post #5, concluding the Preface to my book in progress, _Upcycling Ecopoetry_

(see previous posts for other excerpts from the Preface)


Generation Z gets what I’m talking about when it comes to the work that poetry can do.  So do many Millennials and Gen-Xers, and even some agèd Boomers like myself.  It’s basically the Millennials and Gen Z globally who created live “Spoken Word” poetry events because they saw them as essential.  In doing so, they returned poetry to its performance and community-making roots while also acknowledging the importance of rap music.  But they were also following precedents like Langston Hughes’ live poetry readings in the 1930s-1960s, which sometimes were also accompanied by music; or the Beats in the 1950s-1970s, who turned their events into protests against the Cold War, nuclear arms, and (later) the war in Vietnam. 

By the 1970s in the U.S., the Black Arts and Nuyorican Poets Café readings were the next generation’s version of live poetry as a genuinely populist art form.  It was also a movement that had to improvise in order to find performance spaces, in cafés, bookshops, lofts, and elsewhere. Before the Nuyoricans Poets had a café, their events were held in organizer Miguel Algarín’s living room.  Sometimes (as with Gil Scott Heron, the Last Poets, Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, and others in the U.S., and Linton Kwesi Johnson in Britain) readings in the 1970s also mixed together poetry and music.  Poetry, live performance, and populist appeal also characterized developments in Latin America from the 1960s on.  In fact, Pablo Neruda surely holds the record for a poet reading to the largest audiences:  some of his performances filled football stadiums.  Neruda also read to workers in factory canteens: how many other poets can boast of that?[i]

Today’s twenty-first century Spoken Word networks build on its predecessors.  All these groups expanded poetry events beyond primarily academic settings, and sought a much broader audience diverse in terms of class as well as race.  They also greatly increased the role of audience participation in the performances, providing feedback (including finger snaps) and shouted call-and-response energy.  For young people all over this planet in the 2020s, satiric rage, trauma, and pastoral dreams of healing are living things—each one forming new communities emerging in the midst of an emergency.  

Most young people who read see no contradiction between exploring imaginative worlds and asking questions about power—who does or does not get to tell a story or drive events.  They’re understandably not happy with the world their elders have dumped on them.  They also know that we need a broader, deeper, and more diverse “canon” of poets and creators who are reinterpreting the past and shaping a different, non-lethal future for the only home we have.  I offer one such expanded canon of essential poets here—with no claims that the poets I praise are a definitive grouping.  They are just some of the ones I’ve come to know and love—those discovered on my own, but many others encountered because colleagues and students recommended them.  I encourage other teachers and creators to offer their own, along with ways to model how best to engage a poem. 

This book began in the depths of Covid isolation in 2020, when (along with many other teachers) I lost being able to teach in-person classes.  We had to resort to trying to hold discussions where each of us were imprisoned in a box on a screen, like some demented version of Hollywood Squares.  That sharp sense of losing a community provoked me—like many others; I make no claim to uniqueness here—to reimagine what a living ecosystem/community of minds could be like, and how appreciating together the mysteries of many differentkinds of poems together might help us rebuild that.

My temperate optimism about youth and their interest in the arts as community-making persists despite first-hand knowledge of flaws in the U.S. education system that work to maintain or increase structural inequality, rather than diminish it.  Despite the fact that arts and science educators are being systematically attacked at present, while many also struggle to make a living wage.  Despite the deadly inequities (and their long histories) baked into our societies as a whole.  Despite proof that some people, just because they’ve made billions of dollars, think they’re smarter than everyone else and more knowledgeable about the engineering innovations that, if we just listen to them, will miraculously save us all.  Despite the fact that many people think education and culture are the problem—not greed, arrogance, ignorance, and exponentially increasing social inequality.

I’m stubborn, like youth is.  But I’ve shared literature and listened and talked about it with young adults for over forty years.  Some of my courses at Swarthmore College have been cross-listed with either Black Studies or Environmental Studies, and teaching in those interdisciplinary fields, as well as in literary history, has informed my readings in this book.  Further, in many of my literature courses close to or over half of the students have been students of color.  I’ve taught many first-generation students too.  All (or at least most) of these students, regardless of gender or color or their comfort level with academia, tolerate an old white guy giving them all this unheard-of stuff to read.  They’ve learned that I also give them space to discover new voices and visions and, through that, new versions of who they might aspire to become.  They are eager to explore different ways of answering my questions.  But they also single out elements of the readings that most fascinate them, after which they pose their own questions and test their answers.  As they do this, they’re learning the pleasures of laser-focused attention, and curiosity.  Poems embody that.  They’re little lenses—but with music too.

