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Franz Liszt’s Orpheus & Travels in Time

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While Bruce and I were in Berlin, I had planned a few posts that I intended to go up while we were away. Alas, my technical understanding was lacking, and they didn’t get posted. One of them was a follow-up to my piece about squabbling over the arts, which I’d illustrated with two depictions of Orpheus before and after he met his untimely death in spite of the beauty of his art. Today I give you the song that I intended to run that same week—this poignant symphonic poem by Franz Liszt on the subject of Orpheus, Part I above and Part II below.

I had also selected this piece because Liszt wrote it while he was living and working in Germany—Weimar to be exact—and in one of those funny coincidences, Bruce and I, much to our surprise, ended up spending a day and a half in Weimar last week. We drove over from Berlin with Bruce’s old friend Kai, who happened to be slated to play in a tennis tournament there. While he played, we toured the ancient city and walked in the footsteps of Liszt, as well as Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Richard Strauss, Hans Christian Andersen, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Walter Gropius, Oskar Schlemmer, and many other artists, writers, and musicians.

Goethe’s garden house in Weimar, Germany.

It’s hard to imagine as you walk the cobblestone streets of beautiful Weimar and stroll through the park along the Ilm River to Goethe’s garden house that just eight kilometers away, the Nazis built the Buchenwald concentration camp, or that after the liberation of the concentration camps Allies forced the citizens of Weimar to tour the remains of Buchenwald on foot. Scenes from that episode in Weimar’s history were recorded and can be seen at the end of Billy Wilder’s Death Mills, a 1945 anti-German post-war propagation film, available in its full 20-minute form here at the Holocaust Museum website. (Warning: this film is largely composed of clips of dead and dying concentration camp victims. It is brutal.)

It’s also difficult to imagine Weimar as an East Germany city. It retains its old-world charm because many of its buildings and monuments were spared from bombing during World War II. However, on the outskirts we found numerous of those concrete-slab high-rise apartment buildings, some of them fallen into decrepitude, typical of the cheap, radically modernist efforts of post-war Socialist architects and builders. They seemed particularly odd in the bucolic hills around Weimar.

We did not visit Buchenwald—time was short, and Kai was more eager to get back to his family in Berlin. But one thing that is true in Germany is that history peeks through everywhere. The Topography of Terror memorial site sits on the location of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters, but is also rimmed by a remnant of the Berlin Wall. Even as I enjoyed the quiet, clean, and plentiful trains that made getting around Berlin so easy and pleasant, I couldn’t help but think how this train system was used and perfected in the transportation of humans to their terrible deaths.

Bruce said that as he walked around Berlin he was constantly wondering, “What happened here? In this exact spot?” It’s a good question for any one of us to ask any day and in any spot. You can bet something happened wherever you are, even if it’s been covered over or obliterated by the passage of time. When I take a moment to let that reverberate in my mind and body, I am enlivened and reminded to choose carefully (and to the extent I can) which kind of path toward the future I might participate in.

Gratuitous Violence About Fiction

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Louis Bouquet, La Mort d’Orphee, 1925-1939. Orpheus, torn to shreds by the Bacchantes, a sad symbol of what havoc jealousies and distractions can wreak on artists.

My apologies, readers: I had scheduled my next three posts to automatically appear while Bruce and I were visiting Germany, but, alas, something went wrong with my understanding of WordPress. I’ll try to catch up over the next few days. Maybe by now you all can bear another long post about clubby creative writing battles. I hope it doesn’t bore my non-writer readers. As this indicates, I am bored too, but my OCD side compels me to speak when readers of the New York Times have devolved into this kind of bickering. Friend Harold made me realize in a comment about last week’s manifesto about not restricting myself to creative writing that I nonetheless often do focus on these narrow issues. I promise to get away from this again soon, but it’s been an artsy month for me.

The New York Times is following in the footsteps of the tabloids, attempting to ratchet up controversy to get readers, at least that’s how it seems in this instance. The Times recently published a collection of articles in its Room for Debate series under the collective heading of “Is Fiction Changing, for Better or Worse?” Six very short articles then assaulted us with their inevitably epigrammatic brevity in attempting to answer the headline question.

The writers of these answers—six men and one woman in the finest discriminatory tradition of the major publications—can’t possibly win. Answering this question in the 300 words each was apparently given is an impossibility. But they try, mostly intelligently with perhaps one or two notable exceptions that I’ll save for last. One or two of them even make interesting points, bless them.

Still, the entire atmosphere around these mini-essays is one of contention and rivalry, with a plethora of nastiness directed all over the place, including at the poor authors themselves. Here’s a sampling of the befuddling attacks and counter-attacks in their mini-essays and mostly in the online comments that follow [with my observations in brackets]:

Comments on Jane Smiley’s “An Exercise in Empathy”

“While the quantity of books has increased there is certainly a decrease in the percentage of great novels being written.” Chris Wilson, Boston [Um, has he read them all? How does he know this with such certainty? Did this comment have anything to do with what Smiley said? Um, no.]

In response to a commentator who noted (albeit incorrectly) the overwhelmingly white and male composition of the panel of writers, this diatribe: “Get over it… no wonder there is racism. Because people like you insert it into every possible situation, whether it belongs or not, which in this case it most certainly does not.” Kafen ebell, Los Angeles [Again, I marvel at this person’s prescience, in this case the ability to know whether or not racism influences this situation. It certainly seems to have influenced this remark.]

“Fiction creates empathy in a way that nonfiction cannot. It places the reader in the head of someone else, feeling their feelings.” Anniken Davenport, Harrisburg [What an odd way to characterize the supposed superiority of fiction—by attacking just the quality that memoir is known for.]

“Truth is, our present-day writers, most of them urban liberals, have effectively repelled the sort of readers who used to admire Steinbeck, Wolfe, Faulkner, Algren, et. al. Really, could anything be more objectionable than, for example, the sort of Manhattan-approved good thinker who confesses that while Iowa might be all right (barely) for children, yet it remains so horribly provincial, don’t you know, for more elevated souls.” Tito Perdue reactionary novelist, ‘Bama [Huh? Talk about a comment that comes not from the article but from a predetermined, always-present agenda. This is prime.]

Comments on Robin Sloan’s “Welcome ‘The Sopranos’ and Twitter”

“I checked out the excerpt from Mr. Sloan’s novel, and it expresses everything one needs to know about the current strain of reductive techno-cheerleading infesting our culture. I highly recommend he stick to ‘inventing media,’ whatever that might mean.” Ilya Leybovich, Brooklyn, NY [While I agree that I was not sucked into Mr. Sloan’s opening page, I’m not sure that Ilya’s position represents anything but some vague resentment at techies, even though he seems to be a news editor for an online PR magazine, hardly the purest or most art-obsessed role in life. Perhaps he is also a frustrated novelist.]

“Today’s ‘novel’ has become the pointless snippets people post of their daily lives on social networking sites.” Evan Lockport, IL [All of them?]

“Such slapdoodle, the very kind of thinking these superficial media encourage.” An Ordinary American, Prague [I don’t disagree with this person, just perhaps with his/her harshness. But I had to include this one because of the use of the wonderful word “slapdoodle” and because of the combination of “an ordinary American” and the location of Prague, where all ordinary Americans no doubt hang out.]

Comments on Matt de la Peña’s “Novels Have Become an Escape”

De la Peña’s piece is an anti-positive psychology note in itself, and was my favorite of the six for that very fact. Perhaps for that reason, he received by far the most commentary on his article. But, of course, the comments became an argument between those who insist life is indeed sad and those who insist it isn’t. Of course, it is both, and some commenters acknowledged that well, but I quote here some of the deniers and other nasties, my point being that discussions on the internet so often devolve into this oppositional absurdity.

“why are multiple posters quoting this same kafka phrase/ did the nytimes include a quote in their assignment? is this high school English class?” j, LIC, NY

“So far, the only living American novelist with anything to say is Corum McCarthy [whoever that is, or, I mean, sic]. The rest is filtered out by the agent-seeking-money people and the bean-counters-seeking-money from the publisher’s financial group headquarters. Most of your commenters sound like they recently got theit [sic] writing MFA which teaches lots about technique to those with not much to relate.” anonymot, CT [Another MFA basher, and I hope he/she does have something to say since there’s no expressed need here to say it well or to even give any evidence for claims. Some people just have to get the MFA-blame into whatever they say.]

