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That's Why It's Poetry:

My judgment that you need to see the Mohammed cartoons to really understand the controversy — and that verbal descriptions of the cartoons can't explain the matter well enough — reminds me of this similar tidbit about poetry (see Edward de Grazia, Girls Lean Back Everywhere 335-36 (1992)).

In the late 1950s, California prosecutors brought obscenity charges against the publisher of Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl. One difficulty, of course, was figuring out what exactly this poem meant, but fortunately — as often happens in obscenity cases — the defense produced an expert witness, literary critic Mark Schorer, to testify about the subject. Here's an exchange between him and the prosecutor:

Prosecutor: I presume you understand the whole thing, is that right?

Schorer: I hope so. It's not always easy to know that one understands exactly what a contemporary poet is saying. . . .

Prosecutor: Do you understand what "angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night" means?

Schorer: Sir, you can't translate poetry into prose. That's why it's poetry.

Taimyoboi:
"but fortunately -- as often happens in obscenity cases -- the defense produced an expert witness..."

Do the justices also rely on experts in cases involving free speech and gentlemen's clubs, or do they use the "I'll know it when I see it argument" and engage in a little hands-on (I guess hands-off) research?
3.20.2006 5:51pm
thecaptain (www):
Right on about the cartoons. This also reminds me of Lenny Bruce once commenting on the state of his obscenity trial,"Man, it's weird, every night two humorless guys write down their impression of my live act, which is then recreated by another humorless lawyer in front of an equally humorless judge. I am being indicted for an act I did not perform!"
3.20.2006 6:01pm
Taimyoboi:
"'Schorer: Sir, you can't translate poetry into prose. That's why it's poetry.'"

You probably couldn't have had a better exchange if someone who subscribes to deconstructionism testified.
3.20.2006 6:02pm
Silicon Valley Jim:
Sir, you can't translate poetry into prose. That's why it's poetry.

And here I thought that people had been translating the Iliad, Odyssey, etc., into prose for centuries. Then again, Schorer was a professor at Berkeley, which probably explained a lot even in the 1950s.
3.20.2006 6:25pm
Kovarsky (mail):
yeah, that's a william jennings-bryan clarence-darrow moment if i've ever seen one.

by the way howl remains to this day the most affecting poem i've ever read. visions of johanna is the most affecting i've ever listened to. weird and sad how my whole generation knows dylan, but so few know ginsberg.
3.20.2006 6:26pm
big dirigible (mail) (www):
As a pithy exchange that falls a bit flat. The prosecutor didn't ask Schorer to translate it, he asked him if he understood it. Maybe he'd have understood the question if it had been posed as free verse.
3.20.2006 6:41pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Dirigible: Seems to me that "Do you understand what X means?" in this context doesn't call for a yes-or-no question, just like "Do you have the time?" doesn't call for a yes-or-no question. It calls, either as a direct response or as a response to the inevitable follow-up question, for an explanation of what X means -- a translation of X from poetry to prose. The professor's response is thus quite apt.
3.20.2006 6:48pm
George Gregg (mail):
I understand what it means, as do a lot of people.

But yeah, it's impossible to fully express outside of the Beat experience.
3.20.2006 6:54pm
Kovarsky (mail):
It's not that its hard to understand outside of the particular cultural milieu in which the piece was written, it's that whatever that understanding is, you are going to lose some of it in the change of form.

it's like the old adage that a joke isn't funny if you when you explain it.

I'm also not so sure where the Iliad argument gets you. Of course they've translated it for centuries, but their is always credited authorship in the translation, and the translation varies dramatically. With whatever variation you get, you are arguably going to lose some meaning. That's why it's always "the definitive translation." I'd argue the translation between languages is different from the translation between forms.