Many other teachers can testify to something similar happening.  That’s what keeps us going despite all the learning assessment strategies and committee decision-making we have to put up with.  In Swarthmore humanities classes, the students in the seats have an unpredictable mix of interests.  Lots are nat sci or soc sci majors of one kind or another (or will be).  Many others feel more at home in humanities and the mysteries we pose rather than solve.  And just about everyone seems keen on upping their programming skills.  But here’s a news flash: the “death of the humanities” at colleges and universities has been greatly exaggerated.  The real issue is, who is trying to tell you the humanities have died, and what are they motives?  What arts and humanities classes are busy doing is evolving, adapting.  This book will show you some of the reasons why.

Students in imaginative literature classes bring different skill-sets, but they have at least one thing in common.  They are frustrated and bored by the dominant narratives they hear repeated every day.  They’re seeking new stories to explain what’s going on, and what the future might be.  They want a liberal arts education that respects the sciences and the arts—they’re ready for a new STEAM-powered cognitive revolution.[ii]  They also know that at least some kinds of imaginative story-telling do not seek to escape what passes for “reality,” or to condition us to accept an authoritarian status quo.  Rather, it issues a challenge.  And helps us connect.  They are eager to talk about that.

The humble but stubbornly hopeful thesis at the heart of Ecopoetry Upcycling is that (if we humans survive what we’ve unleashed) language and story-telling, not just our high tech, will have to be up to the task.  Poems and the experiences of reading or hearing them will play a crucial role.  Not AI-generated content (at least not yet), but lyrics created by flawed humans working with their EI—eco-intelligence.  

Joan Retallack argues that imaginative literature, especially poetry, makes “poethical wagers” on what can help in a crisis.  Literature is not useful because it’s a tool to fix something, but a resource for identifying problems and testing different solutions while living with uncertainty.  “In our unpredictable, polyglot world,” Retallack says, “this means working out some kind of dynamic equilibrium between intention and receptivity, community and alterity.”  Literature generates “productive conjecture.”  Kevin Quashie has offered useful wisdom too:  “I read ‘aliveness’ as a term of relation where the focus is on one’s preparedness for encounter.”  Donna Haraway calls for studying successful examples of sympoiesis, which means making-with and offers a paradigm for how complex systems may have adaptive advantages in a crisis. And Min Song, in Climate Lyricism (2022), has investigated how poems provide powerful models for “shared agency” as a form of collective problem-solving.  He goes further:  “Climate lyricism begins by turning anthropocentric habits of expression (especially the kind developed alongside the growth of European settler colonialism) back on themselves, so that the nonhuman is given human characteristics and asserts the kinds of powers that humans are traditionally thought to be the only ones capable of possessing.” [iii]

Ecopoetry Upcycling makes a similar case for climate lyricism.  And for the crucial roles poems can play inspiring readers to attend to contradiction and uncertainty.  I also will stress throughout how strong ecopoetry functions not as a solitary monologue but as a space for ecosystemic thinking and feeling.  That is, poems can imagine new kinds of imaginative communities that embody cooperative interdependence—especially for human and more-than-human beings.  A new form of public Commons, if you will—but one that also knows that this concept has ancient roots.  

What this book offers that is different is this:  many more poets and poems as models for what strong ecopoetry looks and sounds like, with women and poets of color playing major roles.  Over one hundred poems are read and discussed deeply within this book.  Further, I chart ecopoetry evolving over a broader historical period than most contemporary critical studies have done.  This book covers about a century of poems written in English (and occasionally other languages too) from the 1930s to the present.  

[i] For five histories that explore live-performance poetry networks beyond academia, see 

  • Aldon Nielsen, Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1997
  • Susan Weinstein, The Room Is on Fire: The History, Pedagogy, and Practice of Youth Spoken Word Poetry. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2018
  • the poet Joshua Bennett’s Spoken Word: A Cultural History. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2023; 
  • Mike González and Dave Treece, The Gathering of Voices: The Twentieth-Century Poetry of Latin America. London: Verso, 1992
  • and Gabriela Baeza Ventura, U.S. Latino Literature Today. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2005.

A truly transnational history of live-performance poetry events beyond academic spaces needs to be researched and written.  That history would also need to explore the cross-fertilization that occurred between rap and so-called “Spoken Word” poetry events.  Rap is arguably the strongest influence on Spoken Word poetry since the 1990s.

[ii] STEAM takes STEM and upgrades it by adding the A for Arts to the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.  By the way, STEM was originally SMET, but the acronym was altered … for aesthetic reasons.  