“Although I disagree with Mr. de la Peña, I can forgive an intelligent young man who has enough intelligent-young-man arrogance to think his [sic] has enough perspective to judge his own time against what came before.” J, R [Funny, he never really says what he disagrees about per se. Oh, well, a put-down is always effective, right? The condescension blew me away.]

“only in genre fiction can the half-stereotypes we all rely on be explored safely, because lit fiction, which is supposed to be addressing these, is only interested in one side” John, Brooklyn, NY [I’m pretty sure this is not what Mr. de la Peña meant. In other words, John is always looking for an opportunity to say what is already on his mind, no matter what.]

“I think you mistake a few elites for an entire ‘audience.’ Jane Austin [sic] and Shakespeare and Hemingway and Oscar Wilde and others were popular because they were entertaining not because they were literary.” ro, nyc [Etc. etc. with “ro” and “anonymot” dissing the “elite” “decision-makers” who unfortunately promote “serious” writing. Totally incoherent, really, but the readers and writers of junk fiction are always aggrieved, by golly. They get all the money in wide sales, but that’s not enough for them. They want also the literary recognition that they trash so much.]

“A session with current fiction, even an extended one, turning thinly-worded [sic] post-modern pages requires that we reach for the next while the current one is coming to a close. They’re pills in paper back.” mm, albuquerque [Again, I think that the commenter is blaming books that de la Peña doesn’t mean to blame.]

“Life is not sad. It is what you make of it…. Yes, we are all going to die but that is not what is important here. What’s important is living a life that serves each one of us.” Susannah, France [I’m glad she knows what’s important for all of us.]

“People do care. They are not always hiding. I think this is a good thing and invite you into a positive world.” Jack R. Williams, Atlantic Beach, NC [Because, of course, this very successful young writer must be in a bad way just because he points out the contemporary aversion to life’s hard side. This private citizen would like to give him advice about his life. Does that seem fitting to anyone?]

“What a load of waffle.” TV, CT

“Agree that intellectual challenge has downshifted, but strongly disagree regarding sadness and self reflection, the preoccupation with which seems to have become pandemic. Also, the memoir, an exaltation of self if ever there was one, may be supplanting the novel as a popular idyll.” marymary, Washington, DC [OMG, let’s beat up the memoir again. Who cares that the subject here is the novel, some people just have to bash the memoir.]

“as a person who suffers from clinical depression, the idea that bouts of melancholy can be ‘beneficial’ makes me want to throw my laptop through the window. Where does the Times find these people?” gobot90, new york [De la Peña distinguished what he was talking about from clinical depression, but this person just missed it, I guess.]

“The idea that the novel should be ‘serious’ is a 20th century invention, as James Gunn points out. Mr. de la Peña needs to study his literary history.” gobot90, new york [Above, he notes that the Times gets unqualified people to write these, but only after he has here cited one of the other panelists—with far fewer credentials as a writer—as a better expert. In other words, the popular fiction folks are angry again. I can just never figure out why.]

Comments on Thomas Glave’s “Stories and Readers Change Together”

This piece garnered only 3 comments, all rather disconnected from what he wrote.

“A well crafted novel has the potential to tell far more truth than non-fiction and, in an aesthetic manner. Art goes farther than imitating life—it can capture its essence.” David Chowes, New York City [Another hobbyhorse inserted willy-nilly: the superiority of fiction over non-fiction. Boring, boring, boring.]

The next two articles I found in themselves objectionable. As scholar-critics rather than writers, they felt a need to pass judgments that seemed to me ill-founded.

Objectionable quotes from William Deresiewicz’s “New Forms, but People Will Always Read”

* “As for political fiction, Sozhenitsyn and Steinbeck were important figures, but they weren’t necessarily good novelists.” [At least he talks about specific novels, but this is ill-advised in a column where you have no space to define exactly what you mean.]

* “’The Jungle’ may have sparked reform, but I daresay ‘Mrs. Dalloway has changed more people’s lives.” [Unfounded speculation.]

* “Stunted attention spans, Internet cacophony, consolidation and collapse in the publishing industry, the professionalization of the arts and the questionable influence of the writing programs, the long shadow of modernist greats: the novel’s facing headwinds, as it surely always has.” [Deresiewicz is, of course, a former literature professor at Yale and Columbia, now turned essayist, but basically a scholar and critic, so, of course, he has to slip in that the influence of writing programs is “questionable.” The MFA canard again.]

Comments on Deresiewicz

“To suggest that Mrs. Dalloway ‘changed more lives’ than The Jungle is wishful thinking at best. The Jungle resulted in reform that affected millions of people over decades whereas if Mrs. Dalloway was read even by 20,000 people I would be surprised. The market for Lit Fic is miniscule and supported mostly by libraries without which, the ‘genre’ of Lit Fic would collapse. ECW, Forreston, IL [The scholars hate the creative writers, even those of a literary bent, but the popular fiction aficionados hate both the scholars and the literary writers. Go figure.]

“[H]is conclusion is pure evidence-avoiding pollyanna.” Dudley, Saunders [I don’t disagree, but, still, the invective.]

“In the cities, on public transportation, in parks and restaurants, people can read what they really like without the fear of public censure once they abandon the lurid covers of conventional publishing and enjoy the anonymity of e-readers. Unless one is right on top of the e-reader, they can read whatever crap they want without having to suffer the smirk of social critics. On the other hand, it’s hard to attract that special someone on the bus when they can’t see the pretentious tome you are pretending to read.” richard kopperdahl, new york city [This one wins the award for a paranoid sense of aggrievement. I mean, really, since when did people hide their popular fiction? Really, it’s a funny thought.]

Objectionable quotes from James Gunn’s “Look to the Fringes of Fiction”

Another critic, who must pass judgment, but this time it’s a former English professor who no doubt felt that his research on science fiction wasn’t taken seriously enough in the academy. So he founded and directs the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. He has a huge axe to grind. I should just paste his whole little diatribe here, but I will select only a portion.

* “A century ago H. G. Wells had a public debate with Henry James about the uses of the novel. Wells, ever the pragmatist, thought the novel was a device to make an emphatic point about life or society or human nature. James, ever the esthete, maintained that the only purpose of the novel was aesthetic. James prevailed, according to the critics, and the literary novel has been judged ever since on aesthetic grounds…. Wells is still read…; James, not so much.” [Of course, he has to set this up in oppositional fashion, and he has to base his entire argument on something he can’t prove. The greatest novels, of course, both make a point about “life or society or human nature” and also pay attention to aesthetic issues. It’s not as though The Turn of the Screw says nothing about human nature. Yeesh.]

* “[T]he literary novel has never been a place to look for social or political protest, and the writers who dealt in such matters—Dickens, Sinclair, Wells, Stowe, Zola, Orwell—were never considered ‘serious’ writers in their own times.” [Really? And what about Morrison, Baldwin, Ellison, Wright, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Gaskell, etc. etc.?]

* “The most effective social documents these days are genre novels—crime novels, for instance, but particularly science-fiction novels.” [I know the stupid 300-word form creates a tendency for the unsupported generalization, but isn’t this just an example of self-justification? It’s just so easy to trot out numerous counter-examples on every side of this issue—“serious literary” fiction that does take up social issues and science-fiction that doesn’t question the status quo at all. Just another angry devotee of popular fiction, wanting what he ostensibly despises.]

Comments on Gunn

Thus ensued in the comments a debate about the relative merits of Wells and James more than anything else, with the added current of “science-fiction is underappreciated.” Um-hm, yup, that’s why so many people read it and almost all university English departments teach it. Um-hm.

