Emily Dickinson’s Singular Scrap Poetry, Dan Chiasson
The way that Dickinson’s poems made it out of that house, eventually reshaping American literature, is a story that is still unfolding. Only ten of her poems were published in her lifetime, all anonymously; publication was, as she put it, as “foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin.” Not that she intended her poems to go unread—she often sent them in letters to friends, sometimes with other enclosures: dried flowers, a three-cent stamp, a dead cricket. She also tried a form of self-publishing: from around 1858 until roughly 1864, she gathered her poems into forty homemade books, known as “fascicles,” by folding single sheets of blank paper in half to form four consecutive pages, which she then wrote on and, later, bound, one folded sheet on another, with red-and-white thread strung through crudely punched holes. These books were found in Dickinson’s room after her death, in 1886, by her sister, Lavinia, along with hundreds more poems in various states of composition, plus, intriguingly, the “scraps,” a cache of lines that Dickinson wrote on scavenged paper: the flap of a manila envelope, the backs of letters, chocolate wrappers, bits of newspaper.
One has to create lies or create truths or essentially just create some reality that allows one to live day to day. This is the purpose of science and religion according to Vonnegut; they provide the destructive truths of the physical world that lead to the atom bomb and the inflated lies of the spiritual world that hide mass indoctrination and ignorance behind the façade of peace and faith. It is this need to create a reality which one can understand that leads to the creation of Bokononism, a universally practiced religion banned on the island of San Lorenzo, based on the ideology of “living by the harmless untruths that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”
The day after Donald Trump was elected, one of my former students, from that same class, sent me a text message. We had not spoken in some time. She wrote, “I know I shouldn’t be, but I’m a little scared. Unsure of what’s going to happen.” She continued, “I know I wasn’t born here, but this has become my country. I’ve been here for so long, with a lot of shame, I don’t even know my own country’s history, but I know plenty of this one.” In his interview with “60 Minutes,” Trump reiterated that he would move immediately to deport or incarcerate two to three million undocumented immigrants. As for the rest, he said, “after everything gets normalized, we’re going to make a determination.” After I listened to the interview, I began looking over the essays from a writing assignment I had given a different group of students, years ago. The students were asked to write their own short memoirs, and many of them used the exercise as an opportunity to write about what it meant to be an undocumented person in the United States. Their stories narrated the weeks-long journeys they had taken as young children to escape violence and poverty in their home countries, crossing the border in the back of pickup trucks, walking across deserts, and wading through rivers in the middle of the night. Others discussed how they did not know that they were undocumented until they attempted to get a driver’s license or to apply to college, only to be told by their parents that they did not have Social Security numbers.
Now Is the Time to Talk About What We Are Actually Talking About, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Now is the time to resist the slightest extension in the boundaries of what is right and just. Now is the time to speak up and to wear as a badge of honor the opprobrium of bigots. Now is the time to confront the weak core at the heart of America’s addiction to optimism; it allows too little room for resilience, and too much for fragility. Hazy visions of “healing” and “not becoming the hate we hate” sound dangerously like appeasement. The responsibility to forge unity belongs not to the denigrated but to the denigrators. The premise for empathy has to be equal humanity; it is an injustice to demand that the maligned identify with those who question their humanity.
Dear Kurt (if I may):
The Arc of the Moral Universe may bend toward justice, but it seems at this point on Planet Earth and specifically the good ol’ U.S. of A. that is mostly hokum—though I take some solace that you have been spared in your corporeal state from the darkest joke of all: The U.S. has literally elected your most iconic artwork:
Below, in your honor, as a small token to your years of service calling on humanity to dig deep and fulfill your fictional imploring: “‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind,’” I offer this Vonnegut Reader on the day in which, if God had been Willing, you would be 94:
Knowing What’s Nice, Kurt Vonnegut 24 September 2003
- Eugene V. Debs: Statement September 18, 1918
- reading a biography (in the absence of you)
- Harrison Bergeron 2016
- “Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.”
- Kurt Vonnegut: “What other advice can I give you?”
- RECOMMENDED: Vonnegut’s Graduation Speeches and Drawings
- On Foma and Mendacity: Letting the Cat Out of the Bag
- The Socialist Objective: “I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity”
- Kurt Vonnegut’s Children’s Crusade: Kindness
- The Vonnegut Review: Eugene V. Debs
- “Eager to Recreate the Same Old Nightmare”: Revisiting Vonnegut’s Player Piano
- Kurt Vonnegut Scholarship
So, Kurt, should we even bother to Hope?
