Late-Week Poetry: Gary Snyder’s “Above Pate Valley”

It’s not the weekend, but it is the week’s end. We have some poetry for you!

I don’t know if American teenagers still read the Beats, but when I was a teenager in America, I loved them so much that for a high-school class I co-wrote/-assembled something called The Book of Jack (Kerouac) for English class. Sized for a giant’s coffee table, this cardboard-bound collage of pictures, quotations, inspired drawings, and scholarly citations now rests in my parents’ basement, probably where it belongs. In the late 1990s I was a Kerouac man and, to a lesser degree, an Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs man. I didn’t know that “the Beats” is a clunky historical term that many Beat writers disliked immediately, or that scholars have since partially dismantled it, and I would not have cared if I had known.

My literary spider sense tells me that most readers outgrow the Beats. That is, while they do not usually come to dislike that bundle of mid-century coastal bohemians, the Beats do start to feel immature, or at least limited, as one acquires more education and gets older. The same impulses and attitudes which made them radical in the 1950s also keep them right in the teen wheelhouse: emotion, iconoclasm, expressivity, the new, the raw, existential peaks and valleys, all those urges toward various modes of ecstatic alienation (1). In the long run their thematic and formal register also led me to Whitman, Blake, Rimbaud, and other poets Ginsberg and company admired.

For what it’s worth, the Beats grew out of the Beats, too. Kerouac became a pudgy conservative who hung out with William F. Buckley in the Sixties; the poet Gary Snyder spent most of the peak-Beat era in Japan; Ginsburg and Burroughs both lived well beyond their demographically median life expectancies and became comfortable old Literary Figures (2).

Much of their canonized work has not aged well, at least for me. Ginsberg’s best stuff (such as “A Supermarket in California,” his comically poignant vision of a Walt Whitman dumped in mid-century America) is very, very good, but it’s almost entirely from the 1950s and 1960s; and unfortunately this period constitutes only part of his hefty Collected Poems. Burroughs’s reptilian prose only sounds good when someone with a gravel-munching voice like William S. Burroughs reads it aloud. Junky and Naked Lunch haven’t kept their bloom: the former is impressive until you encounter something like De Quincey’s Confessions or David Lynch, while Lunch (which David Cronenberg turned into a film) is shocking for maybe 30 pages the first time you read it, after which it becomes a boring round of grotesqueries. I remember nothing Gregory Corso wrote. I do recall reading Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind on the bus while traveling to high-school soccer games.

The homie Kerouac wrote too much too fast, and a lot of his fiction belies a surly, misogynistic beef with the world. Try to read Big Sur or The Subterraneans without cringing, then perhaps sobbing—even in high school I realized that the bibulous self-pity of many of his male narrators was gross. Imagine Woody Allen as a Catholic drunk. I’ve never gotten through Dharma Bums even though I’m generally neurotic about finishing books I start.

I’ll ride for On the Road, though, even in adulthood. Despite its sentimental racism, juvenile grasp of women’s lives, and occasionally questionable ethics (it venerates Neal Cassady, or “Dean Moriarty” in the book, a boring, obsessive, half-literate speed freak who seems to not so much interact with women as inhale them), the novel stands up to re-reading. It isn’t merely a young person’s book, a white teenager’s book, or a classier version of Bukowski. It’s a narrative about America. Kerouac’s lyric intensity turns purple in places, but as a whole the novel is poetic in a way  few American books are: we’re talking the empyrean, we’re talking up there with Faulkner and parts of Their Eyes Were Watching God and James Baldwin. More importantly, because great prose does not excuse imaginative thinness, Sal Paradise’s wounded longing, his conviction that a more authentic American life exists somewhere, resonates with a deep tradition of New World dreaminess and a distinctly American pessimism, of the Death of a Salesman variety. In fact, it points back to European romanticism and, if you really want to stretch the point, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, Jane Eyre. It is Kerouac’s Illmatic.

But if On the Road is the Beat generation’s greatest single text, Gary Snyder has had the most consistent career. My favorite poems of his are mainly from the 1950s and 1960s, but he never fell off the way Ginsberg did, or tumbled into mopey narcissism like Kerouac. Although his experience is often the basis for what the speakers of his poems see, the texts are nonetheless more interested in the outside world, especially intersections between human life and the more-than-human environment. (Snyder’s 1992 volume No Nature: New and Selected Poems pointedly rejects the term “nature” as a European construct. DEBATABLE. Anyway.)

The poem we have here is “Above Pate Valley,” from Snyder’s debut Riprap (1957). As a young man he spent summers laying trails in the Sierras, and this labor (“riprap” is rubble used for paving and walls) figures in his writing. Note how the poem tinkers with syntax and elides certain expected words like the articles “the” or “an,” producing a notebook of observations with an almost physical sense of cognitive movement; note its ethic of paying attention to the world, to the world’s physicality as well as the human histories present in this material flux; note how the text flows from a believably human narrator but doesn’t privilege him, remaining humble before the world. Note all kinds of lyric greatness, y’all. Enjoy a marvel of American English.

We finished clearing the last
Section of trail by noon,
High on the ridge-side
Two thousand feet above the creek
Reached the pass, went on
Beyond the white pine groves,
Granite shoulders, to a small
Green meadow watered by the snow,
Edged with Aspen—sun
Straight high and blazing
But the air was cool.
Ate a cold fried trout in the
Trembling shadows. I spied
A glitter, and found a flake
Black volcanic glass—obsidian—
By a flower. Hands and knees
Pushing the Bear grass, thousands
Of arrowhead leavings over a
Hundred yards. Not one good
Head, just razor flakes
On a hill snowed all but summer,
A land of fat summer deer,
They came to camp. On their
Own trails. I followed my own
Trail here. Picked up the cold-drill,
Pick, singlejack, and sack
Of dynamite.
Ten thousand years.

