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.

Ethos, Logos, and Pathos in King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: Part II

April 28, 2012

Dr. King in the Jefferson Co., AL Courthouse jail, Oct. 1967. During an earlier arrest, he wrote his famous letter from here. (Source:

Pleased by the students’ catching on so quickly to the power of rhetorical schemes and tropes, I asked them to turn next to the handout including Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” To contextualize this famous essay, I contrasted King’s situation with Faulkner’s, the latter speaking from the “pinnacle” of high literary achievement, the former, 13 years after Faulkner’s speech, sitting in Birmingham’s jail for having led a protest march against segregation laws and practices.  Pointing to additional rhetorical terminology on the board, I said that Faulkner’s situation, as we had seen, called for ceremonial discourse; in contrast, King’s situation called for “judicial discourse,” the kind of rhetoric that accuses the unjust and defends the just.  But King also had to blend “deliberative discourse” with his judicial discourse, I argued, for he sought to dissuade Americans from tolerating racial discrimination and to advise Americans to live up to the high ideals of the country’s founding, especially the belief that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”   In other words, I explained, though King wrote nonfiction, he had the same goal that Faulkner urged novelists and poets to set, to ‘uplift the heart’ of a nation, to inspire his fellow citizens to endure and to prevail over the brutalities sanctioned by a racist culture.

Elements of Persuasion: Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle (Source:

To achieve these dual aims of discourse, the judicial and the deliberative, King knew, I continued, that he would have to blend carefully the elements of persuasion.  Clearly, his letter could begin with exposition.  He would have to explain to his eight fellow clergymen, who condemned him in the local newspaper for his “unwise” and “untimely” demonstrations, why he had to leave Atlanta for Birmingham.  Then reading from the handout from Questioning, I said that his exposition would also explain “why he had to break the law, why he could wait no longer for freedom.  But he knew that mere exposition would not be enough; he would need to persuade the clergymen, his immediate audience, and the American people, his extended audience, that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ that the ‘stinging darts’ of segregation have made it impossible to wait any longer for freedom” (136).

Then I read one more excerpt from Questioning that provided a preface to our analysis:

To achieve his persuasive goal, he would have to provide plenty of logos, plenty of facts about his nonviolent movement, plenty of examples of lunch counters closed to black men and amusement parks closed to black children, plenty of cases of lynchings and drowning, plenty of testimony from prominent theologians who define segregation as “sin.”  He would also have to temper his outrage over such cruelties with cool reason, stressing the illogic of writing laws that apply to some but not to all.  Such logos, he knew, would build his ethos, his credibility, showing his skeptical audience that he knows the facts of injustice (informed), that he cares about his people’s long sufferings (generous), that he has told the truth about the brutal police.  As a preacher, he knew, too, that he could further build his ethos with pathos, the appeal created by emotionally charged words and vivid imagery imbedded in rhythmic sentences, calling us all, black and white, to rise from “the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” (137)

With King’s rhetorical purpose before us, I asked the students to look at King’s introduction, the first four paragraphs, to determine how he attempts to build his ethos in the presence of an immediate audience, the clergymen, who consider his persona to be entirely negative—an outsider, a trouble-maker, an instigator of “unwise” and “untimely” civic disturbances.  “How does King show his generosity toward these men who have publicly condemned him?” I prompted.  “Does he offer counter accusations?”  Arben responded, saying that King responds to their polite hostility be crediting them with being “men of genuine good will” who therefore deserve to be answered in “patient and reasonable terms.”

Thanking Arben, I reminded the class that a positive ethos must seem informed and honest as well as generously disposed toward the audience.  “How does King send these messages in paragraph two through four?” I inquired.  Several students answered at once, mentioning King’s credentials as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and his “organizational ties” to his Birmingham affiliates, who “invited” King to come, an invitation that never would have been sent, I commented, if he had no knowledge of Birmingham’s troubles or lacked the courage to help solve the problems.

“Then how does inject pathos, emotional appeal, in the next two paragraphs to underscore his honest, generous intentions?” I asked.  Students quickly responded by noting the parallel sentences and the comparisons.  Laureta said that by linking his “gospel of freedom” with that of the “prophets” and the “Apostle Paul,” King makes a comparison that clergymen would have to respect.  Then I wrote on the board the sentence that follows his famous parallel sentence about injustice “anywhere” threatening justice “everywhere”: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”  “Can you explain how King intensifies these already strong parallel rhythms?”  Xhemile answered my question, pointing to the metaphors imbedded in the parallel phrases, helping us to see the “network” we must preserve and the “garment” we must all wear to ensure a “destiny” of justice.

