Preface to Making It Up

By Ron Padgett

Featured Image: “Antique Illustration from The Grammar of Ornament” by Owen Jones

I don’t remember who suggested the idea of an evening of spontaneous poetry collaborations by Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Koch, but I think it came up during a taxi ride the three of us took, six or so months before the event, in which Allen and Kenneth started joking about and even parodying each other’s work. This playful conversation culminated in their public performance of Wednesday evening, May 9, 1979, at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project.

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Features

 

The Technology of Poetry (issue 27)

 

Ohio Stories (issue 25)

  • Shadow and Shine: Ohio in the Literary Imagination, by Jana Tigchelaar
  • “On the Lip of Lake Erie”: Toni Morrison’s Ohio Aesthetic, by Dustin Faulstick
  • The Importance and Depth of “Ohio” in Two Poems by Rita Dove and Ai, by Marcus Jackson
  • Buckeye Sci-Fi: “Does Anything Exciting ever Happen Around Here”, by Christopher A. Sims
  • Sometimes a Vague Notion, by David Armstrong

Tony Hoagland on: The Wild, The Cold, the Unknown (issue 24)

  • The Pursuit of Ignorance: The Challenging Figuration of Not Knowing
  • The Power of Coldness
  • The Wild Life of Metaphor: Prehensile, Triangulating, Insubordinate

Gems of the 21st (issue 23)

Of Essays and Exes (issue 22)

The Villains of Poetry (issue 21)

Fictional Politicos (issue 20)

Manipulating the Reader (issue 19)

Interviews (issue 18)

  • Conversation with Amy Bloom, by James Miranda
  • Conversation with Marie Howe, by Brad Modlin

Uses & Abuses of Dialogue (issue 17)

Poems and Literal Truth (issue 16)

  • Should Poems Tell the Truth?, by Lawrence Raab
  • Truthiness Demands, by Daisy Fried
  • Where Are You Really Writing From? Reading and Writing Place and Experience, by Adrienne Su
  • A Brief Response, by Louise Glück
  • Telling the Truth in Poetry, by Carl Dennis
  • Pants on Fire, by Kim Addonizio
  • “Father”, by Michael Ryan

Beguiling Beginnings in Fiction (issue 15)

  • On Lauren Groff’s “L. DeBard and Aliette”, by Caitlin Horrocks
  • On Edward P. Jones’s “The First Day”, by Marjorie Celona
  • On William Maxwell’s “So Long, See You Tomorrow”, by Maura Stanton
  • On Graham Greene’s “Under the Garden”, by David Lehman
  • On Barbara Comyns’s “The Vet’s Daughter”, by Maud Casey
  • On Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People”, by Alyson Hagy
  • On Stanley Elkins’s “A Poetics for Bullies”, by Tom Noyes
  • On Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha”, by Julia Glass

Translation Cruxes II (issue 14)

  • Like a Struck Tuning Fork: On Translating Sound in Tranströmer’s “The Station”, by Patty Crane
  • On Translating Choctaw Poems, by Marcia Haag
  • Sense and Serendipity: The Masochistic Art of Translating Surrealism, by Mark Polizzotti
  • Finding the Just Name: On Translating Ismailov, by Robert Chandler
  • Translating Thai Artist Wiser Ponnimit from Japanese to English, by Matthew Chozick
  • The Stones and the Earth: On Translating Wieslaw Myśliwski’s “Stone Upon Stone”, by Bill Johnston
  • On Translating Cavity’s “Come, O King of the Lacedaemonians”, by George Economou
  • The Homophobic Imagination: On Translating Modern Greek Poetry, by Karen Van Dyck

Translation Cruxes (issue 13)

  • On Translating Virgil, by David Ferry
  • From an Alphabet of Proust Translation Problems: Z, by Lydia Davis
  • On Translating Strand and Ashberry, by Damiano Abeni and Moira Egan
  • On Translating Tolstoy, by Rosamund Bartlett
  • On Translating Kavafy, by George Kalogeris
  • On Translating Szymborska, by Joanna Trzeciak
  • On Translating Eco, by Geoffrey Brock

Choice Cuts: Favorite Fiction Passages (issue 12)

