Tuesday, February 17, 2009
At 10 a.m. the young housewife
Moves about in negligee behind
The wooden walls of her husband’s house
I pass solitary in my car.
Then again she comes to the curb
To call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands
Shy, uncorseted, tucking
Stray ends of hair, and I compare her
To a fallen leaf.
The noiseless wheels of my car
Rush with a crackling sound over
Dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.
The Author: William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)
Famous for his dictums—“No ideas but in things” and “a poem is a machine made of words”—Williams was a practicing medical doctor to support his life as a poet. A stay-at-home American during the years of fashionable literary expatriatism, his career contrasts easily with those of Pound and Eliot, yet Williams was no parochial regionalist. His poetry resonates with the visual arts he studied and produced, and his poetic theory was carefully reasoned. He especially valued careful observation of the physical world expressed in spare, everyday language (what he called the “American idiom”) as seen in the early poem above, and he thought Pound and Eliot over-valued European culture. His long poem "Patterson" (1946) illustrates the continuing desire by poets to compose an American epic.
Monday, February 16, 2009
Here's the first stanza of "Little Sister Born in This Land" by Elías Miguel Muñoz, the poem featured on the page listed above:
When you slip
slowly and lovingly
through my fingers
I cannot hold you
and explain a thousand things
Each time you smile
and show me your shoes with buckles
or tell me a story
of space flights
(How you would love to be a princess
in those absurd and bloody wars)
Each time you intrigue me
with your riddles
with your words
that will always be foreign
to our experience
I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root—
Let there be commerce between us.
The Author: Ezra Pound
It’s hard to overcalculate the influence of poet Ezra Pound during the early decades of the 20th century. With roots in Idaho and Pennsylvania, he spent most of his adult life in Europe, writing poetry (much of it experimental), developing poetic theory (including situating himself and his Imagist school in relation to earlier influential poets as seen in this poem), and nurturing the careers of young poets. In later life, his political choices threatened to overshadow his poetic legacy, though many consider his long poem The Cantos, written over 50 years, to contain brilliant examples of his work.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Born in Switzerland in 1857, Saussure received his doctorate from the University of Leipzig (Germany) in 1880 and taught at the University of Geneva from 1891 until his death in 1913 (he was only 56 at the time). Commonly referred to as "The Father of Modern Linguistics," Saussure "provided the groundwork for both structuralism and poststructuralism.” (Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 959)
Text: Course in General Linguistics
Saussure's colleagues used notes taken by Saussure's students to produce this text, which was published in 1916, three years after Saussure's death.
“. . . in language there are only differences. . . . [L]anguage has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. The idea or phonic substance that a sign contains is of less importance than the other signs that surround it. Proof of this is that the value of a term may be modified without either its meaning or its sound being affected, solely because a neighboring term has been modified.” (972-972)
“[L]anguage being what it is, we shall find nothing simple in it regardless of our approach; everywhere and always there is the same complex equilibrium of terms that mutually condition each other. Putting it another way, language is a form and not a substance. This truth could not be overstressed, for all the mistakes in our terminology, all our incorrect ways of naming things that pertain to language, stem from the involuntary supposition that the linguistic phenomenon must have substance.” (974)
According to the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, “Saussure saw the study of language as eventually forming part of a larger science of signs in culture, which he called semiology, a field that later scholars . . . went on to develop.” (958)
Saussure believed (according to Norton): “Since there are thousands of human languages, the relation between words and things cannot be based on natural resemblances.” (957)
“Rather than the world consisting of things that need names (the Adamic conception), each language brings into being, by describing, a world that it then knows as external. To be sure, the external world exists—but its reality remains quite nebulous until language articulates it.” (957) [The image at left, titled "Adam names the animals," is taken from the Aberdeen Bestiary, which was produced around 1200.]
“The atom of language is the sign, which is functionally split into two parts: a signifier (sound-image) and a signified (concept) . . . . The relation between signifier and signified is ‘arbitrary’ . . . the sign is a convention that has to be learned and is not subject to individual will.” (958)
Saussure's practice of “’Bracketing the referent’—that is, leaving out the third dimension of the sign, that to which it refers—has been criticized by those, like Terry Eagleton, who find it impossible to speak of language without speaking of reference, things, history.” (959)
Saturday, February 14, 2009
Born John Allyn Smith in McAlester, Berryman lived in Oklahoma until his father moved the family to Florida when John was 10. His early years in Oklahoma don’t show much evident influence on his poetry, overshadowed by a complicated family and personal dynamic which permeates his confessional, highly stylized work.
