Organizing from the Roots of the Jardin

This morning I have a meeting with the mayor to discuss the community garden, which after a good start is in need of more energy and people with time to keep it organized and connected.

8 am–arrive at work, spend some time talking with coworkers [build working relationships]

9:50–on my way out, speak with two administrators who are garden-supportive [more connections, contacts]

10 am–at City Hall waiting for my appointment with the mayor, I talk with his secretary, who had a student job here transporting and shelving the books for the brand new library [another connection, maybe for the 50th anniversary program. The secretary suggests another person to help with the garden.]

10:15 am–talk with the mayor about the garden community and a City Hall worker who will put the Jardin on the city’s website.phocas the gardener Her community group might also be interested in the garden as a project [truth to power. The mayor has been supportive since the beginning.]

10:45 am–on my way to pick up a sandwich for lunch, I meet a bystander and talk with him for a few minutes [you never know…]

11 am–getting my sandwich, I talk with the manager about the garden as a local source of fresh produce [another link for the garden. I get his phone number.]
All this before noon. There’s hope reblooming.

St. Phocas, patron of gardeners

William Carlos Williams, what did you mean?

early-to-mid 1900s wheelbarrow

The poem usually called “The Red Wheelbarrow” has always annoyed me.

I like the white chickens, the rain water, the red wheel barrow, but not the first stanza. “So much depends/ upon” inflates the poem into a portentous metaphysical statement. In an introductory class some years ago, the students wanted to twist the images into allegory. The most memorable interpretation was as a version of Communism from an Orwellian Animal-Farm viewpoint (“but the wheelbarrow is red, Dr. Brown”). See, students do learn from those classic texts assigned in high school. (Common Core debaters, take note!) Craig Morgan Teicher’s essay ruminates on his adolescent experience, reminding us also of another oft-quoted couplet from Williams: “No ideas/but in things.” If Williams really believed this–and his poems seem to bear that out–then why did he bother with the first stanza? Why not just write about the wheelbarrow, the rain, the chickens and let the images convey whatever ideas the poet or the readers find there?

The New York Times recently published a report of scholar William Logan’s discovery of the wheelbarrow’s owner, a street vendor named Marshall who lived in a working-class neighborhood where Dr. Williams visited his patients. This setting does give a more mundane slant to the “so much depends/upon”;  it was the wheelbarrow which Mr. Marshall used as a cart, so his livelihood depended on it. The chickens in the rain are images which cut to the heart of life. According to Logan, “knowing there was a man with a particular wheelbarrow and some chickens does help us understand the world the poem was embedded in.” Read Jennifer Schuessler’s article for the details: Here linketh the NYTimes essay on “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

Commence, recite, be graduated, take yourself seriously.

Ah, the season of final exams, recitals, commencements and graduations. Note: The verb “to graduate” is intransitive, which means that it doesn’t take a direct object. So one can say “I graduated from college” or even better, I “was graduated from” LSU or wherever. It’s the school that does the graduating, not the student.

I have just read David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to Kenyon College in 1995, which I recommend. James Rhodes’s TEDxOxford is similarly worth listening to: plain-spoken, blunt, uncommon wisdom about contemporary society.

I played my violin in recital for the first time last month. It was ok, thanks–not great, but at least I didn’t embarrass my teacher on the stage of the world-famous Liberty Theater. That stage was the same one on which I played with the Eunice Symphony Orchestra in April. Another violinist has a music school, whose student recital last weekend. How charming to watch well-dressed children playing guitars and accordions and violins. And the young performers were quite good also, and played folk and classical pieces–only one pop selection. There’s hope for the future yet, says the curmudgeon typing at her computer.

My piano teacher has put a video of his performance of a short Debussy piece. Since this is good cinematography as well as wonderful musicianship, have a listen. If an error occurs in the embedded video, click the link. No technology is perfect.

Texas Has All the Fun

For comic relief in Louisiana, there’s nothing like Texas. The governors of these two states share similar abilities, including the knack of making fallacious economics sound good for taxpayers and voters. This month, Louisiana legislators are wrestling with the budget mess created in Bobby Jindal’s seven and a half years as governor, but hey–Greg Abbott listened to his citizens’ concern and ordered the National Guard to “observe” his own country’s Jade Helm war games in case there’s a takeover attempt. (Like the federal government doesn’t have enough to do.) If you haven’t laughed yet, read Gail Collins’ NY Times opinion piece “The Alamo and Walmart.

no gestapo in bastropo by Jay Janner for Austin AMerican Statesman
[Photo: Jay Janner for the Austin American-Statesman.]

