Daring to Speak

March 7, 2012

Imagine if the next fad in self-help and self-improvement ran on the following slogan:

We are how we pronounce the words “caramel” and “pecan.”

The implications for identity and conflict are potentially terrifying. Nonetheless, the concept of dialect and regional differentiation of language is a fascinating one. Today on the Diane Rehm show, guests Joan Houston Hall and Ben Zimmer discussed The Dictionary of American Regional English, or DARE, a project cataloging just this phenomenon.

Listen to the show archive now.

Fred Cassidy, one of the project’s founders, was a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

[Cassidy] selected just over a thousand communities across the U.S., chosen to be as evenly distributed as possible while still sampling all the places that were notable for historic events or migration patterns. He recruited a group of 80 Fieldworkers (mostly graduate students, but also some professors), and between 1965 and 1970 they were sent out to the selected communities to interview people who had lived there all their lives. Initially some of the Fieldworkers traveled in minimally-outfitted vans dubbed “Word Wagons.”

Their findings, now spanning a five-volume set, have been used in fields ranging from theatrical training to forensic linguistics, medicine, history, and law. Underneath, as the tone of the show and comments reflected, is an ongoing fascination with the way we are united and divided by words, even within the bounds of a common language. As one commenter wrote, “Regional accents are really part of the great flavor of America.”

Now I just want to know if the original “word wagon” researchers had read Travels with Charley


Our American Story

May 12, 2011

Yesterday, the White House played host not only to politicians, but also to poets.

The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities hosted a two part event: an afternoon poetry-writing workshop led by the First Lady for students nationwide, and an evening of performances from notable American poets. Among those present were Elizabeth Alexander, who presented a poem at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, and former U.S. poets laureate Billy Collins and Rita Dove.

Most of the ceremony is now available online. Learn more about the Live Poetry event from the White House blog. Read President Obama’s opening remarks at the evening session, and the First Lady’s opening remarks at the workshop.

The whole event was broadcast live on www.whitehouse.gov, so you can watch videos of the poetry workshop and the evening event.

One of President Obama’s comments I found most interesting was,

…as a nation built on freedom of expression, poets have always played an important role in telling our American story. It was after the bombing of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 that a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key penned the poem that would become our National Anthem.  The Statue of Liberty has always welcomed the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  Soldiers going off to fight in World War II were giving — given books of poetry for comfort and inspiration.  And whenever our nation has faced a great tragedy … we have turned to poetry when we can’t find quite the right words to express what we’re feeling.

It strikes me that poetry is said to stand in the gaps where “normal” words fail to express deep emotion.

In her remarks at the student workshop, the First Lady quoted Robert Frost: “A poem begins as a lump in the throat,” a physical, metaphysical reaction that the poet then puts into a different form. But while poetry uses imagery, metaphor, meter, rhyme, alliteration, and dozens of other formal features, it still uses words.

I think that’s an important caveat to remember because it keeps us from imagining poetry as entirely separate from other forms of expression. If poetry is a way of sharing emotion and inviting others to experience a basic vulnerability, joy, grief, or fear, then I think it’s worthwhile to imagine that other forms of speech could become more “poetic,” in this particular sense.

Does that mean poetry ceases to exist? Absolutely not! Does it mean everyday speech needs to be in iambic pentameter? Well, as much fun as that would be … no.

Instead, perhaps we need to keep asking why poetic forms give us a unique way to tell our American story, and why, when we can’t quite find the right words to express what we’re feeling, we turn to literature.

Perhaps those questions aren’t simply esoteric or whitewash for an ivory tower.

Perhaps they do matter after all.

Espresso Books in NC!

June 28, 2010

I wrote last year (“Cream, Sugar, or Paperback?“) about the advent of the Espresso Book Machine, which automatically prints, binds, and trims  paperback books on demand, like a vending machine for books.

When I first encountered the EBM, there were only seven U.S. locations, none of them close enough to be feasible day trips. Well, today I looked again, and there is now an EBM within a few hours drive!

NC State Bookstores
North Carolina State University
2521 Dunn Avenue
Raleigh, NC

Stay tuned for an eventual update documenting the experience first-hand…


On the Lighter Side…

January 23, 2010

In a marked break from the heavier reading of graduate school, I’ve finally had the chance to read something a little less dense, albeit perhaps equally philosophical in its own way.

I’m referring to a book with the intriguing title: Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don’t Float: Classic Lit Signs on to Facebook, by Sarah Schmelling.

