Monday, June 29, 2009

In Praise of Complaining

(Author's Note: Because of unexpected circumstances, this Sunday's post on the Creative Non-Fiction classroom will be resolved Wednesday. This post has noting to do with creative non-fiction or pedagogy.)

Complaining is my favorite hobby. For me, complaining is not the result of a warped psychology. (At least not on most days.) It is also not a failure of etiquette. It is not a crassness.

It is a symptom of institutional inequalities in the poetry community. It is a way of saying: “Shit. Things shouldn't have worked out like this.”

It is speech that has not quite yet evolved into anger. Complaining is a work-in progress.

A complaint has a form. Anger does not.

Maybe that’s why I feel most like an artist when I complain.


Middle-class people know the danger of complaints. They know a lot of things. They went to school. How could they not know a lot of things? That’s what school does: it teaches you not to complain. The institution says: here is why things are the way they are. You have an explanation. There’s no reason to complain. This is what it means to be a success. This is what it means to be middle-class.


Gay poets need to complain more. Any gay poet who tells another gay poet to not complain is probably not a good person. He probably has a lot of stuff.

Stuff=publications, books, awards, fellowships , etc. etc.

Complaints threaten people who have stuff, whatever that stuff is. If they hear you complain, then they might hear someone else complain, and then another, and finally they might have to accept that all their stuff is not a result of their specialness. It may be a result of his class. It may be a result of him not complaining.

What poet want to accept that they received stuff because they kept their mouth shut? Who obeyed and didn’t complain?

Complaining is essential. It is essential if you want the truth. Complaining demystifies everything. You compare notes; you find out how things work. What a frightening thing for one who has success to know! Institutions don't want us to know how things work. An institution needs your love to exist. An institution does not need to love you in return. It has a lot of love from a lot of people. It can replace you quite easily.

That’s another reason why gay poets do not complain: if they don’t, then one day they may have no reason to do so. They may have plenty of stuff, too.


No one is surprised when a poor person complains. Only middle-class people are denied that privilege.

Is there anything more stupid to say than, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all”? That's what middle-class people say to one another.

For a gay poet to say nice things is crazy. All gay poets should complain. Our failure to complain is why we have to focus on Proposition 8 rather than solely on our poems.

Obama has failed us. He didn't hear enough complaints. He didn't need to love us. In the cowardly interest bipartisanship, he decided to tell us that institutions don't need to love us. But also that the institution can murder us: it can extinguish our love and ourselves.


There's another huge reason gay poets don't complain. They fear they might be read as nothing but a complaint in and of themselves. Complaints are by their nature a political act. It says something is wrong.

A lot of poems in literary journals are depictions of scenery/nature.

A lot of them detail extramarital affairs.

A description of a scene/nature is affirmative. It says look how beautiful this is.

An analysis of an extramarital affair is affirmative. It is a snapshot of a good time. That's why people have affairs: to have more good times with more people. Writing about an affair is affirmative: it says I remember a good time that I shouldn't have had.

You shouldn't want to turn the page when you read a description of a scene/nature. You shouldn't want to leave nature. You shouldn't want to leave an affair. They both say yes. They love the page(s) they appear on.

A political poem is a complaint. A complaint is the opposite of affirmation; it is a refusal. It says turn the page. It says the poem is over. It says don't read. Do something.


  1. Steve, I love this post. Love. Especially this last bit:

    { A political poem is a complaint. A complaint is the opposite of affirmation; it is a refusal. It says turn the page. It says the poem is over. It says don't read. Do something. }


    However, I am getting very impatient for Part 2 of the teaching of CNF post. I think it should be posted tomorrow instead of Wednesday.

  2. I like this so much, as we know all revolutions begin with complaints. You are right, the institutions want us to love them, to work for little, to not complain, the same with the government, as when I wrote a very complaining poem about our embassy in the Balkans, it was just a poem I thought, a little complaint, no no and I was slapped right back down. But I have to disagree with you about middle class people. Middle class people complain about EVERYTHING. On the right they complain about poor people, and on the left they complain about rich people. And mostly they complain about how bad they have it, or why they arent supposed to be the ones allowed to complain. But I don't know if this is negative because honestly everyone I know complains. I think Facebook is an example of this, we all complain and then comment and some kind of solidarity of complaining occurs out of that, which I think gets to one of your main points, that complaining is the opposite of silencing, that silencing, not complaining is the real danger. Again though with the gay poets this means less than it could if you don't give examples. As I immediately thought, well who is this? What poems? And so I wished as in so many other posts you gave examples. As you seem to be pointing at some danger of aestheticism that is complex and deserves to be explored--perhaps another post? I don't know though, in the end, if complaining is good or bad, even though I just wrote what I wrote. I do know though that some of my favorite political poems, such as Neruda, do start by pointing out an injustice, and that is a form of complaint, which might be different from complaining? Your good words deserve more from me but I have to go now, I have to go, as you say, and do something.

    Sean Thomas Dougherty

  3. Or: a complaint is an affirmation of something forgotten, an act of remembering:

    Like Adrienne Rich's refusal of the national medal of the arts:

    your post gets me wondering about the relationship between praise and complaint, and whether there is a difference. . .

  4. I hope you aren't coming to a dangerous assumption that middle class = gay people (poets or otherwise.) If such is the case, surely focusing solely on Proposition 8 has helped to make this so.

    "Middle-class people know the danger of complaints. They know a lot of things. They went to school." Sigh. The problem is in the language. I do believe there are more than just middle-class persons in higher institutions, lower-to-working class gay persons even!

    You said: "No one is surprised when a poor person complains. Only middle-class people are denied that privilege." This strikes me as naive, at best. A way to flip it: "To complain is a privilege that the middle-class can afford, whereas the lower-to-working class cannot."