Prufrock

Do We Really Need More Political Poetry?

By Michiel Hendryckx [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Michiel Hendryckx [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Juan Vidal has a bee in his bonnet. Over at NPR, he writes:

For centuries, poets were the mouthpieces railing loudly against injustice. They gave voice to the hardships and evils facing people everywhere. From Langston Hughes to Jack Kerouac and Federico García Lorca—so many—verse once served as a vehicle for expressing social and political dissent. There was fervor, there was anger. And it was embraced: See, there was a time when the poetry of the day carried with it the power of newspapers and radio programs. It was effective, even as it was overtly political. What has happened?

Vidal must be using “centuries” metaphorically.

I won’t say anything about Vidal’s several absurdities and general ignorance of literary history. There have been political poems for millennia, of course, but the sort of poems Vidal has in mind—those that rail “loudly against injustice” and serve primarily as “a vehicle for expressing social and political dissent”—are mostly a post-WWII phenomenon. But let me focus on something constructive.

More Vidal:

At its root, poetry is the language of protest. Whether centered on love, beauty, or the ills that plague a nation, it’s all inherently political, and it all holds up as a force in any conversation. What seems like forever ago, poetry unflinchingly opposed corruption and inequality, civil and national.

That’s an odd (though sadly common) definition of politics, isn’t it? As protest or dissent. Here’s another from Tobias Wolff:

But there’s another way of thinking about politics and writing. Go to the Greek root of the word, polis, which refers to a society, in the sense of community rather than state. When writing gives a picture of the community we live in, it’s political…And the most radical political writing of all is that which makes you aware of the reality of another human being. Self-absorbed as we are, self-imprisoned even, we don’t feel that often enough. Most of the spiritualities we’ve evolved are designed to deliver us from that lockup, and art is another way out. Good stories slip past our defenses—we all want to know what happens next—and then slow time down, and compel our interest and belief in other lives than our own, so that we feel ourselves in another presence. It’s a kind of awakening, a deliverance, it cracks our shell and opens us up to the truth and singularity of others— to their very being. Writers who can make others, even our enemies, real to us have achieved a profound political end, whether or not they would call it that.

Wolff is talking about fiction, of course, but his comments apply to poetry, too. All poetry may be political, but only in the sense that it makes us aware of others suffering and delivers us (momentarily) from our self-centeredness. One could just as easily say it’s inherently religious.

I’m not a big fan of Ginsberg, but he was more than a protest poet. Other poets, however, who have shared Vidal’s narrow definition of poetry, have written some relatively hateful, self-centered work—work quite the opposite of what Wolff describes.

Take June Jordan, whom Vidal ignores, and who was one of the most political poets (using Vidal’s definition) in the last thirty years. This is from “Kissing God Goodbye,” which she wrote to protest the controversial pro-life group Operation Rescue:

You mean to tell me on the 12th day or the 13th
that the Lord
which is to say some wiseass
got more muscle than he
reasonably
can control or figure out/ some
accidental hard disc
thunderbolt/ some
big mouth
woman-hating/ super
heterosexist heterosexual
kind of a guy guy
he decided who could live and who would die?

And after he did what?
created alleyways of death
and acid rain
and infant mortality rates
and sons of gun
and something called the kitchenette
and trailer trucks to kill and carry
beautiful trees out of their natural
habitat/ Oh! Not that guy!

* * *

My name is not Adam
My name is female
my name is freedom

Whatever Operation Rescue’s tactics, is this the sort of the poetry that Vidal thinks we need “now more than ever”? Rather than delivering us from self-centeredness, it feeds it. It tells us that we deserve to do what we damn well please, that our “rights” (in this case, to kill children) have been trampled.

A lot of “fervor” and “anger” here. Not so much ambiguity—one of the touchstones of art. No thanks.

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Mind Your Metaphors

"MRI Head Side." Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0  via Wikimedia Commons
"MRI Head Side." Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In a breathless article over at The Chronicle Review, Michael Chorost argues that neuroscience has confirmed Georg Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s theory that all language is, at root, metaphorical and that metaphors, in turn, are “shaped by the physical features of human brains and bodies.” This undermines, Chorost tells us, “the argument that human minds can reveal transcendent truths about reality in transparent language”:

Neuroscientists agree on what happens with literal sentences like “The player kicked the ball.” The brain reacts as if it were carrying out the described actions. This is called “simulation.” Take the sentence “Harry picked up the glass.” “If you can’t imagine picking up a glass or seeing someone picking up a glass,” Lakoff wrote in a paper with Vittorio Gallese, a professor of human physiology at the University of Parma, in Italy, “then you can’t understand that sentence.” Lakoff argues that the brain understands sentences not just by analyzing syntax and looking up neural dictionaries, but also by igniting its memories of kicking and picking up.

