Necessary Limits

Over the last few days I’ve been watching documentaries on contemporary visual art, many from the PBS series Art:21. Over & over again, across multiple genres, approaches, political commitments & media, the artists talk in a number of different ways about working within limits. The limits artists employ are self-imposed, even when they are drawn from tradition.1

Why would so many different artists voluntarily constrain themselves with what can appear to be arbitrary limitations when, presumably, they could work without limits? Could an artist just pick up the brush-camera-pen-keyboard-saxaphone & start wailing away in genius mode? Seems doubtful, and yet over the course of my writing & teaching life I have run up against the idea that “creative” equals “no rules.” This strikes me as some sort of vulgar utopianism.

My former teacher Donald Justice, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1980, remarked at about that time that he regretted not living in an era when there was a period style to work within & against. That’s one kind of limit.

The Elizabethan theater needed a form of language that could sustain a declamatory mode of acting. The newly emerging poetic line, the iambic pentameter, was suited to this kind of drama, but of course a set verse form is a limitation. But then Shakespeare came along & used this limitation–among many other things–to produce works of genius within those limits. Shakespeare would not have been able to write Lear or The Tempest, to select the two plays I always return to.

Constraints, or limits, are highly productive. Even a hang-loose West Coast conceptual artist like John Baldessari says, in his Art 21 segment:

Not so much structure that it’s inhibiting–I mean there is not wiggle room–but not so loose that it can be anything. I guess it’s like a corral–a corral around your idea that you can move but not too much and it’s that limited movement that promotes creativity. [John Baldessari]

But even within the most rebellious forms of Modernism & post-modernism, artists impose systems–corrals, as Baldessari calls them–such as William Carlos Williams’ half-imaginary phrase-based triadic measure. Even though this prosody has turned out to be largely non-transferable (I know–I have tried it), as a limit it allowed WCW to write “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” “To Daphne and Virginia” & other poems from his late period.

I’m scheduled to teach Introduction to Creative Writing in the fall. It’s a class with which I have had a love / hate relationship over the years, largely because of the issues sketched above. I’m going to design a version of the class with this notion of productive constraints at its heart.

Show 1 footnote

  1. There are of course limitations that artists do not control, though they should be aware of them: economic conditions, certain forces of personal history, the politics of the state in which the artist lives / works, etc.

Best Three Dylan Albums?

I’ve started posting various sorts of lists in this space, inspired partly by Greil Marcus’s collection of columns, Real Life Top Ten, but without Marcus’s hipster edge or focus on popular culture. My knowledge of popular culture is not nearly so wide, nor my taste so inclusive, as Marcus’s, but I know a thing or two about Dylan, not so much as a figure (or personality), but as a poet. People don’t worry much these days about whether or not Dylan is or is not a poet—whether he meets the qualifications—but in my younger days it was a question of some importance, at least to some of us who had begun to see poetry (or all things) as a powerful mode of perception. Dylan himself had clearly thought this—after all, he had dropped in on Carl Sandberg and announced himself, however awkwardly, as a member of the tribe. Later, he seems to have dismissed the question as beside the point, though the songs of his great period are studded with references to poets & poetry.1

I seem to have buried my thesis in a footnote. I’m getting ready to teach Dylan’s songs in my Literature of American Popular Music course2 and since I don’t have more than three or four class periods to cover the territory, I have to decide what to focus on. So just pick my favorite tracks, right? If my students were just young friends in my living room, that would be fine, but even at this late stage of my academic career I feel some compunction to heed the institutional imperatives of the classroom. Well, then, choose Dylan’s “most important” work. But important on what criteria? Historical? Cultural? Musical? I could fake a discussion of the first two; the third would be more of a stretch. In fact, I’d already decided, though I had quite realized it until this morning. It’s a Literature course, as I mentioned above: one of the assumptions behind the course is that at least some songs overlap the domains of the literary. Which means that next week I will teach what I take to be Bob Dylan’s three most literary records. It is perhaps a little unfortunate that all these records are from early in Dylan’s career, but perhaps I’ll be able to fast-forward to a few tracks from Blood on the Tracks & Love and Theft.

 

Show 2 footnotes

  1. I’d go so far as to suggest that Dylan’s best songs have been written at times when Dylan has conceived of himself, however awkwardly, as a poet—or, perhaps, self-consciously, as an artist.
  2. I don’t presume to teach “popular culture,” but only its “literature.”

Geoffrey H. Hartman, Who Saw Literary Criticism as Art, Dies at 86

Long associated with the Yale School of criticism, Professor Hartman examined a wide range of subjects, including Wordsworth, Judaica and trauma.

Source: Geoffrey H. Hartman, Scholar Who Saw Literary Criticism as Art, Dies at 86

I met Dr. Hartman in 1985 when he was lecturing at Northwestern, where I had landed with an NEH Summer Seminar fellowship to study the British Romantics. He seemed like a friendly, American element in the massive fortress of Yale School criticism. That was also the summer I heard Umberto Eco lecture—a presentation that was followed by a Q & A taken over by Stanley Fish, who tried to undercut Eco’s optimistic pragmatic approach to language with his own slick nihilism, but wound up gutted like a flounder, standing there in his ice-cream suit at the back of the auditorium while the somehow rumpled & elegant Eco turned to speak with a group of undergraduates. I was there when titans grappled! That was a good day to be a fly on the wall.

