Gertrude Stein (The Hour’s Getting Late)

I had quite a little blog post typed up about Ms. Stein.  I didn’t get to a definitive conclusion, but certainly speculated.  You know?  I don’t think she’s an easy one to easily come to terms with, at any rate.  And then, something happened, and it’s gone.  And I’m fighting this really awful bug, and my head is congested, and this is burdensome.  Oh well.  This revision of sorts will leave something to the imagination.

Gertrude Stein is delicate reading.  I am still not sure I’ve cracked her code, as it were.  I began, first, by reading her lines in a sort of mantra-like way.  After having taken in so many varying pieces of imagery, I started to simply disassociate what I was reading and instead focused mindfully on the images conjured up in my head.  Based on our lecture Tuesday, I’m not quite sure whether or not this was Stein’s intention.

Then I began to highlight the prevalent use of repetition among selections, such as the use of the word “spreading” in “A Carafe That is a Blind Glass,” “A Piano,” and “A Little Bit of Tumbler.”  I wondered whether Stein was trying to get readers to disassociate the denotative meanings of the words and simply to marvel at the sonic beauty of their sounds.  This I believe we emphatically dismissed in class (though the harmony of her word selections still prevails.)

Gertrude Stein is a again a delicate read.  The breaking down of her syntax into its simplest components, the imaginative speculations that are necessary to understanding her intentions, these are not easily done.  I confess I’m still working on it.  I can certainly she is a poet who does well to be read at length, to have her style absorbed.  Certain poetic elements are retained, despite the meanings of the work being broken down.  The parallel phrasings of “A Piano,” for example, create a work that almost flows according to a meter.  Still, the arrival with any of Stein’s is as perplexing as any other.  If anyone’s gotten farther along the way than I have, I’d love to talk about it.  My grade will certainly benefit from it at any rate.

Take care,

 

Joe

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Love and (Several) Questions

The Bridegroom thought it little to give/
A dole of bread, a purse,
A heartfelt prayer for the poor of God,
Or for the rich a curse;
But whether or not a man was asked
To mar the love of two
By harboring woe in the bridal house
The bridegroom wished he knew.”

-Robert Frost, Love and a Question

 

These words end the poem I’ve selected for my Unpack-a-Poem project.  They are mysterious words, to say the least.  The poem, as I understand it at least, tells of a stranger who approaches the home of two newlyweds late one evening.  He carries a green-white stick we’re told, and asks “more with the eyes than the lips” to stay the night.  The bridegroom seems happy to oblige, offering the stranger a chance to talk outside on the porch.

“Let us look at the sky/ and question what of the night to be/ Stranger, you and I.”  Says the sullen-seeming bridegroom.  It’s cold outside, Winter is in the wind, we’re told, but inside, the bride stays warm by the fire.  It is at this point we’re confronted with the first of what I think are they poem’s two great riddles.  Frost tells us that she is alone, and we’re to deduce that she is unhappy about the stranger coming to visit, and she appears rather isolated.

The bridegroom, meanwhile, still philosophizing on the porch with the Stranger, catches a glimpse of his bride inside (no rhyme intended), and we’re told he “wished her heart in a case of gold and pinned with a silver pin.”   This sounds like that groom has made  a caricature of his bride, he wishes her only the utmost idealistic qualities.  It’s at this point we come across my aforementioned quote.  As I read the poem over again, an argument seems possible to be made that these two souls are equally separated, strained even.  The very idea that they are staying in a bridal house lets the reader believe that the two are newly married, and here we have them operated in distinctly solitary ways.  However, Frost lets us know that the bride had a “face rose-red with the glowing coal/ and the thought of the heart’s desire.”  And herein lies the rub.  It is from the groom that the isolation plaguing the young couple has ensued.  She, the bride, sits alone and aloof, pondering love, seemingly wishing for him.  He, however, is content playing the waxing intellectual outside with some Stranger.