I first encountered Schmelling when her essay “Hamlet: Facebook News Feed Edition” exploded into popularity. Her book (Plume 2009) takes the humorous thread of her earlier work and runs with it…and keeps on running.

This is neither a serious review nor a serious book, but I have to say, I’m enjoying it immensely.  My favorite moment so far is a toss-up between “Twenty Questions for the Author of Beowulf” and “The Bronte Sisters Play Scrabulific!”

Other tantalizing snippets, as well as links to purchase the book, are available on Schmelling’s website.

What can I say? It’s Saturday…

Literature for iPhone

December 5, 2009

Because I care deeply about literature, I’m always interested to see new and innovative ways that others are coming up with to share literature on a broader scale.

That’s one reason I’ve chosen “Promoting Lit in the Digital Age: Electric Literature Co-Founder Lindenbaum on the Menu” by Amanda Ernst of Fishbowl NY for the next ProfoundNet. Here’s a snippet, quoting Lindenbaum, the founder of a new electronic literary magazine:

“We are trying to use new media and innovative forms of distribution to make sure that those stories are delivered back to the popular culture in the digital age. And we want to make sure that literature remains vital,” Scott said about the project. “So in order to do that, we kind of adopted a new distribution system where we distribute to the iPhone — we’re the first literary magazine to the iPhone. We also distribute in every digital form for all ereaders from Kindles to all ereaders in every file format.”

The journal publishes five stories per quarter. For hard copy request, the magazine uses Print on Demand to minimize costs and maximize payment to writers. Although the success of such ventures remains to be seen, I’m impressed by the  founders’ innovation and use of convergence to allow new literature to reach the greatest possible number of individuals.

For more information about the journal, or to subscribe, visit www.electricliterature.com.

Thanks, Amanda, for a thought-provoking story.

When Whitman Sells Denim

November 22, 2009

Sorry for the recent scarcity of posts — the semester is winding down, and spare writing time will be pretty slim until mid-December. But in the meantime, I couldn’t pass up this opportunity…

In the 1930s, German cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”  In it, he talks about the loss of “aura” (authenticity, uniqueness) when art is reproduced and distributed en masse, appropriated by what fellow critic Theodore Adorno would call “the culture industry” for political or economic purposes, rather than aesthetic ones.

When that happens, has it ceased to be art (or literature)?

Bringing this debate up to the present, I recently came across an interesting discussion posted by Alexander Russo at This Week in Education: Poetry in Ads: Can We Live With It? and the related Levi’s Uses Rare Walt Whitman Recording To Sell Jeans. See video.

So does poetry lose its aura once it has been inculcated with a message for consumers?  I think there are several possible answers. On one hand, the advertisers are attempting to raise their product to the level of something artistic, powerfully American, and poetic. On the other hand, they are forging another link in the minds of consumers between art and consumption.

On one hand, they are acknowledging the power of the spoken word; on the other, they are, one could argue, debasing that power by employing a great poet to sell a pair of jeans. But then again, is this any different than hiring talented writers to inscribe Hallmark cards and magazine ads?

It’s worth considering. And to re-quote Seth Stevenson of Slate Magazine: “At least it’s not all about sex.”

Catching Shakespeare

November 5, 2009

Technology fascinates me, in part because I know relatively little about how it works, and I want to know more. The potential for responsible use of technology as a supplement to literary study is particularly interesting. The challenge, as I see it, is to keep technology in its proper place as a supplement, not a replacement for genuine thought.

That’s one reason I’ve chosen Plagiarism Software Finds a New Shakespeare Play by Gaelle Fauer in Time Magazine for the next ProfoundNet. Here’s a snippet:

Plagiarism-detection software was created with lazy, sneaky college students in mind — not the likes of William Shakespeare. Yet the software may have settled a centuries-old mystery over the authorship of an unattributed play from the late 1500s called The Reign of Edward III…. With a program called Pl@giarism, [Sir Brian Vickers, a literature professor at the University of London] detected 200 strings of three or more words in Edward III that matched phrases in Shakespeare’s other works.

As Vickers reminds readers, computers can’t do the work alone – human knowledge, skill, and judgment are still an integral part of the process. He says what he is hoping to do is “bring about a marriage between human reading and machine reading. If you distrust computers, you won’t advance at all; if you have just computers and know nothing about literature, you’re likely to go wrong as well.”

To me, this is a great example of using technology to advance the work of humans, rather than allowing technology to assume the role of primary agent and in the process rendering humans the subject of a passive sentence.

Thanks, Gaelle , for a thought-provoking article.