Friday, December 23, 2005

Pleasure and Interest, Redux

Lots of charming afterthoughts and clarifications chez Bob these days, on the who'd-have-thought-it-vexing topic of pleasure and disinterest. (Even more this morning, it seems, with still more of those nifty pictures. Hey Bob, how do you get them to stay in the middle of a post? Mine always come out at the top.) Sadly, the question of pleasure seems to be dropping out of the discussion, in favor of topics like "materialism" and "selfhood" and "the Origins of the Enlightenment," which mostly make my wee eyes glaze. Let me see if I can drag the matter of pleasure back into the spotlight.

As you may recall, Bob illustrated his apothegm "Modernity is Disinterest" with a passage from Coleridge. In it, John Milton made the case, against a fellow Puritan, that one might savor the pleasures of a Papist cathedral despite the social and theological errors it houses and embodies. I know this debate first hand, come to think of it, from my college days, when I spent a summer in France and Spain. Every cathedral I visited provoked it, right in my own split-self breast, and I felt it particularly keenly during my visit to the oddly named "Sinagoga de Santa María la Blanca." (The name suggests some of the nasty history to be remembered during your visit.) Jacqueline Osherow's wonderful long poem in terza rima, "Views of La Legenda della Vera Croce," takes up just this topic as well, starting in a passage where she learns the proper Italian name for the picture called, in English, "The Torture of Judas":

I thought I heard the torture of the Jew
And was so stunned I played the thing again

(My Italian was, after all, fairly new
And the woman on the tape spoke very quickly
But she did say the torture of the Jew--

In Italian it's ebreo--quite matter-of-factly)
The torture of the Jew who wouldn't reveal
The locatin of the true cross
--I got it exactly--

Put in a lot of coins to catch each syllable
(I also heard the English, which said Judas),
All the while not looking at the rope, the well;

Instead, I chose a saintly woman's dress,
And angel's finger pointing to a dream,
A single riveting, incongruous face--

What was I supposed to do? They were sublime.
The Inquisition wasn't exactly news
And, while I did keep my eyes off that one frame,

I wasn't about to give up on those frescoes.
In fact, I saw them again, a short while after
And again soon after--in those heady days,

Trains cost almost nothing and a drifter
Could easily cover quite a bit of Italy,
Though I tended to stay in Tuscany. The light was softer,

And--probably not coincidentally--
It had a higher density than any other place
Of things that could dazzle inexhaustibly.

And I was insatiable, avaricious
For what--even asleep--a person can't see
From a slim back bedroom in a semidetatched house

Like every other house in its vicinity
On a site whose inhabitants had been wiped out
To make room for spillover, like my family,

From the very continent I would have dreamed about
If I'd had even an inkling of the mastery
Of what its subtlest inhabitants had wrought

When they weren't doing away with people like me....

"Modernity is Disinterest" means, in cases like this, something slightly different from a Kantian "disinterested aesthetic response": it means a willingness to admit and indulge in sensory pleasure in the face of ideology, of history, even of compassion. To give, if not the Devil, at least the limbic system its due.

So--does the word "disinterest" now start to wobble? Sensory pleasure is hardly "disinterested"; rather, it speaks the "interests" of our bodies, whether by this I mean a hard-wired, evolutionary predisposition to like sweets and fats and symmetry and certain ratios and proportions, or merely our unconscious or preconscious responses to convention and childhood training. At this level, pleasure means unfreedom, plays me for a sucker, even as it liberates me from whatever mind-forged manacles I have decided or been told to wear.)

OK: enough for now. Time to practice my harmony line on "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," even if I refuse to admit that "we" were in fact in "Satan's power," let alone "gone astray."

Comfort & Joy, y'all--

Friday, December 16, 2005

Split Selves and Red Yidn

A nice comment this morning from Bob on my "split self" post:
Hey. Whoa. I didn't want to call disinterestedness or the kind of split we get from it a necessarily bad thing. I suppose I gave the big 'bad' example b/c I thought the 'good' side (setting aside prejudice, acting professionally, etc) was pretty clear. I mean, the kind of split we get from disinterest is amoral in itself. It can lead to good or bad things. And neither I nor Rosen (the anthropologist at Princeton) claim that the different subjectivity in Iraq is better than the split self (I suppose the word "whole" is loaded, but still...).
Maybe Mark and I did pile up on you, Bob, but my sense is that disinterested aesthetic pleasure, like so many other products of the Enlightenment, is in fact under attack these days, if not necessarily by you. Think of Bourdieu, whom you cited, whose work sets out to debunk the notion of disinterested pleasure. To him, such pleasures simply mask the true social pleasure at stake, which is the pleasure of reaffirming one's place in the educated bourgeoisie. Alas, such turns in intellectual history have consequences! My students, for example, have mostly been trained out of their natural-born curiosity; they profess no affection for books that aren't "relatable," which is to say, books in which they can take no interested pleasure. A true loss, and one worth mourning.

On a related matter, an interesting book review this morning in the Forward. There's a new anthology out that must be warming Cary Nelson's red, red heart: Proletpen: America's Rebel Yiddish Poets, edited by Amelia Glaser and David Weintraub, and translated by Amelia Glaser.
(It's a U of Wisconsin book.) To call these poets "rebels" is lamentable at best. They weren't rebels against the US so much as they were lackeys of Moscow, woodenly hewing to the Party line when their fellow Yiddish leftists--anti-Soviet socialists, and rebels worth the name--were doing their best to draw some fresh progressive water from the rapidly freezing Marxist well. Says the reviewer, Zachary Sholem Berger:
On the occasion of the Hebron pogroms in 1929, which the American Communist paper Di Frayhayt described (following Soviet orders) as a heroic Arab uprising against capitalist Zionism, many of Di Linke did not extract themselves from the Soviet embrace. (Katz's characterization of the "anti-Soviet" response, which condemned the riots, is tortured: "[T]he need to support the Jewish cause in these circumstances was metamorphosing the whole attitude toward Zionism from positive to negative.") Again, after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, some of the poets in this anthology still didn't distance themselves from Soviet diktat. Katz wonders, in a faux-naive vein, why anyone would criticize a poet for leaving Di Linke (i.e., the Communists) at a later rather than a earlier point — that is, for admitting later rather than earlier exactly what Soviet ideology entailed. But isn't this just the political decision that defined these Communist poets? And if political affiliations mean anything at all, isn't it because they are at the foundation of actions that we can discuss and (whisper it) even judge after the fact? In avoiding an explicit analysis of the politics of Di Linke, this book tries to de-emphasize what these Communist poets found important about their lives: communism.
Berger makes some nifty comments about the poems themselves, and tosses of a useful reminder or two about political poetry on both left and right: "ven those who make grave political mistakes can achieve the occasional aesthetic success."; "Yiddish poetry also has its geniuses on the right-wing end of the spectrum of political mistakes: The work of Uri Zvi Greenberg is both hateful and virtuosic."

(Is pleasure in virtuosity interested or disinterested?)

A book to know about, especially if you're interested (so to speak) in poetry of the 1930s, but I'm not sure it's high on my Channukah list. For an introduction to Yiddish American poetry, you'd be better served by Jackie Osherow's recent essay here, which I'll blog about over on my Big Jewish Blog this afternoon or tomorrow. See you there!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Split Selves and Other Pleasures

I've been catching up on some other blogs this morning, and over at Bob's Samizdat site I came across a long, very readable, eerily resonant post called "Good Taste, Disinterest, and the Divided Self, with a Peroration Concerning the Doom of Iraqi Democracy." Whatever you may think of Bob's politcs--I find his "peroration" utterly unconvincing, for reasons I'll get to in a minute, but also blessedly irrelevant--this post is worth a quarrel, and a look.

Bob starts with a lovely epigram: "modernity is disinterest," which he expands into a description of the modern ethic of "disinterest and gessellschaft — of setting aside personal interests and convictions in a society of abstract, contractual relations. It makes for a very split self (the part of me with real convictions, and the part of me that performs a social role according to ethics determined by that role alone)." As Bob notes, this is a relatively recent notion of ethics, and one that leaves many folks in this culture, and even more elsewhere, quite uncomfortable. He goes on to quote a Princeton anthropologist, for example, who believes that "in the Arab world the self is never seen as divided. Whereas in the West we imagine ourselves able to take on multiple, even contradictory roles — as when an official gives support to a law with which he personally disagrees — to Arabs this self-segmentation runs contrary to the idea of a person as a unified whole."

(Those of you who have read Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism will note that the intellectual ancestors of Bin Laden, et. al., took deadly aim at this split-self "schizophrenia" of the West, inspired in part by the fascist and other critiques that Western thinkers aimed at their own culture in the 1930s. Muriel Rukeyser hummed a few bars from that tune periodically too. Sure makes you pity all those crazy Iraqis risking their lives to vote today when we Westerners know that democracy can never work in their culture.)