1) When Howl was published in 1957 the Partisan Review retorted with a comically snobby, pissy, quite funny John Hollander review which is excerpted here.
2) And Burroughs was a heroin addict and chain smoker for decades. 

Required Reading: “The State of the American Dog”

Hi, I’m Ryan, and sometimes I wish the Internet were made of paper. I worry about our culture’s mind as we transition to a heavily visual, Cloud-hosted mode of living; I distrust the conceit that the humanities will survive and perhaps even prosper through digitization; and I dislike that popular Web writing is often bracketed by and/or sliced up with images that distract readers, myself included, who nonetheless feel anxious without images in view. As a discursive conservative, I think writing-intensive, preferably printed texts are better at conveying complex ideas and feeding thought.

But it would be stupid to claim that these texts are always superior to visually intensive media when it comes to serious inquiry. Done well, hybrid digital texts can rise to the level of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Tom Junod’s essay “The State of the American Dog,” published this week in Esquire (a magazine I’ve griped about before), is in that league. The article would be staggering on its own, but the gallery of pictures that accompanies it might cause things to get a little, uh, misty near your computer. Junod builds the text around his family’s experience owning pit bulls (Dexter and the late Carson), beautiful, emotionally intuitive animals whose lives provide the basis for an ethnography of America that doesn’t reflect well on us. Ever met a pit bull or a pit mix? If their owner isn’t a creep, then that dog is probably one of the best creatures you’ll ever encounter. Pitties are built like high-school wrestlers and bond quickly with people.

The problem is, pits are built like high-school wrestlers and bond quickly with people, which means that terrible humans can easily train them to fight other dogs and generally project menace. The fact that such reptiles are a small minority of owners does not matter much at this point, because for thirty years American popular media has slotted pit bulls into paranoid cultural fantasies about race (the canine lieutenant of black/brown gang-bangers FROM THE CITY), while at the same time the breed has fallen victim to the worst impulses of a frantically consumerist society. (When Junod describes watching a young professional casually dump her pet at a shelter before work because her new condo doesn’t allow dogs, you’ll want to scream for several reasons.) What this means is that today Petey from Our Gang would most likely die in a shelter or on the street.

The demographic shifts that are transforming America’s human population find a mirror in the demographic shifts that are transforming America’s canine one, with the same effect: More and more we become what we somehow can’t abide. We might accept pit bulls personally, but America still doesn’t accept them institutionally, where it counts; indeed, apartment complexes and insurance companies are arrayed in force against them. And so are we: For although we adopt them by the thousands, we abandon them by the millions. The ever-expanding population of dogs considered pit bulls feeds an ever-expanding population of dogs condemned as pit bulls, and we resolve this rising demographic pressure in the way to which we’ve become accustomed: in secret, and in staggering numbers. We have always counted on our dogs to tell us who we are. But what pit bulls tell us is that who we think we are is increasingly at odds with what we’ve turned out to be.

Gore Vidal liked to point out that Americans (“The United States of Amnesia”) don’t have much of a historical memory unless memory suits a present desire. It strikes me that this also enables us to feel less and less shame about how little our contemporary institutions and behaviors resemble the founding theory of America. As Junod has it:

America is two countries now—the country of its narrative and the country of its numbers, with the latter sitting in judgment of the former. In the stories we tell ourselves, we are nearly always too good: too soft on criminals, too easy on terrorists, too lenient with immigrants, too kind to animals. In the stories told by our numbers, we imprison, we drone, we deport, and we euthanize with an easy conscience and an avenging zeal.

But hey, they’re vicious kill-beasts, so they had it coming.

Topical Weekday Verse: Thom Gunn, “Nasturtium”

When he started publishing, Thom Gunn (1929-2004) was quickly grouped with other young British poets who were poised to follow W.H. Auden’s lead, rejecting what they saw as the gratuitous, reader-alienating Difficulty of modernists like Pound, T.S. Eliot, Stein, and Stevens. In other words, they disliked how hard it was to decipher, let alone enjoy, many canonical modernist poems—the Cantos, anyone? (Most of them also detested Dylan Thomas’s lush neo-romanticism.) Starting in the mid-1950s, journalists foisted the label “the Movement” onto Gunn, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, and others; then New Lines, an influential 1956 anthology that Conquest edited, presented them as cohesive, not just contemporaneous.

Like all narratives this one simplifies a lot, which is why most of the so-called Movement poets refused the term (1). Yet there are discernible patterns in the work of these individual writers, who sought a poetics that was aesthetically pleasurable (it rhymed and scanned in meters that English poets had been using for centuries) and less thematically opaque: none of The Waste Land‘s maddening footnotes. More accessible, more public, in other words. Larkin turned out to be Auden’s greatest heir, but Gunn has also staked a place in the anthologies. (Amis wrote fine poems, too, but he is known more as a brilliant comic novelist.) Larkin, whose letters sometimes have a nasty provincial streak disguised as half-ironic Tory wit, claimed to detest Gunn’s work—”What a genius that man has for making an ass of himself”—but then again he also preferred Sylvia Plath to Robert Lowell. Even geniuses have moments of shaky taste (2).

