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.