Friday, March 5, 2010

Yay for this class!

I just wanted to post one final time to say how much I've thoroughly enjoyed this class and every student in it.  Weekly, you brought questions and insights that blew me away and really opened up these texts in fascinating ways.  Rock on with your bad selves!

I hope you all drop by and say hello to me from time to time and keep me posted on what you're up to.  With luck, our paths will soon cross again in another class.

I'm checking posts now and will turn in grades later today.  I never e-mail grades to students, but you should have your results from the college soon.  If you have any questions or concerns, please stop by and see me.  I'm in 303B East from 8:15-11 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Monday, February 22, 2010

No posts from me this week

only some themes/ideas to think about while I prep the last two classes of our session--

social inequity


cultural collision

collapse of time and history into the present

"reality" and how to portray it



natural world


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Post-Lesson: Reflecting on our newly created "Happy Endings"

Is it just me, or do the happy endings seem to be the most absurd?  Take a story like "I Stand Here Ironing" (sad ending), and it seems totally accurate.  Pretty Woman, on the other hand, only becomes more absurd the more your strip it down.  Does this say something about humanity or about our stories?

Love and Carver

Was this, or was this not, the perfect antidote to Valentines' day?

Consider Carver my box of chocolates to you all.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


I've read that there are two basic plots:

A man goes on a journey
A stranger comes to a town

and really, it's shocking how well these work.  Huck Finn?  A man goes on a journey.  Jane Eyre? A woman goes on a journey.  Light in August? A stranger comes to a town.  Moby Dick? A man goes on a journey.  And so forth.  Some would say this is depressing--why keep writing these two narratives?--but glass full people will recognize just how possible it is to make these stories new over and over and over.  Mainly, though, it leaves  me feeling uncomfortably close to being a structuralist, but I digress...

Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings" works in a similar vein, calling our attention to the underlying narratives that are perhaps too common, and more importantly, makes me think about the gender implications of these common endings.  Ah, John and Mary.  Adam and Eve.  What have you.

I'll save talk of this until class, though.  For now, let me just add that Atwood's novels are amazing.  Oryx and Crake is one of my favorites of the last decade. 

Monday, February 15, 2010

Towards a definition of poetry

My friend Jeff (rockstar/poet) just posted this on Facebook, and I thought I'd pass it along for you to consider.  (NB: I also stole the title for this blog post from him.  Good writers borrow.  Great writers steal.  Bonus points if you know who I've just paraphrased without having to Google it.)

Poetry is knowledge, salvation, power, abandonment. An operation capable of changing the world, poetic activity is revolution by nature; a spiritual exercise, it is a means of interior liberation. Poetry reveals this world; it creates another. Bread of the chosen; accursed food. It isolates; it unites. Invitation to the journey; return to the homeland. Inspiration, respiration, muscular exercise. Prayer to the void, dialogue with absence; tedium, anguish, and despair nourish it. Prayer, litany, epiphany, presence. Exorcism, conjuration, magic. Sublimation, compensation, condensation of the unconscious. Historic expression of races, nations, classes. It denies history: at its core all objective conflicts are resolved and man at last acquires consciousness of being something more than a transient. Experience, feeling, emotion, intuition, undirected thought. Result of chance; fruit of calculation. Art of speaking in a superior way; primitive language. Obedience to the rules; creation of others. Imitation of the ancients, copy of the real, copy of a copy of the Idea. Madness, ecstasy, logos. Return to childhood, coitus, nostalgia for paradise, for hell, for limbo. Play, work, ascetic activity. Confession. Innate experience. Vision, music, symbol.

--Octavio Paz, The Bow and the Lyre

Sunday, February 14, 2010


I always read "Diving Into the Wreck" as a metaphor for diving into any type of study.  I'm not alone in this, right?  How you have to figure out how to move, how there never is anyone there to tell you when the ocean begins, how you end up staring at all the dead faces and make your own sense of them, as if the person behind the mask breathing the foreign air from a private tank was not a part of the scene....

I've always liked Philip Levine

because of who he writes about.  No, strike that.  I like him because of *how* he write about who he writes about.  There is, after all, a long tradition of writing about the working man/woman--usually the pastoral working man/woman, and usually from the remove of a different, non-working class altogether.  Philip Levine uses no such remove.

My first taste of Levine was his collection What Work Is.  The poem "Fear and Fame" is the first work in this collection, and I think it illustrates the difference between Levine and other poets writing about the working class.  It is the speaker himself descending into the grit and slime, the speaker who can't rid himself of the taste of the work, the speaker in the alien suit, the speaker who'll descend into the pit again because that's what work is--the poet's work as well as the person's work. Levine refuses to write in the tradition of the outsider looking at the workers.  He is the worker, and there is no shame in that.

