Archive for the 'Tim Morris' Category

Babel No More

I have never thought of myself as particularly good at languages. This despite my reputation in my workplace as someone who can read anything. Indeed, on lection, in the past eight years, I have reviewed books written in French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Portuguese, as well as English. My Latin and Greek were once good enough to read Vergil and Homer, I’ve studied Old and Middle English – and many years ago I learned enough Russian to read a Chekhov short story, though I doubt I could recognize half the characters in the Russian alphabet anymore.

I still think of myself as monolingual, however, because my capacity for carrying on a conversation in any language except English is practically nil. In Spanish, for instance, my pronunciation is good (honed by years watching Noticiero Univision), my vocabulary is adequate, and I can often think of a single thing to say, if given about half an hour to prepare. But the thought of somebody saying something back to me makes me extremely reluctant to use Spanish in my everyday life. Or rather: it’s not so much that they might answer with something I didn’t understand – I could perhaps stumble forward from there, despite my shyness, and the fact that it would take me another half an hour to think of the second thing I wanted to say – but the probability that they would immediately switch to English. Everybody’s English is better than my everybody else’s language.

However, since I can read six modern languages (with proficiency varying from high to struggling), and have a few “surge” languages in reserve that I might be able to swot up given a spare month or two, I verge in some ways on the category that Michael Erard calls “hyperpolyglot.” His fascinating book Babel No More tries to do many things: to define “hyperpolyglots” (which includes defining what it means to know or use a language); to locate living hyperpolyglots; to look at the history of hyperpolyglottery; to speculate on the neurological and social contexts for the speaking of many languages; and to travel the world while writing a voice-driven book about eccentric people.

I am deeply in sympathy with all the aims except the last; as readers of lection know, voice-driven nonfiction is one of my pet peeves. Erard, however, keeps the ratio of exposition to chatter substantially high. Once in a while he lapses. Erard flies to Düsseldorf to get some background on neurolinguistics, and tells us that

As any good expedition begins with a meal, Loraine and I considered hyperpolyglots over sushi. Tomorrow we’d be visiting the brain institute, and we had much to discuss. (166)

That’s fine, but who cares.

My peeves aside, though, Babel No More is relentlessly provocative. Erard is constantly caught between the desire that there should be linguistic prodigies in the world, and the rueful awareness that claims on behalf of such prodigies always need discounting by (at least) half. “If you read or hear that a certain person ‘can speak’ (or ’speaks’) a large number of languages (for instance twenty or more) you should always be a little skeptical,” said the late Swedish polyglot Erik Gunnermark (226). Gunnermark himself claimed to speak six languages well and seven others passably, but some who knew him in turn doubted Gunnermark’s claims: one colleague says, “I don’t think [he] could speak very many languages very well—but he could read them” (226). Gunnermark claimed to be able to read forty-seven languages (92).

Two principles are at work in the example of Erik Gunnermark. One is that the definition of “knowing” a language is far more nuanced than common wisdom would have it. I “know” Italian well enough to read contemporary novels without a dictionary, and to have read the entire Divina Commedia in the original at one point in my life. But people will come into my office and ask me the most basic words in Italian, and I haven’t the nebbiosissimo. When I was in Rome nine years ago, I was reduced to pointing and gesticulating in order to demonstrate my most basic needs. (Fortunately espresso is one of them.)

The other principle is that the languages known by any polyglot form a steeply descending curve of such competence, and can be arranged in graph form (as Erard does on 221-22). There are native bilingual and trilingual people who are completely at home in each of these languages, and they often learn a fourth or fifth language well enough to be able to converse unhesitatingly. A sixth, a seventh . . . these are within the range of accomplishment, but the conversations that a polyglot holds in those languages will be more basic. S/he might get by in rudimentary conversations in shops or airports in half a dozen other languages, and know the most phrasebook-like versions of a few others, and be able to read a few others without a dictionary, and a few others with. And then there are a bunch of languages where one knows how to say “hello,” “thank you,” and whatever-it-is you say when you bump into somebody in the market. (Συγγνώμη! Bocsánat! Undskyld!)

Nobody can be near-native in more than four or five languages. (But I know people who are highly fluent in that many, mainly from crossroads-of-Europe places like the Benelux countries and the Baltic.) Partly the constraint is one of time. It takes time to learn them and time to keep them current. A few years ago, struck by the sense that I ought to practice reading the eight languages I could nominally read, I devised a plan of reading one Bible chapter in each of them, on an eight-day rotation. One chapter a day does not sound like much; the material was familiar and the translations (or in the case of Greek, the koine of the original New Testament) fairly basic. But let me tell you, reading the Bible in eight different languages at the rate of one language per day is a shortcut to madness. You can’t keep it up unless you have nothing else to do. (Two features of many of the hyperpolyglots Erard studies are extremely good time management and near-compulsive study skills.)

“The enemy of the language-learner is forgetting,” says one of Erard’s informants. “You can only prevent this by regularly studying” (134). Sir Richard Burton (the world traveler, not the movie star) learned over two dozen languages, but never all at once; he spoke them “in blocks or spurts” (47), and time away from any of his languages had to be redeemed with time spent studying again before he could return to it. The example of such hard work, Erard says, is the basis for one theory of superlearners.

One view says: what matters is a person’s sense of mission and dedication to language learning. You don’t need to describe high performers as biologically exceptional, because what they do is the product of practice. (163)

But clearly there’s a sense in which at least some hyperpolyglots are just gifted with verbal ability.

The other view says: Something neurological is going on. We may not know exactly what the mechanisms are, but we can’t explain exceptional outcomes fully through training or motivation. (164)

Indeed, some language “accumulators” are of low intelligence, or hampered by social anxieties; they are savant-like in their ability to memorize gigantic vocabulary lists. They work hard, but they also do things that normal hard-working people can’t (and fail at things that the mentally normal handle easily). Great language learning can be a gift in the same way as great musical ability or great chess talent. There is probably more than one pathway there, and sometimes people take several at once (just as there is more than one kind of polyglottery).