But I digress. Let's get back to pleasure.

Bob traces the roots of this ethic back to "18th century theorizing about (of all things) good taste." Here's the money quote, and quote-within-a-quote, for your perusal:
The idea of the beautiful (and of taste in things beautiful) is deeply tied to the idea of disinterest in the main line of Western aesthetics from the 18th century on through the 20th century, and even in our time, for some die-hards. Here’s my favorite chunk of text for explaining the idea of a disinterested appreciation of beauty. This imaginary dialogue comes from Coleridge’s On the Principles of Genial Criticism, and serves (according to the students in my theory of lit seminar last semester) as a better example of Kant’s ideas than any examples Kant came up with:
"Let us suppose Milton in company with some stern and prejudiced Puritan, contemplating the front of York Cathedral, and at length expressing his admiration for its beauty. We will suppose it too at that time of his life, when his religious opinions most nearly coincided with those of the rigid antiprelatists. P[uritan]: Beauty, I am sure, it is not the beauty of holiness. M[ilton]: True, but yet it is beautiful. P:It delights not me. What is it good for? Is it of any use but to be stared at? M: Perhaps not! But still it is beautiful. P: But call to mind the pride and wanton vanity of those cruel shavelings, that wasted the labor and sbstance of so many thousand poor creatures in the erection of this haughty pile. M: I do. But still it is very beautiful. P: Think how many score places of worship, incomparably better suited both for prayer and preaching, and how many faithful ministers might have been maintained, to the blessing of tens of thousands, to them and their children’s children, with the treasures so lavished on this worthless mass of stone and cement. M: too true! But nevertheless it is very beautiful. P: And it is not merely useless, but it feeds the pride of the prelates, and keeps alive popish and carnal spirit among the people. M: Even so!"

[In short,] matters of taste in the beautiful, in the view of Coleridge’s Milton (who speaks, somewhat anachronistically for a whole 18th and 19th century tradition in aesthetics) are to be judged without reference to our sense of utility or morality.
Now, Bob goes on from this to argue that the self-splitting we do when we make an aesthetic judgment greases the slide toward self-splitting in matters of ethics, so that "we’re ready to treat our own actions that way, too, without reference our own ethics (“business is business,” we tautologically opine, while doing things we wouldn’t countenance if we weren’t enabled in the divorcing of individual ethics from professional ethics)."

I'm deeply, deeply skeptical of this. It seems to suggest that people who make other sorts of aesthetic judgments would act more ethically, or at least more consistently, in their other behavior. Is there any evidence to back that up? Haven't people in every time, every culture, found ways to behave truly horribly, whatever their aesthetic views, when greed or lust or love of power trump their moral codes? In which case, wouldn't the freeing-up of aesthetic judgment be one small step forward--a realization that the aesthetic and the ethical can be separated, so that we can enjoy more art, more music, more literature, without any real compromise in our behavior?

Or, to argue from another angle, isn't the "either / or" proposition here a false dichotomy? Don't we really tend to work through ratios, so that if the level of moral disgust is low enough we accede to beauty. What difference does it really make to the world anymore that Neruda was an unrepentant Stalinist, or that John Cage once hymned the morality of Mao's Cultural Revolution? But when the moral disgust flares higher, or strikes closer to home, we are less able to respond aesthetically. The case of Baraka's "Somebody Blew Up America" comes to mind: "Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion / And cracking they sides at the notion / ..../ Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed / Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / To stay home that day...." Etc.

Now, I can't enjoy any Baraka after that, and if part of me feels good about this anhedonia, another part knows that it's a loss, and neither kids itself that I'm a better man for those painless scruples. I'd be a little happier if I were able to read and enjoy Baraka perversely, precisely in the face of his politics and venom. ("Cracking steel knuckles in a jewlady's mouth"? You go, Amiri! Bring it on!) Hasn't happened yet, though.

There's an old poem from the 1980s, "The Museum Shop Catalogue," by John N. Morris, that addresses much of this. I can't find the whole thing anywhere in my files, but here are the stanzas that Helen Vendler quotes near the start of The Music of What Happens. I'll leave off with them:

The past is perfectly darling--
These pretty things that come along with us!
Mary and Siva house without oppugnancy...

Everything here has been imported
Over some frontier. At last
It is all a kind of art entirely.

And really they are just lovely,
Perfectly lovely, these things.
In vain do I deplore...

Mary and Siva
Accompany our lives.
Although a loneliness persists.
They are only beautiful now.

Which is to say, I suppose, that the split, disinterested self who finds art "merely beautiful" may be a sad and second-rate thing, but so is Western style capitalism and democracy. Both let you like things you really shouldn't, which is one of life's great pleasures. And both leave open more options for disinterested enjoyment and for more ethical, less disinterested behavior than any system or self I've heard about so far.

Two cheers for Split Selves! Hip! Hip!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

This Just In...

The (London, U.K.) Independent -- October 5, 2005
by Sarah Cassidy

Children are spending less time reading for pleasure because the relentless focus on tests and targets has squeezed storytelling and joy of reading out of schools, a five-year study by the education watchdog Ofsted has shown.

Many teachers no longer read poems or stories to their class because they feel guilty that they are "wasting valuable teaching time", the report, English 2000-2005, warned.

Instead teachers now regard texts as "a kind of manual" for teaching about "adjectives, metaphors and contrasting short and long sentences", it concluded.

This had already had an impact on children who now regarded reading as a skill needed to pass tests or to get a good job rather than as something they might do for pleasure. The inspectors said it was vital for children to hear stories being read out loud because this was the best way for them to "develop a vocabulary and an understanding of narrative ... which they need ... in order to read with full comprehension".

Teachers also struggled to find the time to keep up with the latest children's fiction and so schools were forced to rely on the same books year after year.

"Teachers often make use of texts without adequately considering their impact upon the pupils," the study warned. "They appear to regard texts primarily as a means of teaching writing: a poem is mined for its use of
adjectives, metaphors and contrasting short and long sentences without attempting to engage pupils' personal response to the ideas and feelings it expresses.

"The text becomes a kind of manual rather than an opportunity for personal response to experience. This can then lead teachers to choose any text, irrespective of quality, instead of choosing the most appropriate texts for different purposes."

Inspectors warned that many schools were failing to promote the importance of reading for pleasure. Individual reading had often been squeezed out of lessons in favour of the group and whole class work, which had been given greater emphasis in the Government's literacy hour.

Most schools expect pupils to keep a record or journal of their reading, but the quality of these is mostly very poor, inspectors found. Pupils did not understand why they were expected to keep a record of the books they read when most teachers did nothing with them.

Teachers themselves told inspectors that "teaching reading has lost its fun" under the government's strategies. Staff were confused about how to meet government targets and prepare children for tests while still teaching an enriching curriculum, inspectors concluded....

Poetry Out Loud

I had lunch yesterday--a lovely "Croque Fromage," with good bleu cheese, as it happens--with the Programs Director of the Poetry Foundation, and got an update on their upcoming "National Recitation Contest," called Poetry Out Loud. The basic premise is pretty simple: high school students compete for cash prizes by memorizing and performing "great poems," chosen from an on-line anthology you can find here or from the smaller, print version that they are distributing; there's also a CD available of poems being read aloud by celebrities and so forth, although I suspect that students who are schooled in slam poetry can do a fine job on their own.

We're in phase 2 of the project--the Beta test? the Theta test?--which means that schools in all 50 state capitals will be encouraged to participate. Next year it goes fully national--but if you're reading this, and not in a capital, take heart: many state Arts Councils seem to be jumping the gun and inviting schools to join in across the state.

Oh, heck: let's just cut & paste a little information, shall we?

Poetry Out Loud

Resources: About the Program

Recitation and performance are major new trends in poetry. There has been a recent resurgence of poetry as an oral art form, as seen in the slam poetry movement and the immense popularity of rap music among our youth. Poetry Out Loud builds on that momentum by inviting the dynamic aspects of slam poetry, spoken word, and theater into the English class. The National Endowment for the Arts and The Poetry Foundation have partnered with the State Arts Agencies to support the expansion of Poetry Out Loud, which encourages the nation's youth to learn about great poetry through memorization and performance. This exciting new program helps students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about their literary heritage.


In spring 2005 several thousand students participated in successful pilot programs in Washington, DC, and Chicago; this second phase of Poetry Out Loud extends the program to state capitals nationwide. Poetry Out Loud will be launched in high schools across America in the spring of 2006.