No doubt Gunn’s lifestyle, or stories about it, also bugged Larkin, who saw himself as a conservative. By the time he was being touted as a new voice in British poetry, Gunn had moved to San Francisco. He spent the rest of his life there. An openly (by the late 1970s) gay man who rode motorcycles, dropped lots of acid, hung out with lovers in leather, taught at Berkeley, and generally appeared just fine with hippies, queens, bikers, and other Bay Area species, you probably wouldn’t peg him as a Royal Army veteran educated at Cambridge.

His life in the Bay supplies a lot of his subject matter; as such he might seem fully Americanized. However, in terms of its formal structures, Gunn’s strongest poetry derives from an English lyric tradition which prizes conceptual lucidity, metrical cohesion, pleasing rhymes, and a frequently ironic (not to say cynical) view of human life. He may write about surfers and sometimes mess around with free verse and syllabics (like a damn Frenchman!) but ultimately he’s a traditionalist who leans toward patterned meters.

As far as Anglophone poetry goes, there are two main species in this metrical genus. Accentual-syllabic verse, where you look at the placement of stressed and unstressed syllables within lines that have the same total number of syllables, is the most common. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is probably the best-known example, but accentual-syllabic forms have been the foundation of English lyric since the 1500s, and you can draw a line from Marlowe to Ben Jonson to Marvell to Pope to the nineteenth-century British giants (e.g., Keats, Barrett Browning, Tennyson, Housman) to modern poets like Auden and Larkin. You could also throw in certain Americans, like Robert Frost, the Fugitives, and Yvor Winters, the aesthetic arch-conservative whom Gunn studied with at Stanford (3). Straight-up accentual verse, where you only count the number of accents (not the syllables), regardless of where they fall in a particular line, is also a Gunn mode. Gerard Manley Hopkins is the king of this one, which ultimately goes back to Old English texts like Beowulf, but Coleridge and Milton also experimented with it.

Now, like any skilled formalist poet, Gunn rarely sticks with a totally regularized beat. A lyric’s meter serves as a baseline, not a straitjacket, because the poem will get boring and shitty if it bounces along the same track the whole way. Even when working with, for example, rhyming couplets—the ultimate in neoclassical regularity, favored by eighteenth-century wig bros like Alexander Pope—Gunn will shift accent-placement and line-length, or occasionally swap in a slant rhyme where the pattern would seem to call for a full one. Indeed, you often get texts that seem to hover between accentual and accentual-syllabic verse; hey, most literary classifications are somewhat imprecise.

So what’s the poem for this edition of Topical Verse? It’s “Nasturtium,” from Gunn’s 1992 collection The Man With Night Sweats. More lit-crit talk below.

Born in a sour waste lot
You laboured up to light,
Bunching what strength you’d got
And running out of sight
Through a knot-hole at last,
To come forth into sun
As if without a past,
Done with it, re-begun.

Now street-side of the fence
You take a few green turns,
Nimble in nonchalance
Before your first flower burns.
From poverty and prison
And undernourishment
A prodigal has risen,
Self-spending, never spent.

Irregular yellow shell
And drooping spur behind . . .
Not rare but beautiful
—Street-handsome—as you wind
And leap, hold after hold,
A golden runaway
Still running, strewing gold
From side to side all day.

This is a love poem, devoted to the community where Gunn found a home and to the nasturtium itself, a common flower of resplendently strange appearance. (This is what a nasturtium looks like up close, and this is what they look like in tumbling, spilling floods of color.) The flower is a metaphor but it’s a flower too.

Nasturtiums, which have shallow roots and reproduce via seeds that look like tiny shriveled craniums, are rapacious spreaders and excellent climbers. Perfections up close, they are even better en masse; repetitive and profligate, they lend themselves to filigree, and illustrators, designers, and other artists have long prized them (3). Gunn uses a weedy, light meter—generally three accents distributed over a six-syllable line, though some lines can be read with four accents, all of it arranged into three stanzas of equal length—that mimics that plant’s organic form. Nasturtiums do well in poor soil, loving a “sour waste lot,” and will in fact produce fewer blooms if you water or fertilize them too much.

Iambic pentameter is the workhorse of English poetry because lines with ten-ish syllabus and five-ish beats are long enough to do complicated stuff with, in terms of sound and image, but not so long that they run out to the page’s edge, which would tax the reader. (Poems that care about musicality usually need the propulsion that comes from line breaks and new starts after that drop.) But even with relatively scrawny lines, Gunn does some cool stuff. For example, although the meter and the rhyme scheme used in the first two stanzas persist into the third, in that final unit the punctuation partially abandons the syntactical conventions of standard English. In its closing exuberance, the stanza’s punctuation serves mainly to organize sensuous impressions.

Read metaphorically, the nasturtium represents survivors, in particular the gay men who made it to the big free city (free compared to the places many came from, at least) and settled in neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and the Castro after “poverty and prison / And undernourishment.” Seen in terms of the “golden runaway,” Young-Man-Escaped narrative, the lyric is hopeful.

However, its surroundings are grim: The Man With Night Sweats is largely a meditation on the first terrible decade of AIDS, the plague years that tore through urban gay communities. Gunn lost a lot of friends. A few pages after “Nasturtium” the book’s last section begins, opening with the titular poem. The noun “prodigal” has a dark slant, and Gunn builds cold irony into the dream of nonchalance, pure subjective freedom, and endless “spending” (a verb poets have used for centuries as a half-comic euphemism for ejaculation). There is no “all day.” Life is always preparing forms of suffering.