  • On a passage from Alice Munro’s “Lives of Girls and Women”, by Ann Harlemann
  • On a passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”, by Ralph Lombreglia
  • On a passage from Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”, by Cornelia Nixon
  • On a passage from Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway”, by Elizabeth Searle
  • On two passages by Lewis Nordan, by John Dufresne
  • On a passage from Pam Houston’s “Dall”, by Melinda Moustakis
  • On a passage from Raymond Carver’s “Chef’s House”, by Bret Lott

Collaboration (issue 11)

Six Poets on Six Movies (issue 10)

  • On 35 Shots of Rum, by Claudia Rankine
  • Antonioni at Nineteen, by Jeffrey Harrison
  • Death, Cashews, and No Country for Old Men, by George Bilgere
  • On Lubitsch’s Angel, by Lloyd Schwartz
  • On Tomorrow is Forever, by Laurence Goldstein
  • Acting the Truth, by Linda Bamber

Symposium: Poems Disliked and Poems Loved (issue 9)

  • On Susan Wood’s “In America” and Dana Levin’s “The Nurse,” by Wayne Miller
  • On Carol Ann Duffy’s “Rapture” and Michael Laskey’s “Offering,” by Helena Nelson
  • On Mark Strand’s “The Idea” and Dennis Schmitz’s “Kindergarten” by David Rivard

Altered Views: Fiction Reconsidered (issue 8)

  • On “In Time Which Made a Monkey of Us All” by Grace Paley, by Michael Griffith
  • On “I Used to Live Here Once” by Jean Rhys, by Sylvia Watanabe
  • On Rereading Gabriel García Márquez, by Julianna Baggott
  • On Rereading Donald Barthelme, by Peter Ho Davies
  • On “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Truman Capote, by Peter Turchi
  • On “Orlando” by Virginia Woolf, by Karen Brennan
  • On “The Window’s Children” by Paula Fox, by Charles Baxter

Altered Views (issue 7)

  • From a Broken Ant-hill, by Peter Campion
  • On James Merill, by Rachel Hadas
  • Resisting The Rape of the Lock, by Laurence Goldstein
  • Cellular Change, by Marianne Boruch
  • Tight Spots, by Brad Leithauser
  • A Fish and a Pity, by Steven Cramer
  • Self Beyond Recall, by Eleanor Wilner
  • Just a Goll-durn Minute…, by Stephen Corey
  • Safe in ther Alabaster Chambers, by Nancy Eimers
  • Disinhibited, by Stephanie Burt
  • On the Author of “The Paddiad,” by Christopher Ricks

Stories You May Have Missed: Fifteen Fiction Writers Reflect on Underappreciated Contemporary Stories (issue 6)

  • On Lucia Berlin’s “Maggie May,” by Lydia Davis
  • On Gerald Shapiro’s “Bad Jews,” by Stuart Dybek
  • On Stephanie Vaughn’s “Dog Heaven,” by Carol Anshaw
  • On Donal Barthelme’s “The School,” by Max Apple
  • On Bernard Malamud’s “In Kew Gardens,” by Alan Cheuse
  • On John L’Heureux’s “The Comedian,” by Erin McGraw
  • On Gilbert Sorrentino’s “The Moon In Its Flight,” by Robert Cohen
  • On John Fowles’s “The Ebony Tower,” by Nicholas Delbanco
  • On Anita Desai’s “The Accompanist,” by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
  • On Alice McDermott’s “Enough,” by Tracy Daugherty
  • On James Kaplan’s “In Miami, Last Winter,” by Steven Schwartz
  • On Mavis Gallant’s “The Remission,” by Andrea Barrett
  • On Mavis Gallant’s “Mlle. Dias de Corta,” by Francine Prose
  • On Robert Stone’s “Helping,” by Jim Shepard
  • On Charles Baxter’s “Fenstad’s Mother,” by Rosellen Brown

Considering Wislawa Szymborksa (issue 5)

  • Thinking Out Loud, by Lawrence Raab
  • On Szymborska, by Carl Dennis
  • That Threshold (If It Is A Threshold), by Sally Ball
  • Vaster: Wislawa Szymborska and Elizabeth Bishop, by Kathy Fagan
  • Non Omnis Moriar”: Reading Szymborska in Translation by Jennifer Clarvoe
  • On Szymborka’s “Travel Elegy,” by William Olsen
  • To Keep On Not Knowing, by Michelle Boisseau
  • All the World’s a Stage: Some Thoughts on Szymborksa, by Rachel Wetzsteon
  • Everything, All At Once, by Marianne Oruch
  • Heaven by Subtraction – Szymborska’s Skeptical Wonder, by Tony Hoagland