Poetry Out Loud uses a pyramid structure. Beginning at the classroom level, winners will advance to the school-wide competition, then to the state-capital competition, and ultimately to the National Finals. We expect over 200,000 students to take part in Poetry Out Loud this year.

Each winner at the state level will receive $200 and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington to compete for the national championship. The state winner's school will receive a $500 stipend for the purchase of poetry books. A runner-up in each state will receive $100, with $200 for his or her school library. We will award $50,000 total in scholarships and school stipends at the National Finals for the winners.


Poetry Out Loud curriculum materials include print and online poetry anthologies, a program guide to help instructors teach recitation and performance, an audio CD featuring distinguished actors and writers, promotional and media guides, and a comprehensive Website. All curriculum materials will also be available for download on the Poetry Out Loud Website, which can be used by schools not involved in the official 2006 contest.

Poetry Out Loud materials will be sent to high schools in December and January, and participating schools will run the program January through March. (The program requires only two or three weeks of class time.) States will hold their competitions in April. Following the state finals, the National Finals will be held in Washington, DC, in May 2006.
I must say, I'm tickled pink by all of this, and not simply because the Chicago winner last year--who one by reciting Stein's "Susie Asado," by the way!--was the student of a former "Say Something Wonderful NEH Seminar" participant. You simply can't read a poem well aloud without getting to know the poem much more intimately--as sound, as structure, as emotional drama--than most of the high school essay assignments I have encountered would require. (Yes, this includes the AP test.) This is also a virtually free program; the only major costs involved would be the cost of getting each winning student to the next round of competition. The poems, the supplementary curricular materials, etc., are all on the house.

If you're reading this, and you teach high school, I'd say this is
worth pursuing. If you know a high school teacher or principal, pass it on.

On a related topic, please follow the new link to your left to Andrew Motion's spanking new (I think) "Poetry Archive." It's quite the site, as you might expect from a British Poet Laureate with the full resources of the UK behind him. It aims to be "the world's premier online collection of recordings of poets reading their work," and in my initial dip into the page I've heard poems read by Patrick Kavanagh, Tom Raworth, and Rudyard Kipling. (Yes, Kipling.) I'm keen on the way it's organized, with clickable resources for teachers, for students, for children's poetry, and with the ability to browse poems by theme and form, as well as by poet and by title. Evidently Motion will take you on a "guided tour," too, although I haven't accepted that particular offer as yet.

Now, something tells me that there are other audio archives I should know, or have known in the past. If you read this and think of them, send me the URLs, please. There's altogether too much peat a-growing on the links of this old blog.

Back on the Blog

If you read this, say hello.

Not that I've been in Tangiers, but I have been hither and yon these past few weeks. First I graded a stack or three of student papers and exams--gee, that was fun and a half!--the nadir of which must have been the essay which thought that Yeats' "When You Are Old and Grey and Full of Sleep" was about a prostitute. (The "fire" she's nodding by in stanza one is, my student hazarded, the fire of hell, which waits to punish her for the sexual promiscuity she displayed by letting so many men love her "moments of glad grace," nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Let's just say that when this lady would bend down "beside the glowing bars," all the drinkers at those bars got quite a show!) I've never actually wanted to advise a student to go out and get laid, then, damnit! before revising a paper, and I'm sure I never would, but this time, I came mighty close.

(By the way, Mark, if you need more evidence that an interpretation of a poem can be wrong, but wrong, I might just be able to snatch a copy of this one from the stack before my student picks it up. If she does. Which she probably, blessedly won't.)

I then hit the road to visit my brother and his family for Thanksgiving, down in Hudson, OH. While there, I worked some email mojo to get myself onto a conference panel for the first time in about five years. I left the circuit deliberately as soon as I got tenure. It was hard on my wife and kids for me to be gone, and other than the chance to hang out with friends, I saw no point to going. (Would it advance my career? Not really--I had nowhere I wanted to go! Would it introduce me to new ideas? Perhaps, but less efficiently than reading an essay or two.) Now that I have a new field to map and plough, though--Romance Fiction, hurrah!--I need to get out and hear what the discourse really sounds like, viva voce, to meet the relevant scholars (and, better, the irrelevant ones?), and generally to figure out my place in this new critical landscape. So off I go, this April, to the Popular Culture Association's national convention in Atlanta, to give a talk on Emma Holly at one of their "Eros and Pornography" panels. Yum.

Once I got home, I stuck with the Romance gig for another week or so. You see, the RWA (Romance Writers of America) sponsor a $5000 grant competition to foster the serious academic study of genre romance, and I decided months ago to apply. Keep your fingers crossed for me, everyone: I'd say that Teach Me Tonight (my proposed book on romance) sounds as fun to me to write as any of the poetry projects I've been kicking around for the past few years, and no less interesting, too.

In fact, reading romance novels "one by one," as I described it in my proposal, feels to me an awful lot like reading poems--or, at least, I find myself thinking about the two genres in more similar ways than I'd have expected before this project began. Thus, for example, as I read Eloisa James's latest, Kiss Me, Annabel, I found myself opining to the Missus that this novel's aesthetic was utterly different from that of, say, Bet Me, by Jennifer Crusie. The Crusie aspires to what Helen Vendler calls "complete centripetal coherence"; every episode, every nonce touch (the nicknames, the snowglobes, the chicken marsala) has a complex but mappable connection with something else in the book, so that the whole has a kind of clarity and elegance of design that I quite enjoy. The James, by contrast, is proliferative, almost Rococco, in structure; it leaves loose threads a-dangling all over the weave, not least because it's part of an ongoing series of novels about a set of sisters, rather than a stand-alone text. If I knew more about soap operas, or at least the critical discourse around soap operas, I might be able to draw some connections; for now, I'd say that the Crusie feels like a single lyric, polished and ready for New Critical attention, whereas the James feels more like one sonnet drawn from a messy, maddening sequence, like the Rime Sparse, or maybe (l'havdil) like a single Canto?

Once I finished the RWA grant ap, I got busy with my stack of novels about poets--more on which later, I promise--and with a couple of very interesting poetry-related social engagements. More on both after some coffee and a big plate of salami & eggs, I think.

Friday, November 25, 2005

This came in by email over Thanksgiving. My son read it over my shoulder, and pronounced it "one of the funniest poems" he'd ever read. How could I not post it here?

My Teacher Calls Me Sweetie Cakes

My teacher calls me sweetie cakes.
My classmates think it's funny
to hear her call me angel face
or pookie bear or honey.

She calls me precious baby doll.
She calls me pumpkin pie
or doodle bug or honey bunch
or darling butterfly.

My class is so embarassing
I need to find another;
just any class at all
in which the teacher's not my mother.

--Kenn Nesbitt

One brief nit to pick: why does Nesbitt break the line after "at all," and not after "in which," where the meter demands it? I HATE that! Meter is so easy to teach to younglings, but not when the poets won't follow their own rules, no?

(Let the record show: this was delivered to me by email, and the linebreaks may have gotten corrupted en route.)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Some faves from Norman

This was a comment, but deserves to be above the fold:

"A few of my short faves," writes Norman Finkelstein:

Keats, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"
--I've never taught that one, I don't think. What does one say about it? Teach it as a ballad? (I hate teaching ballads. Teach me how and why, someone, please!)

Herbert, "Prayer (I)"
--This one I've taught, but not for years. Time to put it back into rotation, maybe?

Herrick, "The Vine"
--Another one I've never tried. What do you do with it?

Shakespeare, "Sonnet XX"
--I'm embarassed to say, I had to check which one that was! It's a weird, gender-bending "master-mistress of my passion" poem. Never taught it. What do you do with it, Norman?

Milton, "On the Late Massacre in Piedmont"
--Tried this once, disastrously, my second or third year of teaching. Again, I'd love to know what one does with it in class to make it sing--

Blake, "The Lamb" and "The Tyger"
--I do the second, not the first. Time to switch or pair them?

Dickinson, "There's a Certain Slant of Light," "Mine by the right of the white election"
--Never tried either!

Williams, "Proletarian Portrait"
--Another one? Damn! I love how little we overlap here. It reminds me how various the field is, even between thoroughly canonical hedgerows. And how little I know, thank God, after only 10 years in the business. I'd had to think I'd exhausted anything already,other than myself.

The Williams is worth reprinting here, I think. Not many folks know it. You can find some scraps of criticism here, too, if need be.

Proletarian Portrait

A big young bareheaded woman
in an apron

Her hair slicked back standing
on the street

One stockinged foot toeing
the sidewalk

Her shoe in her hand. Looking
intently into it

She pulls out the paper insole
to find the nail

That has been hurting her

That's one set of favorites, friends. More, please! Bring 'em on!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The City Limits

I closed my "Reading Poetry" course this quarter with A. R. Ammons' poem "The City Limits," asking my students to give it a "cold close reading." If you don't know the poem, here it is:

The City Limits

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds' bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.

