Something new up at Berfrois. In which we argue for the power of the napkin poem! If yr sitting out with a cup, give it a read?
Louis Menand’s “The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University” (2010) questions why forms of higher education have been so intractable against change. One reason suggested is the surprising conservatism revealed of professors as a group, surprising because professors are often associated with more liberal stances and presumed to understand the connections between one’s views and why one might hold those views. Understanding and questioning one’s own assumptions and presuppositions are important antidotes to the poisons of propaganda. Menand describes the 2007 national survey conducted by Gross and Simmons of full time faculty members. Part time instructors were not included, a group that no doubt would have presented particular “methodological challenges” (134), because the adjunct does not share homogeneous characteristics to a group of tenured professors. In any case, more important to notes on a fantasy democracy is Menand’s reference to an older study of the population as a whole.
That study found that
“In the general population, most people do not know what it means to identify themselves as liberals or conservatives. People will report themselves to be liberals in an opinion poll and then answer specific questions with views normally thought of as conservative. People also give inconsistent answers to the same questions over time” (134 – 135).
In footnotes, Menand explains the primary sources of his research: “Gross and Simmons used a number of measures to confirm the self-reporting: for example, they correlated answers to survey questions about political persuasion and political party with views on specific issues, such as the war in Iraq, abortion, homosexual relations, and so on” (134), while in “the classic study [of the general population]…results have been much confirmed” (135). That study, by Philip Converse, titled “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” was published in Ideology and Discontent, in 1964.
Why would the explanations of the average person on the street not correlate, be inconsistent, even incoherent? Menand says,
“This is because most people are not ideologues – they don’t have coherent political belief systems – and their views on the issues do not hang together. Their reporting is not terribly accurate” (135-136).
That they nevertheless vote for people and issues they think they understand but probably don’t might simply create some random noise in the results, filtered out by some law of large numbers; or, what we think of as our democracy is a kind of fantasy, but one that, like fantasy sports teams, is based on a reality, and can be a lot fun, lucrative, or provide for any number of teachable moments and lessons learned. Outcomes often include random or chance influence.
An example of the questioning of assumptions and presuppositions as important to understanding causal correlations can be found in Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (2014). At the end of his Introduction, Piketty says,
“The history of income and wealth is always deeply political, chaotic, and unpredictable. How this history plays out depends on how societies view inequalities and what kinds of policies and institutions they adopt to measure and transform them. No one can foresee how these things will change in the decades to come. The lessons of history are nevertheless useful, because they help us to see a little more clearly what kinds of choices we will face in the coming century and what sorts of dynamics will be at work….Since history always invents its own pathways, the actual usefulness of these lessons from the past remains to be seen. I offer them to readers without presuming to know their full import” (35).
Piketty’s primary statement, his argument, is expressed in a simple formula that illustrates a fundamental inequality in the creation and distribution of wealth that promotes ever greater risk of variance or disparity between the wealthy and the rest of society. The formula is
“r > g (where r stands for the average annual rate of return on capital, including profits, dividends, interest, rents, and other income from capital, expressed as a percentage of its total value, and g stands for the rate of growth of the economy, that is, the annual increase in income or output)” (25).
What happens when r is much greater than g? Piketty says that
“it is almost inevitable that inherited wealth will dominate wealth amassed from a lifetime’s labor by a wide margin” (26).
And what when that happens? The divergence of inequality reaches
“levels potentially incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies” (26).
In other words, inequality reaches such an extreme that democracy is at risk of becoming a fantasy. There is of course much more to Piketty than appears here (his book runs to 685 pages). But how might politics and voting influence wealth divergence such that r does not become overly concentrated and grow at a rate that increasingly continues to outpace g, undermining the very structure on which the accepted values (what is wanted) of the society in question are based, undermining the structure to an unsustainable level, and the whole system collapses? Collapse is what Karl Marx predicted.
Was Marx wrong? “Not yet,” says Louis Menand in a recent New Yorker article:
“Marx was also not wrong about the tendency of workers’ wages to stagnate as income for the owners of capital rises. For the first sixty years of the nineteenth century—the period during which he began writing “Capital”—workers’ wages in Britain and France were stuck at close to subsistence levels. It can be difficult now to appreciate the degree of immiseration in the nineteenth-century industrial economy. In one period in 1862, the average workweek in a Manchester factory was eighty-four hours.”
