Excerpt from Introduction:
Why? Why would anyone in their right mind, more accurately, why did I choose to write about racism, poverty, and violence? … all indisputable facts of life and death in America. Before I wrestle with why I took on this unlikely project to begin with, let me first explain the title, Corn-pone ‘Pinions, and its relationship to Mark Twain. Twain’s essay “Corn-pone Opinions” is the opening essay in The Best American Essays of the Century. Written in 1901, it is perhaps even more relevant today than in Twain’s time. Twain’s one hundred-year-old political analysis is uncannily accurate in describing the current political debate/climate:
A political emergency brings out the corn-pone opinion in fine force in its two chief varieties — the pocketbook variety, which has its origins in self-interest, and the bigger variety, the sentimental variety — the one which can’t bear to be outside the pale; can’t bear to be in disfavor… wants to stand well with his friends, wants to be smiled upon, wants to be welcome…
Twain asserts that we want the approval, the glory, the honor, and happiness that all come, ostensibly, with “membership in the herd.” And because of this intense desire, “We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking.” He goes on to say, “Corn-pone stands for self-approval. Self-approval is acquired mainly from the approval of other people. The result is conformity.” In the end Twain offers this summary on Public Opinion: “It is held in reverence. It settles everything. Some think it the voice of God.” One need look no further than Twitter and Facebook, and the attention given by the media to polling, to know that Twain’s analysis is spot on. Yes, as John Kennedy also observed, “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort [and hard work] of thought.” So, by now, I hope it is obvious why I chose the title, Corn-pone ‘Pinions, for this little project of mine. And since, in Twain’s estimation, “there are none but corn-pone opinions,” it seems a moot point whether the title refers to the opinions of others, or my own. Perhaps you, the reader, will offer up an opinion or two before all is said and done.
And so to Why? Why did I, a sometimes poet/writer, decide to take on racism, poverty, violence? What do I – an extremely fortunate, old, white guy – know of these horrors that other people face daily? Admittedly, not much.
In his book, Becoming Animal, Eco-Philosopher David Abram asserts that the three biggest threats to humanity and the planet are “war, greed, and indifference.” The first two confirmed that my subject matter was on target, but the third hit me like a sucker punch. I have been living comfortably indifferent, swaddled in white privilege, indifferent to racism in all its forms, indifferent to unprecedented greed and poverty, indifferent to all of our foreign perma-wars; yes, largely indifferent to all of these serious threats to the kind of society and planet I want for my grandchildren and for their children, and for future generations. This book is an attempt to make a response, to counter indifference that could very well cheat future generations out of a quality of life that we enjoy and that they deserve.
The two poems that open and close the book, Writing Meditation and Walking Meditation, are there to remind me what is important: First, to show compassion for all, especially for those whose experiences I have not had, and also for those whose opinions I may not share. Second, to try to become a more gentle presence in the world. On those I hope we can all agree — the rest is corn-pone. Enjoy!