A Literary Blogger
After a year of writing essays, I have come to the conclusion that all of us, in various ways, are spending time, energy, and money on what in the PR biz are called "makeovers." Celebrities and politicians require them frequently in order to maintain a clear sense of a marketable commodity in the public's eye. And obviously the stakes are quite high when dealing with stardom in Hollywood or positions of power in Washington D.C. But in far more humble ways, makeovers must also happen in the lives of everyday laborers, salesmen, small business people, teachers, parents, poets and retirees. The homeless "war vet" waiting near a traffic light with a clever sign, saying "No More Lies! I Just Need the Money for Beer!" may be glimpsed as putting a new spin on outmoded traditions such as beggary, appeals to Charity as a religious obligation, or even the idea of some kind of "safety net," when hardly any fabric remains to create it, let alone to make it over. Perhaps Michael Jackson really is the archetypal example rather that some kind of exception to the rule. For him expensive plastic surgery provided a kind of Never Neverland of Youth, but not without its lies and self deceptions. For the rest of us, our dreams, luckily, must be adjusted down to the size of our pocket books.
A poet, especially a very private one with a pinch of the crankiness that comes with age, nonetheless must remain a chameleon of another sort. The public language he or she encounters every morning must be refashioned, remade, made over, made new in some way--individually, if not always originally. The task is daunting and not many succeed each and every morning. Other duties and routines interpose themselves, but over time little makeovers of these kinds produce discrete pieces of discourse of varying lengths that may become communicable to others, effecting, when experienced by readers, other little makeovers. Over time these may become preferable to the more expensive, time-consuming ones just because they are made of home-spun fabric and need not parade themselves immediately and so widely in public.
To be sure, differences should also be noted. The feeling of having accomplished a makeover in this second sense is to have something very new and very old at the same time. In a way, it preserves more than it remakes, but in so far as the poem or other piece of writing rises to the challenge of a tired, even a dead, public language, the writer joins in as a reader of his or her own work, walking away "made over" by the poem through the miracle of the utterance of a seemingly cleaner language and its accompanying music.
And now I come to the crucial point in this essay, where I attempt a makeover through language. By shifting definitions on you, I wish to redefine myself, at least for the rest of this essay, as a "Literary Blogger."
First the term appeals to me because, as far as I know, it hasn't been used before, and second because it seems to cover various aspects of the realities lurking in my current condition. Having decided to devote time to building a website of poems and essays over the past year, I have shunned for the present the more traditional routes of publication and recognition. More like my contemporary Internet bloggers who provide almost daily political updates and varieties of perspective on personal interests, I find myself with them on the "outside" of established institutions--another "dot com," rather than a "dot edu," or a "dot org"--collecting and selecting my former selves (or former self expressions) for exhibition and reinvention in this new format. Like my fellow bloggers, I find myself striving to "correct" and defend certain points of view, which in my case have emerged over the years from reading poetry, drama, and fiction, and from trying to be a decent Teacher. Most bloggers may have an ideological or other specialized perspective they are pushing, but I don't see myself as superior in any way on that account. There is no "privileged" perspective in the fiercely democratic forum called the Internet, nor should there be. Only the critical thinking of readers should filter for themselves what they are willing to entertain as possibly true and to determine what is probably false.
The Internet does raise challenges for teachers of English, and not just because it becomes easier for students to plagiarize essays. The idea announced decades ago that word processing and the Internet would put teachers out of business has proven to be totally false. If anything, technologic advances have produced the opposite effect. Quantity of information is not, despite the technical skills of the CIA, quality and useful intelligence. The Liberal Arts and Writing courses are needed now more than ever in order to offer students the necessary critical thinking skills, which should be added to in-depth foreign language and culture studies if a college education is to mean much in the future.
Following the above ideas, I might re-create a current resume or curriculum vitae for myself that descends from respectable institutional authority towards a return to what William Blake might call a "higher Innocence," a kind of Bob Dylanesque "I-was-so-much-older-then-I'm-younger-than-that-now" experience. You see, I was a Professor first when I got a Ph.D. in English Romantic Poetry from the University of Washington in 1973 at the age of 27 (and, not surprisingly, felt the full maturity of adulthood settle on me with a thud), but I spent much of the next thirty years finding ways to remain a Learner and Teacher within institutional settings while writing poetry and translating on the side. Now, as I continue my perilous descent into the contents and discontents of retirement, I have become a Literary Blogger by default and/or out of necessity.
Forgetting the literary part for a moment, let's ask: "What exactly is a blogger?" Since I can't run yet to the most recent edition of the American Heritage Dictionary for alternate meanings, I must come up with my own understanding of the term. From what I gather, it is someone with a website who keeps track of events and people of interest and creates instant "reviews" and/or analysis which, in effect, rival the standard "authoritative" voices in the electronic and print media. The case of the authenticity of memos relating to the record of George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard is only the most recent example of how bloggers got ahead of the curve and helped spin the story away from the questions raised by the memos to the motives of the messengers themselves (i.e., CBS, Dan Rather, and "Sixty Minutes") who had taken them as proof positive of favoritism provided to the wayward son of a powerful politician.
