Reading List/On the Record: September-October 2004


Reading List

We asked members of the English department:
Name your favorite collections of poems by a contemporary and a classic poet:

-The Collected Poems by Reynolds Price. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Price's poetry "displays both a prodigious religious imagination and as powerful an erotic sensibility as I have ever encountered in literature. It is all done in a line-by-line execution that I often find riveting." Whitman is "my favorite poet of all time, for the vivacity of his imagery, the generosity of his spirit, and the healing power of his vision. His ultimate achievement is to reverse the psychology of man's fall through a compelling portrayal of sex without guilt and death without fear."
--Victor Strandberg, professor of English

-The Best American Poetry series. Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda, translated by W.S. Merwin. The poetry series that comes out annually "is almost always rewarding, and I find poets I've not read before whom I want to know better. But I have to admit I'm biased because, in the 2003 volume, there's a poem by Daniel Nester, 'Poem for a Novelist Whom I Forced to Write a Poem,' and I'm the novelist in question."
--Christina Askounis, University Writing Program

-The New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver. Paradise Lost by John Milton.†"Oliver's work is beautifully lucid; Milton's is beautifully baroque. Anyone would come away from either poet, or preferably from both, a far richer person."
--Reynolds Price '55, James B. Duke Professor of English

On the Record

Many of the arguments made by opponents of same-sex marriage have strongly religious dimensions. But the definition of "religious tradition" can be slippery.

Conflicts over sexual identity are more public than ever with the confirmation last year of the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church and recent efforts to legalize same-sex marriage. Opponents to these impending changes share a rationale. Be it a notion of what marriage "has always been" or what the church and the Bible have always said about sexuality, a common theme in arguments against ordination of gays and same-sex marriage is an appeal to "the tradition."

Of course, religious communities require tradition. We would be foolish to ignore the wisdom of experience--to constantly "reinvent the wheel." However, appeals to tradition often cover up ignorance of history. We have not always done it that way. The church has changed its mind on most topics, sexuality being a prime example. Historically, acts condemned as unnatural or "sodomic" included practices most Christians now accept, such as masturbation, sex not for procreation, fellatio, cunnilingus, and artificial contraception. Many views can be called "biblical," from stoning for adultery to what appears to be cohabitation without benefit of clergy (Adam and Eve).

Traditions of marriage in the U.S. have changed, too. In colonial days, marriage was an economic and political arrangement between families. For centuries in the South, it was a legal privilege defined by whiteness. One of the most enduring traditions of marriage was the husband's right to his wife's body. Even that changed when the marital rape exemption was finally removed in the 1980s.

Any appeal to tradition will be selective. If wise, it will recognize the fallibility of the past and move to the important question: why any particular decision of the past deserves normative status today. That it is "tradition" is neither a case for making heterosexuality a qualification for marriage or ordination, nor for granting it moral superiority. The Vermont Supreme Court's 1999 Baker decision allowing for civil unions gets the fallibility of traditions just right: "The past provides many instances where the law refused to see a human being when it should have." The church should be so wise.


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