But what about metaphorical sentences like “The patient kicked the habit”? An addiction can’t literally be struck with a foot. Does the brain simulate the action of kicking anyway? Or does it somehow automatically substitute a more literal verb, such as “stopped”? This is where functional MRI can help, because it can watch to see if the brain’s motor cortex lights up in areas related to the leg and foot.

* * *

The evidence says it does. “When you read action-related metaphors,” says Valentina Cuccio, a philosophy postdoc at the University of Palermo, in Italy, “you have activation of the motor area of the brain.” In a 2011 paper in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Rutvik Desai, an associate professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina, and his colleagues presented fMRI evidence that brains do in fact simulate metaphorical sentences that use action verbs. When reading both literal and metaphorical sentences, their subjects’ brains activated areas associated with control of action. “The understanding of sensory-motor metaphors is not abstracted away from their sensory-motor origins,” the researchers concluded.

I’m not sure I follow.

Why would the fact that metaphors are shaped by our experience mean that the ideas that metaphors evoke are determined by experience alone? Just because the part of my brain associated with the leg and foot “lights up” when the metaphor “kick the habit” is used does not mean that the idea that freedom is good (which is what that metaphor evokes) is not true in some universal, “transcendent” way. Seems to me that we need a bit more proof before we throw out all innate ideas.

It also doesn’t square with how metaphors actually work. Chorost might be right that we cannot “reveal transcendent truths about reality in transparent language,” but figurative language sure works in a pinch. “Tell all the truth,” Dickinson wrote, “but tell it slant,” right?

Take this example from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”:

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings

In his latest (and excellent) book, Metaphor, Denis Donoghue shows how these lines both have a “local” meaning, drawn from experience and perhaps even first-hand observation. There is a visual similarity between the figure of a woman brushing her hair and the image of a violinist “playing a pianissimo passage.” Yet, Donoghue writes, “The effect of Eliot’s metaphor is to give her a new, strange life…The woman is given another life for the time being. So have I, when I read it.”

Donoghue doesn’t say what he means by “life.” The neo-Darwinian critic would no doubt point to the similarities between music and sex, making the metaphor about procreation. But it does much more than that, of course.

The lines allude to this earlier passage:

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’

* * *

She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.

Whether the metaphor Donoghue discusses registers a difference between how different people view the same event or not, the two images combined, it seems to me, in the context of the entire poem evoke the idea that sex without love is meaningless and (though we are unwilling to admit this) boring. In short, love, not sex, is life.

But what am I to make of this metaphor if I were to follow Chorost’s recommendation that metaphors are reducible to experience and the brain? As with neo-Darwinian criticism, there seems to be only one option. Show how the view of love that Eliot expresses (in this case in the negative) developed in humans and added to the survival of the species. That, or run some brain scans on people to see if the part of the brain associated with violins blinks.

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Online Education and the Future of College

Tomasz Sienicki, Commodore 8296, via Wikimedia Commons
Tomasz Sienicki, Commodore 8296, via Wikimedia Commons

In yesterday’s Times Higher Education, Steven Ward argues that there are two models for online education at universities. One uses online lectures and focuses on competencies and leads to “a (more or less) professor-less future for higher education”:

This university is a place, or cyberplace, that takes its inspiration from the “competency-based” education being offered by the likes of Western Governors University in Utah, the online Capella University’s “FlexPath” and Southern New Hampshire University’s “College for America”. The last of these, for example, a not-for-profit college, promises “to help working adults achieve a radically more affordable, more accessible college degree”. Students progress through low-cost courses by showing mastery of a set of “competencies”, such as “can use logic, reasoning, and analysis to address a business problem”. Teams of administrative educrats oversee groups of low-paid “course mentors” (Western Governors’ term for teachers) who define course and programme competencies, map these competencies and guide “education pioneers” (students, in Capella newspeak) towards achievement. Testing specialists or edumetricians then step in to oversee the students’ fulfilment of these competencies on their way to a final credentialisation (aka graduation).

The other—a new venture from a Vermont-based start-up called Oplerno—is professor-centric:

This venture describes itself as “a global institution that empowers real-world practitioners, adjunct lecturers, professors, and aspiring instructors to offer affordable, accessible, high-quality education to students from all corners of the globe”, one that aims “to maximize control, value, and efficiency in higher education for students and faculty”.

Oplerno seeks to bring the Privatdozent into the electronic age by allowing professors to keep about 80 per cent of the tuition fees from their online courses and to retain complete control over the intellectual property found in their course design and presentation. Student fees will be somewhere between $500 and $1,500 (£300-£900) per student per course. Academics will develop their own courses and teach their own online classes of about 25 students. Rather than the severely underpaid roaming part-time adjunct or lecturer teaching courses at a reduced rate prescribed by the university, academics will be able to determine their own courses and set their own rate per student per course.

