Saturday, December 12, 2009

Adrienne Rich tells it like it is

I have often heard of that in order for women to be seen as the equal of men, they have to work twice as hard just to be noticed. I think the poem's I looked at by Adrienne Rich fit squarely into this double-standard that has so far dictated a lot of our American society.

I Am In Danger--Sir:

"you, woman, masculine/in single-mindedness/for whom the word was more/than a symptom"

Adrienne Rich could or could not be writing about Emily Dickinson, because she never mentions a name. The footnotes in the Norton Anthology refer to Rich's poem in terms of the life of Emily Dickinson, in which she replies to Higginson, a correspondent and critic, as a playful but fierce undercutting of his criticism: "I am in Danger--Sir"! This is Rich's homage to Dickinson, who is described as masculine, perhaps because she matched the intellectual blow Higginson dealt and neutralized it. If he is saying "Oh you're crazy!", then she is saying, "Oh thanks, I'm crazy, what else is new?" This is the same thing as a man that says "You play [base]ball like a girl!", To which I would reply, "Thanks, (girls play ball just as great as guys) what else is new?!".

But I digress: Rich refers to Dickinson as masculine. Why? Is it her doubly-phallic-sounding last name? Is it her ability to matching wits with Higginson (and to beat him)? Or is it in her "single-mindedness", that she was able to focus on a single thing and be great at it, without being bogged down by trying to please others, by assimilating to the greater mainstream societal requirements?

I particularly like what Rich says about Dickinson's use of language being more than symptomatic of society--it relates closely to something James Baldwin wrote about a great writer: That one's language should be both a symptom and an examination of one's culture. Dickinson was removed from her surroundings, which allowed her to examine her state of being. She was acutely observant and she strikingly diagnosed her society. Perhaps this led to her going a little nuts, but she "chose to have it out at last/on [her] own premises". Much respect from Rich to Dickinson.

Regarding Marie Curie, Rich writes that "She died a famous woman denying/her wounds/denying/her wounds came from the same source as her power" (2658). Referring to my beginning statement, that women must work twice as hard as men just to be seen as equals, Rich's piece explores it. Marie Curie essentially died for her art, and she did it without appearing weak. The stereotype of women is that they are weaker than men. Whether this is the truth or whether it is not, the most common mindset is that men are stronger. Rich is explaining that for a woman, to hide her suffering is to be equal to a man. She must deny her wounds. For a man to show his wounds would mean a loss of power.

What does "Her wounds came from the same source as her power" mean? That she gains her power from her denial of pain? Her power comes from the radiation, which also causes her pain? The source of power is the acceptance into the male tradition, and so her wounds come from the tradition of men? I think all interpretations qualify!

Gwendolyn Brooks

the mother:

The poem starts off with "Abortions will not let you forget". This strong opening hits you, it's a direct confrontation, and there is no misunderstanding of the message that can be lost to interpretation. My first reaction to the poem was of a deep compassion for these "lost children". The speaker made the right choice at the time for her situation, but "even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate". It is not regretful, but it is remorseful. There is also certainly no lack of love in this decision (to go through with the abortions): "Believe me, I loved you all./Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I love, I loved you/All." Perhaps the act of terminating the life was the act of love: if the child was born, he or she would have "cried" and eventually "died". The speaker is preventing the child from experiencing the later inevitable tragedies of life.

I forgot exactly who said it, but it was about the nature of freedom: "Freedom is self-control". Whether this means self-control like independence from former slavery, or the freedom of self-discipline and self-restraint, both ideas work when referring to my idea about a woman's right to choose regarding women's rights.

After reading Alice Walker's "In Search of My Mother's Gardens", I found that Brooks' speaker is also bemoaning the fact that she has prevented her children, not only from living, but from creating art and becoming artists. The long-standing tradition that Walker writes in her essay, that 'Women have been prevented from becoming artists by the Male Tradition', is sort of what Brooks is now participating in. The Roe v Wade decision that allows women the choice and control over their bodies, reveals the fact that women now have a harsh responsibility over other people's and their own lives. Brooks and other women, must now face the consequences of being able to control themselves, something that was once left to men to decide. Alice Walker was regretful about her mother's inability to be recognized as an artist, and the roles have switched now: Brooks is the one who is preventing her child from being recognized as an artist, she is taking the traditionally male role of supressing someone else's voice and being. This is an important role-reversal, and it's one that comes at the cost of someone else's liberty. Perhaps Freedom is self-control, but also being in a power position over a lesser being--freedom is controlling others!????

Frank O'Hara... continued


Here, O'Hara is talking about something that will revolutionize the way people think about literature. The idea that the poem is just a vessel that gets the message to the reader--he wants to communicate directly with the person, the poem itself doesn't matter. The poem is a "Lucky Pierre" because it is being gratified both by the poet--the act of being written--and the reader--the act of being read. If O'Hara were to have his way, all he has to do is to convey his message is to call up the person on his phone. The idea that the poem is just like a phone conversation with the reader, gives the poem a fresh and unpretentious voice. He isn't concerned with trying to improve the readers--or society's--life. O'Hara says: "improvement for what, death?" His idea that there is no such thing as progress is not really nihilistic, I think it's more realistic.

The Day Lady Died:

O'Hara's poem is specific of a time and a place, it evokes the feeling O'Hara felt the day that Billy Holiday died, and is revelatory of the cultural impact of Billy Holiday on his peers. The poem is a laundry list of things one might do on a typical and busy summer day in New York. It has a certain air of mundaneity, a day filled with art and people and writing and other minutiae.

The day is filled with words, words, and more words. When the news of Billy Holiday suddenly hits, it is breathless. O'Hara takes us to the day when he first heard "Lady" sing, and there are no words to describe it. His feeling of speechlessness is beautifully conveyed as O'Hara is "leaning on the john door in the 5 spot/while she whispered a song along the keyboard/to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing". We feel exactly what he means.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Zoot Suit (1981)

Watch! Edward James Olmos is totally dramatic as the ghostly Chorus in Zoot Suit. He is the quintessential Pachuco, Simon!

Montoya--20 Years of Joda

Jose Montoya's poetry is not anthologized much in American Literature, according to Professor Bonilla. A reluctance to formally include him in the canon might seem a direct result of Montoya's multiplicity of language in his poetry, but this is the prime reason why it should be included--it reflects the multiplicity of culture so prominent in American culture, and it forces the reader to be engaged by confronting them with language. Other writers confront their audiences with obscene language and striking thematics, others with rhetoric, others with flowery and elevated use of language and epics, others with emotional and elegiac odes, and others with a clear break of tradition. A good writer confronts the reader with something, and forces a reaction--a good one, a negative one, a self-revealing reaction. The worst writers lack the ability to get a reaction from the reader.

One of the ways in which Jose Montoya engages the reader in his poems, is by including Spanish phrases untranslated. To the monolingual English speaker, the words seem like a foreign and exotic confrontation, and one is given the choice of remaining in the dark to admire, or to go look up the dictionary in an attempt to identify hidden meanings. The bilingual reader is able to revel in the immediacy of a secret, a private moment between him or herself and the author, who obviously share this shared knowledge of a shared culture, of a mixing of traditional and nontraditional to create something new.

Much like Ginsberg's Howl, Montoya's "El Louie" is indeed an elegy--that it goes through the traditional progression of lament, praise, and consolation--but gains its likeness with Ginsberg's work because it undercuts the established tradition of straightforward grief and praise poetry. For Montoya, the tradition is that of American literature to be based only on the English language--he is bringing something new to the table: unabashed and untranslated Spanish voices, mixed in with English voices, a combination that is so representative of his particular voice and community, of a people so American in that they are oppressed and repressed, that he grants them a form of expression through new forms of literature.

Mainstream American culture is so deeply rooted in the ideals of independence, freedom, high esteem for the individual, competition, and a struggle for identity apart from the group, which stem from the efforts of our forefathers who fought for independence from the English. These individualistic values are at odds then, with the more Mexican values that are based on family and collectivistic concerns, that serve the group more than the individual, as well as a way to prolong the strong history and pride of a people so closely tied to families. This mash-up of values and motivations is evident in Montoya's poetry; his work allows for his community to speak--the varied dialogues, different perspectives, family members and fellow Pachucos--both in English and in Spanish and yet all distinctly American and revealing of this particular time and place, of a people removed from mainstream society.

"El Louie" is funny. "Hoy entarraron a Louie/And San Pedro o san pinche/Are in for it". Right away, it undercuts most tragic elegies with a playful and mischievous quality that reveals a respect for Louie, but in a way that is not entirely elevated like other elegiac subject matter. Here, Louie is being remembered for his artistic endeavors, his creation of the Pachuco persona, of his heroism on and off the streets of California, of the great things that he was capable of, and of the shortcomings that spotted life and that made his downfall so tragic. It's not his death that is so sad, it's the way his life had deteriorated by the end of it. "The end was a cruel hoax/But his life had been/Remarkable!" Montoya's speaker laments the fact that El Louie did not die in "accion", and he attempts to console his grief by praising the earlier life of El Louie, and by elevating that character of the Pachuco. The word Montoya uses to describe his life is a consolation: "Remarkable!", meaning that it is "worthy of attention". I picture it being said with a genuinely happy, yet mournful and honorable smirk.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Simpsons and Thomas Pynchon

The Simpsons!! Good ol' Simpsons. Apparently, the Simpson's is the quintessential postmodern television show--according to one Mark McQueen, English Professor at PCC. I took his English 1C class and he let me know about my generation's humor--and even sense of identity, arguably--it is rooted deeply in Postmodernism, on a level that we accept without a doubt, that is it takes effort to undo our mode of thinking--the same thing that T.S. Eliot wrote about when discussing tradition, that we have to be aware of our timelessness and our contemporaneity, the latter of which we take for granted.

