“Poorsplaining” and “True Education”

A recent newcomer to the ever-growing English lexicon is the word ‘mansplain’—a verb that refers to the act of a man over-explaining something (usually something quite obvious) to a woman, as if she were stupid. There is a funny scene in the US comedy series Silicon Valley in which a male character mansplains mansplaining itself. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyC_NKEz62A

Joking and political correctness apart, I think this term makes a useful contribution to the English language and sheds light on an oppressive behavior pattern (going far beyond gender disparities) that has hitherto tended to be overlooked.

I will coin the term ‘poorsplaining’ for this broader phenomenon, since it is invariably used as a discursive mechanism by which a powerful group seeks to entrench the disempowerment of a less privileged group, under the guise of apparently enlightening them. It is a way of explaining things (poorly) to the poor in a way designed to keep them poor.

“Poorsplaining” has in fact become the main mode of conveyance of political and supposedly educational discourse in the modern age.
This has come about for understandable reasons based on generally good intentions. But good intentions alone, as the old cliché goes, can all too easily pave the way to hell.

In the not so distant past, political and intellectual élites draped themselves in a deliberately arcane and impenetrable mode of discourse designed to shore up their power base and deny anyone without privileged access to it any say in the debate. There is a scene in the James Ivory film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day in which a group of politicians are debating enfranchisement. One of them proceeds to ask the butler a question about economic and foreign policy, couching it in obscure terms. The butler is both stumped by the form in which the question is posed and too deferent to offer any point of view of his own. The politician takes this as proving his point regarding the need to disenfranchise the working classes.

Using language to make things unnecessarily difficult to understand is obviously oppressive. But the opposite—making complex matters apparently easy to understand—can be equally oppressive and much more deviously so. It has the advantage, from the point of view of the elites, of being a much subtler, less intrusive, seemingly more inclusive approach.

In the 1970s, future UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher stood atop a soap box brandishing a bag of groceries and attempted to poorsplain to the British populace how macroeconomics is in fact no different from managing the family budget. No economist would agree that this analogy is at all apt, although some might cynically argue that it is a useful necessary illusion to ensure that the rich are granted tax cuts while the poor are kept in their place. The ideological legerdemain was especially effective in so far as it was delivered by a woman—a woman who, true to her traditional stereotype, was doing her household chores and keeping things in simple terms.

Fast forward to 2016. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are campaigning frantically at Town Hall meetings and rallies in an effort to be elected to the most powerful political position in the world.

I am rarely impressed by politicians (especially when they are in campaigning mode) and these two were, by and large, no exception. But I saw something at a Town Hall meeting with Hillary Clinton that truly impressed me. A member of the audience asked the Democratic Party candidate a very specific question about difficulties she was having with her family healthcare insurance policy. Politicians usually take such prompts as an opportunity to appear caring, while spouting platitudes and set-pieces in response. Clinton did something very different. She asked the member of the audience to give her more details about her situation and proceeded to advise her on a face-to-face basis on the healthcare insurance options available to her. This impressed me but obviously did not make very ‘good television’. As the confused guest and the moderator tried to steer her back towards more comfortable platitudes, Clinton did something unprecedented, noble, yet perhaps politically fatal. She said, “It’s more complicated than that.”

Meanwhile, across the country, Donald Trump was haranguing rallies with a brutal simplistic discourse, putting everything in the most absurdly simplistic and monosyllabic terms and not responding to any negative feedback or input whatsoever, except aggressively.

Trump is savvy, but not sensitive, intelligent or knowledgeable. Most people are more like him than like Hillary and he exploits that to the hilt. Clinton had recently handed Trump a gift when she described his supporters as an “irredeemable basket of deplorables.” Trump seized on this as an unguarded undemocratic display of condescension (which in fact it was). But he did something else far more significant. He explained to his audience what the word “irredeemable” means. “That means you can’t change,” he added, whenever he quoted the phrase.

Clinton later went back on what she had said, but in a statistically pernickety manner, arguing that she had only meant that some (not all) of Trump’s supporters were ‘deplorable’. She did not elaborate on her use of the term ‘irredeemable’.

This is in many ways the very opposite of the Thatcher campaign in 1979. Eyes roll as Hillary “womansplains” boring details to potential voters, while supporters cheer and roar as Trump from his podium of male privilege ‘poorsplains’ (condescendingly and poorly) complex economic and foreign policy issues and the meaning of English words.

Both politicians now find themselves hoisted by the petard of their own rhetorical and gender-influenced strategies. Trump struggles to provide a more thorough explanation of ill-thought-out macho policies that he had previously poorsplained the populace into believing in. Clinton’s recent well-thought-out memoir on the reasons for her defeat runs perilously close to the risk of being characterized as gender-stereotypical whingeing.

There is obviously much more to be said about this highly nuanced ongoing political controversy than I can possibly go into here. So, I shall turn instead to the pernicious influence of what I have dubbed ‘poorsplaining’ in the education system.

Charles Dickens’s Hard Times begins with a parody of a schoolmaster giving a lesson to underprivileged children. The class is discussing not Latin verbs or engineering or government economic policy, but interior decorating—more specifically the type of wallpaper with which it is appropriate to paper a sitting room. A girl pipes up that she would like the room to be papered with a pattern involving horses, because she likes horses. She is duly berated by the teacher, who insists that it is ‘more rational’ to use a flower pattern or geometrical abstraction.

This is probably not the part of Hard Times that readers incline to remember. But it is, I think, significant that Dickens chooses to begin his dour tale of Victorian injustice and social exclusion with a classroom scene and mocks the kind of education that is (excuse the irresistible pun) furnished by the teacher.

The passage is even more striking in that it presages a modern era in which TV shows and advertisements purportedly educate the populace as to the more refined fashions, while eschewing provision of basic information on civics and economics, still less mathematics or engineering. A culture in which knowing how to properly paper a wall is more important than the ability to build one or the knowledge of how to use your rights to pressure the government or your landlord to build one for you.