Congratulating the students on their astute readings, I then divided the class into three groups of five or six and assigned them further analytical tasks on the blending of ethos, logos, and pathos.  After ten minutes of work, I called for a report from group one, who had been charged with paragraphs 6-11 and their contributions to ethos-building.  This group then outlined King’s attempt to “negotiate with the city fathers” to get “racial signs removed,” then, once that process failed, the “self-purification” process that King and his followers underwent to prepare for “direct action,” a non-violent but dangerous way of challenging an unjust government that would likely respond with police dogs, batons, and jail.  “So how does this use of logos, this evidence of his non-violent process of effecting positive change, build King’s ethos?” I wondered.  Ragip responded by saying that this process shows King’s courage as well as his patience and reasonableness.  “Yes,” I said, “and notice how he ends this section by injecting pathos again.   How so?”  Ragip followed up by noting the reference to Socrates, who also created “nonviolent tension” to liberate his people from “the bondage of myths and half-truths,” just as King and his people strive to “help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”  Praising his habit of citation, I stressed once again that the emotional appeal comes from couching vivid metaphors within parallel sentence structures, juxtaposing the “dark depths” or racism with “majestic heights” of equality.

**Click on the first picture to scroll through the gallery images in a larger, “slideshow” format.**

The next group, charged with finding more allusions, presented their list: St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, the Boston Tea Party, the Hungarian freedom fighters, Jesus.  “So do these historical and philosophical allusions represent ethos-building, logos, or pathos?” I asked.  Hearing all three answers, I pronounced them all correct, explaining that each example of courageous resistance to tyranny counts as logos, and that such daring resistance stirs our emotions.  “And how do the names of theologians build King’s ethos?” I pushed.  Blerta answered that clergymen would respect the names of saints and that King did not just mention their names but quoted their advocacy for disobeying unjust laws.  I praised her response and noted King’s wisdom in citing the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and the Christian theologian Paul Tillich, both defining segregation as “morally wrong and sinful,” a reference, I said, that no doubt made King’s “dear fellow clergymen” squirm.

Finally, the third group reported on paragraphs 24-26, where King expresses his disappointment with the “white moderate,” the expediential cowards who support King’s cause with their words but never take action to help.  The students found numerous examples of King’s blending of logos and pathos in his critique of these “lukewarm” allies, thereby strengthening his ethos as passionate and informed.  First, they noted the parallel structures that repeat King’s frustration with the willful ignorance and inaction of the white moderates: “I had hoped that the white moderate would understand….Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.”  Commending their reading, I explained that this repetition of an opening structure of a sentence goes by the Greek term anaphora, and that it adds emotional intensity with its persistent beat: “Now is the time….Now is the time.”  I then asked if they saw King’s method—a strategy we had seen before—of intensifying the beat, a prompt that quickly yielded King’s metaphors imbedded in the parallel sentences, the white moderates’ obstructions becoming a “dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress,” failures to “lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”  I then asked why King used the disgusting “boil” simile.   Hearing no answer, I asked, “What happens when a boil goes unlanced?”  Besa responded that the infection can kill a person, precisely the point of King’s simile: if we fail to open the boil of segregation to “the air of national opinion,” the infection will spread through the national body and ultimately kill.

 As the class prepared to leave, I asked them to re-read King’s letter, focusing this time on the part of logos we had not addressed yet, his use of inductive and deductive reasoning to strengthen his case and to move toward his meditational, peace-making goal.  I reminded students, too, that they would find definitions and illustrations of induction, deduction, and meditational discourse in the handout from Questioning, 153-58.

Marxist Theory and Death of a Salesman

March 12, 2012

Our second class moved from Karl Marx’ central claim about capitalism, that the exploitive “bourgeoisie” dominated and suppressed the “proletariat,” to a glance at the impact of that nineteenth-century economic theory on twentieth-century literary criticism, especially the idea that great writers jar readers out of their willful blindness to the hegemonic tyrannies of capitalist culture (Abrams, Glossary, 155-61).

