Blog from September, 2012


I just learned, through this recent TED talk by Clay Shirky, about HaikuLeaks — 65 "naturally occurring" haiku mined from 1830 cables leaked by WikiLeaks back in 2010. Each one falls into the 5-7-5 syllable pattern that is (broadly) typical of haiku. The haiku were turned up by running the leaks through a bit of software code appropriately named HaikuFinder.

Are they poetry, or only "poetry"?

Some seem to be more freestanding, and to have more resonance, than others. Three I particularly like:

He has written books,
    but most critics understand
that is not his gift.

The three officials
    have informed their capitals
but have no response.

As is typical,
    the Pope stayed above the fray
and did not comment.

The Importance of Genre

I know this goes awhile back, but several classes ago, we talked about the importance of categorizing literature into different genres. We discussed if knowing the genre of a work influences how we read and interpret in. In another class I'm taking, we are reading Native American Literature. It seems like whatever piece we read, we circle back to the debate of does an author need to be Native American to produce this type of literature? Also, by going into the work with the notion that this is a Native American novel, not non-fiction, do we expect it to teach us accurately, and completely, about Native American culture? I'm wondering what people who aren't in the class, who haven't been influenced by this ongoing struggle, think. Do we expect something different from a work if we know what genre it's in or know how it's been categorized, specifically if it's about a certain ethnicity, class, or time period?

Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

We touched in class briefly on the different genres that exist in the realm of fiction, and we brought up science fiction and fantasy.  I was browsing one of my favorite blogs just now (SurLaLune Fairy Tales) and found this very brief video of some authors discussing some of the differences between science fiction and fantasy.  It's short, but thought-provoking, and I believe that it's relevant to our discussion on the definition of literature.

Getting to know Joe

Back in August, I posted a photo from the Republican National Convention illustrating how the mere juxtaposition of two phrases can set up a meaning that no one intended to convey. For partisan balance, here's an example (below) of how the same unintended meaning (okay, one supposes it was unintended) can result from the juxtaposition of a speaker's words with her own gestures. The speaker is Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden. What's interesting as well here is how, once this meaning is set up, the speaker's subsequent words must inevitably be understood within the context of the original unintended meaning, a fact that makes it very hard for the speaker, her husband, and the audience to keep from laughing both at what they're hearing and at the prospect of yet more unintended double entendres. One take-away from both this video and the earlier convention photo is that meaning itself is more social than we often suppose. It's common to think of meaning as residing inside consciousness — that of the speaker (or writer) or that of the listener (or reader). But in both these cases, meaning seems to reside outside both: in the shared understanding of certain words and gestures and in the shared practice of treating juxtaposition as itself a source of meaning. (H/t for the video to my in-law and facebook friend Rick Goldfarb.)

When I went to the Oxford University Press blog this morning, I saw this post about The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, a book by neuroscientist Bruce Hood. "Who we are is a story of our self," the blurb explains, "a narrative that our brain creates."

The notion that narrative is a precondition of self-awareness and self-understanding is one that we've already seen in essays by Barbara Hardy and Alasdair MacIntyre (login required for both readings). Hardy writes that "In order really to live, we make up stories about ourselves, about the personal as well as the social past and future" (5). It would be wrong to regard narrative, she maintains, as merely "an aesthetic invention used by artists to control, manipulate, and order experience"; rather, narrative is "a primary act of mind transferred to art from life" (5). MacIntyre, referencing and building on Hardy, argues that human actions only become intelligible when understood as part of some real or possible narrative, and he goes on to say that "I can only answer the question 'What am I to do?' if I can answer the question 'Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'" (138).

For MacIntyre as for the neuroscientist Hood, in other words, selfhood is inherently narrative, and so it should come as no surprise that both authors — MacIntyre in his essay, Hood in this transcript of his interview for Brain Science Podcast — believe that the word "character" is the right word to use, not only for the invented individuals of fictional works, but also for all of us, living our real (narrativized) lives.

If the only way we can experience our lives is in narrative terms, if to be a self is to be a character, and if in general the language we use to analyze works of fiction turns out to be the right language to use for describing real experience, then we face an interesting problem: how do we distinguish fiction from reality?

And we face an interesting opportunity: if we look at a work of fiction such as "The Yellow Wall-Paper" or "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" through the lens of these ideas about experience, narrative, selfhood, and character, do we see anything there that we didn't see before?

"What Counts?"