It is but a short skip from Dickens to the more dumbed down form of schooling to which I was subject, whereby art lessons supposedly involved promoting ‘free expression’ and avoiding the imposition of culturally-determined ideals. There were, of course, limits to this. But they were arbitrary rather than sensible ones. I remember an art class when I was six years old in which we were encouraged to experiment with free abstraction and use of color and I produced a painting that involved a series or orange boxes set against a purple background. Rothko style. The teacher, who was probably only doing this sort of exercise out of government-imposed edict anyway, castigated me on the grounds that purple and orange are not colors that ‘go together’. Ever since then, “purple and orange” have been my preferred color scheme, as they are, interestingly, in some of the more subversive comic book art that eschews primary colors. As a result of this arbitrarily imposed authority, within an arbitrarily imposed liberal context, I became arbitrarily rebellious.

There is a scene in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (a film loosely based on the events surrounding the real-life Columbine High School massacre) in which the students are sat down and dutifully, if a little unenthusiastically, being taught about tolerance and difference. This scene occurs shortly before the shooting begins. Elephant is obviously based on a very real and very shocking act of extreme and seemingly senseless violence, but a similar theme is addressed in Lindsay Anderson’s 1960s film If…, in which the graphically presented revolutionary violence is confined to fantasy and set against a backdrop of the very real violence, abuse and ideological indoctrination of the normalized everyday life of an English ‘public’ (i.e. expensive private) school.

Both films involve a scene in which the headmaster/director is shot dead. In Anderson’s film, he is strutting arrogantly around in robes and perfunctorily gunned down from a distance by a rooftop sniper. In Elephant, he is confronted by his killer in the corridor and pleads for mercy. But the fate of the headmaster (the ultimate symbol of the school ethos as a whole)—one ridiculously authoritarian, the other ridiculously liberal—is the same and equally mercilessly meted out.

Here the Trump and Clinton communications strategies are reversed, ideologically speaking. The conservative authoritarian private school mansplains arcane and meaningless doctrines and rituals for young minds, while the modern liberal US public school preaches diversity and tolerance and dumbs down the curriculum in an effort to be ‘inclusive.’ Both, however, like the 2016 US presidential election campaign, succeed only in fostering a climate of alienation and heighten the potential for outbursts of senseless violence.

As a teacher and a learner myself, I am well aware that learning is never easy and it is patronizing, disingenuous and ultimately unfair to pretend that it is or can be made to be so. Learning should be difficult, but it should not be difficult because of understandable resistance to arbitrarily imposed norms or obfuscating language, but because of the inherent obscurity, ambiguity and complexity of the subject matter, of the world itself. This is where the true source of fascination with learning lies and it is precisely this innate thirst for complex nuanced knowledge that is stifled by authoritarian and liberal schools and politicians alike from an early age.

Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society was first published in the early 1970s but is more relevant than ever today. At the very start of this book, Illich notes an overlap between the language of education and the language of war. Nixon, for example, vows to “teach the Viet Cong a lesson”… by bombing them. In another chapter, Illich imagines a future world in which learners are connected to and learn through one another in ‘virtual learning communities’ by way of some, at that time, still unimaginable future technology, thereby dispensing with the need for the unavoidably oppressive infrastructure of schools.

Such technology and such virtual networks of course now exist in multitudes and, although they are still used less for good than for ill, there is increasingly no need for mansplaining or poorsplaining. All learners have always obviously been quite capable of exploring the nuances and complexities of the world for themselves. Now they are also fully equipped to do so. Illich’s futuristic utopian pedagogical world may yet be more than a mere pipe dream. For the sake of all of us and the fate of the world, let us strive to make it real,

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Finding Everyday Inspiration 19 & 20 (Feedback)

I’ll use both the 19th and the 20th Finding Everyday Inspiration assignments to provide some feedback on the course in a single post.

First I would like to thank all those involved as creators or participants. I am well aware that it is a labor largely of love and greatly appreciate the time and effort that all have put in.

I always find this kind of series of tasks to be a very useful spur to thinking, creating and blogging and a way of reaching out to others in the community. To my mind, it doesn’t matter if the prompts are somewhat banal, since this provides greater leeway for interpretation and experimentation, without daunting less experienced writers.

I found it difficult to complete Task 19, since I could find no area on the Blogging University site where participants are invited to register and post links to their responses, as has been the case with previous such courses I have taken part in. As a result, I only read the posts written by bloggers I already follow regularly and, so far as I am aware, only they read mine. Another criticism is that I did not receive the prompts in the stream on the blog site but only by way of email. I am aware, however, that both of these issues may have more to do with my lack of computer skills than with any inherent deficiency in the course. Still, I think it would be helpful, in the interest of greater social inclusion, if the course were made as easy as possible for those with poor computer skills to navigate, thus ensuring more interaction with other participants.

This did not, however, stop me, as always, from deriving immense enjoyment and inspiration from participating in the course and it has, therefore, provided me with a number of what I suppose could be described as ‘aha moments.’

As is usually the case, the course prompted me to publish some writings that lie outside of my comfort zone. I had originally intended this blog to be a forum for largely academic-style writings and postings about language teaching. As I mentioned in my last post, I first got the idea of using it as a way of publishing some of the large body of poetry I have produced over the years, from a course. This time I have, for the first time, published a short story and a part of a novel. If my past record is anything to go by, I will now continue to do so. Once I have been coaxed out of my comfort zone, I tend to find myself intrigued by moving out of it more often.

I also find it very useful when the prompts provide some technical guidance. As I noted above, I find the bureaucratic IT aspect of blogging especially challenging. But I am a fast learner and a simple prompt put in simple terms is usually enough to get me using tools that I was previously unaware of. This time, I learnt how to use the block quotes, for example. I would very much like more of this kind of orientation.

I don’t make plans for the future for myself personally; nor have I ever done so. I know that they will always be frustrated. I prefer just to wait and see what happens and am usually pleasantly surprised. Still less—at my age and in my state of health—am I willing to make plans for a future five, ten or twenty years hence. So I will pass over the questions relating to this. I will, however, end with some remarks as to the future of the blogging community as a collective whole.

I never cease to be impressed by the way that all the fellow bloggers I have encountered in this community (without a single exception) have always been kind, civil and supportive, despite the growingly savage polarized and intolerant virtual and real world in which we now live. It is especially impressive that this has been achieved, not by creating and policing some artificial ‘safe space,’ but simply out of the goodness of heart of the people who collectively choose to come together in this way. I think we should all congratulate one another on this and perhaps think collectively about ways in which we can spread this ethos out into the wider world.

