Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Trying like hell to finish my monstrous "introduction" (fifty-two pages and counting) to the diss. so I can send it off to my committee for comments and praise and hopefully no criticism more substantial than, "Couldn't you use a more attractive font?" But I have been following the increasingly widespread blogscussion (what a hideous neologism! forget I said it) on innovation, valuation, and authenticity (aka the with/to/for discussion) that has occupied Gary, Jake, Cornell's own Kevin Elliott, Laurel, Mike (happy birthday, Mike!), Jonathan, Kasey, Ron, and Jordan (who has introduced an entire subset of discussion centered on "favela funk" and the ghettofication of the category of the authentic—see Simon Reynolds' blissblog for some interesting thoughts on that). I was struck by this sentence of Ron's: "Complexity around one’s own identity is, I think, the greatest predictor of what kind of poet one is likely to become, or at least sensitivity to that complexity." This cuts rather elegantly to the heart of things and speaks to the tremendous difficulty I've encountered in teaching Cornell students the mode of critical thinking which goes beyond skepticism toward assuming a more complex stance toward one's own identity. For a woman or person of color or sexual minority, this kind of thinking can only be empowering; for a privileged white male it means taking on the consciousness condescendingly described as "liberal guilt": the recognition that one's position is built on the backs of others and the need to take some form of responsibility for that. This points to the utter inextricability of a radical political position (I want to use "radical" here relative to our current historical context, in which even a middle-of-the-road pol like Howard Dean can be described as "out of the mainstream") from the kind of pedagogy I must practice on my students and on myself. Guilt isn't sufficient, of course, just as poetry isn't sufficient for a whole life. But the fostering of a larger sense of responsibility than the diminished one most young people have today (to who or what to we owe anything beyond our credit cards?) ought to be something even conservatives could agree with—the basic capacity for responsibility. Of course, their objects of mediation for that sense of responsibility—the nation-state, Christian doctrine, patriarchy—are objects I have serious and permanent objections to.

Lyric poetry that's intensely alive to more than one means of identity-production (economic, ethnic, gender-based, the unconscious, personal history, capital-H History, etc.) is generally going to be more interesting to me than a poetry that fixates on only one of those categories—poems with a more complex "later" to use Laurel's candy metaphor. One of my challenges as a poet right now is to tap some of the identity-production areas that I'm less comfortable with—which includes, perhaps surprisingly to some, personal history. Any of those categories can be reified or turned into myths—it's much harder to present the quick of one's experience, the actual encounter with or moment of self-production. As Roy Batty says, it's not an easy thing to meet your maker.

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