Thursday, April 30, 2009

Maidenhood vs. Motherhood vs. ... whatever other states a woman may inhabit =(

In this optical illusion - do you see a young woman or an old woman?

What happens to a girl when she becomes a wife and mother?

Something awful apparently... at least in the eyes of Frank Wheeler.

In keeping with my (hypo)thesis about Revolutionary Road - that "the book's characters seem to be reluctantly enduring the death of their idealism as they're bombarded with the realities of their lives" - it seems that Frank can't cope with his wife's diminishing maidenhood and dainty femininity.

As a younger man, one still frustrated at not having met the perfect "first-rate girl", Frank meets April Johnson, “the exceptionally first-rate girl whose shining hair and splendid legs had drawn him halfway across a roomful of strangers.” Later, after they're married with 2 children, Frank watches her on stage as “she moved with the shyly sensual grace of maidenhood; anyone happening to glance at Frank Wheeler, the round-faced, intelligent-looking young man who sat biting his fist in the last row of the audience, would have said he looked more like her suitor than her husband.” Because husbands CLEARLY don't think of their wives that way - it's implicit and ingrained in the world of Revolutionary Road.

“Nowhere in these plans had he foreseen the weight and shock of reality; nothing had warned him that he might be overwhelmed by the swaying, shining vision of a girl he hadn’t seen in years, a girl whose every glance and gesture could make his throat fill up with longing (“Wouldn’t you like to be loved by me?”), and that then before his very eyes she would dissolve and chance into the graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself, a gaunt constricted woman whose red eyes flashed reproach, whose false smile in the curtain call was as homely as his own sore feet, his own damp climbing underwear and his own foul smell.”

When April's production fails miserably, Frank's image of her dissolves as well. She quickly degrades in his regard from a "shining vision of a girl" to a "graceless, suffering creature", a "gaunt constricted woman... homely". The "first-rate girl" is suddenly merely his wife and the mother of his two children - on stage in a terrible community theater troupe. Frank's stark dichotomy - this maiden vs. mother attitude is vile, but reading these sentiments at face value cheapens the book. It's easy, as a young female reader to be disgusted by this unfeeling binarism - but if I'd taken the easy route, I'd be missing Yates' larger intention.

There's a tone of resentment in the deflation of Frank's ideals of April - I think because in her commonness, in what he perceives as her failings, he sees his own reflected.

The standards to which she's held seem to be a bit rigid as well. She's described as being “a shade too heavy in the hips and thighs” after bearing two children and again as “a little too wide in the hips”. The interesting thing is that these assertions don't come from Frank or any other character in the story - they're the narrator's commentaries. But the narrator is not a character in the book - so to whom should these opinions be attributed? Obviously, they're meant to be ironic and illuminating - and they succeed.

But what does a woman become after she's far into motherhood? What if she's old and unmarried? What of her then?

Frank's own mother is described vaguely as "a pair of rimless spectacles, a hair net, and a timorous smear of lipstick.” Another older woman, Mrs. Givings is, as soon as she's characterized, immediately made ridiculous - her "cosmetics seemed always to have been applied in a frenzy of haste, of impatience to get the whole silly business over and done with, and she was constantly in motion, a trim, leather-skinned woman in her fifties...”.

Jane Austen, in all her infallibility, accurately portrays these female literary archetypes while allowing them to maintain some shred of humanity. Her Miss Bates, who was never asked to play the pianoforte (because who could think of homely, spinsterly, poor Miss Bates when Emma or Jane Fairfax were around?) still lives today in women like pop culture figure Susan Boyle. Austen takes the same ironic tone as Yates when she says that "it is only poverty that makes celibacy contemptible. A single woman of good fortune is always respectable." While ironic, both statements reflect the attitudes and opinions of the day.

In this optical illusion - do you see a young woman or an old woman?

This is all too "Virgin/Mother/Crone" for my taste.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Restless Young Men

“Weren’t the biographies of all great men filled with this same kind of youthful groping, this same kind of rebellion against their fathers and their fathers’ ways?”
--Revolutionary Road

Paul in Paul's Case by Willa Cather.
Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.
The Real Life Frank Abagnale Jr. (whose story was featured in the book and movie Catch Me If You Can).

All 3 restless young men fighting to escape their fathers' (men they at once admired and resented) curses of mediocrity nearly, or completely, achieve ruin in their own lives.

Cather's Paul steals money from his employer and flees to New York with dreams of a glamorous new life, surrounded by the arts - free of his middle-class existence and the "horrible yellow wallpaper" in his room. Similarly, Frank Abagnale Jr. runs away from home once his father's trouble with the IRS plunges his family into impecuniousness. He, like Paul, lies, cheats, and steals his way to wealth. From what I've read so far, Yates' Frank Wheeler has the same begrudging respect, coupled with disgust, for his father as do Paul and Abagnale - wondering "...who wanted to be a dopey salesman in the first place, acting like a big deal with a briefcase full of boring catalogues, talking about machines all day to a bunch of dumb executives with cigars?"

He as an adolescent also plans a trip - his on a freight train - to begin his own life: "[Frank] spent all his free time in a plan for riding rails to the West Coast. ...he had rehearsed many times the way he would handle himself." He steals his father's hat for his journey and stuffs it with newspapers so that it would fit his small head properly, just as Frank Abagnale Jr. borrowed behaviors and epigrams from his father and used them to his advantage.

These three characters all exhibit a restless, impatient quest toward manhood - but not just any state of manliness - one that would eclipse whatever claims to greatness their fathers' may have laid, taking from them the estimable, leaving behind the execrable.

In Revolutionary Road, it's made clear early in the book that Frank values masculinity, admiring "men who looked like they’d never been boys at all", posing to affect a more distinguished jawline, "the face he'd given himself in the mirror since boyhood and which no photograph had ever achieved", "saunter[ing] manfully" to his father's heavy briefcase as a child and "pretend[ing] it was his own". Abagnale's heroes are pilots, doctors, lawyers, James Bond, Paul's those great men of the stage - and each of these three young men pretended to their goals before they're old enough to achieve them.

Unfortunately, (100 year old spoiler alert!!!) Paul kills himself once he realizes he'll be returned to obscurity, Frank Abagnale Jr. is caught forging checks and imprisoned (though he eventually begins work as an FBI fraud specialist) and I don't yet know what comes of Frank Wheeler. I haven't finished the book.

There seems to be a recurring theme in literature (and movies) of Restless Young Men. Freud's Oedipus Complex, perhaps? Except without the creepy part about marrying one's own mother.... I'll keep a keen eye out as I continue Revolutionary Road.