For a lively account of the rise of interest in STEAM as an educational model, and an overview of some problems implementing it, especially in K-12 teacher training, see Catterall, Lisa G., “A Brief History of STEM and STEAM from an Inadvertent Insider,” The STEAM Journal 3.1. Article 5. DOI: 10.5642/steam.20170301.05. Available at:, accessed January 13, 2024.

[iii] Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, pp. 3-4. Kevin Quashie, Black Aliveness, or a Poetics of Being. Durham: Duke University Press, 2021; quotation from p. 21. For Haraway’s “sympoiesis,” see Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016; plus Haraway’s earlier essay: “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities 6.1 (2015): 159–165.

Regarding the broader issue of models for ecological governance, see Jennings, cited above; and Marie-Catherine Petersmann, “Sympoietic Thinking and Earth System Law: The Earth, Its Subjects, and the Law.” Earth System Governance 9 (September 2021). Petersmann argues that a sympoietic view is best able “to make sense of how life emerges and contingently unfolds on Earth” because it creates space for “collective modes of being, thinking and acting in the Anthropocene.” Further,

Three central questions will guide my trajectory of thought. First, which representations of the Earth and its subjects does Earth System Law think with? Second, how do these reconceptualizations envisage human-nonhuman relations, or how life unfolds on Earth? Finally, what role does law play in purportedly governing these reconfigured relations? (2)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

post #4 in the series, from the preface to my book in progress, Upcycling Ecopoetry

Here’s an intriguing idea.  Poetry’s relative marginalization within the domain of commercial culture gives it freedom and a different kind of power—the ability to negate what passes for “realist” and “practical” majoritarian thinking, including that tech interventions on their own will miraculously fix our climate crisis. Poems are also resistant to brand hype—either being hyped or hyping themselves.  Poets certainly have their own ways of promoting themselves and their favorites, though on a miniscule scale compared to other cultural commodity systems.  But good poems can’t easily be marketed or turned into memes.[i]  They are easily shared, but aren’t the best way to gain as many views or clicks as possible on social media.  Hype, by the way, is derived from hyperbole, the Greek word for purposeful exaggeration.  Poems can use hyperbole, certainly, but usually they do so as a way of mocking the mind-set, something to parody or dismantle.  The shortened version of this meme about marketing, hype, dates from another roaring age of consumerism, the 1920s, when it was understood to mean cheat or swindle.

Poems thrive in burrows and shadows, circulating on a network beneath or on the edges of dominant cultural ecosystems supported by corporate capitalism—just like the mammals did as the Age of the Dinosaurs approached its KT boundary limit.  Like mammals, some poems seem to have evolved more complex brains, tool use, and ways to care for their young.  What happens when today’s cultural dinosaurs lose their powers to control discourse and are unable to adapt to sudden change?  Trading and money-making will always be a part of human society.  But maybe capitalism in the future will need to downsize and accommodate itself to a different world order, just as dinosaurs did when they morphed into birds?[ii]

Deep-time thinking is one thing scientists, artists, and poets all have in common when they’re doing their best work.  Another is being detail-oriented, and not presuming to know where the evidence you focus on will lead you.  You use skills you’ve honed over years, but you don’t prejudge possible outcomes, much less massage those outcomes to meet audience expectations.  I don’t mean that all poems have these powers.  Only the best ones—including those ecopoems that this book seeks to illuminate from within.  

Upcycling Ecopoetry intends to show you many examples of how poetry helps us encounter deep time in the present moment.  And how it ups our problem-solving skills, not by being instrumental (like a tool), but by being both conceptual and visceral.  Poems encourage us to pause, refocus, and reconsider what went wrong and why.  And then to dare to imagine possible cures.  

They also teach us to be comfortable with complexity, to appreciate many things going on, not a single message.  In the poems we’ll read together, we’ll hear expressed not just skepticism but rage, malaise, despair, melancholia, and mourning about the mess we’ve made of things—especially those of us in the carbon-spewing nations of the “developed” Global North.  We’ll read poems that ask what our responsibilities are in the face of the ghastly realities we’ve made.  What resources of strength and compassion can we draw on, and share?  In what ways can poems teach us about sharing agency and building larger, more inclusive communities—including bonding with more-than-human beings?

[i] Poems that have become associated with memes or clichés, such as Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and “Mending Wall,” challenge the ways they’ve been misread on the way to becoming famous.  That is, “The Road Not Taken,” if contemplated carefully, undercuts any boasting that we understand why we made the choices we did.  And the neighbor’s bromide that “good fences make good neighbors” is not a truth promoted by “Mending Wall,” but something the poem slyly mocks.  Case closed.

