Congratulations to Jordan Windholz, one of my former students, for his recent nomination as a finalist in the Omnidawn poetry contest. I had the chance to work with Jordan in a lot of different ways during his tenure at the college, and I’m so glad to see his success. You can see Jordan’s poem “ruminant” at the Omnidawn blog. Jordan’s poetry is scattered all over the web, and I’m looking forward to a book someday.
Ok, a morbid start. Still, I thought I’d recall my post from a few days ago when I speculated on the idea that books become art objects as their cultural life decays. Of course, I forgot that the romantics had already covered the ground where death begets beauty—which is not to say it’s false ground or can’t be re-covered in a new key. I was reminded of the romantics by Eric Wilson’s current essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “In Praise of Melancholy.”
One would think that Keats’s life would have fostered bitterness in him, but he remained generous in the face of his difficulties. He didn’t flee to the usual 19th-century escapes: Christianity or opium, drink or dreaming. Though he unsurprisingly underwent pangs of serious melancholia (who wouldn’t, faced with his disasters?), he nonetheless never fell into self-pity or self-indulgent sorrow. In fact, he consistently transformed his gloom, grown primarily from his experiences with death, into a vital source of beauty. Things are gorgeous, he often claimed, because they die. The porcelain rose is not as pretty as the one that decays. Melancholia over time’s passing is the proper stance for beholding beauty.
I thought I might blog more extensively on Wilson’s essay, but it ended up being less interesting than I had hoped. I’m wondering why, for an English prof, he seems so given to the vague and gauzy generalization over the vivid detail or anecdote. Still, credit for reminding me of those romantics. And my title of course is from the ubiquitous Wallace Stevens and what may be the most singularly beautiful poem in the American idiom, “Sunday Morning.”
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths—
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness—
She makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to bring sweet-smelling pears
And plums in ponderous piles. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.
Anyway, I launched into this not to talk about morbidity or about Stanley Fish but to return just briefly to my fascination with books as objet d’art. (I confess I’m not even entirely sure what this means in the Wittgensteinian sense that meaning is in the use. When do you use it? surely somehow differently than “art object” or people wouldn’t say it in French. Or maybe they’re just being pretentious.)
Courtesy of Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading, I again found some absolutely fabulous images of books as works of art at Signonsandiego. The artist, Aaron T. Stephan, has a new show at Quint Gallery entitled “Building Houses/Hiding Under Rocks.” As the website puts it, “he’s converted some 20,000 discarded books into … an artist’s Lincoln Logs.”.
One of my favorites:
Stephan’s website has more of this great stuff. I especially like the wrench made from pages of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement.
Courtesy of Scott McLemee’s column at Inside Higher Ed about the best academic blogs on the web, I came across Rachel Leow’s site Idlethink, though I think she also calls it A Historian’s craft . Rachel regularly posts her photos of books in a running series she calls BookPorn. These are found objects, I guess—I’m no art historian. A beauty she’s discovered in the everyday display of books rather than in the self-conscious manipulations of the book’s physicality. Still, they fall in with my general mulling over what strikes me as a relatively new interest in the book as plastic art.
One of my favorites from Rachel’s collection:
My good friend Julia Kasdorf has a book entitled , The Body and the Book reflecting on women’s roles as embodied readers and writers, among other kinds of embodiment. Rachel’s pieces and some of the others I’ve pointed to over the past couple of weeks make me think we need a book entitled “The Body of the Book.”
Not that I will write it. I can barely make my way around an essay.
(Sidenote: Rachel also had some helpful hints for blog protocols in using her work. So thanks, Rachel. As I say, I can barely make my way around an essay. So far, blogging is pretty much glorified typewriting with nifty pictures as a bonus in case people get bored. Or in case I do.)
Still, I think there is something very poignant about Rachel’s photos. Seeing these photos makes the heart ache. Or at least a booklovers heart ache. Ok, so I’m weird; they make my heart ache. And I think it is somehow tied to the fact that Rachel’s work and other work like it call attention to the materiality, and thus the fragility, of books.
