Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Required English Major Post # 1: Shakespeare's Birthday

Happy Birthday, Will!

As far as we can discern (birth records being what they were in 1564), today would have been William Shakespeare's 444th birthday. Though, I'm fairly certain that was based on a different calendar system.... hey, we'll work with it anyway.

So, here's a bit of Kevin Kline as Hamlet for your celebrating pleasure:



Go read your Will today!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Six Degrees of Duff McKagan

My students recently busted me. Perhaps I should rephrase that: they finally figured me out. And, they laughed about it.

I should preface this by noting that I used Guns N' Roses as an example when discussing parody and satire in World Literature this semester. I provided my class with a glimpse into the psyche that is Axl by sending a link to the video for "Estranged" (Axl, Douglas Adams called; he wants his dolphins back. Never seen it? If you have 10 minutes to kill, I offer you this). I have several theories about this video, but that mental exercise is for a later date.

So, they had some insight into me after that point.

A few weeks ago, I asked my students what their favorite songs were. Now, I asked this as a freebie quiz question, but the "freebie" part didn't really make the question any less painful for them. Like many of us, they struggled with the question. Music defines us so very much; will that song be forever associated in someone's mind with me if I choose it? (Yes, if you are really wondering.)

Interesting revelations:
  • 6 of the 17 cited either 311 or Sublime. Not itself surprising, I suppose, except that most of my students were about 8 when Bradley died. Granted, I was weaned on Janis, Jimi, Jim and Brian and ALL of them were dead and gone by the time I made it into the world. That said, I'm having a hard time imagining that they were introduced to Sublime and/or 311 by their parents. What gives?

  • One student listed Flo Rida. Shocked my own kids haven't brought him to my attention already; was also surprised to learn that he toured with 2 Live Crew back in the day.

  • One student mentioned Jim O'Rourke's "Get A Room." Not surprising, but his rationale for why it was his favorite was intriguing: it's the song his iPod says is most often played.

After the quiz, R. asked what my favorite song was. Now, I was prepared for the question. I had thought about what I would say if anyone asked (most classes don't for whatever reason). I gave two, because, quite frankly, I can't just name one. They should consider themselves lucky that I didn't offer a dissertation on the subject. So, I offered my current favorites: "Mezz" by 10 Minute Warning and "Then & Now" by Loaded.

(**R is the same student who defined "favorite" by iPod, by the way. If I use his definition, my account of my favorite above is incorrect. According to my iPod, my favorite song is GnR's "Mr. Brownstone." I would have said "Nightrain" or "It's So Easy" myself, but iPods never lie. Yes, they are all Guns N' Roses songs. Did you notice the title of this post yet?)

Anyway, they looked at me quite blankly (itself an interesting experience as it happened collectively). I gave them a bit of information on each band, and suggested they take the chance to seek them out.

Hence, I was busted when they actually did. I wandered into class one fine day to find them laughing at me (please use Bill Cosby's voice for that statement). "So," R. asks, "exactly how deep does your fascination with Guns N' Roses go? They all have Duff, right?"

I was forced to confess that my obsession runs deep; when I was a teen, I wanted to be Duff when I grew up. Badass punk. Inveterate partier. Instead, I became an English Professor. Not quite sure what happened there. I did manage to follow in his tracks in one noteably awful way, but we'll leave that one be.

For those who aren't following, allow me to help you out:

Duff McKagan was in Guns N' Roses. He is currently in Loaded (and Velvet Revolver). He was in 10 Minute Warning. And, if you want to get right down to it, he influences much of my music collection, which includes:

  • GNR: Live Like a Suicide, Appetite for Destruction, Lies, Use Your Illusion 1 & 2, The Spaghetti Incident, Live Era
  • Duff/Duff McKagan: Believe in Me, Beautiful Disease
  • Neurotic Outsiders
  • Mad for the Racket
  • Betty Blowtorch (he co-produced the Get Off EP)
  • Velvet Revolver: Contraband, Libertad
  • 10 Minute Warning
  • Loaded: Episode 1999: Live, Dark Days

Duff is/was in all of those bands, save Betty Blowtorch. The Duff-connectivity gets worse, by the way:

  • One member of 10 Minute Warning was a gentleman by the name of Greg Gilmore, who was also the drummer of Mother Love Bone, who have a long standing and storied role in my life, even if Andy OD'd 18 years ago.

  • 10 Minute Warning was cited by Stone Gossard (Mother Love Bone, Pearl Jam) as the reason he started playing guitar in the first place. Check. Check.

  • The Betty Blowtorch connection really surprised me. I didn't know he'd produced "Get Off" until I bothered to read liner notes. But, at least at that point I knew he was alive. Then came the video for "Slither." Definitely alive.

The list, sadly, isn't comprehensive.

All of this probably suggests that I am hopeless, doesn't it? In my defense, much of this was accidental. I'm thinking, though, that one could play a pretty successful game of "Six Degrees of Duff McKagan" because he's played in so many bands over the years. Anyone up for the challenge?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Art of Explication and Notes on "Janie Jones"

Over the next several weeks, I plan to post a wad of song explications. There are two major reasons behind this. One, I want students to have examples to work with, and, two, I want students to know that I put myself through the same paces I put them through.


