Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Langston Hughes

So, in reading Hughes and studying the Harlem Renaissance and the African American experience in early part of the 20th century, I couldn't stop thinking of this song, so that's gonna be my post tonight.

Strange Fruit

James Wheldon Johnson

In reading these poems, I was struck by the role of gospel music their structure. The rhythm and scheme, while not beholden to the musical genre, definitely played an influential role. This was reflected, I felt, in both of the poems that I read. The theme of self-pride and racial consciousness runs strong through these poems. I thought that in comparison, the poems were very different, though, with one describing the power of a humble and oppressed people to overcome the obstacles set before them through an internal belief; and the other a warning against succumbing to the temptations of the oppressor. One had positive connotations, the other negative.
I enjoyed seeing the juxtaposition of imagery between the two poems, with the positive reinforcement of ideals in “O Black and Unknown Bard” reversed in “The White Witch.” The idea of weakness is also reversed between the two poems. In the former, the weak are shown to have inner strength which allows them to overcome the evils and perils of their oppressors. The same relationship exists in the latter poem, with the black race subdued and oppressed by whites, though it appears differently. In the first, the enslaver is straightforward and evil, and in the latter is cunning and duplicitous. In the former, the inner strength allows the oppressed to regain their humanity and freedom, and in the latter the only option is to avoid contact and seduction.
In the first of these poems, Johnson seems to say that it doesn’t matter what white society does, that African Americans will be successful because of their inner strength, then undercuts that message in the latter poem by presenting the lures of white women as irresistible and to be avoided. These two poems definitely feel like a mixed message to me, and I look forward to discussing Johnson’s intent in them.

"Angry" Claude McKay

Claude McKay
I really enjoyed reading McKay’s sonnets in these selections on self-empowerment. The thing that I was most taken-aback by in reading these poems was how little the message that I found matched the communist ideology associated with the author. In much of my readings on McKay, it is clearly established that he was an ardent communist (even travelling to the Soviet Union), yet it seems that his message is one of separatism rather than unity.
In “The Negro’s Tragedy,” McKay rejects the idea that a white person could comprehend the plight of the African American people (which I agree with, although it is important to try to understand). He rejects the idea, quite rightly, that white people know best how African Americans should live, act, and be amalgamated into society. This poem is clearly a rejection of hierarchy, but then goes so far as to almost advocate keeping racial matters separate. Wasn’t the communist platform based on equality? Beyond this, the final couplet reduces the political movement, and all political movements towards equality, by dismissing their abilities to achieve results. This poem seems to me more of a criticism of the communist political movement than advocacy of it.
The other poem in the selection is even more severe in its criticism of the white power structure and seems even less like a call for equality. This poem seems to be a wake-up call to African Americans not to be satisfied with what any white person would hand them (which was wise), but rather to find their own expectations and achieve them. A difficult and angry poem, to be sure, and just as unrepresentative of the communist party, and far more dismissive of white attempts to assist with civil rights.
Sorry to keep rambling on about communism in my review, but I really expected communist and socialist themes to be far more prevalent in these poems.

The Ethics of Living Jim Crow – Richard Wright

I thought that this was a thoughtful and provoking piece. As I read through, I thought of how Wright’s perspective both changed and stayed the same. In the first section, I felt the speaker’s innocence and how shocking the brutality of the lesson was; yet later, in the optics lab, he seemed almost prepared for the attack. I enjoyed (not really the right word, is it?) to see Wright’s maturation as he progressed through the lessons. I liked that the lessons became more and more specific throughout the sections, from very general rules to very specific behavioral regulations.

It was also interesting to see the ways in which he never progressed. The most glaring is the fact that he never stopped resenting his treatment by whites any point. He learned to play along, but never buy in to the lie. One manner in which I was surprised to see him never progress was how he never reflected upon the conflicting rules that he faced yet made clear his awareness of this. Such was the case with Morrie and Pease. While he was faced with a Catch-22 situation, he never directly judged the men who forced him into the situation and beat him, yet he never speaks of either of them as “Mr.” in his narrative. Throughout the story, he never gloats on the vileness of the white peoples’ behavior, and rather presents it in a matter-of-fact method, which made it all the crueler to me.

The end of the passage was also very significant to me, as Wright exposes the power which allows for the racism to continue. If it wasn’t for the power structure which allowed this type of behavior to exist, it wouldn’t. It speaks volumes because the civil rights movement finally found success when the government and powers that be finally confronted racism.

Zora Neale Hurston – Sweat!

What I was struck by in this story was the use of the vernacular dialogue juxtaposed with standard language during the narrative. I most enjoyed coming across the large and strange terms that seemed so out of place in the story and trying to determine what they were meant to express. My favorite of these terms was “eppizudicks.” Obviously some sort of heat-borne fatigue, cured only by chilled watermelon in the summer, I believe that I may have had several cases myself…maybe I should see a doctor…or a that guy that sells melons out of his truck in front of Los Compadres.
Another term that I thoroughly enjoyed was “asterperious” which, according to ever-reliable internet is portraying a superior attitude from a subordinate position. This makes sense in the context of the story, but it is still indecipherable that it is Syke who says it. I feel that this one word, as spoken by Syke, really encapsulates the relationship between him and Delia: Syke’s feelings of inferiority as a man trying to overpower his wife by expressing himself in an over-the-top manner.
Aside from the language, I also enjoyed the roles of the characters, with Delia as the strong, independent woman bearing the burden for the family under the oppression of her husband. Reading this story reminded me of an interesting movie I once saw from New Zealand (no…not that one). The film was called Once Were Warriors and was about the family of a woman descended from the Maori and her husband of slave ancestry. The movie was ultimately about redemption through ancestry; however it featured many similarly unpleasant familial strife (and a whole lot more). At any rate, I love stories where people get what they deserve. Delia certainly deserved to be free of that man.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Duality and T.S. Eliot

My current roommate has never read Eliot (much different from my previous roommate, who gave the greatest two-hour drunken lecture on Prufrock ever – seriously, it was pretty amazing), so I decided to read these poems to him. I am a fan of Eliot for a very specific reason: Tiresias, the blind seer of Greek myths. Tiresias is duality incarnate, and it is this idea of duality that pervades Eliot’s work. Though the only mention of him is in section three of “The Waste Lands,” he can be seen as the voice of many of Eliot’s poems, including “The Hollow Men.” But it is the idea of duality that I want to speak of here, as this was what my roommate and I discussed after I read these poems aloud for him, everything from whether he was an English or America poet to, well to whatever...
Prufrock is clearly defined by duality: an urbane man of society realizing the superficiality of his life and desiring a simple, honest life. A man consumed by regret, wishing rather to be the lowliest beast at the bottom of a dead sea than the man he is. A man who comes to terms with his foolishness and the hollowness of his life’s journey. This poem is about failure.
On the other hand, I very much enjoyed reading “Journey of the Magi,” which a much more positive duality of character. Written in the same year that Eliot turned to reflect on more religious themes, such as in his Murder in the Cathedral, this poem examines the duality of a moral life. In this poem, the Magi face great conflict in their journey to Bethlehem to take part in the birth of Christ. Yet, upon returning to their homelands, they find that great conflict still awaits them, as they have been transformed by this event, yet their peoples have not been converted.
It is the duality in self that interests me about these poems: the idea of the self as something in transition. In one case, the opportunity to transition to something else is rejected in favor of outlandish aquatic sentience; in the other, it is embraced. As Prufrock was one of Eliot’s first poems, I am always reminded when reading it of how he must have felt as he wrote, in his Four Quartets, “In my beginning is my end.” This statement stood out to me when first studying Eliot in any depth, and I am reminded of it now fifteen years later, and I can only remember the regrets that I’ve had over those years and how they’ve shaped my life. I wonder, is it ever too late to act upon our long-held regrets and change our lives? Will I, one day, be Prufrock, and hate who I have become? I don’t regret at all who I am today, but before Prufrock was balding, neither did he.

Wallace Stevens

This was the first I’ve read of Stevens, and I have to admit that I’m somewhat baffled by “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” The themes that I associate with it now are tied directly with “Study of Two Pears,” in that I feel that the individual’s ideas of reality and perception play a significant role. As a Modernist poet, I understand his idea that a poem should stand for itself rather than the author’s intent to convey a message, yet I had a difficult time understanding it’s significance.
In “Study of Two Pears,” I could clearly see the conflict between reality and perception of reality through his descriptions of the pear, particularly in stanza V, in which he describes the yellow color as made up of many others. This stanza in particular reminded me of a fascinating self-portrait from an artist whose name escapes me but that I spent many hours looking at when I worked as a security guard at the GMOA years ago. I recall so much about the portrait, a gray-haired artist with pale skin against a blue field, yet, when you approached the painting there was no gray in his hair, but rather a spattering of the rainbow that when seen from a distance appeared gray. It was amazing to see blues, yellows, greens – all the colors of the rainbow – ultimately creating gray. The best part of that painting, though, was that the frame – handmade by the artist from some old artifact – was more valuable than the painting itself. For me it encapsulated the conflict between reality and perception of this poem.
When I returned again to “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” my mind was in a different place, and I hoped that would allow my perception of the poem to expand into more, yet I still feel lost when reading it. Perhaps that is the poem’s intent, for in the opening stanzas, I can see the conflict and resolution between the singular, the trinity, and the joined unity. Perhaps it is the mind “whirled in the autumn winds,” but is that a lie, an act, a “pantomime?” Do I prefer the message to be direct or implied? Again, my mind swings “to and fro” in questioning the question. What are the golden birds, a false promise that frees the individual of thought? Could this be the church, the trinity mentioned earlier, as a means of escaping thinking for one’s self? Or is it physical beauty that they seek when only the beauty of the mind is significant? How much of my persona is driven by the questions I have about the questions I have about the questions I have? When I’ve been just out of my head and crazy as can be (as we’ve all been – okay, maybe not you), how close to the edge of my reality did I get? When I realize something new and my perception of past things changes, how does my mind cope? Okay, I just really don’t get the next stanza at all (I’ve actually written this about six times and deleted it every time, but this time, I really don’t get it). Thought is always moving, the mind is always aloft, pondering the reality around it. Finally: conflict…and dissonance… and the reality of the mind.
In closing, after reading back what I’ve just written, how much of this poem is driven by Freud’s theories, popular at the time? So much of this now seems to reflect the conflict between the ego, id, and superego within one mind – the trinity united. I really enjoyed reading these poems and look forward to discussing them with the class, but I really have no foundation yet to comprehend them at the level they deserve.

Passages through Frost

I haven’t read Robert Frost in years, and as I went through these poems, so much came back to me: nature and death. But what really struck me was how, in all of his poems, everything is in transition. Everything is passing through the world, through time, through states of being; and these passages that stood out to me. In “The Gift Outright,” Frost details the passage of the nation into being, into life granted by the land through the will of the people. The passage of the seasons and lives in “Two Tramps in Mud Time” speaks to this as well. The passing of the burning of the house into a ruin in “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things” clearly speaks to a symbol of death, as do many of the other poems; and it is this passage, through death and into life, upon which I found Frost to be focused.
This transition into death and back into life can be seen throughout Frost’s poetry, such as in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” in which he meditates his death before continuing on. Frost also meditates on death in nature in “Gathering Leaves,” though he allows the reader to pass through this death in nature in the final stanza, in which he presents a notion that death is necessary for life, symbolized by using the dead leaves to keep the earth fertile for the next harvest. He also references the Myth of Sisyphus in this poem, by referring to the futility and endless nature of his toil. The idea of work comes up again in “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” as the speaker feels that the nobility of his toil is worth more than money, and that the satisfaction he finds is heavenly.
It is ultimately this poem that I found most fascinating, in that it mirrors so closely Bede’s “Account of the Conversion of Edwin.” In this old poem, Edwin’s counselor uses a story of a bird escaping a hailstorm as a symbol of man’s ascent into heaven and thus converts Edwin to Christianity. What is significant about Bede’s tale is that birds in Anglo-Saxon life were seen as the carriers of souls into the afterlife, particularly in battle-poetry, when they are often presented as feasting on the bodies of fallen warriors. This blending of the sacred and profane, of using pagan symbols to reflect holy beliefs, occurs in “Two Tramps in Mud Time” as well.
As the poem begins, Frost is speaking of mundane labor and treats his act of splitting wood as difficult. However, in the third stanza, the poem transitions into something different, as Frost begins speaking of the weather and of the threats of cold and storms (the hail storm). Frost then continues on into the bird symbol, to which he states, “Except in color he isn’t blue,” showing that his expectation is that in death there is happiness. The next stanza speaks to his fear of the moment of death, as the ice forms in the water. Then, as he returns to the wood splitting, he has a revelation of his own self and being and life and what once was a labor becomes a joy. In the final stanzas, Frost seems to debate the meaning of work in life and the redemption of labor and a job well done.
Anyway, I don’t know if any of this holds any water, it’s just what I thought of as I went through these poems.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Hemingway and Faulkner

I appreciate the opportunity to read these two authors in tandem, for rarely do I get to see such dramatically different styles juxtaposed against each other so vibrantly. In Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” short sentences stand out in a staccato back-and-forth pace with no description given by the author. Hemingway leaves the emotion and mood of the scene to be established by the statements of the characters with no stage directions as to how each sounded. The only context he provides to the scene is through the backdrop and landscape of a remote train stop.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this short story surrounds that train stop. While the challenge that the couple in the story faces is never stated, the decision they will eventually reach (outside the confines of the story) will impact their lifestyle in years to come. The choices before them, represented by the two rail lines, are at a head, and they disagree with what path they should take. What I felt was most intriguing about the train station was that it is presented in a very lonesome and isolated manner, imagined alone in a vast empty desert only connected to civilization by those two tracks. Yet upon examination it is clearly a bustling center, including a well stocked bar (complete with liquor company advertising) and it fills up as the train’s arrival time nears. Perhaps this isn’t a bustling station, but it is far from the isolated outpost at the edge of the frontier that it is first presented as. The isolation one feels in the story, then, is between the couple at its heart and the decision between them. Of course, as in so many of Hemingway’s stories, so much is left to the reader that this can only be considered speculation.

It is the minimalism in Hemingway’s tale that makes Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” stand out in comparison. Faulkner has divided this short inspection of the deterioration of a woman’s life and the deviant behavior to which she turns into a collection of anecdotes adding up to a full tale. Faulkner spends much more time examining the nuances and disparities in Emily’s life from the view of her neighbors, judging her from the outside. This external view of the story is far different from the intimacy of Hemingway’s story, in which the topic of discussion is kept private even from the reader. Rather, Faulkner has laid bare all of Emily’s actions and missteps through life and allowed for those through whom he is telling the story to lay judgment on her.

This difference in perspective is perhaps best seen in the fact that Hemingway allows the reader to see very fully one intimate moment in the lives of his couple, in which no past or future can or should be taken into account, and the words and events occur only when they spill from the characters themselves. Faulkner, on the other hand, carefully concocts of Emily’s life events and cleverly plays them out in a disorderly fashion for dramatic effect, each event leading to one earlier, or perhaps later, and ultimately leaving the reader with the emotions that he put into the tale, rather than their own.