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The link below is to a book review of ‘Happiness Explained – What Human flourishing Is and How We Can Promote It,’ by Paul Anand.
The link below is to an article that looks at how to legally use quotes.
What is a society without its poets? If all poetry disappeared from our libraries and shelves and virtual depositories tomorrow, would it make much difference to us? If we were forbidden to write poetry would there be a revolution? What if a referendum was held tomorrow and poetry was voted out of existence by a democratic majority? What is poetry anyway (and surely the poets should not be trusted with its future)? Why doesn’t poetry touch me? Why does poetry baffle and intimidate me?
International best selling novelist, poet, critic and Professor of English at Brooklyn College, Ben Lerner, has written a witty and engaging eighty-page essay on The Hatred of Poetry (2016) (published in Australia by Text as a handsomely designed pocket book), resurrecting a debate over poetry that has never died. After the death of God and the death of the author, the death of poetry is a favourite announcement and excuse for outrage and jokes among academics, literary critics, readers, poets, and people who care about the arts. Beware the Prime Minister who offers a literary prize and omits the poets.
Though poetry might be one of the most minor and most marginalised among art forms, it is second only to pornography as an active presence on the web, and no nation can promote its existence without a myth of some great, popular, essential poet. Every poet, I hope, aspires to be for her nation or at least her people, that poet. Every poet also knows that their craft is perfected through the absence of any substantial audience, and through the poet’s insistence of being an outsider – crying out against a deaf world:
What I do is me: for that I came
Ben Lerner is acutely aware of these contradictions, and attempts to explain them in his long essay that turns out not to be so much about the hatred of poetry, as about disappointment and what Marianne Moore called “contempt” for poetry. On the blurb at the back of this little book his essay is presented as a defence of poetry, in a long tradition of defences of poetry since Plato’s banishment of the poet as a dangerous liar. It’s something more subtle and paradoxical than a defence.
Lerner’s essay is personal as well as a public polemic. He writes that, “like so many poets I live in the space between what I am moved to do and what I can do”. Moved to write poems, he bitterly knows by how far each poem fails in its ambition.
Under the force of this personal experience and the influence of his mentor Allen Grossman he constructs an elegant argument to explain why poetry will always be a necessary disappointment, especially to those who most want it to succeed in being a universal art. His argument is that “poetry” denotes an impossible demand. The fatal problem of poetry is poems. No poem lives up to the ambitions poetry has set for itself. No poem can ever live up to these ambitions.
Lerner takes us towards what he means through a detailed exposition of the poetic and human failings of William Topaz McGonagall’s famously awful poem on the tragic 1879 collapse of the Tay Bridge in the city of Dundee. Lerner is adept at pinpointing each abysmal failure of technique, judgement and feeling in the poem; and by this he shows us that we have somewhere in us a set of implied benchmarks by which all poems are measured. What are they, exactly? They can be more or less spelled out in generalities, but can they be found in actual poems? Lerner says not.
I would have liked to see him take up at this stage of the essay, say, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem of grief, Break, Break, Break in detail, and show by how little it misses its ambition. As a poet Lerner might have been able to give us an exquisite appreciation of the poem that is a near-miss.
The shadow of Walt Whitman (1819-1892) lies over this essay, and perhaps his shadow still lies over American poetry because Whitman’s claims and ambitions were so large, so insistent, and so demanding of a response. Whitman of all poets anywhere near the modern age is the one who dared to be explicitly universal, and often embarrassingly universal (“I am the poet of the slaves, and of the masters of the slaves”).
He serves as a foil to some of the contemporary poets Lerner introduces to the general reader, among them Claudia Rankine. Rankine writes poetry she calls lyric, the most personal form of poetry, even if it is now the most common form. But pointedly she calls her poetry “American lyric”, offering it as somehow exemplary, and if not universal then possibly national.
The two long prose poems quoted in the text of the essay are stunningly personal, specific to the problems of an individual in a depersonalised world, and to a black individual where white is the norm. It is here that Lerner finally opens up to the reader about the kind of poetry he admires (and thus aspires to?). He does not go on to show how these poems fail as universal “poetry”, for it would be, as he points out, a morally bereft exercise to claim that these poems fail because they don’t speak to the experiences of white male readers.
Rankine’s poems are not universal but they are powerful, I expect for almost any reader. They are not timeless but specific to how it feels to live in these times, and that is compelling for a reader. They are not asking for white readers, or white male readers for that matter, to identify with their voice but they do ask any reader who comes upon them to listen with an open heart. Rankine’s words are plain, unadorned, and lyric only because behind them there is a felt yearning. They work as examples, but they are so inimitably themselves that I am not sure what they are examples of. These poems do say, without debilitating self-consciousness, without coyness or decorative sentimentality (more benchmarks!): What I do is me; for this I came.
It comes up, from time to time. Ethics and writing. Two concepts that are chained together in a dysfunctional marriage. How to write, ethically? How to write ethically while remaining true to the aesthetic imperative, the narrative trajectory, a reader’s requirements? And, by the way, what is ethical writing?
In the field of education the answer is straightforward: to write ethically means avoiding plagiarism, and resisting the impulse to make up “facts”.
For Milan Kundera, the answer is straightforward.
A novel that does not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral. Knowledge is the novel’s only morality.
For Oscar Wilde, the answer is straightforward. “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book”, he writes, in the preface to his The Picture of Dorian Grey.
Books are well written or badly written. That is all.
These answers don’t help much. Creative writers necessarily avoid plagiarism, but we necessarily make things up. Not all writers feel impelled to contribute knowledge. And, Mr Wilde, what is the actual difference between “well written” and “badly written”?
Good; bad: like “ethics”, these words are what scholars of semiotics call “empty signifiers”. Any word stands in for the object or concept it names. But, except for proper nouns, no word really stands in for anything else; all any of them can do is direct our attention to the thing or concept being named. Empty signifiers are words that point to no concrete object, no agreed meaning; words that “absorb rather than emit meaning”.
To say “good writing” and “ethical writing” is to name concepts that apparently “we all” recognise, but on which “we all” are unlikely to agree. (My “good writing” is your pulp fiction. Et cetera.)
It’s an issue of taste, to some extent; or of contemporary values; or of politics. Which is where we come back to ethics. I won’t try to summarise the vast literature on ethics here. My concern is how we tell stories, and produce images, that contain a certain organic “truth” (that word very deliberately rendered in scare quotes, since it is yet another empty signifier), and that avoid didacticism.
Joan Didion begins her essay Why I Write by describing the art as one of
imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.
Yes certainly; but continually “imposing oneself upon other people” can leave us looking rather like the monks in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: endlessly chanting the same phrase, endlessly hitting ourselves (and our readers) over the head.
There is no complete answer to the question of ethical writing; but perhaps Michel Foucault comes close in his observation that
ethics is the considered form that freedom takes when it is informed by reflection.
That is, ethical writing is the writing we do when we have consciously reflected on the meanings we are making, or the world we are representing. I may not like a work, and I may not agree with its worldview, but (pace Oscar Wilde) if it was written under the conditions of reflective practice, it is necessarily ethical.
Writers are always making representations: materialising the world and relationships within that world; because words do more than simply name the things for which they stand. Organized into phrases, sentences, paragraphs, whole works, words can construct a context that readers will feel, see, hear, smell.
Words, organized in this way, can bridge the divide between the abstraction of language, and the concreteness of the material world; can make things (seem, and feel) real.
Perhaps this is a way to think about ethical writing: we can use language to make work that addresses the actuality of things, and the lived experience of many people.
The power of narrative and poetic representation is evident in the emotional, visceral, responses people have to works that manage materiality well. Whether it’s laughter or tears or recounting the experience to friends, “good” writing moves us.
The efforts of governments to censor representational works also points to the power of such works. The attempt by the Australian government, in 2001, to ensure that “there were no personalising or humanising images” of refugees is one such example.
Australian writers and artists have, over the past 15 years, responded to this decree not with silence or abstractions, but with works that personalize and individualise. Writers in detention centres in Australia or the Pacific are also writing poems and stories and recording impressions that personalize, individualise, humanize those communities.
Some such works may be agitprop, others naïve or didactic. But for me, many are ethical in the terms defined by Wilde and Kundera: they are “well written”, using elegant sentences, fresh approaches; and they expose “a hitherto unknown segment of existence”.