Friday, April 30, 2010

There once was a young ABD
Who valued her respiratory.
But one sad spring day
It went quite away
But for lozenges, honey, and tea.

There was a near-done dissertation
About to pull into the station.
But ere it was writed
The writer was blighted
With a nose-and-throat complication.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"I am boiling mad at the moment with the tyrannical ukase I received in this morning's mail from the American Medical Association, which, in the name of 'democracy' orders me to pay $25 into their treasury to fight 'socialized medicine,' like it or not. This represents what we are up against in our times." (273)

      --William Carlos Williams to John Crowe Ransom, Jan. 15, 1949

Williams, William Carlos. The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams. Ed. John C. Thirlwall. New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1957. Print.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Tell me true

It's another glorious morning on the Berkeley-Oakland border. On today's schedule: dissertating and grading. Just like every other day!

I've realized that this blog has gotten awfully earnest, and that it's been a while since I posted a hilarious photo of my environs (à la inappropriate Keats). I've actually been in hot pursuit of this photo for months, ever since I saw this ad on the side of an AC Transit bus. I'm pretty slow on the draw with my cell phone camera, so for a long time, every time I saw the ad the bus would pull away before I could snap the photo.

I finally managed it recently by lingering in the crosswalk to slow the bus down. Yes, I am that devoted, because it is basically teen Melanctha, and it's ingenious. Voilà:

The ad is for a teen dating violence hotline, one that looks like an admirable initiative, actually. You can see how it has "Melanctha" all over it. "HOW DO YOU KNOW?" reads the copy, which, of course, is the question in "Melanctha." The fake dialogue given to the teens even mimicks the question ping-pong between Melanctha and Jeff, the indefinite deferral of knowledge:



Why you ask me that, Jeff Campbell, when you know already what I am always saying to you?

The pop psychology subtext of this ad might be that miscommunication causes relationship problems ("drama"). But the ad explicitly makes the relationship into an epistemological problem, "how do you know?" -- the problem of other minds, conducing to language's capacity to create a naturalist (in the Zola sense) closed system ending in a spiral toward violence.

Dial down your drama, people. Do it for Gertrude Stein.

Friday, April 23, 2010

"I want a poetry that's bad for you."

I study experimental poetry.* Experimental poetry, it is generally believed, is ethical poetry. I don't dispute that; indeed, I would argue the same. But what are those ethics, and are they always ethics with which we can agree? That, I think, is a question too rarely asked, and too rarely answered.

I think that the ethics of experimental poetry need not be ethics which we must endorse. I think, furthermore, that experimental poetry is often more concerned with the fact of having an ethics than with the content of its ethics. When we say that experimental poetry is ethical, therefore, it's necessary to specify just what ethical position is being espoused, whether we endorse it, and why anybody should care if we do.

If some poetry is experimental (for most values of "experimental"), then at some point you will see a particular strain of criticism applied to it. Privately (and now publicly, I guess), I call this critical strain "ethical chicken." The goal of ethical chicken is to convince your audience that the poetry you're talking about is the most ethical possible poetry, preferably on formal grounds.

While it's not particularly obvious why this should be the case, it's quite often taken for granted that this involves the negation of the lyric "I," by way of fragmentation, palimpsest, spectrality, suppression, objectification, indirection, obtuseness, or some potent combination of the above. The winner of ethical chicken finds hitherto unimagined ways to obliterate even the possibility of, even the desire for, coherent subjectivity, on the premise that subjectivity is, if not flat-out evil, certainly reprehensibly self-indulgent.

I rarely find this sort of criticism convincing, in part because the formal arguments are often tenuous (white space being taken as an indicator of a radical negation of the self, and suchlike) and in part because, in the end, I find the premise itself--that we should like poetry because it is so ethical--unpersuasive.

Don't get me wrong. I think there's quite a lot of poetry--really good poetry--that is precisely interested in just how splintered or evanescent the subject can be. I also find impersonality fascinating. If robots are involved, I'm usually in. (And the subtext to all of this is that my dissertation is all about the conjunction of ethics and epistemology in experimental writing, and by and large I would say that I endorse it.) What gives me pause is the slippage: first, the suggestion that eradicating the subject amounts to being ethical; second, the notion that the value of poetry lies in what good people it makes us. So fragmented, so committed to hard reality, so literally selfless.