Stuff Picked Up at the Supermarket (Finding Everyday Inspiration 18: anecdotal poetry)

[In response to the 18th Finding Everyday Inspiration challenge prompt https://dailypost.wordpress.com/blogging-university/writing-everyday-inspiration/  I am reposting a little polyptych of anecdotal poems that was the first literary work that I dared air on this blog as part of another writing course back in 2014.]

Stuff Picked Up at the Supermarket

(A Triptych with a Kiss in the Middle)

(i)

Shop Girl Mopping up Eggs

The girl kneels dutifully in her uniform,

attempting with a single damp dish-cloth

to slop a whole half dozen broken eggs

back into their box. The sticky mess

of albumin, burst yolk and shards of shell

oozes around the chapped varnish of her

fingernails. She goes about it

with a clumsy, uncomplaining,

methodical sense of purpose. As if

omelets could be unmade,

accidents undone.

(ii)

Boy Rescuing Beads

A kid of about six in the burger bar

outside the supermarket

has just had a necklace bought for him

by mom&dad.

He fingers the multi-colored beads

excitedly, eyes filled with glee,

as mom&dad munch on Big Macs,

fiddling so frenetically at the string

of fake jewels

that it explodes in a cascading

rainbow of variously-sized hailstones

all over the shop.

First fat tears well,

then his face bursts suddenly

into full-blown tempest of grief…

Everyone near rushes to their feet

to help… The boy clutches at his mother’s inner thighs.

Sobs ebb and flow,

sometimes surging up again in a sudden swell of remembrance

or thanks, as his father and nearby strangers crawl around

on all fours after the scattered beads,

scooping them from the gutters

into a plastic cup,

like votive offerings…

 

Touched by this act of grace, the boy

is soon skipping down the escalator,

hot on the tail of one stubborn fleeing bead,

smiling, laughingly, as if it were a game,

*

All ends well.

As mom&dad traipse off into the dark,

son skipping happily between their held hands,

I spot the large pink bauble that was the center-piece,

left behind, being crushed under a heavily-laden shopping cart,

 

[Interlude]

Kiss

The chubby girl who works on the cheese counter

is pleased that her paycheck has come through

this month & her debit card is good for lunch.

She gives it a triumphant little peck of a kiss.

 

(iii)

The Contents of a Shopping Cart

The girl before me in the check-out queue

has crackers and coffee filters in her basket,

a single oven-ready meal, two bottles

of beer, cleaning fluid, juice,

and bread rolls. As if breakfast

were her main meal, or she were

preparing to wake up with someone

new and special for the first time tomorrow morning.

*

What would she do, I wonder, were these simple,

yet not so simple, pleasures to suddenly be snatched away?

Mount barricades? Storm Congress?

Fight riot police in the streets?

Take up arms—first bits of wood,

then Molotov cocktails, then Kalashnikovs,

then shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles?

Take over the TV station?

Bark out demands?

The Street (Finding Everyday Inspiration 17)

[In response to the 17th Finding Everyday Inspiration ‘map’ prompt https://dailypost.wordpress.com/blogging-university/writing-everyday-inspiration/ I am venturing once again outside of my comfort zones of poetry and academic writing and posting an attempt at a short story that I wrote while I was in hospital last year. The places and the people described here are real, as they often are in my work, but I prefer to conceal their exact identities by blurring and conflating facts. So, no link to Google Maps…]

The Street

The bar is of the kind people end up coming to regularly only when they are washed out. Most sit alone at tables drinking steadily and heavily but do not mercifully share the stories of their mundane failures with others. Importunate drunks are promptly thrown out. Misery is welcome so long as you keep it to yourself. That’s as classy as it gets. The waiters sternly enforce this only rule.

The street is one of the kind he likes: straight and clearly modern, but still human in scale; part of the first wave of urban interventions, cutting through slums, providing space for upwardly mobile townhouse façades, linking markets and churches, not meant for the roar of traffic brought by later arteries; named neither quaintly as the streets of old nor pompously after an already forgotten local dignitary, but for a romantic poet. There is a shopping mall just across the road.

J comes out of the mall, staggering on black high heels and under the weight of shopping bags from a department store. He can tell she is coming from the scent of her cheap perfume. She complains about some upset over borrowed credit cards and dumps herself down on a chair close to him and gives him a little hug.

They have been sort of friends since the one night they had slept together. He helped her recover from a back-street abortion and from a broken ankle acquired in the course of a bar-room brawl.

They exchange few words and have never even kissed since that unpropitious first encounter. The waiters, who are usually so accommodating in plying his needs as he sits quietly in his habitual corner, are always a little suspicious of J. She is regarded as a potential trouble-maker. But their manner changes sharply to one of waiting on a lady as soon as she is sitting next to him and he has tacitly indicated his consent.

They communicate little but make up for it by getting drunk. They end up the last to leave the bar, looking dreamily and bemusedly at each other, like two kings left alone on a chess-board in a game that can no longer be won or lost. She has a passion for junk food that, against his better judgment, he is all too willing to indulge.

He likes the straight street named after a Romantic poet which was once laid out to link the seminary to the local market and the Jewish quarter that has become a cluster of private hospitals doing lucrative business serving medical tourists seeking cheap sex changes and plastic surgery these days.

The street has long since been bisected by ill-thought-out avenues designed to cater for the needs of cars. He walks up and down it regularly, notebook in hand, wanting to get it down in verse, before retiring to his usual bar and the occasional visit from his unlikely muse, with her aura of mystery and cheap perfume.

But the street is its own poem. It speaks for itself. He yearns to capture it, not in the five minutes of an unrequited Romantic encounter, as in the short story by its eponym, but in a split second of the hustle and bustle of its sun-beaten daily life. Not in the clinical nature of the snapping shutter of a photographer, but in its full messiness, dynamism and physicality. Street vendors shouting, imprudent pedestrians bumping into cars, the students from the nearby school for the deaf hanging around in groups talking loudly to each other in sign language, stray dogs wandering through the litter as if drugged, J staggering out of the shopping mall weighed down by bags of clothes. The street alive, but frozen in a moment, like a body, bloodied, anesthetized and cut open in a noisy operating room; electrocardiograms ticking away.

