Monday, November 10, 2008

Troublesome and Lamentable

In one of the odder choices of entertainment that I could have made post-election, I went downtown this past Wednesday to see Sean Graney's ferocious production of the play I wrote my master's thesis on, The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward II, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer. I've seen one other production of the play in San Francisco, a more conventional staging that emphasized its homoeroticism at the expense of other qualities, and in fairly blatant ways (the first scene finds Piers Gaveston cavorting on a gigantic bed with half-a-dozen other naked men). Graney's production emphasizes the sheer dreadfulness of the story: a weak, vain king's passion for a French commoner destroys him and everyone around him. But he tells the story with a kind of black joie de vivre: a spirit emphasized by the gleeful intensity of the actors with whom the audience interacts very closely, for the play is done "promenade" style. That is, most of the audience is right there on the "stage" with the actors, and we moved or are moved about to follow the action from corner to corner. The mood was set from the very beginning, as a kind of club beat pounded while audience and actors shmoozed under the lazy eyes of King Edward, watching from his throne:
At one end of the floor, where stage center would be in a more conventionally blocked piece, was the arresting image of a heap of broken images—sorry, chairs:
Most ominous was the grisly bathroom to the audience's left as we entered the space: the room into which, one after the other, the play's principal characters are led to be executed (with of course the singular and "fundamental" exception of the gruesome onstage murder of the king himself—the murdered played, as was the case in the San Francisco production, by the same actor who had been Edward's lover earlier):Out of the mob of actors and audience order of a sort does emerge once the play gets going. Graney cuts a lot of Marlowe's text, inserts a number of anachronisms, and unbalances the balance suggested by Marlowe's long title: in spite of his childishness and spitefulness, our sympathies are engaged by the fey, hapless Edward much more than they are by the thuggish, homophobic Mortimer. One ought to feel, I think, a bit more strongly how Edward's distraction has put the entire kingdom at risk: Mortimer ought to emerge as a thug, driven to unspeakable evil by noble motives, if the play's design of darkness is to properly appall. But it was cracking good theater nonetheless. One element I liked was how, after each character's death, he re-emerged bloody from the bloody bathroom to be led offstage by a hideous masked Death ringing a bell. At the play's conclusion, young Edward III mourns his father and one of his attendants is a figure wearing a similar mask, though smaller and daintier. As the last line rings out, this figure whips off his mask to reveal the face of the murdered king. And so Edward II's identity with death is made clear.

Here's hoping that the coincidence of this tale of mischief, mayhem, and misrule has nothing whatsoever to do with the atmosphere of our new administration. So far things seem to be going smoothly with our new, rockstar President-elect. The sense of relief I feel about the presidency's being assumed by a genuine grown-up—an intellectual, even—grows and grows. It remains to be seen just how progressive he will be, but I continue to be stunned by the sensation of having a leader I don't have to be ashamed of. A few poets have already begun to muse about what Obama's rise means for American poetry: some seem to conclude it means—drumroll, please—the death of irony. Others have come to the same conclusion in a decidedly tongue-in-cheek fashion. I'm beginning to assimilate various thoughts about it.

In the must-read insider's account of the two campaigns in the latest Newsweek, the writer remarks on how after World War II, Democrats and Republicans fought as hard as they ever had, but they both had the shared experience of war in their backgrounds, which bred a certain degree of respect, or at least recognition. We don't have that. Instead, we have echo-chambers, crystallized now in the very, very large chamber of Obama's supporters (whose sudden disconnection from the feeding tube of electoral news has become an instant joke) and the somewhat smaller chamber of Republican dead-enders now busy telling each other that McCain lost because he wasn't conservative enough. Now there's talk of bipartisanship, about which I have very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I don't understand how we can even begin to talk about sharing power with the people who have been so cynical about power and government: whose skill (up to now) in winning elections was inversely proportional to their basic competence, even in pursuing their own fucked-up goals (c.f. Iraq). On the other hand, to turn around and pretend that a massive swath of the population which continues to be conservative—"Real America"—is actually faker than fake, means to buy into a similar kind of cynicism. Count me one of those stirred by Obama's 2004 claim that "there is not a red America or a blue America but the United States of America!" But joining hands with the people who've done so much to make the very word "America" into a dubious object doesn't sit well either.

