Category Archives: Links

Literary links: ‘The Red Wheelbarrow,’ and a definition of postmodern novel

1. William Carlos Williams’s poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” —

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens.

— may be a scene the poet witnessed, as described in this Times article:

On July 18, in a moment of belated poetic justice, a stone will be laid on the otherwise unmarked grave of Thaddeus Marshall, an African-American street vendor from Rutherford, N.J., noting his unsung contribution to American literature.

“When we read this poem in an anthology, we tend not to think of the chickens as real chickens, but as platonic chickens, some ideal thing,” William Logan, the scholar who recently discovered Mr. Marshall’s identity, said in an interview.

The discovery doesn’t change the meaning, he said, but “knowing there was a man with a particular wheelbarrow and some chickens does help us understand the world the poem was embedded in.”

Williams’s 16-word poem, first published in 1923, was hailed as a manifesto of plain-spoken American modernism. Williams himself declared it “quite perfect.” A staple of classrooms and anthologies, it has inspired endless debates about its deeper meaning — how much of what, exactly, depends on the red wheelbarrow? — not to mention provided the name of an English-language bookstore in Paris, a craft beer from Maine and an episode of “Homeland.”

But Mr. Logan, a professor at the University of Florida who has contributed to The New York Times Book Review, may have taken the poem’s fullest measure yet. His roughly 10,000-word essay on the poem, published in the most recent issue of the literary journal Parnassus and titled simply “The Red Wheelbarrow,” considers the poem from seemingly every conceivable angle.

There are discussions of Williams’s aesthetic influences and composition habits. (Williams, a medical doctor by profession, sometimes wrote poems on prescription forms.) Mr. Logan also considers the history of hyphenation in the word “rainwater,” previous literary references to painted wheelbarrows, New Jersey ordinances concerning handcarts, and early-20th-century poultry trends.

“Who knew there was a fad for white chickens?” he said.

2. In a New Yorker article discussing “Fran Ross’s hilarious, badass novel, ‘Oreo,'” Danzy Senna writes this definition of the postmodern novel:

Aesthetically, “Oreo” has all the hallmarks of a postmodern novel in its avoidance of profundity and its utterly playful spirit. It draws no conclusions, and the quest leads to no giant, revelatory payoffs. [my emphasis] The father and his secret about her birth constitute, in the end—and without giving anything away—as absurdist a feminist send-up of the patriarchal myth as one could hope to find. At every turn, the novel embraces ambiguity. Its quest-driven plot is diverted by wordplay and meta-references to itself. In many ways, it feels more in line stylistically and aesthetically with Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut than with Sonia Sanchez and Ntozake Shange, to name two other black female writers of Ross’s time.

Oreo never becomes a fully believable character, and this feels appropriate to the work’s spirit. The novel does not strive for realism; Ross is not trying to construct a seamless, plot-driven narrative or a sympathetic, three-dimensional main character. We are always aware of Oreo as a construct, and of her story as a construct. Puns, wordplay, standup-comedy riffs, menus, charts, tangents: the journey to find the father is just a chance for Ross to meander through her wicked and free imagination, and to push us toward a hyper-awareness of language itself. “Christine,” Ross writes, and she could be writing of herself, “was no ordinary child … she had her mother’s love of words, their nuance and cadence, their juice and pith, their variety and precision, their rock and wry.”

3. A definition of literary interpretation, and a warning about finding patterns, from a New Yorker piece about love-song lyrics by Adam Gopnik:

One should always be wary of a book by a scholar insisting that there is a pattern where before none has been seen, since scholars have an overwhelmingly strong confirmation bias in favor of patterns—finding patterns is what scholars do. The great art historian Leo Steinberg found the “line of fate” in the Sistine Chapel, which skewered figures from separate scenes into occult sentences, with the same excitement with which Percival Lowell had once found canals on the surface of Mars. These were illusory—but, more important, irrelevant. Interpretation is the teasing out into articulate words of a complicated sensation or experience. It’s not often the discovery of some other, completely different experience that the surface of the work was hiding. [my emphasis]

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘Between the World and Me’

Reading this excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book “Between the World and Me” recently, I felt my mind changed by a text in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time. I highly recommend reading this; this author’s ideas and voice are far better experienced directly than they would be summarized inadequately here by me. Some of my favorite parts, in which Coates is writing to his son, are copied below:

When Abraham Lincoln declared, in 1863, that the battle of Gettysburg must ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” he was not merely being aspirational. At the onset of the Civil War, the United States of America had one of the highest rates of suffrage in the world. The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term people to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. As for now, it must be said that the elevation of the belief in being white was not achieved through wine tastings and ice-cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land.

