Category Archives: Criticism

Notes on How to Read a Poem

4.3.14 | | 3 comments

National Poetry Month 2014
(Poster design: Chip Kidd)
Click image for PDF copy of the poster.

I’m of two minds about National Poetry Month.

In one sense, I appreciate the effort (initiated by the Academy of American Poets and institutionalized in April 1996 by President Clinton’s administration) “to highlight the extraordinary legacy and ongoing achievement of American poets; [to] introduce Americans to the pleasures and benefits of reading poetry; [to] bring poets and poetry to the public in immediate and innovative ways; [and to] make poetry an important part of our children’s education” (ref). Even if this official celebration of poets and poetry only happens one month out of twelve and even if people binge on poems during that month but never read another poem all year, at least poetry is being celebrated, right? I can’t complain about that.

In another sense, though, I see poetry as something worth engaging every day. If America can set aside one month a year to advocate for poetry as something that can enhance and enrich “the lives of all Americans” and that “affects every aspect of life in America today, including education, the economy, and community pride and development” (ref), we should be able to make a place (no matter how small) for poetry in our everyday lives, shouldn’t we? Of course, I say this as someone deeply invested in reading and writing and writing about and advocating for poetry. So I may be a little biased.

Whatever the case, and whatever your mind is about poetry and National Poetry Month (prominent poet and critic Richard Howard once called it “the worst thing to have happened to poetry since the advent of the camera and the internal combustion engine,” two contraptions that distanced us from the beauty and rhythms of the earth), I thought I’d share some reflections on how to read a poem, whenever and however often you read one.

The following essay appears as the prologue in my book, Field Notes on Language on Kinship. My ideas (in the essay and in the book) are informed to a great degree by Patricia’s thinking on language and were sparked by her gorgeous poem “Introduction to the Mysteries (or How to Read a Poem).” (Listen to Laura’s stunning performance of Patricia’s poem here.)

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Notes on How to Read a Poem

Some years ago during an undergraduate literature course, a classmate confessed the first time our reading assignment included some poems that “Interpreting poetry is not my forte.” The student’s confession still catches my ear. I hear her/him repeating it poetically in my mind, giving it a lyric ring that comes out more when I write the sentence as if writing a poem, splitting the line after syllable seven:

    Interpreting poetry
    is not my forte.

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Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #87: Orson F. Whitney on Oratory as Milk

3.16.14 | | no comments

OFWhitneyIn the past 40 years the descriptions of Mormon literature published by Eugene England and his successors have designated oratory as one of the primary forms of our literary output, one that Church members are most familiar with. It is in oratory, as well as the personal essay, that Mormons are sometimes thought to excel. Given the pattern of Mormon worship, that makes sense.

But we also might ask whether a strength in oratory is best for our literature. Are some forms of literature inherently better than others? And does the Mormon view differ from that of others who have examined literature?

Its no surprise that Orson F. Whitney had has opinion about oratory:

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The New Mormon Fiction: Post-Faithful Directions of a Post-Utopian Form–Scott’s 2014 AML Conference Proposal

3.13.14 | | 20 comments

Following Tyler’s lead, I’ve decided to post the proposal for my AML presentation, which will be an expansion of my DBD post on “The New Mormon Fiction” from a few months back. Glenn Gordon is accepting proposals for the conference until March 20th, so if you are interested in presenting, there is still time. Based on Tyler’s proposal, and other proposals I’ve heard about, it’s going to be a great conference. 

See you there.

Mormonism has undergone significant changes over the last twenty years, leading sociologist Armand Mauss to declare that the LDS Church now has a different “feel” than it did in the 1980s and early 1990s. Among the changes has been greater transparency from the Mormon hierarchy on controversial subjects, an increase in open dialogue within Mormonism via the internet and social media, an apparent spike in faith crises, and the emergence of new sites of cultural tension.

What effect have these changes had on Mormon literature? In my presentation, I will argue that these conditions have contributed to what I call the New Mormon Fiction. Like earlier works of Mormon fiction, these works are “post-utopian” in the way they continue to reflect Mormonism’s desire to assimilate with its host cultures. However, unlike earlier examples of Mormon fiction, these works are essentially “post-faithful,” or largely unconcerned about fiction’s role as a vehicle for Mormon propaganda (of any stripe). Rather than bearing testimony, they seek to capture both the euphoria and anxiety of Mormonism in the information age.

My presentation will outline several trends that characterize the New Mormon Fiction. For instance, some works of the New Mormon Fiction are absurdist and darkly comical. Others are comprised of fictional documents, document fragments, and interviews that call into question what we know about history and narrative. Still others foreground conflicts between individuals and information rather than between individuals and the Church, its members, or the dominant culture. Collectively, my presentation will argue, these works comprise a new Mormon fiction that foregrounds acts of discovery and recovery, creative production, and paradigm subversion to disorient readers and force them to configure new realities, question long-held assumptions and notions of truth, and confront the challenges having “too much information.”

The Makar, Making, and Mormonism: Tyler’s 2014 AML Conference Proposal

3.11.14 | | 3 comments
Muta Poesis

Muta Poesis, from Le vite de’ pittori, scultori ed architetti moderni by Giovanni Bellori (Rome, 1672)

Each year, my wife and I look forward to making a pilgrimage to Orem, Utah to attend the annual Association for Mormon Letters Conference. I’ve also made it an annual practice to share my conference proposal once I’ve submitted it. In 2012, I proposed and presented “Situating Sonosophy: De/constructing Alex Caldiero’s ‘Poetarium’” and in 2013 I proposed “Performative Poesis and the (Un)Making of the World,” although my presentation was eventually titled “The Tongue as Tree of Life: Meditations on Words and the Word and the Making of the World.”