For us, books have been ideologically tied to permanence. Like the old woman in Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” who can’t stand the flowing by of time, for us books have bespoken our longings for and reaching after an unchanging permanence. Turning books themselves in to art suggest that books, too—and the texts and human knowledge they contain???—are more akin to the beauty sown by death, strewn leaves “of sure oblivion.” All the more so because digital culture is proud of its ephemeral impermanence. Flowing as a position of no position.
There’s a tricky dynamic in Stevens’s world of beauty. It’s not that ephemera is beautiful in and of itself. Indeed, change and movement are only beautiful in the hoped for permanence they suggest and make impossible. Beauty is the shape of our desire, aroused only in the awareness of its fragility and passing.
Perhaps this is why the sight of old books—or any books, rightly rendered–makes me ache. They are the sign of all things.
Ok. Again. Not. However, I remain fascinated by the rhetorical irresponsibility that blogging makes possible.
In keeping with the literary politics of the season, the New York Times reports this morning that there’s a new book out with women writers reflecting on Hillary Clinton. The title, Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary Clinton, recalls Wallace Stevens “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Bird.” The choice apparently reflects the content of the book since Stevens’s poem is all about how perspective makes and in some sense is the object of our reflection.
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
Ok, I hope you have a better time making sense of this than I do with my students. After saying “This poem is about perspective” conversation mostly comes to an end and we twiddle our thumbs for fifty minutes. Nevertheless, the blackbird, and apparently Hillary, are nothing apart from how we construct them in our imaginations.
Kakutani isn’t terribly impressed, but I have to say that I find Kakutani too often follows the unacknowledged dictum of many contemporary book and movie reviewers: Slander everything unless you find it absolutely impossible not to. Finding fault too often substitutes for seriousness.
The following is from the introduction by Susan Morrison:
“On a shelf in my kitchen is a campaign button that I picked up during the 1992 presidential race. Over a photo of Hillary (bangs and headband phase—which was basically my look then, too) are the words ‘Elect Hillary’s Husband.’ Back then, the slogan produced a kind of giddy frisson: not only was the candidate just like someone I could have gone to college with—a baby boomer—but his wife was, too. And she had a job! I had only known first ladies as creaky battleaxes who sat under hairdryers and wore brooches. The thrill associated with that button feels far away now, and it’s hard to know exactly why. There’s no doubt that the rinky-dink scandals of the Clinton administration and the dismal parade of special prosecutors took the gleam off the fresh start that the Clintons brought with them to Washington. But that doesn’t quite explain how now, fifteen years later, there is not more simple exuberance at the idea that we may be about to elect our first woman president.
“No other politician inspires such a wide range of passionate responses, and this is particularly true among women. As I talked with women about their reactions to Hillary, some themes came up again and again. Many women were divided within themselves as to how they feel about her, and I noticed a familiar circle of guilt: these women believe they should support Hillary as a matter of solidarity. But, because they expect her to be different from (that is, better than) the average male politician, she invariably disappoints them; then they feel guilty about their ambivalence. Some feel competitive with her. Having wearily resigned themselves to the idea that ‘having it all’ is too much to hope for, they view Hillary as a rebuke: how did she manage to pull it off—or, at least, to appear to pull it off? Other women say they want to like her but are disturbed by the anti-feminist message inherent in the idea of the first woman president getting to the White House on her husband’s coattails. Then there are women, like the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who are queasy over the way Clinton’s popularity spiked only after she was perceived as a victim. When it became clear that Hillary was going to stand by her man after the Lewinsky fracas, Wasserstein wrote a disheartened Op-ed piece in the New York Times. ‘The name Hillary Rodham Clinton no longer stands for self-determination, but for the loyal, betrayed wife,’ she wrote. ‘Pity and admiration have become synonymous.’
Side note: Morrison’s text is one of many that echo Stevens’s poem. Gates’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel. A quick Google search shows 44,600 references to the phrase “Thirteen Ways of Looking.” There are, I guess 17 extra ways of looking at the prismatic Hillary Clinton. I find Wallace Stevens resilient popularity and influence on our culture a bit boggling. Maybe it’s because most of us are leading the dull lives of insurance salesman and long to release our inner poets.