This is the Dirty Jobs approach to poetry.  Or not.  Mike Rowe always maintains a careful degree of separation from the work he's doing--we're constantly reminded that he's foreign to the work.  Levine does the opposite--he dives into the job and claims it as his own, as something that *should* be part of the poet's world.  There is no shame in working hard in inhospitable environments--or if there is, the shame is ours, we who enjoy the fruits of this work while refusing to get our own hands dirty.

Lucille Clifton died yesterday

She was amazing. Check out her work on pages 1029-35 or at poem hunter.


i don't promise you nothing
but this
what you pawn
i will redeem
what you steal
i will conceal
my private silence to
your public guilt
is all i got

first time a white man
opens his fly
like a good thing
we'll just laugh
laugh real loud my
black women

when they ask you
why is your mama so funny
she is a poet
she don't have no sense

John Ashbery

I went to see Matt Rohrer give a poetry reading a few years back at UGA, and in his remarks, he mentioned Ashbery--specifically, how much he hated reading him as an undergraduate and how much he loved him now.  The remark struck me not because it was new but because it echoed what I'd heard in so many workshops.  Poet after poet admitted early frustration with John Ashbery but grew to love his work and see him as a primary influence.

I think the difference in reception has much more to do with the readers' purpose than with Ashbery himself.  When we read works in a literature class, we read to comprehend.  We feel pressured to be able to translate some demonstrable point out of the verbal chaos.  It's one of the real failings of the traditional English class, and one I'm still struggling to confront.

Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins also noted this problem and wrote about it in the following poem, which can be found at the Poetry 180 website (I HIGHLY recommend this site for all future teachers, for whom it was expressly designed):

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

My hope is that by structuring an English class around teaching poems rather than around tests and written arguments, we've somehow let go of the need to torture out the meanings of poetry and can explore, instead, the ways they provoke our thinking and tickle our ears.  This hasn't *entirely* happened yet (the author is still front and center rather than left on a distant shore), but I think we've made some degree of progress, and I'm proud of us.

Back to Ashbery. 

If ever there was a poet bound to frustrate his readers with his slipperiness, it's him.  I begin "They Only Dream of America" feeling confidently in the land of Whitman with his leaves--no, pillars here (a significant change!)--of grass, which meshes so nicely with the title that I stride on boldly into stanza 3 where I'm immediately mired.  By the time I get to cigars (Freud?) and keys which are signs (Saussure?  Semiotics?), I'm totally adrift.  The question is, can I bear the drift, or must I fight for meaning?  Am I bothered by the total lack of pronoun referents, or am I content to consider the possible referents?

Over and over, I fall in love with his language.  Example:

There is nothing to do
For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.  ("They Only Dream..." 23-4)

I've re-read that line about ten times over this morning, and still it hits me on a gut level with both its music and its accuracy.

"Street Musicians" is much clearer in terms of the picture it conveys (the title helps, but the poem itself keeps referring back to the musicians and feeling consistent in a way that "They Only Dream" does not.  (Perhaps this is the influence of the dream itself on the first poem.)  Still, Ashbery doesn't stay squarely and only on the topic but allows it to trigger larger reflection.  By the time we hit the final lines, he's into hardcore questions about the human race in general, its origins, and its relationship to the Earth itself:

Our question of a place of origin hangs
Like smoke: how we picnicked in the pine forests,
In coves with water always seeping up, and left
Our trash, sperm and excrement everywhere, smeared
On the landscape, to make of us what we could.  (19-24)

Which takes me back to another favorite line earlier in the poem, in which he describes the way one is "wrapped in identity like a coat" (3).  Individuality isn't innate here but acquired and worn.  I wonder if there's an implied connection here to original sin, the banishment from place, and the putting on of clothes to hide shame...

But this post is over-long.  We'll see where this takes us all in class Wednesday.  Suffice it to say that I fully understand why those who are willing to let go of their need to "understand" a poem come to love Ashbery.  After all, the world itself is incomprehensible.  His poems capture that but still give us space to reflect without descending into utter hopelessness.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

...and what do we do with you, John Berryman?

John Berryman is said to be one of the fore-fathers of the confessional movement, and yet so many of his poems--like those of confessional poets in general--employ a persona and stray widely from strict autobiography.  The term "confessional" has always been a difficult one for me.  In the Catholic tradition, the confessional is a place for absolute honesty where one owns one's sins and repents, yet in most of their work, the confessional poets are neither honest nor humble nor do they seek forgiveness.  I'm glad they don't.  The brutality and hyperbole of these poems are one of their strengths.  They're not trying to tell us what actually happened; they're making us feel an emotion beyond those which reality contained.

Thus, the Dream Songs don't contain us to events.  They go beyond day-to-day, they invent.  Berryman gives us a dream that is uniquely ours as much as it is uniquely his.  "These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand," he writes in song #366 [not included in our text, unfortunately], "They are only meant to terrify & comfort."

