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The Last, the Final, Proprietor's Column


How the grammars of addition differ from those of connection:

or, how dangerous our normal ethics
 have us in the grammars of accumulation, accretion,
aggregation, increment-building, possession, and ownership

The Russian poet and American essayist Joseph Brodsky ever believed that language had its own powers – curative powers.  This always perplexed me, as I knew Joseph's hero, Wystan Auden, had come to believe the opposite, that, as he put it in his poem in memory of W. B. Yeats:  "poetry makes nothing happen."

 When Joseph won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987, he used the forum further to focus on language's curatives, which had become a mantra for him.  He now went so far as to say we'd have less evil in the world if our leaders simply read more and better books.  About the same time he gave a commencement address at the University of Michigan, and advised the new alums that, for all their ongoing ethical and psychological advancement, they simply need purchase a good dictionary, and use it often.

 As now I close the Proprietor's Column, after four years of posting it monthly, I return to this subject of literacy's effect on us.  I do so, too, in full view of how, during the era of Joseph's previous fellow greatest poets – his native Russia's Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsevetaeva, and Pasternak – that country also descended into its greatest horrors.  All those literate souls, all those well-educated Europeans, as Nadezhda Mandelstam recounted in her memoirs of those dark times, could apparently make no counter to all that evil.  The poetry so many of them had memorized by the thousands of lines played no demonstrable difference to the forces so annihilating them.

 I'm feeling these thoughts more now because, over this Proprietor's Column's  four-plus years, my own country, the U.S., has followed its own costly madness, even if one not quite comparable to that which killed the Silver Age of Russian culture.  I blame this madness of ours not just on our obviously short-sighted, arrogant "leaders" who have spurned environmental sanity for the sake of corporate greed, and fed reckless, war in Iraq.  I blame all this even more on our many otherwise genteel university sinecured who sustain the imaginative range of all our other corporate elites in government, business, and the news, entertainment, and marketing media.

On too many:

who can write perfectly linear chronologies, lists, and summaries,
but show themselves oblivious of the literacies of transitions

Since the days of confessional and beat poetry that began in America fifty years ago, thousands of poets have attuned their arts to lists and chronologies, much for the sake of statements emotionally therapeutic or journalistically aimed, or both.  The poetic ethics Joseph Brodsky brought with him from Europe contrasted with this – not only with his classical meter and form, but with their underlying dynamics, when the back part of a poem turns and comments on something earlier in it – or when one key image early on works itself into very contrary image later, or into a new view of everything in the poem.

 I didn't learn Joseph's ethics directly from him, his verse, and essays.  I wanted to learn these arts and sensitivities – they long challenged me to do so – but I couldn't.  I had just enough normal American innocence to keep me naïve – the same sort of innocence that we all have long shared as Americans, liberal or conservative.  It led the liberal Woodrow Wilson to imagine he could fix peace and democracy on post WWI central and eastern Europe by wholesale changes in their political boundaries.  It led our recent neo-con conservatives to imagine their militarism could fire peace and democracy in the Middle East.

 Though we Americans have a long history of innocence – some happily so – nobody in the world escapes the calls of narcissism, whatever forms they take in any culture.  Everybody brings their own cultural limitations to the possibilities for seeing "others."  The current myth of globalism says that market prosperity will cure grievances, induce peace, and knit togetherness.  Its current nemesis, religious fundamentalism, promises similar mythology.

Twenty years ago, in 1987, I felt I had to leave the U.S., first for Hungary, then for more years in Slovakia, Hungary again, and the Czech Republic.  I was learning to see through their landscapes, their languages, their villages, their cities, their girls, their old men – in a word, through their poets.  Joseph, as I'd long felt, was right in some key way:  that things talk to other things, that the layered contents of language re-stitch time and reverberate against other layered contents, that the music of poetry traces these reverberations.  We can see, or begin to see, "others" – as part of the cultural webs all so variously inhabit.

Essaying Differences began in Hungary and Slovakia, and owes everything first to Joseph Brodsky, and then to poets there:  Miklós Radnóti, Dezső Kosztolányi, Endre Ady, Attila József, Ágnes Nemes Nagy, Győrgy Petri, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav, Milan Rufus, Maša Haľamova, Jiří Orten, Jaroslav Seifert, and others.  History belonged in their poems in a way it never has in American verse.  More, all of them invoked a sense of obligation:  that things in one part of a poem pull at and push from things in other parts.  Clever lists and earnest chronologies alone never suffice there.

 In our schools, however, American and worldwide, authorities love chronologies:  the promise that information adds up, and that this addition means something.  Normal school ettiquette everywhere poses life as a series of graduations, all based on the systematic accumulation of information, and on textbooks fixing homage to its gradations.  All learn to trust the logic of aggregates, increments, and accretions, and that these lead to the securities of possession.  In every culture this logic – that things add up in each system's continuous loops – feeds all participants' entitlement conceits.  Few learn the very different set of ethics that asks us not to pile things up, but to make connections outside of our piles, outside of our niche habits.

 For six years now I have seen at Golden Gate University here in San Francisco how students routinely come empty-handed to the possibilities for making connections when they write essays.  They all know how to write summaries and chronologies – "one damn thing after another."  Sometimes they can indicate order in their essays by linking component parts by numerical transitions:   "first," "second," "third," and so on.  Or they begin new sections with dangling adverbials:  "firstly," "then," "moreover," and "finally," each tucked away with its comma beginning of new paragraphs.  For most, the ultimate in coherence lies in such chronology markers, single words tacked on such as "furthermore," "contrarily," "thereafter," "also," "however," and other such adverbials, each dangling alone at the beginning of a paragraph, each with a comma as bathetic transition gesture.

 For too many otherwise bright souls, such dangling adverbials comprise the barest of skills they've learned to mark transitions.  If they want to shift voice from within their text, say, from 2nd-person "you" as subject to 3rd-person "he," "she," "it," or "they," the dangling adverbial trick may be trotted out again, maybe not.  Few know to use full syntax to illumine context while shifting voice.  Fewer know how to use subordinate clauses woven into their closings of paragraphs, or into their openings of new paragraphs:  grammars that allow emphasis on context, or focus on a recent point or main theme.  Still fewer know how to move into quoted material.  These either just abruptly throw in quotation marks and a quote or, if an indirect quote, often summarize unwittingly, without acknowledging their source.  Without the arts of transitioning literacy, too many further reduce themselves, bereft of the adverbial phrases that may cohere, unaided by the relative clauses that may summarize, remind, and spin perspective and interpretation.

 When the crudity of chronology alone reveals its reliance on abrupt shiftings, when the comedy of dangling adverbials further gaudies things up, not only grammar suffers, but ethics, too – our capacities to see more widely, act better by each other.

 Auden spoke the truth, or a truth, when he said "poetry makes nothing happens."  He spoke of the truth of linear worlds, where most people expect things to add up, and actions to have orthodox consequences.  Joseph Brodsky spoke of a very different truth when he argued that poetry, or language at its finest, makes everything happen.  In this world things have repercussions, not as stimulus-response, nor cause-and-effect.  As Joseph (and his forebears) saw it, things have reverberations:  linkages by the literacies of surprise, serendipity, miracle.

 When people begin to reform corporate academe, and open up the dulled-literacy niches of specialization, we may have the arts of better connections in all our nations and environments.  We may see "others" more truly – embrace a humanity other than the linear sort our institutions have long thrived on reducing, exploiting, and further reducing.  I'm finished in the meantime saying the things I've been saying for the four-years-plus of this Proprietor's Column – finished but not defeated, thanks to those to whom I bask in the best of debts.

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