Monthly Archives: April 2017

Cultural Reflection for “Her”

Since 2009 I have played the game World of Warcraft, a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, MMORPG. And while the social interactions in the game are with actual human beings, the sense interactions with the game environment are completely virtual. This brings up an interesting situation where the game world, known as Azeroth, has become, in my mind, a place that is just as real as, say the student center, or the state of Wyoming.  I can just as easily find an alchemy vendor in many of the game’s cities as I can the nearest Walgreens in my hometown, and in both cases they involve just as much planning to get to and might even require an extra trip to the bank to make sure I have enough money (gold) to make my purchases.

Yet just merely interacting with this virtual environment is not the only benefit I’ve discovered. Some of my favorite actual memories are of moments within this game space. For example, when I first began playing I grouped up with a stranger to complete a particularly difficult task. We were able to complete our goal and then went our separate ways but a few months later (in real time) we ran into each other late at night in a rainy jungle environment (the zone of Feralas) and for over an hour we chatted about our game progress, what we’ve been doing since we last met, and what our plans were. In my mind that event didn’t take place in my living room in front of a computer screen but actually at the inn at the village of Camp Mojache in Feralas. In fact I have no memory of my physical self, only of the virtual setting and our two characters.

And it is this loss of “reality” and “self” within a virtual world that I find so appealing. After a long day of work or school, getting lost in an idealized environment full of monsters, difficult tasks, and real players is a relief, a stress reducer, and a chance to take on an alternate identity, which in my case is a Female Pandaren Holy Priest who rides a psychedelic dragon and is responsible for healing injured players.

There have been times when I’ve stepped away from the game for extended periods of time, yet my mind always recalls my experiences within it as if I had actually been an inhabitant of that world. I never recall my physical state, but always recall my experiences in relation to the virtual one. For me Azeroth is a real, living place full of real people (which is true, after all since all the players are being controlled by actual human beings). In fact I would go as far to say that Azeroth is more real (in my mind) than that of a fictional world of a novel. Perhaps because a virtual world allows you to actively engage in its environment whereas other forms of entertainment only allow for passive engagement is what makes the experience so much more realistic, but whatever the cause is the effect is uncanny. I have had dreams which take place within the game world, and more often than not have wished my real life and my virtual one could be swapped – at least for a little while.

And so the film “Her” captures this weird relationship between the virtual and the real and asks the viewer if an emotional experience gained from a fiction is any less valid than one received from the “real” world? My memories of World of Warcraft are real memories, and my experiences in the game did actually happen in that I performed a task using my computer to make the event occur, so why wouldn’t my emotions be just as valid as if I had, say taken a trip to Costa Rica and ran into an old friend in a small village one rainy evening as I waited for a bus? What really is the difference other than my physical body got to participate to a much greater degree in one example than the other?

I feel these issues need to be explored and addressed as technology advances and as the line between the real and the virtual grows even less clear if for any reason other than to help people cope with the loss that will eventually occur when the people who own and run World of Warcraft decide to shut it down and force everyone to disconnect from a virtual reality they have spent nearly a decade having real experiences and memories inside of. Being able to cope with an event like that by having our emotions of loss validated and not just brushed off as it having only been a video game will be important the deeper and more immersive the virtual realities become.  I have had real emotional experiences within a virtual world and losing that would cause me grief and distress, and so it’s reassuring to see artists and filmmakers explore this phenomena because it lets me know I’m not crazy for having such a deep connection with something that is not “real” – whatever that even means!

Essence vs. Experience

While both St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas believe they have found the methods which prove God’s existence, each of them come at the problem from unique starting points and apply different methodologies. In this paper I will compare and contrast both of the Saint’s methods and will conclude with how though St. Aquinas’ argument is more convincing than St. Anselm’s, neither are quite strong enough to stand up to close scrutiny.

St. Anselm’s approach to the existence of God can be defined simply with his self-evident ontological argument, God is “that, than which no greater can be conceived” (260). The Saint is making the case for God a priori in that is he deduces from the essence of God God’s actual existence. St. Anselm is arguing how it is possible to argue simply from a properly conceived definition alone. He does not need outside experience, unlike St. Aquinas who we will look at later, other than an ability to think properly: to not be a fool in the weak sense as of someone who cannot understand what words even mean.

