Tag Archives: Adrienne Rich

Democratic Vistas

In his 1872 essay “Democratic Vistas” the poet Walt Whitman writes that “democracy is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.” This course tests Whitman’s supposition through diverse cultural practices, with a special focus on the relationship between art and democracy.

We will read and consider the formative ideas about democratic culture that emerged in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. We will then trace the literary aspirations and social contradictions of American democracy in a series of case studies, including debates in the twentieth century about art and public engagement that arose in response to John Dewey’s ideas about what he called “creative democracy,” and the singular cultural work of Adrienne Rich, focusing primarily on her essays published in the collection Blood, Bread and Poetry and her poems from the late 1980s in An Atlas of the Difficult World.

Terry Tempest Williams’ appeal to democratic engagement in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001 will offer a conceptual framework for the second half of the course. “In the open space of democracy,” Williams writes in a commencement address she presented at the University of Utah, “we are listening–ears alert–we are watching–eyes open–registering the patterns and possibilities for engagement” (76). In the spirit of commencement, we will consider more contemporary cultural projects that challenge formal conventions and unsettle institutionalized practices, and that enlarge our understanding of art as social and communicative action.

During the final weeks of the course students will contribute to a collaborative project in the Keene State College archives and will design and pursue an individual research project. Student projects will draw on primary materials, in library-based and digital archives, to further develop research experience and methods in defining, organizing, and elaborating the significance of these materials in the public domain.

Required Reading A good deal of the reading in this course is accessible through the Schedule page. The Reading page is the reading list for the course. In addition to the digital materials, we will be reading three books that you are required to purchase.

Robert A. Dahl. On Democracy. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998. ISBN 978-0-300-084559

Adrienne Rich. An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991. New York, Norton, 1991. ISBN 0-393-30831-6

Doris Sommer. The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities. Durham: Duke UP, 2014. ISBN 978-0-8223-5586-1

The Little Magazine

Among the resources for students of the literary and cultural history of the United States are primary documents. These documents are most often collected in university archives. Increasingly one can find digital archives. As it happens, we will be working together to build out a digital archive for Aspect magazine. As we begin this work, I want to share a few thoughts about resources and methods for students in American and cultural studies.

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For students of poetry and poetics in the United States it does not get any better than The Poetry Collection at the University of Buffalo. The Buffalo collection includes first editions, broadsides, reference books, and audio files. The Collection also includes over 9,000 titles of past and current little magazines, literary journals, university reviews, newspapers and other poetry periodicals. These documents provide a finer-grained insight into the formation of literary communities and the intellectual exchanges in print networks, as the Buffalo collection explains:

Throughout the 20th century, “little magazines”—magazines usually noncommercial in nature and often committed to certain literary ideals—have been a primary organ for the dissemination of poetry and for the formation of literary communities across the aesthetic and political spectra. Consequently, they offer a rich and largely unexplored resource for researching the material and social networks in which poetry takes shape as well as the genetic evolution of individual poems.

The practice of democratic culture is alive and well, as anyone studying these materials will tell you. If you are continuing your study of poetry and democracy, for example, you might explore PennSound, an ongoing project, committed to producing new audio recordings and preserving existing audio archives. In fact, there is an audio archive of hundreds of Adrienne Rich’s Readings—available in the public domain as full readings, or by individual poems. For an overview of PennSound—including a discussion of the project’s pedagogical implications —listen to the PennSound podcast #6.

img_1290To learn a bit more about Aspect, read Doug Holder’s Essay on Essay on Aspect Magazine. To think a bit more about the little magazine as a genre, have a look at Steve Evans’s lively 2006 essay The Little Magazine A Hundred Years On: A Reader’s Report. Evans includes a list for further reading if this is a subject that interests you.

Who knew? We are both studying and practicing what we have been calling democratic culture. What is more, your work on Aspect magazine will give you first-hand experience creating an archive that will be available for use be students, teachers, and scholars.

Feeling Thinking Doing

We do the things we do and feel what we feel essentially because we must—we are responsible for our actions, but we rarely understand them. It goes without saying, I believe, that if we understood ourselves better, we would damage ourselves less. But the barrier between oneself and one’s knowledge of oneself is high indeed.

-James Baldwin, “The Creative Process”

Over the past seven weeks we have been reading writers who are preoccupied with the question of democracy. There are many stories embedded in this literary and cultural history, of course, and our reading list has been built around writers dedicated to the open-ended, and imperfect, process of democratic culture: of the struggle to enact the democratic ideals of egalitarianism and pluralism.

