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Archive for the ‘excerpts’ Category

The Torontoist, Christopher Bird, and Bad Satire

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Good Satire, which is difficult to achieve, is biting, directed, and clear. Poor Satire merely offends all parties.Case in Point: The Torontoist’s published article on renaming streets for dead soldiers, by Christopher Bird. Join in the discussion on whether making fun of dead people is in poor taste or not. Some one should have forced a re-write on this one.

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Written by mitchellirons

February 28, 2008 at 1:32 pm

Randall Jarrell, The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

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Randall Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” (1945).

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

BallTurret(See the mechanics and interior of a ball turret here.)
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Written by mitchellirons

January 23, 2008 at 10:07 am

Ginsberg, Whitman, and America in “A Supermarket in California”

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Allen Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California”.
Berkeley, 1955.

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!-and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking the questions of each: who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant staks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasking artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?


disjointed thoughts on Ginsberg, Whitman, and America.

Whitman Ginsberg

I saw you Walt Whitman, in amoung the peaches and penumbras! I was recently re-acquainted with Ginsberg’s “Supermarket”, and was struck once more by the force and authority found in his confrontation of the myth of the American Dream. Invoking for his muse the ghost Walt Whitman, a patriarch of American poetry and the myth of Nation, Ginsberg attacks the Dream as the greatest lost cause of the twentieth century.

There may be some hyperbole contained in that statement – the American Dream as the greatest lost cause – but it is not without merit. Even if the Dream does exist, Ginsberg makes clear how difficult it is to find, let alone it is to achieve, for both middle America and those on its fringe. Thinking about Whitman, the great poet who asserts independence and identity through both sexuality and landscape, Ginsberg questions the value of an “Americanness” based on shopping for mass-produced items in a unnatural, corporate supermarket far removed from a person’s or nation’s soul. Ginsberg’s post-war America is a nation of late-night grocery shoppers who do nothing with their time but consider the ripeness of peaches and avacodos in the neon glow of their local supermarket. Ginsberg is shopping for an image, looking a perfect vignette of what America is, and all he finds are consumers, choosing one peach over the other when both come from the same share-cropped grove. Nature and authenticity are not necessarily effaced in this new America, but are definitely substituted with a different form. There is no natural light in Ginsberg’s America but only a chemical, neon glow.

What makes the poem so interesting is not necessarily Ginsberg’s criticism of the (false) American dream by situating its adherents to a lifestyle full of mass-market grocery stores and the same blue automobile in every garage, but the evocation of Whitman himself. Ginsberg speaks to Walt, and Walt returns by inserting himself into Ginsberg’s thoughts and into the poem, offering us a chance to consider an America defined by its margins. Both Whitman and Ginsberg lived in a sexual penumbra – neither poet allowed their sexuality to either lurk in the shadows, or be fully disclosed and normalized in full light. Ginsberg does, however, find a certain solace walking the neon-lit aisles with Whitman while eyeing the young clerks or considering suggestive foods such as artichokes and bananas. In this neon glare – neither shadow nor real “natural” light – Ginsberg can speak from the outside, from the margins, and declare the American Dream to be lost to those who are literary buying in, in the supermarket. The families shopping in the artifical glow of the supermarket’s lights are no better than the “degenerates” of the Beat Generation. Yet, just as America refuses to acknowledge the simple fact of Whitman’s homosexuality, and its importance to his poetry, the families refuse to acknowledge the artifice and inauthenticity of their national myth.

Disclaimer: These are not your thoughts. And this is not an academic site. Using them for your paper will not only be an instance of plagiarism, but also a moment of shoddy research that would grant you a very low grade if you managed to pass off the work as your own.
Like the rest of America, as Ginsberg caught on to, you are commodified.

Written by mitchellirons

January 20, 2008 at 4:18 pm

Dana Gioia, California Hills in August

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Dana Gioia, “California Hills in August” (1982).

I can imagine someone who found
these fields unbearable, who climbed
the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust,
cracking the brittle weeds underfoot,
wishing a few more trees for shade.

An Easterner especially, who would scorn
the meagerness of summer, the dry
twisted shapes of black elm,
scrub oak, and chaparral — a landscape
August has already drained of green.

One who would hurry over the clinging
thistle, foxtail, golden poppy,
knowing everything was just a weed,
unable to conceive that these trees and sparse brown bushes were alive.

And hate the bright stillness of the noon,
without wind, without motion,
the only other living thing
a hawk, hungry for prey, suspended
in the blinding, sunlit blue.

And yet how gentle it seems to someone
raised in a landscape short of rain —
the skyline of a hill broken by no more
trees that one can count, the grass,
the empty sky, the wish for water.

Written by mitchellirons

January 15, 2008 at 1:36 pm

Eco, The Name of the Rose, and the limits of language

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Presented today, as a brief lesson in elementary Saussurian structuralism, and post-structuralism, is an excerpt from Umberto Eco‘s 1980 novel, Il Nome Della Rosa (tr: The Name of The Rose, 1983). Any semiotician or Eco-fan will be familiar with the text, and with the excerpt, as it is one of any number of pages from the work of fiction that can be held up not only as a moment of exquisite prose, but also as an affirmation, defense or demonstration of contemporary literary theory:

As this story continues, I shall have to speak again, at length, of The Name of the Rose Book Coverthis creature and record his speech. I confess I find it very difficult to do so because I could not say now, as I could never understand then, what language he spoke. . . .Salvatore spoke all languages, and no language. Or, rather, he had invented for himself a language which used the sinews of the languages to which he had been exposed – and once i thought that was his, not the Adamic language that a happy mankind had spoken, all united by a single tongue from the origin of the world to the Tower of Babel, or one of the lanuages that arose after the dire event of their division, but precisely the Babelish language of the first day after the divine chastisement, the language of primeval confusion. Nor, for that matter, could I call Salvatore’s speech a language, because in every human language there are rules and every term signifies ad placitum a thing, according to a law which does not change, for man cannot call the dog once dog and once cat, or utter sounds to which a conseneus of people has not assigned a definite meaning, as would happen if someone said the word “blitiri.” And yet, one way or another, I did understand what Salvatore meant, and so did the others. Proof that he spoke not one, but all languages, none correctly, taking words sometimes from one and sometimes from another. I also noticed afterward that he might refer to something first in Latin and later in Provencal, and I realized that he was not so much inventing his own sentences as using the disecta membra of other sentences, heard some time in the past, according to the present situation and the the thing he wanted to say . . . His speech was somehow like his face, put together with pieces from other people’s faces, or like some precious reliquaries I have seen . . . fabricated from the shards of other holy objects. At that moment, when I met him for the first time, Salvatore seemed to me, because of both his face and his way of speaking, a creature not unlike the hairy and hoofed hybrids I had seen under the portal [and etched into the facing of the church].


Consider for a moment the voice of narrator, Adso, recollecting events that happened so many years ago in his youth. We see in the first half of the excerpt a very simple synopsis of how language and meaning appears to manifest itself. In describing Salvatore’s speech, Adso admits that he has a language of his own, but since it is incomprehensible to anyone else, it essentially is nothing but a speech of utterances and half-words – gibberish: “Salvatore spoke all languages, and no language”. Adso justifies his criticism of Salvatore initially in biblical and religious terms, perhaps indicative of his initial religious training. The old monk’s gibberish is “Adamic”, and “Babelish”, part of humanity’s eternal scar due to the “grand chastisement” at the Tower of Babel. He follows this criticism, however, by shifting toward an elementary discourse on what language should be, perhaps to highlight his recent tutelage under Brother William. William, an admirer of Aquinas and Bacon, would be sure to believe in a language system based on rules and structures, where “every term signifies . . . a thing, according to a law which does not change, for man cannot call the dog once dog and once cat” in the same breath. To every object there would be one word to represent it in this system – “cat” for a four-legged feline animal; “dog” for a four-legged canine animal.

The real fun begins, however, with Adso’s tiny admission of doubt in this structure in the very next line, “And yet, one way or another, I did understand what Salvatore meant, and so did the others”. Eco enforces elementary, and sensible Saussurian logic which, up to now, the reader would not expect to see in such a young (and old) character as Adso. Adso admits that he can sometimes understand Salvatore’s gibberish – the otherwise nonsensical statements of an old monk who is always “taking words sometimes from one and sometimes from another”. In spite of his lack of understanding, the young novice finds meaning in Salvatore’s words (his statement is important to the plot of the text but not to this entry – please read the book yourself to find his words) because language is in fact highly malleable and open to adjustment and re-adjustment. We understand that objects can be signified by any number of words (a book could be a “book” or a “text” or a “novel” or a “manuscript” or a “work” or a “piece” etc) in but one language, let alone Salvatore’s mishmash of all the language and dialects he has encountered in his day. A dog to Salvatore, and to Adso, could be a dog or a mutt or a puppy, or even “un chien” or “canis”; similarly, “un chat” or “cattus” for “cat”. When Adso admits to himself, and to the reader that he was able to listen to Salvatore’s nonsensical statements and find meaning, it is because meaning is not tied forever to the words themselves.

What we have in this excerpt is a brief, yet critical introduction on the mutability of language to a public, non-academic audience. Without speaking to Saussure’s sign-signifier-signified theory, as simple as it is, Eco expounded to a wide audience some of the first brief arguments (notwithstanding Nietzsche, of course) against self-evident and self-affirming Truths and Values. If the words that we use to define ourselves by, to codify our laws with, or to define our God with (cf. John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God) are more malleable that we think they are, then perhaps we must question their ability to represent an object to one person, and carry that representation to others.

Eco, Umberto. The Name of the Rose. Tr. William Webster. 1983: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 46-47.
You are commodified.

Written by mitchellirons

August 28, 2007 at 10:29 am

William Wordsworth re-visited

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As if we needed another link to justify oour use of the internet, what with the incredible amount of internet banking, job-hunting, google calendaring and flickr photosharing we do, I present today a small but wondrous hip-hop-ified rendition of William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud“.

Re-interpreted as a short rap as part of a tourist campaign for England’s Lakes District, this ‘music video’ has been making the rounds on the internet for a couple months now. (I resurrect it and send it out to my friends from time to time to ensure they still value their Norton Anthologies of English Literature.) Featuring a rapping squirrel, lots of daffodils, a glass of milk and a really dope backbeat (i think that’s what the kids still call it), this link is sure to perk up your late afternoon doldrums in your offices and cubicles.

Do you have any other web-based off-the-wall interpretations of literature to share? Sound and full-motion are desired, but any links will be accepted – it would be nice to see what else the internet has in store for literature hounds like us.

(The actual website is found at

William Wordsworth is commodified.

Written by mitchellirons

August 25, 2007 at 1:17 pm

Understanding the question of meaning in postmodernism

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This is an addendum to a post I began last week on the enthusiasm inherent in postmodernism, as explicated by Linda Hutcheon in her Poetics of Postmodernism (1988). In this, another long excerpt, Hutcheon explains what “meaning” in a postmodern world (that is, in our systems, our philosophies, our politics, our art forms, etc) actually means. Note in her words the classic, and necessary point that postmodernism sheds light on the contradictions in our world, but also that these contradictions exist because we, in as sense, ask them to:

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Written by mitchellirons

August 17, 2007 at 10:04 am