“Music Despite Everything”: The Crisis of the Humanities and the Courage to Teach

This essay offers a new explanation of the challenges Arts and Humanities programs and, in particular, language and literature programs currently face in higher education. Rather than focusing on the bitter intellectual and ideological battles fought within departments in the last several decades, it considers, instead, some of the larger social and institutional contexts in which they have taken place, especially the rapidly changing status of the Humanities in American universities since WW II. Specifically, the argument is that while the ideas at stake in pedagogy, curriculum, and theory do matter, if we want to find the truth, we need to follow the money. I then close with some observations about the vital role that poetry can play—as it has always played—in our response to the intellectual trends that, if left unchallenged, will cripple our ability as humanists to resolve our own field’s crisis of confidence.

Stars Shine in the Window

Light fills and empties hollows every day.
Dawn, dusk. Unstinting generosity.
But when the black is permanent, the night?
Oh death, be kinder than the goodbye thought.

Bright dark rhyming looks: goodbye, hello.
Two transfixed regards that ask and know
and overflow. A wordless history,
a shadow palimpsest of all we saw.

Lesbia’s sparrow hopping down a lane
toward black, modo huc, modo illuc – pause and go?
Nox est perpetua. It only seemed
the path came to a stop. Then it wound on.

Bidart’s Thirst

Frank Bidart’s new National Book Award-winning Half-Light collects all of his poems from 1965 to 2016. In what follows, I take for granted that the book comprises an important and outstandingly original poetic achievement. Instead of attempting a review of this huge book, I’m going to obsess about one of the most recent poems in it.

‘Mortal as I’d Always Been’: C.K. Williams’ Falling Ill

Falling Ill: Last Poems
by C.K. Williams
(FSG, 2017, 64 pgs., $23)

Those looking for consolation in C.K. Williams’ final book (Falling Ill, FSG, 2017), written after an end-of-life diagnosis, won’t find much of it. But there is spare beauty, control, honesty, mitigated terror, and love. Especially love.

Prologue

When I look at the photograph of myself—
an infant in my mother’s arms—

I recognize my usual expression:
that solemn stare,

that vague air of melancholy
under the fuzzy knitted hat.

My pale mother is a stranger though.
She could never have been that young,

and as far as I know
she never knit anything.

It’s all there: the darkness
that will take me, the cancer that will take her.

In another picture, unsmiling on a swing,
I pump into the future,

my mother already a shadow–
dark silhouette just out of sight.

After Memory

The space of memory is emptied
Its volume its mass gives way
To ordinary air to common water

The scrawl of the cartographer’s notes
The reconstructed prairie the unsealed
Unsent letter of ambiguous intent

Are not forgotten but gone erased
Without a smudge or the paper torn
You always imagined the ease of it

The absenting the effacement
The names of things the speed
Of light in its transit superfluous

Without memory there is no desire
Or desire is not more than snow on water
You are fluent at last in the not knowing

Hush

We say that it falls,
(as sifts its warm,
muted cousin,
the dusk, into copses
and corners),
and often it does
in a breath
descend to a conflux
of faces anticipating
each some tensile
and spotlit
suspense,
but every once
in a cool,
cerulean moon
its dumbness will
switch from
downward to lift,
as when after the end
of a parched,
simple crying,
a hush then
rises and rises
and rises.