As we deconstruct his argument we can assume many great things can be conceived, from fame to fabulous islands laden with treasure (as one of Anselm’s critics, Gaunilo will use as analogy). The question we then ask ourselves is what is greater than all? An island with treasure sounds great, but is there anything that could possibly be greater? For St. Anselm, determining how one thing might be greater than another can be attributed to St. Augustine’s Great Chain of Being. This helpful guide places a hierarchy on all things existing in the universe, from pebbles, to cats, to humans, and finally to God, and the higher up the chain they are the more good (greater) they are than the thing below them. With this hierarchy in mind, St. Anselm shows how it is better for things to exist in reality than just in the imagination, which also counters Gaunillo’s argument of a fantastic, and totally unreal island.

Notice also that St. Anselm is careful to not use the word “greatest” here, rather he just uses “greater”, and this avoids an arrogant assumption that we could possibly know what is greatest of all to be conceived. This then leads us into conception itself because if you think about ever increasing things in how they are greater, eventually you will arrive at the very thing which no greater can be conceived: God. And if you were able to conceive of something greater then that would actually be God. And so St. Anselm is saying that just by thinking about a carefully defined argument we can’t but help arrive at the conclusion that God exists.

St. Aquinas’ approach, on the other hand, can be defined as a posteriori, where he argues from the effects of God as we see them in our everyday world and from there builds his argument up towards God’s existence – a bottom up argument as opposed to St. Anselm’s top down approach. His is a cosmological argument that depends on experience and the senses, unlike St. Anselm’s argument which proves his point by definition alone, and while St. Aquinas offers five proofs in support of his argument, the Argument from Change is the one I will focus on here.

St. Aquinas is arguing that all change is caused by something else, be it a broken window or a barn fire, and some thing must have been the cause whose effects we can now see / sense. If we think logically about these actual experiences (unlike St Anselm who wants us to think carefully about an ontological argument) then we know someone must have thrown a rock or lit a match for either of these objects to have something happen to them, and so those things too have a cause (a vandal, or a pyromaniac for example). St. Aquinas extends this basic common sense thinking to argue that the universe itself, with all the things in it (including windows and barms, vandals and pyromaniacs) must also have a cause for them being in existence which he identifies as a “first mover”, and this “first mover” must therefore ultimately be God.

As we explored in St. Anselm, there is a point in which no greater can be conceived, meaning there is an ultimate point in which we can stop and say we’ve found God. St. Aquinas too is careful to not get stuck in an infinite regress of endless causes and says there must be a single, ultimate “first” (272) cause because we can sense the universe exists and therefore some thing must have been the cause that created it. Were there an infinite series of causes there would be no first cause meaning the universe wouldn’t even exist.

Of course how we get from the physical world of experience to the spiritual one involves a little help from God Himself. St. Aquinas writes, “The divine rights of grace do not abolish the human rights of natural reason,” (266), and from this we learn through the gifts of reason that God has given us that God’s existence can be revealed to us, even if exactly how God works or what He is made of would be beyond our reason alone to discover or comprehend.  

St. Aquinas is also arguing against St. Anselm in that St. Anselm is assuming we can actually know God’s essence well enough for that to be self evident to us (as if it were, say a clear and distinct definition, as Descartes might put it), but St. Aquinas is saying we can’t possible have a self evident understanding of God’s essence to lead us to proving God exists. He is, in fact, calling the entire foundation of St. Anselm’s premise suspect and faulty. God can reveal Himself to us, but we can’t get their on our own.

Of the two arguments, I believe St. Aquinas is making a stronger case. St. Anselm is saying we have it within ourselves to (innately) know God, that we do not need anything other than the gifts of reason God has given us to know him, however this is all predicated on the notion that words themselves actually mean exactly what we believe them to, that language has the ability to stand in representation perfectly of that which is being described, and also that we are even capable of actually understanding God’s essence. St. Aquinas is, I believe, far more practical and scientific because we can rely on our senses which seem to serve us quite well enough in the everyday world. The main weakness in St. Aquinas’ argument however is with the senses themselves. How can we be sure we are actually sensing the world well enough to draw definite conclusions about what is causing what and how? Are our senses deceiving actually us? This is an aspect he never addresses.

