Literature Conference in DC!

cuaOnce upon a time, I would not have ended such a heading with an exclamation point. I was weary and wary of literature conferences that focused on newfangled theories and sidestepped the literature. Even at the best conferences, this happened a lot, or so it seemed to me.

I remember listening to someone apply Mikhail Bakhtin’s “chronotope” to Anton Chekhov’s work. There didn’t seem to be much Chekhov there, or even much Bakhtin.  The speaker’s voice would rise in pitch on the last syllable of “khronotop” (Russian). After a while,  all I could hear was “khronoTOP, khronoTOP, khronoTOP.” I held myself together, but as soon as the session was over, I rushed out of the hall and burst out laughing. (I admire Bakhtin but am sometimes giggly about dogmatic Bakhtinians. I have a Bakhtinian parody published on Pindeldyboz.)

Anyway, this conference is about literature. It’s the Twentieth Annual Conference of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW), to be held from October 27-30 at the Catholic University of America. Panel and seminar topics include Milton, Dante and Augustine, humor, poetry translation, Irish poetry, American literature across borders, and David Bromwich’s much-anticipated keynote address, “The Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of Power.” There will be a poetry reading by Rosanna Warren and Brad Leithauser, a musical performance, and much more.

I will be presenting two papers, reading a poem or two, and leading a seminar (in which I will present a third paper). One paper is on Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose,” another on my translation of Tomas Venclova’s poem “Pestel Street,” and a third on Julio Cortázar’s story “End of the Game.” The seminar, “‘You Must Change Your Life’: The Gesture of Opening in Literature,” features papers by E. Thomas Finan (on Woolf), Ann Marie Klein (on the Iliad), William Waters (on Rilke), and myself.

This should be a great four days. Registration is still open; for details, see the ALSCW website.

Pride and Precipice

A splendid collection of essays has just come out in the fifth issue of FORUM: A Publication of the ALSCW. Edited by Rosanna Warren and Lee Oser, the issue bears the title “What Is Education? A Response to the Council on Foreign Relations Report, ‘U.S. Education Reform and National Security'” and includes contributions by David Bromwich, James Engell, Rachel Hadas, Virgil Nemoianu, Helaine L. Smith, Elizabeth D. Samet, myself, and others. I am honored to be part of this, not only because of the  topic, but also because of the caliber of the other essays. They lift the overall conversation.

The CFR report, the work of a task force headed by Joel Klein and Condoleeza Rice, maintains that we must reform education in order to address a national security crisis. They propose that schools, curriculum, and assessments be restructured for the sake of national security. Such a proposal would be laughable if the task force leaders didn’t have so much clout. That’s why a response is needed: this is no joke. (See also Diane Ravitch’s response in the New York Review of Books.)

The FORUM contributors do not constitute a collective. Each one speaks independently. There are common concerns without a position statement or platform. I have dreamed of this: to speak alone and with others. I have longed for a public forum of this kind.

I have also dreamed of being pushed a bit–of being challenged to refine my thoughts. This collection of essays does that as well.

But I also recognize that there’s no need to be afraid of a modest contribution. To say something as well as one can at a given moment, about something that matters–there’s glory for you, as Humpty Dumpty would say.

Much needs to be said. Whatever the needs of national security, we should try to educate beyond these needs. As soon as education subordinates itself to a limited  goal or demand,  it is lost.