TRIVIA - Leonardo DiCaprio played both Frank Abagnale Jr. AND Frank Wheeler in the film adaptations of Catch Me If You Can and Revolutionary Road. Coincidence? I think he has that earnest, Restless Young Man Look about him.

"We became drivers and garbage men, so that our children could become doctors and lawyers, so that our grandchildren could become artists and writers, so that our great grandchildren could become models and socialites."

Monday, April 27, 2009

"The finder of his theme will be at no loss for words."

The quote in the subject line is one of J.V. Cunningham's.

In Yates' Revolutionary Road, Cunningham's assertion is proven on every page and in every word. I can't say whether or not Yates had a difficult time writing his masterpiece, but nowhere in Revolutionary Road is his theme forgotten or absent, either from the writer's intention or the active reader's interpretation.

I've been doing far more reading than writing lately, (the only writing I've done has been on this and my other blogs) but when I (finally) decide to create, the instructions I've gleaned from all I've read will be invaluable.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Gus von A. - The Fallen Dandy

" 'You see, Aschenbach has always lived liked this' -- here the speaker closed the fingers of his left hand to a fist -- 'never like this'--and he let his open hand hang relaxed from the back of his chair. It was apt."

Thomas Mann, at the outset of his novella Death in Venice, takes great care to establish his protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach as a disciplined man and respected poet - only to have the character's admirable qualities, by the story's end, disintegrate - replaced by ruinous obsession and capricious, irresponsible whim. Though the tenets of dandyism (as defined by may not have been explicitly stated and assembled at the time of Death in Venice's publication, it is clear that Thomas Mann wrote Gus von A with strict parameters in mind so as to make his descent into chaos and madness that much more shocking than if such misfortune had befallen a more mediocre man. When evaluated against the 12 points of comparison outlined in 'The Anatomy of a Dandy', von Aschenbach's heights appear at their highest and his lows seem beneath what would be thought capable of such a man. The loss of his physical distinction, elegance, self-mastery, aplomb, independence, wit, skepticism, endearing egotism, reserve, discriminating taste, and caprice - all of the things that make a dandy a dandy - is disturbing for the reader to *witness*, to endure - and I believe this theme of humbling and self-destruction is a large part of why this story persists as a classic.

Let's start at the very beginning - a very good place to start:

“Dandyism is the result of an artistic temperament working upon a fine body within the wide limits of fashion.” - Max Beerbohm

By this definition, Gus von A was a textbook dandy: "The union of dry, conscientious officialdom and ardent, obscure impulse, produced an artist..."

1. Physical distinction

Dandyism can only be painted on a suitable canvas. It is impossible to cut a dandy figure without being tall, slender and handsome, or having at least one of those characteristics to a high degree while remaining at least average in the other two. Fred Astaire was neither tall nor handsome, but he was “so thin you could spit through him.”

Count D’Orsay, of course, had all three qualities to the highest degree.

“To appear well dressed, be skinny and tall.” — Mason

2. Elegance

Elegance, of course, as defined by the standards of a dandy’s particular era.

“[The dandy’s] independence, assurance, originality, self-control and refinement should all be visible in the cut of his clothes.” — Ellen Moers

Dandies must love contemporary costume, says Beerbohm, and their dress should be “free from folly or affectation.”

Gus von A's initial physical description is as follows: "somewhat below middle height, dark and smooth-shaven, with... his almost delicate figure... rimless gold spectacles... , aristocratically hooked nose... yet it was art, not the stern discipline of an active career, that had taken over the office of modeling these features." By the final pages of the story, von Aschenbach was sickly, "worn quite out and unnerved... his head burned, his body was wet with clammy sweat, he was plagued by intolerable thirst." There was no sign, physically, of the man with whom we first became acquainted.

On his boat ride to Venice, Gus von A encounters an old man he considers foolish in his attempts to mimic the look and mannerisms of youth ("Could they not see he was old, that he had no right to wear the clothes they wore or pretend to be one of them?"). This ridiculous old man in all his buffoonery becomes a foil for von Aschenbach's own conscious decision, once deluded by obsession with his young muse Tadzio, to don the facade of youth in his old age: "A delicate carmine glowed on his cheeks where the skin had been so brown and leathery. The dry, anæmic lips grew full, they turned the colour of ripe strawberries, the lines round eyes and mouth were treated with a facial cream and gave place to youthful bloom." Disregarding how ridiculous he must have looked with stark hair dye, his face covered and caked in rouge, Gus von A, by the story's end loses any claims he held on admirable physical distinction or elegance.

2 down. 10 to go.

3. Self-mastery

Barbey speaks of the dandy’s staunch determination to remain unmoved, while Baudelaire says that should a dandy suffer pain, he will “keep smiling.”

“Manage yourself well and you may manage all the world.” — Bulwer-Lytton

“Immense calm with your heart pounding.” — Noel Coward

4. Aplomb

While self-mastery is the internal practice of keeping emotions in check, aplomb is how it is expressed to the dandy’s audience.

“Dandyism introduces antique calm among our modern agitations.” — Barbey d’Aurevilly

Gus von A and the characters he as a writer created possessed " 'the conception of an intellectual and virginal manliness, which clenches its teeth and stands in modest defiance of the swords and spears that pierce its side.'... there was the aristocratic self-command that is eaten out within and for as long as it can conceals its biologic decline from the eyes of the world". Not unlike Elliot Templeton in Maugham's The Razor's Edge, who ignores his own imminent mortality in favor of honoring a party invitation, the dandy never betrays any sign of inner conflict - a tenet to which Gus von A at first adhered. He knew that "almost everything conspicuously great is great in despite: has come into being in defiance of affliction and pain; poverty, destitution, bodily weakness, vice, passion, and a thousand other obstructions. And that was more than observation—it was the fruit of experience, it was precisely the formula of his life and fame, it was the key to his work."

So bizarre, then, was his eventual loss of any sense of propriety or concept of how he would be perceived in his madness. Caught in what should have been embarrassing, reproachable situations, the new Aschenbach "remained there long, in utter drunkenness, powerless to tear himself away, blind to the danger of being caught in so mad an attitude." The power of intoxicating obsession over the learned life-long practice of self-mastery and aplomb becomes apparent in these words.

5. Independence

Ideally financial independence, but if the dandy is forced to work, a spirit of independence will be expressed through his work, as with Tom Wolfe. Independence — often to the point of aloofness — will also characterize the dandy’s dealings with the world.

“The epitome of selfish irresponsibility, he was ideally free of all human commitments that conflict with taste: passions, moralities, ambitions, politics or occupations.” — Moers

“Independence makes the dandy.” — Barbey d’Aurevilly

Gus von A was born rich, remained rich throughout life, lived by his pen and maintained independently wealthy until his death. He had no dependents and therefore no human commitments other than his own strict expectations of his life and career. Nothing to see here. 11/12 isn't bad lol.