I couldn’t agree more with one commenter on Gunn’s post who referred to the entire endeavor this way:

“So wrongheaded! But what can one expect? These Room for Debate features seem to parade ‘experts’ who have bizarrely random claims to the title—you’d want to say they therefore spoke for an interestingly random sampling of views if they didn’t mostly seem to have some very particular axe to grind. – So this guy was chosen as the pro-sci-fi, non-canonical view? But why should that view be helpful or interesting (especially when he makes such blatantly incorrect factual assertions, as if James has been relegated to the dustheap while Wells has become widely embraced and beloved)? The topics for these Debates are so large, and the response pieces so frustratingly narrow, brief, and thin (based on opinion or assertion rather than fact), that the whole thing just becomes an exercise in head scratching rather than debate.” sd, ct

George Cruikshank, Old Blucher Beating the Corsican Big Drum, 1814. Gebhard von Blucher, a Prussian field marshal, carried an irrational degree of hatred for the French and over and over again flogged the populace and its leaders to go to war.

In fact, I find that these four childish battles are a large part of what’s wrong with writing and reading these days:

* MFA vs. no academic support for writers

* popular and genre fiction vs. literary fiction

* entertainment vs. “serious” fiction

* fiction vs. non-fiction, especially memoir

These are indeed shibboleths and hackneyed distractions, and I am sick of them. I wish we could move our discussions of literature and writing beyond them. Surely, there is something more interesting about what we do than these hobbyhorses that repeat themselves ad infinitum in the press. In spite of the fact that bifurcation is almost never a smart way of thinking, people keep these oppositions alive, perhaps because they are easy and draw “controversy.”

I hereby declare that there is no controversy on these topics. In spite of the continuing echoes of irrationality, the jury is in:

* The MFA does not harm writers. It has its pros and its cons, and it is not all things to all people. But it helps some writers find a way, and it supports many others. This is a good thing. That so many people want to study writing is also our best hope for a continuing culture of reading and writing and our best hope against an illiterate society.

* Neither the genre aficionados nor the literary aficionados should trash the other. There should be room for both in the world. That the publishing industry is shutting off the oxygen to literary writers is true, and I decry this, but other opportunities in small press publishing and inexpensive online literary venues are going to keep the literary alive. The fucking genre people have no complaint, and they need to give up feeling discriminated against. Once upon a time they might have had a legitimate issue, having been subject to the disdain of critics, but they don’t any more, and truly great work in science-fiction and other genres regularly is attended to with literary awe. People read it, too, and its popularity is secure. So, what’s the problem?

* Serious fiction, however, is indeed different from a lot of popular fiction. Some of us are even “entertained” by something more serious than formulaic fare. But there is no hard and fast line between them. We need to get used to this and debate only the merits of individual texts, not entire categories. The categories do not serve writers, and barely serve readers—they are largely enforced by the publishing companies, bookstores, reviewers, and critics, who are all classifiers at heart. Their classifications are convenient for all of us sometimes, but they are not sacrosanct.

* Likewise with the ridiculous claim that fiction is always and necessarily superior to non-fiction and that memoir is a degraded form. This is just patently false and almost always asserted out of self-promotion or some other slightly less obvious self-serving belief. There are bad novels just as there are bad memoirs. And there are good in both genres. If you want to start a tally list and go through all of literature to demonstrate otherwise in any convincing way, then, as my mother used to say, “Go ahead, gourd head.”

Would that the squabblers would hear my song.

Karoly Ferenczy, Orpheus, 1894. Orpheus before everyone started fighting over him. Better days, no doubt.

A Year in the Blogosphere

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Joyous Crybaby has readied me to keep my eyes on that horizon while I plow that soil. (Photo by Lisa Wild for the Geograph Project [http://www.geograph.org.uk/].)

Actually, it’s more like 13 months in the blogosphere now, and I’ve been thinking since I passed the one-year anniversary that I should post another reflection on this endeavor. Thinking about it at the six-month mark helped me further define my purposes and bask in an admittedly self-satisfied glow that I had kept it up that long.

In the next few months, I’ll be facing new challenges as a blogger—the end of sabbatical, a return to full-time teaching, and deadlines for a major book project. I remain uncertain of the continuing viability of Joyous Crybaby, even though the reasons are shifting and even though I feel all the more devoted to her. I still feel as though she’s doing me good.

She’s not a work project, though, and I am employed in a demanding field where I’m not supposed to spend much time doing anything but what will further my career. Academia more and more is judged by business models, and this involves an increasing obsession with quantifiable results and quantifiable justifications. Every year, we are required to turn in the dreaded document called a Faculty Annual Report, and each department chair is required to turn in the larger version that supposedly proves quality and intellectual achievement by the number of grant dollars, publications, and “seats in butts” (or student credit hours) that we have produced, collectively and individually. Our departmental budgets and our individual merit raises are determined by such numbers (not that the raises offset the pay cuts we are experiencing via means such as lower retirement contributions). Whether institutions with such a myriad of purposes and such a myriad of considerations is best served by this constant quantification is debatable, of course, but it’s a fact of almost any academic’s life these days. Here’s one great write-up of a blogging academic who kept track of his work time.

Therefore, every week, day, half-day, or hour I spend writing a blog post—and finding supporting resources, references, and appropriate copyright-free illustrations, and then formatting and linking everything on the blog itself—I wonder what the heck I am doing spending so much time on it.

I’ve also had occasion to wonder why I didn’t at least focus my blog on creative writing—my area of professional expertise. There are many academics who do gain some credit for their profession-related blogs and who at least spread the word that they are experts in their fields by narrowly focusing on a professional sensibility in a more or less narrow field. In other words, though they may practice a more general-reader style, their blog personas directly reflect their professorial research. Mostly they are not very personal. There are indeed many such blogs in the world of creative writing—almost all literary magazines these days have a large web presence, many literary magazines are fully online and function as community blogs with selection requirements, and there are dozens if not hundreds of blogs about the writing life, craft, “how I became a writer,” publishing tips and advice at both magazine and book level, finding an agent, various genres and styles of writing, and so on. Some of these blogs and online literary venues are fabulous, and I read a lot of them avidly if not regularly.

Maybe the sheer plethora of existing creative writing blogs made me choose instead a wider focus and one rooted in issues in another field entirely (my starting point of my negative reaction to positive psychology bromides). However, as the year has passed, I’ve had to justify this choice to myself.

There are many reasons I’ve thought about, but perhaps the most important is that I wanted to engage with the wider world.

Another characteristic of a life in academia is a great deal of specialization. You’re not just a chemical engineer, you are a chemical engineer specializing in air pollution modeling and incineration. You’re not just a professor of Italian, but you specialize in Italian travel and immigration literature with a focus on Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, Mario Soldali, and Emilio Cecchi. (Two real examples from the UCF website.)

I have already bucked this trend to a certain degree by working across the creative writing v. scholarly writing divide and by writing in not just one creative genre, but in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. (And my undergraduate degree was in studio art.) This has had its downside, and it may be true that I am a master of none of these forms. So, I understand why my peers in academia often focus much more narrowly than I do in their work. It’s a habit that is rewarded in the system, and it suits some people just fine.

I believe, however, that writers do have a responsibility to respond to the world beyond the confines of narrow specialties. It’s a different point than the one that I criticized Marjorie Perloff for making about academia rendering writers’ work repetitive and mediocre, though it is related. (It’s also a point that I would apply to all those in academia, even more so to many scholars compared to many of the creative writers.)

This all leads me to another influence on my blog choices—that we live in a time when being a “professional” writer often seems to involve more time tending to the business of writing than to writing itself. At six months, I mentioned how I felt a need to get back to my own roots as a writer exploring the world rather than as a writer being an expert. I needed to find my way back to “beginner’s mind,” as the Zen Buddhists call it. As Zen master Shunryu Suzuki is often quoted as saying, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

And I do have to admit some boredom with a lot of creative writing blogs. It’s not because the content isn’t often useful, even insightful. What in a professional sense is no doubt seen as “focus” or “coherence,” however, frequently becomes too self-reflexive and insular for my taste. Even though some creative writing blogs go beyond the purpose of promoting a given writer’s publications, reviews, and lectures to include discussion of issues in the field, they all seem to me cut off from the rest of the world. These blogs remind me of the kind of creative writing workshops where a focus on “craft” does not include any concern with intelligence, personality, or soul (admittedly difficult things to “teach” and touchy to even discuss). Even though I have a passionate interest in many of the issues they raise, I need to embrace a wider horizon.