And Henry?  Oh Henry.  The confessional only has room for one.  Henry gets collapsed into Mr. Bones and into Berryman himself, but is this fair?  Any more fair than the way the "confessional poet" is used as a mud in the sling we use to disparage the modern lyricist who, like Wordsworth and Whitman, see themselves as poetic subjects?

I tend to read the "confessionals" as a group of poets launching a critic of the traditional lyric speaker by calling attention to just how absurd it is to think the poet could ever put his self onto the page.

(I choose this picture in particular because I imagine him having a conversation with, say, Harold Bloom and really taking him to task.  I like to think of him cross-examining the critical body, saying something like, "have you read the work you're calling 'confessional' or have you looked up a definition for the word lately?")


Is it me, or are these poems elegies?  Not "For the Union Dead" so much as for the type of life they stood for.  Of Shaw he writes, " He is out of bounds now.  He rejoices in man's lovely/ peculiar power to choose life and die--"  It reminds me of Tennyson's "How dull it is to pause, to make an end,/ To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!/ As though to breathe were life."

The landscape described in both the Lowell poems we read for today is pervasively sad, as if its inhabitants had become so absorbed in stuff (finned cars, summer houses--as if these things were life) that they betrayed those who once stood against something, who at last embodied the American tradition of rebellion against tyranny, though that tyrant had become America itself.

What a different feel his poem has than Glory.  Against the backdrop of contemporary America, does the upright statue of Shaw mean in the way we expect?


I had tied the balloon to Oliver's wrist, but I did not double knot.  The problem begins in that I wanted to be able to remove it when the time came.  Time does comes.  This is uncontrollable.

Balloons have a propensity to untie themselves, and as he struggled to climb a plaster bulldog and ride it nowhere, the balloon knot unraveled.  He didn't notice it go.  It was me who jumped at the string and tried to catch the uncatchable.

"My balloon!" he said, the helium could be owned, and he sobbed dolefully as it sailed.  We watched it for minutes.  I held him.  As if a mother could provide some meager consolation for the loss of such an object as a balloon.

When Daddy came, the purple speck was no longer visible in the sky.  We walked to the car.  Oliver, clomping along, suddenly says in a most pitiful voice: "If I had my rocket boots I could get my balloon."


Different kinds of balloons:
helium, hot air, thought

I vary my perception of Barthelme's, but the cartoon image of language hovering above in a balloon strikes me most forcefully, all references to helium aside.

I vacillated between these three possibilities (helium, hot air, thought) until the ending, in which the balloon becomes a personal construction, in which we are reminded that the author authored the balloon and that there never was such a material construct.

Of course there wasn't.  We already know it.  The balloon still was fully real for a minute there.  What a tricky devil language is.

The thought balloons hover still.  Language always was a bunch of hot air, was it not?  But hot air can carry a man nevertheless, if he builds his basket carefully and casts aside the sand.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A & P

Female nakedness seems to be the theme of the day for me; I blogged about it in Plath, it's in Sexton as well ("waved my nude arms" ["Her Kind" 16]), and now, we have the semi-naked bikini girls of John Updike's classic story, "A & P."

In all cases, the nakedness seems to be related to power.  In "A & P," the leader of the bikini-clad trio is consistently referred to as a queen, and the discussion between her and the store manager at the end is nothing if not a power play.  The narrator's feeble/misguided attempt to "save" this girl by quitting his job seems motivated by chivalry--and yet, we know, too, that his interest in these girls has everything to do with their sexuality.

I kept thinking about this story as a commentary on the ways men watch and conceive women.  Because the story is filtered through this narrator, we are locked into his view, and yet at the same time we're looking through his eyes, the voice of the character is so distinct that it continually reminds me of the distance between me and the way I see the world comparative to him the way he sees the world. 

Did anyone else notice that at the end, when the girls have gone and his manager states that the girls have embarrassed the store, the narrator writes:

I started to say something that came out "Fiddle-de-doo." It's a saying of my grand-mother's, and I know she would have been pleased.

Right smack dab in the moment of his chivalrous, super-male act, he quotes his grandmother.  Did this strike anyone else as odd?  What did you make of it?  Or of the fact that his father has put him into this position (job) in the first place--is this a statement about the legacy of previous generations on how men and women relate to one another?  Isn't convention being put smack up against a younger, more flexible (if still deeply sexist) world view?

Coming back to the idea of nakedness, when is it OK for women to be in swimsuits?  Why is partial nakedness acceptable in one location and absurd in another?  What social conventions dictate this and should we reconsider them?

So many questions to ponder...

Anne Sexton and the Mythical Woman

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil ("Her Kind" 1-3)

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air. ("Lady Lazarus" 82-4)

The Confessional poets are often written off as self-absorbed and obsessed. They are dismissed as uninteresting because they write about nothing but themselves and their own violation of taboo. Yet over and over, these poets offer a mythical counter-point to the mundane self.

Are these poets writing about themselves? Or is there more at stake here?

