Faraway Fields and the Emotions in Professional Sports

I’ve lately been thinking about why there is so much emotion wrapped up in sports teams, prompted particularly by the 2014 NFC Championship game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks. I have not followed sports closely for quite a few years, and even in my most ardent of sports-watching seasons, you probably wouldn’t catch me watching more than a handful of entire football or soccer games. So I’ve never really had that sense of emotional engagement with the performance of my favored teams. I don’t really favor any teams. I used to self-identify as a Rams fan, and the Kurt Warner years were absolutely fantastic especially having just come away from the 49er dynasty, but that’s also the point in time when the Rams moved to St. Louis, thus removing any sense of local-ish attachment I may have had (Fresno, my home town, being pretty much the middle-point between Los Angeles and San Francisco). Anyway, all of this is to say that for the most part, if you catch me watching a sporting event of any sort, I’m not generally rooting for any particular teams. If I’m in the mood for a game, I watch it simply to enjoy watching the competition and athleticism. The clear exception to this trend is of course my university’s football team where I do experience a very tangible sense of pride because, hey, that’s my university and my football team. Here, I do not feel odd using personal and possessive pronouns when I refer to the Fresno State Bulldogs: I have a clear and tangible connection to them. But why do so many of us use personal pronouns for teams in professional leagues? Why do we say “We gave that game to you guys— you did not earn it” or “We are making it to the Super Bowl this year”? These teams are somehow “our” teams.

It’s as though at the level of language itself, sports teams become extensions of ourselves, and I think that happens—at least in part—through the mechanism in which we choose our sports teams, and that’s primarily through no choice at all but through inheritance. I am/was a Rams fan simply because that’s what I grew up with. My dad wore blue and yellow on plenty of Sundays. I remember my first wind-breaker was Rams-branded (and I got teased plenty for wearing it—recall that the Rams didn’t do so well when I was a kid in the 80s). A large chunk of my extended family are ardent San Francisco fans, and though I may be mistaken, I’m fairly certain that that’s a product of inheritance from my grandfather who was the San Francisco fan of San Francisco fans. So I wonder how much of our emotional attachment to “our” teams is connected to the collection of personal narratives that somehow link far away fields and family. When I consider how sports become representative of family narratives, it makes perfect sense why we use personal and possessive pronouns to refer to those teams and why we have such an emotional attachment to our teams. So while many of us might be tempted to respond by saying, “Don’t be so upset – it’s just a game,” well, no, it’s not just a game.

A Brief Primer to Victorian Poetry

A Brief Primer to Victorian Poetry

The vast and unprecedented volume of change during the long nineteenth century is what, in my eyes, drives Victorian literature, including its poetry, to explore new directions with both content and form. These changes force poets to move in new directions with content and form in order to reflect on and cope with a world whose undercurrent is that of increasing doubt and uncertainty. Unlike the Romantics that preceded them—who often used snapshots from natural landscapes to trigger philosophical reflection—Victorian poets like Tennyson, Arnold, and the Brownings attempt to elucidate the social, cultural, and theological problems of the present (at times using the past to do so). Though certainly not an exhaustive list by any means, following are some of the major shifts that drive the spiritual undertow leading to feelings of doubt, uncertainty, and fin de siècle fear along with how some poets have attempted to illuminate and respond to these shifts.

One of the markers that some critics and historians use to distinguish the Victorian period from that which precedes it is the First Reform Bill of 1832 which, among other things, substantially increased voting rights and participation in Parliament to those who were outside of the elite aristocracy (the other marker, of course, is the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1837). This creates a cultural climate where a vastly larger number of people have a stake in the nation’s growing pains, and the added political and cultural power from non-noble-born and non-aristocratic people challenges the once prevailing sense of the divine’s appointment for certain people to be gentlemen and certain people to work in the service of the gentry. The British Industrial Revolution enables texts to be reproduced extremely cheaply, so anyone who was literate had easy access to all of the poetry being produced, and this wider audience certainly had reciprocal effects on the writers producing the poetry. Poetry was no longer only for the educated elite but for the educated masses. The Industrial Revolution also creates the strongest sense of a “middle class” that Britain had ever seen —along with a separation between workers and factory owners where the problems and horrors of the former, including child labor, were virtually invisible to the latter. Elizabeth Barrett Browning attempts to speak for these invisible children in her poem “The Cry of the Children” when she writes of “their pale and sunken faces” with looks that are “dread to see,” asking “‘How long, O cruel nation / Will you stand, to move the world, on a child’s heart” (149-50, 153-54).

