Barack Obama’s Waste Land; President as First Reader

GalleyCat reported today that the new biography of Barack Obama gives an extensive picture of Obama’s literary interests, including a long excerpt of a letter in which Obama details his engagement with TS Eliot and his signature poem, The Waste Land. Obama’s analysis:

Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time. Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this. Read his essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, as well as Four Quartets, when he’s less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak. Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.) And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter—life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times.

A Portrait of Barack Obama as a Literary Young Man – GalleyCat.

For a 22 year old, you’d have to say this is pretty good. I’m impressed with the nuance of Obamas empathetic imagination, both in his ability to perceive the differences between the three great conservative poets of that age, and in his ability to identify with Eliot against his own political instincts. This is the kind of reading we’d like to inculcate in our students, and I think it lends credence to the notion that a mind trained in this kind of engagement might be better trained for civic engagement than those that are not. But too often even literature profs are primarily readers of the camp, so to speak, lumping those not of their own political or cultural persuasion into the faceless, and largely unread, camp of the enemy, and appreciating without distinction those who further our pet or current causes.

This is too bad, reducing a richer sense of education for civic engagement into the narrower and counterproductive sense of reading as indoctrination. I think the older notion was a vision of education that motivated the founding fathers. Whatever one thinks of his politics, passages like this suggest to me that Obama could sit unembarrassed with Jefferson and Adams discussing in all seriousness the relationship between poetry and public life. It would be a good thing to expect this of our presidents, rather than stumbling upon it by accident.

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Majoring in the Extreme Humanities

Playing Scrabble the other day I looked up the word “selvages” online and in the process discovered the sport of extreme scrap quilting.  I still don’t have my mind around the concept since I thought that scrap quilting was by its nature designed to be the opposite of extreme, but apparently it is a “thing” since it calls up 750000 hits on google in one form or another.  I can’t quite figure out the difference between extreme scrap quilting and regular scrap quilting, but I’m sure that if its important to my happiness someone will let me know.  Or even it’s not.

I take it that extreme scrap quilting is on the order of extreme eating, extreme couponing, extreme makeovers, and extreme other things.  Indeed, it appears that in order to be noticed as something special and different it is important that it become extreme, unusual, and call attention to itself.

I’ve concluded that this is one of the problems with the Humanities. We are not extreme enough.  We need to shake off the image of the sedate professors in elbow patches and figure out new ways to make our disciplines sufficiently life threatening to attract interest. If we were more extreme we could have sexier advertisement in college brochures and more positive coverage in the national press.

I struggled to come up with a few examples, but I wonder if others could come up with more.

“Extreme Hemingway 101”–Read Hemingway on a safari to Africa.  You will be injected with a form of gangrene and a rescue plane will fly you in to the side of Mount Kilimanjaro.  If you make it out alive your grand prize will be a a year for two in an isolated cabin in Idaho.  By the end of this course you will truly understand what it meant to be Ernest Hemingway.  Because we will spend so much time flying around the world, we will only have the time for the one short story.  But lots and lots and lots of experiential learning.

“Extreme Poetry 302”–competitors will rack up debt and be given jobs as baristas.  The competitor who is willing to go without health benefits and adequate housing the longest will be rewarded with a publishing contract with 2000.00 subvention fees for the cover art. [Oh, wait….we already do that one for real].

“Extreme History 291”–Students will be put out in sod houses on the Kansas Prairie without electricity, food or running water in order to relive America’s westward expansion. Students from the extreme archery team will provide realistic attacks on settlers in an effort to help students better understand the responses of the colonized to their colonizers.  [I think this was actually some kind of television show already, but why not steal a good idea]

“Extreme Philosophy 479”– an extreme version of Aristotle’s peripatetic school, students will be required to run a marathon on a treadmill while wearing specially designed headsets that allow them to watch all Slavoj Zizek videos currently posted on Youtube [because we realize students are not professional marathoners, we believe there will be sufficient time to actually accomplish this assignment].  Final exam focused on actually reading Zizek is optional.