And wages are once again at stagnation, benefits at a minimum, if any level at all, pensions something your grandfather once had, and if you’re an adjunct instructor, your 84 hours are made up working on eight different campuses simultaneously.
“How we think and evaluate,” said S. I. Hayakawa in his Introduction to “The Use and Misuse of Language” (1962), is inextricably bound up with how we talk.
“If our spoken evaluations are hasty and ill-considered, it is likely that our unspoken ones are even more so….the unexamined key-words in our thought processes, whether ‘fish’ or ‘free enterprise’ or ‘the military mind’ or ‘the Jews’ or ‘creeping socialism’ or ‘bureaucracy,’ can, by creating the illusion of meaning where no clear-cut meaning exists, hinder and misdirect our thought” (viii).
The use of “unexamined key-words” permeating portals such as Twitter and Facebook, both of which are largely venues for “unspoken evaluations,” provides a contemporary example of Hayakawa’s example of how
“all prejudices work in just this way – racial, ideological, religious, natural, occupational, or regional. Like the man who ‘doesn’t like fish,’ there are the ideologically muscle-bound who ‘don’t like the profit system’ whether it manifests itself in a corner newsstand or in General Motors, or who ‘reject government intervention in business’ no matter what kind of intervention in what kinds of business for what purpose” (viii).
Hayakawa was concerned not with the “correctness” of people’s talk, but with “the adequacy of their language as a ‘map’ of the ‘territory’ of experience being talked about” (vii).
That territory is now pockmarked with unhappiness and anxiety across the whole landscape of voting experience, as the “keywords” of its mapping search features illustrate: “pussy,” “locker room,” “wall.”
Where a pussy might be an opening in a locker room wall. I had a bit of juvenile fun on my own Facebook page recently. And it’s always interesting to see what keywords incite what reaction when they trigger the unspoken. I was working with satire and sarcasm (one difference being that satire usually has a target, while sarcasm is closer to farce, which is comedy without a target). Anyway, here are the posts I put up over the span of a few days:
Trump tries to woo Nobel Committee, says, “I’m going to make poetry rhyme again!”
Trump to dig moat around his locker room and fill it with crocodile tears.
English majors organizing to protest musician winning Nobel for Literature.
Trump to build wall around his locker room to keep Media out; meanwhile, Hillary advocates for Locker Rooms Without Borders.
Trump to defecting GOP supporters: “Wait! I’m going to make Mud Wrestling great again!”
Trump to open new restaurant franchise called Locker Rooms, to compete with Hooters.
Leak reveals Trump’s locker room not as big as he claimed.
Regent University to name new Locker Room after Trump. Says Robertson, “We’re going to make locker rooms great again!”
Trump on the Issues: “I thought they said ‘tissues.’ Stay on the tissues. I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about!
But where do the fundamental keywords that move thought from the unspoken sphere to a spoken realm come from?
In “Love’s Body” (1966), Norman O. Brown suggested words and ideas come from the body. Thus, we have a “head of state,” who sits at “the seat of government,” trying to control the “body politic”:
“’A Multitude of men are made One person.’ The idea of a people is the idea of a corporation, and the idea of a corporation is the idea of a juristic person. ‘This is more than Consent, or Concord: it is a reall Unitie of them all, in one and the same Person.’ Out of many, one: a logical impossibility; a piece of poetry, or symbolism; an enacted or incarnate metaphor; a poetic creation. The Commonwealth is ‘an Artificial Man,’ a body politic, ‘in which,’ the Soveraignty is an ‘Artificial Soul; the Magistrates, and other Officers of Judicature and Execution, artificiall Joynts,” etc. Does this ‘Artificiall Man,’ this ‘Feigned or Artificiall Person, make ‘a real Unitie of them all”? Are juristic persons real, or only legal fictions, personae fictae? ‘Analogy with the living person and shift of meaning are the essence of the mode of legal statement which refers to corporate bodies.’ Is the shift of meaning real? Does the metaphor accomplish a metamorphosis? ‘The Pacts and Covenants, by which the parts of this Body Politique were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that Fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.” Or like the hoc est corpus meum, This is my body, pronounced by God in the Redemption. Is there a real transubstantiation? Is there a miracle in the communion of the mortal God, the great leviathan; a miracle which gives life to the individual communicants also? For so-called ‘real,’ ‘living,’ ‘natural’ persons, individual persons, are not natural but juristic persons, personae fictae, social creations, no more real than corporations.”
