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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

“The Liberal Arts Vision – Cockeyed Optimism, Despite Evidence to the Contrary”

<ong>Song of Troy

The heat shimmered on the boulevard,
His body writhed in the brew,
He felt the ground sun-scorched and hard,
As the clear heat burned through and through.

He longed to escape the infernal breeze,
His eyes snuck about for cool shade,
He found it beneath the silly palm trees,
And there in dry weeds he laid.

Dogs wailed in their backyard prisons,
As Troy nervously stroked his veins,
For swollen clouds their eyes glistened,
While he drooled for white powdery rain.

Buildings creaked in the concrete heat,
Cars floated on an asphalt sea,
A whore was asleep on the bus stop seat,
A cheap prize he readied to seize.

As he stole through her pockets, her spoiled lips hollered,
So Troy with his blade worked crime,
He found in the wallet a few sweaty dollars,
“Just enough for the fire this time.”

The blaze inside roared in his eyes,
Like a seething spark he ran,
But his head jerked aside, filled with surprise,
Of a blue warrior’s, blue-barreled gun.

In pain and fright young Troy cringed,
As his body melted down,
The flames in his veins raged and singed,
As his blood boiled on the ground.

The heat shimmered on the boulevard,
His body writhed in the brew,
He felt the ground sun-scorched and hard,
As the clear heat burned through and through.

NORTHFIELD, MN 1977 (“there is no poetry in the city of man”)

-Mark Hunter, Jr.

In mid-Fall, ’77 in my junior year, I sat in Laird Hall, an English major, with the Perkins edition of Romantic writers on my desk. The prof, a Camel-smoking devotee of the Yankee intellectualism of Harold Bloom via Northrop Frye, with a big body, big mind, big intellectual pronouncements, declared, high on naturalist metaphors for the human spirit and imagination, the stock and trade of Romanticism, “There is no poetry in the city of man.”

I was the only brother there, though not the only urbanite, and felt that my nativity, the mad esplanade of South Central L.A., the ruckus, the shine, the boulevards and alleys, the fruit trees, the traffic and jets into LAX, the police helicopters, the shoot ‘em ups, the parks and beaches, the ganglands, the funk, the flow, the derring do, the money, the carnival of people’s character and ways, the death and survival, the folly and glory of the inner city were being dismissed, a place, and by extension, an imagination with little creative value.

So, There is poetry in the city of man, I had proof in eight stanzas. I didn’t bring it to the prof, who I really liked, because I didn’t want to naysay; he was devoutly humanistic, his very faith and values, and I was starting to get that a bit, wondering, for example, if literature couldn’t indeed supplement scripture as a valid story of human spiritual experience (an idea my gospel- loving mother would not have gone for). I didn’t blow his cover, I just enjoyed the secret upmanship. I did take the poem to the resident writing guru, Keith Harrison, who I was cool with too, but he never could remember that I was in the English department, even though I used to play tennis with the department secretary, Mrs. Harrison, his wife, whose forehand shots ran me ragged on Bell Field. It went like this with Keith, and pardon my Australian brogue:

-This white powdery rain – that’s a little flimsy for precipitation, don’t you think? and you border on alliteration throughout, but don’t really achieve that, you know, ‘chickens clucking in the courtyard’, that sort of thing.

-The rain is a metaphor for heroin; this guy is a . . . -What!!! (And he took up the poem again). Oh my, I see . . . and the allusion to Troy, the fallen metropolis – oh dear, I’ve quite botched the reading of this. And your name again?

Overall, I was holding my own in English, but with this act of poetry, I felt really in there with the liberal arts, that I had activated in my own way in the devotion of literature that enveloped majors; our eyes gazed into those of the texts and our fingers strummed those lyrical typewriters, not as apprentices, mere mechanicals, but as initiates, as would be masters of wordy mysteries. I’m doing the liberal arts! It’s like doing the martial arts! Aiiiiyaaah!!! Lighten up dude, I had to tell myself, it’s just poetry.

Two weeks later, in the early afternoon, my mother called me from L.A., and she always wrote, never the phone: Mark . . . son . . . My older brother, Ronald, who had spent the last five or so years in and out of the California Youth Authority for juvenile offenders, and then the Glass House, the county jail, who I had last seen in the summer, selling angel dust out of the apartment we shared, but who had just landed a good job with UCLA’s maintenance crew, Ronald, despite his incarceration and troubles, way smarter and harder than I ever could be, had been murdered by rivals on Sunset as he was crossing to work off the bus; they ran him over repeatedly, witnesses said, mashing him into that boulevard where I had immortalized Troy.

What was happening? Where had that poem really come from? What was trying to get out of me? I was always afraid for my brother; had I sublimated his death in Troy’s, forced the moment to its crisis? Was I underestimating these liberal arts – – – Word Sound Have Power – – – aren’t you old enough to know? “The Song of Troy”, its rhythm and imagery, its overall metaphor (and metaphor, one of the most irresistible spells of language) was meant as a cocky, slick rejoinder; but now I had to reckon with the karma of metaphor as Troy’s and my brother’s stories repeated in me.