6. Wit

Especially a paradoxical way of talking lightly of the serious and seriously of the light that carries philosophical implications.

(See Oscar Wilde, his characters such as Lord Henry and Lord Goring, and to a lesser degree every other notable dandy.)

7. A skeptical, world-weary, sophisticated, bored or blasé demeanor

“The dandy is blasé, or feigns to be.” — Baudelaire

“A spirit of gay misanthropy, a cynical, depreciating view of society.” — Lister

8. A self-mocking and ultimately endearing egotism

“Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself.” — Wilde, “The Ideal Husband”

9. Dignity/Reserve

Pelham keeps “the darker and stormier emotions” to himself — Bulwer-Lytton

“A flawless dandy, he would be annoyed if he were considered romantic.” — Oscar Wilde, “An Ideal Husband”

In the face of a Venitian cholera plague, one being hushed by police for the sake of tourism, Gus von A eschews all natural problem-solving and skepticism in favor of willful ignorance, so that he can extend his holiday and remain near Tadzio, his young muse.

He also begins to think and speak gravely of love, obsession, the nature of art and the artist, the lover and the loved, in grand lofty allusions to Phaedrus and Socrates. "Such were the devotee's thoughts, such the power of his emotions." Any poetic ability he'd once had for flitting lightly over such emotions was wiped away by madness.

"He trembled, he shrank, his will was steadfast to preserve and uphold his own god against this stranger who was sworn enemy to dignity and self-control. But.. his heart throbbed to the drums, his brain reeled, a blind rage seized him, a whirling lust... and in his very soul he tasted the bestial degradation of his fall." In a dream, his own insanity was made apparent.

10. Discriminating Taste

“To resist whatever may be suitable for the vulgar but is improper for the dandy.” — Moers

11. A renaissance man

“A complete gentleman, who, according to Sir Fopling, ought to dress well, dance well, fence well, have a genius for love letters, and an agreeable voice for a chamber.” — Etherege, quoted by Bulwer-Lytton in “Pelham”

Gus von A was powerless to resist the improper and vulgar once blinded by passion. "The presence of the youthful beauty that had bewitched him filled him with disgust of his own aging body; the sight of his own sharp features and grey hair plunged him in hopeless mortification; he made desperate efforts to recover the appearance and freshness of his youth". He began to wear bright clothes and ostentatious jewelry; his taste was lost to foolishness.

He remained enough of a gentleman outwardly - and the fury of his final work, inspired by Tadzio, seems to confirm that his talents for writing weren't damaged by his madness, so I don't think his status as a renaissance man was every in jeopardy. 10/12 isn't bad (lol).

12. Caprice

Because dandies are an enigma wrapped in a labyrinth, and because dandyism makes its own rules, the final quality is the ability to negate all the others.

For in the end there is not a code of dandyism, as Barbey writes. “If there were, anybody could be a dandy.”

The 12th tenet more or less nullifies my above arguments, but that's the beauty of the thing. Even for all his missteps, in the last line of Death in Venice, we realize that Gus von A's fans and admirers are completely oblivious and, (100 year old spoiler alert!) in death, he is restored to the position in which we first found him.

"And before nightfall a shocked and respectful world received the news of his decease."

His "preoccupation with [Tadzio's]form lead to intoxication and desire, they may lead the noblest among us to frightful emotional excesses, which his own stern cult of the beautiful would make him the first to condemn. So they too, they too, lead to the bottomless pit." Death in Venice remains so fascinating because of its protagonist's determination to ruin himself though every impulse advised against such lunacy.

Basically, if it could happen to him, the most disciplined and dandiest of dandies, it could happen to any among us.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Virginia Woolf's success in creating 'Modern Fiction'

Inspired by Amateur Reader's post - Herman Melville's Mardi was written by Herman Melville:

Read Virginia Woolf's essay Modern Fiction HERE, The Mark on the Wall HERE, and To The Lighthouse (Chapter 6 - Starting with the words "He was safe..." to end of chapter) HERE. Because To The Lighthouse is a novel, I figured it would make the most sense to tackle a representative except for readers not familiar with the book.

I love to read because the things I learn from books inform the choices I make when writing. A close reading of any great piece of literature can guide its reader through the author's processes and intentions, can influence (not define) an aspiring writer's style and motivate him or her to take care that each word tell. Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite authors for this reason. She not only provides the active reader stimulating and instructing fiction, but in her essay Modern Fiction, she outlines criteria by which modern fiction should be evaluated - and holds herself to her own standards. By her own definitions, Woolf creates, in varying degrees of success, modern fiction.

In 1921, Virginia Woolf's The Mark on the Wall was published, in 1925, her book The Common Reader, which contained Modern Fiction, and in 1927, To the Lighthouse. In this 6 year period we see Woolf's work progress from exemplary, but aimless, to challenging and purposeful - and have her own words as the bellwether by which to measure that progress. I consider these my formative literary years, and what better example
than Woolf for taking literary matters in one's own hands can a girl have!

In Modern Fiction, Woolf defines two types of fiction, that which is concerned with the body, and the most desirable - that which is concerned with the spirit. Novels concerned with the spirit, she claims, are "what it is we exact." If that is true, then we as readers get exactly what it is we exact from Woolf's To The Lighthouse - and while we come closer to the spirit, to "life" in The Mark on the Wall than in what Woolf terms as "materialist" fiction, the piece still does not satisfy the readers quest for "the essential thing" it is we search for in fiction, "whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality." For that reason, I believe Virginia Woolf truly becomes VIRGINIA WOOLF in To the Lighthouse - and in The Mark on the Wall, she is well on her way. Woolf assigns properties to what she considers fiction concerned with both the body and with the mind - and believes that "life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small." In that sense, both To The Light House and The Mark On The Wall contain some aspect of "life" by Woolf's own definition - but To The Lighthouse succeeds in adhering to more of the properties that readers now know to be hallmarks of Woolf's best work.

To The Lighthouse, the character Mr. Ramsay contemplates his place in the world while in real time observing his wife read to his son. In The Mark On The Wall, Woolf's speaker chronicles random thoughts while in real time looking at the titular mark on the wall. In exploring the thoughts of their respective speakers, both pieces capture the "myriad impressions" that Woolf claims "the mind receives" in Modern Fiction. However, these impressions are to an end in To The Light House, whereas in The Mark On The Wall they seem scattered, and to have no specific purpose.