Is that a strong enough statement to be considered a manifesto? I’m not sure, but I mean it as one. Graduate school for me opened new universes, but over the past few years in the academic grind, I have been engaged in a battle for my own soul and self—to keep from becoming what I consider too narrowed by academia. For a long time, I was losing that battle, shriveling, becoming bitter, obsessing daily about fundamentally trivial things, wearying of it all. Though I had gained tenure and a wonderful husband, I had lost involvement in politics, gardening, cooking, animal rescue, friendships, family relationships, the great outdoors, exercise, and my own health.

Joyous Crybaby has been part of a multi-faceted process that I hope will help me face the next academic year and my return to the classroom with a sense that maybe I can keep my eyes up even as I labor with my fingers in the dirt of the academic field. As an alter ego, she provides me with a reminder that I need: that no profession—and no other person—defines me. All too often, we forget even ourselves beyond the surface judgments, caught up as we are in what others think of us. JC has been a great lesson in character beyond stereotype. It seems to me that this sense of mystery about what comprises human beings is vital to the writing endeavor, not to mention the endeavor of being a decent human being.

Three Stories About Poop

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From an 1899 edition of The Emperor’s New Clothes, illustrated by Helen Stratton.

Today, I take a turn from the sacred and beautiful (kd lang, Leonard Cohen, Maya Lin, Pablo Neruda) to the profane and silly. It is time for a summer change of mood.

I have always loved Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. In my younger years, I identified with the child who cried out, when no one else would, that the Emperor was “wearing nothing at all.” Now that I am older, I sometimes still identify with the child who finds the b.s. absurd and sometimes with the naked Emperor—if only the world could see my finery even though it exists mostly in my mind, if only I didn’t wish to believe in a more wonderful version of things than what is true.

As a writer, I am always fascinated by the vagaries of human behavior, and the way that expectations interact with interpretations often rises to the top of the list. Saturday, when Bruce and I drove around Orlando doing errands, we stumbled into a set of humorously-themed reminiscences about this very thing and had a good laugh.

* * *

Much can be disguised with chocolate.

When I was growing up, we fortunately had lots of books around the house, and one story from one of these books came back to me when I was broken-hearted by a hapless fellow during grad school. I recalled the story from one of Willie Morris’s memoirs about growing up in Yazoo, Mississippi—probably his first, North Toward Home. Morris would later become well-known for his book and the subsequent movie My Dog, Skip, but even earlier he was fond of tales of rambunctious shenanigans from an earlier era. He particularly loved dog stories.

The vignette involved a schoolteacher or some other figure of authority who had punished Morris as a boy. He struck upon a perfect revenge, and wrapped up a beautiful package that he sent as a gift through the mail: he filled the pretty little box with dog shit from his faithful companion pet. Appropriate hilarity ensued.

I never acted on my own desire for revenge—such pranks are no longer considered harmless—but I spent a good bit of time fantasizing about taking cat turds out of the litter box with toothpicks, slicing them up, and dipping them in melted chocolate so they would look like fine homemade candies. I just knew that if I left a pretty box of these bon-bons on my ex-boyfriend’s front porch, he and his housemates would dig right in. This household of men-boys had several female “friends” who would leave homemade goodies and farm produce for them in a hippie-cool people-alternative culture version of the age-old adage that a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

Over and over, I imagined the horrified surprise on the faces of those guys—the way they would smugly accept the anonymous gift, thinking it their fine lot in life to have such offerings at their doorstep, how whoever found it would show it to the others and they would gather around for the greedy unwrapping, how they would ooh and ahh, and then one would reach out with his long fingers and pop a candy in his mouth. I even thought that perhaps I could make the turd bits small enough that it would take a few bites for reality to dawn.

Sometimes, even I, all Miss Genuine though I generally am, see the advantages in creating mistaken perceptions. This little idea made me laugh enough to get me through a tough time.

* * *

“It’s too big to be a dog’s.”

My step-granny’s face expressed genuine horror one morning when she returned from a short walk before breakfast. One summer week in the sleepy year before I finished high school and went off to college, Billie and my granddad were visiting from Middle Tennessee. She stood in the kitchen with her mouth open in disbelief.

“What’s wrong?” my father asked her.

It was as if she had lost the ability to speak. She started and stopped a few times. Finally, she shook her head, and said, “Well, I don’t know how to say this. But apparently someone—some person—has taken a crap right out in the middle of the street in front of the mailbox. It’s too big to be a dog’s. Who would do such a thing?”

“What on earth?” My father frowned and looked at my brother and me, as though we would know. Shocked horror went around the table. My brother and I were “good kids,” and we’d grown up in suburbia, not a Willie Morris small town.

“I didn’t know what to think,” Granny Billie said, her pretty mouth pursed. “I’ve never seen anything like that.” She shook her head. Since Billie was a nurse, we knew she had seen her fair share of human excrement and should be a good judge.

After breakfast, my father went out with a spade and bag to clean it up. He eventually returned to the house as stunned as Billie. “It looked as though someone just dropped it right there,” he told my mother in hushed tones.

The incident haunted us all for several days—a tiny bit like having a cross burned in your yard, I thought at the time. Who could hate us so much? Since we didn’t have any real candidates on a list of enemies that bitter, we speculated that someone else had been out walking and just had an overwhelming urge, barely getting their trousers down in time. But we couldn’t imagine that they’d leave it there or not at least dash behind some shrubbery. Billie quit taking morning walks, and we all stayed just a little closer to home, the mystery hanging in the air as thickly as any smell.

A few days later, however, we learned the truth—our neighbors the Griegers had just gotten a new German Shepherd after the death a few weeks earlier of old Blitz. The dog evidently was adjusting to a new diet with prolific poops and was still oriented toward using a paved kennel-floor for his business rather than woods and leafy ground.

The question remained, of course, why the Griegers, perfectly respectable folks who we knew quite well, had left it there. I have to say that we always wondered. I still do.

* * *

Since Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain, it’s hard to determine the bounds of art.


One semester when Bruce was living in New York city on a sabbatical from Augustana College where he taught, his friend Keith visited him from Alberta. They embarked on a tour of numerous art galleries, painting being Keith’s profession, and gallery walks being one of their favorite city activities.

At one point, they stepped into a vast, echoing gallery space and began walking around. No one seemed to be there—not a gallery clerk in sight—but a large pile of what was apparently dog poop sat neatly in the middle of the floor, still seemingly steaming.

Bruce looked at Keith, and Keith looked at Bruce, and they both looked at the pile. There were several sculptures scattered about the room, and they looked to see if any of the others had kinetic properties such as steam or smell. They leaned over the pile to see if it might be made of anything but the real stuff.

Was it dog poop or was it art? They didn’t feel quite sure and laughed over the conundrum.

Soon enough, the gallery host returned to the room and came toward them with the usual slightly officious style. As he crossed the expanse of floor toward Bruce and Keith, his eyes encountered the pile, and he jumped back with a gasp.

“Oh, my,” he said, “how awful.” He ran to the back for a roll of paper towels and a mop.

* * *
Sometimes, I try to remember that even mis-apprehension can be productive, as long as it makes us wonder about the world around us. This week, I’m going to remember these stories and try to take a closer look around. Even though I am a devotee of something called “the genuine,” it is good to remember that it’s a wonderful and often hilarious part of life that things are not always what they seem to be.

“Poetry” by Pablo Neruda

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Poetry

And it was at that age … Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don’t know how or when,
no they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.

I did not know what to say, my mouth
had no way
with names,
my eyes were blind,
and something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
deciphering
that fire,
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
nonsense,
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
unfastened
and open,
planets,
palpitating plantations,
shadow perforated,
riddled
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.

And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
void,
likeness, image of
mystery,
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.

(Translated by Alistair Reid)

I have borrowed the text of this poem from PoemHunter.com.

Rita Dove, Marjorie Perloff, and the Failure of Success

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The “Poem Tree,” carved in England by Joseph Tubbs in the 1840s.

