Friday, May 09, 2008

Linda Gregerson in Flint: Taking the Human Spectacle Seriously

What a pleasure today in the quaintly named "Happenings Room" at UM-Flint to hear poet and Spenser scholar Linda Gregerson's keynote address to the Third Annual "Critical and Creative Conference" sponsored by the English Honors Society Sigma Tau Delta. She is a tiny, tidy woman with an immense and immensely warm intelligence. She weaves a Mozartian vocabulary with complexity and precision, reminding me of how remarkable it is that we're in this language business to begin with. See, I want to say to my students, see what can be done with it?

Emphasizing that arbitrarily cordoning off creative and literature-based endeavors is "a silly impoverishment," Gregerson, a longtime UM -- Ann Arbor professor and author of the award winning poetry collection "Waterborne" and the new "Magnetic North," said critics in the academy can benefit from the "textures and specificities" of the creative mind, just as creative writers flourish under the influence of scholarly curiosities.

Both disciplines, she asserted, are shaped by habits of reading -- reading books, of course, but also reading other cultural artifacts as if they are texts -- devoutly reading the world, as she put it, "taking the human spectacle seriously." Out of that practice, for writers at least, comes the act of creating in the reader a moment of "recognition" -- when the reader sees something she has known before but never could capture.

She also explored the limits of language and how those limits create schisms, distances in the academy itself. It was particularly sweet that she chose as one of her keystones the Robert Hass poem "Meditation at Lagunitas," since a group of the UMF students in the room had met Hass in his Fall '06 UMF visit and heard him read that poem. She lingered over his breathtaking opening lines "All the new thinking is about loss./ In this it resembles all the old thinking." I made rapid connections to a poem of his in the new collection, Time and Materials, "The Problem of Describing Trees," in which he writes of his glittering aspen, "...There are limits to saying,/In language, what the tree did./It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us."

Not all of us can be so sanguine as the robustly humble Hass. I was relieved, freshly contemplating my own fumbles to set the stage in the first two class meetings of a graduate class on "green writing," when she added, "who is not afraid that language will be insufficient?"

One response is to turn to old stories. This week I offered my students an essay by Barry Lopez, "Language and Narrative," in which he argues that myth is as authentic to human experience as "the wolverine in the man's lap," (okay, look it's a good anecdote). He celebrates the "inexplicable renewal of enthusiasm" he feels after hearing a good story, and he goes further to say that stories "nurture and heal," repairing a "spirit in disarray." (One of my students, interestingly, didn't like the idea that we need nurturing and healing, but that's another matter)

"The stories that we already know accumulate resonance and recognition" of our human spectacle, Gregerson said, helping us see how our experience "resembles all the old thinking," like the Dido myth that she has woven into a seven-part piece she shared with today's crowd.

Walking down Kearsley Street afterwards for sandwiches at the Lunch Studio, one of my colleagues asked, "Do you think she was over their heads?" We agreed that even if she was, good for her. Perhaps they heard her angst about the insufficiency of language and noticed that she kept on spinning stalwart and lovely efforts anyway.

It's what we do, we writers, convinced perhaps beyond reason that words matter -- that they can sometimes be sufficient, if we just get the best ones in the best order, to paraphrase Coleridge and Stephen Dobyns. It was a good way to spend a Friday afternoon.


greg rappleye said...

This isn't a boring post!

I'd say it is Mozartian.

I also think throwing fast and over their heads is a good thing.

Encourages 'em to jump.

Macy Swain said...

Thank you, Greg!
I thoroughly enjoyed her talk.
Macy Mozart

Krista said...

I'd like to further explore the idea of devoutly reading the world. How does one do such a thing with any measure of accuracy or success? Our observations are filtered through our experiences, education, and instincts. What if we read the world only to get it all wrong? What if we don't recognize the blinders guiding us along the paths we've chosen to explore?

Macy Swain said...

Ah, complex points. One school of thought suggests that one's own observations are by definition just as much a part of the story as anybody else's -- that is, truth is, in some ways, individual. Yikes, am I skirting around icky relativism? On the other hand, we know that we sometimes misread the seeming evidence of our senses. When I get afraid of misreading the world, I get paralyzed. Isn't it those filters, those experiences, those instincts -- even the discovery of those blinders -- that lend texture to our work? Nonetheless, I'm smitten by the questions you pose, Krista. I think a writer who keeps these questions, these doubts in the forefront is a writer to be trusted.