Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wednesday Poetry: "The Makers," by Howard Nemerov

We can never find that initial thing that got us going, that initial inspiration that transcends generations. That's something that Howard Nemerov explores in his poem "The Makers," which attempts to look back at poetry's genealogy with the ultimate conclusion that what really matters is this: that all of those physical, tangible sensations get passed down throughout history via poetic tropes and images. It doesn't matter who those first poets were, nor does it matter what precise tree or rock or star was originally described. The fact that we can share these descriptions and bond over them--that's what matters most. The repetition of these sensory details tells us something essential about the human experience.

(I could into a long tangent about how we can read this poem through the lens of Jacques Derrida's idea of différance, how we have these words that pay homage to an original that we can never actually observe, but I won't do that to all of you.)

"The Makers"
Who can remember back to the first poets,
The greatest ones, greater even than Orpheus?
No one has remembered that far back
Or now considers, among the artifacts,
And bones and cantilevered inference
The past is made of, those first and greatest poets,
So lofty and disdainful of renown
They left us not a name to know them by.

They were the ones that in whatever tongue
Worded the world, that were the first to say
Star, water, stone, that said the visible
And made it bring invisibles to view
In wind and time and change, and in the mind
Itself that minded the hitherto idiot world
And spoke the speechless world and sang the towers
Of the city into the astonished sky.

They were the first great listeners, attuned
To interval, relationship, and scale,
The first to say above, beneath, beyond,
Conjurors with love, death, sleep, with bread and wine,
Who having uttered vanished from the world
Leaving no memory but the marvelous
Magical elements, the breathing shapes
And stops of breath we build our Babels of.

For an added treat, listen to Hillary Rodham Clinton reading "The Makers" when she was First Lady! The video is part of the Favorite Poem Project, and HRC follows it with a brief explanation of why she picked this poem.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Words Generally Only Spoil Things: In Defense of Philip Roth's Man Booker Prize

For those of you who aren't aware, Philip Roth was recently awarded the Man Booker International Prize, which is awarded every other year to an author who has made outstanding contributions to literature. The nod to Roth prompted an outcry from (and the departure of) one of the judging panel's members. Carmen Callil decried the choice of Roth in remarks that, since Callil spoke with The Guardian, have reappeared in the L.A. Times and other newspapers. "He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe," Callil states, before elaborating on her contempt: "I don't rate him as a writer at all. I made it clear that I wouldn't have put him on the longlist, so I was amazed when he stayed there. He was the only one I didn't admire--all the others were fine."

So, this is last week's news from the literary world, and it has, accordingly, raised a range of questions about Roth's suitability for the award. But this focus, brought to us by Callil, turns us toward whether or not the author meshes with the judges' politics or aesthetics, when such a panel needs to consider whether or not the person's works have added something to literature, something that has irrevocably changed the literary landscape and recharted how we think about books and the potential of fiction.

Callil contends that Roth is a one-trick pony with no staying power. Yet, her attacks fail to undermine the poignancy of his fiction and his novels' power to incite controversy, to force us to reconsider some pretty central ontological, epistemological issues. Who are we, and how do we learn who we are? For those contending that Roth's only subject matter is some variation on a Roth-like persona, I'd counter that Roth is simply using that with which he has the most familiarity--his own experiences--to force us into these considerations.

I'll state, for the record, that there are moments and stylistic choices in his most recent novels that didn't jive with me. Roth's best, though, is haunting and intellectually riveting. To Roth's naysayers, I'd ask them to consider how Roth grapples with the national consciousness in novels such as The Plot against America or how Roth tackles issues of personal identity in Operation Shylock, where a fictionalized Philip Roth discovers that he has an impersonator also going by the moniker Philip Roth. In Shylock, Roth negotiates mirroring of identities and personalities--his avatar with his imposter, an elderly Demjanjuk with the concentration camp slaughterer Ivan the Terrible--in a manner that seems fresh, considered, especially since this novel comes in the post-Lacan, mirror-obsessed world.