He has fantasized and even dreamt about this poem of the street a lot. Not about what it would look like. He knows that. But about what would be needed to achieve it. The passers-by tracked down by CCTV and rounded up by an extensive security apparatus; blackmailed, bullied or bribed into taking part in the performance by hired thugs, or, failing that, bundled out of their homes at dead of night; screaming fidgeting children unwilling to comply. Bored participants drifting off and having to be tasered back onto the set to assume their proper place in the scene.

He has never told J about this fantasy but remembers fondly the night he once took her to a bar she could not otherwise have afforded to frequent and guided her broken foot gently in its plaster cast through delicate dance moves.

 

Expurosis (Finding Everyday Inspiration 16)

[In response to the 16th Finding Everyday Inspiration challenge prompt https://dailypost.wordpress.com/blogging-university/writing-everyday-inspiration/ I am going back to being lazy and posting something from my extensive back-catalogue of poems and writings, although this piece has never before been published on this blog. This poem marked the transition to my second phase of creativity in 2000. It is the first in which I fully move away from prose poetry into a sort of musicality and use of short sharp lines. I nevertheless felt obliged at the end to append a prose coda. Should anyone be curious, Expurosis is the word used by the Stoic philosophers to refer to a future apocalypse in which the whole world will be engulfed in fire and readied for the next iteration of the universe.]

 Expurosis

 everything

                 is broken

in that final fire

            that does not come

as an ending

                     but lies

at the heart

                     of all things

            stirring

all the illusions

of light and life

            into cold truths

of darkness, stone and ash

like ingredients

in a wedding cake

that comes out of the oven

hard as a tomb

*

                       no

trumpets or angels

proclaim an apocalypse

domestic

as a two-bar electric

fire

in the living room

whose plastic coals and flames

are fakely flickered

by a calm rotation

of dusty, creaking, rusted metal blades

within,

domestic

as the blue wisp of paraffin

in the portable kitchen heater

or the steam from Ready Brek

dissolved in warm milk

in a winter morning stomach,

domestic

as the muffled clunk and

early-morning hiss of central-heating

coming on

one snowy morning

through freshly-bled

radiators

     *

everything

            is broken down

to the bare fact of existence

in thick pink hospital blankets

where we shit our last

in a sleeping-bag under

a rain-dripping tent

where we had our first blow-job

under the 3-tog double duvet

of couples at home,

every cry of the damned

is tucked in for the night

under a quilted eiderdown.

      *

everything

            is broken down

in the boiler

starched with blue and pegged out

to freeze on a winter-garden

washing line

                       everything

is broken down

and mixed up

and spun dry

in the magic of the new Electrolux.

everything is broken

down in the warm

flip-flopping air

of college tumble-driers

and

everything

found in the woods

            is broken up

—twigs and dead leaves,

and branches dank with moss—

and stuffed in the old clothes

of a guy

            for Bonfire Night

*

everything

            is broken up

crushed to almost nothing

by time or accident

like old Ford Cortinas

at the scrap yard

*

every

            tenderness

you have given

            will be broken up

brittle as if dipped in liquid nitrogen

*

all loves

will be lost or left

so much kitsch and junk

shattering across a hard-stone floor

of empty space

and swept up by a cleaning-lady

the next morning

*

everything

is

broken

in the warm morning breeze

on your feet

in the twinkling atoms of dust

in the warm summer light

through bedroom windows

in the warm flushes of caresses

caused by care or lust

in the warm sea

under the warm sun

on the warm sand

between her warm thighs

behind her back

everything is broken

up, down, off and away

everything is broken

and bloo

as a sky-light or a bruise

*

everything is broken

up, down, off and away

everything given

is given up

and back and away

everything is given

into that final fire –

into that two-bar electric fire

into that paraffin lamp

into that blanket

into that greenhouse earth

into that radiator –

zipped up

in the warm-cold sleeping bag

that does not come

only at the end

but lies

at the very weeping heart –

the oven and the fridge –

of all things

stirring

all the illusions of light

and life back in

as it first did at the beginning.

*

The ladybird, which is neither lady nor bird, was a sufficiently infrequent visitor to my childhood world, to justify a special welcome. The red wings with black spots, which served also, when clasped together, as a crusty beetle-like back, appealed to my infant attraction to hard, brightly coloured things, but, in an instant, could disappear into a fluttering upward moving criss-cross of black, bearing the precious thing suddenly and thrillingly away on the wind.

Most times, however, they were docile and domestic, hugging the carpet floor. I kept one in a match-box once, and fancied I could train her to do little tricks, like climb, at my bidding over ramps and bridges made of bricks and encyclopaedias. One day, my mother was making jam-tarts, and I had been playing with her on the floury kitchen table, when she disappeared. I hadn’t noticed her fly off as they are wont to do, as mentioned above, and wondered whether she hadn’t by chance been seduced by the sweet scent of the sugar, to burrow herself into the jammy centre of one of the tarts, which had already gone into the oven. The doubt was strong enough that we threw the cooked tarts out into the garden for the birds to feast on. So, my ladybird, if indeed she was entombed in them, received, after all, unwittingly fitting Zoroastrian last rites.

*

Ladybird, ladybird

Fly away home

Your house is on fire

Your children are gone

 

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What Makes Literature Good (Finding Everyday Inspiration 15)

[My response to the 15th Finding Everyday Inspiration prompt https://dailypost.wordpress.com/blogging-university/writing-everyday-inspiration/ based on a cue from a reader answers a series of questions on the subject of literature sent me by Mara Eastern, whose blog https://maraeastern.com/ I heartily recommend.]

Mara asked me “What makes good literature?” “What do you look for in a book?”

These are very hard questions to answer. My first instinct was to re-post the manifesto section from my recent posts on Dogme poetry, but that seemed not only lazy and disrespectful, but also not to answer the question, in so far as manifestoes, my own included, are generally mock-pompous tongue-in-cheek affairs that do not really recommend that writers confine themselves to the ‘rules’ presented or necessarily reflect what the writers of the manifesto actually enjoy reading. The idea is more to draw up loose guidelines for ongoing development of an idealistic future aesthetic project.