I think Ward is right that the competencies model, with content delivered via online lectures or presentations, is going to decrease the need for professors, no matter how much administrators promise otherwise, and may even increase the need for administrators, who already outnumber faculty at most institutions.

The federal government has endorsed the model and provided requirements that institutions must meet, which include getting approval from the Feds and regional accrediting agencies. Faculty will most likely determine what competencies should be taught and how they should be taught and evaluated, but this will also require administrative oversight and heck of a lot of data processing (not to mention coordination with national organizations, other schools, and maybe even state governments). Tech support will be needed, as well as bigger communications and marketing departments. While it might allow some schools to reduce campus support staff—residence hall monitors, counselors, janitorial staff, etc.—most non-profit schools are bad about shedding unneeded staff, and facility support staff are usually not the most expensive anyway.

So how will this make college cheaper, which is the whole point of such a model? Well, let’s take the example of the much-hyped $6,000 master’s degree in Computer Science at Georgia Tech. Last year The Wall Street Journal reported:

The upfront costs to create the online lectures run between $200,000 and $300,000, but once those hard outlays have been made the cost per each additional student is minimal, said Mr. Isbell. He estimated the school would have to hire one full-time teacher for every 100 online students as opposed to one full-time teacher for every 10 or 20 students who study on campus.

Some tests will be graded by computer, others will be graded by teachers, Mr. Isbell said.

The classes will be open to anyone free of charge. But in order to earn a degree, a student must gain admission to the program. To do that, the student will need a bachelor’s degree or the work equivalent, and must pass the first two classes with a B grade or better. The entire course will cost about $6,000—less than a quarter of the normal expense.

“We are expecting thousands of people,” Mr. Isbell said. “We anticipate this will be massive.”

(Whether it has been “massive” or not, I don’t know. I did a quick search and found nothing about the program, which was supposed to start this January.)

The competencies model is not bad because it is efficient. It’s bad because it replaces direct contact with an expert in a particular field, which is one of the defining characteristics of a college education, with direct contact with an administrator. As Nathan Heller writes in his recent review of William Deresiewicz’s book, “Academe ought to focus on the one thing that it actually did well: letting scholars teach what they knew.” (Of course, it shouldn’t (and didn’t always) only do this, as Gracy Olmstead suggests.) Efficiency is a good thing but not when it ruins the thing being produced.

The alternative—Oplerno—is interesting. It’s better than the competencies-based model because it keeps students in direct contact with scholars. Oplerno is accredited to offer courses, and those courses are transferable, though students might find that some institutions won’t accept them. It is not accredited to offer degrees.

But even if Oplerno does become accredited to offer degrees, I don’t think it, or other start-ups like Minerva, will be as successful as their apologists claim. The reason is—to state the obvious—we have bodies.

Being together in the same place not only helps students acquire knowledge (some research has shown that blended courses—where students do online work but also meet regularly in a classroom—is better than online-only courses and may even be better than some on-site courses, too), but it is needed to shape minds and teach certain skills, too. After all, if you didn’t need a body to learn well, people would have replaced college going with book reading (one of the first distance-learning technologies) long ago.

I’m all for exploring options that reduce college costs, and I think online courses work for certain subjects and certain individuals—such as the upper-level writing courses I teach at HBU—but I don’t think they can replace the intensity and fullness of campus learning.

In short, if we need to offer a solution to the price of a college degree in America—and who’s to say that we do (college is expensive, yes, but that’s not a problem any more than a BMW being expensive is a problem)—it would have to address how to make campus learning more affordable. But this is something that is rarely discussed.

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Against the Anthology

Anthologies

The first Norton Anthology of American Literature was published 35 years ago this year. According to its editors at the time, it set itself the laudable goal of redressing “the long neglect of women writers” and doing “justice to the contributions of black writers to American literature.” To that end, it printed selections from the work of 29 women and 14 African-Americans, many of whom had never been included in an anthology of American literature.

The selections were viewed by some as insufficient, but it was a significant improvement on previous anthologies. The 1938 Oxford Anthology of American Literature printed the work of 12 women, but the 1952 edition of the popular Major American Writers included selections from only Emily Dickinson and the novelist Ellen Glasgow.

In subsequent editions, the Norton did further “redressing,” adding the work of Lorine Niedecker, Claude McKay, Michael S. Harper, and many other accomplished writers. But even a cursory examination of the most recent edition shows that something has also gone wrong.

At five volumes and nearly 6000 pages, the latest edition of the Norton, published in 2011, is almost twice as long as the 1979 edition. Despite this, selections from what the first edition called the “traditional masterpieces of American literature” have been greatly reduced. Walt Whitman has gone from around 70 to 30 poems. Henry David Thoreau has gone from over 200 pages to a little over 100. Herman Melville has lost nearly 100 pages, and Edgar Allen Poe has gone from 150 to 100 pages. Perhaps unsurprisingly, selections of William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow have been cut in half, and William Bartram, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, Archibald MacLeish, Allen Tate, and others have disappeared entirely.

