Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What English Majors Don't Want

I keep getting emails from a couple of graduate programs who seem to think an old gal like me is just itching to go get professionalized.  I don't know if they're wooing me because of my absolutely spectacular GRE scores (uh-huh...) or if they just send this crud to every schmo who has their name plastered on a uni website's TA listings.  Either way, they've got me (and many English majors) all wrong,

Does it seem to you that I would want to wear a grey suit? Straighten my hair and part it in the middle?  Pair this new style with some non-descript silver earrings and black pumps?  Drink water from tall, clear glasses?  Shake hands with similarly grey-suited, dark-haired man-children? Do you think I have a business card? (If I did it would be a haiku.)  And WTF is my "business"? 

Maybe this is what the school looks like? No. Wait.  No one wears a fucking suit vest to class. And they don't give you free water.

This must be the life I'll live as a junior executive after getting my master's degree in professional writing or some shit.  Right?

Seems like false advertising.  The grad school advert depicts career life, not grad school life.  I don't think anyone who is this "career oriented" (as the douches and douchettes in the picture) should even think about going to grad school.  These things don't happen there.  And you have to go through a whole lot of there once you sign up.  If your goal is the corner office, you'd do better to just climb the side of the building and wait for an opening.

I was a speaker at a roundtable discussion this evening.  It was six English graduates telling a circle of soon-to-be-graduates about avenues they might take after college.  A couple speakers suggested trying out as many things as you can, like temping, and seeing what you like.  A humanities education has made us into jacks of all trades, so why not?  I think that's good advice for someone who knows they don't want to keep going to school.  But one speaker, who had a very weird specialized job that no one else will ever be able to get, told the group not to go to grad school.  She told them that her friends didn't graduate, and that you can have a "meaningful career" without more degrees.  Well, what if some of those English majors are not looking for a "career"?  In fact, our major's tagline could probably be: "Career? No. Meaningful? Yes."

I think the very reason some of us study English is because "career" isn't even a thing for us.  As long as we can eat, and we can see a day on the horizon where we might even be slightly comfortable, doing English is the thing. So we're not looking for a way to make money.  We're looking for something to do.  Or even, a way of being.  What's the line they always give about diets nowadays?  It's a lifestyle decision

I know I have probably written about this ad nauseum on this blog, but the roundtable session tonight just reinforced my confidence in my decision about what to do with myself in this life.

It might sound silly to refuse to call what professors (instructors, TAs, etc) do a "career."  I use the word, yes, and even in my head I use it.  I was just thinking how I'll be over forty before I'm "mid-career,"*  and wondering if that's normal.  Maybe I can have a mid-life crisis and a mid-career crisis simultaneously.  (That sounds like an occasion for a party.) So, what we do can be called a career, but it is not to be conceived of as a career.  That is to say, it does not have a career teleology. 

*(Mid-career is from 7-10 years in, till 7-10 years from retirement.  Just in case you want to start throwing that term around at luncheon parties.)

Anyhow, to go back to the picture of executive youth, we don't even need to get all self-righteous about the English major to see what's wrong with this marketing strategy.  It's as simple as the grey suits.  You show me ironed hair and suits and and fancy water glasses and business cards, and I respond with profound discomfort.  You see, I have messy hair, I wear scarves, I drink tea from a second-hand mug, and I'm in the staff directory.  And I am quite comfortable.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Rhetoric, I Swear

I swear.  I swear pretty much every day.  Sometimes it's for a stubbed toe, other times, a forgotten homework reading.  But sometimes I swear to make a point.

Rhetorical swearing works on several levels.  First, it is an attention getter.  Second, swearwords are often the most intense word for a thing ("shithead" is way grosser and meaner sounding than "poopyhead"), or they can be used to modify a word to make it more intense (not just "crazy," but "fucking crazy").  Third, swearwords can express a sense of humor about a serious subject -- which can either lighten the mood of a piece, or make it irreverent.  This third use is probably the most complex.  (As we talked about in pedagogy class today, we are not allowing our students to write on a funny ad when they write their essay about a commercial.  Funny is too hard.) 

I use swearwords on this blog in all three of those ways.  Although, I probably avoid the attention-getting tactic unless the attention-getting obscenity ties in with the tone of the piece. (I was going to title this "Some Fucking Rhetoric" or something like that, but decided to play with words instead.) The Onion uses attention-getting swears in article titles all the time.  When the rest of the article keeps up that tone it works, and it does not seem out of place.  This is true for the recent Steve Jobs obit, "Last American Who Knew What the Fuck He Was Doing Dies."

I can't think of an example that uses attention-getting swears without going for humor.  I don't know if that tactic would even work for intelligent people.  I'm mostly talking here about what works in essays and articles. But rhetoric is for everyone. So, to take it to the streets, "REPRESENT, BITCHES" probably gets more attention than "DO WHAT IS RIGHT, WOMEN" when someone wants to be persuasive within a group of she-thugs.

The second use of swearwords is pretty much the standard one.  They enhance our message, making it more intense, and more "colorful," as the prudes like to say.  While I do that all the time here, and everyone already knows how to do it (if you do need a swearing lesson, I can probably hook you up), there is still a rhetoric to swearing this way.  The most important thing to do is to build up to the dirty words.  If you haven't set a tone with a title like "Comma Splices: An Asshole's Delight" then you haven't yet let on that you are among the potty-mouthed.  This is good -- you have a rhetorical ace in the hole!  When your reader can't see that "FUCK!" coming at the end of an exasperated sentence, it is a pleasantly unpleasant surprise.  "Jeepers, this writer doesn't like to curse, but this thing makes'im mad enough to kick a cat by golly! Must be important!" (Says your newly-convinced reader.)

Swearwords as humorous interjections or humorous modifiers in an essay create a complex system of truth combined with hyperbole, seriousness combined with refusal to take things seriously.  I try to use my swears like this as much as possible. It's a goddamn bitch to pull off sometimes, but so fucking worth it.

So I write this because I have a serious (serious!) problem with people who think swearwords have no place in an argument, i.e. an article, blog entry, etc.  A commenter on my Jimmy Buffet post from a couple years back said:

"I doubt if you were face to face with a parrot head (or me) you would use poor language like that, but I suppose you feel safe behind your computer sweety. What next, going to call us "retards?" To think, this whole time I thought liberals were supposed to be politically correct."

I had used the word "dumbasses" to describe a bunch of drunken parrot heads spilling margaritas all over themselves. She took it quite personally.  Poor language? Some of the best words are swears!  And somehow, since I am educated I'm not allowed to use bad words.  And somehow, she thinks swearing is politically incorrect.  I'm not sure how her logic got her there, but there she is. When people get offended, they say all kinds of stupid shit.

And there is the KEY WORD!  Offended.  The possibility of offending is the number one reason some people think that cussing is off limits for educated people, even when they're writing down to earth stuff.  Well, it offends me that someone would be offended by a swearword.*  In the class I'm teaching, we read a story entitled "All Beings Are Interconnected."  The author uses humor and ethos (among other rhetorical strategies) to tell a story of demoralizing captivity.  He makes up funny words for gross things, like the Unfortunate Mess Rag.  One of my students wrote on this story, and she said his essay was effective because he made up those words to make sure he didn't offend anyone!  I think she used the word "offend" about five times.  I wrote on her draft that she was missing the point.  Since when does an author write a story about something so important and life-changing, and stop to change words so that they don't offend someone?  He chose not to use swearwords, but I'm pretty fuckin' sure that's not why.

*(OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE is another thing entirely.  Language that is meant to do harm to or to make generalizations about women, African-Americans, gays, or other groups [excepting parrot heads] should not be tolerated by any educated person.  But saying "Fuck" is not the same thing.)

To provide some support for my offensive arguments, I can point to many examples of swearing in very popular, widely read, and even incredibly intelligent magazines and websites.  I mentioned The Onion, but another favorite of mine is Rolling Stone magazine.  That's the first place I ever saw the "f" word in print.  I was fucking flabbergasted. Every issue drops f-bombs I'm sure.

To go beyond the printed word, since rhetoric is a spoken thing too, a colleague of mine mentioned today that she counseled a student with this advice: "You'll really have to bust your balls if you want to get caught up."  She wondered if that was okay.  I assured her there is a rhetoric to swearing, and that she had pulled out a crude turn of phrase at just the right time.  That student needed his attention grabbed, and he needed to know that she A) is taking his absences seriously, and B) still has a sense of humor with her students, even when they fuck up. That one little obscenity took care of all that rhetoric!