… The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. This legacy aspires to the shackling of black bodies. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body. And should one live in such a body? What should be our aim beyond meager survival of constant, generational, ongoing battery and assault? I have asked this question all my life. I have sought the answer through my reading and writings, through the music of my youth, through arguments with your grandfather, with your mother. I have searched for answers in nationalist myth, in classrooms, out on the streets, and on other continents. The question is unanswerable, which is not to say futile. The greatest reward of this constant interrogation, of confrontation with the brutality of my country, is that it has freed me from ghosts and myths.

Here are some others’ responses to this book. Here’s another.

‘I’m an asshole,’ sings Denis Leary

“Assholeness has had a resurgence,” said my wife after listening to Leary’s song from 1993. The song does seem to still be culturally applicable 22 years on.

Link: Marvel movies avoid character growth

This piece by Sady Doyle describes a problem she sees in too many Marvel films: a willingness to nearly forego characters in service of fights and set-pieces.

Character arcs aren’t negotiable. They’re not highbrow or pretentious or complicated. Character arcs are essential to the success of any story in any genre. To understand why all this matters, look at the Hulk’s arc in the first Avengers, which many people consider to be the most successful part of that movie. I would argue that it’s actually the most successful element of any Marvel movie to date. In the first Avengers, the Hulk (1) hates being the Hulk, (2) encounters a situation that can only be resolved by becoming the Hulk, and (3) embraces being the Hulk. Simple, right? Stupid simple. Yet it landed like a ton of bricks in the theater, because that’s what stories are. Stories use cause and effect to dramatize a process whereby a person is forced to change.

Hulk’s arc, simple as it might be, was a cause-and-effect process that dramatized a universal human problem: You might not always like yourself, so you can identify with someone who doesn’t like himself, and therefore,you will experience catharsis when a story gives the both of you permission to love yourselves. When he goes on that final rampage and slams Loki into the floor, that’s not just a cartoon causing some corporate-mandated violence: That’s you, loving your body despite being the “wrong” size, or making feminist points in a conversation without worrying that someone will call you a buzzkill, or being proud of your art despite the fact that it’s been rejected, or deciding that you can leave your abusive relationship because you are worthy of respect. Hulk smash inner self-loathing, and thereby becomes the most powerful force in the universe.

So finally, our hero, a suicidal man who has spent the whole movie telling himself he’s worthless and intrinsically inferior to other people, encounters Loki, an arrogant, sneering, hyper-critical, hyper-verbal character — a character who mysteriously chooses that very moment to begin a monologue about how worthless the Avengers are, and how inferior they are to him — and suddenly, Loki hits the floor. Hard. And every time Loki hits that floor, all over the world, the theater erupts with screams of joy. There is a release that goes beyond the rational or the personal, here: The noise of hundreds of strangers united for just one second in the realization that deep down, despite all the pain, despite all the shit they put themselves through, despite the endless cruelty that inner critical voice subjects them to, they don’t have to let it keep talking. Deep down, they are not ugly or stupid or unlovable or bad or worthless. Deep down, they are strong. They are heroes.

Speaking of heroes, here’s Joseph Campbell: “Atonement consists in no more than the abandonment of that self-generated double monster — the dragon thought to be God (superego) and the dragon thought to be Sin (repressed id).” When the superego’s judgment is no longer powerful enough to annihilate us (puny God) and the id is accepted by the ego without fear (I’m always angry), our wholeness is restored, our place in the cosmos is found, and we are free. It hits us so hard, all we can do is scream.

Don’t let anyone tell you that silly popcorn movies don’t matter, or that they can’t be smart or beautiful or profound. A silly popcorn movie can change your life. All it has to do is create characters with identifiable, human problems, and let them work out those problems over the course of the story. Stories are about change, and about people, because ultimately, they are about you, the person sitting in a dark theater, working out your baggage by projecting it onto CGI cartoons of overly handsome actors.

Here’s another way to put it: The extent to which a movie invests in character-based, character-driven storytelling is the extent to which it recognizes, appreciates, and honors the humanity of its audience.

