Thursday, November 27, 2008

What We're Thankful For

HERE AT TWR, WE'RE thankful for the newest addition to the staff (see left). But, for those of you less taken with the ability of a newborn to twirl a basketball on his umbilical cord, you might be wondering how thankful you should be for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and its soon-to-be-departing chair, poet and corporate vice-president, Dana Gioia.

In a recent piece in The National Review Online, Baylor University professor Thomas S. Hibbs claims that we (at least conservatives) should be surprisingly thankful for Gioia's tenure. Hibbs points to Gioia's life as a barometer of how Gioia (himself a text) should be read. According to Hibbs, Gioia is a model of the marriage of "populism and intellectual cultivation" and a beacon for conservatives who are worried that contemporary American culture is a cesspool of "smut and filth"--Gioia's description of how the conservative Right has long viewed the NEA--a perspective he sought to remedy.

Hibbs himself sees the NEA through such a lens. To him, Gioia stands as a conservative bulwark against the tide of what he sees as the NEA's moral relativism, shoddy aesthetics, and disdain for ameliorative art. Though he doesn't mention Andres Serrano or Robert Mapplethorpe by name, there is no doubt that these projects are, for Hibbs, symbols of the NEA's moral ambiguity.

Uncomfortable with such projects, Gioia moved away from funding edginess. Instead, he championed opera and Shakespeare--icons of Anglo high culture and for some, that culture's elitism. "Gioia's own work," notes Hibbs, "offers something for which conservatives should be justifiably proud and grateful." What appeals to conservatives about Gioia is his inflexibility in regard to entertainment versus art. For Gioia, for Hibbs, and for most conservatives, there is a sharp distinction between the two. Art lifts and transcends; entertainment deadens and stupefies.

I have written about this issue in a couple of different venues, most notably in the magazine Conversations in which I address Gioia's and the NEA's alarmist report Reading at Risk. The argument I lay out is too tedious to unpack here, but simply referring to the photo above brings the pointlessness of generic distinctions into focus.

My son holds both a basketball and a copy of Wallace Stevens' Collected Poems (two things for which I'm incredibly grateful). For those who have read early Stevens and watched Michael Jordan play basketball, is it really that obvious how I would respond to baby Gavin if he asked me which was entertainment and which was art?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Palin as Poet?

A TWR NOD GOES out to new parent Jeff Paris for turning us on to Julian Gough's funny article on Sarah Palin as Poet Laureate. Paris was spot on when he lamented that Gough got to this story before TWR; indeed it represents a marriage of two of this blog's most common topics of late. If Palin as Poet Laureate shows up on Stuff White People Like, then that's like the TWR trifecta.

For Gough, Palin isn't incomprehensible, merely poetic. To prove his point, he scans and breaks one of her responses to Greta van Susteren thus:

Here she is, in a work I have taken to calling “The Relevance of Africa.” (Not a single word or comma has been changed, but the line breaks are placed where they naturally fall.) In it, Palin blends the energy of free verse with the austerity of a classic 14-line sonnet.

It reads: “And the relevance to me /With that issue, /As we spoke /About Africa and some /Of the countries /There that were /Kind of the people succumbing /To the dictators /And the corruption /Of some collapsed governments /On the /Continent, /The relevance /Was Alaska’s.”
How bold to connect so many thoughts with so many prepositions. As with much else, Palin leaves standard poetic rules by the side of the road and charts her own linguistic course.

To be fair, Gough steals a little from Hart Seely, who played this same game with Donald Rumsfeld. In fact, Jonathan Silverman and I published the following "poem" in the second edition of our book, The World is a Text:

The Unknown
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

It's difficult to say whose poem is deeper. Certainly Rumsfeld is more philosophical, while Palin more elliptical. Rumsfeld is clearly grounded in Modernist notions of knowledge (think Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man"), while Palin fully embraces the fragmentation of Postmodernism.

What do these poems say about our politicians and statespeople? Probably not much. In fact, I suspect they say more about what Gough, Seely, Silverman, and Rader think about poetry . . .

Sunday, November 16, 2008

How Great *are* Great Books?

NOT LONG AGO, I was at the dentist's office, getting my teach cleaned, when the technician asked my profession. When I told her I was an English professor, she asked, "So, have you read the great books?" I wasn't really sure what she meant, but I had an idea. "Well, sort of," I said.

"Really," she said back to me, pointy curved utensil inches from my mouth, "All of them?"

This led to a long, involved conversation about the canon, multiculturalism, and who decides what is "great." Turns out she had just seen an ad in a magazine where just anyone off the street could actually own all of the great books, and she thought this was just . . . great.