I’m sure there must be other possibilities.  I’d love to hear of them.

[True story, in writing this blog post just now I googled “extreme humanities” and came up with several Indian sites for hair weaves made of real human hair;  I kid you not. Judging from the web site I looked at, it appears there’s an unnerving desire for “virgin human hair.”  I had not really realized this was a consideration in the baldness management industry.   “Extreme Higher Education”, more grimly, starts out with several pages of mostly news stories focusing on extreme cuts to Higher education]

Many Stories, One World

YHWH’s Image

With this clay He began to coat His shins,
cover His thighs, His chest. He continued this
layering, and, when He had been wholly
interred, He parted the clay at His side, and
retreated from it, leaving the image of Himself
to wander in what remained of that early
morning mist.
—Scott Cairns

I wrote a little tepidly about Scott Cairns’s collection “Recovered Body” a little while back. Nevertheless, I find that “YHWH’s Image”–partially quoted above– has been sticking with me, as poems somehow seem to do. I keep coming back to that image of the creation, so different and yet so right, as if Cairns has shown me both the truth of human intimacy with God and our ache at God’s absence.

I may have been thinking about this a bit since I’m leading a discussion of Genesis 1 and 2 at my church this Sunday. No Biblical scholar am I, but I’ve been mulling over the endless troubling that goes on about the two different accounts of creation, as if this somehow counted against the truth of the Biblical passages. “Those silly ancient Hebrews,”  we seems to say, “Didn’t they realize they put two completely different stories right next to each other.”  A modern chauvinism.  As it happens, I also read this week a very fine essay in manuscript by my colleague at Messiah College, Brian Smith, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, who points out that there’s also a creation story in the first part of Proverbs that is very different from the first of Genesis, proclaiming the primacy of Wisdom. And, of course, I  realized that there’s another creation story in the first chapter of John, where in the beginning we have not God brooding over the deep, but the Word with and as God. I’m sure if I knew my Bible better a number of other creation stories might spring to mind–I’ve come to doubt there are only four. And yet even with so many, Scott Cairns’s poem got me thinking about some truth about the creation story that is genuinely new but somehow consistent with all the others and with the teachings that I’ve received about God’s relationship to the world as creator and redeemer.

And yet we worry and fret that there are two stories and they don’t match up.

What if it is the case that the creation of the world out of nothing is so beyond our imagining, that getting the one right story isn’t the point. What if it is the case that the great rupture of creation is so beyond our comprehension that we are set to storytelling, not so we could capture the single truth of what happened, but so we could bear testimony to its mystery.

Testimony, it seems to me, is an important word because it bears witness to a given fact and is in some way accepted as testimony only to the extent that it both repeats what everyone already knows, but in a way that bears an individual stamp.  The truthtelling that is testimony is both repetitive and unique, as we are urged on to bear witness to the facts of a known or remembered world.   The recent rehearsals of oral histories about 9/11 is this kind of record. All of them sound familiar, and yet all of them are unique and different, bearing some new witness to the day a world changed for those who were there. Scott Cairns’s poem strikes me this way. Right and consistent with everything I think I have heard and believed, but bearing its own stamp, its own word, never heard before, such that I know God the Creator in some new may.

For many poststructualists/postmodernists, the multiplicity of stories about events in the world gives credence to the notion of incommensurable realities–in some sense we make the world through our speaking about it.  And so there is no world to be spoken about, instead a plethora of worlds carried and clashing on the wings of our words. In this view, the notion of one world or a singular truth is oppressive, squashing down our human ingenuity.

But what if it were the case that the one act of creation created a world so singular and beyond our knowing that we are called upon to bear testimony to that one world through our own stories?  The one great rupture of creation calls into being our own acts of creation out of testimony to an event we affirm but cannot encompass.  If this were the case, then I would stop worrying about the fact that there were two or three or four or more stories about creation in the Bible. I might be surprised that there weren’t more.

