If essaying is about thinking, or thinking about feeling, in order to judge which essay resonated with me most, I’ve been thinking about how each one made me feel. Judging, finally, for me, is entirely subjective. “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you,” George Bernard Shaw wrote, reversing the logic of the Golden Rule, “Their tastes may not be the same.” I may have gauged a work and assigned it weight in my psyche upon first encountering it, alone, only to be changed after a discussion in which I discovered how the work had affected my colleagues, and, via peer pressure or sympathy, felt compelled to reassess the value of it.
However, in the end, perhaps because I failed to learn anything or because I’m incorrigible when it comes to my aesthetic conviction, I returned to my initial impressions of each work and made the decision of which ones were best based on my instinctive appraisal. Although I was moved by the visual beauty of Bahrani’s “Plastic Bag” and Herzog’s accented voice-over, once I became aware of its propaganda (and the fact that I wasn’t going to stop using plastic bags in a sometimes careless fashion) I lost interest. Boully’s tone made me suspicious that she was setting me up to look like the fool, like the boy with blue balls at the end. After much discussion I was able, I think, to see the layering and the intelligence in choosing such a controlled tone, but ultimately I didn’t want to go back, perhaps because of my unsavory first date with it. With Bucat, I remembered having my last name, Diamente, butchered, mispronounced, and made fun-of (my first name is Neil, and my father, an Italian immigrant, named me after his favorite American singer), so I was not moved by her dramatization nor did I consider it as important as Finnegan’s subject of the drug war in North America. However, with his New Yorker article, I felt I was being informed of a highly complex social problem that probably would never be solved and so I felt helpless—not a good feeling. Not his fault, but it’s exactly why I read and write poetry and not the news in which men die miserably every day. I laughed hysterically at the “Bed Intruder” song but realized, however clever and savvy it was (and how much I came to admire the Gregory Brother’s talents to Auto-Tune the news), hysteria is a naturally temporary state; I haven’t laughed since, thinking of the Bed Intruder song. Conversely, wonder is a perpetual state and Schalansky’s “Atlas of Remote Islands” put me there. I picked her atlas because it mirrored my love of simplicity, remoteness, solitude, and adventure, despite the subsequent talk about the implicit colonialism in mapmaking and writing. I also love quotations (“One thought fills immensity” –Blake) so “Reality Hunger” fed that love and fostered a desire to make a manifesto of my own regarding what it means to be a poet in the world. Shields’ personality didn’t appeal to me (he seemed like a whiner, not a winner), but his project did. Watching Soll’s “Puppet,” I was reminded of why making an inanimate object come to life is such a primeval urge in the world, why children instinctively make puppets out of anything, which is precisely my favorite activity with my own two children who can’t get enough of seeing their hands’ shadows turn into birds, alligators, dogs, and spiders. I like puppetry, period, and his documentary helped me explain why I do. I lived in San Francisco for a year, but Solnit’s “Infinite City” didn’t trigger nostalgia or curiosity as perhaps it did for others; I simply felt overwhelmed by it. And finally, Wood’s conceit, to make “useless” maps that “prove” everything sings seemed to me such a futile, beautiful gesture that only a poet would attempt, but I did not vote for it. In the end, I could only choose my top three favorites and I settled, for better or worse, on awarding those favorites in each category, or form: atlas (Schalansky), text (Shields), and film (Soll).
After all of Ander’s talk of the idiosyncratic “brain” behind each essay, how to measure it against or within its genre/constraints, how valuable it is to contemporary society, how much of the essay is conducted in the spirit of inquiry, the only question I asked myself, which was usually answered at first blush, was how did it make me feel. I feel compelled to blog, to write this post so I’ll pass this class and graduate, but I can’t say I’ve enjoyed it. Each post gets gobbled up by the next like highway mile signposts, but I’m not sure where I’m going. “What are you doing after you get your MFA,” everyone asks, with the assumption, perhaps, that I can teach now or continue on in a PhD program somewhere like many writers do today. When I was sleeping in the university library two years ago while going through a divorce and had moved out of my house and into a study carrel, I couldn’t imagine spending any more time there. Academia will always remind me of the dust on those books in the stacks. And although I would stop and stare at the titles of books I would probably never read on my way to the bathroom to brush my teeth, when I lay down in my sleeping bag at night and listened to the hum of air-conditioners preserving the knowledge within its walls, I felt trapped, like a pigeon lodged in the building’s air vents. Some part of me resists the privileged life of academia even as I am drawn to it. And so I don’t know what I’m going to do with my MFA in regard to getting a job that it can help me to procure. All I know is I’m going to continue, undaunted, perhaps unemployed, as I have been more or less since starting graduate school. Like Shields who quoted Graham Greene—“When we are not sure, we are alive”—I’ll leave the blogosphere where I began by quoting Shaw again: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”