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. 

Beware: Hodgepodge of learning omits great books

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.”

'My Epic'

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.

Yubraj Aryal on Perloff, Drucker on Mallarme

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