Monthly Archives: March 2015


This weekend, in spite of looming deadlines, I picked up Stanley Fish’s recent book, How to Write a Sentence:  And How to Read One (Harper Collins 2010).  Nearly finished it–but I savor the really good books, delaying the bittersweet gratification of completion because I know I will miss the company of the author.  That says a lot about the author–that she or he is a good companion–and it says something about me–that I prefer an author to be a good companion rather than someone I would rather avoid.

I had the privilege of taking a few classes with Stanley Fish in the Roaring ’90’s, the last hurrah of literary theory in the American Academy, in my view, before its confinement to a few shelves in the Barnes & Noble.  As an ABD graduate student in Classical Studies, I was free, if not universally encouraged, to take courses in other disciplines.  I studied semiotics with the Slavic linguist, Edna Andrews; I read the American philosopher Stanley Cavell with Toril Moi; but the classes that probably affected me most were Stanley Fish’s seminars on “Rhetoric, Law, and Power” and (less so–because I don’t have time during my prelim phase to complete it) another on “Milton.”  I have had the honor of studying with genuinely inspiring faculty both as an undergraduate (Bill Kemp and Bob Boughner leap to mind) and as a graduate student (my debts to Gregson Davis would require many more notes), but Stanley Fish cut quite a figure at Duke–as he would anywhere.  Inimitable–though David Lodge does a credible job in Nice Work.

I had read several of Fish’s books in graduate school–most were collections of published essays, but others were conceived and executed as wholes.  I regard Fish as one of the great writers in English–a great prose stylist and to no one was Buffon‘s adage more apropos than it was to Stanley Fish:  le style est l’homme.  But even that does insufficient justice to Fish, because his style is polyvalent:  he occupies multiple registers within the same essay, propelling himself along in a mixed, middle style before rounding into a full Ciceronian periods, then pulling himself short with aphorisms.  Parallelisms of diction, structure, clauses all conspire to present a master of form.  That his “content” can be, and was for many, jarring is almost a distraction, but jarring you was really the point.  You need to be shook free from the path you (mindlessly?) followed and pulled along a better, and with conscious irony–given Fish’s acclaimed status as one of the “deconstructionists”–an unabashedly ‘truer’ path.

In How to Write a Sentence Fish gives you the answer key to his prose style, and style being the man, to himself.  Though I expect Fish to one day author a memoir, to a literary critic I don’t think one could improve upon a thorough exegesis of the sentences that have mattered most to her or him.  Writing, and reading, are intensely personal processes.  And maybe the best thing you can say about any book is that, having read it, I now see the world better, and with fresh eyes thanks to my old companion still leading me along the path.

In my next post:  a collection of my favorite Fish (Fisian? Piscatory?) sentences.


To quote another Emerson, “Experience”:

‘I take this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition.’

Nearly a quarter of a year has passed since Claudia Emerson passed.  I knew her.  Others knew her better.  I was new faculty, and I think that colored my thinking a bit.  I feel honored that I got to know her, to the extent I knew her, BP, that is, Before the Pulitzer.  Things changed afterward, I think, but more our perception of her than Claudia.  It’s not that she was aloof.  She was in Combs, then William Street, then GW, then Richmond; I was in Trinkle.  Our paths only crossed because we had friends in common and Fredericksburg is a small town.  After the Pulitzer, I think I was conscious that Claudia probably received more attention–wanted and not–and I guess I did not want to be seen by her as a person who wanted to benefit from her publicity.  So we remained acquaintances.

I think the first time I met Claudia and her husband, Kent, was the summer of 2000 by the steps of the downtown library in Fredericksburg.  The library put on–as they still do in summer–evening concerts, and I had come with my family to sit on the steps and eat a picnic dinner. It was very warm–a true Virginia summer.  Having grown up here, I had pretty positive associations with the clammy heat, the way some mid-westerners feel about the cold–it’s a crucible.  After a few pleasantries, I remember she asked what I was doing this summer.  To me, looking at my two children, I said that, naturally, I was teaching for extra income.  “What about you?”  “Well, I’m a poet and the only time I can get anything done is in the summer.”  She followed that with a wry, “After all, I can’t really call myself a poet unless I write something.”  We talked about what she was working on, some poems that would become Pinion, but as I recall she was already thinking about what would become Late Wife.  What I won’t forget about that for me iconic memory was the smallness of her, her casual hands, and the certainty of her pose when we first approached, propped up as she was on a bicycle stand.  Maybe she wore a white shirt, blue shorts, leather sandals–could that be it?  And that heat was leavened by her smile and a look taking us in.  Put her beside the post-Pulitzer Claudia I would see in the Faculty Dining Room or on campus, radiant with well-coiffed hair, smart suits, but I think also always a bit uncomfortable with the show of it.  All the same, nothing could mask the warmth of her smile or dampen her laugh when she heard something clever and she returned to the fullness of that summer bloom.


Bully Pulpit

Here’s a place to draw together a few ideas for general consideration.  Football is a dangerous game.  Obviously.  And probably unconscionably so.  I never gave my eldest son permission to play organized football because I had played for many years myself––from junior high through high school.  Plenty of good memories––I am thankful I can still remember them––but as I got away from playing I had a growing and intuitive awareness that pounding your head into a brick wall is not a good idea.  And undoubtedly will come with deleterious effects.  Now it’s documented, but it didn’t need to be for me to come to that conclusion.

And yet I am still a fan of the sport.  As though I cannot help myself.  I read about my favorite team, download a podcast, occasionally stream some sports radio when out and about on errands.  I am not above it.  That doesn’t make me feel super proud.  It’s a guilty pleasure.

So, yesterday I’m listening to the radio and lo comes the announcement that a few players chose to retire––some would say “prematurely”––from football rather than run the risk of permanent brain damage.  And rather than respect the decision, two of the three radio personalities chose to mock it.  One minimized the significance of the decision––”not meaningful at all.”  The other equated the decision to play football to the work of a soldier or police officer or firefighter.  Seriously.  As if the work of people doing the most dangerous and necessary work for the safety of a community or country were comparable to entertainment.  Am I wrong in believing that if we thought we would lose 1/3 of our army, police, or firefighting force in the course of normal duty, we would be apoplectic?  And yet by their own admission, one in three football players will suffer lingering effects of brain trauma.  And not to save anyone’s life or property but to entertain me.  It puts football squarely in the camp of cockfighting or dogfighting or gladiatorial matches (with I’m guessing higher casualty rates than actual gladiatorial matches).  My god, one of the guys starting talking about how much the equipment has improved in 2015––as though any equipment could prevent a brain from sloshing back and forth inside the skull when it’s struck.

So today the guilty pleasure is just guilty.

Tunnel Vision

I like writing.  Or maybe I like having written.  Let me explain:  I just submitted a draft of a book chapter that, God willing, will be published in a very good press.  It was an all-consuming task for several months.  The last week was nearly non-stop research and writing for seven days straight.  It felt biblical, transformational.  And yet I could recognize parts of myself changing–becoming more logical, distant, less sensitive to my reactions to people, less a part of this world.  And now that I’m three days away from submitting it, I feel warmer, more connected to my surroundings.  I crave vigorous athletic activity.  And love and affection.  Medievals scholastics called it the vita contemplativa and its thrills are undeniable and real.  But there is something lost or marginalized, too.  It’s a sacrifice of self and others.  Life is full of choices.  I guess my hope is that it always feels like a hard choice.