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Our story began with “Literary Characteristics of Democratic Times,” a chapter from the second volume of Democracy in America, in which Alexis de Tocqueville argues that the exclusive literary culture in American democracy appears to value literature with a practical use.

We thought with Emerson and Whitman about cultural production—both in terms of making democratic literature, as well as in cultivating the idea that the creative arts are useful for what I called democratic literacy-the idea that the arts provide a means to wrestle with a general language and discourse that works against democratic ideals such as equality, diversity, and justice.

The writing of the political scientist Robert Dahl offered insight into the tensions and paradoxes of these democratic ideals. At the same time, we discovered that Emerson and Whitman were engaged with questions posed by historians, philosophers, and theorists of democracy. That is, their literary work is dedicated to not only realizing the possibilities of democratic literature but to thinking about the problem of defining, building, and sustaining a democratic culture.

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The process of democratic culture is what John Dewey called “creative democracy,” a provisional, open-ended, and imperfect process that make possible communal decisions while giving equal consideration to individuals. Dewey’s cultural contributions are difficult to measure in a general survey. However, his critical optimism, and utopian pragmatism, furthered our story of democratic ideas and ideals, on the one hand, and the less lofty social realities of lived experience in the United States, on the other.

In tracing the story of the artist’s reception of and engagement with democratic thinking we considered two case studies. The first case is the institutional ritual and the cultural occasion of commencement. We read commencements by Ralph Waldo Emerson at Harvard, “The American Scholar” (1837), Adrienne Rich at New Jersey’s Douglass College “Claiming an Education” (1977), and Terry Tempest Williams’ commencement at the University of Utah, “The Open Space of Democracy” (2003). The second case was poetic theory and practice. We read Claude McKay, “America” (1921), Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again” (1936), Alan Ginsberg, “America” (1956), and Naomi Shihab Nye “United” (2016).

We turned our attention to the singular project of Adrienne Rich. We read two essays— “Blood, Bread, And Poetry: The Location of a Poet” and “Notes Toward a Politics of Location”—from Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose: 1979-1985 (1986) and her collection of poems in An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991.

And we moved from the practice of poetry to the experience of art, and the role of the artist. We read “Having an Experience” from Dewey’s Art as Experience (1934) and his essays “Creative Democracy” (1939), originally delivered by Horace Kallen and published in the Promise of America (1939), and “Democracy is Radical” (1936). We also looked at a cultural commentary less sanguine about Dewey’s participatory aesthetic, “The World Outside And The Pictures In Our Heads,” from Walter Lippman’s influential study Public Opinion (1922). Finally, we considered a definition and defense of the role of the artist in a democracy, James Baldwin’s 1962 address “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” and his essay “The Creative Process.”

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A history of writers engaged with the question of democracy, as this sequence of reading is designed to suggest, is at the same time enacting democratic thought. It is a history of writing as inquiry, as an investigation through words—or even an “interrogation,” to borrow words from a writer who some of you already know, Ta-Nehisi Coates—of drawing us into consciousness. Here is how James Baldwin names this interrogation in the essay we read together last week, “The Creative Process”:

This continent now is conquered, but our habits and our fears remain. And, in the same way that to become a social human being one modifies and suppresses and, ultimately, without great courage, lies to oneself about all one’s interior, uncharted chaos, so have we, as a nation, modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history. We know, in the case of the person, that whoever cannot tell himself the truth about his past is trapped in it, is immobilized in the prison of his undiscovered self. This is also true of nations. We know how a person, in such a paralysis, is unable to assess either his weaknesses or his strengths, and how frequently indeed he mistakes the one for the other.

From James Baldwin and Adrienne Rich we can move to a more recent engagement with these questions, the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates. In his 2015 Between The World and Me Coates unravels his own discovery of reading and writing. Coates writes, “The pursuit of knowing was freedom for me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through with all manner of books” (48). The poets he was reading in college were moving him from something like what Rich called in Atlas “the burnt out dream of innocence.” Coates tells of the moment when these writings became, for him, “notes on how to write, and thus notes on how to think.”

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And he goes on, describing the consequences of not thinking, of abandoning the creative process, of “living the Dream”:

The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing” (50).

We will keep these words in mind as we turn our attention to the Keene State College Social Justice Collection and our studies to the literary and cultural work of Aspect magazine . You might also keep these words in mind as you continue to use your writing to think for yourself-as you continue to (re)claim your education, to take responsibility for what you are feeling, thinking, and doing.

