived its origins in Puritan sermonic tradition to find secular life in nearly every politician’s rhetoric (see the aforementioned city on a hill as misread by Reagan speech writers, who seemingly didn’t read the portion that goes: “ the eyes of all people are upon us”), antinomianism survived its origins in Puritan controversy, survived the slaughter of Hutchinson and her family, outlived Winthrop and became the very core around which our cultural history was so tightly wound. Winthrop called his account of the Antinomian controversy A Short Story of the Rise, reign, and ruine of the Antinomians, Familists & Libertines, thereby predicting its future literary valence even as it ironically misjudged its length. Works versus grace, justification and intuition of the spirit, women, God help them, convening to discuss the male ministers’ sermons. Once Luther propounded the concept of a priesthood of all believers, there was no putting the stopper back in the jug. Hutchinson claimed direct revelation. Winthrop prosecuted her for countenancing protest. America sprang out of the wreckage of trial, conviction and exile.
With my Chinese students, starting out from these poems, we traced the antinomian contours of the present moment. How different are our current crop of fundamentalists from the persecutors of the past, and yet it is still the same structure of struggle.
The students took on an impressive range of topics in their papers. There was an essay on Whitman’s Respondez. A student from Cape Verde took on Ghalo Ghigliotto’s “A Trump.” Brenda Cárdenas’s “Porque Los Mexicanos Refuse To Pay For Any Pinche Muro,” was the topic selected by another student, once I’d explained “pinche” to her. These were all graduate English students at the Foreign Language School, so their abilities varied widely, but in the course of three short weeks they had come to an admirable comprehension of what has happened to us in the U.S. and what it might mean for them.
Just days after I left China, news arrived that Liu Xiaobo had died, less than a month after being granted medical parole from his imprisonment. He was in many ways an Anne Hutchinson, if I might be forgiven imposing an American analogy on this great Chinese thinker and activist. He was a university professor, like me. He was just a few years younger, and much braver, than me. The news came to me via Wechat, which Americans like to think of as the Chinese Facebook, and was circulated there among the members of the Chinese American Association for Poetry. A few days further on I read the news in the New York Times that the Chinese government was repressing public discussion of Liu Xiaobo, including discussion online. And yet, as if in testimony to the permeability of repression and the persistence of resistance, my poetry loving colleagues continued to place emoticons and tributes honoring Liu Xiaobo on Wechat. As of this writing, they are still there. I don’t know if they will survive, but resistance surely will, and his memorials will occupy the rogue islands of Chinese writing.