Winner of several prestigious poetry prizes, he will be most remembered for the 77 Dream Songs (1964).
Although the Oklahoma City of 1914 may have seemed unreceptive to many African Americans born that year, in Shadow and Act (1964) Ellison says he grew up there thinking of himself as a “Renaissance Man” with friends who were “supposed to be whoever [they] would and could be and do anything and everything which other boys did, and do it better (xvii). A talented musician, he came to writing later, most famously in Invisible Man (1952). A literary use of his early Oklahoma experiences can be found in the Buster and Riley stories collected in Flying Home (1996).
Friday, February 13, 2009
Any and all in our ECU English and Languages community are welcome to contribute to this project. If you'd like to weigh in, just e-mail me (email@example.com) an item for the relevant time period and I'll do my best to find a home for it in this webspace in a timely manner.
I'll include an updated list of links to items that come in here:
1913 "The Village Atheist" by Edgar Lee Masters (contributed by Trisha Yarbrough)
1914: Birth Year of Oklahoma Writers of Note (contributed by Trisha Yarbrough)
1916: Course in General Linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure (contributed by Steve Benton)
1916: "A Pact" by Ezra Pound (contributed by Trisha Yarbrough)
1917: "The Young Housewife" by William Carlos Williams (contributed by Trisha Yarbrough)
"The Village Atheist"
Ye young debaters over the doctrine
Of the soul’s immortality,
I who lie here was the village atheist,
Talkative, contentious, versed in the arguments
Of the infidels.
But through a long sickness
Coughing myself to death
I read the Upanishads and the poetry of Jesus,
And they lighted a torch of hope and intuition
And desire which the Shadow,
Leading me swiftly through the caverns of darkness,
Could not extinguish.
Listen to me, ye who live in the senses
And think through the senses only:
Immortality is not a gift,
Immortality is an achievement;
And only those who strive mightily
Shall possess it.
Excerpted from the Text:
Spoon River Anthology
Edgar Lee Masters
Illinois lawyer, poet, novelist, essayist, biographer. This poem comes from Masters’ most famous book of poetry Spoon River Anthology (1915), a collection of brief, first-person poems spoken from the grave. Masters goes in and out of fashion in American literature. Praised as a people’s poet when he first began publishing—Ezra Pound wrote “at last America has discovered a poet”—and admired by millions of readers internationally, perhaps since Masters wrote so much he has sometimes been discounted by those in the academy. However, because of its genuinely enjoyable poems, as well as its status as a transitional piece between Whitman and Modernism, the Spoon River Anthology at least will continue to be read.
Image Source: http://www.jackmasters.net/mastimg/topicelm.jpg
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
*(a freebie, and not one of my main three) a Bible
1. Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. [That's Jaynes on the left and Yozzo on the right. ]
Saturday, February 7, 2009
"For the past twenty-five years I have been teaching and studying English literature in a university. As in my other job, certain questions stick in one's mind, not because people keep asking them, but because they're the questions inspired by the very fact of being in such a place, What good is the study of literature? Does it help us to think more clearly, or feel more sensitively, or live a better life than we could without it? What is the function of the teacher and scholar, or of the person who calls himself, as I do, a literary critic? What difference does the study of literature make in our social or political or religious attitude? In my early days I thought very little about such questions, not because I had any of the answers, but because I assumed that anybody who asked them was naive. I think now that the simplest questions are not only the hardest to answer, but the most important to ask, so I'm going to raise them and try to suggest what my present answers are, I say try to suggest, because there are only more or less inadequate answers to such questions—there aren't any right answers. The kind of problem that literature raises is not the kind that you ever "solve." Whether my answers are any good or not, they represent a fair amount of thinking about the questions."
If you'd like to read the rest of the chapter online, click here.
And if you'd like to own a copy of the book, click here.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
WHAT AILS LITERARY STUDIES
Leaving Literature Behind
The professionalization of the field is turning students off
By BRUCE FLEMING
The major victory of professors of literature in the last half-century — the Great March from the New Criticism through structuralism, deconstruction, Foucauldianism, and multiculturalism — has been the invention and codification of a professionalized study of literature. We've made ourselves into a priestly caste: To understand literature, we tell students, you have to come to us. Yet professionalization is a pyrrhic victory: We've won the battle but lost the war. We've turned revelation into drudgery, shut ourselves in airless rooms, and covered over the windows.
The good news is that we've created a discipline: literary studies. The bad news is that we've made ourselves rulers of a realm that has separated itself almost completely from the rest of the world. In the process, we've lost many of the students — I'd say, many of them men — and even some of the professors. And yet still we teach literature as if to future versions of ourselves — not that there will be many jobs for them. The vast majority of students don't even want to be professors: They'd like to get something from a book they can use in their lives outside the classroom. What right have we to forget them?