Forgive me for really obviously writing this in the middle of class, but I just want to get my thoughts out in a more coherent fashion that doesn't waste everyone's time.  Somebody (goodness forgive me, but I couldn't see who it was) asked what the sort of "quality level" for literature is, and whether something's level of writing/discourse qualifies or exempts it from being literature with a capital L.  Someone else brought up the idea that literature ought to be defined by a reflection of the human experience, and I'd like to bring those two together.  Some stories, let's face it, are just downright awful.  Not to name any names, but I can see the elephants in the room labelled "Stephanie Meyer" and "E.L. James".  However, there are many, many people who find these stories to be deeply engaging–as much as those of us with higher tastes in our reading may grumble and groan, best-sellers don't come up out of nowhere.  No matter how subjectively (or objectively, I say to over 200 uses of the phrase "my inner goddess" in a single novel) "bad" a story's writing or content is, there are people out there who will relate to it in some way.  If even one person can connect to a story, be it a trashy romance novel at the grocery store, a Jane Austen novel, or even a television series or a comic book, then that story reflects the human experience, and it falls under the aegis of literature.

Of course, there are tiers, both of literature and Literature–some subjective, and some generally upheld.  So while Literature would hold Shakespeare at the top tier and deign to even acknowledge anything written after the mid-1900s, my personal tiers of literature might have a bit of space for a cartoon that plays out an intricate Faustian allegory and an environmentalist message under the guise of girls in pretty costumes alongside both Literature and more modern novels that tread a less-traveled road to interpret the human condition.

To get into this subject fully would take more time than I have (especially with an essay due Monday!) and more words than anyone really wants to read, but I would like to hear people's thoughts about the matter!  What do you think of literature versus Literature–is there always a distinction?  Is there no distinction at all, or is the distinction merely contextual–say, our pleasure reading versus the kinds of text we discuss in class?

Form in Literature & Poetry

We've been discussing for a while the importance of form in class and how it relates to our perception of a given work. I've needed to consider form a lot as a creative writing major, and I realized today that a really good way to examine form's importance is by looking at kinetic typography. I've embedded a video of a spoken-word poetry performance turned into a kinetic typography video as an example.

Spoken word poetry by itself is an interesting form of literature. The form of a spoken-word poem exists only in the way we hear it, unless the poet keeps a written copy somewhere. We need to listen instead of read. However, in this video, the creator mixed a spoken-word poem with kinetic typography, giving the listener something to view as well. And rather than simply putting the words of the poem in the video, the creator animates them, adding a whole new element to the experience of this poem.

I thought it might be interesting to discuss how this changes our perception of the poem – any thoughts?


As done by Kafka and Lovecraft

In class we’ve been discussing the deformance of literature. I found this comic today by Zach Weiner, writer of the popular internet webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.  Instead of recontextualizing a piece of literature like we did today with the “Yellow Wallpaper” and the Voyant program, this comic recontextualizes the classic videogame Pacman through a surreal lens of prosaic horror. I feel this can be considered a type of deformance. Any thoughts??

Here's my attempt at attaching the image...

pacman by kafka.gif

...and if that didn't work, here's the link to the site

A word cloud would seem to qualify as a kind of deformance, since it merely re-orders words from the original work. Here's the one for "The Yellow Wall-Paper" that we looked at today, produced using Voyant. (Click the thumbnail to enlarge.)

Wall-Paper by Stetson

In the spirit of Sarah's excellent post on The Importance of Textual Form, here's a link, thanks to Cornell University's Making of America project, to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-Paper" as it originally appeared in the January, 1892 issue of The New England Magazine.

Notice, among other things, that the title appears over Gilman's married name at the time, "Charlotte Perkins Stetson." Born Charlotte Perkins, she married Charles Walter Stetson in 1884. The two were separated in 1888 and divorced in 1894. In 1900, she married George Houghton Gilman. (More here.)

Do the large illustration and caption at the head of the story have any effect on how we read it?

The Importance of Textual Form

During Friday's class, we began talking about McGann's essay, in which the author discusses the importance of the visual presentation of words on the page. In my Native American Literature class, we just finished reading Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain, a collection of histories, oral traditions, and personal memories that tells the story of the Kiowa people. The book, divided into three sections, is complexly organized. Each subsection of the three main sections contains three pieces: Kiowa legend, factual history, and personal recollection. The myths of the culture are on one page, while the history and personal narrative are on the next page. With different fonts and different and somewhat unrelated ideas, the text looks highly unusual on the page. Also, there are large, blank spaces between the paragraphs. We discussed in the Lit class the importance of these changes in font, of the spatial arrangement of the text, as well as the significance of the white spaces. We concluded that the presentation allows us to fill in our own thoughts; moreover, it mirrors the format of oral tradition, which is how the stories of the Kiowa people are traditionally told. Like McGann argues, the way in which the text presents itself affects how the reader interprets meaning from the work. Overall, as The Way to Rainy Mountain demonstrates, the formation of words changes not only what we read but how we read what we are reading.

