162. Invisible Hand: Etheridge Knight

In his heartbreaking Autobiography, John Stuart Mill wrote about his inability to “feel” the economy. “I was in a dull state of nerves,” Mill said.

This from Stephen T. Zilak’s interesting article “Haiku Economics”, which you can find here. I found Zilak attempting to find a poem that helped explain the current economy.

Lately, I have been reading numerous articles bemoaning this crisis’ lack of a Dorathea Lange, Woody Guthrie or John Steinbeck. If this recession is second only to the Great Depression, where are the new artists who will document as well as they did? Where are the folk songs? The photographs? Why has no one been able to capture the public mood in popular culture? Several great movies and books have come out about Iraq and Afghanistan, but nothing I can see about this Great Recession.

Thinking about this, I wondered why we still had to rely on Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” to discuss the idea of the American Dream. This morning, my wife and I discussed the dearth of new literature in the high school canon. In my generation, everyone across the country read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Death of a Salesman”. At the time, they were a mere twenty years old. The authors were alive and kicking; contemporary. For some reason, they did not need to be old to be considered classics.

Yet, thirty years later, students still read the same texts. This is not to condemn the canon–Shakespeare is still important–but to point out that no new writer has swept in for those students sitting in front of us. After a brief brainstorm, Sandra Cisneros’ “House on Mango Street” is all we could come up with (my wife offered Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” as common, but I’m not convinced it’s so universal). Both of these are from the ’80s (1984 and 1988, respectively), nearly thirty years old.

Has no one had anything to say about the American Dream since Arthur Miller? Is there a Willy Loman for the digital age? I know adapting texts for the curriculum is fraught with issues, from the concerns of the school board to nudging teachers entrenched in their curriculum, but that NO single text has made it in seems odd. My betting soul puts its money on Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain”, and I’d love for Daniel Woodrell’s “Winter’s Bone” to get tapped, but I don’t know.

In middle school, we’ve enjoyed more of a renaissance, in part because the “canon” of middle level literature was so thin, and those that were recognized as Literature (Capitol “L” as in Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, S.E. Hinton) were often deemed too controversial for universal inclusion. Then, in the 1990s, the genre took off, and we now have an embarrassment of riches. Literary crap has pushed content, so that “Gossip Girls” have made risky lifestyles acceptable independent reading, allowing great Literature like Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak” to be a common classroom text. “Hunger Games” has somehow slipped through, with twenty-four teens in a death match being offered to fifth graders as a page turner. While Peck and Paulsen classics still see their fill of controversy, teachers can point out the hundreds of school systems that have adopted them as a defense for them being culturally acceptable. Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” is well adapted, if controversial, with few students being able to claim having avoided it.

This overabundance of books has muddled the already tenuous understanding of what Literature (capitol “L”) even is, and why it’s important. While high school teachers adhere a bit too much to the canon, not allowing in anything fresh, relevant and new to the UNIVERSAL canon (if there is any worth adopting), middle school teachers are adopting pulp and linking it to classroom worthiness.

Which brings me back to my original discussion of trying to find an artist who captures our current economic situation, one who is truly great Literature (capitol “L”) and who could be adopted universally for classrooms.

That, I think, comes down to feelings. While the struggles of Margaret, Jerry Renault and Melinda Sordino are personal, and emotional, and connect with students in a very real way, they say less about the larger culture or political times they live in as Scout or Willy Loman do. What can you say about Melinda Sordino and the American Dream, beyond the theme of rape and voice (hugely important, and I understand nothing is more political than one’s body, and safety is part of the American Dream, but it’s not socioeconomic)?

Only some of the dystopian literature gets at the political issues, but many are not particularly deep or even well written. Where can we feel poverty without it being written off as history (“Man, it sucked being in the Great Depression, but we’re okay now”)? The future, for all its warnings and lessons, is just as distant (“Man, that will never happen.”)

If Basho did indeed say of haikus, “less is more, and more is better!” than this post is the anti-haiku. More being less? That so much was inspired by three lines….

Besides the economics, focus on feelings. Reading Zilak, get ideas, and run with it. What does poverty feel like? Get your hands dirty.

Then, write a poem.

Invisible Hand
Etheridge Knight

Invisible hand;
Mother of inflated hope,
Mistress of despair!


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