Students get something out of a book by reading it. Love of reading was, after all, what got most of us into this business to begin with. We are killing that experience with the discipline of literary studies, with its network of relations in which an individual work almost becomes incidental. But it's the individual work that changes lives.
To read the rest of this article click here!.
My students at the U.S. Naval Academy, for example, mostly male and conservative, scream bloody murder if, as I sometimes do, I ask them to read Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary as part of our introductory course. (Tenured full professors teach freshmen here at Navy.) They come to class the first day — they've read up through Emma's disenchantment with her boring husband, Charles — incensed.
"Sir," they say flatly, "she's a slut." (The women tend to be harder on Emma than the men are.) Subsequent class periods get even uglier. Many of the men admit that they're fearful of marrying and then having their stay-at-home wives cheat on them. For that reason, they say, "you've got to get her pregnant before you deploy." Emma is their worst nightmare. Emma should have been faithful to Charles! He loved her! He was a good provider! What more does she want?
Initially the students have trouble seeing any resemblance between themselves and Emma: In their view, they're free individuals and have chosen to come here to college. The dogma of their upbringing in most cases holds that individuals can make something of themselves if they are motivated enough. They can't imagine being stuck in Emma's position.
You're being too literal, I say. Most of you aren't female, and in any case, you aren't constrained by lack of education, social class, or the expectations of a provincial world. Then I remind them of the constraints that do bind them, as occupants of the lowest rung of a rigidly hierarchical system where the sometimes arbitrary fiats of officers or even upperclassmen rule their lives. If anybody can understand poor, confined Emma, it should be them. Hmm, they say.
Besides, I ask — I'm moving in on them now — Emma has dreams. Don't you remember the dreams that brought you to Annapolis?
Now they are silent. They do remember those dreams: inflated, Hollywood-fueled dreams of heroism on the battlefield, of overcoming Evil Enemies of America, and of swinging swords in their strong right arms, dreams of duty, honor, country. Where are those dreams now? I ask. They're, after all, the military-male version of Emma's dreams of perfect fulfillment in marriage. Perhaps they were never viable? Is it better to let them die completely than to try and keep them alive, as Emma does?
Annapolis, they tell me, is the place dreams come to die in the daily grind of shining shoes and passing inspections. And the verdict of society is as strong here as on poor Emma: There's only one way to do things here at Annapolis — those who think differently have to give in.
The way to stay sane, I suggest, is to have achievable dreams, not unrealistic ones. By the time we move on to other works, they still think Emma is "a slut" (which, arguably, she is) but at least — they admit grudgingly — they understand her a bit better. And that means, in turn, they may avoid the cynicism that invariably overtakes our students when they realize that neither Annapolis nor the military is anything like what's sold by Hollywood. And they may be less eager to marry someone they don't know the day after they graduate from the Academy, something which used to be more widespread. By watching Emma's torture they may — just may — avoid living it out themselves. That is the kind of use to which literature, and its teaching in college, can legitimately be put.
Literary studies split off from reading in the early-to-mid-20th century as the result of science envy on the part of literature professors. Talking about books somehow didn't seem substantial enough. Instead of reading literature, now we study "texts." We've developed a discipline, with its jargon and its methodology, its insiders and its body of knowledge. What we analyze nowadays is seen neither as the mirror of nature nor the lamp of authorial inspiration. It just is — apparently produced in an airless room by machines working through permutations of keys on the computer.
Science has its objective world, the entirety of what is. The world of texts is the objectivity of literary studies. Thus we can insist that there's no objective world outside texts — as the impish Derrida claimed. (But how un-impishly he was echoed in the halls of American academe for so many decades!) And we can also get some mileage out of insisting that canons, the choice of what texts we take down from the library shelves to teach students, are merely "constructed." Of course they are — every reading list is limited. What we really mean is that our own pet author was forgotten when the canon was formed. The door shut too soon. If our boy or girl were inside the door rather than out, the fact of "construction" would be trivial. Teach my author! we cry. Not that one! What if who's taught, or isn't, doesn't end up mattering to the students, who don't share professorial concerns? To us it matters, and we're the ones in charge.
