Thursday, January 30, 2003
White House scared of poetry: Poets like to think of themselves as "unacknowledged legislators," [para. 50] but that's mostly self-aggrandizement. Kurt Vonnegut, in the interview linked below, puts the matter succinctly: "When it became obvious what a dumb and cruel and spiritually and financially and militarily ruinous mistake our war in Vietnam was, every artist worth a damn in this country, every serious writer, painter, stand-up comedian, musician, actor and actress, you name it, came out against the thing. We formed what might be described as a laser beam of protest, with everybody aimed in the same direction, focused and intense. This weapon proved to have the power of a banana-cream pie three feet in diameter when dropped from a stepladder five-feet high." While I think Vonnegut's cynicism is excessive & offered partly as hyperbole, his attitude is cautionary for those of us who think that wearing a scarf decorated with peace symbols to a White House function is a morally responsible thing to do.
But then, you have to do something, right? A couple of weeks ago I got an invitation to participate in a poetry reading for peace at a local college & I accepted. I decided not to read one of my own poems, but chose instead an eight-line poem by the Vietnamese poet Van Le titled "Quang Tri," which is the name of a place in Vietnam. I wanted to read it in Vietnamese. Now, my spoken Vietnamese is okay on the street in Hanoi--I can get myself fed & ask directions & etc.--but I had never considered reading a poem in Vietnamese in public before. Still, it seemed that at a time when my country, which I loved when I was a little boy, is about to go to war against an abstraction called Iraq, I could do nothing less. I have Vietnamese lessons twice a week from a student at my university who was born near Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. (Her story alone would make you weep for the soul of America, but that's a story for another day.) I had Trinh help me with the rhythm & pronunciation of the poem. After some practice, she said, "There's only one word I couldn't understand when I listen to you." We worked on that word. On Tuesday I went down to the art gallery at the college & stood up & read Van Le's poem about the bones of the Vietnamese left everywhere in his country after the American war. A student read the poem in English. There's an interesting thing about Vietnamese poetry--it demands to be sung (Vietnamese is a tonal language)--& I, who have never been able to sing, found myself near song during the few seconds it took to recite the poem. But my few seconds of song do anything to stand against the War Machine now grinding in the capital of my country, which I loved when I was a little boy? Hard to say.
In any case, a whole range of American poets is getting ready to drop our cream pie from a five-foot stepladder & I applaud the effort. I will be be contributing a poem & up here in my corner of the country I loved when I was a little boy I will work with others to continue to give readings of poetry against the war that now seems inevitable. The Iraq war is not like the American War in Vietnam in many ways. Nobody in her right mind disputes that Saddam in a totalitarian pig, whereas in Vietnam the US opposed a legitimate national revolution because it was led by Communists. The failure to make fine distinctions is the mark of a limited intelligence. What the Iraq War & the Vietnam War do have in common, though, is that both will be beastly & bloody & will not make the United States safer, more secure, or more respected in the international community. My country, in my lifetime, has ceased to be my country.
FromEric Alterman's Altercation, quoting a paragraph from Richard K. Betts in Foreign Affairs : "Some Americans also become indignant when it is suggested that an Iraqi counterattack could be considered the fault of American initiative. This stance, they argue, is like blaming the victim. But this argument again confuses moral and material interests. If the snake strikes back when you poke it, you may blame the snake rather than yourself for being bitten. But you will still wish that you had not poked it.”
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:44 AM.
Tuesday, January 28, 2003
Go away. Go read pagecount. Golby's been on a real roll since he said he was going to take two weeks off!
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 9:07 AM.
Monday, January 27, 2003
I'm in the process of reworking the little room I use as a writing & reading space, so my desk is currently out on the landing / library in the center of the house above the living room. The stairs come up into an open space with three rooms off it. Many evenings Carole watches a movie down in the living room & out here I can hear the music, effects, dialogue, etc. I'm not bothered by it; in fact, I'm sort of one of those hyper-alert souls (like my dog Angel) who can't help paying attention to sensory inputs. In my case, language. So I have the sense of having "seen" A Beautiful Mind & Oceans 11 (Carole has eclectic taste) because I have heard them while sitting up here reading, blogging, doing class preps. Of course, film is a visual medium & I haven't had anything like the aesthetic experience the directors & actors intended, but there is a sense in which I have gotten what I need--what matters to me--from these films: language, stories. The whole problem of intention is vexed, vexed I tell you, of course! [Editorial note: a Google search on the word hyperalertness yields a distressing number of documents having to do with post-traumatic stress syndrome & substance abuse.] I don't normally like watching movies, but I find that listening to them is pretty interesting. Language, stories, tone of voice . . .
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:37 PM.
Saturday, January 25, 2003
The Difficult Days [Los días difíciles]
When I was young I thought I could die and be reborn
from my own remains.
It's a long story.
I was a midnight sailor: I climbed mountains
with a cadaver tied to my ankle. In exchange for a fine plate
of falsehoods, I forged a second face. I pitched
my tent on the far side of reality and for ten years lived
a life of heinous crime: I used my pen
to praise the insolence of the powerful, the faithful lovers of brutality
who were staking out a warped eternity. I lauded
the softness of the deft hands
of bank robbers. Following superior orders I murdered
my older brother's garden, the apple of his eye.
