Diving Into the Wreck

aj_diving-wreck
Andrzej Jackowski
“You and the friend

remain twisted together, thinking your simultaneous
and inarticulate thoughts in physical lawlessness,
in chemical awkwardness”

                                                  –Matt Hart

A friend recently asked me to send her some good poets and poetry to explore, as she was considering doing some further poetry writing of her own.  I started by just thinking of my favorite poets, and then realized that, with just a little reflection, I could trace my own poetry timeline: when I was introduced to certain poets that remain with me, how my perception of them has changed, what they have meant to me, and how my writing has been influenced by theirs.  I find that, for many struggling to find an entrance to poetry, some discussion around the poem can be a helpful way to open the poem up, and find its accessible points.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Marie Epply, my high school English teacher, as an essential part of my poetic upbringing.  Her encouragement of the pleasure in poetry, and her constant attentiveness in critiquing my early stumbling attempts at poems has had such a profound effect on the course of my life, I have an eternal wellspring of gratitude to her.
I did a poetry recitation contest in high school, and “Another Feeling” was the first poem I memorized, and really fell in love with.  Stone was a great poet to start with.  She’s accessible, funny, narrative.  She’s also such an interesting sounding poet.  Lots of down to earth, visceral language, as well as cosmic/scientifically dense material.  The way “Another Feeling” ends is so abrupt, so gut hurt, it always makes me tear up!  The video of her reciting is also really cool (she’s in her 90’s there!), and her biographical info (on poetryfoundation) is tragically fascinating. It says something about her that the only academic work written about her is a collection of essays that mostly focus on intimate stories of visiting her home in Goshen, VT.
Once I found the video of Ruth, I started looking into more poetry on youtube.  This has probably been the most helpful resource to me learning how to approach reading and listening to a poem.  Hearing these poems, individually, and over and over again, delivered in voice and with energy from the poets themselves, is such a gift.  This is, as she describes in the video, a “found poem,” comprised of lines delivered by her son.  Nye’s is a language of pleasure, real pleasure.  It reminded me, in my angsty teenage writing life, that poetry always starts in play, and can be playful not just in language manipulation, but in topic and theme.  These little nuggets are just so good and so friendly and so simple, it’s a good way to experience poetry.  Her reading of it shows a lot of her personality, and the way poetry is also performative; that is, not every poem needs to be hammed and emoted like Hamlet’s soliloquy, but that a poem read in silence from the page can never be as well-examined as when heard from someone else’s mouth.  A note of advice to new readers: subvocalize whenever you’re reading.  You may strike others as being a little unusual, but you should always be moving your mouth, even if you’re not intoning, along with the words.  So much more is revealed by the physical process of a poem moving from your mouth.

While I don’t read Ted often, this video was also one I found when I was still in high school and I return to it again and again.  It’s also one of those poems that I could never fully enjoy without hearing Ted read it.  I realize now that my early reading, thankfully, veered towards the colloquial, post-confessional poets that started in the 60’s and continued through the 90’s and early 21st century.  Theirs is a good voice to enter poetry from: their language is familiar to us, they have the autobiographical interest of the confessionals but without the obscure and hierarchical vestigial limbs of the Modernists.  “Pearl” is also probably the first piece of what might be called “Magical Realism” I encountered, in poetry or fiction.  The way the ghosts and spooks exist in this poem is well constructed and eerie, and I can constantly hear the influence of this poem in the way I write surrealism.
Like Ted, Levine is a poet I return to mostly because of a single poem.  This is also probably the most famous poem in Levine’s bibliography, and stands as perhaps the most iconic “American” poem of his generation.  The poem is sheer fury; I feel the same sort of heart-racing trepidation when reading this as I do while climbing a precarious peak or when part of a protest.  It’s violent, it’s accusatory, and it’s also great writing.  There’s a lot of protest poetry and writing out there that is good on intent, and poor on creative language and thought.  Levine brings a firm command of poetic language to meet his labor-class fervor.  He also was the first poet to break grammatical rules in a way I could really understand.  I had seen the purposeful manipulation of syntax before, but it usually served to obscure the poem from me, and not to add clarity.  This poem’s interesting grammatical scheme is easy to understand and accept, and adds to the sonic effect of the writing.  Levine’s voice is also perfectly matched to the poem’s diction.

Saul Williams

While I am glad to see a renewed interest in poetry through the rise of “performance/JAM poetry,” of this genre’s writers, only about 5 or 6 stand out as really talented writers.  Danez Smith, later, and Saul WIlliams are two of these great writers.  Williams primarily focuses on music, but has pure poems and performance poems as well.  Black Stacey, a rap, is almost more effective in this acapella version than on the album.  He brings a standard of wordsmithing to the genre that doesn’t otherwise exist.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QnkrMA0wXQ

Anyone with any interest in 20th century American history should read Ginsberg, specifically “America” and “Howl.”  Read Regardless of political view or squeamishness to graphic and suggestive content.  Ginsberg’s voice best represents the radical social upheaval and change that the country underwent, and sets the stage for modern identity politics.  I went to a screening of James Franco’s “Howl” film during my first year in college, and became fascinated.  I was fortunate enough to read Walt Whitman before Ginsberg, which if you’re interested in pursuing him deeply is recommended.  Anyone who questions establishment governing, corporatism, or their own identity, should be reading these poems.  Ginsberg is an experimentalist in true form, however, so to find the good in his huge bibliography, you have to necessarily wade through a whole bunch of what can only be described as crap.

I found Kay Ryan’s poetry in Goodwill, and read about half the poems standing in the book section.  If you’ve absolutely never read or enjoyed a poem in your life, start with Ryan.  These short, often single sentence poems are lively, funny, entertaining, and absolutely perfectly sculpted.  I think of a book of Ryan’s poetry like I think of a really great tapas restaurant.  Small plates with tons of flavor, immaculately crafted, and creating a whole from difference.  She’s hilarious as well, and her readings play closer to stand-up comedy routines.  Blandeur is a word she made up, and she loves making fun of her audience when they pretend to know the word already.
Maya Angelou needs no introduction.  Her presence in popular culture is more pronounced than any other modern poet.  I had the great pleasure seeing Angelou speak in person at Mohawk Valley Community College in 2011, and while few of her poems really entrance me, she was the most magnificent speaker, even this late in her life.  She was funny, sexy, quick.  She spoke with no prompter, and it was difficult to tell when poetry ended and plain speech began, everything about her was pure poetry.  There are a few true gold nuggets of language in Angelou’s poetry bibliography–“Still I rise,”  “Phenomenal Woman”–but her inaugural poem is on a whole different level.  It’s extended conceit is compelling, deeply rooted in history and literary predecessors.  Her delivery shows just how huge her presence was, and sends chills in me every time I hear it. When I started reading Angelou, I was just starting to delve into my undergraduate English Lit studies, and my tastes had become rather snobbish.  While much of her writing remains too populist for my taste, this poem bridges the gap–appealing to a universal, while resting in the language of the specific.  It’s monumental, and is required listening.

Adrienne Rich’s command of the poetic conceit is unparalleled.  She obscures her symbols just enough to leave us bewildered and entranced.  Read Diving Into the Wreck slowly, pause a lot.  Atmosphere is everything here.  I drop into Rich’s poems and utterly disappear.  Like Ted, Rich’s surrealism exists in perfect harmony with the real world.  She’s daunting, she’s challenging, but hers is a rhetoric of quiet, reflective smoldering rather than Levine’s fury.  I’ve memorized Diving Into the Wreck before, and it’s a wonderful poem to carry with you.
I have only encountered Matt Hart in a single poem, published in Poetry magazine last year.  But this poem remains my absolute favorite poem.  It tells a truth that I can so familiarly apply to my own life and relationships.  I feel so represented by Hart’s world.  I share this poem with as many of my friends as possible.  I am left wrecked in nostalgia and reminiscing every time I come to it.
Good luck with your reading, everyone!  Let me know if you have your own lists, or want to dramatically contradict my claims here!
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Against Abstraction

Go in fear of abstractions. Don’t retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose.   Ezra Pound

 

While in Professor George David Clark‘s poetry workshop at Colgate University, we did the following exercise on abstraction: write a poem, re-read it and underline any abstractions you found, put it away for a day, do the same and underline more abstractions, then fix the lines and turn them in.  After turning in my work, Prof. Clark returned it to me with at least seven abstractions underlined I hadn’t picked up.  This has remained the most poignant lesson I’ve learned in creative writing, and one very applicable to the way I view the social and political world we currently live in.

Abstraction, in language, is a tool used only to simplify; an abstract term standing alone never has the power of complexity and intellectual probing that a concrete statement does.  It is one of the reasons the Modernist/Imagist movement exists, an exaggerated pendulum swing away from the language of the Romance era.  It is why Shakespeare’s language is so craftily engaging and alluring; the way in which one exact and precisely described image in his sonnet carries a myriad of varying meanings is genius bordering something greater than genius.  It is the power of WCW’s “red wheelbarrow,” or Maya Angelou’s caged bird.  How would we know what “freedom” means in Angelou’s poetry without “his wings are clipped and/ his feet are tied?”  

The conversation on abstraction might be a uniquely English one, as our modern version of the language has more vocabulary than any other known language.  A French-speaking friend once described how her favorite part of the French language is that, given how limited the vocabulary is, even everyday speech is often composed of metaphors and similes, that describing terms are usually turns of phrase created by amalgamations of other images and identifiers.  In English, for good or ill, we have an urge to give names to all things, names unique and unhinged from other names.  American English is especially prone to this vocab expansion, incorporating the influence of African American linguistic developments, the influence of Mexico’s Spanish and Canada’s French.  Indeed, a critical part of the American Revolution was a revolution of terms and diction; in order to firmly separate American identity from British identity, new words and identifiers were invented, and sometimes, without much attention to the logic of the language.

But now, abstraction is becoming a perhaps dangerous force in modern culture.  On the literary front, abstraction is the Achilles Heel of 95% of “performance poetry” being written and performed.  In submission to the passion and emotiveness of physical performance, performance poetry too often ignores the linguistic specificity that makes poetry a unique form of utterance from other forms.  A complaint transcribed into a performance of poetry is ignoring what Jane Hirschfield describes as “circling its content, call[ing] to it from afar, looks for the hidden, tangential approach, the truth that grows apparent.”  In pop culture, the advent of Twitter has forced us to rely on vague terms to portray complex ideas and thoughts; Instagram and the revolution of the hashtag is even worse.  We bind ourselves to terms like “happiness” or “love” or “content,” and engage with the fabricated belief that others using these terms are also feeling the same way, when in fact, a vast spectrum of possible feelings (all with their own specific language) separate those feelings.     

On a disclamatory note, my rejection of abstraction doesn’t carry over into the world of the visual arts.  Abstraction has become a mode of genuinely provocative modern painting and sculpture; dance is a fascinating encounter between that which is most concrete in our world (the human body), and an abstract narrative that that body is forming.  There is something to be said (and has been said in this blog before) for the power of ritual in and of itself.  But when language is used for its ritualistic effect, and without genuine intellect backing it, it becomes baseless and fraudulent.  

This is why abstraction is so dangerous in political debate.  Unfortunately, it seems to be used more often by politicians and policymakers today than it ever has been before (except, perhaps, through World War II, when radio and billboard propaganda was so prevalent).  This is, perhaps unlike my previous blog posts, not a quibble on word choice or on the relatively minor shiftings and movings of the literary world, but a genuine fear for a major social disaster.  We are in the midst of a terrifyingly important presidential election.  While they may all appear, in the moment, as equally divisive as this one, a quick comparison of the Republican representation in the last three elections to this year’s shows a stark difference: George W. Bush appears a hero of Islam compared to the rampant attacks of Trump, and Mitt Romney sounds like an Economic genius compared to the nonsensical mutterings of Ben Carson and Ted Cruz.  What is different about this election is that a radical-right has commandeered the entire Republican Party, and has implemented a fascinatingly abstraction-based formula for preying on the fears of many Americans, and capitalizing on the violent nature of too many Americans.  

Donald Trump is the most obvious representation of this abstraction-infused campaign.  The greatest danger of a figure like Trump is not the things he says, but the lack of anything actually being said.  He is an empty palette onto which his supporters can paint all their personal feelings of fear, distrust, anger, and hope.  Two different people can leave a speech like this believing wholeheartedly that Trump actually made two entirely different statements, when in fact he made neither at all.  “Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say China in a trade deal? I beat China all the time. All the time” (link).  While this hopefully would be a straightforward statement, it is, in fact, not.  What this statement contains is the (deliberate) possibility to be misread in any number of ways.  This statement could be interpreted as a declaration of military war on China (language of victories, language of serious trouble, language of beating China).  Perhaps more clearly, this statement tries to say that the U.S is having difficulty in trade deals, which isn’t factually correct, nor is it corroborated by any provided evidence.  Finally, again, with no corroboration, Trump claims that he “beats” China.  We don’t know what he means by “beats.”  How does he beat them?  Politically, violently, economically, financially?  Morally?  But Trump doesn’t want us to know the answers to these questions.  He doesn’t want to qualify or contextualize any of his statements.  If, from that single statement, his supporters are going to step away believing that he is going to declare war on China and beat everyone, as well as beating everyone in all trade deals, as well as make America Great Again (whatever that means), then he’s done far better than providing data and qualitative evidence of his actions.  

In the political arena, while Trump stands out as the most boisterous and contentious swinger of ludicrously abstract language, other politicians fare little better.  Bernie Sanders uses specific information (while not always up to date, he is quoting actual sources) when describing the problems facing the U.S (income inequality, healthcare, veteran’s rights), but in the language of his resolutions to these issues, he relies, in most public statements, doggedly abstract.  When asked about Healthcare, Bernie uses statistics to describe what’s wrong with the U.S Healthcare system, and then describes “hav[ing] the courage to take on the insurance companies, and the medical equipment suppliers.”  Having the courage is an abstract statement that can be read as litigation, perhaps investigation, perhaps regulation, but none of these terms are actually being used in the concrete.  Hillary Clinton, similarly, speaks of Healthcare in the following way: “Obama succeeded in doing was to build on the health care system we have, get us to 90 percent coverage. We have to get the other 10 percent of the way to 100.”  She runs that percentage a few times in the health care debate, but never describes a plan or cost or solution to “getting” that other 10% (full transcript of this debate can be found here).

What may differ between the language of Trump and the language of the Democrats, is that solutions and details do exist in their plans, much of which can be found on their websites (for Trump, Bernie, and for Clinton).  However, in public discourse, the language of specifics just doesn’t make for good television.  Unfortunately, the focus in political theater has shifted from education and information to demagoguery and flair.  The Media feeds this (most of you have heard me rant about Huffington Post’s ridiculously melodramatic headlines that are akin to WWI war propaganda), and we as the populace to little to stop this.  It appears to be a more pleasurable sensation to hear someone talking about how wronged we are, rather than talking about solutions to those wrongs.  Overwhelmingly, Sanders’s statements (I cannot speak for Clintons, because I have heard and read fewer) rely on listing the woes and shortcomings of the U.S government.  Far less time is used to describe Sanders-specific solutions to these problems.

Unfortunately, the specifics of politics and law are boring and usually incredibly difficult to comprehend.  We rely on media to boil down these 1000 page legal documents to only what is absolutely need-to-know, but our media has begun to fail in adequately presenting us with this data.  Sanders and Trump are the same in one key aspect: the language of Revolution.  A movement away from what was, and towards something new, something different.  What we, as voters, and as (perhaps unwillingly) active participants in this country’s political field, must demand in this revolution is a dedication to specificity, a war on abstraction, and a clear feed of data and fact-based information flowing more directly from D.C to as many people as possible.  Abstraction is for the wicked.  Concreteness is my demand.  Specificity is my agenda.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Post Does Not Exist

“I’d like to sit down on a wooden chair,” she continued.  “Not a concrete one or a metal one.”

“You can sit down on whatever kind of chair you like,” I said.

“I already have the chair in mind,” she said, “and I’m already sitting in it.  It’s a wooden bench.  You have a seat, too.”

“Alright,” I said.

As we walked, we sat on the wooden bench that we had imagined….  As she walked, she leaned back.  “I’m leaning against the back of the bench,” she said.

Yu Hua, Seventh Day.

 

On graduating from USM this past May, I found myself inundated with the typical questions of “what’s next?” “What are your job prospects?” “What are you doing with your degree?”  Having graduated with a degree in English Literature, I settled on a self-effacing but truly avoidant response: “I’m now reading books!”  Unfortunately, having invested such time, money, and commitment into learning how to read, I can’t seem to pick up a book without thinking “what, really, is the value of this book?”  Or, more precisely, “why is the energy of this writer worth more to me than the movie I could watch, the play I could see, the painting I could look at, or the political rally I could attend?”  The answer to these questions came, almost perfectly, in the passage above.  

The scene takes place in Chinese author Yu Hua’s ( 余华) surreal landscape of the afterlife, or rather “the land of the unburied,” a threshold to eternal rest.  In this place, not everything obeys the same laws that govern the living: faces can be rearranged, food can be tasted in the air (an homage, undoubtedly, to Neverland).  Yet this moment in particular stood out to me because of the strange rebellion that it causes in my mind, each time I read it.

I want you to try something.  Choose an object, a mug or book or laptop, and stare at it.  Now, with your eyes still on it, imagine that it is not there.  Does it disappear?  No.  Can you really see the space without the object?  Not really.  Yet, can you conceive of it not being there, even as it is there?  Sure.

This is, simplified, the complicated task of the imagination we must complete in order to conceive of what happens in Hua’s passage.  We cannot visualize the occurrence, because such an image cannot be captured by the visual, or any other, sense.  I can’t even properly define what I believe is happening, but for the sake of this article, I’ll call it simultaneity.  The characters exist in simultaneous events, both completely plausible and everyday, but both completely paradoxical and impossible when argued to happen at the same time.

I have wracked my brain, and I cannot think of a single movie, painting, or other medium that is capable of capturing simultaneity.  When film attempts it, it usually takes the form of a cue for our own brains to revert to our imagination in order for the trick to work.  But in the written word, simultaneity is easy to convey, as simple as inserting the phrase “at the same time.”  Watch: “As Martin stared at his computer screen, the letters appeared to exist both in English script and Chinese characters at the same time.”  Did you get that?  (I’m interested in seeing if this concept is so easily communicated  in the book’s original Chinese script, a hieroglyphic, and therefore, more image-oriented, text than English).

Hua highlights the importance of this notion being strictly language oriented, as he both describes it with his text (“as we walked we sat on the wooden bench”), and through vocalization (” ‘I’m already sitting on it,’ she said”).  Derrida distinguishes these two modes, describing how “it seems as though the concept of writing… is beginning to go beyond the extension of language.”  That is, that a profound difference between the uttered word and the written text exists (although precisely how that difference operates remains beyond me; tune in for my blog post about On Grammatology, coming when I’m smart enough to comprehend it!).  However, where Derrida sees a Marxist hierarchical structure in the dominion of one mode of language over the other, I see only the strength and weaknesses of three variable forms of expression: the seen, the spoken, and the written. That is, I do not argue that text can adequately express all that voice can (and here I think of tonality, singing, accent), nor can it achieve all that the visual forms do (those emotions which cannot be verbalized).  However, as we tentatively step into a world where the written word is no longer the primary communicator of complex creative ideas, I worry that we ignore those aspects of writing unique to the medium, at our own grave peril.

Simultaneity is not the only idea unique to language.  Terry Tempest Williams beautifully describes how she is “liminal.  A threshold.  My body between worlds.  This word returns me to my original state.  ‘I am water, I am water.’  I am sea evolving to a consciousness that has pulled me upright.”  Due to communicated, scientific knowledge, we know that on some level, what Williams is saying is literally true.  She is made of water, even when she doesn’t appear to be.  Try visualizing this idea, and you come up with some figurative or categorized image.  The description allows the conceptual to exist without the visual cue.  This sameness and difference is the basis of one of the most world-changing disputes in European memory.  The Protestant Reformation is a split from the Catholic dogma on the basis of, among other things, the disagreement with the idea of transubstantiation, that the celebrated communion is somehow changed in its substance to something else.  The dispute is largely a linguistic one; it debates over the quality of metaphor versus simile, of Jesus proclaiming the bread to be his body, rather than being like his body.  Transubstantiation cannot be seen, or captured by any sense–except, perhaps, whatever type of sense you may call religious conviction.

Poetry seems to come more easily than prose to the dramatic impossibilities that words can convey.  Perhaps it is because poetry is usually free–of plot, of conflict, of characters–that exploration of other domains in language is possible.  In “Diving Into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich‘s narrator is “the mermaid whose dark hair/streams black, the merman in his armored body…  I am she: I am he.”  This is not necessarily an act of transvestism, or gender fluidity  This is the dual gender of the Id, the animus and anima, the Janus figure, woman on one side, man on the other.  This is pure concept, realized textually in a figure that cannot exist in the real world.  Ruth Stone argues that “Words make the thoughts,” and these words are “A mirror of the mirror.” Frederick Seidel writes “I think I know you.  I don’t think so,” and we all nod our heads, because we are not computer systems, we are humans, and contradiction is a product of our being just that.  To Louise Gluck, poetry’s “fidelity is not to the world: it need not provide a replica of the outward, or of social relations.”  In some sense, poetry is required, by its commitment to symbol, to metaphor, to gesture, to relation, to pay attention more so to what is only possible in language itself.

Finally, is this fascination of mine merely a semantic one, or does it have some real world value?  I must, almost by default, argue the latter, though my inner voice is saying I have no proper answer.  It has always been important for us to engage with the impossible, because it is precisely this that makes the impossible possible.  It is simultaneity that drives “other worlds” theory in astrophysics.  It was the impossible thought of a round earth that came before any human circumnavigated the world.  Now, our existence is rife with contradictions, impossibilities, a galaxy of information that is meaningless when attempted to make sense of all at once.  Maddee Terry wonders, in discussing the internet, “how do you touch a thought/how can you hold a memory?”  Judge John Woolsey, in determining the censorship trial over James Joyce’s Ulysses, wrote about its capacity to capture the “ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions” of the conscious mind.  Anthony Doerr, in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel All The Light We Cannot See, describes how a girl gone blind imagines the colors of all the people around her growing brighter, more extravagant, more vivid, more unchecked.  It seems that every person in some way, regardless of politics, creed, education, or religion, wrestles ith the question of why we exist as humans.  Isn’t the fundamental answer to explore the possibilities of a vast, near-infinite consciousness?  Maybe that’s just one of many monumental tasks.  Maybe another, as Anne Carson asks, is to swim in every ocean, “one by one or all at once, geographically or conceptually.”  Go on.  Imagine that.  Conceptually swim in all oceans, at once.  Tell me how it feels for you.

 

Paris

“On a Monday morning in November 1919, Sylvia Beach hung a small wooden sign above her door and opened the shutters to Shakespeare and Company.  The signboard was a painting of the bard…  The importance of Shakespeare and Company had nothing to do with money.  By the end of the year, it was a place where readers and writers could talk to one another, where older and younger people exchanged ideas.”

The Most Dangerous Book, 148-149.

 

In the wake of the recent terror attacks on the streets of Paris, I have watched the responses on social media with the same curiosity and withdrawn study as I did the Boston Bombings, the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the race-related riots post-Ferguson, the Occupy Wall Street Movement.  There were two typical trends to facebook posts.  On the one hand, the facebook team created the French Flag profile picture option, and the “check-in” feature to insure loved ones that you were okay.  There were sentiments of grief, of solidarity, even references to the long-standing relationship the U.S has had with the French, from the time of the Revolutionary War.  On the other side, there was an undercurrent of frustration, as huge waves of sentiment were poured out for France while attacks in Beirut, in Baghdad, and the continuing civil war in Syria, were left barely noticed.  Arguments were being had: who was to blame?  How would the attacks be politicized?  Why hasn’t Obama escalated the war against ISIS?  Is this the fault of the refugee crisis in Europe?  One political meme was particularly poignant: a photo of refugees traveling the long walk to Europe, with the words “They didn’t cause this,” and then below, a photo of George W. Bush and Al Gore, with the caption “We Did.”

Regardless of your political opinions or perspective, this is an example of one reason (among many) that we (as Americans) might mourn Paris with so much passion.  Imagine a statement of that sort, accusing a former U.S president of creating a global terrorist organization, and causing a war that has led to the deaths of millions of civilians around the world, being made in this country one hundred years ago.  Or maybe even sixty, at the height of McCarthyism.  The power of our federal government to restrict, censor, and destroy the words that its citizens write, publish, and utter has been reduced dramatically, and largely in part to the literary establishment born on the streets of Paris, and proliferated by the shelves of the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, on the Rue de Bucherie.  

James Joyce’s book Ulysses, containing some of the most brilliantly written scenes of sexual fantasy and perversion, was very nearly destroyed before publication by the U.S Postal Service, and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV).  Accused of containing lewd and lascivious material (which it most certainly did), and by other organizations of containing treasonous content regarding the Queen of England (which it most certainly did) and the long arm of the Roman Catholic Church (which it most certainly did), Ulysses was rejected by nearly every publisher its patriots approached.  When it was being published serially, the magazine was shut down in a court of law for containing explicit material that could corrupt young women.  A scene in which a woman reveals her undergarments to a man on the beach was considered so vile, the director of the NYSSV missed the language which suggested that the male character was pleasuring himself throughout the scene.  And no one had yet read the section a hundred or so pages later in the book, in which the central character’s wildest sexual fantasies play out, including scenes of BDSM, homosexuality, prostitution, and other acts considered by the moral society of the era to be unmentionable.

Then Sylvia Beach, who had never published a book in her life, but had nevertheless shaped the movement of modern English literature, offered Joyce’s poisonous masterpiece a home through her bookshop in Paris.  He was not the only one to find support between the shelves of that shop.  Ezra Pound, T.S Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Man Ray, and many others looking for the time and inspiration for their own masterpieces came to Beach’s store and found it.  These authors were loosening the grip of moralists and Eurocentric writers on the literary canon, allowing room for the controversial inclusion of Eastern philosophies, racial inclusion, homosexuality, experimental writing, and politically subversive thought.  In Eliot’s The Waste Land, the Buddhist notion of “Shantih” gets the last word.  In Joyce’s own work, Hindu ritual practices stand side by side with Christian ritual, atheism and blasphemous language describes the Catholic mass, and royal figures are described with the same sort of scorn other writers of the time were using for colonized peoples around the world.   

With the help and inspiration of the progressive intellectual culture in Paris, our own literary canon here in the United States was able to develop beyond the constraints of a censorship-oriented political culture.  Because of the subversive thoughts published by Beach and Joyce in Ulysses, we can share a meme on facebook accusing a former U.S President of war crimes without the fear of imprisonment (although we may operate under the fear of FBI and CIA surveillance).  

What Eliot was able to do, what Joyce contributed to, was revolutionary: by placing the traditions of canonical European texts next to the canonical Eastern texts, they reveal their own similarities and relevance.  These Paris writers opened, even just a little, the Westerner’s notion of community, of familiarity. Now, social media and alternative news sites are bemoaning how Beirut, Baghdad, Kenya, are not given the same reaction that Paris has evoked.  I recognize the frustration with Eurocentric coverage of global conflicts and violence, and recognize the need for fair and balanced political attention.  But this is a misguided complaint.  I mourn the loss of my own grandfather with more grief than I do my friend’s grandfather.  It is ignorant to ignore the deep, familial relationship many Americans feel with European ancestral countries.  Many have French blood, French backgrounds.  Anne Sexton writes to her deceased grandmother

Come, old woman,/we will be sisters!/We will price the menus in the small cafes, count francs,/observe the tower where Marie Antoinette awaited her beheading,/kneel by the rose window of Notre Dame,/and let cloudy /weather bear us home early/to huddle by the weak stove in Madame’s /kitchen.

“Walking in Paris”

How many of us share this rich, perhaps romantic, notion of our cultural past?  How many of us see France and see a sibling nation, the way Sexton sees her own time in Paris mirroring her grandmother’s?  

Imagine this sort of attack happening one hundred years ago, prior to World War One.  Would Beirut have even been mentioned by the New York Times, or the BBC?  Would Baghdad?  It is because of the rupturing of our closed border ideology by French thinkers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucalt that we now take notice.  It is not yet enough–I look forward to a time where my knowledge of the great intellectual progress of thinkers from Beirut, from Syria, from Iraq, is as great as my knowledge of those in France–but we are part of a timeline greater than our own lives.  We should not reject right-minded sympathies for the victims of the attacks in Paris in favor of an emotional connection we do not yet feel for other equally important nations.  We can take comfort, and continue in self-education, knowing we are on track towards a cultural basis where our sentiments are equally heartfelt for those all around the world.

One of the most significant impacts all the above-named writers had on modern culture was their emphasis on empathy.  They believed in radical understanding of the inmost desires and motivations of others.  Unprecedented, never-before-uttered thoughts were published, read, and discussed; a deconstructed-then-reconstructed amalgamation of cultural production from around the world was distilled daily in the cozy reading room of Shakespeare and Co.  It is this radical empathy which we must so fervently feel in the wake of the Paris attacks.  It is easy enough to feel empathy for the victims and survivors, the city left devastated in the wake of horror, what with the imprint of the World Trade Center still fresh in our minds.  The harder act of empathy, the act which writers like Joyce and Eliot demand of us, is understanding those individuals who perpetrated the attacks.  John Oliver calls them “fucking assholes,” and then evokes the great intellectuals of French culture.  But these very intellectuals would ask us to imagine the circumstances from which these attackers come.  What sort of violence have they seen in their own homes?  What tragedies have they faced?  What terrible crises have they traveled through in order to come to this deadly conclusion?  It is a scary train of thought, and one made difficult by the freshness of the spilt blood in Paris.  But it is precisely this empathy which our own American community failed to feel following the tragedy of 9/11, which lead to the devastational war in Iraq.  In defending Ulysses in trial over its obscenity in 1933, Judge John Woolsey writes “Joyce has attempted to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions.”  In plain speech, Ulysses examines how three different characters perceive the world about them, endeavoring to shape that perception as fully, and in as rich detail, as possible.  Can we endeavor to do the same?  As we endure the burden of grief, anger, confusion, frustration, and knee-jerk reactions of aggression, can we dare look through the kaleidoscopic perceptions of those terrorists, and see not just their violent acts, but their whole residua of past impressions?

Empathy is not pity, or mercy, or weakness, or forsaking action.  Empathy is merely understanding.  These artists and revolutionaries throughout Paris’s history worked hard to offer us the gift of empathy, a privilege too many of us too often squander.  

Happy People and Why We Need Them

I’m alive, he thought.

His fingers trembled, bright with blood, like the bits of a strange flag now found and before unseen, and him wondering what country and what allegiance he owed to it.  Holding Tom, but not knowing him there, he touched his free hand to that blood as if it could be peeled away, held up, turned over.  Then he let go of Tom and lay on his back with his hands up in the sky and he was a head from which his eyes peered like sentinels through the portcullis of a strange castle out along a bridge, his arm, to those fingers where the bright pennant of blood quivered in the light.”

Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine.

Following my reread of Fahrenheit 451, I’ve come to remember my love for Bradbury like a gold nugget hidden inside of me, waiting for me to find it again.  I turn his pages like they’re wonders, like they’re written in some other language which I can’t quite understand, but which nevertheless looks beautiful on the page.  He sounds like a writer of that deadly “popular fiction” genre, but he also sounds like a prophet, like a poet, like a journalist, like a presidential candidate.  I couldn’t quite pinpoint what made Bradbury’s voice so unique.

Until my friend and housemate Meg Anderson made it plain to me.  She said (and I paraphrase) “Bradbury always seems to find that exact point where pure happiness and pure sorrow meet.  He understands the necessity of both.”

Reading Bradbury led me to the discovery that, in contrasting his language and body of work, we have a dearth of happiness in contemporary writing.  Sharon Olds’s recent book Stag’s Leap chronicles the stages of the poet’s divorce from her husband.   The immensely popular Millenium trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo being its popular name) drives us into the dark underworld of Swedish crime, and its even darker world of law enforcement.  Terrorism haunts us (The Goldfinch, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), while queer writing is most often plagued by suicide, disease, and fear (Angels in America, Written on the Body, The Hoursthan the happy ending of serial romance.  Different interpretations of Walter White’s death at the end of Breaking Bad include notions of satisfaction, pride, accomplishment, but rarely happiness.

This is not to argue that happiness should be overrated.  A friend and trusted counsel recently posed the question “why is everyone so obsessed with happiness?”  Yes, there is a need to balance our emotional spectrum, to explore and participate in a range of feeling, not all of them comfortable, not all of them designed to instill a euphoria of joy.  But writing in particular seems to have taken a dark turn, a turn purposefully away from any expression of happiness.  How many happy secrets are expressed on the sharing site postsecret.com?

But happiness is part of that emotional spectrum!  We need to feel that happiness the same way we need to feel that sadness and that anger and that fear and that confusion.  We need to watch a character’s trial by fire, and we need to see the enlightened moment of comfort afterwards.  We do not need to sugarcoat to present a realistic understanding of happiness in our writing.  We need to be as honest with the themes of joy, of exhilaration, of satisfaction, as we are with the themes of betrayal, anger, mistrust, grief.  During a talkback, the poet Charles Simic was asked about being in Belgrade during World War II.  He told the following story (again, a paraphrasing): We gathered in bomb shelters during the night.  At first, we’d be silent, scared, listening to the explosions above us.  Then someone would start singing.  Someone else would tell a joke, or a baby would make a sound, and we’d laugh.  This is how my childhood was shaped: not the terror of war, but the happy moments of community in those bomb shelters.

Meg, who is a fount of wisdom, recently told me why she loves to bake artisan bread (aside from the obvious satisfaction it provides for her grateful housemates).  She explained that the breadmaking is like a map, directions guiding her back to herself when she needs to be reminded.  The recipe, the steps, the practice, the movement, is intrinsically tied to her personal notion of being.  Books, too, seem to serve that purpose for many of us.  We read a book to discover the interior of those characters, yes, to empathize with an experience not our own, yes, but to also rediscover those little truths about ourselves in the words on the page.  What does it mean if those maps are leading us to our darkest selves?  What does it mean if those characters only speak to our sorrows, to our fears, and not to our individual victories over that darkness?

Books should not be an escape, they should be an encounter.  They should step up forcefully to the comfortable bubbles of our lives, and they should expect the most of us.  They should demand that we pay attention, when we don’t want to, to what we don’t want to.  But there is a bubble insulating us from happiness, now, too.  We are afraid of encountering all emotions, even the joyful ones, in the need to forsake cliche and avoid simplicity.  Dare yourself to encounter joy, to encounter happiness, to embrace the opportunity for excitement.

I’ll leave you with the following video.  In the Spring of 2012, I visited Rwanda and Uganda.  I spent two semesters studying African culture, politics, and history.  I read about genocide, about economic inequality, about colonialism, poverty, hunger.  I prepared myself for culture shock.  I prepared myself for the guilt that accompanies (and should accompany) the privileged Westerner encountering those who we typically deem as “less” privileged, at least economically.  What I did not prepare for was the expression of joy, the constant happiness and excitement and pleasure, which we were gifted to share with so many people we met.  We played tickle monster with children, we played football with teenagers, we cracked jokes about the length of my beard with hospital workers.  And we visited a school, where we were invited to watch and listen to the students sing and dance in a fascinating combination of traditional and contemporary African techniques.  What I encountered was a new, poetic, unsettling expression of happiness, an ecstasy so loud and undeniable.  Happiness is not an overtrod theme of writing.  Happiness is not automatically cliche, and is not automatically boring.  In order for us to be properly affected by the sense of tragedy and sorrow and anger and grief and confusion, we must meet those sensations at that point where they meet joy.

Where Has the Muse Gone?

“Tell me, Muse”

The Odyssey, Homer

“Yet must we… respond to increasingly exacting mechanical devices; some fascinating and compelling, others sinister in the extreme; all requiring a new and strange direction of the mind, a new sensitivity certainly, but at a considerable cost.”

In Parenthesis, David Jones

When they talk about poetry, they talk about mimesis as the action that the poem has, in reality, on the reader. Some people think that means the poet takes a snapshot of an event and on the page you have a perfect record. But I don’t think that’s right; I think a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on a page, and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action. And so his mind repeats that action and travels again through the action, but it is a movement of yourself through a thought, through an activity of thinking, so by the time you get to the end you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference.”

–Anne Carson, The Paris Review

I remember: the priest walking into a darkened church while my father sung in undertone “stay with me, remain here with me.  Watch and pray.  Watch and pray.”  Priest lies face down on the floor before the sanctuary, altar stripped of cloth and candle, flowers gone, gold gone.  Everyone kneels.  I stand on the kneeler in order to watch.  A minute of silence sits like a half hour.  My knees lock and unlock.  Priest stands, priest steps into sanctuary, the celebration of the mass becomes strange again, even in all its familiar practices.

The firmly Catholic practice of ritual–symbol making, singing, repeated prayers, movement, the central breaking of bread–is reflected in why poetry remains so intoxicating to me today.  Like hearing my father reading me a bedtime story, the rocking lilt of a poem lulls me away into a soft trance, some blissfully aware space above sleep.  I often have to read a poem two or three times just to follow its scene, so caught up am I in the way the words move, a “shape in words,” according to Jones.  There is a certain recognition in the reader of poetry that something different will happen, something more abstract and altering than what is allowed from typical prose.  

What I believe most poets are seeking in their work is one or both of two things: first, to discover (intellectually, textually, emotionally, romantically) what it is that makes us react in such a way to poetry, and second to incite that reaction in a baffled reader.  I have never been satisfied by standard arguments for why a work is good or not.  But I have understood immediately the innate specialness of particular poems, poems built with language, but with an attraction that steps above its own structure, like a shooting star leaving a tail of light behind it.

To speak at all of poetry, one should always turn first to Homer.  Quite like his contemporaries, Homer’s Odyssey begins with the Invocation of the Muse.  I sometimes wish all books of poetry would begin this way.  It is a recognition that, regardless of the poet’s spiritual perspective, he or she is partaking in a ritual spiritual by nature; an act of faith.  Faith in language, faith in the movement of words, faith in the powers of rhythm and song.  The Muse informs Homer not just of this story, from which we might learn and be entertained, but also the manner in which that story must be told.  This is not a depiction of the world, and of reality, Homer is offering us.  The story is words, and the words find themselves in a different space in the brain, that muscle of the imagination, so close and involved with the brain’s experience of divinity.  

Of course, we do not worship the Greek gods any longer (at least, it is not a widespread belief).  But the muse still exists.  She’s right there, in the opening line of the Odyssey.  She’s right there, any time her name is called.  Why?  Because, as Sarah Ruhl points out, “the words makes it so.”

The unimaginable and previously unparalleled devastation of World War I shifted the plates on which ritual and faith had been founded.  Suddenly, pageantry seemed trivial, its power could not match the ferocity of man-made weaponry.  Jones witnessed tank warfare, trench destitution, chemical weaponry, an entirely human-made bastardization of man-made in God’s image.  What remained after Europe diminished into a wreck was what Jones called “the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existence,” and this “profoundly affected the imaginations of those who suffered it.”   The impacted imagination no longer looked to God, in a direct fashion, for satisfaction.  Christian man’s perception of God, as it had been experienced for the previous half a millennia, was dead (though their faith was not).  For how could such a god coexist in a world of such violence?  Perhaps the Greek gods were easier to hold in the imagination.  These gods would’ve chosen sides in the war, and were more than capable of their own evil.

What rose from the shamble of both the first and second wars was a drastic trajectory towards godlessness.  Religion was studied as much in seminary as in history classrooms, not as a source of truth, but rather as a single perspective among many.  Allowing religious belief as a great source of imaginative process, we must also recognize the great strictures religious entities have put on imagination.  Without these stricture, new paradigms of sexuality, femininity, the body, the source of meaning, the limits of the universe, were contrived.  Humans began to see the possibilities of the living imagination, of applying imagination and possibility to every aspect of existence: we reimagined what borders between countries mean, we reimagined what moving images could be, we reimagined what the source of morality and ethics should be.  God had been questioned largely since the Enlightenment, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century what a true division of religion and intellectual progress was made.

However, when one rejects the organization that surrounds a God belief (even as one maintains a sense of “spiritualism,” a popular term today), one also rejects this human instinct for ritual.  This, perhaps more than anything else, has become a plague on my generation.  We rightfully reject the blatantly immoral traditional thought that has been unnecessarily preserved by fundamental religious institutions for too long.  We rightfully accept the Scientific Method as a functional tool for cognitive discovery and exploration of our known world.  But we assume that these two things necessitate a full-scale rejection of all things religious.  Why is a bible story worthless if it is made up?  Why is God not real if the idea of God is intrinsically a form which rises from the imagination?  As we formulate new ways of living and being in this definitively modern, sense-oriented, base-human world, we reject the ritual-making endeavors of the imagination–God, the poem, the song sung as a group, the candle lit for a loved one, even the waving of a flag–as unnecessary.

This anxiety, of a human starved of its ritual, manifests itself in micro-cultures, in other everyday practices outside the context of religious worship.  Food is considered a new space for ritual and solemn worship.  Trans-sexuality is perhaps the modern system of transubstantiation.  But our artistic mediums are purposefully sacrificing ritual and symbolic gesture for the sake of realism, and a fundamental rooting in the context.  We do not see a movie to allow a magical event to occur any more, we go to see DiCaprio’s new Oscar bid, or to ogle at new advances in computer animation, advances made interesting not because we believe them, but because we know they’re not real.  Magic was never simple an invented concept, though it may have never manifested physically in the world.  It existed in all its complexity because we believed in it, not the other way around.  Rituals are not meaningful because of what they’re ritualizing, they’re meaningful because we’ve ritualized them.  This is a fundamental disagreement between past and future artistic culture.

There are murmurs of the former importance of ritual to art, in a few tentative places.  Aaron Sorkin’s sweeping speeches throughout the TV show The West Wing, clearly designed for the purpose of dramatic, lyric dialogue, and not necessarily to reflect the natural patterns of real conversation, is an example of art made meaningful by attending to ancient lyric rituals.  Modern dance remains an avenue for the expression of ritual, turning the human body into an unimaginable wonder (unimaginable in its reality, in an interesting paradox of my whole argument).  Wooden boat culture has maintained a fundamental culture for centuries, and still ritually believes in the symbolic power of the ocean.  Surprisingly, the brief popularity of flash mobs betrayed the general public’s unsated desire to observe and participate in a communal action, ritualized through their spontaneity and synchronization.  

So what does this new paradigm of ritual mean for poetry?  Enter Anne Carson.  Anne Carson, with roots in Catholic tradition, who still goes to church to observe the vast pageantry.  Anne Carson, who “translates” classical texts while including modern pop culture references.  Anne Carson, who created Nox, a multimedia book in a box created to mourn her brother.  Anne Carson has recognized what the previous three sections of this post speak of: the roots of poetry in ritual, the loss of faith in the turn of the century, the desire for and lacking of ritual in contemporary culture.  Her poetry speaks to this desire.  She recognizes, as Jones did, that ritual is more than just the mind’s desire to make connections with an invisible god.  It is a sensuous need, a need rooted in our biological make-up.  This is the idea of “activity” Carson speaks about in her interview, the way a poem is a space for “the movement of yourself through a thought.”  The poem, in more than just its word choice, in more than just its story and scenery and symbolism, is a rhythmic act of ritual-making.  By its mythic roots, ancient form, and physicality, a poem can reflect ritual in the modern world in a way that this world so desperately needs.  

Go to a religious service.  Sit and listen.  Listen to the language, not for meaning, not for morality, not for godliness, but for the ritual experience.  Bring Carson’s poetry with you.  Read it aloud on hallowed ground.  Our generation, for better or for worse, has more options than any before it: options of schooling, of travel, of ingredients, of romance, of liberty.  But this should not be an excuse to ignore all that is past.  We can experience ritual without necessarily experiencing God.  Anne Carson offers us that chance.

Lady Oracle’s Prophecy to Us.

“You won’t tell him, will you?” I said.

“Tell him what?” Leda asked sharply.

It was hard to put into words.  “What I was like,” I said.  What I meant was: What I looked like.

“What do you mean?” Leda said.  “You were a perfectly nice young girl, as far as I could tell.”

“No, I mean… my shape.  I was, you know.”  I couldn’t say “fat”; I used that word about myself only in my head.

She saw what I meant, but it only amused her.  “Is that all?” she said.  “To my mind it’s a perfectly proper shape.  But don’t worry, I won’t give away your past, though I must say there are worse tragedies in life than being a little overweight.”

Lady Oracle.

Given our ranking as one of the world’s most obese nations, the United States has come into a minor obsession with weight.  This obsession has spawned both good and bad initiatives: an attempt to bring healthier meals and healthier life skills into schools is almost counteracted by the almost pornographic voyeurism of such shows as “The Biggest Loser.”  Feminist advocacy groups have productively attacked stereotypes and hate speech geared towards overweight women, while at the same time perhaps allowing too leniently a culture of “you’re perfect no matter what” that doesn’t encourage changing unhealthy habits.  As we research more in the medical field, we understand that supposedly universal notions of healthiness should actually be narrowed to a comprehensive understanding of each individual, in more than just proper weight (studies show that some individuals are making a better health decision by sleeping less than normal expectations, or by being heavier than normal classification, or by eating more of something we may deem “bad for you.”)  What has also sprung from attention paid to what has become an almost iconic representation of American culture is a whole wealth of fascinating mythology, from the blubbery humans in Wall-E to the fetishized overweight pornographic actresses.  

Unfortunately, too often in literature does the issue of weight become flattened in dimension and simplified in complexity, precisely because writers believe they need to write ABOUT weight.  I am not interested in reading about an obese woman, I’m interested in reading about a woman who is obese (this is my biggest pet peeve for most of modern “performance poetry,” but that’s a whole other blog post).  Margaret Atwood achieves just that balance in her character of Joan Foster.

The novel follows Joan as she fakes her own death and escapes unwanted fame as a Feminist poet.  In similar style to Homer’s Odyssey, we are given the present day scenario, and then travel far back in time, to Joan’s childhood, and learn of the many steps that have led her to this precise moment in her life.  Along the way, Joan goes through many transformations: as an average sized child to a willfully overweight teenager, then to an obsessively self-conscious slender adult who goes through bouts of both anorexic and bulimic behavior.  However, these behaviors and transformations, condensed here into a single paragraph, are spread over a few hundred pages.  What Joan also accomplishes is becomes a successful romance novelist, a successful literary poet, an accomplice to radical social agendas, a wife, and a religious guru of sorts.  But always, despite success, despite even moments of moderate happiness, Joan’s overweight past festers in her; she dwells too constantly on how “I had been the fat mongoloid idiot.”  We as readers want to say “Stop thinking about it!  It doesn’t define you!  You’re not overweight anymore!  Nobody cares.”  But in the same way Joan’s dwelling on her weight comes festering up in almost inconvenient moments in the text, so does Joan struggle constantly with the weight she long ago lost, now tied in a feverish fear of someone discovering that past.  

Mental and emotional relationships specifically to weight gain or loss are things I am not familiar with, and have only encountered through confidential conversations with friends, and the various testimonial-style films and youtube videos shown in psych and health classes in high school.  But conflict over body image is familiar territory.  Whether it is the strange skin condition I have lived with all my life, or the genuine phobia of exercise I carried through high school and college, I have struggled to comprehend the best way in which I can make my body a reflection of my mind, my feelings, and my beliefs.  We all, whether consciously or not, engage with our bodies.  We are sexual beings, we are mobile beings, many of us are flesh-eating beings.  The body has a long intellectual history.  But what makes Atwood’s interpretation of this age old conflict is the distance between the actuality of Joan’s situation and her own perception of it.  We know that her past as an overweight woman shouldn’t, and ultimately doesn’t, matter.  Most people she hides it from probably wouldn’t care all that much.  But that’s not the point.  Joan knows.  Joan knows, and every time she runs from one of her romantic partners, she is actually trying (and each time tragically failing) to run from herself.  What Atwood teaches us is not the radical acceptance that we are perfect beings who need not change anything about us, but rather the idea that we are complex beings who can improve one aspect of our selves while still accepting the other components of our self identity.  Being an unhealthy weight is bad, Joan knows and comes to understand that.  But entangling ourselves so deeply in this one struggle in our lives without celebrating the other beautiful traits of our identity is an Achilles Heel that many men and women fail to overcome.

What Atwood does is make her novel simultaneously about obesity and not about obesity.  Joan’s issues are manifold: romantic conflict, patriarchal sexism, mental instability, religious transcendence.  These are what make her such a compelling character, and what drives the text.  And yet, always, that relatively short period of her youth when she was heavy is the single most defining aspect that Joan sees in herself.  If only she could hear us, cheering her on, telling her that she doesn’t need to worry about it anymore, telling her that she doesn’t need to keep her past a secret.  If only she let her guard down, just once, to anyone, and listened to what they had to say.  Joan never reaches her epiphanic moment; in the end of the novel, she continues to worry about obscuring her past, even as she enters the threshold of a new romantic relationship who she feels “is the only person who knows anything about me.”  What is Atwood telling us?  Is she complacently championing radical acceptance?  Is she advocating for her main characters’ unhealthy attitude towards her body weight?  Or is she gently reminding us that we do not need to follow Joan down her destructive path, rather that we can open our ears and listen when the world tells us “there are worse tragedies in life than ___”  

You fill in the blank.

Everyman Update

Dwelling on Maine literature this week, I wanted to share a few works that have been an excellent perspective on our unique Maine culture:

When We Were the Kennedys, Monica Wood.

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout.

Cujo, Stephen King.

Charlotte’s Web, E.B White.

The Essays of E.B White, E.B White.

Burt DowDeep Waterman, Robert McCloskey.

Brothers of Morning (Poetry), Martin Steingesser.

“Skunk Hour” (poem), Robert Lowell.

In the Bedroom (Film), Todd Field.

Bluebird (Film), Lance Edmands.

Astraea (Film), Kristjan Thor

Beneath the Harvest Sky (Film), Aron Gaudet.

The Everyman and his Place in Two Cities Around the World.

9/28/15

As he crossed Grattan Bridge he looked down the river towards the lower quays and pitied the poor stunted houses.  They seemed to him a band of tramps, huddled together along the riverbanks, their old coats covered with dust and soot, stupefied by the panorama of sunset and waiting for the first chill of night to bid them arise, shake themselves, and begone.

Dubliners, 73 (Compass Books, 1958)

“You see that man getting on the train?  The one with the dog?  I went to highschool with him.”

I’m on the PGM bus, Westbrook to Portland, at the height of afternoon rush hour: babies crying, a high-booted old man in the back cursing the driver, and this tattooed, tank-topped mother whispering to her six-year old daughter in the seats across from me.  The girl’s careful eyes watch the man climb onto the bus, where the driver helps him find a seat.

“Look at his face.  Next to his eyes.  See the scars?”  The mother drags three fingers across the side of her cheek, a vague mimicry of a Wolverine macho-move.  The girl, riveted by her mother’s story, nods.

“I was friends with his brother.  Once, when we were teenagers, my friend’s asleep when a gun goes off outside.  He runs out, and there’s a pool of blood.  One of his brother’s enemies had shot him straight-” the mother gently places a long, painted nail on her daughter’s cheekbone “-through the eyes, in one, out the other.  He’s never been able to see since.”

The practice of storytelling, for thousands and thousands of years, was carefully controlled by a complex hierarchical system: what stories could be told, acted, printed, was long the decision of a royal monarch, a religious leader, or an authoritarian government.  Because of this, the characters reflected in literature through much of history are limited to a privileged class; if lower class characters do appear in these older texts, they are foils, theatrical piece of stage equipment to reflect and refract the emotional state of the central characters.

There are, of course, exceptions to this trend.  Chaucer’s lower-class characters from his Canterbury Tales come to mind (though they fulfil perhaps too many base stereotypes of their demographic), as does the Gravedigger in all his wisdom in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or indeed many of the heroes and heroines from Jewish and Christian holy texts.

However, it was not until widespread hikes in literacy, and technological advances in the printing industry that readers, and writers, from a great expanse of socio-economic backgrounds stretched the carefully laid bounds of “acceptable” prose.  What flourished from this bountiful new batch of readers and writers was an entire new demographic of characters, characters from all backgrounds who are nevertheless offered the gift and right of dignity.  

This above all was the impression I got from reading Dubliners.  A carefully organized sequence of short stories set around that small but iconic literary city, I found (with the help of Professor Bud McGrath) this theme of “dignity despite poverty” to be one of the most interesting threads running throughout.  Poor characters are not deadened in speech of emotion by the conditions surrounding them.  They do not wax poetic, in the traditions of Shakespeare or Dante, but they do speak and feel.  The description above is given through the eyes of Little Chandler, a man dissatisfied with his middle-class life, determined to leave Dublin and live a life of more vanity and excitement.  Yet, hidden in a description meant to revile (in the preceding sentence, Little Chandler tells us how “his soul revolted against the dull inelegance of Capel Street”) is a carefully sculpted image of beauty.  The houses, ramshackle as old tramps, are yet observing, transfixed, a sunset.  There is a hint of sublimity in this description, a presence of something thoughtful, tranquil, and indeed, elegant.  

While much of the literature written about or set in Maine today revolves around natural beauty, transcendental escape, and a few over-romanticized depictions of picturesque, eternal-Summer villages, there is a complex, harsh, integral culture in Maine’s lower income communities, largely untapped for its root beauty by artistic representation.  Indeed, one of the only writers actively writing about this culture is Stephen King who, while prolific and in my opinion an incredibly gifted storyteller, is almost entirely ignored by the “literary community.”  King’s characters, though they are often placed in radical and exaggerated (and yes, occasionally just downright silly) situations, are nonetheless authentic.  They worry about the same things many of us worry about, they drink the same beers we drink, they cry, they shit.  

It is not enough to simply insert some expressionless “poor person,” much in the way mainstream media has begun inserting token minority characters into TV shows or movies.  These characters must be real.  Why should lofty thoughts be reserved for rich people?  Another of Joyce’s characters, Polly, facing her mother’s decision to force marriage upon her, is described in the following way: “Her hopes and visions were so intricate that she no longer saw the white pillows on which her gaze was fixed or remembered that she was waiting for anything” (68).  This is not a simple woman, and she does not approach the working-class complexities of her life with a simple mind.  

When Thoreau escaped to Walden pond to write waxingly (and, in my opinion, poorly) on the transcendent beauty of the natural world, he missed the transcendent wisdom of the few souls who carve life and home out of this shoreline.  Each year, many tourists from around the world come to ogle at our water, our hills, our emptiness, and (starting this week) our leaves, also missing the lives being led around them.  These lives are wealthy in complexity, and are rocked by the same powers of love, hate, death, birth, excitement, mundanity–all the same complexities Joyce’s characters feel.  And they’re there for the observing, and to take part in; all you need to do is hop on a bus, and listen.  That mother is just one example of the blunt, uncensored, neo-Gothic style of Maine storytelling.  She is also just one face in a huge and diverse demographic.

One of the myriad purposes of literature is to create empathy for those who have lived and experienced situations unlike our own.  I have grown up surrounded by this rich, rough Maine culture, but have always felt an outsider to it.  A few books have captured the essence of it for me, but there are not enough, and they are not paid enough attention to.  I hope for more.

Why We’re Here

     It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books…  They show the pores in the face of life.  The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless

                                                          Fahrenheit 451, 82-83

     I am not an early adapter.  I have no smartphone.  My ipod is silver and has a rotating scroller.  my watch has hands.  My books do not have screens.  The first draft of this post is written with a blue ball point pen on a yellow legal pad.  So it’s typical that I turn to the medium of “blogging” about 3 years after the golden age of this already outmoded system of communication.  Would more people read this if I instead sent it sentence by sentence on Snapchat?  Or would I get more attention if I memorized this text and delivered it as a feisty monologue on my Youtube channel?  Perhaps.  But here I am, maintaining MLA format, desperately hungry for the rigor of thought, analysis, and productions that disappeared from my life when I graduated this past May from the University of Southern Maine.  Does that sound right?  I miss it.  The papers.  The stacks of books.  The deadlines (these more than anything else).

     Which is why we’re here.  In every English major’s long list of anxieties is the burning questions of relevance.  Why does this matter?  Why is this discipline important?  Who cares?  Many professors have come close to answering this question; even a few students possessing a stronger grasp on reality than I have come to personal conclusions.  But the proper answer lies in the most common phrase spoken in English classes across the country: go to the text.  

     Faber, the retired professor in Bradbury’s terrifyingly accurate dystopia who spoke the quote above, is reminding us of one of the fundamental responsibilities of both the text and the reader: to be changed.  To see the shortcomings of one’s self (and one’s society), and be changed as a result of it.  Books, so meticulously detailed in their expositions on characters, allow us to see these personalities as mirrors of our own: their vices, their screw-ups, their ugliness, their fears.  I recently read a New York Times article, “Actresses on the Stubborn Sexism of Hollywood” which asked the question “can women be unlikable on screen?”  Yet, years before Hollywood existed, Hamlet’s mother betrayed her husband and son, Chaucer’s Wyf of Bath transgressed her gender in favor of personal sexual satisfaction, and Emily Bronte’s Catherine Earnshaw disobeyed all expectations for her own, perhaps devious, independent choices.  Literature is as ugly as life is, without the make-up.

     In today’s society (for the most part), we don’t burn books.  But Faber warned us about a fate far more dangerous than book burning: “That was the year I came to class at the start of the new semester and found only one student to sign up for Drama from Aeschylus to O’Neill” (89).  The problem isn’t burning books, the problem is books molding on the shelves, soaking in puddles in basements, being boxed, going out of print, turning into antique store finds.  The establishment–a term used here to loosely refer to those powers-that-be who favor mainstreaming thought and creating opaque skeletons of real narrative over exploring diverse opinions and constructing complex themes and allegories–has subverted the power of books by drowning their careful arguments with the blasting war trumpets of reality TV and celebrity gossip.   For Bradley’s hero Montag, this auditory battle is literal; on the city’s subway, “the train radio vomited upon Montag, in retaliation, a great tonload of music made of tin, copper, silver, chromium, and brass.  The people were pounded into submission” (79).  How can one read through all the noise?  Poet Tony Hoagland bemoans during his lectures how silence was not made a constitutional right by our founding fathers.  Where they can find these silences, little pockets of readers gather to quietly speak to the knowledge contained inside these fragile objects, each reader becoming herself “bits and pieces of history and literature and international law” (152).  

     Last year, at the height of a painful and terrifyingly groundbreaking clash between the administration at USM and its students and faculty, a professor gave a speech based on the writings of Audre Lorde, a speech designed as a call to action, as a reassurance, as a firm planting of a flag of union into the decaying soil of American culture.  She quoted a woman speaking from and to a previous generation.  I heard the quote.  My brain processed the information contained in the quote, and I changed.  This is the practical study of English Literature, contained not just in the individual reading and interacting with a text, but in the way which that individual then shares the information in such a way that others will learn, change, and themselves interpret that information.  I am asking you (whoever it is I’m addressing) to share in this study.  Comment.  Write your own commentaries and share them on this site.  Please, please, please disagree.  

     This blog is my attempt to listen, to respond, and to share.  Come share with me.  Do not succumb to the four-walled televisions of Montag’s hellish world.  Instead, let yourself go, like Montag, as “the land rushed at him, a tidal wave.  He was crushed by darkness and the look of the country and the million odors on a wind that iced his body.  He fell back under the breaking curve of darkness and sound and smell, his ears roaring.  He whirled.  The stars poured over his sight like flaming meteors” (143).  

     Let’s get started.