Arthur Miller in 1952, photo by Sam Falk, The New York Times

Arthur Miller in 1952, photo by Sam Falk (Source: The New York Times)

Having sketched this theoretical background, I reminded the students that Arthur Miller’s Salesman came to the American stage in 1949, just two decades after the Great Depression, the horrific economic and cultural upheaval that exposed the destructive side of unbridled capitalism and challenged the myth of the American Dream, the idea that hard work always yields personal and economic success; many viewers, therefore, saw Miller’s play as America’s proletarian tragedy.  Stressing these last two words, I challenged my students to think for themselves, to decide to what extent the play reflects Marxist ideology, to what extent it challenges the Marxist critique of capitalism, and to what extent it the play qualifies as a tragedy.

Noting Miller’s passionate belief that an ordinary man or woman could qualify as a tragic character, I referred the students to the first topic on their assignment sheet, which provides the classical definition of “tragedy” and asks them to write an essay on the extent to which they agree with the author about Willy’s tragic stature:

Critic M. H. Abrams defines “tragic hero” as a noble character with intelligence and compassion, a good man or woman who commits an error in judgment that harms those he/she loves and, ultimately, leads to his/her exile or death.  This “error in judgment”—the Greeks called it “hamartia”—grows from a tragic flaw, usually rooted in pride (hubris).  Eventually, when it’s too late, the tragic hero recognizes and accepts his responsibility for the error.  Because the hero’s goodness and flaw twine inextricably together, readers and viewers experience “catharsis” in response to the hero’s inevitable fall.  This catharsis or purge consists of two emotions: we pity the hero because he meant well; we fear his fallen condition, recognizing that we can make the same kinds of mistakes.  Paradoxically, the hero’s crushing defeat, though profoundly sad, uplifts us, causing us to recognize our capacities for loving self-sacrifice as well as for error.  What about Willy Loman?  Can a failed salesman who complains about his “goddam arch supports” (2329) qualify as a tragic hero?  Support your views with close analysis of action from the play, including appropriate quotations.

First edition cover of Miller's Death of a Salesman (Source: Wikipedia)

“Well, what about it?” I asked.  “Even though Biff at one point calls his father a ‘prince,’ Miller of course concedes that Willy lacks the aristocratic pedigree of the traditional tragic character—Prince Hamlet, King Lear, Oedipus Rex—but Willy otherwise qualifies, Miller insists, as a great-hearted man whose blunders crush those he loves but who uplifts us with his capacity to love self-sacrificially.  How about those of you who journaled on this question?  Will you share your thoughts?”

Kadrije quickly volunteered and proceeded to read a full-page entry, complete with quoted key phrases, arguing that Willy deserves our compassion for being “tired to death” but not our respect.  Unlike tragic characters, she said, Willy never succeeds, never reaches a pinnacle of achievement, and therefore cannot be said to fall.  He also fails to acknowledge, she continued, that his teachings to the boys have been “all wrong” and destructive.  Blerta disagreed, saying that both his blunders and his death give him tragic dignity because of the immensity of his love.

Having emphatically praised these candid, thoughtful responses, I asked if anyone else would read his or her preliminary comments of one on the other three topics, which invite papers on Willy’s wife Linda, on models of business men in the play, or on Biff and Happy, the troubled sons of Willy and Linda:

  1. Willy credits Linda with being his “foundation and support” (2331).  Do you agree?  Has her love for Willy been constructive?  Destructive?  Both?
  2. Training his sons to become businessmen, Willy proclaims that if they are “well liked” they will “never want” (2339).  Focusing on Willy, Charley, and Bernard, discuss Willy’s formula for success.  Does the play imply another route to success?
  3. After Biff and Happy desert their father in the restaurant, Linda calls them a “pair of animals” who never loved their father (2384).  To what extent do you agree with Linda?
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman in Broadway revival of Miller's Salesman, opening 15 March 2012; photo by Brigitte Lacome for New York Magazine (Source: The Economist)

Happily, more enthusiastic responses followed.  First, Xhemile read her entry, which supported Kadrije’s view of Willy, condemning particularly his lack of integrity as both husband and father; she then praised Biff, who finally acknowledges the truth about all their failures and tries to save Willy with his sobbing plea to let go of his “phony dream” that the “well liked” succeed.  Bierta next read her entry on Linda, conceding that she deeply loves Willy but insisting that her misguided support of Willy’s fictions makes his suicide inevitable, particularly after she refuses to confront him with the nipple he has placed on the gas pipe.

Encouraged by all these responses and the students’ willingness to read aloud, I reiterated my praise and asked them, for the next session, to commit to a topic and come to class with a rough draft.  Looks like I’m in for some good reading.