At the end of Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World (2007), a man named Stefan Pashov, who drives machines in Antarctica, says something beautiful:

Suffering reproduces aggressively, as do viruses (bad) and nasturtiums (good). Poems are diffusive too, hauled out of the languages we’ve devised and passed from writer to reader. Texts are partially biological. You see this vividly when the same poem demonstrates both the human compulsion to make metaphors—plundering nature for tropes to help us describe our lives—and our urge (still flickering in 2014) to admit the otherness of living things.

1) In the second appendix of Kingsley Amis’s mammoth Selected Letters (seriously, it could stop a bullet) you’ll find some superb parodies of Movement poets that Amis mailed to Larkin (one of his best friends) in 1956. Titled “All Aboard the Gravy Train: Or, Movements Among the Younger Poets” and written by one “Ron Cain,” it pokes fun at the tics and tendencies of Gunn, Robert Conquest (another one of Amis’s bros), Larkin, D.J. Enright, Amis himself, and others frequently deemed Movement types.
2) Letter to Robert Conquest, 20 February 1962, reprinted in Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985, ed. Anthony Thwaite (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), 341.
3) Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell are also handy with traditional forms, though both were perfectly comfortable writing lots of free verse.
4) Plus the blooms are edible. Very tasty in fact, a spry pepper. Makes you look cool if you put them in the salad you bring to a picnic.

Memorial Prose: The Gettysburg Address

It took Abraham Lincoln a couple of minutes to read the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. Because it was a blustery day, most of the assembled couldn’t hear much of what he said, and anyway they had just suffered a two-hour speech by another dignitary. Some newspapers mocked Lincoln the next day, others praised the speech, but mostly the public reaction came to a “Meh.” One wonders what Twitter would have done with it. Probably best not to know.

Of course, since then the Address has been canonized. There are few examples of more perfect political rhetoric, and I mean those last two words in the classical Greek sense: language that seeks to help us live together in reasonable peace and empathy, because the polis pretty much is civilization. Every American should have a copy tacked up in their home or folded in a wallet, tucked inside a boot, taped to the front of a dictionary, saved on the iPhone or laptop. You’re an incomplete citizen if you are not familiar with it.

The text is beautifully written—a three-paragraph prose poem—but more striking is its moral, political, and rhetorical complexity. It is not a speech that should lead Americans to take unadulterated pride in themselves.

Lincoln emphasizes that the United States was founded on “the proposition that all men are created equal” (my italics). Given that he was leading a war against traitor-states who claimed the right to murder and enslave, a right they had long enjoyed (just like most of the men Lincoln calls “our fathers” did), the President was aware that the American project was not founded upon actual democratic liberty or equality. A nation might be “so conceived and dedicated,” but conception and dedication are not the same as historical accomplishment. Lincoln knew that. So did black Americans and American women. 

The enormous melancholy of the Address obviously derives in part from the fact of mass death: of so many dead young men. No Memorial Day is “Happy”; pride and gratitude summoned in the memory of loss, yes and rightly so, but not happiness. However, these deaths and Lincoln’s responsive sadness were part of the larger existential horror the republic was undergoing, and from which it has never recovered, as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s masterful essay “The Case for Reparations” underscores. The Civil War foregrounded the American state’s many un-American habits, policies, and laws. 

Lincoln’s deprecation of his own writing, an unusual rhetorical gesture in a presidential address, seems genuine. And it’s fitting that he does this. The dead men, the wounded and lost men too, and their broken families, and above all “the great task remaining,” were more important than “what we say here.” Nonetheless, we’re fortunate that the world did “note” and “remember” Lincoln’s text, because something like our poet-president’s honesty is badly needed in the present USA.  

Children and young adults are murdered at school, and their families wail, yet our national elite do nothing to reduce the grisly saturation of our society with guns, while many citizens fall back upon the fatuous logic that because knives and cars can also be killing tools, we shouldn’t carefully regulate firearms, which are designed only as killing tools. Our schools remain disturbingly segregated by race, while our neighborhoods are sorted by income (and thus often by race). Our federal government treats veterans like embarrassing waste products. A majority of citizens appears content to let our grandchildren deal with the coming terrors of climate change. Too often we (that means TGR too) react defensively or incredulously or despairingly to these facts, withdrawing into easy pleasures like touchscreens, cynicism, championship sports, shopping, narcotics, protective irony. Many people don’t react at all. The Civil War ended less than two years after Lincoln gave the Address, but many other kinds of his “unfinished work” remain, waiting for us to address them.

The ideal way to read the Gettysburg Address is at the Lincoln Memorial, the greatest building in America, alongside other adults trying not to cry, or just crying. Reading alone, of course, is nearly as fine. Lincoln kept it short to emphasize its weight.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Isla Vista

I’m sure both Ryan and I will have more to say about the act of cowardly terrorism committed in Isla Vista last night. UCSB is where both of us got our PhDs, learned how to teach, got to work with many wonderful students, and established our (nascent) professional careers after finishing our dissertations. It’s also where I met many inspiring mentors and colleagues, Ryan foremost among them. And it’s why I’m engaged to a woman from a little town in the south of England. UCSB was my twenties. So instead of just spewing all the anger and sadness I have right now, I’ll sit on it for a little while, at least until I have something (if anything) more rational to say. Instead, I’d like to offer up a poem that’s been on my mind all day. Charles Bukowski’s “Oh Yes” is the last footnote in my dissertation about American bachelors, and it’s one all young people need to read, but probably don’t have the experience to understand. And I guess that’s the point, but damn…

“Oh Yes”

there are worse things than
being alone
but it often takes decades
to realize this
and most often
when you do
it’s too late
and there’s nothing worse
too late.