Nonetheless, God bless you, Kurt Vonnegut.
As I must imagine you Out There Somewhere, know a few of us our trying, although you are likely:
Along with Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” is one of his most taught, and thus most read, works. Both narratives also represent Vonnegut’s characteristic genre bending and blending—notably dark satire with science fiction.
In 2016, just days before the presidential election, how and why the story is misread and misinterpreted—forcing on it American faith in the rugged individual and refusing to acknowledge Vonnegut’s principles grounded in socialism and free thinking—is a powerful commentary on U.S. politics broadly and Donald Trump specifically.
Misreading, Misinterpreting “Harrison Bergeron”
Vonnegut’s fiction and nonfiction are anything except simple—even though he practices a style that can be called “simple” because of his accessible vocabulary, mostly brief and simple sentence structure, and staccato paragraphing (which he claimed mimics the structure of jokes).
Yet, many impose onto “Harrison Bergeron” a simplistic theme (anti-communism) and a simplistic reading of Harrison as hero.
“If ‘Harrison Bergeron’ is a satire against the Left,” however, as Darryl Hattenhauer details, “then it is inconsistent with the rest of Vonnegut’s fiction.”
The misinterpretation stems from expecting narratives to have heroes and from careless reading of what the story says about equality; Hattenhauer clarifies:
But the object of Vonnegut’s satire is not all leveling—“any leveling process” that might arise. Rather, the object of his satire is the popular misunderstanding of what leveling and equality entail. More specifically, this text satirizes America’s Cold War misunderstanding of not just communism but also socialism.
Vonnegut’s enduring real-life hero was Eugene V. Debs, possibly the most well-known and influential socialist in U.S. history. Vonnegut was a lifelong advocate for socialism, and “Vonnegut’s concern for the working class eventually blossomed into a full-scale political outlook that was inspired by a combination of Midwestern populism and home-grown American socialism,” explains Matthew Gannon and Wilson Taylor.
Yet, the short film 2081 adapts “Harrison Bergeron” painstakingly true to Vonnegut—except for almost entirely missing that the story itself satirizes both the totalitarian state (embodied by Handicapper General Diana Moon Glampers) with its militaristic police force and Harrison Bergeron as megalomaniac would-be “Emperor!”
Again, as Hattenhauer emphasizes: “Like his fiction, Vonnegut’s non-fiction also satirizes the Right and endorses the Left. And the Left it endorses is not liberalism (America is one of the few nations where liberalism is not centrist).”
Therefore, “Harrison Bergeron” defies both being simple and America’s cartoonish hatred of communism as forced equality (a cultural failure to distinguish between brute equality and social equity). The story, Hattenhauer examines, has an unreliable narration, which describes a dystopian totalitarian state in which “anti-intellectual leveling” is satirized—not “income redistribution,” which Vonnegut as socialist endorsed.
Vonnegut attacks, then, the exact American myths that many who misread the story claim it endorses, as detailed by Hattenhauer:
According to the proponents of the ideology of America’s dominant culture, equal income redistribution would contradict the fact that some are smarter than others (the corollary: the rich are smart and the poor are dumb), and also contradict the fact that some are better looking or more athletic than others (the corollary: attractive and athletic people deserve wealth).
Nonetheless, “Harrison Bergeron,” understood as Vonnegut intended, proves to be a powerful commentary on the 2016 presidential election and the rise of Donald Trump.
Harrison Bergeron 2016
Vonnegut’s writing never fits neatly into clear genre categories, but like Margaret Atwood, he constantly plays with and within genre conventions both in loving devotion to the forms and in ways that defy those conventions.
As well, Vonnegut’s fiction resists traditional portrayals of the hero and main characters. Billy Pilgrim and Harrison Bergeron, for example, are not heroes—but they are not anti-heroes or everyman main characters.
In many ways, Vonnegut keeps an even focus on many characters throughout his works, and tends to include a mixture of positive and negative qualities in even the most static characters—mostly because nearly everything and everyone in Vonnegut is open to satire.
As a result, Harrison Bergeron is presented through an unreliable narrator as larger than life; at 14 years old, Harrison is seven feet tall and “a genius.” But the reader soon learns, as a fugitive, “Harrison’s appearance was Halloween and hardware.”
In short, Vonnegut’s dystopia and Harrison as a character are cartoonish.
“Clanking, clownish, and huge” as well as “wear[ing] at all times a red rubber ball for a nose,” Harrison bursts into the story with “‘I am the Emperor!'”
Misread as rugged individual hero, Harrison is, in fact, a megalomaniac—his bombast a sour joke.
