Monday, June 26, 2006

Leaves of Grass

OK, “Song of Myself” drove me crazy. I guess the title should have been warning enough. First, and obviously, it was self obsession squared. Beyond that, I didn't find that much poetry in it. I checked my English and American anthologies and didn't find anyone else doing free verse anywhere near that time, so I guess Whitman invented it? (Wikipedia confirms this.) Whether or not I like him, I guess Whitman deserves much credit for revolutionizing poetry, and maybe literature in general.

I'll grant him some alliteration. But where is the imagery? Personification? Symbolism or metaphor? Poetry has become a pretty open-ended affair since Whitman, and much of my favorite poetry is free verse, but, in more ways than using lines and stanzas instead of sentences and paragraphs, poetry ought somehow to be distinct from prose.

In later versions, Whitman did eliminate most of the distracting ellipses and exclamation marks from “Song of Myself,” but other than that it remains virtually unchanged. It's consistent with his own declared worldview that he wouldn't see any changes needed in the “barbaric yawp” he first belted out. Indeed, he is proudly “less the reminder of property or qualities, and more the reminder of life.” “What blurt is it about virtue and about vice?” “I exist as I am, that is enough.”

D.H. Lawrence . . . characterized Whitman’s poetry as “long sums in addition and multiplication, of which the answer is invariably MYSELF. He reaches the state of ALLNESS. And what then? It’s all empty. Just an empty Allness” (Eugene England Beyond Romanticism, 210).

The exaltation of all things to a single level of pantheistic ALLNESS paradoxically reduces their worth. ...Whitman’s exaltation tends to reduce the writings of poetry to an endless cataloguing of indistinguishable and undistinguished particulars, with even their particularity slighted, because the discriminating power inherent in the nature of language is not respected (England, 211).
With Whitman, it's all ecstatically wonderful, and it's all contained within himself. He is the prostitute, the loving mother, the suicide victim bloody on the floor. He is the flatboatman, the seamstress, the president. He even wants to be me, or at least have a relationship with me. I can't remember which poem it was, I just remember the intense repulsion that he could presume to know me, in any sense of the word.

Of every kind of suffering and experience, he says “All this I swallow and it tastes good, I like it well, and it becomes mine,/ I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” And yet he merely catalogs these theoretical individuals in the loosest, most stereotypical and impersonal way. He doesn't see them clearly enough to give me any unique vision. Here is one the most descriptive passages in “Song of Myself”:

The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by
the fence, blowing, cover’d with sweat,
The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck,
the murderous buckshot and the bullets,
All these I feel or am.
I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself
become the wounded person.

Yes, there's some almost-shocking description, but is there any individuality, or does even this relatively detailed (by this poem's standards) description really just represent all slaves who ever tried to escape? I got the feeling from this poem that Whitman really is just about Whitman. He wants to be bigger, to encompass man and nature, but he never steps outside himself long enough to really see anyone or anything else.

But I did like a few of his other poems, mostly “A Noiseless, Patient Spider”—now there's sound and imagery, metaphor and symbolism—and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd,” a genuine tribute to someone else, with effective images and symbols like the lilacs and the songbird carefully woven through a coherent whole. Even the title has sound and rhythm.

Unlike “Song of Myself,” everything about “A Noiseless, Patient Spider” resonates well with me, especially the sounds. I want to hear it aloud every time I read it, just enough repetition to tickle my tongue and my ear, but changing too, keeping my attention. And all the sounds so perfect for a web, and a soul's longing—v, f, l, s, p—they whisper, vibrating like a gently plucked string. I suppose it's not entirely unlike “Song of Myself,” (it is still Whitman!) but with quieter longing and with real appreciation for the spider and a sense that maybe there is a particular anchorplace for the soul.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