Frederick Barthelme Feature (issue 4)

  • Sun Deluxe, by Frederick Barthelme
  • Interview with Frederick Barthelme, by Gary Percesepe
  • Rereading Frederick Barthelme’s “Shopgirls” (Minimalism and Prosaics), by B.W. Jorgensen

“On the Lip of Lake Erie”: Toni Morrison’s Ohio Aesthetic

By Dustin Faulstick

In an interview with Claudia Tate, Toni Morrison had this to say about her home state of Ohio:

The northern part of the state had underground railroad stations and a history of black people escaping into Canada, but the southern part of the state is as much Kentucky as there is, complete with cross burnings. Ohio is a curious juxtaposition of what was ideal in this country and what was base. It was also a Mecca for black people; they came to the mills and plants because Ohio offered the possibility of a good life, the possibility of freedom, even though there were some terrible obstacles.

In Ohio, there’s a distinct feeling of being in the middle—not only in the physical middle, mostly landlocked near the center of the country, but also in the ideological middle, politically, morally—having been on the right side of history regarding the question of slavery, but, even during the same time period, often in the wrong on questions of justice: at least as supportive of fugitive slave laws as of the underground railroad. Morrison not only grew up in this contradictory state, it pervades her fiction. “In my work, no matter where it’s set,” she once told an Ohio audience, “the imaginative process always starts right here on the lip of Lake Erie.”

In their emphasis on a non-linear historicity, their cyclicality, and through her comprehensive storytelling, Morrison’s novels are intimately tied to her Ohio roots. The distinct seasons of northern Ohio—its agricultural rhythms and proximity to the eternal crash of recycling Lake Erie waves—inspired an aesthetic insistent upon return. Central to that aesthetic is Morrison’s initial refusal to reveal everything straight away. Early in her novels, readers are left momentarily confused, uncertain we have what we need. And often, we don’t, yet. This aesthetic style models a return to history that Morrison encourages—both in her novels, where she flashes back to revisit stories and add details from characters’ pasts to illuminate their complex realities, and in our own worldview, where we’re encouraged to look again at our own stories and the injustices that are never merely past. Ohio’s specific place in United States history and its natural rhythms inform Morrison’s style—which we can see from a brief look at her widely explored Ohio novels The Bluest Eye and Beloved. Moreover, the spirit of Ohio—its promise and precariousness—is so strong in Morrison’s work that it extends to later novels set outside of Ohio as well, particularly her slightly less appreciated Great Migration novel Jazz.

In The Bluest Eye, set in her hometown of Lorain, Ohio, Morrison employs agricultural metaphors inspired by her home state but does so for her own purposes. Having divided her first novel into four sections following the four seasons, she subverts Western symbolic meanings, as she does throughout The Bluest Eye, to draw attention to the fact that not everyone flourishes under a hegemonic worldview. The protagonist, Pecola, who desires blue eyes, is raped and impregnated by her father, Cholly, in the springtime—resulting in a baby doomed to death and a child doomed to insanity. All of this is set against the expected rains of rebirth. Likewise, the novel borrows its closing metaphor from gardening, but it evokes sterility not fertility: “it was the fault of the earth, the land, of our town. I even think now that the land of the entire country was hostile to marigolds that year. This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear.” The soil’s hostility toward narrator Claudia’s marigolds provides an immediate metaphor for Pecola’s stillborn baby, but it’s also a metaphor for Ohio’s inability to welcome Pecola or her father, and for a country whose people and systems continue to perpetuate racial humiliation.

In the Pulitzer–Prize winning Beloved, this time set in Cincinnati, Morrison uses the seasons to deepen our investment in her characters. She writes, “In Ohio seasons are theatrical. Each one enters like a prima donna, convinced its performance is the reason the world has people in it. When Paul D had been forced out of 124 into a shed behind it, summer had been hooted offstage and autumn with its bottles of blood and gold had everybody’s attention.” Like the Ohio seasons, Morrison’s characters are tempestuous and demand attention. Even her secondary players are full enough to remind readers that everyone’s story is central to herself—that no one, fictional or otherwise, deserves to exist perpetually on the margins. “The fact that I chose to write about black people means I’ve only been stimulated to write about black people,” Morrison has explained elsewhere. “We are people, not aliens. We live, we love, and we die.”

