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A week ago I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, at the Aspen Institute’s Cultural Diplomacy Forum at the Philips Collection. She was participating in a panel discussion with Michael Dirda about her work at Johns Hopkins and the role the arts can play in shaping foreign policy. Two days later, Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize and became a permanent member of a triumvirate of South American fiction giants (along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Roberto Bolano). Both writers exhibit the type of friendly and meaningful dialogue proposed by the many noteworthy speakers at the Diplomacy Forum. I want to put these two figures into dialogue with each other, by speaking about Nafisi’s Reading Lolita and Vargas Llosa’s lesser-known work, The Storyteller.

My favorite line from Nafisi’s panel came from her anecdote about her arrival at Johns Hopkins. A colleague essentially said “Oh, good, we needed someone to do women’s studies and Muslim literature,” to which Nafisi responded, “Bloody hell, no! I want to study dead white men!” She elaborated, emphasizing the notion that if there is to be true dialogue, we must be able to step outside what we know and engage other forms, other cultures, with empathy.

This is the impetus of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi’s students (and Nafisi herself) deal with their plight as women in a Muslim theocracy by reading, among others, Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen – curious, and at best tangentially relevant, seemingly. But this is the point. For these women, these “dead white men” take on utmost significance in their lives. Their novels illuminate the troubles of sexual abuse, notions of the American Dream, and “burden” (Bellow) of individual freedom in ways made relevant and meaningful by Nafisi’s teaching. (The classroom scenes are among the most powerful of the book, ranking along with Frank McCourt’s as some of the best of that genre I’ve read). What these figures have in common, for Nafisi, is their engagement with what she sees as the central issue of reading fiction at all:

Pity is the password, says the poet John Shade in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. This respect for others, empathy, lies at the heart of the novel. It is the quality that links Austen to Flaubert and James to Nabokov and Bellow. This, I believe, is how the villain of modern fiction is born: a creature without compassion, without empathy. The personalized version of good and evil usurps and individualizes the more archetypal concepts, such as courage or heroism, that shaped the epic or romance. A hero becomes one who safeguards his or her individual integrity at almost any cost.

Nafisi’s novel is filled with accounts of brutality against women in Tehran. She depicts this lack of empathy as the root of male oppression and violence in the “Muslim World” (Nafisi herself puts this term in quotes, attacking it as reductive). Hence the need to read “at almost any cost.”  The many female characters of Reading Lolita in Tehran embody this need with a zeal that can rejuvenate our own love for good fiction.

This type of empathy, as Bakhtin would say a traveling into the other and back again into an enriched notion of one’s own selfhood, is at the heart of Llosa’s The Storyteller. It is the story of an unnamed first-person narrator’s journey to know his friend Saul Zuratas. Known affectionately as “Mascarita,” he is a red-headed Jew with a grotesque birthmark that takes up half his face. His outsidedness from Peruvian normalcy compels him to identify with the Machiguenga tribe of the jungle.

He begins by studying them academically, only to reject the field of ethnology and linguistics as unethical. The rest of the novel after this declaration is a multi-text. Interspersed with the narrator’s account of the end of his relationship with Zuratas is a series of circuitous and labyrinthine tales from Machiguenga mythology. It is clear to the reader that Zuratas himself is telling these stories. He has completely joined the tribe; much more, he has become their bard, their hablador, their storyteller. A mythical figure in his own right, he is kept hidden from the academics and documentarians who come to the jungle. Over time the narrator comes to discover Zuratas’ new life, with profound effects on his own.

The story itself is powerful, but the work is enhanced by the point Vargas Llosa makes through his narrative strategy. The narrator’s story is one of trying to know the Machiguengas through standard Western academic practices. He thinks by studying them at the university, and by filming a sensitive documentary, he is doing the tribe justice to those who would re-educate them and steal their land. But next to the Zuratas chapters – what can be called nothing other than bits of magical realism – they seem insufficient and, yes, unethical. Zuratas, an outsider, has somehow – to the narrator’s bafflement at the end of the novel – been “able to feel and live at the very heart of that culture…having penetrated its essence, reached the marrow of its history and mythology, given body to its taboos, images, ancestral desires, and terrors…being, in the most profound way possible, a rooted Machiguenga.”

For Nafisi and Vargas Llosa, this type of – to use his word – “conversion” is entirely possible. It requires, first, this Bakhtinian idea of travel outside of the self. For both these excellent thinkers, that type of travel is rooted in storytelling, in great novels.

Nixon went down to the beach and sat in the sand and waited. The waves came in, the waves went out, and he sat there in his suit and waited.

There comes a point, in every election, where there seems like there’s nothing anyone can do. Whatever is going to happen will happen. It has happened already. Sometime during the day, sometime while the votes are cast or after they’re cast but haven’t yet been counted, the candidates can’t do anything anymore except wait. Politicking ends. Maneuvering stops. Everyone waits. They’re as helpless as hitchhikers, at that moment, in that in-between time. As helpless as sinners in that old Calvinist doctrine of waiting for grace.

For the last few years, every election day I’ve gone down to the county headquarters and waited while they count the ballots. In the evening at the end of the day, the poll workers pull up to the bunker, lining up their SUVs and unloading the voting machines by the front door. It was the 911 call center at one point, a concrete building half-built into the ground, radio aerials like squiggly doodles drawn in the sky. They transformed it into a community center, though, and reporters and candidates, party hacks and other observers are shuffled over into a room that is used, most days, for a battered-wives support group. There are chairs there and we wait while they count. On the bulletin boards are brightly colored flyers saying love shouldn’t hurt, help is available, break the cycle of violence. We can see through a window to where they do the actual counting–election officials in a rush, unlocking the machines, sorting and shifting and tallying districts, then uploading the count onto the official site, where, all over the county, all over the state, candidates and journalists, party workers, regular voters, and other observers wait for the numbers to say what is already decided.

That is the weird thing, watching the poll workers come in and unload the machines, watching the counters count and the election watchers watch. You know the decision’s been made. There’s nothing anyone can do anymore. You’re in the interregnum. You’re in that period where you know that soon everything will appear clear and as foreordained as if providence had made it so, everything is complete, and soon this history can be what cultural studies scholars call “presentist,” where everything clearly leads up to what it did the way it did and makes sense retrospectively. But for the moment everything is undetermined. What’s going to be already is and we wait for what’s done, what’s inevitable and, in fact, is already accomplished but only not yet realized.

The future is fluid, to you there, standing there at sunset on election day as the counting counters scurry, and the past is fluid too. The past is done, but unknown; the future done and unknown too. All of it moving. All of it’s as formless as water. But only to you. In another sense, in a real sense or a more real sense, it’s all already solid. The past is decided and the future’s decided and has its shape, its form is fixed, but for you it’s all only liquid.

The tide goes out. The tide comes in. Nixon butt prints in November beach sand.

It’s strange that for a country as political as America, for a country that makes or can make anything political, whose day-to-day drama and national narrative is internally tangled and intertwined with party machinations and affairs of state — our own present history even actually narrated back to us by party hacks and political commentators — that there’s really very little art that directly deals with the political process.

The one work that really stands out is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, which, interestingly, puts a whole narrative in this interregnum state, where history is all fixed and predetermined and fated, and yet, unknown. It starts with driving directions, which also work as metaphor:

To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or it was new, that day we went up it. You look at that highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll try to jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll reach to try to turn off the ignition just as she starts to dive. But you won’t make it, of course.

The book was written in 1946, Warren’s third novel. It won the Pulitzer in ’47, and seems to somewhat cyclically attract attention without ever making it onto anyone’s “great” list, or gaining a firm place in any cannon. It’s the story of Jack Burden, the narrator, a newspaper writer who goes to work for Willie Stark, a character loosely based on Louisiana’s Huey P. Long, a rising populist, a reformer who grabs power with both hands. It’s a political novel, in that it’s about politics. It might be the best book we have in American literature on politics–it’s the best one I can think of–but it’s also a meditation on destiny. Or what we might call a kind of secular Calvinism.

Burden is, by calling and by training, a historian. He is also an amateur philosopher, who flirts with Idealism, and a nihilistic, materialistic version of Calvinism that pictures history as a great big “twitch,” and he meditates confusedly on questions of destiny and time. He says, “And all times are one time, and all those dead in the past never lived before our definition gives them life, and out of the shadow their eyes implore us. That is what all of us historical researchers believe,” and “go out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time,” and other philosophical, poetic thing. The book is narrated from the future with a feeling of dread. A sense of doom sending its shadow back over the story. Huey P. Long, of course, was assassinated at, perhaps, the height of his power, and we know, even at the start, even if it’s just as a feeling from the sense of style, that that is going to happen and bad things are going to happen before the end of the book. We can see it coming–“coming at you”–down the middle of a highway, flat and straight for miles. Burden narrates with a sense of destiny that might, more rightly, be called inevitability.

Foreordination that’s more like foreboding.

He believes in providence, but in the sort of providence that only shows you the solid form of your fate in the moment after it happens. Everything’s liquid, as he stands there, an ocean that undulates without form, until suddenly he sees, and the past is solid and was what it was, and the future is now what it is and was always going to be.

