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the first essay to appear on poetryrepairs.com
Airy Nothings: Poetry at the Chicago Sun-Times
“April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire.” April is a time when the head of the American Academy of Poets appears on national television and claims that the gay, Hindu poet Walt Whitman is typically American. April is a time of poetry contests in Chicago. Here, below, is the first prize winning poem by Tyehimba Jess from the Sun-Times poetry contest. It was selected the winner by there judges. They were: Mark Strand, the 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry and professor at the University of Chicago; Marc Smith, founder of the performance poetry phenomenon, the "slam;'' and Regie Gibson, the man on whose life the film Love Jones was based. Simply put, I ask you, is this a first class poem worthy of first place or just propaganda for the failed concerns of a moribund liberalism?
The critic Walter Benjamin ends his seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” with a prophetic observation: “This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.” Well, the Fascists and the Communists that Benjamin spoke about have vanished from the stage. New actors, in better costumes, but playing the same parts, have taken their place. Now, instead of the Communists, the moribund liberals and progressives are politicizing art, and this is never more true than in Chicago. It comes as no surprise, then, that the winner of the poetry contest seems to have gotten this award not by craft but by connections.
Black Poets on Death's Corner
Black boy bears diamond studded
black cap bearing legend of
black life spray painted
on brick corner wall: RIP L.C.
There is something that throbs there
where L.C.'s blood ran
on Flournoy and Spaulding
with the boys selling stones,
with the poets making poems,
with the wide eyed crack kids,
with the sky about to break,
heaved city at our feet,
broken world in our eyes.
Bruh, I never met you,
but I see you everyday still.
A streetcorner Eshu splitting
life and death in each deal.
Maybe you got capped for this one moment:
a circle of poets and mothers and bangers
and druglords holding hands
like a prayer would ease you into the concrete
a little more graceful than bullets.
So we could pause and understand
for a moment, and then say:
I don't understand.
Hold each other
a little tighter as the rain comes,
washes us away.
In a recent letter to the Chicagopoetry.com web site, Jane Kostowicz writes. “Does anyone find it a bit suspicious that Tyehimba Jess (the first place $1,000 winner of the Sun-Times’ poetry contest) is best friends with Regie Gibson, one of the judges, and was on The Green Mill slam team, and that Marc Smith one of the other judges hosts at the Green Mill? I mean I think that there were only 3 judges total. It doesn't seem fair, Even I as an unknown lurker that sits at the bar with a Guiness, knows that Regie and Tyehimba are very close ... just doesn't seem fair...” SEEM fair? Why, Jane, it ISN’T fair! But don’t get worked up over all this. It’s just poetry, just sound and fury signifying nothing. Or is it? Maybe what went on at the Sun-Times tells us something about what is happening in our society and in our souls as well.
How was this contest managed? A phone call to the Sun-Times informed me that none of the three judges read all of the more than 5,000 entries. According to John Barron, there was a preliminary screening by various readers. This means that there were more judges than the three judges announced. In fact, the poems were judged before they ever got to the official judges. This raises the question about the taste and qualification of the first round of judges. Based upon the results printed in the Sun-Times, it looks like the final three judges had poor taste and were only qualified to recognize mediocrity, but what about the judges that read the poems before they even got to round two? Were the same standards applied equally to every poem, by every reader, or, like chads in the recent Florida presidential election, was there confusion and variance over what constituted a winning poem like the confusion and variance over what was a dangling chad? How many poems did the final judges in fact read, and did they read in common? Answers to these question are not yet forthcoming.
I also wanted to know what kind of standards were used in making the final judgments. Were the judges looking for the best poetic diction, rhyme, or modern themes in the poetry submitted? Could the judges state clearly and simply what they thought was a good poem and what they thought was a bad poem and why the winning poems met their criterion for success? It would be nice if some of those who lost the contest would send their poems to Chicagopoetry.com and have them published on the web site. Let’s print those losing poems beside the winners and see how they all stack up. Maybe the people will have better judgment than the professional poets. From the final results, it looks like the Sun-Times would have been better served if the judges of the contest just threw all the 5,000 entries into a big, revolving drum and drew at random three poems to be the winners. I bet the poems would have been just as “meritorious” as the three that won and were supposedly chosen by the judges on their “poetic” merit.
I am curious also to know how the voting went on the final selections. Was there a unanimous vote on the first place poem, or was the vote split two to one? No one returned my phone calls inquiring about these points, either. All these questions and more should be answered if the Sun-Times poetry contest is to continue and if it is to be creditable. Otherwise, it looks like business as usual in the Chicago arts scene. A moribund liberalism uses art to placate the minorities, to garner votes and to stem off social unrest while at the same time proving themselves to be the Philistines everyone suspects them to be. One may wonder what these judges are thinking when they make such awards. I suspect some of them see themselves making decisions that would be validated by a grand theory of postmodernism, forgetting that postmodernism is really another disguise for anti-Semitism.
I imagine, too, that Walter Benjamin’s ghosts wanders in grief when he sees the shenanigans that prevail in the Chicago art scene. When art is politicized, we create an opening where the relative values of postmodernism are allowed to dominate. This is the irony of the Sun-Times poetry contest. In creating a contest where there were judges that gave the illusion of standards, they ended up sunk in the swamp of postmodernism where everything is swallowed. The standards that were supposed to be, sink into the muck of politics and posturing. In a postmodern world, how can their be winners to begin with? Even the Pulitzer prize succumbs to the corrosion of relativism. We finally end up praising the pathetic, for at the very least, everyone can be pathetic.
The results of the Sun-Times poetry contest were not shocking, but all too predictable, given the politics of art in this city. Most people suspected that some poet with a time-tested complaint about prejudice and persecution would win at the Sun-Times. That’s the state of artistic sentiments in Chicago. Now, what IS shocking was the list of winners for The Poetry Center of Chicago’s Annual Juried Reading. Besides rewarding what some would call mediocrity, NINETY-TWO PERCENT of the winners in that contest seem to be women. What happened at the Poetry Center to the diversity and inclusion that the liberal arts community in Chicago so often hypes? But that’s another story. For now, what would have been shocking at the Sun-Times is that the judges had picked as the winner a poem about God written by a middle-aged, working class white man.
When politics dominates the arts, you not only get silly poems, but ugly murals under the Lake Shore Drive bridge and pathetic propaganda posters hanging in the CTA stations. At this rate Chicago will need a separate land fill just to hold all this stuff along with the garbage churned out by Gallery 37. We cannot be shocked by the winners of these contests because a moribund liberalism has conditioned us to expect this kind of foolish expression. That is why when it comes to art, most people look the other way and walk on. They have more important things to do. They step gingerly over the trash and wish an April rain would come to wash it all away.
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