In Beloved, Baby Suggs urges her congregation in the Clearing toward a similar realization: “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it.” “This here place” might not represent the totality of Ohio, but it is in Ohio: “to get to a place where you could love anything you chose,” Paul D reasons, “well now, that was freedom.” “Yonder,” on the other hand, certainly represents parts of the South, but it’s also the Ohio just beyond the Clearing, which can turn on you as fast as the Sweet Home slave catchers arriving on horseback. And when the imperfect protection offered by Cincinnati can’t keep “the bloody side of the Ohio River” on its own side, Sethe—in one of the most heartbreaking moments in contemporary literature—kills her daughter, Beloved, and tries to kill her other children. Sethe, like Margaret Garner, the real-life woman on whom the story is partially based, knows—at least in her panic—slavery to be worse than death.

Although her Ohio novels are some of Morrison’s most celebrated, they’ve also faced severe scrutiny. The Bluest Eye and Sula were originally met with dismissive criticism, and they, along with Beloved, have been banned and challenged by censors. Now widely viewed as the United States’ greatest living novelist, Morrison called reading early reviews of The Bluest Eye a “depressing experience.” For instance, a 1970 New York Times reviewer asserted, “Morrison has gotten lost in her construction.” And in a now infamous 1973 review of Sula, Sara Blackburn initially responded to The Bluest Eye by writing that “socially conscious readers—including myself—were so pleased to see a new writer of Morrison’s obvious talent that we tended to celebrate the book and ignore its flaws.” Blackburn even went on to suggest that Morrison should turn her attention away from “the black side of provincial American life” toward more “serious, important” topics. And as recently as 2013, the president of the Ohio Board of Education tried to remove The Bluest Eye from an 11th-grade Common Core reading list. Many people defended the book—most notably Morrison herself: “To be a girl from Ohio, writing about Ohio, having been born in Lorain, Ohio, and actually relating as an Ohio person, I resent it.” To ban a Morrison novel in Ohio feels like banning Ohio in Ohio, like keeping Ohio history from Ohioans: this is our past, such a move insists, but we don’t want to look at it.

Through researched historical description and intense aesthetic beauty, Morrison forces us to look. In her 2019 essay “Peril”—a preface to her newest collection of writings, The Source of Self-Regard, which was released this February just before her 88th birthday—Morrison highlights the power censorship tries to conceal: “the efforts to censor, starve, regulate, and annihilate us are clear signs that something important has taken place.” One of the many important things taking place in Morrison’s Ohio novels is their investment in history. Seeing no memorial to slavery, she dedicates Beloved to “Sixty Million and more.” She creates Sula in rural Ohio and charts the capitalistic displacement of black communities. She sets The Bluest Eye in her hometown and chronicles the internalized effects of centuries-long racism. And she does so in sentences you never want to stop reading. “My sensibility,” Morrison has insisted, is both “highly political and passionately aesthetic.”

*

Michael Hill’s 2013 book The Ethics of Swagger argues that a compelling aesthetic experience is capable of opening ethical paths that might otherwise remain unopened—that prizewinning black authors, especially Morrison, accelerated the canonization of African American literary texts, thereby increasing their visibility and making more people more aware of black histories and black realities. Hill evokes, as a foundational example of the ethics of swagger, basketball legend Julius Irving and the introduction of the dunk: “Dr. J’s dunks embraced black styles and revised the agendas of basketball’s white creator. This combination of cultural affirmation and institutional critique showed his expressive authority. [. . .] Swagger here involves more than just ego; it entails cultural recovery.”

Born just fifty miles from Morrison’s hometown, the current best basketball player in the world, LeBron James, has been forced to navigate some of the same issues as Morrison. For example, a 2010 Bleacher Report article began with this sentence: “LeBron James is the most hated player in the NBA.” This came just after the Akron native left Cleveland—the first time—when he announced on national television that he was taking his talents to South Beach. Even though James donated the six million dollars the broadcast generated to charity, drawing special attention to himself hurt his reputation, especially among white fans. The Midwest is a place where the fundamentals are preferred to the flashy, where modesty and humility are exalted, in particular and unjustly for women and people of color.

