Archive for the Academia Category

Kenneth Koch on the internets

Posted in Academia, poetry, Stuff I assume other people care about with tags , , , on 2012/01/04 by jamiejthomas

I just came across this website of all things Kenneth Koch,

as shared by David Lehman on the Best American Poetry blog (who apparently shared it via Ron Padgett). It has photos,  biography, detailed bibliography, and various videos and audio of Kenneth Koch reading from his work and discussing The New York School.

It is truly excellent, and well worth the time you will lose exploring it. So explore away . . .

ps – Kenneth Koch remains one of the most highly underrated poets line-breaking American English–funny, irreverent, heartbreaking, earnest, proof that there is nothing more serious than a joke . . .

“A serious  moment for the match
is when it bursts into flame . . .”


Posted in Academia, poetry, Stuff I assume other people care about with tags , , , , , , , on 2011/04/12 by jamiejthomas

“Instant Contempt For the Understandable”

I like that. What a great phrase, and even better as textspeak. You know, “I laid it out in words she could understand, and she went all ICFU on me.”

Seriously though, Austin Segrest has written a nice little piece in The Missouri Review about what happens when poets from within the white walls of academia work hard (too hard?) to distance themselves from the language/jargon of prosody. The backdrop of Segrest’s piece is a review that Mark Halliday did of Tony Hoagland’s latest book.

Segrest’s piece – Halliday, Hoagland and the Creative Writing/Scholarship Divide

Halliday’s Review of Hoagland’s book (originally in Pleaides)

An Appeal for Literary Eclecticism

Posted in Academia, poetry, Stuff I assume other people care about with tags , , , , , on 2011/03/19 by jamiejthomas

An Appeal for Literary Eclecticism

“A poem must be a closed system, but there is something,

in my opinion, lifeless, even false, about systematic criticism.”

W. H. Auden (from The Dyer’s Hand)

I’m not really sure why it is exactly that as an intellectual society we are so enamored with the very idea of Theory. Of course I understand the human need to examine, grasp, extrapolate, interpret, and apply the knowledge that comes so begrudgingly to us. This had been going on since our ancestors dragged their webbed selves out of the amniotic lake and discovered fire. It is why out of spirituality springs religion and out of perception and being bubbles philosophy. I get that. I get that our singular or solitary interactions with our world become larger prescriptive ideas that we want to enact on those around us. Our penchant for theorizing, for systems, seems almost Darwinian in that regard, in the same way the Marine Corp. seems Darwinian: one either adapts and overcomes, or one waits one’s turn to feed on the carcass. But just because it is “natural,” this need in so many of us to compartmentalize and then propagate our ideas about being in the world doesn’t make it the best way to proceed.

Compartmentalization, on the one hand, can lead to the production of and application of theories that shows gross over-simplification, on the other hand, it can lead to instances of misleading information. When speaking about literary theory, it seems almost like as each days passes another way of defining the lens we examine literature through pops up like a dandelion in a meadow. To my mind, the danger does not lie in the “dandelions” so much as it lies with privileging one type over the other. The 20th-century alone has found innumerable new ways of theorizing about literature, each with its proponents responsible for the invention of and the continuation of (Insert Name of Vogue Lit. Theory Here). The emphasis here is on the word responsible. I believe there is a responsibility, namely that the Critic has a responsibility to speak for an Author and a text—to intent and interpretation and accountability and meaning (which is different from truth). Often and eventually, the Critic’s voice will be the only left to speak on behalf of the author—this is a large and daunting responsibility, to represent fairly and diligently an author/a work in the way most conducive to that fair representation. And as we know a poor/irresponsible Author is less dangerous than a poor or irresponsible Critic. Alexander Pope knew as much when he wrote to open “An Essay on Criticism,”

‘Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill

Appear in Writing or in Judging ill;

But, of the two, less dang’rous is th’ Offence,

To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:

Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,

Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;

A Fool might once himself alone expose,

Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose (144).

Too many times, I have seen literature “square-pegged” into the round hole of theory, either for what I can only estimate to be personal/professional gain, or possiblely hasty/poor judgment made by the offending party. Let me specify. I do not think necessarily that personal or professional gain means something diabolically misleading, nor does hasty or poor judgment; rather I think they would often be more a result of the Age of extensive specialization that we now live in—Queer theorist this, and Marxist scholar that. So often I think we take what we know, what we have worked so hard to master—that relatively narrow patch of knowledge—and attempt to narrow the world to match. I know I can be guilty of the same transgression, but it seems to me that the process of bending or molding the world—or more specifically to this study Literature— to fit a certain paradigm is a bit backward. At the risk of sounding simplistic, a text should, or often will, suggest the best lens through which to view it. Ultimately this would lead to something of an eclectic approach to literary interpretation.