And so I conclude that neither Saint has a bulletproof argument making the case for the existence of God. The main cause for hope, however is that both Saint’s believe we do have the ability within us, either through an ontological thought experiment or through practical experience, to use our gifts to know God. We will have to wait nearly 400 years for Descartes to thoroughly examine the flaws in both Saint’s premises to arrive at a more concrete argument for the existence of God, but he too will carry on the tradition of showing how we have it in ourselves to discover the greater truths of being and the existence of God.

Cultural Analysis of Anheuser-Busch’s “Born the Hard Way”

While America’s largest brewer of beer might not seem a likely source for social activism, the Anheuser-Busch Super Bowl commercial “Born the Hard Way” deals head-on with the negative attitude some Americans have towards immigrants. Immigration is currently a hot political issue, specifically in dealing with immigrants from the Middle East, and the most recent Presidential election seemed to be temperature gauge for how some segments of American society negatively feel about foreigners. In this essay I will demonstrate how “Born The Hard Way” ultimately supports American hegemony and the ideology that immigration is good for America by summarizing the text, applying the storytelling and race analytical methods, and discussing an article from The Atlantic which strengthens this claim .


The Budweiser commercial, “Born the Hard Way”, which I will refer to as “the text”, begins with a medium shot of the protagonist, Adolphus Busch in a bar. A person off the right side of the frame comments (in an accent) that the protagonist doesn’t look like he’s “from around here”. The commercial uses flashback to show the journey the protagonist has taken to get to the as yet unspecified “here”. Our protagonist is shown traveling on a ship in stormy seas and telling a doctor who stitches up a wound on the protagonist’s forehead that he wants to go to America to “brew beer”. We jump ahead to his arrival in America where an angry crowd is telling immigrants like him to “go back home”. The commercial jumps ahead again to our protagonist on a river boat standing next to a black man who is also a passenger. This riverboat catches fire and the protagonist must jump into the river and continue his journey by foot and rowboat until he reaches the city of St Louis. The commercial ends back with the opening location in the bar when the protagonist explains to the man who had originally made the comment about where he might be from what sort of beer he’d like to make. This man introduces himself as Eberhard Anheuser. The commercial ends as the two man shake hands and the scene fades to a title card of the brand name “Anheuser-Busch, When nothing stops your dream. This is the beer we’ll raise.”

Storytelling method

The text can be categorized into multiple narrative elements. The genre of the text would be closest to the drama with elements of the historical and the western mixed in. The subject deals with an immigrant who comes to America to brew beer. The theme of the text is that of the unwanted immigrant finding and making their way in America through hard work and fighting adversity. The conflict of the text is man vs. society. The master plot can best be described as that of the underdog. The tone of the text is serious but also a little romantic, too. The mood of the text is sentimental, and sometimes gloomy and mysterious. The text uses a third person narrative to tell its story.

As this is a commercial for a consumer brand (not a specific product) the text employs historical characters to tell its story. The protagonist of the story is Adolphus Busch who is the first and most prominent character we see in the text and is present in every scene. The antagonist of the story would be a combination of society (in scenes where he is told to “go home”) and nature (as with the various bad weather the protagonist must endure). The foil of the text would be Eberhard Anheuser in that he appears already established in America and is the one who reaches out his hand first during their introduction. The minor characters of the text would be the doctor on the ship who gives our protagonist stitches, the angry American who tells the protagonist to “go back home”, the black man on the riverboat with whom the protagonist shares a peaceful, friendly moment, and the man who welcomes the protagonist to St. Louis. The archetype of the protagonist can best be described as that of the creator because he has a clear vision (as we see in his notebook he writes in during all through the text) and a desire to see that vision realized at all costs no matter how dangerous.

Clocking in at only 1 minute long, the text has numerous examples of intertextuality weaved throughout. The first example is an allusion to the “Adventures of  Huckleberry Finn” wherein our protagonist is shown on a riverboat with a free black man presumably somewhere along the Mississippi. This allusion contrasts with the immigrant’s story of the protagonist and places into historical context the less than immigrant status of black people who were already living in America at the time while at the same time showing how these two communities were connected and had something in common. The second example of intertextuality would be to that of the Martin Scorsese film, “Gangs of New York”, specifically in the “go back home” scene of the text. In Scorsese’s film immigrants are one the one hand shown as being criminals, but on the other are also as being discriminated against to such a degree that it was very difficult for them to integrate into the wider American culture. Our text acknowledges this aspect of American history but by showing our protagonist in a positive light and not being embittered or turning to crime it rejects the idea that immigrants are criminals and argues they are vital to America’s economic and cultural success. I admit to enjoying both of these intertextual examples and I felt they were appropriate to the story being told.