-Charles Bukowski

Lazy Sunday Beats and Links

Oh, hey. General Reader here. These are some texts we liked reading that you would probably also like to read. There are things to listen to as well. Enjoy them on this lovely Mother’s Day.

  • For many pundits, Barack Obama’s refusal to ignore the electorate and get the USA involved in reputation-killing trillion-dollar military disasters is a sign of weakness. As John Cassidy observes at the New Yorker, this line of criticism ignores the arrogance and waste of the Bush regime: Obama is only a foreign-policy bungler if you think that the Iraq War went well and that things will work out in Afghanistan somehow. Otherwise the President is a realist who operates according to historical precedent and geopolitical fact, not foolish proclamations about shocking and awing our way around the world. Obama has, remarks Cassidy, remembered his Machiavelli—it is strength, not weakness, to avoid fights that can, at best, end in Pyrrhic victories (and at worst, end in Iraq).
  • We all need Shakespeare. I know that he often suffers the Gatsby fate: assigned so much in English courses that people end up thinking he’s perfunctory and boring, “classic” mainly through cultural inertia or pedagogical convention. “Yeah, yeah, Hamlet is great, got it”—most educated individuals acknowledge that he’s Very Important and thus, ironically, end up not reading him beyond school. Which is a shame, because as with The Great Gatsby, most of Shakespeare’s work (not Coriolanus, oh god not Coriolanus) is shockingly beautiful and repays multiple readings. Go ahead. Open up Hamlet or Macbeth or the Sonnets or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, flip to a random page, and experience one of those “Holy shit, how did a human being think to say it that way?” moments Shakespeare provokes. You’ll never get to the end of his wonders. With that in mind, here is one of my favorite sonnets, #29:

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

  • Hey, parents and students, here is the narrative that will bond you with contingent faculty in the fight to save higher education: The adjunct system exploits teachers and wastes your money, because your tuition dollars end up going mostly to redundant deans and resplendent landscaping, not undergraduate education. Susan McNamara, a professor in Boston, has written a bang-up explanation of this for the Globe. (Plus the professor in the article image is wearing jeans and a navy blazer, which I can totally get behind.) Read it now.
  • Some tenured and tenure-track professors have long been part of the effort to improve the working conditions of adjuncts (and thus the learning conditions of students), and many more have recently climbed aboard. Some of the staunchest labor allies I’ve met are tenured full professors in the University of California. But in the UK and the US, too many TT faculty have been complicit in the forty-year ascension of a managerial class that now controls most colleges and universities despite having little experience or interest in education. Some faculty saw a way to profit, in terms of money and/or prestige, from neoliberal “reforms” that weakened the professoriate as a whole; too many others stood idle while this happened. Like I said, if they haven’t already, most TT profs are coming around to a more enlightened, pro-labor view of things, but Tarak Barkawi (himself a tenured scholar) implores us to remember our institutional past in order to salvage the future. Power has many ways to recruit relatively powerless enablers. Barkawi’s editorial focuses on the UK, but its lesson is transatlantic.
  • My friend Jarret, who has introduced me to probably 60-65% of the music I love, played Arthur Russell for me about ten years ago while we were chillin’ in a post-college basement, and I’ve been a fan since. Russell was a classically trained cellist, and during his largely unremunerative career as a musician and producer in New York, he worked with Philip Glass, Allen Ginsberg, and David Byrne, among others. An enormous influence on fellow artists, he died broke, of AIDS, in 1992, leaving behind a lot of fragmentary or uncollected work. One of my favorite pieces, “A Little Lost,” is a spacey, droned-out, heartbreaking composition where Russell’s voice and lyrics blend with the shuffling strings, forming a sonic component of the track as much as a rhetorical accompaniment. It’s about love. Also death, I think. Songs usually are. Enjoy.
  • When you stare into the douche abyss, the abyss stares back. When it comes to cultural matters this pressing, yes, I will link to Buzzfeed. Just don’t look directly into Billy Ray Cyrus.
  • Allen Iverson was so cool. If I had a time machine, I’d zip back to 2001, kidnap dude, bring him back to 2014, and turn him loose on the NBA. Reminding us that sports are not just about the games, Jay Caspian Kang examines the continuing role of AI’s famous arm sleeve in his overall cultural cachet.

Fragments of Pascal’s Fragments: On the “Pensées”

In one of his letters, Wallace Stevens claims, “I have never studied systematic philosophy and should be bored to death at the mere thought of doing so” (1).  He admits dipping into a “little philosophy” sometimes—no “serious contact . . . because I have not the memory”—”in the spirit” of a friend who had renounced studied, interpretive reading in favor of “read[ing] it as a substitute for fiction,” as though Locke and Nietzsche were vagrant storytellers (2).

That is probably a useful way for poets to approach any discourse that systematizes, abstracts, or otherwise tries to theorize the mess of lived experience into some conceptual framework. Poets are into a different kind of human record-keeping. Whatever philosophizing they do is only one part of a congeries of effects: sound, syntax, image, rhythm, form, metaphor, allusion, association, narrative, intuition, characterization. Philosophy is salt in the soup, too much and it tastes wretched. “I am sorry that a poem . . . has to contain any ideas at all,” Stevens apologized elsewhere, “because its sole purpose is to fill the mind with the images & sounds it contains. A mind that examines such a poem for its prose contents gets absolutely nothing from it” (3).