After all, this is one of the responsibilities we talked about with Adrienne Rich. “Responsibility to yourself,” Rich writes, “means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.”

 

Linguists and Contenders

Closer yet I approach you
. . .
We understand then do we not?
What I promis’d without mentioning it, have you not accepted?
What the study could not teach—what the preaching could not accomplish is accomplished, is it not?

—Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”

On Tuesday I planned to debrief the individual conferences—sharing some of the conversations about the thinking and writing you are doing in this course. When I arrived in class Mitchell and Kerrin were talking about the challenges of wrestling with the archive of documents assembled for the course, on the one hand, and composing a well-put-together short-form essay that will engage a reader, on the other hand.

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It was a productive place to begin. What followed was a question. I asked, “What useful information about thinking and writing did you take away from our first conference last week?” What I recall bringing to the table was Savannah’s note to self. She told me in our conference that she has read one of blog posts in the category “Method,” titled Habits of Mind. In that post I talk about the kind of intellectual habits that can lead to productive work:

Success in this class begins with an interest in what you are doing. Once you get interested you will be ready to think about what and how you are learning in school.

I go on to say that “effective writing is a product of interest and engaged learning and below you will find five areas of work for you to consider as you write.” These areas of work include curiosity, creativity, openness, and persistence. Approaching learning in these ways, Savannah reminded herself, can make all the difference.

Such an approach is not unfamiliar to us, linguists and contenders, as you will remember:

Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay—the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not on a few coteries of writers.

This passage from the end of “Democratic Vistas” is a touchstone for your work this semester. The work of meaningful reading, thinking, and writing calls for students with “supple and athletic minds, well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves.” Meaningful work is engaged work, and engagement leads to agency.

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What I attempted to explain in response to Kerrin and Mitchell is that the tension between process and product, between learning and sharing what you have learned, is inevitable and productive. That is, the challenge of writing weekly blog posts is the challenge of integrating your process of discovery—the quickening of mind when you make a personal connection, the thrill of immersion in thought—with the satisfaction of finding a form for your thinking.

My challenge to you as thinkers and writers in an upper-level college course is to build on what you have learned as writers in school. The opportunity for you now is to build from a more responsive or reactive mode of intellectual engagement (say, responding to an assignment prompt that I create) to identifying your own assignment, task, or purpose.

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This is a blog post about method-a way of doing intellectual work. It is a blog post about taking seriously this kind of work and that makes visible the constraints both students and teachers face when trying to do this work in classrooms and institutions. And it is an emerging essay that in inspired by one of the touchstones of our work together, Walt Whitman, in this case from Section 4 of the poem “Song of Myself”:

Trippers and askers surround me,
People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward and city I live in, or the nation,
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new,
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am, Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.

-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

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Your blog is a powerful tool not because it is technology or even because it is a kind of bridge between your thinking and your readers. It is a passage where you will meet head on your challenge of claiming thinking and writing as your own.

But to release the potential of this idea suggests an additional step. One way to take this step is to begin with a series of questions. What would a writing class look like without assignments? That is, is it possible to imagine a college-level class with no assignments? How would you keep your mind humming? How would you move your mind and motivate your writing? Your role as student would surely look different. Might we be imagining the “the difference between acting and being acted upon” Adrienne Rich elaborated in her commencement at Douglass College in 1977, “Claiming an Education”? Might we be making the connection back to Emerson’s song of self-trust, or between your responsiveness and your ability? Here is Rich again:

Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.

And might these reflections shift my role as teacher? Well, they do. And they have. This is why I was motivated on Tuesday to go back over the weekly writing schedule I set up for us this semester:

  • On Tuesday you are responsible for writing about what you are reading. However I have challenged you to do much more than “respond” to the reading. Instead you are finding and pursuing a question or questions that you have identified in the readings, or as a result of the course readings; and you are attempting to establish yourself in the ongoing conversation about the experiences of living in a society ostensibly organized around democratic ideals and norms
  • In the luxurious span of time between Tuesday afternoon and Sunday evening you are in conversation, with yourself, with others. You have space to engage in your own conversation with yourself as you reflect on what you have written, and allow your thinking to develop—clarifying your thought and its significance (for you and others who might read what you have to say), contextualizing your thinking (in the text, across texts, in social and cultural and historical contexts), and building confidence (authority) for what you have to say. You also have our conversations in class to situate, inform, and complicate your emerging stake in the conversation
  • And by Sunday you should have come closer to getting it right. The “it” here is your thinking as well as the form of your thought in writing: to challenge yourself to make a contribution to (and not incidentally to enact) the ongoing conversation about democratic culture

Yet the schedule includes one more step, a step we talked about in class on Tuesday: building your sequence of short-form essays into a body of work—a sequence, collection, or anthology of writing that has consistency and integrity.