We're not teaching literature, we're teaching the professional study of literature: What we do is its own subject. Nowadays the academic study of literature has almost nothing to do with the living, breathing world outside. The further along you go in the degree ladder, and the more rarified a college you attend, the less literary studies relates to the world of the reader. The academic study of literature nowadays isn't, by and large, about how literature can help students come to terms with love, and life, and death, and mistakes, and victories, and pettiness, and nobility of spirit, and the million other things that make us human and fill our lives. It's, well, academic, about syllabi and hiring decisions, how works relate to each other, and how the author is oppressing whomever through the work. The literary critic Gerald Graff [see image at left] famously told us to "teach the conflicts" [that last one was a shameless self-promoting link to an article I've written on the subject-ed.]: We and our squabbles are what it's all about. That's how we made a discipline, after all.
You wouldn't think we'd so focus on the power of written works with the United States engaged in regime change using guns and soldiers — some of them my students. That, it would seem, would be real power. But of course, it's a literature professor telling the story; this skewing of reality makes perfect sense. At least to other literature professors.
Nowadays we teach literature as if we were giving a tour of a grocery store to Martians who've just touched down on Earth. We professional storekeepers explain the vegetable section, the dairy section, the meat section, note similarities and differences among our wares, variations of texture and color, the fact that there's no milk where the applesauce is, and perhaps the fact (which we bemoan) that there are no papayas. We're teaching the store, not what's in it. We don't presuppose visitors know anything about where the things on display came from; if they do, it's because we told them — that can be our work too, speaking of the world before it ended up in the grocery store. But we're the ones who decide whether or not to include that world outside, and how much. We just want to rack up sales. All this fixation by the storekeepers on the store misses the point: People grow food in order to eat it. Similarly, books are meant to be read. Reading is the point of a book, not integrating it into a discipline.
In graduate school, professors learn to specialize, for which the justification is that we're contributing our bit to the realm of Knowledge about literature. Students, it's been noted, rarely share our passion for the tiny bit of the field we cultivate. That has led to the widely discussed gulf between graduate studies and undergraduate courses. Universities have bridged that gap by giving undergraduate classes to the younger, less professionalized professors. But those young people who teach the young often cannot make clear the larger issues, the things that can actually be of some use to undergraduates. (Plus, they're learning the jargonized speech of the priestly class, and they tend to try it out on their charges.)
All this is harming our students. Reading literature can change their lives — and ours. The thing is, we don't quite understand how this process works — nor will we ever understand. Certainly we can't predict it past a certain point. That's why reading literature can't be a discipline. I, a straight white American male, can see myself in a black character or a female one, understand a point made by a dead Russian or a living Albanian, meditate on an abstract point made by an anonymous author. But that equally means that an X reader (say, black, gay, Albanian) need not read an X author (or character?) to get something from a work. Reading literature doesn't require us to check our list of identifying adjectives to see if we'll understand. Instead, we just have to dive in. Maybe we'll sink, maybe we'll swim. Nobody can tell beforehand. That's the beauty of books.
Interaction with literature can never be the basis of a systematic undertaking: It's all too scattershot. All we can do is describe the sense of looking up from a page full of little black and white squiggles with the feeling that suddenly we understand our own lives, that names have been given to things that lacked them, and that the iron filings that hitherto were scattered about have configured into a clear pattern. Things are different now — somehow. Maybe that will cause us to act differently, maybe not.
Literary study in the classroom nowadays offers views of the work of literature rather like the views of Mt. Fuji in Hokusai's celebrated spring series on "100 Views of Mt. Fuji." In each view, the mountain, while present, is frequently tiny and in a corner, viewed (in the most famous print) beyond the crest of a wave whose foam seems to make fingers at the edges, or (in another) through a hoop that a barrel-maker is shaping.
Those are not the front-and-center shots on a postcard. They foreground the angle of the mountain, its treatment, much the way a literature professor does with a funky viewpoint that got him or her tenure. Of course the postcard shot has its own point, but in a real sense it's more neutral than the angled treatment. It doesn't push our noses in its approach: It defers to the object it is depicting. We're far more conscious of the treatment of Mt. Fuji in an artsy Hokusai print than we are in a postcard shot. And that means, we're all but compelled to see the mountain the way it's presented, rather than being able to work on our own presentation. That's why literary studies is intrinsically coercive.
The premodern classroom — up until, say, the New Criticism, that first critical application of modernism — never denied that each individual student might be making his or her individual "View of Mt. Fuji" from the postcard shot the professor was supposed to be presenting. But those views were individual, and no claims were made for them beyond that. The power of the professor in the professionalized classroom — and the pressure on students to conform — is thus exponentially greater than it was before people started thinking that the point was the "View of Mt. Fuji" rather than Mt. Fuji viewed. If you want a good grade, you adopt that viewpoint. That's what's being taught, after all. Several generations of students have by now learned to give in to the power of the literary-studies professor — and hated every minute of it.