We started, as I always ask, by dividing the poem into sections: in this case, seven of them, marked by the semi-colons, by the turn from "When..." to "then" in the middle of the penultimate stanza, and then finally the "and" clause that closes the poem. We read it, that is to say, as a three-part core sentence with elaborations: "When you consider the radiance...then the heart moves...and fear...turns to praise."

That's such a simple move (for me), and was so hard, still, for some of my students! Why so hard? I just don't know.

In any case, two things struck me after our discussion.

First, thanks to my two or three visibly Muslim students, I was reminded of just how powerfully Christian the vocabulary of this poem is, even though the poem itself isn't a Christian text. Words like "consider" (as in, "consider the lilies of the field") and "testimony," and a phrase like "make no awful noise" (which rewrites "make a joyful noise"): it's hard to appreciate this poem if you don't hear their scriptural & religious echoes, I think.

Second, this morning I went online to find a version of the poem to cut & past for you, and I hit a half-dozen offers to buy electronic notes to the poem: potted readings, "study guides," and the like. The few I browsed--just the free stuff, the teasers, of course--were pretty dreary stuff. You can consider one of them here , if you have the stomach for such things. Does this poem really get taught as an "environmental" text? I guess if you ignore the part about "the guiltiest
swervings of the weaving heart" you can pull that off, but do we really want to? Would a good follow-up exercise to this poem really entail making an audio collage of statements from local environmental activists? (I kid you not, Dear Reader!)

Anyone out there know the Emerson passage this poem glosses? I don't recall where it is, offhand--maybe in "Nature"?


Some of My Favorite (Short Lyric) Poems to Teach

So what does my own anthology look like--the list of poems I most like to teach in my own "Reading Poetry" class?

(First of an ongoing series of posts)

Sappho, “Fragment 1: Hymn to Aphrodite, in multiple translations (Jim Powell, Anne Carson, Guy Davenport)

Archilochos, "“Some Saian Mountaineer," in Guy Davenport's translation

The Song of Songs, in Ariel & Chana Bloch's translation

Wyatt, “"They Flee From Me”" and "Whoso List to Hunt”"

Donne, "“The Sun Rising”"

Whitman: "“Noiseless Patient Spider”" and "“As I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer"”

Yeats, "Adam's Curse" and "“Easter, 1916”"

Hughes, "“Theme for English B"

Stevens, "“The Snow Man”"

Hayden, "“Those Winter Sundays”"

Clifton, "“Homage to My Hips”"

Johnson, "“Beam 10"” from ARK

To be continued. So: what are yours?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Help Me, Somebody!

They shadow the upper right-hand corner of my desk: 40 papers from the Romance class, 40 from Reading Poetry, and a larger number than I'd like to have left from Teaching Poetry, my MA class. I feel like Childe Roland, only I built that Dark Tower, & there's no slug-horn in sight.

At which point, I get to musing: why do I have my students write so many close readings? Or, if I want them to write close readings, why do I teach them poems? Shouldn't I find an anthology of essays-on-poems for them to study, if that's what I want them to produce? Is there such a book? I know Camille Paglia has Break, Blow, Burn out now: 44 poems, each explicated, which might presumably work. On the other hand, if I haven't brought myself to read it yet, should I really make my students?

(Parenthetically, I should add that I am deeply, deeply grateful to Paglia. Her prose style plucked me out of the Slough of Cavell back in graduate school, and made me who I am today, prose-wise. Half the jokes I had to comb from my dissertation, en route to press, might have been hers. Maybe I should read this new one, too.)

But I digress. The serious points here are:

1) Teaching "Intro to Poetry" (or "Reading Poetry," or whatever your school wants to call it) may not be an intrinsically frustrating experience--it hasn't always been for me--but

2) Teaching from a huge, overwhelming, over-processed anthology like the Norton seems to depress me, and

3) I don't know what text or anthology to use next time, my 19th or 20th go-round with the class, since

4) I'm not entirely sure WHAT I want to teach my students, although I know pretty well that I don't want to teach them only close reading skills, as I did, mostly, this time.

Maybe it's time to send out a meme. If you had to teach an "Introduction to Poetry" with only, say, 20 poems, which 20 would you choose? Or, if that number is to small, make it 30-60, but no more than 60 poems, tops. (I have 20 class days, and rarely get through more than 3 poems a day.)

Help me, somebody!


Norton Anthology of Poetry: $73
Helen Vendler's Poems, Poets, Poetry: $54
Kenneth Koch's Making Your Own Days: $15
Camille Paglia, Break, Blow, Burn: $13

All of these new, with no discount, of course. Any on-line dealer has them for less.

The new Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry, about which I'll blog quite soon, goes for $57 for the shorter edition, $67 for the longer, and it comes with a nifty CD-ROM. A possibility.

To be continued...

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Loopless, Socratic, Scattered. Not Bad.

I learn from Josh Corey's blog that Collected Poems are now out, or will be soon, from Kenneth Koch and Ted Berrigan. There was a time, ten years ago, when I'd have been on the review-copy list for each of these. I'd have known they were coming, I'd have written about them for the Boston Phoenix or other newspaper (heck, I'd have hustled for a slot in the Times) and I'd have felt simply grand. Instead, I'm out of the loop--"Loopless," as the SNL version of George H.W. Bush used to say.

And I feel about that, what? A little sad, but not terribly so. Hard for me to work myself up about whether poetry is or is not reviewed in newspapers, since I neither read them now, regularly, nor engage in those antenae-rubbing rituals of reference ("Did you see X's piece in the Sunday Times?") that mostly serve to verify one's place in the cultural anthill. I wouldn't mind writing about either of them. In fact, I did a piece on Berrigan and Alice Notley for Parnassus some years ago that I still think does both justice. But it's hard for writing or publishing to give me the immediate rewards that teaching does these days, or even the explicatory thrill of working things through, new things, that I've had in my Romance Fiction and Teaching Poetry classes recently. (We did a collective close reading of Robert Duncan's "Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" two weeks ago--the first time I've ever gone through that poem inch by inch, alone or in company--that practically moved me to tears. I was, of course, wired on Sudafed at the time, but still! I hope someone took notes.)

When I'm feeling grand I tell myself that I've reached a new, Socratic stage in my career: that is, I teach viva voce, in manner of ancient philosophers, rather than through print. In less self-congratulatory moods, I say that I'm just getting lazy and disorganized, putting my writing aside because it's hard and takes time. Both are probably true. Get me through the rest of this three-course quarter, and we'll see what's what, eh?

Currently reading: Something Like Love, Beverly Jenkins
On the earbuds: Nada. Too distracting. I have kids to keep an ear out for today.

Monday, October 17, 2005

This just in--

--from Mark, as a comment: good enough to post above the fold:

Eric ol' bean--

You don't have to pretend to be Ann Coulter just because you don't like a poem -- indeed, it's likely to provoke me to pretend to be Jane Fonda. And neither of us look very good in those skirts.

The poem offers me a compact array of pleasures, most of them rather minor: I like the awkwardness (not necessarily "prissiness") of the obscenities, the degree to which they are precisely *not* natural-sounding. (Indeed, one of the oddities of the poem is that it works most naturally if imagined in the voice of someone who doesn't speak English as a first language --which might by HP's impression of Americans, who knows?) I like the very slight off-centeredness of some of the phrases. I like the flatness of "It works" and "We did it." I like the minor (you would say "cheap" & would probably be right) payoff of the last line.

Pinter is not a very good poet. Period. This particular poem has been all over the internet as part of the inevitable pillorying of the Nobel committee as anti-American Euro-liberals. I kinda enjoyed it. Oh yeah, and football ("American" football) has always made me physically sick -- no cliché.

Love and kisses from the politburo,

Well now--that's more like it! You talk pleasure, you speak-a my language, old friend. De gustibus, and all that.

I'll take a second look--but then, I've always rather enjoyed football, on the sly. (And I love teasing Euro-liberals, especially if it means I get to wear a skirt.)


Postscript: Gulf War Poetry

So what ARE the good poems about the Gulf War? (The first one, I mean.) Any votes or suggestions? Or do we just let that one slide, like Korea, into the dustbin of history?

The best one I know so far--better in every respect than Pinter's pint of bitters--would probably be Peter Cole's collage of news-conference & other quotations, "News That Stays," in Hymns & Qualms. If anyone knows how to format text here on Blogger so that I can give you the actual layout--the spacing, the use of the page--I'll post it here; otherwise you'll have to find it yourself. Other votes might go to Adrienne Rich's "Eastern War Time" (not that you'd know it from the misleading footnotes in the Norton) and "An Atlas of the Difficult World"; the first is better.

