Saturday, December 29, 2012

Ted Schaefer, Poet and Colleague, R.I.P.

It's been a couple of weeks since I heard the sad news that my former colleague, the poet Ted Schaefer,  had left us.  He was a good and generous teacher, and he always indulged me when I'd drop by his office unannounced and hang out, leaning in his doorway and asking him about his time in the army, his work as a former cartoonist, and, of course, about poetry.  I learned a lot from him, including a thing or two about patience.

He wrote two books—After Drought and The Summer People—and published poems everywhere from the the old Saturday Review to the Village Voice.  But the poem that came to mind when I heard of his passing was a little one I'd run across in a 1974 issue of Intro back when I was a grad student and worked in Chicago's great, much missed Aspidistra Bookshop.  It was a journal associated with the AWP and published by Anchor Books, and it took me a while to get my hands on another copy: 

Ed's Cafe: He's Dead


The coffee
Perks in the urns.
The forktips sing away.
A dawn hits
Ed's widow.
I hear 
The breadman, and


"I want a red casket.
With blue flowers,"
I hear the woman say.
"I want to be buried
On a real bright
Shiny day..."

I'm sure Ted will be remembered with affection and gratitude by many, including his former students—among whom, in a way informal but real, I number.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Plonsker Prize: $10,000, Your Book Published, and Two Months to Write at Lake Forest College

In A Room of One's Own Virginia Woolf famously said that a writer who hoped to succeed needed £500 a year and private room in which to write.  A Room of One's Own came out in 1929, when £500 would get you $807.  If the most easily Google-able online inflation calculator is any guide, that $807 translates into just over $10,000 in today's currency—a handy sum for any aspiring writer, to be sure, and a sum that just happens to equal the prize money given out by Lake Forest College in our annual Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer's Residency Prize.  In a turn Woolf would surely appreciate, the prize also comes with a room of one's own in which to write—several of them, in fact, in the form of a suite at the Glen Rowan House, where the winning poet is bound to run into some interesting people visiting the college (here's the actual suite). 

The prize is open to writers under 40 who have yet to publish a first book (chapbooks and other small publications don't disqualify an applicant).  The residency includes meals and comes with no teaching or other duties—it's just time to write.  The prize alternates between poets and fiction writers—and the winner will read as part of the Lake Forest Literary Festival.

The residency takes place during the spring semester.  Applications for the 2014 residency begin on January first of 2013.  There is no fee to apply.

The judging panel consists of myself, Davis Schneiderman, and Joshua Corey, along with a guest judge.  Guidelines and a link to an online submission form are available here.  If you and your work fit the criteria outlined on the site, I do hope you'll apply.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What I Read While They Were Writing

Lake Forest College, where I’ve been teaching for something like sixteen years, minus sabbaticals and a visiting year in Sweden, prides itself on its warm and fuzzy, get to know you by the name, scale model of an ordinary university, liberal arts college intimacy.  Generally, I think this is a great thing.  I used to get a bit miffed about the fact that professors proctor their own exams, though: shouldn’t we be out pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge in our research,” I’d  grumble to myself, “rather than looking at the parts in fifteen students’ hair as they hunch over their blue exam books, scribbling furiously?”  But that was all before my daughter was born.  Now that I have a small kid around (delight though she is), I find the three hours of silence less of a bore and more of a respite.  It’s a great chance to haul a pile of books, journals, and electronic reading gizmos into a room and browse around aimlessly, like I used to do for an hour or two every morning.

