Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A line just distinguishes it.*

I've been thinking lately about the poetic line. Lines are widely thought to be the fundamental unit of (written) poetry, so much as to make the "line" sometimes synonymous with poetry itself -- hence Stephen Crane's The Black Riders and Other Lines, or (of course) Wordsworth's "Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey." Even if prose poetry disrupts that identification, we can still recognize "the line" as a thing with which all poets must contend.

So what makes a line?

First of all, the contraints of reading in English. We read words in sequence from left to right.

It turns out that sequence matters a lot in present-day English, if we care about meaning. Unlike Old English, which had case endings and other delightful grammatical clues built into words, present-day English relies largely on word order for meaning (for instance, for distinguishing between a subject and an object).

So in English we're used to our one-damn-thing-after another not being arbitrary, but rather determinant of meaning. That might not mean anything for how a line is composed, but it does mean something about how we expect a sequence of words to act -- we expect the sequence to matter.

We expect sequence to matter, that is, but it need not: mere proximity makes the line. The line is fundamental in part because it takes the form of that primordial organization, the list. It's the order imposed by any enforced linearity, like the linearity of reading in time. Any sequence of words can be a line, and in this sense, as I've been arguing here and there, the line is the form of no form.**

To me, that's consequential. The line is a degree-zero form, fundamental and yet terribly close to not being a form at all. The line as such therefore calls on, without itself being, the possibility of totally formless language. As Gertrude Stein writes, "[a] line just distinguishes it."

There are, of course, ways to impose further structure on the line: meter, for one. But even this is revealing: at this point, we are measuring, enumerating. The question of how many doesn't quite get us form.

And yet there it is: the line, fundamental unit of poetic form.

* "Where is the serene length, it is there and a dark place is not a dark place, only a white and red are black, only a yellow and green are blue, a pink is scarlet, a bow is every color. A line distinguishes it. A line just distinguishes it." (Gertrude Stein, "A Long Dress," in Tender Buttons.

** The "form of no form" obviously echoes the anthropologist Sharon Traweek's phrase "the culture of no culture," coined to refer to scientific communities (162).

Crane, Stephen. The Black Riders and Other Lines. 3rd ed. Boston: Copeland and Day, 1896. Print.

Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons. 1914. Kobenhaven and Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2002. Print.

Traweek, Sharon. Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physics. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988. Print.

Wordsworth, William. Selected Poetry. Ed. Stephen Gill and Duncan Wu. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994. Print.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Human voices wake us

Try asking someone near you about singing. I've done this from time to time. There are some people who have been trained to sing, for instance, in a choir, and they'll usually say so.

But most of the time, in my experience, people will tell you that their voices are terrible. Plagues of locusts terrible. Danger to public safety terrible. In a word, violent. In fact, I've been known to say the same about my own voice, which isn't great, but which certainly has never killed anyone. We don't say: I don't want to sing. We say: it would be dangerous for me to sing.

I wonder why this is so. Singing is a natural human thing to do, but we read it as threatening or monstrous. We believe one must be carefully trained and managed if one is to sing safely.

Maybe it's because the mockery of bad singers is the stuff of reality television. Or maybe it's because we've come to feel that our ears need protecting at all times--headphones that pipe in only the voices of professionals. Maybe singing, and communal listening too, threaten our radical individuality.

Maybe, too, it's something more fundamental about how we understand the singing voice: do we fear that we will sing poorly, and be mocked (merely)? Or that we will sing well, or well enough, and thereby open something?

I don't really know the answer; I only know that people with perfectly good voices habitually declare their voices monstrous. I'd be interested in other people's thoughts on this.

[Some human voices, in a living room.]

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Et in Arcadia ego; or, une coulée de clartés

I'm very excited to have started working on Arcade, a "digital salon." I like its seriousness and its interdisciplinarity, and I'm hoping to help make it even better.

Come and visit!

Il y avait là une cohue, un défilé pénible et lent, reserré entre les boutiques. C'était, sous les vitres blanchies de reflets, un violent éclairage, une coulée de clartés, des globes blancs, des lanternes rouges, des transparents bleues, des rampes de gaz...

      --Émile Zola on the Passage des panoramas, Nana (1880)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Ezra Pound, conflating epistemology with ethics:
Bad art is inaccurate art. It is art that makes false reports. If a scientist falsifies a report either deliberately or through negligence we consider him as either a criminal or a bad scientist according to the enormity of his offence, and he is punished or despised accordingly. (42)

Pound, Ezra. "The Serious Artist." Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1968. 41-57. Print.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Memorizing poems

Cathy Davidson has a funny post up about terrible "thumping" poetry she had to memorize in grade school. I, too, had to memorize terrible poems in grade school. Yes, there was Longfellow! Unlike Cathy, though, I don't remember those poems anymore. "The Charge of the Light Brigade" is no longer really in my system.

But I've recently been thinking about the poems that I have memorized on purpose. Memorizing something is a way of living with it, and there were poems I wanted to have on hand. I memorized Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat" in elementary school because a friend knew it -- her mom had taught it to her -- and I thought it was funny, and I liked those repetitions: "the moon, the moon." I still remember it. Quite honestly, it comes in very handy in those situations in which a fussy baby gets thrust at you, and I regret that I never fully mastered "The Quangle Wangle's Hat."

There are other poems that I memorized later. In college I read "After great pain a formal feeling comes" for the first time, found it brilliant, memorized it, and can recite it to this day. I memorized a few more Dickinson poems for my qualifying exam (lo these many years ago), and if my life depended on it I could probably squeeze them out, but it's "After great pain" that sticks. I must have memorized "A slumber did my spirit seal" in college too. Of course it's so short there's almost nothing to memorize, like "In a Station of the Metro" or "A White Hunter." Those I have too, but I don't count them.

More recently I memorized "Spring and Fall," in part because it was tricky to memorize:
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed

How's that for thumping?

Each person has different poems that sit in their pockets, on purpose or otherwise. It's funny that mine turn out to be by Edward Lear, Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. What are yours?

Perhaps I'll try to memorize "The Pangolin." That's the sort of poem one needs to have on hand.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

They enter the new world naked

I'm waiting for the day when The Problem With Literary Studies Today is replaced by Here Is Some Friggin' Awesome Literary Criticism.*

It's great to reflect on method, but better yet to develop it. Creativity is our friend, and literature is amazing.

I'm teaching The Conjure Woman right now, a very simple example of the pleasure that results from developing a competency. At first, my students complained bitterly of the difficulty of reading Julius's dialect, which Chesnutt sometimes makes more visually alien than necessary ("wuz" for "was," for instance). After a while, they found that they could get themselves into "the Chesnutt zone" and read fairly quickly, and enjoyed the tales.

They're taking tentative stabs at their own literary criticism right now. So far, it's good.

One thing I've learned about giving feedback is that it's more helpful to offer emulable models and to praise what's going well than it is to offer a list of what not to do. Writing isn't about avoidance, or it shouldn't be. Creation is difficult, but it's what we do.

*Apparently my brain has been permanently warped by Dinosaur Comics.

Monday, March 8, 2010

This blog gets a lot of google hits from people looking for a Works Cited entry for this or that. Generally, these people fundamentally don't get the concept of a Works Cited list (if that's you: here you go).

But today I got the best search string ever: "fortune cookie works cited."

O grad student (and I have no doubt that you are a grad student), good luck with that. I'm pretty sure the MLA hasn't nailed that one down yet.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Search for the Codex Cardona

It seems that if I get a book for free, I feel that I must read it, even if, generally speaking, it is low on the list of priorities.

I got this book from Duke UP in a Twitter contest of sorts (yes, that's right), and so I read it. I don't have time for a full review, and I'm not the right person to write one, in any case. Bauer, a professor at UC Davis, describes a sixteenth-century Mexican painted book of dubious provenance and his attempts to track it down. As the sensational title suggests, although it's a true account of something basically nerdy, it's framed as a mystery-adventure. I kept wanting the book to be either more academic or more committed to its own paranoia (in my mind there is a difference); the book made repeated stylistic nods to Umberto Eco but not, I felt, terribly successfully. I think I would have been more surprised by the cloak-and-dagger business if I hadn't been made to expect Foucault's Pendulum. I found the generic hybrid interesting, and the actual codex sounds fascinating, but I think in the end I'd have preferred to read an academic article on it. The plates from the codex at the back of the book were perhaps the best part.

Arnold J. Bauer, The Search for the Codex Cardona: On the Trail of a Sixteenth-Century Mexican Treasure. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010. Print.

CFP: The Literary Organ

Due tomorrow! (upenn link)

The Literary Organ, MLA 2011 (January 6-9, 2011; Los Angeles)

“I have given no small attention to that not unvexed subject, the skin of the whale. I have had controversies about it with experienced whalemen afloat, and learned naturalists ashore. My original opinion remains unchanged; but it is only an opinion. The question is, what and where is the skin of the whale?”

--Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

An organ is, among other things, a part of a human or animal body; a site of sensation; a functioning unit within a larger system; a medium or engine of circulation, as in a magazine or journal; an instrument, device, or tool; a contraption of pipes that produces music. The concept of the organ unites mechanicity with organicity, function with form, embodiment with perception. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari suggest that it is by detaching from the physical intractability of organs and their functions that we may repurpose the physical and produce an unstable, flowing “body without organs.” We invite papers that seek to mine the valences of perception, embodiment, medium, and literary form prompted by the term “organ,” especially in relation to literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Please send 300-word abstracts and short bio to Natalia Cecire (cecire at berkeley dot edu) and Hillary Gravendyk (hillary dot gravendyk at pomona dot edu) by 1 March 2010.