In fairness, something of the same thing happened to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth when bloggers exposed John O'Neal's long-standing connections to Charles Colson in the Nixon White House and links to a lawyer working for both for O'Neal and Karl Rove, the man who has tried to do almost daily makeovers of the current President and may have convinced more than half the electorate that George W. Bush has certainly never ever even contemplated doing anything resembling a "flip flop" in his life! Like a persistent doctrinal dispute within a Church, that PR ploy reads as a PLUS to most members of the choir, but to me, and I hope more than a few others, it is a definite MINUS because I keep waiting for Bush to show some sign of having even the most elementary of "learning curves" when it comes to understanding the consequences of many of his decisions. The courage to admit a mistake now and then, or perceive a nuance, would be quite reassuring not just to me but to countless millions around the world who may not have a vote but whose lives get flip-flopped. It is, however, very difficult to distinguish between flip flops and makeovers, except that the latter is a necessity, and the former is supposed to be a sign of weakness and/or indecision. But now we are dealing in fictional realities fashioned by giant Media conglomerates that have nothing to do with the everyday experience of normal people.
So, as perhaps you understand, I feel the need to blog along and encourage others to do the same. With Media News Programs becoming increasingly a matter of "entertainment" requiring the kinds of makeovers necessary to improve ratings, much less time can be spent on investigative reporting and hard-nosed questioning of the powers that be. Some effort should be made, though, to distinguish between the true bloggers who add something to the dialogue, and the mere "cloggers," who really intend to silence or hamstring opposing views without any respect for contrary evidence or other points of view. Even the so-called "debates" between Bush and Kerry require legal documents rivaling the Constitution in length--anything to avoid spontaneous interchanges or human interaction. Fortunately, in the first debate anyway, Jim Lehrer was up to the task of bending the rules a bit, and perhaps should be considered the winner of the first round by asking questions on matters of clear import regarding the kinds of decisions which will have to be made whoever inherits the war on the ground in Iraq and elsewhere.
But to return to the need for bloggers. Since advertisers and PR people reap millions in a narrow arena of advertising Media, it is left mostly to the bloggers and the remaining print journalists to fill a yawning void for those who are not just interested in the "horse race" at election time. Talking heads, political conventions, even Fox news, get outfoxed and are gratefully abandoned for pithier matter. You can just turn down the sound and let CNN's Tucker Carson squirm and pout over his pretty bow tie while checking your favorite website for more meaningful updates: "Welcome! Come on in and get the Anderson Corollary to the Hallberg Principle about our 'Right to Unhappiness,' another view on a different kind of return to Normalcy, and even less Minimalism in your life, for a change."
But maybe I should question my motives in becoming a Literary Blogger. For some reason I worry that I sometimes might be motivated by the same impulse as the girl in the Flannery O'Connor story, "Revelation," who, having been educated in the Classics in "The North" (probably somewhere near, if not precisely in, Massachusetts), finds herself nearly strangling to death a large, self-confident, highly prejudiced woman in the cramped waiting room of a local doctor's office. If a little learning is a dangerous thing, more is perhaps even more dangerous. Cramped quarters and outside perspectives can bring out the animal instincts in us all.
Yet I remember in April 2002, even before I began these essays or ever heard of the term, "blogger," talking with my fellow Swedish translator, Lars Nordstrom, about setting up a website to have a place to maintain links between Europe and America as we entered what seemed a more divisive new period of our history. Old alliances were already becoming shaky due to different perspectives on the problems of Terrorism and the spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Then when I began the first essay for this site, several readers, including my not-so-estranged wife, noticed a certain resemblance to Alistair Cook's weekly "Letter From America" which we used to listen to weekly on the BBC--except, of course, that these essays have been coming out more or less monthly.
And now I can add that my whole life experience, much of which has been augmented by my reading and writing, has focused on an impulse toward wanting to embrace aspects of Western Science as well as religions, adding Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and especially Taoism to Christianity and Judaism. And yet I am willing to abandon all human religions if that means denying or ignoring humanity's effects on Global Warming and our place in a wider environment than merely the social one. What kind of a blogger might Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson or Robinson Jeffers have made? What kinds of makeovers are still to be found in the poetry of Denise Levertov, Theodore Roethke, and William Stafford--and among many living unacknowledged poets. At least I have these role models to aspire towards.
Anyway, my advice to myself and to my readers is to "Blog on, Blog on! May thought be unconfined! But try to distinguish between a blogger and a clogger: keep checking those facts!" The days of the Man of Letters are long gone, but new communications offer new avenues of expression and potential dialogue. Meanwhile, "Anchor Persons Beware!" 7 October 2004