One can find more structured theories and practices of eclecticism in other disciplines, including architecture, philosophy, religion, and psychology. And of course the basic idea behind it is simple enough to grasp: that a single approach cannot or should not apply to all instances. For instance, in psychology, “forms of eclecticism and integrationism have emerged as responses to the pluralism of the psychotherapy field” (Downing 123). According to Jerry Downing, in his article Psychotherapy Practice in a Pluralistic World, “Theoretical intergrationism seeks to correct the inadequacies and biases of individual theories by combining selected aspects of different theories and methods into an integrated whole” (133). A novel idea, one that admittedly comes with its own difficulties and limitations, but a novel idea nonetheless. Eclecticism as it pertains to literary theory seems an almost obvious avenue to pursue. If certain texts beg to be read with certain theories in mind, then the opposite is true as well; certain theories beg to be discluded from interfacing with certain texts. Remember the danger here is misinterpretation, or worse, misrepresentation. If we can take a cue from the Scientific Method—it’s observation and then interpretation, not the other way around. This brings us back to what Auden said about “systematic criticism” being “lifeless, even false” (xii).

Ultimately, it is my contention that the best methods of interpretation for a given piece or pieces of literature are most often announced in some way by the literature itself—through various aspects of authorial idea/intent, form, style, image, etc.—though I do believe a distinction must be made between conscious and unconscious tropes in the literature that is being critically examined. By this I concede that a text, as well as an author, can be read for both latent as well as overt concerns or thematic material. As Terry Eagleton writes, in Marxism and Literary Criticism, “to understand literature, then, means understanding the total social process of which it is part . . . literary works are not mysteriously inspired, or explicable simply in terms of their authors’ psychology. They are forms of perception, particular ways of seeing the world; and as such they have a relation to that dominant way of seeing the world which is the ‘social mentality’ or ideology of an age” (528). Through this form of latency, how perception is socially shaped and is often unconsciously manifested in an author’s work, is often how critical lenses like Marxist literary theory, psychoanalytic theory, and postcolonial theory are often applied, as unconscious manifestations present in a given work of art. This I do not deny. I believe that issues arise when a Critic stretches the overall presence and impact a certain way of thinking has on a literary work and on the consumers of said work.

If (in keeping with our example of Marxism) as Eagleton writes, “the sociology of literature concerns itself chiefly with the means of literary production, distribution and exchange in a particular society” (527), and “Marxist criticism is not merely a ‘sociology of literature’” in that “its aim is to explain the literary work more fully [by] grasping those forms, styles and meanings as the products of a particular history” (527), then it seems we must then begin the undertaking of creating a hierarchy to the levels in which we interact with literature. What I mean is, is it a more fruitful endeavor to concentrate on a work’s overt forms of discourse? Assuming authors have something to say, that something is not always overly affected by their unconscious societal connections. After all, a capitalist love poem is still first and foremost a love poem, and should probably be examined in light of Shakespeare’s sonnets more so than Marx’s Manifesto. It seems to me that almost any literature could be read under any critical lens if the right conditions are simulated—meaning, the right set of stories or poems, the right lines and passages extracted and held outside of their context, under the right social/historical conditions, that is, outside of a consideration of the parameters of an author’s intent. To return again to the sciences, this is putting the cart before the proverbial horse—having an outcome in mind and conceiving of an experiment that will replicate that outcome. It is easy, in instances like these, to be both right and inaccurate.

In order to test the above hypotheses, we will visit texts thorough the interpretive lens of Marxist criticism, collections of contemporary poetry by Mark Halliday, a mid-career poet and academe. Halliday’s poems will be examined for their unconscious manifestations of certain socio-economic ideals, in order to ascertain how strong a hold bourgeois society has on his work.

Mark Halliday holds a B. A. and an M. A. from Brown University and a Ph. D. from Brandeis and has been teaching at various universities for a couple decades now, so he is an ivy-league academic, meaning he has attached himself to the ruling class, both in his schooling and career. He is a white male of middle age, born post-war in the upper mid-west (Ann Arbor, Michigan), whose poetry, formally, can be described as plain-speech free verse with an emphasis on “voiceiness,” pathos, wit, and the human condition. One would not expect to find among his work poems that are overtly concerned with socio-economic issues, working class struggles, etc., and one indeed will not. But I believe we will see poems covered with the “residue” of having been written in a capitalist society—namely 1970s to present-day America.

