The Left’s War on Free Speech

But what was strange was that although Goldstein was hated and despised by everybody, although every day and a thousand times a day, on platforms, on the telescreen, in newspapers, in books, his theories were refuted, smashed, ridiculed, held up to the general gaze for the pitiful rubbish that they were — in spite of all this, his influence never seemed to grow less. –from Orwell’s 1984.

Thank goodness for the First Amendment that grants us the right to free speech in America, and yet each year books are banned, censored or challenged simply because they express views contrary to usually a political, religious or ethnic constituency.

Just today comes news that Muslim news website The Muslim Vibe is demanding that Amazon pull Raheem Kassam’s pending book, No Go Zones: How Sharia Law is Coming to a Neighborhood Near You from its inventory, calling it “Islamophobic hate.”

If you tell me not to read a book I promise you I’ll read it. That’s why I just read conservative media troll Milo Yiannopoulis’ best selling Dangerous, a book he had to self publish because Simon and Schuster cowered after a $250,000 advance, withdrawing its publication following vociferous threats of the Chicago Review of Books not to review any more of their books, then bullied by a pile-on of 100 writers who said they’d find another publisher if Simon and Schuster followed through.

Normally, we’d associate book banning and repressions of free speech with the extreme right. Think Hitler and the infamous public conflagration of books on May 10, 1933 shortly after his election to Chancelor.

Or Chile in 1973 when the fascist Pinochet government burned hundreds of books.

Unfortunately, limitations on free speech have taken a ubiquitous turn in America, with the Left and many progressives championing repression of conservatives whom they’re fond of labeling as hate mongers. Ironically, the arena for their incendiary assaults are college campuses, supposedly citadels of free inquiry.

On February 1, 2017, Milo had been scheduled for an interview by conservative political commentator Anne Coulter on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, when the university reneged following a gathering of 1500 protestors outside the Student Union building, some dressed in black and wearing masks, throwing rocks at police, smashing windows, and physically assaulting people before moving on to vandalize downtown Berkeley, resulting an estimated $300,000 damage.

How weird for a campus famous for the genesis of the Leftist free speech movement of the 1960s.

Today, the tables have turned and it’s conservatism that’s the counter-culture, the Left its pursuers, given to violence, censorship, ridicule, and ostracism. Media has lent a helping hand, often by sheer omission of news events counter to liberals and progressives, or pursuing advocacy journalism.

Nowadays, even moderate conservative intellectual columnists such as George Will find themselves banned from print or college campuses.

Banning extends even to Berkeley radio station KPFA, which cancelled its planned event with distinguished Oxford scientist and fervent atheist, Richard Dawkins, after receiving complaints alleging hate speech targeting Muslims.

But as Dawkins subsequently explained afterwards, “I have indeed strongly condemned the misogyny, homophobia, and violence of Islamism, of which Muslim–particularly Muslim women–are the prime victims. I make no apologies for denouncing those oppressive cruelties, and I will continue to do so. Why do you give Islam a free pass?  Why is it fine to criticize Christianity but not Islam?”  Thus far, KPFA hasn’t responded.

I won’t go into what happened to Charles Monk, author of the controversial The Bell Curve, when he was met with violence at Middlebury College in Vermont.

I can’t say I’m a devotee of Milo; for example, he adores Donald Trump, who’s anathema to me. I’m for environmentalism, women’s rights, gay rights, single payer health care, increased taxation of the wealthy, etc., none of which Milo’s keen about.

Truth be told, however, Milo’s iniquities have been grossly exaggerated. He’s been wrongly, and repeatedly associated with the nationalist alt.right which media outlets like CNN just can’t seem to get right.  Funny, but both Left and right political wings find him odious.

He’s been called a Nazi and Fascist, deemed Islamophobic, transphobic, white supremacist, and even a pedophile advocate, but better read his book first, since politics can be a very dirty game, but then I don’t think I have to tell you that.

Anyway, we do have the First Amendment with its affirmation of five fundamental freedoms, among them, free speech.

Me, I’m sympathetic when Milo writes that “one day, while attending Manchester I was told I couldn’t read Atlas Shrugged, I thought, this is poppycock. Fuck anyone who tells me what I can and cannot read. I finished it three days later.”

Milo’s early experience with would-be censorship brought back a painful memory of how as a 16-year old, I had been reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, only to be told by my adult evangelical cousin and guardian that I was indulging in trash. Two weeks later, I was shipped back to my violent, alcoholic father.

Maybe why the Left really doesn’t want you to read or hear Milo is they fear his persuasive verbiage, and just maybe they should. I think Milo’s scores when he says Democrats forfeited victory in 2016 because they focused more on identity politics than everyday workers in flyover America, forgetting their traditional blue collar ties.

You can’t simply drive him off the stage as some kind of dimwit. Nimble in his velocity, delivering repeated right uppercuts, he grievously shreds stereotypical notions of the politics of a man with a Jewish mother and out-of-the closet gay with a black lover. The bottomline is that Milo jars you into awareness there’s another viewpoint to be had.

I taught argumentative writing on college campuses for more than three decades, always endeavoring to inculcate in my students the rudiments of sound persuasion, listening to the opposition’s point of view, subsequently refuting it point by point with both sound reasoning and empirical evidence. You don’t win a boxing bout by refusing to exchange punches.