The most prominent symbol in the text is that of our protagonist’s notebook which is the most prominent image on the screen for two of the three scenes our protagonist is seen interacting with it. The meaning of this notebook symbol is it carries the dreams and ideas of our protagonist, something he is continually updating and refining through the text. This notebook is important to the text because it represents the mind and thoughts of our protagonist, a person who we can believe is smart, thoughtful, and studious because of their assiduous notetaking. Another interpretation of this symbol could be that it shows immigrants as being literate since the prevailing stereotype of immigrants is that of illiterates who offer nothing to society. The notebook itself is a common symbol used to show the thoughts and motivations of a character and can be seen in numerous other texts such as in the texts “Heathers”, “Death Note”, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”, and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”.

Race and Ethnicity method

The race I will be analyzing from the text will be white since they are the most prominent race depicted in the text. Two distinct behaviors of the white race are depicted in this text, 1) the hard working and imaginative immigrant who prevails through his own agency against any adversity is the predominant behavior shown (chiefly through our protagonist though also in the minor characters), and 2) that of the racist, angry native who wants immigrants to “go back home”. The physical appearance of the characters is of them wearing period accurate clothing, however our protagonist’s clothing is well kept and clean, even in the bad weather, whereas the angry, immigrant-hater has an unkempt appearance due to his longish hair sticking out of his hat. The hegemonic values of white people in this text revolve almost exclusively around work, specifically a strong work ethic, even the immigrant-hater can be assumed to hate immigrants because he fears they will take his job away. White people are seen on the move in search of work and even when relaxing in a bar, such as our protagonist and foil, are still “at work” in that they are making contacts and business deals with each other.

It is much easier to compare the portrayal of white people as representing the value of hard work than it is to contrast this representation, especially when dealing with advertising which seeks to enforce hegemonic values of work ethic in hopes of influencing potential customers into identifying with their brand. Most television shows and films perpetuate American hegemony and ideology by showing white people as having jobs or careers, and even when they do not, white people are shown as being highly resourceful, such as in the films “Jerry Maguire”, “Boiler Room”, and “The Social Network”. In contrast to this image of white people valuing work ethic would be the film “Gangs of New York” which, incidentally, is used as intertextuality in this very text we are analyzing. In “Gangs of New York” white people are shown as being criminals and more apt to kill each other than possessing a “pull up your bootstrap” ethic. It would be fair to say examples of white people valuing a strong work ethic far outnumber those which do not, and on the occasions where texts show white people not engaging in the traditional work ethic, such as the television series “Breaking Bad”, the amount of hard work going into a criminal enterprise outweighs the amount of work that a person would have to put into a traditional 9-5 job. White people, therefore are consistently shown as being hardworking, and highly resourceful.

While one example in the text is shown with white people interacting with another race the main relationship in the text lies between the various white ethnicities and cultures. The audience of the text is rooting for our protagonist because the audience can relate to this hard working outsider who is trying to succeed against great odds, a struggle many in the audience, an audience which spans the globe since this is a Super Bowl commercial, may be very familiar and sympathetic with. The power in this text is held by the same race as our protagonist, however since our protagonist is German he is singled out as being a foreigner among his own race and thus is not in a position of power outside of his dreams, as represented by the notebook symbol. This fracturing of a similar racial group via ethnic differences is one we know through hindsight as one which is a temporary setback for our German protagonist since the brand being represented is literally named after the protagonist, and since German people are not typically singled out anymore in America as being a hated class. Each of the characters are shown as being active in this text, chiefly through their hard work as with our protagonist making his way across an ocean and continent, as well as the numerous people, blacks included, who fled the burning riverboat on their way to a new life in St Louis. Everywhere in the text people are moving and are on the move and this represents the active, hive-like nature of hard working Americans – most of whom happen to be white in this text.