Furthering the problems on the shores of Victorian England’s spiritual side, Charles Darwin published his seminal work On the Origin of Species in 1859, challenging Wordsworth’s sense of how “Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her” with nature’s indifference toward man (“Tintern Abbey” 122-23). Tennyson, in one of his most widely quoted passages, best anticipates this shift in one’s position relative to nature in 1849 when he writes in In Memoriam: “Who trusted God was love indeed / And love Creation’s final law / Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw / With ravine, shriek’d against his creed” (56.13-16). Matthew Arnold also reflects on the spiritual waning of the Victorians in his poem “Dover Beach” in 1851 when he writes, “The Sea of Faith / Was once, too, at the full… / But now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” (21-22, 24-25). While Tennyson’s poem is strict tetrameter quatrains with an ABBA rhyme scheme, Dover’s poem is lyrical and blank verse whose stanzas vary in length. It is also an early example of what becomes known as the dramatic monologue, a type of poem I would characterize as one that with an implied or explicit audience attempts to capture a single moment in time along with the psychological resonances that lead up the moment being captured. Of course the true forerunner to the dramatic monologue poetc form is Robert Browning. Through the dramatic monologue form in his poem “Porphyria’s Lover,” he similarly reflects on the waning sense of the divine that Tennyson and Dover explore. He writes—after having strangled his lover with her own hair in an attempt to freeze and immortalize her present state of what the narrator considers female perfection—“And thus we sit together now, / And all night long we have not stirred, / And yet God has not said a word!” (58-60). So while exploring the psychology and logic of a character on the margins of sanity, Browning is able to explore a fresh form of poetry that also anticipates Victorian conversations of spiritual doubt and crisis.

Though my particular focus hitherto has been on the spiritual side of Victorian culture, I would be mistaken to say that spiritual crisis is the only wave that runs through the literature. A variety of poets also attempt to illuminate issues of social class along constructs of femininity, gender, and “The Woman Question,” all issues which are strikingly relevant to our own time. A surprising amount of problems that are the present challenges of our own time were born in the age of Queen Victoria’s reign. This makes the study of Victorian literature and its poetry all the more intriguing, revealing, and poignant.

Tennyson’s Paganism in the Middle-Idylls

Tennyson’s Paganism in the Middle-Idylls

Heathen Malevolence or Pagan Benevolence?

I believe there are two fundamental questions that drive my reflection to the middle-idylls of Idylls of the King.

  • Why does Tennyson allow Merlin to be subdued by Vivien, a temptress and trickster?
  • The middle-idylls being primarily relationship-driven, why do the denizens of Camelot and the surrounding area continue to pursue matches they know are impossible while at the same time ignore what appear to be good matches?

Unlike my previous reflection, I feel like the Pagan undertones in the middle-idylls are subdued to the point of being virtually nonexistent. This puzzled me at first: perhaps this was a line of thinking that Tennyson only by hap wrote in to The Coming of Arthur. At first glance, there are only minor references to the Pagan under-culture surrounding Camelot, and they tend to manifest as malevolent forces that threaten Camelot. For example, when we’re first introduced to Vivien toward the end of Balin and Balan, she says to her squire, “This fire of Heaven, / This old sun-worship, boy, will rise again, / And beat the cross to earth, and break the King, / And all his Table” (450-53, emphasis added). Here Vivien presents old sun-worship—Paganism in a phrase—as a force to overtake Christianity by “beat[ing] the cross to earth” which threatens to destroy Camelot. This alone gives me pause because I personally do not like to think of Paganism as a malevolent, destructive force—whether it’s directly present or an obscure undertone; however, the malevolent presentation by Vivien can be a matter of perspective. After all, Vivien has a point: Camelot is ideal in theory but is being slowly but surely corrupted in reality, perhaps deserving to be exposed for what it is becoming and consequently re-shaped. In this way, I see eye-to-eye with Vivien, especially when she says to Merlin, “In Love, if Love be Love, if Love be ours, / Faith and unfaith can ne’er be equal powers: / Unfaith in aught is want of faith in all” (152). Camelot’s façade failing (with the façade of Arthur and Guinevere’s relationship coming to light), Vivien’s actions may not be altogether malevolent—she’s pointing out the differences between what we see and what’s really going on. But that makes her seduction and subjugation of Merlin all the more complicated.

It may or may not be self-evident, but I take Merlin as the strongest Pagan presence in the Arthur narratives (along with Morgan le Fey and the Lady of the Lake in other narratives). It is so in Idylls of the King as well. At the beginning of Merlin and Vivien, Tennyson describes the setting:

A storm was coming, but the winds were still,
And in the wild woods of Broceliande,
Before an oak, so hollow, huge and old
It look’d a tower of ivied masonwork,
At Merlin’s feet the wily Vivien lay. (1-5)
The Beguiling of Merlin
“The Beguiling of Merlin” – Sir Edward Burne-Jones

The “wild woods” and “huge and old” oak tree invoke a sense of the ancient, the Pagan, while at the same time paralleling the appearance of ancient Merlin himself. “A storm was coming,” aptly foreshadows the dark age of Camelot, too. Yet the strongest pagan symbol in the narrative, one who is the master of his art, the seer, the sage, has his charm worked against him by the force in the narrative that wants paganism to destroy Camelot. How can a mere trickster overpower Merlin? This makes me think of a scenario where Shakespeare would have allowed Caliban to subdue Prospero. Preposterous! Perhaps. Might this because Merlin advocated a balance between the Pagan and the Christian, a balance that is failing? As the idylls reflect, the presence of the pagan in Arthur’s court seems to be vanishing (along with the ideals of knighthood and courtly love), so it makes sense that Merlin’s power would be waning as well, allowing him to be subdued by a stronger, more domineering pagan force like Vivien. Interesting that threats seem to be coming from outside of Camelot because the inside of Camelot is undoing itself.