I bring this up because I want to practice what I’ve preached to my students. In 2012, Jeremy Waldron, a distinguished scholar and professor of law and philosophy at NYU, penned his landmark book for the Left, The Limits of Hate Speech, arguing that it’s wrong to allow speech that denigrates the dignity of minorities. It’s after all, contributory to social alienation, or tool to ostracism.

But though this view is obviously humane, what often falls under the canopy of Leftist notions of hate speech is simply a refusal to acknowledge the shibboleths of identity politics, better known as political correctness. I’ve already noted its predilection to insult and violence, ostracism and shaming. Are conservatives less deserving of dignified assessment? It’s not a one way street.

In 2015, a guest speaker at a Des Moines high school told his audience, “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view…You shouldn’t silence them by saying, ‘You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’ That’s not the way we learn either.”  The speaker was President Obama.

I tire of preachments about being a white male, as though being a white male confers privilege.

Or that white males are the seminal source of systemic evil.

Or Yale students moaning that they have to read the literary works of dead white men. Take care, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Dickens!

Why isn’t this racism, seeing race has been brought into the equation?

Ask the impoverished white miners in my state of Kentucky or unemployed steelworkers in Ohio or drought-stricken farmers in Kansas about white privilege!

And you wonder how Democrats lost the election?

Waldron says we shouldn’t get hung up on the First Amendment. Well, he’s a New Zealander. I think the First Amendment encapsulates what ideally America is all about. I shudder to think of an America without it.

And then there’s the horrid history of banning hugely associated with totalitarian regimes like today’s Republic of China, with their self-appointed oligarchy prescribed tenets, and harsh penalization of violators.

You and I aren’t bugs on the ground, but individuals endowed with reasoning capacity. Treat us as such. Respect our right to think for ourselves. There’s your human dignity!

Historically, oppressed minorities haven’t found emancipation through banning the raucous, despicable sentiments of their oppressors, but through reasoned discourse and legislative enactment.

But as I’ve said, many universities have become increasingly radicalized and intolerant of conservatives, reneging on liberal values that encourage intellectual freedom and toleration.

As I write, the exemplar of professor Jordan Peterson sweeps into my purview. Seems he’s been refusing to buckle before the identity politics crowd in not using gender neutral pronouns. It’s his way of protesting Bill C-16 introduced in the Canadian parliament last May as an amendment to the Human Rights Act, calling for the prohibition of language specifying “gender identity” and “gender expression” and a human resource initiative by the university. For Peterson, it all comes down to a freedom of speech issue.

Here at home, GPS host Fared Zakakria recently commented that “American universities these days seem to be committed to every kind of diversity except intellectual diversity. Conservative voices and views, already a besieged minority, are being silenced entirely. Freedom of speech is not just for warm, fuzzy ideas that we find comfortable. It’s for ideas that we find offensive.”

Among American universities, the University of Chicago gets it right:

The University of Chicago is an institution fully committed to the creation of knowledge across the spectrum of disciplines and professions, firm in its belief that a culture of intense inquiry and informed argument generates lasting ideas, and that the members of its community have a responsibility both to challenge and to listen (Geoffrey R. Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law and former Provost of the University).

If you really think about it, people like Milo serve democracy well. As one of my favorites, John Stuart Mill, often called ‘the saint of rationalism,” pointed out in On Liberty,

In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable. That is, few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of our time.

I won’t apologize for reading Milo. Like so many in the true liberal tradition, I am opposed to the banning of books.

–rj

MILO SAMPLINGS

I’m no hypocrite. I tell the truth, always. That’s my whole fucking problem.

The Left is filled with hypocrites who choose their targets of outrage based solely on their politics.

Young conservatives respond and libertarians respond to me because I say the things they wish they could.

Social taboos for the past fifteen years have all come from the progressive left. They’ re a ridiculously ugly army of scolds who wish to tell you how to behave. Libertarians and conservatives are the new counter-culture.

For the New Left, white men are the cultural counterpart to the economic bourgeoisie in classicist Marxist theory.

I’d prefer a world with no identity politics. I’d prefer we judged people according to reason, logic, and evidence instead of barmy left-wing theories about “oppressors.

Feminism describes itself merely as a movement for female equality. But it behaves like something quite different: a vindictive, spiteful, mean-spirited festival of man-hating.

In the two months following the election, social media analytics discovered more than 12,000 tweets calling for the death of Donald Trump–tweets that remain on the platform.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Books, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reflections on the 2017 Philip Larkin Exhibition at Hull

The Guardian (July 4, 2017) features a review of a favorite poet of mine, Philip Larkin, in connection with a current exhibit of Larkin artifacts at Hull’s Brynmore Jones Library, where he was a librarian for many years.

It notes his tortured sexual life, indulgence in pornography, racist asides, and complex relationships the writer terms “despicable” with several women, whom he allegedly treated unfairly, particularly Monica Jones, his lifelong lover and collaborator.

The show includes a small Hitler bust given him by his father, a Nazi sympathizer, who had once taken his son to a Nuremberg rally.

