Wednesday, September 29, 2010
"Dark wings, dark tidings."
Friday, September 24, 2010
There are some authors I sometimes feel the urge to dislike on general principle, but then I read something of theirs and must admit that the urge to dislike proceeds from a vague sense of the writer and has little or nothing to do with their actual writing. Margaret Atwood is one such author. Robert Frost is another.
Oh, don't get me wrong—I have nothing against Frost specifically, but his homespun, traditional, how-pastoral-is-New-England verse always seems so incredibly out of step with the raw modernist angst of a T.S. Eliot, or the playfulness and textual audacity of an e.e. cummings, or the thematic and metaphorical complexity and depth of a W.B. Yeats or W.H. Auden (as a side note, I've always wondered: modernists—what's with the initials?). By contrast, Frost at first glance seems quaint.
But then, if you actually pay attention to the poetry, you find darkness and ambivalence imbued in the rustic verses that belies their faux-naturalist, rocking-chair wisdom. There are exceptions to this, of course, the biggest example to me being the old favourite "The Road Not Taken"—which, besides its simplistically allegorical subject, always strikes me as nauseatingly self-congratulatory. (As an answer, I would pose Ellen Degeneres' great life lesson, "Don't take the beaten path. Unless you're lost in the woods, and then by all means, take the beaten path.")
At any rate, this is all apropos of reading, in my first-year class this week, what is about my favourite Robert Frost poem:
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth—
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.
OK, basic stuff out of the way first: Petrarchan sonnet, rhymed ABBA ABBA ACAACC. The fact that Frost limited his choice of rhyme to three speaks to the poem's technical proficiency, but also wends an aural theme through on the A-rhyme that subverts the stereotypical conception of the purity or perfection of "white" with disease ("blight") and darkness ("night"). That he employs the sonnet form, especially a Petrarchan sonnet, is suggestive: a genre traditionally given over to a particular form of love poetry praising the specific features of one's beloved here frames an ambivalence or even revulsion at a particularly aesthetic brutality encountered in nature. Indeed, we don't lack for love sonnets that use the unalloyed beauty of nature as a useful analogy for the beauty of the beloved (Shakespeare's "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?" for example), or which are more or less paeans to nature itself ("Upon Westminster Bridge" by William Wordsworth); Frost's sonnet here could itself almost be taken initially as such a poem, but for the mention of "death and blight" in line four, and the last line of the octet, which renders the lovely twinned images of the "snow-drop spider" and "flower like a froth" at best sinister, at the worst murderous.
But as I say to my students frequently, often a key to a poem's theme and meaning is in its title, and here "design" is the idea greeting us at the very outset and reappearing in the sestet's concluding couplet "What but design of darkness to appall?— / If design govern in a thing so small" as answer to the question of what could have caused this cruelly picturesque serendipity of white on white on white. "Design" is of course a loaded term, so bound up as it has been of late with creationism's stalking horse intelligent design—but the ostensible "design" of a benevolent creator has always been a point of faith and contention since before Darwin, and has given rise to such standard Sunday-school questions about the existence of evil in the world, or the purpose of pernicious animals from mosquitoes to great white sharks. The key repeated word in the sestet is the interrogative "What …?" which begins the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth lines. What, indeed?
Those of us who view the universe as ordered by chance would likely describe the image the poem's central image as uncanny—which, to adapt Freud's definition of the term, refers to the familiar being rendered odd, disquieting, or eerie. The striking conjunction of white flower, spider, and moth is a splendid poetic coincidence (assuming Frost didn't invent it whole cloth, which, even if he did, hardly matters), for it highlights the brutal calculus of survival that makes a mockery of our sentimentalized conception of nature. (When bringing up this point in class yesterday, I used as an example the requisite five minutes in every television special on penguins in which we see them bloodily eaten by leopard seals or killer whales—not as poetic as Frost's image perhaps, but effective, because everyone loves penguins. I could also point to the fact that penguins will push each other off the ice to see if the water is safe).
Frost's theme here however has a significantly atheistic overtone, echoing the cri de coeur of all those who point to such cruelty as evidence of God's non-existence. Certainly, "Design" functions as a useful poetic rebuttal to the belief in an omnipotent, interventionist God whose hand is visible at all levels of creation, and without whose say-so nothing happens. Frost does however leave things in question: there is an ambiguity in the sestet, which while suggesting the absurdity of design, leaves the possibility open. That possibility is at best deeply ambivalent: if there is design at work, the poem suggests, it is of "darkness."