For better or worse, when we were done with my cleaning, she had rethought her determination to buy all of "the great books," since I had convinced her there were no the great books but rather, some important books.

Her question was a good one, and it leads to others. What happens when high culture goes mass market? To what degree are great books actually great? Are the so-called great books actually great for all Americans to read?

James Campbell poses these and other questions in his review of Alex Beam's A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books in Sunday's New York Times Book Review. Among the many things Beam examines is just how successful the great books project is and was.

Let's be honest--the notion of the great books was perhaps the best literary marketing project since the Book-of-the-Month club.

Leave it to stuffy academics to be the arbiters of greatness.

As Beam notes, the great book project was an attempt to canonize those central literary works that embody the "best" of Western writing and thought. Of course, that meant what well-heeled, well-educated white men thought the "best" was. And, not surprisingly, the great books were used less as tools to help people navigate the murky waters of existence and deployed more as a kind of punch card into the upper-middle class.

The greatness of the great books, according to folks like Mortimer Adler (in the photo above) was in their ability to codify those texts that have shaped what has been taught (and therefore what has been valued) at America's elite institutions. Want to know what those things were? Just take a look at the photo. See Adler in black tie, drab suit, cocked head, and, best of all, cradling a pipe. See Adler surrounded by big, heady tomes. See Adler at Wal-Mart? See Adler watch American Idol? See Adler eat a hot dog? I don't think so.

Is this why the great books don't seem so great?

The arrival and implementation of multiculturalism was the death knell to centrality, except that now there is a new centrality. So, maybe the fact that the great books are in hospice is really a testament to the incredulity toward that which is fixed--the finality of values.

So, what is the prognosis for the great books? Greatness gained, is rarely greatness lost, but greatness that is exclusionary will always lose out to greatness that is inclusive.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

TWR Goes on Paternity Leave

TO CELEBRATE THE BIRTH of the newest staff member of The Weekly Rader, we will be on a temporary hiatus for a few days. Updates to follow!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

An Open Call

AS SOON AS BARACK Obama was elected president, the first question asked in emails and texts from Dallas to Dubai was the obvious--who will Obama select to deliver the inaugural poem?

As loyal readers may remember, TWR was first on the inaugural poem scene back when the world was different. But now, it's all Chris Todd, Chris Matthews, Bill O'Reilly, Katie Couric, Cokie Roberts and others can talk about. Rita Dove? Nikki Giovanni? Maybe the underrated Terrance Hayes. Who knows? One thing we all know, the oddsmakers in Vegas are going crazy handicapping poets. Yousef Komunyakaa I put at 3 to 1.

In the spirit of this new era, for the first time, we're asking for comments, predictions, and suggestions. That's right: The Weekly Rader is making an open call. Send or post who you think President-Elect Obama should select to read the next inaugural poem.

Either email or post your comment below. We'll do a summary post toward the end of the year.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Weekly Rader Presidential Endorsement

SWAMPED BY THE DEMANDS of work and family, TWR has not only not gotten around to making its endorsement for president of the United States, it has also not really had a chance to see who its rival publications (New Yorker, Harper's, Washington Post, New York Times, Cat Fancy) have championed for the nation's highest office. We also don't have cable here at the TWR headquarters, or, for that matter, a radio, but we stay informed. Don't you worry about that.

We know, for example, that race has become a wedge issue for many voters. It's a fact of life, though, that we live in a multicultural society. Salsa, it's reported, is now the nation's most popular condiment. If that doesn't tell you something, I don't know what does.

It is in that spirit of equality that The Weekly Rader endorses the fiery Chicano Democrat from Texas, Matt Santos, for President of the United States. We haven't seen much of him, but that documentary about him on Bravo is unusually penetrating. Its ability to go behind the scenes and show us the real candidate is refreshing. Plus, his kids and wife are so cute, even though she reminds me of that selfish actress from Meet the Parents.

Don't be mistaken, we were also impressed by Arnold Vinnick. A real maverick, Vinnick speaks his mind and refuses to be a puppet of the Republican party. But Mr. Santos embodies change we can all believe in.

We're not sure what to think about having a Texan in the White House. It's hard to imagine someone from the Lone Star State getting elected twice, but I suppose crazier things have happened.

So, back to the issue of race. How, some ask, can we have a brown person in the White house? This question is a testament to how short Americans' memories can be. Can a shocking assassination really make us forget David Palmer's important tenure as Commander-in-Chief?

Like President Palmer, Matt Santos wears good suits, and his wife isn't nearly so bitchy. He's also funny.

So, won't you join us at The Weekly Rader and support Matt Santos for president? We need a little more West in the West Wing.