Postmodern Poetry

May 14, 2012

As we gathered for the next session, I referred students to the board, where they saw a list of works from the postmodern period—post-World War II—that we had already read and discussed:

In reviewing the list, I suggested that we could begin thinking about postmodernism as a continuation of modernism, particularly the interrelated themes of remembering as a basis for moving on, for making decisions about how to use our time, themes addressed in all the works listed here and in many of the works we would take up in these last four weeks.  But the horror of World War II, especially its atomic ending, had such a traumatic effect on the entire culture, I said—as we saw in Faulkner’s question, “When will I be blown up”—that literary voices began to explore with new urgency the flux of our existence and its apparent absurdity.  “Some of these voices,” I continued, “sound post modern in their rejection of T.S. Eliot’s allusive, academic ‘high modernism,’ as we will hear today in ‘The Fish’; others, as we will see in Vonnegut, sound postmodern in their unflinching explorations of the violent absurdities of our culture.”

I also spoke of postmodern “chaos theory,” the idea that human beings can collaborate in creating order, however tentative, from the randomness of experience, as we saw in Lahiri’s “Sexy.”  “Miranda and Dev,” I reminded the students, “met by accident; then Miranda babysat for Rohin, an encounter she never planned; but she and Rohin collaborated in shaping a tentative order from the chaos the father’s adultery had caused, an order that disallows ‘loving strangers’ when such relationships root in deceit and crush the deceived.”  By the end of that story, I concluded, Miranda had learned to open her eyes, “and her new wakefulness gave her the courage to end the affair.”  This insistence on open eyes, I told the students, would inform every postmodern work we would read, and I challenged them to reflect on this idea of wakefulness as it might relate to Faulkner’s call for literature that gives us “hope,” that persuades us we can ‘endure and prevail.’

Bishop and Jarrell

Elizabeth Bishop (Source: Poetry Foundation)

Before we turned to Elizabeth Bishop’s 1946 poem “The Fish,” I asked the class to turn to her letter to her friend and fellow poet, Robert Lowell, whom she takes to task for writing poems about his recently divorced wife, poems that explore suffering but combine fiction and fact.  In doing so, she tells Lowell, he has violated a trust with his former wife and with his readers, who can’t know “what’s true, what isn’t” (2498).  “Postmodernists may consider “truth” a fluid, ever-changing phenomenon, but what does her remark to Lowell tell you about her sense of duty as a poet?” I asked.  Earning a “10” for the day, Besa said the she shares Martin Luther King’s commitment to seeing accurately and publishing what one sees.

I thanked Besa for providing us a perfect transition to “The Fish” and asked Arlind to read the poem aloud.  After Arlind’s reading, I re-read the first and last lines aloud: “I caught a tremendous fish….and I let the fish go.”  I then asked for a show of hands, fisher-hands.  Singling out Gezim among the fishermen and fisherwomen, I asked if he ever lets fish go.  “Only if it’s too small,” he answered.  “So why would she release a “tremendous” fish?  Does her description, her use of figurative language in between the first and last lines, help us to understand her bizarre decision?”  I asked.  With no quick response forthcoming, I asked the class to focus on the first two lines, on facts and details about the fish.  “What first strikes you as odd, given his size?”  I asked.  Ragip read line six: “He hadn’t fought at all.”  He then mentioned that the “homely” fish looks warn-out, “battered.”  “What about ‘venerable’?  What does this word suggest?”  Gezim offered that the fish must be venerated, respected, because he has fought many battles, “and his ‘skin hung in strips’” (ll. 8-10).  “Don’t we normally use words like ‘homely’ and ‘venerable’ and ‘grunting’ to describe people?  Why would Bishop want to personify the fish?” I prodded.  Edita suggested that the speaker begins to see more than a fish, something to eat; she sees a fellow being who has known struggle and deserves respect.