To return to an earlier point, the re-tasking of the sonnet form is one of the more interesting aspects (for me) of the poem: typically, the sonnet proceeds as a question and answer, with the octet posing a "problem" and the sestet rhetorically or symbolically resolving that problem. Something like ninety percent of love sonnets do the following: "Oh, my love is so beautiful; but she will age and wither and die; but I shall immortalize her in this poem so her beauty will live forever." (Yes, there's a reason people find poets somewhat self-absorbed). Frost does not invert that structure per se, but rather deliberately compounds the problem posed in the octet (i.e. the conjunction of flower, spider, moth) with his trio of rhetorical questions in the sestet. If we find any resolution, it is a deeply disquieting one, and encourages us rather to take comfort in the randomness of the universe.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
The U2 reference in my title here notwithstanding, much of Newfoundland did not wake to a particularly beautiful day this morning. Or rather, I should clarify, the weather was bright and sunny and the sky cloudless, but that just served to highlight the damage wrought by Hurricane Igor.
I really didn't appreciate the scale of the storm until driving to work this morning—almost all of the stoplights were still out in St. John's, and everywhere there were toppled trees and branches. My own experience of the hurricane was actually a bit anticlimactic—my power did not go out, and the storm did not feel too bad (some friends and colleagues reported today that they could feel their houses shift and groan in the wind, but either because of my location or for some other reason, there wasn't too much of that for me).
I was tempted once or twice to suit up and go out into the storm, simply to be able to say I had done so, but fortunately I was able to resist such a foolish impulse. I remember once seeing a stand-up comedian who talked about a man from his hometown in Florida, who went out to experience a level five hurricane, but tied himself to a tree so he would not be blown away. "Let me explain to you the way wind works: it's not you being blown away that's the problem. Tying yourself to a tree will not protect you from being hit by, say, a Buick."
So, yeah. I stayed inside.
The fallen trees were really the most spectacular form of damage here, though there were some floods here and there. The real brunt of the storm was borne by the Burin and Bonavista Penninsulas, where the flooding was most severe. Some more isolated towns were entirely cut off when bridges were washed out. If you haven't seen any of the footage, this video was taken in Clarenville:
Friday, September 17, 2010
It occurred to me this morning as I was driving to work that it was six years ago today that I defended my doctoral thesis. As with such sudden realizations at times, the memory of that day came flooding back rather powerfully. Perhaps it was because the memory came in the morning, while in the car, that the first thing I remembered was nearly being in a car accident en route to campus.
The defence was scheduled for one o'clock, and my original intention had been to sleep in, relax in my apartment and just chill until almost noon. Of course, that didn't happen—I woke at 5am, wide awake, though I resolutely stayed in bed until almost seven before sheer nerves drove me up. I made coffee, tried watching TV, tried playing a video game, tried, even (so quixotically) to read ... but nothing was working, so instead of pacing around my small apartment I gave in and drove to school a little after nine-thirty.
When I was halfway, I was very nearly t-boned by a guy running a stop sign. I screeched to a halt, he screeched to a halt, inches away from each other, and he made apologetic gestures. He must have been a bit confused that I wasn't looking or gesticulating at him, but rather had my face turned upward and was shaking my fist at the roof of my car. What I was actually shouting was "No, Universe! Not today, you don't!"
Anyway, I made it up unscathed, and the rest is now history. The whole defence, as it happens, turned out to be a rather enjoyable affair—the examination committee was quite impressed with my thesis, and we all had fun hashing out some of the ideas and issues I'd written about. Turns out that when you spend several years researching and writing a 300+ page project, you actually become the authority in the room on the subject. Who knew?
Fortuitously, that afternoon there was a departmental function at the Grad Club, a meet and greet for faculty and grad students. We all had name tags printed on white stickers ready for us, and to this day one of my fondest moments was when M.J. Kidnie, a relatively new hire with whom I had struck up a good friendship, running over with a pen to strike out "PhD Candidate" under my name and write "Dr." in front of it.
The, um, rest of the departmental function and my defence party that evening are sort of vague in my memory.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Best sentence to be taken out of context I've read all week, from a discussion between Gail Collins and David Brooks in today's New York Times: "Everyone is enthusiastic about the migration of beautiful young women, but the attitude toward a mile-long stack of walruses along the coast is more mixed."
In the same column, the smartest thing David Brooks has ever put in print, viz. his theory that Sarah Palin is actually a Democratic saboteur: "That's the only plausible explanation for the last two years. First she charms John McCain, gets into his campaign and promptly extinguishes any chance he had of winning the presidency in 2008. Then she leads large sections of the G.O.P. into an intellectual cul de sac." Makes me wonder if I've been reading Palin all wrong this whole time. Don't retreat, Sarah Barracuda ... reload!