Beyond announcing the exhibit, about which there’s very little, not even its running dates, columnist Hannah Ellis Petersen tells us Larkin was obsessed with his appearance, weighing himself twice daily on two different scales, fastidious about his clothes, etc.

A good portion of the article paraphrases or quotes the exhibit’s curator Anna Farthing, who ironically seems apologetic for the exhibition, perhaps thrown on the defensive by a rehearsed biased protocol: “The challenge is alway to not judge, and present the story in a way with lots of perspectives and hooks so people can make their own minds up. I’ve had lots of different reactions to him as I’ve started to get to know him, from complete respect to being appalled.”

I find the article, spirited perhaps by feminist indulgence, a blatant dismissal of Larkin’s perfected artistry as a poet. Larkin may well be Britain’s best poet since Auden. Unfortunately, literary criticism has taken on a contemporary intrusion of sexual politics.  I side with Terry Eagleton in his contention  that we appear “less interested in ideas than in the sexual habits of those who had them.”

Her take isn’t anything new. As Stephen Walsh recalls (The Guardian, May 30, 2017), during “the 2015 premiere of a BBC documentary about the poet, a female audience member disrupted the generally cosy atmosphere by asking why Hull people should be so proud of Larkin. He was a misogynist and racist, she said, and he didn’t do anything for the image of the city.”

Aside from this, what concerns me more are those who would shun an artist on the basis of alleged moral incongruities or ideology. Ellis-Petersen dubs the exhibit “a morally complex minefield.”

Do we stop reading Voltaire or Gide because they were anti-Semitic; or more famously, D. H. Lawrence, who exhibits a considerable misogynist vein in his work? And what about Hemingway caught up in his male chauvinism? Or the writer I know best, James Joyce with his notorious kinkiness that once got Ulysses banned? Is there a new Index in town?  A moral or political registry to which artists must do obeisance?

My interest in Larkin, or any artist for that matter, isn’t foregrounded in his life. Artists, after all, are human beings, each with their flotsam of inertia or indulgence and dark secrets shaped by the interweave of parental, cultural, economic and social phenomena often imprinting them psychologically, as any reading of Freud’s seminal Civilization and Its Discontents (1929) should remind us.

Truth is, though a brilliant student at Oxford, Larkin was nonetheless self-deprecating. As a youth, he stuttered and all his life suffered from bad vision. He sought validation from women, but even that couldn’t suffice for low self-esteem.

He shied from interviews and readings. The current exhibit, virtually underwear and all, would undoubtedly have violated his sensibility and his privacy, as much, maybe more, than his inclusion in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey

Flashback to my student days in a modern poetry course at Exeter College, Oxford, summer of 1979:

I know nothing of Larkin. My tutor, one of the best ever, steeped in bibliography and intertextual nuance, introduces us to the idiomatic, conversational cadence of poems like “Church Going,” “Toads,” and “Whitsun Weddings”.

He knows Larkin personally and has invited him to our class for a reading, but Larkin cancels at the last moment, pleading illness. It’s a let down.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter, for Larkin would become a poetic staple in my life.

Larkin bravely translated the anxieties of modern life into verse. A leading candidate for Poet Laureate in 1984, the withdrawn Larkin wasn’t interested. He died the following year.

Larkin had become librarian at the University of Hull in 1955, beginning a thirty year association. He’s still remembered for his modernization and expansion of its facilities, though this gets omitted in the article.

Biographer Alan Brownjohn notes that Larkin quietly achieved “the most technically brilliant and resonantly beautiful, profoundly disturbing yet appealing and approachable, body of verse of any English poet in the last twenty-five years.”

George Dekker, in Agenda, comments that no living poet “can equal Larkin on his own ground of the familiar English lyric, drastically and poignantly limited in its sense of any life beyond, before or after, life today in England.”

Even curator Farthing finally gets it right in exclaiming “to have achieved work that is so human and engaging and continually relevant, it seems that he did it despite his demons, not because of them.”

And, of course, this is what matters.

–rj

 

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Perhaps Someday We Will Learn How to Live

Every morning I awaken to a country bristling with hate, intolerance, and violence. 

Trump bullied his way to the presidency, exploiting public anxieties, e. g., steel belt resentment of jobs sent abroad, latent fears of a changing demographic replacing White homogeneity, evangelical rancor against abortion, and Islamaphobia, which sees every Muslim as a potential terrorist.

Trump pledged he’d limit Muslim immigration and reduce refugee numbers.   Shortly into his tenure, he attempted a 90-day immigration ban on seven Muslim nations, fortunately curtailed by the courts, though the recent SCOTUS decision suggests he may now have the upper hand.

One of his gallery of appointed rogues includes top advisor Stephen Bannon, known for his misogynist views on women and feminism that plague our nation.

Early on, Trump appointed the now disgraced retired general Mike Flynn as national security advisor, who’d previously depicted Islam as a “malignant cancer.”

Since his election, hate crimes have risen sharply.   Think Progress has mapped their occurrence from the election through February, 2017, recording 261 hate crimes, 41% of which have been linked to Trump’s rhetoric.

But I want to be fair. Much as I dislike Trump, hate in our country has many sources and targets.

Violence comes from the Left as well as the Right. 13% of the 261 incidents included attacks on Trump supporters.

