Nov 17

Poetry and the Economy, Part 1

Nobody asked me, but I think the depressed economy -- which looks like it will last, and affects everything -- will bring about a new esthetic. Everything new in literature starts in poetry, so I was interested and then uneasy when an accomplished poet friend wrote me that she was enrolling in this writers.com online poetry course, for which I give you the course description and outline:

Imperfectly Simple: Write Wabi Sabi

Write to see the light shine through the cracks in your life. Wabi Sabi is a hip alternative to measuring value solely by degrees of perfection or profit. Originating in Japan, it celebrates intrinsic value in what is lean, spare and rough hewn. Do you appreciate vintage patinas? Do you want to make peace with your life’s cracked pots or ragged edges—even your penchant for messiness? This class is for anyone who sees value-added in simply what is—and wants to write about it.

We’ll write from a Wabi Sabi perspective (and technique) in short essays, stories, poetry, or journal entries. We’ll even get visual to create an "altered book” documenting class experience. Bring your flaws to class. We’re going to write from the space between the lines. Class theme will be the following quote by Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Week 1: Imperfect & Uncertain: Learning what Wabi Sabi is, I'm beginning to appreciate its value for my life and work. I question the drive to be certain, competent and confident about my writing.

Week 2: Quirky & Transient: I celebrate what’s offbeat about my work, my home, my family, my life. I look more closely at the immaterial and what is not seen with the eye.

Week 3: Simple & Rustic: I write simple, spare and lean in form and/or content. I explore the rugged patina of my experience and my writing practice.

Week 4: Broken & Incomplete: I allow what’s wrong to be wrong—and understand that’s all right. I make sense of the “end” of things, and value what’s left unfinished.

This course sounds so intriguing and exotic. How fun to try it (only $160 for four weeks). It sounds so punk rock and carefree! To lighten up, devolve, loosen my grip, and see and write like a kid again! I don't doubt that Wabi Sabi is good poetic exercise. Yet its values remind me of Facebook. Facebook encourages communications that are simple and incomplete, lean and transient, imperfect and uncertain, rough-hewn and quirky. (It is, however, strangely intolerant of any posting that is not hip, and I would bet my lunch that Wabi Sabi is the same way.) Facebook is a quirk fest, a quirk museum. We revel in our own and each other's quirks there, while Facebook compiles our quirks for marketers, employers, and surveillance. Nobody much cares about that.

Nobody cares much about poetry either, but they are going to care more, and soon. Nobody collects poetry for marketers and surveillance--yet. That is its glory. To get casual about the way we write poetry--saturating it with the personal and offbeat, being satisfied to leave it unfinished--I think is a mistake.

I'm particularly troubled by that one sentence: "I allow what’s wrong to be wrong—and understand that’s all right."

More later.....
Aug 24

Veblen on Vacation

Coiner of the phrase “conspicuous consumption” and author of Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), economist Thorstein Veblen built his own summer house and study cabin on Washington Island in Lake Michigan, at the tip of Wisconsin’s peninsula (its “thumb”) where he stayed every sumveblen study cabin 2011mer from 1896 to 1926. In 2009 somebody moved the cabin to its current spot on Little Lakeveblen with plans to restore it. On vacation I found it by chance. It’s not much to see, now or back then. It's built in Norwegian-immigrant style, boards and logs arranged vertically so as to channel wetness to the ground. He also made all his own furniture and a boat. He wrote nine books, all still in print. The photo of Veblen with his cabin was taken about 1915. 

The man was eccentric; he has been called the Frank Lloyd Wright of economics. An American with his name of course had to be a Norwegian from Wisconsin, which explains his progressivism and contempt for non-productive activity. Until I visited the cabin, all that had never crossed my mind.

We have Veblen to thank for his contributions to the theories of consumerism and the business cycle, and in the Gilded Age he accurately foresaw a U.S. economy that would benefit mainly the very wealthy. He taught at Mizzou for seven years, hating it and calling Columbia “a woodpecker hole of a town.” For a year he was one of the editors of The Dial, which became a litmag that first published the likes of Marianne Moore.

When Veblen first came to Washington Island he stayed in a boarding house and looked for people who could teach him to speak Icelandic so he could translate an old epic poem. In 1957, for her master’s thesis, a graduate student collected islanders' memories and stories about the great man, and incidentally was given the books and papers left in the study. Veblen wore really old clothes, people said. But he was generous with money and liked anybody who could teach him anything.