Sunday, October 31, 2010

America's Dysfunctional Soul

With each election cycle, the American populace is literally pummeled by political advertisements that often promote greed, hatred, selfishness, and xenophobia--and done so with ever-increasing degrees of mean spiritedness.  We've strayed so far from John Kennedy's inaugural plea for altruism ("Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country") that many people don't even know what the term altruism means.

When I consider another term that is bandied about by political candidates and pundits like a beach ball, Christianity, I fear for America's soul, for our public policies at times are antithetical to any of Christ's teachings.  Of course, the founders of this country wanted a separation between church and state, but that doesn't prevent politicians from espousing so-called "Christian values" even though one would be hard-pressed to find any reference in Christ's teachings that greed is good, that one should promote hatred for those who don't share your opinions or who are different or "illegal," that selfishness is better than selflessness--I'm puzzled as to which New Testament some politicians supposedly adhere to when they claim to be Christians.  I do know that the Bible has over 3,000 references directing us to help the poor, but I can't find any stipulation that corporations and the wealthy should receive corporate welfare or "subsidies."

If the poet John Keats correctly noted that the world is a "vale of soul making," America is in a vale of soul destroying.

For example, some want to overturn what they call "Obama Care" as if Congress' constitutional duty to care for "the general welfare" of the populace doesn't include health care.  Most industrialized nations of the world provide public health care just as they provide for police and fire services:  They are public goods that benefit all and aren't driven by a for profit ethos.  In contrast, wealthy people throughout the world can always afford quality health care regardless of the countries in which they live; they can always fly to the best clinics with no concern for costs.  Imagine, for a moment, if health care was paid for by our taxes in the same way we collectively pay for police and fire services.  Imagine how much less our health care costs would be since the profit motive to provide such services would no longer exist.  Let me use an analogy:  Which are more expensive, public schools or private schools?  Most private K-12 schools require at least $500 a month in tuition ($5,000 a year in tuition--some charge far more) per pupil, yet no one pays $5,000 a year in federal and state taxes just to send one child to a public K-12 school.

When costs for public services--with no for profit emphasis--are widely distributed and shouldered by everyone, costs go down, not up.  For example, the city of Los Angeles has a city-owned utility, The Department of Water and Power (DWP); municipal bonds are the primary resource to pay for its operation.  Los Angeles residents uniformly pay less in water and power costs when compared to those who pay Southern California Edison (SCE) or Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) companies, which are for profit entities, for their water, natural gas, and electricity needs.  If Los Angeles' DWP raises its rates, it does so because of rising costs necessary to provide services; as for SCE and PG&E, they must raise rates in part because their stockholders want to make more profits.

Even if we eventually have publicly funded health care, insurance companies will never go away, so one need not worry about them; they'll always do business insuring lives, homes, automobiles, and personal property.  And what about medical professionals who want to earn as much money as possible to provide for their families?  Hopefully, those who become medical care-givers do so because they have a personal desire to care for others, just as many police officers, firefighters, and educators look to their professions as a means of aiding others.  If one is truly motivated by greed, Wall Street brokerage firms and banking institutions are notorious magnets for those so inclined.  (Imagine if the recent bailouts went to pay off late mortgage payments and high interest credit card balances instead of providing financial conglomerates the ability to hand out huge bonuses that are often larger than the incomes many people earn in a lifetime:  That kind of individual citizen-centered bailout would have truly stimulated our economy by reducing individual debt while still helping financial institutions that issued those mortgages and credit cards.)

Many spiritual texts emphasize love and compassion for fellow human beings, and one way societies have implemented such a directive is via communal programs paid for by taxes.  Taxes pay for a myriad of things we take for granted:  roads and highways, public schools, college and vocational student grants, housing loan programs, traffic control and street lights, flood control systems and sewage treatment facilities--even the electricity we get from private companies could not have become a commonplace phenomenon had it not been for electrification projects paid for by tax dollars (any good American history text will make clear how various government-initiated, tax-payer funded programs have resulted in the nationwide infrastructure we use on a daily basis).

