Musings on the Manuscript for “The Suicide”

Compared to what I saw for  “Mrs. Sisyphus,” the manuscript for Duffy’s poem “The Suicide” from Mean Time is much closer to what I expected a poet’s manuscript would look like.  There was no grid of rhyming words waiting to be put together like a puzzle. The poem was written out much like it was published, and there were strike-throughs and sprinkled throughout. The most intriguing thing to me, though, was that at the very top of the page, Duffy wrote “This will kill my folks.” Above my, she wrote “the” as well, but she obviously stuck with “my.” Before even writing down that title and any of the other lines, she wrote out the line that became the final one. When I first read “The Suicide,” that line stuck out for me. It made me think of the consequences of a suicide and the way that it affects those left behind. Seeing this manuscript reinforced my view that “This will kill my folks” is one of the key lines. Given its placement at the top of the manuscript page,  it appears Duffy also found it important. Perhaps this is the first line she came up with. The line’s placement in the final version of the poem is also significant, I think. It’s the very last line. It’s also the only sentence that has a stanza to itself. Duffy clearly wanted to set the line apart and made sure that they were the last words of the poem that the reader would see. I would guess this is largely due to the way that it would strike readers.

I also noticed that she had an idea for a line that I thought would have been an improvement over the final version. In the first draft, she wrote  “The horrid smiling mouths / pout on the wallpaper.” This is what was published. In a second draft, though, she wrote and marked out “The horrid smiling mouths / pout to wallpaper rosebuds in electric light.” Maybe I’m alone in this, but I really really like that.

She also considered calling the poem “Suicide” instead of “The Suicide.” I think the latter title is more fitting. The poem is not about the practice of suicide as much as it’s about one person’s experience with suicide. “The Suicide” also conveys so much more finality and certainty compared with the more imprecise “Suicide.” How many other poems did she consider titling differently?

Writing “Mrs. Sisyphus”

The manuscript and notes for Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Mrs. Sisyphus” from The World’s Wife do a good job illustrating the creative process that she went through in writing the poem. When I think of how authors write poetry and fiction, I imagine that a writer mostly constructs the phrases and sentences in his head, puts them down on paper, and then edits them. This is what one might call a free-writing. However, Duffy’s manuscript for “Mrs. Sisyphus” includes a grid at the top of the page where she wrote out a list of thirty-six rhyming words that ended with k, e.g., cork, dork, lark, mark. Many of these were chosen for the poem, but some like quark and pork were wisely excluded. I noted that this list takes up more than 1/3 of the total page space of the manuscript for the poem, and was written down before any of the poetry. So, it appears that Duffy did one of two things: either she started her writing by coming up with the list of words and then constructed the lines of poetry around those words (which is what the page layout might suggest), or she knew how she would write most of the poems and merely needed to find rhyming to words to fit into those lines. It’s unclear to me which part of writing came first, but in either case, Duffy’s writing doesn’t quite resemble the kind of free-form process that I imagined. The presence of the grid displays a kind of methodical planning that I don’t normally associate with this kind of creative writing. It’s difficult for me to articulate exactly how this is significant, but it definitely struck me. It actually reminded me of a recipe from a cookbook.

I also noticed that right after the poem, she wrote a note about “The Lesbian Rule” and included a definition from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Apparently this is the term for an ancient flexible lead ruler used to measure corners on the Greek island of Lesbos, and so it figuratively means a rule that is easily bent as needed. I have no idea why she made this note. Maybe it was just something on her mind that she wanted to get down on paper. In any case, it was puzzling to me.

What Qualities Make a Literary Work Successful?

We’re only half-way into Mean Time, and I haven’t exhaustively compared the work to The World’s Wife, but I started seeing significant differences right from the beginning. For one thing, the poems in Mean Time seem much more traditional to me. When I think of modern poetry, I imagine something very much like Mean TimeThe World’s Wife was playful and funny. Mean Time focuses on more serious themes. We explore deep memories and formative experiences in this latter work, not stories and myth. For whatever it’s worth, the playful Duffy has won more favor with popular audiences. I noticed that on Amazon, The World’s Wife has received 4.5/5 stars, while Mean Time is stuck with a 3/5. The latter is 1,535,131 on the Amazon bestseller list, yet The World’s Wife is 230,971.(On a somewhat amusing note, it looks like our class has influenced the Amazon recommendations for those interested in Mean Time; the top recommendations are The World’s Wife; House of Leaves; Graphs, Maps, Trees; and Mrs. Dalloway)

