Small Demon
May 052011
 

I seem to be waking slowly from the trance induced by the last few weeks of the semester. The cold, wet weather isn’t helping.

It’s not that I was overwhelmed with work — the number of papers and conferences and faculty meetings was about average, I guess. But I admit to feeling a little bit demoralized by my students this term. I had a long wrangle with some of the students in my Honors seminar on modernity because they really didn’t believe the course had anything to do with their careers and they really didn’t like the fact that I kept asking open-ended questions that did not appear to yield to the usual procedures of problem solving. Seniors in the Honors Program have mastered the art of problem solving, though in many cases they have not mastered much else. [Here is what I wrote on our class blog after turning my grades in.] But at least the wrangle with the Honors seniors involved the active expenditure of effort; the vast majority of the sixty students in the two sections of my Literature of American Popular Music course simply absorbed energy like sodden little black holes. Out of the sixty there were perhaps half a dozen who tried from time to time to help be ignite a discussion, but their efforts were ultimately futile in the face of the pervading passivity and sullenness.

This was a course in which we read Howl and The Dharma Bums and listened to Monk and Bird and watched video of Lady Day singing accompanied by Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. We watched documentaries about Dylan and listened to old ballads about murder and adultery. And they just fucking sat there. As if none of it means anything. I’m tempted to never teach the course again — the students don’t deserve it. It profanes the sacred texts to exhibit them to such dolts.

 

 Posted by at 9:09 am
Mar 202011
 

On the recommendation of one of my students, I’ve just read Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. A lovely piece of fiction, I think, filled with great generosity & marred only by an occasional sentimental slip-up. Whether its vision of comity across the lines of class is realistic, I am not at all sure; but certainly, imagining such comity is a kind of blessed work.* The narration is split between a precocious twelve-year-old girl, the daughter of a haute bourgeois family, and the fifty-four-year-old concierge who works in their building, an autodidact of startlingly wide reading. The girl Paloma’s contributions are in the form of a pair of journals she keeps that record her alienation from her family and their values and her tone is a sometimes wistful, sometimes viciously satirical in manner; the concierge Madam Michel’s contributions feel more like traditional narrative, though at one point she, too, alludes to the fact that they are a written record of her life. This leads to what, in a traditional novel, would be a point of view problem at the end of the story, but that, here, seems designed to create a paradox for the reader’s contemplation.

The machinery of the interlocking narratives is not terribly subtle, but this is hardly a fault in a philosophical novel, where, presumably, the emphasis is in the reality of ideas rather than the realism of the setting & plot. It is clear from the beginning that the two narrators, living in different worlds in the same Paris apartment building, must inevitably be brought together; the way they come together is, however, both surprising and appropriate to their personalities. I thought the story sagged a bit about two-thirds of the way along, but it recovers itself quickly and rushes on to a surprising and, as noted, paradoxical conclusion. I am perhaps less sanguine than the author about the possibilities for communication and friendship across the boundaries of class and culture, but surely we ought to aspire to such intellectual and spiritual freedoms as this novel celebrates.

_____________________________
*In this, as in other ways, The Elegance of the Hedgehog reminds one of another European philosophical novel narrated in the voice of a precocious girl, Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder [NY Times Book Review, review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog  by Caryn James; review of Sophie's World by John Vernon]