Some of the extra space is used for previously neglected writers, but a fair amount is also used for speeches and essays on topics such as the plight of Native Americans, slavery and civil rights, women’s suffrage, American Exceptionalism, World War I, and terrorism. To give one example, there are roughly 230 pages in the latest Norton of non-literary texts (speeches, political essays, and autobiographies) related to the customs and life of Native Americans. This is only slightly fewer than the pages devoted to Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson combined.

Context is important in the study of literature, and many of the historical texts included in the Norton are interesting, but they can also bury the literature. Each of the five volumes in the 2011 Norton contains at least one special section on a political topic. In the accompanying teacher’s guide, while a mere five pages are devoted to using the anthology to teach “Major American Authors,” there are two chapters and over 30 pages on how to engage the issues of gender, race, war, and identity explored in the anthology. There is nothing on beauty, truth, or the pleasure of reading.

Other anthologies have followed suit over the years. While Longman’s two-volume anthology is less enamored with politics than the Norton, it nevertheless sells itself for its “contextual selections.” The Bedford too is committed to helping “students grasp the cultural, material, and social conditions in which literary works are produced.”

One of the great pleasures of reading the work of a particular period is experiencing how messy and diverse it is. In the 1950s, for example, T.S. Eliot was publishing his later plays, Allen Ginsberg was howling in California, Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award, Gwendolyn Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Walker Percy was writing essays for America and Commonweal, J.F. Powers was publishing stories in The New Yorker, Kurt Vonnegut was writing for Collier’s, Robert Frost published Hard Not To Be King, and John Ashbery won the Yale Younger Poets Prize.

This sort of messiness goes unhighlighted in the Norton and many other anthologies. Neither Walker Percy nor J.F. Powers are included in the work, and the others are separated by an entire volume and special sections on modernism and postmodernism. While tacitly committed to diversity, the Norton offers a superficial and perhaps even irrelevant kind when it comes to literature—one determined by gender, race, and the increasingly narrow research interests of English professors more so than by style or ideas. As with all anthologies, the selections in the most recent Norton are also too excerpted or too small to give readers an overarching sense of the work of all but a few writers, much less how they might differ from others.

In 1979, the Norton editors hoped to create “a book to be read for pleasure.” Today, it is a book read for credit. It presents literature as secondary to history and as something to be sifted for proof of political theories rather than appreciated. No wonder most students leave it and the reading of great works behind when they graduate.

While the problems of college English are many and complex, getting rid of the contemporary anthology might be one way of reintroducing some life in the classroom. It might also show students how valuable and relevant great literature can be on its own.

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Ross Douthat on Conservatives and Art

Ross Douthat has weighed in on Adam Bellow’s piece on the need for more conservatives to create and support the arts—specifically literature, film and television.

He agrees with Adam Kirsch’s contention that there is no lack of conservative themes in the cream of America’s literary and cinematic crop. It’s the middling, “mass-market territory” of second-rate novels, films and television shows where conservatives are missing:

But this suggests a rather strange-sounding riposte to Kirsch’s question, posed after his elevation of writers like Foster Wallace into a kind of conservative literary pantheon. “With all these books to read and admire,” he asks, “why does Adam Bellow continue to believe that conservative writers are a persecuted minority?” Well, one might say, because there aren’t enough mediocre conservative writers and artists at work! Which could just be taken to prove Kirsch’s point that conservatives mostly just want more “simpleminded ideological dogmas” from their fiction … but actually reflects a subtler point that a culture’s biases are manifest in the mean rather than the extreme, and that the proof of conservatism’s marginalization in today’s cultural scene can be seen among its middling and mediocre participants, not among its finest talents.

That subtlety notwithstanding, though, there’s still the question of whether a project that’s too cognizant of these realities, too explicit in its desire to close the “hack gap” in the arts, won’t just end up branding conservative artists as, well, a still-lower and more painfully ideological sort of hack. I don’t know the answer, which is why I’m ultimately ambivalent about Bellow’s exhortation: I, too, would like to see far more conservative money and energy invested in the arts, but to the extent that it’s conscious of itself as a conservative investment — as opposed to an aesthetic one, which is how most writing programs and fellowships are conceived even when their politics are fundamentally liberal — it may be foredoomed to failure, or at the very least be putting a limit on the quality of the work it fosters, and a ceiling on its potential success. (Better a consciously religious investment, in part because religion has a different relationship with the aesthetic than political ideology and thought … but that’s a subject for another post.)