I apologize for the length of this post, my longest one yet. Sometimes it takes longer to examine what’s underneath an argument than to make one in the first place. As long as this post is, I kept it relatively short by focusing on this latest attack on Rita Dove’s anthology rather than Helen Vendler’s earlier one in the New York Review of Books. Dove very handily dealt with Vendler already and she chose to address primarily the racism and mischaracterization exhibited by Vendler, rather than another subject that Vendler veils even more than Perloff but one they both must see as another key culprit in the inclusion of the “many, rather than, few” poets: the MFA program and the presence of creative writers within the academy. Scholars have lost this battle, and creative writing is now well established in academia, so it seems that subject has sunk just below the surface. But it is never far below, and I believe we still need to address it directly.

Everybody Is a Poet

You know something is really wrong when someone mourns the success of a field she purports to love. Maybe love is the wrong word, so let me rephrase. You know something is really wrong when someone mourns the success of a field she has made her life’s work. The first line of Marjorie Perloff’s recent “Poetry on the Brink” in the Boston Review is “What happens to poetry when everybody is a poet?”

First, you would think that all lovers of literature and the arts would be jubilantly celebrating in the streets. I mean, my god, the novel may be dead, and support for the arts may be at an all-time low, but EVERYBODY has become a poet!!! How grand and unexpected an outcome is that?

But, no, according to Perloff, the popularity of poetry is a bad thing that ensures its mediocrity, or, as she puts it, “moderation and safety.”

Now, let me back up a minute. Is it true even that everybody is a poet these days? Obviously, in any literal sense of the word “everybody,” this is ridiculously untrue. Perloff bases her sense that everyone is now a poet on numbers provided in a lecture by poet and University of Georgia professor Jed Rasula: colleges and universities now employ 1,800 faculty in graduate programs, and that is only at the 177 graduate-degree-offering ones of the 458 institutions that teach creative writing, which “swells” the number of faculty teaching creative writing (now not just poetry) to 20,000. OMG, in a nation of 312 million, there are 20,000 employed teacher-writers. At least, thank god, their teaching keeps them busy a lot of the time, so they aren’t writing even more poems.

However, my next-door neighbors on either side don’t write poetry: the nurse, the retired engineer, the paralegal, and the fellow who owns a car dealership. None of them write poetry, and as far as I know, none of them read it either. When my undergraduates arrive in our introductory creative writing classrooms here at UCF, most of them have never read a poem by a living poet, and, though some of them may have written shortened lines of anguish in their online journals, or even in a notebook they keep under their pillows, they do not consider themselves poets. Their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and aunts don’t write poems, and the first time they venture to call some words they’ve written down a poem, they don’t feel safe at all. That is even more generally true for the F-school elementary students and the ex-cons and the nursing home residents that my friend Terry encounters in the Literary Arts Partnership she directs.

This is not to say that I don’t sometimes grow exhausted by the number of would-be writers I encounter in everyday life. Just about every week I do meet someone who wants to be a writer. The first I recall was a psychology professor who ran a fellowship program I was in during grad school—he became very insulted when I declined to read his novel manuscript. Then there was a stranger in a meditation class I took, who brought me rafts of poetry that I didn’t have the time or inclination to read. My hair dresser wants to write, as does the wife of a physician I worked with in the medical humanities. The Buddhist monk who ran the meditation retreat I attended a few weeks ago is working on a book. Every freaking doctor or nurse seems to want to write a book, except my next-door neighbor. (The plethora of medical writers is a post for another day.) At least once a semester, I get an email from a random person who has found my faculty website and who hopes that I will “edit” his or her manuscript for him or her for free, out of a “love of writing.” I don’t do it, but this is not out of any sense that none of these people has a story worth telling or a poem worth shaping. It is not out of a sense that they shouldn’t be trying to write. I celebrate their attempts, though it’s beyond my capacity to help them all, just as I imagine a doctor or a lawyer recognizes the legitimate health and legal concerns of many in the population without offering to treat or represent them all.

I’m also from a family of writers, some professional, some not, and I can say with certainty that the richness of that background has led me where I am today—not a famous writer, perhaps not even a particularly memorable one, but one who makes her living by the word. The many writers in my family—from my great-grandfather the journalist who published two books of natural history through my grandmother with her religious verses through my amateur-novelist parents (both of them!) and my long-time blogger brother—have not detracted from my own modest accomplishments, but made them possible.

Perhaps it is for that reason that I don’t think that a large number of poets in society is a bad thing, to the extent we even do have a large number of poets. I think, in fact, that it makes the likelihood of great poetry emerging out of the plethora of mediocrity all the greater. Even if most of the poetry today is basically compost, it creates a rich soil for a much wider possibility of poets.

I would like to point out, in fact, that even with the numbers that Rasula cites, we are talking about 0.0064% of the population making a living as writer-teachers. Hardly everybody, even if we trust his numbers, and I’m not sure if I trust the numbers of someone who equates 0.0064% with “everybody.”

That teeny-tiny percentage also includes writers who write primarily in genres other than poetry, but it doesn’t include the many published writers (especially those many in literary journalism and genre fiction) who don’t also support themselves by teaching. It isn’t those independent writers, however, that concern Perloff and Rasula, only writers who also try to survive the academic gauntlet and are thereby rendered “safe” and predictable as writers.

Note that Perloff is not arguing against the kinds of standards that she seems to think force creative writers in academia to become safe and mediocre. She is not suggesting that tenure for such writers in academia should be judged in some way other than the number of awards they’ve won or the number of poems they have published in journals any more than she is arguing that scholars of American literature should be judged by a standard other than the number of awards they’ve won or the number of articles they’ve published in academic journals, in spite of the fact that the readership of scholarly journals of criticism is lower and the percentage of work accepted also generally higher than in most creative writing journals. She is simply arguing that not so many of these writers should exist.

She is also not arguing that academia has produced a corrupted uniformity and mediocrity in literary criticism, which, if the logic holds, would also be the result of the tenure and publication process therein. Perhaps we should entertain the idea that all critics are dulled by academia and need to make their way as reviewers. There are certainly those in our state legislatures these days who aren’t sure that our public universities need so many of them.

Can you imagine a physician coming out with a public statement decrying the general population’s attempts to eat better or exercise or get vaccinations? Can you imagine a lawyer who would discourage folks from using an inexpensive online will-document or living-will service if they couldn’t afford a private attorney? Can you imagine a doctor noting that nurses are valueless just because they have R.N. degrees instead of M.D.s?

It strikes me as very strange indeed for someone like Marjorie Perloff—professor emerita at Stanford and the author of numerous books and articles from the academic press—to imply that the academic environment corrupts poetry. Jed Rasula, too—a full professor at the University of Georgia, whose publication career includes both scholarly work and a couple of books of small poetry from small presses—seems to have benefitted from the support of academia. (This is a point I will come back to later.)

The Ivory Tower, this one a castle built c. 1780s in Neath, Wales, and no doubt fought over until a ruin.

The Struggle Over Academic Territory

People, this is not about “everybody” becoming a writer. It’s a power-struggle over academic territory. Reading between the lines, what I find in Perloff’s lament are the following:

1) The idea that if you can’t be somewhere as illustrious as she is, then you shouldn’t be messing with poetry. If fewer people did it, then discussions of poetry would remain “lively and engaging debates about the nature of poetry and poetics,” as she thinks they were in the 1960s, even in the 1980s. (I don’t recall the former, of course, but the latter seems to me to have been just as full of territorialism.) Maybe it is okay to democratize engineering, but not poetry. It should still be an elite endeavor, protected from popularity and the masses of would-be writers.

2) The idea that the kind of poetry that Perloff promotes—“language” or “experimental” poetry—is the only truly innovative kind, even though that type of poetry is more linked to the institutions of learning that support it than any other kind. Though it is academia that she thinks supports a mediocre poetry, the poetry that has a better chance of popular success and survival outside of academia is, in fact, the “lyric” poetry that she finds so abhorrent. It is not Jed Rasula or even Charles Bernstein that sells poems outside of a narrow academic audience, but the likes of Billy Collins or, yes, Rita Dove, who comes in for such a beating from Perloff.

3) So, it’s not that Perloff doesn’t think there should be writers in academia or that academia should not support some writers. It’s that somehow academia isn’t only or primarily supporting the more “elite” kind of poetry that she supports—that is, poetry that has its roots in theory and intellectual ideas about language as opposed to what she considers banal imagery and feeling.