I read a lot

All I ever do is read. I don't have anything else to do. So these are some of the books I have recently read: Hip-hop High School, An Island Like You, Jude, and My Girl.
So...Hip-hop high school by Alan Lawrence Sitomer is about a girl somewhere around L.A. She's black and at her school there's no white people. There's african-american, latino, and some asian. Anyway, so everyone loves hip hop, thats why its called that. :) So the story goes that she has this great older brother thats like the town hero so she has to live up to the expectations of the teachers, and then her best friend becomes a cheer leader and gets pregnant and drops out. So she starts hanging out with this dude Devon who's cool, nice, and the smartest kid in school. Quoting the back of the book, "Together, Devon and Theresa set off on a quest to beat the SAT, prove they are not merely another "urban statistic" and earn their way into top colleges". But then Devon gets shot in the neck in a drive by shooting the day before college applications are due. They aren't sure he's going to live, and Theresa decides to finish his essays for him, and send in his applications to harvard, yale, usc, and a couple other i can't remember. So it's got a nice twist ending, and it's great!
Next: An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio by Judith Ortiz Cofer is a bunch of short stories all kind of connected about Puerto Rican teenagers growing up in a barrio in new jersey. It's great, and has a lot of things about the culture that was fun to read about. stole it, she just picked it up and started to read it. So obviously it's good :).
Jude by Kate Morgenroth: So, he's fifteen and lives with his dad, the drug dealer. one day his dad gets shot, and the killer says that if jude tells who did it, that he'll kill him. Then he finds out the DA is his long lost mother. So he lives with her for a while, but then a kid at his fancy new school, asks him to take him to his old neighborhood to buy drugs. So he does, and when the guy dies, he gets sent to jail. The twist is that his mom's boyfriend, who said he was going to get him out after his mom's politcal election, ends up being a backstabber that did a whole lot of bad things to jude and jude's dad. Anyway, it's a really good one. Action packed!
And of course My Girl. I finished it today. I cried. It was great. :D

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Saving the World

Saving the World is Julia Alvarez’s attempt to answer (or at least ask) the question “is it possible to do good in the world without anyone getting hurt.”

The book has two parallel stories. The first is about Alma, a Dominican author who's in a funk, her next novel years overdue. Her husband works for an NGO and wants her help starting a green center in the Dominican Republic, a world-saving project that turns out to be not as straightforward as advertised. Alma begs off joining him, using her writing and her dying neighbor Helen as an excuse, then spends the next weeks second-guessing her decision and wallowing in loneliness. Richard winds up a hostage, held prisoner with the local AIDS clinic’s staff and patients by a group of young men who want nothing more than “the chance to be a human being.”

This half of the book is overwrought and unconvincing. I never felt as sorry for the hostage-takers as the author hopes, and Helen’s crazy son and his even crazier wife who call themselves "ethical terrorists" (and again, we’re supposed to sympathize) made no sense whatsoever. Also, Alma has a devoted husband, good friends and a successful career, so her depression, self-doubt and petty jealousy seem inexplicable. However, she does gather some redeeming strength and courage from the much more interesting story she’s been researching: the real-life story of Isabel, a Spanish rectoress who, in 1803, took 23 orphan boys on a ship bound for the American colonies to save the world from smallpox. The boys are human vaccine carriers; two at a time are vaccinated with cowpox and then, when the vesicles fill with fluid, it’s harvested to vaccinate others. The mission is fraught with hardship and often stumbles over its director’s ego, but Isabel proves herself a genuine hero.

The story is pretty amazing. Unfortunately Alvarez makes the mistake of telling it in first person, and the voice does not sound even remotely authentic. She peppers Isabel’s journal with archaic terms (“I’ll be there presently” and “it would not be a short journey hither and yon” and “we assembled our equipages”) which don’t sound at all like something Isabel Sendales y Gómez from 19th-century Spain would have said. I mean...barf. Great story, awful narrative voice.

And that’s the problem with this author: she picks great stories to tell, but her success in telling them is never a sure thing. (In the Name of Salome is another example of a good story that falls short in the telling.) This novel has its moments—I will say that she writes grief well, and the book is sprinkled with really poetic turns of phrase and even some thought-provoking ideas. But overall, I can't recommend it. The stories would have been better off in more capable hands.

I do recommend In the Time of the Butterflies. Also, Before We Were Free is a good youth-fiction novel (see Danielle's Top 10).

Friday, June 16, 2006

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Eats, Shoots & Leaves is Lynne Truss's attempt to correct the abysmal state of punctuation in the world today—and you don't have to be an English major to know what I'm talking about. The very day I read the chapter on "The Tractable Apostrophe" I saw a sign indicating a local tanning salon was "now accepting resume's."

Boring topic, you say? Okay, maybe for some. But you really don’t have to be a grammar geek to enjoy this book. It’s instructive and entertaining, making liberal use of that droll British humor we Americans find so charming yet can't for the life of us imitate. Here's a sample from the introduction:

Either this will ring bells for you, or it won't. A printed banner has appeared on the concourse of a petrol station near to where I live. "Come inside," it says, "for CD's, VIDEO's, DVD's, and BOOK's."

If this satanic sprinkling of redundant apostrophes causes no little gasp of horror or quickening of the pulse, you should probably put down this book at once. By all means congratulate yourself that you are not a pedant or even a stickler; that you are happily equipped to live in a world of plummeting punctuation standards; but just don't bother to go any further.

See? Now you want to go further, don't you? And you wouldn't be sorry—this book is fun, and chock full of hilarious specimens of incorrect punctuation usage. It even comes with a Punctuation Repair Kit to get wannabe vigilantes started—stickers (commas, semi-colons, even a few exclamation marks) for correcting punctuation faux pas everywhere. I'm on my way to Jungle Tan now, "The Panda Says NO!" sticker in hand.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Chronicle of a Death Foretold is the story of the murder of Santiago Nasar. Bayardo San Roman, a man on a mission to marry, arrives in a small Columbian town and immediately sweeps the townsfolk off their feet. He tells tales of bravery and adventure and has the extraordinary and bizarre talents of one who has traveled the mysterious world. As the wealthiest and most influential man in town, Bayardo can name any one of the local women as his bride, and he chooses Angela Vicario. Following an enormously elaborate ceremony and party, Bayardo discovers that Angela is not a virgin. She is promptly returned to her family's humble home where they are so disgraced that she is brutally beaten until she finally surrenders the secret lover's identity. After admitting that her lover was Santiago Nasar, her twin brothers, Pedro and Pablo Vicario, despite their life-long friendship with Nasar, vow to avenge their family's spoiled honor.

Despite the non-linear narrative and the constant and tangential anecdotes, it becomes clear that Santiago Nasar is not connected to Angela in the least and is, in fact, unsuspecting and confused by the rumor of his murderous friends. It appears as though Angela merely states a name in an effort to protect the man she really loves. (Though the narrator speculates that this is possible, the reader never uncovers the truth of Angela's disastrous claim.) Most interestingly, upon Bayardo San Roman's departure Angela discovers her love for him. Angela does not mourn the loss of Nasar or a secret lover; she lives alone until Bayardo returns to her many years later.

Though Gabriel Garcia Marquez is always a genius of magical realism, this book is stylistically and thematically much simpler than other Garcia Marquez's works. Not to mention much shorter at a whopping 130 pages. However, it is just as pure-Gabriel Garcia Marquez as his best: full of wisdom, humor and skillful prose. It is a deeply disturbing and harrowingly symbolic love story that reads as absurd and, at times, hilarious. For instance, the book opens with a description of the Nasar household on the morning of his murder, and goes on to relate Santiago Nasar's last dream before his death: "He'd dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completly spattered with bird shit." One review said Chronicle of a Death Foretold was "very strange and brilliantly concieved....a sort of metaphysical murder mystery."

So, although it doesn't feel quite as epic or relevant as One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera, it reads as a Garcia Marquez mini-epic and a mystery definitely worth reading and rediscovering again.