Given this account, the quote tidies the poem together.  This groom has never stood for anything obviously immoral, or unjust.  He is in most ways a virtuous man- he thinks it nothing to help the poor and the needy, he has no qualms cursing the rich man.  Yes, he seems the very beacon of liberality.  Yet to his own home, to the weary or needy within his own walls, to placate the loneliness of his wife, the groom seems at a loss.

Perhaps then, Frost is making a point about focusing first on one’s own familial needs before going out into the world, championing every cause at the ready.  It’s good advice, and would fit the character of the rural, folk-minded, simplistic and conservative Frost.  Then again, all of this I’ve just argued could be as far away from the truth as is possible.  Whatever the case, the poem reads with a very real gray November fog.  There seems to be splashes of agony between every stanza, though it may take a few reads to feel the full effect.  Regardless, the poem stopped me in my tracks.  Before coming across this one, I’d gone through poem after poem, unsatisfied and anxious.  I certainly recommend it to anyone who doesn’t mind asking at least a few follow-up questions.

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The Souls of Black Folk; or, My Resolution to Keep My Big Mouth Shut

 

(Oh boy, it’s been awhile.)

I’m scratching my head on this one.  How did I let a month pass me by without an update?  There was even that one week when I made two blog posts in one week.   I don’t know.  But what I shouldn’t be doing, is making a big announcement about it, what with putting myself right under our Professor’s magnifying glass.  Goshdarnit.

We’re (finally) discussing William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk.  Nothing spoken inside this perennial tome should catch us off guard, and yet it is easy to let all off it float right under our noses.  It’s hard to have these kinds of discussions, sure.  But it’s necessary.  I’ll be the first to say I don’t have all the answers; moreover, at twenty-one, I’m not so sure I have any of them.  So I’ll keep my opinions confined to this blog, and you take as much liberty in passing them over if you so choose.

As that delightful play on words goes, Race Matters.  I’ll say one thing about White people, we like to think that it doesn’t.  We like to skate around Race, like we’re all a bunch of prepubescents playing Don’t Wake Daddy. We think of race matters as something that was more or less accomplished in the late 1960s, and now serves as nothing more than a series of thin platitudes, rather than matters requiring serious intellectual investigation.  If this weren’t so, how could a nefarious oaf like Glenn Beck muster the audacity to declare himself the torch-bearing descendant of the civil-rights movement, the heir apparent to Reverend King himself?  And on national television!

Du Bois, then, holds more relevance than ever.  His declaration, that “the problem of the 20th century is the the problem of the color-line” is a declaration that involves serious spiritual scrutiny.  What does he mean by this?  Does this problem permeate beyond national affairs, i.e, is this a global phenomenon?  To what extent?  And on, and on and on.  In Ohio, we’re facing particularly contentious race matters- our newly elected Governor recently, until heavily berated by civil right groups, elected 24 Whites to his cabinet.  Not a single minority group was represented.  When pressed on the issue, the Governor seemed perturbed, as if the idea that race matters were contemporary matters was remote, distant, insulting.  Clearly, the manifold problems of the 21st century still include the problem of the color-line.

Not that progress hasn’t been made.  Not that it still isn’t being made.  Not that we shouldn’t still relish in our victories, in our joys.  But the idea that any social issue can become a static entity, that we can write off entire chapters of our history by declaring the third Monday of every January a Federal holiday, should be call-to-arms.  Recalling Alice Walker, “race should exist, but it shouldn’t matter.”  I think Du Bois would agree.

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Stillness.

“If there’d been years and years of nothing, then a bird sang to you, it would be awful- still, after the bird was still.”
-Mrs.  Hale

As we finish Susan Glaspell’s excellent little play (little only in terms of length, not in scope), Trifles, we should all let out a deep breath. Deep breathing seems to be the superlative necessity these days, whether we are struggling through a busy new quarter, recovering from the recent tragedy in Arizona, or simply continuing the slow shoveling of a path started long ago, stuck still in our own stillness (pardon the hyper-alliteration).

