We may be turning and turning in a polar vortex, with April, or what folks in the creative-writing biz call poetry month, seeming like an impossible dream, but poetry is nevertheless in the air right now. In Walt Whitman’s case, it’s on the air: Apple’s ad for iPad Air, “Your Verse,” which debuted on January 12, includes lines from Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!” — as read by Robin Williams in a monologue from “Dead Poets Society” — ending with
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—what good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Two shorter 30-second versions — “Light Verse” (possibly the first time in literary history that the word “light” has been used in reference to Whitman, and a misrepresentation of the opening of “O Me!”) and “Sound Verse” — which begins with “To quote from Whitman, ...” have since aired.
This series represents Whitman’s second starring role in contemporary advertising: a 2009 ad campaign for Levi’s featured excerpts from two Whitman poems, “Pioneers! O Pioneers,” recorded by Will Geer for Folkways Records in 1957, and “America,” read by Whitman himself in an 1890 wax-cylinder recording.
It isn’t so hard to imagine Whitman embracing subsequent new technology. The opening alone of his “Song of Myself” — “I celebrate myself,” later revised and expanded to “I celebrate myself, and sing myself” — marks not only the start, as a number of critics have argued, of modern poetry, but also arguably the start of social media.
If the ego of that I drives and sustains the work, there is also room not only for his sprawling catalogs of life but also for “you,” the reader, who appears as early as the second line. The point was, always, connection: Whitman believed that poetry could heal a nation torn apart by financial concerns and ugly politics and policies (see David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography). To adapt Wordsworth’s sonnet on Milton, “London, 1802”: “[Whitman], thou should’st be living at this hour; / [America] hath need of thee: she is a fen/ Of stagnant waters...”
Whitman isn’t the only poetic presence evoked this month; another 19th-century giant — the one who said, “I’m Nobody. Who are you?” — has also made a public appearance.
Here’s Emily Dickinson — showing up ironically and wonderfully — in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” in Rebecca Mead’s essay on the Dickinson projects of poet and visual artist Jen Bervin (“Back of the Envelope” Jan. 27, 2014). What an image: Dickinson, dressed in white and wearing oversized sunglasses, arriving in Manhattan among fanfare, being driven to a borrowed townhouse, then shutting the door, pouring a glass of wine, and reading about herself in The New Yorker.
Why do I find these recent appearances of Whitman and Dickinson so exhilarating — so hopeful? Aside from the pleasure I take in finding any mention of poetry outside of the time frame of April/Poetry Month, it’s heartening to come upon these references in the midst of reading article after article on the death of the humanities.
For, if there have been times of personal and/or professional doubt when I wanted to say, with Marianne Moore, “I too dislike it” (“Poetry”) or when I wanted to side with W. H. Auden’s pronouncement, early in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” that “poetry makes nothing happen,” there have been many more instances when I have had to acknowledge the truth that Auden arrives at by the end of that same poem: it is poetry that will “Let the healing fountain start.”
As Ezra Pound said, “Poetry is the news that stays new.”
The news is mixed, of course. It reminds us, as Mary Oliver observes in her poem “Poppies,” that “of course, / loss is the great lesson” — but even in its — and our — darkest moments, poetry continues to answer one of our deepest needs, summed up by a character in Amy Tan’s novel TheJoy Luck Club: “I wanted to be found.”
That is the secret of poetry’s fresh (psychic) news: quite simply and quite complexly, poems find us, and then they encourage us, as Jorie Graham says in “Afterwards,” to “begin with the world.”
We are in the car, for I am driving my three children somewhere — in those years I was always driving them somewhere — when my 7-year-old son asks me from the back seat, “You like poems, right?” I tell him yes. After a beat of several moments, he asks me, “Do you like bugs?” “Some” I say, suspecting that he has a secret agenda. Several weeks later on Mother’s Day, he brings me the gift he has kept hidden in his room, his pick from the “Reading is Fundamental” Program, which allows students to select a book to keep. He chose, for me, Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, a collection of 14 poems about insects. I use the book, along with Kenneth Koch’s Rose, Where Did You Get That Red, for years in writing workshops in elementary schools.
It is early on Thanksgiving morning — 3:00 a.m., the dark night of the soul. I am sitting with my father in a cubicle in the ER. He came in here over two hours ago, in pain. The nursing home called me just after midnight, and I told them that I would meet the ambulance. Now my father is sleeping peacefully; I study him: his still-beautiful hands and the striking high cheekbones of his face. I let my mind empty, and lines from Stanley Kunitz’s “The Testing Tree” arrive: “The heart breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking.” And then I remember hearing Kunitz himself reading the lines and how the members of the audience, a good-sized crowd on a warm September day, wept. Now, my father is sleeping; across the city, my mother lies awake, waiting for my phone call.
One spring break, I go to the private facility where my sister is a therapist, to conduct a writing workshop. The facility has a program that reunites women with their young children. I prepared for the workshop by gathering several poems about mothers and children, and then, at the last moment, I added William Carlos Williams’s “Between Walls.” At the workshop, I hand out copies and read the poem. There is a moment of silence, and then one woman asks, “Are we supposed to fill in the blanks?” A second woman says, “Wait, it’s already a sentence.” And then a third woman looks up — she is tapping the end of the poem, the image of broken but shining “pieces of a green / bottle” — and she says, “It’s us.”
My father’s favorite poem is by Billy Collins: it’s “The Country,” the one about the fire-starter mouse, “the creature / for one bright, shining moment / suddenly thrust ahead of his time.” We always start with this. Then I say, “Here’s another one I think you’ll like, and he says, “All right,” and he folds those (beautiful) hands in his lap, as I read “I Chop Some Onions While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice,’ ” which never fails to bring me, like the speaker in the poem, close to tears, and my father says, “That’s a good one. Thank you.”
On another day, I compliment Katie, a young woman working at my father’s nursing home, on her striking new tattoo: it’s a delicate feather, on the inside of her wrist. I ask her what made her choose that design, and she starts to explain that there is a poem that she has always loved. “Yes,” I tell her, “Emily Dickinson! ‘Hope is the thing with feathers,’ ” and Katie’s eyes light up. “That’s it,” she tells me, “that’s exactly it.”
Carolyn Foster Segal is professor emerita of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.
It’s that time of decade again, when randomly selected departments at U of All People are faced with assessment. The administration brings in a posse of NAAAAAA experts with credentials bought from the people who sell fake IDs, and has the faculty entertain them for three days while they poke their noses into everything, including Professor Winkle’s Dryden seminar, which no one has disturbed in years. Here’s how the process works, at least in the English department:
Three months before the assessors arrive, the department is galvanized into action by the chair, acting on directives from the dean, obeying the orders of the provost, who bows to the president. “The assessors are coming, the assessors are coming!” shouts the chair from the comparative safety of the rostrum at the semester’s first departmental faculty meeting while everyone else dives for cover. After this warning shot comes the collective indignation of the faculty -- How dare they judge us? We’re in the humanities! -- as the professors go through the Kübler-Ross stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
When everyone has settled down (except for Professor Winkle, who’s settled in for a nap), the chair starts planning the arduous task of self-judgment. The task consists of recruiting three faculty members who blinked at the wrong time, including Professor Winkle, who opened his eyes after his nap. The disgruntled three are assigned to gauge how much the students aren’t learning from the department’s courses.
What are the standards, criteria, methods? The Renaissance contingent proposes noble goals, such as achieving wisdom and learning to appreciate a Shakespearean sonnet, but no one wants to set the bar too high, or the assessment will be that this department needs to pull up its socks.
The faculty debate setting the bar absurdly low: for instance, that students should learn to read, but there’s no guarantee of students passing that bar, either. After several more meetings and the formation of a committee to oversee the assessment committee, the proposal is that each student should be familiar with the terms literature and irony; must know how to put together an argumentative essay proving that Shakespeare was a great writer; and should have enough literary history to realize that 1800 came after 1564, and that both are before 1922. These arbitrary criteria, once insisted upon, achieve a solidity as satisfying as trompe l’oeil papier-mâché walls.
