Poetry is a window on the human soul.
Sad to say, American poetry has fallen on hard times. At least that branch of it represented by the dozen or so poets recently outraged by an article we published which dared to criticize anti-Israel poet Ammiel Alcalay. Judging by the communications we have received, and by the "guerilla" tactics employed against us, these poets, many of whom teach at respectable universities and colleges, are a pathetic lot. Incapable of reasoned argument, spewing epithets, pretentious, paranoid, and stupid enough to conspire and provide cause for legal action right in public, they embody, in James Taranto's phrase, a "toxic mix of self-pity and thuggery… characteristic of an alienated political minority."
We were happy to publish immediately the first two letters of complaint which we received on the article. The first one came from Lisa Jarnot, "assistant professor, Brooklyn College, Dept of Creative Writing," whose only approximation of substantive criticism was "you are totally out to lunch." The second letter came from someone claiming to be "M. Arnone," and employed sarcasm, as well as the adjectival form of a vulgar word for sexual intercourse which we duly censored in publishing it. Our contributor Herb Meyer even wrote us a letter about Professor Jarnot's communication, which we also published.
But over the next two weeks, we received ten more emails, most of them from people claiming to be poets and asserting their outrage. In fact, there was a remarkable similarity among them. Our old pal google quickly let us know what was going on: a campaign incited by Ms. Jarnot, via her blog site.
Our friends at Campus Watch also used google when they received a similar gaggle of letters. Here is their response:
The publication of Alyssa Lappen's piece on Ammiel Alcalay has evidently touched a nerve among delicate poets. American Thinker and Campus Watch have received numerous emails complaining bitterly that the piece was unfair and proclaiming the importance of poetry. The name calling alone bespeaks the sad level of American writing, at least in some circles.
It has come to our attention that this somewhat juvenile campaign has been orchestrated in part by Lisa Jarnot, a teacher of creative writing at Brooklyn College. In keeping with the psychodrama of 'dangerous art' she implores her followers to deluge American Thinker and Campus Watch with complaints titled as 'submissions.' Since she is an English teacher, she provides helpful advice about content:
You might want to tell them what a nice guy Ammiel Alcalay is, or how your work was inspired by Amiri Baraka's work or how Anne Waldman is one of the best teachers you know. You might want to tell them that your son or your daughter is a poet or a teacher who deserves some respect.
You might want to tell them that some of your best friends are Palestinians, or that some of your best friends are Jews, or that you hope more university professors will come out and say "I support the Palestinian cause" or "I am a raging queer who supports the Palestinian cause."
Her advice alone explains something of why American writing and poetry, and the imaginations behind them, are in such a lamentable state.
For the record, Campus Watch has no list of 'dangerous leftist poets' although should anyone be interested, we now have ample names for a list of very mediocre and self-important poets. Lappen wrote about Ammiel Alcalay because he is an academic and 'artist' who uses his position to promote hostility toward Israel, Jews, and the United States. Jarnot's campaign and the emails received help prove the point, that the 'radical poetry' community has become merely 'art' in the service of radical politics. That this promotes neither workable politics nor serviceable poetry is self-evident.
We need only quote Matthew Arnold:
"In poetry, which is thought and art in one, it is the glory, the eternal honor, that charlatanism shall find no entrance; that this noble sphere be kept inviolate and inviolable. Charlatanism is for confusing or obliterating the distinctions between excellent and inferior, sound and unsound or only half-sound, true and untrue or only half true. It is charlatanism, conscious or unconscious, whenever we confuse or obliterate these. And in poetry, more than anywhere else, it is unpermissable to confuse or obliterate them."
Alexander Joffe, Ph.D.
Middle East Forum
Now there is nothing at all wrong with launching a letter-writing campaign. But a minimal level of cunning would suggest that you do so in way less obvious than a posting on your blog, especially if that blog is published under the same name as the first epistle sent to the target of the campaign. Apparently these poets are so dense that it never occurred to them that they could be googled.
To me, the most amusing facet of the letters was the way in which fragile egos revealed themselves via credentialism. Many felt compelled to invoke their academic degrees, positions, and publications, as if these conferred authority, and were a substitute for logic, argument, and good writing. The funniest and saddest case was provided by a letter signed by
"Mark Nowak, Tenured Professor"
The capitalization is a nice touch, don't you think? Like Ward Churchill, Professor Nowak enjoys what the Chinese Communists used to call "an iron rice bowl." As many Americans appreciate in the wake of Churchill's media scrutiny, tenure at even a major university is no assurance of academic merit or integrity, though it does guarantee a paycheck.