So when Age of Ultron doesn’t invest — when it goes by the assumption that the formula, and the formula alone, is enough to appease the popcorn-eaters — it says something pretty bad.

And Doyle describes how short-cutting a story means the story relies on cliches and stereotypes:

But when the character-based screenwriting breaks down, so does the feminism. Black Widow is just as ill-served as every other character in that story, but because she’s a woman, it’s politically offensive as well as aesthetically offensive.

Let’s take a moment to recognize that, given the paucity of time for character work in Age of Ultron, nearly all of the character development is done with shortcuts. I’m talking real hack stuff, like “each character has a hallucination establishing his inner conflicts and backstory,” or “we know this character is old-fashioned because he doesn’t like swearing” (brought up so many times that I get the sense it was meant to pay off, in the same way the constant questions about Banner’s “secret” paid off last time — was there a climactic F-bomb from Steve that got cut for the rating?) or even “the circle of life is established by naming a baby after the dead guy.” (This, aside from giving me flashbacks to the infamously terrible ending of Harry Potter, is especially egregious because the baby’s mother never met the dead guy — and, if she ever knew that the dead guy existed, which is highly debatable, she knew him as “that guy who’s trying to murder my husband.” She names her baby after someone she never met, on the premise that her husband once slightly got along with him for about two hours. Stirring!) Jokes get underlined by characters explaining them and noting that they were humorous. Some characters just walk into a room, announce their backstory, and leave. (“How are you, Sam?” “I AM HAPPY PURSUING OUR MISSING PERSONS CASE IN DC.”) Nothing ever really gets written, or earned, just vaguely outlined. It’s a whole script made of placeholders.

But when you’re doing all your character work with shortcuts, and you have to write a shortcut for your female character, what do you come up with?She’s that one dude’s girlfriend, obviously, is a time-honored shortcut, used or teased by every Marvel writer who’s put Black Widow in a movie — as a woman, she’s an Other, and a sexual object, and therefore must be deployed as a potential or actual sexual reward for a male viewpoint character, rather than being a viewpoint herself. But that’s the same problem you find with every woman in every Marvel movie (Gamora, Agent Carter, Pepper, whatever Natalie Portman’s name is supposed to be) except for Maria Hill, who is clearly saving herself for her one true love, Exposition. If you want to deepen your female character past being a sexual object, in a movie that has no time or patience for anything resembling “depth,” what conflicts do you give her? Well, women have babies, right? Women want babies. Okay. She can’t have babies. She’s sad because she can’t have babies. There you go! Depth established!

I mean, it’s disgusting. Defining your female character’s motivation solely around the Betty Crocker axis of “wants boyfriend” and “wants babies” is 100% disgusting. But if you look around, all of this is disgusting, because all of the characters are exactly this vapid, because [“Avengers: Age of Ultron” writer and director Joss] Whedon can’t get more than five or ten minutes to establish or complicate their motivations, because Marvel is mandating that he not waste screen time on things like the characters’ motivations when he could be shooting ads for their other movies, because Marvel doesn’t care about men, women, or anything except getting you to show up in a few years for the next installment of Avengers.

I never thought I’d be the kind of person who believed that a crime against feminism was less important than a crime against storytelling, but in this case, they’re so interconnected that it’s hard to tell the difference. When you can’t write, you can’t write women.

And Doyle is concerned that maybe there’s a more depressing reason for the poor character development:

There’s an alternate interpretation for that Hulk-slams-Loki scene in the first Avengers. I try, very hard, to believe it’s not the correct one. Because it’s an evil message, which cynics will tell you is at the heart of every comic book movie. It is: Punching is better than talking.

It happens in a lot of big, commercial movies, right? There’s a guy who talks a lot, thinks, plans, tries to get somewhere by thinking. In the end, that guy is evil, because thinking is bad. He has to be subdued by the heroic brute: The guy who’s just “normal,” who’s more like you, more pure, because instead of thinking and analyzing, he just feels and does. Loki thinks he can get somewhere with a monologue, but surprise! Giant biceps trump clever monologue, every time.

So there’s your other interpretation, the thing I think is at the core of Marvel’s contempt for people: Punching is better than talking. Doing is better than thinking. Instinct is better than intellect; big is better than smart. We don’t need to understand the Stormtroopers; we don’t need to talk to them. That’s thinking, which is boring. We just need to kill: They don’t have names or histories or families or feelings, and by slaughtering them, thousands of them, we prove that we can do.