Commending the students’ close-reading interpretations, I asked what figures of speech Bishop uses in these lines to help us to see the fish more clearly.  After we noted the skin “like ancient wall-paper” decorated in “rose” patterns and barnacles, “rosettes of lime,” I asked what we begin to notice about this ‘homely’ fish?  Edita mentioned the “sea-lice” and “rags of green weed” hanging off its huge body, but she said that the simile and metaphor suggest beauty, not ugliness.  Praising her insight, I asked what other images and figures suggest beauty and further personify the fish.  We then quickly catalogued the details of Bishop’s portrait: the gills “fresh and crisp with blood,” the “white flesh/packed in like feathers,” the swim-bladder “like a big peony,” the eyes “larger than mine,” the “sullen face” from which “five old pieces of fish-line” hang down “like medals with their ribbons/frayed and wavering,/a five-haired beard of wisdom/trailing for his aching jaw” (ll.25, 27-28, 33-35, 45-63).  “So what does the speaker realize as she stares down at the exhausted but honorable old fighter that fills her boat with ‘victory,’ surrounded by a ‘rainbow’ of oily water and rust? (l. 65, 68-75)?  Why does she let her ‘victory’ go?”  I prodded further.  We then discussed the paradox that Bishop develops, the beautiful becoming one with the grotesque.  Such wakefulness, we agreed, allowed her—and her readers—to see the respectability, even honor of fellow non-human creatures, insights, I suggested, that Black Elk would have commended.

Randall Jarrell (Source: Poetry Foundation)

As we turned to Bishop’s contemporary, Randall Jarrell, I asked the students what this master teacher and military man insists that we see in “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” beyond the fact stated in the title. With no quick answer coming, I asked Bajram to read the five-line poem aloud:

 

 

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

When he finished, I asked for his response to the last line.  He said that the speaker uses the past tense, suggesting that he looks back on his own death from the perspective of eternity.  “And does he seem at all emotional about the removal of his remains from the plexiglass glass gunner’s station of the bomber?”  “No,” he responded, “he describes the removal of his guts as though he were describing the wiping of mud from a windshield.”  “Right,” I said, “so matter-of-fact, an everyday occurrence, yet such a shocking image of the consequences of aerial warfare.  What do we learn about this victim?  How old is he?” I asked.  We then wrestled with the equally horrible metaphor in the first line, which describes a baby falling from its “mother’s sleep,” from his mother’s womb, into the “belly,” the womb of the State, the bomber.  “How does the verb “fell” underscore the youth of the airman?”  I asked.  Fidan responded, stressing the almost instantaneous transformation of the infant into a soldier.  Complimenting him on his interpretation, I said we would see the same idea explored in Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, subtitled The Children’s Crusade, stressing that ‘children’ do most of the dying in wars.  “Babies of course come wet from the warm uterus.  What happens to the wet baby in the bomber?” I asked.  Several voices responded, citing the frozen “wet fur” on the flight jacket.  I then asked what they made of the fourth and fifth lines, the reference to getting loose from the “dream of life” and waking to the cacophonous “nightmare” of “black flak.”  Arlind suggested that peace must be a dream, an illusion, that reality must be the hell of war.  “Why doesn’t Jarrell end of the poem with such a statement,” I wondered.  “Who needs it?”  Arlind responded.  “Precisely,” I said.  If we have seen the image, we don’t need a tacked-on moral.  It’s all about seeing—and having the courage to keep your eyes open.”