This year the conference, which will be held April 11-12 at UVU, is titled “New Faces of Mormonism: Are We Changing the Way We See Ourselves?” (*) Yesterday I submitted the following proposal, which is relevant to the Church’s recently released statement on what it means to become like God:

Alex Caldiero’s Performative Poesis: The Makar, Making, and Mormonism

Alex Caldiero’s work emerges from a rich performance ecology that consists of many different influences. One of these is the figure of the pre-modern bard, whom Caldiero calls a makar (mah-ker). Makar is the Middle English antecedent of maker, although makar is still active in the Scots language where it’s used in reference to a poet or bard [see here, especially]. Caldiero may have assumed the title in an attempt to establish kinship with a primitive (prime-itive) culture, its language, and its poetics. He may have also taken the name to skirt around the social and cultural limitations related to calling oneself a poet, including the stigma attached to practicing an art that some say is dead and that others associate with greeting card sentimentalism or the horrors of high school English. By moving to avoid these limitations (albeit at the cost of having to endure others [like being what Scott Carrier calls a "categorical conundrum"]), Caldiero becomes better able to critique common conceptions of poetry while he at the same time foregrounds the term’s origins: the word poetry derives from the Greek concept of poesis, which signifies the process of making.

Caldiero’s self-affiliation with Mormonism brings an additional level of signification to his focus on making. In particular, his poetics seem to be in conversation with Mormon theology’s teachings about Deity; these include the following:

  • First, that the Gods are Makers: they create and they procreate.
  • Second, that God isn’t a singular Entity acting as lone Creator but is part of a coterie of creative Beings acting in concert, a Community of Gods.
  • Third, that the Makers have created and peopled not just this world, this universe, but many worlds and many universes.
  • Fourth, that Creation doesn’t occur ex nihilo: rather the Makers build things from materials extant in expansive cosmos.
  • Fifth, that Creation unfolds in an eternal round: the Makers’ creative acts occur in the present progressive tense, that these Beings haven’t just created, they are creating.
  • Sixth, that humans are the Makers’ offspring; as such we have the making gene in us and by virtue of heredity and training, we can emulate our Parents and become Makers ourselves.

My paper will explore the relationships among Caldiero’s performative poesis (which he calls sonosophy) and the figures/ideas I’ve described above: the makar (the pre-modern bard), poetry as the process of making, and Gods as Makers.

(Cross-posted here.)

Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #86: Ramona Wilcox Cannon on the spiritual in literature

3.2.14 | | one comment

Literary theory often leaves out any spiritual element or claim—something that separates religious thinkers and writers from others. I believe that the role of spirituality in literature is particularly important in Mormonism, since we believe in personal revelation and that such revelation is relevant to everyday tasks, such as writing and consuming literary works. I believe, therefore, that spirituality must be an important element of any Mormon literary theory.

Nor is my belief unique. For example, Ramona Wilcox Cannon decried the lack of spirituality in the following article in 1926.

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Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #85: Orson F. Whitney on Poetry, Music and Silence

2.16.14 | | no comments

OFWhitneyWhat makes poetry work? Why is it different than fiction and other genres? I’m not sure any scientific answer is possible to this question, since it involves so many elements, many of which simply can’t be measured objectively. But this view hasn’t kept appraisers of literature from trying to say what makes poetry different.

Part of the difference is found in the “music” of poetry—its use of rhythm, rhyme and other features to connect to the reader or hearer of its words.

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Thoughts Toward a More Thorough Treatment of Mormons, Mormonism, Literature, and Theory

2.12.14 | | 10 comments

Last week Kent asked AMV readers to consider what would make a Mormon theory of literature different. I could be wrong, but I’m assuming that his points of comparison—his different than—are general theories of literature as well as the theories of literature practiced in the Mormon Letters community. In response to Kent’s query, to the responses it received, and to some other things that have been written in the past two years or so about the relationship among Mormons, Mormonism, literature, and theory, I’m developing some ideas on this relationship and the ways it has been theorized by members of the Mormon letters community; as I develop them, I’ll further address some things that I think are vital to this relationship and how it functions as a critical apparatus. I offer the incipient thoughts that make up this post in earnest of the more thorough treatment I’m composing. My primary focus in this brief discussion is to outline the ways theory and Mormonism get talked about in Kent’s post and its thread of responses (at least those made up to Jonathan’s 2/10/14 reply).

I see reference to at least three kinds of theory in the discussion: theories of Mormon literature, theories of Mormons and literature, and Mormon theories of literature. While I plan to elaborate more on these kinds of theory as I develop a more extensive response, for now here’s how I distinguish among them: more

Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #84: Joseph Jenkins on Essays

2.9.14 | | 4 comments

As a non-fiction literary form, the essay is sometimes left out when we consider literature—fiction, drama and poetry seem to get the bulk of attention. But the essay is a well-developed and commonly used form, and I’ve even heard claims (can’t remember where at the moment) that Mormons excel at the essay.

So what makes it different than other forms? Is there something about the essay that is more appealing or more conducive to Mormon thought? The following article might answer these questions to some degree.

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