The Duality of Sex and Death in Dickinson’s Poem 829, “Ample make this Bed -”

In poem 829, “Ample make this Bed -,” Dickinson uses the imagery of sex and burial to express how life and death are inextricably connected to each other.

To begin to understand “Ample make this Bed -,” first we must look at the meaning of the poem.  The first two lines establish the scene: “Ample make this bed – / Make this Bed with Awe -” (1-2).  Here, Dickinson uses simple words that give the reader a sense that the speaker is creating a comfortable place to repose.  The reason for making such a place “with Awe” is that the speaker intends to stay in the bed until “Judgment break” (3), which is an allusion to the resurrection of the dead referenced in the Bible (1 Corinthians 15: 42-44).  The last line of the first stanza, “Excellent and fair” (4), is both a reference to the “Judgment” (3), as well as the state that the bed should exist.  In short, the first stanza is about how to make a suitable place to sleep.

The second stanza gives us more simple instructions on how to make this bed.  Lines 5 and 6 detail the mattress and the pillow.  “Be its Mattress straight / Be its Pillow round” (5-6) provide details that should be obvious to the reader, but the exactness of a “straight” mattress and a “round” pillow expresses how perfect this bed should be.  Finally, the speaker sets the environment for the bed in “Let no Sunrise yellow noise / Interrupt this Ground” (7-8).  These lines give the reader a sense of darkness that is easily understood as a private place.  The “yellow noise” (7), or sunlight, is supposed to be shutout so that it does not “Interrupt” (8) those who will rest in this bed.

Throughout the poem, Dickinson uses simple, easy-to-understand words and imagery which the reader is quite familiar with.  However, these simple figures of speech are highly suggestive.  The use of the bed as the setting for the poem is particularly suggestive, especially when coupled with the word “Ample” (1) in the first line.  While the reader is likely to think of death and coffins as a bed or resting place, the use of “ample” suggests life and sexuality, making the reader uneasy with a simple literal reading of the poem as simply “death.”  The “Awe” in line 2 also easily suggests both the “awe” of life and the “awe” of death, keeping the reader aware of both death and birth.  The use of the adjectives “straight” (5) and “round” (6) to describe a “Mattress” (5) and a “Pillow” (6) also highlight the duality of life and deaths by means of contrast, but the presence of both within the bed, again, show the symbiotic nature between the two phenomena.  Thus, Dickinson never lets the reader settle on one interpretation, instead keeping the cycle of birth and rebirth at the forefront of the poem.

The beauty of Dickinson’s interplay between life and death come in the subtlety of the meter.  The author uses trochaic trimeter for the majority of the poem, but she varies the structure in lines 3 and 7 with the use of trimeter and a 2nd spondaic foot.  The predominant use of trochees read as if the speaker is “trailing off,” beginning a sound with a strong stress and slowly fading away, which brings to mind death, simply slipping away into the nether.  However, this also can be construed as the creating of life.  In addition to a “fading away,” there is a “thrusting” and “pulling away” motion in each foot which also mimics the physical act of sex.  The initial force of the stressed syllable followed by the softness of the unstressed syllable is suggestive of two typically opposite experiences.

Meanwhile, the two spondees in “wait till” (3) and “Sunrise” (7) make the reader pause and consider the line more carefully.  “[W]ait til” (3) makes use of the spondee to create a halting motion, to make the reader pause within the bed just a little longer, which imitates the speaker’s desire to remain in the bed until “Judgment break” (3).  “Sunrise” (7) uses the spondee in a similar manner, making the reader pause, but it also illustrates the rising sun.  In each line, the extended length and pause also intimate a sense of danger.  Dickinson’s use of imperative commands, “In it wait” (3) and “Let no” (7), alert the reader to some danger, something that may bring about the next cycle of either birth or death.  Dickinson’s use of these cautionary devices implies the finality of both birth and death.

How the author best exemplifies the relationship between birth and death is through the use of the masculine ending and the rhyme scheme.  The masculine endings, the extra stressed syllable, provide a strong ending to each line.  This is particularly notable in lines 3 and 7 where, as mentioned above, there is an imperative statement and the masculine ending carries a sense of authority.  Each line is, therefore, presented as a strong, independent statement, but each ending is “reborn” with the next line’s trochee.  By beginning and ending each line with a stressed syllable, Dickinson marries each line to the next, demonstrating how stress begets stress, or death begets life.

The single use of rhyme in “Ample make this Bed –” occurs in the last stanza.  The use of this perfect rhyme between “Round” (6) and “Ground” (8), both of which are also capitalized for further emphasis, functions like a perfect cadence, giving the reader’s ear something satisfying and final with which to end.  The absence of rhyme in the first stanza further emphasizes the finality of the second stanza.   By allowing the reader to progress unhindered by any closure or symmetry, Dickinson carries him or her through the life cycle until faced with an obvious ending, the “death” of her poem.  In kind, both the masculine ending and the perfect rhyme represent the finality and relationship between birth and death.

