Milosz on genres of witness

March 10, 2014 Leave a comment

One of the great witnesses of the past century, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, explained in this way the importance of individual voices and traces of particular lives:

Unless we can relate it to ourselves personally, history will always be more or less an abstraction and its content the clash of impersonal forces and ideas. Although generalizations are necessary to order this vast, chaotic material, they kill the individual detail that tends to stray from the schema. Doubtless every family archive that perishes, every account book that is burned, every effacement of the past reinforces classifications and ideas at the expense of reality. Afterwards all that remains of entire centuries is a kind of popular digest.      —Czeslaw Milosz, Native Realm

Genres of witness might include the essay (not the school essay) and some kinds of blogging.

A Cemetery Walk on a Snowy Day with Lou Kelly

February 15, 2014 Leave a comment

LK BW3cIf you had known her as a child, maybe you would have called her Louise as it says on her birth certificate. But I doubt Lou has let anyone call her Louise since Franklin Roosevelt was president. She is 92 now, retired for a quarter of a century. Before that, she was the kind of teacher who would look up into the faces of the university’s least domesticated football and basketball players and tell them to get their lives in order and to take their educations seriously. And when students were serious, she would help them accomplish any worthy goal.

I was visiting for the day. After a nice lunch out, we drove in the country, then toured the town’s landmarks—the great bookstore, the peaceful river that raged through the heart of campus just a few years ago, even the town’s hilltop cemetery, where a huge bronze statue of a black angel has drooped its wings over a certain grave for a century. Our conversation leaped about in time—back to the decades of teaching and ahead to her planned flight out to California to see those beloved creatures she calls her grand-younguns. Lou mentioned her frustration that the university had recently changed her name on the retired faculty list to Louise. In the snowy cemetery I remembered the way she taught writing.

Lou believed that young people who reflected on their memories and values in writing would be in a better position to succeed in life. Talk to me on paper, she would say to her student writers.  Tell me what you’ve seen, tell me who you want to be. It was as though she was saying to each of them, I want to be called Lou.  Now you tell me who you are and what you want to be called.

Beyond the Black Angel, in a new section of the cemetery, Lou pointed out a large stone some distance from the road. She was determined to take a look, and I knew the power of her determination, so I offered her my arm. She held her cane in the other hand, and we headed into the snow and the rows of stones.

It was a highly polished black stone, about four feet tall, with the large portrait of a smiling man etched in gold on it, and his name and the words “Iowa’s First All-American Swimmer.” The thing was not so much gaudy as it was just plain odd and distracting. It bothered Lou because this was just inches from where her own stone would someday be. How is a visitor going to attend to her name and her memory with this crazy stone right there?

We turned and walked carefully along the rows. She was looking for a stone that might hold its own next to the black thing, something distinctive and substantial, maybe even a small sculpture that would someday proclaim, on her behalf, “This is who I was.” So we were, I realized, shopping for tombstones. I turned and said, “Lou, I’ll bet you a nickel that today you are the only 92 year old in all of North America taking a 100-yard cross-country hike in the snow.” She laughed her big laugh, and agreed. Back in the car, I cranked up the heater. We put the cemetery behind us, and conversation turned to her hopes for great-grand-younguns. That evening, as my visit drew to a close, Lou settled into the armchair by her bay window and watched the sun, which she loves, redden brilliantly through the trees.

Broadcast on 88.1 WVPE by Ken Smith on February 18, 2011.

School essays and the other kind

February 2, 2014 Leave a comment

I’m reading early drafts of short essays written for an English class. They are fine and will grow in revision, so I’m not worried. But they bring to mind the contrast between school essays and the great tradition of the essay as a literary form.

School essays show a teacher that a student was paying attention lately in class and often enough over the years to cough up a credible account of something. The credibility comes from obeying the formal school rules and proving you know the basics about the assigned topic. Nothing new is required. No fresh contact with the world of experience, no new ripples in the ocean of ideas. The product is fabricated in familiar ways out of pre-approved materials. If you succeed, you have gone a step further in earning your journeyman card in whatever trade you will someday pursue.

Essays in the literary tradition invent their own organization on a case-by-case basis. They count as evidence whatever the writer can persuade us counts as evidence. They generally take a closer look at an experience we tend to take for granted, and they see something new there that has implications in the ocean of ideas. They don’t have the last word about anything, though, because they aren’t pulling rank. They do persuade, however, because their sentences cut through common sense, cliché, and preconception to something fresh. It’s almost impossible to write this kind of essay without giving a reader a sense of who you are and how you think and feel, and so these essays are full of personality when they are done, as a side effect of doing the real work of the essay.

The two kinds of essays are profoundly different from each other. Nobody expects a school essay to be read again after the teacher has graded it. A literary essay, however, can remain alive for centuries.

A professional obligation

February 1, 2014 Leave a comment

In a key paragraph of a brief Guardian article, Dan Gillmor implies that academics and other kinds of experts should have not an option but a professional obligation to write regularly and clearly for a wider audience than their workplace peers:

  • Another is the value blogging brings to the creators when done right. Blogging has helped liberate academics from the publishing racket that does as much, in my view, to hide useful information as surface it. Its informal tone is readable, as opposed to way too much academic prose. Blogs can make sometime abstruse topics understandable for the rest of us who don’t know the jargon; we just want to learn something. Lawyers and scientists are great examples of people whose blogging demystifies their worlds. If we could only read their writings in journals and the occasional op-ed column, we’d know much less.