[ii]  For more on the possible futures of capitalism—a topic irrelevant neither to ecosystems nor to lyric poetry—see in particular upcoming chapters on upcycling and on resisting the “tragedy of the commons.”  These chapters survey contemporary debates on these matters, as well present a few of my own ideas.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

post #3 in the series, from my book in progress Upcycling Ecopoetry

Upcycling will join other books arguing that the crucial changes that must come will be primarily driven by global populist movements for restorative justice for people, ecosystems, and the planet.  Established institutions, technological interventions, markets, and other factors will have to play a role too, but the systemic changes in human behavior that must occur—if they occur—will primarily come from the ground up, not top-down.  

In Environmentalism From Below, for instance, Ashley Dawson draws on the work of Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martínez-Alier, who argued that “environmentalisms of the poor” can be traced back to the colonial era in South Asia, Latin America, Europe, and elsewhere.  They sought to “retain under their control the natural resources threatened by state takeover or by the advance of the generalized market system” and were often murdered in the struggle.  In particular, they fought against enclosure policies—such as the many Enclosure Acts passed in England—that removed forests, arable and grazing lands, and other territory from their status as Commons shared by all to the control of the State or rich landowners.  The justification for such attacks on Commons, whether in England, India, Latin America, or elsewhere, was always similar:  enclosure would supposedly use natural resources in more productive ways (“productive” as defined by market economics) while simultaneously also conserving resources for future generations.  Guha and Martínez-Alier trace these struggles back to the colonial era, but Dawson stresses their importance on a global scale over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

“Environmentalism from below is animated by struggles for collective control of the environmental and social commons in the face of global environmental degradation and dispossession carried out by neocolonial extractivism and capitalism.  Unlike the dominant environmental movement in rich countries, which tends to work through legal and policy channels that assume the beneficence of the state, environmentalism from below often militates against state power.  Originating in the lives of marginalized or subaltern communities and their links to endangered worlds, environmentalism from below is a self-generating and unruly power.”        (5)[i]

Upcycling will stress the crucial role that imaginative story-telling, especially poetry, must play in imagining and working toward a less poisonous global future.  Some of the poets discussed come from rather privileged positions in society, while many others do not.  But in all cases their writing explores how endangered worlds struggling to survive must confront the power the status quo.  Their methods may be markedly different (a good thing for ecopoetry), but their urgency is shared.


[i] Ashley Dawson, Environmentalism From Below: How Global People’s Movements Are Leading the Fight For Our Planet.  Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2024.  Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martínez-Alier, Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South.  Earthscan, 1997.  Note that Martínez-Alier is Spanish; sometimes his first name in databases is spelled Joan and at other times, Juan.  

I have more to say about the history of the Commons for contemporary environmentalism and ecopoetry in an upcoming chapter in Upcycling.  For now, let me just mention that Dawson astutely surveys the role the concept of the “commons” has played globally in contesting “conservation” theory and practice as defined by elites. See chapter 4, “Against Fortress Conservation,” in Environmentalism From Below.

For other work on “environmentalism from below” as an alternative history of the environmental movement, I recommend: 

  • Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Alexander Elliott, James Cullis, and Vinita Damodaran, eds. Climate Change and the Humanities: Historical, Philosophical, and Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Contemporary Environmental Crisis. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2017.
  • Giovanna Di Chiro, “Climate Justice Now! Imagining Grassroots Ecocosmopolitanism.” American Studies, Ecocriticism, and Citizenship: Thinking and Acting in the Local and Global Commons.  Joni Adamson and Kimberly N. Ruffin, eds. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2012. 204-19.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Post #2 in the series, from the preface to Upcycling Ecopoetry

“Change the story” doesn’t guarantee success.  There’s plenty of contemporary skepticism about what Parul Sehgal, Amit Chaudhuri, Christian Salmon, and others have called the contemporary “narrative turn” in many fields, including medicine, religion, and law, not to mention cultural studies like literary and art criticism, or ecopoetics.  Stories seeming to bring climate apocalypse into focus can easily paralyze us with despair or numb us into indifference.  And—just as dangerous—stories promoting “good” outcomes can tempt us to buy their cheap therapy, feel-good exercises to make us feel better and avoid facing the problems.  Doubts about stories and the ethical value of the imagination go back a long way—to Plato at least.[i]