There’s a sense of doom, in this, and All the King’s Men is Calvinistic too in its sense that everyone’s implicated, intertwined and tangled up inescapably in the horrible human condition. It’s secular, though, in that the human degradation does not and is not meant to emphasize the distant glory of God, but only highlights our helplessness. There is no salvation, in All the King’s Men, but only the waiting. Or, there is a salvation, but it’s only political, it’s only a new road or a new state policy or an inspiring speech, and the characters in the novel are always on the way towards a crash into the limits of the limited scope of that hope.

As Willie Stark says to Jack Burden, “We been in it up to our ears, both of us, you and me, boy.”

Or as somebody says to Stark, when his first run for governor flounders out, “You thought you were the little white lamb of God.”

Everyone’s condemned in this novel — always already condemned — and what’s interesting, reading it, is seeing how you already know how it’s going to end just from the tone, just from the style, and yet it’s riveting anyway. You can’t look away. That secular Calvinistic sense of sin is injected into every part of the narrative, and the characters, even at the beginning, are already framed by their doom. Framed not in the political sense of made-up scandal with planted evidence, but framed by history and fate. As Stark says, trying to explain it,

I never did ask you to frame anybody. And you know why?


Because it ain’t ever necessary. You don’t ever have to frame anybody, because the truth is always enough.

We are, that is, all already framed. Framed by history. We just know how yet.

The narrator regularly signals what’s going to happen, but the character who narrates can only wait, helpless, until it does. Jack Burden is, as a character, as condemned as Oedipus, of the ancient Greeks, who made his fate come true by working against it. He’s doomed and destined, and the facts or events of the novel are fixed, and there’s a way in which Burden doesn’t actually act any more than Nixon did on that Election Day, waiting for someone to come find him and tell him what he’d done. Instead, what changes for Burden is the way he thinks about himself and history and the history that is to come. The whole novel is watching him drive straight into the crash of the realization of his Calvinistic kind of fate.

Then the share-cropping black man, chopping cotton in the very first pages of the novel, can see “the little column of black smoke standing up against the vitriolic, arsenical green of the cotton rows, and up against the violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky, and […] say, ‘Lawd God, hit’s a-nudder one done done hit.'”

Of course, we might say the same thing about secularized Calvinism in American literature, about displaced, disenchanted destiny in the American novel: Hit’s a-nudder one done done hit again. It’s a subtext that stretches and a question that comes up from Hawthorne to Pynchon. Nathanial Hawthorne, even in early stories like “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” cross-layers providentalisms against each other, until the characters all get caught in them, destroyed in them (and maybe the story does too). Thomas Pynchon’s Slothrop, the paranoid center of the apparently conspiratorial universe of Gravity’s Rainbow, is, appropriately, the descendent of providentialist Puritans, the son of a whole history of paranoid histories. America is a country, too, that has always confused it’s providentialism and its politics, with its Manifest Destinies and Cities on Hills, which is all foreordination and fixed history, fixed into the future, the “God” little more than the manifestations of the mystery of it was going to happen, its history always one of retrospective and presentist explanations, meta-narratives that put the whole thing in a frame.

What’s interesting about Jack Burden’s secular Calvinism, in all its foreordination and mystery, with history that’s both God-given and unknowable, is this moment: the interregnum. The election day moment. He lives there, right there, the narrative is structured there, where everything’s already been decided and there’s nothing you can do. Sitting on the beach where everything’s liquid, everything’s fluid, it’s all an ocean, and then in a moment you see the shape of it all, a shape you can then never un-see.

In this novel we’re always in this moment where we’re watching the voting machines unloaded and knowing that here the Vox of the populi has already been uttered, but isn’t or hasn’t yet become, hasn’t been transformed into the vox of the Dei, and so can’t yet be heard or understood.

For most of us, most of the time, fate and history are fixed. Or seem fixed. We are meta-narrativists and presentists, by training and by nature, and the past seems to us to be solid, the present predetermined even as what we’re really doing is reading it, interpreting it, socially constructing it from where we sit. There are moments, though, where we’re waiting, where we don’t have what we need to determine the providential shape of the narrative of “now.”  We will, with our tellings, fix it as if it’s the voice of God, as if it’s the only way things are or could have been, but there are moments where that indeterminacy of history, the openness of how we read or could read and how we understand, is, for a moment, if not clear, a feeling we clearly feel as dread in our stomachs as we watch the ocean tide.

Moments of uneasy interregnum.

Moments of waiting, waiting for what has already happened or will seem like it has when the past is appropriately fixed and firmed-up by the future, moments of suspended shock, before everything fits into place.

“When a heavy-caliber slug hits you,” Jack Burden explains, “you may spin around but you don’t feel a thing.”

Moments when, watching the middle line of a flat highway like 58, watching it flicker and shimmer until we pass into a daze while driving, hypnotized by ourselves, and we imagine as if in a trance, a daydream from which we cannot wake, what would happen if we veered off into the dirt shoulder and crashed, what the smoke would look like, what the cotton choppers would say to themselves, a mile away, and we imagine the other alternative too, where we go “whipping on into the dazzle […] at the horizon where the cotton fields are blurred into the light, the slab will gleam and glitter like water, as though the road were flooded,” and we’ll go “whipping towards it, but it will always be ahead […] that bright, flooded place, like a mirage.”

It’s a hypnotic moment, where we stare off unfocused, like Nixon looking at the ocean. There, in the in-between when the votes are being counted, the past, present and the future could really all go either way, could take any shape. Until it happen. Then it won’t seem like anything except our story of fate and future-from-past, present-from-past, now as it was always going to be because of secular providence, was possible. After it happens.

For that moment though, everything was liquid.

Musicians, jazz musicians, keep fake books–at least they used to–with all the chord changes as well as written-down alternatives they may want to try. Why don’t poets keep fake books? I know Thomas Lux has his own personal anthology of poems he likes or is interested in. It’s a great idea.

To make a good fake book,
1. Leave plenty of room in the margins to write notes.
2. Leave doodle space.
3. Keep the backs of the paper blank so you can write the poem out in your own hand, or write an answer to it, or a variation on it. When you write someone else’s poem out by hand, you get an entirely different relationship to the language–the line, word choice, etc.

Here’s another strange practice, but one that appeals to me as a sort of loopy scientist: Read a poem once silently. Close the book, take a pen or pencil and jot down the exact lines in your fake book (or what you think are the exact lines you remember). Even if it’s only an image, jot it down. Do this with every poem you encounter. Five months from now, see what it is you remembered: study it by mood, by words, by sound relationships. This is how your neural self stores immediate acts of language. It is a hand print of your own immediate memory. It will also show you how alliteration, repetition, and strong language are all mimetic devices. Look for a pattern to your memory. You will then have some idea what makes language immediately memorable to you, and you can use this knowledge for your work. Keep this in a note book. Don’t revisit the previous memory jottings until the five months are up. Read a poem a day, and do this. See what your mind misremembered or added to the text. I know a girl who remembered a line by Emily Dickinson: “I like a look of agony because I know it’s true.” She mis-remembered it as: “I like a look of agony because I know its you.” I loved it.

Once, in a kingdom called Catholic grammar school, I was made to memorize “The Raven” and The Song of Hiawatha.” I got up there and lost it. This is what I said (I spell Longfellow’s Indian place name wrongly on purpose):

By the shores of gitchee goomy,
Stood the noble Hiawatha
quoting from the other shore:
Only this and nothing more.

I spliced them, diced them, and mangled them. What I remembered flawlessly was the meter which is trochaic tetrameter. I screwed up. The kids laughed. The nun tried not to laugh, and then did. Later, when we were briefly alone, I said:

“Sister… did Poe steal from Longfellow.? They got the same sound.”
“Joseph, I wish your memory and your work ethic were on par with your perception. Poe did indeed imitate some of the effects of trochaic meter found in Longfellow. Mr. Poe could be somewhat of a thief.”

We remember rhythms and sounds because they are the verbal mold sets for imagery and words. Free verse has irregular molds and so it often relies on the imagery for its effects. Modern, written prose uses mimetic devices sparingly, unless it is trying to sell something. You will know when something is being sold because the sisters of repetition, and alliteration, and rhyme, and short sentences, and chiasmus, and rhetorical oration will come into play:

Buy bonds!
Where’s the beef?
If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.
Play it again, Sam!

The last line was never actually said in the movie. The whole culture misremembered it. We do not remember words or even language. We remember effect, usually rhythmic effects. This is why jingles, sound bytes, slogans, and commercials are so memorable (and so dangerous). By keeping a record of what you remember immediately, or misremember, you are keeping an “effect diary.” I like that. I think I am going to do it myself!

Many poets obsessed with the page turn against a poem the moment they are too aware of its effects. They do not recognize this as snobbery, as a prejudice. They don’t get on Gerard Manley Hopkins for it because they have been trained to think he is a great poet and would not dare to accuse him of overdoing the alliteration.

I always wanted a t shirt that said, “Rose, thou art sick!” I can’t imagine a more jolting, a more provocative start to a poem. It would be nice to advertise Blake.