Bring 'em on, folks, here or on the listserv!

Sunday, October 16, 2005


Sometimes, let's face it--a boy just can't help it. And when I saw this little ditty by Nobel prize winner Harold Pinter posted on Mark's site, prefaced with the note that "I don't care much for his poetry, but I like this," I just couldn't resist:

American Football

(A Reflection upon the Gulf War)

It works.
We blew the shit out of them.

We blew the shit right back up their own ass
And out their fucking ears.

It works.
We blew the shit out of them.
They suffocated in their own shit!

Praise the Lord for all good things.

We blew them into fucking shit.
They are eating it.

Praise the Lord for all good things.

We blew their balls into shards of dust,
Into shards of fucking dust.

We did it.

Now I want you to come over here and kiss me on the mouth.

--Says I in the comment box: "That one was a big hit in Kuwait, too."

Now, I knew I was being wicked. But brace yourself, Boutros! Today comes Mark's response, and it's a doozy:
No, of course Pinter's "American Football" was probably not a big "hit" in Kuwait, nor in Washington, Tel Aviv, or the Royal Court of Saud. Spenser, I suppose, whom Simon Shepherd calls "a penpusher in the service of imperialism," could have written a victory ode that would have gone down better at the courts and Hilton lobbies of the "liberators" and liberated. And I imagine you & I agree that the best political poems – not necessarily the most stirring – are deeply shot thru with ambiguities and misgivings: my own favorite is Marvell's "Horatian Ode" to Oliver Cromwell. Which was not a big hit for the Drogheda survivors, either. But one does not have to concur with Pinter's politics – his opposition to NATO's Kossovo intervention is a notorious example – even with his stance on the (first) Gulf War, to see that what he assaults so energetically in "American Football" – American triumphalism, American arrogance, the American cult of physicality and violence, the combination of sexuality and physical aggression that too often defines American masculinity, etc. – reichly deserves energetic assault.
Well, Mark, what can I say? I think Pinter's poem is an easy, cheap"assault" on a series of cliches about American vulgarity and violence that were already growing curdled the last time Cream took a farewell tour. His deployment of cuss words is prissy, not energetic, and the same goes for his sniggering at American religiosity, which I guess is just as vulgar, just as low-brow as our potty-mouthed cult of manliness. Bill Maher does both better, and with less self-righteousness.

Unless I'm missing something--and if I am, dear Readers, let me know--this poem doesn't offer any actual political insight, which is just fine by me, but it scants me on memorable language and freshness of imagination, too, and that's where I draw the line. Prove me wrong, or admit that it's basically an excuse for folks who are too sophisticated to enjoy James Wright's "Autumn Begins in Martin's Ferry, Ohio" to get their own digs in at football, American-style, and at America, football-style. You remember the Wright:

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.

Subtle, isn't it? And so very, very insightful. (*SIGH*)

Not much more than that to say, unless you want me to talk, like, actual politics--and I'll spare us both that for now.

(Oh, by the way--what's with the Freudian typo in that last sentence? They "reichly" deserve "energetic assault"? Sounds like someone has his orgones in a bunch!)

Friday, October 14, 2005

Friday again. So soon? This time last week I was here, at the computer, but far from the blogging crowd. Wrote for 8 hours straight, more or less, as I conjured a Summer Research Grant Application out of Lapsang Souchong, stale corn muffins, and a Will to Funding. Worth it just to feel no pain in my wrists at the end. Whether or not the powers that be will pay me to write my next-but-one Parnassus essay--working title "Xenophile's Paradox"--that just made my day.

Then, as you know, I was a-grading. 'Nuff said. I should be back in the traces with a second batch of papers today, these from my Romance Novel class, but a man has his needs, as all-too-manly Brandon likes to say in The Flame and the Flower, and one of those is to get online and write!

A number of recent posts by Mark on the topic of Annotation and its Discontents. ("Unfortunately pedagogical" he calls them, though I'm not sure why.) I've had the pleasure, recently, of working more and more in classrooms with live computer links to the web. Ad hoc searching has become part of my own pedagogical practice: indeed, I couldn't have taught my seminar on A. S. Byatt's Possession last winter without it. Over and over we hit phrases and allusions we simply had to look up--in fact, the whole point of the course was to teach my students what it felt like to read a book using your ignorance, letting it spark investigation.

Did we use Google? Yup, many times, even though (as Mark writes) "Searching Google for a piece of information is rather like trying to find the one right book in a poorly-organized but massive second-hand bookstore, where if you’re looking for something on (say) Kaballah, you’re more likely to find a brochure from the Kaballah Centre™ than one of Gershom Scholem’s magisterial studies." It helped that we were usually searching out something VERY specific, like a line of verse or a plot summary of Book 6 of the Aeneid. And it helped that our investigations on-line were meant to be provocative, not conclusive. Those were leads to follow for next week, not necessarily answers to our questions. (Like Elmer Fudd, we were hunting wabbits for sport, not for nourishment.)

Far more useful this quarter, as an in-class on-line resource, has been the OED, however. My graduate students--ahem, let me say that again, with feeling: my graduate students--aren't nearly as quick to look words up as they ought to be. (Gracious, ain't he?) In the last few weeks we've stopped our discussions of "Wild Nights" to look up "moor" and of "The Latest Freed Man," by Stevens, to root out "doctor" and "doctrine," always with the most delicious results. (Gee, maybe the "latest freed man" isn't an MD after all!)

Now as I look back on those moments, this much is clear: the pleasure of each--the pedagogical pleasure and the readerly one--would have been ruined had the poem been annotated in advance. It's not that I don't trust those handy dandy footnotes in the Norton, although I've found some howlers in the last few years. But the experience of the poem demanded a mix of knowing and not-knowing, of allure and quick investigation, which the footnote would forestall. Inasmuch as it encourages that sort of active engagement with one's ignorance--I keep thinking of Thoreau here: "How can he remember well his ignorance -- which his growth requires -- who has so often to use his knowledge?"--then a handy Google button may actually turn out quite preferable to a set of footnotes.

You all know, I assume, "Wild Nights." Damn, I love that poem. Look up "moor," if you haven't, the next time you read it, and watch the closing stanza come alive. What about the Stevens I mentioned, "The Latest Freed Man"? It's from Parts of a World, and I must confess, I hadn't read it since graduate school when my MA student brought it to class for our discussions of close reading. A poem to know:

The Latest Freed Man

Tired of the old descriptions of the world,
The latest freed man rose at six and sat
On the edge of his bed. He said,
“I suppose there is
A doctrine to this landscape. Yet, having just
Escaped from the truth, the morning is color and mist,
Which is enough: the moment’s rain and sea,
The moment’s sun (the strong man vaguely seen),
Overtaking the doctrine of this landscape. Of him
And of his works, I am sure. He bathes in the mist
Like a man without a doctrine. The light he gives—
It is how he gives his light. It is how he shines,
Rising upon the doctors in their beds
And on their beds . . . .”
And so the freed man said.
It was how the sun came shining into his room:
To be without a description of to be,
For a moment on rising, at the edge of the bed, to be,
To have the ant of the self changed to an ox
With its organic boomings, to be changed
From a doctor into an ox, before standing up,
To know that the change and that the ox-like struggle
Come from the strength that is the strength of the sun,
Whether it comes directly or from the sun.
It was how he was free. It was how his freedom came.
It was being without description, being an ox.
It was the importance of the trees outdoors,
The freshness of the oak-leaves, not so much
That they were oak-leaves, as the way they looked.
It was everything being more real, himself
At the centre of reality, seeing it.
It was everything bulging and blazing and big in itself,
The blue of the rug, the portrait of Vidal,
Qui fait fi des joliesses banales, the chairs.

(Did we google ol' Vidal there? You bet your sweet lycanthropy we did. Was anything we found particularly interesting? No, no--you go look yourself, and let me know!)

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Grading. Grading. Grading. Grading.

Did I mention I've been grading for a week?

I hate grading. Especially papers from ENG 220 (Reading Poetry), which is the stack on my lap right now. Why?

I always think, at first, that it's the problems with the papers. So many of my students struggle to articulate ideas, to say or see anything clearly themselves, that it's hard for them to follow even the simplest, supplest piece of verse. Instead, they hack the poet's leaping, athletic sentences into so many bloody fragments, each of them twitching, galvanically, with deeper meaning. "This is a 'close reading'?" I ask myself. "It's barely reading! Feh."