The methods for data collection are decided by the assessment committee, eager to pass on responsibility to other, unwilling faculty. The methods involve snatching away student essays for disappointed analysis: counting how many times the words in my personal opinion and irregardless appear in the essays, seeing whether the arguments hold water (Professor Winkle performs that job over the sink in the fourth floor men’s restroom), and checking for spelling and grammar, assuming that the faculty are up to it.
As an extra concession, the department tracks alumni/ae to see whether anyone actually used the English major to wangle a job; and contemplates giving an exit exam to department seniors, though the offer of free pizza to anyone who’ll sit for the exam gets only three takers. The sample questions include references to periods, movements, literary terms, authors and works, and seven questions on Dryden. The sample size of all the data varies from a dozen to one faked reply by Professor Winkle.
Other creative assessment methods involve tossing the student essays downstairs to see which go farthest, and throwing the I Ching. To tabulate the results: charts with percentages look good, as do bulleted lists, though the superimposition of one over the other is probably (too late) a poor decision.
Tension mounts till the assessors arrive, at least one in a rumpled brown business suit, all looking as if they haven’t slept since the start of the fall semester. The assessors ask a lot of questions, visit classes, and interview people whom no one ever thought to talk to previously, including Clarice, the custodial supervisor for the liberal arts building. Eventually, they write up a report that recommends a 15 percent reduction in adjunct labor, greater funding for core courses, less departmental internecine warfare, and more attention paid to Dryden.
The report is circulated down the ranks until, months later, it reaches the English department faculty. Since the administration has ignored the implications of the report, the department restricts discussion to only 17 hours, spread out among four faculty meetings.
What rides on all this? Not much till next decade’s visit, when the department scrambles to recall what it did the last time.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date With Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).
Submitted by D.G. Myers on January 14, 2014 - 3:00am
Earlier this month I stepped into a classroom to begin the last semester of a 24-year teaching career.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not retiring. I am not “burned out.” The truth is rather more banal. Ohio State University will not be renewing my three-year contract when it expires in the spring.
The problem is tenure: with another three-year contract, I become eligible for tenure. In an era of tight budgets, there is neither money nor place for a 61-year-old white male professor who has never really fit in nor tried very hard to. (Leave aside my heterodox conservative politics and hard-to-credit publication record.)
My feelings are like glue that will not set. The pieces fall apart in my hands.
This essay is not a contribution to the "I Quit Academe" genre. (A more accurate title in my case would be "Academe Quits Me.")
Although I have become uncomfortably aware that I am out of step with the purposeful march of the 21st-century university, gladly would I have learned and gladly continued to teach for as long as my students would have had me.
The decision, though, was not my students’ to make. And I’m not at all sure that a majority would have voted to keep me around, even if they had been polled. My salary may not be large (a rounding error above the median income for white families in the U.S.), but the university can offer part-time work to three desperate adjuncts for what it pays me. (In case you're wondering, I had tenure at Texas A&M, where I was for 21 years, but relinquished it to come to Ohio State.)
A lifetime of learning has never been cost-effective, and in today’s university -- at least on the side of campus where the humanities are badly housed — no other criterion is thinkable.
My experience is a prelude to what will be happening, sooner rather than later, to many of my colleagues. Humanities course enrollments are down to 7 percent of full-time student hours, but humanities professors make up 45 percent of the faculty.
The imbalance cannot last. Doctoral programs go on awarding doctorates to young men and women who will never find an academic job at a living wage. (A nearby university — a university with a solid ranking from U.S. News and World Report — pays adjuncts $1,500 per course. Just to toe the poverty line, a young professor with a husband and a child would have to teach 13 courses a year.)
If only as retribution for the decades-long exploitation of part-time adjuncts and graduate assistants, 9 of every 10 Ph.D. programs in English should be closed down — immediately. Meanwhile, the senior faculty fiddles away its time teaching precious specialties.
