Monthly Archives: December 2011

Propter Hoc

When I was nine, each boy in my Cub Scout den received the same bag of stuff—sponges, rods, colored pipe cleaners, yarn, felt, and other craft materials—and the den mother gave us two weeks to make something of them.

Memory works its own sort of magic. I’m not sure why I remember that bag’s weight, the way light penetrated its walls when I peeked inside, the shadows when I looked in later. Perhaps I’m inventing. I’ve opened many more bags, but the moment seems true and fresh.

The bag sat on my bureau all week long. I still see it. Maybe it survives in memory because the apprehension I felt is now so familiar. I needed to make something wonderful from its contents. I needed to stand out.

And win. The den mother would decide who used the pieces most imaginatively, and I thought that should be me. Every other boy may have felt the same, but it mattered more to me. They would solve the challenge, and I would transcend it. I was supposed to be talented at things like that.

Memory doesn’t disappear so much as erode, soil leaving to reveal outbreaks of shelved strata. Particulars vanish to expose what’s beneath and behind them.  What I am is in the nine year-old, waiting to be seen.

I was so apprehensive that, after a week, I’d spent more time dreaming of winning than doing anything to win. The pendulum paused and swung back—I began to wonder if I could make anything at all.

My mother reminded me of my task as though I’d forgotten it, and when I told her I had no plan and no idea how to begin, she told me let my creation take its own shape. “It’s supposed to be fun,” she said.

Dreams and memory overlap. The hard edges of experience soften and fuzz from what they were, but, in their place, events become more essentially themselves. To others they may bear no resemblance to reality—two people never remember a common experience exactly the same way—but they communicate deeper accuracy.

My father finally made my project for me. My mother must have voiced frustration, and, complimenting his artistic nature, compelled him to compel me. Dad and I sat on my bed, the bag’s emptied contents between us, and he asked about my ideas. I said “Circus” and that’s what my materials became. In a hour’s time, two sponges topped two rods with yarn strung between them, the pipe cleaner tightrope walker stepping from one sponge platform, a rod in his hands to keep him balanced, yarn netting beneath him, a pipe cleaner ringmaster beneath that, and a circus menagerie waiting on the periphery.

A parent hijacking a project is cliché—the child participates, observes, then leaves the room to make a sandwich and watch TV. I’ve seen and read it one hundred times. Yet in the play titled “Memories of My Dad,” this moment is a key scene, one of few starring just my father and me.

Somehow memory convinces us. Recollection becomes reality, as delusion aligns details along a bias that points every image the same direction.

The most vivid part of my memory was my disappointment when my circus did not win. I’m not sure how it became my circus, but it was miles ahead of my den-mates’ sloppy and incoherent constructions. When she announced the winner, I sunk. For the first time I understood hope and disappointment are directly proportional. Maybe the den mother saw the project wasn’t actually mine, but, though my father really lost, I lost.

In fables, outcomes save you from reiteration. You learn. In life, moments can seem to bleed into what’s next, a pattern set for the first time. But what if that’s exactly wrong? What if memory is the opposite of reality, making the past fit what has happened since, an erosion more purposeful than we can believe?

Maybe the past is inescapable because what we believe happened, did.

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Filed under Aging, Art, Essays, Hope, Identity, life, Memory, Recollection, Thoughts, Worry

The First Word

flatiron-building.jpg Another Reprise…

When I was young, I dreamt of inventing an expression that would gain popularity and then—like an oddly marked bill—return to me from a stranger. I was naïve enough to believe that I could come up with something new and naïve enough to imagine saying, “Hey, I invented that” and have someone believe me.

So, for a couple of weeks, I started telling friends I felt “rossy” when I was tired or called money “smackaruvian smackers.” Some of my tries were attached to popular culture, so “to be gilliganed” was to be ostracized or left out, “to be kimbled” was to be unjustly accused, and being “warholly” meant you sought momentary attention.

If these expressions circled back—I wonder if I would trust they were mine?