I kept my sorrow and bewilderment to myself, but after Troy, after my brother was sacrificed, I saw the poem and my attitude as a whole as ego-tripping which it was, in part, that outsider trip. I could never really go back home, even my Mom told me not to look back. I really got with the program, more real, more generous, a more active and sincere member of the gang over in Laird. I figured, I’ve been tested by cold-blooded street kids, nefarious adults, and no account gangsters since I started in the avenues, honey-drippers all. Words? Word!!! In that part of L.A., what came out of your mouth defined and protected you, your language showed your mentality, and the strength of your mind was like that flag with the snake on it – don’t tread on me. As my dad Rock philosophized the verities when he cared to, Strong conversation is better than strong money.

English became a pleasure; we all got to go for what we knew, nobody was shooting off anything at you, except their mouth, but what it came down to was you had to walk that walk in papers and in general at Carleton – Young men and women, we write across the curriculum at this institution. I learned to think with my right hand, as Edmund Wilson described it; what an outstanding proving ground! I had a sense, a kind of confidence after a while, that despite the skirmishes in Laird, me feeling sometimes like the uninvited guest or funny-faced stepchild, the department was beginning to accept my eyes and voice; maybe assimilation moved both ways. I shared this idea some years later after I had finished law school and sought a Mellon Fellowship to support graduate studies in literature and law:

When I settled into a major in English, I took up the challenge in class discussions and essays of demonstrating the immediate and abiding power of the story of human crisis and suffering in literature. Prince Hal’s waywardness and reformation in a time of war, Hamlet’s struggle with his own inherent evil, Bloom’s rebuff in Ulysses of anti-Semitism at the hands of the citizen, T. S. Eliot’s chanting in his Wasteland of Hindu scripture to relieve himself of the terrible dryness of western living; there are in the canon such compelling illustrations of the process of becoming in face of chaos and challenge. At times, it seemed odd that a young black American, of a personality and way of life hardly known or embraced by this white college’s community, curriculum or pedagogy should labor to offer the sufferer’s choice on English literature. Yet I claimed this art as mine, as unrestricted, unconfinable thought and creativity through which people from myriad dimensions of the human race and experience could find and offer understanding of their lives. Beyond this, as Maxine Hong Kingston observed, “Hunger makes your eyesight keen,” so that I, a child of the impoverished, turbulent city could often seize on issues that my colleagues could not or refused to see.

In Carleton’s English Department I had in my way participated in the intellectual upheaval described by Martin Luther King, Jr. In a 1967 speech, ‘Youth and Social Action’:

Now they ceased imitating and began initiating. Leadership passed into the hands of Negroes, and their white allies began learning from them. This was a revolutionary and wholesome development for both. It is ironic that today so many educators and sociologists are seeking methods to instill middle-class values in Negro youth as the ideal in social development. It was precisely when young Negroes threw off their middle-class values that they made an historic social contribution. (Trumpet of Conscience, Harper and Row, NY, 1967).

In my interaction with the liberal arts (and I know I’m using that term in flexible and omnibus fashion), something else happened, something that affected my fundamental polarity, my spirit even. In studying literature I calmed down . . . The constant fear and agitation that had plagued me, my awful chitta, that mind stuff as Hindu psychology aptly terms it, was absorbed and mediated by the liberal arts, helping me bring myself together, to have a first taste of gestalt. Without the liberal arts, in true intimate, intense scale as at Carleton, not some state school or even ivied powerhouse, forget about my moves as a professional, family man, child of G-d even. There but for the grace of G-d…

The liberal arts call certain mental types, same as it always is, those with broad, irrepressible intellectual curiosity, talent, and drive who show up on earth like clockwork, no matter the accident of their births in the favelas, the shanties, the outbacks, the rural backwaters and barrens, the urban or Arab street, the exact sort of intellectuals and creators, dreamers of dreams, movers and shakers, world-losers and world-forsakers who need the intellectual place and energy of a Carleton in order to transcend, become, contribute, and meet their destinies. We’re the culture these special young people belong to. What’s cold, and this is not meant to be churlish, is that if kids from underserved communities show extraordinary physical ability, they are likely to go to college on athletic scholarships. The intellectuals and creators need the grace of G-d, in the form of a break, in scholarship.

This is how I see the liberal arts, as transformative and enriching human opportunity, a system of the grace of G-d. But what does the tradition think about my vision, and my having it? Is intellectual and spiritual assimilation a two way street at Carleton? And in our country’s dynamic demographics, how does the College focus on the prism of interests of that now ineluctable term of art, that touchstone, DIVERSITY? Let’s check the record, and I’ll bring it home after this.

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