Consider some of the undergraduate courses being offered in English this semester at the University of Minnesota:
Poems About Cities
Studies in Narrative: The End of the World in Literature & History
Studies in Film: Seductions: Film/Gender/Desire
The Original Walking Dead in Victorian England
Contemporary Literatures and Cultures: North American Imperialisms and Colonialisms
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Literature: Family as Origin and Invention
Women Writing: Nags, Hags, and Vixens
The Image on the Page
Bodies, Selves, Texts
Consumer Culture and Globalization
The Western: Looking Awry
Dreams and Middle English Dream Visions
To be fair, there are also four sections of Shakespeare being offered there this semester, although these are outnumbered by five sections of Literature of Public Life (whatever that is). Maybe I’m missing something, but this course list does not make me salivate to enroll at Minnesota the way that Addison Schacht salivates to enroll in classics at the University of Chicago in Sam Munson’s 2010 novel The November Criminals:
I could study the major texts of Latin literature, to say nothing of higher-level philological pursuits, all the time. Do you know how much that excites me? Not having to do classes whose subjects are hugely, impossibly vague — like World History, like English [like Literature of Public Life]. You know, to anchor them? So they don’t dissolve because of their meaningless? I’ve looked through the sample [U of C] catalog. Holy fuck! Satire and the Silver Age. The Roman Novel. Love and Death: Eros and Transformation in Ovid. The Founding of Epic Meter. I salivated when I saw these names, because they indicate this whole world of knowledge from which I am excluded, and which I can win my way into, with luck and endurance.
That’s it exactly. The Minnesota course list does not indicate a whole world of knowledge. It indicates a miscellany of short-lived faculty enthusiasms.
More than two decades ago Alvin Kernan complained that English study “fail[s] to meet the academic requirement that true knowledge define the object it studies and systematize its analytic method to at least some modest degree,” but by then the failure itself was already two decades old. About the only thing English professors have agreed upon since the early ’70s is that they agree on nothing, and besides, agreement is beside the question. Teaching the disagreement: that’s about as close as anyone has come to restoring a sense of order to English.
In 1952, at the height of his fame, F. R. Leavis entitled a collection of essays The Common Pursuit. It was his name for the academic study of literature. No one takes the idea seriously anymore, nor does anyone ask the obvious follow-up. If English literature is not a common pursuit -- not a “great tradition,” to use Leavis’s other famous title -- then what is it doing in the curriculum? What is the rationale for studying it?
My own career (so-called) suggests the answer. Namely: where there is no common body of knowledge, no common disciplinary conceptions, there is nothing that is indispensable. Any claim to expertise is arbitrary and subject to dismissal. After 24 years of patiently acquiring literary knowledge -- plus the five years spent in graduate school at Northwestern, “exult[ing] over triumphs so minor,” as Larry McMurtry says in Moving On, “they would have been unnoticeable in any other context” -- I have been informed that my knowledge is no longer needed.
As Cardinal Newman warned, knowledge really is an end in itself. I fill no gap in the department, because there is no shimmering and comprehensive surface of knowledge in which any gaps might appear. Like everyone else in English, I am an extra, and the offloading of an extra is never reported or experienced as a loss.
I feel the loss, keenly, of my self-image. For 24 years I have been an English professor. Come the spring, what will I be?
My colleagues will barely notice that I am gone, but what they have yet to grasp is that the rest of the university will barely notice when they too are gone, or at least severely reduced in numbers — within the decade, I’d say.
How many weeks does it take to get over a bad semester? Is it like the end of a bad relationship? Too painful to talk about except with one’s closest friend… or with a complete stranger?
You are my stranger.
Kari (I should use her real name but I won’t) had trouble with writing grammatically; she had trouble with phonetics, even. When she typed, she couldn’t see the difference between building and blinding.
When she read her work aloud, she didn’t seem to understand what she herself was saying. As far as she let on, in our office conferences (that I called her in for), she was not in need of our college’s excellent Access-Ability program, though I think she was and I tried to suggest it could be useful for her to find out.
