Sunday, September 15, 2013

Fulgurations and Fenestrations, Part Two and Final

An interview in the latest edition of subTerrain finds poet Brad Cran responding to a suggestion by Brian Kaufman that Layton was sexist, falling "short of the mark as [a] decent human being[]" with his own take on Layton's poem "Misunderstanding":

“Layton suggests a woman who he is hitting on lacks a dedication to literature because she doesn’t want to have sex with him. I’m really not outraged in the least by this poem.

In fact, I find it comic and funny in a horny old man kind of way. So I don’t find Layton’s sexism directly offensive but rather I find it anachronistic, flawed thinking and it does taint the way I view him as an intellectual. It demeans his work.”

For those unfamiliar with the poem, here is “Misunderstanding” in its entirety:

I placed
my hand
her thigh.

By the way
she moved
I could see
her devotion
to literature
was not

Cran misunderstands. But before I get back to his crass, facile, and supercilious remarks, I’d like to explore several ways to look at Layton’s poem.

Who is the woman in the poem? None of us know, including Cran, so it’s not fruitful to lock her in as an attempted pick-up, and then base everything else from that. There are several other options which are, to my mind, more intriguing, providing more intellectual depth and emotional range.

First, the woman could be Layton’s wife (and we have to take it on faith that the man in the poem is Layton. I’ll allow for that, though it, also, could be too big of an assumption.). Occam’s razor slices through fanciful suggestion. Even among philanderers, striking out often occurs with one’s spouse because of obvious mathematical data based on the propinquity of sexual seduction. If this is indeed the identity of the characters, it changes the nature of the “moved/away”. Is it a sole spurned advance? If so, the “devotion” takes on new meaning. And it’s here I’ll explore a parallel that Layton is on record as having a concern, even obsession, with. In various letters, Layton lamented the nature of creation between a childbearing woman and (in his case, and in the possible mirroring parallel in this poem) a poem-making man. A child is life itself, whereas a poem is a much more nebulous, even dubious, thing. And a poem will never be guaranteed to have an extended life; a child will assert itself, however long or memorably, into the spiritual fabric of the world. Layton’s view on this was one of sadness and sympathy for himself and other literary creators, as well as envy for the woman so blessed with her unmistakable gift. Seen in this light, “Misunderstanding” leads one to pity the first-person narrator, or Layton if you prefer, for his ineffectual attempt at physical and literary fertilization. But there’s a humorous irony. The poem was an early entry in Layton’s 1959 compilation A Red Carpet For The Sun, meaning it’s been kicking for over a half-century. Cran’s take on it is illustrative, then, in that he talks about it at all. Layton has created a notable child. (Bad poems are forgotten, not debated.) And of course, Layton had conflicting views vis-a-vis giving birth and creating poems. His wish was to have his works talked about for centuries, just as he was fond of railing on those inconsequential souls who’d be forgotten even by their “loved ones” soon after they’d died. A fascinating, contradictory parallel.

Another take on the poem, also if postulating that the woman is Layton’s wife or longer-term lover, has to do with “devotion”, or fidelity in the wider sense. Just as she spurned his advance, so too does inspiration sometimes (or often) flee the scene when one has an idea, whether it’s hot or scattered. The humour in the poem can be viewed many ways, but certainly a lot of it can be seen at the narrator’s expense.

And that leads to another way of viewing these twenty-three words. Perhaps the woman is Erato the muse. I’m curious about the choice of “thigh”. Odysseus was pierced in the thigh by a boar on Parnassus, home of all the muses, when on a hunting trip. Is his seduction attempt just a clumsy, ill-timed one? In other words, would she have offered her gifts, poem-muse or physical woman, if his advances had been more clever or subtle?

There are other interpretations to flesh out, too. I’m very interested in “By the way” in that it’s not just that she turned away, but how she turned away that matters. There are many ways to seduce, and just as many ways to reject. All are illustrative, but since this is a grandly suggestive poem, it’s enough that it’s placed on the table at all.

Brad Cran has made an arrogantly assumptive, simplistic assessment and explanation for a timeless poem. But let’s look at those assessments a little, anyway. I’m intrigued by the tone. Notice how he takes the self-protective way out by first saying that the poem was “funny and comic”. It’s supposed to soften the way the reader accepts seeing the dagger go in shortly thereafter, and it’s a typical Canadian way of criticizing anything, certainly so in the realm of lit crit. Cran then immediately begins turning the thumb down with his “in a horny old man kind of way”. Interesting, since Layton was no more than forty-six years old when composing the poem, and, as I have put forth, the sexual and literary conclusions are complex. Cran, after his non sequitur “sexism”, goes on to call Layton’s attitude in this poem “anachronistic” and “flawed”. As if there is one right way to view physical traffic between the sexes. What, Cran always does the right thing, thinks the right thoughts? Struggles, many of them selfish,  between men and women will always be with us. There is nothing anachronistic about that. It’s this, finally, that grates. Cran’s often driven by feminist issues. I admire him for many of those views. But in poetry, it comes off as unoriginal, and pressing for votes.

If Cran or any others parading their easy complaints of misogyny or sexism want to see Layton in that vein, try his "Three on a Park Bench" or "Teufelsdrockh Concerning Women". It makes "Misunderstanding" sound like a fond slap by contrast. The former two poems aren't very good, either, which, after all, is the more important concern. And there are scores, hundreds, of other poems of his that express his frank hatred of men. But pointing those out don't score any political kudos. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Fulgurations and Fenestrations, Part One

Stephen Henighan and the definition of reading

I like Stephen Henighan. He's a pants kicker. In a country festooned with literary droopy drawers, steel toe inserts are occasionally necessary. But in his recent Geist article, he makes a dubious case for books being the only medium possible for a deep, resonant reading experience. He goes further, to say that reading via electronic devices is not reading at all because of the attendant distractions, hyperlinked or sidebarred or pictorial. OK. It's a gathering argument, and by now a common one, and one that seems to be gaining cachet by repetition if not persuasiveness. But I'm more and more annoyed by the broad brushes, and by the sentimental value attached to the almighty book.

I love books. Though not a fetishist, I love their feel, heft, smell, unique configurations and colours, give and strength, font shock and internal typesetting flourish and quirk. Did I say sentimental? That's my argument for books. Henighan's more experientially precise, calling on the power of the book to submerge us in a world of uninterrupted imagination, ferried along by the linear play within the pages. But that's the experiential ideal. In reality, most readers are not allowed the luxury of an uninterrupted book reading experience. We steal twenty noisy reading minutes on the bus ride to work; we're the driver of the same bus, Bob Smith, who in an interview with questioner Grant Buday circa 2000, stole a minute or two of DeLillo or Dostoyevsky, for years, between long red lights; and we're the person (me), reading about Bob Smith on the upper ferry deck, surrounded by crazed teenagers and zigzagging foot traffic. In contrast, when I read online, it's often late at night. Alone and surrounded by quiet or (presently) the actual sound of non-proverbial crickets, I can sail along uninterrupted over great stretches of the written word, whether poem or essay, political argument or news article, blog post or comment stream. "But what about the long form, the novel?" Well, I admit I don't have an eDevice yet, but if I can concentrate and even entertain creative responses to and from my late-night pixelated adventures, I don't see the problem should the novel form, eventually, be housed in the electronic hive for the majority of its output. The glorious past, I'm afraid, is of no sentimental force here. Long, uninterrupted, imaginative depth: the reading experience of the typical Dickensian page-turner? Many of Dickens' novels were first encountered in serialized form, and in newspapers alongside yesterday's equivalent of baby bum powder and floor polish hortatory pitch. And I doubt that most readers a century and two score ago had the same leisure time as us. Snatching a chapter chunk here and there, they managed to get through the entry before the next week's installment. Or am I painting a too-gloomy social supposition, the extreme of Henighan's? Well, the truth's probably somewhere in the middle, but I highly doubt that many of the non-John Jarndyce citizenry were jumping from one canon-provider to another at any time of day or night in timeless wonder.

The reality is that we read how and when we can. A new mother? Another working two or three jobs? Still another with his head stuffed with reference books who breaks the spell willingly to look up an obscure word, or to corroborate a historical setting? Just so, one who reads online, be it long-form or not, isn't at the mercy of hyperlinks, footnotes (what, David Foster Wallace didn't exist?), or advertisements (Henighan's article is, itself, bordering a windowed pitch for two different books). When one is pleasantly ensconced in a story, argument, or entertainment, the medium is not the message, as Henighan says, in support of McLuhan. The media guru set that oft-venerated quote in a specific context. Radio was hot because the act of listening was intensely concentrative and reactionary. Hence, the phone-in "hot line". TV was cool because it created what we now can corroborate scientifically as brain waves inducing passive responses. And so on. Reading is active whether by internet or book. Those who worry that the internet itself is changing the wiring of the brain strike me as alarmists. It's -- again, to use McLuhan's term -- a hot medium. The reader -- or peruser, as Henighan would have it -- is in control. TV viewers strike me as quite different from those of the internet variety. In fact, I'd guess that those who watch many hours of TV a week choose passive-type pursuits on the web, as well. (After all, there's something for just about everyone on the info/entertainment highway.) So it's people's predilections, not the medium itself that matters.

Finally, people will vote, with their wallets, for whatever transmission source they wish. I do agree with Henighan that even ten years ago there were noticeably more heads buried in books in public than there were in iphone and related gadgetry. But anecdotes don't catch the whole story. Maybe many of those same people are saving the long-form reading, whether it's a historical compendium or Russian family epic, for the quiet and monklike seclusion of the home. And my belief -- and I admit it's only a belief -- is that they'll be able to do so just as well using a book, the web, or the eReader.

Friday, September 6, 2013

John Hersey's Hiroshima

At the second hottest point of the Cold War, 1983-84, I remember talking to several friends and acquaintances who confided in me nightmares (actual) and opinions (heated) following on the accelerated rhetoric between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. I sympathized, but didn’t share their fears, although anyone at the time would have been a fool to dismiss them outright. Though I was too young to understand the serious import of the Cuban missile crisis, it wouldn’t be long before the arms race intensified. Throughout the seventies and early eighties, most people paid attention to each side’s bragging advertisements for the specific technological gewgaw of the day. But fears were also tempered, at least in this scribe, by two key ideas: mutual assured destruction (or MAD) and the balance of power. In the former case, each had confidence that the other side wouldn’t be mad enough to escalate tensions to the point of an initial thermonuclear strike. A sovereign nation encompassing a large land mass and citizenry has little to gain and much to lose by dodging fire from the skies just to score a posthumous point. And the balance – and for most of those drawn-out decades of fluctuating tensions, there was a rough balance – meant that to initiate anything was counterproductive since there was no clear advantage in doing so. It’s all a faded trouble now, like trying to recall the emotional immediacy of a social spat or personal illness. Reagan outspent an economically cratering Kremlin (lucky their last oil discovery surge happened after the break-up of the Soviet Union), and the threat evaporated.

Well, for a while, anyway. Now, of course, the world isn’t populated by two equally strong superpowers in a “normal times” draw with every other nation looking on, but is beset by established nuclear players with unstable governments (Pakistan), up-and-comers, even though in initial and (variously) ineffective stages (Iran; North Korea), and proliferating radical agents motivated to get their hands on longstanding portable, or suitcase, nukes. In addition, the hostilities are infinitely complex, and ultimately unknown. Even the wisest political speculation on the current Syrian crisis admits a pocket of incomprehension at the “end game” of the various players involved. Even if the U.S. Congress votes “no” tomorrow, the subs and ships and aircraft in and around the Mediterranean will remain. Obama’s “ninety day” window (read: opportunity) to attack Syria will stretch, just like prior “temporary” wars, and there are many motivated players in the Middle East and without who are eager to forge new working relationships with other countries in order to build, secure, and operate LNG pipelines.

At that last nuclear hot point, 1983, I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a long essay published in 1946 (in its entirety) as the only entry in that issue of Time. Relentlessly objective in approach, amazingly subdued in tone, Hersey told the stories of six of the survivors from three hours before, to one month after, the U.S. atom bomb detonated over their city. I just reread it less than a day ago and was even more impressed with its attention to detail, its dignified utterance, and, not least, its compositional clarity. That equanimity infuriated many readers, those who desired outrage and condemnation, theories and follow-up calls to action. But Hersey, as he did in a much different manner in his fictional masterpiece White Lotus, wanted to allow a few affected people to speak over the screaming ideological forays in newspaper op ed  and on university podium. And though I’m often irritated by self-regarding quietness in the literary world – work and  the reaction to it – when the topic is grave, it seems to me the measured voice is more than compelling, it affects a gathering force, or rather it gets out of the way to let the force of the content carry the scarred and scary emotions. (I’m reminded here of the 1984 anti-nuke BBC movie Threads. It’s up on you tube. Don’t watch it just before bedtime.)

Why so much focus on tone? Well, just remember tone during the next few days, weeks, and months. There’ll be a lot of screaming, a lot of anger. Much of it comes from people who see everything in narrow-minded, unsophisticated, ignorant partisan repetition. Ideologues. And the powers-that-be have their own ideologies, much different than those reacting. But what struck me about Miss Toshiko Sasaki, Reverend Mr Tanimoto, Mrs Nakamura, Dr Masakazu Fujii, Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, and Dr Terufumi Sasaki, after their courage, was their fatalism. Now granted, that’s a cultural attitude, a deeply ingrained one nurtured through centuries (though Kleinsorge was German). But fatalism is a dirty word for us Western go-getters, us gung-ho pioneers and optimistic, idealistic war-spared citizens. I get that. But I also get that we’ve been living through a half-century of fortunate oil-soaked largesse, even if the waves have been choppy at times. Fatalism is often misunderstood. It’s not a passive attitude at all. Look at how Japan quickly rebuilt itself after the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And how they rebuilt their country with spirit, all while undergoing a rapid transition from emperor-worship to democracy. The least we can do is put aside silly, simplistic opinions of left versus right, capitalism versus socialism, personality versus personality, and go a little deeper to find, in repose, the roots to these conflicts which (in true fatalistic Japanese-intoned “it can’t be helped”) will always be with us.