A Literary Thanksgiving Feast

"Hard Times for These Times," Charles Dickens (1854). Drawing: "Mr. Harthouse Dining at the Bounderbys'."

On a big platter in the middle of the full table sits the fat novel, its dust jacket a cracking bronze, peeling at the edges, its pages sliced and curling, its story stuffed with, well, stuffing: characters mixed with plot in a warm, moist setting, everyone talking at once, voices waxing, then waning, then waxing again, still louder.

A bowl of essays is passed around the table; there’s plenty for everyone. There’s a new dish, something called “creative non-fiction.” I try some, but find it’s not so new, after all, for isn’t all writing creative? And anyway why would we want to read writing that is not creative?

“Pass the poems, please,” someone at the other end of the table says. Poems are like olives. Some have pits, putting your teeth at risk; others are pitted, hollow. Some poems are saltier than others, and may be filled with white almonds or cherry red pimento peppers. If you squeeze a poem you get cooking oil.  And like olive oil, the oil from poems might be extra-virgin, refined, or not potable.

A gravy bowl of APA-style sauce spills across the tablecloth and an argument ensues as to who is at fault, an argument of causation. “Why is that nasty stuff even on the table?” someone asks. A short scene flashes into a drama that quickly subsides with a denouement of dessert: The Emperor of Ice Cream appears with chocolate covered couplets.

But that’s not all, for then Sestina rolls in a six-layered, short story torte. It’s a literary feast, and in these hard times, we are thankful, at least, for literature.

Addendum: My sister Barb’s comment reminded me that I neglected to include beverages in the literary feast post, and I suggested she pick up a six pack of Ballads and maybe a couple of bottles of Memoir. Limericks might be served for pre-meal cocktails, unfermented satire for those who like less bite, but large jugs of stream of consciousness should be kept full and within reach, for readers will surely be thirsty.

Update, Nov. 24: Thanks to Berfrois for joining us at the table!

On Poetry

Some days ago, Susan suggested a book I’ve finally opened, Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life. “It is always quietly thrilling,” Bryson says in the introduction, “to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before.” He’s discovered a rooftop vista accessible through a hidden door. The experience causes him to realize that he’s a stranger to his house, an English rectory built roughly 150 years ago. He’s had an epiphany, for he decides that “it might be interesting, for the length of a book, to consider the ordinary things in life, to notice them for once and treat them as if they were important, too. Looking around my house, I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me.”

I’d just opened the book, and already I had a bit of an epiphany of my own, for I realized that Bryson’s “quietly thrilling” experience resulting from a new perspective on an old thing is a practical definition of poetry. At least, that is what successful poetry often accomplishes, an image of a familiar thing viewed in a new light, in such a way that we feel a stranger to the thing, as familiar as it might be, and we want to research its origins, its purpose, and to revalue its uses – now that we’ve a new realization of the thing’s importance, as revealed by our newly found perspective; we want to get to know the thing all over again. We want to save it, rescue the thing from the rummage sale, for in poetry we find our own hidden door. Perhaps this revaluing of things, of changing our minds about what we want, is what all successful art accomplishes, and also explains John Cage’s silence as a place to find hidden sounds.

The poet practices legerdemain; he’s a sleight of hand man, as described in Wallace Stevens’s “The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man”: “…So bluish clouds / Occurred above the empty house and the leaves / Of the rhododendrons raddled their gold, / As if someone lived there….”  And, as Ferlinghetti added, “…and all without mistaking / any thing / for what it may not be.” For, as Stevens goes on, “The wheel survives the myths.” And finally, “It may be,” concludes Stevens, “that the ignorant man, alone, / Has any chance to mate his life with life.”

Now Playing at Plato’s Cave: “The Reel World”

Plato opened the first movie theatre, the audience chained to seats, unable to see the projectionist, and there were no refreshments or intermissions. You really had to be a movie buff to enjoy a film at Plato’s Cave.

McLuhan (Understanding Media, 1964) explained that we must be trained to see movies, for “movies assume a high level of literacy in their users and prove baffling to the nonliterate [the unlit].” If a man disappears from the screen, the nonliterate wants to know where he went. “But the film audience, like the book reader, accepts mere sequence as rational.” And perspective is gravity, gravitas. The nonliterate will not sit still and be quiet in a movie theatre. They lack the requisite cultural-etiquette training, which requires the natural, balanced sensorium (the five senses tuned so that no one sense dominates another) to be dominated by the sense of sight. “For those who thus fix their eyes,” McLuhan explains, “perspective results.” This is why hot buttered popcorn is so popular in movie theatres – the nose is hard-pressed to go two hours with nothing to smell. The movie theatre is the new voting booth, where we learn both what we’re missing and what we want. “What the Orient saw in a Hollywood movie was a world in which all the ordinary people had cars and electric stoves and refrigerators…That is another way of getting a view of the film medium as monster ad for consumer goods,” McLuhan said.

