Protecting poetic license

The other day, someone handed me a copy of Professor Cleghorn’s poem Letter from the Provinces. I read it. In fact, I read the whole thing, which I only mention because some have trouble getting past the first few lines.

I also had the chance to read Aidan Finley’s letter, “Giving Heroism Its Due,” in last week’s Record. In it, he blasts Professor Cleghorn as well as the “virulently un-American, vituperatively hostile and terribly self-nullifying desire” she expresses. As I waded through the adverbs, I was confused by what it might mean for someone to have a “self-nullifying” desire. Perhaps the person disappears. But that is beside the point. He says that he is “ashamed of Professor Cleghorn’s remarks, which are in offensively poor taste.”

Finley should be ashamed of himself. And here is a list of reasons why.

One: “We have watched the faux-activists create a supposed ‘anti-war’ buzz around Williams College.” What exactly makes their activities phoney or fake? They may not agree with Finley, but they certainly are not pretending to actively oppose the war.

Are they faux-activists because they actively oppose a different opinion? He says that we “watched” them. Finley does not like what they say, but that does not mean that they are not activists, publicly and loudly denouncing a war they do not believe in. There was no call for derision. They are activists. No modifier necessary.

Two: The fact that Finley refers to Cleghorn’s poem as “remarks” points to the root of his problem. It is a poem, not a speech. I mentioned earlier that I read the entire poem. That is not impressive or anything, but I wonder if Finley managed to do the same. It seems to me that he really takes issue with a few lines taken out of context.

Apparently, some things just should not be said. “Talking to my mother about the space shuttle makes me want the astronauts/ deaths/ to have been painful, sustained.” If I heard somebody say that, I would be pretty offended. It would be awful to say something so callous about men and women who died in service, who did not deserve what they were dealt. But maybe, just maybe, that is the point of it. That sentiment is part of a work, a more complete expression – a poem.

It may be difficult or confrontational, but so what? My point is, Finley does not care what Cleghorn meant. He never seems to ask, “What does she mean? What is she trying to get across?” He never looks at the work as a whole. I am not saying anybody has to like the poem. I am not even saying that anyone has to try to understand it. But I would hope that William students would try, especially if they quote it.

Three: “I would like to be the first to say, publicly, that I believe Professor Cleghorn’s ‘poetry,’ if indeed that is what it must be called, is unacceptable.” Finley is so angry that he calls into question whether or not Professor Cleghorn’s poem is even a poem at all! That’s cute, but, of course, it is a poem. I cannot believe that I actually need to say this: just because you do not like a work of art, does not mean it isn’t art. Finley says the poem is “unacceptable.” How so?

Unacceptable to whom? Not to me, and not to anyone who believes in the free expression of ideas. By classing it as “unacceptable,” Finley implies that the poem simply should not have been written. Unfortunately, he never gave it a chance. He mocks and belittles those who do not share his views. He paints the opposition as some sort of stultified bunch of morons, mindlessly bent on the destruction of the United States.

Note that nowhere above do I say I agree with Cleghorn, or that I am against the war. What I am against is throwing around the term “un-American” to describe those who oppose the war in Iraq.

I am against the dismissive and sarcastic treatment of an opposing viewpoint. I am against condemning a poem as unacceptable and shameful because a few lines seem insensitive or contentious. That is shameful. And Finley should be ashamed.

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