Perusing Poetics: The Best Equal Person

This week I’m talking about the well-know Walt Whitman, who I keep confusing with Walt Disney even though they are not the same person. You’re welcome. We read his (Whitman’s) preface to Leaves of Grass this week and WHOO BOY


This guy was a crazy patriot. A. Crazy. Patriot. We’re talking the kind of ‘MURICA loving redneck that is made popular on TV kind of patriotic. But, I mean, he was also really smart and had some good ideas.

Except. What he said didn’t really match up with what he was saying.

I’m going to paraphrase here, because Whitman isn’t exactly the easiest person to quote. Basically, he believed in an American where everyone was equal and the same kind of everything, and through our poetical prowess we would lead the world into a new age with a new religion led by “poet-priests.” Cool, right? Except Whitman keeps talking about poets are the same as everyone yet are the only ones who can see this, the only ones who can guide, the only ones etc.

Er. You can’t be the best of the equal minded.

I give Whitman his patriotism. In the time of Manifest Destiny, Americans had earned it. Honestly, I’m kind of glad no one is as overtly patriotic as him these days. We get ourselves into enough trouble as it is. But the idea of the poet as the best equal person? Make them the best or make them equal … but they can’t be both. It creates a kind of tension in the piece that its angering and ironic.

It was an easy read. Because I skimmed a lot of his list metaphors. Otherwise? No, Whitman, no. I’m sorry there pal. You tried.

Perusing Poetics: The Stories We Never Tell

I have considered that that title sounds rather ominous. It does. Oh well. Soldier on and I don’t think you’ll regret it! (Unless you have issues with either the destruction visited on Native Americans by white settlers or non-Nazi Germans. Those topics are about to independently come up here.)

This week, I’m talking about an essay by William Cronon called “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative.” Now, though I’ve found all of the readings so far interesting, I dare say this is one of the ones that I’ve enjoyed the most. Maybe because I understood it. Maybe because it got me thinking. Or both. Both is good.

This long essay is about narrative, why humans use narrative to structure their lives, and how each narrative is really just a choice on what to include and what to exclude (since telling a complete story is impossible)–just to brush over a few topics. I want to focus on that last one–namely the exclusion–for this particular, personal blog post.

One of the issues with narrative is that, as Cronon says, “it inevitably sanctions some voices while silencing others” (1350). For his example, he uses the lives of Native Americans in most of the tales about life in the Great Plains around the time of the Dust Bowl. Such stories of pioneers and free land could only be written, of course, if they obscured “the conquest that traded one people’s freedom for another’s” (1352). One of my classmates brought up that, although we are taught about this in schools, what we are taught does not directly link the actions of the white settlers to the destruction visited on the Native Americans. In this, schools deliberately forgo narrative in order to leave these events as unconnected as possible.

The problem with these kinds of narratives is that they can create their own power, since they draw on stories we’re already familiar with. The erasure of the Native American-white settler connection has been ingrained in our society for so long, it’s almost unnoticeable unless you choose to be consciously aware of it. Certain stories have a certain power that “not even the historian as author entirely controls them” (1352).

My professor asked us all at the end of class what similar narratives we told–or did not tell–in our lives that we cut or mangled in order to tell something better. You could think of embarrassing memories you want to forget, the story of the fight with your sibling where you leave out how mean you were in return–those are simple examples. For me, though, it’s the story of my grandfather’s life.

I don’t remember running into this so much before college, but the last three years … woo boy. When we talk about heritage, I state proudly that my grandparents are German–right off the boat German. They both worked really hard to achieve a dream that my family still keeps alive today in the form of a 25 acre resort and retreat. I love them both very much, though my grandfather is now dead. So I say it, and don’t think a lot about it. Almost every time I’ve said this, someone in the vicinity of me has said something to the effect of “Well, I’m Jewish.”