Now comes the June 14 shooting of four Republican congressmen, one of them critically, while practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game for Charity in Alexandria, VA by a disgruntled Bernie supporter.

There’s also Black violence, targeting Whites, often police, the abused becoming the abuser, the most notorious being the Dallas sniper ambush of twelve policemen, five of them killed (June 8, 2016).

Even liberals can become intolerant, as one of my favorites, simply because he’s so even-handed, Fareed Zakaria, reminds us: “American universities these days seem to be committed to every kind of diversity except intellectual diversity. Conservative voices and views, already a besieged minority, are being silenced entirely….Freedom of speech is not just for warm, fuzzy ideas that we find comfortable. It’s for ideas that we find offensive.”

Alarmingly, the number of hate groups in The USA has proliferated, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, increasing from 892 in 2015 to 917 last year. This number doesn’t track, however, widespread cyperspace hate raconteurs, whose venom sometimes seeps into social violence such as Dylan Roof’s heinous murder of nine Black church members:

ACTIVE HATE GROUPS 2016

KU KLUX KLAN ……………….130                  

NEO-NAZI…………… ………… 99

WHITE NATIONALISTS……..100

RACIST SKINHEAD. …………..79             

CHRISTIAN IDENTITY……… ..21

NEO-CONFEDERATE…………..43

BLACK SEPARATIST…………..193

ANTI-LGBT……………………….52

ANTI-MUSLIM………………….101

GENERAL HATE………………..101

Total:   917 Active Hate Groups (“The Year in Hate and Extremism,” Intelligence Report, SPLC, Spring 2017, Issue 162.)

Top five states for hate groups?   This may surprise you!

1.  California……….79
2.  Florida…………..63
3.  Texas…………….55
4.  New York……….47
5.  Pennsylvania…..40

It’s not any better abroad.  Britain’s decision to exit the European Community, which requires open borders of its members, parallels the upset victory of Donald Trump, many of the pro-exit voters older, working class Whites. France has its Le Pen; the Netherlands, its Geert Wilder; Germany its AFD (Alternative for Germany).

All of this comes down to the age old problem of the Other. Unfortunately, for all our supposed sophistication in today’s world of technological prowess, we’re still engulfed in the tribalism of our ancient progenitors, hostile to the outsider. And it’s not likely to get better, given the increasing anachronism of national borders that same technology makes possible.

Still, I am not without hope that the good side of humanity will ultimately prevail.  Or as   gifted Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye puts it,

My father’s hopes travel with me
years after he died.  Someday
we will learn how to live. All of us
surviving without violence
never stop dreaming how to cure it.

–rj

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

?

Posted in Lifestyle, Politics | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

America’s Unofficial Poet Laureate: Mary Oliver

Judging by her phenomenal sales, Mary Oliver surely rates as America’s unofficial poet laureate, and yet the anomaly that she’s never held the office since its inception in 1937.

I have to confess that I hadn’t heard of her, despite teaching modern poetry for some thirty-five years, probably because the Modernists held sway when I was in graduate school and during much of my tenure.

Likewise, she’s excluded from The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, a principal text in modern poetry courses, despite having won both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award.

In her favor, however, is a sympathetic overview of her work by the Poetry Foundation, which I recommend as a starting place for those new to her poetry.

I came to her poetry late and in the oddest way through an online course in meditation called “Demystifying Mindfulness, ” where one of her poems, Mindful,” was included for its affinity with mindfulness practice, often associated with Buddhism:

Every day
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

I’ve now read a lot of her poetry, with many more to go–she’s written 26 books of verse–with every poem a kingdom of delight.

I think she’s given poetry back to us with her craft wielded in directness and simplicity, yet latent in nuance. And then there’s that redolent pathos, or intensity, of a voice resolute with conviction hammered out on the anvil of experience, not always kind.

Over a lifetime, I’ve preferred a poetry complicit in ambiguity, or tension; poetry resounding in the inequities of existence and the paradoxical.

Oliver wins me over, nonetheless, because like the Romantics before her, her verse glistens with acute awareness of life’s brevity and the imperative of living each day as Wordsworth might say in “wise passivity,” mindful of the sensory aspects within ourselves that connect us with all sentient beings in the bubble of transience.

Best of all, I’ve found that in those nights that I cannot sleep, in turning to her poetry I find solace and with it, sleep.

I’m not surprised there are Buddhist affinities in poems such as “Mindful.”
Buddhism isn’t really about reincarnation; its about being alive to the nowness of the moment, whether good or bad, in a cosmos of impermanence where even the stars ultimately suffer mortality.

Buddhism, however, can’t claim her, for her poetry embraces a spirituality that transcends religion with its orthodoxies, reverencing the sanctity of all things, like her great master, Walt Whitman, in its celebration of the holiness of the profane.

Of her many poems, I think “When Death Comes,” surely a thematic key to her poetry, is my favorite. Accordingly, I find myself hungry to lock its wisdom into the privilege of each morning’s waking:

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

–rj

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On First Looking Into Milford’s Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned. –Edna St. Vincent Millay

 


I recently finished Nancy Milford’s biography of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay [2001]). While it has some limitations, it remains a seminal treatment of a poet who once enjoyed immense popularity, went out of fashion, but currently is enjoying a revival.

