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Amanda J. Bradley
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One thing that baffles me is the people who say they believe everything happens for a reason, but do not find the thought paralyzing. When something “character building” happens in my life, I want to believe there’s a reason for it too. It’s not that I don’t understand the impulse. But I do ultimately find the thought paralyzing. It’s paralyzing to consider what the reason is, for example. This amounts to me trying to understand the mind of God or the ways of the universe or what the computerized simulation game controller is expecting of me or whatever. I mean, that’s what the people who say this mean, right? They are suggesting there is a divinity and that divinity has a plan and that plan involves every detail of every day of every person’s life. That every second or nanosecond every particle in existence is moving exactly where it should be. Yikes. It clearly begs the question of our freedom of choice. Strangely, then, those same people who say everything happens for a reason will also tell you that your choices are yours to make and that they have consequences both on this side of and beyond the grave. I’m not sure how they find the two thoughts compatible. Nor am I sure how they think they know what happens beyond the grave. Again, I understand that there seems to us to be a life force coursing through us, something ineffable, and that because we are moving about inside our individual consciousnesses we feel certain they must remain intact somehow, somewhere once we die. I do understand the impulse to believe these things. But the fact is that no one really knows. I was raised Lutheran: baptized, confirmed, an acolyte, and so on. By sixteen, however, I was asking, “So how do we know everything happens for a reason? How do we know what happens when we die?” In college, I minored in religion and took a year-long course in the Traditions of Western Christianity. We read Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, Augustine, Paul Tillich, Karl Bultmann, Mary Daly, and so on. I studied Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism – dharma, anatta, and so on, and the more I read, the more it became apparent these were all theories. No one knows. At the end of the day, to me, what suggests something greater is at work here is my empirical experience of the world. At the risk of sounding like an apologist for Intelligent Design (which should NOT be taught in public schools where evolution SHOULD be taught), there does seem to be a design that I experience in a mystical sense. The poem that best captures this sense is my favorite Robert Frost poem, his sonnet “Design”: I found a dimpled spider, fat and white, On a white heal-all, holding up a moth Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth-- Assorted characters of death and blight Mixed ready to begin the morning right, Like the ingredients of a... Continue reading
Posted May 30, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
I loathe the attitude of martyrdom I see in some women and in myself. I remember seeing a video of Axl Rose back in the day wearing a tee shirt with the word MARTYR and a slash mark through the word. I wanted one. Women especially have handed down from generation to generation a tendency to martyrdom because they were forced into that position by society for so long. As we all know, men controlled politics and medicine and law and business and schools and churches and the police and the army, and so women had the private domain, but they had to hide their true opinions even there, to use roundabout ways to assert themselves and their decisions about the household and child rearing and finances for the home and family. And it is taking generation upon generation of women realizing the importance of asserting themselves straightforwardly, with the confidence and authority they have earned through years of hard work – hell, simply through being real, live human beings who therefore get a say -- to rid women of this problem of martyrdom. I think of all the heroines of literature I love who commit suicide: Dido, Antigone, Jocasta, Juliet, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Lily Bart, Bertha Rochester, Hedda Gabler, Edna Pontellier. Why do we have to kill off our heroines, and worse yet, by suicide? I floated the idea of Medea as a feminist character when I taught the play once, and the notion did not sit well with much of the class because she kills her children in her vendetta against her husband, whose new lover she also murders. But she does not commit suicide in the face of being terribly wronged. I remember wondering in that class whether I prefer the women of literature who are fighters and survivors more than the women who choose death over the difficulties of their lives. I’ve been pleased in recent years to meet some young women in their twenties who “get” these things about the past and their representations in literature. It can be disheartening to read student papers suggesting that feminism is no longer needed and then to read in the newspaper about the issues women are facing from insurance not covering birth control to “slut” shaming to lack of equal pay to mandatory vaginal ultrasounds and on and on. But some young women seem to understand that they don’t feel as good about themselves as they might in a better society. They are able to identify the problems with that society and to explain their positions to people who think feminism is no longer necessary. And they do just that. It’s heartening to me to meet these young women. I am grateful to them for carrying the torch. I want to share a poem by Warsan Shire that one of these students introduced me to. That this poem moves this student demonstrates to me that she understands on a poignant level the problems women... Continue reading
Posted May 29, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Famously, Billy Collins in his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” laments that all students want to do “is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it.” He’s not indicting the students so much as the teachers who taught them this practice. But what is a teacher of an introductory poetry class to do when students say of Collins’ controversial poem “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” that Collins clearly doesn’t like Dickinson’s poetry, for example? I have been teaching college literature and writing since 1999, and it becomes more and more the case that students think that a piece of literature can mean anything they want it to mean. They feel this way especially about poetry because, perhaps, poetry is the genre they struggle with the most. In the backlash to New Criticism’s focus on discerning authorial intention, critics and poetry teachers began to suggest through Reader Response theory that it’s not just the author’s intent that matters, but also the reader’s experience of meaning. I agree with Reader Response. In my opinion, a reader may bring a different identity to the poem she reads and see things in it that the author did not necessarily