Archive for October, 2010

Brass Tacks and Brambles

October 26, 2010

hungover

Brass Tacks and Brambles

My life’s in shambles
Brass tacks and brambles
Rumblin’ around in my heart
I’m losing my balance
And drinking up gallons
Since you and me been apart
I’m stuck in my bed
I done lost my head
My get-up-and-go fell apart
I’m hazy and dazy
Wayward and crazy
I really ain’t actin’ too smart
I’m busting up bars
And crashing my car
It’s time for rehab to start
My life’s in shambles
Brass tacks and brambles
Rumblin’ around in my heart

by Richard W. Bray

Some Thoughts on The Spooky Art

October 24, 2010

Norman Mailer

Some Thoughts on The Spooky Art

The problem with naturalism (the belief that “[p]hysical matter is the only reality”) as a literary genre is that there are just so many ways of saying that life is futile. About a hundred years ago when God was freshly deceased in the modern mind, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane had room to ruminate about the bleak, harsh unfairness of it all without getting stuck in naturalism’s inevitable cul-de-sac. Artful naturalism can still be written (see Being Dead by Jim Crace), but novelists with a metaphysical predisposition have many more aesthetic avenues to explore than devout nonbelievers.

Unlike so many twentieth century writers who were unable to reconcile belief in an anthropomorphized deity with the carnage and horror of two world wars and the Holocaust, Norman Mailer saw the supernatural everywhere. He was a confirmed mystic who was constantly groping after salvation in his tempestuous personal and artistic life.

In The Spooky Art, a compilation of the novelist’s musings about the craft of writing, Mailer insists that an “ongoing and conceivably climactic war between God and the Devil” manifests itself in the quotidian world of human strife (307). This is no mere literary affectation. Although Mailer did not ascribe to a particular faith, he was afflicted with a mercurial temperament which sought a deity that was, interestingly, much like himself:

“I confess that I have no attachment to organized religion. I see God, rather, as a Creator, as the greatest artist.”

Mailer, who enjoyed quoting Kierkegaard, (I have a theory that Kierkegaard is more quoted than read) was deeply concerned with matters of good, evil, courage, and existence. Mailer argues that it is ludicrous to contemplate a universe without an active deity and some form of an afterlife (Mailer’s money is on reincarnation).

“Carnage walks the aisles of history hand in hand with philosophy. If there is no afterworld where the contest continues, then existence is indeed absurd” (148).

Sparkling literary careers have been wrought from that absurdity (see Brecht, Vonnegut, Kafka, and the Hebrew wit who wrote the Book of Job). But a diverse group of modern writers, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, G. K. Chesterton, Graham Green, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, W. H. Auden and T.S. Eliot, have been theists.

It is not surprising that the pugnacious novelist and raconteur would have an idiosyncratic approach to religion. Mailer submerged everything that frightened and confused him into a big, dark pit which is alternately seen as hell or his own subconscious. For Mailer, the two are deeply connected. He asks us to

“Suppose the unconscious has a root in the hereafter that our conscious mind does not”(138).

For a novelist, the subconscious is a magic and mysterious font “and you never know where your words are coming from, those divine words” (70). Mailer, who was “always a little uneasy when my work comes to me without much effort,” liked to think of his unconscious as a “separate creature”(127, 143).

The novel Nightwood is a mad dreamy reactionary assault on society written by a brilliant, confused and obviously self-loathing woman, Djuna Barnes. In the section “Watchman, What of the Night?” Dr. Matthew Mighty O’Connor argues that night time—sleep time—is when the devil does his battling. Nightwood is a bizarre and disturbing book for many reasons, but Dr. O’Connor’s rant about sleep, “that unpeopled annihilation” in many ways explains how Mailer sees his own relationship with his unconscious (95).

…the day and the night are related by their division. The very constitution of twilight is a fabulous reconstruction of fear, fear bottom-out and wrong side up. Every day is thought upon and calculated, but the night is not premeditated. The Bible lies the one way, but the night-gown the other (87).

Norman Mailer takes his craft seriously and he fears the decline of “serious” novelists such as himself because “[n]ovels that reinvigorate our view of the subtlety of moral judgments are essential to a democracy” (161). Surveying the present state of fiction in America, Mailer laments how “the smart money would bet against the serious novel”(51). (Mailer’s observation, “I don’t think Jackie Susann went to bed with Rainer Maria Rilke on her night table,” gives us an idea about his regard for un-serious novelists(49).

For Mailer, the difference between “serious” novels and bestsellers is that the latter generally do not challenge their readers:


“mega-best-seller readers want to be able to read and read and read–they do not want to ponder any truly unexpected revelations. Reality might lie out there, but that is not why they are reading”
(51).

Norman Mailer was not sanguine about the future of fiction in America, a profession that has long been plagued with “various pirates, cutthroats racketeers, assassins, pimps, rape artists, and general finks (57).” And he has even less faith in our press which produces a “[n]ausea-broth of TV pundit-heads, coming to an intellectual climax every night” (83). A co-founder of the Village Voice in 1955, Mailer is hailed as an “innovator of narrative” . Here is his portrait of the journalist’s life:

“One half is addiction, adrenaline, anecdote shopping, deadlines, dread, cigar smoke, lung cancer, vomit, feeding The Goat; the other is Aloha, Tahiti, old friends, and the free ride to the eleventh floor of the Sheraton-Chicago, Patterson-Liston Press Headquarter, everything is free.” (185).

by Richard W. Bray

Ghosts

October 23, 2010


Ghosts

Sleeping in my chamber
I was awakened by a sound
Oblivious to danger
I got up to look around

Darkly beckoned onward
I chased a ghost that night
It led me down a hallway
I could not contain my fright

It hovered near a doorway
And exploded on the floor
And a thousand little spirits
Scampered neath the door

Hesitating for a moment
I summoned all my guts
And thought, “If I’m not dreaming
I must be going nuts.”

Placing hand on doorknob
I pushed open the creaking door
I didn’t know what I was seeking
I had no wish to explore—

The room was filled with goblins
And other creatures of lore
I tried to avert my eyeballs
As the specter began to pour

Red liquid into a chalice
But it did not look like wine
I wondered whose house this was
Surely it couldn’t be mine

I walked up to the fellow, knees quaking
It was time to make a stand
And with my fist ashaking
I said, “I do demand

That you and ghoulish posse
Vacate my home forthwith
I’m not one to be haunted
By creatures out of myth!”

Suddenly there was silence
All eyes affixed to me
I feared they’d do me violence
It seemed an eternity

The specter appeared to smile
And with a wave of his hand
He sent the other monsters
To some foreign land

He looked straight in my eye
And said, “Let me explain
My creepy friends and I
Live inside of your brain”

Then I was awakened
By a ringing telephone
I jumped up forsaken
No time to be alone

I picked up the receiver
A voice much like my own:
“Now you can be a believer”
Static. Click. Dial tone.

by Richard W. Bray

(Since it’s that season, you can find more scary poems here, here, here, and here)

A Critical Thinking Story Evaluation Activity for High School Students and an Amusing Teacher Story (by Brian)

October 20, 2010

A lesson plan for a critical reading of The Interlopers by Saki

Subject
: High School English

Objective: Students will demonstrate higher order critical reading and reflection skills

Materials: a class set of The Interlopers, coloring markers, two-by-two sheets of butcher paper.

Lesson:

Students will read the story the night before and come to class with written responses to the following questions:

1) How did you connect personally to the story?
2) What questions would you like to ask the author and/or the characters?
3) What strategies did you utilize to clarify any segments of the story that were unclear to you?

Classroom Activity

a. Teacher groups students
b. Students in each group use their homework to come to a consensus on two statements for each category
c. Group leaders submit written proposals to the teacher who okays them and distributes butcher paper and markers to students
d. Students make posters containing a picture of the scene that best represents the theme of the story, a prediction based on the ending of the story, and the six answers generated from homework assignment


Assessment:

Groups present their posters explaining whether their clarifications, questions, and connections are inferences or evaluations in a question and answer session with the class.

Why I no longer Have Show-and-Tell on the Second day of Class

It was my second year teaching at the university and I had my students bring an item to the second class meeting that represented them, and I had them do a short presentation. Well “Carl” showed up with an old two liter bottle of coke that had been converted into a terrarium. I didn’t think much of it until he volunteered to go first.

He went up to the front of the class and opened up the bottle and reached inside and pulled out a rather large pet black-widow spider named Helen. He let it crawl on his hands, and I swear he even pet it. About this time, the entire class and I moved to the back of the classroom while a large man who had been sitting in front bolted out the door. Carl asked if anyone wanted to hold his “pet” –there were no takers.

I then attempted to walk up to the front and said, This is very nice, can you please put Helen back in her cage? He did without further incident, and the class then got back to normal. A few more people then decided to complete their presentations, and just as we were about to get to work for the evening, I heard a knock at the door and Victor, our large runner, was asking if the spider was gone.

(You can reach Brian at brianslinville@gmail.com)

Creatures

October 17, 2010

Creatures

Creatures you’ll meet
Out on my street:
Goblins, vampires
Shrunken head buyers
Gargoyles, zombies
Brain-dead mummies
Giant spiders
Headless riders
Grimmer Reapers
Crawly creepers
Werewolves, Frank Stein
Are not friends mine

No joy for me
Just lost my key
Locked out, late night
Cold air, fresh fright
Who could this be?
Someone help me
It’s moved closer
I’m safe? No, sir
Mommy, save me
It might grave me

Neighbor Louise
With my spare keys
“Thank you!” I gush
Inside. Big rush

by Richard W. Bray

Mud

October 11, 2010

 

Mud

Mary McCrae sent her son out to play
One sunny afternoon
Timmy McCrae and his friends they did stray
To a grimy green lagoon
They slithered and slid and crawled and hid
Among the muddy dunes
Digging and rigging and slopping and glopping
They built a loam pontoon

In a puddle of silt by the boat they had built
Timmy tried to douse
Some of the slime, mud, muck and grime
Before he reached his house
But he could not lose the trail of ooze
Which steadily grew behind him
(I could run away his mind did stray
But someone surely would find him)
As his house appeared poor Timmy feared
His mother would no doubt remind him
The new school threads laid out on his bed
Which Mary had bought for her son
Were not meant for play and there was no way
To explain what he had done
He couldn’t get away or sheepishly say
“Mom, I was just having fun!”
Correctly he guessed, she wouldn’t be impressed
If he told her that his side had won
Poor Timmy shuddered, his little heart sputtered
As he reached his front door
He wouldn’t be acquitted, nor even permitted
To play outside any more
He entered his house, mute as a mouse
His mother let out a great roar
But when she recovered, Timmy discovered
She did not completely deplore
The layers of slime, mud, muck, and grime
Encompassing her child
For in her own day Mary MaCrae
Was known to be a tad wild

by Richard W. Bray

Entrepreneurial Hero

October 6, 2010

Entrepreneurial Hero

Davey had a bank account with several thousand bucks
And since he wasn’t using it, his money was just stuck
So I hauled it all away one day—I didn’t need any trucks
I just used the Internet. He has such awful luck

I bought everything I wanted till all my cash was spent
Clothes and electronics is where my dollars went
I telegraphed my parents for more money to be sent
But I’d done it all before; they couldn’t even pay the rent

Like poor starving Oliver, I merely wanted more
So I started my own business, selling gewgaws and what-fors
I wasn’t too successful, for it’s work that I deplore
So I issued bogus stocks and bonds and sold them door to door

At my Cayman Islands office, the trading was intense
Who would’ve ever guessed I had such business sense?
The feds came out to get me, so I ran and hopped a fence
Then I begged for clemency from foreign governments

Now you’ll find me locked up in a room without a view
For trying to serve my country with financial derring-do
Justice clearly wasn’t served, but what’s a guy to do?
I won’t get released until it’s 2092

by Richard W. Bray

Some Thoughts on Alfred Kazin’s America

October 4, 2010

Some Thoughts on Alfred Kazin’s America

We can only guess how many literature–loving undergraduate English majors have been dissuaded by the massive edifice of Literary Theory: Freudianism. Marxism. New Criticism. Structuralism. Semiotics. Feminism. Poststructuralism. Postmodenrism. Reader Response. etc. The tumescent postwar expansion of our university system along with the demise of so many literary publications has in many cases reduced the discussion of literature in this country to the “endless theorizing about what literature cryptically is” (513).

Rereading Alfred Kazin’s America, a selection of the late writer’s works adroitly and lovingly edited by Ted Solotaroff, I am transported to a less restive time when a university professor of literature like Kazin could get by simply expressing his enchantment with the written word. As Solotaroff notes in his introduction, Kazin “was not interested in literary theory or in what nowadays is called textuality” (xxi).

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s solipsistic (and rather disturbing) assertion in Self Reliance that “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind” is faintly echoed in Kazin’s essay To be a Critic:

To be a critic, nothing else is so important as the ability to stand one’s ground alone. This gets more important as criticism gets more standardized and institutionalized, as the critic gets more absorbed in literary theory rather than in the imaginations who are his raison d’etre (510).

Kazin always stood his ground, even when his opinions collided with hagiography. Here he is on the Lost Generation:

They had a special charm–the Byronic charm, the charm of the specially damned; they had seized the contemporary moment and made it their own; and as they stood among the ruins, calling the ruins the world, they seemed so authoritative in their dispossession, seemed to bring so much craft to its elucidation, that it was easy to believe that all roads really had led up to them (117).

And here he is describing how The Great Gatsby triumphs despite its flaws:

The book has no real scale; it does not rest on any commanding vision, nor is it in any sense a major tragedy. But it is a great flooding moment, a moment’s intimation and penetration; and as Gatsby’s disillusion becomes felt at the end, it strikes like a chime through the mind (122).

The mercurial and sometimes brilliant Norman Mailer has been an enigma for both reader and critic because his uneven output is often overshadowed by his tempestuous personality.

Mailer’s tracts are histrionic blows against the system. They are fascinating in their torrential orchestration of so many personal impulses. Everything goes into it on the same level. So they end up as Mailer’s special urgency, that quest for salvation through demonstration of the writer’s intelligence, realism, courage, that is to be effected by making oneself a gladiator in the center of the ring, a moviemaker breathing his dreams into the camera (278).

Things don’t always go according to plan for American writers, as demonstrated by this cutting observation about Sinclair Lewis:

Here was the bright modern satirist who wrote each of his early books as an assault on American smugness, provincialism, ignorance, and bigotry; and ended up by finding himself not an enemy, not a danger, but the folksiest and most comradely of American novelists (99).

e. e. cummings, another brash and electric talent, is neatly summed up by Kazin:

As Cummings saw it, the world was composed of brutal sensations and endured only by fiercely desperate courage and love; it was so anarchical that all attempts to impose order were motivated by either ignorance or chicanery (127-128).

And here he is on the tempestuous Sherwood Anderson:

Anderson turned fiction into a substitute for poetry and religion, and never ceased to wonder at what he had wrought. He had more intensity than a revival meeting and more tenderness than God; he wept, he chanted, he loved indescribably (93).

Emily Dickinson is the greatest literary genius our culture has created (says me). Adrienne Rich wrote that “genius knows itself” and Dickinson “chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed.” Here’s how Kazin describes Dickinson’s beautifully bizarre, cheerful death wish:

In poem after poem she expressed, in her odd blend of heartbreaking precision and girlish winsomeness, the basic experience, in the face of death, of our fear, our awe, our longing—and above all, of our human vulnerability, of the limit that is our portion (402).

Kazin reflects on the singular achievement of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man from the perch of a dispirited and tumultuous time (1971) while taking a swipe at Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and every other notable contemporary African American writer.

Certainly more than any black writer, Ellison achieved as dramatic fact, as a rounded whole, beyond dreamy soliloquy or angry assertion, a demonstration of the lunatic hatred that America can offer, on every facet of its society, to a black man. This irrationality is more real, more solidly grounded to blacks writing out of actual oppression than is the idea of an irrational society to white writers dislocated in a country they used to take for granted and now find so much of America “meaningless” (282).

And here’s Kazin on Herman Melville’s fall and posthumous rise:

Melville may have been ditched by his own century; he became important to the next because he stood for the triumph of expression over the most cutting sense of disaster, negation, and even the most ferociously unfavorable view of modern society in classical American literature (366).

The young Ezra Pound was in many ways a generous soul who took the time to befriend and nurture younger poets. He was also an egomaniac. According to William Carlos Williams, once, when the two young poets were walking through the New Jersey countryside, Williams exclaimed that the winter wheat was coming up to meet Ezra. Pound noted wryly that it was the “first intelligent wheat” he had ever come across. (This sounds like something Sheldon Cooper might say.) Kazin discusses how this great mind eventually became so diseased:

Pound was a convinced fascist. The cruelty and death of fascism are an essential part of his epic and cannot be shrugged away in judging his work. Pound recognized his epic hero in Mussolini because fascism, like Ezra Pound, had few abiding social roots and was based on an impersonation, like Pound’s, of a mythic personage (196).

There is a sheen of other-worldliness in Nathaniel Hawthorne, “the only novelist from New England as subtle as its poets” (338).

Hawthorne, surrounded by so many moralists who thought they commanded the reality principle, created more memorably than he did anything else a sense of the unreality of existence, of its doubleness, its dreaminess, its unrealizability by anything less profound than the symbolic tale (338).

While Kazin was enthralled with the “imaginations” of our finest writers, he wasn’t afraid to take a shot at one of our most exalted figures:

Thoreau was a pure idealist, living on principle: typical of New England in his scorn for Irish immigrants, properly indignant about slavery in far-off Mississippi, but otherwise, as he wrote Walden to prove, a man who proposed to teach others to be as free of society as himself (329).

Over seven hundred thousand combatants perished in the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in human history up to that point. Much good resulted from this ghastly episode in our history, but millions of lives were damaged irreparably and African Americans would not be fully emancipated and enfranchised for another century. Only God could say if such massive suffering were justifiable for any cause, but that didn’t prevent victorious Northerners from singing “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!”

The triumphant North needed proof of its saintliness, and found it in the consecration of Abraham Lincoln. The civil religion that came out of the war turned America itself into a sacred object and ritual demanded that America be its own religion—and that everybody had to believe in it. The Lincoln who never joined the Church became the god of a godless religion. Under the smug Republican administration of Calvin Coolidge, a great temple in Washington was built around a statue of Lincoln seated on a throne. Now the people truly had someone eternally to worship (400).

I’ll leave you with a final warning from Alfred Kazin.

If the critic cannot reveal to others the power of art in his own life, he cannot say anything useful or even humane in its interest. He will scrawl, however learnedly, arbitrary comments on the text (512).

by Richard W. Bray