4) In other words, Perloff is doing what academics do, especially in times like these when resources are shrinking—she is conducting a turf war, an argument about what should be taught in the academy, and she is arguing for the styles she personally favors. Period.

The truth about this is that most (and I don’t mean all) “language” or “experimental” or “Conceptual” poets come out of a scholarly background. They came to writing via literary history and theory. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and most writers I know have nothing against the pursuit of this kind of writing by those drawn to it. However, the resentment that exists in English departments between the scholarly (PhD) people and the creative writer (MFA) types abounds. It always has. I guess, alas, it always will. The likes of Marjorie Perloff cannot be satisfied unless literary theory and intellectual debates about the nature of language come to dominate the creative writing parts of English departments. They do not see the success of creative writing (as it currently exists) as part of a shared success of the field of English studies, though I think they should, especially during times when many elements of our political world would like to eliminate the study of the humanities almost entirely. Instead, the rise of MFA and undergraduate creative writing programs threatens their hegemony and dominance.

The cover of one of my great-grandfather’s books, Rhymes, Roughly Rendered by T. J. Campbell, 1902.

The Place I Speak From

I feel I can legitimately speak to this because of my own liminality, not to mention my own lack of importance. I have an MFA in creative writing, and I have a PhD in American literature (a regular English PhD, not one with a creative-writing dissertation and a few extra lit courses). I even did one of my comprehensive exams on the subject of literary theory. I feel a great appreciation for and protectiveness of both of these veins of study, though it is true that my career has focused on creative writing. But you just don’t get MFA faculty attacking the very existence of the scholarly study of literature the way you get scholars attacking the creative writing endeavor. A few snide comments, sure, but mostly defensive ones. Occasionally these rise to invective, as in my former MFA mentor, the inestimable (and, for the record, entirely “experimental”) Paul West referring to scholars as “corpse-fuckers.” But nothing like the continual, in-print, organized, and elaborate attack on the existence of mere writers in the academy. Our muddling along as untheorized observers of the world, illuminators of the “small epiphany,” and explorers of intimate sensitivities is often (though thankfully not always) anathema to some (but thankfully not all) of our scholarly colleagues.

Trust me, I see many problems in the arena of academic creative writing. I am nauseated by the insularity of the prizes, the clubbyness of professional organizations, the back-scratching that so often is what leads to publication. I despair over the continued sexism and white dominance in spite of the “identity politics” that Perloff thinks produces only slight variation. (See, for example, evidence in the VIDA count and a recent report by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.) I could write expose after expose, rant after rant, bitch-fest after bitch-fest about the limits and bad advice that have been imposed on me and those I know within the tenure system, not to mention the disintegrating publishing industry.

Instead, I end up reading over and over again these disses against MFA programs, from within the academy, sometimes even from within MFA programs themselves..

I think of a conversation I had with my neurologist a few weeks ago, after it became clear that he had originally misdiagnosed a problem I was having. I like him—he had made the referral to the Mayo Clinic that finally resulted in a different diagnosis, because he recognized his own uncertainty, and he was modestly apologetic. “Sometimes,” he said, “I wish I were an orthopedist. I could say, ‘Oh, you have a broken bone.’ It’s clear and direct. Neurology is more complicated.” Maybe an orthopedist would disagree with this characterization, but seldom would one of these specialists be enough of a foolish ass to aver that the other kind shouldn’t exist.

Yet just that kind of thing is common in English departments and in online and print publications that are responsible for carrying on discussion of our literary culture.

The Adoration of the Magi by the Master of the Llangattock Epiphany from the 1450s, back when epiphanies could be large.

Perloff’s Complaints About Contemporary Poets

In this case, I find the following a selection of questionable assertions in the first half of Perloff’s essay:

* In Perloff’s outline of the three characteristics of contemporary poetry of which she disapproves, she notes “irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself.” This is an outlandish claim, and I know of no poets who think or teach little to nothing about lineation. How can she even say that? Of course, she bothers to give exactly no evidence or example. Free verse, of course, means that lineation must be constantly and individually attended to, not formulaic.

* She claims that another characteristic is “graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor.” The adjectives here, of course, are simply a matter of taste and debate, so what she is objecting to is the foregrounding of imagery and metaphor in themselves, which are indeed key elements of most poetry. If one takes out the adjectives, one sees that Perloff must, then, be arguing against their use. Go ahead, I want to say, see where that gets you.

* What it gets us to is the third characteristic that Perloff dislikes, the “expression of a profound thought or small epiphany” that I mentioned before. Usually, Perloff notes, this is “based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one.” I suppose Perloff would rather us celebrate or forget those things. At least, they are so trivial as to be beneath her. And it is here that Perloff really begins to show her own imperialist tendencies, but more on that in a minute.

* Perloff also claims that “[w]hereas scholars gain cultural capital as they move up the academic ladder and can—by the time they become full professors—feel relatively comfortable in their careers, poets are always being displaced by younger poets.” This statement made me laugh out loud. First, as so often with this article, I think that the fabric here contains only the thinnest thread of truth. If Marjorie Perloff doesn’t think she bears any threat from younger scholars, then she should be careful about how many times she hails the 1960s and the 1980s as a fabulously superior time to ours. Granted, perhaps it is so that youthful sexiness is more vaunted by the commercial publishing industry where creative writers hope to place their work than by the university presses that publish the scholars. Indeed, author photos do not hold the same sway in the scholarly world as in the creative. Indeed, even when a creative writer places a book with a large publisher, if sales are not meteoric, it may get harder to publish subsequent books, whereas scholarly presses accept a very modest definition of popularity and will often therefore continue to publish a scholar who is hardly a bestseller. But this is one thing that poets (as opposed to novelists and creative nonfiction writers) have in common with the scholarly writers—modest expectations of sales of books has led to long careers. Donald Hall, who Perloff mentions, for instance, has published 22 books of poems (plus numerous books of biography, short fiction, memoirs, and textbooks) since 1952, the most recent in 2011. Robert Pack has published 15 books of poetry and 6 of prose since 1955, with again the most recent in 2011. Perloff disproves her own remarks in this regard, perhaps out of some sense that poets should not ever become full professors. I hate to break it to her, but they do with regularity these days. If their publishing challenges are so much greater for them than the scholars, all the more reason to admire them.

* Perloff cites this insecurity in aging poets’ careers not as a lament, but as an excuse to note that they write the same basic thing over and over again in their books, that “somehow the fourth book, no better or worse than the previous ones, gets less attention.” “Ezra Pound’s ‘Make it New’ has come to refer,” Perloff sorrows, “not to a set of new poems, but to the poet who is known to have written them.” Ironies abound here.

Perhaps paramount is the utter repetitive nature of Marjorie Perloff’s work itself or that of almost any scholar in academia today, where we are trained not to be generalists (for better or for worse). Perloff has commented on an impressive array of modernist poets’ work and she has pounded in a variety of ways about the banality of lyric forms of poetry, but does her work really range more widely than that of most contemporary poets? Does her focus on the rhythmic and metrical, on the language aspects of modern and post-modern poetry really encompass that much wider a world view or strategy?

But, also, Perloff cites Ezra Pound’s “Make it New” as a rebuke to current poets for not being innovative enough and then goes on to note that statements about emerging hybrids between experimental and narrative poetry “don’t quite carry conviction” because “’an avant-garde mandate’ is one that defies the status quo and hence cannot incorporate it.” I know that Perloff has read Pound, and I am sure that she knows her Pound far better than I do. But we all also know that rebellion from the status quo and reverence for the forms and insights of the past were both key to Pound’s work. Perloff contrasts Whitman, Williams, and Ginsberg (those committed to “the emotional spectra of lived existence”) with Pound’s “collage mode.” So it seems to me that Perloff confounds two issues here: 1) age and tradition and 2) “feeling” versus “collage,” the latter meaning text sources of inspiration.

Any given poem and its construction beforehand is a struggle between all these forces or, perhaps, on a good day, a beautiful dance between them. This does not, as Perloff insists, mean that the choices are arbitrary or that they have nothing to do with the historical moment or the cultural context. Individually, they certainly do. But that does not mean that they cannot all coexist with the field of poetry or even within a single poet. It is not a war where there need be a battle to the death.