Still, it’s clear we humans need to be able to carry on a conversation about how, as a species, we are living in a way that is poisoning the Earth and other species on it, not just causing a lot of misery to our fellow humans.  Those of us who live in “developed” countries are the ones chiefly at fault—though many, perhaps the majority, refuse to accept that inconvenient truth.  Rishika Pardikar reminds us that the nations of the Global North (Europe, North America, Asia, and the Gulf states) are currently responsible for 92 percent of all carbon emissions.[ii]  

Why can’t we also talk about how some people have worked out ways to live that aren’t so damaging to the planet?  Those who have done so seem to have a pretty good understanding about why inequality in past and present human societies is linked to peoples’ views about “nature” and how they treat it.  Extraction economies that view nature as simply full of dangers to control and resources to plunder also—no surprise—tend to treat “foreign” other people in the same way.  Story-worlds like DuneAvatar, or The Last of Us; the many iterations of the Star Wars universe, including The Mandalorian; or the fictions of Octavia Butler and N. K. Jemisin—they all explore on cosmic scales the connections between empire, resource exploitation, climate disasters, slavery, genocide, and hybridized new species.  They also imagine how small bands of rebels or exiles might survive, and what factors would make rebellions successful against top-down imperial systems.

We like to think there’s a tech fix for the climate problem, even though tech innovations in the past generated unintended consequences—including some of the causes for why we’re in a new fix now.  Some like to believe in engineering climate miracles so we can go on living the way we are; we’ll just need to scale up “cleaner” sources of energy and invent clever ways to decrease pollution and “capture” carbon.  But tech climate-change solutions are easily gamed; corporations, including banks, have an incentive to profit off the new even as they continue to support fossil-fuel production.  We need to engineer changes, no question—but we need also to be sure real improvements in global climate futures are being accomplished.

The planet needs fixes like carbon capture and other pollution abatements, plus expanding forests, marshes, and grasslands—which, by the way, are more efficient carbon sinks than anything humans can invent.  But what is really needed is a human lifestyle and consciousness fix, especially for the richest 25% of humanity world-wide most responsible for Anthropocene climate instability.  But how do you incentivize a change in consciousness and, with it, behavior?

[i] Solnit’s essay—as well as Chaudhury’s and others’ arguments from Plato to the present for and against imaginative narrative’s powers—are expertly summarized by Parul Sehgal, “The Tyranny of the Tale,” The New Yorker, July 3, 2023,, accessed July 9, 2023.  

[ii] Rishika Pardikar, “Global North Is Responsible for 92% of Excess Carbon Emissions,” Eos, October 28, 2020, Accessed February 8, 2024. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Post #1 in a series, all from the preface of my book in progress, _Upcycling Ecopoetry_

“Maybe what seeks us is better than what we seek.”

—Ben Okri, Astonishing the Gods

“In a time of destruction, create something.”

—Maxine Hong Kingston

“It is so hard to write books about climate change that people want to read,” NPR host Ari Shapiro has said.  An even tougher sell might be a book like this one, about poetryand climate disaster, for us and many other species.  (That’s the honest name we should give to what is happening with the climate and the biodiversity crisis, not the faux-neutral “climate change”).  Who would want to read about poems, most of them probably incomprehensible, on a subject that’s already making us depressed, anxious, and ashamed?  A book about climate change and poetry would be basically doubling down on negativity.  And if I were to counter that by saying that poems—at least somepoems, the good ones—can help us change how we live on Earth, a lot of readers may just roll their eyes. 

Yet the worries won’t go away.  They linger in the air like wildfire smoke.  A pall present and on the move, whether we choose to notice it or not.  Most everyone is aware that public forums addressing climate-change policy are often sponsored by corporations or nations that have been enriched by fossil fuels: to what degree are such sponsors directly or indirectly setting the boundaries on what can be discussed?[i]  Given that reality, doesn’t it make sense also to turn to spaces for imagining global futures that don’t require rich sponsors?  Not to mention offer a greater diversity of voices and ideas?  Climate- and pollution-stressed ecosystems lose biodiversity.  There’s an analogous danger losing diversity of voices and views when it comes to cultural ecosystems too. 

Two central themes of this project will build on others’ work 1) to make the case for a deeper diversity in the poets who are considered to be writing important ecopoetry merged with social critique; and 2) to argue that major poetic genres—satire, elegy, and pastoral—are evolving in response to the crisis of the Anthropocene.