Then there are the students who are deaf, but deaf, to tone. The ones who think that "One Art" is a "jokey" poem (like, all the way through). Or who can't hear the shifts from broad humor to sentimental musing in Galway Kinnell's "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps." Or who import their own agendas--racial and otherwise--to Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B." These students get more sympathy from me, since they've been systematically deprived of tonal variety by TV and talk radio and the like, but the papers still wear on me.

(On the radio, appropriately, come The Ramones: "D-U-M-B! Everyone's accusing me!")

When the smoke clears, though, I realize that behind all this bitching and moaning lies frustration with myself. What did I do wrong? What have I not taught well enough, about poetry or about this assignment, to produce such work? What did I want from them, anyway?

Perhaps, if I want them to do close readings, I shouldn't teach poems at all. Maybe I should teach them a set of close readings, instead! No, seriously. I could assign a book like Paglia's Break, Blow, Burn and tell them do this! Each class we'd go over one of the poems she reads and her essay on it, and then the kids would try their hands at replicating her method, her results. Why not? I did something like this once or twice with Molly Peacock's How to Read a Poem (and Start a Poetry Circle). Why did I stop? Why did I write this syllabus? Why didn't I just teach the class the way I always have before?

Oh, I'm just full of questions and ideas when I grade!

(All I want is for them to be infinitely sensitive to language. Is that so much to ask?)


Anyway, now that the grading is done, I have three sets of papers. The "A" set, who are ready to go on and learn, I don't know, meter or genre history. The "B" set, who could move on--they just didn't push themselves hard enough, as a rule. And then the "C and Lower" set, who need another five weeks on close reading. So what do I do? Lose a third of the class by moving forward into new material? Or risk boring the other two thirds by continuing to teach what I've been teaching, just with new poems?

Oh, a professor's life is not a happy one!


Decision time: I'm going with the lowest third. We're going to proceed thematically: poems of love, war, and "ideas" (a catchall term for "those longer poems I never teach in an introduction to poetry class) over the next nine class days. I'm going to cross my fingers and hope the poems themselves will keep the top 2/3 of the class engaged. Meanwhile, I've divided the class into two groups, alternating Questioners and Answerers, to encourage discussion. This worked splendidly with Bishop's "Filling Station" yesterday; we'll see how it goes next week!

Monday, October 03, 2005

Tooting my Own Horn

If I can't tell you, who can I tell?

Over at New Pages, where they review literary magazines, this shows up about the latest issue of Parnassus:


Poetry in Review

Volume 28 Numbers 1&2


If you haven't used all your vacation time yet this year, you might want to consider taking a few days off just to read this issue of Parnassus—it's that good. Don't plan to travel with it, at 470 pages it's nearly too big to fit in a carry-on bag. But, if care about intelligent writing and about poetry, however you do it, make room in your life for this issue. There is some truly magnificent writing here with something to satisfy every serious reader: essay-reviews (Danielle Ofri on recent anthologies of writing by doctors, Karl Kirchwey on modern verse drama); essays and poems on travel and place (Wendy Steiner on learning she has breast cancer while on a trip to Russia, William Logan on Florida as myth and metaphor, Marsha Pomerantz's beautiful poem on Kenya); critical essays (Eva Badowska on Wislawa Symborska and Joel Brouwer on C. D. Wright). Whatever you do, don't skip Eric Murphy Selinger's essay "Rukeyser Without Commitment," one of the smartest and sassiest essays I've read on Rukeyser. If you've always liked her work, you'll like it better now. If you never been a Rukeyser fan, this essay will change your mind. And if you've never read Selinger before (I hadn't) you'll be seeking out his work again. [Parnassus, 205 W. 89th Street, #8F, New York, NY 10024. E-mail: Single issue $15.] Sima Rabinowitz

Hum te-tum-te-tum... That puts me in a fine, fine mood to start the New Year, folks. Now all I have to do is write another one. And another. And so on. It's a hard-knock life.

Did I Miss Anything?

As you've noticed, I vanish sometimes.

Not always for good reasons.

In this case--what? The usual business: classes to prepare, long bad novels, deliciously bad, to read and mull over. Notes on "how to read a sex scene" to compose for my Romance class. (Those still in progress--I'll post them when done.) Oh, and a chronology of that most despised of genres, painstakingly compiled and numbingly delivered to the class the next day, to much rolling of eyes and shaking of heads. Shaking awake, that is.

(I think I knew how to teach at some point, and I'm sure it will come back to me one of these days.)

Ah, no--I'm too hard on myself here, actually. The romance class is looking up, now that I've scuttled a couple of novels. It turns out that you can't talk about two novels a week, even when they're The Boyfriend School and The Sheik. Both of those turn out to be rather curious books, the closer you look: a good lesson for me, as well as for my students. My intro to poetry course lurches from topic to topic, keeping me off my stride, but that was a deliberate move on my part, a stumbling block I set in my own too-clear-sighted path, so that I'd have to read & teach some new work, and I have.

Hits so far? Let's see: I loved my suite of spring poems, starting with "Sumer is i-cumin in" (in Richard Thompson's rollicking measures, thanks to help from Mark), then on to Shakespeare's "Spring" song from Love's Labors Lost, to "Corinna's Going a-Maying," to spring poems by Cummings and Millay. Another hit, at least for me: Dickinson's "Some things that fly there be," which I pitched as a riddle-poem:

Some things that fly there be—
Birds—Hours—the Bumblebee—
Of these no Elegy.

Some things that stay there be—
Nor this behooveth me.

There are that resting, rise.
Can I expound the skies?
How still the Riddle lies!

Great fun to tease out the structure of this, especially the witty stereoscopy of that last stanza, which either consoles or wickedly refuses consolation, depending on how you read it. (We had a similar debate over Stevens' "The Snow Man," which I taught in a suite of Winter poems, but might work as a riddle, too.)

Among the misses, I'd list a lecture on Praise Poems (I'm not good with lectures these days), including a first attempt to teach James Schuyler's "Freely Espousing," which I loved, but which left my students (mostly) baffled. Anyone out there teach him effectively? I'm thrilled he's in the Norton, and look forward to teaching him again, but my, my, my, I will need to brush up my Schuyler, as the old song says.

--A quick snoop on Google reveals a handy on-line version of Joe Conte's DLB essay on Schuyler here, and a funky Schuyler lesson plan for International Students of English here, about the poem "February," which I hereby post:


A chimney, breathing a little smoke.
The sun, I can't see
making a bit of pink
I can't quite see in the blue.
The pink of five tulips
at five P.M. on the day before March first.
The green of the tulip stems and leaves
like something I can't remember,
finding a jack-in-the-pulpit
a long time ago and far away.
Why it was December then
and the sun was on the sea
by the temples we'd gone to see.
One green wave moved in the violet sea
like the UN building on big evenings,
green and wet
while the sky turns violet.
A few almond trees
had a few flowers, like a few snowflakes
out of the blue looking pink in the light.
A gray hush
in which the boxy trucks roll up Second Avenue
into the sky. They're just
going over the hill.
The green leaves of the tulips on my desk
like grass light on flesh,
and a green-copper steeple
and streaks of cloud beginning to glow.
I can't get over
how it all works in together
like a woman who just came to her window
and stands there filling it
jogging her baby in her arms.
She's so far off. Is it the light
that makes the baby pink?
I can see the little fists
and the rocking-horse motion of her breasts.
It's getting grayer and gold and chilly.
Two dog-sized lions face each other
at corners of a roof.
It's the yellow dust inside the tulips.
It's the shape of a tulip.
It's the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in.
It's a day like any other.

And now, folks, it being nearly 5:00, I'm off to the rest of my life: the wife, the kids, the oud. (Did I mention the oud? Ah, sure, 'tis a thing of beauty, fresh from Haluk Eraydin's workshop in Turkey. Those are pictures of its twin in Australia posted above--I haven't gotten around to snapping my own of it yet.)

"It's a day like any other," except I've posted again, and that's good, good, good. Or, shall we say, g'oud.

Saturday, September 17, 2005


All's askew this morning, albeit deliberately. I've been battling something nasty in my wrists for about a year now--first the left, which had me out of typing action for almost a month in the spring, and now the right, after a day of mousing around with my Reading Poetry syllabus--

Hang on. Worth noting that lovely verb: "mousing." The term of art, I gather, for using one of those Microsoft rodents, but doesn't it conjure up images of tiny red-coated hunters galloping across the kitchen floor, horns calling, hounds belling (is that what hounds do?), etc. In any case--

so I've been battling syndromes, Mr. Incredible-style, on and off for about a year now, and have decided to try a few new tactics, including what feels to me like a teetering-tall elevation in my desk chair (look, Mom! Up here!) and passing the mousie to the left-hand side, where I grope for and fumble with it like a teen-ager again.

Quite fun, really. So far. In fact, I keep thinking, however inappropriately, of Marilyn Hacker's little poem "Self": "I did it / differently," and so on. (If you don't know the poem, look it up. "Nerves whose duty is delight." Yum.)

In any case, if anything about the blog feels, ahem, different in the next few days, that's what, and that's why.

Mousing sinister,

Friday, September 16, 2005

On the Earbuds

Today's post over at Culture Industry features smart (if implicitly excoriating) notes on William Carlos Williams, a dandy (if glum) paragraph from Adorno, and word of a Sonic Youth DVD with videos galore.

I missed Sonic Youth--had turned, by their arrival, up other alleys, Tin Pan and otherwise. I fear it's too late for me now. Rather as it is with Language poetry, I suspect, and possibly with Adorno, too. A sad thought, buoyed though I am by the fun of re-reading Northrop Frye, The Boyfriend School, and E. M. Hull's The Sheik this weekend. Oh! And, lest I forget, a new muse on the earbuds: Savina Yannatou, a Greek diva unknown to me this long, but no longer. On the earbuds currently, a live CD with her ensemble, Primavera en Salonico: Terra Nostra. She just finished a lovely Lebanese lullaby--too short by half!--and has pitched into a Spanish seaside ballad that threatens, throughout, to spin just slightly out of control, as though the ensemble wanted to wrench it away from her and spin her back to the rockier, Balkan terrain she sang from a track or two before. Good stuff. Worth the wait.

Update (at last!)

Home from a haircut, I stopped by the computer for a moment to check my email before heading off to the market--and there it was, waiting in my inbox, the sweetest comment (forwarded from here): "Update! (please)."

How can I resist?

My plans to "blog my classes" haven't panned out yet, as you can tell. It may take another week or two to get a rhythm here; frankly, last week I was in a state of panic over the new courses, trying to scrabble the syllabi together; and this week, on a crazy, over-caffeinated high over being back in the classroom in three very fun classes. Let's see: by way of update, then, what HAVE I been up to?

In my Reading Poetry class, as I said a few posts back, we started off with Matthews' "A Major Work." I've been mulling the poem over ever since, not least because its first stanza sums up Zukofsky's three main categories of poetical pleasure--"the test of poetry is the range of pleasures it affords as sight, sound, and intellection"--and then adds the fourth, which I've called a "pleasure of character," too. Reading (intellection), seeing, hearing, and loving (moving out of yourself, deploying your sympathetic imagination, that sort of thing): that could frame a class, or the opening chapter of a book, come to think of it. The other thought that haunts me, which I haven't returned to in class, has to do with the final verb of the poem: "the great sloth heart may move." That "movement" makes me think of metaphor, which is a mode of "carrying across" or (to break down the etymologies) meta-("sharing, action in common, pursuit, quest, and, above all, change of place, order, condition, or nature") plus carrying or transfer. Metaphor moves, puts things in motion, etc. As does love.

We hit the issue of metaphor again yesterday--I'm skipping the second day, the Mary Oliver day, for the moment--when reading "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." Hmm... Let me backtrack a minute.

My thought was to start the class with a couple of days on poems that divide nicely into sections, so that we could get up to speed, collectively, on how to "divide and conquer" a poem. (I posted at length on the "divide and conquer" approach last spring--you can search it with the Google link above.) Thus, in the Mary Oliver, we tugged a little to see what sections it would split into, and then found the repetitions and variations that held the poem together: the paired adjectives, for example, that apply to the grasshopper's eyes ("enormous and complicated"), and the speaker's sense of herself ("idle and blessed"), and then, with an additional term, to the "you" the poem addressses: "Your one wild and precious life"). We also attended to the structural logic of the piece: that is, to what motivates each turning point and transition.

After about 45 minutes on the Oliver, we turned to "They Flee From Me," which also works nicely as a "poem in sections." (Better than the Oliver, probably, but I've taught it many, many times before and wanted a change!) This one divvies up by stanzas, and gives you the chance to see the speaker "change his tune," as I put it in class, at each transition: the cocky boasts of the first stanza, where the time frames are evenly split between past & present and the women are plural and implicitly like animals, eating from his hand; the wistful erotic reminiscence of the second stanza, where it's all in the past, and all about one woman, and she catches him and gives him a punning animal name ("Dear heart," with a pun on "hart," natch); the spite & linguistic collapse of the third, which clings briefly to the past ("it was no dream; I lay broad waking") and then gives up and joins the present, unable to muster a single memorable figure or elegant phrase. Good stuff, and a nice reminder for the students that not every speaker is as endlessly sincere as Oliver's!

(I'd meant to follow that last bit up with "The Road Less Travelled," but ran out of time. I'm used to my 3-hour seminar from the summer, and the 90 minute class session--80 minutes by the time the roll gets called--leaves me gasping, always.)

So, yesterday, to wrap up the "poems in sections" unit, we did "Adam's Curse" and the Dylan Thomas. Just briefly, for the moment, I'll say that teaching the Thomas reminded me that most of my students don't have any sense, really, of how to "unpack" a metaphor. They guess and fudge when you ask them to tease out what a phrase like "because their words had forked no lightning" or "how bright / Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay" might mean. I'm always reluctant to spend time on such things in class, except when I can frame them historically, in terms of the various ways various periods and poetics have treated the use of figurative language. But I think I need a few good exercises for outside of class to get the students more comfortable, precise, and confident when they tangle with a highly figurative passage.

WHICH I will post here, along with much else, sooner than this came, and more regularly. Really. I promise. But for now, I must, must, must go shopping, or the pre-Sabbath crowds will strip the shelves before me!

More soon,

Thursday, September 08, 2005

One for Next Week

Kate, over at the SSW Yahoo Group, suggested a group of poems for first-days-of-class. One I hadn't seen before was this, by Mary Oliver:
The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
I'm not a big Mary Oliver fan, for a variety of reasons--maybe I'll blog on those later--but I found myself quite taken with this. Anyway, a bunch of us on the listserv are all going to teach the poem and report on our class discussions. Come join the party, or listen in here, and I'll keep you posted!

Back to Classes!

My first day back in class today--first day teaching at all, aside from the NEH seminar, which hardly counts (those were colleagues, not students), since last spring. I felt eager and nervous pulling up to the office this morning, only some of which jitters could be explained by the fact that I hadn't entirely finished either syllabus for either class I was about to teach. Does anyone else out there have such a hard time picking poems, or choosing assignments? Is this a poetry thing, or just a me thing? (Thinking of Harryette Mullen's Muse & Drudge there: "is this a men thing, or a him thing?" Or words to that effect.)

(By the way, if you're the student who ran off, a year or two ago, with my signed copy of Muse & Drudge, I'd love to have it back. No questions asked.)

In the morning, my Romance class--35 students or so, three of whom were men, two of whom are English majors. It's a 200-level "popular literature" class, so the lack of majors doesn't entirely surprise me, but I'll have to adjust my plans a little here and there to respond. My history of the course--how I got interested in Romance fiction, how no one in my department wanted to teach the class, year after year, etc.--was entertaining enough, I think, as was my little sketch of 3rd-4th century Greek romances (erotika pathemata, as Anne Carson teaches me to call them: "erotic sufferings," or "sufferings of desire," played out in plots as extravagant and sentimental as anything in Bertrice Small's capacious Skye O'Malley).

I doubt I can say the same about the last little bit I tried to squeeze in. The rise of companionate marriage and affective individualism in the 17th century, and the concurrent rise of laws restricting or erasing women's property rights at marraige: these proved harder to follow as set-up for the books we're going to read. Maybe I can loop them back in more effectively later. (Both ideas borrowed from Pamela Regis's useful recent Natural History of the Romance Novel, which I plan to draw on a lot in the first couple of weeks of class.) Now it's on to The Boyfriend School, and topic 1: "What is 'Romance,' and why do people say such nasty things about it?" Some good new links on that subject on Jennifer Crusie's website, which I'll draw on in a later post.

In my Reading Poetry class, I spent so much time setting up the class--the new book, new syllabus-in-progress, newly-recovered-from-burnout professor, newly non-systematic approach--that we didn't have a whole lot of time for actual poems, alas! We got through one, ONE poem, in the 90 minute period: this little one by William Matthews:
A Major Work

Poems are hard to read
Pictures are hard to see
Music is hard to hear
And people are hard to love

But whether from brute need
Or divine energy
At last mind eye and ear
And the great sloth heart may move
I framed the discussion in terms of "the poem as life" and "the poem as art"--my version, this latter, of Helen Vendler's "the poem as arranged life," which I find too cumbersome and hard to remember. I like the way that the first stanza gives you a taste of both: that is, it gets you to consider poetry as art (we encounter it like a picture or a piece of music) and then slips you that little left hook about the poem as a surrogate or represented person, after which thought you have to respond somewhat differently.