Overall the text provides a positive portrayal of white people. White people are shown as being hard working (as with our protagonist’s difficult journey), studious (as with our protagonist’s assiduous journal keeping), kind (as with the doctor who stitches up the protagonist), and industrious (as with the business handshake at the end of the text). The audience would be highly influenced by this text because it represents white people in a manner the audience is used to seeing them portrayed, and it reinforces what white people believe themselves to value: hard work leads to success. In a small way the text does hurt white people’s social standing among whites across the globe by exposing the American hatred and anger sometimes levied at immigrants in this country, specifically in today’s political and social climate where immigrants from the Middle East are not trusted and seen as dangerous and whom our government is actively trying to keep from entering the country. Though only one person of color is shown in the text, the audience is being persuaded that the white protagonist immigrant is a stand-in for all immigrants.

Supportive source

In Brian Alberts’ article in The Atlantic he describes the role immigrants played, specifically German immigrants, in bringing beer to America and the role it played in naturalizing these immigrants. And like today’s climate which has seen a sharp rise an anti-immigration sentiment, hostility towards immigrants was strong enough to form groups, one of which was known as the “Know-Nothings”, who banded together into temperance organizations protesting this beer these immigrants were attempting to brew and sell to Americans. Our text taps into this moment in history where beer played a role in “immigrant activism that negotiated American economic and cultural life and in turn transformed both German-American citizenship and the brewing industry.” (Alberts)


“Born  the Hard Way” aims at a political and social message that reinforces the positive role of the immigrant in the American experience. And while the status of the immigrant has often been the focus of hatred and jealousy, the ideal of America as a nation who values immigrants and their hard work is a deeply held belief and a major component of American ideology. This text supports the traditional ideology and hegemony of America through its focus on immigrants, mainly white men, and how they can prosper and achieve business success. Though this ad does not attempt to directly deal with the status of people who are Muslim, it attempts to show immigrants as being hardworking and productive members of society who can contribute to our culture so fundamentally that what they offer might eventually become a major symbol of hegemonic American identity: Budweiser beer.

Works Cited

Alberts, Brian. “How Budweiser’s Super Bowl Ad Taps America’s Contentious Immigration Past.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 05 Feb 2017. Web. 18 Apr 2017.

BudweiserCanada. “Born the Hard Way.” YouTube, January 31, 2017. Web. 12 Apr 2017.

Amiri Baraka: KA ‘BA

This is the poem that inspired what I am writing my thesis on and I wanted to capture why this poem and Eliot’s “Preludes” feel so similar to me and so a lot of this is my free-form thinking about what I’m shaping into my thesis.

“on a dirty courtyard, and black people” is the line that made the connection for me between this poem and Eliot’s. In Eliot’s poem he writes, “The conscience of a blackened street”, and though he’s probably not writing about black people darkening the street, the connection between the poor and dispossessed as seen from the “ancient  woman” (whore) watching them “gathering fuel in vacant lots” speaks to the same sort of desperation and deprivation both poets are exploring. I very much imagined the woman in Eliot’s poem watching the “black people” in the “dirty courtyard” from Baraka’s poem.

Baraka’s poem also shares a similar method of describing the masses in that we never get a full picture of anyone, only pieces, “african eyes, and noses, and arms”, just as Eliot only gives us “With all its muddy feet,” and “insistent feet” and “short square fingers stuffing pipes” (drug use?). We never see actual people, only the mechanical bits and pieces of them – Baraka goes as far as to even give his characters “masks”.

Eliot tells us that the people on the street are “Impatient to assume the world” and Baraka tells us “We are beautiful people” who “want the sun” and so there is agency here, yet there is realistically more opportunity for Eliot’s people to find relief than for Baraka’s people to “make our getaway”. In fact the world’s each poet’s inhabitants want to “assume” are far removed – Eliot’s people want to “assume” the “blackened street” whereas Baraka’s people just want to get the fuck out of here.

Yet both poet’s inhabitants are captured in a terrible world. Eliot’s people live in tenement houses that “smell of steaks in passageways” and cigarettes (“burnt-out ends of smoky days”) and Baraka’s people “have been captured” and live “in grey chains”. Eliot’s people are able to at least fill the streets and go to work whereas Baraka’s people “suffer, and kill each other”. However Eliot’s central character of the woman could very well be a black woman who has nothing much to live for anymore having been chewed up and used and trapped in her shitty apartment.

