Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Two People I’ve Learned From Get Recognized

Last week the American Academy of Arts & Sciences announced their latest class of members. The Academy’s been around since 1780, and one of its core purposes is to recognize people by naming them as fellows of the Academy. There are about 4,000 now, plus 600 something foreign members. One thing this does is provide a pretty good measure of whether a university is in the top tier of institutions, and provides some basis for sorting within that top tier. The number of Nobel Prize winners doesn’t work as well because there are fewer given, and not in all disciplines. The Academy makes 200 or so new members each year and covers most disciplines, so you can see patterns emerging. Most colleges and universities don't have any members, which reflects the extremely hierarchical nature of American academe. Each discipline decides whom it thinks are the best people in the field, and the best/most powerful institutions go out and get them. Of course a lot of this prestige stuff is self-reinforcing—if you get appointed dean to a school at Harvard, you’ve probably upped your chances of getting recognized here.

The fellows are mostly academics, but the Academy also picks up working artists and musicians, politicians, business leaders, and so forth.

This year one of those non-academic inductees is Emmylou Harris. I don’t know if they’ve ever chosen an Americana artist or a Nashville performer. There are precious few “popular musicians” on the list—B.B. King, Keith Jarrett, Wynton Marsalis, and Stephen Sondheim were the only ones I saw who remotely fit. I didn’t even see Bill Ivey on there. It makes sense that if they are trying to branch out, they would pick Emmylou Harris. I have always felt I was learning a lot from her albums about how to listen to songs. She chooses old songs you might not know, seems tuned into current songwriters, and shows the connections between the past and present of whatever you want to call this range of songwriting, singing and performing.

Maybe at the other end of the spectrum, my master’s thesis advisor at Chicago, Bob von Hallberg, was inducted this year. I studied Olson with Bob. It’s always hard to say what you learned from one teacher, but I will try. Bob has a way of reading a poem that involves simultaneously taking in the meaning and the music, and I can’t get close to doing it. He’s also very interested in the social and historical context of poems, thinking about questions like who is reading the stuff and why. He also has a distinctive discursive tone—he doesn’t toss around critical theory buzzwords, but formulates his theses and works his way through the material seriously. Here’s an article in the Boston Review that will give you a good idea of what he does. It’s a piece on several contemporary poets and how they have reflected on the condition of civic life during our wartime, life as a citizen of this empire. There’s a topicality to it, but what he takes this opportunity to show the particular ways poetry serves as discourse, the insights it is capable of bringing out through the tools that define the medium. Last year Bob also put out a book on lyric poetry that I need to get my hands on.

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