In wingnut news, you know how sometimes creationists and climate change deniers liken themselves to Galileo—characterizing themselves as lonely truth-speakers persecuted and silenced by the powers that be? Well, Robert A. Sungenis and Robert J. Bennett have gone a step further with their book Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right. (The title is to the point, at least). The publisher's blurb describes the book as "a detailed and comprehensive treatise that demonstrates from the scientific evidence that heliocentrism (the concept that the Earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun) is an unproven scientific theory; and that geocentrism (the view that the Earth is in the center of the universe and does not move by either rotation or revolution) is not only supported by the scientific evidence but is admitted to be a logical and viable cosmology by many of the world's top scientists, including Albert Einstein, Ernst Mach, Edwin Hubble, Fred Hoyle and many more."
As writers as disparate as Christopher Hitchens and Michael Berubé have pondered of creationism, why take such specific issue with the theory of evolution when, really, the Big Bang would really be the theory to take down if you want to demonstrate that the earth is only 6014 years old? Well, here's the granddaddy of all intelligent design polemics, written by the president of Catholic Apologetics International and someone who "has been an instructor of physics and mathematics for many years at various academic institutions." You don't say—"various academic institutions"? One wonders how many, and how long he lasted at each ...
Also, a question from the floor: don't Catholics have enough to be apologetic about (internationally) these days without trying to take down Galileo? And Kepler? And Isaac Newton?
As my friend Julia observed, the really scary thing is that the book made it into a second edition
Sunday, September 12, 2010
This afternoon has been mostly dedicated to prepping this week's material for English 1080: Critical Reading and Writing I, the English course that every single Memorial student must take, and which I had a bit of a hard time with last year. As I droned on about in that previous post on this subject, getting first-year students to read poetry seriously—and think about it substantively—is not at all unlike getting little kids to eat their vegetables—assuming that said little kids have been indoctrinated into believing that vegetables are actually poisonous.
But I soldier on, both because I do in fact firmly believe that learning to read poetry is a valuable thing in and of itself, and because I love the damn stuff too much not to. A colleague of mine the other day told me he no longer does poetry in 1080 any longer, because he can't stand having stuff he loves disdained and mistreated. I'm not quite there myself, but I'll keep you posted.
At any rate, as I was compiling my syllabus, I pulled out my collected William Carlos Williams to find a poem not in my anthology that I wanted to use ("Landscape With the Fall of Icarus"), and came across the following little gem:
How clean these shallows
how firm these rocks stand
about which wash
the waters of the world
It is ice to this body
that unclothes its pallors
of an immeasurable sea,
unmarred, that as it lifts
straining mind, these
limbs in a single gesture.
I read this, and think "William Carlos Williams visited Labrador?" What followed was one of those flurries of activity that was, essentially, a distraction from the work I needed to do, but which felt like productive research. As it turns out, Williams visited Newfoundland and Labrador in 1933 on a cruise with his wife. That relatively short—two weeks—vacation left an impression. The cruise took them up the west coast, as far north as St. Anthony's. I found some references to this in William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked, a biography by Paul Mariani. My favourite bit:
"How alien this world seemed. Still, Williams had sworn had sworn he would swim in these northern waters and had taken off—alone—for the north end of the island. There he found only puffins and water so cold he could hardly believe it. Nevertheless, he did manage to dip beneath the surface … and to gash his stomach on the shelly bottom before he scrambled for shore. At least he'd come into intimate contact with the primitive elements of that place."
I'm thinking that Williams' Newfoundland connection is something to explore at greater length, especially considering that he apparently came back on a few occasions (visits my relatively cursory research did not reveal). Speaking to a senior colleague about this at a start-of-term mixer, I discovered that not only had Williams returned several times, but that the senior colleague in question got pissed as a newt with the man. Huh. The oral history here needs uncovering, I think.
But to return to the poem in question, I find Williams' primitivism interesting. He is, to a certain extent, falling into what I tend of think of as the Group of Seven cliché—the reductive association of the north with what Williams' biographer calls "the primitive elements of that place." Perhaps I've simply read too much CanLit that mythologizes the north as somehow pure and clean, a space in which the human soul can test itself (Farley Mowat being public enemy number one in this respect), but it does get a little repetitive after a time. That Williams "had sworn had sworn he would swim in these northern waters" is unsurprising—his poetic philosophy was "no ideas but in things," and focused his writing on the concrete, the tactile, and the tangible, and loathed such over-intellectualized poetry as T.S. Eliot's (Williams called The Waste Land a "catastrophe" for American letters). I didn't know he had the Hemingwayesque tendency toward extremes of physicality, but it's a little endearing. Better him than me swimming in Newfoundland waters, is all I have to say. Wading ankle-deep at Middle Cove beach is about as much as I can handle.
