Some Thoughts on Politically Correct Language

I know, I know, this is such a remnant of the culture wars & a silly remnant at that. Why return to the subject now, when all language seems drained of significance? One hardly ever encounters arguments about “political correctness” except among jejune  undergraduates, usually but not always boys & usually but not always “conservatives.” I wouldn’t bring it up except that the subject has rippled to the surface several times in conversations with students I would have thought more sophisticated. “Why do you always say ‘he or she’,” I’ve been asked. Or, a student has asserted, “I don’t go in for all that politically correct language.”  As a poet, my response is ambivalent. I want to agree with students who resent the machinery of social control telling them that they cannot call a dickhead a dickhead or a mean-spirited bitch, well, a mean-spirited, soul-killing bitch. On the other hand, if by “politically correct language” one means gender neutrality or the avoidance of racial or sexual slurs designed to wound or marginalize individuals or groups, then I am in favor of politically correct language. Context, of course, is crucial. Members of a marginalized group may turn oppressive language against the oppressor; lovers may say to each other in private what they would not say in public; one may put into a poem or story languages one would not usually use in the lecture hall or lunchroom. I conclude that my students have glommed onto the right-wing media meme about leftist educators trying to impose conformity — if they have thought about it even that much — and employed it as a shield against thinking. Thinking always involves dispensing with universals (slogans) and engaging with ambiguity & change (contexts).

Room by Emma Donoghue

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

Summer Course: Modern American Poetry

I’m getting ready to teach an online course, Modern American Poetry. The course requires junior standing and at least one previous literature class, but it is open to all majors. That is, I think I can expect a certain amount of reading savvy and engagement with the material, but not a lot of background in poetry as such, especially modern poetry. The last time I taught the class, in the flesh, as it were, I used Cary Nelson’s fat and inclusive anthology, which I like — it also has a good web-based supplement that includes critical statements about the poets, which I use as a way of getting students to enter into a “conversation” or on-going argument about a particular writer or text. But I had fourteen weeks during the regular semester, with class seventy-five minute class meetings twice a week. With the summer course, I can go as long as ten weeks, but students usually prefer a more compressed schedule in the summer, so I’m going to schedule eight weeks, with a couple of weeks of non-required start-up time during which the site will be live and I’ll be posting some general thoughts; students can also of course use this time to get going on the reading, which will not be voluminous, but will require close attention. So I’m going to abandon the Nelson anthology for the two, much more conservative, anthologies edited by Joel Conarroe, Six American Poets and Eight American Poets. Rather than assign a text about poetry — I like Terry Eagleton’s How to Read a Poem — I will link to online resources and create a few pdf files of commentary for students.

Conarroe’s six poets are Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Williams, Frost, and Hughes. I will put all six on the syllabus; his eight are Bishop, Merrill, Plath, Ginsberg, Roethke, Berryman, Sexton, and Lowell. Of these, I will drop Sexton, who wrote very few good poems, I think, and Merrill, to whom I’ve never warmed, whatever virtues he possesses. And then I’ll add Eliot’s “Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” — he was born in St. Louis, after all. Along the way, I’ll try to link to less mainstream poets as a supplement. For instance, I’ll use Hughes to link to a bunch of good online material about the Harlem Renaissance. I’ll expect about as much reading and writing from students each week as I would expect in a week & a half (three class meetings) during the regular semester.

Week 1: What is Modernism & what do we mean by “modern”?

Week 2: Dickinson & Whitman as the inventors of American modernism.

Week 3: Stevens & Eliot

Week 4: Williams & Frost

Week 5: Hughes & the Harlem Ren

Week 6: Bishop & Lowell

Week 7: Plath & Berryman

Week 8: Some contemporary poems / the reaction against the personal

Reading at SUNY Farmingdale

I’ll be giving a poetry reading at SUNY Farmingdale (in the Paumanok Poetry Series) at 11:00 on Thursday. Haven’t done a reading in a long time & I’m a little nervous. After the reading on Long Island, I’m going to spend my honorarium staying a couple of days in NYC going to bookstores, galleries, etc. Haven’t been down to the city in a long time either — I’ve spent farm more time in Hanoi in the last decade than in NYC. To get to Long Island, I have to drive to Burlington VT tomorrow, fly to Philly, then to Islip NY, where I’ll be picked up and whisked to my hotel. Margery Brown, who coordinates the series, has been extremely helpful and totally organized about setting up the trip, for which I am very grateful. After the reading, I go to lunch with the SUNY folks then get on a train to Union Station.

Update: Lovely audience this morning at Farmingdale and a lovely lunch afterward with faculty from the English Department; after lunch I took the train into Penn Station (not Union) and then took a taxi to my hotel in Tribecca. Grabbed a sandwich at a deli and have just been gathering my resources for a couple of days of city walking.

Song: On Hearing That the Obama Administration Intends to Cut the Budget for the National Endowment for the Humanities


The fuck you say?

Two hundred million
(or whatever it is)
won’t keep the Marines
in bullets for a day.

The fuck you say?

The Pentagon won’t
deign to wipe its ass
with anything less
than a couple billion.

The fuck you say?

An ancient master
noted: All things
are empty, true, but
differences still count.

The fuck you say?

One does not use
the emptiness
of a shit scoop
to ladle out the soup.