Posts Tagged ‘Toni Morrison’

Lucille Clifton: “Under great duress and great odds, I will be me.”

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012
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Fields, Clifton, Momaday, and Packer nattering (Photo: Steve Castillo)

NPR lists eight new poetry collections to look for this year, and the late Lucille Clifton comes out on top:

If you only read one poetry book in 2012, The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, out in September from BOA, ought to be it. This landmark book collects all the published poems of this major poet, plus a handful of unpublished ones, edited by the poet Kevin Young with an introduction by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

I missed Clifton’s death in February 2010 in the pitiless onslaught of daily news events.  I had never been particularly drawn to her poems, but I was drawn to her person during her 2007 appearance at Stanford – I wrote about it here.  She appeared with a formidable team of aging writers, including N. Scott Momaday (The Way to Rainy Mountain), Nancy Huddleston Packer (Jealous-Hearted Me), and poet Ken Fields (Classic Rough News).

As a journalist covering a panelist of speakers, it’s always a mystery how a story “happens” when you return to your computer and begin to tap on the keys. The best analogy is the old-time darkrooms, where you would watch the underwater film develop, and the object that had looked so prominent to your vision almost vanishes into the background, and something you hadn’t even noticed at the moment begins to appear under your fingertips.

So it was with that story.  One tries to be fair to everyone – but the person who spoke least may take the lead, and strong personalities sometimes fade precisely because their comments were a little off the dominant current of thought.  As the article begins to orient around themes, Clifton, who had been very impressive, began to disappear.  I stubbornly inserted a block of her quotes towards the end of the story, trying to reflect her powerful, uncompromising presence onstage.

Clifton had just described a poem that was “about other people dictating to you what you are to be.”

She said that she had survived four bouts of cancer—at one point fighting off cancer in two primary sites of her body at once. She noted that she had endured losses, including the death of two children, and was “not broken by it,” trying instead “to bear it with grace and courage.” Given her background and uneven education—she admitted she felt like a “spy in the camp” of academia—”people are amazed I know anything at all.”

Then the line I have never forgotten:  “I am myself. Under great duress and great odds, I will be me.”

The New York Times characterized her poetry as “moral intensity leavened by humor.” Her poetry “combined an intense, sometimes earthy voice with a streamlined economy of language. (She frequently did away with punctuation and capitalization as so much unwanted baggage.)”

Not greatly drawn to it, for the most part – just a matter of personal taste – except for this lyrical, enigmatic poem, which I found in her Pulitzer-nominated collection Good Woman, and I found myself returning to again and again:

the lesson of the falling leaves

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god.
i agree with the leaves.

NYT: “Do colleges need French departments?” Josh Landy thinks they do.

Friday, December 10th, 2010
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My recent article on Joshua Landy‘s rousing defense of the humanities built on an earlier New York Times article:  “Do Colleges Need French Departments?”  The Proust scholar addressed the question with his students in the video above, and to the rest of the world here.  The NYT focus is once again the Albany Massacre, which we wrote on the Book Haven here and here.

Josh told me that he’d made a similar spirited defense on Arcade, “SUNY Albany, Stanley Fish, and the Enemy Within.” It’s worth a look.  Inevitably, perhaps, Josh also attacks Stanley Fish‘s much-blogged post, “The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives“:  “Let’s put it this way: if the most prominent humanists are publicly proclaiming their belief in the utter uselessness of what they do, what reason could a cash-strapped administrator possibly have for not shutting down their departments?” he asks.

Fortunately—as many excellent Arcade posts, among other things, have shown—not all of us feel the same way our “friend” Stanley does.  But it’s time for all of us to get just as vocal as him.  Yes, it may be embarrassing for us to make positive claims for what we do (we’ve specialized for quite a while in making negative claims about more or less everything), but we may just have to accept a little embarrassment.  Perhaps it’s the price we’ll have to pay for heading off future Albanys.

What can we say? Plenty. Here are his talking points:

  • Yes, the humanities do enhance our culture. … In fact, it’s hard to know what culture is if it’s not things like Picassos and Pink Floyd albums and Toni Morrison novels.  Not to mention the people, like Henry Louis Gates and Michael Fried and Helen Vendler (or for that matter Sister Wendy or Benard Pivot or the makers of Art21), who help us to love those works even more.  This may not be an exciting thing for us humanists to say to each other, but it’s straightforwardly true.

    "Has he not read his Bakhtin? Has he not read, well, anything?" (Photo: L.A. Cicero"

    "We need every voice we've got." (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

  • Yes, some of those books that people teach do contain “the best that has been thought and said.”  It should be remembered here that Fish has a very hard time distinguishing between the humanities in general and literary study in particular.  But the rest of us, I think, understand that the humanities also include, among other disciplines, that of philosophy.  Who wants to say that W. E. B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, to take just one example, is not among “the best that has been thought and said”?  I’m not in any way arguing for a core curriculum (it’s part of Fish’s polarizing thinking that you’re either a hip value-denier or a pathetic canon-defender; let’s resist that false dichotomy).  I’m just saying that people who teach DuBois (and Lao-Tsu, and Nietzsche, and de Beauvoir…), in whatever context, are doing everyone a favor.multidisciplinary minds and a broad spectrum of experiences.” (qtd. in Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind, 132.)  These are not humanists.  These are business people.
  • What is more, the humanities expose us to—and, very often, cause us to fall in love with—other cultures, both within our country and outside it.  Is it embarrassing to say this out loud?  Certainly.  Does it need to be said?  Apparently so.
  • And then there’s the fact that exposure to the humanities changes us, enriches us, expands our imagination, clarifies our thinking, gives new depths to our being.  Yes, even the literary humanities manage this.  Fish appears to believe—stunningly!—that great literary works could help us only if they provided examples for emulation in the form of heroic characters.  Has he not read his Bakhtin?  Has he not read, well, anything?

Josh concludes:  “There’s much, much more to be said; please help me in saying it.  We need every voice we’ve got.”  A lively discussion follows — check it out.