mitchellirons

rough notes

Posts Tagged ‘literary criticism

To lie in cold obstruction / The undiscovered country

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So the prof who I TA for lost a couple of the essays that were to be returned today. Since he’s flying to Mexico City for a conference on the Gothic (I know, I know), he’s asked me to mark the copies that the students will graciously email me this evening. I could be an ass and decline to help, since this extra work is technically outside the bounds of my union contract, but I told him I’d do it anyhow. My plan of attack, however, is not to complete them until the day he returns from his junket. Glorious.

Who out there has read Measure for Measure? In case you’ve forgotten, this is the Shakespeare play that might otherwise be called “Hot and Bothered For Catholic Girls, 1605”. It stars Angelo as the under-sexed Puritan who is hot and bothered at the idea of getting his kinks out on Isabella, the would-be nun, in return for a stay of execution against her brother. It also stars The Duke, who is also hot and bothered for Isabella, but we’re not suppossed to notice that until the very end of the drama. Oh you crafty dramatist, Willy Shakespeare – you nearly fooled us! We never would have guessed that the Duke of Vienna would right ALL the wrongs, and also convince the good Catholic girl to not live the rest of the days in a convent, but marry him instead? Certainly not us, that’s for sure.

There’s a great little moment in Measure for Measure, a moment which others have noted, I’m sure, but a moment that needs to be recalled again and again. Claudio, Isabella’s brother, is condemned to death for having sex before marriage (this is not a drama about chastity, though – this is a drama about sex). While begging his sister to sleep with the Governor, Angelo, in order to stay his execution, the prisoner imagines how awful death might be. Claudio’s speech is reminiscent, I believe, of Hamlet’s “To Be Or Not To Be” speech. But while Hamlet’s speech is purposely ambiguous on the nature of existence and death (literature lesson of the day: Hamlet is not considering suicide but rather the nature of conscious existences versus an unknowing death), Claudio gets straight to the point on how terrible that Undiscovered Country must really be:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot,
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbèd ice,
To be imprisoned in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world, or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling — ’tis too horrible.
The weariest and most loathèd worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death. (3.1.121-135)

Now that’s a speech about death we should all take to heart! Roll over Hamlet and your quivering, ambivalent, fence-sitting nature – the world, and its English students, needs to hear more from Claudio. This guy gets straight to the point, and tells it for what it is – “it” being death, and death being some kind of Dante-ian inferno. Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure a couple years after Hamlet, so its safe to assume that Hamlet’s To Be Or Not To Be speech informed Claudio’s words here. Whether or not Shakey was in the mood, however, to revise his own thoughts on that which follows after we have shuffled off this mortal coil is a debate that others can hold (it really doesn’t matter much to what Shakey thought, so much as what he wrote).. I’m just saying that Claudio’s speech is a damn good speech which can hold its own against pouty Hamlet’s words.

I would like to give a few final words on Claudio, though. Let’s not allow his own words here cloud our judgment of his character. Some people are rather sympathetic toward Claudio’s predicament in Measure for Measure – he is, after all, to be executed for merely sleeping with the woman he is engaged to marry, if not already married to (the plot of the drama rides on an interpretation of an unclear law and custom). Remember, though, this guy has just asked his sister, who is otherwise ready to enter a convent, to effectively whore herself out to save his skin. Isabella might save his life in the process, but she’d surely condemn her soul. Claudio is not a good person by any means. He doesn’t deserve death, of course, but neither does he deserve our total sympathy, either. Just because he shouldn’t be executed doesn’t mean that he’s a nice guy. Any dude willing to ask his sister to sleep with the governor to save his own ass is not a dude you can count on in a pinch.

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Written by mitchellirons

March 27, 2008 at 10:05 pm

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

Ginsberg, Whitman, and America in "A Supermarket in California"

with 3 comments

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