Archive for January, 2011

As a scribbler for hire I have no say in what headlines appear above my writing. Sometimes I’ve disliked what magazine and newspaper editors chose as titles, but the one set above my Oregonian review of Karen Abbott’s American Rose – “Long before Madonna and Lady Gaga, there was Gypsy Rose Lee” – fits just fine. Like later performers and colorful personalities, the vaudevillian turned strip teaser known as Gypsy Rose Lee sought attention and made herself into a spectacle to secure it. Her greatest claim to fame is having claimed fame.

The apt headline appears above the print version of the piece (January 30, 2011, section O, p. 7); the online counterpart ended up with a less descriptive title.

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Do valid reasons exist for writing unclear prose? Could elaborately complex convolution and almost impenetrable opacity, rather than signaling laziness, inability or disregard for readers, actually have legitimate purposes?

In Playing the Fool: Subversive Laugher in Troubled Times, former University of Chicago professor Ralph Lerner defends deliberate difficulty in works by Francis Bacon, Pierre Bayle, Robert Burton and Benjamin Franklin, Edward Gibbons and Thomas More.

Lerner contends that such philosophical tricksters intend not only to demonstrate their own cleverness but also to weed out readers not able or willing to cope with what they have to say. They disguise their real meaning to protect themselves from those who do not respond to intellectual challenges by entering debate but by attacking those who offend them – a problem in the 21st century just as it was in earlier times.

As someone who has written favorably about both repetition and digressions, two key tactics Lerner’s dissemblers use, I might look like a supporter of such an argument. (See “Write, Repeat” and “Going off Course with Melville & Liebling” in Fighters & Writers.) Besides, I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of transmitting truth via falsehood (also known as the art of fiction).

Nevertheless, I remain unconvinced, for reasons I explain in more detail in “Studious Deceptions,” my review of Playing the Fool for Logos: A Journal of Modern Society & Culture. Consciously concealing arguments in tangled presentations may provide self-protection of a sort, but its effectiveness as a rhetorical strategy is almost laughable.

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As a still relatively new holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day has yet to develop its widely recognized celebratory routines. Thanksgiving involves a feast; Christmas, a tree and gifts; the Fourth of July, fireworks. Is MLK Day set aside for remembering and reflection, or is it a time for public service? I confess I don’t know the best way to commemorate the great man’s achievements. (In Portland, Oregon, options include listening to speeches and going to the zoo for free.)

I do know that my most memorable MLK Day so far occurred in the last January of my years in New York. The Brooklyn Academy of Music arranged a program of events culminating in a concert by Mavis Staples, who sang songs from her then-still-new recording We’ll Never Turn Back, along with Staple Singers classics. King inspired the Staple Singers, who started to sing “freedom songs” in the 1960s. She wanted We’ll Never Turn Back to convey the same message as those anthems from the civil rights movement: “We’ve got to keep pushing to make the world a better place.” Having people like Mavis Staples making beautiful music does precisely that, I believe (and her fine 2010 follow-up, You Are Not Alone, backs me up).

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Last year at Wordstock – Portland’s big book fest – I met Suzanne Burns. I was there to read from Fighters & Writers. She was there to read from The Widow. Unfortunately, our readings conflicted so I missed her presentation. I did, however, get a copy of her superb chapbook, a collection of linked, crystalline prose poems, which I highly recommend.

More recently, I was gratified to see that a Powell’s staff member selected The Widow as one of her top five books of 2010.

I’d also recommend Burns’s The Paris Poems for several reasons, not least of which is that it’s a rare to find a versifier who can work the Dead Kennedys, Audrey Hepburn, Ezra Pound and the Olsen Twins into a single poem.

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