Women have long been characterized in stereotypical terms--damsels in distresses, virgins, whores. The confessional women poets seem to embrace and enact the role of the witch, at once a power female figure and a social reject. True enough, there's a lot of autobiography injected into these poems, but what do we make of the non-autobiographical materials? How does this mythologizing of the poet/self affect us as readers? In 1950s and 60s America, what female iconography do these more troublesome images combat?

(If the witch offered here combats the super-domestic television mom of this era, what do we make of her domesticization [I think I just invented that word] of her cave in stanza 2?)

Nakedness and Sylvia Plath

Last we, the opening lines of "Howl" and the anecdote of Ginsberg walking naked across the room to confront his heckler got us talking and thinking about the poet as a naked figure, stripping his metaphorical clothing to present his bare soul to the readers.  It's a metaphor that goes through much of male poetry, including that of Whitman and others.  I'd like to suggest that we add another element to our thinking about this, though: that of gender.

I should mention here that I'm indebted to this article for getting me thinking about this:
Lant, Kathleen Margaret. 1993. "The Big Strip Tease: Female Bodies and Male Power in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath." Contemporary Literature 34: 620-69.

It's been a few years since I read Lant's essay, but it was so thought-provoking that many of its points have stuck with me.  (I highly recommend it if you're interested in Plath--along with Perloff's essay on the Two Ariels.)  Let me try to sum up one of the driving questions:

The basic premise of the article, as I recall, was that for male poets, nakedness is a sign of potency.  Bearing all is an act coded as brave, an act of freedom from social constraints.  By revealing the phallus, they're revealing their power and reminding everyone of their sexuality.  There's a performative element that reads as pride.  Female nakedness, on the other hand, tends to imply a vulnerability and need to be clothed and, thus, protected.

The question then becomes, what do we do with the metaphor of stripping as it arises in Plath's poetry?  Is it an act of power or one of vulnerability?  (Bear in mind, too, that the act of "confession" is also an act of nakedness or bearing all.)

Since we're reading "Ariel," I thought I'd bring this up.  What do you make of "White/ Godiva, I unpeel--" (19-20)?  Do we see this trope of nakedness arising in other confessional poets?  Where?  How do you read it in each instance?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O."

I have too many thoughts about this story, and they're all going in different direction, so bear with me.  I'll start with pickles--

"So I merely slammed the door behind me and went down and made some green-tomato pickle. Somebody had to do it."

If there was ever a phrase less likely to come out of the mouth of Shirley Temple or any other early American female film icon, I can't think of it.  The characters in "Why I Live at the P.O." are as far removed from Hollywood's depiction of women, young or old, as can be, and I can't help but wonder if this is part of Eudora Welty's motivation for making Shirley Temple play such a large roll in the minds of these characters. 

Again, we find working women set up against the cultural standard, and again we see how short the cultural standard falls.  This fiction, held up against that dominant fiction, comes to feel all the more real to me. 

This family is a family at war, and the references to the war in Europe (Flanders Field, "Uncle Rondo was in France," "Hear the radio? All the war news.") seem to heighten our awareness of the domestic battle and perhaps allow us to see it metaphorically.  The date (Fourth of July) and the narrator's government job at the post office might also suggest a link between their domestic battle to larger domestic battles in the country as a whole--where do I want to go with this connection?  Isolationism?  The impossibility thereof?  I don't think I'm stretching here--the ending of the story makes the connection too explicit--but what do we make of this character cutting herself off from family and going to live in a government building?  Something to ponder.

While I'm on the topic of America and American values, this scene

So I hope to tell you I marched in and got that radio, and they could of all bit a nail in two, especially Stella-Rondo, that it used to belong to, and she well knew she couldn't get it back, I'd sue for it like a shot. And I very politely took the sewing-machine motor I helped pay the most on to give Mama for Christmas back in 1929, and a good big calendar, with the first-aid remedies on it. The thermometer and the Hawaiian ukulele certainly were rightfully mine, and I stood on the step-ladder and got all my watermelon-rind preserves and every fruit and vegetable I'd put up, every jar. Then I began to pull the tacks out of the bluebird wall vases on the archway to the dining room.

recalls one of my favorite movies of all time--the final moments of Steve Martin's The Jerk:

Well I'm gonna to go then. And I don't need any of this. I don't need this stuff, and I don't need you. I don't need anything except this.  [picks up an ashtray] And that's it and that's the only thing I need, is this. I don't need this or this. Just this ashtray. And this paddle game, the ashtray and the paddle game and that's all I need. And this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that's all I need. And these matches. The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control and the paddle ball. And this lamp. The ashtray, this paddle game and the remote control and the lamp and that's all I need. And that's all I need too. I don't need one other thing, not one - I need this. The paddle game, and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches, for sure. And this. And that's all I need. The ashtray, the remote control, the paddle game, this magazine and the chair. 