There are things we don’t want to see, movies we’ve no interest in, TV shows we channel surf away from, books we self-remainder to the rummage sale. We avoid certain conversations, too, closing our ears now to the sacred, now to the profane; there are things we don’t want to hear. Yet touch is the most involving of the senses, and the sense of smell is stronger than the sense of sight, and is tied to taste. Thus we say of a bad movie that it stinks. We instinctually avert our eyes from the ghastly, but when we want to see what we don’t want to look at, we go to the movies. “It is a spectacle,” Wallace Stevens said (“Chaos in Motion and Not in Motion,” 1945), “Scene 10 becomes 11 / In Series X, Act IV, et cetera. / People fall out of windows, trees tumble down, / Summer is changed to winter, the young grow old, / The air is full of children, statues, roofs / And snow. The theatre is spinning round,….”

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John: 20-29). Blessed today might be those who have seen and yet still believe. Yet “a fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” Blake said in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” (and which the neuroscientists are busy trying to explain). What should we see; what should we read? What are our choices? “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else,” John Cage said, in his “Lecture on Nothing” (Silence, 1973). Just so, Cage gives us 4’33” of silence, but not silence, for we hear what we hear, note what we note, for we have eyes to see, ears to hear. McLuhan predicted YouTube: “Soon everyone will be able to have a small, inexpensive film projector that plays an 8-mm sound cartridge as if on a TV screen. This type of development is part of our present technological implosion.”

The blogger gets McLuhan’s argument: “The typewriter…has caused an integration of functions and the creation of much private independence. G. K. Chesterton demurred about this new independence as a delusion, remarking that ‘women refused to be dictated to and went out and became stenographers.’” Just so, academics are beginning to refuse the traditional forms of sanctioned publishing, for the potential to blog brings about, as McLuhan said of the typewriter, “an entirely new attitude to the written and printed word.” Back inside Plato’s Cave and McLuhan’s (via Joyce) “reel world,” some critic tries to discern what we’re actually seeing and hearing, as if we don’t have eyes to see, ears to hear. Well, yes, but we can’t see the real thing. Behold, human beings living in an underground cave, blogging. This is a world of appearances, through a glass, lightly shuttering.

All Stung Over By Links of Googled Grace

We are stung by it, in Flannery O’Connor’s world, where grace is a holy bee attracted to the colors of the soul’s peacock-like feathers, or we are brushed by a mere grace singing like a wind, stirring Wallace Stevens’s “gold-feathered bird” in “The palm at the end of the mind”; its “fire-fangled feathers dangle down,” and we become grace when we are satisfied to merely be. In any case, we can not know if grace will, like Portia’s mercy, “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,” or if grace, like Flannery’s wooden leg, will smack us between the eyes as we roll casually under a mellow blue wave.

So it seemed when we were close to rest last evening, checking our Gmail, and noticed, in the sidebar, links, to ads, whose words appeared pulled directly from our text. After a few clicks, we got to the bottom of this, for Google explains: “Ad targeting in Gmail is fully automated, and no humans read your email in order to target advertisements or related information.” As if we should be comforted by the fact that no humans read our email; it’s not the humans we are worried about, we thought, and thought again of Richard Brautigan’s (1967) “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.” We are living with the machines now, their grace as palpable as bees whose dance would show us the way to an immortal light, which is to say a mere mortal light, but which might be enough to light us a new path to an old palm.

Can Business Rescue the Humanities?

While Plato ruefully proposed to banish the poet from his Republic, today’s Humanities aficionados may seek to bar businesspersons from their club. Yet the Humanities are in crisis, as usual, perhaps for lack of sound business sense, while the sound business sensors, often viewed as eschewing the Humanities, may be nipping in the basement of the human condition, where the good stuff ages.

Consider three writers whose business experience may have influenced their writing, and whose writings may calm sweating brows in the Humanities: Franz Kafka, Wallace Stevens, and Ted Kooser. Kafka worked for two insurance companies, Assicurazioni Generali, and the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, where his reports contributed to improvements in workplace safety. One report, for example, commented on “the perils of excavating in quarries while drunk.” Wallace Stevens worked for the Hartford, and, having earned a law degree from New York Law School, eventually earned a position as VP in claims, a job he valued. Few of his peers at the Hartford knew or cared about his poems, but when one of his co-workers came into his office one day asking about one of his poems, Stevens told him not to worry about it, for his co-worker was too literal. And Ted Kooser, poet laureate of the Library of Congress from 2004 to 2006, spent a career at Lincoln Life, another insurance company. John Cage said that when we turn our attention to that music we do not intend, we find the sound a pleasure; just so, we must turn our attention to the Humanities we do not intend.