 Posted by at 6:34 pm
Mar 202011
 

It’s a little hard to take seriously the philosophy of a man who could write a story as bad as “The Wall.” I’m pretty much on Sartre’s side & have been since I was seventeen, but “The Wall,” which I hadn’t read since my first youthful enthusiasm for existentialism, amounts to little more than a philosophical shaggy dog story. I picked up Sartre’s fiction again recently because of my more general reading in the European Philosophical Novel from Then to Now, as you might say if you were making up a course. I realize that the story is supposed to shock the reader with the dark comedy of an absurd world, but the irony falls absolutely flat at the ending. The most delicious irony in the story is the setting, wherein a hospital is reconfigured as a prison for anti-fascists awaiting execution. Hospitals & prisons have much in common, from an institutional perspective, of course, however different their fundamental missions, one of healing, one of punishment. Looked at through the lens of irony, though, both hospitals and prisons are designed to confine those sentenced to death. But the graveyard gambit at the end of “The Wall” is not much more than a piece of sophomoric stage business. Sartre’s short essays are probably his best writing. Among the Existentialists, Camus never said too much, writing with great economy in all the genres he undertook, while Sartre almost always ran on & on. Even a short story like “The Wall” is too long by half for the effect it wants to produce.

As a poet I find it hard to take seriously any philosophical doctrine presented is clumsy or unconvincing language. (Sartre of course wrote effective fiction elsewhere, as in the novel Nausea, so the story being discussed here is perhaps nothing but an aberration.) Despite the aesthetic failures of this story, I remain of Sartre’s party, mostly because it offers a materialist like me the opportunity to exercise a certain amount of self-making within the overpowering historical and material forces that shape so much of human existence.

 Posted by at 10:04 am
Feb 242011
 

I’m giving a presentation tomorrow in my department’s Colloquium Series, in which my colleagues or visiting guests present the results of their research. Since my “research” is poetry, my presentation will be mostly a reading, but I also want to open up my own history & influences, while at the same time saying a few things about what I think poetry is capable of. I’ve spent the last decade, frankly, doubting the value of poetry & trying to write against that doubt. Slowly over the last year or so I have begun to work toward the sense that the value of poetry is to hold judgment in suspense, if not indefinitely, then long enough that judgment be informed with . . . what? If I have to choose just one thing, I would want poetry — all poetry, but my poetry in particular — to suspend judgement long enough for generosity to enter. Perhaps this is just a version of Keats’ notion of Negative Capability: “The ability,” the poet wrote to his younger brother, “to be in doubts, mysteries and uncertainties without irritably reaching after fact and reason.” Not that I’d deny the importance of fact or reason — I’m very interested in them.

My poetic autobiography is pretty mainstream. I have been sympathetic to the revolutions going on around me, but mostly I have followed the poetics developed at the beginning of the 20th century by the great Anglo-American modernists, though I have reached back, too, toward Emily Dickinson & Walt Whitman, a couple of poets Pound & Eliot were suspicious of. So I will lay out my early attachments & my application to the Writers Workshop in order to study with Donald Justice, a poet who would say, late in life, that he regretted not having lived in a time when there was a period style. Don might have envied, I think, the way jazz players have a set of standard tunes they can play individual variations on and in the process work out both a group & individual style. He had studied musical composition as a young man & the only music I ever heard him play was Bach. Don Justice was very important to me and I was distressed to see how he was championed later by the reactionary “New Formalists,” who had to distort his great achievements in free verse in order to make him a hero of metrical verse.

Most of the touchstones of my own poetry were already in place by the time I left Iowa. Some — Donne’s lyrics, Auden, Berryman, James Wright, Williams, Roethke — I’d acquired before going to Iowa, but while studying there I picked up on Elizabeth Bishop (via my teacher Sandra McPherson), Robert Hass, Linda Gregg, Czeslaw Milosz, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Rilke. My appreciation of Dr. Williams was deepened by studying him with Don, the supposed paragon of formalism. No doubt there are many others, but those were & have remained the central figures of my own writing. I am only one teacher away from Bishop & Berryman, with whom my own teachers studied. The only significant influence I came by after leaving Iowa in 1980 is Hayden Carruth, who is now the titular spirit of my poetic house. The one remaining — & more recent influence on my poetry & on my thinking generally — has been several extended periods in Vietnam over the last decade & a half.