intend to put there – things that are nonetheless there and valid. For example, I just taught Death of a Salesman, and I drew attention during class discussion to what a sad sack Willy Loman is for remaining so long in his delusional worldview that he is becoming literally unhinged. A student offered up that he admires Willy’s optimism because for every ninety-nine optimists who fail, there will be one who achieves great things for himself and society. This comment was made by a particularly strong student, and I thought it was a good point. As long as this student realizes, and I think he does, that Arthur Miller presents a scathing indictment of the American tendency to live with our heads in the clouds and not face and deal with the truth, I think it’s fine for him to admire Willy’s optimism. But often these applications of personal belief to what a story or play or poem is “getting at” result in misreading that goes further and further afield the more “evidence” for the opinion that is proffered. I actively tried to counter this trend a couple semesters ago by bringing in Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz.” I had noticed over the years that there is always a contingency of students who see suggestions that the father abuses the son in this poem, so I thought the poem would provide a good opportunity for me to demonstrate why poetry does not mean anything you want it to mean. If we carefully examine the poem as a class, went my logic, they will see that it’s predominantly a fond memory being recounted. The class discussion proved disastrous. Perhaps I let the contingency who saw abuse in the poem talk a little too long before leading the class through... Continue reading
Posted May 28, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Between recently moving to the country after twenty-three years of city apartment living and teaching a course last semester called Great Themes in Literature: Nature and the Environment, I’ve become a bit of an eco-nut in recent months, and at long last I’ve come to appreciate literature that has to do with nature. In one of the pieces we read for class, Luther Standing Bear discusses a particularly wise “old Lakota”: “He knew that man’s heart, away from nature, becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans too.” Although there are plenty of ways to stay connected with nature living in a city, I didn’t really take advantage of parks, the beach, and rooftop gardens as often as I could have. I found myself wondering if, in all my years in Chicago, Saint Louis, and New York, I had come to respect humans less as a result of being as utterly out of touch with nature as I was. The more I considered the possibility, the more I thought perhaps all these years I’ve had great respect for the individuals I come into contact with but not enough respect for humanity as a whole. In those years of city living I developed the very attitude of “us” versus “them” that we all abhor so in Washington D.C. “We” are the solution to the issues the world faces, went my thinking, and the rest of the people out there who have different opinions and ideas are the problem. One of the poems we read in the nature literature course last semester was William Wordsworth’s sonnet “The World Is Too Much with Us”: The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; -- Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; The winds that will be howling at all hours, And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers; For this, for everything, we are out of tune; It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn. “Little we see in Nature that is ours.” Does it matter if climate change is caused by humans? Not as much as it matters that we do everything we can to improve our treatment of the planet. If the process of decreasing oil dependency manages to slow the current trajectory of the planet heating up, kudos to us. What’s clear is that profit for the present should not trump our children’s future relationship to the planet’s natural resources. Perhaps the old Lakota was right: We’ve spent too much time out of touch with the land and now have less... Continue reading
Posted May 27, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
I’m a William Carlos Williams fan. “This Is Just to Say” is a favorite; “Danse Russe” is another. There’s much to love about his body of work as a whole. But the poem I most enjoy teaching today’s female college students is “The Young Housewife”: The Young Housewife William Carlos Williams At ten AM the young housewife moves about in negligee behind the wooden walls of her husband’s house. I pass solitary in my car. Then again she comes to the curb to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands shy, uncorseted, tucking in stray ends of hair, and I compare her to a fallen leaf. The noiseless wheels of my car rush with a crackling sound over dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling. At first, the students notice the young housewife’s vulnerability going out of doors “uncorseted.” The student readers, young themselves, identify with her ducking outside without getting fully dressed – to grab the newspaper, to grab yesterday’s mail, to let a friend in. “I’ve done that before,” they say. Eventually, one of the women will notice, “That’s kind of sinister the way he’s leering at her. Is he casing her house?” “Why does the speaker compare her to a fallen leaf?” I ask. The students arrive at the conclusion that the speaker sees her as “fallen” or guilty, and he finds it seductive. I let them in on the poem’s suggestion of the young housewife having an affair with a delivery man -- “the ice-man, fish-man.” We discuss whether the speaker is projecting this idea onto this woman for his own reasons, or if the poem is, that is, the poet? We discuss “the male gaze.” And when I finally note the “dried leaves” being crushed beneath the wheels of his car after he’s compared her to a fallen leaf, the room erupts in disgust. “What a creep!” one student pipes up. “Stalker!” another cries. I remember being a thin, fairly attractive young woman. I remember how self-loathingly, painfully self conscious I was because of it. Everywhere I went, I felt eyes on me. Every guy I met, I wondered if he viewed me in a sexual way, or to what extent he did. Sometimes I wanted to rip their throats out. It felt inescapable, paranoia-inducing. It was rare I could relax and just be myself without worrying about how I was being perceived. Although I was a child of the seventies, raised during second wave feminism, I grew up in the suburbs where traditional gender roles were imbedded deep in my psyche at home, in school, at church. These roles were so pervasive I couldn’t see them. Beneath the surface, a boiling anger set in. One of the predominant reasons for my anger was that society had told me two stories growing up. One: You can be anything you want to be. Two: You should be a womanly woman while you do it. There doesn’t seem to be a conflict there, but what I discovered... Continue reading
Posted May 26, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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May 23, 2014