Sappho, “I asked myself / What, Sappho, can…”

Not long ago, while discussing Marion Bell’s “Austerity,” I spoke of being radicalized by love in contrast to going mad on account of it.

That feels like a distinction which can stand, “radicalized” versus “crazy.” But then there’s this slight complication: no matter what, being in love pushes one to see the world in crazy ways. You’re not completely mad, but you’ll pursue a line of thought so deranged you’ll need a Charm Person spell cast on yourself to stop (a professional Enchanter doesn’t come cheap, either). I know in previous years having crushes made me so very superstitious. Everywhere I went, I thought I saw magical signs that everything would work exactly the way I was imagining.

Seeing coincidences as an expression of some primal truth is only one self-deception. Another is seeing perfection in far too many places. In the fragment below, how many have “everything,” assuming Sappho wants affection returned from a beloved?

[I asked myself, / What, Sappho, can…] (from Poetry)
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

I asked myself

What, Sappho, can
you give one who
has everything,
like Aphrodite?

I count two instances of desiring unreal perfection. First, Sappho wants to know what she can give “one who has everything.” That “one” with everything can be thought perfect.

The second instance comes from the peculiar grammar of this translation. What, Sappho, can you give one who has everything, like Aphrodite? Most of us would read this as saying Sappho wishes to give as Aphrodite can give to the beloved. The way “like Aphrodite” hangs at the end, though, makes me wonder if Sappho conflates her beloved with Aphrodite herself. Aphrodite, after all, is not just any goddess, but one most desired. It does seem like winning the heart of someone who may not immediately fancy you is no less than winning a literal god to one’s side.

Sappho places divine and human perfection entirely outside herself—I asked myself / What, Sappho. It’s almost like she’s rudely subtweeting herself. Her fragment shows, I think, that she understands the ridiculousness of the conceit. “I’m in love with you because you’re perfect; I’m in love with love because it’s perfect; I have to be able do something about this.” Everything about the framing makes no sense, but this is how it feels when one isn’t getting the attention one wants. I don’t understand why I’m neglected—they must have everything. I don’t get why no one loves me—love itself must be self-sufficient. We’re one sentence away from Sappho’s persona exploding into tears.

I don’t remember exactly when I ditched my superstitions about love, but I did. A lot of my growth—and admittedly, I still have a lot of growing to do—had to do with realizing that where we both were in life counts for a lot. There is no “one who has everything,” like as if people are entirely defined by their possessions once and for all. There’s being engaged in a specific task, working for certain purposes, having particular friends and interests. You may not fit into any of that, and that’s okay. It’s just hard to see that “everything” as it really is: nothing. You’ve got to value yourself and where you are, and that means not trying to fit that valuation into any sort of scheme.

Lorenzo Thomas, “Flash Point”

It’s hard not to be angry nowadays, and I know many of us are accused of having low flash points ourselves. Wikipedia: The flash point of a volatile material is the lowest temperature at which vapours of the material will ignite, when given an ignition source. We’re told not to explode, to calm down, to not indulge panic. We’re told this by people who actively manipulate us, perhaps because they don’t want to hear anything which could make them feel guilty, or worse yet, because they want literal crimes against humanity or war crimes to continue.

So anger, in our present circumstances, can be knowledge fully realized. Knowledge with the right emotions, so to speak. Still, the consequences of this aren’t terribly helpful, no matter how righteous our fury:

Flash Point (h/t @finedistraction)
Lorenzo Thomas

This useless clairvoyance
Is embarrassing
What good is it to know
The motives behind manners

And worse, the so what stares
Of those upon whom you manage
To inflict this wisdom

There is more space
Awaiting exploration
More clouds of gas
That need their picture took

This useless clairvoyance / Is embarrassing / What good is it to know / The motives behind manners—anger reveals the actors in our world for who they truly are, but it’s also, you know, anger. It is embarrassing to know and live with the knowledge that produces it, however genuine it is. Anger eats away at one and is not immediately a “good.” Can it actually be used? Or does it just embitter?

The second stanza seems to resolve these questions. And worse, the so what stares / Of those upon whom you manage / To inflict this wisdom. Sure, you’ve got exacting knowledge of how society works. But you’re angry—you’ve exiled yourself without realizing it—and this body of knowledge primarily helps you justify your own misery. You think you shouldn’t be miserable, but then you think anything is better than agreeing with them.

Now you’re alone and no one wants to hear you. They’ve heard your lament before, they may have gone through the same process as you. What you’re running up against is larger than any specific injustice. Conventionality, which can be thought to be human society, is suffocating. We all think the same on account of lack of oxygen. If you’re not sensitive enough, you’ll accidentally steal someone’s air, i.e. bother or harm others. How do you find the space to do or say anything?

We turn to space itself. There is more space / Awaiting exploration. The cosmos is more in line with what the ancients called “nature,” as in “the nature of all things.” Perhaps true wisdom can be found—not just an insight here, a pain realized there. Maybe divine principles can be discovered which would enable us to transcend anger. Only, there seem to be vapors which could ignite in space. More clouds of gas / That need their picture took—maybe an integral part of being wise is learning to bear witness.

Marion Bell, “Austerity”

A delightfully awkward love poem, combining the evasiveness of playing it cool with the repetition of searching for the truth. The result isn’t just a strange but elegant eloquence—there’s a potent message about America today. Still, I want to speak exactly like this poem, in tones casual, profound, and funny:

Austerity (from Slow Poetry in America; h/t Ryan Eckes)
Marion Bell

look i get radicalized by love
like any normal

i wouldn't turn you into a wife
i'm a person you know
and the conditions are weird
the naiveté
even of my knowing
i wouldn't turn you into anything

i get radicalized by love
and by austerity
and by work
by austerity and by work

it's easy to get radicalized just by paying
       attention to experience
i would write to you
in the naïveté of my knowing

look i get radicalized by love / like any normal / American. “Look” alone contains quite the puzzle. “Look,” I want to assert myself, say something with finality. I can resolve this situation, so I’m going to speak, um, apologetically. I’m… sorry I’m in love with you? In my defense, love radicalized me. It didn’t make me crazy, but devoted to a cause—this may not make me a normal person, but it sure makes me a normal American.

Yup. You heard that right. I’m amazed you’re still listening. I just said pursuit of my own self-interest—I mean, yeah, there’s some loving and caring involved—is pretty much of the same rank as raising money for an orphanage about to close.

I guess I have to start clarifying how this works. Alright. I’m radicalized, not crazy—i wouldn’t turn you into a wife. I assume you can see my humanity and my suffering—i’m a person you know / and the conditions are weird. You can see how little I know! Take me as I am—naive, maybe even innocent. the naiveté / even of my knowing / i wouldn’t turn you into anything.

The first two stanzas project pure, unadulterated coolness. Not “cool” in the pejorative sense adults use to try and prevent kids from imitating their peers. This is way more powerful than impressing some kids at school—it’s complete command of one of the most difficult social situations. In an awkward quasi-apology, there’s a plea to be loved. It feels confident though it speaks vulnerability. There’s an offer of possession and exclusivity that proclaims itself as anything but. You can say it’s trying to be honest though “the conditions are weird.”

So that’s it, right? Not quite. If you don’t know anything, how’d you get radicalized? i get radicalized by love / and by austerity / and by work / by austerity and by work. I get radicalized by, um, everything. Austerity—severity, deprivation. It isn’t really the opposite of work, though it is presented as such here. Plenty of people don’t have and must work to abnormal, deforming extremes.

But because of the awful, sheer bullying ignorance of contemporary American political rhetoric, if you’re suffering through austerity, you’re assumed a thief. You’re trying to save something, but according to people who watch television and YouTube all day, you are supposed to have nothing. So you must be stealing! If you have a job and have financial troubles, again, you must be trying to steal. The only people incapable of stealing are those who already have. The rich can be trusted, are capable of virtue, are worthy of love.

In the face of this, how can anyone not be radicalized by this crazy country? I know parents who look down on their kids because their kids are poorer than they are. We’re literally a nation that can’t afford love.

This love poem changes. Knowledge means reevaluating priorities. Radicalization means staying true to the cause. It’d be nice to be loved back, but no matter what, I plan on staying busy. Experience brought me here, to you—it’s easy to get radicalized just by paying / attention to experience. I fell in love. Now I gotta say, I gotta go to work. i would write to you / in the naïveté of my knowing.

Bertolt Brecht, “And I always thought”

I always imagined myself delivering flowing, flawless lectures. I didn’t explicitly picture myself mesmerizing anyone, but I did see myself walking my listeners through a fairly complicated topic (with ease), explaining how different opinions could form about it (with a sensitivity that made my listeners eager to learn more), and then arguing my position by telling the story of how I engaged the evidence (this, of course, was done with brilliance).

Okay. So maybe my expectations about being a lecturer were a bit unrealistic. The lectures I’ve given haven’t seen me shake aimlessly strolling in front of everyone and rambling. Yes, part of this is that I need to work on public speaking.

But another part is that I don’t understand what I’m doing if I’m the one primarily talking. I’ve turned on lectures which overflow with useful information. That doesn’t mean I resent them, as they have their use. However, I’m far more interested in hearing how someone observed a problem and came up with a plan to solve it. In other words, I want to know how they relate to perceived facts more than the facts themselves.

And for my lectures, the first thing I want to know is my audience. I realize I really, really like hearing about how things are done or discovered. Not everyone is like that, at least not immediately. How do you make the most effective appeal for what you care most about?

Brecht, in the poem below, presents a brief drama about this dilemma. He’s pleading with another to stand up for themselves—that much is clear. But his appeal, which uses a certain rhetoric, is meant to advance what could be another approach to rhetoric:

And I always thought ("Bertolt Brecht Poems 1913-1956," eds. Willett and Manheim)
Bertolt Brecht

And I always thought: the very simplest words
Must be enough. When I say what things are like
Everyone's heart must be torn to shreds.
That you'll go down if you don't stand up for yourself
Surely you see that.

And I always thought: the very simplest words must be enough. Brecht’s poem itself is simple. Does this mean it will be enough? Will his words persuade the listener right in front of him?

We can’t be sure of this, as he says he “thought” this, not that he thinks it. He could have said “the very simplest words” are always effective and then demonstrated the failure of more complex constructions. Instead, he presents an idea from his past, that simplicity can suffice, and reveals it to be more struggle than realization.

It’s something with which he struggles at this moment. When I say what things are like / Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds. He believed the simplest words told “what things are like.” They told his perspective, his pain, his truth; he assumed others would try to relate, seeing that pain. It’s an assumption you can’t ever be fully rid of—if we ever believed we couldn’t express the simple truth of our hurt, we’d probably lose all hope of communicating.

You want others to hear your pain and care. Brecht has a warning—it won’t work, though you might express your truth elegantly, in few, effective words. The past tense of “thought” (first sentence) echoes into “say” (second sentence), and “must” is undermined in both cases. “The very simplest words must [not] be enough,” as this was thought. “When I say what things are like / Everyone’s heart must [not] be torn to shreds,” as this is more wish than reality.

Still, this poem is simple, its sadness real. It appeals through its form in defiance of its content. That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself / Surely you see that. You can see how you need to stand up for yourself, just as you see me working with something I once wholeheartedly believed. It remains a part of me, however questionable, and I have not abandoned it.

Maybe you’ll need to do something more complicated than speak simply and hope people empathize. No matter what, you need to figure out to stand up for yourself, not just how to do so. It’s the former that reaching for “the very simplest words” speaks to. Identifying your pain, seeing it as universal, and trying to render it in language are all important for you. That’s the beginning of standing up for yourself—reaching out and in the process, strangely enough, realizing who you actually are.

Bettering American Poetry, Volume 2

Bettering American Poetry, Volume 2
eds. Akbar, Clark, dodd, Espinoza, King, Leung, Rankine, Ramirez, Wasson
Bettering Books, 288 pp. (2017)

As a minority, life in America feels fundamentally broken. Maybe it is broken in two. On the one hand, there’s the founding rhetoric, the Bill of Rights, and the various things directly inspired by their spirit. You could say the culmination of this regime is the Fourteenth Amendment, the explicit promise of equal protection, or perhaps the Voting Rights Act. And on the other hand, there’s actually living in America. Dealing with distrust; finding no remedy for grave injustices; coming to terms with being bullied (and always being seen as a target for bullying); being excluded to the point of invisibility; living in fear of a system which speaks your aspirations but does not allow you a say, let alone encourage leadership. There are happy exceptions to what I’ve outlined, obviously. There are plenty who have sacrificed for me, going out of their way to make sure I could get ahead. Some of them did this out of a sense of duty attributable to our laws and culture, enabling me to actually live. I’m hoping to work for those who will invest in me, and I’m reasonably sure that’s doable. Then again, a little more acknowledgement of my humanity can go a long way in making my life better.

Bettering American Poetry, Volume 2 demonstrates how complicated acknowledgement of humanity can be. Its featured poems range over a wide variety of concerns—racism, activism, sexuality, alienation, sexism, acceptance, ambition, bullying, colonialism, possession, loneliness, emptiness—and I can understand finding its documentation of terrors faced in public and private overwhelming. This is a very good collection of very good poems—it unnerves, disturbs, demands engagement. I want to do justice to every voice heard, those of the poets and for whom they speak, but I myself feel inadequate to that task.

I believe a fruitful approach to discussing this anthology can begin with considering what the editors would like for it. What if Bettering American Poetry were adopted by a number of classrooms? Many of the poems can easily become part of a critical discussion of personal trauma and current events. Moments in the classroom informed by such discussion are of vital importance, as students not only engage the world at hand, but see themselves and their peers each reflected differently in it. Those moments which have stayed with me longest have been “earned,” so to speak, built from a set of concerns and voices you would not immediately think go together, lingered over and allowed to frustrate students, finally reaching a “Eureka!” moment (whether in the classroom or years later). I can see myself assigning poems from this anthology along with texts featured in a more typical curriculum to show these all-too-human concerns global and timeless.