There is a man dead, John Wright, in our story, and there is a lot of hootenanny concerning the whodunit. And naturally, the patriarchal Powers-That-Be are going to look neither here nor there, but somehow still, everywhere for motives, for evidence.  They’ll check the upstairs, they’ll check the downstairs, they’ll move like a crescendo, increasing their tempo and their talk.  They’ll come off like a collection of Cary Grant’s in His Girl Friday– fast-talking, to the pointers, neglecting a certain emotional finesse altogether.
Of course, to us, this all appears to be perhaps very flat characterization.  The men are logical, rational, and cold, almost carbon-copies of the deceased (Wright), whom the ever-insightful Mrs. Hale describes as, “a hard man (…) Like a raw wind that gets to the bone.”  The two women, meanwhile, have more subtlety to them, especially the aforementioned Mrs. Hale.  She maintains a healthy dose of skepticism throughout the play, as she does a strong sense of compassion.  Her ability to read stories into the scattered and incomplete array of Mrs. Wright’s (the accused) housework makes her the superior C.S.I. to her male counterparts.   Her final analysis of what led Mrs. Wright to the murder of her husband includes a powerful self-reproach, ” Oh I wish I’d come over here once in a while! That was a crime! That was a crime! Who’s going to punish that?”  But, even more impressive, again, is her compassion- her ability to see the story, the incalculable number of variables leading up to the decisive moment where it is to be assumed Mrs. Wright took her husband’s life.  She sees moral complexity without condoning Mrs. Wright’s actions, something that should be found in all of us, particularly our investigators.

Again, it is possible that to our own “Post-Everything” eyes, that the “callous-men-versus-compassionate-women” model is a tiresome, overused method of storytelling.  Which is certainly a shame, if that is true, both for men and for women.  For if gender roles have become more blurry than ever, they certainly are still in existence, which may be the supreme tragedy of every class-struggle that occurs to day.  What I think is important with plays such as these is not to read them as memoirs of events passed, but as timeless parables with universal reminders that again, there is nothing new under the sun, especially our own judgments.

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Social Completion and The Other Two; Or, My Life as a Bullshitter

There are thousands upon thousands of methods I suspect a young Professor could use while teaching a creative writing course.  Thousands of lectures, thousands of slides, and bullet-points, and talking-points, and none of them may ever chance upon the concept of bullshitting- not just for the chance that such an aggressive expletive could sour said Professor’s dreams of ever attaining tenure.  No, the concept of “bullshitting,” of loosely playing the game, of even playing in the first place is so, shall we say (la-dee-dah) elementary, it needn’t ever even be brought up.

To bullshit is to ramble, but to ramble effectively, persuasively.  It is to string together what, initially may appear as a series of almost non-related tangents and, more or less effortlessly, tie them together in such a way as the other party can deduce some greater meaning.  It’s essentially conning someone.  It’s duplicitous, disingenuous, and more often than not, leads to bad writing.
Naturally, it makes me question my own writing.  I like to think of myself as an expert “Bullshitter,” an appeaser, but hardly an effective writer.  I will ramble, gamble, and shamble a cohesive thought together, and then I myself will be pleased with it.  And I mean in no way to be self-congratulatory, or immodest in any way- I believe we all have a “Bullshitter,” inside of us, only the less-than-scrupulous are more inclined to make use of it.

