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.