Monday, June 25, 2007

Why Close Reading Matters I: Guantánamo Bay Poetry

Yoshie Furuhashi just forwarded the following Wall Street Journal article, Yochi Dreasen's The Prison Poets of Guantánamo Find a Publisher, along with a link to the collection of poetry it is about, Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak (Iowa, 2007) to the MLA's Radical Caucus's listserv. It's particularly relevant to me not just as a scholar and teacher interested in Hawthorne's portrayal of Puritan punishments or as a fan of Alan Moore's comic book series V for Vendetta, but also as a teacher of courses like Introduction to Ethnicity/Race and American Identities. I hope it will be of interest to you, too. Perhaps the following quotations will help inspire you to inquire into the reasoning behind the title of this post:

"While a few detainees at Guantanamo Bay have made efforts to author what they claim to be poetry, given the nature of their writings they have seemingly not done so for the sake of art," says Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, a Defense Department spokesman. "They have attempted to use this medium as merely another tool in their battle of ideas against Western democracies."

U.S. authorities explained why the military has been slow to declassify the poems in a June 2006 letter to one of Mr. Falkoff's colleagues. "Poetry...presents a special risk, and DOD standards are not to approve the release of any poetry in its original form or language," it said. The military says poetry is harder to vet than conventional letters because allusions and imagery in poetry that seem innocent can be used to convey coded messages to other militants.

The letter told defense lawyers to translate any works they wanted to release publicly into English and then submit the translations to the government for review.

The strict security arrangements governing anything written by Guantanamo Bay inmates meant that Mr. Falkoff had to use linguists with secret-level security clearances rather than translators who specialize in poetry. The resulting translations, Mr. Falkoff writes in the book, "cannot do justice to the subtlety and cadences of the originals."

For the military, even some of the translations appeared to go too far. Mr. Falkoff says it rejected three of the five translated poems he submitted, along with a dozen others submitted by his colleagues.

Cmdr. Gordon says he doesn't know how many poems were rejected but adds that the military "absolutely" remains concerned that poetry could be used to pass coded messages to other militants.

And maybe those with somewhat freer time than mine might, say, move from taking down Ann Althouse to taking on the American military's approach to literature. If I had the time, I would tell a long story about how Tom Keenan taught a 1980s'-era CIA-authored counter-insurgency manual's discussion of rhetoric in a grad course I was taking on literary theory, but I have holes to plug in one talk and another to start before I sleep....

1 comment:

Professor Zero said...

This is really fascinating.