 

 (I apologize for how the copy/paste translates the stress marks)

Poem 829, “Ample make this Bed -”

Trochaic Trimeter with truncated unaccented syllables in the third foot; Lines 3 and 7 Tetrameter with 2nd foot Spondee

1. Am(/)ple(U)│ make(/) this(U)│ Bed(/) –                              A         5          Trochaic Trimeter; truncated unaccented syllable

2. Make(/) this(U) │Bed(/) with(U)│ Awe(/) –                        B         5          Trochaic Trimeter

3. In(/) it(U) │wait(/) till(/)│ Judg(/)ment(U) │break(/)             C         7          Tetrameter; 2nd foot spondee:

4. Ex(/)cell(U)│ent(/) and(U)│ Fair(/)                                      D         5          Trochaic Trimeter

5. Be(/) its(U)│ Mat(/)tress(U) │straight(/) –                        E          5          Trochaic Trimeter

6. Be(/) its(U) │Pil(/)low(U) │Round(/) –                                F          5          Trochaic Trimeter

7. Let(/) no(U) │Sun(/)rise’(/) │yell(/)ow(U) │noise(/)              G         7          Tetrameter; 2nd foot spondee

8. In(/)terr(U)│upt(/) this(U)│ Ground(/)                              F          5          Trochaic Trimeter

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Biblical Allusions in Poems 140, 324, and 234 by Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson’s poem 140, “An altered look about the hills -,” uses a series of descriptions to create the visage of spring and rebirth. The author’s allusion to “Nicodemus’ Mystery” (15) gives us our best clue to deciphering this reading of the poem. The “mystery” referenced is held in the King James version of the Bible in the Book of John, chapter 3, verses 1 through 21, where Nicodemus meets with Jesus and questions him regarding being “born again.” Nicodemus asks, “How can a man be born when he is old?” (John 3:4), to which Jesus replies “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:4). The “mystery” that Nicodemus is trying to comprehend is how a man can be reborn? To fully understand the allusion, the reader must also include the following line, “Receives its annual reply” (16). The “annual reply” is that of Jesus’ rebirth in the spring on Easter. Each year, nature springs back to life just as Christians celebrate the resurrection, the “rebirth,” of Jesus. All the descriptions, including the other allusion to Chaucer’s “Chanticleer,” all serve to illustrate the profound color, emotion, and sensation of the manifestation of this annual rebirth.

Dickinson uses allusions to the Bible to make another point in poem 324, “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church,” where a comparison is made between the regular church goers and the speaker’s adherence to the divine. While the Bible often references the Sabbath, the most apt mention regarding Dickinson’s poem is “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). This allusion gives the reader his or her first contrast between the speaker and the church goer: “Some keep the Sabbath by going to Church – / I keep it, staying Home -.” Instantly, the speaker separates his or herself from the flock, so to speak, and justifies this separation by stating how and with whom or what he or she keeps the Sabbath. The poem follows this pattern in every quatrain: how they keep the Sabbath and how I keep the Sabbath. This rhetorical device ultimately presents the speaker as a “holier than thou” retort to those who would question his or her method of worship. The final statement “So instead of getting to Heaven, at last – / I’m going, all along” implies that her worship and church is ever-present in the speaker’s life, not just on “the Sabbath” (11-12) This also serves to take a swipe at those who only tend to G-d when at church, while the speaker revels in His presence “all along” (12).

Poem 234, “You’re right – ‘the way is narrow,’” is rife with allusions with the most obvious, and important, being “the way is narrow” (1). The reference is to Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” as told in the book of St. Matthew. In chapter 7, verse 14, Jesus says, “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” This verse is alluded to in each line of the first quatrain. While Dickinson’s version of the Bible appears to be slightly different than the King James Version I currently employ, the sentiment of the “difficult gate” (2) and “enter in – thereat” (4) is easily sussed and reconciled between the two versions; Dickinson is using the difficulty of reaching implied in Jesus’ sermon to highlight how much of a price people pay to enter into the kingdom. The second quatrain expands upon the price to be paid, which is ultimately “Termed by the Brokers – ‘Death’!” (8). These “Brokers” lead us to Heaven, where good men go and where “Bad Men – ‘go to Jail’” (11), to which the speaker replies with a sardonic, “I guess -.” This final line takes the reader from the authority and majesty of “The Sermon on the Mount” to the speaker’s apathetic view of Christianity and its dogma. Without the biblical allusions in the first quatrain, the speaker’s indifference, or passive acknowledgement, of Heaven and Hell and judgment would not have as much weight or “punch.”