While the book’s scope is large, relying chiefly on letters, diaries, journals and interviews, important details are sometimes omitted and the organization of her massive material could be better integrated.

Unfortunately, Milford proceeds chronologically, transitioning in step-stone fashion from one source to another, interspersed with brief commentary. Instead of critical acumen, she offers readers laudatory generalizations, rendered in ejaculatory phrases.

Millay enjoyed a stunning popularity for a poet and playwright in the 1920s and 30s, her poetry collections selling in the thousands and providing a comfortable income. She was awarded a Pulitzer for her poetry in 1923.

She also barnstormed America several times. Appearing before sold-out audiences, she mesmerized them with her spectacular delivery, though outwardly it came unexpected, since there was always this latent fragility about her.  At just 5”1” and scarcely weighing a 100 pounds, she gave off the aura of a child, doll-like in silk gown.

Audiences were most certainly lured by her unconventional lifestyle. Rumored to be sexually promiscuous, Millay was bisexual and in an open marriage. She was also outspoken, a social activist, chain smoker and heavy drinker.  Not since Byron, with whom Millay was often compared, had a poet so widely captured the public’s imagination and curiosity. The poet of the Jazz Age had, in our contemporary idiom, taken on the likeness of a rock star.

Milford rightly dubs her the exemplum of the New Woman, which helps explain Milford’s motivation to undertake Millay’s biography, a poet who sadly lived to see her poetry eclipsed by the rise of the Modernist Poets (e.g., Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Williams and Auden).

Novelist and poet Thomas Hardy famously commented that there were only two great things in the United States, its skyscrapers and the poetry of Millay.

Millay had good luck on her side in her early years. Coming from an impoverished, dysfunctional family in Maine, she had submitted a poem called “Renascence” in a contest sponsored by Lyric Year. The poem would launch a career.

Wealthy arts patron Caroline B. Dow, who heard Millay recite the poem and play the piano, offered to financed her at Vassar College, which provided the milieu that ultimately fashioned Millay into a highly cultured woman.

Millay was forthright when asked why she thought her poetry was so popular:

I think people like my poetry because it’s mostly about things that anybody has experienced. Most of it is fairly simple for a person to understand. If you write about people who are in love, and about death, and nature, and the sea, thousands…understand…my poetry because it’s about emotions, about experience common to everybody.  Then, too, my images are homely, right out of the earth.

Today, Millay has largely been relegated to a footnote in literary history. I still have my copy of Norton’s Anthology of Modern Poetry. After a brief introduction, it features only two Millay poems, among them, her most famous quatrain that foreshadows the transience theme pervading her poetry:

My candle burns at both ends,
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.

Years ago, can’t remember where or when, I had read a critical review that dismissed Millay’s significance. Sadly, it had prejudiced me until I took an online course from Stanford in 2015, called Ten Pre-Modern Poems by Women, which included Millay.

Forced to wrestle with “Recuerdo”, outwardly a seemingly simple poem, I discovered a subtlety between the lines, alerting me that maybe this was a poet I needed to know better, and Milford has convinced me even more.

As for the Norton Anthology’s superficial inclusion of Millay, you can argue it’s merely anachronistic, not substantive, a bastion of male hegemony needing to be challenged and on good grounds.

But then Millay didn’t allow herself to be the tool of any polemic, including feminism:

A woman poet is not at all different from a man poet. She should write from the same kind of life, from the same kind of experience, and should be judged by the same standards. If she is unable to do this, then she should stop writing. A poet is a poet. The critics should estimate her work as such.

All of which makes me think of Derek Walcott, who died just hours ago.  He didn’t want to be thought of as a black poet, but as a Caribbean poet.

What would she say to a course like Stanford’s that excluded male poets, making for a segregated artistry?

Or to academic conferences for women writers only?

It’s the sort of thing the male dominated academy used to do in their condescension:

We are supposed to have won all the battles for our rights to be individuals, but in the arts women are still put in a class by themselves, and I resent it, as I have always rebelled against discriminations or limitations of a woman’s experience on account of her sex.

Millay’s candor, her directness, the ease with which her words flow in her letters and journals I greatly admire. She filled a room with her presence, made you feel important with her focus, proved prodigious in her love and compassion for family and the unfortunate.

As a former Vassar classmate expressed it, “She was a girl who wanted to be beautiful and well-liked and powerful in her class. And she set out to be just that.”

The sad truth of transcience, or impermanence, her poignant theme, remains:

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough. (“Spring”)

In all things, aesthetic conventions ultimately dissolve before new facets of engendering. Millay’s poetry straddles two worlds, that of the Victorian with its Romanticism, diction and metrics; and the modern with its strident subversion of conventional sensibilities and aesthetic maxims.

In reflecting upon her work, I think of  Second April (1921) as among her best work with its free verse and passionate sonnets. I would point readers to her “Spring” and “Ode to Silence” poems in particular.

For specifically feminist poetry, I’d recommend sonnets 8 and 18 in The Harp Weaver and Other Poems (1922). Reviewing The Harp Weaver, influential and accomplished poet Harriet Moore wrote, “How neatly she upsets the carefully built walls of convention which men have set up around their Ideal Women. {She is} perhaps the greatest woman poet since Sappho.”

