Wednesday, June 08, 2016

A particular species of ruthless cunning: Baldwin's Proudhammer resisting the draft

These lines from James Baldwin's Tell Me How Long The Train's Been Gone reminded me of the quotations from Muhammad Ali about his draft resistance that went around after his death. The speaker is Baldwin's narrator, Leo Proudhammer:
I did not refuse to join the Army, but outwitted it by a particular species of ruthless cunning. I was — I say now — prepared to go to jail. The Japanese had already been interned. I was not going to fight for the people who had interned them, who had also destroyed the Indians, who were in the process of destroying everyone I loved: I was not going to defend my murderers. Yet, when my moment came, I did not say any of that. I arrived at the Harlem draft-board with several books under my arm. I deliberately arrived a little late. I pretended that I had just come from the library. I said that I as the only support of my aging parents, and, in fact, I had had the foresight to be working in a shipyard, foresight or luck, it's hard to say now, I've held so many jobs for so many reasons. Anyway, I think I gave a great performance before my draft-board. It was composed, as I knew it would be, of round, brown, respectable old men who had long ago given up any hope of being surprised. Round, brown, respectable old men, whose only real desire, insofar as they still dared desire, was to be white. I knew that, and with my books under my arm, with one brother already in the Army, with two aging people at home, with my impeccable shipyard job, with my flaming youth, and what I could not then have named as a deadly single-mindedness — and using precisely the fact that I was physically improbable — persuaded these round, brown, respectable old men that my potential value to my race — to them; my very improbability contained their hope of power, and I knew that — was infinitely more important than my, after all, trivial value to my country. And they deferred me. I had known that they would: that if I pressed the right buttons, they would have no choice but to defer me.

Monday, April 11, 2016

"Reading" and "Reading into"

The idea of “reading something into” a poem came up in a discussion just now. I was supposedly “reading something into” a poem; hence my reading of the poem was implied to be wrong.

Whether or not I was doing so, I’m curious if anyone knows of any essays/research that address the issue of “reading into”.

It seems like several issues are involved:
  1. “Reading” the poem is distinguished from “reading into” the poem.
  2. “Reading” the poem is *distinguishable* from “reading into” the poem.
  3. The claim that someone is “reading something into” the poem, that something is being “read into” it, is used to call the validity of that reading into question.
  4. The person making that claim is rhetorically staking out a position of being a better “reader” of the poem: “I am not ‘reading into’ the poem; you are. And my reading is thus better.”
  5. In what contexts does the claim about “reading into” come up? Who speaks? Who is spoken to? — It’s the kind of thing a professor might say to a student, but it’s something a student would surely rarely say to a professor.
So there's a theoretical issue (how to distinguish "reading X" from "reading into X") and a sociological issue (who uses the criticism, and of whom, and in what context).

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Moon and the Yew Tree

I went looking for an online version of this poem, and there are several floating around, but all of them are full of punctuation mistakes. So here's Plath's "The Moon and the Yew Tree" with all the commas and periods at the ends of lines fixed to correspond to the version of the poem in the original book.
The Moon and the Yew Tree
Sylvia Plath, Ariel

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God,
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky —
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness –
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars.
Inside the church, the saints will all be blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness – blackness and silence.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Coming back to Paris

Re-reading James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room this morning to prepare for two sessions on it next month for my Baldwin seminar this term, I came across this passage that seemed to speak movingly across decades:
“Coming back to Paris,” she said, after a moment, “is always so lovely, no matter where you’ve been. […] I should think that even if you returned here in some awful sorrow, you might–well, you might find it possible here to begin to be reconciled.”
    “Let’s hope,” I said, “that we never have to put Paris to that test.”
(James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room, in Early Novels and Stories, Library of America, 319)

Friday, March 11, 2016

Austen, Baldwin, Commas

            In the introduction of Elinor Dashwood in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, her "coolness of judgment" is said to "counteract" her mother's "eagerness of mind" in a sentence whose forward motion is itself counteracted by punctuation: "Elinor, this eldest daughter, whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence." The ten commas here punctuate the first 43 words and make them a representation of the careful thinking Elinor always engages in, while after the last of those commas, the final 14 words describe Mrs. Dashwood's "eagerness of mind" in a comparative rush of unpunctuated words. Elinor's mode of thinking is thus also a mode of writing and even of reading: a slow reading of the novel (and of novels) is needed to "counteract" the haste of an "imprudent" reading. "Eager" immersion in the novel may be pleasurable, but "effectual" interpretation demands the careful parsing of the novel's language.
            The same effect of punctuation can be found in a sentence in the first part of James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain. At the end of the visit to the cinema with which John Grimes celebrates his fourteenth birthday in 1935, he confronts the absolute opposition between salvation and eternal damnation: "Either he arose from this theater, never to return, putting behind him the world and its pleasures, its honors, and its glories, or he remained here with the wicked and partook of their certain punishment." The five commas here punctuate the first 22 words and make them a representation of the "narrow way" of salvation that John has been raised to believe in, while after the last of those commas, the final 13 words describe the "broad way" of damnation in another comparative rush of unpunctuated words (and John had walked down Broadway before going to the movies). However, while one of the opposed terms in Austen's sentence "counteracts" the other and is thus privileged, Baldwin's sentence presents its opposition as an either-or alternative, a "cruel choice," as it is called a few lines later, between salvation and damnation. Salvation may require effort, as Elinor's "coolness of judgment" does, but it remains open whether it can successfully "counteract" its opposite.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Urchins keeping a secret; black boys in league against the world: a figure in James Baldwin

The other day I read this in James Baldwin's essay on Ingmar Bergman, "The Northern Protestant":
He had made it sound as though we were two urchins playing a deadly and delightful game which must be kept a secret from our elders.
I noted this in itself but also because it reminds me of Tomas Transtrømer's wonderful idea of poetry as "inspired notes" passed back and forth as secrets from "official life". I was also intrigued by the coincidence that two great artists from Scandinivia had made the same point (or, to be precise, in Bergman's case, had made that impression on Baldwin).

Today, reading further in Baldwin's essays, I came across Baldwin's description of his first meeting with Richard Wright in "Alas, Poor Richard", his three-part memoir-essay after Wright's death:
He had a trick, when he greeted me, of saying, "Hey, boy!" with a kind of pleased, surprised expression on his face. It was very friendly, and it was also, faintly, mockingly conspiratorial – as though we were two black boys, in league against the world, and had just managed to spirit away several loads of watermelon.
Now I'm struck by this as a figure in Baldwin's work: the way he sees – even wants to see – the mentor (Wright) and the filmmaker (Bergman) as his co-conspirators in the secret world of art.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Melissa Lee-Houghton's "Beautiful Girls": A sixth excellent Christmas present

Here's a sixth Christmas book suggestion: Melissa Lee-Houghton's Beautiful Girls (Penned in the Margins, 2013).
I first read this book at a time when I was not reading much poetry (the only time in my adult life that that was the case), and it re-invigorated my reading of poetry, and I read it multiple times.

(If I humbly mention that there's also my book of poems, I hasten to add that when I "listen" to Melissa Lee-Houghton, I am in the state that I imagine Thomas Hardy could have been with respect to Louis Armstrong – the state of sheer astonishment.)