Douthat clearly sees the problem with Bellow’s project (at least as he presents it in The National Review), but he seems unwilling to reject it completely. He worries that any attempt to “close the ‘hack gap’,” as he calls it, will make conservatives look bad. (It will.) And he writes that a conscious “conservative investment” in the arts, “as opposed to an aesthetic one, which is how most writing programs and fellowships are conceived even when their politics are fundamentally liberal” may “be foredoomed to failure, or at the very least be putting a limit on the quality of the work it fosters, and a ceiling on its potential success.” Agreed.

But conservatives should not reject Bellow’s proposal because it will make them look bad or be unsuccessful. They should reject it because it is not conservative. It inescapably treats art or culture as a tool, or weapon, in the struggle for power. This, it seems to me, is a progressive or revolutionary conception of art.

Even Douthat falls into discussing art and culture in terms of utility or “success.” Part of this is because he’s responding to Bellow’s argument regarding just these things. But it also risks obscuring conservatives’ defense of a proper view of art.

And I’m not sure that there’s a huge difference between a religious investment in the arts (I am thinking of a Christian one here) and a conservative one—if both of these are properly understood.

Both should treat art, not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself, which, paradoxically, also makes it useful. Put another way, using art or literature or film to proselytize or indoctrinate empties works of their distinctive value. At the same time, works of truth and craft, created for those ends alone, are valuable to the extent that they affirm a larger context—the inescapability of making truth claims and the reality of morality and beauty, among other things—without which they would make no sense. I think.

Update 1: In the comments, Alex Wilgus says I haven’t read Douthat’s argument closely enough: “He makes the same point that you do: the best art isn’t ideologically motivated, and when you’re dedicated to really capturing something of the essence of reality, you’ll get themes that endear themselves to conservatives and liberals alike without really trying to. He’s saying that the crappier forms of art we see on TV are the ones that wear their ideological commitments on their shirtsleeves, and it’s not worth mucking about in that realm unless one really wants to balance out the sorts of assumptions shows like “New Girl” take for granted with equally hackneyed themes from the other side.”

I don’t know. Douthat certainly writes that “that to be truly great, truly lasting, a novel or any other exercise in storytelling has to transcend cliches and oversimplifications, has to capture something of the deep complexity of human affairs.” Yet the reason he rejects Bellow’s proposal in his piece (he states he’s “ambivalent” and says he agrees with other aspects of Kirsch’s critique) is that it won’t be successful.

On the art for art’s sake stuff (a phrase I didn’t use in the piece), which a couple of folks have commented on, here and on Twitter: I am not proposing aestheticism or some pursuit of pure style. As a Christian, I think that all good things reflect God’s glory and my pursuit of or engagement with art is ultimately a pursuit of or an engagement with God. At the same time, art works have a definite character that is experienced simultaneously (a character that includes a reflection of mental or physical reality). If the overarching object for the Christian in, say, cooking good food or doing good research is to love God through these activities, the more immediate one is to cook good food and do good research. So too with art. And if you don’t have the latter, it seems to me you lose the former, too.

Update 2: Douthat responds to the above with a “yes, but…”

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RAGBRAI and New Urbanism

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Last week, my eldest and I took part in RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) and had a great time. We started in the western part of the state (in Rock Valley) and finished in Guttenberg on the banks of the Mississippi. It was a wonderful event. A friend of mine described it as a rolling carnival. There were food trucks in most towns, craft beer and organic coffee tents along the route, churches selling spaghetti dinners and pie, concerts every evening, and between 40 and 100 miles of cycling every day.

It was my first time to visit Iowa, and I can only compare it to what I know. It struck me as a combination of eastern Texas and Connecticut—wide open spaces peppered with small, quaint towns. In the west, many of the towns were on a single street—some developed, others all but abandoned. As we rode east, the towns became more vibrant, many of them organized around a central park or square. In between, there was corn and more corn.

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As some of you may know, The American Conservative has started a discussion on New Urbanism. In his post explaining the project (and blog), Jonathan Coppage writes that while conservatives have fought against “the breakdown of community and the family” over the years, they have mostly ignored the ways that built environment shapes attitudes and practices:

Just as an individual is embedded in a family, and a family is embedded in a community, so too a community is embedded in its neighborhood. The patterns we live in can bring us into the sort of constant, casual, incidental contact that builds bonds between neighbors, or they can silo each of our families away, leaving civil society to wither as the “place between” is filled with asphalt and strip malls. As Paul Weyrich, William S. Lind, and Andres Duany wrote in“Conservatives and the New Urbanism” in 2006, “Edmund Burke told us more than two hundred years ago that traditional societies are organic wholes. If you (literally) disintegrate a society’s physical setting, as sprawl has done, you tend to disintegrate its culture as well.” New Urbanists aim to reinvigorate those traditional structures, like the classic Main Street with living space above the storefronts, and other homes right around the corner.

An event like RAGBRAI would have been difficult and less enjoyable if it took place on roads lined with strip malls. The small Iowa towns—particularly the ones with green spaces—were perfect for gathering for food, drinks, music, Frisbee, and conversations with other teams and participants.