So in class, I’d like to have a slogan-bot. A little machine that would spit out catch phrases, received ideas, slogans, and cliches, on a fairly constant basis, in the voice of that English lady in cars that have a GPS device–only with no priority of order. I would turn it on for five minutes every day and just let the students listen. It would seem comic. It would train the mind of a student to associate the sounds of sound bytes with incongruity and to be suspicious. Eventually, the student would be conditioned to have a sound byte detector, and to test language that nut shelled things. He or she would be trained to know the effects of slogans–not necessarily the slogans. That would be better. That would be training the ear. This would both teach cliche, and train the student to use effective sounds, but without simplistic thoughts.

PHOTO CREDIT: See some more amazing jazz-themed photos.

Ingmar Bergman called Tarkovsky, “the greatest.” It’s hard to argue with Bergman. While Tarkovsky is not a well-enough known director, this is probably just as well because virtually anything popular becomes bastardized. Tarkovsky will probably never be “popular” simply because of the interminable length and oppressive mood of his films.

Tarkovsky created most of his films under the watchful eye of the USSR. The Soviets violently edited (and at other times completely censored) every film he made. His works were considered too politically ambiguous, religiously symbolic, and (of all things) too violent for Soviet tastes. Even the anti-Soviet nationalist Alexander Solzhenitsyn did not approve of Tarkovsky’s violent portrayal of Russia’s past. Because of the repression of the Soviets, Tarkovsky’s films are even more shrouded in poetic mystery. The persistent theme of doubt in all his works would make any sincere Soviet anxious.

Andrei Tarkovsky made an important film called Andrei Rublev, about a doubting monk, Russia’s greatest iconographer. While this seems tedious, it is anything but dull.  The film feels very much like Bergman, from whom much of Tarkovsky’s style emerged. Like Bergman’s Seventh Seal, Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev is a slow-paced journey with monks, holy idiots, existential discourse, and symbolic animals.

We modern people forget how extraordinary it is for us to have such extravagant colors in our everyday lives. Even a hundred years ago, this was not the case. Common place things like big red barns were not painted that way to exhibit color, but because red paint was the cheapest at the time.

Color in human creations has been rare until recently. Perhaps humans have changed. It is certainly odd that neither Bible nor the Iliad once speak the color of the sky. The Iliad barely speaks of more color than the “purple gore.” But colors obviously have had significant meaning for people. Visionary colors are important, like the coat of many colors worn by Joseph or the majestic stained glass of Christendom. Aldous Huxley wrote in The Perennial Philosophy that this “visionary experience” is the entire point of self-deprivation which the desert fathers inflicted upon themselves. Asceticism was rewarded by psychonautical adventures.

But for a work about Russia’s most important iconographer, there is precious little color. But a film in black and white representing medieval lifestyles is realistic – much more so than a simple photograph or image. Tarkovsky does not create an image of another time, he creates an icon. You enter that time very readily and watch as the slow and brutal tale unfolds.

The most important moment is at the very end, after all the mindless suffering under the Tatars. It happens quite suddenly, but magically. After watching a film in black and white, you forget you’re watching in black and white. That’s when Tarkovsky makes his move. Suddenly, the film bursts into glorious color. The experience is worth the entire film. It reminds me of reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. As you read long, you find words, words, words – and suddenly, when you turn the page, it’s blank with a small sketch of a fly. The jarring experience is nirvana and a radical re-vision of how we normally encounter the world. This same effect is employed (multiple times) in his film Stalker, an excellent and dreary work.

The sort of revelatory encounter presented through all the doubt and angst of Tarkovsky’s films seems almost contradictory, but the essence of Tarkovsky lies in the elusiveness of reality and the religious experience surrounding its ultimate encounter. In his film Stalker he presents the tension between the need to know and the near-impossibility of knowing. The Russian word “stalker” is directly related to the English word “stalker” but without the creepy connotations. I think a better translation might be “follower” — even “disciple.” Stalker begins with sepia-tones and dreariness not unlike Andrei Rublev. After the audience is accustomed to the dull brown tones, suddenly the film bursts into color as the travelers cross a threshold into a dreadful and mysterious territory.

The character named “Stalker” travels with two companions named “Writer” and “Scientist” — one with a poetic sentiment, another with a scientific, and then Stalker himself. The Christic images are evident as he  paradoxically leads by following. Rather than heading up the group, he tells them where to go and then follows them. Stalker has an ugly wife and a mutant child named Monkey. He is timid, meek, and apparently a broken man. This journey of faith is almost explicit and incredibly powerful. Often Stalker makes his companions take illogical routes and circumnavigates perfectly obvious paths. The still tension of the unknowable dangers holds the entire film together. One’s sense of time and space are intentionally distorted (intentionally) as sounds remain unheard when we would normally hear them, and rooms become flooded after only a few moments. The distortion of sound lends to the distortion of space and leaves one with a sort of pure existential tension. The same dread drags us through Andrei Rublev but is majestically “resolved” in the dynamic stillness of Rublev’s icons.

The visionary experience is only possible because of suffering not in spite of it. Without the immanent pains of life, there is no transcendence. A doctrine often overlooked in Buddhism is that samsara (suffering) is nirvana. They are one and the same. Because of samsara there is nirvana, because of immanence there is transcendence. Because of becoming, there is being. Tarkovsky must be watched by any self-respecting soul.


Gene Tanta begins his first book of poems, Unusual Woods, with a 20-page essay that takes shots at T.S. Eliot, Harold Bloom and others. Why does he do this and what is he trying to say?

Surrealism and one of its American progeny, Deep Image poetry, have never been fully accepted. Their stock has taken a dip in the last few decades. But they are still with us, and they shape our contemporary poetry scene arguably as much as any of the other big guns of modern poetry: Whitman, Imagism, Symbolism.

What Gene Tanta has done in Unusual Woods is take the project of Deep Image poetry, which is to recuperate and shape myths from the images buried in our collective unconscious, and make it local rather than universal. In particular, he is assembling images from various fragments of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. (The collective unconscious is of course a Jungian concept made famous by archetypal criticism and the Deep Image poets. It is the idea that the collective memories of the human race emerge in various forms, such as myths, folklore and the like.)

As I said, Tanta makes poetry out of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. I say it this way because it is different from any of the following: (a) poetry built on the cultural memory particular only to the Romanian and/or Romanian immigrant experience, (b) the rendering of images and myths only for Romanians, or (c) a poetry that has a particularly Romanian (political) subtext. Instead, Tanta realizes that while his personal and Romanian self is reflected in his work, his American immigrant experience (and his generally human experience) is as well. In fact, the images that make up the 13-line demi-sonnets of Unusual Woods are universally human (while being contemporary). And he is creating “myths” that are universal.

So why does Tanta make such a big deal about his heritage and immigrant identity? In effect, Tanta is doing what any Deep Image poet does (or did)—we all make what we can out of the pieces of the collective unconscious that have been lodged in our particular psyches. A Jungian expects no more or less of anyone. The difference between Tanta and the traditional Deep Image approach is that Tanta foregrounds the particularity and individuality of his own memories and experiences. He knows his cultural biography is the lens through which he experiences and makes sense of his American (and generally human) experience.

This is a level of introspection that most of the Deep Image poets cared only somewhat about. (Jerome Rothenberg is an obvious exception, but he is better understood as the arbiter of ethnopoetics.) The others, such as Robert Bly, James Wright, Robert Kelly, are fully invested in the project of finding (somewhat interchangeably) universal and American myths. Also, in as far as they saw themselves as continuing the project of the great modernists, especially the Imagists, these poets were loosely committed to poetry as a universal art form, even if they didn’t take it quite as far as to say a poem exists only as an aesthetic object. These days, our claims about poetry are more modest. We recognize that the role of cultural biography inevitably ties our writing to material, contextual existence.

Recent decades have seen a surge in the “hybrid” poetries of American immigrants. What is particularly interesting about this poetic scene is that Eastern European poets writing as immigrants in English seem, generally, to be keenly aware of the “hybrid” quality of their poetry—they know they have more than one tap root in cultural experience. And yet, they remain ambiguous, or even agnostic, about what the particular components of this hybrid poetics are.

In his essay, however, Tanta offers at least a few concrete explanations. First, he, as an ESL poet, experiences idiomatic language as non-transparent. This shapes his experience of the language, which results in poetry that, like misunderstood idioms, mean different things to different readers: “As a form of linguistic irony, the idiomatic expression itself stands for two things at once, which of these two things the reader comes away with depends on the community with which the reader identifies” (30). This makes our reading of the text contingent and plural.

Another, more significant aspect of Tanta’s cultural biography comes from the mash-up of linguistic elements present within the Romanian tongue—partly Western Latinism, partly mongrelized Turkish and Slavic, Romanian has shaped the way Tanta approaches reality: “My own resistance to binary thinking feels ‘implicit’ and ‘experiential’ . . . and manifests in my practiced refusal to fit into categories of Romanian or American, Poet or Artist, Aesthete or Propagandist” (33). The claim is elemental and common, but it is essential: it’s not simply that different “content” is being inserted into our brains—it’s also that cultural and linguistic features have constructed our consciousness to process the content differently.