This benevolent blogger spent 25 years in the republic of an insurance corporation. After teaching for nearly a decade, he had taken a summer off to consider a career change, selected a national organization headquartered in his hometown of Los Angeles, and bought a new suit of clothes to prepare for the new enterprise. He had been reading Thoreau’s Walden, and was well aware of Henry’s advice, in the opening chapter, “Economy,” to “beware of all enterprises which require new clothes” (para. 15), but he nevertheless bought a new pair of wingtips, on the assumption that these were the shoes worn in the business world. He soon found he was the only one in the office in a pair of wingtips. Everyone else seemed to prefer penny loafers. Thus began his education into business. The office had bells, bells to signal the start of work, bells to signal breaks and lunches, and bells to signal the end of the workday. Indeed, the office had more bells than had any school he could remember, and he was reminded of Poe’s bells, “…Keeping time, time, time…to the throbbing…to the sobbing…to the moaning and the groaning of the bells,” though the office bells touched not the acoustic heart, being electric, and he thought too of McLuhan and Fuller – that old school prepared one to work in a factory, though he watched that factory change with locomotive speed: first the bells were freed, then the men from their ties, and more gradually the women from theirs. But these changes move not linearly, as a locomotive moves, but mosaically, and it’s often difficult to know if change in business is carrying one forward or backward. But the same is true in the Humanities, where bells and ties have also had their heydays, and specialization has now created a mosaic one can read neither “out far nor in deep.”

And one also finds in the Humanities heavy doses of alienation, particularly in the bust phase of the current devaluing of the purpose of a liberal arts education as academic acculturation adulterates, through competitive forces at work in the market place, for schools are part of the commercial marketplace, as they are increasingly discovering, yet business and schools alike continue to lobby for bailouts, and neither seems to have found a purpose and audience that is sustainable in a self-contained strategy and structure. For all the criticism of the “profits” these days, the universities may have dissed their affections once invested so heavily in the public interest. What’s left is elitism, with no access for the underclass, or, increasingly, even the middle class, but can there be a balanced elitism fueled by the working class? There was in California before Reagan set about to dismantle the best university system in the world. Still, one finds no less alienation in the Humanities than one finds in capitalism. For Marx, “the worker finds work a torment, suffers poverty, overwork and lack of fulfillment and freedom. People do not relate to each other as humans should,” but does this not describe the plight of today’s average Humanities adjunct? Why can’t schools run more like businesses? Perhaps they already do, as reflected in the competitive nature of grades, even as inflation has rendered the currency valueless.

For businesses have for some time been operating more and more like schools, creating campus atmospheres, valuing continuing education for employees, including executive training that exceeds anything available in the Humanities (Wharton is a good example), inculcating team atmospheres, and creating and running corporate universities that encourage personal, purposeful growth. But schools lack the sense of urgency that permeates the business world. Tenured professors don’t work full time, think alike (the competition is not for ideas, but to maintain the status quo), too much research is funded at the public trough yet is insulated from public view. The separation of business from the Humanities creates a false dichotomy that nevertheless suggests its own solution. The Humanities should embrace business with a sense of urgency, for their Titanic has hit its iceberg, and that the ship will sink stinks with mathematical certainty.

The Rubrish of Poetry: Taming the Beast; or, Crossing the Rubric-con

There were reasons the rubicund-faced nuns ruddled our papers with red ink, for the rubric is all over red, and poetry full of rubricalities. Consider the Shakespearean sonnet: the rubric calls for 14 lines of iambic pentameter divided into three quatrains with a rhyming scheme of abab, cdcd, and efef, ending in a couplet rhymed gg. Poetry is rubric, and rubric tames the beast of language.

If language is a beast to be tamed, the poetry rubric is the whip and chair, and rubrics go deeper under the skin of poetry than the rules of any sonnet. In his 1961 introduction to Contemporary American Poetry, Donald Hall said, “For thirty years an orthodoxy ruled American poetry. It derived from the authority of T. S. Eliot and the new critics; it exerted itself through the literary quarterlies and the universities. It asked for a poetry of symmetry, intellect, irony, and wit. The last few years have broken the control of this orthodoxy.” But Hall makes it clear that he does not want to line up the old poets and blindfold them in front of a firing squad: “We do not want merely to substitute one orthodoxy for another.” Is it quaint now to read the avant-garde of the early sixties? Is poetry ruled by reigns reduced to rubrics, as Marxist thought is reduced to slogans?