I've always thought this scene was a perfect commentary on America and our materialism.  We need our stuff.  I can't help but wonder if Welty is making a similar commentary.  The people here seem more concerned about stuff and the identity they get from the stuff (the way a beard or a pink robe or an adopted child makes one appear to others) than about their family members.  Stuff = ego, self-esteem.  If the quality of the stuff is called into question, it's treated as a slight against the person who possesses the stuff.  The boundary between who we are and what we own is so blurred, the possessors of the stuff, much less their relations, are unable to make a distinction between possessor and possessed.

So much to think about in this fun little story.

Tillie Olsen and the Working Woman

"I Stand Here Ironing" could have been written yesterday or it could have been written one hundred years ago.  As a working mother, I relate to the main character much more than I'd like to admit.  I remember trying to wash dishes with my daughter wedging herself between me and the sink and pushing me away, trying to get my attention and not understanding why I seemed to be more concerned with dead crockery than with the growing little girl who needed my love.

 But in the 1950s, this was an untold story.  The Donna Reed/June Cleaver image of mothers dominated the cultural ideology of motherhood, pushing all other narratives by the wayside.  In truth, their images still hold enormous sway, and I find their images cropping up year after year when students write essays including phrases like "back before women worked" or "when mothers stayed home with their children."  The reality that this time never really existed for families who weren't of a given income is unfathomable.  I tell them of 19th century American women factory workers who slung their babies from meat hooks to keep them out of the dangerous machinery or the slave women who left their children with an older slave who was no longer able to do field work and I show them pictures of British women working the looms at cotton mills, but none of these narratives is powerful to off-set that which they've grown up with: the pearled and smiling stay-at-home mother in her heels bearing cookies to children home from school.

The assumption, too, is that the working mother is inferior because of her divided attention.  The narrator here is far more keenly aware of her failings than of her successes, but I think the question of whether she has failed is a pertinent one.  She definitely could have used more support--better daycare, more financial aid, etc--and yet, I can't help but feel her love and concern for her child.

My friend Kirsten, an amazing writer, tells stories of her child trying to pull her away from the computer, saying "no more poems, mommy."  I, too, have made my daughter wait while I wrote.  I suspect any writer with children shares this experience, but for mothers it's especially potent.  Men, for right or wrong, have long been urged to put work first, but women are supposed to put their children above all other concerns.  On those days I put my child in front of the television so I could get another half hour of writing time, I couldn't do it without pain.  What kind of mother was I?  How dare I think my feeble attempts to write could even compete with the real and pressing need of my daughter?

I eventually came to the conclusion that, if not always offering her the care she demanded, I was offering her something that was equally valuable: the image of a woman who worked and who valued her work.  I was giving her, in short, what my mother gave me.  There's little in our culture to validate this decision, but I can't help but feeling that it is by no means less important for that.  My children will grow up with an image of a woman who felt she had something to contribute, and hopefully, that is something they will find within themselves as well.

Emily, in Olsen's story, seems to have found a voice, though it was long in coming and not without pain.  It's a piece of the story that should not be overlooked--especially in light of her mother's deep-seated conflict.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Footnoting the Personal

Wordsworth and Coleridge and the American transcendentalists wrote about personal experience--nothing new there--and T.S. Eliot would follow, filling his "Lovesong" and The Wasteland with references not designed to be understood by casual readers, but this generation (Ginsberg and O'Hara in particular) embraces personal referents.  I wonder if we're supposed to feel locked out. 

Ginsberg's "Howl" has numerous footnotes to help us see the personal connection, very few of which he added himself.  I imagine friends of his read this poem and immediately saw the faces he was alluding to and felt a pleasant glee at being insiders to the joke.  On the other hand, without the notes, would readers even be aware of how many personal references there are here, and would they matter?  Is it the anthology editor's notes, and not the poem itself, that gives the reader the sense s/he isn't privy to the poem's world.

I've long held the first line of "Howl" ("I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness") to be as true to my own generation as they are to Ginseberg's.  After all, didn't we lose Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Shannon Hoon, Bradley Nowell, and so many brilliant others to drugs and assorted madnesses?  In short, with no footnotes to block me out--to remind me that "Howl" is about the beat generation and the beat generation alone--the poem was allowed to be personal to me as well as to Ginsberg.

I wonder, sometimes, if the editors do us a disservice by making sure we can see all the allusions.  I suppose that as literary scholars, we need this information.  If we were writing about Ginsberg, perhaps it would be important to know that Ginsberg was born in Patterson, NJ or that he had a mystical vision in East Harlem in 1948 while reading the poetry of William Blake (NB: Blake is always good for a mystical vision or two), but for students reading Ginsberg for the first time, does this hurt our experience of the poem? 

Perhaps I'm a more than usually impatient reader.  I tell myself to read the poem through first without stopping for notes, but when I try, they're impossible to ignore.  I must look.  And, what's more, I know I'm not alone in this.