Drowning in words and images (In memory of Pete Seeger)

January 28, 2014 Leave a comment

In 1973, Pete Seeger seemed to predict the early 21st century, but he was just looking around his society when he wrote: “Americans are drowned in words. . . . We’re also drowned in pictures”. . .more information than we can use, more than we can make sense of, more than we can protect ourselves against. His brief essay turns immediately to a special case, “the independent graphic artist,” a painter, say, who would have provided the wealthy with something to hang on the wall. The figure of this artist serves to sharpen a hopeful contrast.Seeger Signature With Banjo

For Seeger, there was underway a contrasting revival of traditional open-air murals, by which artists great and modest communicate directly with the people who live around them. Not hidden away in the houses of the rich, not guarded by museum and university experts, street murals “fill a need for communication between all people.” There is an opportunity for honesty and independence that can break the silence with “ideas which will not be said by our politicians–ideas which need to be explored in public.” Something real is at stake, then.

For one thing, by painting in public spaces, artists remind fellow citizens that “we are not 100 percent at the mercy of the media.” Communicating on their own, independent from the houses of commerce, freed of those venues’ predictable formulations, and more free in general to speak, people will begin to remake the world according to their own needs and values, Seeger said. For him, the people’s values are fundamental and far-reaching: “We are going to unite for peace, freedom, jobs for all, and a clean, unpolluted world to share.” No narrow focus on commerce there.

As the tiny essay closes, Seeger anticipates a doubting reader’s question: “How will this come about? The murals will tell the story. You don’t believe me? Keep your eyes open.”

That last little bit matters, because he means that the process of social change is exploratory. It involves clarifying basic values together, in public, and it includes affiliation and action. It’s a process that has a better chance using public media of wide circulation and participation. The painting on the wall of the millionaire’s study won’t do it; media broadcast to the passive millions won’t do it either. Murals aren’t just records of the time or bursts of expression, then. They are part of the process of social change. The same must be true of social media today.

Pete Seeger’s small essay is the forward for a 1973 book called Mural Manual, which had chapters on every aspect of producing street art formed the body of the manual. Citizens need comparable skills–perhaps a comparable manual?–for the speaking and writing tools of active citizenship today, for all the reasons which Seeger mentioned when he spoke about art.

Republished from a June 2013 blog entry.

Take this in, endlessly

January 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Historian Stephen E. Ambrose may have accidentally put his finger on one of the great flaws of American schools. He took a history class that required each student to do some original research with primary sources, and this insight came to him in the process:

  • “And that just hit me like a sledgehammer,” Ambrose later said. “It had never before occurred to me that I could add to the sum of the world’s knowledge.” (Writer’s Almanac, 1/10/14)

In other words, he was deep into his college education before he understood that a person can help create knowledge, rather than simply receiving it from the pages of the past or the lips of a few experts.

In other words, a smart, talented young person reached adulthood with the most passive understanding of the way meaning-making might be handled by society.

In other words, the schools and colleges are often just fine with that. Take this in, endlessly, is the basic philosophy of our schools. Create nothing. Listen and learn.

Art exhibit radio

January 9, 2014 Leave a comment

[audio] The word “art” does not appear in my job description, and not the words “gallery” or “exhibit” either. But somehow I ended up helping put together an art show. This has been quite a journey, and the exhibit that came of it, now open at the big new gallery at Indiana University South Bend, is full of astonishing objects created by sixty of the most interesting artists who have lived and worked in our area. Along the way I’ve learned how many hundreds of details and arrangements go into a big art exhibit. I have become acquainted with smart, friendly people committed to their work at area archives and museums and art departments. I’ve spoken with artists who always love having a chance to share their work. And almost accidentally I’ve had a small, free education in the fine arts. What a great ride this has been.

There were phone calls and letters and emails by the bucket. There were permission forms to be signed and delivery appointments to be made and people we wanted to reach but couldn’t. I cannot remember the last time I worked on a project so drenched in details. If you are a big thinker who enjoys delegating the details to others, and someone says to you, “Wanna help with our big art exhibit,” I suggest you smile and turn and run far, far away.

But then there is the art itself. If you go to the show at IU South Bend, which is free and open to the public, you’ll find your own favorites. In this snowy season I keep thinking about a particular springtime painting of an artist’s country cottage, with sunlight washing over the roof and walls. The trees are heavy with white blossoms and leaves just emerging. In the gaps between the branches, the sky is richly blue and the whole scene heralds both a beautiful day and a fresh season unfolding. The world feels full 0f possibility when you stand in front of a painting like that. In the show there are vivid portraits, playful, mind-bending abstractions, and sweeping landscapes. There are big, beautiful tributes to big, beautiful architecture. There are completely unpredictable ceramic pieces that give the impression that artists who work in clay may be the strangest dreamers of us all.

And there are quiet moments of human experience, distilled in a few simple strokes–I’m thinking here of a drawing of one man leaning over and ministering to another man on his sickbed, selflessly tending to a fellow human being who is in peril for his life.

People who love art make big claims for it. One of our country’s finest poets, Adrienne Rich, once said, “I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope.” That seems right. I like the extravagance of these works, too. Our area artists thrive on great big challenges, and it’s good for my morale to see people tasking themselves with the making of something grand. These artists worked really hard, and they claim the freedom to create whatever they can imagine, which is inspiring all by itself, and along the way these fabulous objects are left behind for us to feel and enjoy. Maybe I’ll see you at the show, which continues at IU South Bend until January 25th.

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