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Anders Carlson-Wee's "How-To"

Poetasters, dirty politicians, and other liars soil the cosmos. Exposing them remains in my toolkit. I read charlatans so you don't have to!

The Postmod Sneer

Introduction and Text of "How-To"

In Anders Carlson-Wee's "How-To," the speaker is offering advice about "how to" communicate with people one might meet. Shockingly, its message is a useful one, as it places attention on the claim that people do not really care about other people's foibles and concerns because folks are mostly wrapped up in their own, which is essentially an appropriate way to approach the issue.

While the main point of advice is useful, the execution of the piece is not completely successful. At times the speaker seems to be employing the Black Vernacular as in its omission of the "be" verb, for example, in the first line, "If you a girl." But then it reverts back to standard English in the very next clause with "say you're pregnant." To retain the Black Vernacular the line should be, "say you pregnant," as in "If you a girl."

The speaker also toggles between Black and standard English in the clauses: "you is," "you're young," and then in the final line, "they is. You hardly even there." So the inconsistent use of Black Vernacular reveals an inauthentic persona, who is acquainted with the two forms of English but unable to maintain consistency in their use. On the other hand, John McWhorter has argued that this toggling is quite consistent. He writes:

Now, however, educated whites are quite often aware that black people can talk in two ways depending on circumstance. Carlson-Wee, for example, is certainly aware of this: “If you a girl, say you’re pregnant,” the protagonist says, alternating between leaving out the be verb (a process actually subject to complex constraints in black speech—you don’t just leave it out willy-nilly) and using it (you’re). This is a spot-on depiction of the dialect in use, as something dipped in and out of gracefully. (The Atlantic, August 6, 2018)

While McWhorter is quite correct about the real-world toggling usage of Black English and standard English, this information does not take into consideration that the speaker of the poem is speaking with only one voice, his/her own. The speaker of this poem, whom McWhorter has identified as a homeless person, although that depiction is not clear from the poem itself, would not be likely to have "dipped in and out of" Black and standard English "gracefully" or otherwise. This person, especially if meant to be a homeless character, would be speaking consistently with his/her own dialect.

Still while the poem's execution is faulty, the message is a useful one that unfortunately, may be overlooked because of the poet's weak craftsmanship.

How-To

If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,
say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick. People
passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee
funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely
to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop. If you’re young say younger.
Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hardly even there.

Commentary

The speaker is attempting to offer advice on how to relate to others by informing his listeners about what sort of information his listeners should reveal to others.

First Movement: A Bad Start

If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,
say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick.

Unfortunately, the poem gets off to a shaky start. And it may be likely that the first two lines will be all that a reader will care to read, dismissing the piece as inaccurate drama.

The speaker is telling people with "hiv" that they should just admit they have "aids." Contrary to this piece of advice, there is a medical distinction between being hiv-positive and having the full-blown disease; thus one can in fact say truthfully that one has "hiv" but not "aids." That the speaker is unaware of this distinction puts a damper on his advice, though as we will see his ultimate point is one well taken.

Just as silly is the notion that just because you are a girl means you are "pregnant." Many girls go through their entire lives without ever becoming pregnant. However, one might give the advisor a pass on this one, allowing that he is purposefully conflating parts of what the pregnant girl might be saying to cover her pregnancy.

But then the speaker tells that girl that when she says she is pregnant people will no stick their ears to her belly to find out for sure. But how he knows this is also doubtful. Some loony folks will, in fact, "lower / themselves to listen for the kick."

Second Movement: Remember the Little Shames

People
passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee
funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely
to comprehend.

The speaker becomes general, speaker about people in general as passing by one another in a fast paced world. They will not really notice the big things anyway so just throw your legs akimbo, make a strange gesture with your knee. Those insignificant things are more likely to get you noticed because those "littlest shames" are what people understand best.

This passage seems to be a place holder, not revealing much specifically, yet adding some sharp sounding words like "splay, "cock," "shames," and "comprehend." But it does orient the message to what people really see as opposed to what they eventually understand.