Milford’s biography abruptly ends with Millay’s seemingly accidental death on October 28, 1958, at Steepletop, her beloved rural farm in Austerlitz, NY, nestled in the Berkshire foothills. In actuality, she had suffered a heart attack, precipitating her falling down a flight of stairs, breaking her neck.  She was 58. She is buried there and a guided trail, open year round, takes you to her grave.

There is more:

Milford owes an immense debt to Millay’s sister, Norma Millay Ellis, who inherited Steepletop and turned over her large collection of salient materials for Milford’s pursuit, making her biography possible. Norma had selected her to do the biography based on her success with Zelda, a best selling biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife.

Milford doesn’t mention it, but the well-regarded poet Mary Oliver had visited Steepletop and developed a close relationship with Norma, living with her at Steepletop for seven years, and was instrumental in organizing the Millay manuscripts.

Milford subsequently edited and wrote an introduction for a collection of Millay’s poetry, The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay (2002).

Norma died in 1986, but Steepletop remains, lovingly preserved, both house and the gardens her sister delighted in, which you may tour through an appointment (May-October).

In the dining room, Millay’s china remains set out as though at any moment, our poet will make her appearance, silently, unexpectedly, as was often her way in life.

—rj

Posted in Books, Poetry | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Sarah Teasdale: “There Will Come Soft Rains”

sara-teasdaleAm in a poetry mood again, which just shows you how subversive reading a poet’s biography can be (Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay).

In doing so, I came across Sara Teasdale, a once in-vogue poet and first recipient of a Pulitzer for poetry (1922).

Teasdale wrote verse that’s direct and without complication or artifice, elements contemporary critics eschew. She didn’t make the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 2nd ed., one of the best repositories of verse in English out there.

I had come across her poetry before as a prof of modern poetry, but never found leisure to take her in.

I admire a number of her poems for their ability to resonate those salient emotions in all of us when it comes to nature, love and loss and, of course, mortality without engaging in self-pity or straying into sentimentality.

With their redolent attention to metrics, much of her poetry has transitioned into contemporary music; for example, the Scarecrow band rendition of eleven poems from Flame and Shadow.

And then there’s that enticing title of one of her poems, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” that I find among the most remarkably beautiful of all poetry titles. We principally know it today as Ray Bradbury’s title for one of his most celebrated stories, inspired by her poem.

Written shortly after the Great War, it features a world of nature absent of Man, who has annihilated himself. Lines 10-12 prove remarkably prescient in their intuitive application to our contemporary world with its apocalyptic tenor, replete with proliferation of nuclear arsenals; and yet Teasdale composed the poem in 1920.

Teasdale may not be one of our most renowned poets, but she wrote a haunting poetry of careful craftsmanship, rooted in the pathos of the human condition. She deserves a re-reading:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools, singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

–rj

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Is Mindfulness Warmed-over Buddhism?

momentMindfulness meditation seems everywhere these days. Even the corporate world embraces it, e. g., Google, Facebook, EBay and Twitter. And in medical circles, it’s all the rage, particularly in psychiatry where it increasingly rivals pharmaceutical intervention as a primary therapy in treating depression and general anxiety disorders.

But is there any real science behind mindfulness, or is it simply Buddhism warmed over for Western consumers?

Supposedly, mindfulness is all about being in the present. Never mind regrets about mistakes you made or things you’ll do to make things better. Just let go.  What matters is being sentient in the Now.  In the sports world, you might call it, “Being in the zone.”

Mindfulness, as in Buddhism, has three steps; namely, concentration, insight and its sequel, empathy.

You get there largely by focusing on your breathing. While your mind will inevitably stray with what Buddhists call “monkey mind,” don’t worry about it.  Simply listen to, and not engage, any thoughts that press-in on you.  Mindfulness encourages acceptance and avoids being judgmental.

But why mindfulness, even if its does help relieve your stress?

Why not a pill?

Why not counseling?

Or soft music?

Or having fun with a good friend?

Or relaxing on the beach?

Why not just slow things down and sit still?

Where’s the research to back-up the craze or to validate it’s more effective than traditional ways of promoting well-being?

In short, mindfulness has its critics, some of whom argue that self-confrontation can even be dangerous for you.  Do you really want to probe repressed memories and labyrinthian chambers of loss, grief, and failure?

Melanie McDonagh, a writer for the Evening Standard (London), argues in Spectator that Mindfulness didn’t work for her, given her inability to stay focused.

Mindfulness is supposed to ultimately make you more compassionate. But where’s the proof of that?:

…as far as I can gather, it’s mostly About Me Sitting.  Concentration on your breathing is a good way to chill out and de-stress, but it’s not a particularly good end in itself. Radiating compassion is fine, but it doesn’t obviously translate into action. Where’s the bit about feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, all the virtues that Christianity extols? Where in fact is your neighbor in the practice of self-obsession?

In rebuttal, the test of properly practiced mindfulness is demonstrated outwardly in leaving ourselves behind and thinking of others. Any failure doesn’t lie in mindfulness, but those who really haven’t entered into what it’s all about.  I like how Shinzen Young  phrases it:  “The new self is not a noun, it is a verb” (The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works).