I then invited readings from journals, those prose or poetic accounts of everyday objects or animals that ‘so much depends’ on seeing.  Remembering Merita’s reading from her journal the previous week, when she spoke of her frustrations with poetry, her skepticism that ‘so much depends’ on poetry, I feared that no one had responded with a poem.  To my delight, hands shot up across the room, and nearly everyone had a poem to share.  Many of these poems centered on their memories of their mothers.  Blerta, for example, read her poem about her mother’s “sun-beam” smiles; Xhemile described her mother’s “wrinkles” and her “vigorous eyes,” images of her “unconditional love” and her abiding guidance; then Merita brought the whole class to tears with “I See You Coming In,” her memory of her deceased mother:

I see you coming in, little by little, in small steps,
With an albatross round your neck,
I wonder will it ever go away.
You have the snow in your hair; I didn’t notice it’s already winter.
The wrinkles on you face tell that it was heavy all the way through.
I lift you in my arms as you are tall as an eleven-year-old girl,
Oh, no, the great soul of yours makes you big as a mountain.
I kiss your tired face, and then you cry.
Inside your eyes I see a mirror of me.
You kiss me back.  Don’t worry, I am fine, you say.
And I want to hold your hand until I count your ages spots
And start over, all over, again, so you don’t ever go for a second time.

As we all mopped our faces and prepared to leave, I thanked those who had read for demonstrating the power and accessibility of poetry.  I reminded them, too, that we would sample postmodern fiction next time, as represented by Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People.”  After they finished the story, I asked that they write an interpretive response in their journals to the end of the story, where we see another startling revelation, Joy-Hulga in the barn-loft, legless.

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King and Logos–Deductive and Inductive Reasoning: Part III

May 5, 2012

I began the next session by returning students’ papers on A Lesson before Dying, congratulating them on their solid work, and inviting them to meet me during office hours if they had questions about my comments and their grades.

Returning to our discussion of King’s letter, I said that effective logos, the substance of any argument, requires more than presenting evidence in support of a claim, that it requires leading the reader through the evidence toward a conclusion, using deductive and inductive methods of reasoning.  To begin demonstrating the inter-connectedness of the deductive and inductive processes, I referred them to three sentences on the board, quoted below, each extracted from King’s fifteenth paragraph, the one alluding to Martin Buber and Paul Tillich and their condemnation of segregation as sinful.  Together, the three sentences, I said, represent a syllogism, a three-part deductive statement:

Major Premise: All laws that degrade the human personality are unjust.

Minor Premise: Segregation laws degrade the human personality.

Conclusion: Segregation laws are unjust.

All syllogisms, I explained, begin with a major premise, a generalization about a class or genus—all laws—a premise that King rightly assumes his primary audience, the clergymen, will accept without challenge.  The minor premise, I continued, then makes a generalization about a member or species of that group, “segregation laws,” asserting that they “degrade the human personality”; therefore, the deductive logic runs, if the major premise is true, and if the minor premise is true, then it necessarily follows that all segregation laws are unjust.

The Logic of Deductive and Inductive Reasoning (Source: TOKnow-11)

“But where,” I continued, “has King provided his proof—beyond these allusions to Jewish and Christian theologians—that supports the minor premise, that segregation laws ‘degrade the personality’?”  Hearing no response, I referred the students to King’s fourteenth paragraph, where King presents abundant and passionate evidence that “segregation laws degrade the personality,” and he does so, I explained, by using inductive logic, which begins with an hypothesis, then moves through a series of experiments or examples to confirm or contradict the hypothesis.  I then referred the students to the inductive outline of King’s fourteenth paragraph, which answers the clergymen’s question about waiting for freedom and, in so doing, tests the hypothesis about the degrading effect of segregation:

Hypothesis: Segregation laws degrade the personality.

Results of Testing Hypothesis:

Experiment #1: “Vicious mobs” lynch your family members.

Experiment #2: “Hate-filled policemen…kick…brothers and sisters.”

Experiment #3: Twenty million African Americans live in an “airtight cage of poverty.”

Experiment #4: African American children are excluded from amusement parks, and fathers have no explanation.

Experiment #5: African American adults are barred from motels.

Experiment #6: African American women and men are never accorded respect, never called by their names; they suffer, therefore, a “degenerating sense of nobodiness.”

Conclusion: Segregation laws degrade the human personality.