In being concerned with the spirit, a piece of fiction must focus on the abstract rather than the concrete and in
The Mark On The Wall, the speaker's thoughts are centered on physical objects (trees, birds, wood); in To The Light House Mr. Ramsay's abstract thoughts are only spoken of in concrete terms to make tangible abstract concepts. Just as with the literal body and spirit, both can be perceived, but only the body physically.

To The Lighthouse, while it employs a stream of consciousness style is less self-concerned than The Mark On The Wall. Because The Mark On The Wall is written in first person, with phrases "I like," "I understand," "I should," "I feel," repeated as often as they are, the piece seems selfish and "never embraces or creates what is outside itself or beyond"; it has "the effect of something angular and isolated", all of which are qualities Woolf attributes to "materialist" fiction.

In both pieces, "emphasis is laid in unexpected places." Because Mr. Ramsay in
To The Lighthouse grapples with his position in his own life and family, this emphasis is in unexpected, yet logical places - always keeping in mind the book's overall aim and maintaining an "obedience to vision." Historical figures of questionable importance, how a dying soldier will be remembered, the alphabet used as a concrete analogy for Mr. Ramsay's quest through his own mind - these seemingly disparate mentions all converge to illuminate Mr. Ramsay's existential musings. The emphasis in To The Light House don't seem to achieve any greater purpose than to "record the atoms as they fall upon the mind... however disconnected and incoherent in appearance."

Like the works of the Russian artists Woolf praises as "saintly" in Modern Fiction,
To The Lighthouse appears "vague and inconclusive" only in that it asks many unanswered rhetorical questions. Similarly, Woolf states in her essay that "life presents question after question which must be left to sound on after the story is over". Mr. Ramsay's vacillating between a life dedicated to family and one to work constantly begs the question "Who shall blame him?" while suggesting his favoring the former. Of course, no one could blame a man for choosing his family over his work - though it's a question people struggle with every day.

The Mark On The Wall asks questions as well, but they are self-involved, have no larger implications beyond the story's speaker and give the reader no incentive to want to know their answers. They do not "endeavor to reach some goal worthy of the most exacting demands of the spirit".

To the Lighthouse is by Woolf's own definition a true work concerning the spirit in that it embodies "life" - which is what Woolf believes modern fiction should always endeavor to do. The Mark on the Wall was a valiant effort, but pales in comparison to Woolf's later work. In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf becomes VIRGINIA WOOLF.

*The Amateur Reader said this would be a tricky post and it WAS! I'm not even sure I'm saying everything I mean to say, but this is my first go at explaining an author's coming into her own. I may rehash this later with more textual examples from TTLH and TMOTW - because I only used quotes from Modern Fiction in the post above.

IN OTHER NEWS - tomorrow is Becca's Book Blog's

So far, So good!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Blackberry-Picking by Seamus Heaney + Divinity in Literature

I've already written about my favorite and second favorite poems on this blog; Blackberry Picking by Seamus Heaney is my third. In this post I'll explain why.

I grew up in church (African-American, Christian, Non-denominational) and have had fleeting spats of full devotion and engagement, but tend to feel a bit divorced from it all. I'm just as interested in the Bible as literature, apart from its larger religious implications, as I am in reading it as the literal WORD OF GOD (though I read it for guidance, instruction, and encouragement more than I do for verifying literary allusions).

Because of my exposure from such an early age, I tend to find (or do I seek?) the Biblical, the Divine in all I read. For an entire semester of high school AP LIT, I analyzed every assigned book, poem, essay, etc through a Biblical lens. All I could see in Beloved was Morrison's allusion to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse... and any passing reference to parable or scripture in any work became, to me, the author's overarching Biblical theme. This tendency was at first impressive (sometimes offensive!) to my teacher and peers, and quickly became pedantic and tiresome - but I was 17 at the time. I'm 22 now... much older, much wiser.
:\ (if only!)

Sometime during that (stained glass?) window, I read Blackberry-Picking by Seamus Heaney. Rereading it now, I don't think my initial analysis was too off the mark, or clouded by the divine fog in which I then found myself.


Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

Seamus Heaney

The literary critic J.V. Cunningham noted "How difficult it is to write in praise!". Well, here's my taking a shot.

Heaney uses contrasting images of divinity - first allusions to Christ, communion, and the crucifixion associated with the action of picking the blackberries - then to the Biblically defined sins of gluttony, lust, and greed (peppered through the first stanza and dominating the second) - to illuminate the emotions associated with picking and eating blackberries, which are in turn used to parallel the human tendency to unwittingly self-destruct, to Fall from Grace - even when intentions are good.

The conscious lack of agents in lines 1 & 2 ("...given heavy rain and sun/ for a full week, the blackberries would ripen,") suggests the influence of a higher power. The blackberries do not ripen themselves and "would ripen" only "given heavy rain and sun" - but "GIVEN" by WHOM? Sacred diction in lines 5 & 6 elevate the speaker's experience of eating blackberries to the equivalent of taking communion - "it's flesh was sweet/like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it." In aligning the act of partaking of the body or "flesh" and blood of Christ to biting into the wine-producing blackberries, Heaney cements this act as a religious experience.

The word "lust" is slipped in the poem to appear as an afterthought in a sentence that progresses from concrete to abstract in lines 7-9. The sentence that includes "...leaving stains upon the tongue /and a lust for picking" establishes "stains" and "lust" as parallels - both are nouns, but a stain is tangible, can be physically perceived; lust is not, cannot. "Hunger" is made the agent of the verb "sent" in line 8 - labeling hunger a driving force, capable of inciting action. "Lust" and "hunger" as used here are in opposition to the tone of the first stanza, but serve to hint at darker events to come.

In lines 10-12 the speaker's trip to crate the berries is likened to a religious pilgrimage or Herculean task, one to be "round hayfields, cornfields, and potato-drills... trekked", one that would "bleach [their] boots" - recalling Biblically scarlet sins being "washed white as snow" - as is the mission of most pilgrimages. The trek was only complete once their "cans were full"; here the transition into the second stanza's theme of gluttony begins.

The speaker and his companion's hands being "peppered with thorn pricks" is a stark allusion to Crucifixion of Christ. That the blackberries with their "big dark blobs burned/ Like a plate of eyes" are watching the pickers as they red-handedly stock them to be hauled away is intentional - and prepares the reader for the guilty disappointment of the next lines.

The greed, hunger, and lust merely hinted at in the first stanza are consummated in lines 15-17. They "hoarded, were "glutting" and as a consequence, a punishment, the once "sweet flesh.. turned sour" - the forbidden fruit from "the bush... fermented"... all was tarnished - the imagery is nearly sacrilegious. As with Adam and Even in the Biblical Garden of Eden, the speaker's innocence was purged and replaced with an undesirable knowledge - that once off the bush, a parallel to the fruit picked from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the berries they greedily hoarded and "hoped would keep", they "knew would not". The evil existed in the speaker's gluttony, which caused the surplus to rot - the knowledge of which ruined the joy of picking blueberries "every year" - yet this greed persisted annually.

Thus is human nature - and the masterful ability of Seamus Heaney to describe that tragic nature so beautifully.

It's actually not at all difficult to write in praise when you've got a poem such as this for inspiration.

I will eventually get to writing about Gus von A (Death in Venice) as a fallen dandy (as defined by and the conclusion of my first installment of Hip Hop as Literature - I'm just not sure when.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Revolutionary Road - First Impressions

In my last post, I was 6 pages into Revolutionary Road and already in awe of its density. By page 13, I'd already formed the (hypo)thesis on which I've decided to center the rest of my notes.

Many of the book's characters seem to be reluctantly enduring the death of their idealism as they're bombarded with the realities of their lives - and it's a theme I'll be on the look out for as I continue reading. There also seems to be a learned culture of silently borne misery, a group mentality of complacency. I'm only on page 15 though, so I'll see if my (hypo)thesis holds up.

But my early (perhaps premature) assessment doesn't stem from any lazy transparency in Yates' writing - if anything, it's a credit to his ability to thread a tangible motif through every single word in his narrative. Nothing appears to be included or mentioned incidentally - no object described that doesn't parallel or illuminate the experiences and sensations of a group of characters, no actions detailed that don't flesh out the character to whom they're ascribed, no setting chosen that doesn't add layers of context to the reader's understanding (of course, I'll give textual examples and details in my full review/analysis - these are just first impressions).

When an author begins his novel with "The final, dying sounds..." it's no accident. Setting an ominous tone, one of impending doom, in the opening words of a story immediately prepares the reader for whats to come. And from what I've read so far, Yates won't be letting up any time soon.

This is purposeful writing at its best; I would be proud to have my (eventual) fiction writing resemble Yates' in any small way.

Can't wait to finish Revolutionary Road and post my full analysis! I've also got to get around to seeing the movie once I'm done with the book...

Saturday, April 18, 2009


"You're making something. You - the critic, the professional appreciator - put something new into the world. And the second one of those things gets sold, you're officially a part of it."
From the movie High Fidelity.

I couldn't be called a professional critic by any definition - but am an active and avid reader and have a paralyzing fear of writing for that reason. I've described my reading style (macro vs micro) on this blog and why some books are frustrating to ENDURE because of it - and why, conversely, other books bring me so much pleasure.

I'm only 6 pages into Revolutionary Road and already, I'm WOWED by its density. Could I ever write with such mastery? I feel presumptuous even typing those words. And I think most writer-readers, and anyone in love with the ART of writing, can understand that feeling.

"The trouble was that from the very beginning they had been afraid they would end by making fools of themselves, and they had compounded this fear by being afraid to admit it." This quote from the opening pages of Revolutionary Road compelled me to nod my head in reluctant sympathy for the described Laurel Players and their collective fear that their seminal performance would fail. The only difference is that all I do is talk and write about that familiar fear - so at least it's not compounding upon itself, right?


It's daunting to know that you don't know much - and that knowledge of ignorance is crippling.

I've cited this Thomas Mann quote here before, but here it is again:
"A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." I'd have to add that it's no cake walk for active readers either.

Maybe it has something to do with my age and that I feel everything I write is somehow, or will be perceived as being, incorrect or foolish (I try not to betray any signs of that apprehension - but I'm writing about it now - so the cat's out the bag), because I LOATHE adamant inaccuracy and steadfast incompetence. In the presence (even the e-presence. read: commenting on literary blogs!) of those I admire, my tentativeness is amplified exponentially. I check and double check things and hope I'm making sense. But I'm in good company, Freud often fainted in the presence of scientists whose work he admired.

Whenever I do get around to CREATING something and submitting it to the court of public approval, I only hope it stands up alongside the kind of purposely written, dynamic writing that I so enjoy. In the mean time, I plan to continue, reading, writing, BLOGGING, and learning.

End rant.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Disparate Obligations in "A White Heron"

“Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been, - who can tell?”

After all this talk about The Yellow Wallpaper being perceived as propaganda(!), I figured I'd find a short story that, while having a clear agenda, manages to not suffocate its readers. I came up with Sarah Orne Jewett's "A White Heron". Through her use of a third-person omniscient speaker, Jewett makes a persuasive case for her environmentalist platform, while permitting the reader room to make his or her own choices and not feel stifled by the author’s beliefs.

I can relate, even if in a very small way, to the decisions that Sylvia, the young heroine of "A White Heron", had to make between the environment and money and between the environment and personal relationships. As a member of the ASPCA, an organization whose members are often staunch vegetarians, some vegans, there is pressure from that community to follow suit (but I love MEAT! and the costs of being an aspiring vegetarian in a house full of adamant meat eaters piles up QUICKLY lol), so with this glimpse into the life of the little girl who had to make a very tough decision between her obligation to the environment and forces pulling her in opposing directions, I can certainly empathize.

Jewett does a great job of implanting objective information, making sure that by the story's end the reader knows Sylvia’s answer to the question (“Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been, - who can tell?”) , and prompting the reader to ponder his or her own obligations and biases.

Alongside her lengthy descriptions of the permanency and beauty of nature and the transience (and vulgarity?) of human life, Jewett places the story of a young girl's first romantic attraction and coming of age - balancing both with care not to seem biased, so the reader feels they themselves are forming these opinions. The noted literary critic J.V. Cunningham asserts that "When style is overpowering it takes us over. We think we have said what we have heard,"; Jewett's style has that effect.

Once Sylvia is faced with the choice between her romantic interest, a young scientist who happens upon her house in the wilderness hoping to find and kill or capture the eponymous white heron, and nature, the scientist's position in her circle of obligation slowly degrades. The scientist goes from being regarded by Sylvia first as an “enemy” with a “very cheerful and persuasive tone”, and a “stranger” with a “kindly” tone, to a “companion”, to the professional title of “ornithologist”, then a “handsome stranger”, and finally to a “friendly lad” once the two become acquainted and she grows to enjoy his company. He once again becomes a “stranger” and is then assigned the generic term “sportsman” when her decision to save the bird is made. By the end of the story, he is merely “the hunter”.

The reader takes the journey with young Sylvia and admires the scientist, who is never named, as Sylvia does, fears him as she does, trusts him as she does, and is left with the choice to take or leave him as she does.

"A White Heron" remains relevant today because people chose between the environment and money, the environment and convenience, or the environment and profits all the time. Reports of large corporations struggling over the importance of environmental effects of their products or byproducts are printed almost daily. Every time someone pumps gasoline into their car, or throws away a diaper, or disposes of a paper cup on a city street, they are making a decision about what they think is important in their lives.

