I Suppose that Makes Me a Conservative

Of a sort. The kind who wants to conserve certain values. Even peculiarly American values. When I teach literature & writing, I find myself returning again & again to the power of language to both clarify & confuse & to the moral responsibility the educated person has to clarify rather than confuse. The study of literature is valuable not because it teaches eternal verities in nicely anthologized snippets but because it insists, even when it is full of shit, that we attend to its language. And attending to language -- down to shifts of tense & pronoun number & the way the grammar of a poem lies over the poetic line -- is a process that fosters thought & self-reflection, since those processes are carried out in language. I'm sure I bore my students with a combination of insistence on the details of language in this poem or that story & a kind of high-flown sermonizing about taking themselves seriously as users of language, but ultimately I'm not interested in passing on a body of technique (though I don't discount or ignore it) as I am in helping students toward a useful & informed relationship to language. In terms of intellectual orientation, that makes me a Pragmatist, I think. Really, I'm not an intellectual & I wish I were. I honor intellectuals & read their books. But the one thing I can lay claim to is poetry, which is in the end just attention to language: tenses & number & the structure of a sentence (especially when extended over a poetic line) & the way language encodes & fails to encode the world. Micro & macro. Hope & impossibility.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.