Archive for the ‘Plum Pickings’ Category

Amber Waves

Plum Pickings: a discussion of prized harvests –

All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us
should have an equal opportunity to develop our talents.

– John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Freedom is the recognition that no single person,
no single authority or government has a monopoly on the truth,
but that every individual life is infinitely precious,
that every one of us put in this world has been put there for a reason
and has something to offer.
Ronald Reagan

Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C. photograph by Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz

O Beautiful – Growing up in Washington, D.C., it was not all that uncommon to meet foreign tourists and engage them in conversation. In the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I got a job working at the annual Folk Festival downtown on the national mall. Since it was the nation’s bicentennial celebration, the Folk Festival, usually a two-week event, was extended to last the whole summer long, and brought tourists not just from all fifty states, but from around the world.

Spacious Skies – It always came as kind of a surprise, however, to discover some commonly held misconceptions about American culture. For example, a couple of European tourists, young men confident in their understanding (as they’d studied up) were much chagrined to learn that I’d never been to a rodeo, and that the closest thing I’d ever come to being on horseback was a childhood pony ride at a birthday party in suburban Maryland. What also surprised me was the unbridled enthusiasm with which they told me all about the Wild West show that had visited their town. The wistful tenor of their voices, the mist in their eyes as they spoke: a visceral demonstration of the sway the romantic idea of the American West (a long forgotten chapter, as far as I was concerned) still held in their collective imagination.

Mountain Majesties — Nonetheless, it did occur to me at the time that, as a city kid, especially one with a shuttered, East-coast centric (i.e. provincial) worldview, perhaps they had seen an America that I hadn’t. After all, they had been out west, and made the nation’s capital the last stop on their tour, and although I’d been from Maine to Florida, I’d never ventured farther west than Gaithersburg, MD.

Wheat FieldFruited Plain — It also occurred to me at the time that few tourists from abroad, in fact, few citizens, have truly come to grips with how vast this country really is. And although I eventually moved all the way out to California, there is much of America in between coasts that I’ve yet to set foot on. Deciding that it was time to do a little “sight seeing” of my own, I set out to discover America, even if vicariously, through poems like “So This Is Nebraska,” by 2004-2006 Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser:

So This Is NebraskaOn the surface, this poem presents us with an unsophisticated portrait of a pastoral scene from a forgotten rural past. It may even conjure up images such as Grant Woods’ “American Gothic.” We may be tempted to dismiss the work as “folk art,” as the words and images are plain and easily accessible, like Woods’ painting; but that would be a mistake, however, because like most poems, (or, for that matter, any work of art) there is more going on here than immediately meets the eye. And if we dig beneath the surface a bit in an attempt to derive meaning, we begin to see the words as a carefully crafted façade, an artifice which articulates an underlying idea at the poem’s core.

Crown Thy Good – For me, this poem evokes a sense of how tied we are to place – rooted, it seems, to the land. For example, the lines: “you feel like letting your tires go flat, like letting the mice/ build a nest in your muffler, like being/ no more than a truck in the weeds,” suggest that it is comfortable in this landscape, and that we intend to stay on a while. But Kooser takes us even beyond that idea, to disclose an ideal that I think defines most Americans: “You feel like// waving. You feel like stopping the car/ and dancing around on the road. You wave/ instead and leave your hand out gliding/ larklike over the wheat, over the houses.”

With Brotherhood – If we look only at the surface, we see another type of façade in the diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, economic strata of our citizenry. If we dig beneath the surface a bit, we’re likely to arrive at divisions we don’t see: religion, political party, level of education, or opinions about any myriad of topics we can’t seem to agree on. What is it, then, that makes us one nation, indivisible? Kooser’s poem hints at one possibility.

From Sea to Shining Sea — What makes America unique among nations is what we hold in common despite our differences. Underlying the fabric of our nation, and enshrined in our Constitution, we share the same ideal: the brotherhood of mankind. Kooser’s rendering of this ideal, “You feel like waving,” suggests a spirit of kinship and neighborliness that I think most Americans inhabit, especially when confronted with difficulty. Therefore, on this anniversary of our nation’s birth, rather than re-hashing our differences, perhaps we should celebrate what we share: the ideal that unites us as a single people in the face of our diversity, and makes us, in the words of the motto of these United States:

E pluribus unum, “out of many, one.”

Happy Birthday, America!

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Total Quality Management

Plum Pickings: a discussion of prized harvests –

This autonomy crap? That means you’re off working alone.
If you want autonomy, be a poet.
Michael Eisner, CEO of the Walt Disney Co.

Definition – surviving even the Hatfield/McCoy dispute, there still exists in poetry today one of the longest-lived family feuds in all of history. As is the case with many such conflicts, the battles rage on although the chief combatants can neither recall what all the bickering is about, nor the kerfuffle which instigated all of this contention. In the interest of historical perspective and the common welfare, therefore, its significance merits a brief review.

Critical to Qualitybecause of his blatant distrust of poets and their penchant for figurative language, Plato first uttered a scathing attack on the institution of Greek poetry, and in a classic example of posturing, rhetorically banishes all poets (and their risky business) from his ideal (albeit fictive) Republic. He must have believed the accursed “poetic lie” warranted such action, and for this, he tells us, we have Homer to thank. Not wanting the proverbial “baby” to be thrown out with the bath water, Aristotle counters Plato’s attack with his “Poetics”. Taking a mitigated, ostensibly more reasonable, “middle-of-the-road” approach to the question of the relative merits of fiction, Aristotle’s stance proffers a somewhat lukewarm “embellished language” position, that is, it’s acceptable for mass consumption as long as the fiction serves an over-arching upstanding moral purpose, such as writing hymns (using only the loftiest language and most perfect grammar) to laud the glorious exploits of gods or national heroes. In other words, in order to serve the goals of a unified, civilized Greek society the ends (ethics instruction for the commonwealth) justify the means (telling stories) to mollify the citizenry and give them a socially acceptable outlet for processing the emotions associated with the spectacular tragic-comedy that is the epic known worldwide as human nature.

Design Alternatives – echoed on down through the centuries since, the provenance of poets (to instruct and delight us) and the commotion they cause (is it historical fact? or poetic lie?) has been volleyed back and forth between two camps or outposts – that is, should it use elevated lingua franca or common tongue? As part of a national literature, should it glorify the exploits of heroes and kings, or take as its subject “everyman”? Should we (the audience) derive a literal or figurative meaning from it? Should it appeal to and/or be representative of high or mass culture? Is it populist or elitist, indicative of an institution of democracy or oligarchy? Is its power vested equally in all people, or privileged to a gifted minority of bookworms: i.e. poets, critics, and academicians?

Design details – John Dos Passos’ trilogy, U.S.A., one of the premiere examples of experimental Modernist American literature, conspicuously fuses narrative (fiction) with journalistic (non-fiction) styles. Published in 1938, the work contains sections of traditional paragraphs, along with break-out sections comprised of what look like lines of verse, as in this example, excerpted from Big Money:

Dos Passos

"Tin Lizzie" excerpted from "Big Money". John Dos Passos. (1938).

Three of Dos Passos’ artistic choices are significant and worth more than mere mention, specifically his use of: 1. subject (i.e. the mogul, Henry Ford); 2. language (i.e. his diction or word choice); and 3. the intentional disruption of conventional form(s), particularly with regard to the mixing of journalistic and narrative styles and how the piece appears on the page, in broken lines of text, cannily similar to the appearance of lines of verse.

Verify design – first of all, in a not-so-subtle indictment of the corporate culture “big money” spawns, Dos Passos bills “the great American” Henry Ford as the debuting icon of big-bonus CEO’s, simultaneously undermining the Puritan work-ethic as a principle “American” value and chipping away the veneer of the institutional narratives of the industrially revolutionized barons whose new money powers the “progressive” political landscape of corporate socialism at the expense of the faceless masses whose commodified labor fuels their assembly lines. Just beneath that carefully crafted veneer, it seems, is another historical narrative, rooted in the exploitation of the economically oppressed underclass instituted in this country’s founding economic principle, which depends entirely on forced labor and indentured servitude. The failure to rectify the systemic injustices of this social reality is still with us now.

Pilot Runs – for example, although Borders Books recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, the company is still requesting $8.3 million be set aside to pay executives and board members retention bonuses so that they don’t desert a sinking ship before it can be reorganized. Meanwhile, up to 275 of its stores may close, which means that hundreds of its sales people, line and mid-management employees will be laid off (at the very least) and forced to queue up with those already working the unemployment lines.

Implementation – second, in a sublime example of irony, through the use of plain, everyday, ordinary (rather than elevated) language, Dos Passos’ vilifies big money’s national heroes/gods/kings (i.e. moguls), rhetorically overthrowing the status quo in effect, by undermining the stated subject’s (Henry Ford’s) elevated social rank, thereby lifting everyman, (that is “the sweated workers of the world,” a class that is treated as the “object” in this piece) above the status of the elite (i.e. moguls).

Production Process – what I found particularly interesting about Dos Passos’ contempt for what Henry Ford had wrought (i.e. the terms of employment in his factories) was the inclusion of workers who didn’t “read or think” as part of the pre-requisites for a “good-paying” job. In today’s cultural marketplace, where we can mainline CNN and are fed streaming multi-media 24/7, we’re led to believe that the only fate worse than death is boredom. I think that this line of institution narrative is due, in part, to the idea that quiet, monastic discipline and solitude that is essential to thinking and writing good poetry, (or good journalism, or good writing of any kind, for that matter) is an active threat to the status quo. Great balls o’fire! One might actually conceive of an original idea that questions/upsets the value system and/or exposes the national mythology and the institution narrative!

Handing it over – what a conundrum! If we were all to take Michael Eisner’s advice, and think autonomously, or like poets, it could lead to the ruination of society as we know it. Or, if we were all allowed to “read and think” as a condition of employment, and we were trusted to do our jobs not just properly, but well, (even with minimal supervision) maybe it would just lead to the ruination of bureaucracies and bureaucrats. Meanwhile, the “elitist v. populist” feud still rages on within poetic circles. Personally, I think that if poetry itself is to continue to survive (and let’s face it, as a popular and commercially viable art form, it currently finds itself on the “endangered species” list) then it should appeal to a broader range of folks, which means: everyman and in plain language.

Process ownersJim Daniels’ “Factory Jungle” is just such a poem: the speaker is an assembly-line worker in a Ford automotive parts plant; the piece is written in first-person and uses plain language to turn something ordinary (a shift at the plant) into something extraordinary: an imagined “swing” shift through the jungle. Quite the cure for boredom, I must say:

Factory Jungle

"Factory Jungle" by Jim Daniels.

Unlike Henry Ford’s achievements, Daniels builds something out of thin air: ropes of light from which to escape the mind-numbing, soul-crushing “good job” assembly-line work actually is. To his credit, (as opposed to the salacious marketing of “news” tabloids and celebrity gossip) he does this quite effectively in language that is easily understood without relying on the vulgar, profane, or obscene that has become so popular in commodified song lyrics pushed on us all in the guise of cultural production that has some value as “entertainment.” Nonetheless, he does include ubiquitous pop culture via the “Tarzan” reference, which is key to the poem’s central metaphor — rendering something in words, therefore, that is universal, to which we can all relate. Not only that, but through consistent application of the process (monastic discipline and solitude and many, many revisions) Daniels succeeds in making the resulting product (the poem) look effortless, easy.OK to Ship

OK to ship – poetry to the rescue! Plain language. Ordinary people. Discipline. Thinking skills. Solitude. Imagination. Such a deal.

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