If anyone can make the argument that this is a piece of propaganda, I'd love to hear or read it lol.

The Yellow Wallpaper as Propaganda???

I shouldn't have been surprised to find that some believe Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper to be little more than a one-sided and "quite bald piece of propaganda" (from a comment on - BUT I was.

More surprising to me was that after reading a few well-formed and qualified opinions and reviews, I can see why they might believe that.

From my favorite reviewer, Keely, comes this:

Roland Barthes talked about 'writerly' and 'readerly' books. I've struggled for a long time, myself, in trying to come up for terms to talk about the differences between conscientious works and those which are too bumbling, too one-sided, or too ill-informed to make the reader think.

While The Yellow Wallpaper brings up interesting points, it does not really address them. The text has become part of the canon not for the ability of the author, which is on the more stimulating end of middling, but because it works as a representational piece of a historical movement.

As early feminism, this work is an undeniable influence. It points out one of the most apparent symptoms of the double-standard implied by the term 'weaker sex'. However, Gilman tends to suggest more than she asks, thus writing merely propaganda.

It's may be easy to say this in retrospect when the question "is isolating women and preventing them from taking action really healthy?" was less obvious back then. However, I have always been reticent to rate a work more highly merely because it comes from a different age. Austen, the Brontes, Christina Rossetti, and Woolf all stand on their own merits, after all.

This symbolism by which this story operates is simplistic and repetitive. The opinions expressed are one-sided, leaving little room for interpretation. This is really the author's crime, as she has not tried to open the debate so much as close it, and in imagining her opinion to mark the final word on the matter, has doomed her work to become less and less relevant.

This is the perfect sort of story to teach those who are beginning literary critique, because it does not suggest questions to the reader, but answers. Instead of fostering thought, the work becomes a puzzle with an accurate solution to be worked out, not unlike a math problem. This is useful for the reader trying to understand how texts create meaning, but under more rigorous critique, we find it is not deep or varied enough to support more complex readings.

Unfortunately, this means it is also the sort of story that will be loved by people who would rather be answered than questioned. It may have provided something new and intriguing when it was first written, but as a narrow work based on a simplistic sociological concept, can no longer make that claim.

The story is also marked by early signs of the Gothic movement, and lying on the crux of that and Feminism, is not liable to be forgotten. The symbolism it uses is a combination of classical representations of sickness and metaphors of imprisonment. Sickness, imprisonment, and madness are the quintessential concepts explored by the Gothic writers, but this work is again quite narrow in its view. While the later movement was interested in this in the sense of existential alienation, this story is interested in those things not as a deeper psychological question, but as the literal state of the woman.

Horror is partially defined by the insanity and utter loneliness lurking in everyone's heart, and is not quite so scary when the person is actually alone and mad. Though it all comes from the imposition of another person's will, which is very horrific, the husband has no desire to be cruel or to harm the woman, nor is such even hinted subconsciously. Of course, many modern feminists would cling to the notion that independent of a man's desire to aid, he can do only harm, making this work an excellent support to their politicized chauvinism.

I won't question the historical importance or influence of this work, but it is literarily very simple. A single page of paper accurately dating the writing of Shakespeare's Hamlet would also be historically important, but just because it is related to fine literature does not mean it is fine literature.

My response:

Your point is valid and I'd agree that in retrospect The Yellow Wallpaper may be seen as bordering on sensationalism - but I HAVE to propose that Gilman MAY have presented only one side of the argument INTENTIONALLY to reflect the lack of options presented her - and her female contemporaries.

Does not her presentation of a concrete, resolute stance on the issue exactly mirror the speaker's husband's stance on the rest cure? Maybe the frustration you feel as a reader is supposed to mimic the frustration Gilman's speaker feels.

Ama brought up Gilman's own doctor whose words, "Live as domestic a life as possible … and never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live," were taken as law - not to be questioned or acted against.

Maybe I'm giving Gilman far too much credit... but it's a possibility. And what fun are criticism and analysis without dissent?

love your reviews btw.

The Yellow Wallpaper is simply too important to write off as artful, ornate propaganda.

What say you?

UPDATE: Keely has responded and misunderstood my argument, thinking that I had suggested Gilman's work was meant as satire. Not the case. My 2nd response:

I'm not suggesting that The Yellow Wallpaper was written satirically at all. I'm suggesting that Gilman chose to position herself so firmly that the reader could experience the constriction she and her speaker felt. In mirroring her husband's unflappable views, it would have been detrimental to her argument to present them as equally flawed because her husband didn't think his methods flawed in the least.

He earnestly believed he was doing what was best for her and smotheringly so. I think that Gilman was recreating her experience for the reader - no *wink wink*.

And I'd have to agree that Gilman creates a formidable ENEMY against whom the reader barely has a choice to side, but, as seen in the case of your review, there's plenty dialogue to be had because of it.

**and if you're reading this, leave a comment. This blog has been up for ALMOST a month now and I've only gotten 2 comments so far, though my traffic tracker tells me LOTS of people are passing through. I'd LOVE for this to become a dialogue - or any of my other posts for that matter.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sharon Olds - Rite of Passage + Children's Perspectives

My second favorite poem is Rite of Passage by Sharon Olds. I love literature that deals with children's perceptions of themselves, each other and the world - and this poem touches on that through the eyes of a parent reluctant to see his or her son grow up.

Janiyah & Sinclair

I babysit often(!) and my cousin Janiyah and her friend Sinclair never cease to amaze me with their acute observations and talents for making even the simplest things profound and expressing their wonder pithily. Maybe it's because I don't remember how my mind worked or how I saw the world as a child (at the ripe old age of 22) - or how words and letters looked before I learned to read, or what purposes I ascribed to machines before I learned their use.

Literature that believably taps that pool of innocence captures me every time. Some favorites include First Confession by Frank O'Connor, The Chimney Sweeper by William Blake (both versions from Songs of Innocence and Experience), and though people HEAVILY criticize it - The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne.

*spoiler alert*

Without my making any claims about its historical accuracy or feasibility, its morality, or perceived exploitation of the fable form to push its agenda, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas told the story of a boy's life in Nazi German betraying few signs of its adult author (though I realize a 9-year old child couldn't have written this book). It captured the way children internalize and regurgitate words and phrases they hear, using them in and out of context - the narrator Bruno repeatedly calling his sister The Hopeless Case after hearing the phrase used once, referring to Auschwitz as ‘Out-With’ and Hitler (the Führer) as The Fury.

