Sunday, December 2, 2012

Watch Your Language

A friend told me a couple of weeks ago, "You need to watch your language." She was referring to the fact that I said a curse word in a conversation with her. I had said that somebody was a smart-ass.

Later I thought about this admonition, "Watch your language." In fact that's mostly what we English teachers do: we watch our own language, and the language of others. I'm teaching literature again after a hiatus of 25 years, during which I taught art history, writing, and math. But now I'm back to my old flame, literature, and I'd forgotten how different it is to teach people how to watch language. And now I'm teaching literature to younger students--ninth graders. And they are  home schoolers. So the whole issue of language is pretty loaded. One reason that they are home schoolers is that their parents don't want them to hear certain kinds of language, from teachers, peers, or books. You'd think it wouldn't be that hard to avoid the really "bad" words and concepts, but in fact, even (or especially) in a Great Books program like ours, these words just keep popping up! They refuse to be repressed completely.

For example, we're reading The Canterbury Tales now. The word "hole," meaning "anus," occurs in "The Miller's Tale." A poor wretch is tricked by a girl into kissing her hole. It's pretty graphic: her pubic hair is also alluded to. In the Middle Ages, it seems that this kind of explicit, bawdy humor did not get you thrown in jail. Chaucer totally got away with it. And then so did Shakespeare several hundred years later. Who can forget the immortal lines in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "I kiss the wall's hole, not your lips at all!" (Wall is played by one of the rude mechanicals, as is the kisser, so they're both men.) Shakespeare stole this joke from Chaucer and made it even funnier, if that's possible, by adding a homoerotic element to it.

Fast forward to 1955, and Allen Ginsberg is writing Howl. (Oops, there's that hole again!) I watched a movie about the making of Howl last night. It's an ambitious idea: to make a movie about the writing of a poem. Filming dramatic scenes about writing is hard: usually writers just sit at a desk, or maybe pace around the room a little. It's not as exciting to watch as, say, Pollack's action painting, or Patsy Cline having fights with her husband. But I liked watching the actor use the old typewriter. Apparently Ginsberg was a hunter and pecker. And the camera zooms right in on the letters as they slowly emerge under the ribbon and keys. It almost made me want to get an old typewriter, so I could slow down my writing and think about each letter, and then hit it hard.

The typing scenes are interspersed with scenes of Ginsberg talking to an interviewer about  poetry in general, and where it comes from, and how a poet works. These explanations should be invaluable to young poets. There's one part where he talks about how the desire to make poetry comes from a feeling in the stomach that rises up through the chest and then comes out of the mouth, almost like a sigh or a groan, but with words attached: for him,  poetry is a bodily experience like sex. He even explains how he slowly built the line about "Moloch, whose eyes are a thousand blind windows." He had the rhythm of the line first, he says, then the image of the eyes, and finally the windows. It's as if Ginsberg is lifting the hood of a car and explaining to a young mechanic how it works, what makes it go, and how to fix it.

The line about Moloch brings me to one of my complaints about this movie: the director got around the "boringness," and the lack of visual interest in watching a writer work, by having an animator draw a sort of cartoon  illustrating Howl, and this animation rolls as the actor playing Ginsberg reads parts of the poem. I didn't think this worked very well. It was too literal, and it takes away the reader's freedom to visualize the poem herself. The representation of Moloch as a kind of big cow was particularly bad I thought.

It should have been enough to show the first reading of the poem in the Six Gallery in San Francisco. These scenes are wonderful in that they show the excitement and engagement of the audience, its amazement at hearing this new kind of poetry, and the listeners' awareness that some kind of barrier was being broken. Now we return to the admonition to "watch your language." Ginsberg had decided to just use his own natural language: he used the words "snatch," and "blow," and "cock." He talked openly, even ecstatically, about drug experiences and sodomy. His characters hand out Communist leaflets and sing The Internationale! One must remember that this was in 1955, at the height of the McCarthy era. My father was in the Navy, on an aircraft carrier called the Ranger, and we were not allowed to tell anybody--even other children--the name of his ship, for fear that other people might be Communists!  It was a secret that must be kept to save our father's life, according to my mother. Into a culture of psychotic suspicion and repression, Ginsberg threw a bomb made of Anglo-Saxon words.

After Howl was published, its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, was arrested and tried for obscenity. The movie intersperses the typing scenes and the performance scenes with scenes from the trial. The script for the movie was taken directly from the court transcripts. Various experts on literature testify  for and against the poem's literary merit, and in the process, bring up some big issues about literature in general: does it have to be morally elevating? What would that mean? Does it have to be comprehensible to the average person?  Can normal, demotic speech be used?  Does the fact that Ginsberg borrowed from Walt Whitman's style mean his work is not great literature? Are there parallels between the howl of pain in Howl, and Job in the Old Testament? The witnesses against the poem compared it unfavorably to other "great" works of literature, but the result of their comparisons in the end is not to diminish Howl, but to recruit "Song of Myself" and the Book of Job to the ranks of subversive books. You start to realize that perhaps many of the Great Books that you found boring in school were once wildly innovative works that challenged the decent folk of their times.  You also begin to wonder if perhaps medieval people were a bit more comfortable with the earthiness of everyday life than Americans in the 1950s were.

Talking to the invisible interviewer, Ginsberg says that he wants to write poems that are prophecies. But to him a prophecy is not simply a prediction of what will happen in the future. It's a work that embodies a feeling, and one hundred years later, a person reading that poem, or looking at that painting, can recognize the feeling and feel it also. Howl is now over 50 years old, and its power to throw a brick through the wall of repression, to speak of things that are not supposed to be seen, to speak for people who are not supposed to be heard, is undiminished. It still can't be taught in a home school Great Books program, although it is a great book, as great as The Canterbury Tales or A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Maybe in another fifty years.

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