So watch out for us BSers.  They inhabit every corner of civilized folk, most often in pedantic Op-Ed newspaper articles and magazines.  They’re worthy method actors, they are.  Trust your own judgment- while reading some verbose and pessimistic movie review, ask yourself, “is any of this tying together towards a common theme?”  Moreover, is this theme bigger than the sum of its parts, a concrete idea in itself, or is it a series of weak contingencies, and, refusing to accept the premise of this nonsensical syllogism, I cannot accept its corollaries?  I think you’ll find, friends, Bullshit to be quite the ubiquitous little monster.
ANYWAYS, (watch the long-jump here into relevancy) Edith Wharton, in her wonderful short story, The Other Two, does nothing of the sort.  Every sentence, every anecdote, every loose, seemingly throw-away metaphor, is building Something out of something.  I found her winking at me with every word, turn of phrase, what-have-you.  Even a passage as tedious as, “Waythorn always felt grateful to [Haskett] for not leaning back,” gives incredible character depth, both on the part of Waythorn as well as Haskett.  Edith Wharton is no Bullshitter, she is a staccato storyteller, each carefully placed and aggressively-noted beat falls perfectly within the rhythm.  An argument, a Real Argument can be made that not a single sentence of the story is fluff, or excess; it all serves to make a singular point about Waythorn’s society, and a second accompanying note about each character in that story.

I really don’t believe this to be true of every writer, of every piece of literature.  I believe some writers, particularly modern writers such as Charles Bukowski and Kurt Vonnegut, understand the importance, or the fun in Good Bullshitting.  And it isn’t necessarily something to be avoided in the writing process.  It creates humor, discord, and confusion for the stuffy, overly-literate types, the kinds of people Woody Allen said can be “absolutely brilliant and not have a clue as to what’s going on.”  But when you come upon such a straightforward, elegantly written piece of psychological prose, such as The Other Two, I think its important to stop for a minute and remember to keep Bullshit in its place- journal entries, the ends of newspapers, and, nowadays, the blogosphere (I’m sure you’ve caught on how full of S— this here blog is).

 

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The War Prayer, and Other Personalities by Samuel L. Clemens

Blame it on our previous reading assignment, or perhaps blame it on the controversy surrounding arguably his magnum opus, but I have Mark Twain on the brain this evening.

Contrary to my usual M.O. on this blog, I plan on getting rather politically candid.  So I must more than insist that if these sorts of hybrid literary-political rants (glossed up politely as academic blogs) bother you, feel free to quick the “back” button on your web browser.

Mark Twain has been in the news recently, both he and his Great American Novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Fynn, but that’s an issue I’m not interested in discussing, at least for this particular post’s purposes.  File my name under a general grumble about “maintaining artistic integrity” or “those who don’t learn from the past are blahblahblah,” and we’ll move to the matter at hand.

About a year ago I was up at the Barnes and Noble doing my thing, talking about Twain, like you do.  Probably was reading Vonnegut at the time and wanted to do some cross referencing, so I walked over to the “Twain” section and started looking through the contents.  I found the standards, the ones the PBS series Wishbone made into wonderful little episodes, and then I found another work.  It was a thin, curious little book with beautiful sketches on each page, called The War Prayer.

You can read War Prayer standing, honestly.  It takes about ten minutes with determination, but between its covers is raw, relevant account of a nation grappling with its spirituality as it marches off to war.  Prayers to protect the fighting men (women, when the book was written, were off somewhere performing Women’s Work) from the scourge of an unnamed enemy (as I recall, though it’s been some time, an actual enemy might have been named) were being delivered at a small town’s church service.  Well, wouldn’t you know it, but all of a sudden in walks an unknown man, all High and Mighty, and declaring that the people’s prayers had been answered.  The local soldiers, our nation’s war, for our nation’s reasons, would prevail.  But that isn’t all!  The stranger informs the flock that God has held our nation in His favor- at the expense of the Enemy.  The prayers were heard, all of them, including the ones about brutally dismembering the Enemy, for example, for wiping his carcass clear from this earth and into Kingdom Come.  It’s a haunting piece of poetry, simple and elegant, eviscerating not only war, but the idea of a “righteous war,” a “justified war.”

My edition contained the aforementioned sketches, not in Twain’s original, depicting the carnage.  They are effective; I held the book in now chilled hands, finding it remarkable how overlooked this particular piece of prose is when compared with Twain’s other work.  And maybe this is all for their own reasons.  Huck is the masterpiece, after all.  But when I considered Twain’s other works- Tom Sawyer, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg, the Prince and the Pauper, I found this piece to be full of passion that held it’s place among its fellow pieces.  Hell, it’s loads more evocative and memorable than The Notorious Jumping Frog (no offense, of course).  But sadly, messages like this, warning us about war as justified through the lens of religion, are just as unmentionable in our day as they were in Twain’s.
Maybe it’s just me.  Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, demanding why a certain miniature golf ball for being too good for it’s home (five gold stars for readers keeping up with me).  But when in this sleep-deprived state, I am invulnerable.  There is a reason such controversy has continued to be so quietly contained.  I seem to think there is.  But I dunno.  If interested, what do you think?  Have any of you noticed a common theme in what schools deem unworthy to be taught?  I mean not isolated works, for circumstantial reasons esoteric to themselves (like the prostitution scene in The Catcher in the Rye, or the coarse language that runs throughout The Slaughterhouse Five) but BROAD, literary themes, perhaps in the singular, that are overlooked or unspoken among any teachers?  Have it, or not.  Hope you’re all doing well with your new classes.

 

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While I Wrap Up My Adopt a Writer

 

And while simultaneously put together a slew of other projects, and while I drink another cup of lukewarm coffee, and while My Sinclair continues not to load on my browser, and while I knowingly am currently not working on anything remotely feigning academic productivity, I offer you this little morsel of thought…

I’ve noticed a recurring motif in Alicia Keys’ music videos.  There is never any less than THREE Alicias, all with wildly (albeit, as always, aesthetically pleasing) contrasting hair slash makeup slash costume.  Her videos come off as a sort of case study in multiple personalities, or whathaveyou.  Then, approaching the end, we find always the resolution to the ideas presented by the “three” singers- they almost appear to meet up.  Somewhere.  The jump cuts from Alicia # 1 to Alicia # 2 and so on occur at increasingly shorter intervals to the point that the three (or four! e.g, “Karma”) Alicias actually do appear to be communicating with one another.  Or so I see it.  I dunno.

As I’m sure many of you are, like me, hurriedly still putting together a project we’ve all had weeks to prepare, I offer you a small soundbite from Ms. Keys.

“Everything’s gonna be all right.”

Yep.  This hardly counts as one of my ten blog posts, I know.  Just felt like saying hello to anyone who happens to drop in.  Hope you’re having a good day.

 

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Thomas Paine and His Environment

 

About fifty pages into Thomas Paine’s controversial essay, Age of Reason, after having built up a rather convincing argument for the Deism of his day, Paine expounds upon “Natural Science,” i.e, astronomy and physics.  What unfolds is a series of reflections on the vastness of the then-known universe, beginning with the relative size of the earth in relation to the solar system as it was them understood.

Paine’s 18th century science is flawed, or more accurately, incomplete.  His solar system is one consisting of six planets (Mercury through Saturn), as opposed to our eight (or nine?) planets today.  What is particularly interesting is what lays beyond in his universe.  A series of “fixed stars,” which he delineates as being immobile in their relative universal positions and he assumes they probably function in the same way as does our own Sun. What we have here is an excellent example of a reasoned hypothesis- the foundation for the Scientific Method.

What is remarkable about these short musings is that it places Paine the Natural Philosopher in a very interesting place in the development of Western Science.  Located in the heart of the Enlightenment, or just shortly after, Paine predicts the advent of all modern thought, though he echos the accepted opinions of those before him.  Reading Paine the Scientist delivers a contemporary take on Benjamin Franklin, the great American scientist esteemed in Paine’s eyes with the likes of Galileo, Newton and Watt.

Reading a layman’s assessment of the contemporary scientific advances of his day provides much greater understanding to the modern laymen than would the reading the source in question itself, if for clarity’s sake alone.  Age of Reason is a chameleon in essay form- expunging traditional Christendom, embracing that Scientific method, championing the American Intellectual.  Such a shame its author had to die in such contemptible poverty.

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A Passing Observation- Whitman and Edwards

An easy observation can be made while reading the theologian Jonathan Edwards in detail that the man, much like the wrathful God about Whom he so passionately preached, had little patience for mercy or compassion among his flock.  Indeed, towards the end of his great sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Edwards warns his listeners, “There is reason think that there are many in this congregation now hearing this discourse that will actually be subjects of this very misery to all eternity”  His words are wrought with emotion, at times appealing explicitly thereto.  The world Edwards inhabits has Hell intruding at every conceivable angle, all at once, with every imagined amount of force.

Comparing him with the subject of my previous post, Walt Whitman, is good for a laugh if nothing else.  The two men appear as poles of one another, each equally resisting the others’ pull.  Whitman dastardly writes in Leaves of Grass,Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son/ Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,/ No sentamentalist, no stander above men and women or/ apart from them/ No more modest than immodest.”  What disparaging differences between the two writers!

It would seem that, should the two ever meet; or, more to the point, should Whitman ever find himself in Puritanical society, his views and his writings would find himself in such hostile circumstances as have been rarely found.  It is almost certain that Whitman would be prosecuted for his thoughts and deeds.

Reading Edwards, I saw him to be a kind of Meletus, a Pontius Pilate, with Whitman filling in the roles of Socrates, or Christ respectively.  It is again a stern scene of a staunch zealot rallying against the musings a counterculture prophet.  It’s a scene that echos again in the Crucible, (for our sake, the movie), with Whitman playing that ol’ Heartthrob, Daniel Day-Lewis.

 

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Whitman

“If you are a dreamer, come in.
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a
liar,  a hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire,
For we have some flax golden tales to spin.
Come in! Come in!”

I’m writing about good ole Uncle Walt (as Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poet’s Society called him).  And this introductory poem, while not from Whitman’s pen, comes from a hand that seems more than a kindred spirit with the great bearded bard.  It is, of course, Shel Silverstein, a man as complex and beloved as Whitman, one of the latter’s many direct descendents.  There is always something in reading those influenced by Great Writers as a means of understanding the Great Writers themselves.

From the Silverstein poem we catch a glimpse of the abridged Whitman, the “Spark Notes Whitman,” as it were.  Were there to be but one way of encapsulating the poet, at least from another’s poem, we have it here.  Though if I were to surmise Whitman as Whitman saw himself, I would have to remember these lines

“Do I contradict myself?
Yes, I contradict myself.
I am many; I contain multitudes.”

This is the Whitman that is to be remembered.  He is a vessel through which life flows- life in its senseless, capricious and absurd beauty.  He is everyone’s distant and still familiar uncle, the truest American Prophet.  He is both the action and the equal and opposite reaction, at least that is how he would see himself (or would he!).  He sings of life and of death, though he consoles us with the idea that “the smallest sprout shows there is really no death/ and if ever there were was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end/ to arrest it.”   He anticipates his every word, never allowing his readers to assume one thing over another, for it is X, and it is Y.

These songs are the literate approximation of Nature.  Society, which forevermore has sought to check Nature at the door, has polarized man, has reduced man into the stale and tenacious realm of races, creeds and codes.  Whitman seeks, and finds a momentary lapse of these establishments in the form of prose that reads over and over like the Buddhist Prayer of Great Compassion, stretched-out and folded in on itself, double-helix like.

Song of Myself is about discovering, though, paradoxically, it is about discovering that which was never lost.    Like the Tao, it is neither here nor there.  The Song recalls Christ’s declaration in St. Luke’s Gospel, “For, behold!  The Kingdom of God is within you.”  It is the words of a Universalist in the truest sense, a man ahead and away from his time- humble, saintlike, subservient to Nature and Nature’s demands, a voice timeless, aged and new again.  He is Silverstein, he is Lao Tzu, he is Christ and he is our Uncle, and we his (or at least he would want us to be.)

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