One idea for an assignment that comes readily to mind has to do with the problem of patriarchy. Pretty Hawk, telling her story in Rachel Jamison Webster’s “Ghost Dance, Lakota Territory,” explains the immense peril of having something of value in the face of an empowered, hostile majority:

I do not miss being watched like being eaten. The way it robs you of your eyes. When I was young, I was very beautiful, I am told. People seemed to fear me and want me. If something was rare—a tree, a stone, a woman—the whites just wanted to take it and own it. But it took me a long time, it took me my life, to understand this…. I did not know who I was other than someone who was wanted, so I wanted.

Beauty does not just entail the danger of being possessed. It is a power—it can win fear, excite desire. Precisely because it is a mixture of power and danger, it makes understanding difficult. “It took me my life” to understand a most necessary truth, one needed for survival, and this lack of understanding had consequences for identity formation. “I did not know who I was other than someone who was wanted.” Pretty Hawk has wisdom to offer us, as she has endured exploitation and can explain how it affected her. Would it benefit students to see the logic of the sort of person who would actively want to oppress another, in contrast to Pretty Hawk? I could try pairing this poem with Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” where a psychopath with far too much status and wealth confesses to murdering his wife on account of his paranoia. If students start talking about how class divisions can enable such cruel, arbitrary behavior, how power and order without explicit ends can actively endanger the well-being of others, I’d consider that a potentially valuable experience.

However, as I have learned from experience, discussion of class, patriarchy, and imperialism can feel remote to many students directly afflicted by them. Exploring what it means to “find your own voice” is not a cliché. If I go through the myriad ways I myself have been silenced directly or indirectly, put in a position to not trust my own voice, you’ll wonder how it is possible I am writing anything at all. When I turn to Lena Khalaf Tuffaha’s “Altered States,” devoted to the “light in our language”—that of Arabic in the poem—I wonder about how every atom of tradition could be a space for breath, an opportunity for self-expression:

In Miss Sahar’s class we learned the science 
of language, we learned to read and transmogrify. 
We would tear apart

A root, break down compound structures, 
force a gaping vowel into the center 
of what was before us, 
a space for breath to escape, 
to make our words.

Finding possibility within the space of a language feels like the highest sort of beauty. It lends itself to a vision of numerous individuals expressing themselves through something intimately shared. Still, many of us could see traditional structures as anything but liberating; I often think of them as a double-edged sword. One has to work with them to free oneself and others, and yet too harsh a rejection of the colonizer can slip into a denial that one would ever be tyrannical. Yeats’ “Easter 1916″—”Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart”—and Seamus Heaney’s collection North deal with this fundamental tension, too. The scope of Yeats’ poem is more epic than intimate; Heaney in North dwells on ritualized violence. Tuffaha shares an intricate, personal memory of learning in a classroom, from a teacher remembered. I should think sensitivity to the differences in tone in Tuffaha’s, Yeats’, and Heaney’s works yields sensitivity to how very similar questions can actually be very different.

The personal is political, but saying this solves nothing, as it only introduces the problem. I imagine students starting to make stronger claims about their realizations and moral stances as the semester wears on. I hope they won’t lose themselves in rhetorical flourishes but continue the necessary work of mapping the complicated emotional ground all of us tread. When I eventually assign Chrysanthemum Tran’s “On (Not) Forgiving My Mother,” I do not want the raw power of their words to be diluted, even as I want to talk about ideas in Freud and Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy:

And still, 
I try to give
this body meaning, 
a means to transcend 
gender beyond 

I try to forgive my mother, 
even if it really means 
forgiving myself.

And I'm certain 
there is no word for that.

Shaping the body is a basic political act, whether it involves putting Spartan boys in military camps or wearing shoes that purposely constrict one’s feet. Developing an awareness of how people are dealing with and fighting for their own identity goes hand-in-hand with understanding how we see ourselves in our own families as well as the strange mixture of law and piety believed necessary for governance. Our parents don’t just shape us with expectations, as their expectations for us are loaded with expectations they have about themselves. Already there is a very complicated, almost impossible to untangle emotional dance at play within the private sphere. When one considers Antigone, where a ruling family is torn apart by claims to rule which simultaneously invoke piety and the necessity of secular sovereignty, I would hope one thinks about how Antigone changes in the play. At first, defiant and fiercely composed, later, seemingly raving with wild movements and unkempt appearance. How, perhaps, the holy is superimposed upon a human being believing herself in collapse. I do not think I need to say much more about an age where the repeated invocation of “law and order” is convenient, all-too-effective political rhetoric.