Wouldn’t something as startling and unprecedented as a world need more than one story?

The Devil’s Party

My continuing devotion to The New York Review of Books probably signifies nothing so much as my being an archaic throwback, born out of sync with my time. In a way, it seems to me that NYRB has become countercultural in part simply by just staying the same. The world has passed it by–who has time, after all, for a thought that requires an argument?–but in so doing I wonder whether we won’t long at last for just its kind of sober and articulate seriousness that tries to comprehend our troubles, tiring finally of the jokey popculturism of the web that seems mostly content to glide glibly along our surfaces, troubles merely another occasion for self display.

NYRB seems to revel in this archaic status, reprinting as it does forgotten masterpieces through its press and classic articles for it’s archives, apparently insisting pugnaciously that literature and thought really do remain news against the ephemera of what passes for the hot things of the moment.

Of course, it does this on the web now too, like everyone else. Most recently I picked up “A Modern Master by Paul de Man”  off the Facebook page that I have “liked.” A good “classic” essay on Borges, though as with a lot of deconstructionists it becomes impossible to know whether I am supposed to appreciate what de Man is saying or the prolix way in which he goes about saying it. And, of course, it’s sometimes hard to know with these guys whether I’m learning something about Borges or about Paul de Man reading Borges. De Man is primarily interested in the thesis that villainy becomes in some sense a poetic and aesthetic principle for Borges, one that he explores and unfolds throughout his career.

It is true that, especially in his earlier works, Borges writes about villains: The collection History of Infamy (Historia universal de la infamia, 1935) contains an engaging gallery of scoundrels. But Borges does not consider infamy primarily as a moral theme; the stories in now way suggest an indictment of society or of human nature or of destiny. Nor do they suggest the lighthearted view of Gide’s Nietzschean hero Lafcadio. Instead, infamy functions here as an aesthetic, formal principle. The fictions literally could not have taken shape but for the presence of villainy at their very heart. Many different worlds are conjured up—cotton plantations along the Mississippi, pirate-infested South seas, the Wild West, the slums of New York, Japanese courts, the Arabian desert, etc.—all of which would be shapeless without the ordering presence of a villain at the center.

A good illustration can be taken from the imaginary essays on literary subjects that Borges was writing at the same time as the History of Infamy. Borrowing the stylistic conventions of scholarly critical writing, the essays read like a combination of Empson, Paulhan, and PMLA, except that they are a great deal more succinct and devious. In an essay on the translations of The Thousand and One Nights, Borges quotes an impressive list of examples showing how translator after translator mercilessly cut, expanded, distorted, and falsified the original in order to make it conform to his own and his audience’s artistic and moral standards. The list, which amounts in fact to a full catalogue of human sins, culminates in the sterling character of Enna Littmann, whose 1923-1928 edition is scrupulously exact: “Incapable, like George Washington, of telling a lie, his work reveals nothing but German candor.” This translation is vastly inferior, in Borges’s eyes, to all others. It lacks the wealth of literary associations that allows the other, villainous translators to give their language depth, suggestiveness, ambiguity—in a word, style. The artist has to wear the mask of the villain or order to create a style.

So far, so good. All of us know that the poet is of the devil’s party and that sin makes for better stories than virtue. It takes some effort to prefer La nouvelle Héloise to Les liaisons dangereuses or, for that matter, to prefer the second part of the Nouvelle Héloise to the first. Borges’s theme of infamy could be just another form of fin-de-siècle aestheticism, a late gasp of romantic agony. Or, perhaps worse, he might be writing out of moral despair as an escape from the trappings of style. But such assumptions go against the grain of a writer whose commitment to style remains unshakable; whatever Borges’s existential anxieties may be, they have little in common with Sartre’s robustly prosaic view of literature, with the earnestness of Camus’s moralism, or with the weighty profundity of German existential thought. Rather, they are the consistent expansion of a purely poetic consciousness to its furthest limits.