I could continue with anecdotes (like one of my pedagogy instructors nodding his head vigorously when I suggested some of my "rhetoric of swearing" in class), but anecdotes (and my own attempts at rhetorical swearing here) are all I have.  I could not find an article that argues what I am saying here.  There is plenty on the cultural value of swearwords, on the linguistics of swearwords and how they can be just about any part of speech (or even in-fixed!), and even on how swearwords can help relieve pain!  But no "Rhetoric of Fuck."  Maybe I should formalize this and do it up proper. (Without removing the swearing, of course.)

You'll notice I never swear when I'm writing a piece on Milton.  That's one fucker I do not wish to offend.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Colonoscopy? (or, another look at the colon)

If you remember last year (I hardly do), I wrote a little article entitled "Against the Titular Colon."  Read it, if you would like to continue reading this with some knowledge of my particular anti-colon arguments.

(Sorry for telling you to go read it.  If you read blogs on shit like this, you've probably already clicked the link.  Can you tell I've been teaching freshmen?  Can you tell they don't do their readings?)

Well, I received one of the nicest blog-related emails I've ever had the pleasure of reading from one Vivian R. of the American Musicological Society.  According to Vivian, a "major newspaper arts critic excerpted about 35 paper titles from our forthcoming national meeting program and published them without the post-colonial  (i.e., intelligible) portions."  In other words, only the part of the title that came before the colon (what would be the "real" title of, say, a book with a subtitle) was printed.  Can you imagine?!  This colonic oversight led to a firestorm on the AML listserv discussion. (Yes, apparently those are still a thing.) Wow!

But really, what do colon-dependent paper writers expect?  Why would someone write a pre-colonial gibberish title?  The part after the colon should illuminate, not be the final result of some colonic process. Writers should not expect the colon to fix their bad titles by digesting them. You put in crap you get out crap.


So it doesn't magically make your title good.  And, if you already have a good title (the "post-colonial," "intelligible" bit -- it sounds like some of AML's truncated titles must have been good before the critic chopped them), don't cheapen it by putting it on the back end of a colon!  You know what's on the back end of a colon, right?

First, I have to give Vivian major props for that colon pun.  Post-colonial!  Ha!  Most colon jokes (and most of my colon jokes) tend toward the scatological.

Next, I have to thank Vivian for sharing me with the AML listserv.  She forwarded my humble blog article, offered up as an end to the discussion: "This should settle for all time what a proper title should look like," she tells the list.  Thank you Vivian.

Hear that? (Read that?) No more colons, because I said so.

Last, I have to excerpt here Vivian's discussion on why we should try not to make so many poop-related colon jokes.  She did some nice etymological detective work for the list:

"Bad puns invoking medical procedures and body-parts abound. The most interesting was "colotomic structure" [...] The medical definition of "colotomy" is an incision into the colon. "Stoma" is not the removal of an organ, but the creation of an artificial "mouth" to take over the function of the organ altered or removed. Thus, all the "colostomy" jokes about punctuation are misguided."

Darn! Oh well.  I was just about to make another one.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Swing of Things

Did you ever hear that old saying, "The more you do, the more you can do"?  I've always believed in it, and now that I'm teaching I believe it to the core.

So some of them might hate me.  Some of them just hate writing.  And sure, I couldn't figure out for the life of me why they still didn't understand the assignment after I explained it three times.  Yes I stumbled today when the pre-printed handouts the department gave me referenced last year's comp class's assignments instead of this one's.  But I'm also sure they can't tell this is the first time I've ever done anything like this. 

I'm loving teaching, but perhaps more importantly I'm loving the cohort I'm teaching with.  Either the stars aligned for us, or the university's application readers have a knack for selecting mostly compatible kids. (We share such a cramped space, it would be awful if it were jammed with a disagreeable crew.) A small group of us had a celebratory pint after class today, at the local dive bar with the sticky floors and the peeling tabletops. We started out talking about our students, then about the program, and then ended up discussing genealogy for an hour.  It was nice to talk about something besides school with my schoolmates, after these two grueling weeks of teaching practicum and then BOOT! right into teaching.

It is just so awesome to work with and socialize with people who get the thing you are doing with yourself!  (And it helps that they're all real smart too.) I am working hard and probably tiring myself out because of it, but it feels good.  This is not work, I keep thinking.  Those other jobs were work.  This is just what I do.

This is the longest I've been away from this blog, but I wanted to post something to record that I'm not done with it yet.  This has been a crazy month, and I will get back in the swing of more things than ever pretty soon. It seems even in the short time since I have started the school year that I can do so much more with myself.  I'm starting to love routines, because they mean everything will get done. I pack lunches for me and my first-grader, I help him with his homework, I grade my students' homework, I do MY homework. The house is getting messy during the week, but I'm a whirlwind of cleaning energy on the weekends.  And then there's the band. New songs this month, and practice every week, and editing video for our website. HOLY CRAP how am I doing all these things?  And I still want to post my little essays here.  I know I can find the time, because: "The more you do, the more you can do!"  (For about 16 weeks anyway. Week 14 I know I'll be begging for Christmas to come.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Words to Eat


In this heat wave, the worst since my move to Illinois, my favorite words have started to move to cooler pastures. (That is, if words graze on pastures befitting their seasonal appetites.) Fall being my favorite season, I usually gravitate toward woody, full-bodied words that linger like a nut brown ale.  But this summer, in 100 degree misery, those words will never do. "Maritime" has wandered into the fold, as well as some food words that bring me more joy than I formerly cared to notice.  

I love consumables. Not the word, the things themselves. By that I mean ingestibles, I suppose. Food and drink.  I can't just say I love food, because then you'd think I was a foodie.  I'm certainly not.  Besides, it is my fervent love of drinks that is rather uncanny. (I love drinks in a can.)  And by that I don't mean booze alone.  Anything liquid that can be bottled, poured, canned, fountained, I'm pretty much all over it. I always have to have something to drink.  I am an iced tea fiend.  If it is in tea form I will drink it. This brings me to my first new favorite word: REFRESHMENTS.

As a kid I always thought that refreshments were supposed to be refreshing.  Not hard cookies, not room temperature juice.  Minty lady fingers or layered cookies, cucumber sandwiches, flavored iced tea...those things are refreshing. I expected these things to be there, whenever any event claimed to have "refreshments" waiting on a table somewhere.  I also thought it meant drinks, and lots of them.  Why else do they say "Can I freshen up your drink?"  And why are dry, packaged foods supposed to be refreshing? I think anyone hosting some event with "refreshments" after should change the invite to say "snacks" if all they have are snacks.  REFRESHMENTS require far more attention to detail and far more hospitality than a PTA meeting or a chess night at the library can muster.  They must refresh.  Delight and refresh.

To move into food-only territory, another word: SANDWICHES.

Doesn't it just sound like what it is?  Weird since it's named after a guy.  The word has less to do with the thing than just about any word!  And it's never troubling that "SAND" is in there.  Everyone's had a sandy sandwich at the beach, and it's quite awful.  Yet the name doesn't put us off.  The SAND is like the part of the word that represents all the stuff, and the WICH is like the mushing together.  SAAAAAND (putting on lettuce, putting on mayonnaise, putting on cheeses...) WICH! (SMOOSH! It's a sandwich!)  I eat most sandwiches on untoasted bread. I like the WICH to be extra WICHy.  And what a refreshment for a hot day!

CUCUMBER SANDWICHES and FINGER SANDWICHES are two subsets (and the latter includes the former) of SANDWICHES that I adore, both for the words and the things themselves.  There were finger sandwiches at my honors convocation reception in undergrad.  That is the last time I saw them.  Sandwich ephemera. (Isn't all food a kind of ephemera?) I pressed toward the many-tiered finger sandwich tower only to find that ham salad was all that remained.  The parents of the other honorable students had devoured my hard-earned finger sandwiches.  I was devastated. Even chocolate covered strawberries could not bring me out of my finger sandwich funk.

I never make finger sandwiches for myself at home.  Ninety-nine percent of the point is that someone had to make them for you. (Funny how sandwiches went from something for men to eat while playing cards to something with which women impress other women. But now they are universal, and so American at once!)

A broader category of food thing with a lovely word to denote it is the LUNCHEON.