Hall said that “the colloquial side of American literature – the side which valued ‘experience’ more than ‘civilization’ – was neglected by the younger poets. Melville said that the whaleboats of the Pacific had been his Harvard and his Yale College.” In the sixties, the state colleges, commuter schools filled with students who plumbed, waited, and painted moonlighting were the whaleboats of the Pacific – well, dinghies, anyway. But the 60’s overcame the fears of the 50’s. Hall drops the F bomb, suggesting a rubric of fear and secrecy: “Sometimes it seems that the influence of Senator McCarthy was stronger than that of Jung.” Then, toward a new rubric, written by William Carlos Williams: vernacular, empirical, physical. But then Hall disses the Beats. One wonders what the fear and secrecy is now, for the rubric often still seems to call for poems that Hall said “existed to prevent meaning.”

We cross the rubric to, as Wallace Stevens says in “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” “Throw away the lights, the definitions, / And say of what you see in the dark…Throw the lights away. Nothing must stand / Between you and the shapes you take / When the crust of shape has been destroyed.” The crust of shape is rubric, and the rubric stands between the writer and an untamed language, between the writer and what might be discovered without rubric: “You as you are? You are yourself. / The blue guitar surprises you.” The rubric fades away, sheds its skin for a “new skin for the old ceremony,” as Leonard Cohen said, a new rubric for the old ideas, for the rubric is to tame the beast, written, of course, in red. The rubric is a con; the beast gets the tamer in the end, every time. But at least the tamer got into the ring with it. And that is poetry, the rubric of the ring.

Not the Rubric Itself, but Ideas about the Rubric

HTMLGIANT recently posted an interesting poetry rubric, evaluative criteria for students writing poems. One would think forcing a student to write a poem would be punishment enough, but grading the effort seems a bit excessive. In fairness to the teacher, maybe the rubric made more sense to the students in the class, or it might have been some sort of administrative mandate.

I was reminded of an old grading illustration. Here’s the scenario: art class – draw a picture of your house. Little Mary, who loves art, digs in with the crayons, drawing a tiny house below an enormous, blistering red-orange sun in a pink sky. The teacher walks by and asks “What’s that?,” pointing to the sun. “The sun,” Mary replies hopefully. “Oh, but is the sun really that big?” teacher asks, and slaps a C minus bigger than Mary’s house onto her work of art. The scenario is repeated the following art class when Mary downsizes her sun and upgrades her house. Teacher’s response: “Much better, Mary, but that sun is still too big.” The teacher draws a small B minus in the center of Mary’s sun. Mary’s next effort conforms to the teacher’s expectations: a tiny yellow dot in the sky just above the roof of a house that reaches to the top edge of the paper. Grade: A minus.

Thus Mary learns not art, but that to succeed in school means conforming to the teacher’s notion of reality, a notion that is at odds with Mary’s empirical knowledge, for the sun is, of course, bigger than any house. But in fairness to this teacher, maybe the lesson was perspective. But must every perspective be a fixed point of view?

Buckminster Fuller describes the effects of the art class scenario in “Education Automation: Freeing the Scholar to Return to His Studies”: “I am quite confident that humanity is born with its total intellectual capability already on inventory and that human beings do not add anything to any other human being in the way of faculties and capacities. What usually happens in the educational process is that the faculties are dulled, overloaded, stuffed and paralyzed, so that by the time that most people are mature they have lost use of many of their innate capabilities. My long-time hope is that we may soon begin to realize what we are doing and may alter the ‘education’ process in such a way as only to help the new life to demonstrate some of its very powerful innate capabilities.”

Here’s the “Period 9 Poetry Rubric”: “Title, 2 points; Stanza Breaks, 1 point; Line Breaks, 1 point; Concluding Lines, 3 points; So What? 3 points; Imagery, 3 points; Things not Ideas, 2 points.”

I was inspired to try my hand at a poem in response to the rubric. I made a few changes to the one I posted in comments at HTMLGIANT, so it’s a work in progress. Not sure that’s allowed under the rubric:

After the Title

After the title,

there’s not much more.

The stanzas break,

and lines fall apart

to the concluding

so what?

(“…the white chickens…

a red wheel barrow…”;

Not Ideas about the Thing

but the Thing Itself”)

The poem total

never enough.

Postscript, from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue. “I’ll pay as much attention to your text / And rubric in such things as would a gnat.”