I still think about how one person may have come up with the phrases we use. Some statements seem so strange someone must be the author. About the time I was experimenting with new language, I heard a character in a cartoon say “23 skidoo!” The meaning is clear enough—“scram” or “let’s get on with it”—but I couldn’t help thinking, why “skidoo” and, particularly, why the number 23, instead of, say, 16 or 3,897.

Then, reading a guidebook about New York a few years ago, I ran into the answer. The Manhattan Flatiron building on 23rd street diverted winds so dramatically it blew women’s skirts up. Gawkers gathered to see it happen, and a beat cop stationed there moved them along, saying…well, you know what he said.

Granted, “23 skidoo” isn’t “It’s raining cats and dogs,” but will do as a demonstration that one person, like that butterfly wing in Tokyo—who came up with that?—can release an eddy that makes a tornado and more.

Once you understand the disproportionate effect of a single act of creativity, invention becomes something nearly mystical, an unmoved mover close to divinity. Sometimes I walk to work, can smell a cigarette, and see no one smoking. I think diffusion of creation must work the same way—we know the effect, seldom the cause. The cause can seem to come from a sort of spirit world entirely invisible to us. Even if we find the exact source, other unseen sources are behind it. Perhaps “skidoo” wasn’t the beat cop’s at all. Maybe the double-o suffix came from a grandmother in London. Maybe the wind gets all the credit.

As philosophers have asked since Aristotle, what causes itself?

The internet is the ultimate diffusion experiment. I wonder what use people make of what they find, where it travels next and whether it will travel far enough to be untraceable. Over a thousand people might visit a single image. How long does it take before those images drift out there carrying no name or another name?

Teaching history demonstrates how hard it is to reach back. No one’s arm seems long enough. We would like to be able to name the first time someone suggested a solution or to see the moment a new idea came to whose mind. We like to know what we can’t.

In a similar sense, you understand why people want ownership of art, not in the egotistical way I wanted to be warholly, not for credit, but for rectitude, to anchor an image or words, to keep them in this solid and real world. We want to freeze our creations when, really, not a molecule will ever be entirely still or still in the same place, moment to moment.

How can we even know if what we say is ours or the transmutation of something before, another leg on a relay that never really started? Can we know what we’ve truly invented when every moment is another creation, when every breath starts another eddy? What does it mean to be original if originality itself was an impulse someone indulged for the first time long ago, the first word of the last ape?

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Filed under Art, Doubt, Ego, Essays, Memory, Thoughts, Words

Time Off

Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is a nobler art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of nonessentials.Lin Yutang

Breaks from work remind me of a giant hole in my education—I don’t know how to rest.

I know how to spend time off, but that is not at all the same thing. My Netflix account reveals hours of instantly viewed television and silly movie watching, but every minute is flight, diversion to elude thinking or worrying or work. In the end, that sort of effort isn’t restful.

And, though I can feel a little better about reading, I wonder if the same impulse fuels it. I push time forward and call it productive. Cooking meals and cleaning closets and filing papers and organizing a long-disorganized desk are similarly useful, but not restful. Each has the object of occupying time with some redemptive activity and giving time off a purpose.

Or so it seems. Maybe rest is a matter of perspective. Instinct determines physiological rest, and the division between waking and sleeping is clear and inexorable. But psychological rest is more complicated, confusing, and contradictory. How do you relax within your life instead of looking to elude it? Physiological rest is inactivity. No one really knows what psychological rest is. When all the chores of my professional life drop away, precious little remains. Leisure requires redefinition, arduous redefinition. It sounds like a petty complaint, but it’s tough finding a new way to be.

So time off becomes an experiment to determine what life requires, what’s essential that will allow me to return to work ready with new priorities. Getting rest right is learning how to avoid the whirlwinds of wasted effort that will quickly sweep me up.

But I haven’t gotten it right. How much alone time do I need, how much together time? How much at home and how much away? How much of my time needs to be creative and generative and how much should be passive and restorative? How thoroughly do I plan, or be spontaneous, or plan to be spontaneous? The answers shift about like the phantoms of a long-exposure photograph, too variable to resolve.

Hardest to control are my expectations. The last day of any break sees me returning to the first and the high hopes I felt in the first hours of freedom. I lament the time I squandered on Netflix or the closets I never got to. I mourn the passing of “me time” and the onslaught of routine. I should be asking what I’ve learned about living with myself, what’s restorative and sustainable and reliable, what’s relaxing. I should be resolving to bring some new knowledge to my regular life.

When people ask, “How was your break?” I sometimes grunt or give the pro forma response, “Too short.” Maybe instead I should answer, “We’ll see.”

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Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, Home Life, Laments, life, Modern Life, Thoughts, Work

Rudolph: A Marxist Critique

14853__rudolph_l.jpg I wrote this parody paper some years ago and, with the season upon us, it seems a good time for it to return…

Toward the end of his life, just before that ugly cheek tweeking incident in New Orleans, noted literary critic, Michel Fausault* established the standard by which all “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” criticism will forever be judged. I remember the scene well, it was early October and the Christmas season had just begun. Michel cried “Ach!” his head pitched forward, his brow bunched in deep thought. “Rudolph,” he roared suddenly, as from a revelation, “Has never really been understood. It is only superficially a child’s Christmas song. It is actually a poem about . . .” and here he belched and scratched his belly, “about … scapegoating.”

Then we went back to our Parcheesi game. Fausault did not remember the remark later, but the damage was done. No one could ever sing “Rudolph” joyfully again, for he had exposed the song for what it was, the story of a reindeer misunderstood, undervalued, and manipulated by the bankrupt aesthetics of the petty bourgeois. Since the birth of Rudolph studies, scholars have been troubled by the fuzzy depiction of the mysterious central character. Rudolph’s original description in the first line as “the red-nosed reindeer” (emphasis mine) is clear enough, but it is not so much a description as a degrading label (emphasis mine). Rudolph is the only red-nosed reindeer (still mine), and while it appears later in the poem that his red-nose is his distinction (no reason for that one), it is actually his badge of shame, the attribute that marks him as different and inferior to the other reindeer.

And what about that nose? Noted Rudolphian Vlad Brown has noted that there is a noted confusion regarding that nose. It is articulated variously as “red,” “shiny,” glowing, and “bright.” Yet can any one object be red, shiny and bright and also glow? After all, anything that glows, because of the illumination inherent within the object, cannot also be shiny, which is a surface quality caused by greater illumination outside said object. Brown has suggested that this confusion is deliberate, and I agree. I would add to Brown, however, that this confusion is a shrewdly hinted attempt to universalize the reindeer, to make it into an “everydeer” of sorts, a model for all of the scapegoats victimized by society because they are different. What’s more, I believe that Fausault—had he not died in that bizarre knitting accident—would agree with me.

Now many readers are fooled by the apparent reintegration of Rudolph at the end of the poem. The poem states directly, “Then how the reindeer loved him.” But let’s examine the quality and implications of that love. It comes only after the significant psychological pain of being laughed at, called names, and not being allowed to participate in games, which, Strauss-Levi has pointed out, are the most important emblems of solidarity in modern, post-industrialized cultures. Can Rudolph be expected to recover from these slights? In such an interpretation, we would have to believe that Rudolph has the emotional depth of plum pudding, that his pain is not real pain and is instead the product of some sort of harmless snub that he can laugh-off and forget. But this point of view only cooperates with the cruelty depicted in the work itself. No one likes being laughed at—I remember softball in seventh grade gym. And who can forget Fausaut’s unfortunate encounter with Cher?

Prominent Rudolphianists have also suggested that Santa’s decision to have Rudolph lead the sleigh compensates for the alienation he faces earlier in the work. To that, I say “poppycock!” Were Fausault here, he’d say something clever in French, but that’s the best I can do. Look at the text, Reader! The word used is not “lead,” but “guide,” which clearly indicates the red-suited fat man’s reluctance to give up his position as the true driver in this sleigh. Santa only turns to Rudolph because, happily, the reindeer possesses a quality that the red-suited oppressor—and known slave-wager, labor-law violator—finds temporarily useful.

Returning to how the other reindeer “love him,” I think it’s easy to see that their “shouting out with glee” rings pretty hollow. Once Rudolph’s talent has been exploited, what’s left for him in Santa-land? He will be sent to the glue farm, to be sure. Furthermore, his new comrades, the other reindeer, are not really comrades at all. It is no accident that they say he will go “down in his-tor-y.” The adverb “down” suggests decline, decay, reduction, descent, weakening, attenuation, disappearance, and seven other nouns. Some will accuse me of over-analyzing this blatant reference to pigs like Santa who, in writing history, always denigrate or erase the accomplishments of the underclass, but they are part of the oppressor culture, and, after last Tuesday, I’ve learned to expect it of them. And I know Fausault, were he not in Davey Jones’ locker, would grunt his approval in that charming way of his.

What all this adds up to is a travesty perpetrated on an entirely different class of the tyrannized, the children of the world. It’s well known Fausault didn’t like children—though this is as good a time as any to remind you that he was never convicted. That doesn’t make the song any better, however. For years, the little shining faces of the children have sung this popular carol, unconscious of the subjugation perpetuated in those words. “Rudolph,” they sing, “With your nose so bright.” But they might just as well be singing, “Rudolph with your chains so tight, how’s it feel to be wronged tonight? Old Santa wants a headlight, now you are his easy prey, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, blighted by a cap’list sleigh.”

*Any resemblance to real or imagined noted French literary critics and philosophers is real or imagined.

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Filed under Christmas, Criticism, Essays, Laments, Parody, Satire, Thoughts

In a Closet

I have an odd affection for Kafkaesque parables like the one below and write them periodically as a kind of exercise. A simple premise unreels thoughts I hadn’t known I’d been collecting. I don’t post these exercises as often as I write them because I’m afraid they’re odd, not quite story and certainly not essay, less interesting than curious, products of a dreaming irrational brain.

Nonetheless, as I’m busy buying gifts this weekend, I thought I’d offer this piece, particularly as it speaks—at least in part—to the possessive mania of this time of year…

In a closet, she kept a box of possessions no one ever saw. They weren’t embarrassing things—she didn’t have to fear someone finding them someday—but they were private, known only to her. Sometimes, she imagined someone spilling the box’s contents and looking quizzically at her collection. “What’s this?” they would say, and move on to investigate containers filled with more sensible and valuable, less personal, things.

She’d had the box a long time and moved it from place to place. When she was younger, she’d add to and subtract from it, but, as she aged, managing its contents grew impossible. She became lazy about culling, and, as her house morphed into a warehouse of memory, the box stretched its volume. Now she did not have any room to add and didn’t. The limited space made it complete. The hopelessness of rearranging it to find one spare centimeter meant it was finished.

And the box, the closet, and the house were really nesting chambers, each inside the other. She had few visitors to hide the box from, and, anyway, everything inside it sat in her brain along with everything else, part of the catalog every mind makes. Maybe, she thought now, it doesn’t matter where anything is.

She rarely opened the box anymore, but, occasionally when she couldn’t sleep, she’d try to remember exactly what was there, picturing each thing, its dimensions, colors, and how it felt to hold it, along with all its other material aspects. Most of the time, imagining gave her comfort that helped her doze again, but, increasingly, trying to visualize things only set off mourning. The loss of particulars was a bigger emblem of how her life had faded. The next day, she might think about getting the box out and comparing her memory to what she found, but she lost the will to investigate almost as soon as it came upon her.

Someone encountering the box might try to make its contents into something else, the way a photograph is one square of a larger scene the viewer envisions, but she didn’t see it that way. There were no photographs and nothing she considered a memento or keepsake. It was hard for her—as it would be for anyone—to think of those things as only themselves, without associated meanings and implications. They weren’t collected randomly, after all, because the act of collecting supplants randomness. But she believed more than ever that each object connected with nothing grander, and they had no relationship with one another, except that they were all in the same box hidden in the closet.

Invisibility was their only significance. She’d removed them from the world, squirreled them in the darkness. Possession, she considered, might be no more complicated than theft, taking from the general pile so something could no longer be shared or even seen. This box of things, being stored in her closet unopened, was not hers, really. Being nothing actually in the world at all, it was no one’s.

She’d long stopped thinking of life as infinite. She no longer visualized life stretching into the unknown and saw a terminal becoming definite ahead. She would no longer be traveling with all these things, and they would reenter the world without her, without her as their central sense.

If she had time, she thought, when her end was closer, her final act of control could be taking the box down from her closet and, without opening it, wrapping it in brown paper and a cross of string. She could leave it somewhere public, walking away before anyone could mark it as hers.

Then, maybe later, some bomb squad might find it sitting unattended and dispose of it properly.

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Filed under Dreaming, Experiments, Fiction, Kafka, Meditations, Parables, Play, Thoughts, Writing

Little Doubt

Another reprise…

A confession: sometimes I wander among quotations looking for ideas. Some bloggers possess a deep spring of subjects, but I hope the well will bring at least mud. As often as I’ve practiced writing to think, I worry this time nothing will arrive.

So I looked-up quotations about “doubt.”

As an organic pessimist, I spend my days in doubt, most of the time mustering only enough Eeyorish resignation to celebrate that things aren’t worse.

The Quotation Page gathers an interesting list of figures who have weighed in on doubt: Rene Descartes, Voltaire, Shakespeare, Clarence Darrow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Bertram Russell (twice). What’s odd about these great names is that few cast doubt on doubt. Shakespeare says doubt keeps us from attempting what we ought—no surprise there—someone named Christine Bovee urges us not to doubt ourselves—oops, too late—and Arthur Golden, author of Memoir of a Geisha, says doubt keeps us from “the course to victory.” Uh, does that apply to non-Samurai?

The rest of this catalog of thinkers give doubt a big round of applause. Doubt is necessary to education and civilization (Wilson Mizner, Darrow, and Holmes). It unites people where belief separates them (Peter Ustinov). It’s necessary to seeking after truth (Descartes) and keeps us from drugging ourselves with false certainty (Albert Guerard) and dogmatism (Russell) and being fools (Russell the other time).

In short, there’s little doubt about the value of doubt.

The editors of the Quotation Page might intend to give us doubters some uplift. We’re the good guys, it turns out. Not only is it okay to doubt, doubting is immeasurably superior to knowing. Anyone who doesn’t doubt is stunted, uncivilized, thoughtless, likely delusional.

Voltaire gives the only half-hearted review: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

He alone recognizes how uncomfortable doubt can be.

Intellectually, I’m ready to celebrate doubt’s value—no one reaches knowledge without thorough questioning. Desperation for certainty will, as these great minds say, lead to rapid errors.

Yet I wonder, are these minds trying to convince themselves? Have they lain awake, worrying through dim hours? Have they felt the stalled-heart feeling awaiting an uncertain outcome? Has self-doubt paralyzed them, shaking their sense of what they are or can be?

That sort of doubt is only redemptive only when it passes.

Like my friends on the Quotation Page, I’m skeptical of politicians, writers, and thinkers who believe they have all the answers. Everyone ought to consider every possibility.

But I also question that, and wonder, am I jealous? I can no more imagine eluding doubt than eluding air.

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Filed under Arguments, Doubt, Essays, Identity, life, Modern Life, Thoughts, Worry

Another Final

Every year about this time, I sit down to write final examinations and wish I could create another sort of exam altogether. I like to think the finals I give are a reasonable test of students’ knowledge, understanding, and skill, but they seldom reveal whether the literature reached students in any personally meaningful way. I seldom know if what I teach is relevant or important. Even impressive responses lack independent spirit and hint at obligation rather than sincerity.

Students want to please me, seldom themselves. They might say that I shouldn’t expect more, that asking them to prove themselves—and according to my standards—puts them in survival mode. The experience can’t be about self-expression, they might say, because what student would ever, of his or her own volition, take a final exam?

Still I daydream. Instead of writing the exams I need to, I devise alternatives. It happens every year. I want a truer (and more interesting) measure of what they’ve learned.

When I was in college, a myth circulated that a Biology teacher gave a one question final, “Why life?” Naturally, the story ended with one bold student answering “Why not?” and receiving an “A,” but I would never be satisfied with an answer so clever… or elusive. I like the single, simple question idea, but I want to see their minds truly at work.

So here is my dream Final:

Literature Final Examination: December 13, 2011


You have two hours to work and only one question to answer, so, before you begin, take a moment to reflect on the function of this examination. As this exam is an instrument I use to assess your mastery of the literature you’ve encountered and your skill as a writer, I hope to see:

  • Precise and thorough knowledge of these novels, stories, poems, and other works
  • Attention to insights gleaned through our discussions and activities
  • Comprehensive understanding of the works’ implications and their connections to one another (and, if relevant, the aims and techniques of literature in general)
  • Focused choices about the range and domain of your pursuit
  • Resourceful and relevant use of detail to illustrate observations, interpretations, arguments, and epiphanies
  • Sensible and understandable reasoning expressed in planning and organization
  • Concise, accurate, and deft prose
  • Legible handwriting

None of what’s listed above should be a surprise to you—of course you want to show yourself to your greatest advantage.

More than any of that, however, I want to know you’ve grown and that studying this literature has enhanced your capacity to think, to express yourself, and to understand the important issues and ideas these works raise. I need, in other words, to see a sincere effort to grapple with questions and reach answers satisfying to you and a reader.

You will receive no clarification beyond these instructions, so please don’t ask about length, form, how many works you should cite, or any other choice rightfully belonging to you.

Choose ONE (wisely):

1. If the literature we studied this semester were all that remained of our civilization, what might future archeologists say of us?

2. Address an irreconcilable conflict between two of the authors we’ve encountered and come to terms with it yourself—who is right, and how do you know?

3. Explain something you discovered about yourself as you studied this literature this semester.

4. What is the most important truth about human nature you’ve learned this semester?

5. It’s the morning after you hosted a dinner party for some of the authors and/or characters you met this semester.

6. What do you see as dispensable and indispensable in what we read this semester, and what key quality separates them?

7. Imagine one of the authors we studied sitting in the desk beside you. How do you think he or she would regard the novels, stories, poems, and other works we encountered?

8. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and this semester you’ve been the beholder. Offer a definition of beauty based on what you’ve seen.

9. Why do you study literature?

10. Devise and answer a question of your own commensurate with those above.

Some notes on assessing student’s responses: I distrust grades’ emphasis on extrinsic motivation. Many students behave dishonestly on exams because they fear  jeopardizing their mark. I’d want to grade this exam pass-fail, hoping to determine, on the most basic level, whether a student deserves credit. A “pass” would mean something though, and I would not grant them universally. Ideally, I would invite students who failed to return the next day until they passed. That’s crazy, I know.

If I had to grade it, I’d write only final comments suggesting skills that seem strong and weak in the response. If a student protested that the exam was not his or her best work, I’d let the student retake the exam. Students could retake it three times or until they attained grades they could be happy about, whichever came first.

In either case, I’d reserve the right to stop reading the moment I was satisfied or dissatisfied with a student’s response… unless, of course, something compelled me to continue.

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Filed under Education, Essays, Exams, Experiments, High School Teaching, Hope, Teaching, Thoughts

Pencils and Poems

pencils.gif A reprise from my old blog…

At the bidding of one of my MFA teachers, I once read a 400 plus page book on pencils, Henry Petroski’s The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. I remember writing a snarky introduction when I responded to the book. It amounted to, “What the hell was that for?”

But I knew. He meant to set me thinking about art and engineering, creativity and inventiveness, poetry and… pencils. Petroski’s thesis is that art desires “a sense of unity…evoking an emotional or aesthetic response,” whereas technology seeks to improve earlier forms. New pencils, Petroski notes ad nauseum, supersede old ones as literary works never do. “Ulysses” did not supplant The Odyssey, Petroski said, nor did anyone fix “On Reading Chapman’s Homer” because Keats said Cortez instead of Balboa first viewed the Pacific. Though, actually, wasn’t Balboa the first white man…?

Pencil makers do make aesthetic decisions—the book includes a long discussion of the failed attempt to replace wood with plastic in pencils, which “violated the aesthetic and psychological sensibilities of its intended users.” I just thought plastic pencils felt funny. However, no method of pencil making is ever intended to be the last statement. No poet could think he or she is writing the last poem either, but the poet might write as if this poem was the omega. It’s supposed to be complete in itself and not a stage to a better way of writing poems.

Maybe, but writing poetry isn’t always about the poem you’re presently engineering. Sometimes it’s about writing this poem so you might write a more expressive or effective one later. That later poem won’t arrive without a best effort to make this poem all it might be, but trying to write the omega seems, to me, a death wish. What if you succeeded? What would you do next?

According to Petroski, the biggest difference between poems and pencils is the motive of the maker. Artists seek self-expression in the abstract. An engineer’s job is to solve an existing problem. He or she is not a theorist endowed with “for its own sake” motivation, the way an artist might create to create. Petroski makes a careful distinction between scientists and engineers and favors engineers’ pragmatic and creative approaches. He observes that “drugs predate medicine, belief religion, conflict law, artifacts formal engineering.” “Applied science,” to Petroski, is a misnomer because it reverses what actually happens—scientists spend most of their time trying to explain why new technology works. Petroski says the reverse process—finding a way to use discoveries—is far less common. He calls science “thinking after the artifact.”

Do poems solve an existing problem? In content certainly. Personally perhaps. I suspect most poets write to resolve something, even if they are working it out subconsciously. In practice, however, poets can also be like engineers, looking for a form, style, or approach that gets them closer to what they wish to express. Sometimes artists seem to be inventing new schools or new art forms out of a perverse desire to be novel, but I wonder if, like the misnamed “applied science,” starting with something abstract is the exception or the rule. How often do artists come up with whole new ways of painting, writing, or composing they are just itching to try?

In The Shape of Content Ben Shahn writes, “Art almost always has its ingredient of impudence, its flouting of established authority, so that it may substitute its own authority, and its own enlightenment.” Novelty and art seem inextricably wed. A good measure of poetry’s authority arises from the feeling that we’ve never seen or heard this before, at least not in quite the same way. But Shahn also recognizes art may “take its form from something closer to provocation…it may not just turn to life, but . . . at certain times be compelled by life.”

An artist can respond to “provocation” in just the way an engineer does, and provocation can be to solve a problem. It could be a problem no one else recognizes yet, but in that sense too, art isn’t that different from engineering. Shahn tells the story of an art show in Paris in 1925. When officials suggested the Salon of the Independents was no longer necessary, a critic cited 25 artists in that Salon who had not won the overall show’s prize but who became major names in art—Monet, Manet, Degas, Matisse, Picasso, and Van Gogh among them—while prize winners had fallen into obscurity.

With this allusion, Shahn means to assert artists’ need to define themselves apart from contemporaries—to offer a vision unavailable elsewhere—but isn’t their nonconformity also a reaction to circumstances, to a perceived need?

In Triggering Town, Richard Hugo says that the usual stance for a poet is “believing you are the wrong thing in a right world.” Not all artists embrace being vanguards. Some may have an uneasy feeling about being iconoclasts or outcasts. The vision of artists as the mad fringe of society—the anti-engineer—is limited and limiting. Though artists may seem “out there,” they are a part of the world, not apart from it.

I think about an exceptionally innovative poet, John Berryman. Far from being a gift, Berryman’s creativity was a heavy burden. His innovations in form arose from a kind of “engineer’s necessity.” His primary purpose was not to revolutionize poetry so much as to stay alive. Certainly he needs the ampersand and minstrel voice and the “all problem, no solution” modified sonnet he invented in The Dream Songs to reproduce the workings his mind. His numerous, structurally uniform poems helped represent a single chaotic life, a struggle with his own suicidal thoughts.

But he distrusted other’s praise for his innovation. In “Dream Song #340” he sees that with praise, “an element of incredulity / enters and dominates.” What he really wanted was not to be known as trail blazer, but to accurately represent his agony, period. Berryman worked very hard at his idiosyncratic form. He created artifice—he used “Henry,” not John—but what made Berryman brilliant was his earnestness—granted, his humor too—but mostly the way he had of making us feel these poems were, ultimately, no game.

The Dream Songs put Berryman near a waterfall, swimming hard to keep from being sucked down. “Dream Song #137” focuses on his daughter’s reluctance to fall asleep. His argument is that in sleeping she will be “Little Baby” again, “while I pursue my path of sorrow / & bodies, bodies to be carried a mile / & dropt.”

Perhaps poets should be reluctant engineers—just as Berryman was a reluctant poet—but, to me, they seem engineers nonetheless. The part of poets and artists that makes them create a new world comes from this world. No less than the engineer, they respond to life and our common destiny.

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Filed under Art, Doubt, Essays, Meditations, MFA, Poetry, Thoughts, Writing


When I walk home in the afternoon I pass in and out of bubbles of talk and noise. Squeaky music and rhythms leak from ear-buds, or I catch a half conversation uttered into a cell phone, or I grasp pieces of some pedestrian pair’s intent dialogue. I don’t listen to any of it really, but I sense impetus behind it. These sounds have no content or real relevance to me, but they communicate tone and emotion. Each is a glimpse, however oblique, into a life.

For regular readers, blogs might seem similar, each post a bubble you dip in and out of. The effect is ephemeral. The feelings and ideas evaporate. If readers reach the end of a post, they may hand it off with mute praise—here’s something you might enjoy if you are not outrageously busy when you receive this, your 70th message today. I doubt, however, anyone rereads posts. Blogs offer single-use prose appropriate to a disposable age. Maybe someone is out there anthologizing or archiving bloggers’ outpourings, but that seems a Sisyphean task. Why bother? Tomorrow will bring a million more bubbles of talk and noise.

Before I discontinued my Facebook page, I’d link to my blog posts in notifications. My readership climbed, and, occasionally, someone wanted to talk to me about what I’d written. Most didn’t. If people were listening, they probably felt like eavesdroppers suddenly privy to thoughts they were too embarrassed to acknowledge. Without Facebook, my readership dwindles, and now only the people who comment—thank you if you comment or like my posts—tell me I’ve been overheard at all. If I mention my blog, coworkers say, “Oh, you’re still doing that?”

Hardly encouraging. Naturally, I spend time thinking about why I’m here. There’s practicing my craft and doing what I ask students to do. There’s the therapeutic exercise of self-expression that keeps quiet desperation at bay. There’s joy in creating what would not be vivid or real without someone present. There’s documentation of my cerebral life, recording thoughts so I can move on to new ones.

And at the end of the list of justifications is the unreasonable and unreasoned hope I might say something worth hearing. I don’t dare give up that hope.

Little could be creepier than tapping a fellow pedestrian on the arm and telling him or her you like the song you hear buzzing from their ear-buds or interrupting a conversation to interject that, one time, someone said that to you too. You might be arrested eventually.

Still, dear reader, I get private pleasure from recognizing our common humanity. A mother retrieves a glove her son has dropped, tugs it back onto his hand, and coos some sub-audible reassurance. On the train, a girl settles her head into the shoulder of her first boyfriend and closes her eyes. Three buddies surge from a bar loudly upbraiding a fourth for some silly thing he said, and an impish grin dawns in his face. For an entire block, someone says only “Mom… Mom… Mom…” into a chattering cell phone.

I have friends who are published writers who, ever indulgent, talk about the blog form and its particular demands and distinctiveness, but I don’t take them seriously. These posts, it seems, are the anecdotes to their stories, the random thoughts to their essays, the ditties to their poems. They are orators, and we are whisperers, attending to life that goes on in bubbles, much too human to qualify as art.


Filed under Art, Blogging, Essays, Hope, Identity, life, Modern Life, Thoughts, Writing