I was living in Ohio when James made his announcement and I personally know people who burned his jersey in 2010. More interesting, though, is that some of these same people also shared this meme in 2018: “Excellent father. Greatest player on the planet. Same dude, same maturity, same family. Reputation intact. Ladies and Gentlemen, LeBron James.” As with the literary world’s eventual embrace of Morrison, we might be inclined to see progress in these Cleveland fans’ change of heart—a change of heart inspired not least because James returned to Cleveland and led them to their first NBA championship before leaving—the second time—to play in Los Angeles. But I think it speaks instead to an unhealthy conformist mentality: one reflected in the reception of both James and Morrison. If a black person doesn’t fit mainstream ideals for what it is to be a writer, a leader, a role model—if, essentially, she doesn’t please white people on white people’s terms—then it doesn’t matter how talented she is, she’s likely to be marginalized and her abilities downplayed. That is, until it’s impossible to ignore her talent and charisma, and only then is she championed by the mainstream and tokenized as misleading evidence that a person’s reception is based solely on merit and not at all on race. The answer for icons such as James and Morrison has been striving to be better than everyone else, regardless of reception: “I am giving myself permission to write books that do not depend on anyone’s liking them,” Morrison has insisted, “because what I want to do is write better.”

And writing better for Morrison is always grounded in Ohio—even when she’s writing novels set in other parts of the United States. Jazz (1992) is this sort of Ohio novel. Set in Manhattan in 1926, Jazz offers insight into the psychology of moving from the South to the North, a journey both of Morrison’s parents made when settling in Ohio in the early 1900s. In her forward to the novel, she recalls one of the first things she did as she began to imagine it: “I remembered. My mother was twenty years old in 1926; my father nineteen. Five years later, I was born. They had both left the South as children, chock full of scary stories coupled with a curious nostalgia.” Although few of Jazz’s plot points parallel Morrison’s real-life family, the novel explores the fresh, expansive hope provided by moving away from the Jim Crow South, while at the same time acknowledging the South’s clutches. It encapsulates both nostalgic memory and the South’s destructive foundational histories, pulling characters back into a painful past they can’t totally escape.

We learn on the first page of Jazz what other novelists might reveal on the last: Joe Trace has killed his much younger lover Dorcas, and his wife Violet has tried to disfigure Dorcas’s face at her funeral. What follows is a thorough exploration of the immediate and distant past that helps to unearth how the protagonists came to be who they are. Employing a storytelling strategy owing its origin to her Ohio–derived aesthetic of return, Morrison digs deep into Joe and Violet’s arrival in the North, their histories in the South, and the histories of their parents and grandparents. As she revisits the same stories over and over, we learn, piece-by-piece, more about the characters and ultimately understand their struggles a little better each time we look.

When Violet and Joe first arrive in New York, the North is bliss:

They weren’t even there yet and already the City was speaking to them. They were dancing. And like a million others, chests pounding, tracks controlling their feet, they stared out the windows for first sight of the City that danced with them, proving already how much it loved them. [. . .] When they arrived, carrying all of their belongings in one valise, they both knew right away that perfect was not the word. It was better than that.

The North offers Violet and Joe a chance to “dream tall and feel in on things,” it provides streets where black people “owned all the stores,” and it gives them a place where they feel “top-notch and indestructible.”

In its hopefulness for a new start, Jazz is a migrant story: like the story of Morrison’s parents, like that of people waiting right now to cross the Mediterranean Sea, like the story of many in Mexico and Central America. But the promised land is not paradise; not everything is made perfect for migrants even if they arrive at their desired destination. The Cincinnati of Beloved offers a loving community and a passionate life, but only until the slave catchers come searching for Sethe. Lorain in The Bluest Eye ends up not as a place of infinite opportunity, but as a land where the “soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers.” Consequently, when Morrison’s young, excited narrator exclaims early in Jazz, “History is over,” we—author and readers—know better. History is not over for Violet and Joe: “Twenty years after Joe and Violet train-danced on into the City, they were still a couple but barely speaking to each other, let alone laughing together or acting like the ground was a dance-hall floor.” Like other Morrison characters, they are haunted by their incurable southern histories.

Initially, Violet fears becoming her mother, who threw herself down a well after the men evicting her family from their southern home dumped her out of her chair and onto her face, degrading and breaking her: “the biggest thing Violet got out of that was to never never have children.” When she changes her mind about children, she tries, in her loneliness, to steal a neighbor’s baby and begins sleeping with a lifelike doll. Her fixation on the past—having no children, remembering her mother’s death—causes mental lapses and hallucinations that limit further and further her human interactions: “Over time her silences annoy her husband, then puzzle him and finally depress him.” Even her decision to remain with Joe after his infidelity is couched in Violet’s southern foundations: “Everybody I grew up with is down home. We don’t have children. He’s what I got. He’s what I got.” Joe, for his part, claims he shot Dorcas because he didn’t “know how to love anybody.” Raised by an adoptive family in Virginia, Joe learns that his biological mother seems to be a woman nicknamed Wild, who lives in the woods and doesn’t talk to him or to anyone. Violet offers Joe a new family and the North offers him a new place, but the move furthers the institutionalized separation he and Violet face. Joe has to give up his best friend and adoptive brother Victory, whom he never sees again and whose memory casts a shadow on all of his future relationships: “since Victory, I never got too close to anybody.” And although the North—New York, Ohio, and elsewhere—offers an escape from the South, it’s also foreign and potentially alienating. This is a heavy consequence of the Jim Crow South: beyond its sanction of bodily violence and humiliation, it drove millions to leave behind the people they loved.

And yet, despite the novel’s violence and pain, Jazz ends with a surprising resolution inspired by the improvisatory nature of the jazz music evoked in its title. The disarmingly honest narrator—perhaps, here, reflecting Morrison’s own process—admits, “I missed it altogether. I was sure one would kill the other. [. . .] I was so sure, and they danced and walked all over me. Busy, they were, busy being original, complicated, changeable—human, I guess you’d say.” Joe and Violet stay together, become supplemental parents to the children in Harlem, and venture occasionally into other parts of New York City: “A lot of the time, though, they stay home figuring things out, telling each other those little personal stories they like to hear again and again.” Morrison remarks, in her forward, how she was struck by jazz’s “unreasonable optimism. Whatever the truth or consequences of individual entanglements and the racial landscape, the music insisted that the past might haunt us, but it would not entrap us.”

The contradictions evidenced in Jazz—the highs and lows, the hauntings and hopefulness—relate to the way Morrison sees Ohio as both “ideal” and “base.” It’s not exactly that New York stands in for Ohio, but that Jazz as a novel reflects the Great Migration experience, what we might call the Great Ambivalence. As it was written after the civil rights movement, the novel comments also on the American experiment as a whole, and if Jazz engages the American experiment, jazz music represents the best version of that experiment. As a metaphor for the promise of the United States, jazz music acknowledges difference and relationality, improvisation, originality, invention, pain, and struggle. Morrison wanted Jazz not just to be about these elements; she hoped “the novel would seek to become them.” The fullness of Morrison’s novels and, all too consistently, the social realities of our world reveal that we’re not there yet—and that maybe we never will be. But if experience tempers the “unreasonable optimism” of jazz music, experience even further recommends the spontaneous, transformed hopefulness of Jazz. It’s a hopefulness grounded in history and in the promise and peril of Morrison’s Ohio: a petrified promised land whose soil may not always support marigolds but has helped to produce the essential literature of the United States.


Dustin Faulstick is a Senior Lewis Lecturer in the Lewis Honors College at the University of Kentucky. His critical essays have appeared in Studies in American Naturalism, Literature and Belief, Edith Wharton Review, and Religion and the Arts. He is working on a book about Ecclesiastes and early-twentieth-century U.S. literature.

Designs Less Palpable: Emotional Manipulation and Even-Handedness in Keats

by: Matthew VanWinkle

In a February 3, 1818 letter to his friend Reynolds, Keats rejects a reading experience that he associates primarily with Wordsworth: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket.” The reproach is so scathing because it acutely observes how rapidly the poetry’s interest in its audience cools, from the importunate heat of the design to the indifferent withdrawal to the pocket. Keats is fuming primarily at Wordsworth’s dogmatism and propensity for self-congratulation, as we hear earlier in the letter, where Keats complains of being “bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist.”

