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Honors Project Prep: Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations”

I’m a little surprised and disappointed that I haven’t read more political philosophy to prepare for this project.  I have read some: Locke and Hobbes for that one course I was grading, and Benjamin Barber’s Strong Democracy for a final paper, but beyond that there’s not much.  So I thought I would rectify that by checking out a book by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius: Meditations (translated by Gregory Hays).

The keyword there is “thought”.  While Marcus Aurelius was indeed in politics and Meditations does indeed contain philosophy, it is not a work of political philosophy.  In fact, it’s a bit of stretch to call it a “work”.  Marcus did not intend for Meditations to be published, nor would he consider it a cohesive piece of philosophy.  Instead, Meditations reads as a series of “notes-to-self” on how to live, on how to deal with living.

At first I was a bit let down that Marcus was not sharing his wisdom on how to govern an empire.  While such thoughts on running an empire would appear to have little value in writing about modern democracies, the contrast might make for interesting material.  And Marcus’ thoughts on how subjects tend to behave might not be that different from how voters or citizens behave nowadays.

However, as I progressed further through the work (and reading it aloud and deliberately definitely helped), I became captivated by what Marcus was saying.  Here were the innermost private thoughts of the most powerful individual in Rome.  Marcus talks about feeling pained, the difficulty of waking up in the morning, his own perceived inadequacies.  And death, the looming specter of death.  He keeps telling himself to follow the Stoic philosophy, and yet it’s clear from his writings that it’s easier said than done.

At times, I was amazed at how self-effacing Marcus gets.  These little thoughts are more than suggestions to himself; they often come laden with self-directed insults.  Take, for example, this bit from Book 5.  It starts like so:

No one could ever accuse you of being quick-witted.

Marcus as a reputation as the philosopher-king, and yet here he is, pretty much saying, “Y’know, I’m kind of an idiot.”  And it doesn’t stop there:

…is it some inborn condition that makes you whiny and grasping and obsequious, makes you complain about your body and curry favor and show off and leaves you so turbulent inside? (5.5)

I mean, we expect our political figures to be resolute and strong and self-assured.  Can you imagine if Barack Obama gave a television address and said, “My fellow citizens, I’m not sure I know what I’m doing.  And my knee really hurts and my hair is coming out in clumps and…”  I can’t even imagine the public reaction, it’d be so far out of the ordinary.

But it’s human to have those thoughts, and last I checked “being human” was a prerequisite for holding public office*.  It’s too easy to strip public officials of their humanity when we think of them.  It’s too easy to deify them, or to reduce them to caricature.  Yet every one, I’m sure, even the most grandstand-y of the Tea Party set, turns in their sleep over their most recent vote on foreign policy or what have you.

So thank you, Marcus Aurelius, for revealing yourself to the wider world.  And I’m sorry that someone decided to publish your notepad.

*However, “being human” is not a requirement for TIME Person of the Year, so what do I know?


Honors Project Prep: Lynn Dumenil, “The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s”

The prose that I’ve been reading in preparation for this project has explored different portions of American history.  Ret. Justice John Paul Stevens’ Six Amendments explores the political controversies of the present day, while Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner used The Gilded Age to lampoon the corruption of the post-Civil War period.  Why not continue to explore the American past?  Our history informs the politics of the day: the Tea Party movement borrows iconography from the Revolution, the left carries the mantle of the Civil Right Era, etc.

One moment I don’t think people are keen to evoke, however, are the 1920s.  While that decade was, in our cultural memory at least, one of prosperity and fun, it also came to represent a sinful excess which the Great Depression would punish.  There’s a reason that pundits have repeatedly compared the pre-recession 2000s to the 1920s.  But, as Lynn Dumenil argues in The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s, our memory captures only part of the full picture.

As Dumenil notes, the 1920s were a time of great social struggle.  Women, having just secured nationwide suffrage in 1920, tried to further improve their social status with limited success.  Recent immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe contended with a resurgence of nativism.  African-American culture flourished in Harlem, but philosophical divides emerged among leaders regarding the image of “the New Negro”.  Fundamentalist and mainline denominations fought over the soul of American Protestantism.  Rural and urban environments fought for cultural supremacy.