That’s where I came from, but what do I believe about poetry? I’ve already mentioned Negative Capability as both a moral and aesthetic pivot in my work. I believe in the reality of feeling & of the affects generally, including mood, reverie, and other states of intuitive knowledge. Surely we poets need not apologize for asserting a strong ontological claim for such states when modern cosmology posits multiple, perhaps infinitely multiple, universes; when string theory supposes the existence of half a dozen extra dimensions invisible to us because they are “rolled up” into the curved surfaces of Calabi-Yau manifolds; when tried & true quantum mechanics makes a strong claim for probability waves, or wave functions, which are not waves of anything or in anything, but finally as far as I can tell, waves in thought. So poets need not apologize for examining human affective states, from the calmest to the most agitated, from the most contented to the most anxious.

One thinks in this regard of Elizabeth Bishop’s great poem, “In the Waiting Room,” in which the poet looks back upon her seven-year-old self at the very moment that she, Elizabeth Bishop, realizes she is a self, “an Elizabeth,” as the poem says. One thinks of the child William Wordsworth have to grip a fence post or a stone in order to reassure himself of the existence of a world outside his thoughts; one thinks of Hartley Coleridge, son of the great Romantic poet & philosopher, who, aged four, when asked whether he had enjoyed a ride in a dog cart, replied that he might have enjoyed it more if he had not “always been thinking of his thoughts.” One thinks of William Blake noting that the balloon of the imagination needs the ballast provided by sacks of earth.

Eliot said that poetry “purifies the language of the tribe,” but surely this is High Modernist overreaching; at best, perhaps, poetry might remind those who are willing to be reminded of the importance of what the historical Buddha called “right speech.” And right speech is speech that pauses, halts, even stutters, on its way to judgment.  Stutterers are often flawless singers, I once wrote in a poem. I also wrote, in another poem, that “knowledge is loved information” & poetry surely is one way though of course not the only way of turning information — especially affective information — into knowledge.

I will expand on those ideas and read illustrative poems by some of the figures mentioned above, along with a dozen or so of my own poetry poems, several finished just this year after what I can only describe as a return to poetry, despite the fact that I never completely abandoned my muse, who I sometimes visualize as a skinny girl with a little bit of a drug problem.

 

 Posted by at 9:59 pm
Dec 112010
 

Because I use the theme of childhood & Innocence / Experience in my freshman writing course, I’m always on the lookout for fiction dealing with those subjects. Emma Donoghue’s novel Room came up recently as a recommendation on Amazon, based, I think, on my purchasing history. I’d read a glowing review in the NY Times, so I ordered the book with the idea that it might work in my class. When it came I read the first twenty pages or so, then set it aside when I got busy grading, thinking that the story ran a serious risk of falling into an inevitable form of  sentimentality, given the subject and the point of view.

The story involves a young woman kidnapped and used for sex by an anonymous man who keeps her locked in a garden shed behind his suburban house that he has converted into the self-contained Room of the novel’s title, which is in fact a very effective prison. The young woman is 19 when she is kidnapped and within a couple of years becomes pregnant and bears a son. The tricky and audacious thing about the novel is that it is told in the first-person point of view of this boy when he is five years old. There are plenty of novels in the voices of children, but five years old is pushing against the downward limit of verbal ability for a narrator; still, Donoghue manages the difficulties with a kind of intelligence and grace one wouldn’t think possible, given the narrative situation she has set up for herself.

The narrator’s name is Jack and he is surely a verbally gifted child, but not so gifted as to seem implausible even to a reader (such as me) skeptical of this particular technical choice. The story develops in such a way that Jack’s verbal gifts seem natural: he spends a great deal of time talking to his mother and reading his five books and they also play a game called Parrot in which they watch TV and then the mother hits the mute button, Jack’s task in this game being to parrot back the whole previous sentence he has just heard whether he understands the words or not. They then discuss the words and their meaning. This game is only mentioned once or twice, but in the huge silence that is their lives (the room is soundproofed) language takes on a nearly magical importance. Continue reading »

 Posted by at 12:16 pm