Nevertheless, politicians have promoted the notion that taxes are evil and hinder your ability to live a fruitful life.  Consequently, the common mantras are "no new taxes" and "tax breaks for all."  But what if you had to build or repave the roads you personally use because substantial tax reductions wipe out funds for such improvements?  What if you had to pay for every time you needed police service or fire department help?  What if you had to pay 50% down to buy a home and had only 5-10 years to pay off the remaining mortgage?  (Historian and author Stephanie Coontz notes in her essay "A Nation of Welfare Families" that this was the standard home purchasing protocol prior to the creation of the Federal Housing Authority, Fannie Mae, and Ginnie Mae when the federal government went into the business of insuring and backing housing loans.)  What if you had to pay for tuition to send your child to a private K-12 school because public schools could no longer accommodate all school-age children due to reduced tax revenues?

Taxes might make us wince when we see the net results of our take-home earnings, but taxes also insure that we can expect certain public services that we wouldn't want to be denied.  More importantly, those who make millions each year should pay a minimum amount of taxes every year despite all of the loopholes they currently utilize:  Who would feel sorry for someone who makes millions of dollars a year--or even one million dollars a year--and would have to pay at least half of his or her earnings in taxes?  I wouldn't feel sorry for someone who would have to live on $500,000 a year--who would?  If I were in a position to make millions each year, I wouldn't feel somehow less of a human being if half of my income went to help the general populace; if anything, I would feel good that I'm helping to reduce the taxes of those whose incomes are far less than mine  (remember "Ask not what your country can do for you..."?) while improving and sustaining the country's infrastructure.

Keats was right:  The world is a "vale of soul making."  Instead of scapegoating the poor, the undocumented, and the unionized workers in this country (unions came about largely because of greedy business owners who didn't care about the working conditions, health, and welfare of their poorly paid employees), we need to realize that our country's soul depends upon our collective ability to integrate our spiritual awareness into our public policy awareness.  If we're truly committed to "acknowledge Him in all thy ways"  (and I'm fairly sure all means all), we must incorporate altruism in every aspect of our lives, including our political lives and our public policies.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Notes on Writers and the Teaching of Writing, I.


Those of us who've been formally trained as writers, who've been the beneficiaries of writing workshops taught by respected practitioners who discuss issues of craft line by line, syllable by syllable, often have to witness or tolerate naive notions about writing and the teaching of writing; such naivete is a constant emanation from colleagues in the teaching ranks or from administrators or even from students who "profess" to know what works best to help students become better writers.

But that last word, writers, is a major irritation because of its broad umbrella, for those of us who've spent a large part of our student and adult years actually working at becoming writers--to the point of publishing, winning awards, and/or accepting visiting or tenured positions as writers in academe--are quite different than the majority of students and composition instructors whose formal coursework didn't help them become writers who publish or win acclaim as poets, fiction writers, or non-fiction writers.

The vast majority of composition instructors aren't trained as writers per se; rather, they are trained either as literary theorists/historians/critics or as teachers of composition (they take courses mainly in composition pedagogy and theory: they learn certain protocols or methods to utilize in a classroom, such as peer-editing, holistic grading, computer-assisted instruction, journal writing or "free" writing exercises, and other non-craft-oriented teaching methods and theories). True, they do write papers, but so do students in sociology, history, and math classes. To use an analogy, music appreciation or art history instructors are trained in specific histories or theories that correspond to various musical pieces or artworks or composers/artists, but they aren't trained to become creators of music or art. But when educational institutions look for faculty to teach piano or 2-D/3-D art classes, they don't look for music appreciation or art history degree holders; rather, they look for well-educated practitioners who've dedicated years to learning their respective crafts. In short, they look for people who can do and teach.

In fact, English departments rarely require composition applicants to even demonstrate their writing skills, let alone require in-depth training as writers. For most faculty members on hiring committees, the only document they look at to determine if one has some facility with written discourse is the dreaded letter of application--not the best piece of evidence when one considers how such letters must address various job announcement criteria, and I wouldn't be surprised if some composition applicants seek out the help of professional resume writers and services to help them fine tune such documents.

As a result, teachers of composition often aren't publishing, award-winning practitioners in any genre, yet they supposedly can teach writing despite their relative lack of training as craftspeople. No wonder some institutions rely on group portfolio programs, holistic grading, and "norming" sessions for their composition faculty--which is quite unheard of among those who teach creative writing workshops: I've yet to come across a well-trained, publishing poet or fiction writer who says he or she needs norming because he or she has doubts about "standards" or "learning outcomes" or "craft concerns." How absurd! I can't imagine Phil Levine or Pete Everwine or Mike Ryan or Terry Hummer or Jim McMichael or Ken Fields or Cynthia Huntington or Simone DiPiero or the late Denise Levertov saying to themselves, "Gee, I don't know what to say about this piece of writing--I should ask my colleagues for help!" Of course,
I wouldn't expect them to hold the same opinions about different pieces of literature, for art by necessity constantly evolves; to paraphrase Terry Hummer, purity in art simply doesn't exist: all art is impure. Writing, like painting and music, is not a hard science, yet the communal need for "norming" sessions among some composition teachers illustrates a definite communal lack of expertise. And that lack does not bode well for composition students.

When we use the term writer, we should delineate between academic, non-publishing, temporary "writers" found in most classrooms (most students and, sadly, many teachers fall into this group) as opposed to writers like William Carlos Williams or Octavio Paz or Cynthia Ozick; the former as a group generally writes for a grade or a position and often does so in a rather hurried, mechanical manner, whereas the latter and their peers, past and present, write for eternity--and eternity is the harshest of critics and isn't pressed for time.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Elizabeth Bishop's "Filling Station": Word Choices, Sounds, and Silences

Filling Station

Oh, but it is dirty!
--this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it's a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color--
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

--Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems: 1927-1979

I've always been struck by Bishop's craft expertise in her work, and "Filling Station" typifies her attention to not only what a poem means but how a poem means something.

For instance, most of us would probably not begin a poem with the exclamation "Oh": Bad poems often start with such ohs that signal to the reader the speaker's emotional and possibly spiritual state: "I'm in a state of rare sensitivity; I've reached the sublime and I want you to be ready for my oracular exhortations." But Bishop's use of "Oh" is quite the contrary: the speaker is a snob whose initial reaction to the scene at hand is one of disgust. Consequently, Bishop's word choice from the very first phoneme is an apt one. And, luckily for the poem and for us, the term "filling station" was a commonplace during Bishop's and even during my childhood; "gas station" wouldn't have the same effect that "filling station" can and will have in the poem. (And I'm old enough to remember that Exxon was once Esso: the penultimate trope in the last stanza wouldn't have the same soothing effect with the term Exxon.)

And I love how Bishop repeats various sounds for evocative reinforcement of the speaker's experience: Oh, oil-soaked, oil-permeated, and over-all echo the first utterance so that when a reader actually reads aloud the poem, the vowels harp upon each other just as popular songs dig into a listener's cognitive awareness that can't literally be defined but can be mouthed over and over. Music has that effect: certain vibrations in the air hit the eardrums and work their magic. (Was it William Carlos Williams who said that prose is written to be read whereas poetry is written to be heard?)

Such repetitions of words and sounds seamlessly work throughout the poem, and Bishop also utilizes modifiers in a masterly manner. For example, in addition to the hyphenated adjectives, she expertly inserts adjectives that some MFA graduates would never do (a certain "school" in the Midwest comes to my mind): the sons are "quick," "saucy," and "greasy"; the station is "quite thoroughly" dirty; the wickerwork is "crushed" and "grease-impregnated"; the doily is "big" and "dim"; the begonia (one of my favorite plant names) is "big" and "hirsute"; the automobiles are "high-strung." One might associate such adjective usage with Southern poets like Robert Penn Warren and James Dickey, but, in fact, Bishop's contemporaries were not shy of modifiers: Robert Lowell's For the Union Dead and John Berryman's Dream Songs have a multitude of modifiers that, if deleted, would be similar to taking out certain notes in Muddy Waters' music or limiting Georgia O'Keefe's palette to just blues and greens. Does this mean one should go adjective and adverb crazy? Of course not, but Bishop's craft awareness illustrates what's possible when one uses great care when writing and revising one's work.

And another craft element that's noticeable in Bishop's poetry is her awareness of the length of her utterances and where the pauses, the silences, occur. Look at the third stanza: She starts with a heavily end-stopped line; the second line has a natural caesura at the end; the third line has a medial caesura but ends with a run-on which lends a greater emphasis to the beginning of the fourth line; within the fourth line, a ever so soft caesura occurs after "crushed" and then the line utilizes enjambment like the previous one; the fifth line is heavily end-stopped; the sixth line is enjambed; the seventh line, like the third line, has a medial caesura. Bishop's utterances combine repetition and variation, the corrective push and pull of well-crafted lines; as Donald Hall notes, such tension is similar to what corrects one's teeth: "Damn braces."

Craft in the hands of someone like Bishop can make us all the more appreciative of what's possible when one hammers away until the result shimmers and eternally breathes.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Proposition 8 and Constitutional and Historical Awareness

Months of the year have unique historical or emotional associations for some of us. For example, ever since I was an elementary school student, August is the month that forever mushrooms over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a young boy in Fresno, I would connect such incredible, world-ending heat to the wilting August temperatures outside our swamp-cooled house on Poppy Street. Of course, no amount of my imaginative powers could ever come close to the reality that hundreds of thousands of Japanese experienced on and--for those who survived the blasts--after those two infamous days in August 1945. History often has that effect: Our human brains strive to make connections to what can seem almost as abstract and as memorable as a Pablo Picasso painting.

Today is one of those days in history that will be added to my August consciousness: A federal court judge struck down California's Proposition 8 as unconstitutional.

Some might ask, "Why is this ruling so important to you, especially if you're not gay?"

I'm a believer in the Constitution of the United States and in The Bill of Rights, and I've always considered the Fourteenth Amendment and its "Equal Protection Clause" as crucial for people who are not members of "the majority." We have a history of the majority wanting to place restrictions on various minority groups; for instance, at one time we permitted slavery and we denied women the right to vote. And just because we have a U.S. Supreme Court doesn't mean inequalities can be quickly ended; past Supreme Court decisions led to various "Jim Crow" laws that manifested the so-called "separate but equal" mentality that I'm certain some people still crave (the Tea Party's mantra, "Give us back our country," strikes me as dangerously nostalgic for what were ugly times for people not in the majority). The 1954 Brown v. The Board of Education Supreme Court ruling still bothers some who don't want their children to attend integrated schools, and the 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court ruling, which put an end to anti-miscegenation laws, must still bother those who think that whites should not marry blacks for whatever sad, ill-conceived reasons.

And such people who don't like interracial marriages, integrated schools, or homosexual marriages have every right to hold such views, but today's ruling reinforces what we all must remember: Constitutional rights can never to be denied simply because a majority of voters deem them as deniable.

The United States of America was and still is an ideal on paper that with the passage of time struggles to become a reality, and today's decision is just one more step toward that reality.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Illness and Love

I've been ill lately; my body at times seems to belong to someone much older (at least in my head I'm still an awkward teen who longs for love but will settle for groping in a darkened theater--the prose of B movies swirling about private parts slightly tinged with the odor of moldy linen).

And, becalmed even at this hour of the morning as my dog sleeps on without me, I somehow know my health will come back, like the old French cinema classic where the boy approaches the sea, looks out, and turns back toward land, toward the humans despite the additional blows that await him.

I am in love, actually; no, not with another human, though she is nearing me just as deliberately as I swerve her way, but with this hour when the blood can't seem to fall asleep but nudges me: "Go ahead, it won't hurt, really."

Clearly, I'm strung out just as the heavens do their sleepwalk over my small rooftop; the hunter Orion has no choice but to clarify this dark patch of sky, for we all hunt for what we need, cleansed by God knows what, spurred by ill health and the promise of jam and cookies and a cool hand on our foreheads.

If I say, "This might be poetry," I would not win my case in court; if I say, "This is love," I would not win your heart. But why say anything at all if meaning is just subjective spark plugs firing in our brains; why say "I'm in love" if it matters, at best, only to me?