Ultimately, though, Tanta wants to have it both ways, and I think he is right. Even though both the form and content of Tanta’s work are particular to his Romanian-immigrant experience, he insists that his poetry is accessible to everyone. His poetry, he says, exists both as aesthetic objects and political propaganda. This is absolutely true about all poetry, not just his own. Inevitably, literary criticism will come to see that literature is always both. Most critics probably know this but have allowed themselves to stray from this obvious fact because the theory wars have created a false dichotomy between cultural and formalist criticism. Tanta brings us back to earth. We all experience texts as both universal and particular—both aesthetic and political:

I will not commit the essentialist error of taking myth of origin . . . only literally or figuratively: both the practical hardships of dislocation and the aesthetic insights that may accompany such cultural shifting go into creating our myths of origin. Cultural identity has multiple and simultaneous histories and motivating factors but this does [not] make it arbitrary. (35)

Later, he writes, “As a poet, I am interested in what the English language can do through how I use it. . . . As a critic, I am faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content” (36).

Tanta’s essay offers a corrective to the rest of the poetry world. Our readings need to focus on and scrutinize the dialectic between cultural biography and aesthetic form. Tanta claims merely that we need to do so if we are to understand his poetry, but it is not hard to see the wider implications of his argument—this goes for all literary texts. My own sense is that literary criticism has been beating around this bush for a while, even though when we are reading in our right minds most of us would probably concede this fact without difficulty. Many of us are probably already on board with this. Still, there is a notable absence of theory that directly targets the relationship between cultural biography and aesthetics. It’s odd and rather shocking.

Next time I will look at the poems of Unusual Woods, which are gorgeous and demonstrate what Tanta is saying in his essay. It is rewarding to read a poet who is willing explain his poetic approach and is knowledgeable enough to understand it without self-delusion.

NOTE: This is the 2nd part in Joe”s series about poetry workshops. The first part can be found here.

Some days in a writing workshop should be like rainy days with a coloring book. In that case, I might let my students just talk and read, or sketch. At arts high, when I thought a student was tired—really tired—I encouraged them to lay down and take a nap.

If I had my way, every writing work shop would have the following:
1. Some plants the students can take care of. The plants could be taken home each week by a different student and cared for until returned when the next class happened.
2. A fish aquarium (I love fish).
3. A workshop dog or cat if no one was allergic. Dogs and cats relieve stress, especially dogs raised to be around sick people (writing has all the outward signs of being sick: you are not involved in heavy physical activity, and you are confined to a room).
4. Two or three computers on which students could put in head phones and watch videos of poetry and music performance, but no more than two or three.
5. Sketch pads, coloring books, crayons, and some water colors.
6. Sculptor’s clay.

I’d have the following books in my class…

Myth related:
Bulfinch’s Mythology
– Frazier’s The Golden Bough
American Indian Myths and Legends (Selected and edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz)
– A standard anthology of world myths
A Complete Works of Shakespeare
A King James Bible
– A good thesaurus
– A rhyming dictionary
– A good unabridged Webster or Oxford dictionary
– A book of quotations

Art related:
Any art books you could get your hands on: Degas, Picasso, Braque, Jasper Johns, etc., etc.

Poetry Anthologies I’d make available:
– An Oxford anthology of English verse
The Longman Anthology
The Golden Treasury
The Voice That Is Great Within Us
– All of Jerome Rothenberg’s Anthologies. They are the most comprehensive collections of folk and alternative/experimental poetry in a general sense that I know.
Unsettling America (Maria and Jennifer Gillan)
100 Chinese Poems and 100 Japanese Poems (Kenneth Rexroth)
– An anthology of 20th century French verse (I gave mine to Metta Sama because I thought she was a wonderful poet.)
The American Bible of Outlaw Poetry
Staying Alive (Neil Astley)
The Rag Bone Shop of The Heart (Bly, Hillman, & Meade)
Western Wind …part anthology, part text, wonderfully sane work
A Geography of Poets (both first and second editions)
– An anthology of world poetry, J.D. McClatchy’s comes to mind.
The Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry
Martin Espada’s anthology of political poetry

I am leaving out some good anthologies, but this will give them a start. Hell, I’m doing this by memory. I don’t believe that new means best. New just means new. It’s better for them to see an anthology from 20 years ago, so that they know how few poets truly remain prominent, and so that they read and enjoy poets who have been unjustly forgotten (and ones who have been more than justly forgotten).

Ron Padget’s Handbook of Forms is a great readable book on the basic types of set forms in poetry
The Practice of Poetry, Robin Behn and Chase Twichell: lots of prominent poets waxing wise on teaching poetry.
Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio have a good one which one of my students stole. Oh well, I’ll re-buy it. I love when kids steal my books.
Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form: the entry on the English stanza is a masterpiece of lucidity, and the version with a chapter on free verse is priceless.

I would make each of my students compile an anthology of poems from these anthologies. They can scan it, and print it up. They could form the anthology any way they wanted. They could include friend’s poems (poets certainly do). But it would be no less than a hundred pages, and they’d have to write an introduction for it complete with their own manifesto. It would be interesting to see twenty kids compile one hundred page anthologies. That would be 2000 pages of poetry!

This is my ideal class environment, my dream. They stick creative writing classes just about anywhere—usually anti-septic, drab, “professional” rooms which say: “be creative where no one else ever dared.” I taught a creative writing workshop in a school boiler room in Paterson. It was preferable to most college rooms because, at least, it had cool pipes, and an air of underground danger.

I wish I could make it a rule that every student would create his or her own anthology, and put what they thought were their four best poems in the midst of the poetry gods—just to see how they’d swim. These would be amazing keepsakes. I just might do this.

Anyway, there’s no one stopping someone with money or power from creating such environments. They are not that expensive. There should be such a poetry room in every library and school, and there should be a poet there to guide the students. I’d also have the kids write to lit mags, and see if they could get a deal, and then I’d have two or three hundred literary magazines around. Lit mags love to pretend they want their magazines seen and read, but most of them are financed invalids from universities, and they don’t try hard enough to get the work out there.

I believe environment matters. If it’s really awful, you and the students can bond against it. I had some awful rooms at Arts High—and also at the university. I have one now for my 250, without windows, a ghastly room with hardly any space. But I am not high maintenance. I work with what I got.

In a recent blog post, Stanley Fish proclaims that the humanities crisis has officially arrived and takes George Philip, president of SUNY-Albany, to task for axing the French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theater programs. Fish claims

it is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene.

Fish’s strategy is political: take the debate to the floors of state senates. Yet allow me to tentatively posit that perhaps our Modern Liberal Democracy (MLD for brevity) itself may be to blame. Whether we like it or not, MLD—the American one in particular—has a hard time understanding the value of something apart from its utility, its instrumentality—McLuhan called this “know how” (for a fuller, if occasionally simplistic, explanation of this idea, check out Neil Postman’s Technopoly).

Before continuing, I probably should define “Modern Liberal Democracy.” I’m only a poet who reads political philosophy sometimes, so be nice. I also realize I’m speaking broadly, and perhaps that makes me sloppy. But I hope the general gesture of this essay will out-merit its limits. Briefly, by MLD I mean modern democratic societies which have roots in Enligthenment (particularly “state of nature”) philosophy—liberal in the classical sense.

These democracies generally value individual freedom above all: I don’t disagree with your viewpoint, but I’ll die for your right to have it. Necessarily, whatever common values there are tend to be (problematically) vague and non-threatening: equality, justice, freedom of speech, etc. And even these values are not absolute; they are held in tension with prevailing political demands of the day: torture sometimes mitigates the assumed innocence of the accused; hate crimes legislation allows justice to take off the blinders; freedom of speech covers many things, but not exposing your genitals publicly. You find MLD throughout Europe & North America, primarily, but is being strenuously exported to other continents (along with the market system).

Initially, MLD seems to be the perfect environment for the Liberal Arts: freedom of speech, no midnight raids to arrest thought criminals or moralistic politicians jockeying for votes in a culture war (well…maybe not)—even the name similarities suggest a proper convergence of values. Yet in America and other governmentally  similar environments (h/t: Daniel Silliman), the sky has been falling on the liberal arts for years.

But we should note that this is not necessarily a new thing in history. In the last few days I’ve been reading through the history of Argentina. One thing that historian Jonathan Brown points out is that as soon as Argentina transitioned from an oligarchy of political elites to a MLD, the public universities shifted focus from the liberal arts to the sciences. This makes me want to ask, are the humanities an elite interest? Do professors of the humanities work at the indulgence of the privileged? Are the humanities a societal indulgence?

I don’t think the correlation between here is accidental. It might even be causal. Consider that the sciences and related disciplines are easily justified to the public in the type of discourse allowed in a MLD: remember, no absolute claims to ultimate values systems allowed—free speech, freedom of belief/conviction, and all that. But the liberal arts are much more difficult to justify in a MLD. As Fish states, “What can you say to the tax-payer who asks, ‘What good does a program in Byzantine art do me?’” Fish goes on to say

…it won’t do to invoke…pieties…— the humanities enhance our culture; the humanities make our society better — because those pieties have a 19th century air about them and are not even believed in by some who rehearse them.