Elizabeth Bishop

I must bring in some of the drafts of "One Art"--she wrote at least fifteen, and the poem didn't start as a villanelle.  It's an excellent look into how this poet works and the incredible restraint and formal consideration she balanced.

And "MAN-MOTH"!  I am so, so happy Christie assigned this one--perhaps my favorite of all Bishop's work.  Thoreau's remark that "most men lead lives of quiet desperation" is put into the most deliciously bizarre image here.  Comic book culture and surrealism combine here to get at what feels like a most basic human truth here, and for me at least, it comes home as if Bishop wrote this in lightening and we're all flying into its heat.

I swear, I've been this moth before, and I swear, I'll be him again.  The cracks of the building are filled with moonlight.

A Short One for O'Hara

I find myself not wanting to write too much about O'Hara because I don't want to say things that will dominate our discussion, and mostly I'm fascinated and eager to hear what  the class will say, so for now, I'll only say that I'm captivated by the directions O'Hara pulls us--between reality and surreality, between mundane day and high cultural reference, between sublime and ridiculous.

What do we do with this madness?  this every day life?

One More Bit on Brooks

I have known this Boy before
I have known this Boy before, who
ornaments my alley.
I never saw his face at all.  (16-19)

Is anyone else getting "Prufrock" here?  ("For I have known them all already, known them all" [49].)  I kept thinking I heard echoes, and it got me thinking of the alley that Prufrock first wanders--the poverty-stricken place which he can't seem to explain to the drawing room crowd.  I started wondering if this speaker is an emissary from that fog- and silence-shrouded place: the alley. 

Theodore Roethke

I've taught "My Papa's Waltz" more times than I care to recall.  It works for every level of reader I've worked with, from age eleven to age one-hundred and eleven (slight exaggeration), because of the way discussion makes the reader aware of the assumptions we make.  No poem seems to better draw out a reader's personal assumptions (about fathers, working men, alcohol, etc) than this compact little work.

I hadn't read "Meditation at Oyster River" until this week.  It reminds me a lot of Annie Dillard's work in the way it brings nature inward and makes it part of an internal mental landscape.  A friend of mine (Dorine Preston, poet at large) once pointed out to me that Dillard's "Living Like Weasels" is structured like a classical ode, moving from strophe to antistrophe and finally settling (or unsettling, as the case may be) on an epode.  I have the sense that Roethke's poem works in similar ways.

When I've taught the classic Romantic odes in Brit Lit (Wordsworth's Intimations Ode, for example), we've talked about how the ode is the form of a mind at work.  If that thesis is correct, then it would seem fitting that Roethke's "Meditations" would employ a similar, if unstated, structure of moving from the natural external world to the natural internal world in the same manner as Dillard.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Was there ever a poet with such a sense of rhythm?

Langston Hughes was known for bringing jazz rhythms to poetry, but Brooks just might perfect the technique.  She riffs.  She slides.  There's a way she has of putting language in your face, of saying this is my neighborhood, of being blunt, of telling matters of fact, of showing readers what we'd most like to turn from, of asking us what we're going to do about it.

And yet, there's no self-pity here.  In "The Boy Died in My Alley" in particular, the speaker implicates his/her own complicity in the murder of the boy: "The red floor of my alley/ is a silent speech to me" (40-41).  This speaker, like we the readers, had ignored the boy--

He cried not only "Father!"
but "Mother!
Brother."  (30-33)

Why the period after "Brother" after all the more emphatic cries?  It changes the way I read that line entirely--it takes it down from panic to plea.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Zora Neale Hurston

Sorting laundry has never been an occasion
for contemplating race relations

until now.  Nor have fighting couples and their snakes
turned me in turn to Adam and Eve.  Now that the bull's whip

lays aground, I recall that Queen sugar was a slave
-dependent crop. The profit's wrung out only with sweat

and not-so-subtle colonizations.  The snakes always return,
in boxes or hampers, sliding up to urge one to apples.

The whites, on the other hand, remain in their baskets
like all things stacked against you.

Wright and Wrong

I'm reading and teaching "The Ethics of Jim Crow" for the first time this semester, and already I want to make it a more regular part of the syllabus.  There nothing new here exactly--the stories of Southern racism are the ones that we grew up with--but to have such a cavalcade of stories all belonging to one young man makes it alive and fresh again.

It's startling how familiar these feel as well.  The policemen bumping his bike into the curb because he was in a white neighborhood reminds me of stories my own friends have recounted.  From the time I was nine until I turned sixteen, I lived in Riverside, CA--a long way from the racially segregated South--but even in 1980s SoCal we knew that when black men were pulled over, they were made to get out of the car with their hands showing, whereas white drivers never suffered the same humiliation.