As discussed in the lecture, Postmodernism is self-referential and self-aware. It can be situated in a time and place, and is evocative of a moment. It's reactionary to the Modernist movement of the earlier 20th century, and it sought to reject that which had backfired: technological advancements that were created with good intentions, that led to the paranoia of the Cold War, for example. It seeks to expose ironies that occur when people make universal judgments and the contradictions that this practice creates--and that's where the sarcastic humor comes in. It understand that trying to explain why and how something is funny is the most unfunny thing one can do, so I'll let Thomas Pynchon give you a taste:

Just for good measure, here is Moe's take:

Monday, November 9, 2009

Oedipa's Journey--The Crying of Lot 49

This one's a bit over due. I read Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 a while ago, and by not posting to this blog right away, the material isn't as fresh, so I'm left to look at the piece once or twice removed. The character of Oedipa--the main character--definitely struck me as very strong and unique. But why should she not be? When reading it, I didn't see her as an anomaly of a woman, I just saw her as a strong, resourceful, realistic, flawed, empathetic, and human character. The issue of gender never struck my mind, and as far as other readings go, as others have argued that Oedipa is indeed a strong feminist character, I don't disagree. I'm a fan of strong female protagonists, not because they are female, but because they are strong. I like any character that breaks through other's established conventions--the underdog--and I suppose female characters are a great go-to for this dynamic.

In a world full of mysterious happenings, secret societies, cosmic coincidences, intrigue, paranoia personified, the character of Oedipa is the reader's one solid anchor--and like us--she goes a bit mad in the process. As discussed somewhere in the middle of The Crying of Lot 49, the existence of a "Maxwell's Demon" is introduced as a "sorter" of things, among other more complicated ideas relating to energy exchanges and engineering. When Oedipa Maas is named executor of her ex-boyfriend's estate, a vast and squandered fortune of property that leads to a conspiracy of secret postal services that date back centuries, Oedipa is swept away by curiosity, almost like Rapunzel unwittingly discovering that she can climb down her tower if she uses her hair as mountain-climbing gear. Her ex-boyfriend's sordid investments become the basis of her own unraveling, and her journey is one of self-awareness, and of becoming more sensitive to the world around her.

While uncovering clues, she becomes more aware of people's attempts to communicate. She also becomes more emphatic--in the beginning she tells her husband Mucho that he is "too sensitive", and before the end of the novel, she is reaching out to a lovelorn stranger on the phone, the only person she has left, and has experienced a Virgin-Mary like role in an encounter with a old man she holds and comforts after he begs her to send a letter to his wife. Oedipa becomes more keen in her observations, and this leads her to a perilous quest for the truth, no matter what the cost.

The one major thing I was wondering, and even fearfully anticipating, by the penultimate chapter of the novel, was how on Earth is Pynchon going to finish this book with a satisfying conclusion? His ending, then, is something I definitely respect and can see why it makes such an impact--and also how it fits into the postmodern structure and attitude. It forces you to engage--it confronts you with its deliberate lack of a resolution of plot--and makes you react. The whole aspect of the novel being a mystery, a journey to "pierce into truth" and unravel the unknown, forces you to invest yourself into the reading. Oedipa wins you over, you want her to figure it out! Or atleast I did. By not having a clear resolution, there is a clear cut intention of forcing you to react: Do you feel disappointed by the ending? Are you shocked? Is it maddening to have the dangling carrot so sharply taken away? Is it new and refreshing that such an ending leads much to the imagination? I had all of the reactions and more, and I began to see why Pynchon did this. I also wondered if the whole time while I was looking for resolution of the story, that I missed something else. I suppose it was Oedipa's journey into self-awareness and into action that was the actual focus, and that the conspiracy of Tystero was only the means of getting Oedipa started on her transformation.

The ending drops us off right at the edge of revelation, a few steps before the climax of resolution. I'm glad that we, as the audience, don't get to figure answer the riddle--that meaning of the intent to communicate--because we find that the message is not important. Instead, it forces you to realize what the actual intent to communicate is! Perhaps, even, there is no conscious intent to communicate: our symbology--our language--is just a record of our desire and attempt to communicate, to reach out; they are a recording of "storm systems of suffering" (or whatever that quote is from the book, I don't have the page number). As Oedipa is beginning to be more sensitive, in sorting out clues and evidence, she is becoming aware, not of the message, but of the intent to communicate. She becomes compassionate.