Camelot seems to be possessed with the habit of chasing after ideals that are, in reality, impossible. One of the thick threads causing Camelot’s implosion is the failure of ideally matched relationships and the refusal of potential and realistic relationships. Arthur and Guinevere’s relationship is clearly the flagship failure. According to cultural codes, they are a good match both in terms of intellect and class. Guinevere refuses—for lack of a better word—that relationship because she has fallen for Lancelot, and Arthur turns a blind eye to this. Lancelot essentially has his pick of any woman, including the well-suited Elaine (but perhaps for her youth as he claims, yet an older man paired with a younger woman was by no means out of the ordinary for both antiquity and the Victorians); however, Lancelot refuses Elaine and all others, preferring to pine away for the one woman he knows he cannot be with. Elaine also passes on a good match, Gawain being a good match her for. Like Lancelot, she holds out for someone who she knows she cannot be with and, like Camelot is doomed to follow, dies of a broken and lonely heart. In this, the ideal begins to destroy itself through a deconstruction of its own ideal nature, just like questing for the Holy Grail, another ideal in the space of symbols, contributes to Camelot’s destruction as well.

An Initial Response to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny” and Victorian Constructs of Gender, Genre, and Social Critique

The fallen-woman paradigm has always been something of a sore spot in my brain. There are several questions causing this tension, and their inter-woven nature gives me a headache to try to loose the Gordian knot they tie. For example, one of the fundamental questions I ask myself about the fallen-woman issue is why is all of the focus on the women, leaving the men who perpetuate the cycle of prostitution in the blurry background. Why must women bear the brunt of shame brought on by this market fuelled by the demand of the sexual desires of men? Hell, men aren’t even explicitly in the background: they are implicitly in the foreground. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny” is a testament to these gender dynamics. In a poem centered around a fallen woman, Jenny, Rossetti’s narrator is the only one who speaks! Sure we could say that Rossetti is playing with the dramatic monologue form—and that’s certainly true—but he is choosing to use the form because it is especially appropriate to reflect Victorian attitudes toward women, especially fallen women: they have no voices. Telling the stories of fallen women is the domain of men (particularly—apparently—men who are their customers).
(how to cite this article)

I suppose Robert Buchanan makes a useful observation when he writes, “What we object to in this poem is not the subject. . . .But the whole tone, without being more than usually coarse, seems heartless. There is not a drop of piteousness in Mr. Rossetti” (qtd. in O’Gorman 358). Granted that I am taking this quote from a secondary source and am thus perhaps treating it out of context from the original source, I find the statement useful not because I think it is of itself enlightening—it is a rather obtuse reading, in fact, conflating Rossetti’s voice with his narrator’s voice; rather, it forces us to 1) make distinctions between Rossetti’s voice and that of his narrator and 2) it forces us to question the “heartless” tone with which the narrator uses to deliver his narrative: a dramatic monologue, remember. The heartless tone that Buchanan rightly recognises is perhaps indicative of a general Victorian male attitude toward prostitution and the fallen woman (not necessarily Rossetti’s own view, mind you). The “heartless tone” is designed to call attention to the issue not by attempting to maintain the status quo treatment of prostitution but by shedding light on it. But am I making assumptions on Rossetti’s intent here? In the mitigation of the possibility of my reading being treated as likewise obtuse, I offer a few observations.

It’s through imagery and allusion that Rossetti evokes his sympathetic stance toward Jenny, treating her as a sort of virginal-Mary figure. By the first stanza of the poem, it is made clear that Jenny is a prostitute. Rossetti writes, “…with your head upon my knee; – / Whose person or whose purse may be / The lodestar of your reverie” (18-20). The pun Rossetti makes using Victorian slang for “purse” immediately associates male sexual organs with money all in the context of Jenny’s head being on the narrator’s knee. Yet in the same stanza, in fact just one line earlier, Rossetti invokes the image of the holy virgin when he writes, “Poor shameful Jenny, full of grace” (17). Never minding the obvious reference to the “Hail Mary” prayer—“full of grace” being the common ending to both lines—I also note that Jenny and Mary are both two-syllable names that end in an “e-y” sound. The words “hail” and “shameful” also have similar phonetic characteristics, again both two-syllable words ending in an “el” sound. Along with the references to the holy mother, there are also specific images that, pardon the seemingly contradiction in terms, arouse a sense of the virginal a bit earlier in the same stanza. “…kisses which the blush between / Could hardy make much daintier” give us an image of Jenny blushing between kisses—something we would not expect from a prostitute (7-8). This alone contradicts our assumptions about prostitutes as being fallen rather than innocent. “Fresh flower,” he goes on, “scarce touched with signs that tell / Of Love’s exuberant hotbed” (11-12). So not only does Jenny blush between kisses, she is a “fresh flower” who shows no outward signs of rapacious sex. Hardly the vision we’d expect from fallen women who are at once dirty, untouchable, and insatiable according to certain Victorian mindsets. Stepping away from the text for a moment, there is further evidence suggesting Rossetti’s sympathetic treatment of the fallen woman, and it comes in the form of one of his paintings, Found.