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At the same time, our somewhat more family-oriented team always camped a little outside of town and rarely stayed downtown past 9:00 p.m. Why? Because it could get loud and a little rowdy.

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Coppage is right that space matters (to an extent) in shaping attitudes and practices and certain policies make for better or worse spaces. The question is not so much which space—suburbs or cities, rural or urban, strip malls or town squares—but how to develop and use the spaces we have to strengthen the family and build community.

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Politics and Literature

T.S. Eliot Photo: Burns Library, Boston College

I’ve been busy teaching summer school at HBU and trying to get into shape for a bike ride across Iowa that I’m doing with my daughter next week, so I am a bit late in responding to Adam Bellow’s essay in The National Review in which he laments the lack of conservative fiction and calls on well-heeled donors to support the coming conservative “countercultural” revolution. You’ve probably already read it, but if not, here’s the key passage:

For years conservatives have favored the rational left brain at the expense of the right. With apologies to Russell Kirk, the conservative mind is unbalanced — hyper-developed in one respect, completely undeveloped in another. It’s time to correct this imbalance and take the culture war into the field of culture proper.

We need to invest in the conservative right brain. A well-developed feeder system exists to identify and promote mainstream fiction writers, including MFA programs, residencies and fellowships, writers’ colonies, grants and prizes, little magazines, small presses, and a network of established writers and critics. Nothing like that exists on the right.

This is a major oversight that must be urgently addressed. We need our own writing programs, fellowships, prizes, and so forth. We need to build a feeder system so that the cream can rise to the top, and also to make an end run around the gatekeepers of the liberal establishment.

Bellow makes some good observations. Generally speaking, conservatives have ignored the arts and popular culture over the past fifty years or so. Those in positions of power in America’s publishing houses, museums, arts centers, university MFA programs, and so forth, are overwhelming liberal. Politics is “downstream” from culture. And I’m mostly for conservatives with cash funding prizes, small presses, and so forth, so that “the cream can rise to the top,” as Bellow puts it.

It’s the overemphasis on the political value of supporting popular culture and the arts that sticks in my craw.

The general gist of Bellow’s piece, despite his remark that he is against “cause fiction,” is that conservatives should fund these things because liberals have a monopoly on culture and because popular culture and the arts are more effective at changing people’s values than straight argument.

Calling on conservatives to write fiction in order to regain power by shaping the moral imagination, as Bellow seems to claim, would, in my view, repeat the errors of the later avant-garde and progressives who came to view art as a weapon in class struggle. This attitude toward art always leads to art becoming a mere tool, a mere means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Bellow tries to distinguish between the “the original counterculture” and a counterculture that “was hijacked and turned into a vehicle for progressive politics,” but I don’t buy this.

The problem with Bellow’s approach, as Rod remarked two weeks ago, is that it would most likely lead to ideologically “pure” but bad work:

[…] art and culture should not be approached from an instrumental point of view. This is why, for example, so much contemporary Christian filmmaking is so bad: it’s designed to culminate in an altar call. It’s about sending a message, not telling a story. I’m personally aware of a conservative donor and investor who poured millions into an independent film because he thought it was wholesome, and would improve the character of its viewers. I watched the movie in a private screening, and it was terrible. A total waste of money.

Adam Kirsch makes a similar point over at Tablet and argues that Bellow’s narrow definition of conservatism causes him to miss a number of conservative novels that don’t fit his “brew of populism, racial grievance, wounded male pride, and generalized nostalgia”:

 Genuine conservatism is something much broader and deeper than a political orientation; it is a temperament, one that looks to the past with reverence and the future with trepidation, and which believes that human nature is not easily changed or improved. Defined in this way, conservatism is in fact a major strain in contemporary American literature. David Foster Wallace, the leading novelist of his generation, was a champion of earnestness, reverence, self-discipline, and work—never more so than in his last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, whose heroes are hard-working accountants. Dave Eggers made his name with a memoir about raising his younger brother after his parents died, a hip but deeply earnest hymn to family values. Zadie Smith excels at the conservatism of comedy, which resolves differences in laughter and exposes human follies with an indulgent understanding.

In Jewish American literature, too, the conservative temperament has always been central, as Jewish writers struggle to remain attached to the past even as they negotiate their place in the future. Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant more or less explicitly identifies Jewishness with the values of honesty, hard work, and family loyalty, and dramatizes a willful young man’s submission to those values. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, one of the most celebrated and decorated books of the last 20 years, is also one of the most explicitly conservative; it is a long shudder of horror at the radicalism of the 1960s, and it is filled with hymns to the small businessman that any Republican could love. And of course Adam Bellow’s father, Saul, wrote one of the first and most powerful anti-Sixties novels in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, inveighing against the sexual and racial liberations of that decade, which he contrasted with the old-world moral earnestness of the Jewish Artur Sammler.

