Friday, October 26, 2012

Lost in Language

Mark Hama

Modern poetry decontextualizes words and phrases, allowing each line of a poem to take on new meaning as the poem unfolds. The meaning of the poem is constantly changing and taking the reader in unexpected directions, allowing them to experience new emotions through language. This is a difficult concept for many to grasp and therefore modern poetry can often times come off as a bunch of mumbo jumbo. So, how do educators teach this to students? The article I will be examining today, “Blue Under-Shirts Upon a Line” Orrick Johns and the Genesis of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheel Barrow” by Mark Hama, is written to give teachers an idea on how to educate students in modern poetry effectively. It is written from one professional to another, using long sentence length and many elements of the official style. In this activity system, this article is successful. However, I read this in my foundations of literature study class-meaning that teachers are not only reading it and reiterating the ideas, but expecting students to grasp these concepts on our own. This article is not successful in this activity system.
One of the main points that Hama attempts to make in this essay is that Orrick Johns was a heavy influence on William Carlos Williams in his writing of the “Red Wheel Barrow”. In doing this, he shows the walk of life that originally influenced Orrick John’s work, referencing many, many poets in the process. In the teacher activity system, this would be successful. As an educator, teachers would be familiar with these poets-bringing more clarity. However, this is not successful in the student activity system. Alfred Kreymbourg, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Amy Lowell, Mina Loy, Alanson Hartpence, Man Ray, Malcolm Cowley, Walter Arensberg, these are just a couple of poets named and referenced in the essay. A different poet is referenced in almost every paragraph of the article. When a student comes across these unfamiliar names, it only adds confusion and frustration. We readers feel as though there is an obscene amount of excess information-causing us to lose interest and feel lost. The point of the essay to understand what modern poetry is. Mentioning every single artist who influenced Johns who influenced Williams is pretty pointless. It is the perfected modern poetry Williams created we are interested in.
            Not only does Hama include irrelevant history in showing the influence of Orrick on Williams, but he also uses sixty-nine word sentences to convey this point:
“Based upon Williams’s enthusiastic description of his participation in the artistic ferment at the Grantwood art colony, one can readily conclude that Orrick Johns, Alfred Kreymbourg, and the other modernist pioneers with whom Williams associated during the formative years of his poetic career provided Williams with both the exemplary character of production and the apparatus necessary for the emergence of a new form of artistic expression, as Benjamin describes.”
This extremely long sentence implements the impersonal “one,” making this passive and more abstract. This is blatant use of the official style. Using “one” makes it seem as though the writer is not writing directly to the reader, but rather some imaginary, impersonal being somewhere in the world. This makes it harder for us to connect with what we are reading. It alienates us. It bores us.
 Instead of expressing ideas in simple terms, he chooses to uses abstraction. He says “artistic ferment” instead of simply sharing poetry or sharing ideas-bringing more complication to understanding. He also says Williams was provided with, “the exemplary character of production and the apparatus” necessary for producing poetry. What does this even mean? Apparatus is a hard word to describe, but basically it can be defined as the tools or the means necessary for a task. I had to look this word up in the dictionary because I thought it meant something more along the lines of social status-which was way off base.
Hama uses this abstraction of words throughout his piece. He adds unnecessary confusion. When reading this I would often come across a word I was unfamiliar with and make a guess at what I thought it meant-as I did with apparatus. This, obviously, is not an effective way of understanding exactly what the author meant. However, I am a college student, I am a very busy person. Like most college students, I don’t have the time or motivation to look up every single word I do not understand in a homework assignment. This was especially the case Hama’s piece as I felt like every other sentence had a word I was not one hundred percent familiar with. Take, for example, this passage:
aristocrat.jpg“This cognitive process-from the printed page, to the imagination “at play,” to the re-cognition that such a play elucidates the writer’s contact with his locality-inverts the critical principals of the aestheticism. Rather than the ascent from the local to the transcendent category of the aesthetic, Williams stresses the descent from the realm of the aesthetic to the reformulation of the local conditions that give rise to such imaginative work.”
There are so many words in this passage that I do not fully understand- “elucidates,” “locality,” “transcendent,” “aestheticism.” There is also the difficulty of knowing the difference between ascent and descent. In the professional world, all of this language would be understood and interpreted correctly. However, as a student, I had to read this sentence about 7 times to fully understand what it was saying. Many readers find themselves lost in the bureaucratic, jargonistic language that Hama implements. He alienates many, many readers as the reading level of America is around the 7th grade. He wrote this passage at a 17.7 grade level and received a reading ease score of 24.6.  
            This essay was originally published by West Chester University with an intention of educating teachers how to convey modern poetry effectively to their students. The intended audience was pure professionals. However, it was then published by Project Muse-a database that can be accessed by anyone with a library card. Also teachers began giving this article out as a homework assignment-expecting students to grasp these ideas on their own. This piece is not successful in these activity systems. It’s heavy use of the official style-long sentence lengths and extreme abstraction of words-makes it difficult for most readers of America to understand. The reader often finds himself re reading and working to dissect long sentences into separate ideas. We find ourselves working so hard to understand each sentence that we can’t even remember what the previous sentence was saying. We feel completely lost in the language. The sad part of it is, this essay defines modern poetry to a tee. Once the reader understands its ideas, complete understanding of the art is achieved. It is a shame this author wrote with such a heavy hand in the official style. It scares off common readers and prevents them from understanding the difficult art of modern poetry. 

By: Erin O'Connor

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