Negative Capability: How to Talk Mean
and Influence People
by Tony Hoagland
Lying here together goes back so far. . .
it becomes still more difficult to find
words at once true and kind,or not untrue and not unkind.— Philip LarkinMeanness, the very thing which is unforgivable in human social life, in poetry is thrilling and valuable. Why? Because the willingness to be offensive sets free the ruthless observer in all of us, the spiteful perceptive angel who sees and tells, unimpeded by nicety or second thoughts. There is truth-telling, and more, in meanness.
Take, for example, the W. C. Williams poem “The Last Words of My English Grandmother,” a narrative of almost documentary objectivity.
There were some dirty platesand a glass of milkbeside her on a small tablenear the rank, disheveled bed—Wrinkled and nearly blindshe lay and snoredrousing with anger in her tonesto cry for food,Gimmee something to eat—They’re starving me—Williams is mean here in the sense of minimal — this scene is undressed, un-spin-doctored. Left on our own, without the narrator’s managerial help — without a tone, or backstory, or a confidential commentary — we are stuck as uncomfortable witnesses to human ugliness. If anything, there is, perhaps, the slightest edge of contempt implicit in scene: the unlovely reality of the old woman, and the evident neglect of her caretakers, who have not cleared the plates, do not speak kindly of human nature. And, since the title has told us that the old woman is the speaker’s grandmother, he too is implicated. Williams’s stoical style perfectly serves the drama of contesting wills which emerges, and the ruthless truth about power at the poem’s center:
Let me take youto the hospital, I said,and after you are wellyou can do as you please.She smiled, Yesyou do what you please firstthen I can do what I please—There is truth-telling in meanness, but that is not all of it. Meanness is also an aesthetic asset for its flavor of danger. Nothing wakes us up like menace — Menace refreshes. When a poem becomes aggressive, it rouses an excitement in us, in part because we see that someone has broken their social shackles. We feel intoxicated by that outlaw freedom, and we covet it for ourselves. We also alertly intuit that we ourselves might be next on the hit list. Bad manners, we know, tend to be anarchic. At best, we will be caught flatfooted, left behind by the speed of the accelerating nastiness. At worst, we may find ourselves under attack.
What alertness we feel when Marianne Moore turns her scintillating gaze towards the second-person pronoun in “Critics and Connoisseurs.”
I have seen this swan andI have seen you; I have seen ambition withoutunderstanding in a variety of forms.That willingness to make the occasional stabbing motion gives Moore’s poems some of their great vigor. A wizard of tone, she is expert at floating vaguely ominous abstractions, and it gives her work an unpredictable edge which keeps us intent on following the progress of her fierce abstract sutures. She motivates us to pay attention. Moore is always assertive, but she is not always aggressive — and some of her poems suffer for it. “The Mind is an Enchanting Thing,” one of her most-anthologized poems, suffers from too little ruthlessness, with its Mary Poppins tone and imagery of butterfly wings. If that poem were more tart, it would better represent both the mind, and Moore.
Meanness seems to heighten the powers of discrimination, and the language such discrimination requires. Meanness is a sort of literary endorphin, an exhilarating glandular stimulant.
Repression and expression are, after all, the great partners in poetry, and when suppressed truth comes out, it tends to burst forth, with the energy of a fire hose, breaking through the compartments of social discretion — it floods. When it does, we gather at the disaster to gawk. Stephanie Brown, in her first-rate book, Allegory of the Supermarket (1998), is uncommonly interested in — and skilled at — the tones and uses of mean. Her poem, “Mommy is a Scary Narcissist,” whose title itself establishes a passive-aggressive spin of quadratic complexity, is a good example:
C’mon, I shouldn’t need to mention blepharoplasty.Her mauled face is a part of the shared horizon.I don’t need to mention the lift, the tuck, the lipo.(A Trinity.)The smile-ever-smiling is a part of the position.This is Mommy’s supposition:Sexy. Sexy. Sexy. Everlasting and in high-tonus stance.DecisionsBelong to dads, men, boyfriends, bartenders, chance.Mommy looks good when she prays in the chapel.(ferns, lush foliage, candles, rose petals, and flatteringpaints)Harder than the other mommies. No one stays.(She looks into the baptismal font deeply, passionately,and long.)Mommy tries to love, Mommy tries to get a job.Not very hard, the outside world knows that, but Mommydoesn’t.Brown’s ability to be both subtle and brutal springs directly from her willingness to be unpleasant. It helps that she has a keen eye for culture and understands its continuity with selfhood. She knows that the “mauled face is a part of the shared horizon,” but that knowledge doesn’t cause her to go soft on anyone. The spiky hostility of “Mommy” is omni-directional. It is what “I shouldn’t need to mention” that thrills us most in the main character description: we recognize that combination of pathos, willful self-deception, and cunning. Likewise, we recognize the aggression in the speaker’s voice: the impure, long-fermented alloy of intelligence, victimhood and resentment. Then there is the disconcerting ventriloqual way in which the repeated “Mommy” phrases work — “Mommy tries to love, Mommy tries to get a job” — so that they seem to emanate from inside the Mommy-figure herself. It’s not just that this poem breaks the primal commandment to Love Thy Mother; there’s something visceral and invasive in the manner of the breaking. Brown’s speaker operates aggressively, with a fine-tuned knowingness about internalized sexism, American self-indulgence, and mother-child psychology. Only a very mean speaker could be so, so, so…. observant.
