In honor of National Poetry Month, and in order to celebrate the power of language, we’ll be featuring some snippets from favorite poems of members (current, past, and vicarious) of the department, along with their brief statements of why they chose this work or author, and why the work is meaningful to them or worthy of your attention. These suggestions can be personal, idiosyncratic, iconoclastic. Original work is highly encourage, and your diligent webmasters will try to feature all that we receive. If you’d like to contribute something, please email the following information to firstname.lastname@example.org:
1. The poem’s title
2. The poem’s author (publication information, where relevant, is appreciated)
3. A brief excerpt that can be included without bringing down the wrath of various publishers and copyright attorneys
4. 1-2 sentences about why you chose this work or selection–anything from its place in your own development as a reader and writer, to a personal memory it evokes, or the sentiment in conveys.
April 6, 2010
March 29, 2010
W.E.B. DuBois famously claimed that “the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line,” a problem that the election of an African American president may or may allow us to claim has been “solved.” One year plus into the historic administration, scholars and pundits are increasingly expression disillusionment toward the early euphoric suggestions that Obama’s election demonstrated the existence of a “post-racial” era in American life. To be fair, there have always been skeptics who argue that Obama’s success may in fact be the exception that proves the rule of continued discrimination and inequity against certain racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. Yale Professor of African American Studies, American Studies, and English Robert Burns Stepto addresses the questions raised by reading “race literature” in the Obama era in a forthcoming book, A Home Elsewhere: Reading African American Classics in the Age of Obama (Harvard UP). The book promises to reanimate and reassess some of the issues Stepto dealt with in an earlier project, From Behind the Veil: A Study of African American Narrative (U Illinois P, 1979; 1991) by putting Barack Obama’s own autobiography, Dreams From My Father, in conversation with some of the major themes characteristic of African American literature, including paternal absence, repeated migration, and the necessity–and difficulty–of self-creation.
In an interview with the online journal Inside Higher Ed, Stepto explains his project:
As I try to comprehend this “moment” in the twenty-first century, as we complete the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, I ask myself, for example, are African Americans still “invisible”? Are they still beset with “double consciousness”? Might the election signal, as some dearly hope, that the nation is now dedicated to its “creeds and lives” instead of its “laws and knives”?
Stepto argues further that his larger goal is not simply to reinforce racial boundaries by limiting the conversation to Obama’s effect on African American literature, but to broaden the scope by considering how Dreams from My Father, like Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom, Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, tells not just an African American story, but a profoundly American story of direction, self-creation, and finding one’s way in the world. As Stepto says in the IHE interview,
I’d prefer to discuss how reading Obama has affected my teaching of American literature, not just African American literature. Here is an example. For years, in my “American Autobiography” course, I have taught Yoshiko Uchida’s Desert Exile, the story of her family’s incarceration in the camps created for Japanese Americans in WWII. At one early point, she writes of how, in Berkeley, Calif., she and her sister, Keiko, became Americanized in their names at school and university (UC Berkeley) as Yo and Kay. Last semester, I read that and I couldn’t help thinking about Barack’s names. His story about having to choose between “Barack” and “Barry,” sometimes continually in his life, is an American story. And it is profoundly a story of how he would present himself to the American public during a national election. Think about it: Americans elected Barack, not Barry. Wow.
March 5, 2010
If you have a literary know-it-all on your gift list–or if you enjoy testing your own knowledge–you might consider James Walton’s Who Killed Iago? A Book of FIendishly Challenging Literary Quizzes (Penguin/Perigee, 2009) . These are strictly knowledge questions for the well read; no literary analysis required. Do you know Mr. Darcy’s first name? And, by the way, who did kill Iago? No Googling allowed.
January 30, 2010
J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author who died this week at age 91, was, of course, the author of every teenager’s favorite novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Published in 1951, the story of Holden Caulfield’s struggles against the phoniness, superficiality, and banality of (adult) America resonates with today’s youth no less than with earlier generations, and articulates a profound and powerful alienation. The novel seems to me a literary equivalent of the musical acts of defiance that galvanized and characterized whole eras–Elvis’s hip swivels, John Lennon’s (misinterpreted) “We’re more popular than Jesus” remark, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”–but with a much longer shelf-life. And the novel’s staying power is extraordinary: most of us remember our first reading of the novel, and the extraordinary feeling it produced that we were not, in fact, utterly alone in making our way through the meaningless void of American consumer culture. Holden spoke to and for the American yearning not to grow up, and to our desire to preserve the passion of youth in a world that seemed so intent on suffocating it. Like a sophisticated, disenchanted Peter Pan, Holden articulates his rage against the machine of an uncaring society, and perpetually reminds us not only that we were once young, but that as long as we resist, we still are.
Like Holden, historian Howard Zinn spoke to and for the underdog. His People’s History of the United States (1980)* is less a conventional “history” than a corrective polemic on behalf of the “slaughtered and mutilated.” Zinn’s goal was never an objective revision of the American narrative; instead, he worked to reassert those voices of democracy that are too messy, contentious, and diffuse to fit tidily into that story and, thereby, to celebrate and inspire the acts of ordinary citizens. Like Holden Caulfield, Zinn raged against the forces of suppression and authority. His greatest success is not that he got the story of America “right,” but that he insisted our story was infinitely more nuanced, complex, and conflicted, and therefore far richer, than what had been taught in our high school history classes. In its emphasis on the sacrifices and achievements of ordinary people, he carved out space for new histories that told the tales of more than just the “winners,” and reminded us that like Holden, we can stand up to the forces of governmental and cultural “phoniness.” And that when we do, we sometimes win.
*Link is for information purposes; please support your local bookseller!
November 6, 2009
As the year’s end approaches, it’s time for the “best of” mania. Part cultural gatekeeping, part marketing ploy, the “Top X” list is an established tradition–as is taking offense at the lists’ sins of commission or omission. Our case in point is this year’s Publisher’s Weekly top ten, a list which includes not one work by a woman (although it does include books about women. Cold comfort, indeed!). To be fair, the sub-lists (best fiction, best poetry) do include works by women authors.
Here’s a case where English professors step back from the fray, rub their hands together with glee, and revel to see people talk so passionately about books, no matter what side of the debate they take. Online ‘zine salon.com has an overview of what the internet is saying about PW, which you can find here. Discuss amongst yourself. Oh, and happy reading–there are some great things on these lists!
November 2, 2009
File this one under “I’ve-got-to-get-this-book.” Academic odd couple Greil Marcus (a cultural critic known for his groundbreaking work on the intellectual antecedents of rock music) and Werner Sollors (erudite, German-born race theorist) have joined forces to bring out a “new” look at the great moments and monuments of U.S. culture. A New Literary History of America promises to offer a fresh take on the significant events in our literary past, writ large, and to unseat the stodgy, establishment approach to some of our “great works,” ranging from Gatsby to Emily Dickinson’s poetry, Jackson Pollock, and hip hop.
It’s an ambitious undertaking of nearly 1100 pages, broken down into some 200+ essays, so I expect it to be somewhat uneven in approach and idiosyncratic in its historical coverage. Still, the project of re-imagining our shared past from some new vantage points–and especially the prospect of Ishmael Reed taking on the vexed racial politics of Twain’s Huck Finn is enough to get me to add this to my bookshelf.
Have your review on my desk by the end of next week.
June 16, 2009
Seattle librarian and superhero Nancy Pearl is developing a kind of algorithm for choosing books. At this point, she herself functions as the equation–on her last two KUOW visits, she’s asked callers to rank a series of statements about a favorite (unnamed) book, then offered multiple recommendations based on the interplay among those statements. Very sketchily, the options involve ranking the relevance of each of the following aspects to one’s literary enjoyment: plot/pace; setting; character; quality of prose. Her claim is that while each reading experience is unique, she can predict something about what readers will like, across the usual generic conventions and subcategories, by knowing how they respond to the combination of categories above. It’s worth listening to the archives (linked at her site, above) to get a taste of her “system” and, as always, to pick up titles she recommends.
Her schematic also offers interesting insight into one’s own reading preferences–are you a character-driven reader, for whom these fictional people become friends who linger on? Are you a setting junkie, motivated to read about exotic places in rich detail, or to recapture historic eras? What happens to a reader whose page-turner ends up having the kind of powerful, evocative, unique language that stops her in her tracks? If you are like me, you may discover that the most compelling reading experience is one in which two contradictory categories battle it out, where you want to savor the setting but find yourself drawn ahead by needing to know more about the characters therein.
Nancy Pearl: making the world safer (and far more enjoyable) for book-lovers everywhere.