The opening poem in Halliday’s first collection Little Star is the unassuming “Get It Again.” It’s first stanza ends “and the waves roll out, and the waves roll in” (13), and it is a poem about repetition, the repetition in our lives of the same kind of sorrows and happiness, of the same type of job done over and over again, of having similar thoughts about the same subjects years apart and how they reverberate through one’s memory like the constant assault of the tide upon the shore. All of this is visited through a series of vignettes having to do with Halliday’s writing/academic life, a boy who has trouble counting, and a journalist friend. The poem has the language of work and class running throughout, even if it is unaware of itself. We see Halliday’s own class progression:

In 1972 I often ate rye toast with peanut butter,

the toast on a blue saucer beside my typewriter,

I took huge bites between paragraphs about love and change;

today it’s a green saucer, cream cheese, French bread,

but the motions are the same (13).

Halliday does not outwardly acknowledge what the possible meaning is of this simple change in his snacking ritual; in fact it is just another riff in a long line of what I would call Halliday’s use of minutia-as-reality. We are bombarded in Halliday’s poems by the specificity of the routine, of proper nouns, of time, all in an attempt to represent a reality. Much like Kitchen-sink drama which strove toward an ultra-realism, Halliday’s poems are similar in their use of detail. But that does not mean that those details aren’t telling another story as well. There is something about the specific details of progressing from “blue saucer” to “green saucer,” from rye (a peasant’s bread) to French loaf and from peanut butter to cream cheese, that signals an upward movement in class—even the movement from “In 1972 I often ate rye toast,” to “today it’s a green saucer, cream cheese, French bread” (my emphatic italics), hints at a progression from past to present in a way that shows upward mobility, or an evolving/graduating from one class to another. Of course this is in no way one of the poem’s primary thematic concerns.

The repetition that takes place here, from the “sailor’s song with a timeless refrain” listened to over and over, to the “back to zero” counting game Halliday invents with the character Brian to help him learn counting during a game of catch, gives this poem the feel, the cadence of the assembly or manufacturing line. Life, after all, is just a series of fast-paced helter skelter bouts of work. As soon as we finish we are on to the next one. Halliday explains,

My journalist friend explains the challenge

of his new TV job: you work for a week

to get together one 5-minute feature,

and then

it’s gone—

vanished into gray-and-white memory,

a fading choreography of electric dots—

and you’re starting it all over,

every week that awesome energy demand:

to start over (13-14).

This passage is followed directly by the Brian episode where Halliday ‘played hundreds of games of catch / with a five-year-old boy named Brian . . . [who] had trouble counting so we practiced / by counting the times we tossed the ball / without missing” (14). There is a key word in the following lines “when Brian missed / he was on the verge of despair for a moment / but I taught him to say / ‘Back to zero!’ to give him a sense of / always another chance” (14). I find the word despair (my italics) to be a highly interesting word choice. This is not a five-year-old’s word, though it is a five-year-old’s feeling I believe—the child feels “despair” in the face of failure, even something as inconsequential as dropping a ball in a game of catch. Halliday on the other hand teaches the youth exuberance with an exclamation point! at starting over, of failure, of getting another chance. We have to be conditioned by someone or something to make a game out of remaining at the bottom, of failing to rise any further above the place where we currently reside. Halliday writes, “eventually / our tone was exultant when we shouted in unison / after a bad toss or fumble / back to zero” (14).

In the poem “Bind Date” we encounter Halliday reminiscing about the first blind date he was set up on as an adolescent teen, but more than that, the poem attempts to detail what life was like in mid-1960s America. We are shown this through the contrary nature of Halliday’s speaker, who is naïve, “(I wasn’t really sure what Boston was)” (23), and the speaker’s friend Andy Effron, who knows much more of the world, “he was a year older. He was smart— / went to Harvard, made intriguing jokes / about the Charles River / (I wasn’t really sure what Boston was) / and in his free hours read Situation Ethics” (23). Once again Halliday paints with the most detailed of brush-strokes:

We went bowling with that very muscular

swaggering guy whose real name was Richard

but who had some athletic nickname like Bo;

at Mohawk he had won the Talking Contest

by bellowing for four minutes straight.

I think I bowled terribly and felt like a wimp

but we drank beer and it became okay.

So, I thought, this is what it’s like

to be a real American teenager—
I don’t know, there was something so fifties

about it all—beer, bowling, swearing—
and then Andy getting me a blind date. (23-24)

And the picture we get, self-consciously rendered (so, I thought, this is what it’s like / to be a real American teenager) with commentary from the present voice of the author, is one so capitalistic and quintessentially American it only seems to be missing a make-out scene in the back of some behemoth Motor City automobile (which the poem details for us a couple of stanzas later). The poem takes its rightful place in the tradition of American 1950s cruising movies, a dream of endless youth, “I decided to let life / roll me on past these nights / toward some safety of not needing far beyond seventeen” (24). It succeeds because of its self-consciousness, because of the self-commentary and split-perspective-irony of lines like, “a few times Andy gave me a quiet look: / ‘For now, this is all we’ve got’” (24), or “then I didn’t say, ‘We’re on a blind date with life’” (25). Ultimately, the poem is steeped in a sort of celebration of American ideals, even though it does not mean to be. I would not go so far as to say the poet is unaware of the poem’s residue of Americanism; certainly the ironic lines that poke their heads into the poem at just the right moments do so to combat or tone-down this poem’s leanings. But the poem primarily concerns itself with an individual, not with a group ideology.