Usually it’s said like a joke, but I don’t find it funny. I tend to omit that my grandparents

No. Stop. Right now.

came over right after World War II ended, but people know enough of history to guess. The funny thing is that I have nothing to hide. Yes, my grandfather navigated a bomb sweeper in the English Channel during the war. He was trying to escape to America at the war’s start when Nazi officers put a gun to his head and convinced him otherwise. My grandmother was a nurse, constantly being bombed by Allied troops. Both of them were so disgusted with the war that they left and never looked back, and when my grandfather was awarded the Iron Cross (kind of like the Purple Heart), he refused to accept it and instead left it to the German government. He spent his final years writing a handwritten novel about how Hitler screwed up Germany.

This is the first time I’ve ever put that in writing. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever said it. It is a narrative that I never tell, because I can’t start it without someone applying a better known narrative on top because they think they know what I’m going to say. German grandparents who are not Jews mean Nazis. Make another incinerator joke, I’ve heard them all. I honestly can’t tell which of us this is supposed to be more offensive to. Also, the irony is, these interactions are always happening between two people who weren’t there–these are not own our personal life stories.

I’ve gotten better at tackling these encounters, and they’ve become less frequent, but mostly because I don’t talk about it anymore. I introduce myself and leave people to infer whatever they want about my heritage. I tell other people I’m related to the captain of the Mayflower (it’s true, on my mom’s side) because that’s easier. The World War II connection is apparently calm enough to make jokes of, but not enough to completely erase the “othering” of the Germans of the time, who were all made into an enemy we needed to fight.

Now before anyone gets freaked out, I’m not saying that World War II was wrong or something or that I don’t like Jews or … whatever. I’m only saying that I have a story I can’t tell, because people assume the ending before I’ve finished the beginning. They hear my name and apply to me a narrative that is out of the control of either of us.

My favorite quote of the entire piece is Cronon’s assertion that “we tell stories with each other and against each other in order to speak to each other” (1373-1374). Well, here’s my foray into the field. It’s not a scholarly work or a vast study of behavior. Just me, personally, telling you a story–one I refuse not to tell this time.

Perusing Poetics: 50 Shades of the Sublime and Other Stupid Trends

Before you freak out: yes, I’m going to be mentioning 50 Shades of Grey in this post. No, it’s not because I like it. Get ready.

BUT FIRST, time for my poetical entrance into this topic. This week, one of the readings was from On the Sublime by this Greek guy named Longinus. (This is hopefully the last Greek guy I will be blogging about.) What he actually means about the definition of the sublime is something I’m still not 100% clear on (I’m like somewhere between 70-80) but where I am up to speed is what is NOT sublime. Specifically, this quote:

“All these ugly and parasitical growths arise in literature from a single cause, that pursuit of novelty in the expression of ideas which may be regarded as the fashionable craze of the day.”*

Ugly and parasitical growths coming from stupid, crazy trends? Of course I’m thinking 50 Shades of Grey.

To be fair, I’ve never read these. I’ve read sections online. I’ve watched the movie trailer. I’ve read the criticism. I’m on Tumblr. I’m not sad that I’ve never read these, and I never plan to. I DO know, however, that the author got her original idea from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series and this is actually a really bad riff off that.

I hate to agree with Plato, but this kind of imitation is really annoying. What’s ever worse is that it’s something that I, as a reader of primarily YA, have to deal with ALL THE TIME. One of my most popular blog posts was actually on this, specifically about the amount of love triangles that popped up after Twilight (otherwise apparently known as the root of all evil).

Okay, that last parenthetical statement is a lie. Twilight did cause a lot of crap to come out onto the market, but it’s hardly the only one. How many wizarding school books followed Harry Potter? Did you, like me, get hellishly sick of dystopians after The Hunger Games? And yes, of course, there were all those vampire books that erupted after Twilight. More than any other genre, YA is full to the brim of trends that produce a handful of good gems around a bunch of hastily and/or badly filler.

Where I have to disagree with Longinus, though, is his use of the phrase “a single cause.” For him, I admit, this was probably true: writers followed the examples of other popular texts because they, too, wanted to be popular and “fashionable.” These days, the attempt to be “fashionable” is a side note. After all, if we wanted our literature to be “fashionable,” 50 Shades of Grey wouldn’t exist.