What really irks McDonagh is an underlying dislike of Buddhism. While extolling the virtues of Christianity, she glosses over its redolent history of crusades, inquisitions, misogyny, embrace of slavery, hostility towards gays, colonial genocide, etc. You’ll not find any of this in Buddhism.

Mindfulness, as in Buddhism, or even Christianity, teaches you to rid yourself of the sense of a separate self. In short, we’re all part of the experiential flux of time and the temporal.

Stephen Batchelor, a former Buddhist monk, puts it this way in his observations of its exemplum in the Dalai Lama, whom he has met and spent time with on several occasions:

At the heart of [his] sensibility plays a deep empathy for the plight of others, which seemed to pour forth from him effortlessly and abundantly…Such empathy requires that one undergoes a radical emptying of self, so that instead of experiencing oneself as a fixed, detached ego, one comes to see how one is inextricably enmeshed in the fabric of the world (Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist).

McDonagh is just plain wrong in her reductionism, which short-circuits any fair appraisal based on a thorough knowledge of mindfulness in its antecedents, methodology, and scientific appraisal when she asserts that mindfulness is just essentially warmed-over hash: “Think meditation, think Buddhism, and you’re there, so long as you don’t forget the breathing.”

On the contrary, while Western mindfulness owes much to Buddhism, it’s essentially rationalistic, eschewing metaphysics, and eclectic in its make-up, drawing from many strands to implement those methodologies congruent with current science, validated through empirical research, much of it utilizing brain imaging data.

It professes no deities, practices no rituals; has no hierarchy, and no theology. It attracts the best minds.

What it does share with Buddhism–and science for that matter–is a belief in the interweave of causality and effect and the primary role of empiricism, not speculation, in assessing evidence.

Hence its appeal to Western minds and the fact that it works for diverse needs and in a plethora of settings.

–rj

Posted in Lifestyle, Psychology, Reflections | Tagged , | 4 Comments

She showed us the way: Reflections on Mary Tyler Moore

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 08: Actress Mary Tyler Moore attends NBC's taping of 'Betty White's 90th Birthday: A Tribute to America's Golden Girl' at Millennium Biltmore Hotel on January 8, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES, CA – JANUARY 08: Actress Mary Tyler Moore attends NBC’s taping of ‘Betty White’s 90th Birthday: (Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images)

A few days ago we lost Mary Tyler Moore, not only an icon from the entertainment world, but a remarkable human being blessed with talent, beauty,  and an infectious smile.  Endowed with relentless fortitude, she survived for so long the debilitating carnage diabetes often inflicts upon its victims.

She wasn’t just a talented actor (seven Emmys and an Academy Award nomination), but a real-life hero, setting an example for all us.

You’d never have surmised from her TV dominance in the 60s and 70s (The Dick Van Dyke Show) and (Mary Tyler Moore Show) her raging battle with diabetes, which ultimately would take her life.

Diabetes can occur as Type I or Type 2. In the former, your pancreas doesn’t produce insulin and you have to resort to insulin injections several times daily to survive. In type 2, your pancreas produces insulin, but either not enough or the body just can’t utilize it efficiently.

Both kinds are progressive and incurable, though with weight control, healthy diet, medication, and frequent exercise, you may be able to manage it, forestalling its many potential complications such as heart and kidney disease, blindness, infections, amputations, and even dementia.

Moore was diagnosed with diabetes Type 1 at age 33 in the course of blood work connected with a miscarriage. In her 2009 memoir, Growing Up Again, she would detail her forty year struggle against this insidious illness, donating the book’s proceeds to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), which she served as International Chair for many years. “I want others to learn how I fell down and how I picked myself up.”

The truth is she had been doing this her whole life. We never really know what life has in store for us, as Oedipus learned in Sophocles’ monumental play of 2500 years ago. For some of us, our fate can seem especially unfair in its harshness and singularity, raising the perpetual inquiry, “Why do good people suffer?”

Moore’s mother was an alcoholic, and so was Mary until she overcame it, prescient of her valiant struggle against a much bigger adversary.

Sometimes we find consolation in another parent, but Dad proved both distant and unloving.

Then, in what breaks a mother’s heart, her 23 year old son, Ritchie, died from an accidental gun shot to the head.

She would have two unhappy marriages, until finally striking happiness in her 33 year marriage to cardiologist, Robert Levine.

In 2011, she underwent brain surgery.

Though she lived to age 80, she might well have lived longer, and happier years, had she been free of this debilitating disease. In her last several years, she suffered from declining vision, kidney and heart issues, and Alzheimer’s.

In her final days, she had come down with pneumonia, a frequent consequence of a diminished immune system, and was on a respirator for a week.  Ultimately, she was removed from life support.

 

With Bernadette Peters

With Bernadette Peters

Short in stature and slight in build, ever humble and always compassionate, she fiercely loved both people and animals, practiced vegetarianism, and gave time to both diabetes and animal advocacy.

Just how did she manage to cope so long and so bravely against her antagonist”? What lay behind her heroism?

In mindfulness therapy, there’s an acronym known as RAIN that may explain how she did it, giving hope to all of us in life’s hard places:

R—Recognition
A—Acceptance
I— Investigation
N—Non-identification

R:  Initially, Moore hid her illness.  Later, she  made it known.