I defended with my life the cant of hucksters. I was so young then
I believed I could keep my mythological beard
safe in its own depths.
Now I'm old. I've so little light left in my eyes
I can't help crushing underfoot the fragile life
that moves along on my path. My road is made of broken
glass and false alarms of fire and attack. Torn cobwebs
dangle from the four points of the compass, ruffled by
(no doubt inimical)
from awful dives
goes to bed
and gets up sickly pale, and where
of a leaf
from a viper's nest
Friday, January 24, 2003
Ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken: I've been listening to Dylan's live shows from 1975 while the war fever builds. On my way to teach in the mornings I turn of National Public Radio & crank the volume up on Dylan singing "Hard Rain." I consider the lives of my students. I am almost an old man now, but they, as the saying goes, "have their lives before them." The version of the song on this new live CD couldn't be more different from the mournful original that I listened to in high school. By 1975 the song had become an anarchic romp through American society in the spirit of Highway 61 Revisited, especially the title song. Same rollicking circus music driving the song forward, welcoming the apocalypse. In my cold northern winter the song seems exactly right to me: bring on the war, let the empire extend itself until it collapses beneath the weight of its own immorality. That's the way I felt in 1975, the Rolling Stones singing, "I went down to the demonstration / to get my fair share of abuse / Singing we're gonna vent our frustration / or we're gonna blow a fifty-amp fuse." I remember quoting these lines to Larry Frank, probably the best teacher I ever had & a guy sympathetic to the student protests against the Vietnam War. He was uncomprehending. As much as he believed the war was wrong, he thought that we would be better off studying Blake & Wordsworth than getting beat up & gassed by the Seattle Police Tactical Squad. He didn't penalize us when we went on strike, but he still wanted to teach. I love & respect his pure vision, but then & now I couldn't live by it. Blake's "London" & Dylan's "Desolation Row" had folded themselves into each other across the centuries. But now I think of my students & I hope the best for them in spite of my apocalyptic & anarchic vision of the future. My mother, a life-long depressive, used to say to me, even when I was very young, "It would be better if I had never been born." Doesn't make a child feel very good, that; but her poetic, ruthless honesty broke through because she was so sad, having abandoned her talent & humor to a restrictive Christian fundamentalism. I don't know why. My mom was a Christian Nihilist. Unlike her & against probability, I hope for a future for my students. I am not sorry I was born & I am not sorry they were born, though I think the America into which they have been thrust will test them terribly. Perhaps most will become mere functionaries of the State, but if I do my job, maybe a few will twist history in a new direction, if only locally. It will be those local deflections, if anything, that will accumulate & make a difference. As a teacher, that's what I live for. It's a hard rain's gonna fall, kids. How, my darlings, will you escape from the ten-thousand talkers whose tongues are all broken? Only through anarchic joy, only through poetry that flings itself against the walls. I see my life come shining . . .
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:41 PM.
Thursday, January 23, 2003
Beware of innocent lepers: Norm Jenson has, against his better judgement, begun a discussion with Howard Owens, late of these pages. On the subject of imperialism, no less. The right is indefatigable, Norm, give it up while you still have a few shreds of sanity. I've been writing about Conrad & I've just posted a poem by Pinter, so I might as well introduce another Brit, Graham Greene: "I stoped our trishaw outside the Chalet and said to Phuong, "Go in and find a table. I had better look after Pyle." That was my first instinct--to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm." [The Quiet American]
There's another quotation I'm looking for . . . in the morning. Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight. / Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Busy week. Getting web pages together for my classes & getting back into the swing of the semester. My university is also in the midst of hiring a new president & as a director of an interdisciplinary program I've been meeting with the three finalists for the gig last week & this--at 8:20 in the morning--& then writing up my evaluations. I'm not working nearly as hard as some of my colleagues on this, but it has loaded up my already crammed schedule. I'm teaching a creative writing course & two sections of the Honors Program's Computer as an Intellectual Tool for second-semester freshmen: we're doing weblogs & hypertext literature. I'll be posting links to my students' work here in the coming weeks. It has also been extremely cold here the last several days, the temperature not managing to climb above 0 F for the last four days, which makes everything take longer. I'm not complaining, I'm only hoping that I'm not responsible for sending Mike Golby into hiatus. Just before the week began I wrote a series of posts titled Joseph Conrad's Vietnam in response to Golby's obsessively brilliant turnings on Apocalypse Now. I was amused when Mike wrote that my posts were what he would expect from a teacher, but a little worried--in America, we don't expect much from teachers. We pay them badly & embed them in stifling bureaucracies in order to turn them cynical so that they will in turn inculcate cynicism in our children. An empire needs cynics, though it needs nihilists even more (about which later). Conrad, who detested the moral laziness of imperialism, would have loved Vietnam: there never was a nation that worked more diligently to gain its freedom, except maybe the United States. When I was a little boy I loved reading books about Patrick Henry & other American revolutionaries. Read the speech, it isn't long. Problem is, I no longer recognize the nation the heroes of my youth brought into existence--except when I go to Vietnam. In 1945 Ho Chi Minh quoted our own words back to us in the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence. Patrick Henry's America has turned itself insideout--we have become a disgusting & corrupt empire bent on expansion & exploitation. Do I hate my country? No. I honor its traditions of liberty & freedom. Do I believe that we must go through the fire & be reborn? Yes. In the words of an American patriot, "The war has already begun."