Brown is unusual in contemporary poetry for her willingness to be thought ill of. In fact, it’s significant that ugly-truth-tellers are much more common in our fiction than our poetry. Much of our mainstream poetry is confined by an ethic of sincerity and the unstated wish to be admired (if not admired, liked; if not liked, sympathized with). American poetry still largely believes, as romantics have for a few hundred years, that a poem is straightforward autobiographical testimony to, among other things, the decency of the speaker. And, for all the freedom and “opening up” engendered by Confessionalism, to be uninhibitedly mean, we all know, is itself prohibited. Welcome to Poetry City: Hurt someone’s feelings: Go to jail.
The problem with such civility is that it excludes all kinds of subject matter which cannot be handled without contamination of the handler. American poetry of the last few decades has specialized in empathy, and many extraordinary poems have been written in that spirit — but all that warmth has banished the cold eye of the prosecutor. To some extent, the decay of fierce analytical thinking in our poetry has been an outgrowth of the culture of Nice-ism.
It hasn’t always been so. Once upon a time, Meanness was poetically permissible, even celebrated. Satire rejoices in the lampooning of human nature, in telling tales of vice and folly. Juvenal and Villon, Chaucer and Swift, Ben Johnson and Catullus — the poets of social satire slander their enemies, mock their neighbors, and tell tales on their lovers with glee. Spitting, punching below the belt, and face-slapping for them was a source of creative energy and pride. Here’s the opening of Juvenal’s Second Satire, still savagely fresh nineteen hundred years later:
Northward beyond the Laps to the frozen Polar ice-capis where I long to escape when I hear high moral discoursefrom raging queens who affect ancestral peasant virtues,An ignorant crowd, too, despite those plaster bustsof Stoic philosophers on display in their houses:intellectual perfection in their case means hanging upsome original portrait — Aristotle, or one of the SevenSages.Appearances are deceptive: every back street aboundswith solemn faced humbuggers. You’re castigating vice,you, the most notable dyke among all our Socratic fairies?(Peter Green, trans.)But few, if any, want to get their hands dirty these days, and it costs us. Consider, just for an example, the subject matter of race in America. Why hasn’t racial anxiety, shame and hatred — such a large presence in American life — been more a theme in poetry by Caucasian-Americans? The answer might be that Empathy is profoundly inadequate as a strategy to some subjects. To really get at the subject of race, chances are, is going to require some unattractive, tricky self-expression, something adequate to the paradoxical complexities of privilege, shame and resentment. To speak in a voice equal to reality in this case will mean the loss of observer-immunity-status, will mean admitting that one is not on the sidelines of our racial realities, but actually in the tangled middle of them, in very personal ways. Nobody is going to look good. Meanwhile, of course, American black poets have been putting the nasty topic on the table for a long time, in very personal ways.
In a wild, hilarious book, Joker, Joker, Deuce, Paul Beatty, a young African-American poet, explores the ins and outs of literary ethnicity with savage kind of wit. Written in a hip-hop style, satire is a multi-use tool in Beatty’s searching social surveys. What is exciting about Beatty’s poems is not just their keen eye and considerable verbal dexterity, but the wide latitude of his targets. Yes, he definitely is an Angry Young Black Man, and yes, he likes to make fun of what he calls the “North American Whitey,” but he is equally satirical about the complicated politics of Behaving Black. In his long poem “About the Author,” for example, Beatty parodies American consumerism and the iconization of Martin Luther King:
but everybody’s talking about a revolutionincluding four fab white guysin skinny ties whose music used to sell tennis shoespre-spikejust do ityou mean do it to it no no that won’t fly in iowaif only martin luther king was still alivei can see it now organ music a choirhe’d be wearing red white and blue gym shoes sayingthis is mlkwhen i’m marching on Washington yes lordcoolin my heels in a Birmingham jailbackpedalin in memphis mmmmm hmmmmmrunning from german shepherds in selmacheatin on my wife in hattiesburg yes suhi thank god i wear air integrationists crossover trainersby nikehallelujahIn another section of the same long poem, the speaker satirizes his own simplistic versions of racial injustice:
we used to come home on college vacationspissed and miffed at the systemopen the fridgethere aint no koolaidsee mom how fucked up shit isthat’s when sylvester come homefresh out his yellow construction foreman pickup truck.he’d dust the country music off his dungareesreshape the chicago in his afrolook at the anger in our teary visined eyessmell the hurt on our beer-drenched breath and sayrevolutionary thrills
without revolutionary skills
will get you killedthe mud on my shoesthe arthritis on your mothers fingers1000 hours of cosmetology schoolnigga dont you see self hatred paid for your education.Meanness clears the air of sanctimony, falsehood and denial, of our sentimental, ideological wishes about how things are alleged to be. Because it does not intend to forgive nor ask forgiveness, because it does not imagine reconciliation as an end, meanness has an advantage over other kinds of discourse. Free of the complex accommodations required by “presenting a balanced view,” or Being Fair-Minded, opinion can fly with original, sometimes unerring force.At its most radical, meanness can even have the quality of metaphysical straight-talk. Some parables of Kafka, certainly, and the stories of Flannery O’Connor, offer superb examples of metaphysical meanness. Czeslaw Milosz also has written many poems which view humanity from a chilly altitude, with great clarity but little charity.
In the first two stanzas of Anna Akhmatova’s poem “Twenty-first Night,” translated by Jane Kenyon, human affairs are seen from a great and weary distance. The poet directs a scornful, condescending gaze at the endless human preoccupation with romance:
Twenty-first night. Monday.Silhouette of the capital in darkness.Some good-for-nothing — who knows why —made up the tale that loves exists on earth.People believe it, maybe from lazinessor boredom, and live accordingly:they wait eagerly for meetings,fear parting, and when they sing,they sing about love….But the secret reveals itself to someand on them, the silence settles down.I found this out by accidentand now it seems I’m sick all the time.Akhmatova is like the dark sister of the fairy godmother: she doesn’t merely want us to know that love doesn’t exist, that we’ve all been duped; she wants to emphasize that those who do believe in it are probably stupid and lazy, and that they belong to a long, generic tradition of stupid and lazy people. Her scathing, casually delivered pronouncement describes much of life, all of reality TV, and whole chapters of anybody’s personal history. Its cold authority is thrilling.Thrilling, yes — but if the poem ended after two stanzas, it would seem narrow of heart. If the poetics of empathy can sometimes be simple-minded, satire also can be blind or petty, full of self-satisfaction without self-examination. The conclusion of Akhmatova’s poem, which raises it to greatness, is the admission of her own sickness of spirit, her own romantic disappointment. The resonance of the poem becomes truly full when it admits a kind of empathy. But not, we might note, until the first two stanzas have enacted their stylish evisceration of the romantic, untainted by the whiff of confession.
In poetry, as in life, meanness almost always has a personal flavor, and perhaps it is even more admirable for its lack of detachment. The mean speaker is not retired from the battles of selfhood, removed to some philosophical resort where experience can be codified in tranquility. She or he is still down in the dirty human valley, fighting it out with the rest of us. In that way, the mean speaker may possess more convincing credentials than a kind or wise one.In Akhmatova’s fierce lyric complaint, a resonant vision has been distilled from the speaker’s experience. It has been rendered, clear and caustic, with wit and skill. But the part of the self that has died to get it has left its flavor behind, and, even in translation, the bitterness seeps through, sweetly vengeful, like a worm in the vodka.
1721 Walnut St.Philadelphia, PA 19103Editors:Stephen Berg, David Bonanno, Arthur VogelsangAssociate Editor: Elizabeth Scanlon