She had never had problems with her writing before, she said. She had always earned Bs in English.
Why did she want to be a journalist, I asked. Yes, she was a journalism student in the last journalism course I will ever teach.
I’m hemming and hawing, because I don’t want to get to the story.
The story is that I was going to fail Kari, even though she tried. I was going to fail Kari because she was a journalism major and she did not have a grasp of writing in English. She had lived in America for 10 years and she was 21. In my experience with first-generation students, those who arrive before age 16 adapt to English very quickly. Kari didn’t have much of an accent; she had grown up in… let’s call it Asia. She lived in Queens -- with two other large families in one house. Her family had the basement apartment, and in the summer all three families liked to hang out in it because it was cooler there. She wrote a “personal” piece about that living arrangement. It was not as clear as I’ve summarized it. I thought that the students should hear and read aloud their own articles; some were terrific, some were bad. When Kari read her piece aloud, she continually stumbled and had long squinting pauses wherein she seemed to be trying to decipher hieroglyphics.
She was, on the other hand, as she claimed, a good listener -- to her fellow students and to guests. She asked visiting writers O.K. questions. The children with learning disabilities that I used to work with had clear and vibrant strengths that sometimes masked their dysfunctions. But in a journalism class, Kari’s dysfunctions were loud and clear almost every day.
I was going to fail her. To my shame or pride (your choice) I had never flunked a student who tried and did all the work. Kari tried and she did most of the work, much more than many of her could-be competent classmates. I appreciated that she attended regularly and was polite and pleasant. I liked her; but she was illiterate. She was not illiterate in that mean way we say when we talk about our distracted students; she was functionally illiterate in the way that someone can be legally blind; she had various perception gaps and fogginesses.
So I was going to flunk Kari, but then, toward the end of the semester, I went to one of my old standby assignments, the observation of a public space. I write down simple emphatic instructions and hand them out; I read the instructions aloud and ask for questions. They say, “I get it, I get it!” And usually they do.
Each student plants herself in a spot that is public to any member of the college community. She only has the class hour to go find the spot and sit herself there and start writing down everything and anything she hears, sees, smells. Objective. She isn’t to stop writing. Usually students like this; they realize they are taking in so many details they usually overlook. They catch actual language. Their hands get tired. I love the assignment. We did that and the next day reviewed our work. Kari’s illiteracy did not get in the way of her ability to accumulate details. It was a fine observation really. It was ungrammatical, but I understood it. Her language seemed at the level of some of my weaker developmental reading and writing students.
A week later, I had them repeat the assignment.
The next meeting I asked them to write about and then talk about the differences between their two observations. One of the students mentioned feeling self-conscious, because someone came up to her and asked her what she was doing. She took down the whole conversation, including, “Hey! You’re writing down what I’m saying!”
Another student, whose dial was always set on “Complaint,” said she felt creepy watching people. I pointed out again that there are cameras everywhere we go; we are continually photographed, filmed and electronically identified by nameless organizations; whereas in this modest assignment, we are only individuals looking at other people.
“That’s stalking, pofessa!”
“When did people-watching become stalking?”
Kari raised her hand. “Professor, I got looked at too.”
“I was sitting there at the Starbucks and I was writing… and this psychology professor -- I heard someone call to her and say, ‘You’re my psychology professor,’ and that’s how I knew that detail, professor -- ”
“And she kept walking around me and trying to look at my paper. I didn’t like that, but I didn’t do nothing and I just kept writing like you said and she kept coming over and then she went to the doors near the fishes, the fish tanks, and made a phone call on her cell phone -- I wrote that down -- and like a few minutes later a police car came up to the outside doors and the security guys got out and she went to them, and I saw her point at me.”
“And they came by and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ and they made me give them my purse and my notes.”
“Oh, my god!”
“See, Professor!” said Complainer. “You got one of us arrested!”
“Then what happened?”