Williams was one of the premier "imagists," one of a group of modernist poets who desired to ground poetry in concrete things. His most famous poem, which most people encounter in high school (and which is one of the first things I'll be doing in 1080) is "The Red Wheelbarrow," a deceptively simple, seemingly descriptive work:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Much of Williams' poetry lies in the lyricism of such simple, parochial things. Ironically, this can make him a difficult poet to teach: while students are generally reluctant to engage with poetry, they nevertheless tend to have a sense of poetry as something somehow elevated or rarefied, and when presented with Williams' insistence on simplicity they dismiss it. It's not that they are more at home with the complex interplay of themes in a John Donne poem, but at least with Donne they find the opacity and archaism they stereotypically associate with poetry.
"Labrador" is, in many ways, an exemplary Williams work—the first thing one notices is its simplicity and symmetry, moving from the image of the rocky shore, to a more complex connection between the chill waters and the self, to that amazing final stanza that collapses the distinction between the self and the vast ocean. Though I've already taken issue with Williams' replication of the northerly mythos, I must say he phrases it in rather an elegant and, for all the vividness of the imagery, nebulous fashion. He transmutes the specificity of place—we know from the title where the speaker is, and that first stanza's description of the rocky shore is striking—into a universal, citing at first the universality of the ocean ("the waters of the world"). The second stanza gives us particularity again in "this body," but makes that key connection to "thoughts / of an immeasurable sea." One thinks here of Jung's metaphor for the unconscious as an ocean—though I somehow doubt Williams had much use for psychoanalysis (not a point I'm familiar with one way or another), the sea certainly becomes an image of connection and universality. The wrinkle in a Jungian reading is that it is uncertain whether the speaker is concerned with other people, or his connection to a primal natural state, or simply nature itself. My own reading is the latter: the freezing ocean in this poem appears indifferent to the shocks it visits on the frail human body. The gesture, rather, is the speaker's offering to the sea, which accepts the sacrifice with a sublime magnanimity.
Again, it is the symmetry of the poem that is striking: three short stanzas, the first of which frames the setting; the second, which while speaking of the poet's body, moves into somewhat vaguer and more abstract language and generalizations; and the third, at once the most moving and the most opaque. I always remember the professor in the one creative writing course I ever took stressing that poetry moved from the concrete to the abstract: "Love might be your topic," she was fond of saying, "but NEVER use the word love." We might have used "Labrador" as a case study: that final stanza is beautifully cryptic, but would be useless if Williams had not given us the vivid image of the Labrador coast in the first.
So what is that final stanza saying? What is it doing? I have to imagine I've been Googled by some of my new students, who found their way to this blog—please, tell me what you think.
Monday, September 06, 2010
As I have blogged many times in the past (at least once a year, it seems to me), for me the new year starts not on January first, but the day after Labour Day. My entire life since the age of about four has been tied to the rhythms of the school year, and when I recall important events in my life I don't think "Oh, that happened in fall of 1986" or "I did that in 2003," I think "that happened in grade nine" and "I did that in year six of my PhD." January first—and its drunken sibling, December 31st—always feel anticlimactic to me, and I have disliked New Year's Eve for reasons I never articulated to myself until my friend Gregg did it for me. In one of his many moments of earthy wisdom, he observed that there are two days a year we are under great pressure to enjoy: the first is our birthday, the second is New Year's. Birthdays are easy, if you have good friends and/or family, and don't get too freaked out about aging—the day is all about you. But as Gregg sagely observed, New Year's Eve is everybody's birthday, and the every-man-for-himself partying that happens often carries a tinge of desperation.
And for me, it's not the true beginning of the year. One of the things I love about my job is that I remain plugged into this annual cycle in which, as you come off the heat and languor of the summer, you look forward to the crisp weather of autumn and the energy of a new school year. Northrop Frye, in his magisterial work on archetypes in literary archetypes, associates autumn with "myths of the fall, dying gods, violent death and sacrifice" and the isolation of the hero, with tragedy and elegy as its representative genres. I like to imagine however that this was at odds with what Frye, a lifelong academic, experienced on a yearly basis—knowing that these archetypes are rooted in our mythic and agrarian origins, but that September for us bookish scholastic types evokes feelings of renewal and rebirth. Autumn, in other words, is the academic's spring.
At any rate, I've been lax on this blog for the last three weeks or so, and hope to rectify that as the term begins. To all those about to begin a school year, I salute you.