(I’m going to keep adding to this as I keep working on the thesis)

Amiri Baraka: Dope

This is the poem that broke open for me the performativity aspect of poetry in that now I think I “get it” – at least “get it’ better than I did before I studied poetry. A lot of it has to do with just how talented Baraka is as a performer – he seems to have all the skills of a great actor / performer along with being a great poet. For me this sets him apart from other poets who have a distinct performativity in their delivery, such as Plath and Thomas. And not to undermine Plath or Thomas, but their delivery is so “poetic”, it feels like it’s trying to be elevated above the people listening, whereas Baraka seems to have it both both way: as a preacher and as a slave parishioner.

This poem launches not with formal poetic language, but with grunting vowels, specifically the letter “u” which is interesting because he’s talking to us, to “you”, but it’s unintelligible and, frankly, sounds like the animal noises we’d expect “rockefeller” would hear instead of a human being addressing another human being. It has a tribal quality to it, and it goes on and on to get our attention but has a musical quality to it, too like some sort of dark African black chant. Also, there is a funny bit of intertextuality here that I’m not sure if it’s intended or not, but in the sitcom “Welcome Back Kotter” Horshack would make the same sound when trying to get Kotter’s attention in class.

And while I don’t want to write about every line in the poem (though I probably could), other things that stand out for me are his use of stage directions. He writes “(Screams)” but doesn’t say “(Screams)”, rather he actually screams the next line, “ooowow! ooowow! It must be / the devil”. He follows with another direction  “(jumps up like a claw stuck him) oooo / wow! Oooowow!”. So when we read this as opposed to listening to it we are, in a way, getting something like what Shakespeare would be doing in giving the actor direction in the play, only here Baraka is telling us (telling “u”) how to act. In a way he is transcending a formal form of plays and direction to give direction to an audience that needs to act.

And the role he is playing feels very much like that of the preacher, yet it’s an odd preacher who could also be a drug addict (poem’s called “Dope” after all) and so he’s embodying many roles of the black man in his poem. He’s a one man show.

But this isn’t just performativity masking a poem that needs it to work, this is a powerful work all on its own, specifically in the lines “going to heaven after i / die, after we die /  everything going to be different, after we die “. This line, “after we die” sums up so much about the attitudes towards African Americans (whites wish they would just die), that African Americans have of themselves in that there’s a sort of cynicism that the world isn’t for them and that hope can only be found in death but that’s coupled with a weird saviour mentality in that they will find glory in death, but this Jesus savior mentality is mixed up with African and Muslim religion that rejects (through the implied sarcasm) the hegemonic institutions of Western Religion.

“after we die” might actually be the most powerful line of poetry written in the 20th century,

And that sarcasm permeates this whole poem, especially with his sarcastic apology for Jimmy Carter as being a friend to black people even though “nixon lied, haldeman lied, dean lied, hoover / lied hoover sucked (dicks) too” – (dicks) not being performed but left as a gift just for readers – and with “drunken racist brother aint no reflection” which is in reference to Carter’s actual brother and together it’s an indictment of all white people in power as a group that can’t be trusted. And this also implicates the entire left because just because the left finally got one of their “own” in the White House (Carter), nothing is really gonna change – at least until “after we die”.

His sarcasm doesn’t end with white people, though. He also indicts black culture for buying into a religion that just wants your money, “gimme / that last bitta silver you got” and with his tone of placating the audience with “o back to work and lay back” and “now go back to work, go to sleep, yes,” for buying into a rigged system that doesn’t give a fuck about them. At all.

This poem is dope. Literally. It’s the dope (dupe) that has been fed to black people since “Assblackuwasi helped throw yr ass in / the bottom of the boat”, it’s the dope that tricks you into thinking another white man in the white house will do you a solid, it’s the dope that religion has fed black people into giving up their lives right now for a better life in heaven so the white man can live good now. It’s dope, alright.

And the way he ends it with the same “u”, but this time he sounds like he’s weeping. And he weeps because he’s tired and sad and fed up.