National Teachers’ Day in Vietnam

Yesterday was National Teachers’ Day in Vietnam, a day on which Vietnamese college students return to their high schools & high school students to their elementary schools taking gifts to their former teachers. The night before last I was invited to a big party & singing competition at the International School of Hanoi National University. It was a lovely, typically Vietnamese affair, which is to say wonderfully welcoming & relentlessly cheerful. The International School is a success story during a difficult period for Vietnamese education.

The singing acts–all composed of students, faculty, or staff–varied in quality, from barely passable to semi-pro, & they went on for far too long. A lot of the songs advanced commonplace sentiments about the value of education & the importance of teachers, but by far the most popular combined such sentiments with a strongly patriotic, even martial, strain. This feels distinctly odd to liberal, Western ways of thinking about education, but it makes sense here given the strong Confucian & revolutionary / communist traditions of contemporary Vietnam. Indeed, the choreography & musical arrangements retained a hint of the Soviet aesthetic.

The Confucianism of Confucius is, as David Hinton notes,1 quite different from the Confucianism of that philosophy’s subsequent evolution:

The brand of Confucianism wielded throughout the centuries as power’s ideology of choice focused on select ideas involving selfless submission to authority: parental, political, masculine, historic, textual. And the “sacred” Ritual dimensions of these hierarchical relationships only made them that much more oppressive. It is this aspect of the Confucian tradition that has become so problematic in modern times, for intellectuals came to recognize it as the force that was preventing . . . modernization.

At the same time, and much in evidence on Teacher’s Day, were the Confucian virtues of filial piety & ritual. There was a great deal of sentimental celebration of teachers & parents–teachers being seen as auxiliary parents due virtually the same respect as one’s mother & father. The event, held in a hotel conference room, was in every sense a deployment of ritual, with many formulaic exchanges between teachers & administrators & between teachers & students. David Hinton, in his introduction to his translation of The Analects, writes:

It was in this context that Confucius extended the use of Ritual to include all the caring acts by which we fulfill our responsibilities to others in the community – hence the entire weave of everyday social life takes on the numinous aspect of the sacred.

The ritual mode is clearly evident in Vietnam in a way that surprises Western visitors, if they notice it at all. This can be as simple as the way one hands an object like a key or the change from a purchase to another person–with both hands & a slight bow. It is one of the things that draws me back again & again, despite the fact that I find some of the actual, formal rituals–like the singing contest–hard to throw myself into with the complete abandon of the Vietnamese. Even the retired Rector of the International School was still going strong after three hours. Which is about when I slipped out. There were a couple of other Americans in attendance & it was clear that we were unable to make the leap into sincere participation. Some of this is language, but not all. All cultures make use of ritual, some more consciously than others. Americans have plenty of rituals, but we generally don’t call them by that name and we do not cultivate them in the same way as the Vietnamese.

 

Show 1 footnote

  1. David Hinton. The Four Chinese Classics. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013.

Old Guy

There are several people in my academic department who have been around the university more years than me, but I have the second most “seniority in rank,” an admittedly obscure academic concept that just means I’ve been a full professor longer than all but one of mycolleagues, even though there are others who have been at the university more years. I mention this not to claim any sort of status, but as the context for the fact that I find myself much-consulted by younger colleagues & even (occasionally) deferred to by others. It’s the first time in my life, I think, that I have had this sort of role. I find it daunting, in fact. This was really brought home to me today when I was given the responsibility of chairing my department’s Tenure & Promotion Committee in a year when we will be conducting third-year reviews for three tenure-track colleagues.

The third-year pre-tenure review is a kind of temperature-taking that is designed to inform both the faculty member who is being reviewed & the department about the faculty member’s progress toward a successful tenure process three years down the road. It is in everyone’s interest to get the review right & to be a transparent as possible in setting out procedures & assumptions. Based on my earlier job of chairing a difficult search committee, I have a reputation for running transparent evaluation processes, which may be one of the reasons I got this job. I don’t mind, though it will mean a good deal of relatively boring clerical work (in which I have the good fortune to be assisted by the best department secretary I’ve ever encountered); another thing about being, institutionally at least, an old guy, is that you develop a grudging respect for the various institutional procedures. In my department, such procedures haveoperated most of the time moreeffectively than not, though there have been a couple of spectacular exceptions.

I spent the morning scheduling meetings & sending emails to arrange peer evaluations of classes, met with the committee, brought the chair of the department up to date, then went off to teach my classes. At an institution like mine, all of this other stuff is supposed to be about teaching those classes, bringing our knowledge & experience as scholars into the undergraduate classroom. That, finally, is why we go to the trouble to get thebureaucratic details right. It is east to forget this, especially when you have been around a long time & many processes have become routine, nearly invisible to conscious reflection.