'His Misogyny Lacks Imagination': Poets Critique Sean Penn's #MeToo Poem
The actor's supposedly fictional novel "Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff" ends with an epic poem where the woman-hating protagonist tries to take on the #MeToo movement. We asked professional poets what they think of it.
Photo by Thomas Niedermueller via Getty Images
Sean Penn’s new book—a totally fictional novel about a violent man who hates #MeToo—was released yesterday and it’s even more bonkers than you imagined. The actor, "journalist," and reportedly abusive ex-husband to Madonna fails spectacularly at tackling modern American culture in Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff.
The book is a quick, hard-to-follow read about Bob Honey, an aging man who “most often speaks of himself in the third person” and works as a septic tank entrepreneur and government contract killer. Bob hates his chubby ex-wife and teens who take selfies. In fact, he hates most things, which is why the book is replete with racism and misogyny—qualities that some believe qualify Penn’s work as "darkly funny."
"The novel repeatedly makes comedic hay out of violence against women, while holding them up as objects of ridicule," Claire Fallon wrote at Huffington Post. "They’re killed in all sorts of colorful ways: hammers to the skull, helicopters crashing into their suburban homes, scissor-lift collapses, being plunged into shark-infested waters. Their deaths are plinking grace notes in the symphony of Bob’s adventures."
Most chapters of Penn’s book have small bursts of prose wherein Bob Honey expresses just how deep he is. (In one called "Ballad of a Broken Man," Bob Honey admits he knows "so little about women" and writes: Satellites. Sky’s eyes. / Women. Real-time transmissions. / High-resolution. / Revolution.)
The book’s epilogue is a meandering, ham-fisted three-and-a-half page poem that tries and fails to provide insightful commentary on #MeToo and Trump’s America. Here’s an excerpt:
It's bad—you know it, I know it, everyone knows it—but I wanted to give poets the chance to critique Penn’s poem in case there’s just some unique literary quality we’re all overlooking. Here’s what they had to say:
This might be the worst poem I've ever read, even within the hyperbolic-rants-by-vaguely-snubbed-white-men category. It starts out boring but fairly innocuous, until it gets to "melted wings of clotted cream," which is when the first pang of nausea hits. But you think, okay, it's just a weird image, maybe that's a fine way to answer the question "What would be a nightmare?" The answer, though is this. This poem is the nightmare.
It all starts to fall apart at "Cyber wars a-wagin'," which he stylizes in order to try to fit this already-flimsy-as-fuck meter. At this point, one can imagine a haggard Sean Penn at the open mic, hunched over and shout-growling into the microphone, which he's probably holding way too close to his face. If you're in the audience, "a-wagin'" is the point at which you take a long sip of your drink and start coming to terms with the fact that you've just lost the next twelve minutes of your life.
To call a movement fighting sexual violence "petty pustule bickering... between women and men / un-adhering to nature's call" is awful for all of the obvious political reasons, but maybe what's more offensive is the weird image it conjures up of everyone holding their pee.
The rhyme scheme starts to fall apart pretty early, but it's at "sexual misdoings awakening a rage" that it all really goes to shit. This dude really fucked his meter all the way up just so he could say "sexual misdoings" instead of "rape."
"And what's with this 'Me Too'?" reads like the drunk raving of that uncle who showed up uninvited to the funeral even though he probably maybe definitely kidnapped and beat up your aunt.
Kayleb Rae Candrilli
Image Description: Candrilli blacks out Penn’s poem to create a new poem. It reads:
It must look so small,
This season of men
and militaries is a crusade—
a nightmare of pompous men
adhering to fire and women.
Where did all the laughs go?
Are you out there?
Paul Tran is Poetry Editor at The Offing and the first Asian American since 1993 to win the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Grand Slam, placing Top 10 at the Individual World poetry Slam and Top 2 at the National Poetry Slam.
I won't take to task what appears as a poem in Sean's novel. I won't take to task the novel either. Sean can write and bring into the world whatever he believes he must. But as Sharon Olds warns in her poem, I Go Back to May 1937, "Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it."
I tell you that casting #MeToo as an "infantilizing term of the day" or a "[reduction of] rape, slut-shaming, and suffrage to reckless child's play" is a common strategy deployed by those in power to feel mightier beside their opponents. Arguably the best known example of this is "The White Man's Burden," written by Rudyard Kipling also in 1899, which encouraged the United States to colonize Southeast Asia and "serve," through exploitation and exacting violence such as rape, the "half-devil and half-child" peoples of that hemisphere. What Sean attempts isn't new.
In fact, his misogyny lacks imagination. He lacks curiosity and insight, which are necessary not only in poems but in being human as well. Poetry has always been employed by the state to facilitate domestic and foreign policy. Sean's poem, therefore, is no different from Rudyard's. It seeks to record the beliefs, feelings, and observations of a single speaker. It seeks to persuade readers to adopt this speaker's point of view. Satire or not, a poem is a primary source document with an agenda, and we must read with care. I don't care about Sean's poem. I care about what it does as a poem by existing. And if what I write here can obliterate it, then I offer these words as a poet, as a survivor of incest and rape, to vanquish it.