The cover of Rita Dove’s anthology.

The Meat: Perloff’s Complaints About Rita Dove’s Anthology

After this, Perloff gets to what it is that seems to have recently set her off: the publication of the new Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove. A long chastisement follows, in which Perloff takes issue with the omission of Random House poets that Dove and Penguin chose not to include because of prohibitive copyright costs. Dove has recently explained this decision in an AWP Writer’s Chronicle article, as well as in the introduction of the new anthology, but Perloff is not buying it and places the blame firmly on Penguin. “How,” she asks, “could a leading publisher such as Penguin fail to get publication rights for materials so central to a book’s purpose?” She does not mention that Dove has indeed explained this quite fully in print elsewhere.

Aside from whose fault the omissions are, this issue is a dodge that allows Perloff to critique the selections Dove has made, as well as her sense of literary history. Perloff claims that “one evidently wants to read her anthology not to learn about American poetry of the twentieth century but about her likes and dislikes.” In other words, Dove’s tastes are not adequate for the job, at least not in Perloff’s view, because Dove has not made the same selections that Perloff would have made.

At least not past the modernist era—Perloff notes that “however individual and intuitive Dove’s judgments on contemporary poetry, her Modernist canon… is more or less everybody’s Modernist canon.” Here is where Marjorie really begins to sound old. Here is where she returns to her earlier hint that she mourns the loss of a simpler time when everyone supposedly held a consensus about who the great poets were. She notes that before World War II everyone agreed on what the canon was. Alas, however, “the lack of consensus about the poetry of the postwar decades has led not, as one might have hoped, to a cheerful pluralism animated by noisy critical debate about the nature of lyric, but to the curious closure exemplified by the Dove anthology.”

Her lament about what Dove includes is then exemplified by Natasha Trethewey’s poem “Hot Combs.” Perhaps the oddest thing about Perloff’s reading of this poem is that, based on Trethewey’s own mixed-race heritage, Perloff assumes that the narrator of the poem is the poet herself. She complains that the poem, with its “easy conclusion that beauty is born of suffering, would seem to place this poem somewhere in the 1960s or ‘70s” but that it was published in 2000. Yet, Trethewey is known for combining her own personal experience with historical settings, including in her 2002 book Bellocq’s Ophelia, about a fictional prostitute living in the early 1900s. Perloff seems to willfully misread or oversimplify her reading of Trethewey’s poem.

But Perloff also makes another strange move here. She claims that “Hot Combs” exemplifies the three typical (and inadequate) characteristics she has noted above in the mediocre contemporary lyric poetry she is criticizing (no attention to line or word per se, prose syntax filled with imagery and metaphor, and the presence of a small epiphany. But only one of the the numbered list she gives in attacking this poem matches her list above in her second paragraph. Instead, she lists: 1) a present-time stimulus, 2) a memory, and 3) an epiphany (only this one matches). She does mention “prose syntax” and she insults Trethewey’s diction by putting “literary” in quotation marks before reciting a few of her descriptive phrases. But there is no coherence to the argument here. It’s just that Perloff doesn’t like this particular poem.

An example of “experimental” concrete poetry by Vasily Kameysky, 1914.

Perloff Turns to Supporting the Few

In the second half of her essay, Perloff goes on to write a manifesto about “a growing group of poets who are rejecting the status quo” with “what is now called Conceptualism.” The phrase “what is now called” seems to me to imply that she is simply talking about a different kind of status quo or tradition—in a direct line from the “language” and “experimental” poets of the past several decades. It also strikes me that somehow the fact that this is a “growing” group is used here to legitimize these poets, whereas the increasing size of the group of lyric poets somehow delegitimizes them. Go figure.

Perloff notes that the “main complaint against Conceptual writing is that the reliance on other people’s words negates the essence of lyric poetry.” She goes on to restate that Conceptual poetry is accused of having “no unique emotional input,” and that the question asked about it is, “If the words used are not my own, how can I convey the true voice of feeling unique to lyric?” As usual, Perloff doesn’t cite any examples of this argument, and perhaps it is true that some people have said this kind of thing. But most poets, even the lyric poets that Perloff seems to think are utterly stupid, are not that naïve. They don’t claim that the words they use have never been used before, and they often pay homage to other poets in their work. In fact, they often themselves produce mash-ups, and many of the literary magazines that Perloff suggest contribute to a uniform mediocrity send out calls for poems that do just that (For instance, here’s one from Crazyhorse: Cross-Off Contest). It is part of the conversation that is literature, no matter the style.

Perloff then asserts that the musicality used by John Cage in his re-working of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is “absent in most contemporary poetry,” a slam that literally stuns me. She chooses one example “at random” (I doubt it) that she then turns into prose and notes that Cage’s poem “cannot be turned into prose” because of its “very formatting.” Well, really, I could turn it into prose, but, given that the Cage lines are further from usual prose syntax than the lines she quotes from Dove’s anthology, is Perloff really suggesting that prose can have no musicality? And has she read the same contemporary poetry that I have? Plenty of it is musical and rhythmic, and if some of it is less so, why should poetry have to conform to a formula of musicality any more than a formula of tripartite “observation—triggering memory—insight” or the 14-line form of a sonnet?

For example, these few lines from “The Golden Shovel,” written by a young poet I’ve recently discovered, Terrance Hayes:

When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real

men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we

drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school

I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk

of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we

watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight.

[from Lighthead, Penguin, 2010]

To describe this work, and work like it, as having no musicality requires an unimaginably deaf ear. I know Marjorie Perloff cannot have such a deaf ear. So why does she make such an enormous, vague, insupportable claim? She seems to me to be grasping at some kind of legitimacy for poetry she feels is unappreciated, and she goes on to analyze the work of four poets she likes.

Death is a common subject in many styles: The Death of Henry VII represented in a medieval miniature.

Perloff’s Four Poets

First, she discusses That This by Susan Howe, who she notes was not included in Dove’s anthology but who nonetheless “would not call herself a Conceptual poet.” In addition, Howe’s book focuses on the sudden death of Howe’s husband, Peter Hare, that subject matter of “personal tragedy” that Perloff earlier criticized in lyric poetry. The difference is that Howe reconstructs her poems out of fragments from other sources.

Don’t get me wrong—Howe’s work sounds fascinating to me, and I fully plan on looking it up. Perloff is at her best when she writes passionately in support of work that she finds interesting. She convinces me that Howe’s work is worth a look.

* Likewise with another set of poems that Perloff analyzes in some depth—from another poet she characterizes as “not primarily a Conceptualist”—Srikanth Reddy’s re-working of the memoirs of former Nazi and president of Austria Kurt Waldheim into a work Reddy calls Voyager. And again Reddy seems to partake of a subject matter that Perloff has criticized—sensitivity of feeling about “our imperialist wars.” Reddy’s work is different not just because he has re-worked an earlier source, but because his poems are “free of all moralizing or invective on the poet’s part.” I understand that there are shades here, but I am not sure how Reddy’s “critique” of Waldheim’s hypocrisy and of “political mendacity in general” is free of moralizing. His project and its outcomes seem inherently (and appropriately) moralizing to me.

Both of these books also sounds as though they need to be seen in their entireties—in book form—to be fully understood and appreciated, something that it’s difficult to present in an anthology. Perloff even says this herself: “Like Howe’s” book, Reddy’s “has to be understood as a poetic book rather than a book of individual poems.” How, then, would she suggest that Dove anthologize them?

* Recognizing this issue, Perloff then turns to recent short work by Charles Bernstein. Bernstein, she notes, has been criticized for becoming “easier” in his more recent work, but she argues that the trickiness of assessing Bernstein’s tone in such lines as the following renders his work still compelling:

No, never, I’ll never stop loving you
Not till my heart beats its last
And even then in my words and my songs
I will love you all over again

Bernstein, Perloff notes, is posing the question of “how to come to terms with this embarrassing bathos.” That makes the bathos interesting, though, of course, it is not an excuse that is allowed the “status quo” poets that she criticizes.

