The Buck Stops Here

"I thought [the Warren Report] far beyond anything I know in literature." - George Oppen.

Writers write. Teachers teach. Judges judge. But they do so only after they have been certified to do so by school or training. We live in a society of professionals, far from the model of Greek democracy outlined by C. L. R. James in his pamphlet, "Every Cook Can Govern." "The vast majority of Greek officials," James notes, "were chosen by a method which amounted to putting names into a hat and appointing the ones whose names came out." Only those who sit on juries today - any citizen, regardless of background --follow the Greek example. The resistance to the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court has to do, in part, with our emphasis on the professional in our culture. In America, the knowledge of the amateur is never knowledge, and his experience is no experience at all.

We understand why doctors must be certified (even though the number of those who seek out alternative treatment is increasing), but why education and training are necessary in some other fields is less clear. Words are our common lot, and yet those who use language in professional work must be trained to do so. To be a writer in America today means you have to go to school and stay in school. "Every poet...in the U. S. is a ward of the state and the university," Eliot Weinberger notes. If this makes it more difficult for the writer to stand in opposition - to bite the hand that feeds him - it also insures uniformity. The competence a profession establishes, of necessity, sacrifices originality. There thus becomes a poetry we call poetry, and novels we recognize as novels. "One who thinks he is not a poet," Oppen writes, "tries to write 'like poets.' One who thinks he is a poet tries not to."

Ornament is a casing, Walter Benjamin writes, and I would like you to see ornament, casing if you will, as the means by which a writer interprets, shapes, if not embellishes material for his purposes. We use terms like form, image, narrative, metaphor to describe what he has done. Too much, however, may not be enough. Ornament, form if you will, may block our view of the material it shapes as much as illuminate it -- writing may get in the way of writing. Sometimes the only way something can be written is not, in effect, to write it. This is, as I understand it, the implication of Oppen's comment that the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President Kennedy transcends anything literature might say about it.

Last week I came across an example of what Oppen has in mind. It is a letter to the editor, written to The Ann Arbor News, by my brother, Don Buckeye, who for many years taught mathematics and coached at Lakewood. Although he has published numerous mathematics books, he is not a writer in the sense we characterize the reporter or novelist. The letter says exactly what it needs to say. Nothing can be added. Nothing subtracted. I reprint it here.

I was working at a basket-factory in Cleveland, Ohio, where I made the minimum of 45 cents an hour. I was 15 years old and this was a summer job. (I could make almost $1 an hour on piece-work by making 100 dozen baskets a day.) Working with me were Japanese-Americans who were sent there from the West Coast because the government didn't trust them. They all had degrees from the University of California. They were very loyal to the United States. The war was now going well. When we heard that the Japan had surrendered, we had a moment of silence and went back to work, and the Japanese-Americans were talking about going back home to the West Coast. The U. S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 8, 1945, completely destroying the city. I was able to visit Hiroshima in 1955. On my visit to the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima, I couldn't get over that it was more than 10 years since the atomic bomb was detonated. The only building left standing was a former government building now called the A-Bomb Dome. People were still dying because of its effects. - Donald Buckeye, Ypsilanti.
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Volume 1, Issue 10, Posted 12.20 PM / 15th November 2005.