A:  She allowed it to be what it is with all its dissonance in both mind and body.  Mindfulness doesn’t contend; it listens.

I:   She explored methods of ameliorating it through diet, exercise, and medication and ways of nurturing others with like illness.

N:  We are not the sum of our emotions and thoughts.  Our  real Self lies beyond and can provide cognitive catharsis.  Acknowledging her fate, she lived outside the parameters of self-absorption in unstinting, compassionate activism, promoting awareness and hope for her fellow sufferers.

Thank you Mary, for the nobility of your life, its example and inspiration; its quiet dignity, yet marshaled bravery in the darkness of the night.

—rj

Posted in People, Reflections | Tagged | Leave a comment

Book fan, Barack Obama

tumblr_inline_ojtrxn3ovw1rowsy7_500There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them (Joseph Brodsky)

Regardless of your political views, our former president, Barack Obama, was a phenomenal book fan.

How he found time for his passion baffles me, given the pressing demands on his time as president of the United States.

And I admire the books he’s read and recommended, among them classics like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebooks and Gabriel Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Always  up to date, in an interview with the New York Times (January 18, 2017), Obama gives high praise to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl; Lauren Gross’ Fates and Furies; Tony Morrison’s Song of Solomon; and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

Last, but not least, William Shakespeare:

I took this wonderful Shakespeare class in college where I just started to read the tragedies and dig into them. And that is fundamental for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings.

As Michiko Kakutani of the NYT comments, “Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped—in his life, conviction and outlook on the world—by reading and writing as Barack Obama.”

I think I know why our president often preferred the company of books. An introvert by temperament and consciously aware of his biracial heritage, books helped assuage a loneliness and provided a source for not only finding his identity, but  enlarging his mind and perspective through exposure to those ambiguities incumbent in the human make-up.

On a personal note, I confess I haven’t read a single one of the books I’ve just mentioned. I read a lot, but never enough, though I should be kind to myself and remember Edmund Wilson’s sage comment on the singularity of our reading experience—that “no two persons ever read the same book,” so even if I had, and you for that matter, we’re always individuals, and that’s the greatest gift of a good book–its capacity to reach each of us, no matter where we’re at in our lives.

Still, when I read that 27% of us never pick-up a book at all, I can’t really get my head around it. For me, we short-change ourselves when we do this. It’s like not giving plants the soil, light and water they need, resulting in stunted growth and preempting full bloom.

Books not only have the potential to reshape our lives, but make them better.

I say this first hand, knowing that they’ve saved me from a parochialism that doubtless would have channeled me into a lifestyle of narrow thoroughfares prodigious in polarized generalizations, born of the emotions, rather than seasoned judgment through exposure to reasoned perspectives, crafted in careful scrutiny, fostering balanced conclusions and wiser living.

Books not only provide pleasure and inform, but the ability to transform us.  In short, anyone who says they’ve only one life to live, needs to sit down and read a good book.

–rj

Posted in Books, Reflections | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Happiness: What it is and How to Find It

happinessI came across this still proverbial Tibetan saying in my pre-meditation reading the other day that I wanted to share with you:

“Seeking happiness outside is like waiting for sunshine in a cave facing north.” In short, our happiness must be found within ourselves and not in events, goods, or even among those we love, for life often doesn’t reciprocate what we want, love, or even deserve.

Happiness can’t be imposed from the outside, since it derives from making peace within ourselves, free from the demons of self-doubt, jealousy, and anger and a critical spirit that can spill over into our daily lives, eroding relationships.

But if happiness is an inner thing, how do we go about having it? The Buddha tells us that our suffering, or unhappiness, derives from our craving. Modern psychologists like Freud and Skinner appear to confirm this, finding that we are creatures of Ego, perpetually seeking gratification.

We find happiness specifically in recognizing the temporality of everything, both of ourselves and of the world to which we belong. When we find it, we no longer react to life’s volatility of event and circumstance.

Accepting change and ourselves as a part of it, we are anchored even in duress.  What happens is that our egos dissolve when we discover the ability to let go through focusing on what really matters in a cosmos of entropy.

Such contentment derives from living mindfully in the moment, celebrating the treasure of being alive, or as Hellen Keller expressed it so wonderfully:

Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind. Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object you want to touch as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again.

We develop this capacity through practice, or meditation, being kind, not judgmental, about ourselves when our minds wander, as they always do.

Mindfulness meditation, which we can apply to every sphere of experience, disciplines us ultimately into intimate awareness and, with it, a rippling comprehension of not only ourselves, but of others in a wider empathy.

Mindful people find peace not only within themselves, but its enhancement in the outer world through service to others, which psychologists increasingly tell us yields that kind of gratification money, position and power cannot equal.

—rj

Postscript: A book I highly recommend as an amplification of my post is David Michie’s Buddhism for Busy People. I promise that you’ll find it difficult to put down. (While I’m not a Buddhist, I’ve found Buddhism, more a way of life than a religion, offers a redolent wisdom that modern psychotherapy has found worthy of implementation on a universal scale, and validated through empirical research.)

Posted in Psychology, Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment