the impeded stream

I remember sitting in an empty classroom at Washington and Lee late into the night, working on a poem instead of studying for an exam on international trade. I had spent three years as an economics major: endless afternoons in dead-aired classrooms from which I can’t remember a thing in the world except that I wanted, wanted, wanted something so vague it might as well be money. By the time of my last class in the “C-School” I was so hungry for meaning that everything was instantly allegorical—the blind professor who taught international trade, the desk he clung to like a life raft, the random dog that sauntered into that third-floor classroom one afternoon as if he owned the place. He stopped right in front of my desk, turned around twice before taking a disconcertingly deliberate shit, then trotted lightly out like an ironic angel.

Not that the true path was by any means clear. I still had twenty years to writhe on the high hook I knew only as Ambition. It’s almost the definition of a calling that there is strong inner resistance to it. The resistance is not practical—how will I make money, can I live with the straitened circumstances, etc.—but existential: Can I navigate this strong current, and can I remain myself while losing myself within it? Reluctant writers, reluctant ministers, reluctant teachers—these are the ones whose lives and works can be examples. Nothing kills credibility like excessive enthusiasm. Nothing poisons truth so quickly as an assurance that one has found it. “The impeded stream is the one that sings.” (Wendell Berry)

Christian Wiman

what’s the point?

Tim Burke:

It’s hard to feel like there’s a point to public writing at the heart of Trump’s ascendancy. Certainly there’s no point to even trying to speak to self-identified conservatives who have aligned themselves with Trump: the will-to-power mendacity and moral vacuity melts anything like honest engagement like a butterfly tossed in a furnace. But it is not merely Trump and his followers. When is the last time you can recall seeing anyone who was meaningfully persuaded by arguments or evidence that contradicted or challenged a belief or position they had previously articulated? When I see people telling me that the only way to deal with people who hold dangerous, untrue or morally bankrupt views is to engage them in a persistently reasonable way, to have a dialogue, I can’t help but think that this is just another untrue idea. Or at least it is a kind of religious dogma by self-anointed rationalist thinkers. It is not an evidence-based proposition about how people shift their values or come to hold new thoughts or ideas. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about people with whom one has personal or familial standing or total strangers, whether this is about a neighborhood or a nation. What passes for reason and evidence among educated readers and writers often feels as if it is just a value system local to them, and no more likely even so to lead to thoughtful changes in perspectives or beliefs among them. I feel no more likely to persuade a person who is in every respect a peer to change a view they have committed to, no matter how strong my arguments or evidence might be, than I am to persuade a stranger with completely different values and social location. And yet, I feel I am persuadable: that I change what I think about specific issues and arguments quite frequently in response to what others say and argue. Perhaps I am wrong even about myself; perhaps this is an unearned vanity. If I am right, then it feels as if I have chosen the worst strategy in Prisoner’s Dilemma: vulnerable to persuasion in a world that increasingly sees persuadability as a vulnerability to be exploited.

Tim, I feel you. Boy do I feel you. Indeed, so strongly do I share this sense of pointlessness that a few months ago I withdrew a book proposal because I could see no reason to write in the face of the current maelstrom of wrath and bullshit. But then, a little later, I decided to write that book after all. Why?

Certainly not because I think that “the only way to deal with people who hold dangerous, untrue or morally bankrupt views is to engage them in a persistently reasonable way, to have a dialogue.” Most people who hold such views are indeed unpersuadable in the absence of some fairly dramatic intervention in their lifeworld, some experience that forces a rethinking. In the ordinary course of rhetorical events, I have no means of reaching them.

Nor are they interested in reaching me — and by “they” I mean people on the extremes of the right and left. What such folks share, generally speaking, are the following traits:

  • vociferousness
  • a deep commitment to the political power of social media
  • a preference for saying the same things over and over and over again
  • a belief in the usefulness of either intimidating or humiliating dissenters

There’s nothing to be gained by engaging with people who share those traits.

But I console myself by thinking that there aren’t as many of them as hanging out on Twitter might make you think. There are reasons to believe that many Americans are more politically complex than is commonly believed, and you don’t have to be a Beltway centrist to think so. (It’s odd how many commentators seem genuinely afraid of anything that would give aid and comfort to centrist politics, and who conflate an awareness of political complexity with a commitment to centrism.) Those are the people I want to write for, and listen to; and both acts are worth doing whether there are a great many of them or whether, like Milton, I will have “fit audience though few.” The clan of those who, like Tim, are “vulnerable to persuasion in a world that increasingly sees persuadability as a vulnerability to be exploited.” My people.

And then: writing is what I do. I don’t know how to be a not-writer. Maybe no one will read this book, but I think I have to write it anyway. Saith the Preacher, “In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.”

Writing well ≠ dumbing down

This by Ian Bogost is exactly right:

I suspect that what scholars and other experts really mean when they express worry about “dumbing down” is that they don’t want to be bothered to do the work of reframing their work for audiences not already primed to grasp it. It’s hard to do and even harder to do well. That’s a fine position; after all, it’s the full-time job of journalists and non-fiction writers to translate ideas for the general public from their specialized origins. Not every scholar can, or should, try to do this work themselves (although, to do so exercises the generosity that comes from service.)

But to assume that even to ponder sharing the results of scholarship amounts to dumbing down, by default, is a new low in this term for new lows. Posturing as if it’s a problem with the audience, rather than with the expert who refuses to address that audience, is perverse.

I have done a great deal of writing for my scholarly peers and for broader audiences, and there is no doubt that the latter is more challenging. The great difficulty is to make what you have to say as simple as possible but no simpler — which means that you often have to work very hard to express certain ideas in ways that are accessible but non-reductive.

And — I hesitate to say this, but here goes — I think you usually have to know your stuff better to write well for a general audience. If you’re writing for your scholarly peers, there are certain critical buzzwords, voguish phrases, and terms of art that you can use to gesture in the direction of a concept, trusting that people who have used those terms themselves will pick up on what you’re saying. But you don’t even have to have a very clear understanding of the concepts in order to deploy the terms — you just have to have a sense of the kind of sentence in which they belong. By contrast, when you’re writing for a general audience who does not know the language of your guild, you have to understand those concepts well enough to translate them into a more accessible idiom.

Many academics who haven’t tried to write for broader audiences fail to understand the challenges. But I bet at least some of them have a pretty shrewd intuition of how hard it is — which gives them a good reason to sneer at it.

more to come

I am very grateful to Jeffrey Bilbro for this extremely thoughtful and thorough response to my new book. For now I just want to respond to one passage:

Jacobs’s project includes elements of both history and argument; he’s narrating a particular intellectual history, and he’s defending the wisdom these figures provide. For the most part, these dual purposes are compatible, but at times I found myself wanting more synthesis and analysis. Much of the book is content to interweave the thinking of his five protagonists without teasing apart the inherent tensions among them or mustering an argument about which view Jacobs thinks is best. He compares his narrative mode to the cinematic method of Orson Welles, and I appreciate the challenges of crafting a unified story from the lives of five individuals who rarely, if ever, interacted directly with each other. Nevertheless, I kept wishing Jacobs was more explicit regarding his own evaluation of their ideas.

My response: God willing, I am not done writing books yet. Stay tuned.

the blog garden

My friend Dan Cohen recently wrote,

Think about the difference between a blog post and a book: one can be tossed off in an afternoon at a coffee shop, while the other generally requires years of thought and careful writing. Not all books are perfect — far from it — but at least authors have to wrestle with their subject matter more rigorously than in any other context, look at what others have written in their area, and situate their writing within that network of thought and research.

This is absolutely true — as I know from long experience with both genres. But what if there’s a more enlightening comparison? What if, instead of comparing a book to a blog post, you compared it to a blog? If a bog post is too small to compare to a book, a blog might be too big — keep on blogging long enough and you can have enough words to fill several books. If that’s the case, then one might find it interesting to compare a book to, say, a particular tag on a long-standing blog.

An example: For some time now I’ve been thinking of writing a book about John Ruskin. And I still might. But I’ve been led to consider such a book by gradually gathering drawings and quotes by Ruskin on this blog (there are also a few Ruskin entries at Text Patterns). Suppose that, instead of architecturally writing that book, I simply contented cultivating my Ruskin garden? (See this post for the architecture/gardening distinction.) More images and more quotations, more reflection on those images and quotations. What might emerge?

Well, certainly nothing that any scholar would cite. (How would that even be done? All the handbooks to scholarly documentation are still struggling with how to cite websites and individual articles — citing tags is not even on their radar, I suspect.) But I would certainly learn a lot about Ruskin; and perhaps the sympathetic reader would also.

In some ways this would be a return to what I did a few years ago with my Gospel of the Trees site, which arose because what I wanted to say about trees just couldn’t be made to fit into a book, in part because it refused to become a linear narrative or argument and in part because it was so image-dependent and book publishers don’t like the cost of that. But the advantage of a tag over a standalone site is that each post can have other tags as well, which lead down other paths of reflection and information, in a Zettelkasten sort of way.

My friend Robin Sloan tweeted the other day — I’m not linking to it because Robin always deletes his tweets after a few days — that, despite the many calls these days to return to the good old days of Weird Indie Blogging, there are still plenty of charmingly weird things being posted on the Big Media sites, especially YouTube. Point taken: no doubt this is true. But for my purposes the problem with the Big Media sites is the absolute control they have over association: you don’t decide what is related to your post/video/audio, they do. “If you liked this you may also like….” A well-thought-out tagging system on a single blog creates chains of associated ideas, with the logic of association governed by a single mind (or in the case of a group blog, a set of intentionally connected minds). And such chains are powerful generators of intellectual and aesthetic value.

I really do think that the Back to the Blog movement, if we can call it a movement, is so timely and so important not only because we need to, as I have put it, tend the digital commons, but also because we were just beginning to figure out what blogs could do when their development was pre-empted by the rise of the big social media platforms. Given the accelerated pace at which our digital platforms have been moving in recent years, blogs may best be seen as an old, established, and now neglected technology.

I think it was also Robin Sloan who recently directed my attention to this Wikipedia page on the late Nintendo designer Gunpei Yokoi, who promoted what he called “Lateral Thinking with Seasoned Technology”: finding new and unexpected uses for technologies that have been around for a while and therefore (a) have clear patterns of use that you can rely on even when deviating from them, and (b) have decreased in price. Nintendo’s Wii system is the classic example in the gaming world of this way of thinking: some of us will remember that when the Wii was introduced critics were flabbergasted by its reliance on previous-generation processors with their limited graphics capabilities, and were certain that the console would be a total flop. Instead, everyone loved it.

Blogging, I want to argue, is a seasoned technology that is ripe for lateral thinking. The question for me, as I suggested in my previous post, is whether I am willing to set aside the conventional standards and expectations of my profession in order to pursue that lateral thinking — in order, that is, to give up practicing architecture and going in for a good deal of gardening.

new uses for old blogs

More ideas about ideas: Given my current interest in intellectual gardening rather than architecture, in allowing ideas to emerge rather than trying to generate them by a brute-force attack, I am reconsidering the way I have historically used my blogs, and wondering whether there’s not a better path to intellectual substance than the one I’ve been following.

This has been my M.O. going back to the relatively early days of Text Patterns, when I was working on The Pleasure of Reading in an Age of Distraction: Use the blog to generate and try out ideas, get feedback from readers, develop the ideas a little further … and then put on the brakes. But why did I put on the brakes? Because I knew that I was getting close to the point at which there would be so much of the book’s contents online that a publisher wouldn’t want to buy it. And so the idea-generating stage of the project would effectively come to an end.

Not altogether, of course; I could still write in notebooks or sketch ideas or whatever. But two things were missing: the felt need in writing a public post to achieve at least some minimal level of coherence, and the feedback from readers. Moreover, when you’ve been generating ideas using a particular method and then are forced to switch to another one, you tend to lose momentum. So effectively I found myself working with the ideas that I had generated to that point in the project — even when I didn’t feel that I had explored my chosen topics as thoroughly as I would have liked. And this happened more than once, most recently with my idea for a book on what I called Anthropocene theology.

So in these situations the limits and boundaries of my projects are set, not by the inner logic and impetus of those projects, but by the preferences of the publishing industry. But that’s a superficial take. Why, after all, should I allow the publishing industry to set those boundaries? Because in my line of work the highest-denomination currency is the book. I have my current job because of publishing books — Baylor simply would not have sought me out and hired me had I not been able to list several books on my CV.

Put it this way: If I had never blogged a single word I would have precisely the same job I have now; if I had blogged millions of words without publishing books I would not have a job.

But, you may say, at this point in my career why don’t I just do what I want? I have tenure; I have no administrative ambitions (indeed, just the reverse); I am a Distinguished Professor and there’s no such thing as an Extremely Distinguished Professor or Sun-God Professor. If I am feeling the demands of the publishing world as a heavy yoke why not just throw it off?

Well, I might. But I hesitate for two reasons, or maybe it’s one reason with two parts.

  1. My profession has never figured out what to do with online writing, except for a few peer-reviewed online journals. It is still devoted to finished products — and vetted products too, despite the manifest problems with peer review. Scholars will cite a dozen mediocre peer-reviewed published papers before they’ll cite even the most brilliant blog post.
  2. And working to the established standards of my profession is, as I have noted, what got me my current position, so that I can’t help feeling that if I were to strike out into unfamiliar writing territory I wouldn’t be keeping the implicit contract I made when I took this job.

So if I were to do the thing I am contemplating — pursue big intellectual projects all the way to their completion here on this blog — my university’s administrators would be unhappy, the publishers who want to publish my stuff would be unhappy, my magnificent literary agent would be unhappy, and some part of me would be unhappy.

But what if, by following SOP for my profession, I limit my ability to think? What if I curtail the development of ideas and end up fitting them into familiar boxes rather than following them to surprising and new and fascinating places? Isn’t that a heavy price to pay for professional adequacy?

More on all this in the next post.

I’m already getting some emails in response to my earlier post, and they’re incredibly generous and kind. The message tends to be: Your writings do make a difference, so please write that book! Again, that’s amazingly kind, and God bless y’all for the support. But at the risk of sounding totally ungrateful and churlish, I have to admit that that’s just the response I was afraid I would get. Afraid, because that’s a message that encourages me to consider results and effect — the kinds of considerations that are always subject to counter-evidence, and to unhealthy externalizations of the motives for writing. What I need instead is to think — and to take plenty of time to think — of what I need to do, of what projects I myself most completely believe in. Simply put: I am past the point in my career at which I can write books because other people want them. So if you would like for me to keep writing books, and if you would I bow before you, then maybe instead of exhorting me you might pray for me? If you did I would be even more in your debt.

re-setting my mental clock

A couple of months I submitted to my brilliant agent, Christy Fletcher, a proposal for a general-interest book, a book I had been thinking of as a kind of completion of a trilogy that began with The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and continued with How to Think. The three books together would distill most of what has been central to my teaching over the decades.

And then I wrote back to Christy and asked her to withdraw the proposal.

Why? Because I kept asking myself What is the point? and could not come up with any answers. As an evangelical Anglican Christian and a professor of the humanities, I have spent my adult life in service to the church and the academy, and I don’t know how anyone could look at either of those institutions right now and see them as anything but floundering, incoherent messes, helmed largely by people who seem determined to make every mess worse. I want to grab those leaders by the lapels and shout in their faces, “I’m trying to contain an outbreak here, and you’re driving the monkey to the airport!” What good has anything I’ve written ever done? Why bother writing anything else? What is the point? The monkey’s already at the airport, securely stashed in the airliner’s cargo hold, and the plane is taxiing down the runway.

Now, around the same time that I arrived at this melancholy judgment about my past and future as a writer, I also decided that I needed to make some serious changes to my encounters with social media. I deleted Twitter from my mobile devices, and, just to make sure that I couldn’t access it even from the web more than a time or two a day, scheduled daily blockages via Freedom.

Of course, this did not remove the posting itch, so I moved my social-media posts and photos away from Twitter and Instagram and to micro.blog, the wonderful new creation of Manton Reece where I can post to my heart’s content but can’t retweet, can’t be retweeted, can’t see how many followers I have — it’s amazing: just conversation without posturing or signaling or bots. (You can, and I do, cross-post to Twitter, which means that when I want to point to something cool that I’ve read I can do so to a much, much larger audience than I currently have on my micro.blog account, but, thanks to Freedom, without even being able to see whether people are liking it.)

Please do consider signing up: it’s not free (though there’s a free trial), but there are also no ads, which means that Manton has no agenda except to make the service fun and useful for his users. Also, following the example of my friends Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Dan Cohen, I connected my micro.blog to my own domain, keeping my stuff on my turf.

In related moves, I purged a number of news sites from my RSS feed, deleted Apple News from my devices, and canceled my subscription to the Washington Post (which in any case has been interspersing more and more and more Florida Man-style stories among the actual news and analysis pieces). I have come to rely on the weekly news summaries provided by, for instance, National Review and the Spectator — more leftish magazines should do this kind of thing; also monthlies and quarterlies. It would be interesting to see what the “top news stories” looked like if you could only gather them every three months.

There has been one significant consequence of all these moves, and I find it an interesting one. Curiously, though in a way logically, my escape from Twitter’s endless cycles of intermittent reinforcement and its semi-regular tsunamis has made me significantly calmer about my own future as a writer, in large part because it has re-set my mental clock. I have always told myself that I have time to think about what, if anything, I want to write next, but I haven’t really believed it, and I think that’s been due to my immersion in the time-frame of Twitter and other social media. Now that I’ve climbed out of that medium, I can give not merely notional but real assent to the truth that I have time, plenty of time, to think through what I might want to say.

And who knows, maybe I’ll even come back to that third volume of my Pedagogical Trilogy.

cashin’ in the bonds

Why Lorrie Moore Writes | The New Republic:

“How to Become a Writer” begins with the urge to write and ends in the desert to which such a desire may deliver the writer — not once, as ending or punishment, but daily, as a kind of side trip, between sentences. (Among the reader’s final instructions: “Quit classes. Quit jobs. Cash in old savings bonds. Now you have time like warts on your hands.”)

Every time I see this well-known line by Lorrie Moore I wonder what it must be like to live in a world where people who want to be writers have savings bonds to cash in.

The History of Life Through Time

Austin Kleon’s post about his son Owen’s book — finished before Dad’s book has even put its pants on — reminds me of this conversation I had with my son Wesley when he was six:

The Year of Our Lord 1943

Available for pre-order at Amazon.com (clink photo for link)

text three ways

When my buddy Austin Kleon posted his notebook turducken I realized that I have a three-part system too, though a somewhat different one:

I use a small Moleskine planner for my calendar and tasks, a Leuchtturm notebook for ideas and drafts, and index cards for reading notes (including notes I make for the books I teach). It would of course be possible to put all of this in one notebook, but such simplification would come at too high a price. For instance, with my current system I have a place where I keep track of my events and tasks for an entire year, but if I did that in the notebook where I also write drafts, then when that notebook was full I’d have to make a new calendar no matter what point in the year I’m at — and then lose ready access to the old calendar. Similarly, when I have reading notes on index cards, I can spread them out and look at them as I’m writing drafts, which is much better than having to turn back and forth to multiple pages in multiple notebooks.

between vanity and avarice

In studying your own pages I find that the great majority of the names which are quoted as those of important young writers are wholly unfamiliar to me. That will demonstrate how ignorant I am of recent literary movements. I don’t think this is a particularly unhealthy condition for an elderly writer. There are flibbertigibbets who in middle-age attend international cultural congresses and busy themselves with the latest fashions. Few of those are notable for their literary production. A writer should have found his métier before he is 50. After that he reads only for pleasure; not for curiosity about what others are doing. Please do not interpret this as scorn or jealousy of the young. It is simply that they are tastes and achievements are irrelevant to his work.

[The middle-aged writer] can contribute either to popular papers or to those of small circulation. In the first case he will find his work mutilated by sub-editors and scrawled over with inappropriate titles, but he will be paid 20 times as much as by a more humane employer. The choice is between vanity and avarice.

— Evelyn Waugh, letter to David Wright, 21 April 1960

why Zadie Smith writes

To speak personally, the very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life.

— in the Guardian, 13 January 2007. This comes closer than anything I have ever seen to describing my own reasons for writing.

Vladimir Nabokov on his mother’s religion

She found a deep appeal in the moral and poetical side of the Gospels, but felt no need in the support of any dogma. The appalling insecurity of an afterlife and its lack of privacy did not enter her thoughts. Her intense and pure religiousness took the form of her having equal faith in the existence of another world and in the impossibility of comprehending it in terms of earthly life. All one could do was to glimpse, amid the haze and the chimeras, something real ahead, just as persons endowed with an unusual persistence of diurnal cerebration are able to perceive in their deepest sleep, somewhere beyond the throes of an entangled and inept nightmare, the ordered reality of the waking hour.

Speak, Memory

Dear Jenny

Dear Jenny: The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something — anything — out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again — top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time. What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version — if it did not exist — you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short , you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day — yes , while you sleep — but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.

— John McPhee’s letter to his daughter, in Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process

my writing advice

Given that I’ve written a book about reading, and a book about thinking, maybe I should write a book about writing? I don’t think so. Writing has always seemed to me such a strange act, and one that can be pursued in so many different ways, that it’s extremely difficult to make useful generalizations about it. If you were to read all the Paris Review interviews with writers, I bet the primary lesson to take away from the whole experience would be: Writers are different — different from one another.

But insofar as I do have any general advice for writers, it boils down to this:

  1. Find the time of day when you do your best thinking — when your intellectual energy is at its highest — and set that time aside for writing. (If that’s impossible because of work or other responsibilities, then find the best time that’s available to you.) Then preserve that time. Be flexible and generous all the other hours of the day, but be rigid and ruthless about your writing time.
  2. Write to think. Don’t try to know where you’re going before you start writing, but write to find out what you think, or find the story you need to tell. Never expect that a particular time-unit of writing will produce a given number of publishable words. You must learn to think of your writing time as a period of discovery, in which you find out what you think, or what images and rhythms tend to emerge from your mind, or where a story seems to want to go. If you focus on discovery, then something worth sharing with others will emerge, in its own way and on its own schedule. But that’s not the kind of thing that can be forced. Allow yourself the freedom to explore.

Of course, these rules can be, and by some should be, broken. Anthony Trollope’s time for writing was determined by his work day at the Post Office — he had to get the writing in before heading off for work — and in order to get the most out of the limited time he had, he always thought out, in the hours after work, what he would write the next morning. But I think most people who want to write will benefit from following the two suggestions I make above.

writing with the prospect of being hanged

In the preface to his great — and I do mean great — book Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, Richard Hays comments on the peculiar and difficult circumstance of the book’s completion: the immediate aftermath of his being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Mindful of the speed with which that particular form of cancer tends to do its evil work, Hays and the staff of Baylor University Press worked very quickly to get the book ready for publication. Hays:

If it had been possible for me to devote a year, rather than just a few weeks, to completing the writing of this book, I would have developed a much fuller theoretical account of my methodology. I would have engaged in more extended critical discussions with other studies of intertextuality and figural exegesis. But perhaps it is a mercy to the reader not to be subjected to too many pages of secondary theoretical discourse. The thing that matters in the end is the actual reading and interpretation of the primary texts. That is where my interpretation will stand or fall.

(By the way, or not at all by the way, I’m pleased to report that two years after his diagnosis Hays is still with us. Long may he thrive.) Speaking as a layperson, someone wholly outside Hays’s scholarly guild, I am inclined to accept the “mercy” hypothesis.

Last year I read John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift — a book I had eagerly anticipated. But Barclay’s meticulous accounts and assessments of (it often seemed) everyone who has ever written about Paul simply wore me out. In all the discussion of whether the work of Scholar C did or did not amount to a successful resolution of the conflict between Scholar A and Scholar B, I could not keep track of the main line of ther book’s argument, and I longed to return to the text of the Apostle’s writing. I hope I need not say that I would wish illness on nobody, but I do wonder what Barclay’s book would have been like if he had had to work under conditions of great urgency, so that it had to be written quickly or not at all. What if we scholars couldn’t elaborate, couldn’t pay our guild dues, couldn’t carefully situate our argument within the context of all the other arguments that have been made on our subject? What kinds of books might we then produce?

In that preface Hays (perhaps inevitably) cites Samuel Johnson’s famous remark about the power of the prospect of being hanged in two weeks to concentrate the mind. Well, you can’t do much in two weeks. But what if the hanging were scheduled for a year from now? I’d like to spend the rest of my career writing as though whatever I had to say had to be said by a year from … NOW.

the NYT’s rhetoric of authority

This Vulture profile of Michiko Kakutani is a little too inside-baseball for me — perhaps because Kakutani was never going to review one of my books — but there’s one thing I want to call attention to:

You won’t find the word I in a Kakutani review, just an omniscient “reader.” “She became the official voice of the Times,” says a book editor. “She stopped writing what felt to me like criticism and started making pronunciamentos.”

The implication here is that the tendency towards pronunciamento is a personal trait of Kakutani’s, and I’m sure it is, but it is also a function of the self-image of the Times as the official arbiter of all that is good and right — which means that the paper is happy to allow that tone to manifest itself in all sorts of ways throughout the paper.

Take for instance this review by Beverly Gage of Mark Lilla’s new book on liberalism. At one point Gage writes, “He disparages Black Lives Matter as ‘a textbook example of how not to build solidarity,’ … This is a shame, because he identifies some truly important questions that liberals and leftists of all stripes will have to face together.” Note that Gage does not ask whether the political strategy of Black Lives Matter is flawed, or even inform us why Lilla thinks it is. Such things simply are not said: to note that he said it is sufficient for refutation.

This is the classic voice of the NYT, its serene rhetoric of unquestioned, unquestioning, and unquestionable authority. And if you hold the right views, as Gage appears to, then the making of pronunciamentos (even pronunciamentos by implication or suggestion) is actually preferred to the making of arguments.

the freelancers’ merry-go-round

Freddie deBoer is pretty tired of the freelance-writing merry-go-round:

I just find, at this point, that the process of pitching, composing, shepherding through edits, promoting, and trying to get paid sucks the life out of me. The commercial interests of publications require editors to ask for things that are tied to the news cycle in the most facile way imaginable. I get it, and I don’t blame them personally. But I’m opting out. And it’s increasingly hard for me to explain to editors what I want a piece to do and say without writing the piece. I’m just really not interested in the “beats” of a piece of nonfiction anymore; the argument, in the sense that people traditionally mean, is just about the least interesting aspect of nonfiction writing. So when asked to reduce my own prospective writing to a series of explicit moves, I’m forced to fixate on the parts that I find least interesting or valuable. What I want is to write in a way that is free of precisely the kind of paint-by-numbers literalism that editors require. Again, not a knock on them. It’s just not in my interests anymore.

Meanwhile, the money generally sucks. I am very grateful for the LAT [Los Angeles Times] publishing me in their print edition, for example, and I knew what the rate was going in. But writing and editing a thousand-plus word piece for one of the biggest newspapers in the country got me $200.

Twice as much as I made the one time I wrote for the LAT! Though that was some years ago.

Here’s the way the game works: You should write newspaper pieces for peanuts because that will bring you to the attention of the monthlies, where you should write for peanuts because that will bring you to the attention of the trade publishing houses, who will give you a contract that over the course of your book’s life will pay you, if you calculate the hours you spend writing, well short of minimum wage — but that’s okay, because your book will bring you to the attention of the newspapers.

It’s not always like that, of course. Harper’s pays very well, and I have had two or three pretty significant book advances in my time. But all too often, yes, it’s like that. And this is writing for print! — the lucrative side of the business!

bad academic writing? Inconceivable!

This very essay gets published, with only slight variations, every year. I always wonder whether the people who publish them know how long precisely the same complaints have been appearing, or whether they think they’re the first to notice the phenomenon. Yes, we know, such writing is awkward, ugly, and opaque. But it is meant to be so — these are essential features of the speech act. If such traits bother you, then that particular variety of academic prose isn’t for you: you should therefore go on your way comforted that you don’t have to read it. That’s what I do.

writing by the always-wrong 

Please read the whole of this beautiful post by Sara Hendren — and then I want to reflect on its conclusion:

I want a world full of disabled voices, people telling their stories in their own ways, with their own voices intact. But I also want a world of people to read about the collective stakes inherent in disability — and not just the rights issues that are being ignored, urgent as they are. I want people to see that spending time thinking about disability is an invitation to see the world differently, and to locate one’s own experiences differently. Not to erase the particularity of any one person’s very material experiences, but to help remedy the invisibility of disabled experience outside the inner circle of people who talk to one another, who know that these issues are important. And some audiences will need some interpretation, some cognitive-linguistic bridges to understand the import of disability — its wonder, its overlooked importance, and yes, even its lessons, if we may call them such. Lessons without moralizing, lessons without abstractions.

Sara has a history of thinking wisely and humanely about these matters, and in ways that grow organically out of her own humanity, her own path through the world. In that regard, I very strongly recommend — I don’t like to say insist, but … I exhort you all, let me put it that way, to watch this talk that Sara gave in 2015. And if you’re a young smart person trying to make you way in the world, trying to discern your calling, then yeah, I insist that you watch it. Absolutely.

Anyway, I want to respond to the conclusion of Sara’s post because I think it leads to some vital stuff. And I want to start by disagreeing with this: “Lessons without moralizing, lessons without abstractions” — disagreeing because I think that all lessons are both moralizing and abstracting. Moralizing because if you haven’t come to believe that some decisions are better than others, or some clearly worse than others, then you haven’t learned a lesson; and abstracting because if you don’t in some way and to some degree generalize from (abstract from) someone else’s story or experience, than you also haven’t learned a lesson. The real question, then, I think, is to learn how to be genuinely moral without being moralistic, that is to say, without dictating the terms on which a lesson must be learned; and how to abstract only to the degree necessary, and without losing awareness of the specific textures of another life. The goal, I think, to borrow a phrase from Henry James that the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has made much of, is to be “finely aware and richly responsible.”

But I also think part of being “richly responsible” is to be willing to take the chance of telling the story wrong, of drawing something other than the perfect lesson, of abstracting too much or too little according to some (abstract!) universal ideal. And that’s why I applaud this statement by Sara, which comes just before the passage that I’ve already quoted: “Lately I’m thinking that I can only write what I can write, knowing that it will be incomplete and partial in its rendering.” Exactly. Riffing on Emily Dickinson: Tell the truth that you can tell, even if you can’t help telling it slant.

But it takes courage to do this because there are always critical panthers tensed and ready to pounce. Sara quotes Tom Shakespeare’s dismissal of Oliver Sacks’s whole career of writing about his patients as a “high-brow freak show,” a charge that it is hard to see how Sacks could have avoided except by refraining from writing at all about his clinical encounters. What I want to say to Tom Shakespeare is this: Wave your wand and eliminate Sacks’s books from the world. Now, tell me: How is the world better?

“But,” the answer will come back, at least from some, “Sacks should have done things differently. He should have included this and excluded that,” etc. etc. But perhaps he couldn’t have. Perhaps he wrote the books he was capable of writing. This is a real and important possibility. (I speak with some authority here, as a person who has written a good many books, not one of which turned out to be precisely what I had imagined and wanted when I set out.)

I feel much the same about Alex Tizon’s much-maligned account of his family’s slave. He shouldn’t have presumed to tell anything about Lola’s story, people said; He should have denounced his parents more explicitly; he shouldn’t have … he should have … The story is so incomplete! Indeed it is. As are all stories. But it was moving and shocking and disturbing, and I suspect it cost Tizon a good deal to write it. I’m glad it’s in the world, whatever its errors, whatever its limitations of perspective.

In one of his most powerful poems, Auden writes,

Beloved, we are always in the wrong,
Handling so clumsily our stupid lives,
Suffering too little or too long,
Too careful even in our selfish loves …

We are always in the wrong. It’s the human condition. If people remembered it, remembered that it’s their condition too, they might be a little more forgiving of the limitations of others.

Though many don’t acknowledge their own always-in-the-wrongness, they know, they can’t help knowing, that if they speak from their fund of knowledge and experience, others will censure them in the way they have censured. (“By what measure ye mete….”) And so it becomes ever easier to take refuge in the tweet-sized dismissal of what others venture, and in the bogus rectitude of silence. That’s why Auden notes that we respond to our always-in-the-wrongness by becoming “too careful” — “Too careful even in our selfish loves.” But if you’re always wrong already, why not sin boldly? Why not risk greatly?

I hope Sara writes her book boldly, and without a qualm. I hope for many books written boldly and without qualms, even books I don’t end up liking. Let even a thousand weeds bloom. Haters gonna hate, and the pathologically scrupulous gonna scruple. Defy them.

writerly priorities

Usually when I write a post, it’s not because I think the subject is the most important thing going on in the world. Sometimes I write about a topic because I don’t think anyone else will make the same point, or because I happen to know something about it, or because something caught my eye and I can write a quick comment about it. Very often that means there are other topics that I consider more important than the one I’m discussing, but about which I don’t feel I have anything to add to the conversation, or don’t have the time to address adequately, etc. …

It is certainly fair to look at someone’s body of work for a sense of what he thinks is most important – although even that exercise can go awry, because a person’s sense of his comparative advantage might not line up with his sense of importance – but it’s wrong to look at one or two posts that way. I find, though, that even the occasional tweet gets treated this way by some readers. So, for example, any jape about liberals, no matter how mild, is sure to draw the response that obviously I am trying to divert attention from some terrible thing Donald Trump is doing, which is what everyone really should be talking about. It seems to me that this is not a healthy way to read, think, or be.

Ramesh Ponnuru. I co-sign this vigorously.

why copy editors matter

The ugly secret of newspapers is that copy editors do a great deal of what non-journalism people think reporters or other editors, with fancier titles, do. They have for generations caught typos; deleted potentially horrifying factual errors; made 20 inches of bloated copy into a tight, bright, and juicy 12; noticed inconsistencies in a narrative and put a reporter on the phone to walk through fixing them; pushed back against the use of empty political jargon; made sure the photos matched the story; made sure stories get to the point before readers become bored; and done what is easily one of the most important jobs of all—crafting the headlines that make people read the stories.

Diana Moskovitz

the Gospel as narrative attractor

What I am finding is that the gospel, as a narrative, seems to function as a kind of attractor for me while I am telling stories. Without deliberately alluding to it, or meaning consciously to create any kind of counterpart of it, I seem to keep tracing around it, to keep drawing out partial, wandering, approximate, sometimes parodic or borderline-blasphemous outlines of its shape. Give me a story about a stranger who comes to town and instantly there, nearby, is the possibility that he may be a sin-eater or scapegoat, in some kind of redemptive relation to the ills, individual and shared, of the place he comes to. Give me a comedy of human fallibility, and I start to wonder whether the wisdom of God may be at work in it as well as the foolishness of man; but I also find myself reaching for some of the black paste of tragedy to stir in, because of the Christian story’s insistence on the mortal stakes for which we human idiots play. Conversely, give me a tragedy, and I seem to start tilting it towards laughter, because of the awareness that Easter Sunday follows Good Friday. It’s a tragi-comic religion, Christianity, hopelessly mixed in genre—the only one I know that ends with a death sentence and then a wedding.

Francis Spufford

now that’s a true writer

After my wife goes to her office, a day of uninterrupted work yawns ahead. Musicians wake up knowing what they want to do each day: they want to play music, can’t wait to play music. Many writers dread the idea of writing but force themselves to do it. I’m not like that. Built up over 30-plus years of working at home, the habit of self-discipline means that at the first sign of sleepiness I commit absolutely to a nap. Some days I don’t really feel like sleeping but I lie down and force myself. The drift into a nap, steeping my senses in forgetfulness, is lovely; emerging from it is awful as I realise I’m behind schedule: late for my elevenses.

Geoff Dyer

The BCP and me

I’m pretty happy with my biography of the Book of Common Prayer. It has some typos and other embarrassing errors that didn’t get caught in the editing process, and I wish I could fix those; but overall, I think I did a decent job of capturing a very complex history in a very small compass, and to make it an interesting story too. The book got largely positive reviews and has sold well, by my standards anyway, and by those of the series of which it’s a part. So all that’s good.

There’s one thing that troubles me, though: Anglicans don’t seem to care about the book at all. Embarrassing admission: when I wrote the book I thought one of the fringe benefits would be the opportunity to go around to churches, and maybe seminaries, to celebrate the inheritance of the BCP and discuss its possible future. But unless I am forgetting something, not one church, or seminary, or diocese — well, let’s be honest here, no one at all has asked my to talk about this book (though I often get asked to talk about other matters, and especially about, well, you know who).

For a while this flummoxed me, but I think I’ve figured it out. Here are my suspicions, laid out in highly general terms:

  • Liberal Anglicans aren’t especially interested in the existing BCP or its predecessors because all of those books embody sexist language for God, a heterosexual definition of marriage, exclusivist soteriology, and many other retrograde ideas from which they hope to escape.
  • Anglo-Catholics aren’t especially interested in the existing BCP or its predecessors because those books are all deeply implicated in Reformational theologies that the A-Cs would like to ignore or overcome.
  • Evangelical Anglicans aren’t especially interested in the existing BCP or its predecessors because they want to reach people they think might be alienated or confused by formal language and liturgy.

So basically, within the Anglican world there’s a very limited constituency for my book — and, I fear, for the Book of Common Prayer itself. At least, that’s my best guess. I hope that I am wrong — especially about the BCP. Because it is a great storehouse of wisdom and comfort, and I wouldn’t begin to know how to be a Christian without it; and I think there may be more than a few others like me in that respect.

I find it amusing to reflect on the idea that mankind may sometime soon grow tired of reading and that writers will do so too, that the scholar will one day direct in his last will and testament that his corpse shall be buried surrounded by his books and especially by his own writings. And if it is true that the forests are going to get thinner and thinner, may the time not come one day when the libraries should be used for timber, straw and brushwood? Since most books are born out of smoke and vapour of the brain, they ought to return to smoke and vapour. And if they have no fire of their own in them, fire should punish them for it.

Nietzsche, “Schopenhauer as Educator”

Virtually every writer I know has [a ritual]. One claims to sharpen half a dozen pencils. Another gulps down a can of beer (never mind the hour). A third meditates. (The sound of chanting from up in her lair gets the kids scrambling in embarrassment off to the school bus.) Another needs espresso. His cousin requires Darjeeling straight from India. And one goes outdoors and marches for a while to the beat of a different drummer — marches, literally, around the backyard…. I don’t think most writers’ rituals are mere affectations. I think they’re quite necessary. The writer needs the right room, crowded or bare; the right drink, soft or mildly spiked; the right ambient noise or a dose of earmuffed silence.

— Mark Edmundson. I have a very different take on this: far from being necessary, rituals are pre-fabricated excuses. “I couldn’t write this morning because I have to sharpen six pencils before writing and there are only four in the house.” “I couldn’t write a word today because the Darjeeling hasn’t arrived.”

My writing ritual is: I write. With whatever is available. I typically use my MacBook or, when I’m in a certain mood, a fountain pen in a notebook. But I can write on an iPad or even on a phone. I can write on a legal pad with a ballpoint pen, or on index cards with a pencil. As soon as you say “I can only write when things are just so” you have set yourself up for failure.

When I read Alexandra Harris’s Romantic Moderns, I thought first This is a magnificent book and second I wish I had written it. I don’t often have that second response when I read books I admire. Most good books come from minds so different from my own that my admiration of them is unaccompanied by envy. But Romantic Moderns overlaps so much with my own interests that as I read it I really wished I had made that subject my own — even though I don’t have the expertise and skills necessary to do so.

I just finished Weatherland, and what I felt about Harris’s previous book I feel also about this one, but twice as strongly. She exemplifies a combination of virtues that is very unusual — I don’t have a name for that combination, but I can awkwardly summarize it as the whole-hearted and vivid narration of hard-won knowledge. There are true scholars who couldn’t tell a strong story to save their lives; there are wonderful storytellers whose narratives are raised on shaky scholarly foundations; but writers who have genuine expertise and the ability to weave a wonderful tale — those are rare birds indeed. Alexandra Harris is one of that breed.

The System

A friend recently asked me what word processor I use. I was preparing to link him to a couple of posts I’ve written about that in the past and then realized that I hadn’t updated my account of The System since I discovered pandoc. So I wrote a new description for him that I’m posting here.

I do not use word processing software. I write in a text editor, using a simple syntax called Markdown (or the variant called MultiMarkdown). I do this in conjunction with a truly amazing command-line program called pandoc, which is basically a series of Haskell scripts to convert from one file type to another. So all of my writing is in a series of plain text files, which can be opened on any computer and are as future-proof as anything can be.

