On Poetry

Yesterday, the New York Times offered a nice surprise: an eloquent little essay by Matthew Zapruder on learning how to read poetry. It begins in the classroom, with Zapruder describing a problem that any teacher of literature will be familiar with:

Do you remember, as I do, how in the classroom poems were so often taught as if they were riddles? What is the poet really trying to say here? What is the theme or message of this poem? … [I]n school we are taught that poetry is inherently “difficult,” and that by its very nature it somehow makes meaning by hiding meaning. So our efforts at reading poetry begin to reflect this.

“But,” Zapruder goes on, “it turns out that the portal to the strange is the literal. As a teacher, I’ve found that regardless of how open or resistant my literature students initially are to poetry, real progress begins when they get literal with the words on the page.” That’s my experience too, and it’s refreshing to find someone else saying it. Continue reading

Emerson’s Tricks and Sparks

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Essential Writings"I’ve been reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s collected essays over the last couple of months, two or three each week, never more than one in a day. I’ve been familiar with the more famous essays for a long time now — I remember teaching “Self-Reliance” and my favourite essay, “Experience,” almost a decade ago — but at the start of this year it occurred to me that there were a number of essays I hadn’t read, so I decided to take a look at them all.

More than anything else, more than the quality of Emerson’s ideas, what I admire most about the essays is the incomparable rhetoric, the sheer extravagant beauty of the expression. Happily, I read them in the Modern Library’s collection of Essential Writings, edited by Brooks Atkinson and with an introduction by Mary Oliver. Even more happily, Oliver’s superb essay was made freely available online last year, so you can see for yourself how precisely she nails the essence of the Emersonian aesthetic: Continue reading

The Effects of The End of the Tour

I haven’t yet had a chance to see The End of the Tour, James Ponsoldt’s film adaptation of David Lipsky’s book-length interview with David Foster Wallace, but I’ve found a lot to like about the responses it has drawn from critics so far — or, rather, the breadth and variety of those responses. At one end of the spectrum, you’ve got Tom LeClair lamenting that even though The End of the Tour “offers itself as a respectful homage to and elegy for David Foster Wallace,” “exploitation mars the film from its origin through its casting to the final product.” The result, writes LeClair, is “a movie that Wallace’s widow and his editors said Wallace would have hated” and, worse, “the kind of commercial entertainment that Wallace’s best work critiqued.” But then you’ve got Christopher Schaberg taking a more generous view of things — “the movie is perfectly okay!” — and pointing out that, far from downplaying or bypassing its treatment of Wallace’s major critical concerns, The End of the Tour gives consideration to most of them. “Nothing in the movie breaks from the overt themes of Wallace’s actual writings,” Schaberg insists, “unless you want to go meta and insist that the movie itself is everything Wallace would have hated — but then, the joke is on us, too.” Continue reading

All Over the Place

Gary Saul Morson has an essay in Commentary entitled ‘Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature.’ It’s a real piece of work. He begins by taking a few pot-shots at Martha Nussbaum’s familiar concerns about declining enrolment in literature courses at colleges and universities, then he identifies himself as the teacher of “the largest class at Northwestern University, with an enrollment of about 500 students. The course is about Russian literature.” He continues:

I speak with students by the dozens, and none has ever told me that he or she does not take more literature courses because every moment at school must be devoted to maximizing future income. On the contrary, students respond by describing some literature course they took that left them thinking they had nothing to gain from repeating the experience. … What can students learn from literature that they cannot learn elsewhere? Why should they bother with it? … For understandable reasons, literature professors assume the importance of their subject matter. But students are right to ask these questions. … To teach anything well, you have to place yourself in the position of the learner who does not already know the basics and has to be persuaded that the subject is worth studying. You have to subtract knowledge and assumptions you have long since forgotten having learned. And one of those assumptions is that literature is worth the effort of reading it.

That sort of stuff is music to my ears. I teach literature partly because I love exactly that aspect of the job: challenging myself to approach the familiar from an outsider’s perspective, dismantling my own assumptions about literature at the beginning of the academic year, and finding new and creative ways of introducing students to the discipline without ever taking for granted their interest in it. But then Morson drops this paragraph: Continue reading

Why Tenth of December?

Of all of George Saunders’ story collections, why was this the one that received the most media coverage, the most rave reviews, the most prestigious awards, the most commendations in end-of-year retrospectives, and arguably the most readers? Saunders’ theme, as usual, is the degradation of lives lived under the boot heel of neoliberal economics. His characters are typically embroiled in the bitter yet petty disputes of local commerce and neighbourhood politics, or in the minor scandals and absurd shenanigans of workplaces designed to humiliate their employees, and in story after story these characters are compelled to ‘chin up’ — with a smile — or else incur some even more humiliating punishment. Impoverished parents lavish unaffordable luxuries upon ungrateful, arrogant children. The most vulnerable members of a society are subjected to human experimentation or turned into ornaments or fashion accessories for their social superiors. Minimum wage workers dress up in extravagant costumes and embarrass themselves in front of spectators at outlandish theme parks that seem geared towards systemic dehumanisation. Tenth of December makes room for all those sorts of stories and more, but the problem is that the same is true of Saunders’ previous story collections. Except perhaps for ‘Puppy’ and ‘Home,’ his two brief forays into something like conventional realism, there’s nothing in Tenth of December that Saunders hasn’t done better elsewhere. In his very best work — in the theme park stories ‘Pastoralia’ and ‘CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,’ and particularly in ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’ and ‘In Persuasion Nation’ — he not only depicts the degrading effects of neoliberal economics but eviscerates its logic, painstakingly and hilariously, by exposing its internal contradictions and satirising its pretensions to fairness and lampooning the preposterous claims of its Panglossian defenders. Here, however, the satire is in disastrously short supply, and the focus drifts amongst various snapshots of the sufferings of neoliberal economics without pulling back to explore the line of thought that would rationalise them. In other words, by Saunders’ own standards, Tenth of December plays it very safe — it is by far his most conservative book — and yet it has received more attention than any of his other titles and is repeatedly declared to be deserving of still more. Why?

Minor Notes on Much Ado About Nothing

This year has been for me, in a sense, the year of Much Ado About Nothing. Back in November, I began helping a couple of colleagues to direct our students in a performance of the play. We spent November and December closely reading the text, then we spent January and February intensively preparing for the stage. We also paid careful attention to both Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film adaptation and the 2011 West End production starring David Tennant as Benedick and Catherine Tate as Beatrice. And although we pulled the trigger too soon to catch Joss Whedon’s more recent take on Shakespeare’s material, I saw his Much Ado when it hit cinemas this summer and I’m convinced that it is the best of all those I have seen. It could have just as easily gone the other way. Whedon shot the film in only twelve days, while in the middle of post-production on The Avengers, using his own house as the set and restricting himself to a grainy monochrome palette. It could have been a sloppy, rushed, underdeveloped mess. But it isn’t. Why not? Continue reading

Not Really a Review of Spurious

Just a quick note to say it is both the funniest and most despairing thing I’ve read all year, and an attempt to sketch out why I found it even funnier and more despairing than the blog from which it developed. I think the difference in quality has something to do with the difference in form, with the sense of claustrophobic compression which defines the novel but which the blog just cannot generate. I won’t go over the narrative, such as it is, since various summaries already appear in good reviews at The Millions, The Quarterly Conversation, and elsewhere. Instead I’ll pick up on a couple of the remarks John Self made when he read the novel in May:

[I]ts genesis [as a blog] shows: the chapters are short, like blogposts, and the consistency of voice and repetition of themes both emphasises and distracts the reader from the fact that there is not much directional plot.

I agree with that, but what I took away from the movement of Lars and W. through these short, repetitive chapters was the polar opposite of what John Self took away from it:

[W.] is relentlessly critical of Lars. … But the lightness of touch, the artfulness in the repetition, means that it sounds not like bullying but an exaggerated, hyperreal version of banter between friends.

I’m with Michael Schapira when he writes that “[t]he levels of depravity and viciousness that W. is able to reach through his assessment of Lars and himself truly merit the exalted categories of cosmic, transcendental, and messianic,” and I’m with him on that point because of how the relationship between Lars and W. is warped by the novel lacking the occasional and continually unfolding nature o the blog. The blog, rather than the novel, leaves me feeling as if I’m reading something closer to “an exaggerated, hyperreal version of banter between friends.” With a brief post here, a long post there, sometimes weeks without any posts and then a few posts in quick succession, the blog suggests that the animating sentiment behind its content is “let me tell you about something W. recently said.” Over time, then, the blog amounts to a piecemeal assemblage of W.’s character via Lars’ reports of the conversations he shares with W. The novel is the inverse. Running close to two hundred pages bound together between two covers, detailing a series of past events without a date stamp in sight, containing W.’s continual attacks against Lars in close proximity to one another, the novel suggests that the animating sentiment behind its content is “let me tell you some things W. said about me when we were together a while ago.” The novel involves much more definition of Lars’ character by W., whose assessments of Lars are later recorded by Lars himself for reasons only Lars can know.

I don’t mean to deny or downplay the artistry behind the content of the blog; I only mean to suggest that with its occasional posts, date-stamped and dispersed across time, each one a minor piece of a massive project that could potentially last as long as the author lives, the form of the blog serves that content differently, and to my mind less successfully, than the form of the novel serves similar content. Corralling the occasional and dispersed content of the blog into a more concentrated form, the novel forces W. to evolve from a petulant buffoon into a monomaniacal tyrant. This evolution in turn forces Lars’ chronicling of W. to evolve from intermittent acts of reportage into a sustained act of fascinated supplication — and the utter inexplicability of that act is what makes Spurious so funny and so despairing at the same time.