My doctor wants me to take tests that require induced sleep, a temporary "death," so to speak; a machine would breathe for me, but would a machine also dream for me? And in the tunnel that would surely guide me back, would I linger if only to scrawl on the walls just how much I love what can't be seen?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Arizona: The New Nuremberg

In 1935, Nazi Germany instituted the Nuremberg Race Laws that basically deprived German Jews their rights as citizens and demoted them to "subjects." Jews were banned from marrying anyone of the "Aryan" race; even young non-Jewish women age 45 and under weren't allowed to be employed by Jews as housekeepers. German citizenship would only be granted to those who were of Aryan, non-Jewish ancestry and such citizenship could only be proven by actual documents that German citizens had to carry. The Nuremberg Race Laws set into motion a legal ethos that would ultimately spur Hitler and his minions to embrace the "Final Solution": the extermination of all Jewish people within the Third Reich.

Hitler understood that the majority of non-Jewish German people would accept such laws and the resulting crimes against humanity if they could rationalize to themselves, "It's the law: We have to follow it." More importantly, the rest of the world idly sat by and did nothing to combat the Nuremberg Race Laws; in America, a number of states had anti-miscegenation laws, and the U.S. Supreme Court did not uniformly ban anti-miscegenation laws until 1967 in the Loving v. Virginia decision.

Arizona's new immigration law (that gives non-federal Arizona law enforcement agencies the power to stop, question, and arrest potentially undocumented, "illegal" immigrants) takes it cue from Hitler's Nuremberg Race Laws. Numerous Arizonans and others across the country see the law as something they must accept; after all, it's a legal proclamation that was ushered in with an unusual amount of fanfare (most laws enacted by state legislatures don't receive such media attention); those who support the law say it's necessary to stem the influx of undocumented workers from other countries--namely, Mexican laborers.

Of course, supporters of the Arizona law would be terribly angered to be placed in the same catergory as supporters of the Nuremberg Race Laws and the National Socialists of the Third Reich. But the Arizona law has the same effect: Certain people will be targeted by law enforcement and the justice system and others will not simply because of their appearance, their physical surroundings, and their names. (Remember, often before police stop a vehicle, they call in a vehicle's license plate to get a tentative identification of the registered owner's name.)

In Germany, if one was blond, light-skinned, and blue-eyed--and didn't have a Jewish surname, one was above suspicion. In Arizona, if one is blond, light-skinned, and blue-eyed--and doesn't have a Spanish surname, that person can walk, work, and drive in Arizona without any fear of being stopped and questioned by local or state police about his or her legal right to be in Arizona.

And like the Jews in Nazi Germany, mostly Mexican undocumented workers are blamed for a host of ills: they're killing citizens; they're lowering the standards of living for citizens; they're taxing our educational and health systems. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Reich Minister of Propaganda, made similar complaints about Jews. And this weekend, I heard radio talk show "personality" Bill Cunningham make similar complaints about mostly Mexican undocumented workers (and he's not alone; just listen to almost any radio talk show host on so-called "conservative" radio or on Fox News and you'll hear the same message).

Goebbels knew that the airwaves and print media had to be controlled and deluged with negative propaganda about Jews if Hitler's dream of an all Aryan society was to become a reality. Likewise, in America today one rarely hears a radio or television talk show host note how we benefit daily from undocumented workers: they harvest, pack, and ship our inexpensive food, they bus our tables in restaurants, they mow our lawns, they build our houses and replace our roofs and remodel our kitchens, they fix our cars and recycle our old tires, they take care of our children in daycare centers, they attend to our elderly in rest homes--and I never hear people complain about the money they routinely save when they benefit from undocumented workers' labor. Just as the Jews were scapegoated for most of the societal problems in Nazi Germany, so are undocumented Mexican immigrants scapegoated in the United States.

What can we do to combat this terrible return to a Nuremberg-like mentality that has been codified by an Arizona law? We can boycott Arizona; we can refuse to buy anything that comes from Arizona, especially things bought online, and we can refuse to visit the state to add to the state's coffers as tourists. Will this boycott hurt Arizonans? Yes, but Martin Luther King, Jr., realized when he organized the Montgomery bus boycotts that those in power will be more eager to rectify a wrong when they hurt financially.

On May 1, 2010, Cardinal Roger Mahoney of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said to a crowd protesting the Arizona law that no one is "illegal" in God's eyes. Amen.