LUNCHEON first appeals to me because it is old-fashioned.  Today a luncheon is only called that when it is some big lunch gathering for a cause or a seminar or something.  Red Hat ladies luncheon.  But suburban housewives just go to lunch.  Don't they know people used to luncheon just for the sake of lunching!  I adore the scene in A Room of One's Own when Mary gazes out the window, turning away from the "luncheon party" to think about whether women hummed Tennyson at luncheon parties before the war.  And her refusal to gloss over the dishes! She catalogs the fare of the luncheon -- it is as much about the food as it is about "something very witty that was said."

Lunch is my favorite meal (there's always a sandwich in it, right?), yet it is the one I get to share with others most seldom. I almost never luncheon. I would like to say witty things while gesturing with a cucumber sandwich. I'm picturing it.

So those are my food words this summer.  I have also renewed my penchant for Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink, because it's like chocolate milk that won't make you puke in the summer, and it's a drink so I have to drink it.  (My son calls it "Yo-Ho.") This is the first time I've noticed a real seasonal change in the words I think about, and try to use often.  I can add seasonal word disorder and seasonal food disorder (shouldn't we all eat seasonal?) to my seasonal music disorder.  All of these neuroses probably keep me out of the woods for Seasonal Affective Disorder. I'll stay over here in the cool green pasture and luncheon on my sandwiches and refreshments.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Band

I may be a student of literature, and I may be about to hold in my hands the minds of 25 unsuspecting college freshmen, molding them (hopefully) into properly processing centers of language and critical thought.  But that doesn't mean I don't have a life.  I figured I'd live out my rock'n'roll persona this month, the last before I take on the frightening task of role modeling.

I'm in a band.  It's a silly thing.  A classic rock cover band that only plays bars and parties in the western suburbs of Chicagoland.  We do all right.  This band is comprised of me and four men, one of whom is about ten years my senior, and the rest even older.  So they have good taste in music.

We used to have the stupidest name. It was awful. So we changed it to something consummately awful.  We are making our debut as


this August 13 in Aurora, Illinois.

Crass! Offensive! What? These are all things one might say at the sound of that name.  I didn't choose it, but I like it. It makes no sense. And it's delightfully awful.

I am the lead singer, but I am not Dick Coyle.

Please enjoy photos of us looking very serious. We will drill your ass. Website is "under construction."

Robyn Coyle
Lead Singer, Harp, Small Cha Chas

PS: I know shorts are not rock'n'roll.  But photo shoots no one knew were about to happen are.

All photos are copyright Erica Nicksin, who also had no idea she was about to shoot photos.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Summertime and the Livin's Aubrey

I started copying some lady faces.
My darling friend Erica visited me this past week, and brought me treasures from the New York City. One such treasure is a yellow cloth-bound biography of Aubrey Beardsley.  The true measure of a friend is when she brings you something you never knew you wanted, yet once you see the thing, you say, "I've been wanting that."

Erica studied history, I, literature.  She usually reads the history.  I usually read the literature.  When she arrived with a thick copy of MELVILLE this visit, I got to thinking about biographies.  They are a hard thing to read sometimes, for those of us who want everything to be a story. Or more accurately, who want everything to have layers of meaning. How can this be, with biography?  Last semester I dragged through a well written, detail-filled, critical biography of Milton. The Lewalski.  Indispensable to a Milton scholar, but summer reading it is not. Erica and I talked about biographies. Turns out, few of them are summer reading. Aubrey Beardsley happens to be an exception.

Ended with creeps.
(Click for a close-up!)
I'm enjoying the read, even though there are only a few plates. Presumably if one is reading the biography of Aubrey Beardsley, one is probably already familiar with his or her drawings of men and/or women (Erica and I also discussed the silliness and the limits of gender neutral language!), and one does not need an extensive collection of Beardsley prints thickening up the bio.  So I am in the midst of it, watching little precocious Aubrey charm all his schoolmasters, when I get the urge to draw.  I have not drawn in ages.  A biography that gives one the urge to draw is indeed a good biography.

So it began with the copied lady faces (and other parts) like the illustration above, and ended with my own characters like this sleazy fin de siecle fellow on the left.

Now, back to reading about Beardsley!

My drawing of the Beardsley photograph in Weintraub's book.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Unfriending Ourselves

Sometime in August, I am planning a single-person exodus from Facebook.  I have paid my way through school, including two years of undergrad and a year of grad school, by working in internet marketing and social media.  So how can I want to leave Facebook?  Because I like to be different, I guess.  Whenever I hear that "90% of people do this stupid thing" I no longer want to do that stupid thing. (I know that 90% of the freakin' WORLD is not on Facebook, but according to some studies, 90% of people who use the internet are on Facebook.)  I read a dumb article that the internet is "shrinking" while facebook is growing.  The article was poorly argued, but we can all see how Facebook is taking over like AOL once did long ago, making every user think that Facebook IS the internet.

As far as marketers are concerned, this means we need to focus more and more on conversions (a dirty word for getting your money) through Facebook.  Marketers are like the linguists of advertising culture.  Linguists just watch what language does and record it, take note of it, respond to it.  They don't try to influence it.  Marketers do the same with people's buying habits and spending trends.  They don't try to influence what you buy or what ads you like -- they watch what you are already buying and responding to, and try to profit on that.  No marketer (or linguist) says "This trend is bad! People are idots to let Facebook tell them how to interact with businesses!" Or, for the linguists, "People are idiots to always type in text message lingo!"  They just accept it, and work with it. They make no value judgments.

I don't agree with the linguists or the marketers on these things.  I value-judge like a mofo.

I've read too many reports about how we need to keep focusing on Facebook.  But Facebook is eating our brains! Why can't we just decide to say "FUCK FACEBOOK" and move on?  Well, the bottom line is, online companies won't make as much money (at least not right away) if they do that.

But I'm not concerned about making money off of Facebook anymore.  Next month I will have far bigger concerns! Concerns we lucky denizens of the First World have contended with before Mark Zuckerwhatever was even a twinkle in anybody's eye!  "How do we teach people how to write?"  That will be my main concern.

So yes, I am worried about losing touch with real friends.  But if they are real friends, they can email me pictures of their daughter, or an interesting article they found.  Or they can Tweet at me all they want.  I have no desire or need to flee from Twitter.  (It's only words!)  Leaving Facebook does mean I won't see myself in other people's eyes in quite the same way.  I will sort of be unfriending myself.  But I will continue to have alternative social outlets, and an ongoing message of blather.  I can't help myself.  I'm a writer.

So email me, tweet me, blog me, or Flickr me if you like to look at things.  Just please don't Facebook me.  I'm too cool for that now.

I had hoped to wax more philosophic about this, but here is a good article on why to do it and how to do it from my friend Mike Johnduff, who was off Facebook before "off Facebook" was cool:

How to get off Facebook

And here is an article from a couple years ago when Facebook first started fucking with my brain:

Robyn Byrd is Itchy Typewriter Finger

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Oh, Old People

I have always had a sickeningly soft spot for a certain kind of old person.  I don't know if it's something about their money woes, their physical discomfort, their confusion at new situations, or what.  Then there's their love of being around young people, no matter who the young people are -- that gets me too.  I just think they can be so cute and endearing I just don't know what to do about it.  There almost always will be a miscommunication when a young person is speaking to a very old person, and this opens up a space of confusion and empathy for both of them.  All this probably sounds insensitive, like I'm not being politically correct about the elderly.  Well, the elderly is a big faceless saggy group of people hailing from all walker-assisted walks of old-person life.  Not all of them are loveable. Some are downright intolerable.  But I can't exactly explain what makes the ones who are loveable stick in my head the way they do.  Here are some of  my old people, or situations that make me think of them:

- An old man at a Pennsylvania gas station, full service.  He hobbles out to do his job, but we don't need gas. We need bathrooms and snacks. After the bathroom stop, we ask about the snacks.  He says "Head on over to the snack shop there!" It's a shelter next to the gas station with vending machines in it, and we don't have any change.  I will buy your gas next time old man! And I'll bring change! I'm so sorry!

- Aisles of toys at drug stores and grocery stores always make me think of old people.  They don't go to toy stores, but they certainly go to drug stores.  If they are visiting a grandchild, they might buy cheaply made, overpriced toys, bibs, teething rings because they're there.  This is no big deal to the mom who wants to shut up her whiny five-year-old with the plastic bow and arrow set.  Young people can always earn more money tomorrow.  But the old people!  Their fixed incomes! Noooo!

-Fake and knockoff toys and videos also make me think of old people.  Again, they are in the grocery store, or they used to be much more often when I was a kid.  I rememberbeing 8 or 9 years old, looking at faded VHS tapes of "The Very Little Mermaid" or some other Disney knockoff and wanting to cry, thinking of the old man who would buy that for his four-year-old grandaughter only to have her throw a temper tantrum when Ariel didn't show up on the screen in Disneycolor. Oh dear, dear.  Yes I have always thought about these things.  I wanted to bawl right there in the Martin's Foods checkout while my mom plopped packages of chicken thighs and boxes of potatoes on the sticky conveyor belt.  (And years before this, my mom would buy Golden Books at the supermarket.  That was in the early '80s, when markets were still places to "market" specifically to women, and the freezers had those plastic flappy things instead of doors.  I think we even got our encyclopedias at Martin's.  My Goldenbooks still have the discount price tags on them, 69 cents, 81 cents...)

-With an ex, visiting an old man who was once an influential cartoonist.  He was ailing, his wife gone for a couple of years, and he was living with his son in Northern California.  His son had his own family to deal with, so our visit was so welcomed.  We offered to get this old man some things at the store.  He asked for maybe two things.  We brought him back a big basket of all kinds of fruit.  I remembered he liked fruit.  He was so happy he wanted to give me a cute old man peck on the cheek.  But he had shrunken so much, as he leaned in I could tell he was going to miss. So he hugged me a little, and planted a kiss on the tip of my collar bone.

- My grandmother is a hoarder.  Not the kind whose house is filled with cats (she hates cats!), but whose kitchen is filled with foods of questionable freshness.  The refrigerator teems with half-drunk glasses of buttermilk (hers) and open soda bottles (no doubt some ungrateful granchild's).  The ancient Formica table, not '50s Formica but some '40s variety with a wooden drawer full of things that have been there since I was a kid, is spotted with the tiniest ceramic dishes, each with a little glass lid, holding leftover potatoes, banana pudding, biscuits, and anything else that can stand to "set out" until bedtime or longer, just in case someone would like to eat it.  Grandma Byrd's standards for what goes in the fridge are a holdover from the icebox days, when cold space was at a premium.  Now that she has this refrigerator, the former "larder" items still sit outside the fridge, growing tangy, while Grandma, overwhelmed by the cavernous space within that modern appliance, fills it up with cups of milk.


I know this seems like a pretty random entry, but besides just wanting to share my old people pathos, I think this is a bit topical too.  Like I said in that politically incorrect sentence above, we don't really sympathize with "the elderly" as a group; at least not the same way we feel for "children in poverty" or "kids with cancer" or other groups that might need our care and help.  But many of us sympathize with elderly individuals quite deeply.  In light of recent threats to Medicare, I think we all need to remember the old people we know and love, remember the stories they tell, the funny little things they do, the crotchety hugs they give, and all the little details that make us love them and make us want them to stick around as long as they can.  Then we need to remember that many old people are someone else's Pop-pop, Meemaw, Grammy, or whatever, and that for all of them to stick around, they're going to need a little help from all of us strong, young folks who have time enough to make another dollar tomorrow.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Grad Student Paper Panic

My last post was about the term paper I wrote for my Milton class.  It was a grand old idea for a paper (so I thought), but it tumbled out of my hands pretty quickly.  I'd never written on Milton alone (though I'd focused on him for a fem crit paper or two in undergrad), and I soon saw how big he really is.  The paper, to be complete, would have to span time back to Virgil's day, nay, back to the beginning of time itself.  To talk about the pastoral, to give any complete sense of what it is, one would need a thorough education in classics, along with concordances to Milton,  Romantic poetry, metaphysical poetry (what are we supposed to call it nowadays?), etc, and the ability to see all these things happening at once.  Only God (or Milton) could do justice to a paper on Milton. So it seemed.

Have you ever turned in a paper and been completely embarrassed by the act?  Not just the act of writing such a steaming pile, but the act of placing something so putrid on the desk of a learned professor who you know will see right through the pages of your crap to your true self, the trembling, ignorant student! Or maybe he'll just think you're a hack.  And which would be the more shameful? you start to wonder as you scurry out of the classroom.  You wait for an email where he demands to know what you thought you were trying to get away with, putting that thing on his desk that way.  Nothing comes.  You dread the next class session.  Next week, you avoid eye contact during lecture.  "If he sees me, he'll know!"  You're still not sure if you're a lazy jerk trying to get away with something, or if you just have no idea what you're doing.  "Here it comes!  Oh God! Oh God!" 


Do all grad students do this to themselves?  I mean, I did get a "minus" after my "A," but as I said, I did fumble a bit under the weight of Milton's hefty pastoral legacy.  But I guess I didn't really drop the ball. 

Next day, in my bibliography class, the room was filled with chatter of the final short paper we were turning in.  A girl behind me, a smart cookie, a teaching assistant with two years of freshman wrangling under her belt, was having Grad Student Paper Panic (GSPP).  "I know I say all my papers are bad...but this one is REALLY BAD!"  Her fears were echoed by the rest of the class, half of them Ph. D. candidates.  I'm sure she will also get an A minus.  Or maybe even an A.  (Bibliography class is nowhere near as serious as Milton class.  I really thought I was about to get kicked out of school.)

My newest blogger associate over at Girl on a Mountain with a Chicken blog recently wrote about GSPP in her program.  It is real!

Before he handed back the Milton papers, the professor handed each of us a "certificate" printed on marbly parchment paper: "PERITUS MILTONI" it proclaimed.  I think I'll frame it.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Pastoral Degeneration

Lo! The sheep are melting!

A summary of the paper I'm writing, on Milton of course:

To Hell and Back: Pastoral Degeneration in Milton's Poems (Workin' title! Want to find something in PL to replace "to hell and back.")

The young Milton is thoroughly "rusticated" by the time he composes "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity." The classical pastoral had become his best expressive vehicle, and he continues to work in this Virgilian vein into his 30s, culminating with "Lycidas" (in English) and "Epitaphiam Damonis," his last Latin pastoral elegy. At this point he vows he will lay down the pastoral altogether, unless he can continue it in a distinctly English voice. When Milton finally gets down to the real work of his great poem, Paradise Lost, he has moved away from his earlier dependence on pastoral imagery and builds an epic work, rivaling Virgil's later epic poetry, but, like epic Virgil, Milton still interweaves the reminiscent, soothing tones of the "oaten flute" behind the soaring voice of his universal tragedy. The penetrating literary tradition, found in Milton's dense allusions and similes, is evidence of Pastoralism's strands in the fabric of PL. Finally, as Milton dealt so beautifully with pastorals of fields, forests, and even oceans in his early poetry, Milton must deal with the ultimate pastoral landscape -- Eden. His classical mindset, his constant urge for Virgilian homage, and his Christian beliefs must come together to create a pastoral scene like no other, both in its resplendent beauty before the Fall, and in its completely degenerated form (degenerated, like his use of the pastoral has become) once our "general ancestors" have undone any hope of reclaiming the perfect Earthly landscape.

That's just the summary I wrote up to share with my colleagues.  Now I have to actually write that shit.  Just wanted to say 'hi' to the blog, to confirm that yes I am still reading Milton, and no I am not getting lazy. 

When I came up with that degeneration concept (which I haven't found anything specific on -- yes!), I was thinking of Milton's pastoral lapse and his move to the epic, by fits and starts (some seemingly intentional, some a writer's struggle).  I'm not as interested in what made Milton change his tune, but what happens when you take this degenerated application of a literary type (pastoral elegy) and apply it to Eden, pre- and post-lapse.  The former is almost garishly and sexually generative, the latter is (and I didn't even intend this!) most literally degenerative. Add in all Milton's careful use of words like "general ancestor" and I've got all kinds of wordplay to work with.  I'm still trying to work in something about Hell being a pastoral landscape too, but I don't know if that will fly.

My sources are all antique ones, which I think is okay for Milton studies.  All the newer sources were about "the body," gender, and other such buzzword buzzkills. I wanted some good meaty treatments of the Virgilian aspects of Milton, the pastoral, you know, old timer stuff.  So I'm turning to some dead men who wrote for Studies in Philology and the like, and I will see you in 15 pages or so.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Fun with Milton

4/13/11:  Added some more stuff after third reading.

I decided to make a list of fun things and thoughts about Paradise Lost.  Not that the whole thing isn't fun, but some parts are funnier (or more interesting) than others. We are keeping commonplace books, but it's possible that not everything in my notes will stay in the commonplace.

The Whole Poem
Milton only uses the word "providence" three times in the poem.

How many times does he use "orient"?  It gets so old!  I don't think I get too tired of any of his other oft repeated words and appellations ("vouchsafed," "general ancestor," etc.) but "orient" is used almost once per book.  It really catches the ear if you listen to the poem, and not in a good way.

Milton's use of "thunder" in place of lightening.  Thunder is sound.  The word is sound.  Thunder is the word? Whoa.  Pretty cool, JM.

Satan never goes in a straight line.  He bends, wheels, scours the edges of hell, etc.  He also never looks back, literally or figuratively.

Satan sees one thing at a time, God sees everything at once.

Books I and II
Satan rocks.

Book III
God has intensely fresh breath. (l. 135-36)

We're supposed to think the demons are cowards because they don't offer to fly through Chaos (Book II), but the wimp angels don't volunteer for a suicide mission either.  Only The Son takes that on.

God is so boring.  What's Satan up to? (flip, flip, flip...)

Book IV
Uriel is a little light on his feet.  Even for an angel.  He's got technicolor wings and sparkly locks and what not.

Satan is a voyeur.

Gabriel is kind of a jerk. First he tells Uriel "Nobody got in on my watch!" when obviously someone did.  Then Gabe calls Satan a liar when Satan gives more than one excuse for why he fled hell.  Of course he's going to make excuses.  He's Satan, for Christ's sake!

"Myself am Hell"  (l. 75).  Great line. Put that one on your bathroom mirror!

"...into the fold" (l. 187). For some reason that combination of words is beautiful to me.  He uses it twice within a few lines.

Satan turns into a cormorant (like a vulture) and perches on the Tree of Life (l. 194). Creepy stuff!

The circus of animals cavorting around in the garden is garish.  I can't help getting that sick tickle in my stomach when I read lines like "the sportful herd" (l. 396).  I think it even trumps "trip on the light fantastic toe" (L'Allegro) which actually doesn't bother me so much anymore.  The scene gets even sicker when Satan starts turning into one, then another creature.  I love animals, but I guess I always pictured Eden as a North American Paradise, with some nice fawns, bunnies, and robins and stuff.  Elephants and tigers are too wacky.

Satan cusses for real: "Oh Hell!" (l. 358).  He's not saying "O Hell," like "Hail Hell!" or "Hey there, Hell."  He's really saying "OH HELL!" as in, "FUCK!"

Book V
Abdiel is pretty cool.  He's supposed to be the "littlest angel," but he tells Lucifer he's about to meet his maker in a beautiful line (894-95):  "Then who created thee lamenting learne, / When who can uncreate thee thou shalt know."

Book VI
Michael is a kickass angel.  I see why Gabe is his second.

The angels and soon-to-be-demons start hurling mountain tops at one another.  If that wasn't funny enough, when The Son (Jesus) shows up, the mountain chunks scurry away, embarrassed, and resume their places on the hilltops. It reminds me of the Monty Python animation where the monk comes out of the tower and yells at the cavorting sun and cloud, and they amble over the horizon on their chunky legs.

The Son drives a chariot made of eyeballs. Flaming eyeballs. Word.  (Word!)

Book VII
Man.  Old blindy is really starting to lose it in the invocation for this book.  "Dangers compast round," worries of Orphic dismemberment.  But who can blame him in that state? "Half yet remains unsung" (l. 21) at that point, and he had to finish.  The invocation for this book is so long, and I think he had abandoned invocations after the first book.  (He does use apostrophe a few times, as in talking to the poem itself or to the muses again, but not invoking them.)  He sounds desperate.  He needs to muster his strength, to get a second wind from the muses.  His talk of dismemberment also make it seem almost like he knew the finished manuscript would be threatened by fire.

A note on the Orphic stuff:  Until I took Milton, I had no idea that the word "remember" has an important connection to the myth of Orpheus. He was torn apart by Bacchus's followers, yet his head floated, still singing, down the river.  This myth has a lot of significance for Milton and is all over his minor poems, but he actually lays off of it in PL, except for this mention.  Anyway, to remember is to "re-member."  To undo the tearing apart.  This makes it a very different word from "recall."  Something to add to the language arsenal!

Adam asks Raphael about angel sex.  Seriously, he does.  Raphael blushes "celestial rosie red" and describes the act briefly:

Whatever pure thou in the body enjoy'st
(And pure thou wert created) we enjoy
In eminence, and obstacle find none
Of membrane, joynt, or limb, exclusive barrs: [ 625 ]
Easier then Air with Air, if Spirits embrace,
Total they mix, Union of Pure with Pure
Desiring; nor restrain'd conveyance need
As Flesh to mix with Flesh, or Soul with Soul.

So I guess angel sex is like mixing up some Kool-Aid, or jumping into a blender.

Book IX
Lots of stuff in this book.  You should read it.

Book X
When Adam is trying to tell Eve that their fate is really not so bad, he says: "Pains onely in Child-bearing were foretold, / And bringing forth, soon recompenc't with joy" (ll. 1051-52).  Pains ONLY in childbirth Eve!  No big deal!  While he's right that these pains are made worth it by a mother's love, he can't imagine all the other pains that would be heaped upon Eve because of her poor, sensitive uterus.  I wrote on "Eve's Labor Pains" last year, and I think I might revisit the topic now that I'm better versed in my PL.

Books XI and XII
I'll come back to these, as I haven't listened to them on tape or reread them yet, and therefore don't have any good or interesting notes.

This poem is great.  I thought my Milton crush might wear off by now, with only five weeks of classes left, but I think I'm going to become a Miltonist.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Titular Revisit

You may have read my rant on bad titles last semester (and forgive me for assuming everyone blocks their time in semesters), but I am returning briefly to the subject after my “titular” opinions were validated by a Distinguished Professor this past week.

We were learning how to use various search systems and article databases at the university library, and our little smart-classroom session was being conducted by a British professor old enough to have earned that title “Distinguished Professor of Literature,” and British enough that most of us could only understand his every third word (which, by whispers, we would collectively attempt to piece together into sentences).  Like so many professors whom I end up liking enormously, this chap cut his critical teeth amid a campus full of 1960s activists and budding poststructuralists, and like so many of the same professors, he is rather older fashioned than the vintage of his doctorate would suggest, having grown up with the stuff, and then watching it turn into all manner of -isms and queernesses.

As we searched for whatever the embarrassed student called to the front of the classroom was in the mood for searching (“Faulkner + horses,” “Herman Hesse + Freud,” “Ergodic literature,” etc.), the good Doctor’s disapproval of certain titles returned by the search became immediately apparent:

“Multiplicity and whaaa?  Yuu-ni-ver-sal snopeism and blah, blaaaah… what kind of pretentious nonsense is all that?! That has to be pretention embodied! What the blazes?”

But inevitably (and thankfully for the class, as well as for the future of literary study), there would be a few results in each search that struck the Doctor’s fancy, or just had the right ring for him:

“'Horses, Hell, and Highwater,’ now there’s a title!  Oooh, ‘The Unappeased Imagination,’ that’s nice.  Oh look at that, ‘Whores and Horses’!  Faulkner’s good for some whores and horses.  Let’s see,'An insider’s view of depraved, deranged, drugged out brilliance’ – well!”

The Distinguished Professor complains of the same things as I: titles with semicolons, virgules, parentheses, long and trendy words.  Throughout our session he relates stories of job candidates whom he interviewed in the ‘80s and ‘90s, telling us how they all made sure to drop the names of the latest "fashionable" critics and "fashionable" criticisms (which some time ago always meant dropping the big “D”).  He likes the same things as I, in a title that is.  Short and intriguing. Strong but common words. The same things one looks for in the title of a work.  Perhaps a critic who uses an inflated title doesn’t value his or her own work as a work?  Maybe that's going too far, and I noted  in my other "titular" post reasons one might need a long, colon-riddled title.  I was just pleased to have a bloke like the Doctor agreeing with me on this.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

An Intimate Evening with Milton

If they put that up on the marquis at the Chicago Theater, I doubt they could sell any tickets.  My Milton professor likes to joke, "I'd love to just sit down and have a beer with so many of the greats  -- James Joyce, Wordsworth... Shakespeare!  Me and Shakespeare'd get roaring drunk!  But not Milton.  I wouldn't have a drink with him.  What the hell would I have to say to Milton?" 

Dr. Johnson ("This Dr. Johnson, not the other!" -- also a running joke) doesn't doubt that Milton has plenty to say, but what do you say back to someone who is so learned, so poetically gifted, so...temperate?  If he were here, I don't know that he would enjoy a drink with any of us.

I'm taking a break from Milton midterm studying to do a big brain dump and ask a quick question, one I've asked here before.  What the hell is "studying"? 

Do you re-read everything?  Re-skim it?  Write stuff down?  And what do you write down?  In high school, in undergrad, I never really had to study, except to reread the philosophy a couple of times.  I took notes in class, retained them in my noggin.  I don't think that will continue to fly in grad school, especially reading a hundred pages a week per class.

Here's what I'm doing -- I made a chronological list of the works we've read, dated them, and wrote summaries of them from memory with key terms for each (i.e. pastoral elegy).  Now I'm going to go back with the book and add in anything important that I missed. This is mostly for piece identification, since the essay is open book.

How do you study?  Really, I'd like to know.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


My favorite suffix in the English language is -ness.  Since our language was in its Germanic infancy, some kind of -ness has been used to turn things (usually adjectives) into nouns. The -ness suffix is one of many little game-changers and word-makers that help give English its flexibility, potential creativity, and seemingly never-ending productivity.

Here is -ness in the OED:
Forming abstract nouns from adjectives, participles, adjectival phrases, and (more rarely) nouns, pronouns, verbs, and adverbs.The following are examples of some distinctive nonce-uses of the suffix since the 19th cent.
1804    S. T. Coleridge Let. in Lit. Remains (1836) II. 414   The exclusive Sir-Thomas-Brown-ness of all the fancies.
1853    ‘G. Eliot’ in J. W. Cross George Eliot's Life (1885) I. 319   Dislike-to-getting-up-in-the-morningness.
1859    G. A. Sala Gaslight & Daylight iv. 43   An irreproachable state of clean-shirtedness, navy blue-broadclothedness and chimney-pot-hattedness.
1901    Academy 8 June 495/2   Southport, with its sponge-cakeyness and school-girlism is surely worth study.
1949    P. Grainger Let. 23 Nov. in All-round Man (1994) 240   You are a love-child moving towards art. I am an artist moving towards love-child-ness.
2000    Guardian 24 Mar. (Review section) 21/1   The numbskulled singalong-ness of Oasis.
As the OED mentions, these examples are all post-1800.  I think the 19th century must be when -ness really came into its own. In fact, English language productivity was at its all-around highest in that century.  (If you log on OED look at the "Timelines" link.  Fascinating!)

Now for the examples.  "Sir-Thomas-Brown-ness"!  Hilariousness.  (Thomas Browne wrote rambling and ornate inquiries into how snails' eyestalks work, among other tidbits of 17th century prose. That particular appellation is not all that descriptive, but doesn't "17th century prose" just sound tortuous?)  And as for George Eliot's "Dislike-to-getting-up-in-the-morning-ness," I have once before mentioned that as one of my favorite examples of anything in the whole GD OED.  The others are fine examples too, with the exception of the music review from 2000.  "Singalong-ness"?  It's clumsy.  "Sing-songy-ness" would have been better.  Which brings me to a different point.

The suffix -ness has been abused and overused as of late.  I think it started innocently enough, being appropriated by youths to coin or re-introduce nouned adjectives such as "awesomeness," but now it's all the time popping up in commercials and TV shows, used clumsily and for humorous effect (e.g. "Family Guy-ness" on TBS).  Granted, it is a funny suffix, and there seems to be something inherently funny about changing parts of speech, especially now that constructions such as "noun of noun, noun of noun..." are rare to obsolete.  But changing the part of speech is not a joke in itself.  The -ness has to add something new to the meaning for it to really work.  And it has to sound good!  Coleridge fluently nouns the essence of a 17th century writer.  Eliot heroically nouns an undesirable personal characteristic that we still joke about today.  Their uses are unique and productive.

Another acceptable thing to do with -ness, is to distill something into a noun (rather than string-together-nouning ad infinitum).  Adding -ness to a quality possessed by a person makes it carry more weight.  Unfortunately the advert writers use this method too, to make jokes by hyperbole.  It doesn't work very well, and again they wrongly think "the clumsier the funnier."  I think the Grainger example above fits this distillation type of -ness use, though this example, like almost all the OED examples, appears to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek.  Commercials and sitcoms aren't capable of such subtlety, and by that shortcoming, as well as others, they don't let -ness do its best work.  And like so many other words, it begins to fall out of my favor because its ubiquitousness. 

I won't give up on -ness, not on a suffix with such a long and colorful history!  I am optimistic that it can be reclaimed and be allowed to do its work.  Unlike so many Old English suffixes that have left us, and so many new suffixes and prefixes from the French and Latin that infected Middle and Modern English, perhaps -ness will live with English until English breathes its last gasp.

Note: I didn't link to the OED because it "lives behind a paywall" as they say.  You have to log in through your university's library database list. The wealth of Englishness that awaits you is well worth the two minutes it takes to figure that shitz out.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Gatsby Gaining Ground

A stout, middle-aged man, with enormous owl-eyed spectacles, was sitting somewhat drunk on the edge of a great table, staring with unsteady concentration at the shelves of books. As we entered he wheeled excitedly around and examined Jordan from head to foot.
“What do you think?” he demanded impetuously.
“About what?” He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.
“About that. As a matter of fact you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.”
“The books?”
He nodded.
“Absolutely real — have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real. Pages and — Here! Lemme show you.”
Taking our scepticism for granted, he rushed to the bookcases and returned with Volume One of the “Stoddard Lectures.”
“See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too — didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?”
He snatched the book from me and replaced it hastily on its shelf, muttering that if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse.

--from The Great Gatsby, Chapter 3

Friends and colleagues have grumbled at me over the years, for being openly indifferent about The Great Gatsby.  Thanks to a class discussion about books as physical objects, I discovered a single page in the text (the book) that might be the beginnings of salvaging the whole thing for me. 

Why have I resisted Gatsby for so long?  First, it's all the symbolism!  Crammit down your throat symbolism.  I could forgive that, though, if it weren't for the people of average intelligence for whom the book is a testament to what they think is their own interpretive genius.  The fact that there are so many easy ways into the novel (er, symbols), means it has a following of people who habitually read things that are easy to read, and perhaps are only capable of really getting into reading things that are easy to read.  I've come to realize that this is not a flaw in itself.  No fault of Fitzgerald's that he writes simply and in modern English. So to better put my finger on my distaste, it's one of those not liking the fans situations.  

This in no way means that there are not thousands of well-read, highly intelligent people who love the book.  I think most of them do, actually.  Unfortunately no fellow student of literature has ever presented me with a critical defense of the thing.  Besides the aforementioned causes of my aversion, I am, again, mostly indifferent, and therefore open to argument.  I just don't see what's to get excited about. I welcome any illumination on this topic. As long as you're not going to tell me it's all about the symbolism.

You know, this might just come down to "to each her own," so I hope I can be forgiven.  I study 19th century British novels, I have a newly flourishing fondness for Milton, and I like my 20th century mean and dirty.  Gatsby isn't any of those.  Maybe I'm flawed because I need to read things that contain a certain percentage of either obsolete or offensive vocabulary.

Now that you're cursing me, vile Gatsby-doubting miscreant that I am, I'll tell you why I like this page.  And you can be sure it has nothing to do with the "owl-eyed man" and his likeness to the big dumb eyes on the billboard (although I do like his dialog, and I like that he shows up at the funeral).  I like it because it only made sense to me once I knew what the uncut pages mean.  You see books are put together out of lots of folded up pieces of paper, not one page at a time.  Duh, right?  But we children of industry never really think about how the top fold gets opened up.  So after all this talk of books as things in my bibliography class, we held and molested an old uncut Italian book that the professor had brought in.  Obviously he's never read it, but he keeps it for just such an occasion -- letting graduate students manhandle a book in its pre-20th century pre-machine-cut form, and ruminate on all the implications of page cutting.  What involvement the readers of yesteryear would have had with their books!  A personal, tactile involvement.  Violent even, in a way.  

The fact that Gatsby did not cut the books was actually a testament to his character -- as disingenuous as he may be, as easily as he could have afforded to pay his help to cut all the pages open, as careful pains he took to stock his massive library with real books, "pages and everything," he's not going to pretend he's read them.  That would be going too far.  I love that the man calls it "realism."

This page is also evidence, to me, that books are worth going back to every few years, especially ones you had trouble with.  I've read it three times (in sophomore year of college, last)  and I'm considering another go at it, just to be sure I'm still indifferent.  If I missed this scene, maybe I missed something else -- and it'll be fresh in my mind when the Gatsby defenders attack. It's only nine chapters.  And yeah, it's an easy read.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Our Bailiwick

At work I have an idea, pull off a post-it, and scrawl it down: "To write: Bloom confirms my suspicions of Miltonic Bardliness among the Romantics and Moderns." Another fragment of a thought: "Angle-lond in the Springtime, the Pastoral, and Oxford lament." I look at these things on the post-it, briefly, then go back to my descriptions of sunglasses, snow goggles, and biker t-shirts. As I write about fielding road debris and shredding the gnar, I imagine someone finding my post-it note and reading it. It wouldn't make any sense. It would appear to be the ravings of a weirdo, or something with so little context for the reader they would wonder at its origins. But maybe most people aren't that curious. Or observant. Nor do they read things they find lying around.

So instead I imagine finding the post-it note myself, at someone else's desk. (I am curious, and I do read things I find lying around.) I almost get that tingly feeling in my head. It would be really, really strange to find a post-it note like that.

So I tried to imagine a situation where a post-it note, like mine, would be normal. At the university library? Still seems weird. Dropped on the floor in the English building? Maybe. The only place my post-it seems at home is on the book-piled desk of a student of English. And maybe only a graduate student of English.

I suppose this is what happens to anyone as they specialize in their field of study or their line of work. Thoughts are given over to more and more specific topics, ergo notes they may write end up more and more out of context with anyone else's reality. Technical specifications on a plastic extruding machine, a dated list of names of some erstwhile Earl's ten children, even a scrawled staff with speculative musical notes adorning its wayward lines… these are all things we might find at someone's desk.

But the word speculative catches my eye. There is something so speculative about "Englishing," and not only speculative but inward looking, reflective, and considerate of its subject and its object (assign those bugbears whichever roles you choose). If we showed our notes to anyone, even our fellow graduate students, it might be embarrassing. Embarrassing how unsure the notes are, embarrassing how much they reveal about their author's internal life… Yes, sharing research in English has the potential to be very embarrassing.

This is our bailiwick, our chosen path (or for some, like Milton, a calling). Even when we make connections along the way, or have a traveling companion for a time (be it a mentor, a research partner, or an adviser), the road is lonely. I don't think all graduate students experience it that way, even if they are very independent. They may bolster themselves with a front of professionalism, which is attractive and effective in some, and frightening and pernicious in others. One student in my program interacts with others in an extremely professional manner, even on discussion boards that are meant for "Considerations." (Other than her thesis style considerations and careful diction, she is friendly and open, not competitive or anything. I see other first-year students emulating her posts.) But I just pour stuff out on the message boards, and stay conversational as always. (As if I'm capable of any other kind of voice!) Perhaps the fastest travelers keep steady to the road because they are surrounded by a company of their own fractured personalities. That sounds mean, but I don't intend it that way. Some of us only work one way, and it makes the road a little more winding, and it makes the passers-by and pilgrimage companions a little fewer and farther between.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

NIU Attitude

That's supposed to look like NEW attitude.  Did it work?

I am three or four weeks (who's counting?) into my first semester at Northern Illinois University, but my second semester as a graduate student.  That last semester was spent writhing in discomfort at DePaul University.  Now the consummate relief of being here, out past the corn fields, a Midwestern wind farm (and some farm farms) on the horizon, is bathing me in some much needed serotonin.

I met with the graduate director today, to introduce myself, to make a plan for this next year and a half, and to make sure it's okay that I'm taking Milton even though I'm a professed Victorian.  Breadth is rewarded in early graduate study here. ( I can even take three philosophy classes toward my master's degree!)  We're not all supposed to know what we're doing.  We're just expected to have a general inkling about it -- and to be curious.  The graduate director is approachable, friendly, open, and taught one of my former professors.  She says it's a family here, that the incoming teaching cohorts bond together and share war stories.  You should see the graduate assistant offices.  Workspaces packed in like Tetris blocks, eager student/teachers facing one another over back-to-back hulks of 1960s steel that used to pass for desks.  I think it's a beautiful thing, housed in a mid-century hall full of creaky wooden doors, outmoded split-level floor plans, and gorgeous vintage wall-to-wall linoleums.  It looks like nothing from the outside. Blase university architecture.  But inside it's a protective cave!

So today I told the DGS about my DePaul experience. I had planned to gloss over it, but she asked to hear about it.  I had rehearsed a thousand times in my head how to explain this awful, awful fiasco.  Would she, upon hearing about my fearful exodus from another school, kick me out? Refuse me a teaching job?  As I ran down what was uncomfortable about the DePaul program, the professional students, the distant professors, the inexplicable competitiveness (there's not really anything to compete for), she seemed to understand.  There was no disapproving "hmmph" or anything like that.  Just a reassurance that that's not the way things work around here.  At NIU, we're all in this English thing together.

I'm writing this three or four weeks into the semester because exactly three weeks into the semester at DePaul I knew I could not stay there.  Now, after the same number of meetings with the faculty and students of NIU, I know I'm in the right place.  Fancy it is not.  No one is throwing dinner parties in DeKalb.  Prestigious, maybe not. I'm lucky to be in a discipline where your writing and intellect are much more important than where you earned your degree(s).  Comfortable, practical, friendly, and even exciting are apt words for this program.

At NIU, conversations are had before class and at break, rather than fake smiles being exchanged as well dressed women pile out of the classroom to pretend to buy something in the vending machine.  Professors say "Great discussion!" at the end of class, rather than "Let's see how many of you are left at mid-term."  The PhD students are helpful and encouraging when they spot a new student.  Faculty offices have chairs arranged for students to sit and talk with them, and bowls of candy sitting out, rather than having to move all their research work off a buried chair just to find you a seat before rushing you out of the office with your head in your hands after five minutes of berating your work. There are schools like that.  And then there are schools like this.  I'm so glad to be here!

I'm in the library (a former favorite blogging/procrastinating hangout for me in undergrad) for the first time.  There is an escalator in the middle of it.  Things are of huge proportions on a state school campus.  It doesn't bother me, because I'm on my way up to the rare books room to learn about the history of the book.

P.S. My research class is what brought me to the rare books room, where I learned that not only does the library specialize in collecting George Eliot, but also science fiction, from the pulpy to the "serious."  The head of special collections seems devoted to making that genre something of scholarly interest.  Consequently, NIU owns one of the largest H.P. Lovecraft collections outside of his hometown of Providence.  I can have my Victorians and my colorful space-traveling blobs too! 

Thursday, February 3, 2011



"For truly, the bard is sacred to the gods and is their priest."

In Milton's "Elegy VI," which isn't really an elegy but a letter in Latin verse to his "BFF" Charles Diodati, Milton makes an important distinction between a "poet" and a "bard."  For those of us who don't get into every kind of poetry, this distinction might be helpful.  Most of us in class hadn't thought about it this way before.

The back-story of "Elegy VI":  Charles had been feeling down after partying all winter break, and had asked a 21-year-old John to send him a letter to cheer him up.  Charles felt his poetry (the two had been exchanging verses) was suffering from all the wine and women.  John, having no truck with wine or women at the time, could not offer any real advice for his friend except to assure Chuck that his poetry must be even more beautiful because of his Yuletide reveling, and that the combination of lively spirits within young Charles had a "potency" that "brought forth sweet songs."  After painting a lovely picture of Charles getting smashed and writing poems with Comedy, Bacchus and the bunch, Milton puts on his serious voice and begins a sermon of sorts.  That is, after describing (and almost vicariously living) Diodati's poet's life, Milton has to contrast that by writing about himself -- the austere, chaste, spare-eating bard.

What, according to Milton, makes for bardliness?  The bard cleanses himself of earthly contaminants, shuts himself off from earthly distractions, and makes ready to receive a message that must be told.  His preparation is like that of the priest in training. His words give form to what was already being said, draw on themes from all of spiritual history, and have a way of stopping time.  Not the way the poet stops time -- the poet might stop time to show us the particular, to let us contemplate it.  The bard pulls a nunc stanza. That is, all time converges to a single point, enabling Milton to deliver his gift of verse back through time to the infant Christ on the wings of the Holy Spirit, and enabling the reader to take in the beginning and the end and all time, all at once. (The poem delivered to Christ is Milton's On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, which he was in the middle of writing when he sent Diodati this elegy on poets and bards.)  It's funny that Milton loves to write "occasional" poems, that is, on the consideration of some occasion or other, i.e. the death of a friend.  This seems very topical and particular.  But, in Milton's words the occasion becomes an everlasting, ever-recurring event.  So to put it simply and perhaps incompletely, a bard is a poet of epic proportions -- one who writes our epics.

But aren't epics a little out of style?  Surely we have Romantic and twentieth century poets (I skip the Victorians because while their verses are beautiful I haven't read any that seem bardly) that live up to Milton's definition of bardliness.  Perhaps we need to update that definition, or update how we think about the poet and the bard in contrast to one another.  While Milton may have been a bard poet and only a bard poet, Il Penseroso with seldom a hint of L'Allegro coming through, later and modern poets probably led decidedly more complex psychological lives.  Not that Milton's brain wouldn't have made an interesting case study, but back in the day (the seventeenth century that is) men kept their alternate personalities and secret desires a little better under wraps than a Wordsworth, a Whitman, or a Yeats would have had to.  To write textbook epic poetry today, would be to deny one's self of expressing those earthy, visceral sentiments and tensions we know writhe under the surface of every poet, no matter how baroquely his words flow.  So in an era when strict self-monitoring for the purpose of remaining pure enough to receive the lyrics of one's poems from on high might have been something to strive for, we don't do that today.  If we did, we would be diagnosed.

Perhaps it is not just the modern poet's complex psychology (with which he is comfortable) but the modern poet's secular philosophies that make him seem less "epic," like less of a bard.  I can see how many poets since Milton would fit nicely into his "just a poet" category, and make it hard to argue that they are indeed bardly at all.  William Carlos Williams -- okay, so much depends upon a wheelbarrow.  Lovely, but epic?  Not really.  Robert Frost, who's frosty verses I find wonderfully soothing, may paint an idyllic winter scene, but bardly he is not.  Emily Dickinson?  Hmm.  It's not a hard and fast distinction for many poets, but it does provide a fun way to try to classify them when you are learning a new poet or trying to get a handle on the kinds of themes a poet uses.  In no way is denying the title of "bard" a slight to a poet -- in "Elegy VI" Milton was pretty much telling Diodati that Diodati is not a bard.  But he loved and praised Diodati like no other. In fact, Milton sometimes seemed to pine for the kind of experience to be had by writers of "sweet" poetry (he uses "sweet" a lot, to describe the words and temperaments of the non-bards). In L'Allegro he does not run short of lively characters and sweet poets to call on.  While Il Penseroso is also filled with names, the only "bard" he mentions outright is Plato.  Hardly a maker of sweet songs!  Perhaps Milton felt he traveled a lonely, bardly road.

A simple test for bardliness would be to look for the traits of the epic poem, toned down or humanized as they may be in post-seventeenth century poetry.  Some epic traits are allusions to myth, saints, proverbs, invocations of deities to help tell the tale, catalogs of characters (since the tale can span all time), and a narrative distance that is at once far above the event and right in the moment.  But we can't reduce our search for epics and bards to mythological allusions and angelic hosts.  The bard's "secret depths of his soul, and very lips alike breathe forth Jove." And again, we aren't as likely to find angelic hosts hanging around in poems these days.

I would say Wordsworth is an example of a later bard (Ode is the best known example), and some of his Romantic contemporaries might be candidates for bardliness as well.  As for 20th century poets, maybe even Yeats is a bard.  Yeats is much more in the moment than Milton, of course, but his occasional poems give a similar "all-encompassing time" feeling to Milton's occasionals, even though Yeats's are on much more localized and personal events ("Easter 1916," "Among School Children").  (That's not to say that Milton didn't write on personal events, i.e. the death of his newborn niece, but he would take care to universalize them.)

Forgive me for not listing any obscure poets or more minor poems here.  When one is looking for bardliness (as scholars have certainly continued to do since Milton's time), it's bound to be already bound in a thick tome of major works.  You'll also notice I didn't mention The Bard.  I don't know if Shakespeare would have fit Milton's definition, or even an updated version.    Milton wrote of him in L'Allegro, calling him "sweetest Shakespear fancies childe/Warbl[ing] his native woodnootes wilde," (l. 133-4) which suggests Shakespeare does not fit the bardly mold like the speaker of Il Penseroso, the writer of the Elegy, Milton, would. Shakespeare is something completely different -- a cerebral, humanity-enthused kind of genius.

Who is your bard?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

White Whales and Octopus Experts

Someday I'd really love to teach a seminar class in literature that is cross-listed with a science course. I took a seminar like this in community college, a co-taught class on farm literature and the ecology of food production: "Seed, Soil, and the Soul", it was called. The professors were good, and the books were okay -- but even with some average materials and some less than interested classmates, the class turned out to be amazingly challenging and even life-changing for a few of us (it was the very next year that I became a vegetarian). The novels kept us humanities types interested in the difficult science work, and the science (both natural and political) behind what happened in the novels helped the bio students get some context for their work. This is how good interdisciplinary classes should work at the lower levels of undergraduate study.

Early interdisciplinary study is important as students explore possible majors, and is helpful for students who do not look forward to taking general education requirements in disciplines where it might be difficult for them to do good work. Co-taught, crosslisted, six hour courses seem to me like a great approach to this. The only other incarnation of undergraduate interdisciplinary work I have experienced was a three hour course listed as IDS (Interdisciplinary Studies), on the topic of wellness. We read awful, mass market paperback books and argued about health insurance. Wellness is important, I guess, since students are often taking care of themselves for the first time, and learning how their decisions affect their health and the environment. But how was that an interdisciplinary study? And how is interdisciplinary studies a field of study that has its own three-letter acronym in the course catalog, along with ENG, PHL, MAT and the others? There has to be some ENG, PHL, MAT, PSY or whatever making up that IDS. Otherwise it's just some kind of self-help or potpourri course you'd take at the YMCA.

Unfortunately for the community college kids of tomorrow, the college where I took that awesome English-Biology mash-up course had to tighten its Honors Program budget, and stopped doing the seminar classes. Were those cross-listed courses a weird thing?

I hope the seminars come back to College of DuPage, and I hope other schools are offering similar opportunities. I mean, the class had enough of an impact that I still think about it. The IDS Wellness class on the other hand, was mostly forgettable, except the really annoying parts that just made me angry (like having to write in APA style even though I was a declared English major -- what a waste of paper).

So I had one of those rare shower epiphanies about what I would want to teach. An "Introduction to Literature" course cross-listed with marine biology or marine ecology. I think marine biology and other oceanic sciences are going to be pretty important as the globe continues to warm. What better way to get bookworms interested in what's going on with the planet and its watery denizens? And what better way for budding biologists to explore the history of man's fascination with the sea? This would probably be a sophomore level class -- so they already know how to write, but aren't too busy with major requirements to really get into a class. The reading selections would be pretty obvious. Just in case the little scientists don't take any more literature, at least they'll end up with a few books to put on their display shelves. And each text serves a purpose (a porpoise - ha!).

Rime of the Ancient Mariner
-- to expose students to British literature (you would be surprised how many start college having read only American authors), to get them used to reading poetry, to get English students to start thinking about recurring maritime themes in literature

Selections from Moby-Dick -- No one's going to read the whole thing while they're busy memorizing stuff out of the biology textbook! But everyone can stand some exposure to great books. We won't have them read the chapter entitled "The Crotch." And we can have serious discussions about whaling.

The Old Man and the Sea -- It's short, and it will provide some 20th century relevance that doesn't come in a paperback with soft-focus, sad looking little girls on it. Maybe we'll talk about overfishing.

Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us -- This'll be the glue that holds it all together! A literary sort of book by a real live marine biologist.

And last but not least, Some Marine Biology Textbook.

Of course in order to teach this class I'll have to befriend a marine biologist -- an octopus expert, a sea cucumber connoisseur. Preferably one who also likes white whales. There's a catchy course title in there somewhere.

It seemed like a good idea in the shower anyway.