Erard lists several talents to cultivate if you want to use a lot of different languages: mimicry, openness to experience, metamemory (remembering what you know and what you don’t), and the less-definable Sprachegefühl [sic] (“feel for language,” 263). I think I understand Sprachgefühl, though I may not possess it to any great degree. It is partly what the poet Keats called “negative capability.” In any language, there are various ways to pronounce words, various idioms that don’t make logical sense, lots of synonyms, multiple registers, and above all tons of irregularities that don’t apply in every other (sometimes any other) languages. If you have a feel for language, you roll with it.

You cannot learn languages, or in a real sense even learn much about your own language, if you are unable to yield to uncertainty. In this, language is utterly different from math or chemistry. If you ask someone who is competent in two languages, but lacks Sprachgefühl, to translate something, they will give you a rote dictionary equivalent. If you ask a multilingual with Sprachgefühl to translate something, they will tell you three ways to say it in writing, one way to say it to your grandkids and and one way to say it to a cop, plus an interesting way they say it in Kentucky. As Ron Washington says of baseball, that’s the way language go.

Erard, Michael. Babel No More: The search for the world’s most extraordinary language learners. New York: Free Press [Simon & Schuster], 2012.

Published in:Tim Morris |on May 28th, 2012 |2 Comments »

Walking the Walk

In her confused and querulous review of Henry Hitchings’ The Language Wars, Joan Acocella casts opprobrium on “anything goes” linguistic descriptivists. Such academics, she implies, carefully prune their own language of substandard usage, and reap the social benefits of good grammar. But they let their charges – the students and the general public – wallow in a morass of slovenly, uncorrected English.

[Hitchings] thinks that the “who”/“whom” distinction may be on its way out. Funny, how we never see any confusion over these pronouns in his book, which is written in largely impeccable English.

No surprise here. Hitchings went to Oxford and wrote a doctoral dissertation on Samuel Johnson. He has completed three books on language. He knows how to talk the talk, but, as for walking the walk, he’d rather take the Rolls. You can walk, though.

Acocella taps into a theme current in much conservative criticism of educators. By giving up on drilling the young in “who and whom,” the argument goes, teachers are really oppressing them, under the guise of fostering their freedom and appreciating diversity. Meanwhile, these ivory-tower liberals wouldn’t be caught dead splitting an infinitive, and continue to enjoy the privileges that they deny their students. Liberals pretend to appreciate the great unwashed, but they themselves are never more than an hour out of the shower.

Some of this is just blanket “it’s all the fault of liberals” rhetoric, as when the old guard blames the New Deal for the Depression and the Great Society for urban poverty. Teachers, the complaint goes, must be to blame for ignorance. But there’s enough logic in Acocella’s remarks to merit some rebuttal. Do we do students a disservice by claiming that the double negative is a feature of their dialect, rather than a slatternly bad habit?

First principles first: the double negative really is a feature of a dialect. Suppose someone says to you: “He ain’t no fool.” You have two recourses: (A) you can scold her for using “ain’t,” which ain’t a word, and you can slap her again for saying that he ain’t no fool, which clearly, in the terms of symbolic logic, must mean that he is a fool, the opposite of the intended meaning. (The intended meaning that somehow came through loud and clear, despite the dialect.) Or (B) you can understand the sentence and answer in whatever way the subject’s degree of foolishness might require.

Now suppose someone says to you: “Il n’est pas un sot.” Again, there are several things you can say.

  1. “Hop off, frog.”
  2. “Je crois quand même qu’il est vraiment un sot!”
  3. “Huh?”
  4. “I’m sorry, but ’sot’ isn’t a word. In fact, none of your words are words. And by using a double negative – both ‘ne’ and ‘pas’ in the same verb phrase – you’ve inadvertently said ‘He is not a fool, not,’ which means that he is a fool. You need to study critical thinking.”

I’d probably say (3) in real life, and think of (2) later that night while I was falling asleep. (1) might cause an international incident, so that’s out. But (4) is hilariously absurd. Nobody corrects someone else for using their own language. You may hate the idea of escargot; you may still be calling your frites “Freedom Fries”; but even so, the French have a right to their own language, don’t they?

The people we don’t think have a right to their own language are people who speak our own differently from the way we do. Nobody’s embarrassed by cousin René when he starts speaking French, or even speaking English with that killer accent of his. But we’re embarrassed all the time by the way cousin Larry speaks: by his nonstandard syntax (even if it’s the syntax of Shakespeare); by his nonstandard vocabulary; by his regional accent (even when he’s speaking perfectly standard English in that accent).

“Non-standard” dialects of English are complete languages in the way that French is a complete language; regional accents are complete phonologies in the way that standard French is a complete phonology. It ain’t lazy or stupid to talk the way my grandfather talked, it’s plain different. Yet we disparage dialects, often in terms as seething and tendentious as those Acocella uses to disparage Hitchings’ arguments.

Why should that be? It’s essentially a social-class prejudice; as Bernard Shaw put it, “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him,” and so for Americans and Australians and Irish people, for any in-group fractured into smaller in-groups. We are more inclined to despise the language use of our fellow Americans the closer it is to our own; such situations make us more anxious. Hence Bill Cosby’s beef with Black English:

You used to talk a certain way on the corner and you got into the house and switched to English. Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can’t land a plane with “why you ain’t…”

Hence the way my Slovak grandmother would despise other immigrant families in Chicago: not for speaking Slovak or Polish, in which she was fluent herself, but for speaking with accents, and displaying incomplete mastery of standard English inflections. “Listen to him!” she would say. “‘I was borned here.‘ He was born here, and he can’t even say ‘I was born here!’”

Obviously there is such a thing as incomplete knowledge of a language: just listen to me trying to speak anything but English, and you will get a vivid demonstration. But there are also people who move between or among the internally-coherent dialects of English with ease, and there are those who seem trapped within a certain dialect, never really mastering another. The former, the “code-switchers” as linguists call them, may owe their code-switching to innate ability, combined with accidents of birth and upbringing. The latter, however, monodialectal as well as monolingual, may be just as intelligent, just as capable of problem-solving, moral behavior, and philosophical meditation as those who move freely. It’s just that – to borrow Bill Cosby’s terms – they talk the same way on the corner as they talk in the house.

The pedagogical implications of these principles will have to wait for another blog post. But one thing is clear about what my colleague Jackie Stodnick calls “language-land”: it is a beautiful place, full of fluent speakers. It only starts to be ugly when we don’t perceive fluent speakers of dialects to be as intelligent, or as morally competent, as speakers of whatever currently passes for the standard in our language.

Published in:Tim Morris |on May 21st, 2012 |No Comments »

The Rules of Language

A desperately confused book review by Joan Acocella has touched off a flurry of corrective reactions from the online linguistics community, including two excellent posts by Mark Liberman at the blog Language Log. Acocella’s confusion is rooted in an inability to distinguish two meanings of the word “rule.” She goes ballistic over the fact that linguists disparage prescriptive usage rules, but at the same time insist that languages are structured by rules. Hypocrites!

I’ll use an analogy that I use in class. I stole it (with modifications) from Steven Pinker, but I’m not ashamed, because he probably stole it from somebody else.

The rules of language come in two varieties, like laws. You can break the laws of New York City, but you can’t break the laws of physics.

Think about this sentence: “You can’t turn right on red in New York City.” In one sense this is true. If you turn right on red in the Five Boroughs, the NYPD is empowered to write you a ticket. But in another sense, it’s absurd. You certainly can turn right on red in New York. I’ve seen it done hundreds of times – when the NYPD didn’t see it.

Now think of this sentence: “You can’t turn downwards in New York City, burrow through the pavement, and drive on subway tracks.” I think we can say with some confidence that you really can’t do that, except in a science-fiction movie. Cars can’t penetrate asphalt, at least not more than an inch or two, before they’re compelled to stop.

(Now, you might say that I’ve broken the rules for modal verbs in my examples. But that’s just a smaller example of my point. Everybody says “you can’t” when they mean “you may not,” just as everybody says “they” when they mean “he or she,” and just as they say “the White House” when they mean President Obama, or “It’s just what I needed” when their Aunt Melva gives them a crocheted toilet-roll cover for Christmas. Everybody understands what everybody else means extremely well in each of these linguistic situations.)

There’s a certain type of linguistic rule that you definitely can break, in the same way that you can turn right on red in New York. My neighbor broke several of these linguistic traffic laws yesterday in the course of explaining the deficiencies of the existing shelving in his wife’s sewing room.

“She cain’t do nothin’ with them shelves of hers,” he confided to me.

Where do I begin. My neighbor used /e/ in the word “can’t” instead of /æ/. He used /n/ at the end of “nothing” instead of /ŋ/. He used the dreaded “double negative” – “can’t do nothing” – which some would insist works out to a single positive. He used “them” as a determiner in the noun phrase “them shelves,” instead of saying “those shelves.” And he used the pleonastic, periphrastic genitive “of hers,” instead of merely saying “her shelves.”

So what did I say in reply? “Please rephrase! I cannot understand your faulty grammar and phonetics!” Well, no. I said “That’s a shame.” Because after all, she coul’n't do nothin’ with them shelves.

My neighbor executed a possible but proscribed sentence in my hearing, analogous to a cabbie making a flawless right turn on red in front of me at 37th and Madison. I understood exactly what he was doing, and though I could have written him a linguistic ticket, I surely did not. To do so would have been to act like a grammar cop, and a particularly nasty cop at that, perhaps driven by a need to meet my quota of usage tickets. More importantly, to correct his “grammar” would have been to kill our neighborly relations. I would have underscored that I have an Ivy League PhD in English and that his terminal degree is a diploma from a Texas public high school. Not to mention the facts that (1) I damn well enough understood what he said; (2) my own grandparents, and I myself when I’m relaxed, woul’n't of said it different; and (3) he’s a hell of a lot more competent to fix a shelf than I am.

But what if my neighbor had defied the linguistic laws of physics? What if he’d said

“Do she shelves those with anything not can.”

I would (A) have stared at him amazed; and (B) dialled 911, because he was obviously having a stroke.

“Do she shelves those with anything not can” is a totally impossible rearrangement of an otherwise standard English sentence. No English speaker has ever uttered it, unless in the furthest grips of neurological impairment. It breaks linguistic rules that lie deep within our brains.

And that’s what linguists mean by “the rules of language.” The rules that discourage people with Ivy League PhDs from saying “She cain’t do nothin’ with them shelves” are conscious, socially prescribed rules, much like rules of traffic, or fashion, or indeed of literary style. (In fact, in some works, “she cain’t do nothin’” might be great literary style.) The rules that prevent anyone at all from saying “Do she shelves those with anything” are unconscious, second-nature features of knowing a language.

Published in:Tim Morris |on May 14th, 2012 |2 Comments »

Literary Bicentenary: Robert Browning



Robert Browning was born on 7 May 1812; today is his 200th birthday.

Like many readers’, my first exposure to Browning was “My Last Duchess.” It is probably the most-orally-interpreted poem ever written, and for good reasons, despite its omnipresent familiarity.

Sir, ‘t was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace — all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least.

That’s Robert Browning in seven lines: indirection, allusiveness, verbal economy, dizzying facility with English rhyme and meter. That may be the first time anyone has ever associated “verbal economy” with Robert Browning, but I mean it in the sense that he typically packed an impressive range of meanings and ideas into few words. At the same time, he wrote countless words, so that his poems include vast stretches of hard going. Of his early long poem Sordello, he famously said late in life: “When I wrote that, God and I knew what it meant. Now only God knows.”

With his usual perverseness, Ezra Pound claimed that Sordello was a masterpiece. Most readers prefer Browning’s dramatic monologues: “Fra Lippo Lippi,” “Caliban upon Setebos,” “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church.” In these expansive, intricate poems, characters review their lives, offering realizations, rationalizations, obfuscations, and rueful observations – behaving, that is, much like real human beings, if real human beings could speak effortless blank verse. Effortlessness is the famous theme of “Andrea del Sarto”:

I do what many dream of all their lives,
—Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
And fail in doing. I could count twenty such
On twice your fingers, and not leave this town,
Who strive—you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,
Yet do much less.

Verse came so easily to Robert Browning that he may have feared the fate of Andrea del Sarto. But his achievements were massive and important. They culminated in The Ring and the Book, one of the great Victorian novels, almost unread today. It’s complicated, it has an obscure historical setting, its effects are operatic and grand, and it’s in verse: you can see why people read Dickens instead. But The Ring and the Book is a milestone of incipient postmodernism. Several observer-participants tell the story of a murder. They have different interests at stake, different memories, and different styles: where does the truth reside? Almost a century later, Rashomon would become shorthand for fictions dependent on the perspective of multiple observers – but Browning had figured out how to do the Rashomon thing on a grander scale, and long before.

Even while he was making a considerable living as a professional poet, and drawing critical acclaim, Robert Browning saw his literary reputation overtaken by his celebrity. When he and Elizabeth Barrett married in 1846, they became the Brangelina of the Victorian literary world. Barrett was the better-known poet then, would write at least one poem far more famous than any of her husband’s, and would, like him, write a great verse novel that nobody reads – or at least, nobody read Aurora Leigh for a long time, till feminist critics captivated by its themes and its sheer readability vaulted it past The Ring and the Book in reputation and canonicity. For much of the 20th century, though, the Brownings were known mainly from the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street and from mandatory memorization of “My Last Duchess” or “How do I love thee?



And from Max Beerbohm’s devastating cartoon of the long-widowed Robert “taking tea with the Browning Society.” The poet survived his wife by many years, writing the whole time, enjoying salon superstardom, but becoming less and less relevant to late-Victorian art and intellectual life. Robert struck his acquaintances as shallow and not all that smart – the contrast he posed to his extremely sharp poetry puzzled observers and led them to discount his intelligence. Henry James even wrote a story, “The Private Life,” about the discrepancy between Browning the person and Browning the poet. It’s not that either Browning ever quite became a joke, but that both, and their relationship, were sentimentalized out of significance. They were the kind of writers that, if you had unlimited money, you might build an incongruous shrine to in the middle of Texas. To love the Brownings, by the 1960s, was a sure sign of middlebrow aesthetic inertia.

And that’s a shame. It’s a shame now largely redeemed in the case of Elizabeth, who now figures as a major poet and major voice for feminist and progressive causes; but even that recuperation seems to cast a bit of shadow on her husband, whom we suspect was probably doing something to enmesh her in patriarchy. There’s little evidence for that – she wrote Aurora Leigh during their marriage – but there’s little evidence that Robert was as progressive as Elizabeth. He was no Thoreau; he wasn’t even George Eliot, for that matter. He was a writer with an incredible verbal gift, who had the even rarer gift of recognizing a “poetic moment” and conveying it with deft obliqueness. “Memorabilia” is perhaps the best example of this gift: a poem so slight that it can pass unnoticed, and once noticed, it seems to be unable to pay attention to what it’s about. But that’s only until you see that being unable to pay attention is the nature, and the minor-key tragedy, of an ephemeral existence. That minor tragedy has never been better evoked.

Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you?
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems, and new!

But you were living before that,
And you are living after,
And the memory I started at—
My starting moves your laughter!

I crossed a moor, with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
Yet a hand’s-breadth of it shines alone
‘Mid the blank miles round about:

For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside my breast
A moulted feather, an eagle-feather—
Well, I forget the rest.

Published in:Tim Morris |on May 7th, 2012 |1 Comment »

Literary Obituary: Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012


It’s an old-fashioned, an outrageous thing
To believe one has a “destiny”

— a thought often peculiar to those
who possess privilege —

but there is something else:   the faith
of those despised and endangered

that they are not merely the sum
of damages done to them

[Sources (1983)]

No short passage could sum up the vast and various intellectual work of poet/essayist Adrienne Rich, but that short piece from a long poem speaks to two important things about her. She was undeniably privileged, a child of east-coast Establishment ease and Radcliffe education, a Harvard faculty wife by her early 20s, author of tasteful poems that W.H. Auden praised in a pat-on-the-head way for “not telling fibs.” Nobody would have blamed her for hosting Cambridge cocktail parties for the rest of her long life.

Yet the choices she made, in the process of remaking herself personally and professionally again and again, did make her “despised and endangered,” and in no figurative sense. She left the Ivy League and the Seven Sisters behind, taking a teaching job in the radical open-access SEEK program of the City University of New York. She came out as a lesbian. She devoted almost a half-century to speaking out against misogyny, homophobia, racism, militarism, and anti-Semitism. In the process, she forged a kind of free-verse, long-sentence, highly rhetorical poetry that has been hugely influential on American verse. Her poems read like essays and her essays read like poems. All are topical and engagée; she called one of her volumes Leaflets because she saw no essential difference between poems and calls to action.

And, unashamedly, Adrienne Rich believed she had a “destiny”:

When I talk of taking a trip I mean forever.
I could say: those mountains have a meaning
but further than that I could not say.

To do something very common, in my own way.

["A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," 1971]

Somebody – it’s usually supposed to be Winston Churchill – once said that if you aren’t liberal when young you have no heart; if you aren’t conservative when older, you have no brain. Adrienne Rich, possessed of both, lived that trajectory in reverse. It’s not that her first few volumes of poems are especially reactionary, but they are decorous. Women’s half-lived lives feature in her books from the 1950s. One can imagine a poet retreating into half-silence after writing them, or flowering into madness (like Rich’s contemporaries Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton). Rich instead did “very common” practical things, addressing what needed addressing with directness and sanity.

And as Rich aged, she just got more progressive. All her obituaries cite her 1997 refusal of a National Medal of Arts, when she wrote President Clinton that “the very meaning of art as I understand it is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.” That’s the Clinton administration, mind you, the one so many progressives now look back on with nostalgia – the administration that Maya Angelou, no closet conservative, had memorably ushered in. But in Rich’s eyes, Clinton failed to pass a healthcare bill, dismantled welfare programs, capitulated on “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” waged drone wars against ill-specified enemies, and made a mess of the Kyoto environmental accords. In fact, one could argue that one of the Clinton Administration’s most progressive positions was its determination to honor Adrienne Rich. She wouldn’t help them out.

Many of Rich’s poems read like essays, I’ve said, and her essays are probably the most vital part of her literary legacy. In “When We Dead Awaken” (1971), she argued that

“Political” poetry by men remains stranded amid the struggles for power among male groups . . . The mood of isolation, self-pity, and self-imitation that pervades “nonpolitical” poetry suggests that a profound change in masculine consciousness will have to precede any new male poetic—or other—inspiration. The creative energy of patriarchy is fast running out; what remains is its self-generating energy for destruction. As women, we have our work cut out for us.

Forty years ago, poetry was seen by academic critics almost entirely in aestheticist terms. If it is now seen almost entirely in rhetorical and political terms, we owe that more to Adrienne Rich than to any other single critic.

Published in:Tim Morris |on March 29th, 2012 |4 Comments »

Literary Bicentenary: Charles Dickens

English Matters began with a 300th-birthday tribute to Samuel Johnson in 2009, and makes its belated-phoenix reappearance today to mark the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens on Tuesday 7 February.

Like Dr. Johnson, Charles Dickens is a huge figure in English studies, so large and various that it’s practically impossible to sum him up. You know an author is great when other great writers spend so much time dissing him. “Dickens knows Man but not men,” complained Henry James, a subtle distinction: basically, Dickens didn’t get out enough in the social circles that James yearned to dine in. Oscar Wilde snarked at The Old Curiosity Shop: “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” And what was Virginia Woolf implying when she said that George Eliot’s Middlemarch was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people?”

Among great English novelists, George Orwell most admired Dickens, but with qualifications: “Dickens is not a humbug, except in minor matters.” Orwell specifies lots of minor matters. However, he goes on to say that “the strongest single impression one carries away from his books is that of a hatred of tyranny.” Orwell was therefore fascinated and appalled by the images of (literal) class warfare in A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens, who hated injustices perpetrated by the rich and powerful, hated the savagery of the great revolution against the rich and powerful. Of course, one imagines that the leftist-crusading author of Animal Farm would be especially drawn to such a contradiction. But it points to an odd dynamic about Dickens: that his best-known novel is in some ways his least typical, and gives an impression of him as a kind of reactionary.

Is A Tale of Two Cities “written for grown-up people?” I read it in the 8th grade; it followed Silas Marner (7th grade) as the total of my middle-school exposure to Literature. I loved it; it’s all plot, and it offers gorgeous opportunities to read its final sentences in the voice of Ronald Colman. But as Jeff Daniels says in The Squid and the Whale, it’s “minor Dickens.” The major novels are the ones where he refracted the boundless pain and titanic energy of his own personality through a limitless set of characters. “After Shakespeare, God has created most,” said Alexandre Dumas père, but he was too busy creating a lot himself to keep up with the even greater creations of Dickens.

I read David Copperfield on my own even before the 8th grade, struggling through a world so unfamiliar to me as a child of 1960s America that I envisioned almost everything about it wrong, picturing Great Yarmouth as something like the Jersey Shore. (I even thought the Peggottys were black, which actually says a lot about parallels between race in America and class in Britain.) David Copperfield, like the earlier Oliver Twist, is a book about gentility in eclipse. David’s birthright has been lost in the shuffle, and he descends into an urban working class below which there is no obvious safety net. Orwell thought Dickens bourgeois, which he certainly was; Orwell remarks on how “it is questionable whether he really regards [the working class] as equals.”

Yet all of Dickens’s class squeamishnesses have to be seen as relative. In Anna Karenina, written well after Dickens’s death, Vronsky goes to the opera and muses

God knows who they were; the same dirty crowd in the gallery; and in all this crowd, in the boxes and front rows, there were about forty real men and women.

Perhaps Tolstoy is satirizing Vronsky’s own prejudices, but I doubt it. For Tolstoy, the middle class is barely human; society consists of a few aristocratic families and some rustic, idealized muzhiks. For Dickens, despite all the sentimentality, despite Tattycoram and Little Nell and Tiny Tim, every range of the middle class exists, and those trying to hang on and make a living against the odds exist most of all. The poor exist, and the homeless, and the mentally handicapped, and the impossibly pretentious, and the bullies, and the victims, and the ciphers. Everyone, in short, that you never hear about if you’d rather be reading Jane Austen :)

Great Expectations crystallizes the anxieties of class better than any other Dickens novel. If David is degraded by his time in the bottle warehouse, Pip is degraded by his own desire to leave the working class behind. Blacksmith Joe Gargery may be a caricature of the kind of “men” that Dickens really didn’t know any better than he knew Henry James’s minor nobility. But he’s a damn sight better person than Pip, and Pip knows it, and Pip can’t help despising Joe anyway, despite and because of Joe’s essential decency.

If English novelists have tended to look at Dickens with various attitudes fashioned from envy – disdain, embarrassment, indignation, condescension – writers in other countries have just wallowed in his influence. Mark Twain when young seems to have had a mancrush on Dickens, and it would be evident from his writing if he hadn’t admitted as much. Herman Melville shared Dickens’s histrionics, his panoply of characters, his tendency to lapse into blank verse. And many a European writer looked to Dickens, as earlier generations had looked to Walter Scott, as the pattern of what one could do in fiction. This includes Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (the latter’s range of social reference resembling Dickens’s as much as Tolstoy’s differed), Hugo and Zola, and perhaps most of all Proust. It may seem preposterous to connect Proust to Dickens, but in characterization and satire, Proust was a positive disciple. The “petit noyau” of the Verdurins, in Proust, is an homage to the Veneerings’ circle in Our Mutual Friend, and Proust’s habit of reducing minor characters to verbal or physical tics (think of the narrator’s aunts who talk to M. Swann only in recondite allusions) is a perfection of Dickens’s method.

When I was young, the distinguished Welsh actor Emlyn Williams came to New Jersey and gave a reading, in full dress and character as Charles Dickens, from Dickens’s works – much as the novelist used to do on continual speaking tours himself. Williams was by all accounts a frosty, inaccessible man; Dickens could strike people that way too. They were both larger than life, surrounded by myths and pretenses, anxieties and baggage. Without dropping a smidgen of character or a syllable of prose, Williams read his way through his pieces, leaving an effect of great technical mastery and considerable personal mystery. Dickens was apparently also like that. As a middle-aged celebrity of great wealth and unmatched fame, he would sometimes walk from his estate in Kent all the way to central London and wander the haunts of his childhood by dark, then walk back to Rochester by dawn. It’s impossible to know what drove him to create so much, and hard to empathize with him as a person. That’s OK: all you really have to do is read him with appropriate abandon.

Published in:Tim Morris |on February 5th, 2012 |3 Comments »

Literary Centenary: Margaret Wise Brown

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Margaret Wise Brown, one of the most distinguished American writers for very young children, was born on 23 May 1910, making this month her centenary. (She died in 1952.)

I was cruising past the impulse-buy section at a chain-bookstore checkout the other day, and I saw a display full of wallet-sized board-book editions of Brown’s Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny. These two books in particular seem so archetypal in our culture that one cannot imagine American childhood without them. Yet their ubiquity may be a recent phenomenon. I don’t remember Brown’s books from my childhood at all, though I remember them vividly from my son’s childhood. I sense that Brown’s restrained, low-key, asymmetrical work didn’t fit the frenetic 1960s and 70s, when highbrow early-reader poetry was strongly associated with the anarchism of Dr Seuss, the histrionics of Shel Silverstein, and the rampant nightmares of Maurice Sendak.

In such company, Brown came to seem staid, perhaps somewhat preppie. In Sendak’s Pierre (1962), a distraught family, trying to recover their possibly-eaten son, begin to hit a lion with a folding chair. Such things don’t happen in Margaret Wise Brown’s world. Her animals don’t get into a wild rumpus, or depose turtles sitting on top of them. In fact, the most famous of them is dead before the children in the story find it.

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That was the way animals got when they had been dead for some time — cold dead and stone still with no heart beating. . . . But they were glad they had found it, because now they could dig a grave in the woods and bury it. They could have a funeral and sing to it the way grown-up people did when someone died. (The Dead Bird, 1938)

In Dr Seuss’s Grinch Who Stole Christmas (1957), the story comes to a climax on Christmas morning with singing in the streets of Who-Ville. By contrast, Brown’s On Christmas Eve (1938) ends with singing too, but it’s a disembodied, impersonal caroling that children overhear from a distance.

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They went up the stairs almost running, only as quietly still as they could. And they jumped into bed with their clothes on. Their hearts were pounding.

And a page later, the story ends. Not only are Brown’s works devoid of manic energy, but they avoid a big crashing final chord as scrupulously as possible.

Yet her work is hardly without its energies. The implacable mother of The Runaway Bunny (1942) is based on a suitor in a Provençal love ballad, who figures himself as a hunter in pursuit of his beloved prey. And the great beauty of Goodnight Moon (1947) comes from its insistent, nearly obsessive use of the list. Seth Lerer asks, “what is Goodnight Moon but a catalogue of things: a list of properties both real and fanciful that mark the progress of the evening and the passageway to sleep?” (Children’s Literature, Chicago 2008, p. 5) “It is as though the very act of naming . . . belongings has the power to drive out loneliness and fear,” notes Leonard Marcus (Margaret Wise Brown, Boston 1992, p. 188).

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And somewhere along the line, during the Reagan years perhaps, when I wasn’t paying attention, those lonelinesses and fears overwhelmed enough American lives to make Brown a classic again, even to elide the years that her work spent overshadowed by a more energetic generation of writers for the very young.

Brown was decidedly patrician in her tastes and the circles she moved in. She dated Rockefellers and royalty, if Wikipedia can be believed. Yet she never married, and her only long-term relationship was with John Barrymore’s ex-wife Michael Strange. “She was reputed to have had a long term affair with a prominent New York attorney and with Michael Strang [sic],” says Brown’s official website, and if by “reputed” they mean “confirmed in her well-documented standard biography by Leonard Marcus,” that’s accurate – though Brown’s relationship with Strange was less an “affair” than what used to be called a “Boston marriage.” Imagine teaching Brown’s work in a Gay & Lesbian Literature course! Yet such is the opening of the American closet in the past half-century that one is hardly surprised to find Brown’s partnership with Strange matter-of-factly described on a website for the parents and teachers of young children.

Unsurprisingly, Brown idolized Gertrude Stein, who was a kind of mentor to her. And when one thinks of the loving repetition in Stein’s works, at once so stylized and so attuned to the spoken rhythms of American speech, one can see why. In Brown’s language, the simplest things take on the incantatory magic that Stein infused into her highbrow poetry for adults.

Goodnight comb
And goodnight brush

Goodnight nobody
Goodnight mush

And goodnight to the old lady whispering “hush”

Goodnight stars
Goodnight air

Goodnight noises everywhere

On that note, I must take my leave of English Matters. It’s been a wonderful year. I am not being dismissed for snark, or retiring, or lighting out for the Territory. But in the words of our blogmeister, Professor Stodnick, doing a biweekly column here is “kicking my butt.” I will remain a faithful reader and Facebook linker of English Matters, and I look forward to posting many a fractious comment :)

Published in:Tim Morris |on May 7th, 2010 |4 Comments »

Friday Cat-Blogging

Friday cat-blogging, as an Internet phenomenon, was invented by Kevin Drum, late of Calpundit and Washington Monthly, and currently of Mother Jones.

(As a pre-Internet phenomenon, cat blogging appears to have been invented by cave painters in Stone Age France

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though the Romans have a certain claim to being the first cat-bloggers

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and by the Middle Ages, the practice was firmly established.)

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Anyway, Kevin Drum, a center/left blogger who has long been my favorite for his noninflammatory style and views just to the right of mine (which means I can digest them easily and still feel self-importantly superior to him), abandons his short-form commentary on politics every Friday to post . . . pictures of his cats. With commentary on their lovable peculiarities.

On Fridays, about 98% of the globe’s bandwidth is consumed by cat-bloggers posting photos of Missy, Dropsy, Fandango, Elspeth, and Crinkles. The uninitiated may find this a little off-putting, not to say actively nauseating. Although dogs have pride of place in the literary world (from Albert Payson Terhune and Jack London to J.R. Ackerley and Willie Morris), and there has been the occasional high-verbal dog with a blog, cats are by far the electronic animal of choice.

And I mean, really, what would be the point of a Loldog? They would all look the same. I SEZ WALK ME NOW. This would be even more tiresome than lolcats themselves.

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Cats lend themselves to blogging because

  • they never do the same thing twice
  • they occasionally sit still enough while awake to be photographed
  • they are easily anthropomorphized
  • they can be ascribed human language in print, as well as given voice by their owners in falsetto broken English when we think there’s nobody else listening

So here goes. Now, I must admit to violating one of the cardinal rules of Friday cat-blogging: you are supposed to stop everything and take pictures of your cats on that very Friday. Well, this cannot be done. I have a job and a life – not much of a job, granted, but I can’t stay at home and snap the cats. I have baseball boxscores to check, Facebook news to ponder, and crossword puzzles to print, so I really have got to get into the office. So I present archival photos of the Cats, in typical poses:

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Gemma has no memory, short- or long-term, and is continually surprised to find that people and other cats exist. She is one of the few world cats who will not eat any kind of canned food, even Fancy Feast Appetizers, which frankly look a lot better than most of the stuff I eat. If you have found pawprints on a manuscript I have returned to you in the past year, they belong to Gemma.

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Brutie patrols the place from various vantage points, preferably flowerpots or the roofs of automobiles. He will not sit on your lap or come when called; instead he follows a vocation as guard cat.

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And Gobsy bats the others out of the way so she can sit on my lap. She can eat anything without throwing up and is anywhere from 10 to 12 years old. I wish to apologize publicly for stepping on her tail last summer “on accident,” as unlike Gemma she has a memory and has never quite forgiven me.

And what does this have to do with the discipline of English? Clearly, if you’re wondering that, you have not internalized the principles of cat-blogging. It is a completely hermetic phenomenon that has nothing to do with anything but itself – not unlike a cat.

Published in:Tim Morris |on April 16th, 2010 |5 Comments »

Tier One Comes to UTA

I got a phone call this morning from my friend Chaim Knott, Executive Associate Vice Provost for K-20 Initiatives here at UTA.

“Hey Tim,” said Chaim. “I really can’t talk right now.”

“You called me, Chaim. What’s up?” I said.

“Can I tell you something in confidence?” asked Chaim.

“Of course not,” I said. “I’m a blogger. Anything you tell me will be lunchtime reading across the globe later today.”

“Well, I guess I’ll just have to trust you,” said Chaim. “UTA is on the brink of a major new Tier One thrust. But the name is too simple, so I wanted to get some verbiage from you. We’re calling it Improving Education.”

“Way too simple,” I said. “Try Value-Added Intrapersonal Enhancement.”

“Man, you the wordsmith,” said Chaim. “That’s why I call you.”

“But what’s it all about, Chaim?” I asked.

“Well, keep this under your hat,” said Chaim. “But here’s the deal. First, we’re going to require a foreign language for every bachelor’s degree. Not just because of the global economy, but because being multilingual makes you a better world citizen and a more truly cultured human being. We have to pay more than lip service to the liberal arts if we want to be Tier One.”

“L’esprit est prompt, mais la chair est faible, Chaim.”

“Huh? No comprendo, dude-o. Anyway, next, we’re going to make class sizes a lot smaller.”

“What’s up with that, Chaim? Everyone from my Dean to the Chronicle of Higher Education tells me that bigger classes actually improve learning.”

“Uh-huh. Which is why they try to recruit kids to Dartmouth and Reed College and Bryn Mawr by advertising gigantic freshman sections? Listen, Tim. We’re going to cap basic literature, math, government, and history classes at 20 students, so the professor knows every student’s name and can give extra help on everything.”

“Sounds good. But that’s for F2F classes, right? You’ll still offer unlimited on-line sections.”

“No, we’re eliminating distance ed.”

“Eliminating it? But Chaim, distance ed is the vibrant new delivery system for the 21st century. It’s the way Generation Z has learned how to learn.”

“You believe that banana oil, Tim? Distance ed is about cutting costs, not about better instruction. I saw an on-line chemistry course the other day that was made up of Facebook Quizzes. You really think kids learn anything from “What Kind of Hydrocarbon Chain Are You?”

“You’re going to need a lot of new faculty to teach those sections, Chaim.”

“And we’ve got to pay them accordingly. What does UTA pay full-time Lecturers in English right now, Tim?”

“$22,500 a year. But Senior Lecturers with a Ph.D. plus ten years’ experience can make up to $38,000.”

“Let’s see, let’s see . . . Fort Worth ISD pays entry-level kindergarten teachers $46,570. I figure we should top that by 10%. How does $51,227 sound?”

“Sounds like what I was making when I got promoted to Full Professor.”

“Cool.”

“But how are you going to fund this, Chaim?”

“I thought you’d ask that. Number one, we’re going to cancel the annual redesign of the UTA logo. That’ll pick up $83K a year.”

“But there are so many ways to write the letter A that you haven’t tried out yet!”

“Funny. Next, we’re going to realize huge savings from sustainability initiatives.”

“But Chaim, UTA already has a sustainability program. We even have a sustainability blog.”

“Tim, blogs are for whiny, powerless losers. We’re talking actually doing something here. First, we’re going to xeriscape the campus, so we stop pumping water out of 10,000 sprinkler heads when the Shorthorn headline is TOO RAINY TO PLAY OOZEBALL. Then, we’re going to rip up the heat-trapping new blacktop in Lot 49 and replace it with a green-roofed parking garage. And we’re going to plaster the top of the new basketball stadium with solar panels so it can go off the grid.”

“You mean the new Events Center.”

“Events Shmevents. That place is for March Madness, baby. And since Texas Hall won’t be needed for hoops anymore, we’re going to turn it into an art-house movie theater, so you won’t need to drive to Dallas to watch something better than Paul Blart 2. And we are also going to follow up 40 years of empty talk by revitalizing downtown Arlington, maybe even attract a Seven-Eleven.”

“That’s going to need even more cash, Chaim.”

“We’ve got it covered. Jerry Jones is donating a drop of sweat shed by Roger Staubach in Super Bowl VI. Vials of that stuff have been going for seven figures on eBay. Hey, my Droid is freeping at me, sweetheart. TTYL.”

You read it here first.

Published in:Tim Morris |on April 1st, 2010 |2 Comments »

Publish or Publish

In a recent essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, David Alpaugh bewails the proliferation of poetry in America. He notes that, at a conservative estimate, American journals, print or on-line, will publish 100,000 poems this year, and that’s a bit much. Like, about 99,900 poems much.

My first reaction to Alpaugh’s thesis was: OK, let’s also crack down on the millions of Americans who play musical instruments. Some of them really should be stopped. And while we’re at it, there are way more than 100,000 Americans painting in watercolors or tempera or oils. Surely they could do with a little reining in.

But Alpaugh isn’t steamed about people merely practicing an art.

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Like golf, poetry is becoming a sport that multitudes pursue and enjoy—and if it were simply a matter of more and more men and women writing poetry, I would be cheering. . . . Exercising language at its highest level is an absolute good, and (Plato be damned) in an ideal society everyone would write poetry.

But there’s a difference between writing and publishing. Golf, after all, has an agreed-upon scoring system that lets every player know his or her standing, stroke by stroke, game by game. Mediocre amateurs cannot deceive themselves (or be assured by pros) that they are contenders.

And that, for Alpaugh, is the rub. Lots of poetry = good. Lots of poetry getting published = very, very bad.

Alpaugh is anxious about bad stuff getting published, good stuff getting lost in the welter of bad stuff, and the impossibility of sorting the good from the bad. At the heart of his anxiety is the notion that getting a poem published should be like breaking 80 from the championship tees. After all, when you pick up a publication, you are reading something published, and “published” implies a certain hallmark of quality, like the gallo nero on a bottle of Chianti.

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People take the notion of “being published” very, very seriously indeed. Several times a month, I get a phone call from some prospective graduate student who confides that they “are published.” They suggest an aura somewhere between being “a made guy” and being “washed in the blood of the Lamb.” Personal investment in the mystique of publication is tremendous. Publishing just any old thing, we feel, would be like giving the Congressional Medal of Honor to anybody who shows up at a recruiting office.

It’s easy for me to snark, because, after all, I too am published. It’s true: every morning, I rise, admire the publications on my bookshelf, and then scrape up $1.89 for a Tall Decaf. I don’t mean to mock writers’ ambitions, or editors’ dreams, or readers’ appreciation of published writing. I just think that every writer and reader, from David Alpaugh to the most print-thirsty novice in a neighborhood writers’ group, should get a little perspective on the issue. And so, I’ll propose a principle that might make everyone less anxious:

Publication Does Not Guarantee, and Has Never Guaranteed, That a Piece of Writing Is Any Good. Even aside from the vexed question of telling what’s good from what’s bad. Let’s say we can. Fact is, bad poetry has been published ever since some stonemason gave in to nagging and carved his brother-in-law’s fan-fiction sequel to Gilgamesh onto a temple wall. Bad poetry filled the bookstalls of Elizabethan London and the salons of the Sun King and the chapbooks of Beat-Generation San Francisco.

Take The New Yorker, synonymous in the U.S. with literary “publication,” because it is the only magazine on most newsstands that publishes poetry and stories (as against 50 magazines that advise how to publish poetry and stories). Well, here’s an open secret: the poetry in The New Yorker has always been bad. Not that a good poem has never appeared there – what would be the odds of that – but that nearly every poem there is bad. There have been whole identifiable eras in the badness of New Yorker poetry, from the 1980s/90s “Dull poem that mentions a summer resort that Upper-East-Siders frequent” era to the current “Drab poem that self-consciously mentions something plebian” era.

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It is OK to say things like this, by the way. It’s not sourly grapish. Even if you’ve gotten six or eight rejections from The New Yorker. It’s even OK to knock New Yorker poems if you can’t produce a line of poetry yourself. As Samuel Johnson pointed out, “You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table.” You may even scold the magazine that features it as Table of the Year. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. The world is not falling apart because the most prestigious American magazine publishes bad poetry.

If we step back a bit from the fetish of being “published,” we can perhaps be more sanguine about the fact that 100,000 poems are published each year. Very many of them are bad. No appreciably higher percentage of the ones that appear in prestige venues are good than those that appear wherever, and that’s been the case forever. Poems are not chosen for publication because of any replicable standard of quality. Poems get into print because editors, with widely different subjectivities and attention spans, actually like them, or just have pages to fill, or are inveigled by their authors’ names, their provenance, the pretty stamps on their return envelopes, who knows. Some of these poems are good, and due to their sheer volume, perhaps more of them are good today than ever before.

Which brings us to another of Alpaugh’s fears: how can we know which ones are good? The world of American poetry is a lot more decentered than it was 50, 100, or 150 years ago. But that’s another post, perhaps, and another principle to discover.

Published in:Tim Morris |on March 11th, 2010 |3 Comments »