D.G. Rossetti – “Found”

Although I understand that the painting is an unfinished work, the overall layout and composition working with the specific existing visual elements reveal tensions Rossetti sees between fallen women, men, and innocence. In fact, from left to right, subjects could be labeled as such: the prostitute with her craning neck on the left, the man in the middle who has found her, and the calf on the right. The calf’s neck is similarly craning—innocent and pure in its whiteness, trapped by a net not too dissimilar to how the woman seems to be trapped by the brick wall at the left edge. It’s also worth mentioning that The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of poets and painters whom Rossetti was a part, often idealized the purity of Medieval women in their work by highlighting both long hair and long, “craning” necks. The white calf standing in a cart of hay also alludes to the manger scene of Christ’s birth, again bringing unity to the perceptions of the fallen woman and purity rather than treating them as a dichotomy. Curiously, the male figure is the largest element in the scene, located right in the middle. His carries the most visual weight not only by means of sheer volume but by color contrast as well (our eyes immediately move to areas of high contrast—in this case, the white shirt with the black hat worn by the man carries significant visual weight). What’s most significant about this isn’t just that the male is literally the center of our visual attention: he is also the visual element in the painting that is separating the fallen woman with innocence. Note that this isn’t Rossetti perpetuating the dichotomy: I believe this is his attempt to call attention to the falseness of it and who is specifically responsible for it. In a variety of ways, it is not just oil on canvas—it is “Jenny” on canvas, and even if the male in the painting or the male narrator in Rossetti’s dramatic monologue are attempting to conflate the Madonna-Whore dichotomy, they aren’t saying anything. “Let the thoughts pass,” the narrator says, “an empty cloud! / Suppose I were to think aloud, – / What if to her all this were said?” (155-156). These lines reveal that while this is a dramatic monologue, it’s an internal monologue. These are the thoughts of the narrator, not the spoken words of the narrator. Perhaps this is all in an effort for Rossetti to bring the unspoken truth about the Madonna-Whore dichotomy to light.

“Purse” – Thank you, O’Gorman, for the footnote on the Victorian slang for “purse,” making the connection to Jenny as prostitute even more self-evident through the image’s association of male sexual organs and money.

“Found” – Thank you again, O’Gorman. http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/dgr/paintings/11.html

I have not yet read Hilary Morgan’s accompanying commentary on this page for the sake of keeping my own analysis generative and independent.

Cite my work:

Henry, Jeremiah A. “An Initial Response to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Jenny’ and Victorian  Constructs of Gender, Genre, and Social Critique.” Web log post. The Snow of the  Universe. N.p., 06 Oct. 2013. Web.

Always Leave the House with Your Best Shirt

How do we misplace the love we once had for ourselves? Now the love that Narcissus felt for himself—that we are so charismatic we are drawn only to ourselves, that no one other than ourselves is worthy of our affections—is not the type of self-love I speak of; rather, I’ve been thinking about the flavor of self-love that manifests itself as the little voice in our heads that says, “Let’s get up today and be awesome; let’s get up today and do something daring; let’s get up today and tell the people we love that we love them and that they should love us back because we are worthy of love.” Indeed, it’s the self-love we grant ourselves so that we may love others, for how can we love others if we do not first love ourselves?

I’m not sure how I lose mine from time to time, but there are definitely days or weeks where I would rather stay in bed than get up and have to struggle to convert the pains of loneliness into the joys of solitude, to find my inner charisma, to love myself. Most of us call this depression, something that ails 1 out of 10 American adults according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2011). In fact, type “how many Americans are af” into a basic Google search, and you’ll notice that the intellisense/auto-suggestion lists “How many Americans are affected by depression” at the top of the list of suggestions, prompting me to believe that of all of the possible options, depression is the most popular query that begins with “how many Americans are af___.” Considering the amount of adults such as myself who do not / have not sought psych services or have not been officially diagnosed, I’m sure 10% is a somewhat conservative estimate. I’m not sure why I haven’t taken advantage of the psych services department at my university, but I am sure of what I can do on my own that helps—and, by the way, by no means am I advocating this as a substitute for professional help, but—I pretend to be someone who I’m not.

This is how I begin to love myself again. When I’m in that lonely and depressed daze, I’m not myself, not the person I want to be, so I pretend to be the person I want to be. I pretend that my goal for the day was to get up and just be awesome (it helps to channel your inner Neil Patrick Harris while doing this). I pretend that I’m confident. I always put my best shirts on and walk from place to place with a smile on my face. I immerse myself in the façade of me and, slowly but surely, convert the façade into reality. Eventually I remember that we should always leave the house with our best shirts on; why save our best shirts for the moments when we expect to meet someone new, because we never know when those moments will come. Always wear your sexy underwear. Earn the eyes that fall on you when you get up to order another drink. Pretend you love to dance because you might, actually, love it. Trust me. You’ll notice a lot more glances and feel even better when you get them. Sometimes we have to pretend to be the person we’re not to rediscover who we are.

Pocket Muse Prompt: “Write about someone who is trying to be someone or something that they’re not.”

Opportunity for Fresno Artists and Writers to Publish!

Chicano Writers and Artists Association Seeking Submissions for Reborn Journal

Attention Fresno and Central Valley writers and artists: The Chicano Writers and Artists Association is accepting all original submissions for its re-surging literary and art journal, Flies, Cockroaches, and Poets, a multimedia collective focused on issues of social justice, social awareness, and multiculturalism.

The journal is accepting submissions from multiple genres including prose (creative fiction, creative non-fiction, scholarly writing, etc.), poetry, and visual art.

If you wish to submit any of your original work for consideration, please send an email with the appropriate attachments to cwaasubmissions@gmail.com. Guidelines for submissions in the genre(s) of your choice are in the graphic below. You may contact me with any questions, and I will forward your information to the appropriate channels if I can’t answer your question myself.

The Momentum of Image in Yeats’ “The Second Coming”

The Momentum of Image in Yeats’ “The Second Coming”

(the full text of the poem can be found here, at the end of this post)

We have a tendency to want to categorize things in clear-cut groups; being able to classify something gives us a way of understanding and talking about concepts that may otherwise seem convoluted. Literature is no exception to this rule (literary periods in particular). My reading of Yeats places him as somewhat of an enigma in terms of categories: much of Yeats’ poetry is clearly influenced by the Romantics while at once is reminiscent of Victorian literature. So even though “The Second Coming” was written during the Modern period of British Literature, that doesn’t mean that it does not or cannot share some of the themes that were dominant in preceding periods like Victorian literature, namely spiritual crisis and a sense of uncertainty or doubt about ones place in the world. The open lines “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” precisely expresses a sense of uncertainty, inconstancy, and spiritual crisis, but the image of the “widening gyre” pushes the poem beyond mere uncertainty (1-3).

The gyre image—the first and primary image of the poem—pushes the tone of the poem beyond that of mere uncertainty, and it accomplishes this by illustrating how a sense of understanding or connection with the divine is cyclical in nature. In order for the image to work in this way, however, one must stipulate that the title of the poem, “The Second Coming,” immediately invokes a Christian presence in the text (which is not beyond reason). If the title weren’t enough, the second line supports this as perhaps the “falcon” that “cannot hear the falconer” is a metaphor for the current spiritual crisis of Yeats’ time; the falcon (humankind) cannot hear the falconer (Christ). This sense of disconnection with the divine is certainly an echo from late Victorian sentiments, not unlike Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” but Yeats has history beyond that of the Victorians to which he’s responding: World War I provides Yeats with physical and perhaps moral evidence that there must be some sort of disconnect between humankind and the divine. With images like “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned” it is impossible not to think of trench warfare and hear to “Mars” from The Planets by Gustav Holsts embedded somewhere between these lines (5-6). The second half of the first stanza informs attitudes in the first half of the stanza: the falcon clearly cannot hear the falconer because World War I just happened. This is the part of the gyre that is losing energy, the centre that cannot hold.

In the second stanza, the gyre image illustrates another period where there was perhaps a spiritual shift, but another stipulation is required here. “A shape with lion body and the head of a man” is unescapably a reference to the Sphinx, and given the overall dark tone of the poem, it is most likely that it is the Greek (Chthonic) version of the Sphinx, not the Egyptian (protective) version of the Sphinx to which Yeats refers (14). Granted that stipulation, another reference comes to light—and I may be reaching here—but the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the Greek Sphinx is the Sphinx’s defeater: Oedipus Rex. In that narrative, there is a symbolic transition from a world dominated by Chthonic forces like the Sphinx to a world dominated by the Greek pantheon at most, humankind at least. It’s another transition, another gyre that has lost momentum on one front while at the same time gains momentum on another front. The Sphinx’s inanition illustrated by the lines “A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, / Is moving its slow thighs” supports this stipulation as well (15-16). So now, after “twenty centuries of stony sleep,” we’re left to wonder where the momentum of the widening gyre will take us (19). As far as “The Second Coming” is concerned, the future looks even bleaker than Hardy’s where there is at least “some blessed hope” (“The Darkling Thrush” 31). Indeed things fall apart, and it is clear that at least part of Post-World War I Yeats had his doubts about a glorious second coming of Christ. No, it seems like a more Chthonic Anti-Christ is on its way, and—sadly—he turned out to be right. It came in the form of World War II.

The Second Coming Word Cloud

The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

*The 18th line is often printed as the beginning of a 3rd stanza, but The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats edited by Finneran prints lines 9-22 as a single stanza, and given that Finneran is a well respected scholar of Yeats, I trust his delineation.

The Notorious Sage from Missouri to California: A Look at the True Birthplace of Mark Twain the Writer

While many may not have actually read any of his work, there is hardly an American among us who has not heard the name “Mark Twain”; images of the southern sage from head to toe dressed in all white, capped by a head of hair second only in its notoriety to Albert Einstein’s, hair and mustache textured something like ancient desert sagebrush, immediately come to mind. Twain is a stand-out personality in the entire scope of American literature. Of Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway once said that all modern American literature is predicated on Twain’s most famous (or perhaps more accurately put, infamous) novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One might even go so far as to say that what Walt Whitman did for American poetry, Mark Twain did for the American novel: similarly to what Whitman did, Twain was able to create lasting pieces of literature through his mastery of language. For Twain though, there was something special at play: the success of Twain’s work, especially with regard to Huck Finn, was primarily due to his use of American vernacular dialects. In other words, he wrote for common people using the tongue of common people. This much is clear just by reading his work. What isn’t as clear and what most people don’t know, however, is that Mark Twain was not born “Mark Twain,” and “Mark Twain,” was not actually born in Missouri. The man behind the behemoth personality is Samuel L. Clemens—that’s the southern gent who was born in Missouri in 1835. “Mark Twain,” the writer, didn’t come about until quite a few decades later; indeed, despite being most generally well known for Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain found his initial voice as a writer in the Wild West where he moved from a newspaper reporter and satirist to author of short stories and, eventually, the novels with which most Americans are familiar.

Twain was born a person of ambition—a dreamer of sorts, and in order to set the stage for his coming of second-age in the Wild West, it is necessary to set the foundation in his home of the late Antebellum South. He was from a family of five children and spent most of his boyhood without his father, he having died when Twain was only twelve (Baym 1270). It wasn’t long before Twain would hit the ground running, however, and as an appropriate prelude to his career as a writer, he went to work for his brother Orion as a printer in 1851 (Baym 1270). This experience would serve him well later as he followed Orion out west, but first, Twain got the opportunity to satisfy the ambition of many Missouri and Mississippi boys: after an eighteen month apprenticeship, Twain found himself as a riverboat pilot (Baym 1270). Were it not for the Civil War having killed the lucrative business of river-boating, Twain may likely have remained in that career for a greater portion of his life instead of quitting the vocation in 1861 (Baym 1270). Of Twain’s brief stint as a Confederate in the Civil War, Lennon writes that he “subsequently spent a very brief period—no more than a month—seeing the horrors of that war for himself, as a member of a ragtag Confederate militia unit, before he had decided that war was indeed hell” (14). Shortly afterwards, Twain found his opportunity to join the westward expansion when his brother Orion received a secretarial appointment from Nevada Territory Governor James Nye (Lennon 14).

While Twain is often recognized as a realist in the literary world, he was not really a realist by habit in his real life: never intending to stay long in Carson City, Twain thought he would be able get his hands on Comstock gold and bring his fortunes back to Missouri, but his stint as a miner was a brief and unsuccessful one (Lennon 14-15). This became additionally troublesome because Orion’s salary, only $1800 annually, was not quite enough to support both he and his brother, so Twain had to find other means of income, and this is where his background in printing would come in handy (Lennon 15). After contributing several small articles to local publications, Twain accepted a position at the Territorial Enterprise, the oldest paper in the territory (founded in 1858), in August of 1962 as the lowest paid reporter (Lennon 19-21, Loving 87). The modest salary at the time did not stop Twain from making a name for himself, however.

As a frontier writer, he quickly found a niche for himself—through his use of masculine and colloquial language, Twain began to quell the hunger of the western frontiersman by satisfying their appetite for respite through his humor and political satire (Lennon 18, Coulombe 48). In an early article he wrote for the Territorial Enterprise titled “Letter from Carson City,” Twain colors a run of the mill story with humor and satire:

The [Nevada] Supreme Court will meet in Carson City on the 13th of the present month; and in connection with this intelligence I present the following item, giving it in the language in which I received it for fear of mistakes—for its terms are darkly, mysteriously legal, and I have not the most distant conception of what they mean, or what they are intended to have reference to—thus: “Wm. Alford vs. Nathaniel Dewing et als.—Ordered filed, denying rehearing.” There it is, and I wash my hands of the matter. (Twain)

He then goes on to write that what the supreme court clerk had delivered to him was a “written nightmare” which, as he states, “has been distressing me up to the present moment” (Twain). Clearly, those on the borderlands of the frontier who hungered for relief from the toils and troubles of day-to-day life found some relief in the early wit and humor of the southern sojourner.

It was articles like “Letter from Carson City” that began earning some notoriety for him in San Francisco, and it is right and proper—and not without a sense of irony—that it was then and there that the pseudonym “Mark Twain” was born: “Mark Twain” in the jargon of riverboat pilots means two-fathoms deep or “safe water,” that borderland between safety and danger (Baym 1270, Lennon 23-25); what more natural place than the frontier of America could have been the birthplace for he who would become one of America’s most infamous writers? Shortly after “Twain” was born, another irony would be born as well.

Granted that this story is subject to scrutiny by most historians due to its likely embellishment by those who were there and those who repeated the story, the hard fact of the matter is that Twain eventually got himself into some trouble with a man by the name of James Laird, editor of the Territorial Enterprise‘s competing newspaper, the Daily Union. As flaming words between the two went back and forth, an article Twain wrote—never intending to publish—was actually inadvertently published (Lennon 27-28). In this article, Twain suggested that funds for a charity auction were being diverted somewhere dishonorable instead of the intended means of helping aid both Union and Confederate soldiers who had been wounded in the war (Lennon 27). Despite the mistaken publication, the Enterprise did not apologize, retract, or publish any of the letters of complaint, but the Union did, and this probably added a few of the first white hairs to Twain’s head (Lennon 29). Through this dispute, Twain eventually challenged Laird to a duel (which, in the Nevada Territories, was an illegal act at the time). Laird accepted, and this is where the story gets a little shady. One of the facts on the field is that Twain was a terrible marksman—he was an outlaw of the pen, not of the pistol (Coulombe 48). The rest is legend: as he and his friend, Steve Gillis—who was a great marksman and there to serve as Twain’s second for the duel—waited at the designated place for Laird to arrive, Gillis was offering some tips to his friend. Gillis took the gun from Twain and pulled off a miraculous shot on a sparrow that happened to be flying overhead. Just as Laird and his party were arriving down the hill, they heard a gunshot and saw a bird fall out of the sky. When they all arrived at the site of the fallen bird, they saw that the dead bird was sans head. Laird immediately asked at what range was the bird shot and who had pulled the trigger. Gillis answered that the range was about thirty yards and that Twain could hit that mark about four of five times. Laird promptly left without having fired a single shot. Whether or not the more fantastic part of the story is true, the fact remains that Twain got himself into trouble with the locals and potentially with the governor, so it was time to continue his sojourn westward. This time, he would end up in San Francisco.

Even though “Mark Twain” the pseudonym was born in Carson City—then a place that was considered either in California or in the Nevada Territory depending on the day of the week—it was truly “Mark Twain” the writer that was born in San Francisco in May of 1864 (Lennon 31). It did not take him long to find another job as a reporter. He started his career in San Francisco with a paper called The Morning Call (Lennon 33). The trouble is that the Call only wanted Twain to report on the facts of the daily happenings around town; he was not allowed the same freedoms as a writer which he was able to enjoy back in Carson City (Lennon 33-34). However, even though Twain was not able to write in the style with which he had become accustomed, being in San Francisco presented him with the good fortune of meeting and working with both Bret Harte (another giant of American literature) and Ina Coolbrith (the first Poet Laureate of California and of any state in America) (Lennon 45-47). These two would help to shape Twain’s style from the news reporter to the fiction writer and novelist, but that’s not all that shaped Twain while he was in San Francisco.

Since Twain was unable to write with his voice of satire and humor with the Call, he began stockpiling ideas for later publication. There was one story in particular that become the beginning of the end with his time at the Call. On a regular day as Twain was making his rounds for news events, he witnessed a Chinese man being brutally abused, stoned, and otherwise denigrated while a local constable just sat back and watched; he immediately ran back to his office to write up the story, but the Call refused to publish it (Lennon 36). Mark TwainIt was their opinion that their regular readers would not respond too well to the story, so Twain’s account had to take place among his stockpile of other un-publishable articles. They would soon see the light of day, however, when he decided to call in some favors and start publishing them through his old friends at the Enterprise back in Carson City, a periodical which was widely read in San Francisco, and it’s ironic that Twain became exponentially more infamous through the proxy of his old paper than his current, local paper (Lennon 45). One cannot help but imagine, too, that events like the one he witnessed of the treatment of the Chinese man that day in San Francisco would inspire later abolitionist novels like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Albeit most people instinctively associate Mark Twain with the South, Samuel L. Clemens actually became Mark Twain in the Wild West. It was there that he sharpened his skills with his pen and language, becoming a literary outlaw of sorts, and it was there where he would meet those who were the most influential to his career as a writer, namely Bret Harte and Ina Coolbrith. His experiences in the California frontier would greatly fuel his fire for future works which notoriously maintain much ado throughout the present day.

Works Cited

Baym, Nina. “Mark Twain.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Comp. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. 1270-1273. Print.

Coulombe, Joseph L. Mark Twain and the American West. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2003. Web. 31-OCT-11.

Lennon, Ningey. Mark Twain in California. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1982. Print.

Loving, Jerome. Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens. Berkeley: U of California P, 2010. Web. 31-OCT-11.

Twain, Mark. “Letter from Carson City.” Territorial Enterprise. gutenberg.net.au. 05-DEC-1862. Web. 03-NOV-2011. http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks09/0900821h.html#TOC3_6

Cannabis: The New Maypole of Merry Mount in Contemporary America

Unfortunately, what we know of the life and actions of Thomas Morton are essentially subject to the writings of William Bradford, and as Morton’s actions are in conflict with the core values of Bradford and his Puritan perspective, the material we have must be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless—perhaps even with this bias in mind—the conflict between the Puritans and Morton illustrates the seeds of a dichotomy which have continued to divide Americans from the past, through the present, and likely into the future: there are some who have an innate need to control and bring order to perceived chaos, and there are others who simply do not perceive any chaos in the given subject. In the case of Bradford and Morton in Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford perceives the place of Merry Mount as a locale of chaos and disorder while Morton views his home and the surrounding wilderness as a place of great bounty and freedom. The recent attempts at the legalization of marijuana are examples of the dichotomy continuing between the one side that wishes to control perceived chaos and the other side that wishes to enjoy the perceived bounty and freedom of the given subject.