Each allusion employed by Dickinson serves in such a fashion: to elevate the rhetoric and to bring us to a realization or understanding advocated by the author. Using the Bible to make such a statement is a statement in and of itself.

Emily Dickinson Poem 1522 Analysis/Scansion

The meter and rhyme in “His little Hearse like Figure” is quite complex and compliments the action in the poem.  The most apparent feature of the poem is the use of iambic trimeter with an extra, unaccented syllable in the odd-numbered lines.  This feminine ending helps the unrhymed lines flow more easily into the even-numbered lines of trimeter, particularly with the initial trochee foot in line 2.  Additionally, the extra syllable keeps the poem from getting too predictable which keeps the reader engaged with the words on the page.

Dickinson also uses additional variations in the lines with exact trimeter feet for the same purpose.  With the exception of line 6, there is one foot in each even-numbered line that is not iambic.  In line 2, the trochee, as already mentioned, connects the first line seamlessly with second while lines 4 and 8 make use of the pyrrhic foot in a more subtle fashion.  The unstressed second foot in lines 4 and 8 not only provide rhythmic variations, but they also appear to “lower” the words that imply some kind of iniquity.  Both “vanity”(4) and “Idleness” (8) are sins and failings of mankind, and Dickinson’s use of the pyrrhic foot gives the reader this feeling of emptiness through an “accent valley” in the middle of these lines.

The one pristine example of meter is line 6.  This perfect iambic line of the poem, “And every righteous thing” (6), symbolizes the righteousness and morality implied by the word “Industry” (5).  By giving the reader an unspoiled line of iambic trimeter, Dickinson exemplifies the virtues with more than words; she illustrates these virtues with the rhythm and flow of the line.

Additionally, the rhyme scheme provides the reader some comfort, possibly hope, in its predictable and pleasing pattern.  The ABCB pattern gives the reader a sense of change and unease while providing some familiarity with which to hold.  The feeling of death and rebirth that can be found in the poem is represented by this pattern as well.  As a line with rhyme A gives way to a rhyme B, then rhyme B passes to rhyme C, we find this cycle from “His little Hearse like figure” (1) to “Spring” (8) complete.

For the scansion portion, since I have serious issues with formatting on this site, I have attached my original Dickinson Scansion WP file (please note that I incorrectly labeled the extra syllable for the feminine ending as a poetic “foot”).

Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal

Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal

Nonfiction by Shannon L. Mariotti

University of Wisconsin Press, January 2010

ISBN-10: 0299233944

ISBN-13: 978-0299233945

Paperback:  222pp; $29.95

Review by Aaron Burrow

Shannon Mariotti’s “Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal” attempts to take a different view on the political ideals of seclusion and solitude that Thoreau expressed through his writing.  By looking through the lens of German philosopher Theodor Adorno, Mariotti sees the normally reclusive, isolationist, apolitical, apathetic Thoreau as a man who needs to charge his batteries and gain perspective on the democratic system.  The book has a fresh view that attempts to escape the “walled in,” Emersonian readings of works such as Walden and Resistance to Civil Government.   Through Mariotti, we come to understand what Thoreau may have been saying about a particular democracy and the virtues of isolation and alienation.

The relationship that Mariotti establishes to make her claim that Theodor Adorno and Henry David Thoreau are philosophical brothers separated by time is that each man valued a strong sense of self over absorption into the masses.  The early chapters focus primarily on Adorno’s philosophy on modernization, alienation, negative dialectics (attempts by the subject to devour the object), and withdrawal as being beneficial to the democratic process.  To show how withdrawal is healthy to democracy, Mariotti makes extensive use of quotes, primarily from Adorno’s Minima Moralia, that illustrates the philosophy that “Theory must stand apart from the bustle or else it becomes ‘a piece of the politics it was supposed to lead out of’” (15).  This concept is then applied to Thoreau and his treks away from civilization.  When Thoreau disappears into the woods, he is gaining perspective on who he is, what he thinks without being consumed by the collective, and how the individual is imperative to democracy.

In making these claims about Thoreau’s withdrawal, Mariotti exerts a large amount of energy on critiquing the reading of Thoreau through the lens of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Chapter 2 deals entirely with addressing the incongruences of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s transcendental philosophies.  The author’s assessment comes on page 60 in her saying “Emerson distances himself to get a better sense of the underlying harmony of the universe while Thoreau and Adorno distance themselves to disrupt, toward a critique of apparent equilibrium.”  From here, Mariotti treats us to many of Emerson’s philosophies as represented in his writing and makes a solid case in a fundamental difference between his and Thoreau’s writing.  By highlighting Emerson’s focus on harmony and seeing past an object to its true identity and contrasting it with Thoreau’s focus on critique and examining an object to find its true identity, we are given a reliable formula for reading Thoreau outside of Emersonian constraints.