For Kirsch, Bellow fails to see that literature is “broader, deeper, and truer than political convictions…that politics must be corrected by literature, and not vice versa. If most writers are liberal, perhaps it’s because they instinctively understand this principle.”

How Kirsch divined that Bellow’s conservatism is motivated by “wounded male pride,” apparently based on Bellow’s opening anecdote alone, is beyond me, but Kirsch is right that conservatism is much more than patriotism or a defense of individual freedom, even if he also overestimates how many “conservative” works of fiction are published today (only two of the novelists he cites are actively writing; Wallace, Malamud, and Bellow are dead, of course), and even if has a rather rose-colored view of the commitment of liberal writers to art above politics. (No doubt a number of liberal writers are committed to literature first and politics second, but not all. In fact, a number who view/have viewed literature as a form of political activism are regularly published, given prizes, and generally taken seriously (though, let me add, not by Kirsch to my knowledge.) Susan Sontag’s tangled fiction won her a National Book Award, and June Jordan’s hate-filled prose-poetry did not prevent her from keeping a distinguished lectureship at Berkeley and earning a PEN award. There are also the occasional politically informed stories of Joyce Carol Oates and formal experiments of Charles Bernstein, among many others.)

I’d like to see more conservatives write good fiction and poetry, not in order to win the culture war, but in order to have better fiction and poetry. There are number of conservative positions that are true and that are often ignored in fiction and poetry today. In Rod’s article last year on conservatives and storytelling, I noted one of these: The belief that evil is rooted in individuals and not in the structures of society (the church, schools, property ownership). But let me suggest a few others, culled from various thinkers (Burke, Eliot, Kirk):

-A high view of craft—that is, a combination of clarity and complexity of style that shows a knowledge and appreciation of past masters without merely repeating their successes.

-A belief in the inescapability of hierarchy (in the work of art and in society) and the importance of religion and family in informing our roles in society (as opposed to mere “power relations”).

-A belief that we are more than matter and that there is some higher, immaterial force at work in the universe.

Conservatives, of course, don’t have a monopoly on these beliefs, and not all conservatives would ascribe to them, but these are things that most conservatives over the years have supported in one way or another.

What conservatives with cash need to do is support writers, critics, literary magazines and organizations that share these values, whatever their individual political affiliation (though if they also happen to be conservative, great), as a way of reinvigorating literature, not conservatism, and whatever follows from that, follows.

After all, conservatives are supposed to be committed to certain things because they are true or good, and not simply because they are useful.

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Vernon Scannell: Boxer, Bigamist, Poet

Over at The Weekly Standard, I review a biography of the British poet Vernon Scannell–a boxer, bigamist, deserter, a man with a soft spot for children and the down-and-out, and an accomplished poet

The seeming incongruity of Vernon Scannell’s life and personality makes him one of the most intriguing figures of contemporary literature. He was a man of immense sensitivity who identified with the weak, the broken, and the cowardly of the world but, when drunk, was a terrible wife beater. He loved children and despised violence but fought in the Second World War and had a lifelong passion for boxing. He was one of the most talented poets of his generation, but he often felt out of place in literary circles and regularly doubted his talent.

He was a blue-collar poet, though this does not do justice to the range of his work, which deals with love, war, sports, childhood, and, most of all, failure—often with self-effacing humor. When he was in jail in 1974 for drunk driving, his daughter Nancy wrote to ask him what a jailbird was. Scannell wrote:

His plumage is dun,

His appetite indiscriminate.

He has no mate.

His nest is built of brick and steel;

He sings at night

A long song, sad and silent.

He cannot fly.

Read the rest if you’re so inclined.

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Religiosity and Art

Over at The Guardian, novelist Sarah Perry (After Me Comes the Flood) reflects on growing up in a Strict Baptist home in which there was no modern culture but a wide selection of classic literature:

Though we by no means resembled an Amish cult, there was an almost complete absence of contemporary culture in the house. God’s people were to be “In the world, but not of the world”, and the difference between those two little prepositions banished television and pop music, school discos and Smash Hits, cinema and nail polish, and so many other cultural signifiers I feel no nostalgia for the 80s and 90s: they had nothing to do with me.

Aside from the odd humiliation at school (asked which film star I fancied most, I remembered seeing Where Eagles Dare at an uncle’s house and said, “Clint Eastwood”) I don’t remember feeling deprived. Because beside the Pre-Raphaelite prints that were my celebrity posters, and the Debussy that was my Oasis, there were books – such books, and in such quantities! Largely content to read what would please my parents, I turned my back on modernity and lost myself to Hardy and Dickens, Brontë and Austen, Shakespeare, Eliot and Bunyan.

I memorised Tennyson, and read Homer in prose and Dante in verse; I shed half my childhood tears at The Mill on the Floss. I slept with Sherlock Holmes beside my pillow, and lay behind the sofa reading Roget. It was as though publication a century before made a book suitable – never was I told I ought not to read this or that until I was older. To my teacher’s horror my father gave me Tess of the D’Urbervilles when I was still at primary school, and I was simply left to wander from Thornfield to Agincourt to the tent of sulking Achilles, making my own way.

* * *

There were ancient books too, all gilded spines and Gothic script: a ghoulish child, I loved the woodcuts in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and could tell you now precisely how Cranmer was tortured, and how his bones cracked in the flames.

Above all – committed to memory, read aloud at mealtimes and prettily framed on the dining-room wall – was the King James Bible. It was as constant as the air, and felt just as necessary, and I think I know its cadences as well as my own voice.

Read the rest.

It’s a wonderful short reflection that goes against the accepted argument that “narrow” religious beliefs and practices always starve rather than nourish the intellect and artistic sensibilities. It’s also an encouraging reminder of the benefits of memorization and recitation.

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Is Rap Poetry?

The short answer is “no,” of course. To state the obvious, things can share certain attributes and not be the same sort of thing, and asking whether rap is poetry has always struck me as a useless question. Both rap and poetry use literary devices like assonance and alliteration. Both use words. Both are spoken. But rap is a musical-verbal art and poetry is a verbal-musical-typographical one. So why make the comparison?

Well, as David Caplan points out in his intriguing Rhyme’s Challenge: Hip Hop, Poetry, and Contemporary Rhyming Culture (Oxford, 2014), it can be a way of both elevating (or highlighting, depending on your view) rap’s artistry and defending poetry against its apparent decline.

John McWhorter provides an example of this over at The Daily Beast. In “Americans Have Never Loved Poetry More—But They Call It Rap,” McWhorter argues that rap is poetry because:

It rhymes, often even internally. Its authors work hard on the lyrics. The subject matter is certainly artistically heightened, occasioning long-standing debates over whether the depictions of violence and misogyny in some of it are sincere. And then, that “gangsta” style is just one, and less dominant than it once was. Rap, considered as a literature rather than its top-selling hits, addresses a wide-range of topics, even including science fiction. Rap is now decades old, having evolved over time and being increasingly curated by experts. In what sense is this not a “real” anything?

The only reason it is not considered “real” poetry, McWhorter argues, channeling his inner Derrida, is that Western culture has long valued written language over speech:

The only reason rap may seem to nevertheless not be “real” poetry is a skewed take on language typical of modern, literate societies: that spoken language is merely a sloppy version of written language. “English,” under this analysis, is what’s on a page, with punctuation and fonts and whoms and such. Speech is “just talking.”

Also, rap is often profane and can seem less serious.

David Caplan’s study focuses on detailing the literary elements of hip hop and rap, which is different from claiming that rap is poetry. I don’t want to review the book here, but Caplan does make a similar point to McWhorter in his introduction. Too often, Caplan writes, “critics treat the term ‘poetry’ as if it retains a stable definition across cultures, times periods, and genres. The history of poetics, however, records much more contestation than consensus.” Caplan goes on to cite Wordsworth’s remark that poetry is the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and discusses poets who have taken issue with this statement as proof that poetry’s definition is unstable.

But while what counts as poetry changes over time and differs across cultures, Caplan is too quick to suggest that poetry has no stable generic characteristics. One important one—and one that distinguishes it from both hip-hop and rap—is that the musicality and typography of poetry reside in the words themselves alone. In both formal and free verse, the musicality of a poem, whether it is created by end-rhymes, assonance, alliteration, repetition or other forms of internal rhyming, does not exist external to the poem.

In hop-hop and rap, while some musicians are more talented than others, and while rap lyrics do possess musicality (repetition, assonance, alliteration), that musicality is incomplete without the beat and notes of the sampled music. Caplan provides a number of examples of rap lyrics, and some are rather good, but even the best don’t stand on their own as pieces of great artistry for the simple reason that they were not written to do so. They were crafted to go with external rhythm and notes. So, it seems to me, the only sense in which rap is poetry is as incomplete poetry, which doesn’t do either rap or poetry any favors.

That said, it is interesting that poetry’s decline has taken place in a culture that is “rhyme-drenched,” as Caplan rightly notes. I am not a connoisseur of rap (I listen to little beyond standard white guy favorites—Rage against the Machine, Beastie Boys, Run DMC), but I have a number of friends who have a high view of rap’s artistry. Caplan, for one, makes a strong case that there is more to hip-hop in terms of artistry than is often granted, even if I think he oversells it. There is no such thing as high or low culture. There is interesting culture and boring culture. There are works of art that show great skill and those that don’t.

So by all means, defend hip-hop or rap or poetry, but let’s avoid defending them by association. Let the songs or poems speak for themselves.

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