Here they go again,
The Yanks in their armoured parade
Chanting their ballads of joy
As they gallop across the big world
Praising America's God.
The gutters are clogged with the dead
The ones who couldn't join in
The others refusing to sing
The ones who are losing their voice
The ones who've forgotten the tune.
The riders have whips which cut.
Your head rolls onto the sand
Your head is a pool in the dirt
Your head is a stain in the dust
Your eyes have gone out and your nose
Sniffs only the pong of the dead
And all the dead air is alive
With the smell of America's God.
Tuesday, January 21, 2003
-9 F was the high temperature in South Colton today. Going to be -30 overnight nevermind the windchill.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:35 PM.
Monday, January 20, 2003
Joseph Conrad's Vietnam, continued: "Never get off the boat," that's the lesson the crew learns ferrying Captain Willard up the river in Apocalypse Now. But it is a false wisdom. One way of looking at it is that everyone has to get off the boat, no choice. But the way I see it, if you don't get off the boat, whatever it is you're afraid of is going to get right on board with you, so you might as well get off the boat & have a look around. In any case, the boat is just part of the whole picture, the system of relationships called the world. Finally, whether you're on or off doesn't make a lot of difference to anybody but you. This, of course, is high school existentialism, but no less true for that. So, even though I got lucky & didn't have to go hack my way through those jungles in 1967 in Vietnam, I went "back" in 1997 & almost every year since.
These days there are a lot of analogies being tossed around that compare the US war in Vietnam to the coming war in Iraq. Even the usually reliable Atrios opines, "Charles Reynolds didn't cancel his protest because one idiot insisted on carrying a North Vietnamese flag - one idiot who, for all we know, was one of the FBI's many plants." Most of the analogies are rubbish, but the worst one--& it is usually framed by peace apologists rather than the War Party--is that just as it was possible to oppose the Vietnam War without wanting the Communists to win, it is possible to oppose an Iraq war without wanting Saddam to win. The Vietnamese nationalists had every right to win & were supported by a large majority of enlightened nations. In Vietnam, the US was almost uniquely wrong. By the time we got in, even the French had begun to understand their culpability. The analogy fails because Saddam's Iraq is an totalitarian autocracy, whereas the Vietnamese revolutionaries (&I have been privileged to meet a few of them) were fighting for a just cause. If you want an analogy for the First & Second Indochina Wars, the American Revolution would be a better fit. So, yeah: Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh / The NLF is gonna win was the right sentiment. I only wish I had understood this more fully at the time. Were there atrocities? Yes, on both sides. War is nasty & low & ought to be avoided when possible. Were oppressive policies put in place in Vietnam after the revolution? Yes, undoubtedly; but to their credit, the revolutionaries who won independence for Vietnam only held on to their ideological Marxism for ten years before changing course & bringing Vietnam into the world economy. The leadership in Iraq is essentially a gang & while we never should have opposed the just aspirations of the Vietnamese people, we ought to oppose Saddam's gang. The problem is--& here analogies to Vietnam may be valid--in how best to oppose Saddam & support the aspirations of the Iraqi people.
Lying Bastards:from Paul Krugman's Off the Wagon: "The administration's top economist certainly changed his mind about deficits very late in the game. Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, recently denied that deficits raise interest rates and depress private investments. Yet Mr. Hubbard is also the author of an economics textbook; as Berkeley's J. Bradford DeLong points out on his influential Web site, the 2002 edition of that textbook explains how, yes, deficits raise interest rates and depress private investment."
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:57 AM.
Sunday, January 19, 2003
Angie & Andy came over tonight for one of our ad hoc Sunday night dinners. I had baked bread this afternoon & while Carole & Angie were out on their snowshoes with the dogs & Andy was watching a playoff game, I boned out a small chicken & put it to marinate in vermouth, lemon juice, oregano, fresh-ground green pepper corns, Spanish capers, olive oil & salt. I cut up some russet potatoes & rolled them around in oil & salt & pepper in a roasting pan. When the girls came back with the dogs, I put the chicken, flesh side up, under the broiler until it was golden-brown. Then I pulled it out & flipped it over & painted the skin side with deli mustard diluted with lemon juice & stuck that under the broiler along with the potatoes. Did I mention we were drinking copious amounts of Sam Adams Winter Lager & Stovepipe Porter?
Copious is the adjectival form of copia, a Renaissance rhetorical concept with metaphysical implications. Friendship is copious & nothing expresses the richness of possibility in the world like the preparation of food. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than preparing food for my friends--it's a kind of poetry that doesn't depend on the uncertainties of language. Cooking is working with the actual stuff of the world & offering it to one's friends. So that would be heaven for me if I believed in heaven: a house beside a river with dogs & friends who understand the beauty--profound, fleeting--of a roasted chicken. Snow falling. Fire in the stove. Laughter. Sanity. Outside the circle of firelight there is the anxiety & insecurity of nature. Baby, it's cold outside.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:50 PM.
Saturday, January 18, 2003
I've been baking bread today as a defense against sub-zero temperatures outdoors.