When I’m writing a blog post I run pandoc to convert it to HTML, which I can then post.

When I’m preparing a handout I run pandoc to convert it to LaTeX, which I can then print out. (Once you have seen what LaTeX does with typesetting, word processing apps seem impossibly crude.)

When I’m writing an article or a book — anything that needs to go to an editor who oversees printed things — I run pandoc to convert it to a Word file.

So I get to stay in the same text editor all the time, for every kind of writing except email, and just convert when it’s time for someone else to see it.

My favorite text editor is BBEdit, but one of the best things about this system is that it works with any text editor, and you can try as many different ones as you want losslessly.

Auden and the Dream of Public Poetry

This essay was originally published in this book. I’m posting it here because I think fairly well of it — though I would write it very differently today — and wish it had had more readers. (Nothing makes an essay disappear as thoroughly as publishing it in an edited collection on a scholarly press.


The first of “Two Songs for Hedli Andersen,” written by W. H. Auden in 1936 and never considered one of his major works, found new and unexpected life in 1994 when it was featured in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral. A young man asked to speak at the funeral of his beloved finds that the words of ‘another splendid bugger’ speak for him, and reads the poem, in a cracking voice, to the assembled mourners.

Much of the credit for the strong response to this poem must go to John Hannah, the actor who plays the bereaved lover and whose recitation of the poem is indeed affecting; moreover, one should not discount the appeal of the film’s portrayal of a devoted gay couple whose relationship is the envy of all their straight friends; but clearly Auden’s poem itself struck something of a chord in many viewers. Within months of the film’s release one could purchase a recording of Hannah reading ‘Funeral Blues’ — as Auden called the poem in his 1940 collection Another Time, and as it is called on the recording, though as we shall see it was given different titles both before and after — and several other poems by Auden. A small chapbook-like edition of a dozen or so love poems by Auden was released, to be followed within the year by a substantial collection of Auden’s songs and occasional poems; both of these included, and prominently featured, ‘Funeral Blues’.

Those of us who love and celebrate poetry, especially modern poetry, must of course be gratified by this unexpected burst of attention. But we may also ask ourselves why it happened to this particular poem, especially since it is not one of Auden’s acknowledged masterpieces. I do not know of an anthology in which it appears, and Edward Mendelson did not include it among the hundred poems he chose for the second edition of Auden’s Selected Poems (though Auden himself selected it for the first edition, which he compiled in 1958). And one does not have to read the poem very closely before noting that it is in some ways peculiar: for instance, the way it juxtaposes distinctive and even bizarre metaphors with shamelessly deployed clichés. The ‘black cotton gloves’ of the traffic policemen seem faintly comic, and the presence of such an image in a funeral lament is rather suspicious. Still more dubious is the skywritten news bulletin: ‘He is dead’ instead of, say, ‘Eat at Joe’s’. But even if the reader feels the dissonance between what I. A. Richards would call tenor and vehicle in these metaphors, they are at least new, something which cannot be said for a line such as ‘I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong’. The poem seems to hover, or to cause its reader to hover, uneasily among sentimentality, parody and (especially in the final stanza) deep pathos.

It is clear, then, that a traditional new-critical close reading of ‘Funeral Blues’ (the kind of reading I have just sketched an outline of) is bound to discover features of the poem which by the criteria of that theory can only be called faults. Close readers tend to value irony and paradox, but not tonal inconsistency, and cannot abide the use of cliché. But these ‘faults’ come into view, are identifiable as faults, primarily because close reading is just that, a way of reading, and this poem was not, at least at first, made to be read. It is not evident that a good poem-for-reading will possess the same characteristics of a good poem-for-singing, and Auden makes it clear that ‘Funeral Blues’ is primarily a song, intended for public and aural, rather than private and visual, appropriation. It is a ‘Blues’, that is, among other things, a song in a popular idiom. In the last edition of his Collected Poems that he oversaw Auden placed it in a group of ‘Twelve Songs’.[1] In the 1958 Selected Poems it is identified as one of ‘Two Songs for Hedli Anderson’,[2] Hedli Anderson being an actress and singer whom Auden first met in the thirties, when both of them were working with the Group Theatre. And indeed, the first version of the song appeared in The Ascent of F6, the play that Auden and Christopher Isherwood wrote for the Group Theatre in 1936 (and which was performed for the first time in early 1937).[3] Only in 1938 did the poem we now have emerge from this song: it was published in an anthology called Poems for To-day (Third Series) under the title ‘Blues’.[4]

In light of this complicated textual history one could argue that Four Weddings and a Funeral has rescued ‘Funeral Blues’ from a context — that of private, solitary reading — essentially foreign to its means and purposes, and placed it within a more congenial environment, thereby releasing its power and making evident its virtues. (The cinema in no sense identical to the stage — as we will later have cause to reflect — but approximates it more closely than does the printed word.) When read aloud or sung ‘Funeral Blues’ works in a way that it may not on the page, and shows itself a significant and powerful work of art. The human voice, as John Hannah has demonstrated, gives resonance to the assortment of strange tropes and flat clichés; the utterance of the poem by a person knits up these heterogenous linguistic threads into a tightly woven garment of grief. We understand, hearing that utterance, that clichés and strained metaphors alike are resources called upon in the disarray of bereavement.

Or so I contend, by way of explaining the poem’s sudden popularity. But that Auden would write such a song only to have it disappear into the great jumble of his Collected Poems — this is a fragment of literary history worthy of a little attention. The immediate origins of this phenomenon lie, not in Auden’s work, but in a brief and relatively little-known essay by T. S. Eliot. For the early Auden inherits from Eliot a great dream, one in which both poetry and English society are restored to some imagined earlier state of wholeness and integration. ‘Stop all the clocks,’ in each of its forms, is a tentative but hopeful step toward the realization of that dream; but the story I want to tell describes the dream’s abandonment.


Consider: Auden is known to students and teachers of literature almost exclusively through the poems he wrote for the page, while his dramatic poetry — though it fills approximately a thousand pages in the edition of his Complete Works which Edward Mendelson is in the process of editing — remains almost completely unknown. The case of T. S. Eliot is quite similar in this respect: critics often speak of Four Quartets as Eliot’s ‘farewell to poetry’ even though he wrote verse plays for another two decades; and the fame of The Waste Land could never console Eliot for his failure to complete what he often considered his most important project, the ‘Aristophanic melodrama’ Sweeney Agonistes.[5]

What is particularly ironic about these case studies in poetic reputation is that for Auden and Eliot dramatic poetry was absolutely central to a vision they (with many other modern artists) shared: the vision of a culture of unified sensibility. That term, of course, derives from Eliot’s famous historical thesis about a European ‘dissociation of sensibility’ that ‘set in’ in the seventeenth century, and ‘from which we have never recovered’.[6] As Eliot’s thoughts on this subject developed, it became more and more clear to him that individual sensibilities could only be unified and integrated if civil society were reunified and reintegrated. In short, Eliot came more and more to believe that only a fully functioning public sphere could rescue us from our long agony — and to hope that a ‘reconstruction’ or ‘restoration’ of the English tradition of poetic drama could serve in the building of that public sphere.

Eliot’s first significant, if tentative, move to articulate his hopes for the drama comes in an essay first published in 1919 and called ‘The Possibility of a Poetic Drama.’ Eliot’s speculations are animated by a conviction quite prominent in his criticism of those years:

The Elizabethan Age in England was able to absorb a great quantity of new thoughts and new images, almost dispensing with tradition, because it had this great form of its own [i.e., the drama] which imposed itself on everything that came to it. Consequently, the blank verse of their plays accomplished a subtlety and consciousness, even an intellectual power, that no blank verse since has developed or even repeated; elsewhere this age is crude, pedantic, or loutish in comparison with its contemporary France or Italy.[7]

Eliot here attributes to Elizabethan society as a whole something very like what he attributes to certain individual writers in his articulation of the difference between a unified and dissociated sensibility: ‘The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience’.[8] But note that in the first passage social integration is the consequence of the possession of integrated minds by the society’s poets, especially its dramatic poets. He admits that ‘the drama is only one among several poetic forms,’ but contends that it ‘is capable of greater variation and of expressing more varied types of society, than any other,’ and further claims that ‘when one day it was discovered lifeless, subsequent forms which had enjoyed a transitory life were dead too’.[9] And not just literary forms, but also, presumably, forms of social life were lost with the demise of poetic drama.

This social integration, according to Eliot, was not the achievement of heroic figures like Marlowe or Shakespeare: rather, such poets were the beneficiaries of a general development. When he makes this point Eliot fairly drools with envy: ‘To have, given into one’s hands, a crude form, capable of indefinite refinement, and to be the person to see the possibilities — Shakespeare was very fortunate. And it is perhaps the craving for some such donnée which draws us on to the present mirage of poetic drama’.[10] For if we were to understand just how much is given to the dramatic poet in such an age ‘we should see then just how little each poet had to do; only so much as would make a play his, only what was really essential to make it different from anyone else’s. When there is this economy of effort it is possible to have several, even many good poets at once. The great ages did not perhaps produce much more talent than ours; but less talent was wasted’.[11]

Eliot’s account suggests that an age which lacks such a donnée, such a preexisting dramatic form, will be not just artistically but politically impoverished and imperiled. But Eliot’s little cultural history is thoroughly anti-heroic: it offers no hope that a single poet, or even a collection of gifted poets, will be able simply to create the needful form if it is missing. So he looks again at his contemporary scene: is anything appropriate ‘given’ to us? In the last paragraph of his essay, as (it appears) an afterthought, Eliot tosses out a suggestion:

The Elizabethan drama was aimed at a public which wanted entertainment of a crude sort, but would stand a good deal of poetry; our problem should be to take a form of entertainment, and subject it to the process which would leave it a form of art. Perhaps the music-hall comedian is the best material. I am aware that this is a dangerous suggestion to make… [12]

Then follow three ambiguous sentences that distinguish, in a vague way, treating art seriously, treating it solemnly, and treating it as a joke. End of essay.

But having fled unceremoniously from his own notion, Eliot found himself unable to ignore it, and when Marie Lloyd died in 1922 he discovered an occasion to return to the idea and give some hint of its potential importance. Lloyd was, for Eliot as for many others, the greatest of the music-hall entertainers. And what made her great, says Eliot, was her ability to use her art to forge a temporary but powerful union with her audiences. While other performers could ‘amuse their audiences as much [as] and sometimes more than Marie Lloyd, no other comedian succeeded so well in giving expression to the life of that audience, in raising it to a kind of art’.[13] ‘The working man who went to the music-hall and saw Marie Lloyd and joined in the chorus was himself performing part of the act; he was engaged in that collaboration of the audience with the artist which is necessary in all art and most obviously in dramatic art’.[14]

Throughout this brief eulogy Eliot hints at, though he never specifically mentions, ancient Athenian drama. In the sentence just quoted one might think of the ending of Aeschylus’ Eumenidies, when the audience quite literally ‘joins in the chorus’ and marches with the actors out of the Theater of Dionysus to celebrate the past, present, and future of Athens. And when Eliot says that Marie Lloyd’s audiences were ‘not so much hilarious as happy’ he seems to be invoking that complex Greek word commonly if inadequately translated as ‘happiness,’ eudaimoniaeudaimonia for the citizens of Athens being the ultimate goal of Athenian drama (and philosophy too, for that matter).

But if Marie Lloyd’s music-hall is the closest equivalent in postwar London to the Theater of Dionysus, the parallel is not after all as close as Eliot would like. For the music-hall is a class-specific phenomenon — it is, in Habermasian terms, a ‘partial’ rather than a ‘universal’ public sphere, or (more specifically) in Nancy Fraser’s language a ‘subaltern counterpublic’: Marie Lloyd, says Eliot, is ‘the expressive figure of the lower classes.’ In her music and comedy, working people ‘find the expression and dignity of their own lives.’ Such a gift is not available to either the aristocracy, who ‘are subordinate to the middle class, which is gradually absorbing and destroying them,’ or to the middle classes (Eliot shifts to the plural here) themselves, who ‘have no such idol’ as Marie Lloyd because they ‘are morally corrupt.’ And even the lower classes, who have tragically just lost their ‘idol’ and ‘expressive figure,’ may not last much longer, since their representative dramatic form is being replaced by the ‘cheap and rapid-breeding cinema’ which threatens to reduce the lower classes to ‘the same state of protoplasm as the bourgeoisie’.[15]

This is strong language for the Eliot of 1922, though it would become pretty characteristic of him when another dozen years had passed. His frustration was no doubt intensified by the fact that he was not and could never be a member of the lower classes; Athenian drama was in its own way a class-specific phenomenon too, but it was at least the product of a class with whom Eliot could identify. What is needed, one may clearly infer from the essays I have been citing, is a modern form that in some way combines the energies and resources of the music-hall with the energies and resources of Athenian drama. This combination is represented in the very title of Eliot’s great theatrical project, which he started working on soon after the completion of The Waste Land [16] and only a few months after the death of Marie Lloyd: Sweeney Agonistes. But, as I have noted, he never finished the play; perhaps his theory of the sociological origins and development of great dramatic traditions, or rather of their failure to originate and develop, found empirical confirmation in his own work. ‘When he was engaged on Sweeney Agonistes,’ writes Peter Ackroyd, ‘he complained to Virginia Woolf that, in the absence of illustrious models, the contemporary writer was compelled to work on his own and that was, perhaps, the essential problem’.[17]


For Auden and the other Left writers of the Thirties — that is, almost every writer in England among that ‘second generation,’ the younger siblings as it were of Eliot, Pound, Woolf, Yeats, and Joyce — a primary attention to the public and political was not laboriously pursued, it was simply given. From the start of Auden’s career the drama held itself forth to him as a genre in which public dreams could be realised (thus paving the way for private satisfactions to follow): his first collection, Poems (1930), begins with his dramatic ‘charade’ Paid on Both Sides, and his criticism in the Thirties frequently recurs to the question of how a meaningful public role for poetry can be achieved. Thus the avowedly Leftist Auden, and the Eliot who in the preface to his 1928 collection of essays For Lancelot Andrewes deemed himself ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion,’ alike focused a remarkable amount of their time and energy in the Thirties on the construction of a poetic drama (with an accompanying dramatic theory) oriented toward the reconstitution of the public sphere. In one of the most interestingly condensed ironies of modern literary history, when the Group Theatre inaugurated its first public season in the autumn of 1935, it featured a double bill: Auden’s medievalist masque The Dance of Death and Eliot’s still fragmentary Sweeney Agonistes.

To understand how odd this juxtaposition is, one needs to compare, however briefly and inadequately, Eliot’s argument about the European ‘dissociation of sensibility’ with Habermas’s account of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. The two arguments have the same form, in that they describe how cultural and historical circumstances first enabled and then disabled a vibrant public sphere (to which vibrancy literature made a major contribution); but the differences are enormous. For Eliot, the European mind began to disintegrate in the seventeenth century, just about the time at which Habermas sees the ‘bourgeois public sphere’ beginning to assemble itself. Moreover, Eliot’s understanding of ‘unified sensibility’ depends upon a certain valorization of poetry, especially dramatic poetry, while for Habermas the literary genre that played the greatest role in establishing the ‘literary public sphere’ (literarische Öffentlichkeit) is the novel. Eliot has nothing to say about the novel, but one can readily infer that for him it is a debased genre. It is only a slight oversimplification to say that Habermas’s understanding of a workable public sphere is social-democratic, Eliot’s aristocratic: while Habermas thinks that ‘a robust civil society can develop only in the context of a liberal political culture,’ Eliot would surely reply that that’s just the kind of culture in which a ‘robust civil society’ is impossible. (Indeed, he makes such a case pretty explicitly in his suppressed 1934 volume After Strange Gods and, in a different way, in The Idea of a Christian Society.) This contrast is worth noting because Auden, whose politics were much closer to Habermas’s than Eliot’s, had to work with the only strong model of literary ‘publicness’ (again, Öffentlichkeit) available to him, and this meant that he had to engage in a long process of revising the Eliotic understanding of the potential public role of poetic drama.

Thus, as the young Auden worked through his understanding of what drama and poetry should be, Eliot could provide, if not a model for dramatic composition, a (contestable) model for dramatic theory; and indeed Auden often responds, usually covertly, to Eliot’s pronouncements. In a 1934 review, for instance, though he never mentions Eliot’s name he extends and meditates upon Eliot’s suggestion about the music-hall as a potential model for modern poetic drama — and pauses for an ironic echo of a sentence from ‘The Possibility of a Poetic Drama’:

If the would-be poetic dramatist demands extremely high-brow music and unfamiliar traditions of dancing, he will, of course, fail; but if he is willing to be humble and sympathetic, to accept what he finds to his hand and develop its latent possibilities, he may be agreeably surprised to find that after all the public will stand, nay even enjoy, a good deal of poetry.[18]

A year later, in writing a kind of manifesto for the Group Theatre, Auden seems to adapt ideas from Eliot’s essay on Marie Lloyd: ‘Drama began as the act of a whole community. Ideally there would be no spectators. In practice every member of the audience should feel like an understudy’.[19]

So it seems that Eliot provided Auden with certain coordinates to help him fix his proper artistic tasks. But, in what may be an example of the anxiety of influence — I have already spoken of a kind of revisionary swerving — Auden seems to have gone out of his way to avoid the literary models which Eliot tended to favor. If he was influenced by Athenian or Elizabethan tragedy, he preferred not to acknowledge it. He had moved to America before he could reckon directly with Shakespeare, in what may be his greatest poem, The Sea and the Mirror; in the Thirties he was determined to find medieval models. He told a friend that for anyone wanting to understand Paid on Both Sides — the title of which is taken from a line in Beowulf — ’literary knowledge of the Mummers’ play with its Old-New year symbolism is necessary’.[20] Similarly, his Dance of Death is an adaptation of both the medieval danse macabre and the English mystery plays — one of which, The Deluge from the Chester cycle, was, at Auden’s bidding, coupled with The Dance of Death in two private performances by the Group Theatre in 1934.

But if this was to some degree a swerving from Eliotic influence, it was surely also an illustration of the common tendency to idealize medieval society, to understand it as having had a unity of purpose and (as Eliot would say) sensibility that the modern world so noticeably lacks. If Eliot fixed on the last years of Elizabeth I as his Golden Age, Auden usually looked further back.[21] And above all what he found in that earlier time was a significant public role for poets, and for artists more generally. It was largely in hopes of restoring or recovering such a role for poets that he wrote plays and served as ‘secretary of ideas’ for the Group Theatre.[22]

But Auden was aware of the temptations of nostalgia, and understood that it could quickly render inauthentic any would-be appropriation of the poetic or cultural past. From the start of his career he had been determined to write poetry of the world he actually lived in, and his propensity for working industrial equipment, power stations, airplanes, and (especially) pylons into his verse was so immediately noticeable that it quickly became a focus for parody. All of his plays have contemporary settings. For Auden medieval drama exemplified a public poetry rooted in its lifeworld, but for that very reason its protocols and techniques could not simply be transferred to another and radically different time. The example of the medieval dramatists had to be followed, rather than their productions imitated. And Auden devoted a great deal of his poetic energies in the decade of the Thirties to following that example, especially in the plays he wrote with Christopher Isherwood.

But even as Auden worked so hard in and for the theater (as theorist, as manifesto writer, as ‘secretary of ideas,’ as solitary and collaborative playwright), he was simultaneously working at the development of another kind of public poetry — as though he were preparing for the possible failure of his projects in drama. Auden throughout the Thirties sought to develop a public poetry that did not require for its sustenance the apparatus of the theater. Almost from the beginning of his career, Auden understood that public poetry comes in more than one variety. In a journal entry from 1929, he asked: ‘Do I want poetry in a play, or is Cocteau right: ‘There is a poetry of the theatre, but not in it’?’[23] The different versions of ‘Stop all the clocks’ indicate that several years later he had not decided whether his poetry should live inside or outside the theater — or rather, that he was seeking to maintain a double poetic presence, patrolling a boundary that demarcated genres and social institutions alike. ‘Stop all the clocks’ stands at the juncture of these two related but different attempts to reassociate the poetic sensibility and reinvigorate the public sphere.


The Modernist emphasis on the dramatic as the impersonal — Pound’s personae, Yeats’s masks, Joyce’s (or Stephen Dedalus’s) deus absconditus paring his fingernails — is well known. What is less well known is the history that we have seen a bit of in the preceding pages: the transformation of that emphasis in the next generation of British writers, especially in Auden. (Following the example of Paul Fussell, I will call Auden and his contemporaries the Moderns as opposed to the Modernists.[24]) The dramatic is important to Auden not because it is impersonal and hence a repudiation of the Romantic cult of personality: his immediate poetic predecessors had worked that line of argument about as thoroughly as it could be worked. Instead, the drama for him represented the public and the communal. In this respect Eliot, as his comments on poetic drama and the music hall indicate, serves as a kind of bridge between the two generations. (Imagine Yeats saying such things about Marie Lloyd! She utterly lacked the cachet of the Galway peasant.)

The Modernists and the Moderns alike write plays. But when they employ other poetic genres in which there is the possibility of retaining at least some of the characteristics of drama they make very different choices. As Carol Christ has so effectively argued, the Modernists prove themselves to be the true heirs — not, after all, the enemies — of the Victorian poets by making the dramatic monologue their normative genre (see especially her second chapter). This supports their anti-Romanticism, because it allows for the creation of a poetic persona clearly marked as different from that of the author. But Auden — who was followed in this practice by others, but led the way in this as in so much else — wrote almost no dramatic monologues: instead he wrote songs.

The speaker, or rather the singer, of a song is not necessarily, and in some cases demonstrably not, the poet. The singer-songwriter is a creation of the 1960’s, and as a cultural standard owes almost everything to Bob Dylan — who had inherited it from bluesmen like Robert Johnson and folk singers like Woody Guthrie. But the pre–1960’s popular song invested very little energy in creating a distinctive personality for its singer: the character expressed in a song lyric is attenuated and stylized, typical rather than idiosyncratic. ‘Stop all the clocks’ features a bereaved lover, not J. Alfred Prufrock or Hugh Selwyn Mauberly. And in this it shows itself to be truly derived from the songs of the music hall or the cabaret.

This heritage is nicely limned in Richard Hoggart’s famous account of working-class life in early twentieth-century England, The Uses of Literacy. In the sections devoted to music, he describes the semi-professional singers who performed at ‘working-men’s clubs,’ clubs that retained the characteristics of an ‘older environment,’ that of the music halls (in Hoggart’s childhood the music hall had been displaced by the cinema). Hoggart contrasts the singing style favored in such clubs with the more idiosyncratic approach of American ‘crooners’:

The manner of singing is traditional and has fixed characteristics. It is meant to embody intense personal feeling, but is much less egocentrically personal and soft-in-the-middle than the crooning styles; it aims to suggest a deeply felt emotion (for the treachery of a loved one, for example), but the emotion has not the ingrown quality shown by the crooners. With the crooners, … one is in the world of the private nightmare; here [in the clubs], it is still assumed that deep emotions about personal experiences are something all experience and in a certain sense share.[25]

Moreover, when Hoggart notes the unpopularity in England of certain well-known American songs, he attributes that failure to ‘the lack of sufficiently generalised emotion’[26]: they are insufficiently typical, one might say too much like the dramatic monologue. Few of us are inclined to sing along with ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ But in ‘Stop all the clocks,’ the rich profusion of tropes makes the simply direct last line, which calls attention to itself by the measured tread of its six stresses (‘For nothing now can ever come to any good’), exceptionally potent: it can be readily echoed by bereaved lovers, or lovers who can imagine bereavement. Its emotion is ‘sufficiently generalised.’

Hoggart’s description of the musical preferences of the working-class English is relevant to Auden’s songs in another way as well. Earlier I mentioned, briefly, the way that ‘Stop all the clocks’ seems to hover between pathos and parody, and this is true of many of Auden’s songs. In the 1958 Selected Poems, for instance, the second of the ‘Two Songs for Hedli Anderson’ also combines the stunningly new and the banal in a way that can almost make a reader queasy:

O the valley in the summer where I and my John
Beside the deep river would walk on and on
While the flowers at our feet and the birds up above
Argued so sweetly on reciprocal love,
And I leaned on his shoulder; ‘O Johnny, let’s play’:
But he frowned like thunder and he went away. [27]

That’s the first stanza; by the last the effect is surreal:

O last night I dreamed of you, Johnny, my lover,
You’d the sun on one arm and the moon on the other,
The sea it was blue and the grass it was green,
Every star rattled a round tambourine;
Ten thousand miles deep in a pit there I lay:
But you frowned like thunder and you went away.

Hoggart makes it clear that the working-class people who listened raptly to sentimental songs knew perfectly well that the songs were sentimental, and that some kind of corrective was sometimes called for, perhaps in the form of parody. ‘But,’ he goes on, ‘the limits of this are intuitively defined: I once heard a young man deliver his own mocking version of a popular sentimental song, and not only fail to make the company laugh, but raise in them the strong, though unexpressed, sense that he had been guilty of a lapse of taste. He … had not so much laughed affectionately at the emotions as destroyed them’.[28] What is remarkable and disorienting about Auden’s practice is that he combines the direct expression of emotion and its parody in a single song in such a way that it becomes hard to distinguish affectionate laughter from destructive contempt.

This technique places a great responsibility on the reader, who must find her way through this passional maze or accept being lost in it. For the actual listener of the song the problem can be (though it is not always) simplified by the music written for the poet’s words. In the case of ‘Stop all the clocks,’ Benjamin Britten decided to play it straight in the tune he wrote for its Ascent of F6 version, for, though those lyrics are still stranger and apparently more parodic than the ones the appear in Auden’s collections (see note 4 above), listeners seem to have been deeply moved by the song: Christopher Isherwood refers to it as an ‘overwhelming funeral dirge’, while Michael Sidnell calls it a ‘magnificent blues number’.[29]

Without the music, though, the reader is on her own, and judgments about Auden’s songs can be diverse indeed. For instance, ‘Miss Gee,’ one of the ballads Auden was so fond of writing in this period, describes the illness and death, from cancer, of a repressed spinster. To me, and to a number of other critics, this is a sober and sobering poem; but Valentine Cunningham refers to it as one of Auden’s ‘savagely jaunty sick-joke lyrics’,[30] and when Christopher Isherwood found out that Auden wanted to write a ballad about Isherwood and his boyfriend Heinz, he ‘objected absolutely’ to having his experiences depicted in the ‘heartless comic style’ of ‘Miss Gee’.[31]

One can imagine several motives for Auden’s writing this ambiguous kind of song. For Michael Sidnell — describing similar tendencies in the verse of Auden’s plays — ‘in such verse Auden seems to be working both sides of the stylistic street. If it was taken at face value as the language of poetic tragedy (as it often was) well and good; if not, the bolt hole of burlesque had been prepared’.[32] There is probably something to this view; Auden was not above playing games with his audience (especially in political matters, about which, throughout the Thirties, he was more ambivalent than he felt he could acknowledge himself to be). But whatever he was up to in his plays, it may well be that in his songs Auden was taking the public and dialogical dimensions of such verse seriously — seriously enough to encourage the reader/listener to become a co-maker with him, a participant in the establishment and elaboration of poetic meaning. In the absence of the complex context of the theater, Auden in poems like ‘Stop all the clocks’ may have been violating the singularity typically associated with the lyric voice in order to build a kind of community of voices: song becomes the means by which a ‘partial’ (and quite temporary) public sphere is established.

In ‘Stop all the clocks’ a number of voices may be discerned. We have, of course, the modern inventive poet with his ‘original’ tropes (e.g., the white ‘public doves’ whose necks bear funereal bows); but there is also, especially in the third stanza, the exaggeration conventional to popular love poems and poetic elegies alike; and the methodical deconstruction of the cosmos depicted in the final stanza reads like a parodic inversion of creation myths, or nursery rhymes. Are these competing or complementary ways of representing loss? If one understands the lyric voice to be essentially singular — as is common in post-Romantic reflection upon the genre of lyric — then the song must be convicted of vocal incoherence. But this is to neglect an ancient tradition of lyric poetry, one which despite its great lineage is so little understood that it has no agreed-upon name. Nietzsche, who is responsible more than anyone else for calling this tradition to the modern attention (in The Birth of Tragedy), uses its old Greek name and names it the dithyrambic; W. R. Johnson in his admirable The Idea of Lyric seeks a somewhat broader designation and calls it the choral.

Johnson, who mentions Auden but rarely, seems to be invoking the Auden we have been investigating when he writes that, ‘if the name of choral has almost disappeared from our literary vocabulary, the choral imagination and the choral act have, so far from disappearing, made an extraordinary comeback in modern times.’ The choral lyric is necessary, contends Johnson, because ‘Human beings have, after all, not only private emotions and selves but also public emotions and selves.’ The role of the ‘solo lyric’ may be, in part, to ‘clarify the limits and the nature of the private self’; but ‘the choral poet imagines those emotions which lead us to want to understand both the possibility of our communion with each other and the possibility of our communion with the world… . [T]he modern choralists, in their different ways, attempt to countervail [the characteristically modern] process of alienation by reaffirming our kinship with each other and with the world that begets us and nourishes us’.[33]

This is the specifically literary tradition on which Auden draws as he writes his songs and ballads of the Thirties. It dovetails neatly, I think, with the tradition of popular music discussed earlier, especially in its need for a properly typical and stylised representation of emotion: the energies of ‘Stop all the clocks’ derive from Pindar and Marie Lloyd alike. Such emotive representation draws explicitly on readily identifiable artistic models in order to emphasize its continuity with other utterances, other people, a continuity which yields at least a momentary sense of community.

But is this ‘sense of community’ in any way authentic? Can the solitary reader of a poem ever experience what Hoggart’s (perhaps idealised) participants in the culture of the working-men’s clubs knew? Can she even feel what the audience at The Ascent of F6 felt?[34] These are questions that take on ever greater significance as the music halls, and the working-class culture described by Hoggart, retire further into the recesses of the past; and, as Faber allows The Ascent of F6 to go out of print while collections and selections of Auden’s poems succeed one another with impressive regularity. The community in the reader’s mind may be the only one which poets can now hope to cultivate.


I have said that Auden resisted nostalgia. But as the Thirties drew to a close, along with his theatrical partnership with Christopher Isherwood — and as the doubts I have enumerated grew stronger in his mind — the nostalgic note began to creep into his critical writings, and as it did so the Eliotic influence which Auden had earlier tried to suppress found its outlet.

The great project of the Group Theatre was failing, as perhaps it had to. Its hope to become a place of meeting and reconciliation for the classes of Britain never was realised. Though it repeatedly announced its solidarity with working people, the reality was rather different, as Valentine Cunningham explains (citing a 1935 article in the New Statesman):

Group’s handful of Sunday nighters were scarcely the masses: ‘small Sabbatical assemblies’ of bourgeois Lefties in ‘juvenile beards, dark-blue shirts, and horn-rimmed spectacles, which are not the representative insignia of the working class,’ was how Ivor Brown saw them… . Brown couldn’t ‘see much point’ in audiences who ‘either see the point of the propaganda already or see the point of nothing but their own importance.’ The amateurism of the Group’s acting was often criticised; more damagingly, [Stephen] Spender found Auden and Isherwood’s plays ‘undergraduate smoker’ (he meant Oxford and Cambridge) stuff. Group was run, in fact, very like an undergraduate society, with its programme cards, bottle parties, and its intimate revues before invited audiences. A comparison Auden cannot have found welcome.[35]

The comparison would certainly have been unwelcome: Auden’s hopes for the Group Theatre, and for English poetic drama more generally, involved their bringing him and people like him out of the narrow world of the intellectual cadres and into the society from which they had been exiled not only by the persistence of the British class system but also by (as we shall see) the advent of Romantic aesthetic isolationism. Auden had no interest in a very partial public sphere which deceived itself into believing that it was the universal one. As it became clear that his theatrical work was not succeeding in its integrating mission, he turned more and more to the choral or dithyrambic traditions which I have just outlined — but could not see them as offering the social salvation which he had earlier hoped to find in the theater.

In 1938 Auden edited The Oxford Book of Light Verse and, strange to say, did so in such a way that the task came to illuminate the questions with which this essay is occupied. In Auden’s utterly idiosyncratic definition, light verse is written ‘when the things in which the poet is interested, the things which he sees about him, are much the same as those of his audience, and that audience is a fairly general one.’ In such a case the poet ‘will not be conscious of himself as an unusual person, and his language will be straightforward and close to ordinary speech’.[36] Auden is at pains to insist that ‘light verse can be serious,’ and that it is only because we still live ‘under the social conditions which produced’ Romanticism that we fail to understand this. Since the Romantics, ‘it has been only in trivial matters that poets have felt in sufficient intimacy with their audience to be able to forget themselves and their singing-robes’.[37]

Romanticism is in this view the Fall of Poetry, or more specifically an especially tragic consequence of the Fall of Society. Auden explicitly invokes what Raymond Williams calls the myth of the ‘organic community of Old England’[38]: ‘As the old social community broke up, artists were driven to the examination of their own feelings and to the company of other artists. They became introspective, obscure, and highbrow’.[39] The ‘interests and perceptions’ of the post-Romantic poet ‘are not readily acceptable to his society’; he is, therefore, ‘acutely aware of himself as the poet, and his method of expression may depart very widely from the normal social language’.[40] As it happens, this is a pretty good description of Auden’s early lyric poetry, so famous for its obscurity; but it is just what he sought to avoid in the plays he wrote alone or with Isherwood.

One might infer from the passages just quoted that Auden like Eliot longs for an unselfconscious absorption in the rituals and practices of an organic community, but this is not quite so. ‘The more homogeneous a society, the closer the artist is to the everyday life of his time, the easier it is for him to communicate what he perceives, but the harder for him to see honestly and truthfully, unbiased by the conventional responses of his time. The more unstable a society, and the more detached from it the artist, the clearer he can see, but the harder it is for him to convey it to others.’ Either extreme, absorption or detachment, disables the artist from productive engagement with society. What is called for, Auden posits, is a productive tension, in which the poet is ‘still sufficiently rooted in the life of his age to feel in common with his audience,’ but the society as a whole is ‘in a sufficient state of flux for the age-long beliefs and attitudes to be no longer compulsive on the artist’s vision.’ Was there a time in the history of English literature when this balance was best achieved, when the tension was most productive? Yes: it was the Elizabethan age.[41]

Here the young lion of English poetry unexpectedly rejoins Old Possum; the hero of the intellectual Left meets the voice of classicism, royalism, anglo-Catholicism. But let us also note that Auden’s picture of Elizabethan requires less unanimity than Eliot’s; it is actually closer to the Habermasian claim (noted in the Introduction to this volume) that ‘a lifeworld in which cultural traditions are open to criticism’ is the medium in which civil society can best flourish. Moreover, at the end of this odd introduction Auden seeks once more to keep Eliot at arm’s length. He does so by reminding himself of the larger socio-political context in which nostalgia is unacceptable:

The old pre-industrial community and culture are gone and cannot be brought back. Nor is it desirable that they should be. They were too unjust, too squalid, and too custom-bound. Virtues which were once nursed unconsciously by the forces of nature must now be recovered and fostered by a deliberate effort of the will and the intelligence. In the future, societies will not grow of themselves. They will be either made consciously or decay.[42]

Or, as Eliot had written twenty years earlier, ‘Tradition … cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour’.[43] But Auden is arguing for neither royalism nor aristocracy, but ‘a democracy in which each citizen is as fully conscious and capable of making a rational choice, as in the past has been possible only for the wealthier few.’ Only ‘in such a society will it be possible for the poet, without sacrificing any of his subtleties of sensibility or his integrity,’ to write what Auden calls light verse: ‘For poetry which is at the same time light and adult can only be written in a society which is both integrated and free’.[44]

This is indeed a compelling vision, as far as it goes. But on the obviously vital question of how such a society may be achieved, Auden is silent. There is no hint from him that the drama, or any other form of art, could contribute to the formation of a genuine public sphere. In this sense he repudiates the dream Eliot first formulated in ‘The Possibility of a Poetic Drama,’ and seems covertly to employ the Marxist distinction between base and superstructure: the whole introduction implies that art, as a superstructural phenomenon, is utterly dependent for its health and its character on the health and character of the economic base. Socio-political conditions determine poetry, not the other way around; and the social conditions which produced Romanticism may not be reversible.[45]

Already in 1936 Auden had written in The Highway (the magazine of the Workers’ Educational Association), ‘personally the kind of poetry I should like to write but can’t is ‘the thoughts of a wise man in the speech of the common people’’ (English 360); but by the end of the decade he was wondering if anyone could write that kind of truly choral or dithyrambic poetry, and, if they could, whether it would make any difference. Less than a year after writing the introduction to The Oxford Book of Light Verse Auden would sound a note for which he would later become notorious. This is from the defense counsel’s speech in ‘The Public v. the Late Mr. William Butler Yeats’ (an essay, in the guise of courtroom arguments, which takes up the vexed question of Yeats’s politics):

Art is a product of history, not a cause. Unlike some other products, technical inventions for example, it does not re-enter history as an effective agent, so that the question whether art should or should not be propaganda is unreal. The case for the prosecution rests on the fallacious belief that art ever makes anything happen, whereas the honest truth, gentlemen, is that, if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted, nor a bar of music composed, the history of man would be materially unchanged. (393)

Many experiences led Auden to this disillusionment about the public role of art — not least the history of the Group Theatre — but one, perhaps, was crucial. Like many European and American artists he had gone to Spain during the Civil War there and tried to serve the Republican side; but he was frustrated not only by his own inability to make a difference (and that of almost all his fellow artists, whom he came to see as playing a self-gratifying and ultimately self-deceptive game) but also by his discovery that the Spanish war was not as morally unambiguous as the artistic partisans of the Republicans were leading everyone to think. Among the many atrocities committed by Republican supporters, one in particular stood out for Auden in a way that, at the time, he could not understand:

On arriving in Barcelona [in January 1937], I found as I walked through the city that all the churches were closed and there was not a priest to be seen. To my astonishment, this discovery left me profoundly shocked and disturbed. The feeling was far too intense to be the result of a mere liberal dislike of intolerance, the notion that it is wrong to stop people from doing what they like, even if it is something silly like going to church. I could not escape acknowledging that, however I had consciously ignored and rejected the Church for sixteen years, the existence of churches and what went on in them had all the time been very important to me. If that was the case, what then? (Pike 41)

Thus even as he was writing what many thought the great poetic anthem of the Spanish Civil War, ‘Spain’ (with its refrain ‘But to-day the struggle’), he knew he was telling only a small portion of what he knew to be true, and was therefore for all practical purposes lying. Which is why ‘Spain’ and political poems like it — most notably the famous ‘September 1, 1939’ — were later condemned by Auden and excluded from his Collected Poems.

It was perhaps inevitable, then, that Auden’s loss of faith not just in the politically transformative power of art (in which he never had full confidence) but in any social role for art would lead him to search for another faith — the one represented by the closed and shuttered churches of Barcelona.

When Auden came to America, he retained his interest in and commitment to poetic drama; but he had shed the political imperatives which which shaped the projects he and Isherwood pursued in the Thirties. His first poetic drama in America was a collaboration with Benjamin Britten on the operetta Paul Bunyan — a distinctively American subject to match Auden’s new country; a subject indebted to the folk sources of American culture (just as The Dance of Death had drawn on English folk sources like the Mummers’ Play); but a work with no pretense whatever to political relevance or social leadership. From this beginning Auden went on, with Chester Kallmann, to the rarefied air of opera proper. It is not likely that the masses would have much interest in a libretto about the hubris of a modern artist (Elegy for Young Lovers) or an adaptation of a play by Euripides (The Bassarids), especially when the words are accompanied by the dissonant tonalities and strange orchestrations of Hans Werner Henze. Auden was free to pursue such projects precisely because he was a Christian: if God had saved the world, the artist didn’t have to, and the project of reconstituting the public sphere only made sense if it were conducted within the context of Christian theology. To such hopes and dreams poetry (whether private or public, dramatic or lyric) is utterly irrelevant, which is why Auden makes this request in one of his greatest poems, ‘At the Grave of Henry James’:

All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers living or dead;
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives; because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling: make intercession
For the treason of all clerks. (Collected 312)

Eliot too seems to have lost his hopes for public poetry, as he abandoned the experimental Sweeney Agonistes and the explicitly, insistently communal lyrics he wrote for The Rock (a church pageant, of all things) in favor of a set of rather conventional Shaftesbury Avenue plays, starting with The Family Reunion in 1939. It is noteworthy that as Eliot strove to learn the craft of theatrical writing he was also developing, in The Idea of a Christian Society (which was delivered as a series of lectures in the very month that The Family Reunion debuted in London) and Notes toward the Definition of Culture (1948), a theology of culture — a project in which Eliot retains his old preoccupation with cultural unity but in which literature has no evident place.

