Watching Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 silent film, The Gold Rush reminded me of a poem that I read previously, “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert W. Service (1907). The poem tells the story of two men in search of gold in the Yukon. Sam McGee, the subject of the poem, longs for warmth in the frigid tundra and asks to be cremated upon his death. After Sam dies in the Yukon, the narrator complies. He witnesses the happy spirit of Sam McGee emerge from the burning embers.
While both were works about the Gold Rush, they have vastly different tones. The Gold Rush is whimsical. Chaplin vastly downplays the struggles that the prospectors faced, battling starvation and wild animals, in a comedic way. The “Cremation of Sam McGee” is far darker, with the reader only taking solace in the fact that Sam’s body was burned. It is a great poem to read while sitting by a campfire on a cold winter night.
However, in some ways, Chaplin’s character is equally dark. He is unable to control the outcome of each situation that he faces and the viewer can only feel sympathy towards him. He literally stumbles around his cabin and through his life. He finds a lover and wealth from luck alone.
There exists an entire realm of poetry outside of the traditional schools, championed by poets such as Derek Walcott and Elizabeth Bishop. After World War I, the world generally lost faith in the institutions it had traditionally put so much faith into: churches, government, everything, and soon after, art began to reject the standards it was held to before the war, and began to reject art, and then rejecting that rejection. That whole school was known as Dada, and then art (most notably poetry) began to take fragments of that performative, contrarian, chance-focused, free-association-loving attitude and went along with surrealism, and other avant-garde work. Postmodern poetry is very often a visual work of art, playing with punctuation, spacing of words and phrases, interjections, contrasting between different types of poetry, etcetera. Muriel Rukeyser, while certainly not a Dadaist, and not a surrealist, arguably influenced poet John Ashbery through poetic structure. Rukeyser did not work with nonsense; she did the opposite, in fact, doing her best to meticulously document the details of the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster.
On page 101 of her Collected Poems chapbook, nearing the end of The Book of the Dead, she writes, “The dam is safe. A scene of power./The dam is the father of the tunnel./This is the valley’s work, the white, the shining.” Below it is a snippet of ticker tape for the mining company responsible for the disaster, something very unorthodox, at least for the time it was written. Modernism was just blowing up at the time, and this was created alongside James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which, while not nearly as structured, is similar in spirit in the sense that there are interjections of pure creative flow between lines of poetry and prose, respectively. About twenty years later or so, John Ashbery published a chapbook, The Tennis Court Oath, which was on the fringe of accessible traditional poetry and postmodernism. On page 92, in his poem Idaho, he writes,
—Oh, by the way, there’s a tele-
“See?” She pointed to the table.
Cornelia unfolded the piece of crude blue paper that is a French telegra.
Like Rukeyser, there is someone talking. In her poem, there was a sor tof internal monologue narrating the disaster, and this resembles prose, but both are accessible. Ashbery inserted fourteen octothorpes to interrupt the narrative, for reasons that are not as clear as Rukeyser’s. He does it as a rejection of structure, to interrupt the narrative, to jar the reader and knock them back a little bit; there still is bleeding into his work a small piece of the anti-art attitude. Rukeyser does it to make a point of a corporation profiting off of human suffering. Whatever their motivations for such, it is clear that Ashbery took after Rukeyser. He drew much from the surrealists, and she was a proto-surrealist. Perhaps the influence is not direct, but the connection is clear, and a little too crazy to be just a coincidence. Just something interesting, that’s all.
Ashbery, John. “Europe.” The Tennis Court Oath: A Book of Poems. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1962. 67. Print.
Rukeyser, Muriel, Janet E. Kaufman, Anne F. Herzog, and Jan Heller. Levi. “The Book of the Dead.” The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh, 2005. N. pag. Print.
I find that line that we pointed out in class from Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead” very interesting: “a corporation is a body without a soul” (110). I just think that it summarizes and represents all of the controversy around corporations and people’s perceptions of them.
For some reason, I immediately thought back to the one economics class I took in high school. We started the class by explaining the differences between the various types of businesses. I realize that this may not truly be accurate since it was a while ago, but I remember we were talking about small businesses and how, if a customer wanted to sue the business for anything, they would have to sue the owner. Then we got to the corporations, and it really felt like they were treated as “people” in this respect. As with all the court cases we see today (Women vs. Walmart, Blah vs Mcdonald’s), a customer can sue the corporation directly. It represents itself, and in this way, the corporation is like its own entity that has taken on its own life. And I feel like the way we talk about corporations also lends credence to this idea. Most people address the corporation, not the owner or the employee. We treat corporations like full-body entities.
But I am also interested in the last part of the quote. I found it a little funny that a “corporation is a body without a soul.” The idea of the soul carries a lot of weight and connotation in society and in literature especially. The body is corporeal, but the soul is transcendent. It is more representative of the spiritual and the emotional aspects of a person, and I think that it is often implying that souls are more pure. When we say that someone has no soul, we are saying that they are heartless, cruel. So it just struck me that this quote could be representative of most people’s views on corporations and big businesses. They are often vilified as greedy entities that care more for money than for smaller businesses or even their own employees.