“What makes good literature?” Let’s turn that question round and ask “What makes literature good?” And, to make my task a little easier, let’s make it more specific and take an obvious example. “What makes Shakespeare good?”

Few nowadays would argue that Shakespeare is not good, although there is some disagreement as to the relative merits of the various poems and plays. Titus Andronicus isn’t really very good, despite some recent efforts to pretend it is. Hamlet isn’t quite as good as people make out. Coriolanus is underrated. And so forth and so forth. But generally, Shakespeare has nowadays acquired a canonical status whereby no-one seriously questions whether the work as a whole has literary merit per se.

This, however, was not always the case. It was not the case for Shakespeare himself and his contemporaries, for example. During Shakespeare’s own life time, the plays were considered throwaway items (like some classic 1960s TV shows that were aired and then promptly binned). They were considered popular entertainment of no lasting value.

It is only by accident that Shakespeare’s plays ended up being written down and preserved for posterity. Two members of his loyal troop of players, who remembered the memorable lines they had memorized, thought them worth putting down in writing and publishing in the first folio. Shakespeare himself only formally published his sonnets. Poetry was regarded as a much more prestigious and politically influential (if not economically lucrative) art form than the popular theater of the time.

Furthermore, even by the standards of the lowly genre of theater, Shakespeare’s works were not regarded as especially polished or fine examples of the art. The way he wrote was considered vulgar and populist and his blatant disregard for the unities (of time and place and theme) of classical drama was widely criticized and compared unflatteringly to the polished niceties of the French and Spanish classical dramatists and the English writers who imitated them.

Even in the 18th century, Shakespeare was regarded with a certain suspicion (over-emotional, vulgar, messy) by writers schooled in a newfangled fussy elitist rationalist neo-classicism shot through with ironic erudition, good manners and bons mots.

The consolidation of Shakespeare as, at first a national and then an international icon, occurred during the 19th and 20th centuries and for very different reasons.

In the 19th century, romantic poets and thinkers began to value emotions over reason, and they came to realize that Shakespeare was much better at expressing these than many of his contemporaries and literary descendants. However, 19th century romantics tended to view Shakespeare through a patina of contemporary sentimentality, giving rise to some absurdities such as re-writing King Lear with a ‘happy-family ending’, on the grounds that Shakespeare was such a sensitive soul that he couldn’t possibly have intended the play to end the way it does. Some gnarled cynical interloper must have adulterated the final scenes!

Interestingly I recently met someone who has only ever seen the first half of King Lear. She asked me how it ended. I mischievously asked her back how she thought it ended. And she replied by outlining exactly the kind of Romantic resolution that sentimental Victorians would have preferred.

Sentimentality thus, albeit somewhat misguidedly, played a role in the rehabilitation of Shakespeare’s status as a dramatist. The Victorians, however, also had another much less noble reason for recasting the bard as the canonical national English poet.

Much of Shakespeare’s work contained, on some level at least, a strain of heavy propaganda in favor of the 16th century Tudor regimes, in particular the long reign of Queen Elizabeth I. His lengthy series of history plays, named after Medieval kings, present a landscape of unremitting political chaos that preceded the imposition of noble order by Henry Tudor and his heirs.

Victorian readers, their minds full of sentimentalism and national pride, at a time when England ruled the waves, saw in this ample scope for recycling Shakespeare’s Elizabethan propaganda for the Victorian age. This approach persisted well into the 20th century. Laurence Olivier’s film version of Henry V is an overt celebration of Britain’s ‘victory’ in the Second World War and the ushering in of a new Elizabethan age. This was one of the first films I was ever made to watch. The school took us to the cinema to see it. We must have been around four years old. It was a double billing with footage of the coronation ceremony. And very boring to an infant mind.

The 19th century romantic sentimentalist and British imperialist rehabilitation of Shakespeare thus established him as a (if not the) canonical poet and dramatist, but did so in a way that was distorted by contemporary sentimentalities and imperialistic interests that in fact often clash quite sharply with the words Shakespeare actually wrote.

The important thing however was that Shakespeare was now taken seriously. Previously, he had been criticized for being sloppy and lightweight. Now his work was being recognized as possessing considerable (if not unfathomable) political insight and emotional depth.

The 20th century would proceed to look at Shakespeare more ‘scientifically’, while projecting its own anxieties back onto his work.

This was partly just chance. The world that Shakespeare lived in was more similar to that of the 20th century than that of the 19th. Elizabeth I was not a figurehead perched on top of a firmly-established empire the way Queen Victoria was. She had fought for her right to rule by tooth and claw and done so using a unique combination of traditional political violence and manipulation, exotic newfangled propaganda, and feminine wiles. Despite these extensive efforts, however, she was still highly insecure in her position as supreme monarch, and was as paranoid and prone to lash out at rivals as ever Stalin was.

The political turmoil of the 20th century turned out to reveal the true depth of Shakespeare’s political insight. Richard III ceases to be a pantomime villain and comes to constitute a psychological portrait of tyranny. Hamlet, Richard II and the various parts of Henry VI come to be moral tales on the subject of weak leadership and appeasement. Power in Shakespeare is always precarious.

The mass anxiety that would result from the mass destruction of World Wars and technological and political change in the 20th century also worked in Shakespeare’s favor. Again this reflects the way things were in Shakespeare’s age. People in Shakespeare’s day were extremely perturbed by the shift from a Catholic to a Protestant view of the world and the rise of a largely mystical kind of Renaissance science akin to witchcraft, just as people were unsettled by the growing secularism and democracy and technological advances of the early 20th century that would culminate in the invention and use of the atomic bomb.

A third prong in Shakespeare’s latter-day 20th century apotheosis was literary modernism. Modernism aimed not only to incorporate modern technological advances into literature, but also to rehabilitate the vernacular voice and to encourage linguistic experimentation. Shakespeare, far less self-consciously and much more organically, had already outdone the modernists on all three counts, three hundred years earlier, with an aplomb that had not been duly recognized at the time.

The fourth aspect of Shakespeare that made him a major if not the major poet of the 20th century was the way that he writes for, about and from the point of view of female characters. This too stemmed, for Shakespeare, out of political necessity. The absolute monarch of the time was a woman and, unlike previous queens, she refused to depend in any way on the support of a man, to the point of declaring herself a life-long virgin.

We have grown used to queens and female leaders over time, but it is still hard to imagine quite how radical a move this was and still is. Margaret Thatcher had Denis prodding her constantly ideologically from behind the scenes and providing considerable financial support, Queen Victoria ceded her will to her consort and, after his death, to a series of prime ministers and special advisors. Queen Elizabeth II is neatly folded into a comfortable family history of father, husband and sons and eschews political engagement. The Virgin Queen was an active absolutist monarch and operated largely on her own volition, in a much more volatile age amidst much more dangerous hostile forces. No wonder she is still feted today in print and film.

Shakespeare reflects this by giving female characters a much more powerful voice than they had hitherto been accorded in literature and these powerful women are not necessarily regarded as harridans or she-wolves. This theme appears more in Shakespeare’s comedies and melodramas than in the tragedies and historical plays. Although finally cowed, Kate puts up a good fight in The Taming of the Shrew but Shakespeare’s best female part without a doubt is Rosalind in As you Like it.

As you Like it contains layer upon layer of irony like no other in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, in which irony is the perhaps the principal virtue. The title itself is an irony, proclaiming (ironically) that the famed dramatist is finally going to write a romantic pastoral comedy in the simplistic manner that the people like, with a huffy emphasis on the ‘you’. In fact, he proceeds to produce a comedy of manners like nothing anyone has ever seen before or since and, of course, the audience loves it. It is a master-class in how to manipulate popular entertainment for subversive ends.

As You Like It is the only Shakespeare play in which the central protagonist is a woman. Even so, Rosalind (like Queen Elizabeth facing the Spanish Armada) has, at one point, to appear pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman in order to effect her ultimately benign denouement.

All ends well in As you Like It but Shakespeare concludes the play not only with the happy multiple nuptials the audience expects, but also with an epilogue in which the young male actor playing Rosalind (women were not allowed to appear on the stage at the time) tears off his female garb and, as frankly as was possible at the time, dares the male members of the audience to deny that they have homoerotic feelings towards him. This is an extraordinary turnaround in a play that explicitly sets out from the beginning to appeal to populist tastes against the better judgment of the playwright.

The passage is worth citing in full:

It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue; but it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord the prologue. If it be true that good wine needs no bush, ’tis true that a good play needs no epilogue; yet to good wine they do use good bushes, and good plays prove the better by the help of good epilogues. What a case am I in then, that am neither a good epilogue nor cannot insinuate with you in the behalf of a good play! I am not furnished like a beggar, therefore to beg will not become me: my way is to conjure you; and I’ll begin with the women. I charge you, O women, for the love you bear to men, to like as much of this play as please you: and I charge you, O men, for the love you bear to women — as I perceive by your simpering, none of you hates them — that between you and the women the play may please. If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me and breaths that I defied not: and, I am sure, as many as have good beards or good faces or sweet breaths will, for my kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell.

Rosalind, the central character, with whom it is impossible for the audience not to fall in love, sketches out here a whole new wholly female (or, at least, ‘non-male’) way of doing sexual and other kinds of politics. From a 21st century viewpoint, the play is still very much fresh and alive.

Back when I was in school, way back in the last century, a rather pretentious young English teacher told us that ‘every century has its favorite Shakespeare play’. The 18th century preferred the Scottish Play, the 19th century Lear, the 20th century age of anxiety opted overwhelmingly for Hamlet. He argued that the play of the 21st century would be Troilus and Cressida. Now I am sort of grown up and equally pretentious and we are actually in the 21st century, I would tend to agree with the general thrust of his thesis. But I would disagree about the identity of the 21st century play. For me, it is As You Like It. I would love to see a post-Trump version that plays on the ironic populist intentions of the title.

I am deviating widely and wildly from my original remit of writing a short text about “What makes great literature?” which I have recast in the form of “What makes literature great?”

In some ways I am glad I have, since I have been wanting to write about Shakespeare on this blog for some time but rather daunted by the task.

To go back to the original question, I think you have to see it from both sides. “What makes great literature?” In hindsight, this seems obvious so far as Shakespeare is concerned: his vibrant use of vernacular and novel language that appeals to the intelligentsia and the masses alike; the emotional depth of his essentially politically motivated characters; his invention of ‘sexual politics’; his willingness to break with fussy preconceived artistic norms; a surrounding socio-political climate of anxiety, hope, oppression and radical change.

All of that is there, objectively, in Shakespeare. And yet it took at least three hundred years before that depth of perspective was really brought out by readings and performances and history. These inherent qualities made Shakespeare great, but they could only be truly appreciated after the passage of a considerable chunk of time. His work could all too easily have all been lost. And had it all been lost, would we now feel the same about Webster or Jonson or Marlowe? I think not.

There is something truly great and profound about Shakespeare’s work. It was preserved by accident and, by accident, has chimed with the sentiments and eventualities of the various historical epochs that have ensued. Like all true greatness, and like the greatness of the political leaders Shakespeare most admired, it is great (not by entitlement, accolade or force of arms) but by, in Shakespeare’s own words, having greatness accidently ‘thrust upon it.”

This, in my view, is what makes great literature and what makes literature great.

History always has the last word.

 

 

Finding Everyday Inspiration 14: Daylight Hours

[This is yet another lazy repost in response to the 14th Finding Everyday Inspiration prompt https://dailypost.wordpress.com/blogging-university/writing-everyday-inspiration/. I have altered the poem very slightly since I last posted it a couple of years ago.]

 

Daylight Hours

Day begins with the deserted streets a sea

of discarded kebab-wrappers

blown by gentle wind

through pools of puke

deposited outside pubs.

*

Huddled figures finish late-shifts

or are off to an early start.

Papers replete with right-wing propaganda

pile up outside newsagents and are bought up by curious workers along the way.

and street-sweepers with

their water jets and whirring machines

appear in the crisp light of a sun

peeking and winking at them

round the corners and in the windows

of a low-rise landscape of benign limestone buildings

that is home.

*

The veins of the city clog

with vehicles

in treacly slow-moving lines.

Car-parks and pavements fill.