At the heart of these trends lay a fundamental question: “What is the American identity?”  Is it the Northern European Protestant small-town man?  Is there room for Catholics and Jews, women in the workforce, Japanese and Mexican immigrants, African-Americans, etc?  Do those groups have to assimilate to the traditional American identity, or is a pluralistic society the real American ideal?

We still have these conversations today; it’s just that the people involved have changed over the years.  The 1920s saw the fear of Catholicism taking over the country, that Al Smith (the Democratic nominee for president in 1928) would be taking orders from the Vatican.  Now, we see the fear directed at Muslims, the specter of sharia law brought to Main Street.  That these fears are/were unfounded is beside the point; they are part of the American conversation.

The earlier chapters of The Modern Temper deal with additional tensions within American history.  Individualism and consumerism came into conflict with communal values; in parallel, the roles of the public and private sphere were in flux, with the latter in ascendancy.  These chapters are not quite as compelling, if only because I feel these changes have been extensively documented before.

If I plan to write about politics and government, I must keep in mind these social conversations.  They are implicit in how we view political solutions.  Before we answer the question, “How are we to govern ourselves?” we must answer the question, “Who are we, exactly?”  Different groups may require different systems.  At any rate, it is a conversation worth having, and therefore a subject worth writing about.

Honors Project Prep: Patricia Smith, “Blood Dazzler”

I remember first hearing about Hurricane Katrina, as it approached the Gulf Coast in late August 2005.  I was in my grandmother’s kitchen, watching the Little League World Series, when breaking news interrupted the commercials.  The satellite image said it all.  Katrina looked as big as the Gulf of Mexico, and even at 12 I knew that New Orleans was below sea level.  All I could think was, “Dear God, they’re doomed.”

Yet even with the wall-to-wall media coverage, the federal government’s ineptitude, and the Red Cross donation drives at my middle school, I don’t feel I have ever understood Katrina.  It’s like 9/11: an event I remember intellectually, but one which is so large and world-altering that it seems like an abstraction.  In other words, I have no idea what happened in New Orleans.

I wonder if Patricia Smith had similar thoughts when writing Blood Dazzler, a 2008 collection of poems about Katrina, from build-up to aftermath.  Smith is not from New Orleans; she was born in Chicago and has since moved to the Northeast.  She is far older than I am, yet the geographic separation is not insignificant.  Yet, she wrote a fantastic account of the storm, or at least her impressions of it, and that’s something worth emulating.

Blood Dazzler employs an impressive variety of forms and styles to detail the devastation of New Orleans.  Smith frequently speaks in the persona of Katrina (and, in a memorable twist, Hurricane Betsy from 1965); the voice she employs is both frightening and seductive, knowing what lies ahead for her targets.  Smith is able to seamlessly shift from free verse to tankas, from sonnets to sestinas; there’s even an abecedarian for the named storms of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season.

All this formal variation is impressive in its own right, but it also serves the project of Blood Dazzler very well.  Smith has several recurring characters and motifs.  In addition to Katrina, she includes reports from the National Weather Service, the experiences of a dog (Luther B) during the storm, the thoughts of FEMA director Michael Brown, and series of pieces entitled “Voodoo”.  The details are tight, and the decision to vary form and style keeps the material fresh and moving.

The recurrent element I found most striking, though, is the repetition of the word “go”.  It’s the command for residents of New Orleans to evacuate the city.  It’s so simple, so direct – and yet it assumes so much.  It assumes that everyone has the ability, the luxury to just up and leave their homes.  It’s initial appearance, in “Man on the TV Say,” sums it up best: “Go. Uh-huh. Like our bodies got wheels and gas, / like at the end of that running there’s an open door / with dry and song inside” (pg. 7).

I don’t have much more to say.  I love this book to ribbons, and hope you go read it right now.  And I appreciate how a fellow outsider brought me closer to the tragedy of Katrina.  If I could write something with a fraction of the power of Blood Dazzler, I’d be thrilled.

Honors Project Prep: Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, “The Gilded Age”

So far for this project, I’ve covered two poetry collections and a work of nonfiction.  Today’s topic, though, is a work of fiction.  On the surface, prose fiction is the style least relevant to my project.  It neither provides examples of writing political poetry nor highlight the issues which such poetry may cover.  So why I am including prose fiction here?

Two words: Mark Twain.  The grandfather of American literature.  One of the country’s premier satirists.  Possibly my favorite fiction writer.  And so: The Gilded Age.

The Gilded Age, a collaboration between Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, is a novel which satirizes American society, especially politics, during the period following the Civil War.  Published in 1873, the novel presages the corruption and lax governance of the Industrial Revolution, so much so that its title became a byword for the period.

Alas, it’s not very good.  There are a couple of memorable characters, such as orphan-turned-lobbyist Laura Hawkins and the endlessly verbose Colonel Sellers, but this book as too many characters who don’t stand out in the slightest.  Also, the narrative is much too long.  My edition clocks in at 483 pages, which is about 300 pages more than the story can sustain.  Given how much I love Twain’s other satires (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s CourtThe Innocents Abroad), this was a considerable disappointment.

But, something about this book did inspire me to write poetry: imperialist foresight.

Most of the satire in The Gilded Age centers on the crooked world of Washington politics: bribery, lobbying, Senatorial self-interest, etc.  However, other topics are the subject of side jokes, including bookstore owner’s poor taste in literature.  One of those side jokes is a conversation about war.  The wife of a general, discussing the grandstanding of another general, states the following:

“Well, my husband says, its nonsense to talk of war, and wicked.  He knows what war is.  If we do have war, I hope it will be for the patriots of Cuba.  Don’t you think we want Cuba, Mr. Hawkins?”

25 years later, the United States would declare war on Spain and, as a result, gained temporary control over the island.  Washington Hawkins’ response is also relevant, summarizing the attitudes of the pro-imperial side of the debate:

“I think we want it bad,” said Washington.  “And Santo Domingo.  Senator Dilworthy says, we are bound to extend our religion over the isles of the sea.  We’ve got to round out our territories…”

I’ve mentioned satire which proves prophetic in hindsight before, when I talked about Phillip Roth’s Our Gang.  It’s that kind of moment that makes me wonder whether Clio, the muse of history, is a tad literal minded.  Perhaps we should be a bit more careful with our satire, eh?  Lest we accidentally create the world we mock.

Honors Project Prep: Jim Daniels (ed.), “Letters to America: Contemporary American Poetry on Race”

The general idea for my honors project has been to use poetry to examine the political process and culture of contemporary America.  But I don’t want to restrict myself research to such poems and subjects.  For one, there is only so much written about a given topic; for another, I think consulting a variety of subjects and styles will give the final project more detail and texture and vague-sounding-terms.  Most of all, I just consider myself woefully under-informed about social issues.  For instance: I’m a white guy from New Jersey hinterlands; last I checked my home town is about 96% Caucasian.  My frame of reference for racial issues in modern America is quite narrow.

So, let’s talk about Letters to America: Contemporary American Poetry on Race.

An anthology edited by Jim Daniels (who, full disclosure, teaches at the school I attend), Letters to America collects about 200 pages worth of poems which discuss race in America.  These poets come from all different racial backgrounds: white, black, Latino, Asian-American, Native American.  Some express hope for harmony and understanding; others are enraged or dismayed by current disparities.  Some put race front-and-center in their poems, while some leave it simmering in the subtext.  All manage to convey their own perspectives and experiences through verse.

Going into this book, I was familiar with only a handful of the contributors: Langston Hughes, Sharon Olds, Yusef Komunyakaa, and T. R. Hummer.  (And of course Daniels, but I hadn’t read his work.)  So if nothing else Letters to America serves as a good introduction to writers I’d never heard of.  I’d sure be interested in reading more from Al Zolynas (“Love in the Classroom”) or Daryl Ngee Chinn (“Not Translation, Not Poetry” and “Skin Color from the Sun”).

Beyond that, I was struck by the humor present in many of the poems.  I had expected some satire, sure, but there are some straight-up punchlines in this collection.  I distinctly remember the end of “Powwow” by Carroll Arnett (Gogisgi).  When a woman asks the speaker whether the patch on her blanket was symbolic, she responds that it means there once “was a hole / in the blanket” (p. 26).  It’s a commentary on white attitudes toward Native American culture, but it also sounds like a joke from a chain e-mail.

Other poems forced me to put down the book in reflection.  Daniels’ contribution, “Time, Temperature,” describes a white speaker’s life in Detroit.  Take this memory of the speaker’s grandparents: “We ate early when they came over / so they could be home before dark. / The golden rule: home before dark” (p. 61).  That’s something I hear all the time and never really questioned.  Yet the implications are striking: are we to believe that muggers (read: minorities) magically pop up in the night to terrorize white people?  Or is night merely the external representation of fear and mistrust?

If I have an issue with Letters to America, it’s that the conversations between poems Daniels’ sets up in the introduction doesn’t quite come across.  Maybe it’s the result of reading the book over a period of two weeks, but I don’t quite hear the poems responding to each other so much as talking simultaneously, like in a TV adspot montage.  Sure, several poems are dedicated to other contributors, but it’s indirect conversation at most.

Then again, Daniels’ collection does call attention to the subject of race.  Had I read these poems in another context, I’d probably read them as reflections on their writers’ lives, rather than commentaries on society-at-large.  Placing these poems next to one another does bring the social commentary to the forefront.

In fact, I’m reminded of another anthology I’d read some years ago for another class: Voices from the Harlem Renaissance (ed. Nathan Irvin Huggins).  The anthology included several poems by Countee Cullen, now one of my favorite writers.  I’d seen his work before, and saw poems like “Yet I Do Marvel” as personal reflections on being black in early 20th-century America.  But when paired against Langston Hughes and others, I saw Cullen’s use of traditional European forms as a larger comment on African-American culture in European-American  society.  The context of an anthology does affect how a poem is read.

So, after reading Letters to America, it’s started to dawn on me how context matters to a collection.  I knew it intellectually already, but a collection is not just good poems tossed into one book.  The arrangement can matter greatly for the final product.

Honors Project Prep: John Paul Stevens, “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution”

What document is more quintessentially American than the country’s Constitution?  What document has been more inspiring, challenging, or frustrating than the framework for government ratified in 1789?  It has proved both durable and inadequate as time has passed, and changes have been required from time to time.  Since its adoption by “the several States”, the Constitution has been amended 27 times, most recently in 1992.  More amendments will surely be ratified in the future as the country’s needs change.

In the decades since the Twenty-Seventh Amendment was ratified, legislators and interest groups have advocated for various constitutional amendments – relating to flag-burning, same-sex marriage, term limits, and so forth.  That someone would write a book proposing six amendments to the Constitution is not surprising, but this particular book’s author is notable: John Paul Stevens, the retired Supreme Court Justice who served on the high court from 1975 to 2010.

So, let’s talk about Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution.

As the title promises, John Paul Stevens has six amendments he’d make to the Constitution, instead of waiting for the Supreme Court to address the problems.  Stevens’ proposed amendments could be divided into two broad categories, which I’ll call “procedural” and “political”.

The procedural amendments, which address the “anti-commandeering rule,” political gerrymandering, and sovereign immunity, clarify how the government is to operate; the issues tend not to be subjects of passionate public debate.  They matter to politicians and how they carry out their jobs, but other than perhaps political gerrymandering are unlikely to be the focus of political campaigns.

The political amendments, on the other hand, do address matters of public controversy: campaign finance reform, the death penalty, and the right to keep and bear arms.  These are topics which are sure to cause shouting matches and dominate cable news programs.  When the Supreme Court chooses to decide on such cases…well, I’m sure they’d prefer not to.

Granted, this “procedural” / “political” divide is arbitrary, and not especially neat.  For example, from a deliberative perspective, campaign finance reform impacts the political process by regulating the volume and content of political speech.  Similarly, gerrymandering can affect which policies are approved or rejected if it gives one party disproportionate representation in the legislatures.  In reality, the divide I propose is murky and complicated.

That might be why I found Stevens’ chapters on those two amendments the most interesting.  Those chapters include an interplay between theoretical reasoning (the “procedural” side) and real-world consequences (the “political” side) that makes for compelling reading.  They are neither distant nor polemical, but a solid position between.

The other four chapters have their moments, but are not as engaging to a legal layman.  Even as someone who likes reading through Supreme Court decisions, Article VI and the Eleventh Amendment are not particularly exciting subjects.  And while the chapter on the death penalty provides a detailed history of its practice in the United States, the one on the Second Amendment is far too brief, concluding just as it seems to be getting started.

I’m glad I read this book, though, as it provides some possible fodder for poetry.  I would like to explore the murky line between policy and procedure, and perhaps the, er, “complicated” relationship between the states and the federal government.  And one line in particular might make for a good epigraph:

A legal rule should not persist merely because of its unmerited longevity. (p. 50)

Succinct and well-phrased.  Who wouldn’t want to expand on that conversation?

Honors Project Prep: Carolyn Forché, “The Country Between Us”

Next school year (2014-15), I will be working on a senior honors project: a collection of politically-oriented poetry.  My goal will be to use verse forms to explore the current state of American political life, while also offering potential solutions to our current ills.  I plan to spend the summer researching both current American politics and current political poetry–and writing poems, of course.

Normally, I would consider this yet-another obstacle to blogging, but it might represent an opportunity.  I’ll be doing a lot of reading, and it may be difficult to keep track of.  So perhaps using this space as a notebook, like the darn title suggests, could be helpful.  Besides, I enjoy talking about books regardless.

I might include all sorts of writing here: poetry collections, nonfiction books, essays, Supreme Court decisions, whatever relates to political writing.  (If you want to know what I’m reading currently, my Goodreads profile is here.)  I don’t expect especially profound thoughts, just observations and comments.

Without further ado, let’s talk about Carolyn Forché.

First, some backstory: my current professor for poetry workshop (who, not coincidentally, is my thesis adviser) lent me a copy of Forché’s 1982 collection The Country Between Us for an individual reading assignment.  I finished it yesterday, so I might as well talk about it now.

Forché’s poems are not, by and large, political in the sense of advocacy.  Instead, she uses poetry to describe society in all it’s grimy, dust-ridden beauty.  Frequently these setting a told from the point-of-view of outsiders.  In “San Onofre, California,” the first poem in the book, the speak imagines life across the border: “Portillo scratching his name / on the walls, the slender ribbons / of piss, children patting the mud” (lines 4-6).  Other poems feature American speaker confronting Europe, as if updating a Henry James novel.

One of the decidedly “political” poems in one I had before: “The Colonel.”  A prose poem, “The Colonel” takes place at a dinner engagement with a Salvadoran military leader.  Through unadorned, almost droning sentences, Forché slowly shows the brutality of the colonel.  She juxtaposes the finery of the dinner table with his instruments of torture and sack of human ears.  When the colonel pronounces, “As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves,” there’s no mistaking Forché support for human rights (20-22).

Still, I think the scene descriptions are what I most admire.  Her longer explorations of life in the streets, along with our mental pictures of it, remind me of Larry Levis, one of my new favorite writers (who, fittingly, has a review quoted on the back cover.)  It’s a style I’m not sure I can emulate, as it’s formally not my strong-suit, but I nonetheless have great respect for it.

That’s all for now.  Now go read it already!