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A Review of SCOWL by Dustin Pickering

The following review was first published in the July 2019 issue of Alien Buddha Press. It is reprinted here by permission of the author. My humble thanks and gratitude to Dustin Pickering for putting so much time and thought into my work.

“Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous – to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: to the perverse, the illicit, the absurd.”
-Thomas Mann, Death in Venice and Other Tales

They destroy other minds because they themselves have been destroyed. The situation satire of Jay Sizemore’s poem “Scowl” is both a parody of its progenitor “Howl” and an expression of empathy. The poem caused a violent uproar among the people whose personalities and experiences it sought to explore poetically. Far left feminists, offended by the work, threatened the original publisher: oddly, these actions demonstrated the need for the poem and its freedom. Sizemore is no stranger to controversy of this type, writing on uncomfortable subjects including his recent collection Second Amendment Pastoral. Note the irony of the title and how it invokes a “pleasant” past America has not seen since the days before the Industrial Revolution. The brilliance of Sizemore is his ability to convey the origin of a problem and relate it to its expression. In a sense, he is a psychologist of the political mind.

“Scowl” is no different in its merits.

However, the poem is not without sincere critics. The most trenchant and honest criticism comes from former editors at Revolution John, the online journal that published “Scowl”. They tell of their experiences at the journal. Savannah Sipple writes, “we can often be hasty in our attempts at social commentary, particularly when we’re speaking to experiences that are not
our own. The poem isn’t wrong here. But too many other lines in ‘Scowl’ send up red flags.” The examples she notes include Sizemore’s list of “trigger warnings.” For instance, the ambiguous phrase “burning like an empire at the end of its reign / burning like menstruation.” Sipple believes the poem reflects Sizemore’s childish tendency toward hate speech and aligns it with meninist movements. The poem is littered with masculine tropes. I would argue that the masculine tropes, combined with the feminine symbolism, demonstrate an imbalance in the psyche of contemporary culture.

Many of the masculinist metaphors reflect a sick culture bent on its own destruction while it cannabilizes the “other”. The poet’s language is indeed harsh and seemingly anti-feminine. However, the poet also writes these lines: “who wore a mattress around their neck for / performance art, carrying the weight of / a rolling stone, of an abortion scar, / of a sex tape gone wrong, / the world is a condom wrapper creased with / white wrinkles…” The lines suggest sexual excess. The performance art is a reference to Emma Sulkowicz’s piece “Carry That Weight” which was declared a masterpiece by many critics. However, later evidence against Sulkowicz revealed her accusation was false. Today’s “call out” culture tells us in a cultish manner that we should “always believe the victim.” Due process is forgotten. We cannot question claims even when they are proven false. Rolling Stone retracted the “A Rape on Campus” article because of false allegations. It is as if Sizemore is reminding women not to engage in excesses. Many will note that the sexual revolution, while having positive merits, also neglected the concept of moderation. At this point, Sizemore is engaging in the power struggle he condemns. He seeks to judge the perpetrators of false accusations for the public shame they cause. We should be willing to hear victims, but not unflinchingly believe their stories. Sizemore’s poem moralizes for this purpose. His anger is at the demands imposed on our culture by political grievances, the narcissism inherent in seeking a spot on the news, blind hedonism and materialism, imbalance, force in general especially when it humiliates. He echoes Ginsberg’s masterpiece because his moral vehemence is aimed for the same purposes. It is a parody in the sense that the corruption is so plastic in today’s world compared to the corruption of the 1950’s as to almost be clownish. People fight over a seat at the table— or a moment on the news.

However, this authoritarian spirit is not vacating the human soul anytime soon. Sipple details her relationship with the editor at Revolution John. She speaks highly of him and notes the intention of the poem according to its author. In fact, she seems to give him the benefit of the doubt yet notes politely that the poem causes pain regardless. In her criticism, she does not engage in a power struggle; rather, she offers her thoughts in a rational manner. In this respect, she outweighs others in responsible dialogue. These points are discussed in “Like it never happened”. Should we allow this type of expression in the poetry community? Does the poem have “redeeming social value”? Or is it hate speech? Should hate speech be
protected? The poem is modeled after Allen Ginsberg’s masterpiece “Howl” which earned him a reputation as rebellious cultural upstart. Does Ginsberg engage in brutal language in his poem? Ginsberg writes, “who howled on their knees in the subway and were / dragged off the roof waving genitals and manu- / scripts, / who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly / motorcyclists, and screamed with joy…” The language is indeed sexually graphic, but for what purpose? Ginsberg’s depiction of ecstatic rebellion is an assertion of self against authority. Professors defended the poem and its publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The judge finally ruled that although the poem may not be his cup of tea that does not mean it does not reflect certain realities and language used by others. Poetry is invention through language and as such must make use of the broad spectrum of possibilities that emerge all over the cultural atmosphere.

However, should the line be drawn when language becomes abuse? Is Sizemore’s poem abuse? This is the central question surrounding the controversy. In spite of advances in rulings that defend free expression, now the enemies have become we the people. The line between what constitutes hate speech confounds boundaries of speech in general. In the case of “Scowl” victims sense the poem is an attack on women. However, Sizemore explores the cultural factors that lead to such questions in “Scowl”. He opens with a line twisted from Ginsberg himself, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by narcissism…” This line invokes a cultural and human malaise that we try to bury. Its currents have existed throughout the American psyche for generations, but they reach their most destructive private expression today. It is truly a form of narcissism to treat culture as a means to your end. This is what many of today’s censorious students believe. Supposing far left views of fighting imperialism and racism, this is a culture that does not tolerate mere difference of opinion on these subjects. Free speech is seen as needing limitations, especially regarding the ever-poignant hate speech (please note my satirical use of poignant).

Christopher Lasch writes these especially trenchant observations in The Culture of Narcissism:

The proliferation of recorded images undermines our sense of reality. As Susan Sontag observes in her study of photography, “Reality has come to seem more and more like what we are shown by cameras.” We distrust our perceptions until the camera verifies them. Photographic images provide us with the proof of our existence, without which we would find it difficult even to reconstruct a personal history…. Among the “many narcissistic uses” that Sontag attributes to the camera, “self-surveillance” ranks among the most important, not only because it provides the technical means of ceaseless self-scrutiny but because it renders the sense of selfhood dependent on the consumption of images of the self, at the same time
calling into question the reality of the external world.

These words were written in 1979 but the observation is actually more true of today than back then. Social media has heightened the “proliferation of recorded images”, making it possible to share every detail of your life to an echo chamber of “fans”. Even Susannah Sipple acknowledges this. It also makes it possible to attack, bully, and harass anyone you choose behind the veil of anonymity that exists in cyberspace. Examples are all ends of the spectrum ranging from GamerGate to attacks on Anders Carlson-Wee and Toby Martinez de las Rivas. A person can pretend to be a celebrity by merely opening an account on Twitter. You can be an “influencer” when you gain 2,000 or more followers. Social media heightens the narcissistic extremes of individualism. Why should it be a tool to impose collectivism? How does it become such a tool?

Sizemore muses, “they could rewrite history on a social / media feed, standing on their armchairs with / eyes rolled back to the whites, sharks / gnashing at invisible meat in the white / sea foam…” The word white repeated creates cognitive dissonance in the reader, as Sizemore is summing up in his parodic diatribe. Why is “white” so offensive? Here it could be said that white implies a state of uncertainty, of “noise”, of ironic purity. He is taking a shot brilliantly at the source of narcissism—the cradle where we are born pure. ‘White’ implies innocence but it also implies confusion, such as the chaos of television static. Don Delillo’s postmodern masterpiece White Noise is an example of this use. Sizemore’s use of white evokes different aspects of the narcissistic pathology seen in his subject and how it conforms to the world culture. Let us remember Ginsberg’s invocation to “negro streets at dawn” in lines paralleling Sizemore’s positioning of “white”. Sizemore is deliberately trolling the subject of his criticism. He does this genuinely to vindicate the meaning of the poem. If the narcissistic public reacts violently, the poem is vindicated, simply. The poem does not appear to be about the victim because it is not about the victim. It is about the cultural phenomenon surrounding the victim. “Sarah” is an invisible woman, much like the “invisible meat” of the lines above, or the women who make themselves “invisible” to declare every man a rapist in the bathroom stall. Let’s ask what invisible could possibly mean.

In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the invisible person in question is a
persecuted man surrounded and hounded by cultural factors. His existence is effectively negated by confusion, absurdity, and violence. Sizemore lists many such cultural factors today throughout the poem. His list includes: the labeling of Ovid and Greek mythology as problematic, Charles Manson (who is mock-sympathetically portrayed as dying of a broken heart), George R. R. Martin, the Academy Awards, banning of Huckleberry Finn, and the
violence toward those who depict the prophet Mohammad visually. His list goes beyond this, but these examples serve my purpose. Sizemore depicts a world culture gone insane, brutalizing the gentleness in all of us (“the world is a dog food factory with an undisclosed source of meat”), and sacrificing the freedom we all desire for an uncertain safety. We are all made invisible, our individuality robbed from us systematically. Lines like “every person the warm nucleus at the center / of their solipsistic self” remind the reader of the inevitability of narcissism. Sizemore’s frustration is in being unable to escape this narcissism himself, and seeing it in everything makes the situation hopeless. He wishes to redirect our attention to the true enemy: not men, but the secrecy of the corporations and the violence within us we must tame individually, not collectively.

John McWhorter, professor of English at Columbia University, discusses how anti-racism is more harmful than racism itself in his talk “How Anti Racism Hurts Black People” available on Youtube. In this talk, McWhorter compares anti-racism as we see it today to a religion, noting many similarities between the religious attitude and the attitude of those who
are today’s “anti-racists.” In Part II of “Scowl”, religious imagery inserts itself into the poem. Technology is equated with the Great Satan: “Hail Satan! The torture device! The wireless / router! The justice system!” The point of this imagery is to highlight how much of contemporary society is its own religion. In this sense, Sizemore becomes a critic of materialism and its excesses. Again, this reflects on his attacks against corporate secrecy. He
does not fail to demonstrate the same tendencies in “call out” culture. Satan invents materialism and hedonism, and all of contemporary society’s distortions and distractions. Satan is a figurative symbol of all that leads humankind to its demise. Satan is the internal deceiver. In Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Book of Job, he discusses Satan as the accuser, the one who brings us to trial as prosecuting attorney. The Book of Job is appropriate because the moral of the story is the innocent do indeed suffer in the world God created. However, G K Chesterton notes that The Book of Job portrays a God who is in awe of his creation. In a sense, perhaps, humankind is in awe of its creations. We forget the holiness that bore us in this self-adulation.

Sizemore’s poem is culturally informed. For instance, he shouts that Satan “forced Chinese feet into a / lotus”; these lines are reminiscent of a standard of beauty in China, women with small feet. A practice known as “foot binding” began in 10th century China. It is often called “lotus feet.” In this practice, young girls tightly bound their feet to impose smallness on them. This was seen as a status symbol until the 20th century. Women were crippled by the practice yet it was socially imposed. Sizemore notes this practice to demonstrate how standards of beauty harm women. He does not appear to attack all that is feminine, as noted by Sipple. Sizemore indicates throughout the poem that we should be pleased with the world we have and stop trying to improve it, and ourselves, artificially. His condemnation of hedonism reminds us that the dark side of life must be accepted. We cannot be rid of human misery and each attempt to address it seems to make matters worse. German Idealist Arthur Schopenhauer would agree. Satan is not only accuser—he is the very force within us that destroys us. He is our arrogance. God’s judgment is inherent in our nature.

Other poetry reflecting similar themes, such as Toby Martinez de las Rivas’s Black Sun, faced the same fate as Sizemore’s poem. His jeremiads got him thrown in a well. Ginsberg dedicates his poem to Carl Solomon, a writer who Ginsberg met on a psychiatric unit. Sizemore dedicates his poem to “Sarah”, someone we know nothing about but can assume is a victim of sexual abuse. Her ghost-like persona in the poem is telling. The poem is spoken in first person, engaging in narcissism in spite of critiquing it. The feelings of the poem’s subject are not taken into account at all. The only thing noted is the acts against her. This may be the source of the misunderstanding about “Scowl”. The poem depicts the brutality of sexual violence, the acts of humiliation the subject faces, and her subsequent
fears. Is there a purpose for such depictions? Are the critics right to assume this poem is a threat?

The poem is ambiguous on multiple levels but we do not know why. The subject is a victim of incestuous rape. This complicates things and furthers the ambiguity. Imagine being the victim of such a horror. Your emotions are already complicated and confused. Perhaps you identify with your rapist. You can’t hate him. You have a difficult time processing the criminal act against you. Why should the poet be allowed to even speak on behalf of such a victim? This question enters the discussion. Sizemore writes, “who makes tragedies about themselves rather / than the tragic”—this is an odd statement. Throughout the poem, Sizemore discusses himself and includes himself as a victim of online assault: “who says Jay Sizemore is a piece of shit, Jay / Sizemore is a fucking troll, I’ve blocked him / on all social media for thinking he’s / a victim…” If the poem is calling out “call out culture” for its narcissism, why does the poem reflect the poet himself in such a way? My previous paragraphs discuss this question in more detail.

Nevertheless, most of the poem is about cultural problems and cites non-personal examples such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn being removed for using racist language to condemn racist language. Here, we have a lead. Does Sizemore bring himself into the poem to participate in the narcissism he condemns—thus using narcissistic language to condemn narcissism? Or is the poem about him—portraying himself as the victim? The graphic
descriptions of sexual violence are more alerting than Sizemore’s self-reference. In Part 3 of the poem, Sizemore speaks as himself. This may indicate narcissism but it is actually directly parodying Ginsberg. Why does Sizemore invoke the violence perpetuated against his subject? In Part III of “Howl”, Ginsberg uses violent and ambiguous language as well. “I’m
with you in Rockland / where you’ve murdered your twelve secretaries…where you laugh at this invisible humor.”

Again, the use of the word invisible. Here it implies secretive. Yet there is nothing humorous in Part III of “Scowl”. The details of a woman trying to survive sexual assault as it occurs are not a light subject. Sizemore’s chorus of “I’m with you” is again ambiguous—why isn’t he direct in his condemnation of rape, incest, and all sexual violence? Is he portraying himself as a casual observer? Or is he expressing solidarity with the victim? The details of sexual violence are all united by image in this section—there are parallels such as “bruises on your arms / like purple handcuffs” with a later passage describing a police officer looking at the victim as if she asked for it. The doubter of sexual assault is equated with the perpetrator.

However, we must ask again why the ambiguity? Can a man speak for a woman who suffers sexual abuse? Why should he be permitted if it causes discomfort to others in the poetry community? Why is the victim portrayed as concealing the act? Her shame is in question—since Sizemore does not directly condemn sexual violence in this section we are left pondering if the poem is really an expression of empathy.

The poem often goes into hideous displays of irony: “who tore pages from the Vagina/ Monologues and stuffed them into their / vaginas…” In The Vagina Monologues, the vagina is symbolic of female empowerment and individuality. In these lines, Sizemore illuminates the confounding of image/spectacle with reality while telling the reader that the feminists who
attack individuality and free expression are actually anti-feminist by means of enforcing liberation through force and arrogance rather than civil expression. He is not criticizing all feminists—only those who behave in an aggressive and irresponsible manner.

The American New Criticism reminds us that the author’s intent is not the subject of criticism. This criticism, emerging in the 50’s, was used to combat censorship by authorities who referred to authorial intent as their vindication. The New Criticism is a rebuttal to censorship. Sizemore’s actual intention in the poem cannot be ascertained. We can only speculate as critics. The critics against the poem believe it is part of a “threat aesthetic”. As Sipple notes, the poem seems adverse to expressions of femininity. She suggests it degrades the matriarch in us all. How does this matriarch express herself?

Let’s take a look at Alina Stefanescu’s poem “How I Am Not like Donald Trump”. It is also an example of intellectual parody. It mocks the language of Rachel Custer’s “How I Am like Donald Trump” but does not engage in vitriol. Rather the poem expresses the poet’s understanding and rebuttal to Custer’s poem. Stefanescu writes:

“I did not lay
her small wonder at the hem
of a G-d or a nation.
Instead, I watched the fur
on her flanks pulse fast.
And sped my breath
to meet the terror
of the tiniest.”

This responds to Custer’s invocation of Donald Trump kicking a pebble into the Grand Canyon. Custer intends to show Donald Trump, who she humanizes, as merely mortal even if he develops a “larger than life” persona to his followers. This is a metaphor for the human condition and the vanity we all can ascribe to ourselves. Stefanescu employs her understanding of the poem and the fact she is unraveled by the humanizing of Donald Trump. However, the poem asserts another value altogether rather than dehumanizing the poet to whom she is responding. Her poem speaks of her impression of Donald Trump as a man who harms the little guy, and in the poem she voices her empathy for his victims. The truth, in terms of poetry of this kind, is not the important issue in this discussion. The focus here is on the approach Stefanescu takes to express her truth. She parallels Custer’s poem with a newfound observation of her own rather than demands or heated rhetoric. The poem disturbed her as poems can and will, but she responds with a poem in kind to express her own sense of self.

The ideological differences are not what drive the conversation at hand. Both poems, the one by Custer and Stefanescu’s rebuttal, prove poetry’s power as an expressive tool. Custer writes with an empathy that speaks of the deformity of the human ego and the Christian truth of human smallness, and Stefanescu responds with why she believes we are not always the humanity portrayed by Custer. Both highlight empathy in their own fashion and the dialogue between the poems is telling in itself.

Madness is the malaise Ginsberg diagnoses. His images show a hideous reality—the one of electroshock treatment, insanity, self harm, and cultural violence that culture itself ignores. He does not expressly condemn it. He experienced it. It celebrates the misunderstood, the misfits. For instance, Ginsberg writes: “…who sat in boxes breathing in the darkness under the / bridge, and rose up to build harpsichords in / their lofts”. Sizemore echoes this language in his parody. He lists absurdities ascribed to society such as the scarcity of drinking water, California forest fires, extinction of the white rhino, and denial of man-made climate change. He details the strangeness of living in the modern surveillance state with all its contradictions and horror. Is it possible that he does not condemn sexual violence outright to demonstrate its horror? None of his critics note this possibility. Instead they accuse him of employing a “threat aesthetic” as discussed by Erik Kennedy. Kennedy notes all the things written of the poet on Twitter and elsewhere. He writes of the poem, “It intimidates, but it does not promise violence.” The poet writes himself into the poem, but he himself is not the perpetrator of the violent act. It might be said that he stands as a peeping tom and waits in a predatory fashion. However the final lines of the poem do not sound threatening. He seems to offer compassion for the victim. He writes he will put his arm around her “if you’re ever tired of feeling alone.” The word if is a word of permission. It suggests that in the instance mentioned, the poet will share his compassion. He relates that the subject “can make it” on her own—his “if” suggests that in the case she should need a man’s support, he is willing to offer it.

Parody is defined as “an imitation of the style of a particular writer, artist, or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect.” [Google Online Dictionary] Sizemore’s poem does not have typical comedic exaggeration. His poem is actually deeply serious. The comedic effect is in its ability to both mock those who are sick and demonstrate the nature of their illness. As we often note in cases such as the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, those who are hurt will hurt others. As Thomas Mann does with The Magic Mountain, Sizemore creates a milieu in his poem that grants the freedom to explore the malaise he mocks for comedic effect. The comedy, however, is scathing satire of violent, secretive behavior. His poem creates a milieu reflecting such a paradigm. He is specific in condemning oppressive behavior by victims, and decries the victim mentality altogether. Exaggeration occurs in lines such as “who reclaimed Anne Sexton from the / narcoleptics”, lines which are potentially upsetting in their mockery of a feminist icon. The satire is scathing in the sense that Sizemore ridicules the hysteria associated with violence against expression by those who claim their own tragic figures. Sexton is elevated to the status of martyr by many feminists. She is the quintessential tortured woman who freely expressed her torture.

However, these same enemies of Sizemore attack the Beats as “white” literature. Ironically they hate white men and blame them for the patterns of violence occurring in society. Many feminists online—including Suzanne Moore writing in The New Statesman—conflate violence against women with the general male population. In “Wikileaks was the future once. Then it became Julian Assange”, she writes:

“What does this all add up to? In the big picture, this is a story about power, publishing and press freedom. A story where men tell us what matters and what doesn’t.”

Moore tells us that men defending Assange (who hold positions like Greenwald at The Intercept) are prioritizing press freedom over female empowerment. She doesn’t note that it is press freedom that has given her the right to publish the article where she expresses her own values. In spite of her own solipsism, she does not step outside of the bounds she creates for herself. However, this article is only the tip of the iceberg concerning criticism of Assange and Wikileaks. The question concerns how Wikileaks became identified with Assange himself, invoking the cult of personality, when his character is dubious. Is the issue at hand Wikileaks and press freedom as much as Assange as a personality? Why then is the movement identifying with him instead of Wikileaks? This question is of similar nature to the Sizemore’s narcissism in the poem. Narcissism, or restricted self interest, is inevitable. Assange is merely the symbol. He is the “observer” to use terms in relation to “Scowl”.

Women’s rights certainly do matter—and neither Greenwald nor Sizemore will say otherwise—and the spontaneous emergence in the West of women’s lib movements testify that oppression was a long time in the pressure cooker. However, we cannot sacrifice freedom of expression to satisfy said female liberation. It is free expression that makes women’s liberation a topic of discussion. Dialogue must be balanced.

Free expression is the bedrock of democracy. We cannot argue against that. It is what empowers all social revolutions. The problem is who is entitled to free expression and who decides who is entitled? Do we draw a line at poems such as “Scowl” that harm others? Such a question already demonstrates why the logic is faulty. It gives an end to the State (“the
State” being a metaphor for distribution of power within society as I define it for convenience) and prescribes the means by which that end is achieved. Such limitations on free expression clearly indicate a malaise of contemporary society. It is one Sizemore is unafraid to diagnose.
Collectivism does not escape narcissism. It cannot regulate it.
Before you get the impression the poet does not sympathize with women, read his final lines again carefully: “…and I know you are strong enough to make it / on your own, / but I’ll put my arm around your shoulders / if you’re ever tired of feeling alone.” The sentiment echoes Ginsberg’s final expression of sympathy in “Howl”:

“I’m with you in Rockland

in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-
journey on the highway across America in tears

to the door of my cottage in the Western night”

The poem ends without a period unlike “Scowl” suggesting that his journey is not final. However, we can only speculate about what the future brings. “Scowl” expresses a finality.

The details of the poem deliberately alienate for the sake of laying the crime before you in its horror. Although it is controversial for a male poet to write on the topic of violence against women in such a manner, where would we draw the line for who can be the voice of what? There are too many instances of activists demanding censorship for these purposes. For
examples, the cases of Scarlett Johannson playing a transgender in “Rub and Tub”, Amelie Wen Zhao’s Blood Heir being pulled for racial insensitivity, Anders Carlson-Wee being accused of “blackface” for his poem “How-To”; the list is endless. In Sizemore’s poem, it is as if he explains that his compassion is his final word—he can offer nothing more, nothing less.
The poem ends with his response to the problem of sexual abuse. He shows us throughout how horrific it is. We are led to condemn it by the depiction of its horror if we at all are decent human beings. Instead of offering the masculine power of an “ally”, he offers simple compassion.

It is these final words that bring “Scowl” its most trenchant observation.

It is neither the end nor the means that matter. It is how you express your humanity.