Yusef Komunyakaa: Blackberries


There is something very different about this poem and the sort of protest poem of Hughes. IN Hughes I always get the feeling of the poet as an active force to be reckoned with whom is full of pride (self confidence). Here, however, I feel we get shame, and this is something Steinbeck wrote a lot about – about the identity of the immigrant / migrant who is always comparing himself to the rich man and not always measuring up in the eyes of society.

I feel there are also two distinct audiences for this poem – the people who identify with the people in the car judging the kid with the blue stained hands “Or thief’s before a police blotter”, or the with kid being painfully aware of the disparity here “Burning with thorns”. Those “thorns” are not just from the bushes but thorns of shame and embarrassment (and strangely not a religious connection to Jesus – I don’t feel there is a martyr connection here).

Blue is interesting because it’s a color of sadness – the berries he sells are a sad job, has hands are stained (like a criminal’s), “The big blue car made me sweat” is not just sadness but fear mixed in, too.

And it’s so sad we get this image of inequality because before “The big blue car” drives up we are living in an Eden or  “limbo” – he’s blissfully unaware of being poor, of having to pick berries at only ten years old. He is full of life, he “too ripe to touch”, and he is in another world (“limbo”) of “mythology” and “pies & cobbler”, “almost”. This almost is interesting because at ten years old he’s just old enough to know what’s really going on – he knows he’s poor, he knows this isn’t a great way to live, but he’s young enough to imagine things in the best possible way – until the spell is broken.  This is a heartbreaking poem.

Langston Hughes: Theme for English B

I love the pun in the title. His theme for English B, be (is). And this way of speaking with a slang is what we might expect not only from a young black man, but also from the point of view of “The instructor”. My theme be … The pun is deepened with his use of Y and so we get a conflict between being and the why-ness of being. In school he’s learning about poetry … which he goes home to the Y (YMCA) to write about and think about the “why” of his work.

The instructions are clear – write a page and whatever you write will be true. And from a metaphysical level then anything we write is true in that it was written, truly. So there is an inherent paradox built in here, one of identifying the truth – in this case the truth about race – and one of how will anyone know what the truth is just from a poem for English B?

So then why do we be? Y we B? The slang and rhythm of black language is built right into this poem, but it conflicts with his liking “the same things other folks like who are other races.”, things such as “Bessie, bop, or Bach.” And Bach stands out here since it’s more unlike Bessie and bop and is something he might share in common with “The instructor”.

And of course “The instructor” is white – the white man tells the black man what things are (how they ‘be’”. But he’s traveling through “St. Nicholas, / Eighth Avenue, Seventh Avenue” to get to the Y – a bit of a journey from his classes and much more in the real world.

But this is a two-way communication he’s having. He listening (he is asking “Y”) of his school and of New York in general – they hear each other (they are both here, too – another possible play on language), “hear you, hear me – we two – you, me, talk on this page”, and though he is black and “The instructor” is white, there is at least grounds for open dialogue to listen to each other and learn how the other B.

Yet the overall tone of the paper has the feeling of it being just riffed on the spot. He ends with the “This is my page for English B.” as if he’s just tossing it on the instructor’s desk like he barely worked on it, as if it just poured out of him but then he didn’t give it that much thought after being done. He’s doing “B” work, not “A” work, yet the poem is an “A” poem in that it’s capturing the truth of the poet (his life and situation and race) and doing so artfully.

This is a fun poem to get your brain all mixed around with. It’s sort of endless. I give it an A.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña: I Could Only FIght Back in My Poetry

While I am wary of anything that generalizes anyone, there is a greater truth to this poem in that Gómez-Peña is fighting not necessarily one person, but an attitude from people like that person. It’s a dangerous line where on one side is enlightenment of truth and on the other failed empathy, however, I think the poem works quite well.

There seems to be right away an argument, “I tried to explain” is then followed by a slight insult, “Texas had once been a Mexican ranch”. I like his use of the word “ranch” because it evokes “raunch” as if Texas is a dirty backwater filled with ignorant cattle (which the poem is getting at anyway), but also it declares ownership, too. A ranch is an operation run by someone who controls the whole thing and has dominion over all the living things on it. And there is the Western motif of cattle rustlers (cattle thieving) as one of the worst crimes you could commit in the west, and the implication is that the ranch was stolen from the Mexican’s.