The fact that Roth is such a divisive figure--that people feel they have to engage with Roth's legacy in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries--is indicative of the sway that his fiction possesses. Love or hate Roth, he's here, and he's captured the critical imagination. His fiction contends with some issues central to the American experience, to the international Jewish experience, to local communities, to cultural transformation, and to interpretations of crises. Regardless of the presence of Roth stand-ins or the masculine points of view, his novels have structured problematic realities that force readers to stake out their own positions.

If that's not altering the literary landscape, I'm not sure what is. Our ideological maps of various constructs--America, masculinity, Jewishness, artistry, rationality--do not survive Roth's novels with their borders intact, even if you dislike his prose.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Altogether Now! Some Thoughts on Jo Walton's "Among Others"

A short one today, as I wrap up end-of-semester affairs, submit grades, and hawk over the Rutgers web portal to see if I've clinched yet another 4.0 semester. We'll see.

Now, for some words on books. It's been a while since I've read a novel with such fantastical elements as fairies and magic, but Jo Walton's consideration of the supernatural in Among Others is at once elegant and plausible. Among Others is written as a series of Morwenna Phelps's diary entries between 1979 and 1980; the events follow the magic-induced death of Mor's twin sister (Morganna, also known as "Mor," as if this wouldn't cause more confusion), and the novel approaches the aftermath of these happenings with a measured tone, a rare occurrence in the hackneyed diary-as-novel genre. The twins' mother tried to twist the twins' beloved fairies into doing her evil bidding--which resulted in Morganna's death and Morwenna's crippling injuries.

(If you caught the subtle pun near the end of the parenthetical in the above paragraph, I applaud you.)

Glossing the novel in this way does it a disservice and paints it as something from the catalogue of trite, post-adolescent, angst-and-acne pocked high fantasy. (Blame the dust jacket for this affront and its explicit reference to a "magical battle.") The novel is actually about the lifelines that we draw during our own existences, and Mor's diary illustrates magic, life, and literature as something almost Heideggerian, something that is always already happening, so that the inciting moment appears to be coincidental at best.

Books are like these coincidences: They appear at the right moments and allow us to make sense of the world. The fairies draw Mor back to her native Wales, where she forms a gate through which the spirits of the deceased pass. One of those souls is Mor's twin, and she almost refuses to let go until a fairy whispers "Half way" into her ear. Mor elaborates, "he didn't mean I was half dead without her or that she was halfway through or any of that, he meant that I was halfway through Babel 17, and if I went on I would never find out how it came out." Despite the absence Mor feels because of her twin's death, Babel 17 serves as an unlikely--yet somehow appropriate--reminder that the rest of the world still exists.

Books, for Mor, function as a collective codex for negotiating existence, and her feverish reading (n.b., it's implausible how much she can read) allow her to sail through a depressing, fairy-less life at Arlinghurst, the boarding school she attends. Those who have not spent their lives floating across the existential pond with Ursula K. LeGuin, Robert Heinlen, Frank Herbert, and Anne McCaffrey in tow will have difficulty understanding how these books serve as Mor's intellectual life preservers. (For the rest, Mor also avidly reads Plato and The Communist Manifesto.) Regardless, she is able to unify her life and her reflections around these books, around the search for these authors and their bodies of work. Her diary entries are often about these pieces, about how Mor responds to them, as they are about her constant struggle to restart a dialogue with the fairies and to escape her mother's dark machinations.

Also, apparently, the fairies speak Welsh. (One should keep in mind that Jo Walton, the novel's author, is a Welsh-Canadian, and Mor herself is also a Welsh girl.) Though we occasionally have to sort through some difficult-to-pronounce Welsh, we receive some translations of fairyspeak into a Tolkien-esque, high rhetoric, courtesy of Mor. She uses Tolkien to translate for us, literature as a tool to explain the speech of others.

So literature lets us make sense of the world. Now--whoever would've thought that?

And now begins a long summer, some four months of imminent unemployment, in which I'll be reading and (I hope) writing a lot. I accept donations in the form of pittances, books, and stuff for my cat.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Posts Returning on Wednesday

I'll hold myself to this promise, folks. Life should return to whatever passes as normal these days, so expect posts to start up again on Wednesday!

(I apologize for the distinct lack of witty repartee in the above announcement.)