I'm also not sure how great the Muslim cartoon analogy is though. Of course you can understand the cartoons a lot better by seeing them, but if the story is the controversy, not the cartoon, I don't see why the visual content of the cartoon is indispensible. The analogy fails because if the story was "Allen Ginsberg Came out with a New Poem and it really Pissed off Some Ladies on the Upper East Side," I'm not sure how essential the actual expression in the poem would be to conveying the content necessary for the story. Of course you are going to ask "what about it pissed them off, etc. etc.," so there is some similarity there, but just not as much as there might seem at first glance.
3.20.2006 7:07pm
Solid State (mail):
The Muslim cartoon analogy doesn't work in the absence of the obscenity trial for Howl itself. In the case of the cartoons, the reader is somewhat analogous to the judge in the obscenity trial. The translation of the cartoons into prose prevents the reader/judge from making value judgements about the community response. Thus, the media is in the position of arguing that it is capable of translating cartoons into text while still preserving the content sufficiently to enable readers to make these judgements.

Unfortunately, it is probable that the media in this case doesn't believe that value judgements by the reader are an appropriate response or that enabling such judgements are a neccessary part of the story. I suspect this may be the true clash between critics of the 'no-publish' policy and supporters - at least where fear of reprisals is not the driving factor.
3.20.2006 8:54pm
Moneyrunner43 (www):
It's not that its hard to understand outside of the particular cultural milieu in which the piece was written, it's that whatever that understanding is, you are going to lose some of it in the change of form.


OK, I'll risk being accused of being dense, but the sentence above makes very little sense. I'll try a little translation: "You don't understand the poem if you don't understand the code in which people like Ginsberg communicated. And the code in which Ginsberg communicated is not translatable into English." This is, of course, bovine excrement.

You see, I can even translate Kovarski.

And, of course the image of the cartoon is indispensable. For example, one image is of the stick figure of a man. To understand the underwhelming nature of the insult to Islam, it is REQUIRED to be able to see the cartoons and judge them using contemporary Western standards. If we do not, all we have is the opinion of people who are literally afraid of their lives -- the mainstream media -- who assure us that the cartoons are patently offensive, not just to Muslims, but to modern Western audiences.

To anyone who has seen these cartoons, this is patently absurd, but it is the excuse that is given. Publishing the cartoons would give the lie to these claims, which is one of the primary reasons they are NOT published.
3.20.2006 8:58pm
Kovarsky (mail):
Moneyrunner43,

OK, I'll risk being accused of being dense, but the sentence above makes very little sense. I'll try a little translation: "You don't understand the poem if you don't understand the code in which people like Ginsberg communicated. And the code in which Ginsberg communicated is not translatable into English." This is, of course, bovine excrement.

I'm sorry if I was unclear. Someone upthread had mentioned that it is a difficult poem to understand if you weren't part of beat culture. I thought what I said was a fairly clear response to that - the loss of meaning isn't because you can't culturally identify, it's because the form the cultural meaning takes, poetry versus prose. I'm also sure that you could reconstitute Howl's meaning in binary, but that would be an awfully crappy poem. I also take the witness to be saying that if multiple meaning lies at the center of poetry (particularly Ginsberg, for goodness sake), it is silly to ask for a singular one. I'm not sure why you were being so vicious.

And, of course the image of the cartoon is indispensable.

Great. My point was that the visual content of a cartoon is less central to an inquiry about the propriety of violence responding to it than the literary content of a poem is to the inquiry about what that poem means.

And, of course the image of the cartoon is indispensable. To understand the underwhelming nature of the insult to Islam, it is REQUIRED to be able to see the cartoons and judge them using contemporary Western standards.

Great again. Your position is perfectly backwards. The cartoons are only indispensible to the extent that they help the audience figure out an undetermined quality. If there is no debate whatsoever that the cartoons are inoffensive you can simply report "Radical Muslims Go Apeshit Over Completely Innocuous Cartoons." The indispensibility of the cartoons can only come in if you concede they are subject to a more malign interpretation than you seem willing to admit.
3.20.2006 9:41pm
Kovarsky (mail):
excuse me, "benign"
3.20.2006 9:46pm
George Gregg (mail):
"...the loss of meaning isn't because you can't culturally identify, it's because the form the cultural meaning takes, poetry versus prose."