Interestingly enough, Fish (bleakly) hopes that this very defense will work with politicians who “like to think of themselves as crackerbarrel philosophers and historians.” (Talk about jaded!) And yet we live in an age when state (and probably federal) politicians refuse to use standard accounting practices and keep kicking the can of financial reckoning down the road. Unfortunately for these politicians, there are literally no more pieces of the state to sell off and rent back in order to keep the budget balanced; there are no more pension funds to borrow from. Thus it seems to me that the voters are the very people that must be convinced to sacrifice certain services and pay more taxes in order to keep the humanities—not the politicians. But how do we do that?

This emphasis on a useful education leaves little room for a more or less utilitarian education (though MFA programs flourish, interestingly) and has forced literary studies to become more scientific in their approach; college administrators expect the same kind of research from the local Miltonist (if she or he is not dead yet) as we get from a chair in research science. Robert Pippin sums this shift up well in his recent “Defense of Naïve Reading” from the New York Time’s Philosopher’s Stone series:

Philology, with its central focus on language, was once the master model for all the sciences and it was natural for teachers to try to train students to make good texts, track down sources, learn about conflicting editions and adjudicate such controversies. Then, as a kind of natural extension of these practices, came historical criticism, national language categorization, work on tracing influences and patronage, all contributing to the worry about classifying various schools, movements or periods. Then came biographical criticism and the flood gates were soon open wide: psychoanalytic criticism, new or formal criticism, semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, discourse analysis, reader response criticism or “reception aesthetics,” systems theory, hermeneutics, deconstruction, feminist criticism, cultural studies. And so on.

Similarly, other authors like Patrick Deneen have pinned the decline of the liberal arts on the imitation of the German Research model of education, which divided disciplines “into specialized disciplines and [placed] stress on expertise and the discovery of new knowledge”:

When conservative critics of our universities nowadays lament the decline of liberal education, they usually decry its replacement by a left-leaning politicized agenda. But the deeper truth is that liberal education has been more fundamentally displaced by scientific education buttressed by the demands of global competition.

This certainly helps frame the perennial American media’s anxiety about American students falling behind the Chinese in math & science (seriously: just Google “American students falling behind”). But it is important to note that Deneen defines the “humanities” in a way that is crucial to his argument. Deneen takes the classical understanding of “the humanities,” which stands in direct contradiction to the modern era’s desire to escape “all forms of power and control, [which implies] that the ideal human condition [is] one of complete liberty—even the liberty from what was once understood to be human.” Deneen skewers modern conservatives (read: culture wars), but Deneen’s impulse is itself deeply conservative.

For Deneen, the liberal arts are the study of humanity and is aimed at making students into better people—not better citizens, mind you; there’s a difference: they’re related, but not interchangeably. Such enlightened people respect the limits of what it means to be human. (Side note: This view of human limits dovetails interestingly with Wendell Berry’s 2008 essay in Harper’s “Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits.”)

There is something fundamentally conservative (in a way that would baffle most Republicans and Tea Partiers) about Deneen’s (and Berry’s) ideal of limits. But this ideal also baffles modern liberals. This ideal implies that there should be a singular and definite understanding of humans and how they relate to both nature and each other. Somewhere the “Fascist alert” is going off in our heads. It must be said, however, that while nobody (except a fascist) admires Ezra Pound’s dedication to fascism—especially since it was probably motivated by Pound’s racial anxieties—his politics are brought into better focus if we believe that MLD inevitably dismantles the humanities.

None of this is an attempt to justify Pound’s despicable politics. Rather, it should highlight that the humanities and modern liberal democracy may be fundamentally at odds. Thus, we should expect the actions of someone like President Philip when state budgets get tight. And in the coming “age of austerity,” it’s something we should probably get used to.

In fact, if Deneen is right in his genealogy of the humanities—and I suspect he is—then the humanities are conservative in the most radical way. Ironically, it is the modern liberals who take up the cause in the state house. Deneen’s claims rattle all our categories. Perhaps this is why so many professors who recite Fish’s “pieties” don’t actually believe it themselves. The crisis of the humanities is not external, then, it’s internal. Humanities programs aren’t being attacked because the voters are cretinous philistines (though we poets & writers prefer to stroke our own egos in thinking so). The humanities are suffering an identity crisis and are being picked off as the weakest competitors for state funding.

Let’s say, however, that we accept Deneen’s genealogy, that the humanities and our modern liberal democracy are invariably at odds; does that mean that we should return to the classical understanding of humanities? Deneen is obviously suspicious of things that most poets & writers (a diverse & liberal bunch to be sure) would enthusiastically embrace. Deneen notes with palpable disgust that

one is…likely to find [in the modern university] indoctrination in multiculturalism, disability studies, queer studies, postcolonial studies, a host of other victimization studies, and the usual insistence on the centrality of the categories of race, gender, and class.

I personally tend more towards understanding things through the lens of technology (as opposed to race, gender, and class), and I wonder whether Deneen would list this category in his anathema of “victimization studies”? I’m not convinced of Deneen’s charity in this statement, and I think he engages in the very culture wars rhetoric he wants to skewer (plus there are better ways to tackle  “diversity” in the modern—particularly elite—university). But I do appreciate Deneen’s skepticism. And even one who vehemently disagrees with Deneen must admit that his characterizations of academia are eerily spot on in disturbing ways.

I suppose it boils down to this question: Is there a robust way to preserve the humanities against modern liberal democracy’s instrumental values system? Certainly in the last 50 or so years there have been valiant attempts to affirm the usefulness of the humanities in our modern political environment. But this effort is clearly failing, and before long we might not have any humanities courses left in which we are able to debate this very question.

And there is another question: are we trying to have it both ways? Both MLD and the liberal arts? Do they jive as well as we have always thought?

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When I first saw the papers concerning the young freshman who killed himself over being exposed kissing another man, I looked at the boy’s picture. I was in my office here at Binghamton, and I could not stop crying. It brought back my own brutal mocking when I was in high school at St. Mary of the Assumption High. I once had 100 students in an assembly sing the “Scruvy Joe” song while I sat, defenseless. No teacher ever told them to stop mocking me. They were told simply to stop making noise. I was not gay. I was clumsy, and depressed, and different than others, and I was an easy target for kids who, under other circumstances, would be considered really nice. We are not much different than chickens. We see a bleeding chicken and peck it to death.

I did not kill myself, but I also did not survive. No one survives the irrational contempt and disdain, and meanness of a mob, whether they persecute you because you are a certain color or sexuality, or simply because they are a bunch of insecure teenage morons who want to have some fun. My classmates never knew the pain they caused me. I went home every day to a mother who was dying of cancer. I never opened my mouth—not even when some of the jocks in the school began literally spitting on me. Not one teacher—not one in that whole Catholic high school—ever said to me: “Are you ok?”

I had no dates. No girl would date the school dork. My former friends from grammar school joined in the taunting, and I never got better. I died: my self esteem, my sense of trust in others, my sense that I had a right to be weird without being tormented—all that was gone. They murdered me. They broke my heart. And, if confronted, not one of them would even realize they’d done anything out of the normal, for it is normal to bully, and look down on others. After all, if you don’t want to be bullied, show some back bone, or bully someone back!

I was tough, physically strong. Even those who mocked me would have admitted I was one of the strongest kids in my grade. I wouldn’t fight because the anger and sadness and despair in me was so deep that I was afraid I might kill someone. Also, I was a neighborhood kid, and the last thing I wanted was for my dad and mom to think I was a loser. I used to spend hours on my knees praying God would kill me. I was not weak. I was depressed, deeply so, because of the illness in my family, and I didn’t know how to defend myself.

I repeat: to take away another person’s dignity, to make anyone feel that what they are is somehow intrinsically inferior—this is an act of spiritual murder. We all know the difference between gentle ribbing, affectionate kidding and hard core ridicule and persecution of others—or do we? I don’t think we have a clue.

I survived because I hid in reading and music. I would have much preferred to be a cop or a plumber than a poet. Honest. I did not want to be different. Poetry was my compensatory act. I could scribble things in a notebook, and no one could destroy that aspect of myself. But I don’t believe in “blessings” in disguise. I don’t believe that all that doesn’t kill me, strengthens me. I believe I was murdered emotionally. I believed that an already severe sadness was aggravated by being taunted relentlessly. This kid who was outed without his permission, who was exposed for the “entertainment” value of the reality TV culture is not merely an instance of gay bashing. He is a test of our failure not to torture. He is a victim of our pro-exposure, lack of empathy, sociopathic contempt for privacy or kindness. I keep his picture on my desk. I look at him every day. No one knows if he would have identified himself as gay or straight or bi. Maybe this kid was just trying to find some love. Maybe he didn’t have a set identity yet. It was his right to identify himself, and this right was taken away from him by a bunch of kids who were no crueler (or kinder) than the one hundred good Catholic boys and girls who sang to the Mickey Mouse club song:

“Who’s the leader of the scurves who’s made for every scum?
S. C. U. R. V.Y., scurvy is his name!
Scurvy joe! Fat head! Scurvy Joe! Brown teeth!”