Thus the popularity of blogging? Anyone can be a poet now. Everyone is.
So much for craft.
Let it be said now. Barack Obama channels Walt Whitman.
Nevertheless, something there is in a political woman that doesn’t like poetry in a man. MSNBC reports today that Hillary has chosen to attack Obama by mocking his eloquence. She’s been stumping in New Hampshire, saying “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.” One of many jabs that Hillary uses to demonstrate her superior manliness to Obama and his fluff, the quote comes originally from Mario Cuomo. Another Clinton favorite: “I’m a doer, not a talker.”
May be. Though it does seem to me that Hillary is a little tone deaf on this one. She is, after all, campaigning and not governing, as if she has forgotten that she has to campaign after all. I’m also not so sure it’s a wonderful move to deride the citizenry for having false hopes. (Who does she have writing this stuff?) All of this is of a piece of Hillary’s general effort to demonstrate that she has the cojones to be president. And that her own cojones…among other things…are a lot bigger than Edwards or Obama.
Indeed, I was fascinated with the way last night’s debate among the Democrats degenerated toward a variety of male stereotypes—as if we can’t get past the masculine image even at this moment when the stereotypical image of masculine leadership seems to be less stable than ever.
In one corner, we had Edwards the pugilist, who seems bound and determined to be fighting everyone and everything. “You can’t nice these people.” Another jab at Obama’s apparently suspect masculinity. I wished someone would give Edwards some valium, or else a good book to read. In another corner we had Richardson the affable elder statesman (who, in my estimation, pushed himself a notch closer to the vice presidency). Clinton played the hardnosed greybeard realist with her nose to the grindstone. She’s apparently been working non-stop for 35 years. Does it occur to her that when she says this most Americans say “Why don’t you take a vacation. I would. In fact, I’ll be glad to give you one.”
Which left Obama to be….What?….again, something that seemed new, that didn’t seem to quite fit in.
Still, I’m getting far afield from my original purpose. I’m intrigued by the role that literary metaphors are playing in the political campaign so far, and especially in Hillary’s latest attacks. The Huffington Post had a much quoted blog a few weeks ago to the effect that Obama was poetry and Clinton was prose. Hillary’s attack picks up on this dichotomy and falls into typical masculine stereotypes that men who like poetry are just a little too effeminate for comfort, at least for political comfort. Hillary’s attacks called to my mind Maureen Dowd’s skewering in the New York Times of John Kerry in two different op-ed pieces because he not only read but also wrote poetry. Didn’t this signify somehow, Dowd seemed to imply, that Kerry was too unreliable, too unserious, or at least not serious in the right ways, to play with the big boys. See June 8 2003 and March 7, 2004 in the New York Times.
Picking up on my post from yesterday, I’m intrigued with how the candidates use literature as a means of communicating something about themselves, and whether what they reveal about their literary tastes and interests says anything about them. I went on the respective candidates’ Facebook pages to see just what it said about their literary interests.
About Hillary I discovered….zilch, zero, nada. Indeed, Hillary’s Facebook page offers absolutely nothing about her personal interests at all. As if in playing out the traditional masculine split between public and private, she has to absolutely deny that she has any personal interests whatsoever. Or maybe it is just that her personal interests only extend to becoming president of the United States.
Of all the candidates, Obama’s is the most extensive, the most diverse, and the most dominated by literary texts. He names Moby Dick, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, The Tragedies of Shakespeare, Taylor Branch’s biography of Martin Luther King Jr. Parting the Waters, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Self-Reliance by Emerson, The Bible, Lincoln’s Collected Writings.