As for Auden, it is no accident that one of his closest friends and deepest influences in his first years in America was Reinhold Niebuhr, the great theologian of the public realm, who never for a moment would have taken seriously any claims by poetry to orient and give structure to society. That is theology’s job. So perhaps it is not surprising that, just as Auden’s quest for a theater of social integration metamorphosed into a desire to write words in service of music — Auden always insisted on the subordinate role of the librettist (see, e.g., Dyer’s 473) — his dithyrambic or choral songs were replaced by a fascination with occasional poetry and a virtual compulsion to dedicate poems to friends. Auden became a proponent of local culture — the chief locality being the page on which a poem is printed. The poet as liberator became the poet as servant, the poet as friend. As Lucy McDiarmid has argued, much of Auden’s later poetry takes the form of a retractio: an oft-repeated act of penitence for his former and long-standing poetic arrogance. In Auden’s Christian understanding this change in tone and restriction of ambition represent moral and spiritual progress; but those with a higher view of the potential social value of art have not always been so complimentary.[46]


In some respects it is clear why things fell out this way for Auden and Eliot. Neither man had a particular gift for dramatic composition. Eliot understood and admitted this deficiency, yet determined to overcome it;[47] Auden, as far as I know, never admitted his limitations directly, but acknowledged them by recruiting collaborators — Christopher Isherwood in the Thirties and Chester Kallman after his move to America — who could provide him with narrational and structural forms upon which he could poetically elaborate. The critical consensus is that neither poet ever wrote a wholly successful play, and on a more general level it is intriguing that the great English modernists (particularly Eliot, Joyce, and Yeats) tended to celebrate the drama, or the dramatic, in ways that later critics would take careful note of without ever bothering to pay much attention to the plays those modernist titans wrote. Few courses in modern British literature include Exiles or The Countess Cathleen.

It is conceivable that larger cultural forces are at work here, that, for instance, as literacy and the habit of literary reading increased people became less comfortable with, or felt less need for, the public experience of going to the theater; or (more likely) that they ceased to think of the theater as a place where their more refined tastes could find satisfaction. Middlebrow drama — from J. M. Barrie and Arthur Pinero to J. B. Priestly and Terence Rattigan — dominated the London stage in the first half of this century, but surely this is the usual state of affairs wherever the drama flourishes. Even acknowledged masters of their craft like Brecht, Pirandello, and Beckett are perennially unlikely candidates for boffo box-office; what then can the less practiced and accomplished highbrow dramatist hope for?

To take a still longer and broader perspective, we have Michael Sidnell’s sobering contention, in his excellent history of the Group Theatre, that attempts to reclaim legitimate public space by means of the theater will inevitably fail:

The attempt to create a theatre in which actors, dancers, singers, musicians, designers, poets, and a ‘participating audience’ would engage in collaborative creation informed the European theatre at its very beginnings and has eluded it ever since. If such a ‘total theatre’ is impossible to achieve it may be because — as theorists from Aristotle to Brecht have explained — the consuming reality of ritual actions is incompatible with a thoroughly self-conscious art.[48]

If, as some of the Romantics dreamed, the Fall into Self-Consciousness can be reversed, this incompatibility is not eternal; there is hope for reconciliation of dramatic art and the community. But in any case the ‘total theatre’ must happen, it cannot be willed into existence; a viable public culture will create the ‘total theatre’, not the other way around.

This seems to be, as I have argued, the conclusion reached not just by Auden but also by Eliot; and it is hard not to think that Christianity had a great deal to do with their reaching this conclusion. In Eliot’s case the conversion to Christianity came first, and skepticism about the cultural power of art developed gradually. But Auden’s experience was differently ordered: because he lacked religious faith he struggled mightily for several years to maintain faith in art. When he could not succeed in that work of maintenance — when his experiments in poetic drama failed and his choral songs were absorbed by the silent world of printed verse — he left his native England for an America where he hoped to start from zero. It didn’t work out that way: the Old World followed him to the New. But the nightmarish persistence of that Old World which he had fled was, ironically, instrumental in his reclamation of Christian faith and practice and in the solidification of his conviction that ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’

In November of 1939, less than two months after the Nazis completed their staggeringly rapid conquest of Poland, their own cinematic record of the victory (called Sieg in Polen) was being shown in a theater in Yorkville, a neighborhood in Manhattan then predominantly German. Not surprisingly, especially since the United States was not yet involved in the war, the moviegoers were quite sympathetic to the Nazi cause; they knew what Hitler had done to restore German pride and economic and cultural stability; many of them had come to the U. S. during the economic crises that debilitated Germany in the 1920’s.

But Auden, when he saw Sieg im Polen, was not prepared for the extremity of the viewers’ reactions to this film. Whenever the Poles appeared on the screen — always as prisoners, of course, in the hands of the Wehrmacht — the audience would shout, ‘Kill them! Kill them!’ Auden was stunned. ‘There was no hypocrisy,’ he recalled many years later: these people were unashamed of their feelings and attempted to put no ‘civilized’ face upon them. ‘I wondered, then, why I reacted as I did against this denial of every humanistic value’.[49] On what grounds did he have a right to demand, or even a reason to expect, a more humane response? Not only was the kind of culture that supports poetry unable to shape the public sphere, unable to make anything happen; it was unable to sustain or defend itself before those who preferred evil and brutality. Late in his life Auden often said, as he did in this interview, that his inability to account for, much less justify, his own horror ‘brought [him] back to the Church.’


  1. Auden, Collected Poems (rev. ed.), ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1991), pp. 116–21.  ↩
  2. Auden, Selected Poems (New York: Random/Modern Library, 1958), pp. 31–3.  ↩
  3. In The Ascent of F6 the first two stanzas of the poem are the same, but the last two stanzas of the poem as it appears at the beginning of this essay did not appear and were apparently the result of a later revision. Here is how the song concludes in F6, where it is sung by Lord Stagmantle and Lady Isabel Welwyn over the body of James Ransom (the names in this song are those of characters in the play):  ↩
  4. For an excellent survey of Auden’s work in popular poetic genres during this period of his career, see Nicholas Jenkins’s ‘Introduction’ to some of Auden’s ‘Uncollected Songs and Lighter Poems, 1936–40’, in W. H. Auden: ‘The Language of Learning and the Language of Love’: Uncollected Writings, New Interpretations (Auden Studies 2), ed. Katherine Bucknell and Nicholas Jenkins (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), pp. 49–59.  ↩
  5. See Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (London: Faber, 1933), p. 153.  ↩
  6. Eliot, Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, 1951), p. 247.  ↩
  7. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen, 1928), p. 62.  ↩
  8. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 247.  ↩
  9. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, p. 61.  ↩
  10. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, p. 63.  ↩
  11. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, p. 64.  ↩
  12. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, p. 70.  ↩
  13. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 406.  ↩
  14. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 407.  ↩
  15. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 407. Raymond Williams has provided a shrewd and precise account of the commonly used contrast in modern British thought between the ‘organic’ and the ‘mechanical’ in a given culture (see Culture and Society: 1780–1950 [New York: Columbia UP, 1983], p. 138): the music-hall represents the former, the cinema the latter. The easy and potentially infinite reproducibility of a film is for Eliot part of the problem. (Clearly, Walter Benjamin’s famous essay on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ remains utterly germane to these issues.)  ↩
  16. Peter Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot: A Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 135.  ↩
  17. Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot, p. 147.  ↩
  18. Auden, Complete Works, Volume I, p. xxii.  ↩
  19. The English Auden, p. 273.  ↩
  20. Auden, Complete Works, I:xvi. The validity of this claim is borne out by Mendelson’s analysis in Early Auden (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983), pp. 50–51. Incidentally, Auden may have first come across the Mummers’ play — an ancient but long-lived Christmas pantomime — in his beloved Hardy’s The Return of the Native, where a performance of it plays a key role in the developing relationship of Bathsheba Everdene and Clym Yeobright.  ↩
  21. But not as far back as Yeats with his celebration of ‘Byzantium in the age of Justinian’ or Pound with his praise for the Troubadours and Trouveres; the High Middle Ages were more to Auden’s taste, even if he tended to identify with populist figures like Langland. This particular kind of idealization of the past, with its emphasis on social harmony and religious and intellectual unity, is neatly skewered by Raymond Williams in the famous second chapter of his The Country and the City (New York: Oxford UP, 1977).  ↩
  22. So Rupert Doone, the artistic director of the Group, called him. See Michael Sidnell, Dances of Death: the Group Theatre of London in the Thirties (London: Faber, 1984), p. 24.  ↩
  23. The English Auden, p. 301.  ↩
  24. Paul Fussell, ‘Modernism, Adversary Culture, and Edmund Blunden’, in Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays (New York: Ballantine, 1988), p. 211.  ↩
  25. Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1992), p. 113.  ↩
  26. Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, p. 118.  ↩
  27. Auden, Selected Poems (1958), p. 32, and The English Auden, p. 213.  ↩
  28. Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, p. 123.  ↩
  29. Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind (New York: Farrar, 1976), p. 268; Sidnell, Dances of Death, p. 197. Sometimes, though, even music is insufficient to direct the stubborn audience. Auden’s The Dance of Death, which purports to describe the decline and fall of the bourgeoisie, ends with Karl Marx appearing on the stage to announce, ‘The instruments of production have been too much for him. He is liquidated’ (Complete Works I:107). But Marx’s arrival is heralded by a chorus singing these words to the tune of Mendelson’s wedding march (!):  ↩
  30. Valentine Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties, p. 97.  ↩
  31. Christopher Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind, p. 288. ‘A year or so later, Christopher withdrew his veto, fearing that he might have aborted a masterpiece. Wystan, however, said he had now forgotten all his ideas for it’.  ↩
  32. Sidnell, Dances of Death, p. 204.  ↩
  33. W. R. Johnson, The Idea of Lyric: Lyric Modes in Ancient and Modern Poetry (Berkeley: U of California P, 1982), p. 177.  ↩
  34. Walter Ong has made the following sobering claim: ‘There is no collective noun or concept for readers corresponding to “audience”. The collective “readership” — this magazine has a readership of two million — is a far-gone abstraction. To think of readers as a united group, we have to fall back on calling them an ‘audience,’ as though they were in fact listeners’. Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word (London: Methuen, 1982), p. 74.  ↩
  35. Valentine Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties, p. 323.  ↩
  36. The English Auden, p. 363.  ↩
  37. The English Auden, p. 364.  ↩
  38. Williams, The Country and the City, p. 11.  ↩
  39. The English Auden, p. 365.  ↩
  40. The English Auden, p. 363.  ↩
  41. The English Auden, p. 364.  ↩
  42. The English Auden, p. 368.  ↩
  43. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 4.  ↩
  44. The English Auden, p. 368.  ↩
  45. In December of 1938 Auden delivered a lecture at the Sorbonne on ‘The Future of English Poetic Drama,’ the text of which has not survived (perhaps because there was no text and the lecture was extemporaneous). But something purporting to be a transcription of Auden’s remarks has survived, and it is interesting to note that Auden apparently concluded his lecture by echoing his Light Verse introduction and connecting those ideas specifically to the question of poetic drama: ‘Now, what will happen to the stage, I do not know, but I do know this: that the search for a dramatic form is very closely bound up with something much wider and much more important, which is the search for a society which is both free and unified’. Then, hinting at the possibility of European war and the danger such war would pose to France: ‘If we sometimes, at this moment, look towards France in apprehension mingled with hope, it is because we realise that while these values have disappeared in one country after another, we know that unless they are safeguarded here, in our country liberty, culture, drama are made impossible’ (Complete Works, I:522). Here too the future of art is dependent upon the strength of the political fabric; art is not seen as a contributor to that strength.  ↩
  46. I have discussed some of these issues at length in Chapter 4 of my book, What Became of Wystan: Change and Continuity in Auden’s Poetry (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998).  ↩
  47. See Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot, p. 285.  ↩
  48. Sidnell, Dances of Death, p. 257.  ↩
  49. A. Levy, ‘On Audenstrasse: In the Autumn of the Age of Anxiety’. The New York Times Magazine, 8 August (1971), pp. 10–12, 42.  ↩

More About My New Writing Assignment

When, a few days ago, I posted the details of my radically subversive new writing assignment, I got a number of replies from my friends on Twitter. They fell into three categories:

  • This sounds great!
  • Um … let me know how it goes.
  • I’d feel better about something like this if my students were skilled at writing conventional thesis essays.

Here I want to address that third response.

Some of my students are quite skilled at writing “conventional thesis essays” — the kind that have an introductory paragraph announcing the thesis to be supported, followed by evidence for that thesis taken from the primary source under consideration plus relevant secondary sources, and a conclusion that wraps things up nicely. Some of my students are not so skilled at working in that genre. By eschewing it I am definitely passing up the opportunity to give my students detailed instruction in how to write that kind of text.

Which leads me to a series of questions: How much does that matter? How important is it that my students get better at writing thesis essays? After all, the thesis essay is just one of many genres of writing: how did it become so utterly dominant in the academic study of the humanities? Does it deserve such dominance? Presumably we assign thesis essays not because we think that genre uniquely valuable in itself, but because we think it inculcates certain valuable skills (how to research and sift one’s research, how to defend an arguable position, etc.) — but what if those skills can be taught through assigning different kinds of writing? What if there are other equally valuable skills that can’t readily be taught through the assigning of thesis essays?

