‘Beauty Is Not a Luxury’

June Bookmarks
Horace Pippin, Victorian Interior II (Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons)

“One of the things that can be said about much of postcolonial criticism is that it is boring, although it’d be more accurate to say that it is often unintelligible and boring.” This statement comes from Amitava Kumar’s Every Day I Write the Book: Notes on Style. Kumar picks on postcolonialism because that’s the area he knows best. But sub out “postcolonial criticism” for almost any other scholarly field and the indictment stands. The professoriate gets unfairly kicked around for lots of things, from liberal brainwashing to out-of-touch elitism. (Tell that to the adjunct teaching four classes for below minimum-wage pay.) But clotted syntax? Predictable structures? Obscurantist diction? A seeming aversion to grace and elegance? Guilty as charged.

In Every Day I Write the Book, Kumar asks how academics might write books that readers actually want to read. He’s interested in scholarly writing “that will remain new and attractive because of [its] style,” writing that will “reduce the distance that divides criticism from creative writing.” Too often academic rigor is associated with a bloodless style and “proficiency in the use of the sacred tongue.” Too often lively writing is taken as a sign of dilettantism. Things don’t have to be this way, and Kumar, who is himself both a critic and a novelist, insists that scholarship should argue and inform but also surprise and delight.

Kumar describes his book in many ways. It’s “a manifesto” proclaiming that good academic writing should offer “a refusal of easy consolations,” admitting complexity and not pretending to absolute authority or complete certainty. It’s “a self-help book for academics wanting to break with convention,” offering case studies of works that have pulled off this escape: “autotheory” like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts; creative criticism like Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage; journalistic ethnography like Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. It’s a collection of interviews with writers who wed the creative and critical: the poet/theorist Fred Moten, the scholar/journalist Hua Hsu, and the critic Vivian Gornick, among many others. And it’s an assemblage of Kumar’s own travel writing, memoir, and cultural criticism. The best way to argue that academic books can be formally inventive is to write a formally inventive academic book. That’s what Kumar does here.

“This book is about what works in writing and what doesn’t,” Kumar writes. What does he think works? Self-reflexivity, for one thing: Kumar admires writers who make the act of research and writing—the false starts and dramatic discoveries, the moments of doubt and elation—part of the work itself. (For example, Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, which turns the process of not writing a book about D. H. Lawrence into an exemplary book about D. H. Lawrence.) He likes books that reflect back upon lived experience, that go into the archive but then test their findings against the outside world. (For example, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which adds names to the list of young black people killed by police with each new edition.) He loves books that quest in search of new forms. Any book must have a good idea, but it also must find the structure appropriate to that idea. Finally, Kumar likes academic writing that sings and saunters, that has pitch and punch. Here is Fred Moten, offering what could be the book’s thesis:

Find a rhythm your readers, who are, more technically, your listeners, can feel. William Carlos Williams once said, “If it ain’t pleasure, it ain’t a poem.” He was right about that and I think this formulation should extend to the essay, too. And this means it should be a pleasure to write, too.

In other words, good academic writing must be good writing, period. Every Day I Write the Book offers an extensive list of academic books that blend the creative and the critical. Here are some other recent titles that meet Kumar’s charge.

Every Day I Write the Book: Notes on Style
Amitava Kumar
Duke University Press, 256 pp., $24.95

 

When I was in grad school, I wrote a snotty paper about Saidiya Hartman’s first book, Scenes of Subjection. The book, which uncovers the central role played by spectacle in the dehumanization of, and resistance by, black Americans before, during, and after slavery, is a masterpiece of archival research. Yet I couldn’t get over the theory-driven stylistic tics—“the comic b(l)ackdrop”; “the (im)possibilities of practice”; “to (re)produce the master’s text”—and the relentless drive, even in a book about black embodiment, toward abstraction.

Poets are humans, and that means poets make mistakes.

Given this, how exhilarating it was to read Hartman’s latest, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. The book retains Hartman’s attentiveness to the people and phenomena overlooked by much of traditional historiography. But it grounds this research in a style that is musical, sensuous, bold, beautiful. Hartman begins with a declaration: “At the turn of the twentieth century, young black women were in open rebellion.” These women, living in Philadelphia and New York City, rebelled against an America of vagrancy laws, aggressive policing, redlining, and respectability politics—all ways by which black Americans were kept unfree despite the abolition of slavery. And these women rebelled, Hartman shows, by the way they lived their lives: loving who (bad men and other women) and how (outside of marriage and inside of dance clubs) they weren’t supposed to. They danced “the Shimmy, the Turkey Trot, the Funky Butt, the Black Bottom”; they hung out in streets and courtyards, drinking and gossiping and fighting and supporting one another. Dressing beautifully, loving dangerously: these were ways of “trying to live free in a world where freedom was thwarted, deferred, anticipated rather than actualized.” Hartman shows how the black search for beauty is itself a political act: “Beauty is not a luxury; rather it is a way of creating possibility in the space of enclosure, a radical art of subsistence, an embrace of our terribleness, a transfiguration of the given. It is a will to adorn, a proclivity for the baroque, and the love of too much.”

Hartman looks to the historical margins. There, she finds queer women and showgirls, mothers with unconventional romantic arrangements and teens sent to reformatories, often for doing nothing more than walking down the street unaccompanied. She uses what she calls “a mode of close narration,” imagining her way beyond the historical record into the conversations that these women had with each other and with themselves. We get remarkable archival details—newspaper clippings, diary entries, photographs, arrest records—giving way to theoretical claims giving way to imagined interior speech: “The bodies in motion, bodies intimate and proximate, recklessly assert what might be, how black folks might could live.” This is a great work of social history and of the social imagination.

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals
Saidiya Hartman
W. W. Norton & Company, 464 pp., $17.95

 

Of the many beautiful things Hartman writes about, one of the most beautiful is the “flexible and elastic kinship” that black families exhibited: women serving as breadwinners; men raising other men’s children; aunts and uncles and cousins all living together. These practices were not a sign of moral degradation, as contemporary sociologists often claimed, but a sign of moral resilience: “a resource for black survival, a practice that documented the generosity and mutuality of the poor.” Affiliation is less a result of blood than an act of love.

Linda Norton’s second book, Wite Out: Love and Work, also explores the beauties and complexities of affiliation—and how these beauties and complexities are informed, as almost everything in America is, by race. Norton, a poet and visual artist, was born in Boston. Her mother’s side was Sicilian; her father’s side was Irish. In this book, which braids together journal entries and poems in a collage-like fashion (the sub-subtitle is A memoir with poems), Norton remembers her family’s racism as a childhood refrain. Her grandmother warned her against traveling: “Chicago—a lotta black people!” When the family watched the violent suppression of the civil-rights movement, Norton writes, “My mother mocked me for taking it too seriously: ‘Oh, Linda loves the Colored people.’” Norton’s aunts and cousins “were the last white people in the projects.” One day, after they looked after a young black neighbor, the neighbor’s mother kindly and inexplicably left some issues of Jet as thanks. While looking at the magazine’s photos of Emmett Till’s body, Norton’s mother declared, “He shouldn’t a said nothin’.… The mouth on him.” Her favorite aunt responds, “What kind of mother lets them put a picture like that on the cover of a magazine?” After the 1967 riots, Norton’s aunt and cousins left the projects, too.

That’s one meaning behind the book’s title: “wite out” means white flight, the attempt of whites to avoid any contact with the racialized other. Italians and Irish became acceptably white in part by asserting that they were not black. (“We were dark white,” Norton writes.) Norton refuses this solidarity via subjugation: “Sometimes I think I will spend my whole life trying to understand that mother, and Emmett Till’s mother. And my own mother, and the men who killed Emmett Till, and that lying white woman in the grocery store in Money, Mississippi.” Norton wants out of her family’s kind of whiteness—another meaning for the book’s title. “What, I wonder, is the right way to be white?” Norton’s book doesn’t give an answer; it’s not the kind of question that bears one. But she poses it and digs in.

Wite Out moves from Norton’s childhood in Boston to her adulthood as a single mother in California. She refuses to fully affiliate herself with her family. Instead, she finds community with other women, with other artists, with black writers. (Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Memphis Minnie, and Fred Moten all provide epigraphs). She becomes a kind of mother to a seventeen-year-old black boy in foster care named Marcus. She cobbles together a family and she cobbles together a self. Wite Out, a hybrid of verse and prose that uses typography and spacing in interesting ways, is the record of this process.

“Looking through thirty years of notebooks,” Norton writes, “stitching, remembering, juxtaposing. Imposing order that isn’t there while you’re living it.” To construct a self—a white self or a black self, the self as poet and the self as mother—demands constant editing and rearranging. That’s another sense of the title. Self-construction requires revision; revision requires Wite Out.

Wite Out: Love and Work
Linda Norton
Hanging Loose Press, 262 pp., $19.00

 

Poets are humans, and that means poets make mistakes. To take some examples from the introduction to Erica McAlpine’s delightful study The Poet’s Mistake: In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare famously gives Bohemia a coast; it’s actually landlocked. In “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” Keats has “stout Cortez” staring at the Pacific; it was actually Balboa. Milton confuses one of the Fates with the Furies in “Lycidas.”

What are we to do with such mistakes? How much interpretive weight can they bear? How much should they bear? McAlpine argues that critics have tended to treat these mistakes by arguing that they’re not actually mistakes (the coastless Bohemia signals that we’re in a fantastical world); or, they argue that a mistake is productive, allowing the poem to mean more fully than it otherwise would (Wordsworth’s incorrect use of a present-perfect verb in a poem about a traumatic memory indicates how the past lives in the present). Faced with a poetic genius misspelling (John Clare) or using a word with clear but unintended sexual connotations (Robert Browning), the critic pleads, defends, and justifies. “How could a reader,” McAlpine asks, “upon encountering a mistake in a poem…not assume that whatever is wrong is also right and that whatever should not have been written, but was, is therefore meant to be?”

Yet to justify often means to explain away, and to explain away means to sidestep the complexities of form and intention that actually attend poetic composition and that shape poetic meaning. Take that Wordsworth example. By looking at the rest of Wordsworth’s corpus, we can see that he is very careful with verb tenses when describing the act of memory. Treating this mistake as a mistake allows the reader, as McAlpine suggests, both to admit the role of contingency in poetic composition and meaning, and to consider more carefully the notion of poetic intentionality: “In using Wordsworth’s error to shape our own meanings for the poem, we celebrate the unintentional aspects of Wordsworth’s verse, but when we recognize his mistake as a mistake, we acknowledge his conscious choices too.” Meaning in poetry is generated from intention but it isn’t reducible to intention; attending to poetic mistakes helps us to see this fact more clearly.  

McAlpine writes splendidly about Emily Dickinson, whose “style sometimes masquerades as error” and whose defenders take every solecism and “coax [it] into acceptability”; and she writes just as well on Elizabeth Bishop, whose poems often stage the act of self-correction (from “Sandpiper”: “he runs straight through it, watching his toes. // —Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them”). McAlpine displays a sensitive ear, a command of poetic history, and a critical intelligence that makes fine distinctions clear and meaningful. The Poet’s Mistake is a model of good academic criticism.

The Poet’s Mistake
Erica McAlpine
Princeton University Press, 264 pp., $29.95

 

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell is a scholar of Flannery O’Connor (see her just-published Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor). She’s also a poet (see her 2017 collection Still Pilgrim). It’s only natural that this scholar-poet would write a book like Andalusian Hours, an excellent work of O’Connor criticism conducted not through scaffolded chapters but through 101 sonnets.

Andalusian Hours brings O’Connor’s biography to pulsating life: the time a reporter came to photograph the young Flannery’s backward-walking chicken (“It was such / a rush to have all those adult eyes / trained on me and my trained bird”); her friendship with Robert Lowell (“He was a hurricane, that one was, / moving across the earth at light speed”); her writing of Wise Blood (“It seems all I see is how far I fail / at telling the truth, making the moment / of revelation real as a gut punch”); her final days (“I’m like to light out for that province soon / as things don’t look too good in this one”). The poems gather phrases from O’Connor’s stories and letters, making her voice speak again.

A biography in sonnets, then, but also an interpretation in sonnets. O’Connor liked writing about freaks, and critics sometimes treat her as a freak of literary history: sui generis, a misfit in the American canon. O’Donnell’s O’Connor, though, emerges in and through reading. In “Flannery & Dante,” the modern American identifies with the old Italian: “Deep under the skin / you and I are kin, / conjuring words, eager to atone / for the pity of being blood and bone.” In “Flannery & Faulkner,” she stands at a distance from her great Southern precursor. In Andalusian Hours, we see how O’Donnell’s poetic voice has, in part, grown from her reading of O’Connor—and how O’Connor’s voice grew in part from her own reading as well.

It’s a bold thing, to channel the voice of an author possessed of such a singular style: “It took stealth / and nerve to steal your mind and heart.” Andalusian Hours proves O’Donnell a good thief.

Andalusian Hours: Poems from the Porch of Flannery O’Connor
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
Paraclete Press, 128 pp., $19.00

Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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