There is a point to college or university guidance of literature. Most people never read serious literature at all without a guide. Too, people get more sophisticated as they have things pointed out to them, or as they read more. And many people just don't know what they may read to begin with. So there's a reason for teaching. We professors just have to remember that the books are the point, not us. We need, in short, to get beyond literary studies. We're not scientists, we're coaches. We're not transmitting information, at least not in the sense of teaching a discipline. But we do get to see our students react, question, develop, and grow. If you like life, that's satisfaction enough.
Bruce Fleming is a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy. His most recent book is What Literary Studies Could Be, and What It Is (University Press of America, 2008).
http://chronicle.comSection: The Chronicle ReviewVolume 55, Issue 17, Page B14
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Frye, of course, is most famous for his Anatomy of Criticism which pops up every time one does research in literature. But this little book is more basic, yet it touches us all in the origins of thoughtful expression. It gives both generalist and specialist a handy, enjoyable understanding, even apologia, for what it is we do in the world of letters and the life of the mind.
Monday, February 2, 2009
I recently came across a reference in the Chronicle of Higher Education to a "100-book Challenge" that some school issued its students and it reminded me that I have found myself taking mental note of the three or four texts I wish all undergraduate English majors would read before they graduate.
What three texts would go on your list, English department colleagues? E-mail them to me and I'll post them on this site.
UPDATE: On February 12th, I spoke with Dr. McMahon’s Critical Approaches to Prose class about “The Rise of English,” an excerpt from Literary Theory: An Introduction. In advance of that discussion, Dr. McMahon sent me a list of questions she might ask me and in preparation for the class, I wrote out my answers. I’ve posted some of both in the “Comments” section of this post.
1. Virgina Woolf, A Room of One's Own: a magnificent, wide-ranging essay exploring gender dynamics for the past thousand years, but more specifically, why women write the way they do, and why so few women entered the pre 20th century canon. Also answers the pressing question, "Who was Judith Shakespeare?" Essential reading for an understanding of British literature, feminist theory, and modernism (I think). [Click here for a free online edition of the text; click here to buy a copy.]
2. Shakespeare, The Sonnets: as published in 1609, this collection of possibly the greatest and most dynamic sonnets ever written, explores the nature of love, lust, and betrayal, as well as the possibility of poetry to immortalize and extend love beyond the lives of either poet or object. When read as a series, a "story line" emerges of the poet pursuing a young man, having a brief affair, a bitter falling out, entertaining a "dark lady" who is sinister and seductive, and finally drowning in a destructive menage a trois that threatens to consume both poet and lover. These works show the incredible range of Shakespeare's verbal skills within the confined jacket of the sonnet, and are perhaps the best way to approach "the bard's" true genius as a poet and writer. You'll never read the plays the same way again! [Click here for a free online edition of the sonnets; click here to purchase a copy.]
3. V.S. Naipaul, In a Free State: A Novella with Two Supporting Narratives: this is a powerful introduction to postcolonialism, as the stories shift focuses from the colonizers (British citizens stranded in a revolutionary African country) to the colonized, who are heading back "home" to London and America. Picking up where Conrad left off, these are powerful, gritty, and often poetic stories and vignettes which help anyone (but especially English students) understand the issues of identity and power at the heart of the colonial institution, especially for those forced to speak in a foreign tongue when their dreams are of other lands and cultures. Won Britain's Booker Prize and was partially the basis for his winning the Nobel Prize in 2001.
Sunday, February 1, 2009
Two more important questions:
We already have a list serv. Why do we need a website?
Need is too strong a word. But I know that I, for one, am more reluctant to send everyone in the department an e-mail account of my thoughts about a particular issue than I am to post a comment on a website that others might choose to check out if and when they have time and interest. I have also found that I like to clean out my e-mail box by either deleting or archiving messages as soon as I can. A website dedicated to an exchange of ideas won’t get mixed up with to-do lists or clutter up anyone’s mailbox.
Aren’t we all too busy to sustain any kind of conversation on such a website?
Maybe. But if this website leads to one thought-provoking discussion that wouldn’t have occurred without it, then I will declare it a success. And, as a matter of fact, it has already done that.
If you come across a thought-provoking article, e-mail the link to me so that I can post it(firstname.lastname@example.org).
Answer general questions (like this one) that someone else has posed.
Send in posts you would like for me to publish here.
Cut out the middle man and contribute your own posts (I can add your name to a list of authors).
Make suggestions about ways to enhance the site.
Spread the word.