I find myself thinking, of all people, of Giambattista Vico, whose New Science I'm being reintroduced to as I finally start to read a book I've long delayed reading, Robert Pogue Harrison's Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. Harrison and Vico together both seem like practitioners of what Isaac Asimov called "psychohistory," studying the past in order to predict the future. Harrison takes the title of his first chapter, "First the Forests," from Vico's analysis of the progress of human civilization: "First the forests, after that the huts, then the villages, next the cities, and finally the academies." But in Harrison's reading, this account of progress and synthesis is really an account of disintegration and decline. His reading of Vico reminds me of nothing so much as Adorno and Horkheimer's analysis of the dialectic of enlightenment, by which that which disintegrates myth—critical reason—becomes itself a myth that must itself distintegrate. It's the nutshell version of postmodernism. Breathtakingly, Harrison shows how Vico presents humanity emerging from the forest, only to recreate a "forest" of isolated individuals within the bounds of the city as myths and traditions fall apart to be replaced by naked self-interest. Vico:
But if the peoples are rotting in that ultimate civil disease [skepticism] and cannot agree on a monarch from within, and are not conquered and preserved by better nations from without, then providence for their extreme ill has its extreme remedy at hand. For such peoples, like so many beasts, have fallen into the custom of each man thinking only of his own private interests and have reached the extreme of delicacy, or better of pride, in which like wild animals they bristle and lash out at the slightest displeasure.
Does this not describe our culture as it is, or as it was on the verge of becoming, before we agreed on a monarch from within (deeply within, I take it, as Obama's multiracial appeal makes him truly resemble an image of America as it is and shall be, more than any visage featured on any currency)? Are we not, in our respective blogospheres, at the extreme of delicacy and pride, reacting disproportionately to every stimulus that penetrates the bubble? It doesn't seem like too much to say that, had McCain prevailed, Vico's account of the ironic society could and should have been printed as the most accurate front-page news of our condition. It remains to be seen whether Obama is the symbol of a counter-impulse for a new, progressive mythology, or if his election will amount to too little, too late.

Is the poet's task now, then, to consolidate the new myth? Are we to become court poets singing the praises of our new king? I wonder. The New York Times has poems about the election from John Ashbery, August Kleinzahler, Joshua Mehigan, Mary Jo Bang, and J.D. McClatchy. Only McClatchy's poem is free of irony, and in fact it stages a little morality play about hope versus cynicism. It is also of course the least interesting poem, language's little perversities having been ironed out by its firm-handed message. So again I wonder: where does politics leave poetry, now that poetry, or at least oratory, has re-entered politics?

Perhaps more free than ever before. Certainly not less relevant to public discourse, because there's nowhere for a needle to go beneath E. But poetry still wants to be public, still wants to tease out myths, still needs to believe it's stitching something together more perdurable than the animal media and the quick, unsatisfying his of connection it offers.

The hopefullest time I can recall as an adult. A time which will no doubt pass too quickly: the troublesome and lamentable will no doubt return. For now I take comfort in Whitman's remark about the President: that he takes off his hat to the people, not they to him. That there is some hope in hope's endurance.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


Free at last. Free
at last. Thank God Almighty
we are free at last.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

One Vote

From Emily's phone.

My turn comes later.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Nothing Up My Sleeve, or, Teaching the Extraverts

There are two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don't. Clearly I'm the first kind, though I try to remain skeptical and self-conscious about my own tendency to do so, and so is the artist referred to universally on the Lake Forest College campus simply as "Archambeau." He has a fascinating recent blog post titled Roberto Bolaño and the Extravert Muse that uses the Jungian categories of "intravert" and "extravert" to characterize artists and their relationship to their work (or maybe more precisely, their muses). As Bob points out, these categories roughly correspond to Schiller's "sentimental" and "naive" modes of poetry, and one could actually easily come up with one of those x/y columns like the ones that I remember use to lay out the vulgar distinction between modernism and postmodernism. So:

meaning creates music
the 18th Century
traditional form
music creates meaning
the 19th Century
open form
One could easily make too much of this. But like all such divisions, as a quick graph it has some utility, and just now what concerns me is the problem it suggests (Bob touches on this too) for the teacher of creative writing. It's relatively easy to teach the first column, and in fact the notion of poetry as teachable derives from that zone. What's seemingly impossible to teach is the second column, and that more romantic notion of what a poet is inspires the saying, "Poets are born, not made," and lead all sorts of people to doubt and calumnify the value of creative writing programs. The best we may be able to do, as Bob suggests, is to offer students Noulipo-type constraints which will produce a poem of the second column using the methodology of the first.

The alternative that I've seen put into practice most often relies on sheer charisma: the students sit at the feet of a poet-guru who may or may not be able to articulate the rules of craft, but whose value as a teacher relies largely on simple proximity. The poet-guru is a role model for how to be Dionysus in a world run by cut-rate Apollos: a lady of first permission, to paraphrase Duncan. Jorie Graham is such a teacher, and a wildly effective one (you can see it in her hair), but it's a pedagogical mode that is itself unteachable. And in a way, to be an extravert teacher doesn't at all address the problem of being an effective teacher of an exravert student. The very framework of the academic creative writing classroom and workshop is intraverted, and the charisma of the extravert teacher may actually do more to loosen up her intravert students than it is likely to foster a sense of permission among those already basically alienated by the workshop structure. What I've seen more often is high- or low-speed collisions between teachers and students of the same extraverted ilk, resulting as often in confusion and bitterness as it does in a sense of discipleship (itself a problematic outcome).

The extraverted students of mine that I can identify are few in number; I think it takes a sense of self unusual in an undergraduate to share writing that one can't or won't explain (most of my creative writing students are ready and eager to explain their work: "No, see, what I meant here was..."). They come to me sometimes expressing frustration with their workshop group, whose response to their original, striking, but messy work is generally one of bafflement. I try to offer them my encouragement and appreciation for what they do, which is after all the poetry I'm most inclined to think of as "the real thing." If they're receptive, I also try to verse them in the intraverted language that can be so helpful to a poet when it comes to presenting his or her work, but is even more important as a shield: the worst thing that can happen to such a poet is if someone steals or vandalizes or changes the channel on the radio from which he receives his Martian transmissions. I point this out more often in my modern poetry lit class: how necessary it is for many poets to be tricksters, to come up with a convincing stream of patter to distract the critics from their essentially ecstatic practices. The alternative for many has been drugs and alcohol, which is of course in the long run as fatal to one's self as to one's art. If Hart Crane had come up with some decent patter for Yvor Winters, he might have lived longer.

When I've taken the Jung-inspired Myers-Briggs personality test, I come up as an INFP: an Introverted Intuitive Feeling Perceiver. But it's always a close thing: my scores hover around the fifty-percent mark in three of the four categories and if I just answered a few questions differently it's conceivable I'd turn out an ENTJ—an Extroverted Feeling Thinking Judger. That suggests a degree of ambidexterity, or maybe a comfort zone that's broad enough to be fungible. Because I can talk the intraverted, craft-y, Apollonian talk as a teacher and critic and inveterate categorizer; but when I write poetry, I don't feel at all the sense of Arnoldian mastery and control that I imagine the true intravert poet does. The words lead me on, and only retroactively can I construct the narrative that might help me present that work for an audience of listeners or editors. I'm not lying when I explain my poems, but I don't feel like I'm being true to my process either, because the meaning of my work, to me, only becomes hazily apparent when I read it.

Only to friends and intimates am I comfortable admitting that I don't know what something I wrote is about—yet. For everyone else, I've got the necessary patter. Nothing in my hand, nothing in my other hand, nothing up my sleeve. Asking myself at every moment of the act: is this my card?

ADDENDUM - 11/3/08

A remarkably relevant paragraph from Adam Gopnik's essay "Last of the Metrozoids," which my creative writing students are reading in Heather Sellers' The Practice of Creative Writing. Can't help but see its relevance for our political moment as well:
It is said sometimes that the great teachers and mentors, the rabbis and gurus, achieve their ends by inducting the disciple into a kind of secret circle of knowledge and belief, make of their charisma a kind of gift. The more I think about it, though, the more I suspect that the best teachers—and, for that mater, the truly long-term winning coaches, the Walshes and Woodens and Weavers—do something else. They don't mystify the work and offer themselves as a model of rabbinical authority, a practice that nearly always lapses into a history of acolytes and excommunications. The real teachers and coaches may offer a charismatic model—they probably have to—but then they insist that all the magic they have to offer is a commitment to repetition and perseverance. The great oracles may enthrall, but the really great teachers demystify. They make particle physics into a series of diagrams that anyone can follow, football into a series of steps that anyone can master, and art into a series of slides that anyone can see. A guru gives us himself and then his system; a teacher gives us his subject, and then ourselves.

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