The audience doesn’t need dialogue or character or psychological growth. The audience needs explosions, because they’re animals, and all they want is blood on the floor. The audience doesn’t need to be surprised or challenged with a new story. The audience wants the old story, because they’ve bought it ten times already, and at the end of the day, we just convinced these f*cking yahoos to wait three years and pay us twenty dollars so we could tell them to come back in four years and pay us $40. Now you think they want personal growth? Give me a break. They’re barely even people.

I mean: You pump this message out into the atmosphere, and then you’resurprised when the biggest fans are ready to send death threats to a director to save the Almighty Brand? Punching is better than talking, rage is better than understanding, conflicts are resolved by annihilating the other person without feeling bad about it: You just told them that. Over and over, and made them pay for the privilege of hearing it. You can’t possibly be surprised that they believe it’s true.

It kills me that I am so bothered by this. I understand that these movies are power fantasies for nine-year-olds: At the end of the day, accepting that they’re stupid is probably smarter than wishing for them to be smart. But this is the epicenter of pop culture. Everyone is expected to share power fantasies with nine-year-olds now, and worse than that, to take them seriously; to make them into a lifestyle. The Marvel virus has already overtaken movies; now, it’s infiltrated a new host, TV, and is hollowing it out from within.

The aim is not one or two bad movies a year, it’s a total lifestyle regimen of bad pop culture: In order to keep up with the Avengers, you need to keep up with Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, and in order to keep up with those, you should probably be watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which will really help you keep up with Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, andGuardians of the Galaxy, and in order to make sure you’re on top of these nine essential movie franchises and able to make sense of their plots, you’ll need to keep a constant stream of Marvel product in your life, so make sure to tune in for Agent Carter, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and, of course, the forthcoming Hulu triumphs, Ant-Man’s One Weird Friend Gary and Guy Running Away From Explosion In Panel 17.

The problems with Marvel’s storytelling will be the problems of narrative storytelling for the foreseeable future. Once this is over, we’ll be dealing with a generation raised on this stuff, who believes it’s how storytelling ought to work: Harry Potter came out when I was in high school. I’m in my thirties, and I still haven’t seen the end of the “serialized YA fantasy” onslaught. Something this big sticks around.

I love stupid popcorn movies. I do. I believe they can be emotionally resonant, mythic, that they can do the same thing all stories are meant to do — speak to the soul; challenge us to be more and better than we were — and can use big, fantastic elements to tell big, human truths. I also believe that Marvel has no investment in doing so; that, even if they manage to grab a director who is capable of doing those things, the prioritization of the brand and the formula over individual creators will ultimately sabotage the attempt.

Avengers: Age of Ultron wasn’t just bad. It was, to me, proof that Marvel movies, even at their best, can only be bad. And that they are going to get worse. The human mission has been lost: these are faceless Stormtrooper movies, unleashed in waves upon the presumed-to-be-faceless Stormtrooper audience. Stories are an affirmation of our human value; they teach us what life means, make and keep us human. Marvel, by removing the human from its storytelling, may be bringing about the end of story altogether. F*ck Ultron: Marvel Comics has built the army of machines that might really end the world.

Links: Nell Zink, A Wedding Bust, Kathy Acker

1. A profile of intriguing writer Nell Zink by Kathryn Schulz in the New Yorker. Some extracts:

For the next four years, Zink worked as a bricklayer in the Tidewater region of Virginia. “That job was more valuable for my intellectual life than my entire college career,” she says. “In college, they allow you to be entertained and let your mind wander, which is not good training to do anything difficult.” Bricklaying, by contrast, cultivated discipline. When she started, she was teaching herself French by reading Sartre’s memoirs, “Les Mots,” with a dictionary in hand. The longer she worked in construction, she found, the longer she could stick with Sartre.

And

In 1997, not long after Zink moved to Israel, Eitan took her to Haifa to introduce her to a friend of his, a writer named Avner Shats. By the end of the evening, Shats and Zink had launched an extraordinary friendship. The two lived some sixty miles apart and did not see each other often, but they began corresponding nearly every day. Zink also set about trying to read his first book, “Sailing Toward the Sunset,” but Shats regarded that as “an impossible task”: it was a difficult postmodern novel written in Hebrew, a language that Zink had barely begun learning. Either in defiance or in accord, Zink gave up trying to read it and started rewriting it in English instead.