Jerome McGann's concept of "deformance" (login required) is a bit unusual and perhaps not easy to understand at first. It begins to make more sense, though, when you think of it in contrast to two other modes of apprehending or engaging with literary texts: "interpretation" and "performance."

To interpret a text is to recast its intelligible or rational content in your own words: to articulate what it's "about." If the work is rich and complex, this re-casting will be densely layered and highly nuanced — by no means a simplistic reduction of the text to "the moral of the story" — but it will still be a reformulation of the text's meaning in the language of criticism.

To perform a text is to repeat rather than recast it. This repetition engages meaning, too, but not by rewording it. The idea of engagement through repetition is a familiar one in music and drama, where it's a given that each new performance of a score or production of a play will give the work a particular "spin," bringing out some aspects of meaning and (perhaps necessarily) suppressing others. It's not an alien idea with respect to poetry, either: read a poem aloud, and if you're doing a competent job, your decisions about which words to emphasize, when to pause, and how to modulate your voice all reflect your engagement with the poem's meaning.

McGann extends this idea of performance beyond oral performance, though, suggesting that translations and editions, too, are performances. The editor who must choose which version of an Emily Dickinson poem to print in a collection of her poetry must contend with the different meanings that the different versions may encode. The volume that results from multiple decisions of this kind is a repetition of Dickinson's work reflecting the editor's particular "spin" on the work's meaning.

In the translations category, we might think not only about textual translations — from, say, English into French or Arabic or Chinese, where nearly every word choice will involve an engagement with meaning — but translations into other media. The film version of a novel is a performance of this kind. So, too, perhaps, are Gabrielle Campanella's visual translations of various works from my Fall 2011 Engl 170 syllabus. (Gabrielle made these translations — i.e., executed these performances — as part of her "optional project" in Engl 170, Fall 2011, fulfilling one half of her final exam assignment. If you're in my section this semester, the same option is available to you.)

And so we come, finally, to "deformance." A deformance, as described by McGann, is a performance that simultaneously and intentionally repeats and deforms. Examples might include reading (or printing) a poem backwards, from the last line to the first (an idea suggested to McGann by one of Dickinson's "letters to the world"), reading/printing only the poem's verbs, or reading/printing only the nouns.

What's the point of doing this? According to McGann, deformance, in disrupting or re-organizing a text's original order, can bring to our attention possibilities of meaning that we might not have seen otherwise. McGann seems to be arguing that these possibilities don't belong to the performed-deformed version alone, which is not simply a new work. The possibilities were there all along, though perhaps obscured, in the original. Deformance merely brings them out. It does this by putting us in a new relation to the work's form. (In Dickinson's words, "a Something overtakes the mind.")

Unlike Sontag (login required), then, whose case for engaging with form entails a disengagement with meaning, McGann seeks to unlock the possibilities of meaning within a text by deliberately altering its form. Where his approach differs from "interpretation" — of the traditional variety, at least — is in its treatment of the text as a "field" of meanings rather than as a form encoding a fixed, unitary meaning. McGann believes that Emily Dickinson, too, commits herself to that more expansive view of meaning in the first stanza of her poem #657:

I dwell in Possibility —
A fairer House than Prose —
More numerous of Windows —
Superior — for Doors —

I thought it might be fun to test McGann's proposition by taking the Poe poem posted by Atheeqa last week and reversing the order of the lines. Take a look here. At the bottom of the document, share your thoughts about meanings in the original that the "deformance mode" brings into focus.

Grad Student Strikes Gold

The New York Times reports that Columbia University grad student Jean-Christophe Cloutier has discovered a previously unknown 1941 manuscript of Claude McKay, author of the sonnet "America". The manuscript is titled “Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem.” McKay was a key figure in the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance.


Phil Rizzuto's Yeats

Phil Rizzuto played shortstop for the New York Yankees from 1941 to 1956 and later became the voice of the Yankees on radio and television.

In 1997, journalist Hart Seely and comic-book creator Tom Peyer published a collection of excerpts from Rizzuto's play-by-play broadcasts as O Holy Cow! The Collected Verse of Phil Rizzuto. (Seely has also published a collection of "poetry" by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.)

One reason I asked you to look at a sample of Rizzuto's "poetry" (login required) is that what Hart and Seely did is no different from what William Butler Yeats did when, for the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, he took a snippet from Walter Pater's prose impression of Da Vinci's Mona Lisa and printed it as verse:

She is older than the rocks among which she sits;
Like the Vampire,
She has been dead many times,
And learned the secrets of the grave;
And has been a diver in deep seas,
And keeps their fallen day about her;
And trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants;
And, as Leda,
Was the mother of Helen of Troy,
And, as St Anne,
Was the mother of Mary;
And all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes,
And lives
Only in the delicacy
With which it has moulded the changing lineaments,
And tinged the eyelids and the hands.

Certainly Pater's prose has a lyrical quality that makes Yeats' transformation (McGann might regard it as a "deformance") easy and that illustrates Cob's comment, on Leandra's post "What makes a poem", that there's "a certain atmosphere to poetry, lending itself to the word 'poetic'" that's independent of a poem's form.

But it's also remarkable how readily Rizzuto's ordinary talk seems to take on this "poetic" quality as soon as it's set on the page as verse. Giving each extract a title makes a difference, too.

My Secret

When I'm driving
To Yankee Stadium and back,
I do it so often.

I don't remember passing lights.
I don't remember paying tolls
Coming over the bridge.

Going back over the bridge,
I remember…

"O What a Huddle Out There," Rizzuto's call of the famous George Brett pine-tar incident feels, in places, a bit like it's coming from an ancient narrator recalling the deeds of giants:

Now I had started to tell you,
When I saw Billy Martin make the motion
For Gossage to come on
That it brings back some nightmares.


And they called Thurman Munson out,
And Martin has a very valid argument here,
And if he wins this,
There will be chaos.

So here's a question: How is the way we take in a stretch of language changed when the language is set out as verse? What is it about this change that gives the language the "feel" of poetry?

Beautiful Dreamers

Atheeqa's post on Poe's "A Dream Within A Dream" can be connected in so many ways with issues we've been discussing and reading about that I've decided to speak to these in a separate post rather than in a comment.

First, have a look at the poem as presented on the website of the Poetry Foundation. Notice that in this version, several words are italicized. Do these different material features of the text make any difference in the way we read it? This is the sort of question — really one of several sorts of question — that McGann is asking us to think about in his essay "How to Read a Book" (the link will work only if you're logged in). There, he makes a distinction between "linear reading," "spatial reading," and "radial reading." We're reading "spatially" when we're being attentive to the text as a material form, including not only such features as italicized words but blank spaces in the text — in the case of Poe's poem, the space that separates the two stanzas. We're reading "radially" when we do something like leave the text to find another version online that displays it differently. We would continue along that same radius if we were to try to find out whether or not those words were italicized in the poem as it originally appeared in print. I don't know the answer, and so I'm charging all of you with the task of trying to find out. If the italics make a difference to how we experience the poem, this is information we ought to have.

Second, remember the title of the second chapter you read by Frye (again, login required): "The Keys to Dreamland." The association between poetry and dreaming goes back a long way, as do broader questions about the relationship between reality and dreaming. Is the poet's role to be a dreamer? How can we know whether we're dreaming or waking? Is all life a dream? Frye isn't particularly interested in the individual poet as dreamer. He argues that literature as a whole represents a kind of collective dreamworld — not because it's unreal, but because it gives form to the way the human imagination makes of reality a world of human meaning. Literature, he says, is like an anxiety dream and a wish-fulfillment dream brought into focus together. It doesn't turn away from reality but instead gives shape to the only way we can engage reality — through our fears and desires. In doing so, however, it invariably flouts the constraints of reality. Plants and animals talk. People fly. A lifetime gets compressed into two hours on stage.

Third, this dreaming thing is going to come up over and over in our other writers. Lewis Carroll's Alice will fall down a rabbit hole and only later discover that her whole experience underground was a dream. She'll be introduced to the frightening idea, on the other side of the looking-glass, that she's only "a kind of thing" in someone else's dream. She'll return unsure whether she was the dreamer or the dreamed.

Dickens' Scrooge will have a dream in which he's visited by three spirits. It will be through this dream that he comes to understand social and political realities of the world immediately surrounding him that he had ignored at his own peril.

As old as the uses of and concerns about dreaming may be, the nineteenth century seemed particularly preoccupied with the "life is but a dream" idea. Another example is Stephen Foster's haunting song, "Beautiful Dreamer."

And finally, Poe's poem turns out to be pretty interesting to play with as an example of "deformative" reading, a mode of reading McGann introduces in the other essay we're reading by him, "Deformance and Interpretation" (login required). As you'll see in class.