Theory Teacher's Blog

Jessye Norman, The Roots, and Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama

Jessye Norman

Jessye Norman

After we read a couple of Langston Hughes’s poems in class last week, one of my students told me about this project to musically perform Hughes’s book Ask Your Mama, and it looked pretty cool, so I thought I’d post it up on my blog and say a few words. Hughes always meant this poem to be performed with music and even provided musical directions, but he died before it could happen. This year, opera singer Jessye Norman teamed up with composer Laura Karpman to do it. Among many others, they invited members from the hip hop group The Roots, whose artistry is well-known for pushing hip hop to higher aesthetic, musical, and intellectual levels. This website here that my student e-mailed me includes some of the recordings along with several interviews — one with Roots’s drummer Questlove — that you can listen to. And here’s a promotional video:


Questlove of The Roots

As Questlove points out, this project reminds us of something that hip hop has always foregrounded — the fact that literature, music, pop culture, political activism, and community are not so distinct as we often imagine them. Especially in the literature classroom, students seem to expect literature to be a purely textual and serious thing, no matter how much I try to insert music, pop culture, politics, and community, and — most importantly — laughter into the curriculum (as I did [here] in my blog on the hip hop canon last fall, as well is in my many blogs on pop music [here] and on performative poetry [here].)

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

But of course, the literary text’s intimate relationship with its performance and its cultural context is something I struggle with too. It’s not that easy to bring all this together in the sterile setting of the classroom. Moreover, text has the advantage of seeming solid, permanent, and immutable, in contrast to the fleeting nature of individual performances and timely articulations in specific political contexts.  The internet definitely helps return the text to its performative dimension or at least makes that performative dimension more accessible. I say “helps,” because I know we could have a long conversation about whether the internet successfully does return it home to its performative originality or whether the internet form somehow changes the performative text.


September 2, 2009 Posted by | music, poetry, race | 1 Comment

“Hester’s Song” and postmodern Scarlet Letters

For the past couple of years, one of my side projects has been re-writes of Hawthorne’s  The Scarlet Letter — one of the most classic and often taught novels in American literary history. There are tons of re-writes, both high literary and pop cultural, and wikipedia has listed quite of few of them. Why so many re-writes of this one text? Perhaps the novel continues to have such resonance because young men and women continue to be subject to bizarre, contradictory peer pressures, and single mothers continue to be stigmatized. We don’t have to look far to find examples: the story that dominated the network news a month ago about a single woman having octuplets [here]… and then Anne Coulter’s recent book that accuses single mothers of being the source of all societal problems [here]…  and last year I blogged about recent movies about single mothers [here].

My favorite pop cultural version of The Scarlet Letter is the episode “Caged!” from the TV show Popular. On the more high-brow literary side, John Updike himself wrote not just one, but three novels that re-envision Hawthorne’s classic: Roger’s Version (as in Roger Chillingsworth’s version) is the best, but also S. and A Month of Sundays. And Susan-Lori Parks, the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer prize for drama, wrote two: In the Blood and Fucking A, published together as The Red Letter Plays. Then there are those that incorporate Hawthorne’s novel indirectly: Bharati Mukherjee’s Holder of the World and Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba are both terrific. One could, I suppose, call all of these “postmodern” texts (and Mukherjee and Condé “postcolonial” in addition) because of the way they take up a classic narrative and re-write it from a different perspective. (By the way, I’ve blogged about other postmodern re-writes here.)

Just a couple of days ago I read one such re-write for the first time, and it really hit me emotionally, so I want to talk about it in this blog: it’s called “Hester’s Song” by Toi Derricotte, and it comes from her book Natural Birth (1983) and was republished in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. Toi Derricotte was an unwed mother, and that is one of the main themes of her book. Here is the poem:

Hester’s Song
My seventeen year old son asks me if I’ve read The Scarlet Letter

              i rode you piggyback
          through groundless sky,
          the stars white foam in my face.
          they wanted to drive you
          back to namelessness,
          were jealous of the thought of you
          convulsed wide open
          and made a cave.
          i prayed
          you, miracle,
          to root through my fingers,
          grow in the spot,
          be with me.
          at night i curled over you
          guarding my rage,
          i thought you might escape
          through the crown of my head
          like a chimney.

          i lay without husband
          and drank at the stream of light.
          (how wide god is, my child,
          a pillar, he wrenched me…
          now you are with me
          like prayer.)

          clot in the night,
          thick swimming,
          hold, i say, hold:
          you are the one gold
          ever to come of alchemy.

I love how this poem begins, with the image of the pregnant woman riding her unborn child piggyback into the heavens. The image is a reversal of the normal image — the rather standard image in popular culture of a child on the father’s shoulders, riding him piggyback. In addition, Derricotte’s image creates a sense of how the mother is oddly dependent on the child rather than the other way around.