Well, I'd dare say that a lot of it is the cultural identification issue, too. It would be farcical to believe that members of the establishment actually trying to prosecute Ginsberg for obscenity could truly understand the culture behind his poetry, any more than folks who would consider Michaelangelo's "David" to be pornography would appreciate the beauty of that work.

Sure, you can describe both works of art in prose, and the prose is completely inadequate. But there's also a fundamental inability to appreciate the culture, as well.

Of course, the form is important, as you suggest. Poetry (like sculpture) allows you to convey ideas without having to discursively define them. But it's not that it's some hidden code that doesn't lend itself to elucidation. It's just that, if you haven't been part of the scene, or haven't spent a fair amount of time with, say, Ginsberg's work (and related others), no amount of prose definition is going to adequately convey the cultural depth of what "angel headed hipsters" really means. Because artistic "meaning" itself is complex, multiphasic and ephemeral.

Not to be snobbish or anything. It's that way with all culture and all art, I guess. That's the beauty of poetry as a form - it allows us to express what we cannot really define.

Kind of like a howl.
3.20.2006 10:12pm
Kovarsky (mail):
George, I think you're right - I think in my head I was making the point that it wasn't JUST the cultural identification issue, it was also the form. But it came out with the wrong modifier.

I would argue, incidentally, that you would get a similar phenomenon with Eminem. I'm OBVIOUSLY not equating the two in terms of quality, but I do think if you asked somebody to write a summary of what Eminem means you'd miss the entire literary meteor that is his internal rhyme and meter.
3.20.2006 10:22pm
George Gregg (mail):
Kovarsky: While I'm admittedly sore reluctant to put my hands in the air for Slim Shady, I agree with you.
3.20.2006 10:45pm
Fishbane (mail):
You see, I can even translate Kovarski.

...And proved him correct, in that you obviously lost and distorted the original meaning in your translation.

If we do not, all we have is the opinion of people who are literally afraid of their lives -- the mainstream media -- who assure us that the cartoons are patently offensive, not just to Muslims, but to modern Western audiences.

I probably haven't been following closely enough, so apologies there, but is there an example of a U.S. media outlet of any repute size making this argument?
3.20.2006 10:49pm
Mark L:
I will first freely admit to not having read all the comments in full. Just because I love howl, I thought I would mention that Ginsberg himself said much the same thing about poetry as did the expert witness (though lacking the fun of the x-examination....)

"To call it work of nihilistic rebellion would be to mistake it completely. Its force comes from positive religious belief and experience. It offers no
'constructive' program in sociological terms - no poem could. It does offer a constructive human value - basically the experience - of the enlightment of
mystical experience - without which no society can long exist."
3.20.2006 11:13pm
Moneyrunner43 (www):
Fishbane:

Perhaps you can do a better job of interpreting Kovarski than I. Please go ahead. However, that's my interpretation of what I thought he meant to say. But, as I said, I am always ready to read a better translation.

The media has been strangely circumspect about the characterization of these cartoons. They have termed them "controversial." Why use the term controversial if you do not believe your your audience may be offended? Dennis Hartig in the Virginian Pilot writes: "We have to be careful that we try to avoid a cartoon that some might see as sacrilege…"

This is necessary of course, because it is all too easy to remember the media's defense of such images as "Piss Christ" and a dung smeared image of the Virgin Mary. No sir, no sacrilege there.

So if there is no fear of offense, why not show the images? The rioters have gone home. Is now the time to let the majority of the population -- the part that did not go to the internet to see these images -- see them for themselves? Or shall we "translate" for them.

I see some interesting arguments on this thread that imply that some things are just not translatable. If that's true of a poem, is it not true of a series of 12 cartoon images? As to whether the images are malignant or benign, in the absence of the actual images before each individual who wishes to participate in the debate we really can't have an informed debate, can we?

And no, I am not willing to have either the MSM or others who arrogate to themselves the role of information gatekeeper to make those determinations for me.
3.21.2006 8:14am