This month Metro Rhythm is proud to present five outstanding poets: Meghan O’Rourke, Eleanor Lerman, Sarah V. Schweig, Zachary Pace and Jay Deshpande. The reading will be held at Blue Angel Wines in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
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.
Brooks Lampe reviews Andrew Joron’s Trance Archive
What a desperate trance!—The skyboat resembles a flying vulva; the city, the arc of an abandoned soliloquy.
Andrew Joron represents a small, almost indistinguishable enclave of contemporary poets who know (and appreciate that) they have been influenced by surrealism. Versus the rest of the contemporary poets who do not know they have.
Surrealism has been a controversial topic in recent decades, and there have been few poets or scholars willing (or courageous enough?) to acknowledge their indebtedness to the movement. (But not these poets! Thank God.) The biggest problem, supposedly, is one of identification and definition. Suffice it to say, in broad strokes, surrealist poetry demonstrates:
- Radically disjunctive imagery (usually through mismatching terms from unrelated semantic fields)
- An analogical vision of reality, wherein irreconcilable things are conceived in relations and thus are (potentially) made reconcilable
- Undertones of Hegelian dialectic, Marxism, revolution and utopianism
At its heart, surrealism wages a political and ideological battle through language. By creating impossible images through placing disparate objects side-by-side, poetry dismantles and re-formulates our perceptions and conceptions of reality.
There is a specifically poetic shape to the anxieties visible in Walt Whitman’s poetry. Looking at Whitman’s theory of language and how that theory works out in the poems, the shape of the anxiety becomes apparent.
He had this Transcendentalist idea of language, detailed by Tyler Hoffman in his essay, “Language,”by C. Carroll Hollis in his crucial work, and by Mark Bauerlein in Walt Whiman and the American Idiom. This idea of language is one where “words are emanations of reality and truth,” Hoffman says, and for Whitman “language is not just a system of signs we humans have at hand to express ourselves; rather, it stands as a cultural complex, one that registers our deepest beliefs as a people and a nation.”
Whitman rejected the empiricists’ claims about the arbitrariness of signs, that language is basically a convention that only happens to have the grammatical structure and phonetic sounds it has, and instead, following Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Prussian language theorist Wilhelm von Humbolt, and American philologist William Swinton (who was Whitman’s friend and for whom, it has been extensively argued, Whitman ghost wrote on the subject of language, cf. James Perrin Warren’s “Whitman as Ghostwriter,” Hollis, and Hoffman), embraced the idea that words contain within them the reality of the spirit of the people who use them. As Swinton’s book says, in a chapter possibly ghostwritten by Whitman, “Language is not a cunning conventionalism arbitrarily agreed upon; it is an internal necessity. Language is not a fiction, but a truth,” and, again, “Speech is no more the dead mechanism it used to be conceived. Each language is a living organism.”
Words are not mere signs or symbols for representations, but embodied the spirit of those who use them. As Whitman said, in an essay on American slang:
“The scope of [Language’s] etymologies is the scope not only of man and civilization, but the history of Nature in all departments, and of the organic Universe, brought up to date; for all are comprehended in words, and their backgrounds. This is when words become vitaliz’d, and stand for things, as they unerringly and soon come to do, in the mind that enters on their study with fitting spirit, grasp, and appreciation. Language, be it remember’d, is not an abstract construction of the learn’d, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea.”
If his language theory stopped at this point, and was merely a point about the importance of the life and spiritual reality of words, it wouldn’t necessarily feed any anxiety, but Whitman went further. If he had just believed that this is the way words were, then that wouldn’t have necessitated any internal, poetry-focused worry, but he believed words could, depending on the way they were used, lose the spirit they have. They could be more alive, “vitaliz’d,” or they could die, depending on the poet. He believed words and the things they represented could, if words weren’t used well or if their use was too domesticated, too refined, be separated and disunited, and when that happens, then the words would be just inert symbols on a page, abstract and arbitrary and dead. This was the distinction Whitman made between good and bad poetry, but he also thought of it in terms of life and death. He believed the life that words contain and carry could be killed, could be buried, and there was a need to connect word and thing, and a need to reinvigorate the language. Whitman was not being metaphorical when he said that a great poet
“would make words sing, dance, kiss, do the male and female act, bear children, weep, build, rage, stab, steal, fire cannon, steer ships, sack cities, charge with calvary or infantry, or do anything, that man or women or the natural powers can do.”
This can be and has been taken as mere inspirational blather – the poet’s equivalent of a poster for a library’s children’s summer reading program with castles and flying horses and faraway lands – but Whitman’s theory of language is that this is what actually happens, this manifestation of life, this invigoration, when words are used well.
To use the structuralist terminology of “sign” and “signified,” Whitman wanted the sign and the signified to be the same thing, to come together and, at the moment of poet’s invocation, be one. He wanted to cross the gap between sign and signified by poetic force. He said:
“A perfect user of words uses things—they exude in power and beauty from him—miracles from his hands—miracles from his mouth—lilies, clouds, sunshine, woman, poured copiously—things whirled like chain-shot rocks, defiance, compulsion, horses, iron, locomotives, the oak, the pine, the keen eye, the hairy breast, the Texan ranger, the Boston truckman, the woman that arouses a man, the man that arouses a woman”.
He wanted the sign to be more than a sign, more than arbitrary, to really be alive, to be the thing, be filled with the spirit of the thing signified and the spirit of the people using the sign, but he consistently found that he was trapped in the realm of the sign, unable to bridge over to the reality of things, and that poems are made out of words – the vibrant life he wants to yawp is, on the page, only arbitrary symbols. There is, on his pages, throughout his work, Hoffman says, a pervading “anxiety about the ability to communicate through inert signs and symbols, about the intermediation of the printed page.”
There are moments of panic and places where he is desperate to escape mere words, to sing something untranslatable, something that is not language but just life. Whitman believed his work was worthless unless the words were alive, unless the poem was the same as his body, the same as his life, and he felt himself failing, which might go some way to explaining the constant, life-long revision, and the ongoing innovation, a “pattern of completion and escape” that appears almost compulsive. Whitman’s poetry often takes this form James Perrin Warren calls “constantly reinventing itself and thereby eluding the form it had already taken” and he seems to have this “sense of elusive, pervading ‘something’” that he cannot grasp, cannot achieve. Indeed, his life work might be better characterized by revision of poems than by actually writing them. One need not do a comparative analysis of the various volumes of poetry to find this anxiety, though. It comes across in the poems in their final, “authorized” form.
This anxiety is evident throughout the work: In his talk about singing birds, with their untranslatable songs that simply express life as the model for poetry, Whitman holds his verse to a standard that he fears he cannot meet; in his three-tiered description of poetry in “Song of Myself,” Whitman attempts to establish a taxonomy of poetry, and of the ways of using words, but then it collapses, and he finds his own best version of poetry is always inflicted with the death and artifice of the worst; in his declarations and pronouncements, his illocutionary speech acts, Whitman attempts to push and invoke life, to call it forth and animate the poem (almost, it seems, by force), but the attempts are ridden by their failure, and by an anxiety about poetry.
Because of this theoretical foundation, Whitman’s poetry is full of worries about theory and form, and the yawp so celebrated for its liberating barbarismis an anxious yawp.
We live in the paradox that life is change, but that change taken to the ultimate is death. Early signs of the great alteration shape our expanding or contracting limbs and are inscribed expressly on the face. When the young woman of twenty-five notices faint lines around the mouth or tiny crowsfeet at the corner of her eyes, something even more intimate than vanity makes her stop to reflect. The script for her very own mortality play, written on the finest parchment, has begun to develop, nor does she need any special clairvoyance to divine the final act from the first.
La Rochefoucauld says that neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily. That’s the reason we avoid long or frequent exposure to the black rays of the mirror—unless we have the temperament of those medieval monks who kept brightly polished skulls in their cells as a handy memento mori, large enough not to escape notice but smaller than the coffins that still more ascetic contemplatives used to sleep in each night. Some of the first group, striking a hopeful note, planted a candle on top of death’s head, meaningless to his blind sockets but not to the eyes of the living.
Looking at early photographs of yourself is not exactly a lark. The person represented is recognizable, and you may even discover, among several patronizing attitudes and self-deflating commentaries, something like parental affection for that inexperienced youth being examined. Considering all the roads to take and ways of cutting one’s hair current in that era, perhaps his weren’t the worst, just as maybe Crosby, Stills and Nash aren’t so bad, really. To revive an earlier phase isn’t possible, though, or, more to the point, finally desirable. For, in a sense, the photographed subject is our elder, and the present moment—fresh, breathing, more up to date—“younger” than any from the dim decades of yore.
We’ve changed; and we don’t care to be so passé as the ridiculously dressed person in the picture. Does that also mean we must accept change even when raised to the highest power? Apparently. Preferring the present visual or verbal record implies that I will also prefer to it the next and the next and the next, until, finally, icon and identity plunge beyond the reach of pictures, in fact, beyond time and change altogether. A photograph is, granted, a kind of death-mask, with the difference that it has been molded on a living face. The apple owes part of its sweetness to our knowledge that it gives the pleasure of its taste only when we consume it. In fact, we cannot enjoy anything unless, in the process, time consumes us as well. Mortality, expressed in the first-person, present-perfect tense, is summarized in a mere three words: I have lived.
A poem is also by analogy a photograph of the author. Rereading our first published apprentice work, we will feel many of the same emotions described above re looking at old photographs of ourselves. The self-portrait genre in poetry isn’t as common as in painting, though John Ashbery and Charles Wright have produced admired examples. The point is, even poems not designated as such are self-portraits, of mind rather than of body, and to just that degree, more intimate. We were hardly conscious in those days of all that could be thought or said about us. We know more now than we did then, and what we were is part of what we know. If we can allow ourselves to approach objectivity (if only as a limit, in the mathematical sense), we may also allow that, despite the clumsiness and inexperience, despite the glaring failures of skill and hollow bravado, those early self-portraits have a vitality and authenticity that deserves some sort of acknowledgment. They belong in the Department of Records that each life builds up in its life-span.
You’ve guessed it. I’m preparing a new selected poems.
Whatever people might say in the world about Newark is wrong. Newark, like Queens and Jersey City, is ethnic, race, and class diverse beyond anywhere else I know on the planet, with a wider variety of socio-economic classes freely intermingling, especially among its artists. This latter fact cheers me. As a working class white guy from Elizabeth, I often feel uncomfortable on art scenes. The food is in the not-much-spice, brown rice, wok, pita wrap, veggie, hummus spectrum where I do not flourish. Food is not made important among the white artistic class, no matter how much they insist they know about food. It all tastes too bland to me. I know they are right. I know their food is healthier and allows them to be thin and to have smaller, more shapely asses, but it makes me sad. It makes me think of psychotic men and women milling about with a passable knowledge of Jean Genet, and thinking they are feasting when they are in the middle of a famine. My girlfriend had the brown rice chicken stir fry for lunch—very healthy, but very bland: no real oil, no spice.
I had two truck dogs from a cart: one with mustard and kraut, and the other with red onions in sauce plus a grape soda for five bucks. In Newark, they fit the dog to the roll, and since the roll is steamed, it’s a wonderful press fit, and things do not fall on your shirt. Years ago, back when I was a student at Rutgers Newark, I could get this same lunch for about a dollar and thirty cents (Hot dog cost 50 cents in 1978), but five bucks ain’t bad, and I gladly skipped the free lunch provided to me as a Dodge Poet (they didn’t have grape soda, and I have always believed that truck dogs should be washed down with grape soda. They also didn’t have truck dogs). By the way, Newark is filled with great Spanish and Southern soul food restaurants—if you know where to look. It also has some of the best fish joints—fried hard or any way you like it— this side of the south.
NJPAC eats like a neighborhood. I have never known an art organization that was so generous (to my working class way of thinking) with the grub. At the dinner provided for poets, I had the best catfish I’ve ever ate, with an amazing breading: firm, cooked just right, as well as roast beef, two kinds of chicken, and greens cooked in what I call pot liquor. Pot liquor is the liquid you get with collards, and spinach, and any green when you are trying to make it stretch. It gives greens their glory. It is a beautiful thing, and I have never seen it at any other art venue. And yes, there was the pita, carrot, healthy stuff, too—if you wanted it. My point is generosity and going overboard. There was too much food, and most of it was politically incorrect, and with it, my tears of gratitude overflowed. I was greatly moved by dinner, and I am not easily moved.
So what does any of this have to do with poetry? A lot. People getting nostalgic for Waterloo village where the festival—with one exception—has been held every two years since 1986, are crazy. I wasn’t blasted by overheard and unwanted poetry while I walked around. I wasn’t caked with mud. I wasn’t made to feel that I was lost amid a bunch of poetry addicts and I learned something: Newark, like Manhattan, is a historic lasagna, with this Baptist church (Michael Peddie Baptist) as ornate with its stained glass windows, and as beautiful with its wood carvings and marble altar as any cathedral I have seen it is right near the welfare and YMCA, and this seems right to me. Americans should not be allowed to cloister their goodies away from the poor. I was told the pipe organ cannot be renovated. A shame, since it is a mechanical wonder.
The church doesn’t look like much from outside, but when you enter it, Oh my God! And not one, but two grand pianos in perfect tune! The one I played was a 150 year old Steinway—with an amazingly delicate upper range, perfect bel canto bass, and not much volume. It was an intimate Steinway, made specifically for just such a classy church. Michael Peddie Baptist is a must see if you are in Newark. I was there to introduce the young poet Michael Cirrillo. I got there early and they let me play the Steinway. Michael asked me to play behind his first poem. The students and teachers who had gathered early (it was so jammed, they had to fill the choir loft with kids), appreciated the music, and they loved Michael. Not bad…
But nothing, at least for me, compared to hearing Marie Ponsot talk about poetry in this church. She is old. Due to a recent stroke, she speaks slowly, carefully, with long pauses. She does not try to entertain the kids, or “relate” to them. She does not speak down to anyone. She is what we would call in my old neighborhood a “true dame” (It means dignified. It means intelligent. It means singular, and lofty without malice). I sat in the back in the church, to get away from the crowds (I never consult the events schedule) and was enchanted by her slow, lilting cadence. She made me shy. I know I am in the presence of something good when I am made shy. She was just like the intimate Steinway ten feet away from where she sat. On Friday, in the year of our Lord, 2010, at this huge festival where poets are supposed to “wow” the crowds, Marie Ponsot was an intimate Steinway—a small, reflective Schumann rather than a pounding virtuoso Liszt, and this is what I like best about the Dodge festival— not the big readings (I skip ‘em), not the crowds (makes me feel like Christmas at the friggin’ mall), but this intimacy, this smell of old wood, and the voice of an old woman speaking on what she loves and what she knows. The fact that it was a couple giant steps form the YMCA made it better. Beautiful things seen in their incongruity are magnified. Beautiful things seen where everything is made to look pretty become the lies of snobs.
On the way back to my car, my girlfriend and I ran into Amiri Baraka, walking over, passed Military park, to read in the big event. It was almost dark. It was just him, no entourage. He said: “Where you been? I haven’t seen you around in while.” I told him I was working up at Binghamton, and he handed me an invite to an after-reading reading and jam. Baraka was going to show off the city he loves, and have the kind of poetry reading you can’t get in the official way. The late evening dusk was almost liquid. I took the flyers he gave me: four different bars in Newark, and each with great things happening. I found out Kamiko’s Blues people is no longer going on. He still lives on Clinton Street. It was beautiful night. I was tired, and my girlfriend was tired. If I had the strength to go, I would have—but poetry is not an event for me. I know this part of the earth—this urban dusk. It is where I lived all my life. It was good to see him to see him here, or anywhere on the earth. I went back to my hotel and fell asleep. It’s nice to be asked to parties. Going to them is another matter. Marie Ponsot was still on my mind. I wanted to rest next to that Steinway. I wanted to play it all night.
We were a bit behind on posting the latest Poetry Fix. Now we’re up to date!
Episode 13: Mary Karr and Christopher Robinson briefly discuss Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.”
Episode 14: Mary Karr and Christopher Robinson briefly discuss John Keats’ poem “This Living Hand.”
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.
There’s a certain slant of light,
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.
Mary Karr and Christopher Robinson briefly discuss baseball haiku.
Poem In Which Spring Returns (or French peasants who are really from Cobble Hill)
or maybe it doesn’t,
or I come—a sort of spring,
painful shoots sticking out of the ground—
a woman of shoots, and each one painful.
This is the tulip song I sing to my daughter.
I say daughter: tulips must break soil.
Twiggy stuff pokes the ground
from below, while
sun spikes the ground from above:
it’s all a spiky operation—
just as you drew in your first grade class!
A world of piercings!
things piercing and being pierced—
that is as good a theory as any other—
out of being: a sort of ongoing power point demonstration:
Poke the pertinent facts! Say: grass! tree! Woman bending over
in imitation of a peasant in France.
She is not in France. She is in Cobble Hill.
She is not a peasant. She is a lobbyist
for a multi media corporation:
And this is her husband Swen who makes
metal sculptures for the lawns of major rock stars.
And this is her time off, when she
imitates a peasant and admires her husband’s
This, too, is an installation.
We will add yoga and a vegan diet.
We will call it a life style.
It is a tulip that has thrust its spear of green
up through the body of earth: someone will say
phallic and dismiss it. I never think of a penis when I
think of Tulips. But suppose it was a penis balancing
a tea cup, and the wind spilled the tea all over this page,
and we were stained by longing, and went forth into the garden
to learn how to be more at home with nature, or to
calm down after a busy week of being successful?
Ah, I think I’ve come to the point of my argument!
After being successful, we return to the earth,
or the earth returns to us, or something returns.
I like the idea that something returns.
I think its a good idea.
What is Sheppard doing here? First, I think she is taking some of the goodies of Dadaism and absurdity, and comic shtick, and being playful. Second I think she is affirming the very cliché ideas she tweaks, something comedy does. It affirms by tweaking; it doesn’t just destroy or mock. Comic perspective takes our sacred categories and dismantles them for the sake of making us have a perspective by incongruity. In this case, the poet implies “being”, as a power point demonstration. I like her sense of play. There is even a little nod to E.E Cummings in these proceedings—of what I call speculative verse. I define speculative verse as follows: verse in which the poet conjectures, improvises, steps out of the usual structures and categories of logical priority not to destroy meaning, or artistic effect, or artistry, but, rather to relieve the system of some pressure, to let off steam, to return to a sense of play. This conjectural, playful verse is an evolution from the conversational poems of Wordsworth, the sort of poem that has dominated the last couple centuries: subjective consciousness on the page, looking at, or experiencing something outside the self yet in reference to the self, while , at the same time, allowing consciousness to roam. The common denominator between poets as diverse as those in language poetry and those writing normative free verse in which emotion and subjective consciousness hold sway is this sense of the improvised. It is rarely if ever truly improvised.
Part of the 20th century revolution in poetry was an interest in parody, pastiche, send ups, cut ups, a constant recapitulation of tired tropes in such a way as to reinvigorate them, and this poem is no exception. If I had to put Melissa’s poem in a poetry camp, it would be with those who have learned to use the modes of Dada, the surreal, the ditzy, the childish, the incongruous, the comic, the speculative, without abandoning hope of emotional effect or depth. If we look at poetry aesthetics as tools rather than as truths, then everything becomes available to us—all the thousands of years of utterance. Sheppard says part of this poem’s inspiration comes from the great ditzy yet pointed ramblings of thirties screw ball actresses like Carole Lombard, the stream of consciousness ramblings of Gracie Allen—as much from them as from French Dadaists. She is a conscious artist. When she begins “Spring comes,” she is not unaware of Chaucer but she quickly adds instability to that notion by having the voice of the poem make a corrective: “Or maybe it doesn’t.” She says she moves through the poem in a speculative way. The daughter offers a foil to the traditional parent/child routine. She sees the poem as an incongruous melding of disparate “routines” that lead to an ancient idea of Spring as return, but which make that idea unstable. Return means death as well as new life. Spring hurts—it pokes through structures. It intrudes. Sheppard also plays with identity: the pastoral peasant who is really a lobbyist for a multi media corporation, the idea that a child’s drawing of a spiky sun and spiky shoots is a truly accurate depiction of how things are interpenetrative—piercing and being pierced. The “this is” trope conveys the “being” as a power point demonstration. A lot is happening in this poem, and it moves, flits about, but has an overall tone of someone being wise by pretending to be witless—the Socratic “towards” rather than “at” wisdom.
Here’s an excerpt of a poem by Rosanna Warren, very different, but also using a “towards” rather than “at” wisdom/technique—in this case, a series of seemingly random questions. The poem is called “A Questionnaire for Bernard Chaet”:
Can a scar emit light?
Can objects slide off the curved surface of earth?
And later in the poem:
Can a sword of sunlight crack rocks?
Have we lost the sky, looking down?
Were we ever safe here?
Warren’s seemingly random and even childish or absurd questions create a cumulative effect anything else but childish. So here’s the challenge:
1. Write a Poem like Melissa Sheppard in which you flit from one thing to the other, yet, somehow, create an overall implication of a meaning, a mood, a tone.
2. Write a poem like Warren’s in which the seeming randomness of questions adds up to a serious theme, or implication (In Warren’s case—the instability of everything).
Home work: YouTube Gracie Allen and Carole Lombard. Listen to what they do to language. Read the last section of Job with God’s questions. Did Warren have these in mind? How do they differ? How are they the same?
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.
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 stuffs9 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.
Mary Karr and Christopher Robinson briefly discuss Terrence Hayes’s poem “Talk.”