At an information session in Bastrop on Monday, command spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria fielded questions about whether Jade Helm 15 will involve bringing foreign fighters from the Islamic State to Texas, whether U.S. troops will confiscate Texans’ guns and whether the Army intends to implement martial law. (Kaplan)

(If only Lt. Col. Lastoria had just answered “Yes” to those questions. If only Molly Ivins were still alive and writing.)

If Senator Cruz were a responsible leader instead of a demagogue, he would have worked to make that war-game plan less “dangerous” to his state. And if Governor Jindal does run for President, look closely at the educational, health-care, and fiscal wreckage in Louisiana before you cast a ballot.

Notes and Quotations

I get started on a thing and follow it like an angler reaching for an earthworm, only to grab onto another thing and then another, related maybe but not identical. From information literacy to educational technology to critical pedagogy, from political depression to poetry and theology, my semester has been interesting.

In terms of the number of readers, poetry is marginal to cultural concerns. But what are the central concerns of the culture? They are making money, getting a talking car, and imposing Pax Americana upon the world. (6)

Michael Palmer, interviewed by Keith Tuma. Contemporary Literature 30.1(1989): 1-12.
When he won the 2006 Wallace Stevens Prize, Palmer quoted these lines at the end of his acceptance speech?essay:

The poem is the cry of its occasion.
Part of the res itself and not about it.

—Wallace Stevens, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”

Tomorrow in the Louisiana House of Representatives is the first real test of whether the legislature will support state higher education or finish it off.
jorie graham by annie leibovitz contact press images via new yorker march 2015[Photo by Annie Leibovitz]

I’m reading some of Jorie Graham now, From the New World, whom I first heard of in Vogue, of all places, saying that if it weren’t for art, we’d only have shopping and Prozac. Here’s a bit about difficult modern poetry:

Graham, who is sixty-four, is the Boylston Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric at Harvard. She was raised by American parents in Rome, and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, film at N.Y.U., and writing at Iowa, where she received an M.F.A. in poetry. She has won almost every major literary award, including a MacArthur and a Pulitzer. She would be on anyone’s list of the most influential American poets of the past fifty years, but many readers, even those with the best intentions, find her work “unintelligible” and “deliberately intended to frustrate the reader,” to quote the critic Adam Kirsch. Graham, however, insists on, and has defended in print, her use of “associational logic,” a muscle rarely worked by prose: its “occlusion, or difficulty,” she wrote, “healing me, forcing me to privilege my heart, my intuition.”

And so we have a standoff of the kind that has cropped up again and again in poetry at least since the nineteen-twenties. The idea that calculated literary difficulty is a positive feature that writers intend seems odd, but it comes with a distinguished provenance: it is associated primarily with T. S. Eliot, whom Graham counts among her first influences…

“Beautiful Lies.” New Yorker 91.6 (2015):77.

And finally for today, my previous e-mail signature quote:

“The power of thought to seek the truth must be accepted as our guide, rather than be curbed to the service of material interests.” Michael Polanyi, 1964 preface to Personal Knowledge.

Not Much to Write


the beautiful spring weather,
the third annual Refreshments poetry reading in front of the library,
a fine community-orchestra performance,
my dad’s surprise 86th-birthday dinner,
three new community gardeners,

the news out of the Louisiana legislature is so discouraging that I’m not writing. We continue to teach our students, do our research, meet our committees, look for a new LSUE chancellor, and pray for our leaders to wake up to the need for education and hospital funding. Join us. More new taxes, please–at least until a new constitutional convention cleans up the mess.

Microsoft's idea of begonias

Meanwhile: “everything’s on the internet” warning #34987547: Microsoft clip art has this picture of “begonia,” but I’m sure they’re geraniums. Maybe “begonia” is the Spanish word for geranium. (But it’s not.)


The absurdities of cut-but-don’t tax in Louisiana: The governor’s latest suggestion is to increase some tuition and fees and to “develop tax breaks for businesses that donate directly to college campuses,” according to Times-Picayune.

budget_hub lsu(Apparently the cuts include prepositions.)

The Picayune’s reporter explains these proposals by saying that “Jindal, who is considering a run for president, doesn’t want to approve any budget-solving strategy that could be considered a tax hike by the national anti-tax advocacy groups. The governor’s restrictions require that a new tax break be introduced for every tax break that might be rolled back or shuttered in the state.”