The Threat Aesthetic

Jay Sizemore’s bitter reworking of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl,’ called ‘Scowl,’ sent parts of the poetry community into paroxysms of disgust last week.

The cause of this reaction was a series of passages intended to provoke, or possibly frighten. These include:

TRIGGER WARNING: another woman turning herself into a come dumpster, a slave to the lustful male gaze, breast implants and rouge,
TRIGGER WARNING: another cis-gendered white man thinking about fucking you,
TRIGGER WARNING: the leaves are turning bright red in the fields, burning like an empire at the end of its reign, burning like menstruation, Christian Grey with a bloody tampon between his teeth


I’m with you, Sarah,
when you touch yourself and imagine being raped, being dominated
by a force too powerful to feel anything but lust

And on and (unfortunately) on.

Poet Maisha Z. Johnson put her feelings about the threat constituted by this poem better than I could, because I am not meant to be intimidated by it. (As a writer who is superficially similar to Sizemore—white, a man—I am probably meant to defend the poem as a speech-act, but I won’t do that.) Johnson says, among other things:

I do not feel safe in a community that even entertains the possibility that blatant, unrepentant, unapologetic abuse counts as “art.”

I don’t want to go on too much about the text of the poem itself for two reasons: 1) it is obviously causing people pain, and not just people who ‘are looking to be outraged’ (that legendary tribe), 2) the site that published it, Revolution John, has disappeared along with the poem, a bit of backtracking that suggests that maybe those responsible for bringing ‘Scowl’ to the world have learned a lesson and are ready to put this sorry episode behind them. (Although not before abusing anyone who dared challenge their editorial taste as, basically, a fucking idiot who just needs to lighten up.)

I would like to briefly consider what we might call the ‘threat aesthetic.’ Sizemore is not the only poet who has written a poem that suggests ominous things and then is amazed when readers say: ‘What the hell is this?’

Anyone who has read a large number of submissions for a magazine knows that there is a small amount of work like this floating out there at all times, though mostly unseen and unengaged with, like some lonely toxic jellyfish.

In other words, it is a little noteworthy that something like ‘Scowl’ was published, but not that it was produced.

But why is work like this written in the first place? In a world of rational actors, presumably a poet would have some goal in mind when writing poetry in the threat aesthetic. After all, what Sizemore did not do was make naked, actionable threats. On the spectrum of menace, ‘Scowl’ falls squarely between a radically ambiguous work like Josef Kaplan’s Kill List and hate-speech. It intimidates, but it does not promise violence.

If you’ve stopped laughing at my suggestion that the poetry world is populated by rational actors, consider this: mostly, poets do avoid attacking the marginalised, the oppressed, and the voiceless. (I’m not saying that poets should be congratulated for this, but it is a fact.)

No-one would write a poem about, for example, defrauding pensioners, or fishing with dolphin-unfriendly nets, or reporting the kids running a lemonade stand for not having a trading licence, or fracking underneath a poor rural village. Even if you wanted to defraud pensioners, the last thing you would do is write a poem about your desire to do it. You’d know that it wouldn’t sound very good, would it? You’d have nothing to gain by it and everything to lose.

But it’s also likely that pensioners, dolphins, lemonade stand kids, and remote village-dwellers don’t represent a threat to you. Here’s where we can begin to make sense of a poem like ‘Scowl,’ or, I think, most poems that operate through threats.

A good deal of the first section of ‘Scowl’ is a broadside at what frightened, privileged people call ‘SJWs’ and what most people call ‘activists who will be on the right side of history.’ Behind the vituperation is a sense that progress is a zero-sum game—that a gain by someone else is necessarily a loss for the angry poet. This is not an uncommon vision of the world in 2015: if you’re relatively conservative, relatively male, and relatively white, you may mistake increasing equality for disenfranchisement of those who have until now enjoyed advantages.

This is where the gain comes in for the poet. Essentially, it’s a version of ‘the best defence is a good offence.’ This is how a noxious, foolhardy exercise in career suicide comes to seem like a good idea—the best or possibly only option.

Sizemore, then, is meeting a perceived threat with a threat of his own. Now, I can say confidently that to write poems based on this belief is to badly misread the world. And when you misread the world, you have little hope of writing good poetry. Really, you’re only cheating yourself.

I have offered what I think is the most charitable interpretation of the execrable ‘Scowl’ and threat poetry, generally. But there is another possibility. In a hurricane of an article called ‘To Men Who Use Art as Assault,’ in Quaint Magazine, E. Kristin Anderson addresses an unnamed man (who happens to be the author of the poem I’ve been discussing):

I’ve watched you proudly brag about your sensationalist writing, how you use your words to remind every woman of every time she has felt unsafe. You with your stories appropriating assault and fear and trauma. We don’t like you. You offend us. And you like it. You verbally assault us. And you revel in it.

This description, developed in detail in the article, doesn’t match my description of a person who attacks others out of a sense of fragility. What I see here is a person inflicting and re-inflicting pain, without any further ‘offence’ needed to justify it. It’s hard to see where it will end, or what will stop the process. And maybe this description is the truth.
[NOTE: the text of ‘Scowl’ is, for some reason, still online here. Don’t worry: it’s a donotlink link.]

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