On Seth Abramson's "Last Words for Elliot Rodger," or Timeliness
NB: I realize in writing this post I am wading into a proper quagmire. There are lots of issues here which I feel very strongly about and I understand that I am also addressing an audience for whom these issues are also the source of heavy emotional response. I myself had a strong emotional response to Rodger’s mass murder as well as the reasons for it, which I admit will be hard to escape while discussing his words and his actions.
I also accept that I am not fully capable of expressing all sides of this issue, which is also not my goal. My goal in this post is to look at Abramson’s poetic examination into Rodger’s language and how we as poets (and people) process trauma and tragedy through poetry.
Rarely do we get such a comprehensive view into the words of a killer. We are often left wondering what the motivation for a heinous crime could have been. Equally often, it seems, we are left covering the entire incident as purely a mental health issue and moving forward without investigating further. In the case of Elliot Rodger, we have various forms of media, specifically videos and text, from which to extrapolate and discuss his actions in Santa Barbara. What is simple here is the basic motivation: Rodger blamed women as a whole for his problems. Whatever mental health issues he had were exacerbated, it seems, by the company he kept, by how he viewed himself and his life. And he targeted women due to his own sense of entitlement towards sex and other intimacy.
Ultimately, Rodger’s actions have led to a discussion which we should have been having all along about gender and entitlement in our culture. Patriarchy hurts everyone and it seems that while Rodger’s anger, mental illness and other issues directly led to these events, the systemic views held up by much of society provided him the artifice by which to act. It is not one group or one person at fault here: it is the whole of society who must evaluate and respond to the cultural causes of this horrendous crime. Rodger found other people online who either introduced him to or reaffirmed his pre-existing ideas about how women somehow owed men their sexuality and bodies. While Rodger’s mental health issues caused the hyperbolic violence that took place, the various groups with which he associated provided the language and tone Rodger used in his various messages. That Rodger had mental health issues cannot – and should not – be denied. But nor should the cultural context in which his thoughts and actions appeared.
As people were just beginning to process this tragedy, Seth Abramson’s poem, published by Huffington Post, emerged to “remix” the words of Rodger into a poem to explore the nature of this tragedy via its linguistic attributes. Abramson, it seems, sees this work as a sort of “first responder” poem, the initial salvo into the discussion of Rodger’s language and motivations. However, the uproar caused by Abramson’s work has led to, at best, a murky response in which the simple posting of the poem is being examined versus the goal of the poem. At worst, Abramson has been referred to as opportunistic, taking advantage of the tragedy in Santa Barbara as a way of furthering his own career/web presence while displaying his own privilege via the poem and its location of publication.
Abramson’s poem raises a critical question: Is poetry really about “first response” capability? I do not believe it is, as I have written over the course of these trauma poetics posts. What process has Mr. Abramson gone through to understand Rodger’s motivations and emotions via his language within the few days between Rodger’s actions and Abramson’s publication of the poem? While the rest of the poetry community, along with the general public, is attempting to discuss the cultural issues which led to Rodger’s crime, Abramson is already posting a poem which attempts to use the killer’s language against itself.
The issue I hope I have been delving into in these posts is the role of poetry (and its exploration of language) in the processing of tragedy and trauma. I do not believe poetry is the first response but rather the last, the culmination of thought and experience at the point where it has settled into the mind. We must first take stock in tragedy, to try and understand the depth and reach of that tragedy and I question the idea of poets as first responders. We must begin to process tragedies and our emotional response to them before engaging in poetics to respond to them.
Poetry is, in part, a process of thinking through, a way of seeing all things around and boiling them into the main artifice of communication and expression. Language is not the oldest form of expression but is one which allows us to articulate our most complex thoughts, which is to say that when an event with complex grounding occurs.
As Abramson asks in his introduction “Can hateful words be turned against themselves and become, instead, a vehicle for amity and compassion?” I think for Abramson, this was an attempt at thinking through, of processing, but I believe there were several issues with his efforts:
1) His work came too soon, before we as a poetry community or we as a society could really even discuss the range of interrelated issues involved in Rodger’s thoughts, commentary and actions. For many, the tragedy in Santa Barbara brought the issues of sexism and misogyny into the public view for those who were generally ignorant of it. For Abramson’s poem to be published in such a public manner so quickly after the tragedy had occurred contributed to the reaction the work and its author received.
2) His poem does not truly attempt explore the issues at the heart of the mass murder and cultural significance surrounding it, perhaps as a result of his zeal to get the poem published quickly. The poem attempts to appropriate Rodger’s language but feels in reading as though there is no in-depth exploration of the cultural themes surrounding the events. As a result, the poem feels not only exploitive of tragedy but also seems, at points, to sympathize with Rodger’s views. I believe that Abramson’s rush to publish the poem in the midst of the tragedy led to a lack of seeming awareness of all these issues in the poem, leading to a negative response from many in the poetry community.
3) He did so while being Seth Abramson. Many in the poetry community seem to have negative feelings about him. This is not to say that the poem would have been praised had it been published by someone else but I believe that Abramson’s role in the poetry community did affect the response to his work. Also, it seems that not only the timing of the post as well as the venue in which it was published led to this response. A poem, normal publication of which would have been ignored by the public at large, was suddenly on Huffington Post and seemingly representative of a community which is also generally ignored. Was this the poem we wanted front and center in the wake of such an event? Even if Abramson’s goal was only to present his work, this was now the most visible poem in response to Rodger’s manifesto and “Elliot, you slay me/And I love you,” regardless of its attempt at empathizing with someone who was brought to this point by his mental health issues and the hatred of those with whom he found a sense of community, is not the sentiment anyone wants to see in a public space regardless of context.
I do believe Abramson was correct on this: poetry should be free to attempt dismantling ideas and events. I doubt there are many who would disagree with him on this front but the question remains as to whether or not his poem truly manages this. While I take Abramson at his word that he was not attempting to offend (though he says a poem has the right to offend, with which I agree), it seems the poem was not fully engaging with the situation. Abramson’s desire to be the voice of poetry in the public sphere seems to have collided with the need to be among the first to respond.