Shops and schools open their doors with a yawn.

Traffic-police and caretakers do their job.

*

Food trucks line up

and those already obese

queue up to punctuate their work

with lunchtime treats

under a sweltering mid-day sun.

Sweat their way back to work.

*

The afternoon,

since siestas became unacceptable,

is a long sinking feeling

declining towards evening,

buoyed by spoonfuls of sugar in coffee cups,

as birds chirp and congregate to roost

and the petals of flowers close up shop for the night.

Bats wheel around in the dusk,

swooping down to pick up discarded fruit.

The litter pickers with their children’s unwashed unshod

feet dangling from the back of a cart do their rounds.

Dad’s wiry muscles sternly humping rubbish up onto the flat bed

of a truck. Mom up the duff again. Kids messing around.

Shouting.

*

A slow parade of cars

wends its way honkingly homewards

to luxury apartments, perched high in the descending night,

under the sliver of a new moon.

 

Finding Everyday Inspiration 13: Word Count–Descent

[In response to the 13th Finding Everyday Inspiration https://dailypost.wordpress.com/blogging-university/writing-everyday-inspiration/ prompt on the question of word count, I submit a very old poem of mine, originally written semi-consciously whilst in the simultaneous throes of a white-rum binging session and yet another personal crisis, back in 1996, shortly after my arrival in Brazil. When I looked back at this prose-poem, scrawled on already yellowing paper, some years later, I noted something quite extraordinary. Despite the state of extreme inebriation in which it was originally composed, it exhibits a peculiar mathematical precision: containing 80 words, organized into three blocks of exactly 26 around the twice repeated word “tower,” which appears first at the beginning and then at the end of a two-part compound noun. The poem was originally somewhat pretentiously entitled Towards a Science of Desire (I was into a lot of crazy psychoanalytical stuff at the time). I have since retitled it Descent.]

Descent

Seeing a plane coming in to land, as if drowning in the earth’s lower atmosphere, sinking in smooth trajectory, down among the coral of the city’s tower-blocks; and thinking of the sweet precision of this maneuver, the exquisite balance between gravity and friction, the terse, direct, effective communication between pilot and control-tower; I imagine the sheer, exhilarating beauty of a science that allows a man to fall efficiently exactly where he wants to and should be. In place.

 

 

Finding Everyday Inspiration Day 12: Textual Criticism of Sylvia Plath’s Mushrooms

[In response to the Finding Everyday Inspiration prompt for day 12, I am lazily reposting  a text on on Sylvia Plath’s Mushrooms, originally entitled Sylvia Plath’s Full Stops]

No postwar English language poet has received such unmitigated critical acclaim as Sylvia Plath. And rightly so. Her work is at once seminal, canonical, apocryphal and apocalyptic. She broke completely new ground as a fiercely female poet poised uncomfortably between the dark memories of the recent world war and the dubious freedoms and comforts of a hedonistic age of mass-consumption that had only just begun. Her poems combine untamable churning depths of emotion with supreme artistic self-control, drumming out a painstakingly honest, unwelcoming and unwelcome, anthem for the baby-boom doomed generation of youth to come.

Like William Carlos Williams, Plath mastered the clipped metrically unconventional line. But, whereas Williams used this modernist technique, mollified by enjambment, to promote a languid impressionistic sympathy for nature, fellow human beings, and, frankly, himself, Plath turns out self-flagellating whip cracks of lines, clearly punctuated by pregnant pauses and sharp stops, allowing neither the reader nor herself the respite of the enjambed phrase.
Compare the first stanza of Williams’s The Widow’s Lament in Springtime, which I cited in an earlier post, with the first stanza of Plath’s Tulips, to which it bears a certain superficial metrical and thematic resemblance.

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed in.
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anesthetist and my body to the surgeons.

The rhythm here comes in stops and starts, marked by punctuation and harsh conjunctions and eruptions of direct speech. The only lines that come close to an enjambment—the third and the fifth—are deliberately hampered and held back by clumsiness and ambiguity. The punctuation of “quietly/as the light lies on these white walls” suggests a simile, but the line-break tempts us to read ‘as’ as a conjunction, itself ambiguous, hovering semantically between ‘because’ and ‘while’.

Compare this with Williams’s use of ‘as’ in the introduction to the Widow’s Lament. “the new grass/flames as it has flamed/often before,” in which the comparative use of the word is totally unambiguous, serving the purposes of a comforting nostalgia.
There is always something deliciously and delicately sadomasochistic about the way Plath forges words into sweetly savage little stanzas and fragmented lines. Yet her work is as utterly and refreshingly devoid of self-promotion or pomp as knitting is.

Plath understands, as is evident from her harrowing descriptions of suicide attempts in The Bell Jar, how the comfort of supposedly womanly and homely virtues is not a desirable end in itself, but part of a lethal mix of oppression and misogyny that poisons the human race. The trap of the pursuit of happiness drags a death-drive in its wake…Genocide, suicide, infanticide, the sempiternal abuse of women and children and human beings in general for the sake of a cynically utilitarian view of fulfillment and order constantly haunt her work…

Her last poem, Edge, ends ominously with the words “The moon has nothing to be sad about,/staring from her hood of bone.// She is used to this sort of thing./Her blacks cackle and drag.” Comfort, accommodation, and the absence of sadness are equated with the black arts of Hecate. While Williams’s imagined widow distances herself from the at once grim reality and potential comfort of self-destruction with more wistful and softly-focused emotions: “I feel that I would like/ to go there/ and fall into those flowers/ and sink into the marsh near them.”

One of my favorite Plath poems is Mushrooms… It was her last poem of 1959 and long precedes the manic flurry of creativity in the weeks and months before her death, for which she is best known.

Nature for Plath is not a source of solace, awe or inspiration, but rather some kind of infestation that needs to be battled or curbed, like weeds on a picket-fenced lawn or methicillin-resistant bacteria. Like the tulips at her hospital bedside, it is something artificial, invasive, nauseating. Like the gnarled root of a tree, whose grubby yet persistent existence bugs Jean-Paul Sartre’s alter ego in La Nausée.