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Designs Less Palpable: Emotional Manipulation and Even-Handedness in Keats

By Matthew VanWinkle

Featured Art: Flowery Meadow by William Henry Holmes

In a February 3, 1818 letter to his friend Reynolds, Keats rejects a reading experience that he associates primarily with Wordsworth: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket.” The reproach is so scathing because it acutely observes how rapidly the poetry’s interest in its audience cools, from the importunate heat of the design to the indifferent withdrawal to the pocket. Keats is fuming primarily at Wordsworth’s dogmatism and propensity for self-congratulation, as we hear earlier in the letter, where Keats complains of being “bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist.”

At first glance, this might seem like a rarefied chafing, a protest against an intellectual irritation or an effusion of rivalry peculiar to talented writers. Yet the kind of readerly hatred that Keats memorably articulates becomes more comprehensible when we think of art that has palpable designs not on our ideas but on our feelings: the swelling soundtrack that jerks at our tears, the so-cute cartoon kitty kitty that beguiles us into wuv. Every reader has caved in to this sort of appeal at one time or another, and many readers look back on such acquiescence abashedly, or worse. How to admit, even in hindsight, to having been manipulated, to having feelings that can be summoned and practiced upon with such infuriating confidence?

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On the Opening of William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow

By Maura Stanton

Featured Art: Summer Breezes by Gustave Baumann

William Maxwell’s great short novel, set in the farm country of central Illinois, where I, too, grew up, pulls us into the story of a murder with such force that we can’t stop reading.

The first chapter is called “A Pistol Shot.” Maxwell begins with the setting: “The gravel pit was about a mile east of town, and so deep that boys under sixteen were forbidden by their parents to swim there.” This sentence tells us that we’re out in isolated country. But it also suggests that this is a novel about “boys under sixteen.”

The next sentence introduces the narrator. “I knew it only by hearsay” he says of the gravel pit. And then we get to know something about his imagination as he tells us why boys like him are forbidden to swim there—“It had no bottom, people said, and because I was very much interested in the idea that if you dug a hole straight down anywhere and kept on digging it would come out in China, I took this to be a literal statement of fact.”

Now in the second paragraph—that soon!—the gun goes off. “One winter morning shortly before daybreak, three men loading gravel there heard what sounded like a pistol shot. Or, they agreed, it could have been a car backfiring.” In two brief sentences, we see the men at work in the dark, see them startle at the sound, look at each other, wonder, talk, get back to work. “Within a few seconds it had grown light. No one came to the pit through the field that lay alongside it, and they didn’t see anyone walking on the road.” The narrator gives us the facts. “The sound was not a car backfiring; a tenant farmer named Lloyd Wilson had just been shot and killed, and what they heard was the gun that killed him.”

There are only five more paragraphs in this incredible chapter. By the end, we’ve been pulled into a mystery that is not only about a sensational crime, with a severed ear, but also about the scrupulous torments of adolescent guilt.

Mavis Gallant, a brilliant Canadian writer of short stories mostly set in Europe, describes William Maxwell in the Preface to her own Collected Stories: “He seems to me the most American of all the Americans I have known.” Maxwell’s America here is central Illinois—the flat fields, towers of cloud, isolated lives, passion, guns. You still see the gun clubs’ Burma-Shave-style signs for Guns Save Lives as you drive through on your way to elsewhere.


Maura Stanton’s poetry and prose has appeared recently or is forthcoming in The Antioch Review, New England Review, The Hudson Review, Southern Poetry Review, Printer’s Row Journal, Grist, and the O’Henry Prize Stories 2014. She has published a novel and three collections of short stories, as well as six collections of poetry.

Originally published in NOR 15

“The Remission” by Mavis Gallant

By Andrea Barrett

Featured Art: The Funeral by Edouard Manet

One of my favorite stories is Mavis’ Gallant’s “The Remission,” which is set in the early 1950s but was written in the late 1970s. Superficially straightforward, it reveals its virtuosity slowly and deviously, stating its premise outright in the first line:

When it became clear that Alec Webb was far more ill than anyone had cared to tell him, he tore up his English life and came down to die on the Riviera.

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At the Threshold

By Marilyn Abildskov

Featured Art: Dilapidated House, 1811

She hesitates, then opens the unlocked door. The house is not hers. It’s nobody’s yet. That’s why she’s here. To walk on red tiles in the empty entryway. To see if there’s carpet yet in the bedrooms. To touch the smooth white marble fireplace that reaches the ceiling in the living room. To wander empty rooms before the rooms are filled.

Here in the entranceway of the new empty house she says out loud—hello hello—and listens for something, a spirit maybe, to say something back.

Nothing. Not even an echo.

From the kitchen window, she can see her home, the tip of a modernist triangle roof. In the distance, she can hear her mother playing the piano, lost in the music. Her shoes squeak against the floorboards of the hallway. No carpet. Not yet.

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A Toast in Cancun

By Charles Haverty

Featured Art: Oak Street Beach, Chicago by Terry Evans

Everyone in his new life warned Ferris not to go to Cancun. They said Cancun was to drinking what Las Vegas was to gambling. “They even drink in the swimming pools,” his sponsor Leonard told him. “No shit. They belly up to the bar right there in the water.” He’d been sober for four months, a week, and three days, but Caitlin was his only sister and he her only brother and this was her wedding. So there he stood, sweating on the beach in the wrong suit, the darkest figure in the sand-colored crowd. With the ceremony behind him, only the reception, the night, and a taxi ride to the airport separated Ferris from the plane that would carry him back to Indiana and his quiet, normal life. Read More

From The Secret Correspondence: A Novel of Novels

By Tom Whalen

Featured Art: Nan and Brian in bed, New York City by Nan Goldin

The Solution

For the life of me, I can’t understand why The Solution has been marketed as a crime novel rather than simply one of a failed marriage; not a single head is severed from its body, not one of the novel’s protagonists dies. He loved her, it seems, and she loved him and then didn’t, while his love lingered like a bad dream. She worked in the business sector of a nameless city in southern Germany, he spent his days writing a treatise on Hegel’s early years and thought. When they met by chance in Vienna seventeen years earlier coming out of a revival of In the Realm of the Senses, she was studying Wittgenstein in Munich, he finishing an MBA in Bern. As he remade his life to accommodate hers, she remade hers to accommodate his. But where is the crime in that? I find here no commission of an act forbidden by public law. Neither she nor he stole one another’s innocence, as far as I can tell, much less raided each other’s savings. Pages of meticulous detail about the German financial industry, reams of notes about Hegel and Napoleon, Napoleon and Hegel, first a paragraph about Napoleon, then a paragraph about Hegel, then a paragraph on both. Once, yes, at a company party, he believes he sees her flirting with her manager, her hand remaining perhaps a bit too long on his shoulder, his eyes glittering with a sort of bemused rapture, and then his hand on her shoulder, followed by the tilt downward of her head, quickly upraised. Had she only been steadying herself, having drunk too much champagne? The husband doesn’t seem to know any more than I do.
And how pitiful the novel’s climax! He returns without any advanced warning to an apartment vacant of all her things, including the furniture she had inherited from her grandmother. Room after room, closet after closet, cabinet after cabinet, drawer after drawer emptied of all that once was hers, no farewell note on the kitchen table or left on a pillow, only the stale, sour scent of an emptiness
grown suddenly emptier. Good God, what unfathomable creatures we are. Why do we even bother to marry?

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Intervention

By Shannon Robinson

Featured Image: “The Card Players (Les Joureurs de Cartes)” by Paul Cézanne

I called my mother and told her about my plan. My brother, Christopher, was visiting Ottawa for just a few weeks from Berlin, where he’d lived for the past ten years. He rarely visited, and I thought it would be a perfect opportunity for us to talk to him, as a family, about his drinking problem. I explained how we would each write a letter beforehand, expressing our concerns, and then read them out loud to Christopher, one by one.

“Okay, dear,” she said. “That sounds fine.”

I was reading students’ workshop fiction when the phone rang. It was my older sister, Leigh.

“So Mum called me. She was really confused. She says she doesn’t know what you were talking about.”

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Don’ Like

By Charles Harper Webb

Featured Art: The Miser by James McNeill Whistler

The Arabs who invented Algebra can’t have known
Miss Seitz would teach it, any more than Einstein
knew he’d be the Father of Catastrophe.

The Miss which prefaced her name proudly
(would no man have her, or would she have no man?)
brought to mind Mistake, Mischance, Misshapen,

Miserable, Misfit, Missing Link, Lord of Misrule.
Only the fiends who stoked the furnace of 8th grade
were glad to see her hunched at her desk, gutting papers Read More