Hobbes, Leviathan, 3-4, 136, 143.
Wolff, “On the Nature of Legal Persons.” Hart, “Definition and Theory in Jurisprudence.
“I’m going to legalize catnip!”
What does it mean to “vote one’s conscience”? Isn’t the conscience that comfortable place where sleeps one’s presuppositions, unquestioned assumptions, background biases, wishes, wants, and whimsy?
James Joyce was three months old when in May of 1882 two high-level government men associated with British rule were assassinated in what came to be called the Phoenix Park murders. The resulting fallout probably delayed home rule decades, destroyed more lives and families, fed family arguments over politics for decades, was absorbed into history and myth. Charles Stewart Parnell’s career faced new challenges, and Parnell’s early death was a tragedy for Ireland.
In “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Joyce’s Stephen recalls his family arguments arising from the topic –
That was called politics. There were two sides in it: Dante was on one side and his father and Mr. Casey were on the other side but his mother and Uncle Charles were on no side. Every day there was something in the paper about it.
It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak. When would he be like the fellows in Poetry and Rhetoric? They had big voices and big boots and they studied trigonometry.
Joyce’s Stephen, in “Portrait” and again in “Ulysses,” considers himself the servant of two masters, the Church and British rule. Stephen wants nothing to do with either. That Britain has its own church separate from Ireland’s complicates issues:
— Really, Simon, you should not speak that way before Stephen. It’s not right.
— Oh, he’ll remember all this when he grows up, said Dante hotly, the language he heard against God and religion and priests in his own home.
— Let him remember too, cried Mr Casey to her from across the table, the language with which the priests and the priests’ pawns broke Parnell’s heart and hounded him into his grave. Let him remember that too when he grows up.
— Sons of bitches! cried Mr Dedalus. When he was down they turned on him to betray him and rend him like rats in a sewer. Lowlived dogs! And they look it! By Christ, they look it!
— They behaved rightly, cried Dante. They obeyed their bishops and their priests. Honour to them!
— Well, it is perfectly dreadful to say that not even for one day in the year, said Mrs Dedalus, can we be free from these dreadful disputes!
Uncle Charles raised his hands mildly and said :
— Come now, come now, come now ! Can we not have our opinions whatever they are without this bad temper and this bad language? It is too bad surely.
Mrs Dedalus spoke to Dante in a low voice but Dante said loudly:
— I will not say nothing. I will defend my church and my religion when it is insulted and spit on by renegade catholics.
Mr Casey pushed his plate rudely into the middle of the table and, resting his elbows before him, said in a hoarse voice to his host:
— Tell me, did I tell you that story about a very famous spit?
The young Steve tries to understand the arguments, the claims and evidence and reasoning. He does not name the fallacies, not yet:
Stephen looked with affection at Mr Casey’s face which stared across the table over his joined hands. He liked to sit near him at the fire, looking up at his dark fierce face. But his dark eyes were never fierce and his slow voice was good to listen to. But why was he then against the priests? Because Dante must be right then. But he had heard his father say that she was a spoiled nun … Perhaps that made her severe against Parnell. And she did not like him to play with Eileen because Eileen was a protestant and when she was young she knew children that used to play with protestants and the protestants used to make fun of the litany of the Blessed Virgin. Tower of Ivory, they used to say, House of Gold! How could a woman be a tower of ivory or a house of gold? Who was right then ? And he remembered the evening in the infirmary in Clongowes, the dark waters, the light at the pierhead and the moan of sorrow from the people when they had heard.
Stephen tries to understand the allegiances:
He was for Ireland and Parnell and so was his father and so was Dante too for one night at the band on the esplanade she had hit a gentleman on the head with her umbrella because he had taken off his hat when the band played God save the Queen at the end.
But all the young Steven can really understand and what seems to stick with him over the years are the tears:
At the door Dante turned round violently and shouted down the room, her cheeks flushed and quivering with rage :
— Devil out of hell! We won! We crushed him to death! Fiend!
The door slammed behind her.
Mr Casey, freeing his arms from his holders, suddenly bowed his head on his hands with a sob of pain.
— Poor Parnell! he cried loudly. My dead king! He sobbed loudly and bitterly.
Stephen, raising his terrorstricken face, saw that his father’s eyes were full of tears.
The older Stephen decides not to join the political argument, but will devote himself to his art, his writing:
A tide began to surge beneath the calm surface of Stephen ‘s friendliness.
— This race and this country and this life produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am.
— Try to be one of us, repeated Davin. In your heart you are an Irishman but your pride is too powerful.
— My ancestors threw off their language and took another, Stephen said. They allowed a handful of foreigners to subject them. Do you fancy I am going to pay in my own life and person debts they made? What for?
— For our freedom, said Davin.
— No honourable and sincere man, said Stephen, has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell but you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another. And you invite me to be one of you. I’d see you damned first.
— They died for their ideals, Stevie, said Davin. Our day will come yet, believe me.
Stephen, following his own thought, was silent for an instant.
— The soul is born, he said vaguely, first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.
Is poetry a sturdy platform for political action? Aren’t poets the ones following rabbits down holes? Jumping into ponds to hug moons? Talking blather and twittering sentiments to one another across an inky night? Politicians often twist tongues, glossolalia filling their cheeks, but what they speak is not usually considered poetry.
“Poets for Corbyn,” another e-chapbook from Berfrois, features 21 poems by 20 poets, edited by Russell Bennetts. The poems are unified by their support for Jeremy Corbyn (1949), a member of the UK parliament and of the Labour Party, and currently standing to be Labour’s Leader. US readers might be accurate in aligning Corbyn with their own Bernie Sanders.
Mixing poetics and politics reminds me of the note Woody Guthrie taped to his guitar in 1943: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” If music and culture critic Greil Marcus is right, and the guitar is not a machine and it does not kill fascists, then poetry is not a fit medium for political activism. But why does Marcus take Woody’s note so literally? Guthrie knew the difference between figurative and literal language, but he also knew that even the white lettered on red background STOP sign is an argument, even if only occasionally a driver passes through it with some disagreement.
Maybe one of the most politically effective signifying messages in “Poets for Corbyn” is Nick Telfer’s “For the Love of God.” A concrete poem, it evokes a rally chant where we hear the single slogan “No Blair” shouted repeatedly, 21 times in a black and white grid: noblair; no noblesse – shares of rights and duties are equal.
That Woody labeled his guitar a machine is more than a nod to labor and unions. Woody was a machinist, manufacturing messages in song – in song because song is what people (as in The People) hear and respond to and remember. And song is poetry. Poetry stirs pathos, and it’s pathos that gets politicians elected, pathos that goes to war, pathos that sacrifices, pathos that bangs the drum slowly and paddles the boat and joins the march and walks down the line.
How do the poems in “Poets for Corbyn” sound? What forms are employed? What characteristics of poetry are in evidence? Are the poems difficult to understand (i.e. modern or postmodern and such)? Are the poems all polemical?
Some of the poems might be considered polemical. From Michael Rosen’s “For Jeremy Corbyn”:
“celebrating an economic system
that was developed and finessed
with the use of child labour around 1810
…they tell us that socialism is outdated.”
Some of the poems sound traditional, employing stanzas with rhyme, as in Michael Schmidt’s “Until I Built the Wall,” a kind of ballad narrative:
“Until I built the wall they did not find me
Sweet anarchy! tending quietly
To wild birds or picking the blackberry.”
Some of the poems in “Poets for Corbyn” are clear and concise, but with irony spreading like tattoos, as in Helen Ivory’s “Doll Hospital at the Top of the Hill”:
“Take her to the doll hospital;
restring the limbs with slipknots
fill the skull with lint
clean out the craze lines on her face
and paint on a 1940s smile.”
Some of the poems are painfully forthright. Reminding me of the ruined hopes of George McGovern’s 1972 US Presidential campaign, is Andy Jackson’s “Unelectable”:
“I represent the things you want but cannot say,
the ideology of why the hell not; socialism redux,
neither new nor old, not clean or compromised
but human to its heart, and that could be enough.”
Of course, in 1972, the human heart was not enough. Will it ever be enough? A heart needs a voice, as illustrated in Nicholas Murray’s “J. C.”:
“Corbyn’s no knight in shining vest,
or bright Messiah from the West
but someone who has found a way to voice
a fractured country’s need for choice,
to say we’ll make another kind of noise:
That “No way!” is a call for solidarity, expanded upon in Erik Kennedy’s (long-titled) “Growing Fears That the Leadership Contest Has Been Hijacked by Far-Left Infiltrators”:
“and if in your entire life
no-one to identify with
who wasn’t first and last
a danger to the good
through well-meaning compromise,
if you can agree to this,
resignedly but definitely,
you might be a socialist.”
The austerity buzzword is taken down by Becky Cherriman’s “Austerity”:
“Hear it scutter
along the guttering of offices
in the bins behind Waitrose,
the thorned bushes at the playground’s edge –
a language devised by the high-born
to parch the lips of those with less.”
In place of austerity, Josephine Corcoran suggests a “Coat” of hope:
“A woman filled with the gladness of living
refused to be suspicious of hope….
Deep inside the coat,
the woman held on to the goodness of people.”
And of opposing viewpoints, the kind that lead to divorce? From Erin Belieu’s “Poem of Philosophical and Parental Conundrums Written in An Election Year”:
“And that’s what you call the realpolitik in action
when it comes to divorce, wherein the rubber hits
the ‘blended’ family’s road. But since I’m not…
…and I’m thinking
maybe I got it right this time…
…the obstinate and beautiful mystery
that every soul ends up being to every other.”
The poems in “Poets for Corbyn” are unified by their call for solidarity in support of a purposeful cause. For that call to be successful, the politics must not be subsumed by the poetics. There is tension here, no doubt. Woody’s machined message was made to defy backstabbing political machinations. At the same time, real machines made real weapons used in a real war, and a military industrial complex prevailed. But Woody knew that, even as Marcus does. “What did you learn in school today?” Tom Paxton sang.
Over at Berfrois, readers may download for free an electronic copy of “Poets for Corbyn.” There are several covers readers may choose from; I liked the one with the blue bicycle.
“Poets for Corbyn”, edited by Russell Bennetts, Pendant Publishing, London, UK, 2015. ISBN 978-09928034-5-2. V2.0. 34 pages, with poems by Tom Pickard, Michael Rosen, Pascale Petit, Ian Birchall, Michael Schmidt, Marion McCready, Nick Telfer, Rory Waterman, Helen Ivory, Iain Galbraith, Andy Jackson, Nicholas Murray, Alec Finlay, Erik Kennedy, Ian Pindar, Becky Cherriman, Josephine Corcoran, Natalie Chin, Ernest Schonfield, and Erin Belieu. Covers by Evan Johnston @evn_johnston.
In “Politics and the English Language” (1946), George Orwell advises “never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” Perhaps Orwell didn’t go far enough; a total abstinence from metaphor might be more effective. Orwell recommended checking against the rule when one might be “in doubt” regarding the effect of a word or a phrase. Orwell offered six “rules” writers might consult when “instinct fails.” The rule regarding metaphor is the first; the second suggests “never use a long word where a short one will do.” But rule number three cuts even deeper: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” Rule four is tricky, requiring grammar notes: “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” Don’t have grammar notes? Don’t worry; Orwell himself breaks the passive rule occasionally. Rule number five reminds us to stick to the English we know: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” Finally, the clean up rule makes all the others serve a common goal: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
Orwell refused to give up on either politics or the English language. He remained positive about both, and believed that improvements in the use of language would lead to improvements in politics: “…the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”