After reviewing this inductive process, I asked the students to note that the inductive conclusion becomes the minor premise for King’s syllogism two paragraphs later.  This blending, I said, quoting from Questioning,

shows that our minds work inductively, helping us interpret to experience, and that our minds also work deductively, helping us to reason from our discovered premises to further conclusions.  Persuasive writing…makes transparent this blending of inductive and deductive thought.  To put it negatively, had Dr. King omitted paragraph 14, with all its examples—proofs—of the damaging effect of segregation laws, then his minor premise in paragraph 16, that segregation laws damage the personality, would be a logical fallacy.  That is, King would have been guilty of begging the question, the fallacy of assuming as proven the very idea that needs to be demonstrated.  (156-57)

This blending of induction and deduction, I continued, also further strengthens King’s ethos, as “he offers his readers cool logic and sound evidence to persuade them that they cannot ask his followers to ‘wait’ any longer for freedom” (157).

Finally, I asked the class to recall King’s deliberative purpose, to advise the clergymen and all Americans to guarantee the country’s ‘enduring and prevailing’ by rising to its high ideals of brotherhood.  Such a purpose, I said, moves him away from judicial discourse, away from accusing and defending, and toward meditational discourse, striving “to bridge the gap between ‘you,’ the clergymen who have criticized him and the racists who have jailed him, and ‘we,’ the victims of segregation”(157).

To support this claim, I asked the students to consider one more sentence on the board, a line rich with parallel rhythms and imbedded figurative language that, together, help us hear and see his vision of unity as he praises blacks and whites working together:

They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.

By juxtaposing these contrasting images, I said, King not only praises those who have carved the “tunnel of hope” but also invites his critics and those “white moderates” to join in the carving. We see this invitation again in his last sentence, where he urges all his readers to share his hope that “in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”  As noted in Questioning, “by saving this inspiring image for the end of his letter, the point where he hopes to have won supporters, not vanquished opponents, King has shown that arrangement works together with parallelism and metaphoric language to move his readers toward embracing a positive common destiny” (158).

Cover of Black Elk Speaks

Cover of Black Elk Speaks (Source: Wikipedia)

As we neared the end of the session, I reminded the class that our next meeting would focus on an excerpt from John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks, another passionate call for justice and ‘prevailing’ through unity.  Neihardt, I explained, was a white poet from Nebraska, but his book grew from extended interviews with Black Elk, a holy man of the Lakota tribe, whose vision of tribal and world unity died in 1890 at the Battle of Wounded Knee, where the US Calvary crushed rebellious Native American tribes.  From the point of view of the US government, I further explained, Wounded Knee affirmed the doctrine on “Manifest Destiny,” the idea that God ordained white people to move always westward, acquiring land by purchase or by force so that the nation could grow and prosper economically.

However, I continued, from the Native Americans’ point of view, the US government committed genocide at Wounded Knee, a crime made even worse by herding Indians onto reservations, essentially concentration camps, places where Indian culture died and survivors felt utterly broken in spirit, which explains the extremely high rates of unemployment, alcoholism, and suicide on reservations, then and now.

Cover of The Way to Rainy Mountain

Cover of The Way to Rainy Mountain (Soure: Wikipedia)

We would read another excerpt for the next meeting, I noted, this one from N. Scott Momaday’s book The Way to Rainy Mountain.  Another Native American with Kiowa and Cherokee blood, Momaday, I said, wrote his book in celebration of Kiowa culture, a culture also crushed when the US Army forced them onto the reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and deprived them of their Sun Dance, their religion.