Yet, as a genius and a renegade, he remains a threat to the totalitarian state; thus:
It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor.
Vonnegut’s dark, dark cartoon of a story ends with a joke worthy of a drumroll, but the story cannot be read with a smile in 2016 because Harrison Bergeron has been manifest in reality as Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump.
Trump as faux-billionaire, bombastic failed business man, and reality TV star stands before the U.S. as a threat as well—although to the promise (albeit tarnished) of democracy.
Enough Americans misread Trump as a hero to suggest why so many misread “Harrison Bergeron” as some sort of anti-communist propaganda: our rose-colored rugged individualism lenses are powerful, like the “spectacles with thick wavy lenses” worn by Harrison “to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.”
The flaw in the American character that makes so many misread Trump is not simple either. Yes, there is racism and misogyny—but there is also a profound tension between a valid fear of totalitarianism and a simple-minded blurring of communism/socialism with totalitarianism.
When government actually is indistinguishable from the military (Diana Moon Glampers), a people have lost their precious freedom.
But Vonnegut’s cartoon dystopia omits entirely the utopian possibility of democratic socialism and free thinking that Vonnegut championed his entire life—and that many, if not most, in the U.S. remain unable to embrace.
“Harrison Bergeron” does speak to the center-right politics of the U.S., in which the so-called left is represented by a classic Republican (Hillary Clinton) and the so-called right has been reduced to a clown (Trump).
If this were a Vonnegut story or novel, it would be goddam funny.
As real life, the presidential campaign of 2016 is a metaphorical “double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun” aimed at our heads, and it is in our hands with our fingers on the trigger.
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
“Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes
The iconic aliens of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five marvel at the idealistic delusion of the human race when challenged by Billy Pilgrim about free will:
“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.” [Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five (Kindle Locations 1008-1010). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.]
In the American character, “free” remains a powerful and corrupt term and concept.
It is uttered like an incantation, but in fact, the use of “free” has sullied both the role of government (socialism) and the so-called free market (capitalism).
Nothing of the government is free—not highways, public schooling, the military, the judicial system and police force, and certainly not the bare-bones social services so demonized.
All government structures and services are publicly funded, a powerful and important term that highlights that public funding provides a foundation on which a free people can remain free.
Despite the animosity among many Americans about the damn government (who is us), there would be no free market without essential and publicly funded structures and services; think about how any business could exist in the U.S. without the highway system.
But we sully capitalism as well with promises of “free”—free internet with our hotel room, buy one to get one free.
But, alas, there is nothing free in the free market. The truth is that all products and services are paid for by the customers.
Internet may be included with the price of a room, and two products may be included with the usual charge for one product—but nothing is free, including freedom.
Writing in 1946 specifically about bigotry, English educator Lou LaBrant asked: “Do the very words we use and our attitudes toward them affect our tendency to accept or reject other human beings? (p. 323).”
LaBrant was confronting the power of words and the need for teachers of language to stress the importance of using words with care; what we say, how we label and name—these human acts define, shape, and create the world.
But to name does not make truth, LaBrant warns:
A basic understanding which needs to be taught in school and home is that the existence of a word does not at all prove the existence of any thing. Children do not understand this; nor do all adults. (p. 324)
As with “free,” LaBrant would argue: “These abstractions tend to become vague and therefore misleading….Frequently the speaker uses them with apparent assurance that they have meaning, and yet could not for his[/her] life explain what he[/she] means” (p. 325).
This carelessness with language, with words, LaBrant calls “word magic”—and with our slipshod use of “free,” it is a black magic that sullies everything it touches.
Free will hangs before the human grasp like an apple forbidden by the Creator.
Tempting, yes, but is it delusion?
Nothing’s free, including freedom, and so, “free” can only be cherished if used with the care it deserves.
Feel free to take such care.
I am no fan of ceremony—especially ones that trap you for hours in a false setting of formality—and I am equally no fan of what is often a hollow part of the graduation ceremony experience, the graduation speech.
I am a fan of one of the masters of graduation speech as satire and brilliance, Kurt Vonnegut.
At the 2016 Furman University graduation, however, I witnessed two wonderful addresses—one by a student and one by a university board member. I invite you below to read the transcripts:
Regardless of the activity, the key questions are these: Who will you call (or text) to invite? Who will accept the invitation and come? Who will not? And, in each case, Why?