And on and on. I was spit at, hit on the back of the head. I developed a facial tick. I became broken, and the more broken I was, the more they increased their taunting until, finally, out of boredom, they stopped. By that time, my mother had died. It was senior year of high school. They were stupid teenagers. The teachers were not stupid teenagers. I would have loved if even one teacher took my side, took time to look into my eyes and see the hurt—had done anything more than uphold the diabolical norm. No one, not one of them got involved.

We cannot use law to fix our cowardice or our own lack of compassion. It will take more than trying those morons who outed this kid for hate crimes. It will take people who have some power to be on the side of the bleeding chickens for a change, instead of standing on the sidelines, while the so called “nice” and “normal” and “popular” kids peck them to death. Law is reductionist. The human heart expands when it is allowed to deal with life in its full complexity. Law simplifies by applying specific penalties to specific actions. Law can only provide the punitive. It cannot heal the heart.

In this week of coming out, perhaps we should put ourselves on trial. Perhaps we should search our own tendency to denigrate, to mock, to deride, to disdain. Maybe, instead of using those idiot kids from Rutgers as an example, we should look into our own past. That poor child was a talented violinist. He was probably taunted and teased more often than we’ll ever know. He is on my conscience every day for the rest of my life, and if I ever see a person scorned or mocked—gay or straight—and do nothing, take the side of the persecutors, then I will be a party to his death.

I try to make an example of acceptance in my classrooms, of being open to difference. I often fail. It is not enough to point my finger at those who hate. I have to keep trying harder not to be that way myself. I pray for that boy’s tormentors. They are dead too, in so many ways—spiritually dead. I hope with all my heart they can be brought to truly feel remorse for the pain they caused. I hope I can do the same.

I’m sure many of you read Stanley Fish’s articles on the topic What Should Colleges Teach? from a year or so ago. I came from the “great tradition” tradition, the Mortimer J. Adler mindset of reading all the great books in the Western canon. I also got my dose of composition advice, much of coming from the slightly pushy Strunk & White. Some of my professors knew Strunk & White so well that they would underline sentences and cite the pages from the revered style book that I needed to consult in order to fix my sentence. Thus I followed Strunk religiously until I read Geoffrey Pullum’s extensive bitchfest in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Strunk & White, and in recent years I have reconsidered my devotion.

First I should say that Strunk & White definitely made a difference in my writing for the better. But what has improved my writing even more has been teaching it in the last year or so. Not just teaching it to college students, but teaching it to grad school bound ESL students. Teaching ESL students made me realize that Strunk & White is aimed at native speakers, and that while ESL students could benefit from some advice in that handy little book, Strunk & White doesn’t actually help readers understand what makes prose clear and direct.

For example, I can tell a native Mandarin speaker to “avoid a loose succession of sentences,” but a Mandarin speaker doesn’t have any clue what an English speaker considers to be a “loose succession of sentences.” While I cannot speak or read Mandarin, I get the impression that almost all sentences in Mandarin would come across as a “loose succession” clauses and modifiers to an English speaker (if any Mandarin readers could enlighten me about the truth of this impression that would be fabulous). This is not a judgment on Mandarin, but a recognition that different languages consider different writing habits to be stylistically virtuous.

Take the Korean as another example. Again, I’m no expert, but from what I’ve read and been told, complex levels of cultural subtleties that would baffle the mind of most native English readers are built into the Korean language itself. Implication is always preferred; topics are spoken around. In an English essay, it is usually considered anathema to “drop in” a quote without any context or explanation. In Korean, I’m told this is preferred. You have no idea how frustrating this made me the first time I read some of the essays written by my Korean students. Thus, the wise advice of Strunk—“Use the active voice”—does not help a Korean learn how to satisfy the English desire for directness of speech and ideas. And let’s be honest, the jargon of most academics is not a good example, either.

So I switched tactics and started using Joseph William’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Williams believes that writing becomes clear when we can see our sentences from the perspective of a reader. I’ve found that his principles have not only helped me as a writer, but also as a reader. Moreover, his style rules help non-native speakers understand what English speakers want when they read English.

Williams has even helped me get over my comma issues. When I was in second grade, I had a teacher that taught me to “use a comma wherever I paused in speech.” This was helpful enough until eleventh grade when I had a grammar Nazi English teacher who made me cower at the thought of a comma splice. My college professors continued to drill this into my brain to the point where I would use “Ctrl+F” to check every comma in my essays before I turned them in. So until recently, I have thought of comma placement as determined by relatively strict rules. Williams’ Style, however, helped me realize that…it’s actually both. Pauses, yes, and rules. That might upset some of you, but I’ve found it to be true. I could explain, but it’s probably worth another blog post.

Anyways, the point of this blog post was to ask readers a question: what is your preferred style book? Do you stick with Strunk? Do you like Eats, Shoots, & Leaves? None at all? Leave your thoughts in the comments box.

There is an inwardness so vast, so total, that it has a true integrity—not the pretentiousness of artistic temper, not the vanity of professional mysticism, not the neurosis of social anxiety disorder, but a forthrightness, an honorable, hourly withdrawal from the world that seems, for lack of a better word—ecstatic. Emily Dickinson’s passes this test fro me so that, beyond her artistic temper, and beyond her neurotic social anxiety, and beyond her “Bride of calvary” routine, her retreat seems legitimate, necessary, vital. It shames me. It makes me want to be a better man, though not enough to change my life.

Dickinson’s gate keepers make me vomit. Her worshipers make me want to kick them in the shins. Her poems have the same effect upon me as the transports of saints. Before them I want to droop my head, and surrender like the unicorn, and let the little tough guys from the middle ages sink their spears into me. I sense the true virgin—not the prude, not the sexless, shrill old maid of 19th century households (though she wears those uniforms), but the true virgin—intense, blessed with a mystical and erotic chastity.

Poem 258 by Emily Dickinson stirs this sense in me, but not as an isolated particular. I do not read poems in isolation. They leap their borders, and commune with other acts of language, with other slants of light. My favorite poems do not exist as singular deeds.. This is not my absolute favorite by Emily, but it comes close (My favorite begins “I dreaded that first robin so”). 258 is one of her more canonical poems, and Harold Bloom has explicated it well. I do not compete with Harold, but I am taking it from a different angle.

Poem 258

There’s a certain slant of light,
Winter afternoons—
that oppresses, like the heft
of Cathedral tunes—

Heavenly hurt, it gives us—
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the meanings, are—

None may teach it—any—
“tis the Seal Despair—
An Imperial affliction,
Sent us of the air—

When it comes, the landscape listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
When it goes, “tis like the Distance
On the look of Death—

When I first read this poem, I was fifteen, and reading Saint Theresa of Avila’s account of her vision:

I saw an angel close by me, on my left side in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful – his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Cherubim…I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of his goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

The imagery in Dickinson’s poem seemed familiar to me— the certain slant of light I had experienced in countless works of art from the high masters. A “certain slant of light” does not have to be the product of knowing the New England Winter. It can as readily come from having read deeply and looked at reproductions of the Florentine Masters (especially when one considers how much Emily loved the Brownings, and their Roman retreat, and that her father’s amazing library no doubt contained such picture books). Her comparing this slant to the heft of cathedral tunes, making this light as heavy as the bar of a cross, and creating one of the most wonderful examples of synesthesia in American poetry… well, I took all that for granted.

Being a Catholic, it did not seem complex or baffling to me—but wonderfully accurate. Light when it is slanted is always certain, and seems to have mass—like a board of wood, and, given the imperial despair in the later part of the poem, and given my own inundation in both the mystical and erotic agony of the Catholic Church, I had no trouble with this. I found it remarkable because it seemed so precise—as true and as ordinary as Theresa seeing angels, and yet it was coming from a woman in the heart of the Puritan tradition— a tradition that did its best to tame all such erotic/mystical transports. I remember sitting there and thinking: “Wow, I love this poem. She must have read Theresa of Avila, too.”
This sort of reading is heretical, as heretical as Emily. The mind selects its own anthology, paring off poets who no self respecting scholar would place in the same room, but I think it not an unlikely pairing. Both Theresa and Emily were practical women. Though Emily reduced her world to her house, she was convivial, even wickedly funny within its protective borders, and St. Theresa had just as wicked and satirical a sense of humor as she rode about Spain, founding convents and reforming the church. Both had the gift of mystics: to normalize the extraordinary, and to make extraordinary the common, the lowly:

“heavenly hurt it gives us—
we can find no scar,”

“the pain is not bodily but spiritual”

“None may teach it—any
’tis the Seal despair—
An imperial affliction,
Sent us of the air”

“The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it.”

The imperial seal of despair, Dickinson’s whole take on despair is not far removed from St. John’s Dark night of the Soul, or Theresa’s sense of a pain so excessive yet more desirable than any earthly pleasure. Mystics slaughter the dialectical oppositions by investing the “value” of one extreme of the dialectic with the qualities of the other. Despair is, in Emily’s mystical realm, a sort of ultimate triumph. The first is last and the last first, not to reverse priority, but to re-invest the dialectical oppositions with their original spiritual freshness and force.

