Girl, Interrupted

Notes on Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. I ignored this when it came out a few years ago, consigning it to the category of Chick Lit. That was a mistake. The memoir focuses on the year and a half during the late 1960s that Kayman spent as a patient at McLean Hospital. She was eighteen when she went in and twenty when she came out, “stabilized” but skeptical of conventional wisdom, a trait that makers her a good writer. There isn’t a wasted word in the 168 pages of text. The portraits of her fellow patients — other adolescent girls — are moving and funny, but not sentimental. Kaysen refers in passing to some of the famous people who have passed through McLean — James Taylor, Robert Lowell* — establishing the class affiliation of the patients. She points out that you don’t get to stay there unless someone keeps paying the bill each month.

When the teen-aged Kayson refuses to consider going to college despite her obvious intelligence and verbal gifts, I found myself reacting with incomprehension until I realized that this was the most radical form of rebellion a young person of her class could engage in, whereas, where I came from, going to college was very often considered a kind of betrayal of one’s family. Remember Huck’s father berating him for going to school? Something like that. Going to college, I aspired to transcend my class; Kaysen does the same thing by “attending” McLean Hospital.

Kaysen’s personal recollections are for the most part objective, with a minimum of interpretation, so that when she does reach for the larger meaning of her madness her observations are grounded in direct experience; furthermore, she rejects easy conceptualization at every turn, refusing to create meaning where she does not see it. This gives the book an unsettling quality that emerges from this rhetoric of negation and refusal. The effect on the reader is a sense of the author’s integrity. Girl, Interrupted presents a fragment of the 1960s. From her genteel madhouse, the young Kaysen looks out on the assassinations, riots, the hippies & the Yippies, the Vietnam War & Watergate. These details are sketched sparingly, like the distant city in a Renaissance landscape, but they serve to establish both the cultural and personal context for the story.

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*She might also have mentioned Alice James, sister of Henry & William — and perhaps William himself, the records are missing and there is only circumstantial evidence.

Summer Reading

A colleague with a self-improving streak mentioned that he and a student were having a contest to see how many books each of them could read this summer & so, having a self-improving streak myself, I asked if I could go along for the ride. This blog used to be called Reading & Writing, so it is appropriate, I guess, to keep track of my books here. I’ll also encourage Stephen & Louis to post what they are reading in comments, or link to their own online lists. What, though, do we mean by reading? I read some things, for classes, say, in one way & other things, for research, or pleasure, etc. in other ways. What counts as reading for this competition?

And Your Point Is?

Note: Originally posted on 2.8.2009, I’ve moved this back to the top because Robert Bernard Hass has been kind enough to respond in comments. I have also written a response to his comment and would love to hear the view of others, which is why I’m also going to cross-post this to the Plumbline blog.

What the hell is the point of this? I didn’t think much of Alexander’s poem either, but I tried to sketch a few reasons I thought the piece didn’t work. Jack Foley, whoever he is, has simply delivered an insult without content. Another writer at CPR (which I tend to think of as a literary organ of the rump New Formalism), makes a sronger case. Robert Bernard Hass’s objections make sense, as far as they go, but I find the assumptions underlying his conclusion problematic:

Perhaps what was most troubling about this inaugural event is that one of our most celebrated poets (Ms. Alexander was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) seemed so woefully underprepared to seize the opportunity to take poetry from the periphery of our awareness and make it more culturally relevant. With such a huge audience on hand, her inaugural moment had the potential to inspire a nation, to find, as President Obama himself has often iterated, “old ways to be new.” Unfortunately, Ms. Alexander’s poem, so devoid of the rhetorical resources poets have always relied upon to celebrate exceptional accomplishment, failed to capture the American imagination—as President Obama had done, so eloquently in his speech, only moments earlier.

An understanding of the the rhetorical situation is essential, I agree, but I suspect that no rhetoric can reconcile electoral politics with the “politics of the unconscious.” (Modern) poetry can only assent provisionally to ideology. The modern poet must write from an alienated position. It occurs to me, in fact, that those poets (like me) who see modernism in terms of a fundamental break in the culture of the West are likely to see a parallel fundamental disjunction between poetry & politics. On the other hand, poets (& readers) who see Modernism as just another literary style will tend to see the relationship between politics & poetry as, if not unproblematic, then at least not fundamentally problematic.