The push towards trends in YA has nothing to be with anything else but money. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight–they’ve made a lot of people very rich. These books have ranged the spectrum to books written exceedingly well to flat and dead inside (I’m looking at you, Twilight). There literally isn’t one particular thing that has worked as a formula to create the huge fan bases around these books, so the book world is constantly scrambling. Trends you see on the shelves now were decided months or even a year ago by publishers trying to create the next big cash cow.

Again, I’m not going to say that everything inside a trend is terrible. Some of them are really, really good books that deserve to be published on their own merit, and there are books being published against the trends. (I even wrote a post about love triangles done right for those curious.) This is a large, generalized observation that is, unfortunately, true more often than not. (And I haven’t even touched the trends of book covers. “Girl in dress” or “half close up of girl’s face” anyone?)

I guess the reason it makes me so angry is because I feel like there are certain books that have love triangles shoehorned in or otherwise being forced into a “trendy” mold that actually does their book a disservice. There are also books I’ve read where I wish the editors had taken a bit more time with them, at least, instead of shoving them out while the subject matter is hot. Also, as a writer of YA, I want to feel like my book(s) could be published someday because they are good, not because I magically managed to line up with tomorrow’s trend.

50 Shades of Grey just makes me angry because it exists.

Have you noticed the latest trend in YA literature? Or has “trending” created a certain kind of book or trope you can’t read anymore? Let me know!

Perusing Poetics: Plato is Annoying, and Other Reasons I Want to Apologize to Poets

You may or may not know this, but this blog was originally a poetry blog. DO NOT GO BACK INTO THE TAGS AND FIND IT. It was bad and it’s all really old now, like pre-college, beginning of high school aged. But I just wanted to preface this discussion with that.

So this week’s readings for my Poetics class was Plato’s Republic, Book X and Aristotle’s Poetics. If you haven’t read them, don’t worry. Basically the point of them–especially Plato–is to crap on the life and the work of the poet.

Plato has this point where he says poetry corrupts people, emotion is bad, and poets should be confined to hymns and praises of the gods. Aristotle is a little better, because technically he’s confirming that tragic poetry is better than epic poetry, but basically it’s all about how poetry is only good if it conforms to this little proper box. (Yes, anyone who’s read these is probably spitting fire because of over-simplification. Bear with me.)

What’s important–and frustrating–is the effect that this kind of philosophy has had on poets since Plato decided to open his mouth. You can Google lists of pieces titled, in essence, “In Defense of Poetry” or “Apologies for Poetry.” It’s ridiculous, especially considering poetry’s past power.

Confused about what I mean? Well, what do you think of poetry right now? If one person says they’re a novelist and one person says they’re a poet, who do you rank on top? Poets have been characterized as goths at coffee houses (perfectly valid life choice for poets, but not the only one) or cryptics saying nothing in the media, and that certainly adds to the effect.

I know I’m not a poet. I’ve written more recent poetry for school and I’m basically the kind of poseur that Plato would like to kick out of his Republic. I’m aware of that. That’s why I’m not a poet. But, thanks to school, I have studied multiple forms inside and out in accordance with both my English and Writing degrees and I RESPECT POETS SO MUCH. I can barely rhyme let alone formulate a sestina (look it up – the form will make your head hurt).

I write short stories and novels. This is a kind of writing I understand the conventions of. You can master a basic plot pretty quickly. Poetry? Dear Lord. I’ve studied Shakespearan sonnets since grade school and when I was required to write one for class I STILL ripped the end-rhymes from a sonnet Shakespeare had already written because I couldn’t get the rhyming down.

My point is: I never thought I’d be disappointed in someone like Plato, who I’ve been told to laud as a philosopher since PBSKids morning TV shows. I understand that there is a certain time period that he’s writing from and all that, so maybe it’s more correct to say that no one has thought to update their opinion much since then. Poets remain a feature of the classroom: an annoying period of English class or a specialized class in college. They aren’t all that mainstream and they certainly don’t get the buzz of NYT bestselling novelists.

The one thing they do have going for them is their community. When I blogged poetry, as bad as it was, I was welcomed without a second thought into the poetry blogging community with open arms. I have yet to have an online experience since then that has felt as natural and warm as that. In the real world there are also magazines, retreats, etc, that might not (always) be big, but they are proud.

So you tell me. Am I crazy? What do you think of poetry? There’s a comment section for a reason! (Extra points go any comment-writer who responds in some form of verse.)

Perusing Poetics: Me, Myself and My Major(s)

Hello blogging world! I know it’s been a while, and I know you would rather this post be a contest or something. HOWEVER, I am very excited to be announcing a weekly feature on this blog called Perusing Poetics.

Full disclosure: it’s for a class.

I am literally in a class right now called “Poetics” and part of the goal is to relate some the theoretical stuff we’re doing to our personal stories. So yes, I am going to be mentioning some very big words every once and a while.

But also … you know me. It’s going to be fun.

What I want to talk about for my first post is … me! Actually, the majors that I’m currently studying and why I chose it. For those of you who don’t know, I’m an English and Writing double major. Sometimes, when I tell this to people, they’re like, “Aren’t those the same thing?”

In case is anyone is wondering, they very much aren’t. Until recently, I have lacked any 228264smart what to defend this other than ARE YOU SERIOUS RIGHT NOW. For last Tuesday, the class read Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. This slim book is actually a really great way to dip your toes into lit theory if that’s of any interest to you. Of interest to me, though, was being introduced to the difference between the term poetics and the term hermeneutics. According to Culler, poetics begins “with attested meanings or effects and asks how they are achieved” and hermeneutics “starts with texts and asks what they mean” (Culler 62).

Blah blah technical blah, right?

Not really. I’ll explain.

Poetics is the backbone of my writing degree. When I’m in a workshop and we’re talking about what does and doesn’t work in someone’s story, we’re utilizing poetics even if we don’t know how to express it. Talking about how metaphors cause emotion or why you love or hate a certain character–when you puzzle those things out, you’re applying poetics.

But this conversation is different than what goes on in an English classroom, in a weird way. English classrooms take for granted to actions that went into the writing process and look at the meanings of the written words. When we look at metaphor, we piece it apart to understand what the metaphor is trying to say, not how the writer said it.

Sound confusing? I promise it isn’t. You probably know that to be a reader, you don’t have to be a writer (the reverse can be true but not always wise for the writer). That’s two very different actions: absorbing versus creating.

For me, the two ideas are like a yin yang. Neither are the same, but they both help me understand the other in weird ways. Together they create a two sided coin that create a bigger idea in my head, that I personally feel makes me a better rounded writer and a better rounded reader.

I also know I’m one of the lucky ones at a college that separates the two departments. Sometimes writing degrees are housed in the English departments, and the differences between the two become almost nonexistent.

Maybe I’m so crazed about this because I know I almost WASN’T this type of double major. I was originally English Teaching, because I thought, “I already know how to write!” But what weighed on my soul that entire first semester was the utter lack of creating. The lack of sharing the knowledge of how to create a world with a group of people. For me, learning about reading and what makes this interesting to read has always led to a direct translation of application, the idea that I want to try writing like that.

Maybe I’m weird.

Whatever you think of me, I am now armed with some theoretical knowledge to defend my choices of major. (I shouldn’t have to, but people are people). It also gives me some knowledge about how my own brain works, and why it feels like Writing and English classes are such different workouts for it. Maybe I’m nerdy, but I think that’s really cool.

Bibliomancy for Beginners Winter Session: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Can you believe it? TWO Bibliomancy videos over this break? We can’t believe it either! That’s why, for this episode, you get our two best Bibliomancers! (Actually this is also because Taylor is in Scotland but you know. Michaela and I are still the best.)

For this episode we read American Gods by Neil Gaiman which was a slog, let me tell you. We’ll make it interesting though, we promise! We always do.

Bibliomancy for Beginners New Year’s Special! – “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman

GUESS WHO’S BACK! In this trifecta special, the Bibliomancers welcome back yours truly from the UK and send another off – Taylor has decided he’d rather be in Scotland for a semester than with us.

But anyhow. In this New Years special we’re kicking it off with The Magicians by Lev Grossman. It’s going to be a good one, I promise!