I’ve had two exams to proctor this semester.  Here are the highlights from six hours of desultory reading.  Some are things I agree with, some are things I just found striking or provocative or admired as feats of style.  For whatever reason, they’re the passages I felt drawn to enough to copy them out in my Moleskine while my students sweated out their answers about Virginia Woolf or Thomas DeQuincey.
One of the things I’ve been focused on is the state of American higher education, particularly the advent of what I’ve called the ‘post-welfare-state university’ and its protocols of privatization, which have extracted greater profit from research under the trust of universities, greater labor from the teaching force, and a greater pound of flesh from students, especially in the form of student debt.
     —Jeffrey J. Williams, “Long Island Intellectual”
If one had no acquaintance with other poetry than Mr. Ashbery’s, one would believe there were nothing more to the art than a vague, somewhat precious and connoisseurish liking for words and the puzzle interest of working them into difficult patterns.
     —from James Dickey’s 1957 review of Some Trees
On parent knees, a naked new-born child,
Weeping thou sat'st, while all around thee smil'd:
So live, that sinking to thy life's last sleep,
Calm thou may'st smile, while all around thee weep.
     —Sir William Jones, “Epigram”
The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness one is… a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces.
     —from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks
The story of St. Wystan is recorded in a Little Guide to Shropshire, under the entry of Wistanow, the place in the county where he was martyred.  The author of the Little Guide was Wystan Auden’s uncle, the Rev. J.E. Auden, and Wystan carefully preserved his own copy of it.  He was very possessive about his first name; he said he would be “furious” if he ever met another Wystan.
     —from Humphrey Carpenter’s W.H. Auden: A Biography
Not only does democracy make each man forget his ancestors, it hides his descendants from him, and divides him from his contemporaries; it continually turns him back into himself, and threatens, at last, to enclose him entirely in the solitude of his own heart.
     —from Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Few crimes are more harshly forbidden in the Old Testament than sacrifice to the god Moloch (for which see Leviticus 18.21, 20.1-5). The sacrifice referred to was of living children consumed in the fires of offering to Moloch. Ever since then, worship of Moloch has been the sign of a deeply degraded culture. Ancient Romans justified the destruction of Carthage by noting that children were sacrificed to Moloch there….The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily…
     —Gary Wills, “Our Moloch”

Saturday, December 15, 2012

James Bond is no longer a Greek God, he’s Jesus: Notes on Skyfall

The first thing to notice about James Bond is that he’s a god.  I’m not talking about the James Bond of Ian Fleming’s novels, and I’m not talking about the James Bond of the most recent film, Skyfall—a film that makes the most significant departure from the cinematic tradition of James Bond in the history of the franchise.  I’m talking about the James Bond most of us know: the Bond we watched in the movie theaters, on video tape, on DVD, on late night television and in any of a thousand forms of streaming video, from Dr. No in 1962 to Quantum of Solace in 2008.  This is a Bond who doesn’t stumble around like a mere mortal, growing from inadequacy to adequacy, learning new things both true and false, fumbling to make a path for himself in the world, to find a place where he fits, to build something like a family or a life’s work that can itself start to grow and falter.  In fact, a good part of this Bond’s appeal is that he doesn’t have to do any of that messy stuff. 

We can get a good sense of the Bond of cinematic tradition if we think of him as less like the protagonist of a novel, and more like a figure out of mythology.  In its classic manifestations, the novel offers us protagonists who grow and change.  Sometimes they change externally, seeking and finding a place for themselves in the world, Horatio Alger style (all of those orphans traipsing around the nineteenth century novel are placeless people seeking some kind of belonging).  Often, especially in the bildungsroman, we get to watch the characters’ ethical growth: Huck Finn has his great “All right then, I’ll go to hell” moment, rejecting the ideology of shore-based society for a dream of friendship conceived on his river journeys with Jim; Jane Eyre learns to balance her fiery, passionate desires with her self-possession.  Sometimes we get to watch the slow, faltering development of some skill or social ability, as we do when we see James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus slowly learn the art of language (from his lisping childhood to his pretentious display of literary theory) and the way to relate to women (from a full-on case of pathological virgin/whore dichotomy to a somewhat less virulent case of the same, perhaps in remission).  In any case, the real action of a great many novels is to be found in watching the protagonist learn, grow, and change.  All of this is in contradistinction to the way certain characters—the gods—tend to operate in mythology.  If the classic protagonist of a novel is a creature of becoming, the gods in mythology are creatures of pure being.  That is, they are what they are, and will be for eternity.  Ares doesn’t grow and learn and change, nor does he seek his true home, nor does Dionysus, nor does Athena : they embody certain traits: indeed, they represent those traits, and it wouldn’t make sense for them to lose or modify their warlikeness, their indulgentness, or their rationality.  How could we speak of a Dionysian experience if Dionysus went to A.A. and learned the twelve steps of self-reinvention?  This seems to be true of mythology across cultures: Loki never changes in the tales Norse mythology; nor does Tiki in the Polynesian mythological cycles.

Like the gods of mythology, the classic film Bond never has to grow or learn or seek out a place.  When we see him engaged in training exercises during the opening sequences of several of the films, he’s never really in the process of acquiring new skills: he’s merely performing feats of the sort we already know he can perform: there are no surprises—instead, there’s an affirmation of the traits we already attribute to Bond: awesomeness in physical combat; cleverness in improvisation; coolheaded aloofness; and a propensity to collect the women who fall, swooningly, into his arms.  It’s great.  And we’d feel betrayed if he actually had to pick up new ideas and master new things: the whole point of him, like the whole point of, say, Zeus, is that he’s already the perfect master of what he does and who he is.  We’d also feel very strange if he was in any significant way haunted by a past he needs to overcome, unable to allow himself the pleasures of Pussy Galore because of some hang-ups about Honey Rider.  The film Bond does not carry any real wounds from one film to another, physical or psychological.  With only very minor exceptions, he’s an episodic figure, the film Bond, not a cumulative one: more at home in a cycle of mythological tales than in the cohesive, ends-oriented narrative of a novel.

It is significant, I think, that the James Bond familiar to readers of Ian Fleming’s novels is much more like a classic novelistic hero than is the mythological Bond of the films.  Judith Roof, the sharpest writer on Bond to have trod this earth, puts it succinctly.  In the novels, she says, “Ian Fleming’s Bond character does evolve; he reacts, learns, carries with him the lessons of his own traumatic history.  The Dr. No Bond remembers painfully Diamonds Are Forever’s Tiffany Case.  Bond’s body and mind become increasingly scarred…. The literary character James Bond, however, is not coterminous with the cultural Bond figure…” In contrast, we have the cinematic Bond, whom Roof describes as “a creature of almost pathological consistency.”  Unlike in the novels, the Bond of film “appears as if it [Roof uses “it” rather than “he,” to emphasize the semiotic nature of the Bond figure] always knew everything — as if it was spawned with skills intact and little memory of past tortures which have no cumulative effect on him.”  Spawned with skills intact and little memory—one could say this of Aphrodite as easily as of the cinematic Bond.

But we can’t really make this kind of statement about the Bond of Skyfall, the film that marks the fiftieth anniversary of Bond as a cinematic phenomenon.  As Bond himself puts it early in the movie, the character is all about resurrection. 

Skyfall’s beginning sequence already gives us something different from the typical Bond opening.  Where we’re used to seeing a kind of set-piece or overture in which Bond’s immutable awesomeness is, once again, made plain, this time we see Bond falter and, more significantly, die.  His fellow agent (we later learn she’s Moneypenny) is ordered to shoot at Bond’s opponent even as he wrestles with Bond on top of a moving train.  She hesitates, saying she has no good shot, but on orders from M, who feels there is too much at stake to risk not shooting, she fires, hitting Bond and knocking him off the train.  He falls a great distance into a river, is washed down a waterfall, and disappears.  He fails for to reappear, and back in England, he is assumed dead, his obituary written, his flat and belongings sold off.  When we see him again, we’re not told how he survived—and this is significant, because in some sense he did not survive, he was resurrected.

Much in the film makes Bond out to be human and frail, in ways alien to the Bond of cinematic tradition.  We see Bond accumulate new scars that do not heal; we see him fail his tests in marksmanship, physical fitness, and psychological readiness for duty; we hear of the early death of his parents, and of unspecified, unresolved psychological wounds stemming from that loss.  We often see him from behind as he stands in a posture much like that of Caspar David Freidrich’s Wanderer Among the Clouds: a figure part defiance, part inwardness, and part vulnerability, not the clear-eyed, swaggering man Sean Connery played.

It’s not only a humanized Bond we see in Skyfall: it’s quite explicitly a Christ figure.  Not only does he die and rise: one of the main themes of Skyfall is Bond’s ability to love and forgive those who have sinned against him.  There’s a foil to Bond in Skyfall, a villain named Silva.  Silva, like Bond, was sacrificed by M in the name of a greater goal for the agency, and he lives to wreak vengeance on her.  His elaborate scheme involves making M feel afraid, and repeatedly urging her to “think on her sins,” including, of course, the sin of sacrificing him.  Silva refers to M as “mother,” and there’s a parent-hate here a little like that of Milton’s Satan, and a lot like that of Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein.  But the main thing is his refusal to forgive the woman he clearly loved as a mother.  Bond has a similar relationship to M: deep affection, even love, and anger at having been betrayed and sacrificed for a mission.  But unlike Silva, Bond forgives those who have sinned against him, and is ready to sacrifice himself again to save them.  When M finally does die, the Christ parallels are underlined by the posture in which Bond holds her: it is a reversed Pietà, with Bond in the Mary position and M in the position of the agony-wracked, dead Christ.  He embodies pity and love and compassion for someone who, in her human frailty and uncertainty, ordered violence against him.

The name of the film refers to the Bond family estate, the scene of the trauma to which he returns (it was where Bond’s parents were murdered).  But it’s also a symbolic name, since the Bond that we see in Skyfall is a Bond taken from the realm of the gods and brought down into the human world, with human frailties.  He is now, for the first time in the history of Bond film, not a god per se but a god made flesh, and vulnerable, and capable of loving and forgiving those who caused him pain.  No longer a Greek God, and certainly not a bearded father-God from the old testament tradition, this Bond is a Christ.  And he may just resurrect the franchise.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Us vs. Them: Poetry and the Limits of Binary Thinking

Experimental vs. formalist; formalist vs. free verse; post-avant vs. quietude; lyric vs. language-based — you know the old binaries that people drag around when they write and talk about poetry.  They're like the weather as described by Mark Twain: everybody talks about them, but nobody does anything about them.  Until now! The good people at Boston Review (Timothy Donnelly, B.K. Fischer, and David Johnson) have put together a great forum on binary thinking in contemporary poetics, now available online.

Back in May, Boston Review ran a Marjorie Perloff essay called "Poetry on the Brink," which sparked some lively and contentious conversation.  Since much of the conversation involved the question of just how useful (or harmful) our old critical binaries were, the editors asked a group of poets and critics to write short essays addressing the question "what is the most significant, troubling, relevant, recalcitrant, misunderstood, or egregious set of opposing terms in discussions about poetics today, and, by extension, what are the limits of binary thinking about poetry?"

Responses came in various forms.

Maureen McLane and Ange Mlinko replied with poems, Mlinko's consisting of a series of rhyming couplets, beginning with: "
M.P. is right: much free verse exists to give a pass/to naïfs who only learned of poems from a glass..."

Annie Finch waved the proud banner of poetic meter.

Stephen Burt struck the note of the expert overwhelmed by the plenitude of poetry and poetry-talk (which you may remember from an earlier essay of his).  This time he tells us "So many binaries circulate in and around contemporary poems that I find myself running out of Ibuprofen as I pursue the most useful."

DeSales Harrison comes out swinging, saying that Perloff's essay is at times mired in "self-regarding sludge" (I would advise Harrison to shy away from Orono, Buffalo, Louisville, and other stomping grounds of the Perloff enthusiasts for a while).  

Matthew Zapruder and Lytton Smith stand up for music, with Zapruder defending song lyrics as poetry and Smith taking issue with the visual/auditory divide.

Sandra Lim reminds us of Matvei Yankelevich's contribution to this discussion.

Katie Degentesh wins the Wicked Wit award for the line "If it’s not a legitimate poem, your body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

Dan Beachy-Quick seeks a middle ground between lyricism and the dissolved self; while Noah Eli Gordon notes the conundrum of the poet-professor, drawn to both indeterminacy and clarities more readily adaptable to a pedagogical context.  Dorothea Lasky works with a similar division, claiming that "a young poet today, finding his or her own way, must decide to be either a mystic or a scientist."

Samuel Amadon notes that labels tend to be imposed on poets from without, saying "American poetry is littered with schools and movements that no one claims to be a member of."

Cathy Park Hong accuses Perloff of being "disingenuous" in her treatment of poets of color (look out!).

Anthony Madrid, who has a strong claim as the possessor of Best Head of Hair in American Poetry (men's division) decries the insistence that irony and feeling must be at odds with one another.

Rebecca Wolff notes that her journal, Fence, has been interested in the binary question for years.

Evie Shockley dislikes the very idea of binaries, while some guy named Archambeau doesn't want to go without them even though he advises treating them with suspicion and getting promiscuous with the things.

Marjorie Perloff writes a reply in which she addresses various contributions, and manages an answer to DeSales Harrison that deftly sidesteps the issue of sludge.