Commentaries - March 2008

Did you know that in the early national period of the U.S. a didactic poem was really not a poem — and is not to be considered (in the long view) a poem? Rhetoric and poetry, often in history merged categories, were distinctly separate as the American poetry tradition got started. Or so says a scholar named Gordon Bigelow. MORE>>>

I hadn't known until today that a book I consider to be one of the most interesting ever written about Freud — Philip Rieff's The Mind of the Moralist — was quietly quasi-coauthored by Rieff's then-wife Susan Sontag, who was at the time (1959) an instructor in religion at Columbia. I should say that this is just something I've heard; I myself have no evidence. But I have found some textual or indirect evidence ... in the one thing the young Sontag published in 1960, which was a review of a book about Greek and Shakespearean drama that somehow permits the reviewer to summarize the end-of-ideology critique of politics as a form of change-suppressing ahistorical psychologizing. I've got more to say about this 1960 piece on my 1960 blog here.

I had the honor of hosting Sontag — and of interviewing her — in 2003, soon after she published Regarding the Pain of Others. Here is a link to video recordings of her talk and of that interview.

Students in a writing seminar taught in the spring of 2008 by poet Julia Bloch were assigned to listen to recordings of several poems by Amiri Baraka archived in PennSound. One, “In Walked Bud”, was not available to the students in print. Halfway through the discussion, a student, Michael, offered a reading of the poem that successfully associated Baraka’s jazz-metrical scatting with the narrative of the speaker’s physical movement (I caught his response verbatim):

"So I try to listen and see if the sound tells me the story. Why is this guy saying DO DO DEE [he imitates the scat]? And then I realize that it’s the way he’s walking into the scene that summer night. He’s an African in the West with European harmonies. And then he says, 'In walked us.' Later the DO DO DEE comes back but it’s changed by then. I heard it as a story and then [in a writing assignment] did a close reading based on the sound of the [scatting]. I never bothered to image how it would look as language on a page."

From there the discussion among the students was all about the form of the poem, very little directly about its social content. Bloch had not pointed out the lit-class anomaly: students assigned to write about a poem they had not seen as writing. She patiently waited for a student to do so. “We haven’t even seen this written down,” Amy had exclaimed (and her remark precipitated Michael's capable reading); then she threw up her arms and asked, “How do we read this poem?”

What more fundamental question could there be? The noise of Baraka instigated it. To those who worry, as the conservative Georges Duhamel once did in an anti-modernist tirade against the radio, that “people who really need education are beginning to prefer noise to books,” such student response is a powerful rejoinder.

The book has long been a medium for arriving at the teacher’s goal, which is to teach young people to understand form as an extension of content; “noise,” as either separate from the book or parallel to it, can similarly be the medium.

Every day there's a new PennSound Daily entry. Today's features me! If you're coming to this entry a little later, though, you'll doubtless find something new when you click on the link.