Commentaries - October 2011

Rita Wong’s work is a complex endeavour to understand the ecology of the animals of language, not to settle their moving limbs and establish control, but rather to be animal with their living existence and breathe with their breaths. Living on Coast Salish land (also known as Vancouver), her work gestures, dares to understand the culture and challenges of the land, strives to be citizen, responsive and responsible. 

the gap between the crying line & electric speech

is the urbanization of the mouth

round peasant dialect vowels relocate

off the fields into city streets

where sound gets clipped

like our ability to smell the wet earth

sound becomes wound

we look away from toisan ache

(from “language (in)habits” in forage)


forage forages in the scraps and heaps of a world we actively heap each day into scraps. Composed within the margins of other thinkers, populated with images, contextualized and inscribed with Chinese, forage might ask how can we scrape so that we can forge anew? Wild for provisions, can we provide and not leave a scrapped heap in our wake? Can we wake? Global and local, can we respond responsively? Can we respond responsibly? Can we unbyzantine the byzantine? Can we be “ruminant and luminous”? Can we bear the “unbearable waste” and make a language that is not wasteful? Find our bearings, bare our haste. And who are we?

This question of “we”, which is also a question of “i” is also taken up in Wong’s collaborative work, sybil unrest, composed with the vigorous Vancouver writer and thinker Larissa Lai. In their unstable subjectivities, the “i’s” behave their multiplicities of gender, race, class, movement, geography, culture.

Rita Wong has written three books of poetry, sybil unrest (co-written with Larissa Lai, Line Books, 2008), forage (Nightwood, 2007) and monkeypuzzle (Press Gang, 1998). Her work investigates the relationships between contemporary poetics, social justice, ecology, and decolonization. She teaches at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver.

Reconsidering the elective system during the Cold War

Harvard's President Charles Norton Eliot introduced "the elective system" in the undergraduate curriculum in the late 19th century. Taking non-required non-sequential courses! Take courses you want! Explore topics freely! It was a revolution.

In 1952 (yes that many years later — but of course it was the politically paranoid 50s) George Boas was writing in the AAUP Bulletin* that the elective system was “devised for a society of free men who knew what they wanted to study and who could be tested for the aptitude in making their choices.”

But, he adds — and here comes a particular kind of conservative backlash — but... “it did not take long for some people to point out that this might lead to a hodgepodge of learning which would omit the greatest that had been thought and said.” Great Books, in other words — the very practice of Great Books, following from the conservative argument Boas cites against academic liberalism. But not the Great Books curriculum fully deployed.

For if we really did Great Books fully, we’d notice that “each later author has been a rebel against the dominant traditions of his time. But of course such lists usually stop at a date well before our own times and we are not usually aware of precisely what harm to tradition was done by the men who figure on them.” And finally, to clinch this argument: “If you were living in the early days of Christianity, you would have seen the same kind of confusion and intellectual anarchy as you hear about today. But what is called confusion is the outspokenness of recalcitrant individuals. When they are dead, they are spoken of as heroes and prophets. But while they are alive, they are noncooperative, radical, and heretical.”

The Elective System did not create the confusion and anarchy that conservative arguments against it feared. The true study of “required” Great Books discloses the same confusion and radicalism. Finally this is not about radicalism and heresy. It's about apparent control. Boas' essay for AAUP was called “The New Authoritarianism.”

The image above and at right is taken from a defense of the Elective System that President Eliot wrote for the New York Times in 1885.

* vol 38, no 3; Autumn 1952.

Aaron Shurin, Robert Duncan, and the New College of California

Robert Duncan, photographed by Jonathan Williams (1955). Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Yale University

As those of you who read my first commentary know, I have sought out contemporary poets in order to discover how they might frame their own relationship to the epic form. The responses coming in have been fantastic. (For those of you who read commentary number one, I also cleaned my coffee maker with vinegar. The results? Similarly fantastic.)

The question (stripped of framing apparatus) that I posed to a wide variety of writers  was this: “Which epics do you consider part of your own lineage (as a poet, performer, teacher, scholar, reader . . .) and why?” I purposely defined neither “epic” nor “lineage.” I wanted to see in what ways these terms were generative to contemporary poets, and what definitions were alive for them.

Given the epic’s role in nation making, through the retelling of nationalist history, I found Aaron Shurin’s response exciting, especially its own retelling of a period in poetic history.

Shurin writes:

Some time in late 1980, I’d guess, Robert Duncan proposed to the (first) New College community that we start a “Homer study group” to read the Iliad in Greek (!), extending the paradigmatic/paradisiacal NC ethos of poetics (and only poetics) considered from the historical ground up (or the phonemic ground up), and re-situating the act of study from the classroom to the active zones of poets’ lives — the walls of New College were always semipermeable … And thus began an adventure in “many-mindedness” (our happily literal translation of Odysseus’s Homeric epithet — usually delivered as “crafty” or “wily”), a many-mindedness that in this case pointed to the group efforts of companions (initiates?) whose dedication to the project was fearless and devout, whose arduous work was defined strictly as pleasure, whose purity of endeavor (no remuneration, no credit) was measured by the depth of a hexametric chant or the shivering sense of meeting — what? — some molten core of one’s historical and cultural tradition, and whose collectively marshaled poetic intelligence (General Duncan?) was driven towards reading/chanting/translating the entire 15,000-line poem a line at a time (we met weekly for over six years mostly in my living room), an act of foundationalism that took almost as long as it did for the Achaeans to conquer Troy.

Robert Duncan, part of a triumvirate of Black Mountain poets including Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, is perhaps less broadly known as founding member of the Poetics Program at New College of California in San Francisco. Through various incarnations, the Poetics Program served an important role in the development of “San Francisco Schools” of writing, including queer poetries, the histories of which are still being written (right now several keyboards are humming).

For an excerpt of Lisa Jarnot’s forthcoming biography of Duncan, see

Next installment: Aaron Shurin on how the epic (and Robert Duncan) transformed his own poetics.

from Journal of Philsophy

Journal of Philosophy: A Cross-Disciplinary Inquiry, Fall 2011, Vol. 7, No. 16

Unoriginal Genius/Conceptual Writing: Recovering
Avant-Garde in the Contemporary Poetics
(on Perloff)
by Yubraj Aryal: PDF

Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés and the Poem and/as Book as Diagram
by Johanna Drucker: PDF