But whatever reservations I have about it, ultimately it isn't the ethics of ethical chicken that worries me per se. Some sloppy philosophical shorthanding frequently goes on, but that's more or less how conversation works. Rather, it's the chicken that's the bigger problem: the logic of going one better, the construction of an ethical continuum in which sheer numerical intensity or increase is the grounds of success. I don't quite know why we so ubiquitously believe that poetry should be ethical, and that it succeeds by being more ethical than most poetry. After all, there are so many different, conflicting ways to be ethical that could be at work in any given poem. Puerile score-keeping replaces a genuine qualitative analysis--that's the problem with ethical chicken.

If we want to claim that a poetry is ethical (and we often do), we ought to be able to say in what respect it is so. We ought, moreover, to be able to say why we should care about it.

What, after all, constitutes a poetry that's bad for you? What does an unethical poetry look like? (Let's face it, it probably looks like flarf.) Whom are we implicitly critiquing when we play ethical chicken, and why?

*I also study other kinds of experimental writing, but today I am talking about poetry, specifically contemporary poetry, because that's where I see ethical chicken most frequently played.

Here I am writing an oppositional post after praising the positive argument. So it goes. Opposition is true friendship.

"I want a poetry that's bad for you": Bernstein, Charles. "Against National Poetry Month as Such." My Way: Speeches and Poems. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999. Print.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Chernin Mentorship Program

PSA: If anyone reading this is a UC Berkeley English major or is thinking about becoming an English major, I highly recommend that you apply to the English department's Chernin Mentorship Program. You'll likely hear this notice elsewhere too, but if you don't and you're interested in the program, feel free to get in touch with me about it.

What is a girl author?

Planning to do research is almost as satisfying as actually doing it. I'll be doing a little research at the Bancroft Library this summer, on Mark Twain and his very dubious notions of girlhood. (This has not gone uncommented in the scholarship by any means, but I'll be focusing in particular on the notion of girl authorship with respect to Twain's daughter Susy, in contrast with, for instance, Emmeline Grangerford). Twain is one of those straight-talkers who can never, in fact, be taken straight. I'm looking forward to getting started on this project. But first I need to finish the one I'm currently doing! On we go.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Against the "excused absence."

I don't know who came up with the idea of the "excused absence," but it's a terrible idea, and here's why. You want students to show up to class because they are supposedly actually learning something by being there. If they miss class, from an educational perspective, it doesn't matter why; it only matters that they've lost 50 minutes of instruction.

The "excused absence" confuses the issue by making it, in essence, a moral one. It makes students believe that being absent for a good reason is the moral equivalent of being in class.

Well, on a moral level, maybe it is! But why is there a moral level to attendance policies at all? College students can vote. Can't they also judge the impact on their grades and decide, as adults, whether to show up to class if they're sick, if they're feeling a little miserable, if it's an absolutely beautiful spring day?

One thing I never want to do is make judgment calls about whose absence is morally righteous and whose isn't. That isn't my job. More to the point, it doesn't matter. You're in class or you aren't, and a student's goodness as a person isn't a factor.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Some months after she had left Johns Hopkins but while her supervisor, Lewellys Barker, was still trying to get her research published, Gertrude Stein defended her representation of sections of the brain by appealing to their clarity. Her language is striking; clarity for Stein means a physical cutting away, "clear[ing] away the underbrush and leav[ing] a clear road." This, she argues, is the substance of her contribution; her drawings are "diagrammatic," burning away irrelevancies and leaving only that which is to be known.

"Not that the books do not all tell the truth as I know it," she adds, "but that they tell so much more."

I usually think of revision in similar terms--a process of retrieving essences and slicing away error. It requires a certain emotional grimness.

I'm usually a big proponent of affectless writing; I abhor any suggestion that one needs to feel like writing in order to write. The inevitable emotional turbulence that comes with thinking one's writing is or is not going well, I tend to observe at a remove. I might be happy with my chapter or I might not be, but either way I'll work on it.

But for those times when I feel I have a mess on my hands and need to clean it up, clear away underbrush, leave a clear road, there is a feeling that I want--a slightly grandiose determination that wrongness will flee before my flaming sword.

Honestly, I think it works pretty well.

* * *

Unrelatedly: I am on a campaign to eliminate the word "congrats." It is a blot on the world's beauty.

Yes, my idea of clarity is remarkably similar to Gertrude Stein's; what of it?

The letter is not dated, but it is clearly from 1902. From the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, reproduced in Steven Meyer, Irresistible Dictation: Gertrude Stein and the Correlations of Writing and Science (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001), among other places.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Whom, under what circumstances, and how should we praise?

One needs a certain facility with praise in this profession. Every time I respond to a piece of writing, some praise must come in, and it must be honest. This is true of the work of the fragile freshman writer, and it is true of the work of a peer. It's a challenge to bring out the right praise, the praise that will be well placed and insightful as well as cheering.

I started thinking about praise recently, when called upon to engage in another kind of praise that we do professionally. It's the kind in which the person you're praising must not know what you say, but must know that you are praising her or him! The knowledge that the reference letter is a genre of praise makes it, for me, exceedingly awkward to ask for one. "Please," you are asking some senior scholar, "go on record praising my work!" What a thing to ask. I am so lucky to have the references I have.

Mary Beard humorously recounts the horrors of writing reference letters, "an average of about 30 minutes a reference, or 8 hours a week at peak times." Of course, that's Mary Beard's life -- in my juniority I write far, far fewer references. So for me the interesting question is not how to manage the influx, but how best to praise one person for another's benefit.

We do this in casual conversation from time to time -- it's hard not to tell your friends when a student asks, unprompted, for feminist history of science references. (That's just the kind of thing that makes your day. And yes that has happened to me.) But the thing you're writing also belongs to a genre of praise, which must itself be mastered.

That we have professional genres of praise is interesting. I've heard the tendency toward hyperbole in reference letters lamented (I think by Mary Beard, in fact); I've also heard it lamented that book reviews are rarely negative. But there is an art of praise; it must not be generic or canned; it must be stylized, but it must be real. To do it properly it's necessary to distill bright essences from weeks or months or years of small interactions and, perhaps, a few essays.

When I think of praise as a genre, I think of some quite formal poetic modes. I think of the stylized praise of Old English poetry, and the ambivalent praise of the ode. I once wrote a poem of praise for a colleague--a silly one, doggedly (and annoyingly) dactylic, but praise all the same. The formality of praise can be a help.

I think praise is a compelling competency to have to develop. Perhaps we should begin to compose our references in verse, the better to foreground its craft--the better to say, look, I have crafted this complex and well balanced thing on behalf of my student, who, after all, deserves it.

Beard, Mary. "How many references do you write in a week? A Don's Life. Times Literary Supplement Online Blogs. Web. 3 April 2010.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


There comes a point in every academic's life, sooner or later, when various professional bitternesses set in, and one's private self rails against the injustices of the world. The world is in fact unjust, so it's a thing that has to be done, but it's not a way to work.

Someone recently said to me that literary critics are either builders or cutters: they extend others' ideas or cut others' ideas down. As far as I can tell, this is more a matter of framing than of substance; any building necessarily cuts against whatever else might have once occupied that space; any cutting implicitly rests on certain strongly held, if unavowed, beliefs. The framing can be powerful, though; I'm currently reading a book, for instance, that largely stages itself as cutting, and, halfway through, I'm still unclear on the book's actual argument.

In my writing I try as much as possible to be a builder. To my mind, building is more difficult, and therefore more rewarding, than cutting. Building is, as much as possible, an act of creation. But the commitment to building is also part of my research interests; despite their sometimes oppositional language ("I, too, dislike it"), the authors I study are interested in bringing something forth that was once concealed, or insubstantial, or inaccessible.

In the midst of various pressures, it is good to be able to bring something forth, and so in what (wrongly, of course) feels like my old age I find myself renewing my commitment to building. I find myself interested in the craft of critical writing, in the presence of the voice, in the modalities of affection, in what it means to praise. (This last, admittedly, in the context of needing to write a letter of recommendation for something unusually important.) That doesn't mean I've gone all hippie: I'm also interested in invective, in aporia, in travesty, in the poetics of mockery. But I'm interested in them as things that exist rather than as negations of something else.

In other words, I suppose, I'm feeling productive. Which is a good way to be in April, allegedly the cruellest month.

'Again the sun!
     anew each
     day; and new and new and new,
     that comes into and steadies my soul.' (ll. 142-5)

Moore, Marianne. "The Pangolin." A-Quiver with Significance: Marianne Moore, 1932-1936. Ed. Heather Cass White. Victoria, BC: ELS Editions, 2008. Print.