Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bad poems and she-goats

Margaret Soltan has a sharp little analysis of what made yesterday's inaugural poem so dull. The short answer is the lack of an organizing metaphor. There's really no excuse for its absence in such a short piece. Nor is there any excuse for "brick by brick."

I'm taking an interesting course called Doctor Faustus' Books to fulfill my Renaissance requirement. (I'm not sure why I have this requirement, given that I was an Early Modernist as an undergraduate and took so many Shakespeare classes that I can almost tell you what anyone is going to say about Twelfth Night after I hear the first word of their first sentence. Not that I mind, though: it's a chance to revisit some old favorites and remember why I hate some old enemies. Hi, Spenser.)

The idea is that we're to read everything mentioned or alluded to in the Marlowe play, and thus gain some sort of MLA cocktail party comprehensiveness about the Tudor period, or enough to ask at least one misguided but not too far off-base question of a proper Renaissance scholar on a panel. Nobody's admitted this, of course. You might think from this description that I think the whole thing a sham, but actually I approve of greater comprehensiveness (and comprehensibility) among those fortunate enough to call themselves literature professors. There's a vague and not very well chewed on belief among people who take, for instance, the GRE in English Literature that superficial knowledge of a number of different periods and broad topics in the field is keeping them from something more important, like tallying up the number of times the word "she-goat" appears in the Domesday Book, but I'd argue that it's exactly that sort of micro-specialization that makes professors such good characters in novels and such mockable ones in non-fiction. Superficiality isn't always a bad thing, particularly if it directs you towards theories and ideas that better unify the answer to the question that few of us ever bother to ask ("what's the point of literature, anyway?") and instances that, upon further exploration, prove useful for whatever it is you were so obsessively occupied with in the first place. Maybe there are she-goats in other places, too. Maybe, just maybe, she-goats are the underlying cause of Victorian novels. Or the corpus of Don DeLillo. (The latter is more plausible.) And no one should be so quick to trivialize cocktail parties. Maybe if more people went in with the attitude that, you know, the actual stuff of life happens there, and that it's not such a dreadful thing to know enough about your drinking companion's work to ask a semi-reasonable question about it and get a semi-reasonable reply, the quality of cocktail parties and ergo life would be much enhanced.

Incidentally, I learned something new already. I googled she-goat to make sure it was really a word and not just a funny construct that existed solely inside my head, and I discovered that it was good luck for a Roman man for a she-goat to walk across his path on his way out of the house, because he would think on Caranus, the first king of the Macedons.

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 3:09 PM