Friday, October 31, 2008

Barack Obama for President

The urgency of electing this man—with his curiosity, his compassion, his steadiness, and his pragmatism tempered by idealism (not the other way around)—seems to me blindingly obvious yet worth saying and repeating. Only fear of his otherness, which the Republicans are pushing hard, would seem capable of derailing him now. I hope it won't happen. I've read all the polls, I've heard many anecdotes, and I think it won't happen. Barack Obama is our next president. But will he win a powerful enough mandate to counter the vitriol, hatred, and cries of illegitimacy that will be coming from the radical right-wing margin that dictates the agenda of the so-called mainstream? If you thought the wingnuts were at their nuttiest during the Clinton years, you ain't seen nothing yet.

So let's vote for him in vast and overwhelming numbers. Let's see all the new voters that the pundits are so skeptical about actually show up at the polls. Let's suspend for just a moment our natural skepticism and believe, not in Obama the man, but in what he's come to represent. Not so much a new politics, for I don't recognize the "Obambi" figure that Roger D. Hodge laments in his extraordinarily cynical "Notebook" piece in the latest issue of Harper's. Obama's thrown plenty of elbows: this has been the most efficient, ruthless, anti-Roveian campaign a Democrat could wish for. I hope and expect that Obama will play the game that needs to be played—not a post-politics (as another Harper's piece suspects and fears) but a politics that effectively mobilizes the majority of the people to act in and fight for their own best interests: a well-managed economy that is also a green economy; a foreign policy that wins friends, influence, and partners; health-care as a human right; peace. Will Obama bring about these things? Almost certainly not. But he might be the tipping point which helps all those thousands of people who've turned out to see and hear him realize their own power, contra Hodge, and take new responsibility for their own destinies.

Michael Schaivo has said all this more eloquently than I, so go read him and forward that to your friends and relatives on the fence. And go vote.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


An unhealthy obsession with political blogs, plus keeping up with three classes and spending time with my family, has left poetry (and this blog) in the dust. This worries me a little. It's not that I think the world thirsts for my opinions, but rather that the blog has been my primary means of engaging with poetry for so very long. And if neglecting the blog had somehow led to my writing or reading more poetry that would be an acceptable bargain, but it hasn't. Instead the only poetry I read is the poetry I teach: very good stuff (Whitman this week and Dickinson next week in my nineteenth-century class; Ginsberg this week and Gwendolyn Brooks next week in my modern poetry class), but by no means new to me. Which doesn't mean I won't make discoveries reading Song of Myself for the umpteenth time, but my role as a teacher does tend to confine me to reading for the clearest through-line that I can offer my students, as opposed to getting caught up in eccentric eddies as I would be if reading for my own pleasure and advancement.

On the other hand, engaging in the contemporary for the contemporary's sake may be the most rapid path to irrelevance. Getting the news from poems doesn't mean reading the latest poems as though they were the newspaper (or Juan Cole or Talking Points Memo). Having for a while been most engaged by the poetry of news, or the pomo poetry of poets striking tragical-comical-pastoral poses amid the potpourri of capitalism, I now feel my inclination drifting toward a more Romantic stance. Which leaves plenty of room for political engagement and critique, but doesn't depend on a shielded persona, either. The contemporary poets who've been my most steadfast mental companions are those who—I hate to resort to workshop-speak, but it seems inevitable—stake themselves in and on their poems. Julianna Spahr, Lisa Jarnot, Jennifer Moxley, Claudia Rankine, Lisa Robertson, Alice Notley. It's not too much to say that these women are some of my heroes for writing smart, thorny, sometimes luxurious and sometimes threadbare verse in which I feel the presence of a living person who situates her whole mind and body in a world I recognize anew through her vision. They bare their injuries to the reader, but not to feed her prurience a la the Confessional poets; they're simply unwilling to play the fundamentally adolescent game summed up in the warning phrase, "Be cool."

It's strangely difficult to think of contemporary male poets who do this, whose work isn't suborned in some way by the need to shield their egos. (Heterosexual male poets, I should say: I would classify the work of my friend Brian Teare, for example, with that of the women neo-Romantics I've mentioned.) Older poets come to mind, Allen Grossman chief among them, but not those of my own generation or younger. Because of that I've come to prefer those male poets who are very far from cool—whose vulnerability is made transparent by their self-aggrandizement—a mode I associate with the likes of D.H. Lawrence and Ted Berrigan. But it's hard to write that stuff without veering off into camp, which is another defense, another version of "the cool." Gabe Gudding comes very close to what I have in mind. So does Dan Bouchard, and my other great poetry friend, Richard Greenfield.

This is all very personal: I've never been cool, and now that I'm a father I feel warmer than ever, repelled by even the mildly ironic carapaces of the professoriate I'm now a part of. And the temptation of being accepted as "one of the cool kids"—a running buddy of the Flarfists or post-Language poets or any clique you'd care to name—has lost much of its hold over my imagination. Which is not to say I reject the possibilities of the group or wish to retreat to some naive atomized model of the lone poet. Most of the poets I've mentioned have been part of some group or other at one time in their careers—we all need comrades. It's more that I want to take up the other strands of relationship in my life and have those networks be of at least as much importance in my work as other poets and writers. The point of writing for me, always, is to put an end to isolation.

That also means ending the isolation of the body. I want to get closer to the physical in my writing, both in terms of sound and image, and in terms of content. The body in poetry seems either to lyricize into the ether or else present the sick plummet into matter and mortality. There has to be another way simply to breathe and move and touch in poetry. Maybe I should try rhyming again.

In between, for now.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Race

In the latest New York Times article on the election, this paragraph appears:
“Senator Obama has more money than God, the most favorable political climate imaginable — a three-week Wall Street meltdown and financial crisis — and with all that, the most margin he can get is four points?” said Bill McInturff, one of Mr. McCain’s pollsters. “That does speak to the questions there are about lack of experience, his candidacy, and other things that make people say, ‘Gosh, is he really ready?’ ”
This is, I believe, a fundamental error on the McCain campaign's part. I think Obama passed the experience threshold after the first debate, if he hadn't done so already. The reason that he doesn't have a double-digit lead—though some polls give him close to one—has nothing to do with McInturff's argument. It's because of his name and because he's black.

I think that this means that the viciously negative campaign the McCain campaign says it's going to run in the next month is a waste of their dwindling resources and time, because nothing they say about Obama's supposed associations with radicals or his lack of experience or his "dangerous" willingness to use diplomacy is going to be scarier to the American people than the scary stuff that's already on the surface—stuff they are apparently willing to overlook to the tune of a 5.9% advantage to Obama according to the Real Clear Politics average of the current national polls. That doesn't mean we don't live in a racist country, only that our fear of the unknown is now less great than our fear of a known quantity: the bankrupt (in every sense!) Republican leadership of the past decade.

Obama's rope-a-dope strategy seems to be paying off big right now. I can only hope—in spite of the lack of evidence, in spite of his apparent "pragmatism"—that he has a similarly cool strategy for installing and pursuing a genuinely progressive agenda as President. We may, however, have substituted progress on the level of identity politics for the kind of progress that would really move large numbers of people at home and abroad toward justice and equality.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Birthday Baby Blogging

My birthday, not hers. I've gotten two mealtime snapshots to sustain me through a long workday:

Yay, food!

The biggest eyes.


We spent the week in Modern Poetry reading excerpts from The Cantos. The students were surprisingly game for it all. I think it helps that I confess my own ambivalence every time, so that they neither feel they must celebrate his genius nor denounce his nastiness but can instead actually respond to what's there. Next week: Gertrude Stein.

Tomorrow Lake Forest's Homecoming Weekend begins. I'll be taking part in an Alumni College event in which alumni get to feel like they're students once again. My chair, Rick Mallette, and I will discuss Frost's "Design." A spooky old chestnut of a poem. He's going to do an old-fashioned close reading, and I'm going to try and get all ecocritical about it.

And next week I come out as a poet to the rest of the faculty: we have a lunchtime series here where people present on their work or research to other faculty members. After some deliberation as to whether to talk about scholarship or my own poetry, I chose the latter. This is the squib I came up with to publicize the event:
Severance Songs: The Odyssey at Home

A reading from and talk about Joshua’s recently completed manuscript of poems, Severance Songs. Begun in the wake of September 11 and continued through the Iraq War, these poems ask whether it’s possible to live a right life in a wrong world. Or to put things in terms of the book’s enabling counter-myth: what if Odysseus had never gone to Troy? How do you find Ithaca if you’ve never left it? How do we take responsibility for a world we never made? And if we do not, who will? War, pastoral, humor, and love move in these poems toward his tentative conclusion: in severance there is yet a bond.
I do hope I can find a home for this book someday soon; I believe it has some of my best work in it, and it's come to seem like the most complete gesture that I've made poetically in the past decade.

Homeward bound now for birthday cake (if I'm lucky) and Palin's making a complete ass of herself in the VP debate (if we're all lucky).

Popular Posts