Imaginative literature, including poetry, can be coopted by corrupt social forces, of course.  Creative acts aren’t made in miraculously free spaces.  They’re immune neither to money nor to politics.  The same goes for what happens when those creations circulate amongst an audience in the world.  But art’s powers of communication cannot be fully scripted, nor its influence totally controlled by those of the most money or force.  Strong art allows us to know and question the constraints that surround us, and the origins of those constraints.  Further, art shapes space and time so that new forms of freedom can be forged, and robust connections with other beings created.  If humanity is to survive by moving to different physical and mentalenergy sources, and crafting healthier ways of living on the Earth, shouldn’t we consider connecting to the free, renewable energy that imaginative poems provide?  Not to mention their ways of reshaping our communities via memorable music and song? 

[i]  For instance, the “COP28” UN global climate talks in Dubai in 2023 were organized by a top oil executive, Sultan al-Jaber of the United Arab Emirates.  As the conference has played out, it became clear many forces were working behind the scenes to slow or halt any resolution requiring systemic and sustained decreases in global fossil fuel pollution from now through the upcoming decades.  The resolution regarding reduction targets for future global fossil-fuel consumption that eventually passed was designed to be vague, merely supporting an eventual global “transition” to renewable energy sources. 

For one analysis of the COP28 outcomes, consider the response of Arunabha Ghosh, chief executive of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a nonprofit research organization based in New Delhi.  He stressed that without effective financial tools, emerging economies that aim to expand their renewable fleet would be undermined. “[COP28] hasn’t sufficiently raised climate ambition, held historical polluters accountable, or established effective mechanisms to finance climate resilience and a just low-carbon transition for the Global South.” Source: Somini Sengupta, “Four Takeaways from the COP28 Climate Summit.” The New York Times, December 13, 2023,, accessed December 13, 2023.

Katsushika Hokusai’s Japanese owl, Album of Sketches (1760–1849) paintings. Original public domain image from The MET Museum. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Disinformation and unintended irony

In Apple’s famous 1984 Macintosh commercial, a portion of the dictator’s blurry text (on the right in this image) says that “the poisonous needs of disinformation will be consigned to the dustbin of history.”

So one of the ways authoritarianism achieves its power over us is by offering us protection from lies. The commercial offered us an easy way to break away from such mind control.

How well has that worked out?

By the way, the hammer thrown that breaks the screen in Ridley Scott’s commercial was actually made of papier-mâché …

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Thoughts on Orsino’s opening speech in Twelfth Night, and on the ending of the play—as occasioned by re-reading the play to attend Pig Iron’s performance in the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival

Re-reading Twelfth Night in preparation for seeing Pig Iron’s interpretation of it in Philly’s Live Arts Fest, I re-lived my delight in this great comedy, which I first discovered when I was twenty.  But somewhat to my embarrassment I found that lots of things I thought I understood when I was in my twenties now are more mysterious and paradoxical to me in late middle age.  For instance, the meaning of the Duke Orsino’s famous opening speech:

If music be the food of love, play on;

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die.

That strain again! it had a dying fall:

O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,

That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:

‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.

O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,

That, notwithstanding thy capacity

Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,

Of what validity and pitch soe’er,

But falls into abatement and low price,

Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy

That it alone is high fantastical.   (I.i.1-15)

Thwarted in love, or what he thinks is his love for the Countess Olivia, Orsino opens the play with a sweet but cynical speech about the inconstancy of love.  He basically says it’s just like appetite—what tastes good for a while then begins to be “not so sweet now as it was before.”  He doesn’t compare love to any higher emotion or even hint that it has a spiritual dimension or the possibility of constancy.  Indeed, the Duke even suggests that a person in love can become a connoisseur of his or her emotions as they sour, not just when they are fresh and new:  he loves the “dying fall” in the music and the “excess” that causes all emotion to “sicken, and so die.”   This sweet pessimism about love’s sour transience reaches its culmination in the extended sea metaphor, where he says that individual passions are like rivers flowing into a capacious sea, where “nought enters there … but falls into abatement and low price.”   What was once valued is now devalued.  A sentence that appears to begin full of optimism and an apostrophe to love as “quick and fresh” ends in a crude economic metaphor for something now judged to be worthless.

The “pitch” reference in this paean to love’s ups and downs is particularly lovely, yet it ultimately proves disturbing in this context.  Taken from falconry, pitch describes the highest point of a falcon’s flight.  Which means that even such a soaring vision of love’s heights is dunked in saltwater here.  The speech nicely enacts what it describes too, since the Duke first calls for more music and then gets tired of it and grumps about it.  The only constant here is that the Duke expects that all his commands will immediately be obeyed.  Orsino, revealingly, also takes his own shifting feelings as an example of a universal principle of all passion, not merely his own inconstancy and errancy.