In any case, I’m curious why the public has reacted in this manner. Is it merely that Carol Ann Duffy became a much better writer in the years between these two works? I don’t think that’s a satisfactory answer. I’m more inclined to believe that the general public finds the poems in The World’s Wife much more accessible than those in Mean Time. This might strike you as curious since Mean Time deals with events and feelings that pretty much everyone experiences while The World’s Wife is about all these quasi-historical, mythical people pretty far removed from the present day. I would theorize that the humor and fun structure and phraseology of The World’s Wife is enough to overcome this and makes it far more entertaining to the general public. From the letter we saw several classes ago, it appears Duffy knew that The World’s Wife would be much more successful than any of her previous works.

Does the class opinion line up with popular opinion? Why has Mean Time been so much less successful than The World’s Wife?

Evaluation of “The Mind is a Metaphor”

Ani Deshpande and Jordan Lewis

Brad Pasanek’s “The Mind is a Metaphor” database is a fascinating and useful creation that catalogs thousands of metaphors about the human mind. To our knowledge, it is the only database of its kind. Its uniqueness is the project’s primary strength. In addition, the site is organized well. On the left hand side of the site is a list of different classification categories, including “Literary Period,” “Metaphor Category,” “Genre,” “Gender of Author,” “Nationality of Author,” “Politics of Author,” and “Religion of Author.” One can search through the metaphors based on any combination of these categories, which for example makes it simple to find a metaphor from the Early Modern period written in a poem by a female English Quaker. Another advantage of the database is that each metaphor is linked to the larger excerpt from which it comes. This is helpful because many of the quotations do not make sense without some context. Read the rest of this entry »

Why did they bother?

I’m pretty certain that all of us have already come to our own conclusions about Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, a story, so I don’t want to get in a debate about that topic. Besides, I would probably agree with many of you. In any case, I’m more interested in why authors chose to write hypertext fiction. What was the historical context that led to this brief but energetic movement?

The genre came along at a time when personal computing was becoming much more ubiquitous. This is obviously no coincidence. So was it merely the case that Joyce and other hypertext authors wanted to experiment with a new medium? I think this is one part of the explanation, but it appears that the authors had grander ambitions. If it were merely about the medium, Joyce and his contemporaries could have focused on electronically publishing traditional narratives. Indeed, most of the authors after them who had any interest in technology took this path.

The hypertext authors and their supporters trumpeted promises that they would liberate readers from the tyranny of traditional fiction. One of the most prolific hypertext cheerleaders was Robert Coover, who in 1992 published an essay in the New York Times Review of Books titled “The End of Books.” It’s a title that wouldn’t seem out of place in the most recent edition of that publication, but for all together different reasons. Among the gems in Coover’s article is his assertion that hypertext “free[s] the reader from domination by the author.” He also claims that hypertext allows the reader to achieve “true freedom from the tyranny of the line.” He even compares the rise of hypertext and its ideals to the triumph of Einstein over Newton.

Did Coover and other hypertextualists have a point? Are readers really longing to be liberated from the “patriarchal, colonial, canonical, proprietary, hierarchical and authoritarian values” that are supposedly inseparable from traditional linear fiction? The passage of time seems to have settled those questions with a resounding “no.”

What did I just read?

I wanted to understand the selections from Remediation. I tried. I really, really tried. However, in the end, I was left with only confusion and disgust. Confused because I didn’t understand much of what was being said, and disgusted because the prose in this book is a good example of the verbose, obscure academic writing that I’ve come to hate in the last few years. I don’t dispute that Bolter and Grusin have good points to make. I just don’t understand why they’re so opposed to clarity. Have these two academics never read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”?

While I had trouble finding the overall meaning of the piece, at least a few of the key points were accessible to me. I actually do agree that there is a strong trend toward the convergence of both immediacy and hypermediacy. All kinds of technologies have been designed and marketed with the intention of removing the barriers between an audience and a medium, e.g., the iPad. The device allows more seamless interaction with media, but it also highlights this interaction with the media. We feel closer to our videos, for instance, but we’re also very aware of this little window sitting in our hands. Reading books on the device diminishes the discrete physical separation of one book from another, yet people love to see the digital animation of the pages turning on the screen.