But strangely enough, the Tenured Professor provided no institutional affiliation. A moment spent at google indicated he is likely to be the "Associate Professor of Humanities at the College of St. Catherine" in Minneapolis described here. Only the good professor knows why he chose to omit his institutional affiliation or his precise title, one rank below full professor. I only hope nobody at St. Catherine's has any hurt feelings because the Tenured Professor chose not to fling the school's name at us as a badge of importance.
The allegation that our article was a call for censorship was a common, though inaccurate accusation. One would hope that poets would be able to read texts and understand them, but alas not. Joshua Corey, "a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell" and "a poet who has published one book and has another on the way," claimed that Lappen's article "…ends with nothing less than a call for censorship…." Readers can verify for themselves that no such call is made at the end or anywhere else in the article.
Kate Schapira, "a poet completing my MFA at Brown University," boldy asserted
"…there is a word for attempts by one group to regulate or control the public speech of another group. The word is "censorship," and it is frowned upon by the Constitution of the United States."
Ms. Schapira might wish to brush up on the Constitution so she would realize that it constrains governmental regulation of free speech. She and others who claim we call for censorship fail to understand the fundamental difference between criticism and censorship. Criticism is, after all, free speech, too. We do not wish to silence Ammiel Alcalay, only to hold him up to the light, dismaying though this may be to his dozen or so friends and admirers marshaled by Ms. Jarnot and her comrades.
As time went on, the letter-writing and blogging got even more interesting. People blogged remarkably stupid things. Chris Murray's blog focused on the opening sentence of Ms. Lappen's article, quoted at the top here, and asked:
What exactly is a ("the"?) "soul," anyway?--is this the standard issue, hegemonic western version, or some newly revised, far more transcendent, perhaps more global, more capitalistic, more conveniently corporate version? So: who gets to decide what a soul is and what that might have to do with poetry?
So revealing on so many levels. Murray also joined the group promoting the letter-writing campaign:
"Let's send a blizzard of letters to those neo-con cream puffs."
Interestingly enough, five lines above the spot he calls Campus Watch and us "these cowardly journals full of hateful rhetoric" he colorfully calls us "those f***ing bastards." Readers are invited to scrutinize Ms. Lappen's article for any rhetoric remotely as hateful. Or at all hateful, for that matter.
Ms. Jarnot's blog breathlessly reported on March 10:
"Anne Waldman reports people casing her house in Boulder and Ammiel Alcalay reports that he was targetted by the American Thinker after writing to them to tell them to stop picking on other people."
Interestingly enough, we never received a letter from Professor Alcalay, nor did we "target" him (whatever that means) after receiving a nonexistent letter. Someone appears to be hallucinating. As for people casing Ms. Waldman's house, we sympathize with victims and potential victims of burglary. But if any of the poets think that the American Thinker Secret Police have dissident poets under surveillance, they need to get a grip, and stop indulging in grandiose fantasies of persecution.
The nadir was reached on Thursday, March 17, however, on Ms. Jarnot's blog:
"What's happening dawgs? A lot of people have gone for the throat with The American Thinker and Campus Watch…. Want to continue some guerrilla activity? Make a donation to the American Thinker at this website: Input random credit card numbers here."
The incitement contained a link to our donation page. Ms. Jarnot was either too lazy or too stupid to realize that a PayPal account is necessary to make a donation, and that we do not accept credit card numbers, as a single click would have informed her. Nevertheless, in urging people to harass us, she gave us a cause of action known in the law as a "prima facie tort," which is described thus:
"a prima facie tort is defined as intentional oppressive or malicious conduct designed to injure someone in his/her person, property or mind without any economic justification - in other words, tortious conduct which is obviously outrageous and not intended to reap an economic benefit…."
Ms. Jarnot's ineptness at harassment has meant that we incurred no damages whatsoever, so we have no intention of bringing any legal action. But we do find the gang that couldn't harass straight a rather entertaining, though depressing, spectacle. If so many of them didn't have access to and grading power over college students, they would be merely a silly coterie of self-important poseurs, demanding immunity from criticism at the same time they hurl invective at imagined oppressors.
The last thing anyone at The American Thinker wants to do is silence them. They do more harm to their cause by getting angry and letting out their inner demons than any critic could. They would be best advised to let silence cover their petulance and incoherence, but that is counsel their vanity and need for attention will always cause them to reject.
Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.