Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Poetry Good for the Brain + Jean Wyllys + Bellow

A report in the News.Scotsman says that "verse broadens the mind," according to scientists who've studied readers' eye movements as they read poetry and prose fiction. They equate the eyes' slower and more deliberate movements while perusing poetry with "deeper" thinking; in fact, readers tend to slow down in a manner similar to that of dyslexics. The scientists plan to use MRIs to study brain activity during the differing experiences, but I wouldn't be surprised if they found that subsequent research bore out their initial suppositions. Anyone who regularly reads poetry of any quality--and I even include poetry that is formally very simple, and song and rap lyrics--realizes that if you attempt to skim or speedread, you quickly start miss things--meanings, music, figurations, and so much more.

There is prose--especially theoretical and technical prose (anything by Jacques Derrida, Homi Bhabha or Gilles Deleuze); prose that is formally experimental (Theresa Cha's Dictée); or just highly lyrical, metaphorical or syntactically dense (most of the later novels by John Edgar Wideman)--that can force you to slow down, but I find that almost all good poetry does this--that is, if you are really seeking to experience the poem. Even extremely concise poems like Gwendolyn Brooks's "We Real Cool," Clifton's "Burning the Boats," and Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" do this. The language contains, as Anne Carson once so beautifully put it, in part because of its condensation, a surplus economy of signification, a richer and more complex sign system and structure than most prose possesses.

What's fascinating is that this study in a way bears out one of the arguments put forward by early formalist and structuralist critics like Roman Jakobson, which was later challenged (quite persuasively, in fact, by the likes of Wittgenstein, on the one hand, and Derrida and others on the other), that there is something "special" about poetry, in terms of its structure, its semiotic and symbolic system, its means and modes of signification (Jakobson claimed that poetry lay on the metaphoric end of a pole whose other end, metonymy, was the purview of prose. I'll be interested to see if anyone traces these arguments out, but they are worth looking at.)

"Poetry is violence practiced on everyday speech." --Roman Jakobson

A gay writer, journalist, activist and scholar from Salvador da Bahia, Jean Wyllys, has won Brazil's fifth edition of Big Brother. Wyllys, the first openly gay person on this program, encountered considerable homophobia during his stay in the Big Brother Brazil house (and in particular from another male housemate, a São Paulo resident who was also of African descent), and was repeatedly put up for expulsion, though popular enthusiasm for him was so great that he kept surviving and defeated his competitors in the final round with 55% of call-in support, receiving 1 million Brazilian reais (about $380,000) in the process.

It's probably fair to speculate that Wyllys's national visibility probably had a considerable, beneficial impact on public perceptions of gays and lesbians in Brazil; he apparently hid little about himself, and made his intellectual and activist leanings quite clear, which evidently worked in his favor. Grupo Gay da Bahia continues to note the ongoing anti-LGBT violence in Brazil and the heterosexist comments of local and national politicians and religious figures; and yet there have been positive signs: increasingly visibility and activism even in smaller towns across the country; more openly LGBT (yes, including the Ts) candidates running for office; continued success in controlling HIV/AIDS transmission; and legal triumphs, including a judge in the conservative, backwater northeastern state of Piauí declared that gay marriage was legal, while in the far south of the country, a judge declared that gay people could divorce.

Or, in his words, from the site: ""A mentalidade do brasileiro mudou? Ele está menos preconceituoso?". Jean dá sua opinião: "Existem diversos níveis de preconceito no Brasil. Nós todos temos alguns. Por outro lado, o brasileiro é cordial. E esse preconceito é sempre direcionado contra o desconhecido. Quando mostrei a pessoa que sou o preconceito foi caindo." ["Did the Brazilian mentality [on homosexuality] change? Is it less prejudiced?" Jean gives his opinion. "Diverse levels of prejudice exist in Brazil. We all have some. On the other hand, Brazilians are cordial. And this prejudice is always directed against the unknown. When I showed people that I am here, the prejudice started to fall away."]

As for his writing career, Wyllys has said that he wanted to win to be able to devote more time to his writing, which should definitely be possible now. His story collection, Aflitos, was published in 2001 by the Casa de Palavras Press, a unit of the Fundação Casa Jorge Amado in Salvador, and won the Prêmio Copene de Cultura e Arte for unpublished authors.


Speaking of fiction, the virulently anti-intellectual New York Daily News says that the Atlantic Monthly has decided it will cease regularly publishing short stories and novel excerpts, in favor of more "journalism." They will now be shunted into a special issue, to be published during the summer, and to be read, I imagine, while lying on a beach somewhere. Disgusting. Not that there aren't numerous periodical venues for short fiction these days, and not that the Atlantic's own offerings carried an air of mustiness about them. Given the sorts of articles currently appearing in the Atlantic, I would venture that its reader base, is predominantly highly educated, upper-middle class, and moderate in politics, the sorts of people who once formed a natural constituency, particularly in this culture, for literary fiction. But as that NEA Report, "Reading at Risk," makes clear, even these readers are reading fiction less and less, and the Atlantic's action, like the New York Times Book Review's decision last year to review less fiction (and poetry), isn't going to help. Perhaps they'll both devote more attention to the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of what we now consider "journalism," particularly in the mainstream media, and reverse course.

And more delights from awful New York newspapers: a bitchfest in the Post against Jonathan Safran Foer. No need to say more.

Yesterday brought the news that Saul Bellow (1915-2005), one of the United States' most acclaimed fiction writers of the second-half of the 20th century, had passed away in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Acclaim" might be too mild a word; in addition to three National Book Awards, Bellow also received the Pulitzer Prize in 1976, and later that year, the Nobel Prize in Literature. Linguistic exuberance, often in dazzling lyrical flights; rich characterizations, sometimes to the point of cruelty; a philosophical compass, particularly oriented towards questions of life, faith, sex, and death; a persuasive conversational style, that reels you in like a fishing line; and an abiding interest in the prosaic all mark his work, as do lively doses of misogyny and, especially in the 1971 novel Mr. Sammler's Planet, racism. (This is the novel in which all his fear and loathing of Negroes distills in that outrageous, homoerotic flashing scene; Mr. Phallos is forced to confront the big, black....) In fact, Bellow, who was born in Montreal but grew up and lived for most of his life in Chicago, became increasingly conservative and anti-Black in his later years. He even once asked, "Find me the Tolstoy of the Zulus, or the Proust of the Papuans, and I would be happy to read him." (Dinesh D'Souza and others have tried to argue that such a statement wasn't "racist," but given Bellow's fixation on Negroes and the obvious "blackness" embodied in his examples [Papuans? Not Laplanders? Not Nepalese? Not Yanomamo? Etc.] the quote really does speak for itself.)

When I was younger I marveled at his work, especially
Seize the Day, which I still find to be formally perfect as a novella, and one of the most bitingly hilarious expressions of contemporary middle-class suffering in America; many of his stories, which display a rangy, chatty narrative freedom that the minimalist schools, as well as the epiphanic turn in American short fiction, nearly killed off; and masterpieces The Adventures of Augie March and Herzog, which capture, as the very best novels do, a vital moment in society through unforgettable fictional depictions. No matter how awful Bellow the person was, these are novels worth reading. Bellow's later fiction, however, like his right-wing comments, however, is bitter stuff, and Ravelstein, his vampirical take on his late friend, the closeted gay conservative Allan Bloom, left a rancid taste in my mouth. As with all authors, I try to take the good with the bad, and though I doubt I'll read Bellow anytime soon, for a while he was one of the authors I tried to learn as much as possible from.


  1. John, thanks for all of yr blogging. You are just so smart

  2. Dear Anonymous, thank you for reading the blog and for your lovely compliment. I don't think I'm smart at all, but just very open to the world. I've always got my antennas up, trying to learn something (new).

  3. good post about big brother brazil john and about bellow...the new york post and the new york daily news are such jokes these days that it's embarassing...

    im surprised they're even considered "real newspapers"

    hope all is well with you...