I'm tempted to tie this into "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" here, but I think I'll wait until class for that.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Using Traditional Forms and Beliefs to Break Traditional Prejudices: McKay, Johnson, and Hughes

I'm not a scholar of the Harlem Renaissance, though I much admire its writing, so I feel I should start with a disclaimer that the following are impressions based on a number of my own readings and not a well-researched scholarly argument.  That said, reading Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes together, what most struck me today was how they invoke tradition to break tradition.  All three draw on traditions of Christian belief and on traditional poetic forms to challenge the tradition of American racial prejudice. 

In the two 1945 poems we read, McKay seems fairly hostile to Christianity as practiced in the United States, though he himself was a devout Catholic by this point in his life (Nelson 314).  In "The Negro's Tragedy," he writes that "Only a thorn-crowned Negro and no white/ Can penetrate the Negro's ken" and in "Look Within," he reflects, "Jesus said: You whited sepulchre,/ Pretending to be uncorrupt of sin,/ While worm-infested, rotten through within!"  The tone is angry and accusatory, but who can blame him?  I imagine that years of living in a self-professedly Christian society that continues to allow racial prejudice and segregation would be enough to make anyone bitter.  It's not the Christian faith he attacks, but the "believer" who professes faith but commits acts of hatred.  In other words, he uses the tradition of Christianity to illuminate hypocrisy.

I wonder if his choice of poetic form, the Shakespearean sonnet, has a similar effect?  It's a form associated with love poetry, but here we see how little love is operating in American social systems.  Nelson writes that "McKay would take the romance and consolations of the historical sonnet and replace them with a hand grenade of protest," thus reconceiving "the meaning of a centuries-long tradition" (314).  If there's love here, it is the love of McKay for his own people, a love that's made stronger in the face of the brutality and racial hatred that surrounds him.

James Weldon Johnson, like McKay, writes in traditional rhymed and metered verse, but he also celebrates the poetry of negro spirituals.  In "O Black and Unknown Bards," he writes,

Not that great German master in his dream
Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars
At the creation, ever heard a theme
Nobler than "Go Down, Moses." (25-8)

Thus, the great classical musicians are revealed to be no more brilliant than "those who've sung untaught, unknown, unnamed" (39).  He reminds me very much here of Virginia Woolf writing of the hypothetical sister of Shakespeare she creates in A Room of One's Own" to lament the lost genius of those whom social bias deemed unworthy of either education or celebration. 

Johnson ends the poem by giving the "bards" his highest praise, writing that they "sang a race from wood and stone to Christ" (48).  In short, their song transformed his people from a primitive society to a God-fearing one.  For me, these lines recall the debate over the relationship of modern Black Americans to Africa that continued throughout the Harlem Renaissance and into present day.  Johnson seems to be disowning his African ancestors in favor of the American slaves who could create a religion-inspired music.

Langston Hughes seems to represent the other side of this debate when he writes, "I am Negro:/ Black as the night is black/ Black like the depths of my Africa" ("Negro" 1-3) and, later in the same poem, "I've been a singer: All the way from Africa to Georgia" (10-11).  Hughes embraces his ancestry and makes it a point of pride. 

His choice of poetic form, however, ties him to the most American of American poets: Walt Whitman.  Not only does Hughes tend to employ free verse, but the style of his free verse with its lists and repetitions of syntactical forms draw on Whitman's style in "Song of Myself" and other poems.  (Side note: Hughes responded directly to Whitman's "I Hear America Singing" in his poem "I, Too, Sing America," which unfortunately is not collected in Modern American Poetry.)

While the poems that we read for class do not reflect Hughes's feeling on Christianity, his frustration, like McKay's, comes to light in "Christ in Alabama" on page 508.  His writing here is fierce, drawing the hypocrisy of the South that purported to be the Bible Belt, a leader in Christian values, but that long supported first slavery and then segregation and racial violence.  Like McKay, his anger is both potent and all too understandable.

I'm fascinated by the ways Harlem Renaissance writers employed high culture's traditions to call attention to the racial divide that those traditions had long ignored.  The quotation of and use of tradition is typical of Modernist writers, yet these poets seem to deploy the tradition in a more unified purpose. 

I'm in awe.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Six Shots for Clint Eastwood


An eye

and a holster

are one.

An eye, a holster,

and a smoking

six gun

are one



Under the brim,

A squinted eye:

darkness visible.

This is the good.

The iris is composed

of flint.


Oh thin men of Haddam

what do you know of hunger?

The yawning vista

speaks a wider emptiness.


Beyond the whiteness of the dove's covenant

and the blackness of squalling blackbirds,

one man stands.

Dust only


his broad, flat hat.


A man rides across the desert:

his hips are merely an extension

of horses. A tree rooted

in a rolling soil.


I don’t know which to prefer

the beauty of inflection

or the beauty of innuendo,

Clint Eastwood smiling

or just after.