So what’s the problem?  What’s not to understand?  Well, how do we explain the conclusion to the speech?  Doesn’t it claim that fancy remains “high fantastical,” constantly renewing itself?   Or is this ending a weak tautology, basically just saying in a sonorous way that fancy is fantastical?  (If so, perhaps this moment is meant to hint of the Duke’s pomposity and narcissism, just as earlier the speech revealed him to be a creature of whim.)  An even greater puzzle is how any of this follows logically from what’s been said before.  The final sentence about fancy is preceded by a colon, like it really does sum everything up.  But to my ear now it actually seems completely to ignore or contradict everything that’s just been said, unless we take the conclusion merely to mean that each and every one of fancy’s infinite shapes will soon no longer seem very fantastical at all.   If that’s the case, then what first appears like a triumphant summing up actually lands like a dying fall.

The opening speech’s comic mixture of narcissism and cynicism of course nicely sketch not just the Duke’s up-and-down moods at that moment but also his character as the play gradually reveals it.  He’s inconstant in just about everything except repeatedly sending a proxy, Viola, to annoy Octavia.  Yet by the end of the play are we really supposed to believe his marriage to Viola will be a happy and a constant one?  What, except for whim, explains the Duke’s sudden decision to throw off his claims to love Octavia for love of Viola instead?  Is he just rebounding from Octavia’s sarcasm and rejection?  Or has Orsino actually grown up a little and become confident he can love Viola’s inner character, regardless of her outward appearance?   (After all, he says he’ll marry her while she’s still dressed in the guise of a man!  That for sure was a comic detail I don’t remember noticing when I was younger, I wonder why.)

Concluding that the Duke’s love has become less narcissistic is obviously a more optimistic reading of the Duke’s character and the comedy’s ending, but it requires a leap of faith.  Despite recently accusing Viola of betrayal, the Duke may realize after the play’s climactic revelations about who’s who that his new “male” servant has repeatedly shown him constancy, compassion, and inventive intelligence.  Perhaps the Duke decides he must love with those qualities in another, outward appearances be damned.  Such a view of Duke Orsino’s growth would certainly be consistent with the genial optimism of his last speech in the play, so different from his first:

“When … golden time convents

A solemn combination shall be made

of our dear souls.” (V.i.384-6)

Convents—cool verb that means “come together” or convene.  Current in the 16th century but obsolete now.  The Duke certainly suggests here that he now sees love as the sacred coming-together of two souls, not something bedeviled by price fluctuations!  Yet the Duke’s opening speech and his actions throughout the play shadow this “golden” ending, and we’re left to wonder which is the true Duke and what kind of husband Viola will actually get.  With Viola we have few such doubts.  To borrow a line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she exhibits “something of great constancy” despite her rapidly changing situations and fortunes in the play.   Perhaps the best evidence for the Duke’s new constancy is that Viola vouches for it.  But who the Duke really is, or what either he or Olivia really desire or deserve, remains a conundrum.

The theme of this comedy reminds me of the title to the old Sammy Kahn and Jule Styne tune, “I Fall in Love Too Easily” (from the Broadway musical Anchors Aweigh, 1945).   Kahn’s lyric, sung by Frank Sinatra, reflects, “I fall in love too easily/ I fall in love too fast/ I fall in love too terribly hard/ For love to ever last.”  Everybody in Twelfth Night, including even Viola’s and Sebastian’s rescuers, fall in love impetuously and completely.   The play is sweetly cynical about this, but in the end it gently works to give these characters what they desire:  it all works out.  (Malvolio and Sir Andrew being the well-deserved exceptions, of course.)  Yet of course this comedy doesn’t really just give the main characters what they fell in love with at the start; it changes their desires and gets them to reflect a little on what it is they really want or deserve. Perhaps it’s only Viola and the Fool, though, who can now and then fully step outside of their own emotions a bit and ponder what’s happening and how strange, comic, and unknowable it all is.  I love that verb Viola uses in II.ii.33, “How will this fadge?” she says, meaning “work itself out”:  “O time! thou must untangle this, not I” (II.ii.40).  Viola must have a lot of inner confidence to trust Time like this—and after a shipwreck too.

Feste the Clown’s concluding song holds many sweet-sad conundrums too, and it is composed in an even more melancholic “strain” than the tune that opened the play.  Certainly Feste’s ditty shadows any sense that Time’s action on our lives is as “golden” as the Duke decrees it will be, or Viola hopes it is, or the genre of comedy scripts things to be.   In a marvelous colloquy with Viola in III.i, Feste’s only extended time with her in the play, this professional “corruptor of words” cynically says that any word can be twisted inside-out like a glove to mean just about anything, including it antonym (III.i.9-10).  Even “purity” can be made to mean “wanton.”  Feste’s made us and his employers laugh and he’s earned a few coins, but he’s also throughout the play teaching us skepticism toward everything we think we know.

