Monday, January 19, 2009

Politics or the English Language

"Why Teach Literature, Anyway?"

Marjorie Perloff took on the question at the MLA conference in San Francisco a few weeks ago. Her answer, which follows a close reading of Barack Obama's memoir, Dreams From My Father: because "literary study is the only discipline that teaches difference." While academics in the field of literature tend to focus on commonality and classification, it is that which escapes definition that makes literature (and life) so interesting, Perloff argues, and that is why close reading - by which she means "reading attentively and bringing to the text in question as much knowledge and practice as possible" - is so important. It should be taught.

She suggests the media's failure and the Clintons' failure to read Obama is what led so many to expect Clinton to win the Democratic nomination. This failure to read also likely contributed to Clinton's losing. Which is partly why Obama's victory is so great. It's a victory over the tendency to gloss over a text, reduce it to something familiar, or simply not pay attention - tendencies that become norms in an age of infotainment overload (I'm thinking right now of this new option to "read full article" or "collapse article" in Yahoo news stories).

Perloff's argument makes perfect sense to me. If asked the question, I probably wouldn't have said "difference," but I may have said "the unknown" or "the particularities of human experience." Those answers are similar to Perloff's, not the same. Her lecture, which is called "The Centrality of Literary Study," also points out the tendency to ignore the difference between discourse intended to convey information (such as a scientific paper or stock market report) and the discourse we call literature. Teachers often ask students to say what a poem or novel says, for example, without paying attention to the "defining elements" of literature (such as diction, metaphor, repetition, irony, syntax, etc). Perloff quotes Wittgenstein to explain the difference between literary and nonliterary language:

"We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other. (Any more than one musical theme can be replaced by another.)

In the one case the thought in the sentence is something common to different sentences; in the other, something that is expressed only by these words in these positions. (Understanding a poem.)"

This problem comes up when I teach creative writing classes - the show vs. tell lesson, the lesson about sense and sound. Actually, those are more than single lessons. That's the whole course. What I teach is how to read (in composition and creative writing courses), and teaching how to read is not simply a matter of conveying information - which is why both reading and teaching can be so challenging. It's a matter of communication, or tuning, to use David Antin's word. It takes two, which takes time, and many students don't expect it to.

That said, I believe much of literature is interested in conveying information; it's just usually not the main point, as communication does not depend solely (often at all) on a conveyance of information. Sometimes information gives you nothing. Thus I cringe when I hear "Information Age."

Here's to a new age. The difference is spreading.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Roadside Dog

A thing I’ve been reading is Czeslaw Milosz’s Roadside Dog, a bunch of short prose pieces written toward the end of Milosz’s life. “Pieces,” I thought originally, because I didn’t know if they were poems or essays. After reading a few pieces I looked at the back cover for the prescribed genre, and above the UPC it said POETRY/ESSAYS. I found the book in the fiction section of Robin’s Bookstore, thinking it misplaced, as books often are in Robin’s, which closes the end of this month after 73 years of business. Larry the owner is calling the store’s closing “death,” though not unhappily, it seems (the death will be followed by a “resurrection”).

Roadside Dog strikes me as writing from a person who couldn’t care less where he or his book is buried. It takes on greater questions, reflecting on the 20th century that Milosz lived, doling out wisdom, though the writing’s rooted in wonder and wander. It wonders about wander, even. Here’s “The Last Judgment”:

The consequences of our actions. Completely unknown, for every one of them enters into a multifaceted relation with circumstance and with the actions of others. An absolutely efficient computer could show us, with a correction for accidents, of course, for how to calculate the direction taken by a billiard ball after it strikes another? Besides it is permissible to maintain that nothing happens by accident. Be that as it may, standing before a perfectly computerized balance sheet of our lives (The Last Judgment), we must be astonished: Huh! Can it be that I am responsible for so much evil done against my will? And here, on the other scale, so much good I did not intend and of which I was not aware?

My initial reading of this helped throw me into a despair. Then I realized I was sad because my grip on the notion of free will was too tight. I loosened it by reading some of Slaughterhouse Five, which I’d picked up recently after reading Selah Saterstrom’s notes about it on her blog, then reading more Roadside Dog.

Not so bad sometimes being something of a billiard ball. So it goes.

And I thought again of Robin’s and was able to make meaning of Robin’s for myself for the first time, without cursing society. I met some good people there who became my friends who led me to other good people who became my friends, etc, who’ve shaped the course of my life in such interesting ways, as Robin’s undoubtedly has for so many people, that I cannot be but grateful (distant tragedies, deaths, and heartbreak notwithstanding). Not to mention all the great poetry we heard there and found there. But there’s nothing to thank. Not here anyway. One can be grateful without thanking.

Milosz, from the title poem:

I went on a journey in order to acquaint myself with my province . . . It was so interesting to be moving, to give the horses their reins, and wait till, in the next valley, a village slowly appeared, or a park with the white spot of a manor inside it. And always we were barked at by a dog, assiduous in its duty. That was the beginning of the century; this is its end. I have been thinking not only of the people who lived there once, but also of the generations of dogs accompanying them in their everyday bustle, and one night— I don't know where it came from— in a predawn sleep, that funny and tender phrase composed itself: a road-side dog.

What makes Milosz’s writing both poem and essay is its wandering, if we include the etymological meaning of “essay”: to try, to attempt. (So the marketeers at FSG were right!)

The book’s cover bears an illustration of a dog with a town mapped onto its body, the main street leading out the dog’s posterior.

I give the book 208 stars. I will bury it in my backyard.

(You can read some of its poems in this issue of The Threepenny Review.)