Category Archives: Ideas and Provocations

Not an abstraction

Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace interviews American poet Philip Levine about his poems on industrial labor. After reading “What Work Is,” the title poem of a recent collection, Levine talks about the difference between the abstraction known as work and the experience of working on the assembly line. The text of the poem, included in the audio and web versions of the story, suggests that commitment owes a great debt to the lived experience that takes us beyond mere abstraction. (“A working man’s poet,” 4/20/09)


James Baldwin on education

  • “The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.”
  • “The price one pays for pursuing any profession, or calling, is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.”

American writer James Baldwin is perhaps best known for his essays about race written during the civil rights movement, such as The Fire Next Time and Notes of a Native Son.

Akhmatova on the need to speak

There are a number of translations available on the web of Anna Akhmatova’s prose introduction to “Requiem,” a sequence of poems that take place during the worst of Stalin’s oppressions of his political opponents. I’ll cobble together a rough one here based on clues provided by the others. She describes a moment when someone on the street realizes that she is the writer Akhmatova:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov purges, I stood each day for seventeen months in the visitors’ line outside the Leningrad prison. One day someone recognized me there. A woman standing near me in the line was startled to hear my name; she shook herself free of the dull, heavy weight of standing in that line, suffering more than enough each day and fearing worse. She spoke to me – she whispered, we all whispered there:

“Can you describe this?” And I said that I could. Then something like a smile passed over what once had been her face.

What could more plainly demonstrate our need to speak the meaning of our lives and to be aided by others who can help speak it. To witness and have the help of other witnesses. People love to figure out the pattern of their lives – at least until it’s beaten out of them, worn out of them – and they love to speak it.

Speech and community are implied here. I see from the dictionary that alienation comes from a Latin word meaning other. You are made into the other, you are cast out, you are locked away, you are thrown out of the community – you are outside the circle of speech and meaning. Your identity vanishes. The psychological weight is immense. No wonder even in a prosperous country people become so angry when they realize their voice hardly matters.

Contributed by Ken Smith.

A graduate liberal studies blog

This is the web site meant to wrap some lively web work and discussion around the journal Confluence.  Let’s say some more here about how that could work, and why we’d bother.