What does his song at the play’s end say?  It’s hardly as “festive” as its singer’s name might imply.  It says we go through the stages of our lives predictably captured by the illusion that we’re acting uniquely on our own and know what we’re doing.  (Remember the subtitle that the play slyly offers us and then hilariously refutes, which says that comedy is about “What You Will” coming to pass.)  In Feste’s song, though, our actions in this world are revealed to be entirely conventional and blind.  Boys all have the same illusion about their toys.  All men of “estate” act the same too.  Not to mention aristocrats who may eventually get what they think they want without perhaps really learning very much.  For what we think we possess and know slips from our control like rainwater running away:

But when I came to man’s estate,

With a hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,

For the rain it raineth every day….


I now realize that in my younger days I thought Twelfth Night was about “golden time” eventually giving us more or less what we want.  I was not insensitive to the melancholy, minor-key music in the play; those notes were what made this—perhaps—my favorite Shakespeare comedy, along with the reversals and pratfalls.  It’s in the spirit of festival time, when the normal order of things is reversed and, in the case of traditional “Twelfth Night” festivities in England, the night-long party celebrates days growing longer again after the midwinter solstice.  But having lived a little more I realize I’m now more skeptical about the Duke and Olivia as characters and more ironical about how truly golden Time’s actions are towards “what we will,” in comedy or in life.  How will this fadge?

Posted in Literature | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

My Hero Academia

Any of my friends in or out of academia care to comment on this image, from the My Hero Academia series (manga and anime)?  

What are those little bits flying above the hand?  Fly ash scraps?  Flying unknown beings or worlds?  And are they coming or going?  

Is the person (he? her? they?) a master summoning them?  A victim about to be attacked?  Or some mysterious third possibility?

So many ambiguities!  Of course, raising inconvenient but necessary questions is what we do in academia. Or are supposed to be doing.  So …

Wikipedia: “The series takes place in a fictional world where over 80% of the population possesses a superpower, commonly referred to as a ‘Quirk.’ The advent of these abilities has given rise to not only professional heroes but also villains.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Brief Thoughts on Thomas Piketty’s _A Brief History of Equality_ (2022)

The economist/social philosopher Thomas Piketty has recently offered an optimistic reading of world history in which, despite setbacks, there is marked progress toward more economic opportunities and greater social equality and legal rights.  His progress narrative emphasizes the synergies between economic growth and the growth in social equality, and the last chapter of A Brief History of Equality is entitled, “Toward a Democratic, Ecological, and Multicultural Socialism.”  

However, by tying all those ideals so strongly together, Piketty’s assumptions simultaneously provide support for an antithetical story from the one he tells. What happens when economies are radically destabilized, or even collapse, due to the changes unleashed by the Anthropocene?  (Note that I just wrote when, not if).  Two deadly eco stressors (economics and ecology) have already been destabilizing many nations and regions, fueling a turn toward greater authoritarianism, not better democracy.

Piketty doesn’t downplay humankind’s history of backlash and violence, often (though not always) triggered by economic crises, but he treats these as exceptions or pauses in his progress narrative.  That said, I praise Piketty’s emphasis that democracy must always be fought for and defended; he makes progressive, activist communities pushing for justice and opportunity central to the story.  Also his chapters on “Exiting Neocolonialism” and “Toward a Democratic, Ecological, and Multicultural Socialism.”  Piketty doesn’t see liberal elites driving history, but the populist vision of entrepreneurs, the working class, and some intellectuals (all of whom, in the right circumstances, want broader, more diverse markets and worlds within which to live).  Piketty does have trouble accounting for what makes populism in different circumstances progressively inclusive, versus xenophobic or fascist.

Thomas Piketty. A Brief History of Equality. Transl. Steven Rendall.  Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2022.  

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Five Ways Philadelphia can support immigrants seeking asylum

Inquirer article today, Aug. 10, 2023. By Veronica Montes, an associate professor of sociology and codirector of Latin American, Iberian, and Latina/o Studies at Bryn Mawr College.

The article is a pdf you should be able to read and download using the link below. If access doesn’t work, email me and I’ll send you the pdf. pschmid1[at]

Worth 5 minutes of your time! Will anyone in the Philadelphia city administration push to implement these suggestions? How would they be funded? Could foundations or NGOs help? To be continued—

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment