“The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri”

Seidel fumbles his poetry of privilege on Ferguson

Frederick Seidel wrote a frown-inducing poem. There were some moments, you could argue, but ultimately, it was random and directionless. Not a great poem, but who cares? To apply a quote from the poem itself, you’d do well to “forget about about about it.”

Except he titled it, “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri,” and The Paris Review published it online in the midst of the post-Michael Brown uproar, thus asking us to read it in that context. But how?

“The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri” reads as if it’s cobbled together from multiple discarded drafts. It’s unfocused, and bounces between subjects. One of those subjects is race, and Ferguson: “Skin color is the name, / Skin color is the game, / Skin color is to blame in Ferguson, Missouri.” He also repeats a bit about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, and men turning to corpses and then to causes. But given the other subject matter—bars, drones, Mars, etc.—it’s difficult to know where Seidel is driving.

Indeed, he seems to evade the issue signaled by his title. Perhaps that’s the point, but why make that point, at that time? A poet has the right to say whatever, whenever, but one has to wonder what The Paris Review thought they had to gain by putting this under their masthead. At the very least, the poem was awkward, and bad. At most, it was insulting to the family of Michael Brown and to anyone else who shared their very legitimate grief.

The day after “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri” was published, Michael Brown, Sr.’s church was burned. That has nothing to do with Seidel’s poem, but Seidel’s poem concerns, according to its title at least, the same subject matter that caused that church to burn. And the burning of that church—like the killing of Michael Brown—falls firmly into America’s history of racial violence. You’d think a poet and his renowned publishers would think of this before lightly tossing some random poem into one of the century’s most heated discussions of American race relations. Apparently, they did not.

They did not get a pass. The poem prompted Shannon Barber, in a viral post, to plead, “God damn it White people get your shit together,” and, “listen Whitey and assorted Whitey’s involved in publishing this is why we don’t trust you.”

Barber may have overstepped her case—addressing it, “Dear Whitey and other assorted whiteys,” and generally smashing all white people into one category, is hard to accept—but she has cause to beef with “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri,” and the larger misconception of which it is a part.

That’s because a misconception is not necessarily a passive thing. When something is wrong, and you don’t name it as such, you leave open the suggestion that it’s fine for that thing to persist. By naming Ferguson, but not saying much cogent about it beyond, “I wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County”—by writing so lightly on the subject—Seidel suggests that Ferguson is not a serious issue. It’s just another thing floating around this poem he wrote.

Putting “The Ballad of Ferguson” In Its Place

But “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri” refers to a person, a place, and a time (and it was published during that time). And Shannon Barber, reading the poem, saw herself as a person, in a place and a time, that the poem renders meaningless. “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri” insults all those who were seriously moved by Michael Brown’s death and the events that followed. It names, while proving deaf to, the cause of their sentiments. In the process, it downplays the importance of everyone who thought Michael Brown’s death mattered. It is actively disrespectful.

Seidel can claim artistic license. He can claim he wanted to complicate matters. If so, he largely failed, because the poem is more messy than complex. But he wouldn’t be the first to claim to bring complexity to an otherwise “overly PC” discussion. Tony Hoagland claims that his poem, “The Change,” is not “racist,” but “racially complex.” Hoagland further defends himself by claiming, rightly, that a poet is not necessarily the voice in his poem. But the speaker of “The Change” is a white man, like Hoagland, and he’s calling Serena Williams “a big black girl from Alabama” with “some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite.” That’s not a nice thing to say, but for Hoagland, the event of the poem was something ugly that (could have) happened, and he recorded it honestly. He does not condemn the casual racism in the poem, nor does he defend it. He speaks it, as is, under the belief that such ugliness must be aired in order for it to be encountered.

That was difficult for Claudia Rankine to take. She wanted some signal that beyond “outing a certain kind of white thought,” the poem insisted, somehow, that such thought is “just not right.”

In response, Hoagland called Rankine’s attitude toward race “naïve.” Her work strongly suggests otherwise. But even if you could argue for Hoagland’s claim, it comes off as tone-deaf, as though he has no concept of what he sounds like. He, a white man, is talking down to her, a black woman, assuming the authority to tell her in no uncertain terms how she should approach her own racial position, and her own racial history.

Hoagland and Seidel can both rightly claim the poet’s freedom to say anything. We don’t get great poetry without that, although, as “The Change” and “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri” prove, we get a lot of mediocre poetry with it, too. More importantly, they’ve revealed, in their honesty, something else of importance. They’ve given us prime examples of tone-deafness. They’ve performed tone-deafness, and revealed the workings of the desensitized, passively bigoted mind. That mind is not at all uncommon, and including its perspective does indeed add to the complexity of any discussion around race in America. It’s not an admirable rhetorical stance, but maybe it has its place.

Likewise, it deserves to be put in its place, and told what it is. In calling Seidel and Hoagland out, Barber and Rankine have done their duty as readers.

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