First, a bit of background on the art that is explication. Here's a great walk through (even if it is UNC). It is a formal procedure, focusing on the poem/text itself, rather than the historical or social context of the poem/text. New Critics love this stuff. I can't say I love it, but it as fabulous writing tool. I use explications to teach students how to incorporate and analyze quotations, so it is the first paper of virtually every Composition II course I teach.


We'll begin with the song that inspired this little project, the Clash's "Janie Jones." Read the lyrics before we begin if you've never seen them before or never heard the song (not that hearing it would necessarily help). Have a listen if you are unfamiliar with the wonder is "Janie Jones."


We'll handle this as a two parter because I'm going to work every step. All others will be single posts.


The first step is to take copious notes on the poem/song/text. Be as detailed as possible in the notes. You should see an overall idea take shape pretty quickly.


Big Picture (Forest as a Whole):


  • Who? Rock n roll guy, likes getting stoned and likes Janie Jones, so, sex, drugs, and rawk n' roll. Working stiff. Doesn’t like his job. I would expect that most students would need to look up Janie Jones. Never go into an explication expecting to know everything that will be cited/mentioned/ etc. Not all poets are T.S. Eliot (for which we should all be thankful), but we still can't expect to know every allusion immediately.

  • What? Discord between what he wants and what he needs to do to get it: "This time he’s really gonna show the boss/Gonna really let him let him know exactly how he feels/It’s pretty bad!"

  • When? Not specified. Possibly 1970's, based on the JJ reference, but I'm not sure it's relevant here. There's a touch of universalism, isn't there?

  • Where? Workplace, in part: "An’ the invoice if don’t quite fit/There’s no payola in his alphabetical file"

  • Why? Unclear. A celebration, it would seem. Speaking to a woman, describing the man in question.


Content Details (Trees in the Forest):


  • Form: No particular form. Very structured rhyme scheme, though much of it is slant rhyme.

  • Rhetoric: dialect—“Gotta” “Jacko”, “An’ ” etc.

  • Syntax: Nothing outstanding. Several uses of the double negative.

  • Vocabulary: See notes on Rhetoric above. Nothing especially surprising. Payola may be unfamiliar to contemporary readers. The particular word choice suggests that he would be part of the music “industry” (record companies and the like), but nothing else in the song supports that, so the word is probably used generally to mean payoffs, graft, etc.

Form and Patterns (Leaves on the trees):

This is one space that we will find working rather differently in song than in poem; for instance, most songs kindly announce the major theme (sex, drugs, rock n' roll vs. working life, here) in the chorus.
  • Rhetorical Patterns: The lines in the chorus are structured similarly, probably for rhythmic purposes.

  • Rhyme: Good bit of slant rhyme to be found here: "stoned/Jones/roll," "work/shirks," Nearly all of that is end rhyme. Standard stuff, nothing amazing or ridiculous stands out. No sign that the rhyme is forced, however, which is lovely.

  • Patterns of Sound: Not sure what to do with this yet, but there is a fair amount of alliteration for "f": "fit," "file," "feels." A substitution, perhaps, for a FU to the boss? Thematically possible, but...a stretch even for me.

  • Visual Patterns: Because this was really meant to be heard, this doesn't really matter to us for "J.J," or virtually any other song we'll encounter. They will tend to, pardon, look like songs (verse, chorus, verse, etc.).

  • Rhythm and Meter: Just for grins, I practiced my scansion (the UNC site mentioned above covers this) techniques. It's a bit odd, as, again, songs weren't generally meant for "reading," so the line breaks tend to be unclear. We usually break with a singer's breath or thought. Anyway, the chorus is, as I determined it, an excellent example of trochaic (stressed, unstressed) octameter (if one counts the "woah") or trochaic heptameter (if one doesn't). As UNC points out though, we're more likely to hear the lines as "He's in love/with rock n' roll, woah," which renders all of the above obsolete. I'm guessing Strummer and Jones weren't much concerned with English major pedantism, however, so I'll let this one go.

Next time: From notes to beautiful rhetoric and beyond

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Things I Haven't Read but Should Have by Now

"Read it? I haven't even taught it."-- A CMLT Prof at UGA

It's a truism that every English and Literature major aquires this kind of list as part of the degree process; we just run out of time. Too many other books to read, most of which we'd rather have avoided. My goal here is to list the should haves and cross them off as I actually manage to finish them. Several of these (marked with an *), I have started and failed to finish for a variety of reasons. Often including mind-numbing boredom.

Abebooks has my favorite list of this variant.
  1. *Absalom, Absalom, Faulkner (my Faulkner is woefully inadequate)
  2. Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy (my colleages seem to worship him)
  3. *A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Twain
  4. *Crime & Punishment (hey, I got through Brothers K!)
  5. *Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon
  6. Le Morte d'Arthur
  7. Magic Mountain
  8. Mumbo Jumbo, Reed
  9. *Paradiso, Dante
  10. *Sister Carrie
  11. Steampunk Trilogy
  12. *Ulysses, Joyce
  13. *The Waste Land

There are more, of course. Feel free to make any suggestions. I'll add as needed. I need more popular fiction on here. Of course, my reading isn't really behind there.