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Reading Around

By Pochoda, Elizabeth | The Nation, November 18, 1991 | Go to article overview

Reading Around


Pochoda, Elizabeth, The Nation


Multicultural Watch

Too bad no one enlisted the help of Stephen Jay Gould in the recent debates over the curriculum. His essay on Charles Darwin's racism in Natural History this month ends with the clearest possible defense of multicultural studies. After making a sympathetic case for the limitations of the eminent Victorian, he asks what we should do about contemporary equivalents of a paternalism such as Darwin's and replies that insufficient appreciation of human differences can be repaired only by the "direct and sympathetic study of cultural diversity-the world's most fascinating subject in any case." He goes on to say that the attempt by conservatives to caricature the multicultural movement as leftist fascism ranks as "a cynical smoke screen spread to cover a power struggle for control of the curriculum. Yes, Shakespeare foremost and forever (Darwin too). But also teach about the excellence of Pygmy bushcraft and Fuegian survival in the world's harshest climate. Dignity and inspiration come in many guises. Would anyone choose the tinhorn patriotism of George Armstrong Custer over the eloquence of Chief Joseph in defeat?"

Big Little Magazines

What can it mean that both the rarefied Parnassus: Poetry in Review and the lowdown Portable Lower East Side have dedicated their current issues to the memory of Gregory Kolovakos, who died of AIDS last year? Mostly it means that even the expansive spirit of Kolovakos, who directed the literature program for the New York State Council on the Arts with a flair for both high culture and low, could not bridge the gap between the walled town of poetry for the few and the promiscuous city of porn for the many as represented in these two journals.

Parnassus labors away at the high culture in 414 pages of reviews, memoirs and essays in prose that is sometimes passionate, sometimes elegant and sometimes frankly unsayable when it is not unspeakable. There is a wonderfully plainspoken, un-self-pitying memoir, "Kalala's Doll," by Wendy Gimble, and informative reviews-cum-essays on James Wright, John Haines and Marianne Moore; but apart from those and Mary Karr's essay Against Decoration," on the current vogue for needlework poetry, there's not much that speaks to people who live outside the magic circle of writing schools and poetry readings. Nevertheless, the presence of Karr's piece is a promising sign of the sort that Kolovakos would have enjoyed. She discerns lots of clothes but no emperor within the verse she reads in The New Vorker, flowery, emotionally dim poems" that cannot possibly move the reader. Karr worries that poetry has been cast adrift from the rest of American life, and she should, judging from the contents of many literary journals and little magazines.

I guess " Live Sex Acts," the title of the current issue of The Portable Lower East Side, was meant to be an eye-catching retreat from Mt. Parnassus. But here in 151 pages of interviews with erotic film stars, descriptions of peep shows, transcripts of phone sex, erotic encounters recollected in tranquillity and pointlessly raunchy photographs-all funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts--there is nothing remarkable or illuminating.

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