Why does she begin this way? The answer to that question may be that she is writing this poem to her son. Derricotte has provided us with an imagined situation — her son, in high school, reading The Scarlet Letter, about an unwed single mother branded with a social stigma. Naturally, Derricotte and her son are tempted to make the analogy between their situation and the situation described in the novel. Derricotte thinks about the situation as a mother would. She cares less about the social stigma that Hawthorne focused on in his novel, and instead she worries that her son will feel bad about himself… will ask her, “Mom, did you regret getting pregnant with me?” It’s a scary question, and as Jane Juffer points out in her book Single Mother, it’s a question that countless images in popular culture provoke millions of unwed mothers and their children to ask… or to feel afraid to ask. And in answer to that question, she concludes “you are the one gold ever to come of alchemy.” The poem affirms the relationship between mother and child.

But it does not do so simply or vapidly. Like the plot of Hawthorne’s novel, the poem recognizes the hostile environment in which the mother and child find themselves, and it transforms the difficulties and challenges Hester faces into a source of strength — transforms the negative  into a positive. The poem evokes a negative, uncertain void with words such as groundless, namelessness, wide open, night, ocean. But Derricotte uses these words in order to remind her son that they are rooted together. Here again, a line like the first that reverses a standard image. Normally, we think of fingers rooting or searching through something, but in her line, “i prayed you, miracle, to root through my fingers,” she says the opposite. What we would expect the subject of the sentence to be (fingers), she makes the object, and in doing so, she flips our sense of experience and perception.

The effect, I think, of her poem on the reader is one of simultaneous intimacy and alienation.

March 13, 2009 Posted by | feminism, poetry | 1 Comment

No “si, se puede” in Alexander’s inauguration poem

Last Wednesday, in class, we discussed Elizabeth Alexander’s reading of her poem “Praise Song for the Day” immediately after Barack Obama’s delivery of his inauguration speech. The poem has received quite a bit of criticism from the popular presses, not only conservative, right wing periodicles such as here, but also liberal ones such as here, and left wing such as here. Her poem is what literary historians call an “occasional poem,” and as points out, in the eighteenth century, most poetry was “occassional poetry” such as this, dedicated to public events or public concerns. Not until the nineteenth century, at the beginning of what we call the “romantic period,” did people begin to think of poetry as the individual expression of original genius or of a private emotion. With this historical framework in mind, the question for this blog post is what the event of this poem has to teach us about the nature of authors and readers. I think this poem, the reactions to it, and its relation to several different cultural traditions raise some useful questions not only about how we read, but also about who we are and what we could be.

Here is a YouTube clip of her reading.

How should we begin analyzing this poem? Do we begin with the author’s biography? Do we begin with the form (somewhat prosaic, with awkward meter)? Do we begin with its metaphors and  imagery? Or do we begin with the occasion or historical moment? It is, perhaps, important to ask where we begin, because our choice of where to begin suggests much about how we understand and determine the poem’s meaning and significance. In the case of Alexander’s poem, it seems somewhat obvious that we should begin neither with the author nor with the long literary tradition of “occasional poetry” (as T.S. Eliot might suggest we must in his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”), but with the circumstances of the particular event itself. Indeed, it seems almost unavoidable; how else could we begin in this case? Her series of metaphors and images almost resembles a politician’s speech in the way it addresses the everyday lives of different kinds of Americans: farmers, teachers, etc. Just as a politician wants to be as inclusive as possible of all of his or her constituencies in a way that recognizes their daily struggles and gives them hope, so too with Alexander’s poem. One could suggest that the American literary tradition is also important here, because, in a way, the poem kind of resembles Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and “I Hear America Singing” which also seem sometimes to be nothing more than long lists of all the different kinds of people in the country (the constituencies, or demos, of our democracy.) Ultimately, though, the content of Alexander’s poem seems to have been somewhat pre-determined by the political circumstances of January 20, 2009 more than it seems to be an expression of Alexander’s personality or of a literary tradition.

Unfortunately, her poem almost seems superfluous, giving the audience nothing that they didn’t already get from Obama’s speech, and it seems somewhat thin, shallow, and clichéd, perhaps because Alexander wanted so much to please everyone in the audience. Is this the fault of the occasion, or the fault of Alexander? What might a better inauguration poem have sounded like?

But before I answer the question of whose fault it is, I want to take a detour through another question. What about poems that aren’t performed at political events? Is our starting point different for them? Another way to ask this question is this: what governs this poem? It’s funny to think of a poem as subject to some form of government, but when you think about it, everything we say is somehow “governed” by something. There are all sorts of conventions that limit what we can say in the classroom, in a church, in the theater, etc. Most of what we write and say repeats things that others have written or said. We immitate; we quote; we repeat. Even when one writes a poem in a private diary, that writing is governed both by what the writer consciously knows about the world and by the writer’s unconscious. So, as I discussed last year in a blog post here about the nature of authors, not only “occasional poems” like Alexander’s, but all poetry and writing are governed in various ways. The goal of theory and criticism is to begin to raise questions about what is controlling or limiting the content and style of a poem, and by raising such questions, we can perhaps begin to free ourselves from those controls and limits, which may have been unnoticed before. Through such questioning, an author can realize what has limited his writing and then overcome those limits and write even better.