For this reason, over the final two weeks before spring break, your work will involve reflection (reading over what you have completed) and shaping, or curating, the writing on your blog. And to this end, before we meet on Tuesday March 7 we will read all the course blogs and annotate them using “Open Space of Democracy” group on Hypothes.is. The Tuesday class will be a “Blog Charrette” where we can exchange ideas, play with options, and work toward your own integrated intellectual digital space.

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First and foremost this work is designed to sharpen your tools, or passing along tools you might not have been fully aware are in your workshop: reading, thinking, writing, collaboration, and so on. We are using the blogs to enact an extended conversation about protocols of study, or methods of doing work with texts and cultural contexts. We are reading documents and probing the intellectual and cultural history of the United States, making connections, “upbuilding” to borrow a word from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

You are also, finally, participating in a course that begins with a less familiar idea: that a course in College is an ongoing intellectual project. This is why the course is organized around more than a list of texts, questions, ideas, and histories, as all good humanities courses are. It is organized around your contributions to an ongoing cultural project of understanding and making meaning.

Another way of saying this is that we are doing the work of democracy-“Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.”

Open Space

In class on Tuesday Tori said that for her, reading Terry Tempest Williams’ commencement address, delivered to the class of 2003 at the at the University of Utah, offered welcome clarity. Such moments of clarity come to us differently, and are difficult to predict. These are points of entry, moments of insight that suggest a way forward. Remember Emerson’s saying in “The Poet”:

This insight, which expresses itself by what is called Imagination, is a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees, by sharing the path, or circuit of things through forms, and so making them translucid to others.

We are where we are and you see what you see: That is to say, you are now in an ongoing conversation about democracy and culture. Make of it what you will. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman’s writings are working through the concept of culture, and their minds are grappling with the work of imagining what Whitman was working toward—let us call it a democratic theory of culture. This week we moved to occasions of commencement or convocation to trace some the implications of this idea: Emerson’s oration delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard College on August 31, 1837, “The American Scholar,” Williams’ 2003 commencement speech, “The Open Space of Democracy,” and Adrienne Rich’s 1977 convocation speech at Douglass College.

My intent in bringing these texts into conversation is to give you resources to address the questions we are thinking through

What is democratic culture? How is it (or how might it be) different from other forms of culture? What opportunities, roles, responsibilities and/or obligations are associated with life in a democratically organized society? In what forms do we find expression of democratic ideals, values, and practice? How do individuals come to organize their lives around a belief in the ideals of democracy? How do we live with the ideal and the fact—the possibilities, for example, of the logic of equality and the persistent fact of inequality? And so on.

With Tori, I discovered in Williams and Rich a way of (re)reading Emerson and Whitman. Who does not hear, having read Whitman, a process of reading and thinking described as a struggle in the opening of Rich’s remarks:

Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.

And who does not hear, as her essay unfolds, the self-trust so passionately advocated by Emerson echoed in Rich’s call for an active and engaged life:

The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.

In calling on women to embrace active as opposed to passive learning she brings her audience into an argument for access, equity, and justice in educational institutions. For as Rich says, the student must come to see herself

engaged with her teachers in active, ongoing struggle for a real education. But for her to do this, her teachers must be committed to belief that women’s minds and experience are intrinsically valuable and indispensable to any civilization worthy the name: that there is no more exhilarating and intellectually fertile place in the academic world today than a women’s college—if both students and teachers in large enough numbers are trying to fulfill this contract. The contract is really a pledge of mutual seriousness about women, about language, ideas, method, and values. It is our shared commitment toward a world in which the inborn potentialities of so many women’s minds will not longer be wasted, raveled-away, paralyzed, or denied.

This is the mind at work—in this case bringing to mind the proposition that “women’s minds and experience are intrinsically valuable and indispensable to any civilization”—work that Emerson calls the imagination, that comes “by the intellect being where and what it sees, by sharing the path, or circuit of things through forms, and so making them translucid to others.”

Emerson’s call for self-trust in the aftermath of the financial panic of 1837, Rich’s summons to engage in the democratic struggle to align ideals with reality, Terry Tempest Williams’ insistence on questioning, standing, speaking, acting—these are the voices filling the open space of what we might come to call democracy.