Zink wrote “Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats” in three weeks. The novel has, Shats clarifies, “absolutely no similarities to my story”—or, for that matter, to any other story ever written. In addition to the seal-woman (a figure from Celtic mythology called a silkie) and the Mossad agent with the preposterous mission, the book features Zink herself, Eitan, and a mysterious submarine powered by a slip of paper on which is written the name of Moshe Dayan. Toward the end of the novel, that paper is transferred to and animates, with arresting results, the agent’s childhood Teddy bear.

Plenty weird, and plenty plenty, but that is not the sixteenth of it. “Sailing Toward the Sunset” also contains, among other things, an inquiry into the nature of translation; a translation proper, by Zink, of Robert Walser’s “The Job Application”; a lovely, controlled short story based on a diary entry by Kafka; a lot of incisive, off-the-cuff literary criticism (of Proust, Richardson, Faulkner, Eliot, Melville, Sterne, Solzhenitsyn); and a short work of science fiction, set in Long Island City, in a future where the global population has shrunk radically and those who remain in the planet’s skeletal, sky-high cities are “doomed, like the great whales: so few were left, in so large a space.” Avner Shats, the first and for many years the only reader of “Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats,” was, he says, “overwhelmed by her ability to write such excellent stuff so fast.” He liked it so much that he translated it into Hebrew.

“Sailing Toward the Sunset” is representative: until last year, all of Zink’s work was written for a tiny audience—generally as tiny as one or zero. While working as a bricklayer, she wrote a series of stories about a construction worker, then threw them all away. In Germany, she made friends with a Russian composer, and wrote, for his amusement only, a libretto for an operetta—in rhymed couplets, in German. In 2005, she wrote another novel for Shats, “European Story.” Set at an artists’ retreat in Florence, it is slightly less madcap than “Sunset,” but no less funny and smart. I know that only because Shats held onto his copy; Zink deleted hers. Later, she wrote another novel, “The Baron of Orschel-Hagen,” about a patron of the arts obsessed with commissioning a very particular work. Afterward, Zink decided she didn’t like it, and erased the original and all the backups.

2. A really funny story of a Michigan drug bust in the form of a wedding.

3. A brief introduction to experimental writer Kathy Acker.

4. Why not more poetry audiobooks?

5. An essay suggesting that those who welcome and those who fear the effects of Artificial Intelligence in the near future may both be exaggerating the power of A.I.

6. Advice from Colin Mochrie in an interview with the AVClub:

CM: … my very first Whose Line appearance. I psyched myself out, and I was very tentative, very nervous, and I’d go back now, just not caring and, you know, I‘d just do it. The older you get, you just don’t care anymore.

AVC: Is that the key to success? Not caring?

CM: Oh, absolutely. When you really care, stuff doesn’t come to you. When you don’t care, that’s when you start getting free coffees and people thinking you’re Colin Farrell.

John Oliver on standardized testing

For anybody who’s not already familiar with how the increased emphasis on standardized testing is hampering education, John Oliver has a pretty terrific synoposis:

Education: A process rather than a product

My colleague David Perrin has published an op-ed in EdWeek where he points out the value of thinking of education as a process, rather than thinking of education as the creation of a product.

Process is what education fundamentally (and etymologically) is, an “educing” or drawing forth of intellectual potential through the cultivation of habits of mind. Habits of mind can be fostered in a variety of ways, such as writing, researching, using project-based learning and cooperative learning, connecting new learning to personal interests, generating multiple solutions to problems, playing devil’s advocate, finding joy in discovery, and recognizing the integral roles of metacognition, and even failure, in the learning process. This list is nowhere near exhaustive, as all of these processes, and many others, are vital to education. Yet few of them register well, if at all, on a standardized multiple-choice test.

The processes of teaching and learning can be messy and nebulous—if not impossible—to quantify. They are also unglamorous; they will never grab headlines the way that national sports championships, or even educational test results, do. As long as politicians and society insist on reducing “success” in education to the product of test scores, dedicated teachers, like Coach John Wooden, will have to block out the noise of “winning,” so that they can focus on the quiet yet vital processes of teaching and learning, regardless of what the scoreboard reads.