The line “the poet is of the devil’s party” stood out to me, even though de Man’s “All of us know” sets it up sniffily as a throwaway line that demarcates the star-bellied sneeches from their know-nothing cousins. In part I think I seized on this line because it suddenly struck me that it really is the case that everyone I’ve know has mostly assumed that poet’s were of the devil’s party. It’s an issue I’ve thought about for a very long time, maybe for as long as I’ve engaged literature. As I wrote in my book, encountering literature has been, for me, always been fraught with the question of whether or not I was encountering the devil’s party in some metaphorical sense or another. From the time my parents forbid me to go to see The Great Gatsby with friends, or the year I was not allowed to read The Catcher in the Rye along with all my classmates. In some longer range and more significant way, this idea goes all the way back to Plato’s restriction of the poet from the Republic in the belief that poets served merely to inflame the passions, the devil’s party for the rationalist Greek. In my literary theory and other classes, I’ve often invoked the authority of Augustine’s notion of the felix peccatum, the happy fall, to suggest the notion that literature depends on the fact of fallenness, the fact of evil. If the poet is not of the devil’s party, he is at least secretly glad–along with all his readers–that the devil had his way if only for a moment.

An unsettling notion, that our pleasures, even our highest intellectual and aesthetic pleasures depend in some deep sense upon our and the world’s brokenness and violence. At the deepest level, I think this speaks to something unsettling about literature and art in general, something that goes beyond the question of offensiveness, and may go deeper than PLato’s concerns with the surface manifestations of inflamed aesthetic passions. Literature–perhaps other arts, but literature especially–unsettles because it depends so thoroughly and obviously and completely on brokenness and struggle and conflict and, yes, sometimes, violence as a condition of its existence. And it is most unsettling in that it makes takes these and makes them pleasurable, moving, beautiful. I think this is unsettling not on the simple level that we feel moralistically that literature shouldn’t do this, but the fact that it does do this has the force of revelation, showing us something about how we are built to experience the world. We exclude the poet from the city walls because by her fictions she shows us the fictions of our virtues.

As tiresome as I often find the deconstructionists–the tendency to find an infinity in a phrase often being nothing more than making a mountain our of a molehill–it still seems to me that this conundrum is something they troubled over endlessly and rightly.

Scott Cairns: Recovered Body

Recovered BodyMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

I admired these poems more than I loved them. Though that may say more about me than about the poems. Believing with the Konstanz school that the work of art is an event occurring only when an object is encountered, reviewers should probably preface what they have to say with self-critique, admitting that, after all, every act of criticism is disguised autobiography, or at least disguised desire. (How else to account for the different ways a person takes a book in the course of a life—thrilled in youth and bemused or embarrassed in middle age that we took the time once to be enthused.) In that spirit I should say that I was tired when I read these poems, and more tired when I read through a second time. It also likely didn’t help matters that I had read through Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do” earlier this week, a collection that left me feeling shaken and undone, as if in counting her losses she had fingered the raw places left by mine. Finally, it may be that in the recesses of my brain I’m carrying the memory of Cairns visit to Messiah College several years ago, delivering a reading that I felt was both profound and down to earth, deeply serious while also good-humoured.

By comparison, these poems seemed to me this time around more accomplished than moving, as if written while attending more to other poems than to readers. This is not to say that there’s not a lot to admire or that there is not a great deal of accomplishment. Indeed, it a poet’s great advantage that if even half a dozen poems that strike the anvil, an entire collection will have been worth the reading. By comparison, fifty good pages in a novel otherwise full of dreck leave me infuriated that the promise in those pages had been such a tease. Cairns is at his best in taking the old, old stories and finding the new thing. His curiosity presses the “Why?” and “What if?” Why, after all, did Lot’s wife look back. Could it have been something like compassion? And, if we were truthful with ourselves, won’t we admit that we are, in the lurid eye of our imaginations, looking back too at smoldering Sodom? What if Jacob slew Isaac after all, the story of rams and angel a good tale to give God a little cover. Perhaps the most moving of these to me was his rendering of Joseph, long after the successes of his life and the moral triumphs of his forgiving spirit, never quite forgetting the terror of that adolescent grave he’d been assigned by his brothers:

“And in succeeding years, through their provocative turns of fortune—false accusations, a little stretch in prison, a developing facility with dreams—Joseph came gradually into his own, famously forgave his own, pretty much had the last laugh, save when, always as late in the day as he could manage, he gave in to sleep and to the return of that blue expanse, before which all accretion—accomplishment, embellishment, all likely interpretations—would drop away as he found himself again in the hollow of that well, naked, stunned, his every power spinning as he lay, and looked, and swam.”

This is old hat defamiliarization. But it is also really good stuff. How absolutely true it must be, or at least could have been, about Joseph. We want triumph without memory, and redemption without regrets. This and other poems like it tear Biblical and historical figures out of the thick mask of their necessary reputations, places where, as Cairns puts it in another poem, they are “all but veiled by chiaroscuro and the prominence.”

All of this is praise, and it may say something that I find myself admiring, and even liking, these poems the more I write about them in this review, writing, after all, an act of thought, an exercise of the imagination on the idea of poetry and literature and these poems and this literature. But in the reading I found all this just a little distancing, as if the manner of these poems was too far from my need. While the technology of the poetry was to make remote figures human for me again, to, as the title of the collection suggestion suggests, give testimony to the “recovered body,” the poems’ achievements seemed primarily intellectual or literary or interpretive, rather than visceral. Someone said they wanted poetry that made them feel as if the top of their heads had been taken off, and I tend to agree. But again, perhaps that only speaks to my own needs, my own place, my own embodiment, the facts of my father’s gradual descent in to dementia and my mother’s grappling with depression, that I miss and worry anxiously about my daughter away at school, or fret and feel tired already at the sense that the past summer never actually began and now it is all but ended. So perhaps it is not surprising that the poem I liked the most in the collection was also clearly the most lyric and personal. The one in which Cairns, remembering the death of his father, struck me as a person more than an imagination:

As we met around him
That last morning—none of us unaware
of what the morning would bring—I was struck
by how quickly he left us. And the room
emptied—comes to me now—far too quickly.
If impiety toward the dead were still
deemed sin, it was that morning our common
trespass, to have imagined too readily
his absence, to have all but denied him
as he lay, simply, present before us.

This poem–unlike the others, all occupying their own form of goodness–made me say Yes.

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Marie Howe: What the Living Do

Marie Howe

“What the Living Do” manages to give me an unsentimental but still deeply felt picture of the pain of living beyond loss.  The immediate occasion for these poems is the death of several friends and family members over what seems, in the context of this books at least, a relatively short period of time.  The real focus, however, is not so much on the dying–the psychic and physical pain of disease, the fear of a passage elsewhere–as it is on the poet herself, or at least her personae. These are not elegies then; or at least not elegies to the dead so much as elegies to who we imagine we must have been before the clefts and rifts that the loss of those we love opens in our lives, or perhaps elegies to the selves we imagine we might

What the Living Do

have become.  Finally, though, these are poems of hope.  I would not call them poems of overcoming.  Grief remains, and in some sense we become, as we age, people who remember the dead, in our voices and in our silences.  But poems of hope in that they recognize that we do go on.  This is what the living do:  they go on, carrying with them acts of remembrance such as these.

Jordan Windholz, poet

Congratulations to Jordan Windholz, one of my former students, for his recent nomination as a finalist in the Omnidawn poetry contest.  I had the chance to work with Jordan in a lot of different ways during his tenure at the college, and I’m so glad to see his success.  You can see Jordan’s poem “ruminant” at the Omnidawn blog.  Jordan’s poetry is scattered all over the web, and I’m looking forward to a book someday.