We should not be surprised by the eroticism of Dickinson or Theresa, and just as I know my imposition of my Catholic upbringing upon this poem is not one of scholarly argument, but of a chance leap in my mind between these great woman figures, so, too, the imposition of contemporary ideas of sexuality, Emily’s lesbianism, is a limited reading of her work. To look for evidence of her sexuality is like 19th-century scholars looking for historic proof of Jesus. It somewhat misses the mark. Emily’s eroticism, and much of it could be interpreted as towards the female, is ordinary and even defining as part of the mystical tradition. Her love of Keats would make her prone to such mystical oxymorons. In such a realm, the pure music becomes the spiritual ditties of no tone. In Dickinson, chastity, virginity becomes the purest form of eroticism. It makes sense within the verbal construct of mystical oxymoron. In this realm, it is most divine horse sense.

I am not through with this poem. In a 2nd post I hope to write, I’ll remember how I came to know that Elizabeth Barrett Browning (more so than even Robert) was of great importance to Emily, as was Keats, and that the famous couple’s abiding interest in the Franciscan heretics of the mystical persuasion may have had as much to do with her refusal to officially surrender to faith as any other reason proffered.

My overall point is that the leaps and landscapes we enter through reading are every bit as real as actual locales and travels.

Continuing some thoughts from my previous post…

Marshall McLuhan once said that modern industrial man is like a turtle who is blind to the complex and incredible designs that are “growing” on his own back. We all know that we are undergoing rapid changes as we (continue to) shift from a pre-electronic industrial world to an electric industrial world, yet often it seems impossible to step back and understand the times.

Articles like this, however, jar us out of our unspoken assumptions, make us realize that we are proceeding down history that will be determined by the clash of two completely contradictory impulses: controlling our own situation and being controlled by the technology that we use. (Postman, of course, claimed that we became a “technopoly” long ago.)

…preservationists are routinely met with so much criticism: Who are we to encourage communities to preserve their heritage if it means preventing them from gaining access to the amenities of the industrialized world? It’s not as if there’s a cost-to-benefit spreadsheet we can draw up to assess what is lost versus what is gained when it comes to human values like knowledge, tradition and beauty.

Unfortunately, these very values are what’s at stake.

I tend to believe that we don’t realize that technology is (always already?) an assumption about the world (as one philosopher called it “an account of the good”), not only a tool. Ironically, this writer is lamenting the disappearance of languages via the internet, which has become battering ram of English domination. The more I read and learn, the more I think that questions of technology and how man relates to nature are primary questions (not economics, race, sexuality, etc.—in many ways, the controversies over these can be directly traced to questions of technology).

(For example, consider how the hyperlink has changed the way I wrote the above sentence: “articles like this” would have been a vague and completely useless phrase—yet you readers know what I’m referring to because your mouse pointer changes to a finger when you hover over it).

As far as the concerns of this article…I suspect that as languages built around physical communities (i.e., nations) die out, new electronically influenced dialects will emerge. A strange (but instructive) example of this is LOLcatspeak/IMspeak. To me, these bear the hallmarks of pidgin languages, which I think are the seeds of future languages (though I’m no linguist).

Read the rest of the article. It’s very interesting.

Marshall McLuhan once said that modern industrial man is like a turtle who is blind to the complex and incredible designs that are “growing” on his own back. We all know that we are undergoing rapid changes as we (continue to) shift from a pre-electronic industrial world to an electric industrial world, yet often it seems impossible to step back and understand the times.

Articles like this (, however, jar us out of our unspoken assumptions, make us realize that we are proceeding down history that will be determined by the clash of two completely contradictory impulses: controlling our own situation and being controlled by the technology that we use. (Postman, of course, claimed that we became a “technopoly” long ago.)

We don’t realize that technology is an assumption about the world (as one philosopher called it “an account of the good”), not only a tool. Ironically, this writer is lamenting the disappearance of languages via the internet, which has become battering ram of English domination. The more I read and learn, the more I think that questions of technology and how man relates to nature are primary questions (not economics, race, sexuality, etc.—in many ways, the controversies over these can be directly traced to questions of technology).

(For example, consider how the hyperlink has changed the way I wrote the above sentence: “articles like this” would have been a vague and completely useless phrase—yet you readers know what I’m referring to because your mo

Marshall McLuhan once said that modern industrial man is like a turtle who is blind to the complex and incredible designs that are “growing” on his own back. We all know that we are undergoing rapid changes as we (continue to) shift from a pre-electronic industrial world to an electric industrial world, yet often it seems impossible to step back and understand the times.

Articles like this (, however, jar us out of our unspoken assumptions, make us realize that we are proceeding down history that will be determined by the clash of two completely contradictory impulses: controlling our own situation and being controlled by the technology that we use. (Postman, of course, claimed that we became a “technopoly” long ago.)

We don’t realize that technology is an assumption about the world (as one philosopher called it “an account of the good”), not only a tool. Ironically, this writer is lamenting the disappearance of languages via the internet, which has become battering ram of English domination. The more I read and learn, the more I think that questions of technology and how man relates to nature are primary questions (not economics, race, sexuality, etc.—in many ways, the controversies over these can be directly traced to questions of technology).

(For example, consider how the hyperlink has changed the way I wrote the above sentence: “articles like this” would have been a vague and completely useless phrase—yet you readers know what I’m referring to because your mouse pointer changes to a finger when you hover over it).

As far as the concerns of this article…I suspect that as languages built around physical communities (i.e., nations) die out, new electronically influenced dialects will emerge. A strange (but instructive) example of this is LOLcatspeak/IMspeak. To me, these bear the hallmarks of pidgin languages, which I think are the seeds of future languages (though I’m no linguist).

use pointer changes to a finger when you hover over it).

As far as the concerns of this article…I suspect that as languages built around physical communities (i.e., nations) die out, new electronically influenced dialects will emerge. A strange (but instructive) example of this is LOLcatspeak/IMspeak. To me, these bear the hallmarks of pidgin languages, which I think are the seeds of future languages (though I’m no linguist).

Oh hai.

For those of you who missed it the first time around (myself included), The Story of English is an excellent documentary on the history and nature of the English language. One enterprising YouTuber has posted the whole series on his channel. The videos seem quite dated, but much of the topics discussed are still relevant.

There’s another great series called The Adventure of English that’s worth checking out also.

Now for a spin on the story of English from the internet age…LOLcats. In particular, the LOLcat Bible Translation Project. Many linguists depend upon the work of Bible translators deployed around the world in remote (to us, at least) regions of the world. I happen to know a man who worked as a Bible translator and created the only existing dictionary in the world for his regional dialect. Concerns about dictionaries (and their purpose) aside, the LOLcats Translation begs a question: is LOLcats a true pidgin English? It has a history, it has its own grammar and rules, and now it has its own Bible.

Here is the Lord’s prayer in LOLcat:

Ceiling Cat Prayerz n stuffs
9 u pray leik dis: Praise Ceiling Cat, who be watchin yu, may him has a cheezburger.10 Wut yu want, yu gets, srsly.11 Giv us dis day our dalee cheezburger.12 And furgiv us for makin yu a cookie, but eateding it.13 An leed us not into teh showa, but deliver us from teh wawter. Ceiling Cat pwns all. Him pwns teh ceiling an flor an walls too. Amen. (sum aweforehtehz ad “srsly”)
14 if u sais sry Ceiling Cat will be leik s’ok iz kewl.15 if u donut sez sry Ceiling Cat will pwn u.

Poets are limited if they read nothing but their own poetry and spend the rest of their time reading novels or thrillers. Most of my beginning students have never purchased a book of poems. They wish to write poetry, but they do not wish to read it. They read fantasy fiction mostly. So the first thing I do is give them books, a couple hundred or so, none of which are fantasy, and then I tell them to send me an e mail, quote an excerpt from the book, and riff off of it. I then riff back, and, very often, my prompt for them arises from the e-mail they’ve written or the excerpt they’ve quoted. This accomplishes five goals:

1. They are now in a relationship to a book, adding a sort of ongoing marginalia to it.
2. Their reading life and their writing life are being connected, in however arbitrary a way (in point of fact, the more arbitrary the better).
3. I am revitalizing the epistolary tradition and taking e-mail out of its fearful function as a less-easy-than-text form of sending sound bytes of information.
4. I am making myself respond to a student in a class of 20 as if it were an independent study, keeping myself sharp, and, very often, I write poems back or discover a new way into a text. So it is a great way to help me remain an artist as well as a teacher.
5. I am defeating snobbery. I am treating the student as a peer who is entering into a relationship with me in terms of the text.

I do not trust tabula rasa learning, but students have often known little else. Many tend to resist any process they are not familiar with. No one is more conservative than a student, and I have found graduate students to be the worst of all in this respect, because they are already turning into teachers, and, I’m sorry, but people attracted to teaching tend to like structure way too much. I also do not trust the current fad for group learning since I believe it does not promote relational give and take but further distances the students from his or her own mind by fitting his or her personality to a group dynamic that may not do anything except allow that student to be the same old introvert/extrovert, follower/director he or she has always been. It is further proof of Durkheim’s contention that the main purpose of education is to make students “conform to a norm.”

To me, all group learning is dangerously close to corporatism. I am not against group dynamics, but I find that they reward certain students unfairly, and punish others who may be talented, but who lack certain social skills. A group dynamic is a given. Four of the 20 students are going to be doing sixty percent of their class participation and there will be a group dynamic whether you want one or not. When you put them in groups, someone will assert his or her authority, and someone will feel like a pariah, and someone will be the chief minion of the assertive group member and form this weird, almost erotic worship thing I hate to see happen. They’ll act like a couple. I have no time for couples in my class. In short, typical ape behavior 101.

I want to create an oasis for students who have never been on the good side of any power structure, and I want to create a challenge for those who use groups to maintain their power or sense of comfort. Some group dynamics just work and others, no matter how good the prompts or how inspiring the teacher, fall flat. I prefer not to let my class ride on “group dynamics.” Here’s the truth: some students will hide. Others will want to draw attention to themselves. Still others will be contrary because they like being contrary. A lot of energy is wasted and for what? So we can find out what we already know? So and so is anti-social, and this one never shuts up, and that one needs everything to be structured to the nth-degree. Well I think we have gone too far in this direction, so I create an air of informality in my class. But I’ll be damned if I preside over three or four groups that are everything I despise about human primate behavior. You might say I am against the present love of groups. Fuck the Borg. Anyway, I digress….

Suffice it to say, I don’t use a common text book. I give each student a book of poems—at random. They write in to me two or three times a week, quoting a poem or excerpt, telling me what they liked, hated, or learned from the poem. Very often I have never read the book I gave them or have only read a few poems from it—so I am likely to be responding, not from knowledge of the book, but from past experience of poetry which allows me to make leaps between texts, to suggest other poets in the same style, to come at the material in a fresh, conversational way. I am not the expert teacher here, but the experienced learner, the one who has a love for poetry and gets excited by weird things like grammatical ambiguity, or how the poet used the weather to suggest a mood. A student might give me an excerpt in which a poet is brooding and the landscape is brooding with him. I call this pastoral narcissism. I send them Thomas Hardy’s “To A Darkling Thrush.” I gush about my love for this poem. I ask a question: Did you ever get annoyed at a beautiful day because you were in a horrible mood, sad and depressed, and the sun light, the happy faces of couples strolling through a park, the blue of the sky seemed to mock your mood? I ask, how hard is it to make a beautiful sunny day the back drop for a despairing consciousness? Can it be pulled off?

So they are each reading an actual book of poems—almost always by contemporary poets—and, meanwhile, I am bringing in poems. I might use Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last by the Dooryard Bloomed” as a way to talk about how to create image patterns in a longer poem. Whitman keeps bringing back the lilacs, the mockingbird, and the drooping star in the west, and he exploits every possibility of these three figures—symbolic, metaphorical, concrete—the way composers might use motifs in a sonata. I may bring in a sonata by Beethoven and show how recapitulation is used in longer works.

This is in a work shop! Yes, I hate, hate going around and around commenting on student’s poems. I have features instead, and I do not give the class the work ahead of time. I want them to be responsive in the here and now. I give half the class a written copy of the poem, and the other half listens. You can catch things about rhythm and overall mood from listening much better than having only the physical poem before you. You can also catch things by having the text you can’t get from merely listening. I want both.

Very often, if a student likes a poem, he or she will ask the writer for a copy. This is high praise indeed, and builds artistic affinity based on something other than forced group dynamics. I will sometimes have a copy of the poem before me, and sometimes, I, too, will be only listening. I will have the student read the poem once through. Then on a second read, I will stop him or her at certain points, make a comment, then let the reader continue. If the student is a poor reader of his or her work, I will read it aloud a third time. You’d be amazed what a student learns about his or her own poem by hearing it read by someone else, by actually hearing their poems come back at them. I will tell them to write down the spoken comments on their text. As for the written comments in class, these are handed in to the student at the end of class. I tell the class to listen to how I edit a poem, because it may relate to their work as well. Every student will have two or three features before the semester is over which amounts to the same thing as a normal work shop. In the meantime, they will have read a book of poems all the way through, lived with it intimately, learned something about their own aesthetics, and the amount of writing they will have done—both poetry and prose—will be four or five times the usual amount for a class.

These are the goals I have for a beginning poet.

1. To find out if they truly like poetry, or only write it to “express” themselves.
2. Find out what their aesthetics are, the limits of their aesthetics, and how these may be expanded.
3. Learn to be responsive to language both as written and performed text.
4. Gain exposure to major poems without having to take a lecture class.
5. Have a learning experience with their own minds and with the teacher far more concentrated than is usually possible in a class that consists of lecture, papers, exam.
6. Learn to write daily, rather than waiting for the last minute. This means they are not feeling they are doing a lot of work, but are, in fact, doing far more—minus bibliography, and all that formal stuff.

A writing work shop should also return literature to the study of the text as art since so many literary courses now use the text as pretext for theories on gender, identity, and so forth. Unlike Bloom, I have no problem with that, but once in a while, it is nice to look at the artistry. My job is to teach the students to read like writers: What can I take from this poem? How can I surpass what this writer is doing?

My most mundane goal: that they will know more about poetry than they did when they entered the class, and, just as importantly, that they will have learned something about themselves as conscious artists.

NOTE: Top photo used with permission of artist. For more, see this website.

In a recent post, I based a discussion about the relationship between the poetic line and print culture on some of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas. I was recently listening to the below lecture by McLuhan and he discussed the effects of the phonetic alphabet. He said that the phonetic alphabet divorced the visual sense from the other senses by emphasizing it above the others. This separation creates the possibility of linearity, the space for “logicians, analysts, classifiers, the individualist pattern of Greek life.” The phoenecian alphabet made possible Euclid, who revealed that visual space is continuous and connected and homogeneous and static. All the other spaces created by the other senses–of touch, acoustics, kinesthesial–all these other senses are discontinuous, resonant and dynamic.” He gives an interesting example to demonstrate this. A boy is on his first flight and asks his dad, “When do we get small?” The “canopy” of the plane limits the field of vision, creates a static environment. The moment a man with a parachute jumps out of the plane, he feels one inch tall.

When McLuhan described linearity (I think he actually used the term lineality…not sure if there’s a difference? Spell check doesn’t recognize the latter, if that means anything!), I couldn’t help but think about the poetic line and the way it is changing. As print culture (and hence the divorce made by the phonetic alphabet) ends, we move from the line, back to the field, back to non-linear, acoustic space.

In my experience, poetry workshops speak about how a poem looks on the page much more often than how the lines work. Perhaps this is describing the move from line (poetic line) to field (the page)? I think this line (!) of thought might yield much as we think about the developments of modern poetry (beginning with Baudelaire and the symbolists/high modernists), though I don’t have much time to chase it down the rabbit hole at this moment. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comment section.

Watch the video. It’s worth your hour.

Wendell Berry recently decided to pull his personal papers from the University of Kentucky, and it got me thinking.

While I know this news story isn’t directly related to the topic of poetry (and this is–loosely–a poetry blog), I can’t help but feel it connects on some other level as we (poets) think about the relationship of our poetry to the world around us. Most of my exposure to the world of modern poetry has taken place through the university system. And while I know there are many poets writing and thriving outside the university system, it seems to me that the relationship of modern poetry is hopelessly enmeshed with our modern universities. Let’s admit it, the modern university (as well as the various foundations, titles, etc.) gives us poets the prestige we desperately desire. Would we be satisfied reading in bars the rest of our lives? Some of us would, but many of us would feel cheated. We want, as it were, to be “overheard.”

Most modern universities are “research universities.” I find even explicitly “liberal arts” universities cast their value in scientific terms. If you’ve been to a grad conference recently, you know as well as I do that academics dutifully toils away in a very narrow slices of their field, increasing knowledge (wherever that is stored…), writing books, gaining tenure. The language of conferences and academic panels has become scientific, calculated, professional. When you are asked about your studies, you must cast it in “pitch” it, so as to demonstrate the entrepreneurial value.

How much of this has seeped into the world of modern poetry?

Does the modern university ennoble (if I may use such an unfashionable word!) those of us (I’m still there!) who dwell in its halls? Consider Berry’s excoriation of the “research university”:

At a 2007 commencement address at Bellarmine University, Berry railed against “the great and the would-be-great ‘research universities.’ These gigantic institutions, increasingly formed upon the ‘industrial model,’ no longer make even the pretense of preparing their students for responsible membership in a family, a community, or a polity. … The American civilization so ardently promoted by these institutions is to be a civilization entirely determined by technology, and not encumbered by any thought of what is good or worthy or neighborly or humane.”

There is little doubt also that the modern university is, as one thinker put it, “the handmaiden of the military-government-industrial complex.” Certainly the poet can be the voice of conscience on the campus, but at what cost? Berry has the strength of his convictions (and the status to sustain them).

Then again, he also has a farm if it all goes to hell.