Plath inverts the romantic notion of the sublime, but much more sharply and more viscerally than her existentialist and beatnik contemporaries. For her, existence does not precede or transcend essence; it fundamentally infests it. Life is as nauseating and futile as a fair-ride is; the freedom and the bondage, the apparent license combined with apparent safety, equally distasteful and equally fake, the vicious pair roped unwillingly and unwittingly together by chromosomes in the womb and beyond. We are locked in a constant three-way battle between zest and disgust, and the cold comfort of the lure of death.

In Mushrooms nature anthropomorphically vaunts its (self-) destructiveness, despite and because of its meekness and innocence.

“we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.”

There is something Nietzschean about the idea of the meek inheriting but infesting the earth. Plath’s poem glides effortlessly over the question of good and evil.

There are sharp shifts of register in this poem, often from one line to another and even within lines. Sharp edges, which, like needles or knives, are at once homely and potentially deadly.

“We shall by morning” seems lifted from a general’s exhortation to his troops. “Inherit the earth” is a phrase obviously ripped from the gospel, but separated from the meekness that canonically qualifies the subject by five painful lines. The tercet ends “Our foot’s in the door”: with a vernacular reference to the bullying tactics of a travelling salesman, gold-digger or Gestapo officer and a deliberately clumsy sudden pronoun ambiguity, as the carefully maintained first person plural collapses into a single aggressive foot, bringing the poem to a metrically and semantically apt conclusion. There may even be a jazz-like joke in here at the expense of the fussily old-fashioned arrangement of poetic feet—a spondee (our foot) precedes an inverted dactyl (s’ in the door), the exact opposite of the norms of classical verse. Plath expertly turns tradition on its head with a bitter wit.

“Our kind multiplies” inter-discursively references racist discourse, whilst subverting it by replacing the usual exclusive third person plural possessive pronoun with the first. The hint of a Biblical reference is also undermined by substitution of an understood second person imperative (“Go forth and multiply!”) by the willful and somewhat sinister triumphant inevitability of the first person plural—a collective ego run wild rather than a compliant flock.

The word ‘kind’ is the hinge of this clipped but crucial line, poised subtly, dark yet sweet, semantically-speaking, between the racist, exclusionary connotations of the noun, and the commonplace sentimentality of the adjective, and tipping down like a see-saw into a Biblical euphemism for sexual reproduction translated into mathematical abstraction. Plath packs so much psychosexual history into this short line that it feels aptly, for good or ill, fit to explode.
I would argue that it is best to read this poem backwards, as it often is with poems. Working backwards from “our kind multiplies,” we get to “nudgers and shovers/in spite of ourselves”. At this point we realize that, despite the unremitting, perhaps deliberately mesmeric use of an anthropomorphic first person plural, Plath is ‘actually’ (if that means anything in her precociously ‘virtual’ approach to her work) referring (under erasure) to her own experience of womanhood and procreation. At the time of writing of this poem, she was half-way through her first pregnancy.

The ‘nudgers and shovers’ seem to be both fetuses fighting their way out of the womb and cocky ad-men seeking advancement in their career within a brutal capitalist system… To this dark revelation, she appends “in spite of ourselves,” giving the line a final hamartiological umbilical twist. Human beings transcend the pursuit of wealth and status, into which they are unleashed at birth, but are inevitably, from the outset, dragged into it. In a single terse couplet, Plath juxtaposes capitalist and social Darwinist cynicism with a religious notion that babies are born against their better nature, pure pre-existent souls corrupted from the outset by the act of copulation and conception.

Plath, however, is a master of the subtlest ambiguity. The ‘nudgers and shovers’ may be the fetuses in their mothers’ wombs, but they could also be the mothers themselves, forced by instinct to push out babies in labor, irrespective of their true desire to do so.

“We are shelves, we are/ tables, we are meek/ we are edible,” still working back through the poem, is the next stanza. The unfathomable ambiguities of the persistent ‘we’ cluster together here. Are ‘we’ women, children, human beings in general? Or perhaps just mushrooms? A basic form of life feeling its way out fumblingly into the darkness of the world.

Mushrooms spring up from the lawn overnight or can be grown indoors on shelves of fertile earth in attics or airing cupboards. They can be a source of nutrition, delirium or deadly poison. Unlike plants and animals, fungi do not require taming, tilling, harvest or slaughter. They pop up out of the dark, already good to eat… There is something Saturnine about them. They do not partake of the cycle of photosynthesis. Unlike newborn babies, animals or plants, they play no part in human lives as sources of affection, companionship or decoration… We feel no romantic or sentimental attachment whatsoever towards them. Their value is mired in myth. They are simply edible, fungible, seemingly inexhaustible products of the earth, parasites or symbiotic slaves to the supposedly nobler animal and vegetable kingdoms. All life, Plath suggests, however, may be like this.

“We
Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!
*
But who are ‘we’/’they’? Although the first half of the poem is gorgeously mushily mushroomy and could easily and brilliantly have ended at line 18 with the delicious intermixing of anthropomorphism and pure description that is “shoulder through holes,” the second half is crucial to the true meaning Plath intends and this is invited in by the unexpected and metrically eccentric enjambment of an evocative “we” hanging in the middle of the poem at the end of the 18th line.

“We” in English and most other Indo-European languages is a highly ambiguous pronoun. There is no distinction between the exclusive and inclusive (me and you; or me and you as opposed to them). The mushrooms declaring themselves anthropomorphically as ‘we’ in Plath’s poem seem to be inserting themselves as aliens into the individualistic ordered world of the author; pushing their way in, one foot aggressively fixed in the door. An imagined “we” opposed to ‘us’, like rats or dry rot. On the other hand, there is the ‘we’ that is the first person singular plus another first person singular… The grammatical archetype of truces, trysts and affective ties.
Plath brilliantly combines two or more meanings in this hanging ‘we’. The mushrooms as a chthonic force of nature, marshalling themselves against humanity; children in the womb worming their way into our affection, forcing themselves into existence; we the parents, obstetricians, gossiping midwives, interfering pastors and priests, urging them to be born.

Mushrooms is a monumental, almost perfectly executed, poem that deals subtly, yet dispassionately, with the profound—perhaps ultimate—question of what it means to come into existence or bring a living creature into being, from the unique viewpoint of a troubled, talented woman with a child kicking in her womb.