* Perloff’s last example of a poet she deems worthy is Peter Gizzi, who has written a collection called Threshold Songs “in response to a series of deaths—his mother’s, his brother’s, one of his closest friends—so overwhelming they can hardly be processed.” Again, because it “avoids the unsayable by its appropriation of other voices,” Perloff believes that Gizzi has written a more legitimate series of poems about his own personal tragedies than people who write more directly from their experience.

Ron Stillman’s neon sculpture “From Northern Soul (Bury Neon),” Greater Manchester, England, 2011.

Concluding the Inconclusive

Perloff ends her essay rather suddenly by noting that, “Increasingly, the ‘true voice of feeling’ is the one you discover with an inspired, if sometimes accidental click.”

Honestly, I don’t even know what she means by this last statement. Does she mean poets themselves or readers of poetry? And, while I guess she’s been making the case for a particular mash-up strategy of writing, she seems to have lost the point of arguing against the tradition of lyric poetry. Surely, she doesn’t mean that the only legitimate way to write poetry is to re-write other texts?

And for someone who is here to champion hard-core experimental and Conceptual work, Perloff has now given us examples from two people who don’t consider themselves Conceptualists and two examples of Conceptualists, one who has softened the Conceptual line around his work, and another who has taken up the lyric subject of his own personal tragedy. Does she really believe, then, that hybridity is impossible and an unconvincing storyline as she asserted early in the essay when she briefly mentioned Cole Swensen and David St. John’s anthology, American Hybrid? Her own examples seem to me to prove its healthy existence.

I do, however, agree that, as Perloff states early on, “Formal choices are never without ideological implications.” I believe that Perloff’s choices certainly have them, and that her ideology most clearly supports an elite of the elite. Writers and readers of poetry are quite an elite all on their own, and when you sift out the grandmother-amateur-poets, they are even moreso. But Perloff seems to me determined that poetry will also remain shuttered from lived experience, centered in the halls of intellectual academe, and upper crust, if not essentially white and male (Reddy, of Indian descent, attended Harvard and the University of Iowa). She does not celebrate the vernacular found in poetry she would call unmusical, nor in the actual experience of loss or suffering, only in sublimated versions. A poetry based in the middle class or the working class must be anathema to her, just as any but the most intellectualized ideas about poetry are.

I want to make clear that I do not think that debates about quality are not relevant or appropriate. But what I see in Perloff’s essay is fundamentally a grasping to preserve the values of a time long past—a pre-World War II era when scholars defined quality, when poets themselves were largely excluded from the academy, before they had infiltrated it in creative writing programs and had begun to find the platform to assert their own definitions of quality that were often at odds with their more theoretical scholarly colleagues. Perloff notes indignantly that Rita Dove’s anthology “depends not on … its capacity to satisfyingly delineate a poetic canon or make some claim about the nature of poetry in a certain time or place—but on the prestige of its editor.” It seems outrageous to her that Dove is “prestigious” in spite of her 13 books.

It is entirely possible that Dove has made selections for this anthology based more on a creative writing sensibility and pedagogy than that of a scholarly literary one. Indeed, the delineation of a canon or the examination of the cultural and historical aspects of poetry is often not the focus in creative writing courses, though creative writing students are always required to take numerous literature courses in which they are. It is also true that creative writing pedagogy and traditions often function with a more idiosyncratic and artisanal model of teaching and learning than do scholarly ones. Perloff clearly believes that this is wrong-headed, as do many in the scholarly literary field, and she insults these methods by stating that she wonders if the intended audience of Dove’s anthology is “junior high students.” It is true that creative writing pedagogy in the wrong hands can be too easy and indulgent, but in the right ones it can be rigorously powerful and empowering. There are many variables that contribute to particular outcomes. I just wish that Perloff would admit that what she is doing is longing for a time before creative writers per se had a place at the table of deciding what poetry has merit. She wishes it were only the scholars and the few scholar-poets who had the kind of “prestige” that Dove now shares.

If Dove has constructed an anthology suited to her own reading and teaching preferences, what is wrong with that? Is it not the same method that Perloff herself uses when she edits anthologies and decides what works she will include on syllabi? As Rasula notes, in academia, we are trained to be “specialists,” and Perloff herself is not asked to teach courses in the Victorian novel. I can fairly safely assume that she has never included a Rita Dove poem on her syllabus in spite of the fact that Dove has published more books and has been more widely read than some of the post-modernist poets that Perloff favors. It is probably true that most poets teaching in academia weight their teaching toward the lyric, and even poets in that tradition (such as Carolyn Forché) have worked to open it beyond the personal to a more political consciousness. But these poets have asked that the door be opened, not that another door be closed.

The second half of Perloff’s essay, though not particularly logically consistent, nonetheless serves a valuable purpose: supporting four poets whose work she finds compelling. I am all for that.

Yet I must point out that Peter Gizzi is a full professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Charles Bernstein a named professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, Srikanth Reddy an assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago, and Susan Howe retired as a named chair at the University of Buffalo (formerly SUNY Buffalo). Of the four poets that she mentions early on that she feels were neglected in Dove’s anthology—Harryette Mullen, Will Alexander, C. S. Giscombe, and John Yau—all but one has a full professorship at a prestigious university, and even the one (Alexander) has taught in several places while making the choice to remain in his native L.A. All of them, in spite of some of their and Perloff’s protests, have successful careers legitimized within the very academy Perloff wants to blame otherwise for the mediocrity of contemporary poetry. They are all also writers whose work is deeply connected to the scholarly, theoretical, and historical tradition.

Academic historians and theoreticians of music and the visual arts can’t so easily cast out the practitioners of music and art—their media require a different kind of technical facility than the scholars have. But when the medium of art is language, too often the scholars don’t believe they need anyone but themselves.

And this turns me again back to the first half of Perloff’s essay, which seems to me an unacceptable diatribe about MFA programs in creative writing and the influence of academia on poetry, that is, on poets within academia who do not toe her rarefied intellectual line. I do believe that we can debate the merits of specific poems—and the Trethewey poem that Perloff critiques will likely never be one of my favorites. I agree that we can debate what the most important elements are in poetry, too. But this kind of hand-waving, overgeneralized dismissal of MFA programs and lyric poetry is less than we deserve from our well-known public intellectuals in the field. I am a relative nobody, with no doubt a less lofty education and certainly fewer credentials on which to stand than Perloff and her Harvard and Berkeley cronies, and even I can think beyond this.

We need to celebrate in the streets—and in print–the rise of creative writing’s popularity in the public imagination and in our colleges and universities, or else we really could end up dancing on the grave of poetry one day soon. Just about 99.9936% of the population may not even notice.

Maurice Sendak

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Over the past few days, Maurice Sendak’s name and many accolades in his honor have been on the air and in print due to his death on Tuesday at the age of 83. I don’t have much to add to those surveys of his life and career, so I will link to a few of them below.

But I can add that, though I hadn’t dwelled on Sendak in years, he was a great influence on me, and I was in the very large camp of enthusiasts about his work. The New York Times obituary notes that his “books were essential ingredients of childhood for the generation born after 1960 or thereabouts, and in turn for their children,” and I was one of those children (born exactly in 1960). For many long years–long after I moved on from story-hour childhood–I had a Sendak poster on my wall—the one with Max swinging from the trees with his monster friends. I still have it tucked away somewhere, those nightmares and dreams of childhood put away but not forgotten.

It strikes me, too, that Sendak was a person after my own heart and in keeping with the themes of this blog. He was indeed a Joyous Crybaby, one who brought the sorrows of children into the light and made it okay, even imperative, to acknowledge them. It’s hard to imagine how it is that so many children have loved this quality in his work for so many years and yet so many adults have grown up to retreat into a hyper-cheerful denial with their memories of childhood’s insights buried all too far in the closet. Sendak believed in the “rightness of children’s perceptions,” and he has often noted how the demons of his own childhood—the Great Depression, World War II and the Holocaust, the kidnapping of the Lindberg baby, and his own experience of measles, pneumonia, and scarlet fever at a young age—did not go unnoticed in his own psyche. If, as Sendak’s work has always asserted, children can and do face the demons in their world, shouldn’t adults be able to acknowledge their existence, too?

Sendak was a touchstone of genuine emotion. He will be sorely missed.

Washington Post (contains numerous good links to other commentary)

New York Times

NPR’s Fresh Air