Kari told us they told her to follow them to the security office and then she got interrogated there about why she was writing about the arrangement of chairs and how many people were in line at the coffee stand and who told her to do this? …
“You told them who! You showed them my instructions, right?”
“I wanted to see what would happen.”
I realized at that moment: So, I’m not going to flunk Kari.
I was astounded by her description of the actions of the campus police and I was delighted with Kari. She was after all a journalist! She couldn’t write, of course, but she was a journalist at heart. I would pass her.
“So what happened?”
She explained to them she was just writing, that it wasn’t their or anybody else’s business.
“You’re making people really paranoid,” the interrogating officer told her.
And they let her go.
“That’s incredible!” I said. I regretted the assignment now, even though it had brought out Kari’s latent journalistic skills; arrested! That was unbelievable! It was a violation of civil rights! Of freedom of speech!
The students were taunting me, “See, see! Your assignments be getting us in trouble!”
I tried to justify it again. “But nothing really happened, finally -- except I’m going to go see the security people.”
“No,” said Kari. “That’s O.K. I still want to see what happens. You can just give me a note that I’m a student in your class so I can get my purse and my ID card back.”
It was just a few weeks after the Boston Marathon tragedy and the officers at our entry-gates were being careful about identification checks again. She needed her card.
I wrote her the note and said, “You sure you don’t want me to go with you to Security? I want to go. I’m really upset about this.”
“No, no. I can handle it. It’s my story, right?” She flashed her big eyes at me and nodded, begging me.
But I was uneasy.
Later that afternoon I went to a meeting and mentioned to a colleague what happened to Kari and she made me repeat the details about the psychology professor ratting out the student; she said the arrest was outrageous and I agreed. “What are you going to do, Bob?”
“I don’t know yet.” Why did I hesitate? Why didn’t I march over to the security office?
After the meeting, I went to my department mailbox and Kari had left her notes from the observation as well as the last draft of her last article.
What was I going to do?
On the subway home I read her observation notes and got even more outraged at the security officers -- and even more unsettled with myself for not having already confronted them about it. I started reading her article. It was not her article. Every sentence was grammatical. It seemed to be not one but two professional articles stitched together (which I discovered later it was).
All right, she’d get an F.
But meanwhile, her rights had been violated. I couldn’t let that go.
The next day at school, when I asked Kari to see me at the end of class, she came up and I told her I was about to go to the security office. She asked me to please not to; it was her story.
“Yes, that one is,” I agreed. I opened my folder and pulled out her three pages of plagiarism. “But this is not your article.”
“Yes, it is. I gave it to you.”
“But you didn’t write it.”
“I made it.”
“You made it?”
“I researched it. You said to use research.”
“This is not research. This is two articles from the Internet you’ve put together.”
“I put it together. I wrote it.”
“You didn’t write it.”
“The tutor helped me.”
“This is plagiarism, Kari.”
“You didn’t write these words and yet at the top of the page you write, ‘By Kari M --.’”
“Yeah,” she sighed, “I see your point.” She nodded. Meeting my eyes, she said, “O.K., so I’m going to fail now?”
“Yes. But I still want to get to the bottom of your run-in with security.”
“It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“It matters to me.”
But I didn’t go to the security office. I ran into a senior colleague, a former journalist, and told him about Kari’s arrest. I knew by his puzzlement that he thought I should have already gone to security. This was an important matter.
And yet… that plagiarism.
Instead of walking to the security office after my last class of the day, I walked to the subway and sifted the situation through my head: “I’m going to go to the defense of a plagiarizing student …” (she had plagiarized her first article too; I might’ve thought of that earlier, but when it happened, she had convinced me she had only been confused about using sources) “…a double-plagiarizing student who is illiterate and whom I’m going to fail.”
The next day, a non-teaching day that I spent at home, my conscience gnawing at me, my cowardice sitting up straight at my computer, I wrote an angry email to the security director. I should say -- I have to say -- at the last second I cc’ed the dean of the college on it. (I wanted action, Jackson!) The security director responded immediately by email, thanking me for bringing the matter to his attention and saying he would investigate and get back to me as soon as possible.
