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The Way We Work, Ashbery’s Accomplishment, and the Genius of Peanuts!

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Good morning. Why do racial preferences continue to be used in determining college admission despite their suspect Constitutionality? Thank Justice Lewis Powell: “Powell, writing the controlling opinion in an otherwise divided court, introduced the concepts that would tarnish all subsequent legal analysis in the area. UC Davis’s explicit set-asides violated Bakke’s right to be free from racial discrimination, Powell held. If a school left its desired level of minority enrollment officially unquantified, however, the Court would accept a series of cascading fictions on the way to upholding that school’s racial preferences. Those fictions clustered under the umbrella of ‘holistic review.’ An admissions office that practices holistic review allegedly evaluates each applicant as a unique individual and not simply as the representative of a race; it treats an applicant’s race as just one smallish ‘plus’ factor among many helping him get admitted; racial preferences are a plus for the preferred group but not a negative for the unpreferred group; even if a school has ‘minimum goals’ for minority enrollment, those minimum goals are different from numerical quotas. Powell never explained why an individual who is penalized because he is of the wrong race suffers a constitutional harm if that discrimination occurs in the name of an explicit quota, but not if the discrimination is in the service of a putatively less numerical racial ‘goal.’ The other fictions were equally strained.”

What can colleges do to help low-income students succeed? Not much. Low-income students who attended elite high schools tend to do well at college. Those who didn’t struggle: “Overall, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students is two books in one. The first ‘book’ tells a compelling story about the role ‘gateway institutions,’ like high schools, play in equipping students with the skills to flourish in college. In making his case, [Anthony Abraham] Jack is solidly in the sociological tradition of Shamus Rahman Khan and Binder and Wood. Each of these authors recognize that a student’s cultural competence stems from broad institutional influences, not just from the family. The distinction between the Privileged Poor and the Doubly Disadvantaged, along with the illustrations of how both groups of students navigate elite college campuses, is insightful and contains potential avenues for further exploration. The second ‘book’ devolves, unfortunately, into a clumsy discussion of inequality, structural racism and privilege.”

James Prosek, an American original: “As a college junior, he wrote an illustrated history of trout—and he’s been an outside-the-box artist ever since.”

The lessons of Ronald Welch’s Mohawk Valley: “You should never camp in a ravine. Look for higher ground, and a windbreak — a fallen tree is fine, but rocks are the best. Gather balsam wood for bedding, and use your tomahawk to cut firewood from a dead tree. Make two fires. Set the bigger one against the rocks for warmth, and spread the ashes of the smaller one over the ground you wish to sleep on — they will stop it being so cold and damp. Catch fish from the river, but keep an eye out for Indians moving silently through the forest on moccasined feet. This much I have learnt from Ronald Welch’s Mohawk Valley. I just wish I had read it as a boy, for it would have furnished my bivouacking trips in the woods with a far greater level of detail. I would not have depended so much on being a cowboy, an Indian, a Viking. I could have been Alan Carey, learning how to live as a backwoodsman in America in the 1750s.”

The deceptive simplicity of Peanuts: “The genius of Peanuts is that it seems simple, replicable. But simplicity and complexity are arbitrary categories; where is the a priori boundary that separates one from the other? The true undergirding of lasting works of art is the embrace of contradictions, and Peanuts is no exception: it is at once universal and idiosyncratic, miniature and vast, constrained and infinite, composed and improvised, claustrophobic and inviting, caustic and sentimental, funny and sad. Moreover, what a wonderfully strange strip it is, this internal world playacted by ciphers. A playwright famously noted that every character is the author, and Peanuts exemplifies this truth.

The costs of a desynchronized workweek: “Whereas we once shared the same temporal rhythms—five days on, two days off, federal holidays, thank-God-it’s-Fridays—our weeks are now shaped by the unpredictable dictates of our employers. Nearly a fifth of Americans hold jobs with nonstandard or variable hours. They may work seasonally, on rotating shifts, or in the gig economy driving for Uber or delivering for Postmates. Meanwhile, more people on the upper end of the pay scale are working long hours. Combine the people who have unpredictable workweeks with those who have prolonged ones, and you get a good third of the American labor force. The personalization of time may seem like a petty concern, and indeed some people consider it liberating to set their own hours or spend their ‘free’ time reaching for the brass ring. But the consequences could be debilitating for the U.S. in the same way they once were for the U.S.S.R. A calendar is more than the organization of days and months. It’s the blueprint for a shared life.”

Netflix tests a new feature that allows users to speed-watch titles. Directors don’t like the idea, obviously.

Essay of the Day:

John Ashbery was preoccupied with flux. Could this lead to anything other than minor successes? Arthur Krystal takes stock of Ashbery’s accomplishment:

Just in case we still weren’t sure, Other Traditions reminds us that Ashbery was not interested in writing the perfect poem. Instead, he sympathizes with John Clare, ‘whose habit, one might even say whose strength, was imperfect.’ Ashbery welcomed imperfection, not because he found it charming, but because it’s an element of thought. One doesn’t always think logically or sequentially, so one needn’t pretend to. Which works if you’re John Ashbery, but not very well for you or me.

“After quoting approvingly Schubert’s lines: ‘But the poem is just this / Speaking of what cannot be said / To the person I want to say it,’ Ashbery acknowledges, almost casually, that he ‘enjoy[s] Schubert more than Pound or Eliot.’ And part of what he enjoys is that Schubert’s work ‘manages to render itself immune to critical analysis or even paraphrase.’ This is, needless to say, a tactical shift in taste about modernist poetry, whose value was associated with the textual analysis of Jarrell, Blackmur, Wilson, Tate, and Winters. Ashbery doesn’t dismiss formalist poets; he just prefers the poem that can’t be pinned down. As did Laura Riding, I imagine that he, too, would caution readers ‘not to construe my poems as poetry in the generally understood sense of the term.’

“It’s this temperamental attraction to the offbeat and eccentric that drew Ashbery to the literary antics and self-referential strategies of Roussel, Duchamp, and Apollinaire. We’re not talking Jabberwockysilly or Ogden Nash–like noodlings. The French writers were both playful and deadly earnest about their non-sense; it shored up a philosophical approach to life, which, I’m afraid to say, wears thin the older one grows, although Tristan Tzara’s amiable poem ‘To Make a Poem’ reads like early Ashbery. Nonetheless, after a certain age, one may be excused for ho-humming conceptual art and the linguistic playfulness of the avant-garde. Indeed, one may find an earlier French writer, who also dabbled in the ridiculous, more congenial: ‘tirez le rideau, la farce est jouée.’ But before it’s over, it has meaning; it matters. And if a work of art is to matter, it has to matter to people other than the artist. In short, a work that takes its audience only to the end of the artist’s own mind is simply an intellectual exercise. How many people attend a performance of John Cage’s 4’33’’ more than once?

All this is to say—what probably will annoy his admirers—that Ashbery succeeds despite his influences. For good and for ill, he liked to experiment, and experiment, by implication, contains the possibility of failure. Reviewing The Tennis Court Oath (1962), John Simon observed that Ashbery ‘has perfected his verse to the point where it never deviates into—nothing so square as sense!—sensibility, sensuality, or sentences.’ Even critics sympathetic to Ashbery’s modus operandi shook their heads at his willful evasions. As late as 1990, Dana Gioia, acknowledging Ashbery’s unique sound, his ‘gift of felicitous, natural phrasing,’ concluded that ‘he is a marvelous minor poet, but an uncomfortable major one.’”

Read the rest.

Photo: Costa Imagna

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about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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