This is what I think is part of the point of Roland Barthe’s “Death of an Author” and Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?” Foucault emphasizes how authors (the published ones, we’re talking about) are part of a legal system (i.e., copyright), an institutional system of schools, etc., and historical circumstances that are both cultural and economic. In doing so, he is challenging the rather naïve belief that authors are somehow transcendental geniuses who float above the world graciously dropping their brilliance upon us, a brilliance whose singularly universal meaning is apparant in the same way to everyone and to all time. Foucault returns us to the author’s real context. And when Barthes celebrates the everyday, worldly reader-who-writes over the mystical, mythical author (i.e., a mystification of the legal apparatus of copyright law), he is basically agreeing with the slogan “si, se puede” or “yes, we can” that Obama borrowed from the immigrant rights movement for his own political campaign.

I think this leads us to a conclusion that good poetry, just like good politics, begins not so simply with a famous author’s mind or the president’s will to power, but with the people raising questions and seeking answers. As Orwell suggests in “Why I Write,” good literature (not all literature), just like a good politician, responds to the anxieties, desires, questions, and spirit of the people (i.e., to the reader.) Good literature begins with us and our questioning of what limits us. As Mos Def explains in his brilliant song “Fear Not of Man,” hip hop is not some giant living up in the hills; rather, “we are hip hop.”

To return to my question about where the fault lies for Alexander’s poem, perhaps we are disappointed because it seemed to lack the courage to question those limits. She was content to follow Obama rather than lead him. We might contrast her poem to Langston Hughes’s poem, “I, too, Sing America,” which is a great poem precisely because it did not follow Whitman’s somewhat tedious (it seems to us now) “I Hear America Singing” (not his best work.) Rather, Hughes challenged the limits of Whitman’s vision and strongly asserted his own version of “si se puede.”

January 24, 2009 Posted by | poetry | 4 Comments

economic crisis? take one…

Every three months for the past two and a half years, I open my mailbox to find a “quarterly statement” about my retirement portfolio. The statement shows how much of my paycheck I put into my retirment and how much my plan has earned from its investments in stock, real estate, etc. Last week, for the first time ever, the statement had a big minus sign. And next to that minus sing was a shockingly large number. Suddenly, all the abstract and confusing stories in the newspapers about our economic crisis became something very concrete and real, and this morning National Public Radio’s show Marketplace Money [here] was all about what people like me should do — apparently nothing.

But even before I got this statement in my mailbox, I’d been meaning to write something about the economic crisis and the bad home loans that precipitated it. So, I’ve done a little research. Here are some of the best explanations of both events that I’ve found. First, for those of us who’ve never taken an economics class ever in their lives, the radio program This American Life had two wonderfully lucid episodes in May [here] and October [here]. Second, several articles in this week’s special issue of The Economist dedicated to the topic [here]. Third, a forum in the new November issue of Harper’s [here]. And finally, along the lines of the psychoanalytic approach that I often take in this blog, one of my favorite theorists Slavoj Zizek wrote up a short piece for The London Review of Books [here].

And just this past Tuesday, some of my First Year Seminar students themselves wanted to talk about the issue in class, and the very day that we had our discussion, George Bush suddenly announced a revolutionary change of plan (revolutionary for the United States, that is) — instead of buying up bad assets, as was originally planned in the bill passed by Congress about a week ago, the Treasury was going to invest directly into the banks. In other words, some banks would be partly nationalized!!!


I still need some time to think about all this, and every time I think I know what I want to say, something new happens. But stay tuned.

In the meantime, I just want to share a silly little poem I wrote last May about the housing market crisis and its global nature that borrows shamelessly from the beginning of the famous poem by T. S. Eliot. Since the poem was recently rejected by a third-rate, local literary magazine, I figured I might as well just post it here.

    The Love Song of J. Lender Truetown

    Let us, you and I, lay ourselves down on designer sheets
    spread across our bed like housing market woes
    tight across the globe.

    Though you ran away to Dublin to a once-cozy one bedroom,
    now feverish and shivering with negative equity
    from a subprime infection,

    Just as far away taxi drivers in New Dehli were holding their bellies
    complaining of market influx, that sighs
    and seeps like a colorless gas,

    And the world’s iconic lovers were no longer bubbling in the alleys of Madrid,
    their hearts as empty as housing units, swooning,
    from mortgage malaise,

    Yet will I dare to disturb your musings on anticipated wakes,
    to inflate for us an airy bed, as fresh and new
    as my American dream.

October 18, 2008 Posted by | finance, poetry | 3 Comments