My God, the guy actually reads. I mean, I have no doubt that these pages are massaged and picked over by staff for the kinds of messages that might be sent. (More on Mitt Romney’s choice of Huckleberry Finn—an apparently quick correction from an earlier choice of a novel by L. Ron Hubbard that earned guffaws from the blogosphere last year– and Mike Huckabee’s choice of The Holy Bible in another day or two). But Obama has to have actually read this stuff, and he has to actually read books for his own interest. Having read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson not only helps him with the literary crowd—he doesn’t really need the help, they’ll mostly vote for him anyway—it also helps him with moderate and educated evangelicals who found Robinson’s novel immensely complex and moving, testimony yet again that the connections between literature and religion are hardly dead. They’re just quiet.
By comparison, I guess I was disappointed at the fact that Hillary didn’t list anything at all. I dug around for awhile—unscientific word searches on Google—and finally found a reference at the NEA where Hillary suggests her favorite book as a child was “Goodnight Moon.” A lovely choice. I read it ad nauseum to my kids, but am now far enough removed from the cuteness that I get warm fuzzies at the sound of the title.
Has she read anything since? She did not list a favorite adult book on the NEA. I also just found a blog on the same topic at Huffington Post that says Hillary chooses Little Women and The Poisonwood Bible. However, I can’t find anything else readily available that confirms these choices. Still, I think they are worthy choices if true. John Lundberg finds them too predictable. I’m not sure that I agree but they do suggest a certain prepackaged quality of control and safeness to me. The bitter attack on fundamentalism in the Poisonwood Bible won’t win her fans with the hardest core of fundamentalists, but, again, they wouldn’t vote for her anyway.
I admit to disappointment in having to dig so hard to find out anything about Hillary’s literary tastes. Whereas Obama strikes me as a person to have in your book group. What a great conversation that would be after eight years of a president who can’t be bothered by literature. Too much nose to the grindstone for the imagination to have much play for Hillary. Somehow it says something to me that Obama is presenting himself as a literary man while I have to dig and dig to figure out if Hillary reads anything other than the bible she apparently carries with her everywhere—and which still does nothing for her with the biblically literate electorate.
Still, I’m wondering if Hillary’s graybeard, workaholic, no-time-for novels, approach to this political campaign will really win out in the end. America famously honors novels more in the breach than in reality. Real men—and Hillary in some ways has to prove that she’s man enough for the job—have no time for literary folderol. Obama’s depth and complexity run the risk of seeming, well, wimpy, something both Clinton and Edwards have keyed in on.
I’ll take a risk here and say that Obama can get away with it because he’s …black. Odd leap, I realize, but bear with me. In white America’s racial codes, black men are portrayed as hypermasculinized, all body and no mind. There’s a lot of scholarly material out there on the historical fears that white Americans have of black American masculinity (I’ve drawn on some of this and use it in my book on masculinity and religion in the Harlem renaissance—freely admitting that “book” is a hopeful word for the 400+ pages that now sit in my computer, just starting as we are to sniff around for a publisher). Obama’s literariness and his lyrical eloquence serve to humanize him for a white audience that, while improving, is not so very far removed from the appeals of Willie Horton ads. Henry Louis Gates, after all, has pointed out that historically blacks used literacy—the ability to read and write literature—to demonstrate their full humanity to white audiences. I don’t think it’s a great leap to say that Obama’s literary card softens residual white fears of a black male planet.
Obama’s poetry, his admirably diverse literary interests, serve the purposes of showing him once again as a uniter, someone who brings all things together. He brings black and white together. He brings Herman Melville and Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison and Shakespeare together. He brings male and female together. He brings his hard political and his soft literary sides together.
Obama’s literariness strikes me as genuine and authentic—though I realize that in this day and age even authenticity is pre-packaged. His literariness quite clearly matches and even enhances his political imaginary. Obama’s literary “softness,” deadly to men like John Kerry and John Edwards–and perhaps deadly, too, for political women like Hillary Clinton–plays to the idea that he can be all things.
He is large. He contains multitudes.
He too sings America.
Side note: I’ve added Liz Laribee’s blog, peaceamillion, to my blogroll. Liz is one of the funniest, and best, young writers that I know. Of course, I don’t know that many young writers. Sorry, Liz. The truth will out. No seriously. Everyone should go delight in Lizworld.