Joseph Conrad's Vietnam, continued: Flash forward nearly twenty years. Everybody has forgotten Vietnam. Except for the Vietnamese themselves & the American survivors of the war of course. I was sitting in my office at the university. I'd been granted tenure the year before & a second book of my poems was about to come out. My luck was holding. A memo lands in my mailbox inviting me to apply for a cultural exchange trip to Vietnam. Oh yeah, Vietnam, I remember Vietnam. I wrote up a couple of reasons explaining why I thought the university should send me to SE Asia for a month to tour around with a bunch of other academics. So there I am, having been deposited by the air conditioned bus at Cu Chi: "At Cu Chi, the visitor is greeted by a sign reading: Please try to be a Cu Chi guerrilla. Wear these uniforms before entering tunnel. Black pajamas, pith helmets, rubber sandals and old rifles are available. Here and there, swimming pool-sized holes in the ground are neatly labeled: 'B-52 crater'." I didn't put on the outfit, but I did go down in a couple of the tunnels. Likewise, I took a pass on going to the firing range to shoot an M-16 at one US dollar a pop. What I did, mostly, was walk around in the heat with another American my age peering at the jungle. Except it's not jungle the way the movies show it--it's not nearly as attractive. It is dense & tangled & dusty & had it rained the dust would have turned to glue. It is difficult to think at times like this. Cliches fog the brain. There but for fortune . . . And this was the Disneyland version of the war. I've looked at the photographs & read the testimony of those who went to the American War, from both sides. I have spent time trying to learn Vietnamese so I can translate poetry that might tell me something I need to know. Every excuse we made--from Ike to Nixon--was a lie compounded of arrogance & radical epistemological dislocation. I'm glad I didn't go & I'm sorry for the poor bastards who did, whether they know they are poor bastards or not. Regardless of the abuses of ideologically driven leaders later, the Vietnamese Revolution was as legitimate as the American Revolution. The United States has been wrong many times during the 20th century & seems poised to be wrong again in the 21st, but in Vietnam we were uniquely wrong. So nearly every year since that first trip, I have gone back to Vietnam. I have gone back to support the ideals of the Vietnamese Revolution. And yet I love my country, especially for its freedoms & crazy fractiousness. I hope that both Americans & Vietnamese will live up to the ideals of their revolutions.
John le Carré: "America has entered one of its periods of historical madness, but this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War."
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:46 AM.
Friday, January 17, 2003
Joseph Conrad's Vietnam: When I was eighteen I got lucky, despite the fact that I was not born lucky. I was born fucked, actually, but on May 31st, 1951, which meant that through a process maybe as random as the quantum jiggling of the universe, I was saved from having to make a decision about my willingness to go to war. To go to a war that even to my callow intelligence appeared to be a collosal work of depravity foisted on the world by a series of criminally culpable American administrations. Skip forward to 1978. I'm in graduate school. My first marriage has not survived the move from West coast to Midwest. I'm sitting in a movie theater with my hand on my date's thigh. We are some distance into watching Apocalypse Now. Great music. Pretty napalm. I am feeling relaxed for the first ime in weeks. And then it hits me: I really missed out not going to Vietnam--a thought that immediately whiplashes into: you stupid lucky bastard you got to do your drugs & dig your rock & roll at home where nobody was trying to kill you. Later, I realized that the whiplash is what gives Apocalypse Now its moral force. And still later I figured out that all great works of art contain that kind of ruthlessness. That whiplash. Otherwise, we're talking decoration. Nothing wrong with decoration, of course . . . it's human.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:06 PM.
-10F at four o'clock this afternoon. I brought in a lot of fire wood & stacked it on the porch. Took the dogs out just now & saw it has dropped another five degrees. Clear sky, full moon, fresh snow: the coldest night of the year may also turn out to be the most beautiful.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 2:18 PM.
Thursday, January 16, 2003
The charge of the Light Brigade: In class today I also used Mike Golby, Steve Himmer & myself as examples of different ways of presenting the self online. I loved Himmer's post this morning, which I think of as Following Sgt. Golby into battle against the Philistines. Himmer makes Golby an officer, but I'm pretty sure he is a grizzled non-com. I've been feeling pretty grizzled myself the last couple of years, though in a commissioned sort of way. A junior officer. Worrying that I never earned the promotion. I went a little crazy when I was living in Vietnam a couple of years ago, stopped eating & (a friend said) looked like I had hepatitis. Hollow eyes. No sleep. Obsessive phrases running through my mind for hours at a time. Panic attacks. I was not a soldier in Vietnam (or anywhere), though I am the right age. Maybe it was non-traumatic stress syndrome. But I was still through all this writing essays & translating poems. Sometimes I'd just have to get up & leave wherever I was & walk. I was not out of it I was into it. I'd have to just walk. That's why I know Hanoi so well. I have walked the shit out of that city. Then a good Scots MD introduced me to serotonin reuptake inhibitors & the fear went away & I began to eat again. I love Vietnamese food. I became happy again, in the conventional sense. I didn't like being crazy, exactly, but the light on the buildings was beautiful. Like some kind of heaven. If the doors of perception were cleansed . . . we'd all be batshit crazy.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:09 PM.
One of the great things about my job is that I get to learn stuff by teaching it to undergraduates. The bliss of ignorance & a paycheck. A couple of years ago I proposed a course on "hypertext literature" for our honors program at Clarkson. The proposal was accepted & a year ago I taught the course for the first time. I began with a fairly "traditional" view of hypertext as stand-alone works of literature that made use of a particular technology. I have come to realize, now that I am beginning to teach the course for the second time, that nothing stands alone. A combination of reading literary theory--particularly the sort that looks at the role of the reader--& a year's worth of practical experience writing a blog have contributed to this conviction. This time around I began by telling my two groups of eighteen-year-olds that they will all be writing weblogs, either solo or in groups. And today we spent our class time talking about the presentation of self in cyberspace (as well as the inadequacies of the space metaphor, AKMA's hobby horse). [I don't know, maybe we are all a cosmic Body, as Blake thought. Ed.] So thirty Clarkson honors program freshmen will soon be online with weblogs, mostly on Blogger. At the moment I'm looking into how to aggregate all these weblogs to a single site. Stay tuned, I'm learning new technology as I go.
Monday, January 13, 2003
Poetry & Justice: For almost as long as I've been writing poetry I have wanted to understand where poetry fits into the rest of life. I've never been satisfied with the idea that poetry is a decorative art. I knew that reading & then writing poems had saved my life when I was a kid--had given me a way to begin to understand the harm my fundamentalist Christian parents & teachers were doing my soul with their life-denying doctrines. (In fact, poetry eventually taught me the doctrine of no doctrine.) Over the years I have puzzled over the place of poetry in this world, my American world as well as the larger human world of which we are a part, without being able to get past the point of my own personal need for poetry. I am not a systematic thinker; like Keats, Consecutive Reasoning is not my strong point. So I have taken notes & jotted in notebooks & given a few talks. I have taught classes, but mostly in the practice of poetry: there, at least, I had my own more or less successful methods to fall back upon, as well as a few tricks borrowed from my teachers. About ten years ago I threw everything I knew about poetry & passion into an essay titled "Soul Searching" that appeared in the (no slight intended) obscure journal, The Cream City Review. There, as I recall, poetry pretty much added up to passion & while I don't think that view is wrong, I think it is pretty limited. Along the way, I have found myself driven to rage by those who presume to say, clearly & once & for all, just what poetry is. Dana Gioia's essay in The Atlantic, "Can Poetry Matter?" occasioned the first of these rages & the most violent, but other occasions have followed. Of course, Gioia's essay is online & he has just been nominated to head the National Endowment for the Arts*, so he & his view of the world have prevailed, at least in the short term. What is that view? This is not the moment to refight the battles over the New Formalism, so I'll just suggest that Gioia's patrician populism leaves me cold--it lacks passion, but also compassion; it lacks Blake's Delight, but also fails to shed light on what is most essential . . . Poetry as cultural product, not process . . . Nor is poetry a matter of technique, though technique can serve the art.
This is probably just another set of failed notes toward an essay on poetry that will go nowhere, but I am at least going to record here a few of the bits & pieces, a few of the fragments, I've run across lately that might serve as landmarks, or road signs on the way to understanding. In any case, I'm no longer interested in poetry or theories of poetry that don't attempt--however ridiculously--to save the world. Maybe I can make a beginning toward understanding the art I've practiced more than thirty years by forgetting about poetry & thinking about language:
"Spoken Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian are of Slavic origin and have minor differences in syntax, pronunciation, and slang. The Croats & Bosnian Muslims use the Roman alphabet. The Serbs use the Cyrillic alphabet. Otherwise the tongue they all speak is nearly the same. // Since there was, in essence, one language, the Serbs, Muslims and Croats each began to distort their own tongue to accommodate the myth of separateness. The Bosnian Muslims introduced Arabic words and Koranic expressions into the language. The Muslims during the war adopted words like shahid, or martyr, from Arabic, dropping the Serbian word junak. They began using Arabic expressions, like inshallah (God willing), marhaba (hello) and salam alekhum (peace be upon you). // Just as energetically, the Croats swung the other way, dusting off words from the fifteenth century. The Croatian president at the time, Franjo Tudjman, took delight in inventing new terms. Croatian parliamentarians proposed passing a law that would levy fines and prison terms for those who use "words of foreign origin." // In Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, waiters and shop clerks would turn up their noses at patrons who used "Serbian" phrases. The Education Ministry in Croatia told teachers to mark "non-Croatian" words on student papers incorrect. The stampede to establish a "pure" Croatian language, led by a host of amateurs and politicians, resulted in chaos and rather bizarre linguistic twists. // There are two words in Serbo-Croatian, for example, for "one thousand." One of the words, tisuca, was not used by the Communist government that ruled the old Yugoslavia, which preferred hiljada, paradoxically, an archaic Croatian word. Hiljada, although more authentically Croatian, was discarded by Croatian nationalists; tisuca, perhaps because it was banned by the Communists, was in fashion. // The movement, done in the name of authenticity, was patently artificial. It was a linguistic version of gingerbread hearts. It was a way in which a nation could find tiny specks over which to argue and establish an identity and go to war." [Chris Hedges, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning (33-34)]
"Gang-bangers can kill so easily because they operate without a real concept of murder. They do not perceive another life at the end of the gun. In fact, they hardly ever use the term "murder," but speak instead of "dusting," or "wasting," or "blowing away." They can kill without feeling because guilt and conscience no longer inform their lives. That is a terrifying side of the ease with which they can participate in tribal organization. Not only are they bereft of conscience or guilt, but more important, they are devoid of the very crucial construct that animates a conscience--a self. Thus, where others derive power and strength, urban gangsters feel only emptiness. How to fill up that hole? How to feel powerful, if only for the moment? Join up with other young people in the same desperate, frightened condition. And then the group--the gang--can fire itself up with guns and drugs and stories to fabricate a "collective self," which finds expression not in pondering ideas, but in committing crimes. Violence and drug addiction are the fallout from that kind of illiterate society. Given enough time, everyone will eventually behave like gangsters. The new human being will dominate. Gang behavior will describe a larger and larger segment of the population. Literacy creates a community of individual selves, each directed by a conscience, and driven by purpose. Reading and writing force people to imagine the lives of others. Reading and writing demand reflection. Literate people question and question again. They reflect critically. Young gang-bangers act--without reflection." [Barry Sanders, A is for Ox (178-179)]
So what does this have to do with poetry? Hedges, at the beginning of his book, writes that gangsterism is behind most of the "ethnic conflicts" of the last couple of decades. Sanders makes the point that gangsterism & illiteracy are brother & sister. For the moment, I want only to claim poetry as a primary force of literacy--primary because it emerges from orality into writing. This is a crucial threshold of consciousness. Where poetry lives. I want to think that poetry has something to do with justice--not justice in the narrow legal sense, but, by analogy, in the sense of musical temperament--an adjustment away from the abstract, the mythical, the perfect . . . toward the human.
*In 1984 & 1996 I received substantial grants from the NEA. I remain grateful for the money, which bought a lot of freedom & happiness.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:47 PM.
Joe Lieberman, who announced today that he will seek the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, said during his press conference that he is "a different kind of Democrat." Yeah, the Republican kind. Who needs this sanctimonious prig?
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 2:06 PM.
Friday, January 10, 2003
The intersection of myth, theocracy & right-wing American politics: In addition to the theocratic aspirations of various Islamists, we have our own home-grown varieties. There is Christian Reconstructionism; there are the pre-millennialist dispensationalists; & the Unificationists of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Atrios has been tracking Moon's evil desire to subvert the American Constitution & the Bush administration's smarmy political opportunism in tagging along with him; me, I'm seeing fundamentalists everywhere. Philosophically, I'm a pluralist, but pluralism is ill-designed to respond to fundamentalist reductionism. [Some terms & definitions.]
And everybody knows that it's now or never
Everybody knows that it's me or you
And everybody knows that you live forever
Ah when you've done a line or two
Everybody knows the deal is rotten
Old Black Joe's still pickin' cotton
For your ribbons and bows
And everybody knows
And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it's moving fast
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there's gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows
Thursday, January 09, 2003
Since I was a boy I have loved looking at clouds. The computer screen isn't a substitute for the real thing, but this is a great resource. [via Screenshot] It occurs to me that web publishing is a natural direction for the evolution of the nature fieldguide, though it's still nice to have my Petersen books when I go tromping through the woods. Truth be told, though, I don't usually carry them & look stuff up when I get home.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:00 PM.
Wednesday, January 08, 2003
Spring Semester begins tomorrow. I'm teaching an honors course on hypertext & a traditional creative writing class. Should be interesting. I'm lucky--I get to teach what I'm interested in & what I'm good at. Lately, though, I've been distracted. I sleep badly. The other night I dreamed I was already dead, but didn't know it. Someone had to tell me: "You've been dead for three days & you stink." When someone else attacked me (in the dream), my only weapon was the stench of my corpse. The troops are deploying, here & in Britain; Tony Blair says he would never commit his country's soldiers to an unjust war--he is vaguely remembering something from Augustine he read back in college; the president of the United States is untroubled even by this small qualm. This tic of conscience. Well, the basic Confucian questions must be asked: Would it be worse for us if we did nothing? If we maintained our watchfulness & brought reserves up to protect the people? If we sent sly diplomats abroad to sow subtle ambiguities among our enemies? If we refrained from talking like half-drunk boys? Though not a Confucian, I am, like him, a teacher. I will ask the question--or, I will try to give my students the ability to ask the questions.
Tuesday, January 07, 2003
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori. Howard Owens can't have this poem. He cannot post it on his weblog while telling the old lie. He comments: "a reminder that war, no matter how necessary (as it is these days) is never a matter of glory. It's a dirty, ugly, sad business." Either Howard Owens has no sense of irony, or no sense of shame.
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!--An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
As the culture shifts away from a predominately religious orientation in which God is credited with establishing the categories into which we put our perceptions of the world, animals & humans again have a chance to move back toward each other. Either none of us have souls, or all of us do. I tend toward the latter view, but not in the ghostly presence sense.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:43 PM.
The smell of fear: I stopped going to the MLA meetings once I was granted tenure, though there are a couple of smaller conferences I go to most years. This piece reminds me why I quit going.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 10:24 AM.
History lesson: According to Ellsberg's reading of the Pentagon Papers, despite the fact that that government had more information than in any previous war, American policy in Vietnam was driven, not by the cool calculations for which Robert McNamara became famous, but ". . . a series of desperate gambles actually perceived as such by those who made them at the time." [Secrets 370] The pattern persisted over five administrations. Ellsberg's over-arching thesis is that a government that can operate in secret--that can lie with impunity & out of habit--is a grave danger to the country. His act of civil disobedience was an attempt, he says, to break down the system in which a group of insiders who possessed security clearances are insulated from public scrutiny. Ironically, despite the clearances & secret studies, all that information didn't help the bureaucrats in the Pentagon make better decision, or give good advice to five presidents. And when good advice was offered--when true assessments of the situation were plunked down on the desk in the Oval Office, the response was almost always to ignore the facts & try to draw to an inside straight. Considering that we now have the most secretive administration in our history, it gives one pause, especially when considering the situation in North Korea.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 8:22 AM.
Saturday, January 04, 2003
Language: Imagine the scene--it's 1970 & Daniel Ellsberg has copied the Pentagon Papers, which reveal the secret history of the American War in Vietnam; he has taken his information to Senators Fulbright & McGovern & while both have expressed sympathy, both have declined to make the papers public under cover of senatorial privilege. Ellsberg believes that this secret history of the war will reveal a pattern of deliberate mendacity that has kept the war going at a terrible human cost. Ellsberg himself spent two years putting himself at risk driving the back roads of South Vietnam with John Paul Vann trying to figure out how to win hearts & minds. Previously, he led troops in combat in Korea. Ellsberg had come to the conclusion that, politically & militarily, the war was a hopeless stalemate; he had also come to the conclusion that the war was morally untenable. He is considering releasing the classified study in his possession to the press, but he has recently been married to his second wife. His decision will affect not only his own life, but his wife's. He gives her a selection of the papers to read:
"She pointed out to me that passages about alternative bombing programs were filled with phrases about 'a need to reach their threshold of pain'; 'We all accept the will of the DRV as the real target'; 'Judging by experience during the last war, the resumption of bombing after a pause would be even more painful to the population of North Vietnam than a fairly steady rate of bombing'; 'water-drip technique'; 'DRV pain in the North'; 'VC pain in the south'; 'It is important not to kill the hostage by destroying the North Vietnamese assets inside the Hanoi donut'; 'Fast/Full squeeze option versus Progressive squeeze and talk'; 'the hot-cold program of painful surgical strikes separated by fairly long gaps'; 'our salami-slice bombing program'; 'ratchet'; 'one more turn of the screw' . . ." Ellsberg's wife told him, "This is the language of torturers."
We cannot escape from the revelations of our rhetoric, then or now. Listen to what our national leaders are saying. Language is not trivial.
Several times recently I have had occasion to write the phrase I am not a pascifist in this space. I've been fairly clear in my own mind about what I have meant by this phrase, but I do think it should bear further reflection.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:18 PM.
The horse is back. My mornings just haven't been the same this winter not being able to get my dose of liberal bile with my strong black coffee. Welcome back, Hoss!
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:49 PM.
Foreign Policy.com onContaining / deterring Saddam:"In the full-court press for war with Iraq, the Bush administration deems Saddam Hussein reckless, ruthless, and not fully rational. Such a man, when mixed with nuclear weapons, is too unpredictable to be prevented from threatening the United States, the hawks say. But scrutiny of his past dealings with the world shows that Saddam, though cruel and calculating, is eminently deterrable." [via the Dynamic Driveler in Norm Jensen's comments box]
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:13 AM.
Daniel Ehrlich: "Presentations of pluralism that make use of the idea of legitimation begin to smell an awful lot like relativism to me. Not that I have a problem with the idea of pluralism. But to be true to its spirit the whole idea of the legitimacy of this or that (or my) perspective needs to be thrown out the window. Maybe the idea of pluralism ought to suggest to us that none of us are entitled to our own perspective(s). Maybe it ought to make us each suspicious of our own "perspective(s)". And maybe this is the point at which dialogue can really begin." [Duemer's emphasis.]
Yes. This will lead somewhere, I think. I'll be mulling it today as I get groceries for the week & take the recycling to the transfer station.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:09 AM.
Friday, January 03, 2003
One of the philosophical debates emerging from the development of post-modern literary theory during the 20th century concerns the construction of the self, or the existence of human nature. Typically, theory has posited a constructed self, historically determined; the view has been opposed by conservative thinkers who want to preserve the idea of a unified, essential, ahistorical human nature. So now consider the whole "war of civilizations" debate now going on between conservatives & liberals. (I realize that the categories of conservative / liberal & essentialist / post-modernist don't line up exactly, but they do overlap.) My question is, do those (mostly conservative) who hold that the West is now in a war against radical Islam believe that our enemies the "Islamo-fascists" share our human nature, or that Islamic civilization has constructed persons are fundamentally different from persons in the West? Such a position would have important (& unsettling implications.) I really want to know the answer to this question.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 1:23 PM.
How, exactly, does one get "divorced from reality"? I mean in a technical sense? Where would one be if one were "divorced from reality"? I mean, we're all just here, aren't we? Now, if you want to go all pluralistic & say that what we have is different perspectives on reality, I could go for that. The problem then becomes more manageable: which combination of perspectives (it's always a combination, I think) are most effective in helping us understand the world. The problem I keep encountering is that some folks want to impose their perspective on people who legitimately have a different one. Fundamentalism is one name for it, totalitarianism is another. If you accept this kind of pluralism, the only fallacy becomes the fundamentalist or totalitarian fallacy. Does that make sense?
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 8:39 AM.
I'm divorced from reality. Perhaps. I guess this is what passes for debate in some places--places like schoolyards of elementary schools--but I'm really not going to take up the fight. It would be easier to refrain from ad hominem attacks if Mr. Owens didn't repeatedly say, in effect, I didn't say that, what I really said was. . . And what's so bad with ad hominem attacks anyway? Certainly, Mr. Owens uses the device quite freely in his response to me. So be it.
When I first posted about the disease of war the other day, I asked a few blog colleagues to read the post & comment if they felt they had something to add. So, thanks, Steve Himmer. Thanks Norm Jensen. Thanks Mike Finley. Update: Mike Finley has a thoughtful discussion of evil from a Christian perspective this morning. I'm not a Christian, but I don't think Mike's observations are limited to Christians. Even animists like me can benefit form the exercise Mike suggests: that we refrain from accusing others until we have swept our own house. This strikes a chord with me because in my recent political discussions, hovering at the back of my mind has been the notion that the bloodlust of the War Party endangers our souls. Forget the enemy--what will an unjust war of aggression do to us as Americans?
"Just war: The doctrine that a state may justly go to war for some restricted reasons, which are centrally those of self-defense, and the rescue of another state from an aggressor. Problems include deciding whether self-defense may be broadened from defense against actual attack to defense against threats, or against perceived threats, and whether it is permissible to make pre-emptive strikes . . . ." [The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy 204]
Thursday, January 02, 2003
Mike Finley is a poet.This essay is funny & true & has more to do with poetry than all the criticism of Matthew Arnold & Harold Bloom combined.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:53 PM.
Okay, I made the resolution twenty minutes ago (No. 2) & now I'm going to break it, briefly, to finish up an argument from last year. I have no intention of returning Howard Owen's recent fisking of my remarks on American foreign policy & the administration's incoherent asymmetrical response to Iraq & North Korea. But first, a phrase. Mr. Owens describes me as a "leftist," a label that, while one-dimensional, I have no particular problem with; he then goes on to qualify that description, noting that I am a leftist "in the academic tradition." Now it is also true that I am an academic: I hold the rank of Professor at a small university in northern New York. But something weird happens when a conservative puts the terms academic & leftist in proximity to each other. Some weird little rhetorical aneurysm starts to leak . . . In this case, I think the collocation of the two words is meant to imply that a) I follow liberal political correctness & that b) I am disconnected from "the real world." In response to the first insinuation, I will only say that a poet has to be ruthless with the language he uses & not allow anyone to tell him what is appropriate; as to the second insinuation, hey, I'm earning a living--what's so unreal about that?
But on to substance: I used the term "bloodlust" to describe the attitude of the War Party, but Mr. Owens dismisses this characterization sanctimoniously. A look around the right wing of the blogosphere, though, gives his assurances the lie. There is plenty of racist hatred of the Other out there disguised as realpolitik. I won't link to it, but you can easily find it for yourself. Mr. Owens' own phrase from my comments section--"bomb the hell out of Iraq" is a (fairly mild) version of this tendency. I didn't suggest that only those who had been bombed could understand the horror of war, but I wanted, however briefly, to interrupt the easy nonchalance with which so many of my fellow citizens now urge destruction on the citizens of other countries. Our imaginations are weak--sometimes it helps to see the kids with their hands blown off from leftover mines, to get the grit of blasted walls underneath your fingernails. Also, I reject the notion that there is a "war of civilizations" between Islamism & the West. There is certainly a cultural & economic confrontation, but it does not follow that we must accept the trope of radical Islam that this is a war. There are other ways to imagine it. As for containing Saddam, as opposed to destroying his country, here is some actual, sophisticated realpolitik [via Eric Alterman; also via Alterman, there's this, which he remarks is a little manual on how to make a terrorist (Talk about buying into a trope hook, line & sinker.)]. My naive notion is that we might not, as a nation, to toss out a tradition of just war doctrine that goes back at least to Cicero & Augustine. On the moral side: to prosecute a war justly, one must love peace above all; on the practical side: the only possible justification for the violence of war is that violence will be effective. The current Iraq policy of the Bush administration fails on both counts.
There has been so much smart commentary written in the last few days regarding the situation in North Korea that I won't attempt to recap it here. You could start with Josh Marshall's last four posts & go from there. Howard Owens' argument that we can safely ignore North Korea because, as an old-line Stalinist state, it's about to collapse of its own weight strikes this leftist as representing a strangely Marxist view of history as an inevitable narrative of progress.
Chuc mung nam moi, cac ban! [Happy New Year friends!]
As is usually with me, I'm (as my mother used to say) a day late & a dollar short with my greeting. My mother also used to tell me I couldn't carry a tune in a bucket--she had a way of fixing one's character with cliches, my mother did. Speaking of character, I don't usually make resolutions, but I'm making an exception this year because I have two: 1) To take more time to experience the present rather than rushing headlong to anticipate & prepare for the future; 2) to refrain from getting into arguments on the internet with people I wouldn't willingly talk to at a party.