Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Heat + Goodbye Middle Class + Kirsch on Glück

It's Hot!
Are these the dog days of summer? The "Canicular dayes"? Or the wolf days, the werewolf days or the vampire days? Or the brush or forest or wildfire days? The pyre days? The days about whose ways Cerberus and his friends know best? The stovetop or Dutch oven days? The forge and foundry days? The open-air gas-or-coal-fired grill days? The kiln days? The blast furnace or incinerator days? The inferno days or the infernal days? The midday in the Azizia desert days? The surface of the sun or sunstorm or nova or supernova days? The frying-an-omelette-on-the-sidewalk days? The liquefying asphalt and blacktop days? The days that are too hot to merit a figurative epithet days? What would yours be?

I love the heat but wouldn't hesitate to beat humidity and full-bore heat like this back. There aren't any beaches in walking distance and it's warmer than blazing fireplace in the shade. This afternoon I registered 103 on the car's external thermometer.

The (Not So Incredible) Shrinking Middle Class
Scott GraphA week or two ago I bookmarked a DailyKos diary entry, "The Incredible Shrinking Middle Class," by Kossack clammyc, that discussed a recent Brookings Institution study on the decline percentage of middle class residents in urban areas. The entry referenced two articles, one in the New York Times and the other in the LA Times, that offered similar takes on the "shrinking middle class" through different perspectives. What reminded me of clammyc's post was that about a week ago I heard pundit Jonathan Alter on Countdown with Keith Olbermann repeating what I've heard and read other pundits assert countless times over the year, which is that while the "economy is great" (at least in terms of certain indicators, like GDP growth, corporate profits or the rise in the stock market) a majority of Americans in various polls are consistently a lack of confidence in the economy and negative attitudes towards Bush's handling of it. Alter, like the other pundits, mentioned that this was baffling; Olbermann's guest host, who was perhaps also baffled, didn't disabuse him of his confusion on the point.

Now Bob Somerby on the Daily Howler suggests that these "millionaire" pundits might not be so disingenuous, but because of their upper-income status and class allegiance they simply don't have a clue or want one. Economist and Times columnist Paul Krugman, however, has been pointing out the problems with Bushonomics, starting with the tax cuts, since Bush was elected. He's also written about why a majority of Americans aren't cutting the president any slack on the economic front. While the economic picture for many corporations and the super rich is as sunny as its ever been (and sunnier still for those who've been using tax shelters and other vehicles to deprive the federal government of over $70 billion in unpaid taxes, which ironically enough comes to light as the Bush administration has suggested eliminating the very IRS agents who'd be looking into the top earners), things have not improved on the wage and job front for a vast swathe of Americans.

Krugman points out that real family income fell last year. The poverty level rose last year, and in fact has risen each year that Bush has been in office, as has the number of Americans without health care coverage. Wages have stagnated in part because of the decades-long assault on organized labor, which has paralleled the steady disappearance of high-paying manufacturing jobs and even the better-paying service jobs as a result of globalized outsourcing and offshoring. The move to privatize government jobs, which was well underway during the Clinton years, picked up steam under Bush. Meanwhile, lower-paying service jobs, often without benefits, have proliferated, though not in the numbers to replace the increase in population. (And even knowledge-economy white collar jobs are disappearing, leaving highly educated workers without options.) Then there is the wage-depressing effect of some undocumented labor. And, as clammyc lays out in, alongside that drop in wages lower-income people are paying more for services (i.e., a "ghetto tax" or "working-class tax") as prices for basic goods, health care and prescription medications, gas and utilities, and along with interest rates and taxes and fees of all sorts keep rising, so their income and financial resources are being stretched to the breaking point. (For retirees living on social security, or who've seen their pensions disappear or whittled away by corporate malfeasance or negligence, the situation is particularly bleak.) Housing and other costs in urban areas are driving middle class families away, but the costs of commuting, exacerbated by $70+/barrel oil prices, have taken the bloom off suburbanization. (And let's not even get into the possible disaster looming with adjustable-rate mortgages.)

Yesterday I came across a story in the NY Times that filled in what I've been hearing anecdotally for some time, which covered the millions of males between the ages of 30-54 who've simply dropped out of the job search or who can't get jobs because of prior criminal convictions. They don't factor into the government's artificially low (4.6 at this point) unemployment numbers, and according to the Times, if they were counted, the actual unemployment rate would be over 12%. The article also stated that the majority of these men (around 41%) are high school graduates, not dropouts, and around 21% have some college study experience. A sizable number of them are living off disability or dwindling savings or refinanced mortgages. Both within this group and outside it, among men of all ages, among Blacks and Latinos the unemployment levels are higher than they were when Bill Clinton left office, and nothing on the Bushonomic horizon looks like it will change this situation. (Stephen Pizzo takes a razor to the Bush economy on BushWatch.)