It’s difficult for me to respond to an argument I don’t understand, so I can’t come up with much more to say. Further, being exposed to that style of academic writing annoyed me enough that I’m afraid I’ll throw out something too incendiary if I keep typing.


Digital Humanities Myopia

In the few weeks we’ve been studying digital humanities, the discussion seems to have centered on how we use digital technologies to better our understanding of the humanities. However, after reading the two articles by Alex Reid (“two venn diagrams” and “the digital humanities divide”), I experienced quite a eureka moment. All this time I had been thinking about applying the digital to the humanities, but what about applying the humanities to the digital? The DH establishment has mostly confined itself to the former, as evidenced by the Digital Humanities Conference topic list. Reid rightfully calls this a “traditional and conservative conception of the digital humanities.” I find myself asking, though, why the DH establishment doesn’t broaden this conception. Perhaps they have good practical reasons for not doing so. Maybe they are afraid that allowing these digitally-focused individuals into the field could further alienate them from their analog humanities counterparts who are still the powerful majority in the universities. It’s hard enough to get old professors to respect those “writing software to analyze hundreds of out of print literary texts.” I can’t imagine these senior faculty members being any easier on someone in their department trying to study how we as a society have changed because of Twitter. At the theoretical level, though, I see no good reason that those who use humanistic methods to study the digital technologies like new media and the Internet should not be counted as digital humanists. I’m struck by the supreme irony here. It appears the DH establishment is shutting out scholars in certain fields in the same way that traditional humanities scholars have shut out digital humanities.

We’re attracted to digital humanities because of the new, exciting avenues that it opens for us. I’ve argued before that one of the great strengths of digital humanities is its power to attract scholars from fields that were previously not engaged in the humanities. The result is more interest and inquiry within the field as a whole. Just as traditional humanities scholars need to embrace those who study the humanities using digital methods, digital humanists need to embrace those who study the digital using humanist methods. If we confine the digital humanities to those only focused on the traditional subjects of humanities scholarship, then we’re limiting the potential of the entire field.




Opening up the Humanities Tent

While reading the manifesto written by fourteen digital humanities students from Bloomsburg University, I found myself easily agreeing with their points regarding interdisciplinary collaboration as it applies to digital humanities. One of the key points in this manifesto is the idea that the field of digital humanities “opens up a world of innovation that will enhance the study of the humanities.” This is particularly important given the declining emphasis on humanities at many top universities. Take Emory as an example. A significant percentage of the student population has a primary interest in the sciences, often as part of a pre-med program. Even though these students aren’t particularly interested in the humanities, they are still required to take courses in subjects like literature, history, and philosophy. How can we tap the tremendous intelligence of a group of students who would otherwise be unengaged in humanities scholarship, existing only as mere travelers through these courses? This is one of the key questions that must be answered to ensure the survival and growth of humanities scholarship.

I’m not suggesting that there is one answer to this question, and even if there were, I’m sure that it would be beyond the grasp of any one individual. However, I am intrigued by the possibility that digital humanities could engage a whole demographic of students with an entirely different viewpoint. From my own experience as someone who has taken quite a few classes in the classics and history while also having a deep interest in medicine, I can think of a relevant example. Several semesters ago I had to write a term paper on some aspect of ancient Greek history, culture, or philosophy. I decided that my subject would be Socrates, but instead of writing about his philosophy and ideas or his impact on the contemporary Greek culture, I found a specific topic more suited to my interest in medicine. It’s widely accepted that Socrates was forced to kill himself by drinking hemlock. However, scholars have questioned that assertion for centuries, claiming that the symptoms he had after ingesting the poison were not consistent with hemlock poisoning. Thanks to the digitization of numerous texts ranging from a third century BCE catalog of herbs and their effects to nineteenth century letters describing hemlock poisonings, I was able to find far more sources than even the most adept researcher working fifty years ago. My term paper certainly won’t put the debate to rest, but in its own very, very, very small way, it contributed to our understanding of Socrates. Maybe this example doesn’t amount to much, but add it to others and the picture become clearer. Perhaps a neuroscience student taking a course in religion as part of his GERs can use his knowledge of the parts of the brain dedicated to aggression to illuminate a discussion about conflict among different religious groups.

In order to survive and thrive, humanities as a field must open up its figurative tent to other students and scholars, and the use of technology is a very effective way to do this.