The breaking of those constraints involves the liberal use of quotes that leads the reader to the author’s conclusions.  For an active reader, this book can become somewhat frustrating.   I often found myself thinking that less is more when it comes to stacking so much evidence at once.   Even when the reader agrees with the premise of the author, the reinforcement of her point can be overwhelming.  This also seems to conflict with the basic premise of isolation and abandoning common sense (in the sense used in the book) as admirable qualities in discovering “truth.”  Mariotti leads the reader to her conclusions in multiple ways, but always to the same well of water.  This is not to say that opposing points of view are not given, just that they are dismissed easily and we are expediently moved on to the next point.  Mariotti does give attention to the common view of Thoreau’s writing, but is quite certain in this books assertion that we are missing something.

In making such assertions, the case is made, and made again, and yet again, through more exhaustive quotes that cover every possible reading into Thoreau’s work.  Yes, this proves that our author is extremely well-versed in the readings of Thoreau, Adorno, and Emerson, but it tends to leave one thinking about what exactly is the author contributing to the piece?  There is scarcely a paragraph in the 171 pages that does not include a quotation or citation of some sort from an outside source.  In a way, this highlights the issue with many academic pursuits where original thought can only be accepted if it is not your own, not to mention the irony of claims about democratic withdrawal and perspective in regards to sympathizing with a majority.  “Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal” suffers from an unseen decree of “show your work” which makes it read much more like a research paper than a critique or new understanding of Thoreau’s political philosophy.

The research does, however, succeed in challenging our current view of Thoreau’s work.  After reading Mariotti’s book, the reader does get enough of an understanding of how the philosophies of Adorno and Thoreau emphasize taking care of the individual so as to make one better able to serve a democracy.  The evidence, albeit cumbersome, serves the purpose of the author and makes these alternate readings entirely plausible.  I could plainly see how one could read Resistance to Civil Government as a way to contribute to democracy as the author had in light of the information given.  The problem was that the information stemmed from others and not necessarily the author.

The faults that can be found in this book can be hard to overlook. The incessant bludgeoning of quotes and examples used to support Mariotti’s readings do as much to disinterest the reader as to serve her point.  However, there are some interesting things to be considered as long as you’re not looking for many insights from the author.  What “Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal” does accomplish is to challenge the perceived apathy in Thoreau’s writing by infusing it with the philosophy of Adorno.  The argument that a person must be a person, not a cog in a machine, in order to be of real use to the society is compelling enough in its own right to warrant considering this book.  However, this is more a comment on the virtue of the subject than the merit of the insights provided personally by the author.

Bartleby, the Thoreauvian Hero

Throughout my studies of English literature I have been introduced to many different characters, but there has been no character more infuriating, more bewildering than Melville’s Bartleby.  Bartleby’s total apathy towards life was simply something I could neither relate to nor understand.  A man who “would prefer not to” do anything and was idle appeared to be a character of no redeeming value.  However, I came to consider the scrivener in a different light after considering Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience.  I came to consider Bartleby as less of an emotionless automaton that had given up on life, and began to entertain the thought that he could be a “Thoreauvian hero” practicing a form of civil protest.

The character of Bartleby is initially simple.  Melville presents Bartleby as a hard-working man who works diligently for his boss, often by candlelight, and does excellent work.  These qualities are not uncommon in ideal American society.  In fact, the very model for American excellence is a person who comes from nothing, works hard, and succeeds in making a good life for his or herself.  Such is our first impression of Bartleby.  However, the façade of “Bartleby, American Hero” quickly fades and we are left with the apathetic Bartleby.  The iconic phrase, or the refrain, of the story quickly becomes “I would prefer not to” and the Bartleby most students loathe takes precedence for the remainder of the story.

What we are lacking is the catalyst for Bartleby’s decent into acute indifference.  The Lawyer tells us that one day, in a mild yet firm voice, Bartleby refused a request to examine a small paper with a simple “I would prefer not to.”  We are not given any background or reason why the scrivener has refused his boss, all we are shown is the surprise of the Lawyer after hearing this well-mannered refusal.  What we can discern from this first offence is that there are no social regulations in place to handle such defiance.  Bartleby creates chaos in what would otherwise be a routine request and, through noncompliance, has protested.

Thus, we have the first defiant act of Bartleby.  The surprise of the Lawyer suggests just how egregious the act is against the social structure.  The man is left stupefied and unable to deal with the matter.  Ultimately, the Lawyer resolves to forget the matter altogether and carry on with his other employees.  However, Bartleby increasingly becomes more disobedient and apathetic which causes more tension in the office.  The scrivener scribes less and less with each passing day which incite the Lawyer to turn to his employees for help in the matter.