There is definitely a lot of controversy over how the public views corporations, resenting the attitude corporations encourage while recognizing that corporations are a necessary evil. This quote manages to capture this struggle and the essence of anti-corporation representations in both society and literature.
I saw this video a couple weeks ago and remember having the realization that it was quite relevant to the content we discussed in class—stigma and race. In particular, we talked about stigma in Goffman’s writings and race topics in Hurston’s works. In the first few minutes of this video, the comedian recalls a time when a woman mistook his dad, who was waiting for him in his car outside the airport, for a taxi driver just because he was Indian. The speaker notes how racist the woman must have been to notice the color of the driver, not the color of the car. I thought that story was very powerful because it demonstrates the stigma of skin color, still relevant today, and identifies racial stigmas beyond ones that we’ve talked about in class.
The speaker continues on to explain that he doesn’t understand why Americans talk about “tolerance” and not “acceptance and love.” Just like in the works we’ve examined, and further evidenced in Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead,” our nation has often “tolerated” those of different races based on what they can do for us. In Rukeyser’s work, black men were sent into the mines to do the hardest, most dangerous, and most laborious work. They were allowed to stay close to the community outskirts simply because they provided what many in those days considered to be “a lowly benefit,” or the work that other men didn’t want to do; otherwise, I’d imagine that the black families would have remained even more segregated from the community. The comedian continues to mention anti-immigration laws—obviously there are much politics revolving around this issue, but from an outside perspective, could this be considered a modern form of racism? How is it fair that immigrants must do some of the hardest work in our society yet receive the lowest wages and benefits, that is if they can even find jobs legally that will hire them. Many immigrants have to resort to working “under-the-table” jobs to help their families and to remain in the country. This kind of example seems to be comparable to how African-Americans were treated in Rukeyser’s work—relatively segregated, made to do the most dangerous work for little benefits and wages, and merely tolerated. Our country needs to move on from racial stigmas, and all stigmas in general, to love and accept all. The US boasts its racial diversity, yet, like the speaker noted, when other races come to the US, how is it right that we don’t treat many of them very fairly, but rather based on what they can contribute through their skill level or finances? I think that this video demonstrates how relevant many of the themes, such as stigma, racism, and tolerance, from the works we’ve discussed still are in modern society. It also seems that although the themes may be parallel to the past, as displayed in literature, overtime, the modern manifestations may look slightly different. Rather than ridding society of racism and stigma, the themes have just evolved and changed shape. My reflection on this has brought me to an intriguing, and rather bleak, question: does this imply that society doesn’t truly rid itself of racism and stigma, but rather does it just take on different forms overtime?
As someone who is extremely interested in photography, art, and visuals in general, I loved the exercise of analyzing the photos by Chris Verene. The words next to the photos also gave them added significance. The photo we focused on in class of Steve hanging up his car’s hubcaps on a swing set would not have been as significant had our group been unaware of the fact that Steve’s wife left him and he was also robbed of visitation rights to his daughters.
What I found to be particularly interesting about the photos was the way they were ordered. Verene started each set of photos with a very simple photo of someone that looked like it is just a portrait of the person. The viewers most likely do not think that anything is special about the person in the photo. Then, Verene uses a series of photos that explain the person’s life and the things the featured person has gone through. Most of the stories were extremely depressing, which is something I would have never guessed from the first portrait shown.
What I am not sure of is why Verene chose to focus on all of the negative aspect of these peoples’ lives. I am sure that the people featured in the book are able to find happiness amongst their hardships and I cannot figure out why he chooses to focus on their difficulties and not the things that make them happy in life. Maybe his goal is to show that life is not easy, but people struggle through it. I find this representation of life to be extremely depressing and had I photographed these people, I would have attempted to capture the times that made them happy. Maybe he is a realist or even a pessimist and wanted to portray life as it actually is, not a romanticized version. Maybe I am just an eternal optimist and refuse to focus on the negative and cannot understand why some people feel the need to do so.
In any case, the photos made me extremely sad. They reminded me that there is a thin and thick story to everyone. What I have learned through volunteer work is that everyone has something they have gone through. No one has lived their whole life without feeling pain or going through something that was difficult. Whether it is being bullied, abused, cheated on, or lied to, I believe everyone has suffered and everyone has a story behind their “thin” appearance. Through Verene’s work, I have to believe he is trying to convey the idea that there is more to everyone than what meets the eye.
What he does not show in his photographs that all hardship is a learning experience and through suffering much can be gained. I wish he would have shown what all the people in his story gained through their hardships. Even though he portrays difficulties that each of his subjects face, I wish there would have been a way for him to also show how they grew and gained a new outlook through the difficulties they suffered.