Most philosophy bores the shit out of me. Or rather, while the practice of philosophy is great, I dislike most of the texts I encountered in classrooms. This is shameful and lazy, I know. I tried my best in college, taking seminars on Eighteenth-Century Empiricism, and again during graduate school, where I pretended to care about the philosophers and theorists I was then reading. I still enjoy Plato (from what I recall) on matters of the soul; Nietzsche can be funny, and J.S. Mill is tidy; cribbing from George Scialabba’s essays is a pleasure; and I can definitely get behind indeterminate weirdos like Gaston Bachelard. Oh, and Blaise Pascal. Love Pascal.

The Pensées were not published during Pascal’s life (1623-1662). He didn’t even leave a title, because there was no book yet, only a mass of lapidary fragments, some comprising a few paragraphs, many just a sentence or two. Some are probably close to the form they would have been published in. Many are rougher. But Pascal was a fine prose stylist and a mensch, so they’re all engaging. After his death, friends and family assembled the material into what is essentially the text we have today. I use the Oxford paperback translation, the introduction to which will tell you more than I can (4).

I like fragmentary texts (5). The preference probably has something to do with my disorganized poet brain (6). More importantly though, such works seem true to what life is actually like. This resonance becomes even stronger when a text is literally unfinished, fragmentary because of some event in the writer’s life (usually his death). Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, meant to be a unified theory of modern life but scuttled when the Nazis drove him to suicide, is an example. You could throw in some classical Greek or Roman poets if you want to talk lost texts.

Texts can also be fragmented—or at least rhetorically, aesthetically, and philosophically jumbled—by design or genre convention. Think of shaggy dogs like Tristram Shandy, Gothic encyclopedias in the vein of Moby-Dick, total jumbos like Bleak House, a book about paper and bureaucracy. Writers’ journals are great, too: Pepys, Kafka, Woolf, Boswell (an Enlightenment satyr with radar for strong drink), Cheever, Plath (more stuff about cookbooks and good housekeeping than you’d imagine). Jules Renard: man, that guy is awesome. Many letter collections rock, particularly the letters of poets—get Lord Byron’s when you can. Then there is table talk and other types of recorded conversation, such as Faulkner in the University. Plus epigrams like Martial’s.

Samuel Coleridge wins the fragment gold medal. Not only did he leave behind unfinished poems, unfinished lectures, unfinished letters, an unfinished critical behemoth (the Biographia Literaria), and sterling table talk (“Examine nature accurately, but write from recollection; and trust more to your imagination than to your memory” [7]), he also kept a notebook of midnight hashings: “What a swarm of thoughts and feelings, endlessly minute fragments, and, as it were, representations of all preceding and embryos of all future thought, lie compact in any one moment! . . . and yet the whole a means to nothing—ends everywhere, and yet an end nowhere” (8).

Anyway, where was I. The Pensées. It is/they are fantastic. You can wander for hours in this thing. You might set it aside for months, only to open it at random when the urge strikes, and it probably will. Reading a bit of Pascal leads to more Pascal. He intended this material to be a religious treatise, but its humanism is of such breadth and warmth that you can set the Christian apparatus aside, or at least make it share space with other approaches (9).

Hans Holbein, woodcut from the "Dance of Death" series (1549)

Hans Holbein, woodcut from the “Dance of Death” series (1549)

Within it all, one question: How do we spend our time before we don’t have any more time? That’s Death above, jumping out on a medieval bro.

In Pascal’s writing this often leads to the problem of boredom. We get bored easily. This anxiety bubbles inside his ruminations on classical authors, political power, Scripture, paganism, wine drinking (the gist: moderation), aesthetics, labor, sports, Montaigne, social ritual, spiritual hierarchies, and other human pastimes. Why would any of us be bored? For him, only the contemplation of God’s love would scratch the itch; for many of you general readers, I suspect, such faith is no longer something to grasp, even though we’ve still got all the itching—in forms like boredom—to which Christianity is one response.

Here are some choice bits arranged at random, in the spirit of the Pensées. Like a true #failedintellectual, I’ve cited them by page and fragment number in the Oxford English translation; slashes indicate paragraph-ish breaks within the fragments. You’ll find it all downright modern. Pascal would have understood iPhones and Twitter.

Man’s condition: Inconstancy, boredom, anxiety (10, his italics).

I have often said that man’s unhappiness springs from one thing alone, his incapacity to stay quietly in one room. [. . .] That is why we like noise and activity so much. That is why imprisonment is such a horrific punishment. That is why the pleasure of being alone is incomprehensible. That is, in fact, the main joy of the condition of kingship, because people are constantly trying to amuse kings and provide them with all sorts of distraction.—The king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to entertain him and prevent him from thinking about himself. King though he may be, he is unhappy if he thinks about it (11).

The feeling of the inauthenticity of present pleasures and our ignorance of the emptiness of absent pleasures causes inconstancy (12).

The whole of life goes on like this. We seek repose by battling against difficulties, and once they are overcome, repose becomes unbearable because of the boredom it engenders. We have to get away from it, and beg for commotion. We think about either our present afflictions or our future ones. Even when we think we are protected on every side, boredom with its own authority does not shrink from appearing from the heart’s depths, where it has its roots, to poison the mind (13).

It is not good to be too free. / It is not good to have everything necessary (14).

We are so unhappy that we can only take pleasure in something on condition that we should be allowed to become angry if it goes wrong (15).

It is unfair that anyone should be devoted to me, although it can happen with pleasure, and freely. I should mislead those in whom I quickened this feeling, because I am no one’s ultimate end, and cannot satisfy them. Am I not near death? So the object of their attachment will die (16).

When we read too quickly or too slowly we understand nothing (17).

Descartes useless and uncertain (18).

Anybody who does not see the vanity of the world is very vain himself. / And so who does not see it, apart from the young who are preoccupied with bustle, distractions, and plans for the future? / But take away their distractions and you will see them wither from boredom. / Then they feel their hollowness without understanding it, because it is indeed depressing to be in a state of unbearable sadness as soon as you are reduced to contemplating yourself, and without distraction from doing so (19).

Man’s greatness lies in his capacity to recognize his wretchedness. A tree does not recognize its own wretchedness. So it is wretched to know one is wretched, but there is greatness in the knowledge of one’s wretchedness (20).

The parrot’s beak, which it wipes even though it is clean (21).

Paul Valéry thought that most texts are never finished, only abandoned. Since you can extend this to the unwritten work of most lives, I’m with Pascal: “I blame equally those who decide to praise man, those who blame him, and those who want to be diverted. I can only approve those who search in anguish” (22). This life thing does bewilder you sometimes, provoking all sorts of bootless cries. “Who put me here? On whose orders and on whose decision have this place and this time been allotted to me?” (23).

1. Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. Holly Stevens (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), p. 636.
2. For what it’s worth, your critic considers much of Stevens’s corpus a lyric parody of philosophical discourse, one meant to tantalize readers of a certain bent with the notion that a poem contains a quantum of Meaning that can be deracinated and subjected to interpretation.
3. Letters of Wallace Stevens, 251.
4. Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, ed. Anthony Levi, trans. Honor Levi (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1995, 2008).
5. That is, if it’s good fragmentary stuff. Not something like Rev. Casaubon’s “Key to All Mythologies” project in Middlemarch. Everyone hated Casaubon.
6. As Robert Frost claims in “The Figure a Poem Makes,” scholars and poets both “work from knowledge,” but whereas “scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic,” poets “stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.” Excellent point. See “The Figure a Poem Makes” (1939), in Selected Prose of Robert Frost, eds. Hyde Cox and Edward Connery Lathem (New York: Collier, 1968), 20.
7. Coleridge: Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Elisabeth Schneider (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1951), 464. It’s true, my home library’s Coleridge is a paperback from 1951. What? You gotta economize.
8. Ibid., 476-477.
9. One can do the same with George Herbert’s poetry and Graham Greene’s novels.
10. Pensées, pp. 36-37, fragment 146. Pascal’s italics.
11. pp. 44-45, frag. 168.
12. p. 107, frag. 107.
13. p. 46, frag. 168.
14. p. 22, frag. 90.
15. p. 22, frag. 89.
16.  p. 7, frag. 15.
17. p. 16, frag. 75.
18. p. 105, frag. 445.
19. p. 16, frag. 70.
20. pp. 36-37, frag. 146.
21. p. 35, frag. 139.
22. p. 8, frag. 24.
23. p. 26, frag. 102.

What You Write When You Teach Writing

Within my institution’s* hierarchy, I’m a Lecturer, which means that I’m a full-time faculty member who just teaches. (Teaches writing, in my case.) This is expressed in my material surroundings (e.g., I always share an office with at least one another PhD), just as it is existentially codified within most academic disciplines, including English, which I used to call home and now avoid for reasons I’d be happy to tell anyone about over a drink or five. That is, if you manage to get onto the tenure track, your teaching performance has little to no bearing on whether or not you advance from Assistant Professor to tenured Associate Professor, or from Associate to the magic Full, or earn raises after that. In fact, “too much” focus on undergraduates will often hurt one’s tenure case. And if you’re trying to get into the TT hunger games in the first place, it is a disadvantage to have spent most of your professional time on instruction as an adjunct, teaching fellow, Visiting Assistant Professor, one-year appointment (that’s me), instructor, or whatever name your employer bestows upon various types of contingent brain labor, because that means you had less time to spend doing Very Important Scholarship. Search committees frown quietly upon PhDs who aren’t “focused on” or “serious about” their research profiles.

As a rhetorical motif, “publish or perish” is beyond stale (and nobody reads most scholarship anyway), but it remains the law of the Titanic’s deck.

In the years before the post-employment economy I might have hung around to make Professor, but now I go by “Dr. Boyd” when I’m on campus hangin’ with the kids, since I would rather students not call me “Professor,” because their tuition isn’t being spent on many professors, just stadiums and bougainvillea. Besides, schools aren’t paying the actual tenure-stream profs much either. And the situation is much worse for adjuncts who must jerry-build a financial existence out of abusive part-time contracts. At least my job includes health insurance.

There are three problems with that “just teaches” paradigm. First, it is not a good idea to implicitly or explicitly wedge “just” in front of anything about teaching. A sizable portion of humanity’s next half-century is sitting in a classroom somewhere right now. Second, the professional life of every lecturer I know includes heavy labor outside of the classroom. We’re all writers—some scholarly, others nonacademic, others doing a mix. Third, teaching is intellectually and emotionally exhausting work, especially if you teach classes that involve lots of writing, and especially if, like many contingent faculty, you teach introductory/freshman/first-year/lower-division/[pick your adjective] Writing. No “just” about that noise.

If you are a competent teacher in my field, you make students write a great deal in class and out. You force them to plan their work, produce rough drafts, explore multi-tiered revision strategies, then submit the polished versions of their work. Repeat as necessary.

This means that an instructor produces a Pleistocene flood of words, too. There is no other way to form productive, sustained connections with students. Conferences and office-hours chats are helpful, but writing instruction ultimately consists of multiple exchanges of written text.

Exhausting work for anyone who tries it, but particularly enervating for writers. I am not kidding when I estimate that 75-90% of my potential daily writing energy goes into work for my classes, most but hardly all of it spent in providing detailed feedback on my students’ writing. At the university where I work, lecturers teach eight courses—most of them fully enrolled at 25 students or very close to that—over the school year, which is divided into three ten-week terms. (Every lecturer gets two terms that each comprise 3 classes, or about 65-75 students total, and another “light” term that usually works out to 45-50 young scholars.) If you take on summer courses, which most of the lecturers I know do, because the Department of Education wants loan payments every month, you work with 25-50 more students during even slimmer academic time frames.

Think about the slog of reading this entails. Writers are heavy readers: without a routine intake of colorful language, of other writers’s work, one’s skills decline. Your ear gets out of practice.

Teaching entails a laborious form of reading. You are working with apprentices, many of them bright and eager. But they tend to do what apprentices do: Mess up while they’re developing. A teacher encounters much prose that is peppered with, and sometimes wholly devoted to, muddy phrasing, clichés, solecisms, unexamined opinions, and harried appeals to such repositories of knowledge as and Wikipedia, even when the writer is ultimately working towards something smart and engaging. This doesn’t mean that students are dumb, it means they are apprentices. That’s how education works. With her limited time, a comp teacher does what she can to introduce them to complex, effective rhetorical practices and revision habits.

And when you’ve hauled your parched, scratched brain through twenty or thirty or sixty papers by writers who are mostly in their late teens or early twenties, then composed thoughtful responses (because that is your job), you aren’t much in the mood to read Roberto Bolaño or Harper’s. Ironically, the skills that make an effective writing teacher are depleted by teaching writing effectively.

This is one reason that schools need to commit to smaller classes and humane courseloads for faculty. Burnout happens too quickly otherwise. This in turn degrades the quality of instruction that undergraduates receive, no matter how dedicated an individual teacher is. Would you rather have your root canal done by a dentist who has worked on four patients already that day, or a dozen?

I do not mean to suggest that faculty from other disciplines don’t work as hard as writing teachers. Check out this depressing time-use study from Boise State if you want to see how much labor the academic life entails. Further, this is part of a bigger trend in the United States: American workers are expending more energy for less money in order to help their employers become more profitable, because, hey, the free market figures things out. I just happen to know my field and its demands best. Academics or not, most of us owe our souls to the company store, as the man says.

So I’ve got this list here. I’ve tried to catalog every type of teaching-oriented writing I could think of. The list does not include “service” work (the quasi-administrative duties of faculty) or anything having to do with a teacher’s writing life outside of class.

  • Paper feedback. The big gorilla. For example, part of my current courseload includes two sections of introductory writing, or a total of 48 students. Rather than marking heavily on a text itself, I prefer to respond to student work with typed end comments in the form of a brief letter. On a five-page assignment in an intro class, I typically write 250-300 words of feedback. So, thinking conservatively, that’s 250 words x 48 papers, or 12,000 words. In the ten-week structure of the course, I do this three or four times. That’s at least 36,000 words for part of my job. In an upper-division seminar (I also have one of those every term), my end-comments consist on average of 400-600 words on at least two major assignments, sometimes three. Oh, and all of this had better be grammatical, readable prose.
  • Every message written to keep the class as a whole updated about whatever.
  • Every e-mail written in response to various queries from individual students. Profs, you know how abundant those are, especially when an assignment is coming due. Content aside, these e-mail responses serve as models of professional, clear prose.
  • Like all of the lecturers in my program, I draft my own curricular materials: all the syllabi, assignment prompts (which can run multiple pages for complicated assignments), peer-review worksheets, reading-question guides, rubrics, and a plethora of other documents on everything from comma splices to strategies for writing a conclusion. One typically revises these materials every time one teaches; sometimes you end up completely overhauling them, because that’s part of one’s professional growth. You learn from what worked, or didn’t work, in previous iterations of a course.
  • All messages and posts to the course website. All descriptions and copyright information for visual materials posted to the site (e.g., a YouTube interview with an author or a series of photos from a magazine).
  • Recommendation letters. So many! Especially in the spring, when everybody is scrambling for jobs, internships, grad-school apps, and what not. It takes hours to draft a helpful recommendation letter.
  • Run into any plagiarism? Get ready to spend hours documenting and writing up the case before you pass it on to the relevant authorities.
  • Various e-mails to associated instructors and staff, such as the wonderful librarians who introduce my students to the library’s research tools and archives.
  • Any bibliographic information for the photocopies assembled into a course reader. (I don’t use textbooks.) The Table of Contents for each reader.
  • Students will often ask for advice about things like personal statements for scholarship applications. I try to help if the student has been a committed member of whatever class they took with me. So I write some more comments.
  • Compiling and maintaining Excel spreadsheets for grades. These often include notes-to-self about particular assignment grades.
  • Request forms (often surprisingly detailed) for computer-lab space, library orientations, guest speakers, reader printings from the copy shop, book orders if you do those. For upper-div seminars, I might include some books along with the reader.
  • Notes on assigned readings. You have to read or re-read whatever you make the students dig through.
  • Class plans. I write mine by hand on a legal pad.
  • Texts, e-mails, and Tweets to other teachers, complaining about work. Blog posts about work.

Hey, writing teachers. Hey, you chalkboard vets. What did I miss? Let me know and I will add it to the catalog of toil.

*Note: At the time I wrote this, I was working at the University of California, Santa Barbara.