Each time Bartleby is asked to do something he more frequently restates the refrain “I would prefer not to.”  We also see that the disobedience displayed increasingly affects the other workers in the office.  After Bartleby refuses to proof read his own documents, the Lawyer turns to Turkey and asks what he thinks of it.  Turkey’s reply is quite violent, stating the he would like to “step behind his screen, and black his eyes for him!”  Nipper sees Bartleby’s defiance as “a passing whim” and hopes it will just pass.  Neither gentleman pursues a reason or justification for the behavior; they seek to find a way to get Bartleby only to comply.

The reaction to either assault or ignore disobedient behavior can easily be seen in history, and more recently in the responses to Occupy Wall Street movement.  In the beginning of the movement, America treated the Occupiers as Nipper advocated:  just ignore it and they’ll go away.  As time went on, the protestors preferred not to go away and their defiance became more disruptive.  Once America could no longer ignore the people protesting, occupying a park, and refusing to observe with the status quo we began to see the “Turkeys” of the nation try their solution: physical intervention.  In the case of the Occupy UC protests we see a beautifully illustrated picture of how Turkey would have responded to the disobedient.  Instead of blacking the eyes of the protestors refusing to vacate a walkway, the police pepper sprayed and arrested the defiant citizens.

The similarities between the response of Bartleby’s colleagues and those who opposed the Occupy movement were quite striking.  The result of protesting against the financial institutions had the same affects as Bartleby’s noncompliance in his social institution.  Additionally, the Lawyer’s practice is on Wall Street and the retort from critics of the movement was to get a job, i.e. do your work.  It is through these mounting coincidences that I began to consider that there may be more to the man than nonsensical apathy.  Bartleby could actually be a one man protest refusing to participate in a social fabrication that he finds objectionable.

Since Melville does not give the reader a definitive reason for Bartleby’s defiance, we are entreated to understand it in our own way.  Considering Bartleby as a protestor of a social institution or other societal norm, we can find some reasoning that provides tangible insight into his bewildering behavior.  Thoreau argues in Civil Disobedience that a man must “wash his hands of injustice and not be associated with something that is wrong.”  This “at the very least” prescription quite elegantly mirrors Bartleby’s refusal to comply.  Bartleby does not crusade or instigate change in others, in fact Bartleby initially continues with his regular duties, but he removes himself from the machine that is in some way contrary to his person.  It is in this first case that Bartleby has done exactly what Thoreau has prescribed one do in such a case: he disassociated with that which he disagreed.

Thoreau continues in Civil Disobedience that working through the apparatus that is the source of contention takes too long and leads to a wasted life.  While Thoreau was speaking specifically about the government, the sentiment is easily carried from one institution to another.  The disassociation between Bartleby and his work perfectly demonstrates a man rejecting the social construct and working outside of the system.  Bartleby, through noncompliance and civil disobedience, disrupts the social order of the office which encourages the Lawyer to relocate his business.

The ending of Melville’s story also invites us to consider Bartleby as a “Thoreauvian hero.”  Thoreau wrote that “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”  Bartleby’s life once again imitates the ideal portrayed in Civil Disobedience as he is imprisoned for vagrancy.  If you consider Bartleby to be a protestor against an American Moloch as opposed to an apathetic derelict, you can make the case that the government has thus imprisoned a just man unjustly.  The crime committed against society is the refusal to conform to its norms, not to be a man without a home or regular employment.  Bartleby’s incarceration for what can be seen as a protest is a violation of his constitutional rights and would define the government as unjust.

Through careful reading of Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener and Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience we find many correlations between the apathetic anti-hero and an ideal protestor.  While most of us easily identify with Thoreau’s protest through noncompliance, we often fail to identify other instances of noncompliance as protest.  The perception that Bartleby was protesting instead of being idle yields an entirely new understanding of the man whose actions most have do not comprehend.  By using the model of civil disobedience, we can recognize Bartleby’s inaction as civil objection, thus making the case for our “Thoreauvian hero.”

The Importance of Obscenity in Allen Ginsberg’s Poem “Howl”

Vulgarity and obscenity are two adjectives often associated in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”.  Many people perceive his use of strong, sexual imagery to be gratuitous and frivolous.  The opinion that this work is more akin to an Alice Cooper, or Marilyn Manson, designed to shock and disgust with little to no merit, is not uncommon.  I, too, have been tempted to dismiss Ginsberg as a “shock jock” of sorts but to do so may be selling this work short.  “Howl” is obscene.  “Howl” is vulgar.  However, “Howl needs to be crass and rude to have the impact that Ginsberg had intended.

