Presidential Forum

Networked Mediation: Historical Memory against Punitive Justice

Wai Chee Dimock

I would like to begin by invoking the memory of W. H. Auden, or at least one particular line of his—“Poetry makes nothing happen”—surely one of the most controversial assertions ever made. The line is from a poem in memory of Yeats, who died on 28 January 1939, three days after Auden arrived in the United States, with hopes of beginning anew in a new country. Seen in the context of that attempted fresh start, the poem is not just elegiac and backward looking. It also gestures to the future, in many ways less a concession than a manifesto, and worth revisiting to see what claims are being made, along with the incapacity so famously highlighted:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper . . .

              . . . it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth. (stanza 2)

Rather than saying that poetry has no effect on the world, Auden is actually making a different and more interesting point, namely that poetry has no direct effect, no executive power, the kind of decisional authority that delivers verdicts, and delivers clear and unmistakable outcomes. Poetry is not clarity driven and outcome producing, at least not on its own. As a tissue of words, it is by nature dependent on the interpretations that readers put on it, negotiated and implemented among those who collectively decide what sort of life it would have in the world. That dependency does not make it powerless. On the contrary, simply having the ear of others makes poetry a nontrivial force, and, Auden further suggests, this force is best captured by the form of the gerund, a grammatical construct that takes the form of the noun but is, in fact, no less a verb. The gerunds here are “making” and “happening,” and each of these is in turn embedded in a larger syntactical unit—“valley of its making” and “way of happening”—at which point they can speak, like a mouth. Poetry, then, does have an outcome-producing capability, but on one condition: it would have to become part of a larger process, a larger network, that allows it to switch from noun to verb, which is to say, to function not only as scripted content but also as an unscripted and as-yet-to-be-developed intervening force, with a different kind of consequentialness in the world.

Auden’s poem to Yeats is not usually read in conjunction with Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory. Latour distinguishes between two forms of association, practiced by intermediaries and by mediators—the former, passive vehicles, rubber stamps, that transmit prior decisions without altering them; and the latter, networked agents that dynamically alter the relation between input and output in any social aggregate (37–42). In this essay, I would like to draw on this concept of networked agency to propose a way of thinking about literature as a practical force changing the fate even of those not ordinarily thought of as readers. It is the presence of networks, locally based and user generated, that multiplies the contexts for action and multiplies the chances each participant has to produce a nontrivial outcome. Participating in this way, literature becomes both input bearing and input receiving, not only being acted on but also becoming an actor itself, a mediator, intervening in situations where neither the solutions nor even the nature of the problems are self-evident, and where regular decision-making bodies, including those with punitive powers, might come up short.

The question, of course, is where to find such networks in which literature could play such a mediating role. My short answer, and I hope it is a little shocking because it is so obvious, is that the university could in fact be an experimental site for this kind of user-generated network and that teaching might turn out to be the activity with the most outreach potential. This is a surprisingly undertheorized aspect of what we all do. For this essay, I will concentrate on a small subset, namely the teaching that we do outside the traditional classroom, bringing us into contact with students we do not ordinarily encounter. I am thinking especially of the ways higher education might intersect with the criminal justice system, in the form of the teaching done under the rubric of a program called Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI).

An ATI is any form of activity other than jail time that can be required of those convicted of felonies or misdemeanors. Given the well-documented abuses of United States prisons, ATI is a high priority for the White House. Many cities have such a program. (New York City leads the way, boasting an ATI rehabilitation rate of sixty percent.) According to a study commissioned by the city, New York

has expanded the network of actors in the courtroom to encourage the use of alternative sentences. City officials have created an ATI system that includes not only programs for offenders, but also court representatives whose job is to persuade even reluctant judges, assistant DAs, and public defenders to use these programs routinely in appropriate cases. As a result, the ATI system plays a dual role in the criminal justice process, trying to shape plea bargains and sentencing decisions in court as well as administering the sentences themselves. (Porter, Lee, and Lutz 4)

Active both inside the courtroom and outside, the ATI has vastly expanded the network of actors involved in turning offenders from criminals to ordinary citizens. Restorative justice rather than punitive justice is the guiding principle here, and community groups play a crucial role in coming up with alternatives to jail time. New York City’s ATI is targeted at four groups: the general population, substance abusers, women, and youth. Programs in other cities tend to be more limited; the one in New Haven that I participated in focused only on youth. In exchange for reduced sentences, juvenile delinquents came to campus once a week for an hour to discuss literature, accompanied by Yale students and a representative from the program Community Partners in Action.

Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery was a big hit with this group, and short stories in general are probably the best assignments. Still, it might be interesting to try out some nonfictional prose, perhaps The Autobiography of Malcolm X, especially the section where he writes about all the readings that he did in the prison library: from Herodotus to W. E. B. Du Bois, from genetics to world history. And, even though it might seem counterintuitive, some poetry might work as well. I would put Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos in that category.

Pound was incarcerated, from May to November 1945, at the United States Army Disciplinary Training Center, or DTC, at Pisa, because of his pro-Fascist Radio Rome broadcasts. His Pisan Cantos were written there. He was initially kept in a six-by-six-foot outdoor steel cage (fig. 1) but was moved indoors after three weeks and even given a homemade writing table, made out of a packing box.

Security cage at the Disciplinary Training Center, Pisa, Italy

Fig. 1. Security cage at the Disciplinary Training Center, Pisa, Italy, n.d. Photograph by United States Army. Wikimedia Commons, 26 Feb. 2014.

The other inmates were offenders from the army, mostly African Americans. Pound writes about one of them, Louis Till, in Pisan Cantos: “And Till was hung yesterday / for murder and rape with trimmings” (qtd. in Terrell, 74.171–72). It is a casual reference, but Till’s name would come up again in a far more explosive context: in 1955 his fourteen-year-old son, Emmett, would be tortured and murdered in Mississippi after whistling at a white woman. The acquittal of the perpetrators made Emmett Till the rallying cry for an entire generation of civil rights activists. The Pisan Cantos could not have made this particular connection, but it is one that any Internet search today would make impossible not to see.

Many of the guards at the DTC were also African American. Pound mentions some of them with gratitude, especially Henry Hudson Edwards, the GI who made him the writing table:

Mr. Edwards superb green and brown

in ward No 4 a jacent benignity,

of the Baluba mask: “doan you tell no one

I made you that table.” (317–20)

This is not the first time African objects—in this case, a Baluba (i.e., Biembe) mask from the Congo—come up in the Pisan Cantos, nor the first time African civilizations are cited with admiration and longing. Earlier in canto 74, Pound mentioned “Lute of Gassir. Hooo Fasa” (93), followed by this obsessed incantation:

4 times was the city rebuilded, Hooo Fasa

      Gassir, Hooo Fasa  dell’Italia tradita

Now in the mind indestructible, Gassir, Hooo Fasa

With the four giants at the four corners

And four gates mid-wall Hooo Fasa

And a terrace the colour of stars

Pale as the dawn cloud, la luna

      Thin as Demester’s hair

Hooo Fasa, and in a dance the renewal

  With two larks in contrappunto (197–206)

“Hooo” is the Soninke word for “Hail”; “Fasa” is a tribe of heroes in North Africa. The phrase “Hooo! Fasa!” is a refrain in the Soninke epic Gassire’s Lute, which opens with these words about the mythical city of Wagadu:

Four times Wagadu stood there in all her splendor. Four times Wagadu disappeared and was lost to human sight: once through vanity, once through falsehood, once through greed and once through dissension. Four times Wagadu changed her name. First she was called Dierra, then Agada, then Ganna, then Silla. . . . [But] she endures no matter whether she be built of stone, wood and earth, or lives but as a shadow in the mind and longing of her children. . . . Hooo! Dierra, Agada, Ganna, Silla! Hooo! Fasa!” (qtd. in Terrell 370)

It is not surprising that a man held at the DTC, a “man on whom the sun has gone down” (74.178), should be obsessed with a four-time-resurrected city. Pound had come across Gassire’s Lute in Leo Frobenius’s Atlantis: Volksmärchen und Volksdichtung Afrikas (1921), which he had started reading around 1928. Frobenius’s account of West African civilizations left a deep impression on him. On 26 December 1931 Pound sent a letter to the president of the Tuskegee Institute, urging him to make the work of Frobenius a part of the curriculum. Frobenius, he said, has, with “an unflagging enthusiasm for the beauty of its different civilizations,” “done more than any other living man to give the black race its charter of intellectual liberties.” Pound had been trying to get some of this pioneering work translated into English, and it occurred to him that this “shd. be made a racial act, with whatever university or other backing you can give it.” He added:

There is no reason why a black University shd. be merely a copy of a white one. I have written elsewhere that our American universities are full of redundance. A great deal left undone and a lot done uselessly three times over. There shd. be (if there is not already) a course in Africanology in every black special school, it wd. be more interesting than another professorship of greek or latin. (qtd. in Roessel 212)

Since Pound did not personally know the president of the Tuskegee Institute and had no idea “whether he is the sort of man who will have sense enough to ACT on the suggestion,” he thought it wise to send a carbon copy to Langston Hughes, adding, “The job ought to be done. I don’t know that I can make the suggestion any stronger or clearer, but I will cooperate with any scheme you suggest for getting on with it” (211).