My favorite moment in the poem, though, has to be the sudden arrival of that "great sloth heart," which reminds me of a wonderful paragraph about reading near the start of Michael Schmidt's Lives of the Poets:

"The best reader needs the seven deadly sins in double measure. Pride makes us equal with specialists and professional critics and impervious to their attacks. Lechery puts us in tune with the varied passions and loves that we encounter. We feel envy when a reader who has gone before preempts our response; this only spurs us on to fresh readings. Anger overwhelms us when injustices occur, and it should be disproportionate: when a poet dies in destitiution or is lost for a generation or a century. We experience covetousness when we encounter poets we are prepared to love but their books are unavailable in the shops, so we covet our friends' libraries or the great private collectins. Gluttony means we will not be satisfied even by a full helping of Spenser or the whole mess of The Excursion; we feed and feed and still ask for more. Finally, dear old sloth has us curled up on a sofa or swinging in a hammock with our books piled around, avoiding the day job and the lover's complaint. These are necessary vices." (11)

Say Amen, somebody! Me, I'm off to get back to work on some Bach for mandolin.

(P.S. The oud countdown has begun...)

Friday, September 02, 2005

A Breakthrough, of Sorts

...on my Norman Finkelstein essay, after a bad night--woke up, sat up, and pouf! There it was: the structure that would let me talk about all of the topics and poems I've thrashed out and worried over for the last week or so.

Have I ever mentioned that I love it when that happens?

So--now I can get back to other things, like my Reading Poetry and Teaching Poetry classes, while the piece more or less writes itself. Yeah, right. But it will be easier, and I can stop griping, which will be fun for everyone.

Two unrelated notes:

1) I've spent a lot of time over at the other blog recently, thinking through some issues about "secular Jewish culture" and its intersections, such as they are, with something called "radical poetry." If you're interested in either side of that equation, you might check it out.

2) I also received, a few days back, the most gorgeous, but gorgeous chapbook I think I've ever seen: Peter O'Leary's A Mystical Theology of the Limbic Fissure, from Dos Madres press. I'll post more on the poems in the next few days; a little Catholic poesy for diversion during my ongoing sojourn through Reb Finkelstein. For the moment, though, let me just say that the icons and little graphic touches throughout this book are like ocular baklava. I knew Dos Madres did good work; in fact, Finkelstein has his own Dos Madres chapbook, An Assembly, which inspired me to write on him when I re-read it this spring. But my goodness--they've outdone themselves this time.

Hats off to Robert J. Murphy, executive editor of Dos Madres. We who are about to read salute you!

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Or maybe it's not memory at all?

Oh, hell. Too many ideas now: pleasure ideas (via Barthes and others), memory vs. nostalgia ideas. I'm sure on some level they all fit together, and will do so in the final essay, but right now, they're a jumble and distraction. Bring on the elves, folks; this shoemaker's out of here.

It's the Hard Knock Life

Sorry so silent recently, everyone. I'm back at work on an essay, on one of my favorite Jewish American poets, Norman Finkelstein, for a collection of essays on "Secular Jewish Culture and Radical Poetic Practice." Haven't actually written an essay in almost a year now, not since a longish piece on Muriel Rukeyser for Parnassus, and it's hard, damned hard, to get the wheels rolling again. (Blogging helps me write blog entries, not essays, evidently.)

I spent yesterday rereading Norman's first book, Restless Messengers, in a state of near panic that may be a familiar part of my own writing process--but that doesn't make it any easier! Discovered, late in the day, a curious frame for the book as a whole, which I'd never noticed before. The first poem ushers us into a "living structure of memory," while the last declares that "the Sabbath of memory is over." One of those noticings that seems utterly obvious, once you've seen it, but I'd missed it for a decade. That sent me off to Yosef Yerushalmi's book on Jewish history and Jewish memory, Zakhor, for the rest of the day, and I woke up ready to hammer out a draft of at least that portion of the essay.

Well, it's lunchtime now, and I've written--what? Two paragraphs? Grrr... Trying to thrash out the difference (if there is one) between that "living structure of memory" and the sort of "nostalgic rememberence" that Norman writes about in other modern Jewish writers. There is one, I think--but how to put it into words and, at the same time, ground that discussion in something said, attentive and insightful, about particular poems?

I can't complain too loudly. After all, this sure beats working for a living. But it's a useful reminder, as I head back into teaching, of just how hard writing about poems can be, even for an old, old hand like me.

Thursday, August 25, 2005


A good day at the library, friends. It turns out that Skokie PL has a copy of Allen Grossman's elusive Introduction to Poetry lectures-on-cassette, which I've hankered after for years now. Not only can I listen to them in the car during my morning crawl to the office--well, I can if I borrow my daughter's tape player, at least--I can also crib new ideas for my own Reading Poetry course in the fall! (Naturally, you'll hear about them here, too, and on the listserv.)

But wait! There's more! At the Friends of the Library sale table, I scored, for a dollar a throw, Patrick Kavanagh's Collected Poems, an old Carl Rakosi collection, Amulet, and a copy of Annie Finch's Eve. Not quite the sort of haul that Mark brings back from NYC, but it will do for a poor boy like me.

Here's a poem I like from the start of the Finch. It has a lovely dactylic feel, which is always fun (she's written on how such meters have been coded "feminine" at various times); it also reminds me of my daughter, who is always a hoot in church and just after, singing parodies of the hymns. (Sometimes inadvertant, but brilliant, as in: "Glory to God in the highest, / And peace to us people on Earth." Shades of Yehuda Amichai: "God-Full-of-Mercy, the prayer for the dead. / If God was not full of mercy, / Mercy would have been in the world, / Not just in Him.") But I digress: here's the poem:

Running in Church
--for Marie

Then, you were a hot-thinking, thin-lidded tinderbox.
Losing your balance meant nothing at all. You would
pour through the aisles in the highest cathedrals,
careening deftly as patriarchs brooded.

You made the long corridors ring, tintinnabular
echoes exploring the pounded cold floor,
forcing the walls to the truth of your progress:
there was a person in this church's core.

Past thick stained-glass colors wafted and swirling
in pooled interludes that swung down from the rafters,
cinnabar wounds threw light on your face, where the
pliant young bones were dissolving in laughter.
Wonderful, that--especially "brooded," which implicitly feminizes those patriarchs via Milton (God brooding, bird-like, over the abyss), and at the close, I think, where you need to imagine the road-not-taken, the unwritten, but clearly imagined alternative course the daughter's life might have taken (her bones not pliant but stiffening, not dissolving but growing rigid, not in laughter but in tears or punishment) for the poem's real bite to be felt. Wonderful shift in diction, too, from the first line to the last. How did that happen, I ask myself--or would ask my students.

Great fun all around.


Feeling terribly scattered this morning--all this week, really. A mix of my usual start-of-the-school-year energy and optimism and my also-usual, by now at least, anxiety over all the projects left unfinished over the summer. Some unstarted, even. "The summer is over, the harvest is done, and we are not saved": that sort of thing. Easier to gather books than to read them, easier to read them than to write about them, easier to do anything--but anything--than write!

(Write what? Well, let's see: an essay on Norman Finkelstein--the poet, not the radical historian--; another on novels about poets; another on A. S. Byatt's Possession; a couple of short takes and book reviews. When I was younger, I could bang out such things in a few weeks' time. Nowadays, it takes that long to get the wheels in motion.)

A couple of the tasks ahead of me--the ones most relevant to this blog--have to do with my "Reading Poetry" and "Teaching Poetry" classes for the fall. In the former, I need to choose the poems to teach: this year I've ordered up the big new Norton Anthology of Poetry, but I haven't really the slightest idea what to do with it. A chronological survey? A course by topic, by theme? This will be the 20th time I've taught the course, so I need to do something new to keep myself engaged, but what? As for the "Teaching Poetry" class, it will be based more or less on the seminar I taught this summer, so that shouldn't be too hard to set up--but I fret, nevertheless.

OK: off to do something more or less useful, like wrap up the permissions for this long-a-comin' Ronald Johnson collection. As a thank you gift for all of you who've read along this far, here's a favorite, Ron-Johnson-like poem by James Merrill, whose auto-elegiac tone has nothing to do with why I'm posting it, I hope!

b o d y

Look closely at the letters. Can you see,
entering (stage right), then floating full,
then heading off - so soon -
how like a little kohl-rimmed moon
o plots her course from b to d

--as y, unanswered, knocks at the stage door?
Looked at too long, words fail,

phase out. Ask, now that body shines

no longer, by what light you learn these lines

and what the b and d stood for.

More soon,