Feb. 22, 2011

The Guitar Player

by Dave Morrison

He waited for the bartender to close
his gear was packed and stacked beside the door
you can't enjoy the highs without the lows

The gigs were becoming something of a chore
the sameness had anesthetized the dream
til he forgot what he was pushing for

The waitress poured herself a short Jim Beam
he remembered when she fronted her own band
with headphones on she wiped each table clean

He'd left his cigarettes out in the van
he wanted to get paid, go home to sleep
next weekend was another two-night stand

He waited for the bartender to close
you can't enjoy the highs without the lows.

"The Guitar Player" by Dave Morrison, from Clubland. © Fighting Cock Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Ishmael Reed, (books by this author) born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on this day in 1938. His novels include The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), and Mumbo Jumbo (1972). He's written several plays, poetry collections, and books of nonfiction as well. Last year, he published the essay collection Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media (2010). He has two books due out this year: a novel called Juice! and a nonfiction book: The Fighter and the Writer: Two American Stories.

It's the birthday of the man considered Britain's most important living academic literary critic, a name known to grad students of literature everywhere, a man who once wrote: "Chaucer was a class traitor / Shakespeare hated the mob / Donne sold out a bit later / Sidney was a nob." That's Terry Eagleton, (books by this author) born in Salford, England, on this day in 1943. He's the author of more than 40 books, including Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature (1990), The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), and The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996). His best-known work is Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), a concise survey of the history of studying literary texts. The book has sold a million copies and had a major influence on the reading lists that graduate students of literature are handed on the first day of class.

He grew up in a poor Irish Catholic family in England. Poor, he said, but "socially sophisticated enough to be conscious of their inferiority." He was an altar boy at a Carmelite convent chapel. There he spent his pre-teen years watching as young nuns took their final vows of poverty and chastity, something he wrote about in his memoir, The Gatekeeper (2001).

He said that "Catholicism was a world which combined rigorous thought with sensuous symbolism, the analytic with the aesthetic, so it was probably no accident that I was to later become a literary theorist." And he also wrote in his memoir: "One can move fairly freely … from Catholicism to Marxism without having to pass through liberalism. The path from the Tridentine creed to Trotskyism is shorter than it seems."
He went off to Cambridge, tried to grow a revolutionary beard, and helped found a leftist Catholic magazine called Slant, to which he contributed articles such as "A Marxist Interpretation of Benediction." He joined the International Socialist Party. He got a Ph.D. at Cambridge and a teaching job at Oxford, which he said was "rather like taking refuge from insincerity in Hollywood."

He felt like a complete outsider. Back then, his leftist views were novel and highly suspect around the Oxford establishment and in much of academia. The other professors didn't really talk to him, and he spent his time away from the classroom selling revolutionary newspapers and hanging out in Irish pubs. None of his relatives were in higher education, and when he was a rising academic star in his late 20s, his aunts and uncles wondered what he was still doing in school, and they would ask his mother what he was going to be when he grew up.

He wrote books about Shakespeare, the New Left Church, exiles and émigrés, and several books of literary criticism from a Marxist lens, including A Marxist Study of the Brontës in 1975. And then in 1983, he published the book that's made him a household name in English departments around the world: Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983). In chapters entitled "2. Phenomenology, Hermeneutic, Reception Theory," "3. Structuralism and Semiotics," "4. Post-Structuralism," and "5. Psychoanalysis," he tries, as he says, "to make modern literary theory intelligible and attractive to as wide a readership as possible." In fewer than 200 pages, he covers every major literary theory of the 20th century, including influential ones from continental Europe that weren't really known yet in the English-speaking world.

Eagleton wrote about literary theory in terms like these: "Post-structuralism is among other things a kind of theoretical hangover from the failed uprising of '68, a way of keeping the revolution warm at the level of language, blending the euphoric libertarianism of that moment with the stoical melancholia of its aftermath." And, "Postmodernism is among other things a sick joke at the expense of … revolutionary avant-gardism."

He has written a number of nonacademic works, including a novel called Saints and Scholars (1987) and a play about Oscar Wilde — called "Saint Oscar" — which ran in Dublin in the late 1980s. He now lives in Dublin near poet Seamus Heaney.

His recent books include How to Read a Poem (2007), The Meaning of Life (2007), Reason, Faith, and Revolution (2009), and On Evil (2010).

Asked for a definition of literature, Terry Eagleton said: "Literature transforms and intensifies ordinary language, deviates systematically from everyday speech. If you approach me at a bus stop and murmur, "Thou still unravished bride of quietness," then I am instantly aware that I am in the presence of the literary."

And he said, "Ideology ... is a kind of contemporary mythology, a realm which has purged itself of ambiguity and alternative possibility."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the first president of the United States, George Washington, (books by this author) born in Westmoreland County, Virginia (1732), whose favorite foods were mashed sweet potatoes with coconut, string beans with mushrooms, cream of peanut soup, salt cod, and pineapples. He lost all of his teeth except for one by — according to second president John Adams — cracking Brazilian nuts between his jaws. He got dentures made out of a hippopotamus tusk, designed especially to fit over his one remaining real tooth. But the hippo dentures were constantly rubbing against that real tooth so that he was constantly in pain. He used opium to alleviate the pain.

He snored very loudly, and instead of wearing a powdered wig like other fashionable people, he put powder on his own hair, which was naturally a reddish brown. He was not good at spelling and he had a speech impediment. George Washington's inaugural address was the shortest inaugural address in U.S. history: It was only 133 words long and took him just 90 seconds to deliver.

It's the birthday of the woman who wrote "My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night; / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends — / It gives a lovely light!" Edna St. Vincent Millay, (books by this author) the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, was born on this day in 1892 in Rockland, Maine.

After being educated at Vassar, she moved to Greenwich Village and lived a Jazz Age Bohemian life, which revolved around poetry and love affairs. She was beautiful and alluring and many men and women fell in love with her. Critic Edmund Wilson asked her to marry him. She said no. He later reflected that falling in love with her "was so common an experience, so almost inevitable a consequence of knowing her in those days."

She wrote: "Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand: / Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!"

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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