Students’ Reading

When my students read a poem or story, they invariably create suppositions about the characters / plot to flatten out ambiguities. They are very uncomfortable with ambiguities. I was using the Lucinda Williams song “Changed the Locks” yesterday in creative writing to demonstrate parallel syntax & repetition. (I’ll get to Whitman, traditionalists need not hyperventilate.) The song’s third verse is:

I changed the kind of car I drive
so you can’t see me when I go by
And you can’t chase me up the street
and you can’t knock me off of my feet.
I changed the kind of car I drive.

This comes after veerses in the same structure with the lines, “I changed the locks on my front door” & “I changed the number on my phone.” Most students in the class were reluctant to see the combination of violence & eroticism in the pharse “knock me off my feet,” erasing it in favor of a purely sentimental reading. And when pushed, they would begin to make up stories that have no warrent in the text of the song: “Well, maybe she . . .” I have found this response almost universal among my creative writing & literature students.

Playing with Modernism

If Modernism begins with the death of God & the subsequent plunge into subjective experience in Western culture, it remains true that old traditions keep turning up in new forms. Whereas Modernism dismisses folk beliefs for an urban cosmopolitanism, it has never managed to completely banish the old atavisms of the folk. And good thing, too, since those deep & shadowy forces continually challenge the progressivism of Modernism. All of which is prologue to reporting that I read two books this summer, one after the other, that play with their relations between the old and the new. The first, The Old, Weird America, by¬† Greil Marcus is ostensibly a report on the creation of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan & The Band in 1967, but is, as the title suggests, a meditation on Dylan’s reinvention of American folk music; the book is actually at its strongest when discussing Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music [Amazon link] and the country banjo player & singer Dock Boggs. Boggs is a remarkable character in Marcus’ telling, a rounder & a poet of the old America.

Dock Boggs made a primitive-modernist music about death. Primitive because the music was put together out of junk you could find in anyone’s yard, hand-me-down melodies, folk-lyric fragments, pieces of Child ballads, mail-order instruments, and the new women’s blues records they were making in the northern cities in the early years of the 1920s; modernist because the music was about choices you made in a world a disinterested god had plainly left to its own devices, a world where only art or revolution, the symbolic remaking of the world, could take you out of yourself. [Marcus153-154]

I also read Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things, which is about the old, weird Scotland; or rather, about the cusp between the old, weird Scotland & the modern nation of the same name. And about the hubris of science & the power of the inexplicable. Gray’s novel recounts the life of Bella Baxter, who may or may not be the creation of the deformed giant & scientific genius Godwin Baxter, whom Bella refers to as “God,” short for Godwin, which is also a sly reference to William Godwin, Mary Shelley’s father. Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the story is composed of multiple narratives, different voices, documents, footnotes, maps, & bits of historical fact. The novel presents Godwin as, like Frankenstein, half scientist & half mage. And his creation, Bella, is beautiful, not monstrous (though she has monstrous appetites). Gray’s novel explores possible responses to what we might think of as the Modernist dissolution of epistemological certainty & personal identity. But none of these abstractions really capture the deep, sweet, weirdness of the novel.

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  1. NPR story on Harry Smith & the Anthology with audio links.
  2. Dock Boggs lyrics & other information.

Theodore Solotaroff

I was really too young to have been influenced by the New American Review during the main part of its run, but I remember in the mid-seventies picking up copies in used bookstores & feeling nostalgic for a scene I was never a part of. Ted Solotaroff is dead at 80. Those beat-up paperbacks, for my generation, were tokens of bravery to be lived up to. And they were printed (at a loss) by major publishers. Now there is something to be nostalgic for. Another believer in the efficacy of writing as an art is gone.

Rereading Frankenstein

I’ve been rereading Frankenstein the last couple of days because I’m going to teach it in my Imagining Science course next term. I’ve taught the book before, but never well, I suspect because I never managed to enter into its imaginative universe until now. The book is a bundle of narrative¬† implausibilities & the science, as Shelley of course knew, is risible, but it is an imaginative whole, I now see. I think I’m going to present it to my students as a book about education & its risks & disappointments. Viktor’s education leads him to create a monster, who turns out to be an autodidact, for all the good it does him.