On 22 April 1932, Langston Hughes wrote back, apologizing for the lateness of the response (he had been on tour), but said immediately, “I was very much interested in what you had to say about Frobenius. Certainly I agree with you about the desirability of his being translated into English, and I have written to both Howard and Fisk Universities concerning what you say.” As for Tuskegee, Hughes was “afraid they have little inclinations toward anything so spiritually important as translations of Frobenius would be to the Negro race” (213–14). He was pleased, however, to be able to include affirmative responses from Howard and Fisk.1 He also added, “I have known your work for more than ten years and many of your poems insist on remaining in my head.” And, since Pound had asked to see some of his work, Hughes said, “Some weeks ago I sent you my books in care of INDICE. I hope you have received them” (214). Pound wrote back on 8 May to say that the “INDICE has gone bust.” On 17 June Hughes replied, “My books, sent to you c/o INDICE, came back, so I re-sent them directly to you. Also a Scottsboro booklet of mine, the proceeds of which go to the defense of the boys” (218).

The boys in question were the black youths accused on 25 March 1921 of raping two white women on a freight train near Painted Rock, Alabama. The rushed trials, held in nearby Scottsboro, quickly produced death sentences for eight of the nine defendants. The presence of a lynch mob before the trial, along with the frame-up, inadequate legal counsel, and all-white juries, made the Scottsboro case a byword for racial injustice. The case went up to the United States Supreme Court twice on appeal; the first appeal resulted in the landmark decision Powell v. Alabama (1932), which ordered new trials, and the second resulted in Patterson v. Alabama (1935), the ruling that African Americans would have to be included on juries. Charges were eventually dropped for four of the defendants. Haywood Patterson, found guilty of rape, was sentenced to seventy-five years. Norris Clarence, the oldest defendant and the only one sentenced to death, jumped parole in 1946 and went into hiding up north. In 1976 he was pardoned by Governor George Wallace, who judged him not guilty, since by then the convictions had been studied from every angle and thoroughly discredited.

Hughes, active from the first, published his booklet Scottsboro Unlimited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse in 1932, beginning with a poem entitled “Justice,” a quietly furious testimony to what it looks like across the racial divide:

That Justice is a blind goddess

Is a thing to which we black are wise

Her bandage hides two festering sores

That once perhaps were eyes.

Pound probably never experienced justice like this, not even when he was held at the DTC. Still, back in 1932, and in faraway Rapallo, Italy, he had already made a point of keeping himself informed about the trials. On 18 June 1932 he wrote to Hughes, thanking him for Scottsboro Unlimited, and observed that, while the “American govt., as INTENDED, and as a system is as good a govt. as any,” it does sometimes “allow the worst men in it to govern.” “There is no doubt in my mind,” he said, “that the extreme Southern states are governed by the worst there is in them.” And he concluded, “All of which you are welcome to quote if you think it will do any good. I do not hide my opinion” (qtd. in Roessel 219).

So much and more coming out of the Pisan Cantos. Historical memory, taking the form of an ever-multiplying web, extends from a mythical African city to the living reality of lawlessness under law for African Americans. Summoning this as the mitigating ground makes all the difference to jail sentences—whether actual ones for prison-bound offenders or metaphoric ones for offending poets such as Ezra Pound, serving the equivalent of jail time under the implacable “Fascist” verdict. Networked mediation has already made things happen in the hands of those not fully persuaded by the punitive benefits of criminal justice. It remains for us to enact something similar in literary studies.


  1. Howard wrote Hughes that “the University feels deeply indebted to you for bringing this interesting project to our attention and we shall take immediate steps toward interesting some members of our faculty in it”; President Thomas E. Jones of Fisk wrote that, while “Fisk has no money with which to get Frobenius translated into English,” he would forward “the request to Professor Louis S. Shores, our Librarian, for his information” (qtd. in Roessel 215).

Works Cited

Auden, W. H. “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.”, Academy of American Poets, Accessed 22 Sept. 2015.

Hughes, Langston. “Primary Sources on Scottsboro: An American Tragedy.” PBS, Accessed 25 Sept. 2015.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005.

Porter, Rachel, Sophia Lee, and Mary Lutz. Balancing Punishment and Treatment: Alternatives to Incarceration in New York City. Vera Institute of Justice, May 2002,

Roessel, David. “‘A Racial Act’: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Ezra Pound.” Ezra Pound and African American Modernism. Edited by Michael Coyle, National Poetry Foundation, 2001, pp. 207–44.

Terrell, Carroll F. A Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound. U of California P, 1993.

Wai Chee Dimock is William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University.


Published 13 July 2016

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