*end spoiler alert*

Subject matter aside, its narrator was not unlike Ralphie from the movie A Christmas Story - precocious, prone to hyperbole and bouts of waking fantasy, with a tendency to believe that everyone's against him.... It's a success in storytelling.

All that brings me to Rite of Passage, which is not told from a child's POV, but manages to accurately convey the way children see themselves in relation to each other - and how adults perceive these miniature showdowns... I have a younger brother (I'm almost 8 years older than him) and I've seen what Olds describes in her poem IN ACTION.

Rite of Passage

As the guests arrive at our son’s party
they gather in the living room—
short men, men in first grade
with smooth jaws and chins.
Hands in pockets, they stand around
jostling, jockeying for place, small fights
breaking out and calming. One says to another
How old are you? —Six. —I’m seven. —So?
They eye each other, seeing themselves
tiny in the other’s pupils. They clear their
throats a lot, a room of small bankers,
they fold their arms and frown. I could beat you
up, a seven says to a six,
the midnight cake, round and heavy as a
turret behind them on the table. My son,
freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks,
chest narrow as the balsa keel of a
model boat, long hands
cool and thin as the day they guided him
out of me, speaks up as a host
for the sake of the group.
We could easily kill a two-year-old,
he says in his clear voice. The other
men agree, they clear their throats
like Generals, they relax and get down to
playing war, celebrating my son’s life.

The images of gathering little men "tiny in each other's pupils" "jostling, jockeying for place" remind me of mammal cubs at a watering hole, instinctually play-fighting to learn the survival skills they'll need later in life, the fights "breaking and calming" like undulating waves - as is the fickle nature of childhood grudges.... The speaker's son banning the small men together against a common and weaker enemy, "a two year old", only relayed to the reader through the speakers eyes...

This poem is perfect.

There's so much to love here and I could write more BUT I have a traffic tracker that lets me know what people are Googling to find their way here and a LOT OF YOU are cheating on papers.... TISK TISK! No Freebies!

Anywho - I'm reading Revolutionary Road now + coming up there'll be more on 'Hip Hop as Literature' and Death in Venice (Gus von A as a fallen dandy).

Future Posterity (in Literature) of the 00s.

in response to THIS (from A Commonplace Blog) and THIS (from Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes):

I've been thinking a LOT lately about who will write the literary fiction that typifies this generation.(literary fiction means... WHAT? I know. I know.)

Who will be our Fitzgerald? Will we have one? Who will document and make immortal this youth culture, however transient it may be. Not a fan of Kerouac or Easton Ellis, but they pegged their respective eras well.

I'd like to see the story told of self-important hipsters, micro-fame, of instant, often undeserved celebrity - and told well. If this story is only preserved on blogs or facebook or in youtube videos will it last? What's the future of posterity(!) in the digital age?

What's happening now isn't at all unlike Wilde's late Victorian commentaries on the society he kept and the frivolous pleasantries of its members and their attempts to remain relevant in all the right circles, or Maugham's turn of the century and Depression-Era social scene regulars - or Austen's criticisms on propriety and expectations... Whatever is said about the 00s must be as perceptive as those timeless observations and as carefully handled.

Sure, I've experienced a few page turners that get the MOOD right - even with their small caches of oft repeated descriptive words and phrases, flat characters, and abysmal writing, but those are the types of books that'll be irrelevant by next year (or worse: OUT OF STYLE & UNCOOL!!!!! only to be enjoyed *IRONICALLY*). I like to think I'll have something to do with the stuff that lasts, that is universal.

The Athitakis/Michaels dialogue is a good one - though Michaels seems, in his essay, to have a narrow comprehension of what the AMERICAN SOCIAL SCENE is...

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Mystery Guest by Grégoire Bouillier!

Synopsis: This book is not fictional. The events described took place in the life of author Grégoire Bouillier. This memoir was his attempt to "tell not the story of [his] life... but what [his] life had told [him] and what [he] thought [he'd] decoded of its language," and that's precisely what he does. The Mystery Guest tells the story of Bouillier's failed relationship with a woman (never named) who leaves him 5 years prior to the book's start without warning, explanation or any contact UNTIL she phones him an invite to a birthday party, at which he will be eponymous the mystery guest. Sad and honest hilarity ensues as Bouillier tries to piece together WHAT IT ALL MEANS.

This book may be at first frustrating for the active reader. Don't miss the forest for the (seemingly) gnarled trees. The Mystery Guest delivers on both a micro and macro level if given the chance to find its footing. There is the temptation to give up before the book wins you over, but the prize is well worth the journey.

Most of the more critical notes I'd taken about The Mystery Guest were irrelevant by the book's end. At first, Bouillier's memoir appears to be carelessly assembled - yet perceptive and insightful. The constant use of the phrase "as they say" to qualify assertions and justify the use of idioms tires the reader quickly, until it becomes evident that it's all to an end. Deferring to some imaginary "THEY" as if the speaker's own opinions aren't alone valid, reads as tentativeness, but what begins as an annoying tic becomes a purposeful style as it mimics the speaker's vacillation between unflappable certainty and unmitigated panic. When within the span of a sentence, images and tones contradict themselves, it's simplest to attribute the perceived fault to sloppy writing or translation, as I was too quick to do; when in the progression of a line, the speaker, who , because this is a memoir, is indistinguishable from the author, alternately describes his iron resolve and paralyzing insecurities, it's difficult not to appreciate the careful construction of what you're reading. It's not unlike marveling at people who spend lots of time and money to appear not to care about their appearance... a delicate art that can easily go wrong and is applauded when successful.
"No doubt this [the decision to wear only turtlenecks] was magical thinking on my part...; these turtleneck-undershirts erupted into my life without my noticing until it was too late and I was under their curse. You could even say they'd inflicted themselves on me..."
The speaker's decision to wear only turtlenecks (The Mystery Guest dedicates long passages to Bouillier's expressing his distaste for the kind of man who layers turtlenecks - before his admonition of becoming just that type of man) goes IN A SINGLE SENTENCE from being described as active and artful to something passively endured. But, a few lines later the speaker explains that when in pain we often "spend our lives... disappearing behind what negates us," just as each of his assertions on the previous page seem to cancel the other.

This illustrates The Mystery Guest's charming method of explaining away its chaos, which, only naturally, is also the speaker's aim throughout the story - to explain way the chaos in his life, to "' illuminate certain matters for [him]self at the same time as [he] makes them communicable to others'". Bouillier tries to rationalize the irrational, assign agenda to pain and chance, cope through logic, make sense of the injustices he doesn't understand. Every event, pertinent or irrelevant, is manipulated in Bouillier's mind to advise his predicament: the death of writer Michael Leiris, the launch of the solar shuttle Ulysses, characters literary and mythological - all in existence solely to lend themselves to Bouillier as needed, to be alluded to and used as foils against which the magnitude of his pain could be measured. All the while, the reader grapples to piece together how all of the disparate elements in The Mystery Guest could possibly work together congruently. Yet by the end of the book, absolutely everything is as it should be.