Finally, as they read these works, I asked the students to keep Kings’ “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in mind and to reflect on what the three works have in common as protests of injustice and as pleas for unity.  “And think of historical patterns in these passionate writings, too,” I said, noting that Neihardt recorded Black Elk’s vision in 1932, when King was a small child, and that Momaday wrote about the fate of the Kiowas in 1969, one year after King was assassinated.  To help them find a personal focus for their reflections, I distributed the following journaling prompts, asking student to pick one and to fill up at least a page of their journals in response:

  1. Describe a holy man or woman from your culture that you have found inspiring.
  2. What feelings do you have as a Kosovaran as you read about a vision that strives to avoid genocide?
  3. Narrate a memory of a grandparent and an old custom.
  4. What do you think Dr. King would say in response to these readings?

Religion & Spirituality

February 5, 2012

Today I rediscovered the difference between religion and spirituality.  Overlaps abound, of course, both rooted in a longing for connection to something larger than self, to an energy that intersects our illusion of time but lives beyond time.  But if one may draw inferences from the pages of history books, religion has too often been about buildings, codes of conduct, sacred spots—and therefore about disputes, exclusions, and executions.  Spirituality, in contrast, has always been about visions of unity, with that “energy,” yes, but also with Others, with critters, and with the earth, the garden that sustains us and honors our work.

Fellowship of the Lord's People

Logo for Bashkësia e Popullit të Zotit (Fellowship of the Lord's People)

I experienced such spirituality this morning, when I attended a service at the Bashkësia e Popullit të Zotit (Fellowship of the Lord’s People)** in Pristina.  Centered on the Protestant Christian faith, the Fellowship offered plenty of religion in the best sense of the word, as reflected primarily in the sermon on Revelations 2 and the charge to show love for Jesus by doing his work.  But I found myself moved primarily by the spirituality in the room, a communal unity engendered by guitars, keyboards, and singing, by story-centered pleas—offered in Albanian and in English—to support on-going efforts to relieve poverty and suffering, and by the blend of humanity—Albanians, Germans, Canadians, Americans, women and men, kids and parents, babies and elders, black and white—eating bread together in peace.

Black Elk with wife and daughter, c. 1890-1910

Black Elk with wife and daughter, c. 1890-1910 (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

After the service, I found more such spirituality in John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks and in N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, works I will read with my Pristina students. Having interviewed Black Elk in 1930, Nebraska poet John Neihardt then wrote his book celebrating the vision of world unity this Lakota holy man experienced as a boy, a vision that empowered Black Elk to preserve his people from the relentless westward movement of the Wasishus on their “iron road” and on the mounts of the US Cavalry.  By securing his “nation’s circle,” Black Elk would also unite animals and people “like relatives”; he would then ensure that the “hoop” of his people blend with the hoops of all peoples, forming “one circle” around the “holy” tree of life.

Bringing his love and respect for his grandmother to her grave on Rainy Mountain, N. Scott Momaday offers an equally passionate vision of unity, focusing not on what might have been but on what was, the “courage and pride” of the Kiowa people, great “horsemen,” warriors, and artists who derived their power from the Tai-me, the sacred Sun Dance doll.  Kiowas expressed this spirituality not only in dance and in “reverence for the sun” but also in their love “for the eagle and the elk, the badger and the bear,’ for the “billowing clouds” whose shadows “move upon the grain like water,” for the Big Horn River, for the Devil’s Tower, where “in the birth of time the core of the earth had broken through.”  And they prayed.  Momaday recalls the last time he saw his grandmother: “She prayed standing beside her bed at night, naked to the waist….Her long black hair…lay upon her shoulders and across her breasts like a shawl.”

Devil's Tower, c. 1900, US Geological Survey, Photographer: N. Dalton

Devil's Tower, c. 1900, US Geological Survey, Photographer: N. Dalton (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

Of course, Black Elk’s vision of unity never came true, and the Kiowas one day “surrendered to soldiers at Fort Sill.” Deprived of their Sun Dance, many spent the rest of their days with “the affliction of defeat,” tormented by a far darker vision of “deicide,” their nation crushed by another with “Manifest Destiny,” religion at its worst.

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**Links related to the Fellowship of the Lord’s People: