We don't know everything about artists, but we do know this: They're often silly. Their occasional foolishness doesn't usually bother anyone, though, because most people view quirkiness as a consequence—or even a cause—of extraordinary creativity.
Yet our tolerance for artistic nuttiness has been tested recently by two veterans of distinguished American art forms: Amiri Baraka, the official poet laureate of New Jersey, and Maurice Bessinger, the unofficial barbecue laureate of South Carolina. Baraka, 68, is a towering figure in American letters famous for his plays (Dutchman), his essays ("Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite"), and his poetry ("I got the/ extermination blues, jew-boys"). As is now well-known, Baraka claimed in a poem written shortly after Sept. 11 that 4,000 Israelis living in New York were warned about the attacks—a claim he still defends. Failing to appreciate Baraka's carefully researched position ("it is everywhere on the Internet"), Gov. Jim McGreevey asked his poet laureate to resign. Baraka refused and threatened to sue if the Legislature voted him out of his position, which carries with it a $10,000 honorific; in response, the state Senate voted to abolish the poet laureateship (though the final status of the position is still in debate). Pledging himself to "the most ancient paradigmythic [sic] image of the poet," Baraka claimed to be the victim of "an attempt to repress and stigmatize independent thinkers everywhere," a plot hatched by "zealots who are interested only in slander and character assassination of those whose views or philosophies differ from or are in contradiction to theirs."
Like Baraka, Maurice Bessinger is an artist who has long been proud of his independent thinking. At 72, Bessinger is a giant on the American pulled-pork scene; his work has been hailed in such journals as People ("Best All-in-One Barbecue Restaurant") and Gourmet. A man of many opinions ("The segregated schools were better schools than you have today"), Bessinger has stoutly defended his maverick views by, for example, refusing to serve blacks in his Piggy Park restaurants until 1976. So when the South Carolina Legislature decided to remove the Confederate flag from the top of the Statehouse in 2000, Bessinger took matters into his own hands: He replaced the American flags in front of all of his stores with enormous Confederate banners. In response, several large retailers in the South dumped Bessinger's Carolina Gold barbecue sauce, which prompted Bessinger to sue the retailers for discriminating against his political beliefs. As he puts it, "It's difficult, believe me, to stand for freedom" when one's detractors "think there is only one side of a question, their side." Though Bessinger has not yet invoked the "paradigmythic image" of the barbecue chef, he has acknowledged that the Lord has apparently picked him to defend "state sovereignty." "I pray," he adds, "that I will prove worthy."
Despite the similarity of their rhetoric, Baraka and Bessinger have inspired somewhat different reactions from media and literary types. Bessinger has generally been scorned or, more frequently, laughed at in the mainstream press. Baraka, on the other hand, has been scolded in an awkward, weirdly respectful manner. Asked about Baraka's theories concerning "Israelis," for example, Gerald Stern (a four-time NEA grant recipient) argued that Baraka shouldn't lose his honorific because "the poet's worst enemy is the state. Should this state or any state touch poets? No." The editorial staff of the New York Times called the idea of firing a poet "offensive" and declared, patronizingly, that Baraka was selected as laureate "because of the way he gives voice to the minority community."
It's probably true that many people are reluctant to ridicule Baraka because he's perceived—rightly or wrongly—as speaking for a traditionally voiceless group (whereas Bessinger is perceived as "giving voice" to a bunch of chubby rednecks). Still, Baraka is benefiting from something more than his PC designation as "community representative." That something, as Stern indicates, is his identity as a poet. More particularly, it's an idea, originating in Plato, that the poet is "a light and winged and holy thing. … There is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses." This notion—the poet is half vessel of God, half helpless idiot—was attractive to the Romantics as well, who added to it the concept of Poet as Outsider. (Shelley: "A Poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness, and sings to cheer its own solitude …") At the extreme of this conception are figures like Ezra Pound, the influential American poet whose brief career as an anti-Semitic, fascist broadcaster during World War II led to a three-week imprisonment in an open-air cage during the Allied occupation of Italy.
Of course, few poets are living in cages these days; on the contrary, most of them are ensconced in university housing. (Baraka himself has taught at Yale, San Francisco State, and George Washington, among others.) But the idea of Poet as Dangerous Misfit—or Poet as Idiot Savant—is still enormously attractive both to audiences of Dead Poets Society and to poets hungry for any kind of attention. Indeed, as Stephen Dunn has pointed out in his poem "Because We Are Not Relevant," American poets sometimes positively long to be persecuted: "Some night I wish they'd knock,/ on my door, the government men …" (This phenomenon helps explain the self-congratulatory tone of projects like the recent reading, in New York, of "Poems Not Fit for the White House.")
Under these circumstances, it's easy to see why so many people, writers in particular, find it difficult to criticize Baraka but easy to giggle at Bessinger. Sure, it has to do with an unwillingness to criticize one of the few nationally known black poets, but it's also because we've invested heavily in the "paradigmythic image" that Baraka invokes. Rather than being outraged or amused, we're simply made uncomfortable—a fascination with cages has become a cage itself. One way out of this dilemma would be to observe that Baraka's work isn't really so good, and accordingly, that he isn't entitled to the indulgence granted to our greatest artists. But this approach would make us a nation of critics, and if there's one thing we Americans can't stand, it's a snob. The other possibility would require poets to abandon a treasured self-conception for an uncertain (and possibly untenable) position in a society that rarely even notices them until they insult someone.