Just as, in his book, Bouillier can't always forgive the self-serving narcissism and tendency to project he possesses when recognized in others, I at first found it difficult to dismiss the book's mechanics in favor of seeing the big picture - until it was handed to be on a platter... in a bow.

Once I was able to zoom out and enjoy the book as it's intended, I found a lot to love in The Mystery Guest. Dark thoughts described as "grinning fiends" and "old familiars" threatening to "sully [Bouillier] with their banality" were reminiscent of Montaigne's "chimeras and imaginary monsters" brought on by idleness that he hoped to "record ... in writing... to make [his] mind ashamed of them." The way Bouillier attempts to capture every impression and emotion accurately recalls To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, who (incidentally?) plays an important part in Bouillier's memoir. The Mystery Guest's goal was to "record the atoms as they fall upon the mind... however disconnected and incoherent in appearance," and make sense of them - a goal Woolf defined as paramount in 'Modern Fiction'. I could relate to the speaker's self-doubt and imagine myself behaving similarly if in similar situations. I could sympathize with the perfect and pithy descriptions of the flawed logic of a lover scorned (who can't???) and the hyperbolic hilarity found in the most acute pain.

Before I'd finished it, I was prepared to rip into this book mercilessly - and more importantly - prematurely.... but whatever flaws you may THINK you've detected in The Mystery Guest turn out not to be flaws at all. They all lend themselves to the very human telling of Bouillier's imperfect dealings with the world around him.


Kudos to Bouillier and Stein.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Hip Hop as Literature Introduction

"She was teaching me by not preaching to me, but speaking to me in a method that was leisurely, so easily I approached."
Common - I Used To Love H.E.R.

I love GOOD Hip Hop and the best of it employs as many literary devices as any poem I've read - extended metaphors, similes, allusions, alliteration, slant rhyme, precise story structure, clever manipulation of POVs, personification, hyperbole... the list goes on and on.

Analyzing Hip Hop through a literary lens should be an interesting undertaking, but I've had the idea for a long while, and now's as good a time as any to put this idea into action.

The first song will be Common's I Used To Love H.E.R. - one of my favorite songs of all time!

Listen to it below. The lyrics are included - and rather than having them in bar form, the way rap lyrics are usually read, I've punctuated them and have them listed sentence by sentence and grouped by verse. I didn't correct grammatical errors and the chorus is left out.

I met this girl, when I was ten years old and what I loved most she had so much soul.

She was old school when I was just a shorty; never knew throughout my life she would be there for me on the regular.

Not a church girl, she was secular - not about the money, no studs was mic checking her but I respected her.

She hit me in the heart.

A few New York niggas had did her in the park but she was there for me and I was there for her, pull out a chair for her, turn on the air for her, and just cool out, cool out and listen to her, sitting on bone, wishing that I could do her.

Eventually, if it was meant to be, then it would be because we related physically and mentally and she was fun then.

I'd be geeked when she'd come around.

Slim was fresh, yo, when she was underground, original, pure untampered and down sister.

Boy I tell ya, I miss her.


Now periodically I would see old girl at the clubs and at the house parties.

She didn't have a body but she started getting thick quick, did a couple of videos and became afrocentric: out goes the weave, in goes the braids, beads, medallions.

She was on that tip about stopping the violence.

About my people she was teaching me by not preaching to me, but speaking to me in a method that was leisurely, so easily I approached.

She dug my rap, that's how we got close, but then she broke to the West coast, and that was cool cause around the same time I went away to school and I'm a man of expanding, so why should I stand in her way.

She’d probably get her money in L.A. - and she did stud.

She got big pub, but what was foul - she said that the pro-black was going out of style.

She said afrocentricity was of the past.

So she got into R&B, hip-house, bass, and jazz.

Now black music is black music and it's all good.

I wasn't salty she was with the boys in the hood cause that was good for her.

She was becoming well rounded.

I thought it was dope how she was on that freestyle shit just having fun, not worried about anyone and you could tell by how her titties hung.


I might've failed to mention that the chick was creative but once the man got you well he altered her native - told her if she got an image and a gimmick that she could make money, and she did it like a dummy.

Now I see her in commercials; she's universal.

She used to only swing it with the inner-city circle - now she be in the burbs licking rock and dressing hip and on some dumb shit when she comes to the city - talking about popping glocks, serving rocks, and hitting switches.

Now she's a gangsta rolling with gangsta bitches - always smoking blunts and getting drunk, telling me sad stories.

Now she only fucks with the funk - stressing how hardcore and real she is.

She was really the realest, before she got into showbiz.

I did her, not just to say that I did it, but I'm committed, but so many niggas hit it that she's just not the same letting all these goofies do her.

I see niggas slamming her, and taking her to the sewer but I'ma take her back hoping that the shit stop cause who I'm talking `bout y'all is hip-hop.


Sneak Peak: Common, in his song ‘I Used To Love H.E.R.’, establishes the extended metaphor of the song’s speaker’s first romantic interest and its evolution as a parallel to Common’s often tumultuous relationship with the ever-changing Hip Hop genre. By assigning Hip Hop a gender, actions, feelings, and intention, Common is able to detail to his listeners why and how Hip Hop first appealed to him, why for a time his interest waned, and how the two found each other again. 'I Used To Love H.E.R.'s story structure mimics the archetypal 'hero saves harlot' template that can be seen in contemporary movies, Biblical parables, and many other pop culture mediums - a structure used to illuminate what Common perceives as Hip Hop's fall from grace and his attempt to salvage what is left of the genre he continues to love. Common's purposeful and precise syntax further highlights his complex relationship with Hip Hop; he most often uses the subjects "I" and "She" to illustrate the trajectories both he and Hip Hop follow during the period in the speaker's life the song covers, only using other agents to qualify the effect outside influences impose on the course of that relationship. Through his speaker's dissatisfaction with the recounted relationship, Common is able to voice his criticisms about the increasingly aggressive and commercial direction Hip Hop was taking in the early 1990s under the guise of love lost and found. This clever, yet thinly veiled commentary on the state of Hip Hop is mirrored in the trials the genre faces to this day and is why 'I Used To Love H.E.R.' has been hailed as one of the greatest and most perceptive records in the annals of Hip Hop.

Full analysis of 'I Used To Love H.E.R.' coming after my review of 'The Mystery Guest'.

Hip Hop Shakespeare

* I know I have ISSUES with tense, so try to disregard those errors lol.