To begin, I would like define the words obscene and vulgar.  Obscene, according to Merriam-Webster, is defined as “repulsive by reason of crass disregard of moral or ethical principles” (“Obscene” Def. 2c).  Vulgar can also be defined as “generally used” (“Vulgar” Def. 1a), or “of the usual” (“Vulgar” Def. 3c).  The moral and ethical principles of the time, represented by “Moloch” in the second part of “Howl”, are the constructs which Ginsberg is attacking.  Without the lewd imagery our stomachs would not turn, our minds would not gasp, and our sensibilities would not feel threatened.  In addition, the acts and language used in “Howl” are representatives of the reality of the Beats, of their people, their ‘vulgar.’

The feeling of Ginsberg, and the Beats in large, was that of dissatisfaction and rebelliousness towards the American status quo (Lee 367-389).  Ben Lee stated, in regards to Ginsberg’s poems, that, “These poems announce both a new American poetry and a number of overlapping new social movements” (Lee 367-389).  A new form of poetry would need to strike a stark contrast between the new form and the old form.  Poetry prior to “Howl” had not been so rife with sexual imagery; rather it hid beneath innuendo and inference.  Ginsberg displayed his morals and ethical principles, which were in direct opposition to prevalent American sensibilities, in the face of America and were deemed obscene.

This is obscenity with purpose.  Without the bawdiness of the words, Ginsberg would be hiding his homosexuality and his contempt for American conformity.  The Beats did not appear to be content to whimper or hide, they wanted to howl!  To be heard.    The words of Ginsberg resonated with many youths of the period because of this shared sentiment.  Jason Shinder commented, “Indeed, the ‘howl’ Ginsberg brought forth was unruly, powerful enough to upset traditions values – and, further, incite action on its behalf” (Ginsberg, et al 3-10).  People were so affected by these obscenities that social upheaval turmoil began to quake throughout the new generations.

The success of “Howl” appears to be interlaced with its use of vulgarity, as defined above.  The language of the youth was being used to speak to the masses.  The introduction of a new paradigm through “scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may” (Belasco, and Johnson 1318-1327).  Mark Doty reminisced about his search for an author, or character, in literature that shared his desires in life and, for the first time, found a kindred spirit in Ginsberg.  The vulgarity in the poem represented Doty’s life in real terms, in a language understandable and unapologetic about whom he was.  Many gays and lesbians related to the story, the imagery, and the dissatisfaction of their place in society in the lines of “Howl” (Ginsberg, et al 3-10).

“Howl” may have shattered America’s denial of queer sexuality.  Balls and cocks and ass fucking and vomit were undeniably present in our American world after its publication.  The printed pages would no longer allow our country the ability to deny what the common people already knew; we are diverse in our desires.  Whether those desires be same sex flesh or drug experimentation, our country is not the white picket fence, suburban dream that society wanted us to believe.  America is full of these “wretched” souls who love jazz, marijuana, sex (with whomever), and complete personal freedom.  Homogeny was not the only “homo” based word to be accepted into the country’s vulgar vernacular.

Within the lines of indignation are autobiographical notes, or tones, that parade the ideals of Ginsberg (Lee 367-389).  Like “On the Road,” “Howl” put forth Allen’s lifestyle, and that of some of his colleagues, on display.  Neal Cassidy, who is mentioned in line 48 as whoring through Colorado, is presented as a beautiful youth lying with many strange women in various places.  So, not only was exuberant and unapologetic homosexuality being condoned, but wild heterosexuality as well.  When we consider the attitudes of se in America, before the sexual revolution, the notion of “free love” was highly obscene.  In the passage concerning Cassidy, “cocksman” and “whoring” are as foul as the language gets.  However, it is not necessarily the words that are used that displays the obscenity, it’s the advocacy for the lifestyle that is in direct opposition to the status quo that incites the rage of the thought police.

The F.C.C. has had an interesting relationship with Ginsberg and “Howl”.  The F.C.C. has occasionally silenced “Howl” (Ginsberg, et al 3-10) for its obscenities and crass language.  Shortly after its publication in 1957, “Howl” was being confiscated by U.S. Customs officials and was tried for its obscenity.   The American Civil Liberties Union, as well as several literary experts, testified to the merit of the work as a whole.  The courts ruled in the favor of Ginsberg citing that the work had “redeeming social importance” (Cohen 3).

Despite the court’s ruling, threats and fears of lawsuits regarding performances or reading of “Howl” still persist.  As recently as 1988, thirty-two years after its conception, the Pacific Radio Network declined to air Ginsberg performing his work in light of rulings by the F.C.C concerning indecent language .Rather than risk litigation, the radio stations aired an interview with the author called “Why He Can’t Broadcast ‘Howl’” (Yarrow 22).

The fear of legal action, as well as the money it would cost to fight said legal action, effectively censored the poet.  This very tactic used by the F.C.C. was used again in 2006.  After several fines levied against CBS and Fox for Super Bowl breast exposure and curse words, Ginsberg was economically silenced.  The radio stations could not risk the hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties that could be accrued by airing this work of social importance (Cohen 3).

The fight against this censorship is also a testament to the importance of the obscenities used in “Howl”.  This poem is a champion for our first amendment rights for freedom of speech.  Without the bold, lascivious language, the poem would never have risen to prominence.  The confrontation of Ginsberg’s words does not allow any person to hide from his challenge.  “Howl” is instantly questioning our sensibilities as well as asserting its right to exist.  This assertion gave many people from the alternative counterculture their right to exist.

The censure of Ginsberg is effectively a censure of a large section of an authentic American experience.  The sensationalism of the obscenities in “Howl” keeps the poem relevant by constantly questioning the status quo.  In modern American, with all of our apparent acceptance and tolerance of alternative lifestyles and personal choice, we still find that our sensibilities are not quite at ease with the bohemian leftist ideals advocated by Ginsberg and his ilk.  This fact dictates that “Howl” will continue to be relevant as long as our social constructs fight against it.  After all, isn’t the fight against these norms the reason Ginsberg felt the need to affirm his experiences and beliefs?  Until the American person, poet or patriot can authentically express his or herself, “Howl”, and its obscenities, will be needed to fight for our rights.

Works Cited

Belasco, Susan, and Linck Johnson. The Bedford Anthology of American Literature. 1. 2. New York, NY: Bedford/st Martins, 2008. 1318-1327. Print.

Cohen, Patricia. “‘Howl’ In an Era That Fears Indecency.” New York Times 04 Oct. 2007: 3. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 12 May 2010.

Ginsberg, Allen, et al. “From “The Poem That Changed America: ‘Howl’ Fifty Years Later.” American Poetry Review 35.2 (2006): 3-10. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 12 May 2010.

Lee, Ben. “Howl” and Other Poems :Is There Old Left in These New Beats?.” American Literature 76.2 (2004): 367-389. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 12 May 2010.

“obscene.” Def. 2c.Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010. Merriam-Webster Online.

10 May 2010 < http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/obscene>

“vulgar.” Def. 1a and 3a.Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010. Merriam-Webster Online.

10 May 2010 < http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vulgar>

Yarrow, Andrew L.. “Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ In a New Controversy.” New York Times 06 Jan. 1988: 22. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 12 May 2010.

Reflection of The Painted Bird

War is hell.  While we often avoid such clichés, The Painted Bird gives us a grand vision of how war affects those away from the battles.  Much like Brennan, Wiesel’s Night came to mind when reading this book.  The comparison is not so much the terrors of Nazi soldiers, rather the small “atrocities” enacted by the civilian populace during a time of war.  The young boy in Kosinski’s novel is subjected to horror after horror, suffering the prejudices and superstitions of peasants due to his “bastardly” quality of being Gypsy.

The life of the child takes on the nomadic nature like that of the soldiers and captives we have seen in other novels.  Henry of A Farewell to Arms travels from various places within Italy and ultimately to Switzerland; Wiesel, in that harrowing trek to freedom, travels from camp to camp and from train to train; and Orr escapes the war in Catch-22 by fleeing to Sweden.  Like these other characters, our young lad is constantly displaced, replaced, and displaced again trying to escape the war.  This sense of movement, lack of stability, and search for escape that permeates all of the novels we’ve read thus far speak of the common need for soldier and civilian alike to find tranquility.

The Painted Bird is also remarkable in how it addresses the unseen, under-represented perspective of those living with the war, but who are outside the war proper.  In much the same way that Leslie Taylor found the Hiroshima poetry fascinating, I found this novel engrossing.  Leslie states, “It is important… to acknowledge something like the bombing of Hiroshima because it shows that there are no perfect heroes in war” and that these poems “dared to address a side of the war that the other writers we have encountered either avoided…”  The actions of the civilians as portrayed by Kosinski are a perfect example of an author taking on the “heroism” of war and showing a side of war, the plights and prejudices of non-soldiers, that we have seen little to nothing of in the other novels.

While The Painted Bird shows us a different side of war, the novel fits in beautifully with the other works we’ve read thus far in that it shows instability for the individual.  There are little if any absolutes and certainties in war, and our protagonists show a state, mental and/or physical, that is constantly in flux.  The taxation of a human’s resources and limits are what ultimately exhausts our heroes and leads to that ultimate realization: war is hell.

Dr. Strangelove and the Ideology of Liberal Consensus

Summary of Dr. Strangelove (1964): Nightmare Comedy and the Ideology of Liberal Consensus

Charles Maland’s critique of Dr. Strangelove identifies Stanley Kubrick’s methods for dramatizing the absurdity of America’s foreign policy and nuclear strategy in regard to the Cold War.  In Nightmare Comedy and the Ideology of Liberal Consensus, Maland reasons that the film is an assault on the notion of “Liberal Consensus,” a national paradigm which viewed America as having a sound societal structure and that Communism is a clear danger to the American way of life, and highlight’s America’s own fallibility in international affairs, particularly those involving nuclear war.  The themes of complacency about the consequences of nuclear war, anti-communist paranoia, and technology run counter to the cultural norm that was prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s.

Maland begins by establishing the setting from which this film draws its inspiration, primarily this “Ideology of Liberal Consensus.”  The threat of Communism and America’s role as “spreader of democracy” were prevalent in popular culture and were deeply imprinted into the national psyche.  The media, to counter the realities of nuclear war, began to soften the idea of mutually assured destruction by softening the consequences of a nuclear engagement.  Despite the efforts of media and the government, America began to develop a kind of adversary culture of dissent.  Many Americans became disillusioned by our nuclear policy and the hypocrisy of America’s advocacy of democracy while struggling with its own civil rights issues.  It is within these fertile grounds that we find the seeds for Dr. Strangelove’s oppositional sentiment.

Kubrick’s struggle in the initial stages of production of the film, his struggle with how war could actually be brought about, is what leads to his decision to present such a dark, comedic piece.  The bleak reality of mutually assured destruction, according to Maland’s analysis, could only be brought to the cultural consciousness through the medium of a “nightmare comedy.”  Maland believes that Kubrick realized that society could not learn from the experience of nuclear war, rather the nation would have to learn from a comedic dramatization of the possibilities that could lead America into war.  For this era in American history, the realization that something so absurd, so crazy, could lead to total nuclear war was a kind of “paradigm revolution.”  This is one of the first admissions in the popular culture that American foolishness and ideology could bring about its own destruction.

To bring these attitudes to the forefront of American popular culture, Maland believes that Kubrick decided to satirize the liberal consensus.  The main characters each represent popular attitudes and strategies prevalent at the time.  Jack D. Ripper’s fear and paranoia lead to world destruction, Major King Kong’s blind allegiance to following orders fails to realize how war has changed, Turgidson’s hardline, right wing fanaticism favors “first strike” and what constitutes “acceptable losses,” while the only reasonable man, President Muffley, is ineffectual and weak.  Dr. Strangelove himself, a composite of many pundits in the science of nuclear strategy, embodies the “cold, speculating mind” of what may be considered nuclear pragmatists of the day.  Each one of these characters is representative, if not a little hyperbolic, of the positions staked out by different political and policy factions.  Ultimately, none of these policies, strategies, or personalities halts the march to war.

Technology is also a prominent player in the film.  Maland contrasts the use of neutral communication technologies, such as radios and telephones, with the utilization of the machines of war.  While the generals and colonels adeptly use the B-52s, arms, and nuclear weapons for destruction, the ability to avert mass destruction via telephone or radio is nigh impossible.  Mandrake’s lack of a dime to call the President with the recall codes juxtaposed against the bomber crew’s ability to drop their nuke is a prime example of this disparity between the two competencies.  This is what Maland calls man’s “death instinct,” which is the “nearsighted rationality [that] leads man first to create machines, then to use them for destroying life.”  This instinct is characterized as a direct confrontation to technological “progress” and the use of machinery which was increasing during the 1950s and 1960s.

The final scenes of Dr. Strangelove underline Kubrick’s attack on the Ideology of Liberal Consensus.  As the mushroom clouds burst upon the screen, there is a stark contrast between the images on screen and the music played on the film.  Maland sees this as a contrast in rhetoric in sight and sound of the cold war mindset.  The thought that America could somehow survive total nuclear war is questioned by the first lines of the song “We’ll Meet Again,” (“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when”) which takes on a certain irony in this context.  These scenes portray a likely scenario where the foolishness and ineptitude of American political and military leaders leads to total annihilation, not the actions of the Communists.

This realization, in Maland’s view, is the ultimate assault on the Ideology of Liberal Consensus.  In short, the idea of American Exceptionalism, American infallibility is destroyed and the nation’s own absurdity is played out on screen for the entire world to see.

Works Cited

Maland, Charles. “Dr. Strangelove (1964): Nightmare Comedy and the Ideology of Liberal Consensus.” American Quarterly. 31.5 (1979): 697-717. Print. <http://studythepast.com/his597_modernfilm_summer10/readings/dr_strangelove.pdf&gt;.