Conference Envy: A Survival Guide

Sad Web SurfingYesterday I was running around the park in a T-shirt with a birthday party full of seven-year-olds. Today, I walked downtown through a flurry of hard, tiny pellets of snow that I couldn’t escape from. It was a little like the experience of going to bed a happy, underpaid writer and waking up the next day as a miserable, underpaid writer who is staying home while everyone else you know is traveling to a conference.

No matter where you look online, you’re getting smacked in the face with these niggling little reminders that you’re here dealing with laundry and kids and deadlines and your friends are off brown-nosing editors and eating dinner in absurdly large groups and developing inside jokes and memories that you’re going to be outside of the next time you get together.

You can complain to and commiserate with the three or four other people you know who aren’t at the conference, but you’re aware that it’s petty and fruitless, so you stop after a few hours and just try to avoid the Interwebs for a few days—which means that, no, you didn’t see that video of Trump as Lex Luthor or whatever it was. [Read more…]

James Tate: Finding the Ultimate in the Ordinary

james-tateThe poet James Tate died last year. It happened in July. He was seventy-one years old. This, then, is the first Lent and Easter season we’ve been without him. Pity, that.

Back some years ago, The Paris Review published a lovely conversation between Charles Simic and James Tate. Simic opens up the conversation by noting that Tate, in a poem called “South End,” defined the challenge of poetry as the following:

“The challenge is always to find the ultimate in the ordinary horseshit.”

Simic asks Tate to explain what he means by “the ordinary” and “the horseshit.” Tate responds by saying that he means “the ultimate horseshit,” which can be found, he elaborates, “anywhere.” Not, admittedly, the most helpful of elaborations. [Read more…]

Learning Poetry, Unlearning God

By Natasha Oladokun

Rosary01In my sophomore year of college, I wrote a poem. Though I had no idea how to go about doing this, I composed a page and half of hifalutin mumbo jumbo that I was quite proud of and eager to show one of my teachers. He asked me to read the poem out loud to him.

He said some kind things. Then, after a few moments of quiet, he asked, “Would you talk like this to God?”

I shook my head.

He smiled. “Well, if you wouldn’t say it in a prayer, don’t put it in a poem.”

What my professor did not know is that he’d touched a raw nerve in my view of the sacred. The truth is, my prayers often were stock, mechanical laundry lists, dusted with a few O Lords and Father Gods to remind me of whom I was addressing.

I believed—or intellectually assented, at least—to the concept of God being near and ever-present. There is a saying that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. But in prayer I spoke to God with more distance than I would toward a stranger.

And yet, with study, poetry has become my rickety bridge from desolation to the divine. As it is for many others, I am sure, my default setting is often that of detachment: a proclivity for thinking of God as distant, obstructed—intensified when I’m feeling lonely and anxious or condemned by my own failings. [Read more…]

Wilberforce: An Interview with H.S. Cross, Part 2

By Gregory Wolfe and H. S. Cross

Continued from yesterdayRead Part 1 here.

Wilberforce_Horizontal_editGW: Religion and worship played a large role in the British public schools in the 1920s and St. Stephen’s is no exception. I suppose it’s easy to observe most of the characters ignoring Christianity, but it was a time when faith could still speak to a certain sensibility and when the best chaplains and schoolmasters could exercise something of a pastoral role. Is that a fair assessment?

HSC: I think so, though I hope faith still speaks to certain sensibilities. In the novel, in 1926, religious faith isn’t as strong as it was before the war, but Christianity is still part of the conversation. These people, regardless of their personal belief, have the vocabulary.

St. Stephen’s boys hear scripture daily, whether they pay attention or not. They take part in daily worship. Christian language—specifically the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer—is native to them. And Christianity isn’t in competition with other religions.

There’s certainly the question of whether religion matters, and even in some circles, whether God is real.

Because so many religious authorities had supported the war, and even tried to cast it as a kind of holy war, the existential collapse at the end of it sidelined the Church and wounded faith. You see it in the boys’ indifference towards religion, which is part of their hostility towards strong belief or indeed any enthusiasm. On the other hand, their expressions of atheism and agnosticism seem equally half-hearted, so even in their disillusionment, they have a shared religious culture. [Read more…]

George Scialabba and the Problem of Critical Distance

gospel_matthewGeorge Scialabba retired from his job this October. He had worked at Harvard University for thirty-five years. But not as a professor. Scialabba was a clerical worker and building manager. A piece in the Chronicle Review about Scialabba’s career as a writer and book critic described his day job as “low level.”

Scialabba has, more even than most writers, kept to the sidelines of public life. He worked at the very margins of academia. He has written critical essays and book reviews from a position that is self-consciously “unaffiliated.”

Why?

Because Scialabba wanted to be free, of course. He wanted to think and write freely. This, Scialabba thought, has gotten harder and harder to do.

That’s because (as he put it in an essay entitled “What Are Intellectuals Good for?”) we are facing, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, a general truth:

Intellectuals have indeed been incorporated en masse into the power elite, making the “transparent social relations” Merleau-Ponty looked forward to that much more difficult and distant. [Read more…]


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