Honesty, Debate, and Literature

July 21, 2011

I was driving to a coffee shop this morning, listening to the Diane Rehm show on NPR. Diane’s guest was Juan Williams, the author of Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate. The book goes on sale next week (July 26) from Random House. Here’s a piece of the description from the publisher’s website:

In today’s partisan world, where media provocateurs rule the airwaves and political correctness dictates what can and cannot be said with impunity, Williams shows how the honest exchange of ideas and the search for solutions and reasonable compromise is deliberately muzzled. Only those toeing the party’s line—the screaming voices of the extremist—get airtime and dominate the discussion in politics and the media. Each side, liberal and conservative, preaches to a choir that revels in expressions of anger, ideology, conspiracies, and demonized opponents. The result is an absence of truth-telling and honest debate about the facts.

While I have mixed feelings about Williams’s statement and dismissal and the resulting NPR funding debate, I think he raises a worthwhile question: how important are the words with which we engage in open conversation? When “diplomacy” and “political correctness” meet “honest” and “unflinching” conversation, at what point does each side need to compromise?

The same concern seems to underlie the controversy surrounding WikiLeaks. Diplomats speak more freely if they are not afraid of hearing their words in a sound byte on the nightly news; however, they also discard some of the tact and consideration associated with their posts.

Although legal concerns are certainly important, if the only angle discussed is the legal protection of free speech, I think we risk missing the personal. The promotional copy writer for Williams’ book concludes that “Only by bringing such hot button issues into the light of day can we hope to grapple with them, and exercise our cherished, hard-won right of free speech.” In my mind, it’s not quite that simple. In our media-saturated world, thousands of issues see the light of day and yet are not seen. The glare of competing messages, preconceptions, buzzwords, and mistranslation still gets in the way.

What is (often) lacking is a decompressing of the “hot button issues” into information that admits complexity and contradiction. What is (often) lacking is the idea that free speech can be used to build up, not just to tear down. What is (often) lacking is a face-to-face encounter that is not about “winning” an argument but about building a relationship.

To me, some of these missing pieces are cultivated by the study and practice of literary thinking. What I mean by “literary thinking” is a model of reading the world that places you in the perspective of others, admits and works within contradiction, and pays attention to the limitations of language and human understanding, while seeking to recognize its beauty and potential.

The idea is still half-formed, and of course, this blog is also a mediated platform subject to the same weaknesses I just identified. Perhaps my musings have no practical value at all. Nonetheless (pointless whimsy or not, impractical idealism or not, lexical gap or not), I cannot help wishing that the mode and tone — not necessarily the subject — of conversations about literature could translate more often to the political realm.


Tell Me a Story, Please

September 7, 2009

“The poet [of Beowulf] was reviving the heroic language, style, and pagan world of ancient Germanic oral poetry, a world that was already remote for his contemporaries and that is stranger to the modern reader, in many respects, than the epic world of Homer and Virgil.”
-Norton Anthology of English Language, 7th ed., Vol.1)

Oral poetry may be strange to modern readers, but if the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is any indication, storytelling may be experiencing a revival of its own. That’s one reason I’ve chosen “Storytellers Star At Edinburgh Fringe” from NPR’s Rob Gifford for the next ProfoundNet. Here’s a snippet:

Once upon a time, Scotland had a vibrant tradition of storytelling. But then wicked visual media and evil high-tech gadgets drove storytelling from the land. Until one day, the brave storytellers fought back, made their own castle and celebrated with a big festival in a town called Edinburgh.

According to Donald Smith, director of the Scottish Storytelling Center, “The tales have always been told in homes and in pubs. But now they’re entering the mainstream, as people search for something a little deeper than Facebook and Twitter.” He calls it a “magic space” that requires individuals to spend time together and embark on journeys in and out of time. “People hunger for that,” he adds.

Imagination. Community. Delight.

Literature has the ability to provide all of these things. Perhaps it takes a few brave individuals “on the fringe” to remind us what stories – what humans – are capable of offering society.

Thanks, Rob, for a thought-provoking article.

Literati in the World Scoops NPR

July 7, 2009

…who is just now running the story (At Newspaper, Poets Report for a Day) that I wrote about last week (When Literati Write the News). And I thought I was late!

I know, I know–but it makes me feel accomplished. This is probably the only time I will be able to make this claim.

Twitterpoeted From Iran

June 30, 2009

For those who fear that new media is the beginning of the end of traditional literature, let’s take a “half-full” perspective for a moment. Although the popularization of authorship may bury the next great American novel under a slough of blogs, the Internet and technology can also transmit literature that might otherwise be lost.

That’s one reason I’ve chosen Poetry From Iran, One Tweet at a Time, by NPR’s Davar Iran Ardalan, for the next ProfoundNet. Here’s a snippet:

Persians are known for their poetry. So it is not surprising that as recent dramatic events have unfolded in Iran, so many Iranians who have been alerting the world have written poetically — even in their tweets.

At twenty-six, Parham Baghestani is an engineering student and Web developer from Isfahan. He’s also a poet. Living through the last few weeks of sometimes violent dissent in Iran, Baghestani has used Twitter to share his verses with the rest of the world. (In translation, from NPR).

If the world sees all these pictures, what are they going to say about Iran? I’ll let you know tomorrow!

A new sorrow has been added to my sorrow. The thought of darkness and this destruction.

My love has gone underground. The taste of night is nothing but awareness.

I am curious if someday the 140-word “Tweet” will become an accepted form of poetry unique to our generation, alongside the haiku and sonnet. What other characteristics might define it?  I think this is the subject for another post…

Thanks, Davar, for a thought-provoking post.

Cream, Sugar, or Paperback?

May 28, 2009

In the 21st century, when books are thought to be on the decline and instant, abbreviated information sharing is the norm, new technology that makes books more available to the public is always a talking point. Enter the Espresso Book Machine from On Demand Books.

That’s why I’ve chosen “Company’s ‘ATM For Books’ Prints On Demand” from NPR’s Rob Gifford for the next ProfoundNet. Here’s a snippet:

In a move some are calling the most significant step in publishing in the last 500 years, a New York company is trying to make books available on demand, printed out locally, rather than centrally as they always have been. On Demand Books has installed a trial machine in a central London bookstore. It’s called the Espresso machine, but it has nothing to do with coffee beans. This baby’s grinding out books.

For about $15, customers can locate those obscure titles a small bookstore could never afford to stock and at a rate of 100 pages per minute, have the book printed and bound right in the shop. 

According to On Demand Books CEO Dane Neller, the Espresso “will help keep paper books way ahead of electronic books, such as those available on the Amazon Kindle.”  The machine is touted to be perfect for out-of-print books, obscure or low-demand titles, and first time authors struggling to find a publisher.

In the USA, On Demand Books has tested Espresso Book Machines at locations in Ann Arbor, MI; San Francisco; New Orleans; Manchester Center, VT; Provo, UT; Washington, DC; and New York City. 

Will the EBM prove just another fad, or will it live up to the promises of its publishers? “What Gutenberg’s press did for Europe in the 15th century, digitization and the Espresso Book Machine will do for the world tomorrow.”  

I look forward to finding out, and only wish an EBM were available closer to where I live, so I could test it personally.

Thanks, Ron, for a thought-provoking article. For more info, visit On Demand Books at www.ondemandbooks.com.

Beauty Under the Rocks

May 11, 2009
Image courtesy Andrea Hsu, NPR

Image: Andrea Hsu, NPR

Responding to tragedy is never easy. Words are insufficient to answer deep, soul-wrenching grief. While nothing can erase the pain of loss and destruction we don’t understand, poets have a special gift for helping others’ grief, in a small way, escape into expression. 

And, what is more, expressions of empathy in one medium (poetry) have the ability to effect a chain reaction of similar expressions in other media (sculpture, journalism). 

That’s why I’ve chosen “Poem Inspires U.S. Sculptor to Honor Quake Victims” by Melissa Block at NPR for the next ProfoundNet.  Here’s a snippet:

Last year, a week after a massive earthquake rocked southwest China, we aired a poem on All Things Considered called “Elegy,” by Chengdu poet He Xiaozhu.

Little did we know that when we returned to Sichuan province this year, we would meet an NPR listener who was so inspired by the poem, he decided to make a sculpture based on it.

Steve McGrew of Washington is a blacksmith who has visited China multiple times. Himself a victim of an earthquake in California, McGrew was deeply affected by Xiaozhu’s poem. His sculpture, an iron-and-silver depiction of a dandelion emerging from a cracked boulder, will be displayed at a new museum commemorating the victims of the earthquake, in Sichuan, opening tomorrow, May 12.

What a beautiful reminder of the ability of literati to inspire acts of compassion and empathy around the world. Thanks, Melissa, for a thought-provoking article.

‘Elegy’ by He Xiaozhu

Thousands upon thousands of anguished cries
Returning to silence and tranquillity
Heavenly acts cannot be predicted
The moon over Wenchuan
Still, a question mark
Aftershocks extend to Chengdu
Sorrow engulfs half the world
Tears turn to ice
Let candlelight melt them away
Children, climb on a dandelion
and line up for heaven

Kipling for Press Secretary

December 22, 2008

Doesn’t this headline catch your attention? Rod Blagojevich and the Poetry Slam. Congratulations to NPR for a curiosity-inspiring hook. 

The Illinois governor, under fire for his handling of President-elect Obama’s Senate seat (see the Chicago Tribune), turned to Rudyard Kipling for comfort during a press conference Friday. Blagojevich quoted lines from the poem “If,” available in full here.

He’s not the only one:


British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called on Kipling following a bomb attack in 1984. During the Iran-contra scandal, a congressman quoted Kipling as he praised the loyalty of Ollie North. Even University of Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams quoted Kipling in the mid-1990s when his team was sucking wind.

Kipling’s oft-cited poem may be appropriate for its message of perseverance and determination: “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,” and so on. However, public figures – politicians like Blagojevich, celebrities, and others – would do well also to remember a few lines that appear later in the poem:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,

The true irony, as the NPR article points out, is that Kipling wrote his poem to honor Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, “who led a raid by the Brits in 1895 that resulted in disastrous defeat.” Tragic hero? Probably. Ideal role model? Not so much. Although I am thrilled to see political leaders recognizing the valuable rhetoric of the literati, closer scrutiny of their chosen poetic heroes might be worth a Google search.