A divided state of being
Although poets jokingly called the Dodge Festival "Wordstock" to convey the feelings and magnitude the event had for them, this year's festival actually managed to live up to the level of myth-making. For the grand finale, the best of the best in American poetry took to the podium. While I am still not completely clear on the criteria for becoming a New Jersey or United State poet laureate, I do realize that talent plays an immense part.
In New Jersey, of course, the selection process involves a clique of self-important purveyors of poetic powers, mostly academics -- who have hooked onto the government's coat tails, taking charge of issuing grants and such to particular groups of worthy people throughout the state. These funds often as not go to poets whose output would rarely be agreeable to the taxpayers forced to foot the bill -- the way taxpayers were forced to pay for what they considered offensive art on display at the Brooklyn Museum a few years ago.
At the awarding of her annual Ginsberg Poetry prizes, Maria Gillan, director of the Paterson Poetry Center in Passaic Community College, defended this pick-pocketing of taxpayers in order to provide poets with revenues -- failing to admit the awards often go to select groups around the state not to the most needy artists. Partly because of the unfairness in distribution of grants, I am opposed to governmental support of the arts. The Baraka censorship situation that emerged immediately after the Dodge is another reason. What the government gives, it can take away -- especially when the artist says something the government finds distasteful or distasteful to powerful lobbyists.
It is remarkable that this clutch of self-appointed dictators of culture managed to elect two of the state's better poets to serve as New Jersey Poet Laureates -- Gerald Stern and Amiri Baraka. And the performances of these two poets during the final afternoon of the Dodge pointed to the sharp division in the state's artist community as well as presented a significant contrast in poetic styles and politics.
In some ways, Stern and Baraka helped form the boundaries of the conflict that would transpire after the Dodge, when several reactionary Jewish groups attempted to have Baraka removed as the state's poet laureate for his allegedly anti-Semitic six lines of poetry.
Stern and Baraka seem to represent the divided nature of New Jersey, one shaped around urban and suburban themes. Stern represented the Jewish migration out of the cities and into the suburbs, his poetry recalling the vague memory of what life was in the city before that migration -- hardly representative of the turmoil and despair Baraka and the black community faced each day.
Stern's vision was often sentimental; a remembrance of survival that had lost its edge with the transition to new locations into wealthier, more luxurious life styles urban blacks could only envy. For Stern, places like Newark still thrived with street corner traditions, the candy store, the cleaners and the old people living in the backs of each. His poetry did not contemplate the vast wasteland that many cities like Paterson, Newark and Camden had become. His poems still saw buildings and people in spaces that had long since burned, and occupants evacuated.
Stern's verse danced with gentleness, a kind of study in that slow pace small towns used to imbibe. His poems were thick with dogs and personal experience, as if he saw the world while in a rocking chair on a house's front porch circa 1935. If he challenged authority, it came in the form of chastising, but always in that slow careful meter.
He still lived in Newark, still saw the scars of the 1967 riots and felt the shards of racism behind the massive white flight from urban areas. His poetry portrayed the inner city as one large prison around which wealthy whites had put up walls. Those who survived the streets did so through their wits. He criticized every one of every other and every race, blasting all those he believed helped maintain unfair, unjust system of privilege -- especially those parties responsible for the building of this urban prison system, which refused to help those stuck inside it.
It is no mystery as to why Governor Jim McGreevey -- the former mayor of a mostly white middle class town -- should seek to silence Baraka.
Baraka attacked the roots of a system of justice into which McGreevey had put so much faith, and from which McGreevey has garnered much of his political power -- a system filled with well-meaning liberals who wish to help urban blacks, but also profit off their misery. Where as harsher Republicans would do away with the Welfare state, liberal Democrats have always relied upon it as a source of patronage, supplying their followers with jobs and funds funneled down from the federal government.
Yet liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans tend to send their own children to the same higher quality schools, leaving the decaying institutions of the ghetto to those unable to escape: blacks, Latinos and other ethnic groups.
Baraka's poetry must seem to this liberal artistic establishment like a stab in the back -- especially to the predominance of Jewish intellectuals who make up the heart of the state's art bureaucracy -- who must feel the truth and sting behind most of Baraka's claims.