Monday, January 18, 2010


This blog entry is a place-holder until I have time to write something more--perhaps a poem in the style of Frost, if I can pull one off. Some drafting must ensue.

Mostly, though, I had to link this to the blogs I've been writing on Cowboys and Indians, because reading "The Gift Outright" in the context of the readings I've done for that class is bizarre, to say the least. The land was ours? Really?

And yet I love Frost's Thoreauvian love of wood-cutting in "Two Tramps in Mud Time," which feels very Idaho to me.

I'm all conflict tonight: I, too, am the English-descended immigrant who loves chopping wood (preferably Tamarack, though--I've decided oak isn't actually flammable) and yet as deeply as I love this *land*, can I really profess it to be a gift, given its murderous history? The colonization and everything seems a tad over-simplified in this last poem of our selection.

Eliot and the Dramatic Monologue

"Prufrock" and "Magi" give us two very different Eliot poems. There seems little that's similar in the style, the tone, the voice, and so forth, yet both are dramatic monologues, which made me start to ponder how Eliot interprets the monologue and makes it his own.

I've long-thought that the joy and the frustration of reading "Prufrock" is its fractured style. The monologue comes from the voice of one who fears maintaining a complete thought, and who agonizes over what he can not or will not do. The poem reads like a stutter--a beautiful, orchestrated stutter--as we're thrown headlong into Prufrock's question-wrestling without a strong sense of what the question might be.

"Magi" gives us a speaker who looks back on an experience that he is now able to better understand, and thus the style is more coherent. As in "Prufrock," we still see Eliot's depth of allusion (thought, in this case, he seems to limit himself to Biblical/Christian references, which again gives the feeling of containment and a stable narrative).

But for all their apparent differences, both speakers ultimately share an ability to understand their experiences, and the Magi's question, "were we led all that way for/ Birth or Death?" seems as overwhelming as Prufrock's.

Given the depth of Eliot's literary knowledge, I assume he writes dramatic monologues with Browning in mind. "Porphyria's Lover" and the Duke who shows his last duchess's portrait seem to act with great (though misguided) conviction, but I wonder if Eliot were not more influenced by other, less certain characters, like those in "The Bishop Order His Tomb" or "Caliban Upon Setebos."

Questioning seems fundamental to an Eliot persona, a core human trait that even the most diverse of characters share.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Rose for Emily

Necrophilia, decaying monuments, Southern chivalry, and eyes that resemble two lumps of coal pressed into raw dough. Ah, Faulkner. What's not to love?

Rather than posting my comments on this story, I think I'll post one of my favorite poems, which also contains an image of necrophilia. (I have to admire writers who write so boldly about this taboo.) This poem was written by Robert Browning in 1836 England--a world every bit as mannerly and conservative as Faulkner's South. The gender of killer and killed are reversed here, opening up all sorts of points of comparison and allowing us to reflect on how our perceptions of gender affect our understanding of the murder.

Porphyria's Lover

The rain set early in tonight,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o'er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me — she
Too weak, for all her heart's endeavor,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me forever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
Nor could tonight's gay feast restrain
A sudden thought of one so pale
For love of her, and all in vain:
So, she was come through wind and rain.
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last l knew
Porphyria worshiped me: surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string l wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
I warily oped her lids: again
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
And l untightened next the tress
About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
I propped her head up as before,
Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still:
The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
That all it scorned at once is fled,
And I, its love, am gained instead!
Porphyria's love: she guessed not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word!

Hills Like White Elephants

It is said that Hemingway never wasted a word. Perhaps this is so. Decidedly, he is spare and favors the direct statement over the ornate. And yet, what's always fascinated me by this story is how much time is spent avoiding a single word. The couple talks and talks and talks, wasting all sorts of words, yet both refuse to speak the one taboo word that ultimately matters.

A friend of mine used the phrase "the elephant in the room," a phrase I hadn't heard in a while but immediately thought about while re-reading this story. The elephant in the room. The topic everyone avoids speaking about. Here, the elephant isn't only in the room; it's in the world. It dominates the landscape, stretching just behind the trees. The American and the girl both agree that they know "lots of people who've had it done," implying just how widespread abortion is and always has been. Yet there was and *is* a tacit understanding that it cannot be spoken of or acknowledged, as if not speaking of all these elephants will cause them to vanish.

I can't help but notice how isolated this girl is. A bubble of all that's unspoken hangs around her, and she can feel her lover's distance from her. The public cafe, rather than offering a social backdrop, seems to isolate her all the more. She unsure of the world in which she lives, not knowing what drinks to try, or what words are painted on the beaded curtain (a image of failed language and its inability to fully cloak what is to be hidden). The labels on their bags from all the hotels they've stopped at again emphasizes her isolation from home.

Hemingway, being the masterful writer he is, comments on none of this. He lets the images carry, and trusts us, his readers, to draw our conclusions. He lets his characters waste words, but himself never says anything beyond the necessary.