In the poem “Work,” we have a more overt commentary on labor, and what it means to be part of a “working class,” and yet, much of that commentary is subtle and still exists in the poem’s sub-layers. It begins with the phrase “Manual labor,” and speaks of it in a pejorative way:

Manual labor has barged into my life on many occasions

but seldom stayed long.

It’s like an oafish cousin with thumping hands

who visits, always straining your hospitality,

his manners always cruder than you remembered,

then rumbles mercifully off toward some factory or ghetto. (41)

Labor is personified as a “cousin,” so a distant relative, someone our speaker does not wish to be close to. And it is an “oafish cousin with thumping hands” at that, “always cruder than you remembered,” as if whatever your worst nightmares were about manual labor, it always turns out that it is worse than you imagine, and when it finally goes “mercifully off” it is “toward some factory or ghetto.” Labor is like a panhandler who barges into our lives for short periods, and when it leaves, it returns to its ghetto, to its rightful and deserving place beneath us and out of our thoughts. This seems like classic bourgeois ideology, a large separation between the classes. But I would argue that Halliday is relatively unaware of this, and if pressed would probably lay claim to the autobiography card (“Manual labor has barged into my life”), and might even attribute this type of rhetoric to personal sloth or aversion to work. I say Halliday is unaware because the poem is going to turn, in the next stanza, toward the personal, “when I worked for fourteen days in Gold’s Delicatessen” (41), and it is going to focus on an act of transgression against his boss, namely the theft and hasty consumption of a cheesecake while working a shift:

I stole cheesecake in the cold storage room

even though Mr. Gold was an excellent man

who didn’t have to give me this job but did so

as a favor to my mother who was a loyal

(but not wealthy) customer. I jammed my face

with cheesecake, nearly choked

trying to get it down before my absence could be noticed;

I strained my imagination trying to fully taste and enjoy

the cheesecake despite the speed of my chewing;

then, lips wiped on apron, back to the gray kitchen

to swab the echoing caverns of the pots

coated with corned-beef fat. (41)

The first thing to take note of is the fact that the speaker’s boss is “an excellent man,” and it was a privilege to hold this job; the speaker received it as a “favor” from Mr. Gold. Even the parenthetical detail “(but not wealthy),” referring to the standing of the speaker’s mother, is large with meaning. The ruling class wants you to believe your job is a privilege, something to be grateful for. The transgression could be seen, in Marxist terms, as a rebellious act (albeit a relatively small one) on the part of the speaker. But Halliday does not portray it this way; he gets what he deserves, nearly choking on the very thing he steals from his boss, “straining [his] imagination trying to fully taste and enjoy the cheesecake.” And if we leave the quoted passage as is, uncontinued, this reading might hold water; however, continuing just a few lines may change the context of this passage, “back to the gray kitchen / to swab the echoing caverns of the pots / coated with corned-beef fat: swab gaily, unbowed, because my mouth was coated / with gold, with the thrilling overtime pay of secrecy, / the taste of victory / creamy sweetness of survival of the fittest, / Gold’s expensive heavy New York-Style immortality” (41).

And so the poem begins to complicate itself; it can be read as an indictment of labor on the one hand, and on the other we can see the futility of rebelling against our “working” purpose. The complexities will continue to come at us because this does not end up being a poem-as-statement, that is, a statement for or against societal ideals about labor, but about one man’s ideas about the way labor affects him. The poem it continues, “it was with death / those fatty vats resounded: nothing James Deany / but slow, glutinous, suburban drab death” (41). Again this could be read as commentary not only of labor, but also of a particular type of American-suburban condition, but the poem will not have itself pigeon-holed quite so easily:

and I told myself Beat this game,

Dodge this ditch—

and something I called “the life of the spirit”

looked worth fighting for, scheming for:

make somebody pay me to read and write! (42)

That last line, “make somebody pay me to read and write,” that is where the poem’s primary thematic concerns show themselves. The poem is permeated with labor-rhetoric, “hated myself for being so clearly / an ant in an anthill and / unsatisfactory even at that” (42), for instance, but this is not its outward concern. Every time a statement is made that generalizes about our place in society, about our class and the predicaments lying therein, the poem undercuts itself either with a complicating opposite statement, an ironic shift, or a bout of specificity or the autobiographical. Halliday writes

“the dignity of labor” is a phrase that has always

troubled me—

isn’t it mostly a negative definition of dignity?

I mean, it’s dignity because of what it isn’t:

if you’re laboring you’re not goofing off, not wasting time,

not running wild with desire. . . . (42)

The move here is one of a humorous/ironic stance about the use of the word dignity, as if that word is going to be offended to be used in conjunction with the word “labor.” When he writes, “Leisure, now—that’s a challenge” (42), he offers us another humorous, unexpected moment on the heels of something much more serious: “Then too, no doubt, something noble can be seen in / the concentration and steadiness with which / you scrub, tote, wrap, stack, count, dump, scrape” (42). You pick the poem apart and apart again, pulling small portions that are indicative of the type of commentary you want to build—“Work” is one proof that opposite ideals can be perpetuated depending upon where you look and when.

In “The Truth,” the opening poem in Halliday’s second collection Tasker Street, we encounter a poem whose thematic concerns will help frame our reading of the subsequent poems in the collection. In this poem ‘the truth” is something we are always closing in on but never quite grasp—in essence it is ungraspable and the pathos lies in the fact that we see truth like stars in the sky, out of the corners of our eyes. “The truth was there beside the road / but you never looked straight at it . . . maybe not in a book at all.  / You want it to be in a book, / one poem or one story, or one picture, you want it / to be in one place. / Has that been your mistake? But what do you mean by / the truth” (3-4)? It is as if Halliday is saying we exist in a world without absolute truth, and then, through a character in the poem, he wonders if we get at truths by knowing what to do with them, “‘We try to make something,” Laird said, / ‘that other people can use.’ ‘That’s how you know / if you’ve done it,’ he said, ‘ you see if / certain other people can use it’” (4). Though this poem has philosophical concerns, they are voiced in the language of production, or utility, of the practical. We are “makers,” workers, constantly looking to produce something that others can use or consume, even if it is something so abstract and wispy as “truth.”  Many of the other poems in Tasker Street will be failed searches for truth and concrete memory, and they will also inhabit the language of production.

“Green Canoe” will concern itself with the world of academia, of publishing and the anxieties surrounding that need to produce books. Here the speaker is located in a hypothetical swamp, a swamp of the mind: “If I were sitting in a green canoe on a hot morning / having drifted gently into an odorous swamp, alone” (9). This is the natural world, but it is one full of anxiousness; the speaker is alone, his “hand tightening cautiously on the paddle” (9). Through this quiet and descriptive scene is intertwined, like a chorus or a mantra, the phrase, “it’s not about books” (9), as if the speaker is declaring it, and then a second time, “it’s not about books,” this time more for the speaker’s benefit than our, and when the third refrain comes, “‘It’s finally not / about books’ but still no one hearing it / and less beautiful now” (9) we are presented with the full power of a pressure this speaker/author has felt to become an accepted member of a group, an exclusive group of academics that publish and hold the coveted university positions in their fields. And one must be admitted to that group; it is exclusionist by nature, and not only must we be admitted entry, but we must keep producing in order to remain a part of that group.

In this collection we find characters of the working class, for instance in “Seventh Avenue,” a seventh avenue where “romance hates democracy” (12), where

What apprehension blossoms even now in Manuel

shifting steaks at the ten-foot grill of Charley O’s

beneath the towering chef’s hat they make him wear?

When I was twenty I’d have written

that he was only thinking about Cadillacs and sex;

now I’m afraid he’s just as worried as I am

about love vs. lesser things and the point of it all. (12)

And also in the upwardly mobile couples in the aptly titled poem “Couples,” where Halliday imagines his own relationship in the face of all of the other hypothetical couples in the world, “Susan does day-care part-time / and Jim got full-time work / at Design Future Associates . . . or he’s in law school / doing amazingly well, he acts so casual / but really he’s always pounding the books, / and Susan works full-time / for a markets research firm” (45), we find characters who are defined by what they do for a living, their modes of transportation, and other material concerns. The poem “Population”, which begins with the language of the middle class: “Isn’t it nice that everyone has a grocery list / except the very poor you hear about occasionally” (49), seems to be distancing itself from the lower class from the outset, as if they are a mythological existence that most of us only “hear about occasionally.” The poem itself is not a poem about class, but instead one about “tragedy [coming] when someone / gets too special” (50). It uses irony to visit the idea that since we all have the same needs—bread, toilet paper, orgasm, more baseball games than we could ever watch at one time—and we are all “in this” together, then we are able to feel as if we are not alone in our struggles and sorrow:

if forty thousand kitchen counters

on any given Sunday night

have notes on them that say

i can’t take it any more

i’m gone, don’t try to find me

you can feel how your note is

no big thing in America,

so, no horrible heartbreak (50).

But even this type of social discourse is steeped in the language of the ruling class, or at least in the language of America, which seems to have become nearly synonymous with bourgeois these days.

It is nearly impossible to escape the types of language we were brought up in, it seems. A poem like “Bad People,” from Halliday’s third collection Selfwolf, is a very good example of this. Here we have a poem that becomes a made up story about two down-and-outs who have smashed beer bottles all over home plate in the park, and a father (Halliday) creates this scenario to help explain to his toddler son why they must avoid home plate. What follows is as detailed a description as anything we’ve seen from Halliday, and though it doesn’t mean to, the scenarios/character sketches of these two “low-lifes” become steeped in social commentary. Ironically (of which Halliday is quite obviously aware) it takes the son to question the father’s moral assumptions about these two hypothetical characters: Kenny and Jack. “Jack might be / a skinny guy in a black fake-leather jacket . . . his mother won’t talk to him on the phone,  / she lives on French fries and ketchup, / he hasn’t been able to send her any cash / in the last two years, ever since he lost / the job unloading produce trucks at Pathmark” (61). Jack’s father is not in the picture, and “was a bastard anyway” who used to “flatten beer cans on the top of [Jack’s] head” (61). Kenney, Jack’s friend and coconspirator in the bottle smashing “is forty-eight, a flabby man with reddened skin, / he is employed at the Italian Market selling fish / just four hours a day but his shirts hold the smell” (61). His “female companion Deena” has left him, and presumably all he has left is his friendship with Jack. So we are presented with two unpalatable lower class characters, with less-than-desirable jobs, and as the scenario progresses it becomes more and more specific, and less and less hypothetical, as if Halliday has decided that these two “bums,” or two others just like them were the only stereotypes who could have wandered into the park at night with quarts of beer and smashed them on home plate in a fit of drunkenness—drunken rage/frustration or drunken exuberance? Halliday opts for the frustration; which is the more stereotypical of the causes for the glass breakage, and by this point Halliday knows he is playing with societal “types” anyway. In the last stanza,

Nick and I come to the park with a rubber ball

and a miniature bat. nick is not quite three

but he knows the names of all the Phillies starters

and he know the area around home plate is not supposed to be

covered with jagged pieces of brown glass. Like a good dad

I warn him not to touch it and we decide to establish

a new home plate closer to the mound (there’s no trash can

handy. “Who put that glass there?” Nick wants to know

and to make a long story short I say “Bad people.”

Nick says “Bad? How come?” (62)

The beauty of this poem lies in the fact that the toddler is the one who “knows’ the most—all the Phillies starters, that glass should not be strewn across the ball diamond, that Jack and Kenny are not bad guys, no matter what we have been trained to think about such fringe characters. Nick has not yet been conditioned by what Marx would deem bourgeois society, that group that affects the way we think and talk, what we consume, and how we define things like “success.” The poem is smart because Halliday realizes all of this. Nick is the perfect foil. He can say the tings we might wonder about deep down, but have been taught by those above us to suppress.

But I am still unsure if this type of discourse in the face of Halliday’s poems is all that helpful, or even necessary. The poems may contain the ghost-language of the ruling class, but that class distinction is not their main aim. These are too personal for that. Even a short poem (6 lines) like “Thrall,” whose theme involves desire and “not getting:”

All this wanting and not having oilspills my room

and darkens the thinkened air.

If I could forget—

but young women of venturesome litheness

and moderately priced unpretentiously good ethnic restaurants

force me to care. (36)

and whose language adopts that of production/consumerism seems to avoid lingering too long on that type of discourse. Halliday may in fact be unconsciously appropriating a certain type of language, but I question to what end it matters. He is concerned with the personal and the poetic. The “wanting and not having oilspills” his room; but this is a metaphor borne out of an overwhelming blackness, not out of a discourse about who controls our non-renewable resources.

Ultimately, I believe you can read almost any literature through nearly any lens, if you stack the deck correctly. By examining seven of Mark Halliday’s poems (out of the approximately  120-plus poems in his various collections)—the right seven poems, with the right aspects of them emphasized—we can come to the conclusion that Halliday’s language-use has been heavily influenced and affected by the society of which he is a part. Does this mean that his poetry is subversive, or is it that he has a built a poetry out of his world, a poetry that is more concerned with his world than the world? I can say that the vast majority of his work centers on the personal—the way we make memory, connect to history, live day to day, accumulate “an existence,” and abide with the “others” around us (particularly familial and romantically). This doesn’t mean that his personal ideologies are not affected by societal ideology, and since we are witness to his personal ideologies by reading along with him, then it stands to reason that society is affecting us as well through the association with Halliday’s poems. I can’t deny this. However, it seems to me that an eclectic approach to literary criticism would not only save a lot of us a lot of time, it would also cut down on the amount of frustration stemming from irresponsible readings of works of literature. I wonder how much thought goes into the possible effects our critical results would have on other readers, much the way the results of someone like Halliday’s creative work affects the readers that encounter it.

It’s not that you can’t, or even shouldn’t, read Mark Halliday through a Marxist lens—I did and must admit that I came up with some intriguing observations. In the end, though, it doesn’t hold up. The picture I painted was incomplete; the story I told of his work was only a partial one. Halliday’s personally and autobiographically charged work might be better served if it were read with psychoanalytic criticism in mind, or even formalism. Something that never once was mentioned in this experiment was the way Halliday moves so seamlessly in and out of traditional and organic forms, and how he employs those forms with an ear toward the spoken language, with an ear toward a guy sitting in a diner telling his story to you over coffee. Toward the end of Tasker Street Halliday writes, “In my strange new poetry the lines will be black / and long. They will be dense with not ordinary life / but the wiry vitalism of a guy in a Pirates cap / heaving a pink rubber ball against the side of a drugstore / at midnight” (73), and we can imagine that poetry is conceiving of—it’s visceral, it’s full of the real, full of vitality—and it will make itself known not driven by statement, but by example.

Works Cited

Auden, W. H. Forward. The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays. New York: Vintage

International, 1989.

Downing, Jerry N. “Psychotherapy Practice in a Pluralistic World: Philosophical and

Moral Dilemmas.” Journal of Psychotherapy Integration. Educational Publishing Foundation. 14.2 (2004): 123-148.

Eagleton, Terry. “From Marxism and Literary Criticism.” Criticism: Major Statements.

4th Edition. Charles Kaplan and William Davis Anderson Eds. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. 525-543.

Halliday, Mark. Little Star. New York: William and Morrow and Company, Inc., 1987.

———-. Tasker Street. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

———-. Selfwolf. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.

———-. Jab. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Pope, Alexander. “An Essay on Criticism.” The Poems of Alexander Pope. Ed. John

Butt. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963.

Telling it Slant . . .

Posted in Academia, poetry, Stuff I assume other people care about with tags , , , , , on 2011/03/07 by jamiejthomas

This is just the beginnings of something I’ve been working on, about the ways we, as writers, make a space for writing about some of the less “hip” emotions (like Love, Fear, Tenderness,etc.). Like I said, just the beginning. I haven’t gone past Frank O’Hara yet.

This post has Intro & O’Hara sections. subsequent posts will deal with Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, James Schuyler

TELLING IT SLANT, OR, NOTHING MORE SERIOUS THAN A JOKE: Humor and Sincerity in the New York School Poets

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise  

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –
 --Emily Dickinson

Ray Stanz: "Don't look directly into the trap!"
Egon Spengler: "I looked into the trap Ray..."

Whether one believes Dickinson’s nurturing, if slightly mother-henish, egg of wisdom regarding why we are compelled to approach truths or sincerities from side angles, or the more pop-centric 80s recasting (that’s 1980s) of the same nugget by Ray Stanz (Dan Ackroyd)—or, a preference toward a defining explosion in the use of a kind of ironic detachment as an end run around facing and representing something approaching Truth (capital Tee), Sincerity, Hope, or Earnestness (not to even mention Tenderness), as a result of oversaturation of artistic mediums—leaving us nothing original to write, paint, compose or sculpt about—the hopelessness of an existence without a possible meaning or end result, coupled with a ever-increasing speed and fluidity of modern culture—no matter the conclusion drawn about causes/impetus, many artists seem to find it difficult to meet many of our basest feelings and questions with any sort of head-on clarity.

Poetry, specifically contemporary poetry (say, of the last half-century or so), may be the most guilty of this type of deflection (to borrow a term from the therapist’s lingo). Part of it has to do with the ultra-compression a lyric is subjected to. I can think of a poet who claimed a 12-line poem he’d written took him 6-months to complete. And with all of poetry’s adornments of figure, language, music, image, diction, syntax, rhythm that kind of time frame starts to become believable. And when we start to think about how vast a language becomes when not only the words, but the connotations and inflections (which increase to the nth degree when the multitude of possible audiences brought to bear) given the words by others who interact with them are considered, how easy it becomes to feel that direct statements don’t begin to embody experience.

And what about the mind behind that experience—isn’t it just as valuable to come to an understanding of how ideas are generated, as the ideas themselves? One can’t simply say “I love you” these days—the ante’s been raised, the price of poetry has just gone up—in fact one can’t say  “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” or “My love is like a red red rose” any more, because “roses” and “red” is an overused comparison (if completely apt), and “love”—the very word “love,” how can we take that word seriously, say it without either giggling like school kids or questioning its very existence in a society that doesn’t allow all of its citizens to marry, care for its poor, or treats divorces like turning in a lease car. “Death” works similarly, as does “race,” “class,” “gender,” poems about the state of the “soul.”

So we’ve become experts in “[Telling] it slant;” it has become an art form in and of itself, and the cooler, more hip, more out in front one is—a part of the vanguard, say—the more angular the art seems to be. I like that term, “angular.” The poet Tony Hoagland uses it in his essay on tone in poetry, “Sad Anthrpoligists,” to describe what he calls “angular tone,” saying that


“Tone is most visible when it is at an angle. Since the sense of angularity requires the juncture of two things, it is also useful to think of tone as a sort of fraction. Take, as an example, the opening of Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Motive for Metaphor”:

You like it under the trees in autumn,

Because everything is half dead.

These two lines introduce us not to a scene so much as to the angle of a sensibility. The angle struck here is the oddity of attraction to something that would typically be thought of as distasteful, the angle between attraction and repulsion, between the words “like” and “half dead.”


The New York School Poets are especially good at showing this angular relationship to Sincerity or Earnestness. As playful as they were, as much as they eschewed the academic literary poetic standard of the mid-20th-Cenutry, belly-laughed in the face of its self-seriousness, they did it with their own advanced degrees, and suits and ties. They were Earnest, Sincere, but most times when they were, they flanked those serious feelings like Love, Fear, Confusion. The angle was indeed extreme. And they, Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch specifically, have been extremely influential on multiple generations of poets, poets whose exposure to an ever-increasing cultural insistence on Irony/Humor as a base-coat for emotional interaction has caused them to make even more frequent and large-scale use of the type of heavy-emotinal detachment seen in the NY School.

An excellent example of using humor and play as a way into sincerity is Frank O’Hara’s modest-seeming lyric “The Critic,” which I include here in full:


I cannot possibly think of you

other than you are: the assassin


of my orchards. You lurk there

in the shadows, meting out


conversation like Eve’s first

confusion between penises and


snakes. Oh be droll, be jolly

and be temperate! Do not


frighten me more than you

have to! I must live forever.


This short lyric is deceptively dense, though that density is down-played by signature moves O’Hara makes, like sweetener packets emptied into a cup of black coffee—his love of the exclamation mark, joke linking Eve and penises, and request imploring critics to “be droll, be jolly,” seem classic O’Hara, in the same way titling poem after poem “Poem” or a seemingly dashed-off Lana Turner reference is. But just as the use of “Poem” as a recurring title hides a certain seriousness by claiming the poem (or poetry) isn’t a thing worthy of a title (O’Hara was known for sending his only type-written copies of poems off to publishers and friends), or by posturing a sense of “dashed-offedness” in his poems, O’Hara could disinvest from a poem if need be, these moves in “The Critic” attempt to counterbalance the serious tone of Fear that emanates from the poem’s ending. When O’Hara writes “I must live forever,” he is speaking both about the fear of not being remembered, or canonized, and the fear of being remembered, compared to true poets, like, say, Shakespeare, the same Shakespeare “The Critic” tips its hat to (pays homage). In “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” lines like “Thou art more lovely and more temperate” and the final couplet,


So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


ripple through O’Hara’s poem, strongly enough that when I first read “The Critic” its parallels to Shakespeare were extremely striking. It certainly becomes recognizable that O’Hara’s poem (in fact many of them) back into a sort of Sincerity and that somehow the playfulness and jokes give him a kind of permission to till hard, and hard-earned, emotional ground, coming off almost as if he were fooled into revealing something real, a facsimile of a true epiphanic moment, as if to say “I didn’t want to go there but in the moment the feeling was too compelling.”

The Philosophy of a Boy and His Tiger

Posted in Academia, Stuff I assume other people care about with tags , , , on 2010/02/05 by jamiejthomas

The last Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, run in the Washington Post December 31st 1995. To me it was more than just a cartoon, it was the best damn cartoon. Nothing came close. And Bill Watterson walked away from it when it was at peak popularity, talking to no one.

And now he’s done an interview in the Cleveland Plain Dealer,

his first since something like 1989. Crazy. It got me thinking again about that comic strip named for two opposing philosophers. When it was running it had a large and profound effect on me when I was 18 I had Calvin tattoed on my shoulder–long before Calvin was bumper-stickered to the backs of pickups pissing on a Ford logo–to remind me that we remain in many ways like big 6-yr-olds.

Hobbes seems aptly Hobbesian, with a dim or cynical view of humankind and its capabilities. I wonder how Calvinian Calvin is. I know he’s smarter than your average 2nd-grader, with a bigger vocabulary than most of the college students I teach. Maybe a paper is there to be written about how each stacks up to his namesake.