Two days passed. I let the weekend go by and on Monday morning when I showed up in the department office, my chair greeted me, shaking her head. “Your student? -- Unbelievable, huh?”
“That she made the whole thing up!”
“You didn’t hear? From the security director? He was pretty upset at you too.”
“She just wanted not to fail, so she made it up.”
I was blinking in disbelief.
“She confessed, Bob!”
Let me confess, at first I thought that explanation was too simple, that Kari must’ve been bullied into saying she had lied... and lied... and lied. Oh, yeah.
I winced, retreated to my office with my tail between my legs and emailed an apology to the security director and the dean.
Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.
Not long ago,this column took up the perennial issue of academic prose and how it gets that way. On hand, fortunately, was Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly, a smart and shrewd volume that avoids mere complaint or satirical overkill.
Bad scholarly writing is, after all, something like Chevy Chase’s movie career. People think that making fun of it is like shooting fish in a barrel. But it’s not as easy as shooting fish in a barrel: to borrow Todd Berry’s assessment of his comedic colleague, “It’s as easy as looking at fish in a barrel. It’s as easy as being somewhere near a barrel.” Besides, it’s gone on for at least 500 years (the mockery began with Rabelais, if not before) so it’s not as if there are many new jokes on the subject.
But Billig did make an original and telling point in his critique of pure unreadability – one I neglected to emphasize in that earlier column. It has come into clearer view since then thanks to a new book by Carl H. Klaus called A Self Made of Words: Crafting a Distinctive Persona in Nonfiction Writing (University of Iowa Press).
Klaus is professor emeritus of English at the University of Iowa and founder, there, of the Nonfiction Writing Program. He is also a practitioner and critic of the genre of the personal essay, and A Self Made of Words seems largely addressed to the students, formal or otherwise, who want to learn the craft. Scholarly discourse rarely assumes the guise of the personal essay, of course. But Klaus’s insights and advice are not restricted to that literary form, and his book should have a tonic effect on anyone who wants his or her writing to do more than paint gray on gray.
To put it another way, A Self Made of Words doesn't stress writing in the personal voice, but rather the persona that always operates in writing, of whatever variety, whether formal or informal, autobiographical or otherwise.
Klaus wrote an earlier book called The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay (Iowa), which I have not had a chance to read, but I assume he there goes into the original use of the word persona, meaning, in Latin, a mask, of the stylized kind ancient actors wore on stage to project a character. The author of even the flattest and most objective or empirically minded paper creates or displays a persona while writing: one that is self-effacing and indistinct, yes, but that manifests its authority through self-effacement and the absence of first- and second-person communication.
Impersonality, in other words, implies a persona. So does the introspective voice and intimate tone of a memoirist, with countless shades of formality and casualness, of candor and disguise, possible in between. The persona is not something that stands behind or apart from the written work, though it may seem to do so. The raw material of the persona is language itself -- not just the vocabulary or syntax an author uses, but the differences in intonation that come from using contractions or avoiding them, from the mixture of concrete and abstract terms, and from the balance of long and short words.
Klaus devotes most of the new book to how those elements, among others, combine to create effective writing -- which is, in his words “the result of a complex interaction between our private intentions and the public circumstances of our communication.” It is not a style guide but a course of instruction on the options available to the writer who might otherwise be unable to craft a persona fit to purpose.
Which, alas, is often the case. Michael Billig did not discuss the academic author’s persona in his book on how to write badly and influence tenure committees – at least, not as such. But it is implicit in his argument about how apprentice scholars orient themselves within the peculiar, restricted language-worlds their elders have created while fighting to establish their claims to disciplinary claims.
In effect, they learn how to write by wearing the personae they’ve been given. And there’s nothing wrong with that, in itself; the experience can be instructive. But the pressure to publish (and in quantity!) makes it more economical to rely on a prefabricated writerly persona, stamped out in plastic on an assembly line, rather than to shape one, as Klaus encourages the reader to do.