Yes, students who are going on to graduate school in the humanities will need to become quite skilled at writing thesis essays — but why should we craft our assignments in order to meet the needs of a small percentage of our students? Moreover, especially if those students get practice writing thesis essays in other classes, why shouldn’t I use my class to teach them some skills and intellectual virtues that could later set them apart from peers?

Questions like those.

One of the primary things I’m hoping to achieve through this assignment is to bring reading and writing into closer and more constructively interanimating relation. In the traditional model, students read and discuss a text and then, at some point later in the term, write about it. Reading is generally done on an almost daily basis, while writing (serious, in-depth writing anyway) is done infrequently and in intense bursts of activity, probably over little more than 48 hours.

I want to see what happens if students have to write, and write seriously, in more-or-less the same rhythm as they read: read a section of a text, write about it, read some more, see what others (scholars and classmates) have said about it, revisit your earlier thoughts to extend or correct them, etc. I feel quite confident that this will make students more incisive and reflective readers; what it will do for their writing skills I am not certain. But it’s worth an experiment.

(P.S. The assignment is neither radical nor subversive, but I thought that might be a cool thing to say.)

Assignment: Commentary and Anthology

Just in case anyone is interested, here’s a draft of something I’ll be handing out to my students in a couple of weeks.

In most of your courses in the humanities, you’re asked to write papers — probably thesis papers, in which you make an argument that you support with evidence from the text under consideration and from critical or contextual studies. It’s a reasonable task to ask students to perform; Lord knows I have asked it of enough students in my thirty-plus years of teaching. But it’s not the only appropriate assignment, and it has certain shortcomings.

Chief among those, I think, is its tendency to encourage people to get through the task of reading as quickly as possible in order to get on to the really important job of articulating and defending your own position. But reading is a task that deserves more care — especially when the texts involved are challenging, difficult, and major.

In a brilliant and important book, Religious Reading, Paul Griffiths demonstrates that in most of the great religious traditions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity — there are genres of reading, that is, kinds of texts in which one records one’s reading. The two major genres, according to Griffiths, are commentary and anthology. To people trained in the habits of mind associated with the thesis paper, these genres seem passive and deferential — especially when applied to non-religious texts. But those genres are not passive at all, and insofar as they are deferential that deference may be quite appropriate. After all, many non-religious texts, especially when they arise in cultures distant from us in time or space or both, pose great difficulties for the reader. Allusions will escape us, social and cultural contexts will be unknown to us, subtleties of argument or exposition or characterization or poetic language will leave us scratching our heads. To seek to identify and then resolve those difficulties — these are highly demanding intellectual tasks, and will not allow passivity, though, as they reveal the complexities that animate really significant works, they may promote deference.

In our class, we will be using a wonderful tool called CommentPress to create an online anthology of writings and to comment on those writings. You will not write papers in this class; instead, you will help to create the anthology, and you will comment on texts you bring to our attention and on the texts others bring. By the end of the term, we will have created a body of annotated readings that, taken as a whole, will significantly illuminate our subject.

So each week, you will do each of the following:

  • Post one passage from one of our assigned texts (either copying and pasting from an online public-domain text, or typing in a passage from one of your books);
  • Make a comment that offers some helpful contextual information about the passage (something about the text’s author, or the historical moment of its composition, or the culture within which it was produced, or a work that it echoes or responds to), preferably with a link to your source;
  • Make a longer comment (perhaps 150-250 words or so) that offers an interpretation of a particular passage in the text, probably drawing on existing scholarly work;
  • Respond to someone else’s comment by disagreeing with it, amplifying and extending it, or providing further relevant information.

You should be aware right from the beginning that this assignment will require you to form somewhat different work habits than you are used to. Many of you are habituated to an academic model in which you read regularly but write infrequently, and probably in intense bursts of activity. In this class reading and writing will be more closely joined to one another, and you will write almost as regularly as you read, and in smaller chunks than essay assignments normally require.

You will also need to familiarize yourself with the CommentPress software, including the proper ways to format text and insert links. Don’t worry: I’ll show you in class how it’s done, and will be happy to answer questions later.

So this will be different than you’re used to. But different is good. Or at least, it can be!

When I think about songs that have made an actual difference to me — not really what I mean when I speak of “favorite” songs, necessarily, or the songs I think are the best, even, though there’s some of both here, but the ones that had an effect, that changed how I thought or acted — this one may be at the top of the list. At a time, about fifteen years ago, when I was confused and uncertain about my path, when I lacked confidence to move forward to write about things I believed in, this song reached me and gave me the impetus I needed. It will always have a very distinctive and important place in my heart. “And you know you come with empty hands / Or you don’t come at all….”

So thanks, Bill Mallonee, I owe you one. Thanks so much.

Shields, of course, has written an entire testament, the manifesto-like book called “Reality Hunger,” in defense of the chop-shop approach to prose, with a high-minded po-mo appeal to the constant recycling of other people’s words as itself a kind of originality. Like many other capitalist ventures, though, this involves taking intricate handiwork done by other people, breaking it up, and selling it off again without permission, not to mention payment. If you have persuaded yourself that invention and recycling are the same thing, then you can’t begin to make sense of someone who would spend seven or eight hours a day laboring over a single line. This puts you in terrible shape with a writer like Salinger, who feels his entire life at stake over a semi-colon. What can he be doing all day in his “bunker” except stewing over his obsessions?

— Cutting and Pasting J. D. Salinger. Adam Gopnik bringing the hammer down on a new bio.

What if you answered the question “What do you do all day?” with “Nothing”? It isn’t as if that could possibly be true. If you spent all day in bed watching television, or staring at the clouds, you wouldn’t be doing nothing. Children are always being told to stop doing “nothing” when they’re reading or daydreaming. It is lifelong training for the idea that activity is considered essential to mental health, whether it is meaningful or not. Behind the “nothing” is in part a terror of boredom, as if most of the work most people do for most of their lives isn’t boring. The longing people express to be doing “creative” work suggests that they think it less boring than other kinds of work. Many people say that writing isn’t “proper work”. Often they tell me they are saving up writing a book for their “retirement”. Creative work sits uneasily in the fantasy life between dread leisure and the slog of the virtuous, hardworking life. It’s seen as a method of doing something while doing nothing, one that stops you flying away in terror.

I met Elmore Leonard once, and spent an hour with him. He was courteous and soft-spoken, and I cherish the first edition of “Freaky Deaky” that he inscribed for me. Of himself, as expected, he gave little away, and the effort to fix him now, in my memory, is an almost impossible task. When I discovered in the diaries of Sir Alec Guinness that the great actor was a fan of Leonard, and that he took “Out of Sight” on vacation one year, the link made perfect sense. Each man was skilled in self-effacement and immune to glamour, reserving all his bravado and wits for the professional arena; you can picture Leonard, like George Smiley, eavesdropping tacitly from the fringes of a room. He is gone now, but he left us a fine consolation: if you’ve never read him, or if you’d never heard of him until yesterday, or if you merely need a fitting way to mourn, pick up “52 Pick-Up,” “LaBrava,” “Swag,” or “Glitz,” and tune into the voices of America—calling loud and clear, and largely ungrammatical, from Atlantic City, Miami, Hollywood, and his home turf of Detroit. Elmore Leonard got them right, and did them proud.

the conspiracy against writers

A friend of mine, a terrific writer, is convinced there is a conspiracy excluding him from certain rewards and publications. Surveying the field, he calculates the present advantages of race, religion, gender, generation, genre; the lamentably low aesthetic standards of the current cultural moment; and the charlatans who act as our literary gatekeepers. I consider him, like most of the paranoia-inclined, an optimist. If only it were that simple. If only we could lay the blame on a sinister group of fashion-conscious power brokers (those cowards, those bozos!) who get together every first Monday of the month at, say, the Century Club to determine the season’s winners and losers. No, I am a pessimist in such matters: I see nothing but randomness, pure randomness.

Fortunately, the solution to such a painful dilemma is always close by. I am referring to a sense of perspective. We are all soon to be dust and ashes under the aspect of eternity — a comfortingly modest thought. There is nothing, I repeat, in an author more becoming than modesty. I myself am, when all is said and done, exquisitely modest. I recognize my talent is a small one, and it has taken me further than I ever imagined when I started out in adolescence on the writing path. So I will conclude by expressing my abject gratitude to the powers that be for recognizing me to the degree they have seen fit. We will leave it at that.

— Midlist Crisis – NYTimes.com. To the question of whether I see any personal application of the thoughts presented by this essay, I reply: You may well think so, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

I took some apples out of a paper bag where they had been lying for a long time; I had to cut off and throw away half of many of them. Afterwards as I was copying out a sentence of mine the second half of which was bad, I at once saw it as a half-rotten apple. And that’s how it always is with me. Everything that comes my way becomes for me a picture of what I am thinking about.

Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional drink. I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words. I walk around, straightening pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor—as though not until everything in the world was lined up and perfectly true could anybody reasonably expect me to set a word down on paper.

I see so much perdition in this world, that even if my writing has no other effect than to weary this hand that wields the pen, it brings me some comfort.

— Theresa of Avila (via botchedandecstatic)

There’s the Hinton St Mary Mosaic – an early Romano-British representation of Christ, with the Chi-Ro symbol monogrammed behind his head, clearly modelled in some ways on images of the sun god, indebted a bit to images of royal authority.

At the same time, this is someone wearing a very simple costume, and when you see something similar in mosaics of later on, very clearly dressed as a philosopher, a wandering teacher. The plain tunic around the shoulder and the unfashionable long hair and beard of philosopher or sage. [RW raises eyebrows. Audience laughter.]

The point being, when you go into one of the great basilicas of the late Roman empire and you see a mosaic of Christ enthroned at the far end, you’re looking at the place where the emperor would sit. And the emperor would be sitting there either dressed in his armour or in cloth of gold with a diadem around his head.

So you’re looking to the throne, but who’s on it? This rather curious and disreputable wandering teacher. So you have a bit of a paradox in visual form there. The person who holds the emperor’s authority in cosmic terms isn’t just another soldier or administrator in uniform, but a philosopher, a sage. So something’s being said there that is on the edge of paradox. It’s been suggested, quite credibly, that some of that tradition of representing Jesus borrows from the ways in which late Classical art used to depict Plato the philosopher or Homer the poet. So it’s a poet, a philosopher, it’s a wordsmith who’s sitting on the throne.

Rowan Williams

[How can students improve as writers?] It’s hard to talk about something like that without sounding prescriptive, but I think that there’s a reluctance in all writers in early stages of their development to really commit themselves to trust their interests as being actually focused on things that are interesting. To realize that they do not have to talk in the same dialect that is being talked around them, in terms of literary convention and all the rest of it. Something that I sometimes say, and even sometimes believe, is that there has been a loss of the cult of genius. When I was younger, I remember going around totally deluded by the idea that other people might, in fact, be geniuses or at least be able to express this in any intelligible fashion. The idea that you might do something radically brilliant—that assumption is very empowering and it has given the world a lot of really interesting things to look at. It’s a side effect of the cult of normality—the idea that it would be preposterous and perhaps undesirable to single yourself out in that way. I think that’s why a lot of stuff that basically amounts to breaking china is seen as being creative when, in fact, it’s as subservient to prevailing norms as anything else is, as obedience to them would be.

a publishing story

This may be of no interest to anyone, but it involves a key moment in my own career, and I’ve never mentioned it in print before, so… .

Like many academics, I had a hard time finding a publisher for my first book, which was on W. H. Auden. (It was not my dissertation, by the way; my dissertation was too weird ever to be published.) I probably sent it to twenty-five or thirty academic presses before finding a taker: The University of Arkansas Press. Not the most prestigious venue in the world, but they had done some good books on modern poetry, and seemed genuinely interested in the project, so I happily signed the contract. We went through the copy-editing process, and I got typeset galleys — which I liked the look of very much — and all seemed ready to go. And then I got a call from my editor, Brian King, saying that funding for the Press had just been cut off: it was going to be closed down, and the book wouldn’t be published after all. All they could do was to send me a floppy disk with the Quark Xpress file of the typeset text and wish me the best.

Well, that news knocked the breath out of me. Unexpectedly, my book was back on the open market again, and I had to resume my circuit of the presses. I recalled that perhaps the nicest and gentlest of my many rejections had come from Oxford University Press, and thought it might be worth my time to let them know that the book was available once more — but this time already copy-edited and typeset. Might that make a difference?

Indeed it might. The editor checked with her superiors, and got the okay to take the book, and I was suddenly lifted up from the pits to the heights. Talk about a fortunate fall! I celebrated immoderately.

And then Brian King from Arkansas called back. He had some strange news: hearing about the forthcoming closure of the press, the good people at Tyson Chicken (one of the largest employers in Arkansas) had come through with a grant to keep the press afloat. My book could be published after all. Though the press had formally released me from my contract, they asked me to sign a new one and come back.

So, to sum up:

  • I had no publisher for my book,
  • then I had one publisher,
  • then I had no publisher again,
  • then I had one publisher again,
  • then I had two publishers.

I was in agony. Obviously an OUP publication would mean a good deal more to my professorial prospects than a UAP publication. I had the opportunity to jump-start my whole career, to expand perhaps dramatically my future options. To pull the book back from Oxford seemed like sheer foolishness. And yet the Arkansas people had wanted the book when no one else did; and they had done the work of copy-editing and typesetting. Moreover, publishing the book would simply mean more to them than to Oxford, which was (is) a huge press with many, many titles.

So I took a deep breath and wrote to Oxford and explained that I was taking my book back. Arkansas published it and has kept it in print all these years. My decision wasn’t, in the usual sense of the word, the smart one, but I feel sure it was the right one. And I don’t think it has hurt me all that much.

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