Third Movement: Charity for the Homeless

Don’t say homeless, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop.

Now the speaker tells the homeless not to say "homeless," because people already know that fact. He does not tell the homeless what to say, so one assumes they need say nothing. But the people passing by the homeless, the speaker claims, are unaware of why they will bother to stop, open their purses, and drop some money into the coffers of the waiting homeless.

The people of charity do not know why they are giving, but the homeless has no need to announce his status. If the charitable ones are going to give, they will give anyway, without stopping to count the amount of their gift.

Fourth Movement: The Strength of the Comparative

If you’re young say younger.
Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice.

The speaker advises the young to use the comparative "younger" to describe their age as well as the old to use "older" to describe theirs. The purpose of this goes unexplained; perhaps the speaker just likes the sound of the comparative which offers a more vague category.

The speaker advises the "cripple" not to "flaunt" their handicap. They should just allow people to become aware of the handicap on their own because they are "enough / Christian." Again, why being "Christian" or of any religion should impact that observation goes without hint of implication.

Fifth Movement: The Saving Grace

Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hardly even there.

The speaker then tells possibly the religious not to reveal that they pray but do reveal that they "sin." Even though the two acts are not mutually exclusive because one likely heralds the other, the speaker opines that silence on the one is in order while announcing the other is better practice.

The final two lines are the saving grace for this heavily flawed poem. Communication and relationships between people can be improved if each party realizes that the other is more self-involved than s/he is involved in determining the situation of the other person. Because each person is more interested in his/her own situation, the other person is hardly there at all, this, just barely in existence.

Of course, it would be a grave mistake to think oneself invisible, especially that one's mistakes will go unnoticed, but just the gentle reminder, for the most part, that each individual always remains more focused on his/her own self than on others can be very useful and eliminate stress and overthinking in the communication process.

The Nation Controversy

On July 5, 2018, The Nation published Anders Carlson-Wee's "How-To." Twitter lit up with much gnashing of teeth and whining from the literary illiterate. Triggered by the uproar against the poem, the poetry editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, offered a stunning apology for publishing the poem. The poet also caved to the pressure, offering his "disappointing mea culpa" on Twitter.

This pathetic response by those editors and the poet to people who are incapable of understanding a poem has since been criticized and much decried by those who can, in fact, fathom poetry as well as culture. Two of the better Twitter responses included the following:

John Salter: "Now, apologize to all poets for the harm you've done to them with your apology."

Bertrand Teap: "The poem was laughably bad but not because it offended people."

Grace Schulman, who served as poetry editor of The Nation for 35 years from 1971-2006, remarked in her opinion piece in The New York Times:

I was deeply disturbed by this episode, which touches on a value that is precious to me and to a free society: the freedom to write and to publish views that may be offensive to some readers.

In my years at The Nation, I was inspired by the practical workings of a free press. We lived by Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

Even Katha Pollitt, poet and columnist for The Nation, and not one usually offended by political correctness, was disgusted by the "craven apology," opining on Twitter:

I can’t believe @thenation’s poetry editors published that craven apology for a poem they thought was good enough to publish. They should have told critics to write letters and published a page of them.

Pollitt then added: "What they wrote looks like a letter from re-education camp."

The Nation then seemed to be taking Pollitt's advice—the same advice offered also in Joan W. Scott's letter—when the editors offered various missives they had received regarding the controversy in "Letters From the September 10-17, 2018, Issue." Prefacing the letters, the editors offered the following milquetoast, disingenuous response:

For our part, we’re glad that we live in a world in which poems (and apologies) can still arouse such fierce opinions—and we remain absolutely committed to airing them.

It is difficult to believe that these naïve editors, who caved at the TwitterFest of negative remarks against their choice of poem, would be glad to live in a world where "fierce opinions" get shared; obviously, this response is an attempt to regain some credibility with those who embrace free communication and expression. But the damage has been done and as Grace Schulman averred, the magazine betrayed the poet and itself, and from that there is no going back.

Sources

Anders Carlson-Wee reading his piece called "Primer"

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes