Thursday, March 26, 2009

"One Art"

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem had a lasting impact upon me. Perhaps, we feel a deep connection to things we can relate to in our own lives. Who hasn’t felt the heavy, debilitating, crushing force of loss? Elizabeth Bishop talks about loss and we remember our own losses. We remember “lost door keys, the hour badly spent.” Bishop says so eloquently what we all want to say sometimes.

Truth is, we all lose what which we love in life. We lose door keys, we lose watches, we lose homes, we lose our roots and finally, we lose our loved ones. Loss progresses. We start by losing trivial things and then we lose things that have the ability to create a disaster in our lives. We “master” the art of losing because quite frankly, we have no choice. It’s an immutable feature of life. “So many things seem to be filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” Is it really not a disaster? Does the narrator force herself to believe this? She does indeed force herself to “write it!” How can it not be disaster then?

It is disaster but we don’t want it to be. We want to “accept the fluster,” we learn to “[lose] faster,” so loss becomes something that’s not hard to “master.” This works because then, we lose “vaster” things, and keep reminding ourselves that loss is “no disaster.”

But what is the art that Elizabeth Bishop is really talking about? Is it our ability to force ourselves to rationalize our situation without throwing ourselves into disaster? Sylvia Plath’s poem represents loss in a painful and horrific way. Sylvia Plath was not so concerned with rationalizing. Sylvia Plath killed herself at the age of 30. Is rationalizing our losses what ultimately keeps us sane and alive?

Through the mechanics of Bishop's poem, we see the narrator constricting herself. She is suffocated by her rationality. Her poem is a villanelle, difficult to write, and very controlled. The narrator is also very controlled. She forces herself to get over herself. Sylvia Plath forces herself upon us. We cared about Sylvia Plath because she forced us to care. We care about Bishop because we care about the realities of our own lives. Stifling our emotions makes us sad. Allowing our emotions to control us kills us. We’d rather be sad than dead.

The word “disaster” is repeated several times. The rhyme in this poem brings us back to this word. Disaster would readily define us if we allowed it to. We’re always leaning towards that state, being pulled towards it. And we resist. We resist disaster so much that even when it is disaster, we refuse to accept that it is. Accepting disaster would make reality swing back with great force, debilitating force.

I’ve read “Daddy” about a hundred times now. I keep trying to pull out every emotion and every word connected to that emotion. I keep trying to find one single unifying theme in Plath’s poem. It’s an outburst. It’s obnoxious. Then, I think about Bishop’s poem and realize that Plath’s poem is about losing control.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Why should we care?

From an early age, we're told that poetry is beautiful. Does that make us like it? It certainly makes us believe that we should like poetry because we like beautiful things. I spent some time hating on poetry instead. This was until I realized that everything we find beautiful is poetry. A beautiful song is poetry. Beautifully written prose is poetry. Poetry is technique and through the clever use of technique, poets draw us in. But why should we care to be drawn in? I hated poetry because I believed that anything that requires a tremendous amount of effort to comprehend is not worth my time and patience. Why force understanding upon ourselves? Good poetry is that which forces us to feel rather than understand. This is what the element of shock does to us. Shocking poems are great.

Shocking/good poems are belligerent and their poets are even more belligerent. They intrude into our calm, collected lives and pester us. They place images before our eyes that we may not necessarily want to see. They make us hear sounds which may annoy us. Poets suck us into their minds without our consent. We become confused, angry, bewildered, and most importantly, shocked.

Shocking poems are what we need to concern ourselves with as critics. But why in the world should we want to read 80 lines of poetry in which we find Sylvia Plath whining and bitching about her father? When I first read "Daddy," I thought, "Great, here's another self-pitying brat talking about loss and sadness and a dissatisfying childhood." Then, I heard Plath's reading of her poem with all the bitterness in her voice and I began to care. I cared enough to spend two days picking her poem apart--perhaps to try and comprehend where Sylvia Plath got the audacity to write something so outrageous and more importantly, to understand how and why "Daddy" riles us up like it does.

The thing about Sylvia Plath's poem is that it screams at us for no apparent reason. Plath is repetitive without being redundant. Her poem is yelling obscenities and so, after we hear her poem, we bash her, label her a whiner, and call her ignorant for likening the genocide of millions to her own individual suffering. But Sylvia Plath has gotten to us. She has made enough of a statement to get people riled up. Clearly, she wanted to shock her readers and shocked we readers are. We are shocked when she says she felt like a Jew even though she wasn't a Jew. We are shocked when she calls her daddy a Nazi and a bastard even though he was not a Nazi. Moreso, we are shocked that she refers to her dad as "daddy" in spite of depicting him as a Nazi. Sylvia Plath gets to us and sucks us into her own twisted mind.

As readers, we simultaneously love and hate the feeling of being unsettled and displaced from our comfort zones. Good poetry is able to do this to us. To interlope into our lives, bring us out into the open and carry us to a great height. We have a fear of heights but at the same time, a love for the feeling of freedom that great heights instill within us. Sylvia Plath's poem does this to us and though we may call her whiner, she is a creative, smart, and effective whiner. It's poetry! She can say whatever she wants and so she does, loudly. She forces us to believe her and we do because we can see all the ugly images and hear all the disconcerting sounds in her poem. Then, we find out she's not a Jew and these images are only in her head. Then, we become angry, but Sylvia Plath has already gotten to us. She has made us believe her suffering and she has made us care about her suffering because we care about good writers. We are intrigued by them because their poetry has the power to provoke our anger and our praise--by displaying either emotion, we've demonstrated the poem's ability to force us to care.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Are Great Books great?

Now, shifting my focus to literature, I do actually wonder what renders a work of literature as a classic (this thought was brought on by the reading from Richter). Would I ever have known that any book is a classic if I was not told that it was? Perhaps not. Today, I reflected on the fact that most of the books on my list of favorites are classics. One explanation that Tompkins discusses is that these works are classics because they have stood the test of time. They have persisted through changing times and have been widely read all this time, thus earning classic status. I do agree with this somewhat, yet I can also see the counterargument that these books are just imposed upon us. There are many books I've read in high school which I hated and was forced to complete, simply because people with bad taste (though pragmatically speaking, taste that just differed from my own) had decided that they were phenomenal. Nonetheless, I feel as though I would have missed out on vital literary experiences, had I not been prompted to read books such as The Great Gatsby, Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Gulliver's Travels (and the list goes on). Of course, one's own taste will render the final verdict on whether a book is good or bad, but it is safe to say that most of the Great Books are actually great and should be read.

What makes a book a classic is its ability to captivate the human experience. Times change, situations change, but the human experience remains intrinsic to all of mankind. Greek mythology is the framework of the
Odyssey, but the prevalent themes encapsulate experiences that pertain to human beings regardless of culture. The content that emanates often from the subtext of a work is what makes the writing timeless, because at any given point, humans are going to experience these universal sentiments and emotions. It's true that there are many other books that address the same topics of interest yet do not qualify as classics. When I hear of the word classic though, I think of something that's the first of its kind.

What differentiates a good classic from a bad classic is diction and most importantly the manner in which the author executes the plot. For example,
Ethan Frome is irrefutably a classic because Edith Wharton excellently captures the melancholy life of a man who makes a bad choice in life. I didn't like the book when I read it because the plot was mundane and the symbolism too excessive--I find that whenever the symbolism is being focused on more than the actual content and form, the literary quality of a work is being defiled. For one thing, when there are too many objects and details that can be interpreted as symbols, we start over-interpreting the writing and ultimately its literary appeal is lost. Why focus on symbols that may or may not be there when the author's content and form is already conveying the point in a more straightforward manner? The only kind of symbol that I feel is legit is a symbol in the form of a motif--there has to be a reason why Hawthorne brings up a scaffold and a rosebush more than once in The Scarlet Letter; it's not random. Another thing I've noticed is that for some people, themes are enough to make a book a fantastic read. Perhaps I'm just a stickler for good diction and syntax since I love words so much. However, an author's choice of words reveals far more than random details. Most importantly, instead of being forced to look for symbols, students should be forced to read closely! Not that details are bad, but in most situations I like referring to this quote by Oscar Wilde:

“One should absorb the color of life, but one should never remember its details. Details are always vulgar.”

After I've read a good book, I don't necessarily remember random details, but I always seem to remember quotes from the book and how the book made me feel (the feeling comes entirely from the manner in which the author conveys his ideas--formal quality of the text, the best of which is captured in memorable quotes). I'm all for absorbing the essence of literature rather than “[torturing] a confession out of it” as Billy Collins claims in his poem, “Introduction to Poetry.” And speaking of poetry, poems seem to be scrutinized and dissected to even greater lengths than books. Perhaps this is why I never developed a taste for poetry. We, as students, are told to look for many things, yet we are rarely encouraged to first comprehend the poem's meaning. We always come back to content and form when it comes to understanding the meaning of any written work, so why not just begin with content and form and stick with it? It happens too often that we're forced to take our opinions from others. Something can be a classic but it doesn't have to be good. Usually though if a classic, even if it's bad, is a classic indeed, it will leave the reader open to the idea of taking a second look. I never liked
Ethan Frome but I do believe that it has substance and is worth taking another stab at.

Some last thoughts on the Odyssey

Whenever I sit down and try to write about the
Odyssey I find that I actually don't have much to say about it, hence the amount of time that has passed since my last post. Perhaps this is because whatever I feel and think about the epic has already been thoroughly discussed in class. Also, the Odyssey has too much substance! There is just so much that Homer is trying to tell us in his frequent digressions and often I feel that in my writing, I'm not able to rise to the level of the text I am writing about. Anything that I might possibly write about is either way too generic or has already been discussed thoroughly enough.

Nonetheless, since I haven't really written anything for a while, here are a few general thoughts:

For one thing, I feel as though Odysseus's descent into the underworld could not be a more perfect climax to the story. And an interesting enough climax it is--normally, the climax is the highest point in the novel yet Hades is quite literally the lowest point. In some ways, it makes me envision an upside down Freytag's triangle. I honestly am of the opinion that one has to hit rock bottom before bouncing back up again. This is sort of like a rejuvenation of the soul. Who can better explain the appeal of life than a dead person? Every stop in Odysseus's journey poses the temptation of an ignorantly blissful life. Lingering in a stupor and forgetting the problems which plague the mind is a most appealing and tempting condition which allows one to move away from the act of living. The underworld is the most extreme form of that condition, in which one has literally moved away from life and eternally forgets life. Note that the ghosts are completely oblivious to everything until they drink the blood that is supposed to make them aware. This condition is not unlike the condition of the Lotos Eaters. What Homer is basically showing us is a contrast to the act of living, the underworld being the most blatant and literal. When the ghosts actually do remember, they find that they would rather be alive. Though we often desire to forget the things we'd rather not deal with, perhaps we might not desire the same if we actually did forget; once we've forgotten, we obviously can't remember that we've forgotten anything and therefore can never contemplate whether this is a condition we desire in place of our previous state of cognizance. Odysseus is allotted this opportunity to contemplate. Furthermore, after Odysseus has gone to the underworld, he has gone the farthest anyone can ever go. The farthest place is where the plot reaches its apex: the climax.