As Bradford begins to describe Merry Mount, he immediately paints a picture of chaos where the mind’s eye of the reader is immediately struck with a scene of savages dancing about. He describes a particular event during the course of time when Morton had “become the lord of misrule and maintained (as it were) a school of atheism” that illustrates the people of Merry Mount dancing around a maypole with food and wine, trading with Indians, consorting with Indian women, all behavior considered quite “licentious” by Puritan standards (Bradford, 72). He even references Bacchus (Dionysus being the Greek counterpart) which immediately attaches Morton and his group to those values—those being the values of creativity, celebration, festivity, a challenge to authority, etc, all of which are diametrically opposed to Puritan values of restraint, chastity, and control.

“Again, the portrait of America becomes painted by this dichotomy.”

Too, from the Puritan perspective, it is worth noting that their desire to control chaos wasn’t just because chaos was thought to be intrinsically evil: they wished to control chaos, to control the wild nature both in man and nature itself because they felt they were on a special errand from the divine to do so. Also, they believed that they were judged not only by personal restraint and chastity: they were also judged upon the merits of their community as a whole. Having a neighboring community partake in such frivolity only served to diminish the divinity of the Puritan community. In order to maintain the image and integrity of the “City on the Hill,” order must be maintained.

Another conflict highlighted here is Morton’s habit of dealing in firearms with the Indians. Of course from the Puritan perspective, as well as that of English concern as a whole, arming the Indians was not in the best interests of the colonies, given that they saw Native Americans as a wild man, an agent of Satan. From Morton’s perspective, however, trading firearms with the Native Americans was a good deal because it established good relations between them and Morton’s group. With this observation, that the Indians “account[ed] their bows and arrows but baubles in comparison of them,” it also gave a means to increase their liberty, providing them a means of more effectively defending themselves from the encroaching and zealous colonists and, of course, a more efficient means of hunting (73). Later, in order to affect the control the majority of the colonists desired, Morton was removed by the authorities “by force” (73). Yet this conflict, or rather the broader value with which this conflict represents, is not an isolated moment in history.

This conflict between control and liberty is the brush that has painted the picture of America since before it even became the United States, and the recent attempts at the legalization of marijuana and the resistance thereof is a contemporary portrait painted by the same brush. Dancing around a maypoleOn the one hand—according to various medical sources across the globe—marijuana is seen as a means to relieve chronic pain (which has the added benefit of increasing the liberty of those who partake, given that more liberty can be liked from life without the hindrance of chronic pain). According to an article written by Bill McCarburg, M.D. on www.nationalpainfoundation.org, “Cannabinoid medicines appear very promising, although the subject often is obscured by controversy, prejudice, and confusion…” On the other hand, as suggested by McCarburg, marijuana carries certain stigmas, as those who regularly enjoy smoke are seen as frivolous and, to a degree, licentious. Again, the portrait of America becomes painted by this dichotomy.

Most recently, the United States federal government has mandated that California must shut down all of its marijuana dispensaries in accordance with federal law, and if they do not comply within 45 days of issuance of this mandate, proprietors will be subject to criminal charges and forfeiture of their property (Leff, “California Marijuana”). This is not so different than when the Puritans ousted Morton because of their “errand” to bring order to a perceived chaos and abolish licentious behavior. Truly, the City on the Hill must be maintained, the Maypole of Merry Mount must be destroyed, and the liberty of those who are instigators of such lamentable behavior must be sponged.

Works Cited

Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Comp. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2008. 57-75. Print.

Leff, Lisa. “California Marijuana Dispensaries Targeted For Closure By Federal Prosecutors.” www.huffingtonpost.com. 6-OCT-2011. Web. 23-OCT-2011.

McCarberg, Bill. “Marijuana and Pain Management.” www.nationalpainfoundation.org. 2011. Web. 23-OCT-2011.

I Listen When I Walk My Path

There was a time in my life where I had forgotten a worthy lesson, and it would take a lengthy conversation from a man far wiser than I to remind me of a lost core value. Upon my return to martial arts—after a lengthy lapse in attendance—I was naturally in a hurry to return to the rank from which I had left off. While fiction and romanticized ideals inspired my youthful self, it was the late Sensei Stuart Quan who reminded me that life is not about the destination: it is about the journey.

I can hardly believe that I had the gumption to protest my name not being on the list of students to test for the next belt rank. While my reasoning was not so much for advancing in rank for the sake of rank—I wanted the privilege of attending more advanced classes that the higher rank would allow, more or less—Sensei Quan said to me, “I’m happy to give this belt to you, but know that you’ve yet to earn it.” Clearly, I remember him stopping all of his business affairs to speak with me at length on this subject, yet he had me completely convinced with one sentence. I did not want that belt until I had earned it, and I would have been ashamed to wear it under any other circumstance.

Today I see many who are concerned only with their goals; so much are they, that they sadly overlook the road upon which they travel to meet their goals. The prize at the end of the road is meaningless unless one possesses more than a superficial experience of their travels.

A wise man has a tempered thirst for knowledge and experience, for it is the combination of knowledge and experience that leads to wisdom. These are the things that conversations can teach; and just as Sensei Quan guided me down a path that values the journey, my highest ambition is to share that guidance to anyone who cares to read my words. On your travels, do not simply hear. Listen.

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