The Liberal White Man’s Burden


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and yes, if you are wondering why i havent continued the train of thought from a few posts down, it’s because i’ve been busy-busy with school…hopefully some reprieve soon. today was fun tho, as i got to meet with one my poetry heroines juliana spahr at her lovely home in berkeley. i ‘interviewed’ her for a project i’m working on which i will talk more about later.


what i do want to blog about today is a blogpost i just read by BILL KNOTT. a rambling post in which he bashes ron silliman’s choice of aram saroyan’s complete minimal poems as the winner of the william carlos williams award.

i’ve only been in the poetry world for a short time, but it’s quite obvious to me that everyone–from poets to editors, judges to critics, translators to reviewers–has their preferences. and yes, there’s a fine line between preferences and prejudices. to me, ron’s choice reflected his preferences and a particular reading of williams. so what.

i commented on what i found interesting about his choice here: “a writer whose work hardly gets talked about in terms of ‘ethnic’ poetry gets chosen for an award named after a writer whose work hardly gets talked about in terms of ‘ethnic’ poetry.”

what’s very strange about knott’s post is that he accuses ron of “picking a Rich White Male from a wealthy background.” he goes on to say, parenthetically: “(Parenthetically, in his desire to honor the heritage of WCW, might he not well have considered the ethnic roots of William Carlos Williams, and with that lineage in mind looked to chose one of the meritous poets of Hispanic background currently publishing their work—).”

isnt it funny how Knott italices the “carlos” as if to say hello! look at his middle name and recognize his ‘ethnic roots! hello mr knott, look at ‘aram saroyan’. oh wait, let me italicize it for you ‘aram saroyan‘. that look like a ‘white’ name to you? of course, ethnicity’s much more complicated than one’s names: saroyan is jewish / armenian. dig his pic. williams’ mother, Raquel Helene Rose Hoheb, was born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico (her mother was from Matinique and her father was from Puerto Rico of Dutch ancestry ). Williams’ father, William George Williams, was an English businessman. if knott wants the winner of the prize to match up with the prize name, saroyan is not a bad choice.

another annoying thing about knott’s post is his white paternalism. apparently, he was also a judge of the williams prize at some point:

“I can hardly criticize Silliman for choosing a White Male when I myself back there in what year was it, ’77, ’78, did the same—

and nothing (it seems) has changed in the 30 years since then, has it—

I could have opted for an African-American Woman/Latina/Asian, but I voted my private devotion to [John] Logan”

yes mr. knott you had the power and oh why didnt you bestow your lamplight onto the tired, the poor, the huddled masses and wretched refuse that yearn to win poetry prizes awarded by white men. oh great father, why did you forsake us!

knott goes on, still reeling from the guilt of not having fulfilled The Liberal White Man’s Burden (i feel a Kipling spoof coming on):

“Thirty years ago I could have voted for a minority poet, a woman poet, but I didn’t, and last week Silliman could have also, but he didn’t.”


i cant help it (first stanza):

Take up the Liberal White Man’s burden–
Reject the work of ye breed–
Go find the poets of color
To serve your editors’ need;
To read in every corner,
Of common folk and exotic–
Your new-caught, ethnic flavor,
Half-devil and half-poet.



12 thoughts on “The Liberal White Man’s Burden

  1. Speaking as a Liberal White Man, CSP, let me just say this:


    Back on Thursday I pegged your (then) title as a riff on Langston Hughes’s “Harlem.” That’s the poem’s title, or subtitle, in the sequence “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” which is where you’ll find it in the Collected; it doesn’t get the title “Dream Deferred” until the Selected Poems, and loses something in the translation.

    Sorry, but I beat Francisco on this one. I’ll take any delay in according me the point as further proof of your unconscionable… I don’t know… something bad.

    (More once I’ve had some coffee. With plenty of “whitener,” natch.)

  2. Go ahead and give Eric that point, Craig 🙂

    and I’ll say:

    A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Book

    by Edmond Jabes
    translated by Rosmarie Waldrop

  3. Are we sure it’s not “Bill Knott Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Foreigner”?

    Interesting that you riff on Emma Lazarus to make your point, CSP. What’s up behind that?

  4. francisco gets the point!

    hey eric,

    sorry about that. i just wanted to see what happens to a point deferred. apparently nothing. you get the point! and you get an extra point for the riff on the current title!

    haha bill knott writes a response in the comments to his post that i linked to. pretty funny actually.

    who knows…i was thinking about statues…i heard someone screaming from the bathroom ‘LIBERTY!!!’ some dead guy was coming to life on the TV…i happened to be reading jane austen…stranger things have happened.


    go play the omnidawn game!!!

  5. Hey Craig,

    Saw the repartee over on Knott’s blog, and made a snarky-ass comment of my own. Boy there’s so much to unpack here.

    The funny thing is, I think Knott brings up some valid points about class and who gets picked for what prizes and such. I think it’s interesting that while he pays lip service to the idea of naming a person of color to the Williams prize, I don’t think he actually named one. Still, in a weird way (white paternalism aside), he could have been considered an ally in some other corner of the universe.

    As for Silliman, I don’t know the man personally, but if there’s one blog out there that has consistently brought up and bigged up poets of color, it’s his. I don’t agree with his choice either (Saroyan’s poems are tired and hopelessly self-serving for my tastes), but it’s not like Silliman didn’t explain himself, either. Whatever…people don’t like his explanation, that’s cool, but for Knott to paint him racist, however indirectly? Meh, not so much.

  6. dear csperez:

    i put your post in the comments box under my WCW diatribe because i wanted my readers (all six of them, hardly anybody visits my blog, according to the stats counter) to see an opposing p.o.v . . .

    unlike Silliman’s two-billion-served blog I don’t monitor or pre-screen or censor the comments on mine . . . anybody can leave a comment contra to my feeble opinions and see it posted onscreen seconds later. . .

    (the only things i come along and delete later are links to porno, or if i hit the wrong button occasionally)…

    as for who’s up or down in po biz, surely the lowest po on the totempole is a vanity poet like me who self-publishes his poetry on his blog, no? (have you noticed that I have posted all my poetry, every poem I’ve written since 1960, on my blog for open access and free download?)

    you can go through the poets and writers magazine for the past twenty years and never find my name listed as a judge for a book contest . . .

    i have no power in the po biz: that’s a statement which you could research/check the truth of fairly quickly . . .

    c’mon, i bet you never even heard of me before this, did you? and if you never heard of me, how much of a pobiz honcho hidalgo hierarch can i be? you got me confused with Robert Pinsky: he’s the one who’s on every panel that awards grants fellowship prizes and book-deal publications, not me—

    paint me as the white paternalistic oppressor, fine, i’ll be that, only where’s my fucking whip?

  7. to keep belaboring the point:

    my first book was published in 1968, which puts me in the pobiz for forty years:

    never in those four decades have i been asked to judge a book contest—

    (once—once only—i judged a chapbook contest for Garden Street Press: you know, world-famous Garden Street Press, prestigious Garden Street Press—a local press here in Boston which put out 3 or 4 chapbooks and then folded: I chose as winner a local poet, Miriam Goodman)—

    then in I can’t remember the year, 25-30 years ago, I was as mentioned in my original post one of a three-man panel judging the PSA’s WCW—

    then about ten years ago i judged another of the PSA prizes, the one for over-40 poets who hadn’t published a book; the mss. were anonymous, the poet I read-blind picked turned to be Liz Waldner who subsequently had some volumes put out by Post-Avant publishers—

    ( and i vaguely remember judging a small magazine contest once—)

    but that’s it for forty years, unless i’ve forgotten something. . .
    not a very impressive track record, is it, compared to the real PoBiz movers and shakers—

    the PoBiz Biggies who judge the book contests and sit on the panels awarding fellowships grants and jobs—

    i was never one of them: read back through the thirty years of Poets and Writers Magazine issues and their names will leap out at you——

    it doesn’t take much research to learn who has ruled the various Pobiz roosts for the last 2-4 decades, and who rules them now—

    and it ain’t me, cs, it ain’t me—

    not only was i never asked to judge a book contest in the forty years of my lousy “career,” but i was never asked to teach at a writers conference either——peruse all those ads for such in P&W over those decades, you won’t see my name on any of them rosters . . .

    ah yes to be your Kipling on the throne of PoBiz Power where I could alternately oppress you and pour my paternalistic endowments upon your huddled verses:

    doesn’t seem very likely that i’ll ever be even close to that position, does it?

  8. hey rich,

    i agree; knott does make some good points about class that i failed to acknowledge.

    hey bill,

    to be honest, you are quite legendary among many of my friends for all the work you’ve done for indie publishing. we appreciate your integrity. in my snarkiness i failed, again, to acknowledge your contributions in that area, and your non-contributions in constructing the white po-biz. i really don’t see you as my kipling or as a white oppressor of ‘huddled verses’, i was just teasing your two comments which i often hear from other people involved in the white po-biz and it annoyed me. so i apologize for using you to illustrate what i see as symptomatic of some sections of the po-biz. no, you are not even close to that position, and i do appreciate your gesture of what you couldve done 😉

    thanks for your thoughtful, funny comments.


    oh look! my neiman-marcus catalog came today! looks like i’ll be blogging from my gold toilet seat from now on 😉

  9. Williams was a *doctor* for God’s sake..and consequently ,possessed more money than me, you, Silliam, Knott…probably combined. I don’t quite get the connection between Williams and under-represented minorities in the least. For all intents and purposes, certainly from the perspective of his time, he was a white guy like anyone else–perhaps descended from the first wave of immigrants to hit U.S. shores in the 19th century, but in no way part of any immigrant population since that time.

    Ergo, any talk of the legacy of Williams vis-a-vis non-whiteness is kind of hollow. Which is not to say that because of that that the award ought to a priori go to a white guy at all. However, I’d say that Craig is correct in pointing out that from an “ethnic” perspective that Saroyan fits the Bill moreso than Williams does. Perhaps they are both (Williams and Saroytan) united in having wads of cash that most of us, white or less white or not white do not. Being immersed in penury myself, I don’t however, object to the choice of Saroyan on that basis. (In fact, I don’t object to the choice of Saroyan at all, but that is not my point here.)

    My point here being that I’d say the issue of race here is irrelevant. Certainly nobody would call Saroyan canonical–his exception from said cannon having nothing to do whatsoever with race, but rather the character of the work he does. Which I’d say one would be hard pressed not to recognize its influence, however, remotely upon what has followed in poetry. Nobody had collected it in the way that UDP did previously, so thus, as an editorial effort, it is “contemporary” insofar as it hasn’t been done before. 40 years is not a huge amount of time in the scheme of things, so perhaps Saroyan wasn’t recognized 40 years, well, then why not now?–The award isn’t about specifically lauding the work of “new” or “young” poets, but rather the best book of the year by a small publisher, the criteria of which, I would say that the Saroyan book fulfills admirably.


    A side bit of trivia–Edwin Arlington Robinson was originally slated to be the poet placed upon “Liberty Enlightening the World” (the actual name of the statue), but Lazarus won out because she, gasp, knew someone involved with the commissioning of the statue. So, ah, nepotism goes back to the very beginning.

    BUT…I’ve read the Robinson poem that would have been in place of the Lazarus one, and Lazarus’s is better.

    It all comes out in the wash…

  10. thanks for your kind comments!

    i certainly can’t claim to be be free from biases prejudices of my lifetime’s cultural context . . . at my age (68) the arteries aren’t the only thing entering a state of concrete . . .

    objectivity of judgment (if such is possible) difficult to acquire the distance of or the desire . . .

    anyway, the future of poetry is yours to create, not mine:

    let the dead bury the dead—

    shovel the sand over my head—


  11. Oh, again, I haven’t an opinion on the contest since I didn’t read the book in question. I’m just feeling better that cronyism in general can’t write.

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