I like the line “‘gringo-bashing ideology’” because this seems like a legitimate argument this sort of person would make. They feel they are in the right and that anyone who has a problem with them is somehow just racist against white’s. It’s a strange victim complex you see in people with limited understanding. But the line is also a plea, it’s saying there’s a more complicated situation going on here. It’s not that gringos are bad, but that there are real divides and differences that need to be overcome. There is real racism here, from both sides, actually.

“Meskin”, great use of sound and spelling to inhabit the character of the Texan this poem is addressed to. You can feel and hear the disdain to even properly say the race of them man his is beating. This is followed by the humor of “& not that skilled in cross-cultural diplomacy” which takes the power away from the Texan and gives it back to the poet who keeps his good cheer through this terrible event. Basically the Texan can’t beat anything out of the Mexican, he only gets stronger (figuratively).

I suppose the “gentle mariachi” could be the poet, and that’s why the fight started – he tried to hit on the Texan’s wife and so got beat up. He tried to maybe steal something back from Texas? He seems to have been successful, too because the wife seems willing to go. However, we have a weird misogyny here (machismo) where the woman is like cattle on a ranch. What are her feelings in all this?

Reading Response for Ada Limón

Ada Limón’s reading was the most professional and polished reading I have attended so far for this course, and while I enjoyed her performance, I left with more questions than I began the evening with.

Ada’s presentation of her work and her ability to “work the crowd” reflected a strong and practised professionality. Ada is a well known poet and no doubt performs numerous readings so it is no wonder she is comfortable with her banter between poems (even during them!). Her overall presentation was engaging, she spoke with a clear and measured style, and she came across as a very “nice” person, someone who reminds me of that kind aunt whose visits are greatly anticipated.

Yet it was her measured and polished presentation, along with her easy and charming personality which left me confused. Her poems, most of which were from her book Bright Dead Things, did not seem to match up to the kind, funny lady reading comfortably in front of a crowded room where only moments before, in a posh lounge adjoining the hall, a piano player fingered away the sort of classical jazz you would hear in a private country club. Could this be the same poet who lifts up her shirt or squats to pee with a pit bull bitch in a garage? Is this sweet, impeccably (though still casually) dressed lady the sort of person who talks about her “first full-fledged fuck”?

And it was exactly this dissonance between poet and poem which I have been struggling with since I first read the entirety of Bright Dead Things. When I began her book I knew nothing of the poet and assumed she was a white lady from somewhere in California and Kentucky whose interests were fairly typical of the white, middle class experience: pop culture (“a big-voiced singer found dead in her London flat.”), people mowing their lawns, domestic affairs – to be honest I initially assumed this was the sort of poetry for the not-too-bad-off wine drinking ladies, a stereotype for sure, but my honest first impression. There did not seem to be a strong character in the book, and all the poems ended with a strong conclusion as if something had been figured out – as if the purpose of art was solving equations and writing platitudes.

Yet the more I thought about this disconnect between poet and book, and reader and poems, the more I came to realize that her very un-remarkability might be at the very core of what she is trying to express. Thinking back to my initial stereotype of whom the poet might be speaks to how easy it is to judge a person, how easy it is to assume that kind aunt of ours only spends all day drinking wine with friends who tip-toe through antique shops before going home at night to a few cats and an herbal tea. How generic I must think the people I’m more closely related to: middle class Americans. How have I had no understanding that these are the same people who fuck and piss like a “hard bitch”, who have fears and worries that, while not as dramatic as a march for civil rights or time spent saving children in Syria, are no less valid.

And so while I left Ada’s reading with more questions than I went in with, they are questions of myself, questions about what do I really know about what the people around me are going through, questions about why I want to placing more worth on some extreme display of civic demonstration over the simple life of a kind, well-spoken poet who has lost family members, lives in Kentucky, and simply just wants to live. Does all art, or in fact do all people need to spend all their energy fighting the system, is it not hard enough just to get through our own, simple lives without someone judging us for not doing enough, for not living up to some sort of unrealistic expectation?

I feel I have a lot of soul searching to do, and I am grateful to Ada Limón for reminding me of the struggle and complexity inside even the kindest, and most beautifully average person.