Will you invite, for example, any of the following people who may work at your company, or who may be enrolled with you in same graduate program, or whom you otherwise see frequently and with whom you are cordial, but who are not part of your circle for personal social interactions: the woman who wears a hijab? The man who speaks with a thick foreign accent and is sometimes difficult to understand? The woman whom you saw wearing a “Black Lives Matter” tee shirt? The guy who has a buzz cut and likes to wear cowboy boots?
Imagine the answers if you are working, affirmatively and purposefully, to achieve a deep, first hand, understanding of the self-defining perspectives of other people.
I realize that interacting with people who appear to be different makes most of us uncomfortable and uneasy. “What will my friends think?” “How will they react to these unfamiliar other people?” “How will they react to me for inviting these other people?”
President Davis also suggested in her inaugural address that, “maybe it’s time to progress from the idea of service and service learning to equal partnerships and mutual stewardship of place.” Put simply, we must become women and men who are not just for others, but with them. Our work and service aren’t acts of resume building and self-congratulation; they are the foundation of relationships between equals.
This list of suggested readings is eclectic, reflecting my interests, but I believe they are quite important—even though they range from issues of race and class to James Baldwin and Kurt Vonnegut.
Recommended reading week of April 24:
- James Baldwin reading from his works
- Why America’s Schools Have A Money Problem
- Working-class Heroes, Jelani Cobb
- Race and the Standardized Testing Wars, Kate Taylor
- Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton: how two scorned women moved on, Dave Schilling
- Police shooting of unarmed African American males: Implications for the individual, the family, and the community (Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment)
- What Is the Best Kurt Vonnegut Book?
- The secret ingredient in my books is, there has never been a villain, Kurt Vonnegut
Traded my daylight
For a career
“Theory of the Crows,” The National
“I’ve yet to meet the writer who didn’t have an inspirational English teacher,” explains writer and former poet laureate Andrew Motion. “Mine was Peter Way,” adding:
This was his gift to me – and he gave it without ostentation, always speaking modestly and carefully, in such a way as to make poetry (in particular) seem an endlessly ingenious thing, but also as natural to the species as breathing. He lent me books from his own library, encouraged me to write my first poems, helped me to prepare for my university entrance and afterwards managed the transition from teacher/pupil to close friend/close friend. It’s no exaggeration to say that in certain ways he gave me my life.
My life as a reader, writer, and teacher also had its genesis in an English teacher, Lynn Harrill—my sophomore and junior teacher as well as my mentor and friend for many years since.
In the November 2003 English Journal (see below), I wrote about Lynn, highlighting how he steered the path of my life, including the initial impact:
1976. Mr. Harrill was my high school English teacher, though I had first met him over the summer as my drivers education instructor. I spent all of my free time at school in his classroom—an intellectual, emotional, and personal refuge for young people just becoming themselves. After I had read two Arthur C. Clarke novels, Mr. Harrill suggested I move on to Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe, and Lawrence. My life changed. We students were encouraged—not just allowed—to discuss and debate literature and the “Big Issues” of the day in Mr. Harrill’s class, and he happily refereed. We knew that he valued us as people; we knew that he loved us. And our lives changed. One day at break during my sophomore year, Mr. Harrill said to me, “You should think about teaching.” I laughed.
As Motion experienced, I was introduced to who I am by my English teacher, Lynn, who helped me on the course grounded firmly in words—reading voraciously, writing daily, and teaching with and about words.
So when I saw the tribute by Motion and then read a comment on my blog about poetry from a parent homeschooling in order to raise children as artists, I was moved to think harder about our obsession in the U.S. with “college and career ready”—an obsession decades-long and really about career, or most factually about using public education to produce workers-as-consumers.
To work and to consume in the service of others.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s masterful satire, Player Piano, Paul Proteus tells his wife Anita:
“No, no. You’ve got something the test and machines will never be able to measure: you’re artistic. That’s one of the tragedies of our times, that no machine has ever been built that can recognize that quality, appreciate it, foster it, sympathize with it.”
And while Vonnegut is taking aim at corporate America, I have noted the novel is also satirizing our reductive approach to learning and knowledge, the blind faith in IQ as a technocratic way to know if someone is ready to become that worker-as-consumer.
We should read Vonnegut carefully, and we should heed his warning.
We should also listen to Motion about how teachers matter, and we should step away from our insistence that the purpose of a human is to become a consumer.
Potentially, we are all creators, artists, and not in some condescending way that suggests frivolity, but in the way that is fully human.
As parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors, to foster creators and not consumers is the greatest gift we can offer another human.
And once again, I sit writing, and thinking, “Thank you, Lynn.”
I work daily to pay this forward on his behalf.