Clammyc goes on to ask what the effects will be on the future of our country. I remember asking this same question in my early 20s during the end of the Reagan presidency and the economic slowdown under HW Bush. Under his son, however, the negative economic trends have accelerated. Perhaps we're not yet at the point of "Brazilianization," to use the conservative apostate Michael Lind's problematic term from The Next American Nation, but as clammyc notes, many (the majority of?) Americans are continuing to suffer economically, struggling with decreasing purchasing power, rising debt, and fewer opportunities to advance economically. Right now, neither of the two major parties, unfortunately, seems eager to turn things around, though the Democrats in their most recent six-point plan have issued vague statements about the economy. We voters have to keep their asses to the fire on this one. Meanwhile, the middle class will, not so "incredibly," keep shrinking if nothing changes soon, past the tipping point....

Adam Kirsch Reads Louise Glück
Without question, Yale professor Louise Glück is one of the most highly regarded and lauded contemporary poets; the author of 11 volumes of poetry, the 2004-5 US Poet Laureate and a past editor of Best American Poetry, she's won most of the major American poetry prizes. Her formally and stylistically restrained, highly allegorical poems, which I tend to think of in terms of their consistent and commandingly authoritative tone, have received widespread praise. I remember purchasing and reading The Triumph of Achilles when it came out and trying to understand how the pared, simple lines achieved such demonstrable authority. Here is one poem from the collection prior to that one, Descending Figure (Ecco, 1980):

The Fear of Burial

In the empty field, in the morning,
the body waits to be claimed.
The spirit sits beside it, on a small rock--
nothing comes to give it form again.

Think of the body's loneliness.
At night pacing the sheared field,
its shadow buckled tightly around.
Such a long journey.

And already the remote, trembling lights of the village
not pausing for it as they scan the rows.
How far away they seem,
the wooden doors, the bread and milk
laid like weights on the table.

© Louise Glück, 1980.

Helen Vendler protegé Adam Kirsch offers some answers about Glück's authoritativeness and the authenticity of persona and voice that she creates--some very bracing ones, in fact--in his new reading of her work in the current New Republic. Titled "The Myth of Me" (and hyperlinked on the journal's online page under the provocative heading The honesty, authenticity, and narcissism of Louise Glück), Kirsch sternly reviews Glück's newest collection, Averno (FSG, 2006), reading her career and major foci backwards from this volume. His assessment is a severe one, as he presses her against the lenses of the likes of Eliot, Lowell and others, and not to her favor. One of his most acute comments, but indicative of the entire essay, is

The enemy of narcissism is irony, for irony involves seeing one's self as if it were not oneself. And irony is the quality signally missing from Glück's poetry. Surely a saving dose of ironic detachment would have allowed her to avoid bêtises such as the memorable anticlimax of the last poem in Vita Nova.... Ironic self-awareness would have been even more useful in The Wild Iris, a book admirable in its ambition and seriousness. Three voices speak in the closet drama of The Wild Iris: the poet, who implores God to reveal himself; God, who responds with scolding adjurations to modesty; and the flowers underfoot, which look on with detached scorn at human folly. But Glück's version of the Book of Job founders on the threadbareness of her metaphysics: her God says things like "How can you understand me/when you cannot understand yourselves?" More distasteful, however, is the titanic arrogance of the human speaker, which cannot be dismissed as simply a commentary on the egotism of our species, since it so closely resembles Glück's voice as we know it in her other work...."

And so it goes. I hear echoes of critiques of Rilke here, particularly in the argument about the lack of irony, the self-absorption and high self-regard that the work reflects as a representation of the particular poet's ego, the ineffective or inapt use of myth, and the sometimes allegedly absurd resulting rhetoric. ("Oh higher tree in the ear"--though on another level, that line looks several decades forward into the future, so I'll have to give Rilke some points.) But is Glück's work always so absent of irony? Isn't her sustained management of tone a true and praiseworthy achievement? Doesn't she succeed in magnetizing myth at times, certainly in the works from the 1980s, if not the more recent texts (which I have only read in parts)? I have to say that I've rarely come across such a thoroughgoing reading of Glück's work, particularly by anyone from within the poetic system in which she writes, which is to say the mainstream, non-experimental field (and certainly few things approaching Jessica Schneider's Cosmoetica critique). This makes sense, of course, since it would be career suicide for most potential aspirants to the American poetry firmament. Nevertheless, Kirsch, who does write (very pedestrian, old-fashioned, neo-formalist) poetry is willing to go there. I have more than once disagreed with his critiques, of Ashbery, Carson, Graham, Walcott and numerous other poets, but his fearless clarity, at least in this instance, is eye-opening, to say the least.

Random photo

Man heading upstairs, Journal Square PATH station

1 comment:

  1. hey--thx for the link to my diary. glad you enjoyed it