from ChristabelSamuel Taylor ColeridgeA little child, a limber elf,Singing, dancing to itself,A fairy thing with red round cheeks,That always finds, and never seeks,Makes such a vision to the sightAs fills a father's eyes with light;And pleasures flow in so thick and fastUpon his heart, that he at lastMust needs express his love's excessWith words of unmeant bitterness.Perhaps 'tis pretty to force togetherThoughts so all unlike each other;To mutter and mock a broken charm,To dally with wrong that does no harm.Perhaps 'tis tender too and prettyAt each wild word to feel withinA sweet recoil of love and pity.And what, if in a world of sin(O sorrow and shame should this be true!)Such giddiness of heart and brainComes seldom save from rage and pain,So talks as it's most used to do.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Monday, August 25, 2008
from Chapter 8 of Felix Holt, the Radical (1866)George EliotIt is a fact perhaps kept a little too much in the background, that mothers have a self larger than their maternity, and that when their sons have become taller than themselves, and are gone from them to college or into the world, there are wide spaces of their time which are not filled with praying for their boys, reading old letters, and envying yet blessing those who are attending to their shirt buttons.
Saturday, August 23, 2008
Curs’d is the ground for thy sake, thou in sorrow
Shalt eat thereof all the days of thy Life;
Thorns also and Thistles it shall bring thee forth
Unbid, and thou shalt eat th’ Herb of the Field,
In the sweat of thy Face shalt thou eat Bread,
Till thou return unto the ground, for thou
Out of the ground wast taken, know thy Birth,
For dust thou art, and shalt to dust return.
Over the course of this self-imposed reading assignment, I’ve spent a good deal of time not liking Adam and Eve, or their tame forest, or their smarmy heavenly protectors. I’ve complained about them and ridiculed them and heaved gusty sighs of despair. In large part, I haven’t wanted to care about them. I’ve wanted to ignore them, refigure them, tart them up. I’ve wanted to tear them out of the coloring book and lose them under the couch cushions. I have indeed wanted to discover and argue with and possess Milton and all of his crazy greatness. But I haven’t wanted to love this stilted, static pair.
Nonetheless I do love them, though in this case the connotations of love are imprecise and difficult to negotiate. I can’t love them like parents or objects of desire, despite Milton’s relentless encouragement. Nor can I disguise myself in their personae, as I might with Huck Finn or Elizabeth Bennet. Nor can I exactly admire them as fractured reflections of a familiar world, as I do Chaucer’s pilgrims to Canterbury or Dickens’s Aged Parent.
My feelings about Adam and Eve bear more resemblance to the love I once felt for my large and shabby collection of dolls and stuffed bears: a general helpless, anxious, immersed affection blent with indifference; a superstitious physical attachment; a periodic ferocious, godlike control over these button-eyed companions, whom I riotously embraced for a season and then forgot for the rest of my life. Like battered rag dolls, Eve and Adam are emblems of the grief and ruthlessness of time.
Of course, in truth I have no control over these characters. Come innocence or sorrow, they wend their augured way, “hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow.” The inevitability of myth is a well-oiled yet melancholy trap. Like the life stories of the noble dead, a myth is both stately and inexorable. Again, and once more again, Virginia Woolf wades into the river with her sweater pockets full of stones, John Keats sails hopelessly to Italy, Pandora unlocks her forbidden casket.
And so Adam and Eve’s lost paradise is also my lost paradise, not because I ever glimpsed it or even had faith in its existence but because the tale of their loss dwells with me, as legends do, in the shadowy margins between knowledge and invention. A prodigious experiment, this devouring of myth, a willing obedience to the delights and tragedies of belief. If story helps us rationalize mystery, it also absorbs us into sensibility’s bosky underworld. We become the sadness we know.
This is why myth, for all its implausibility, seems so much like lived experience. There is nothing real about Prometheus chained to the rock or Orpheus looking back for Eurydice. They could not have existed. And yet they have always existed, even in Harmony, Maine, in the autumn of the year, where webworm nests swing triumphantly in the chokecherries and my nine-year-old son tosses long, wobbly football spirals, his trajectory a slow-motion wiggle into the weeds.
O Parent, these are thy magnific deeds,
Thy Trophies, which thou view’st as not thine own,
Thou art thir Author and prime Architect.
This is the key to myth—that I stand inside and outside it simultaneously. I taste Eve’s apple and I believe the serpent’s words with all my laden heart, which “by a secret harmony / Still moves with thine,” my “Author and prime Architect,” as my son’s football blunders into the weeds, as a hen squawks irritably, as Sin and Death await Satan at the foot of the “portentous Bridge” they have built over the gates of Hell.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Monday, August 18, 2008
Dinner: baked ham and chanterelles and little purple-and-white-and-yellow ears of corn and cucumbers and maybe something else that I'm just not remembering at the moment.
Today I've decided to dredge up a speech I gave a couple of years ago--a kind of manifesto, I suppose; maybe even a call to arms. It still seems pertinent.
Teaching Poetry: A Manifesto of Sorts
condensed from a speech I gave in 2005 to the Maine Council for English Language Arts
As visiting poet, I work with students of all ages, from kindergarteners to adults. And as you can imagine from the condition of your own local school budgets, it’s a hand-to-mouth job: not many school principals are standing in line to hire a traveling poet. So like most teachers, I’m not in the job for the money. Also, believe it or not, I’m not very fascinated by testing; and I suspect I’m not alone: most of us don’t become teachers because we have a big interest in SAT scores. I believe most of us choose to be teachers because we have ideals—because we love learning, we love books; and because we feel a moral imperative to share our passion; because helping even one child open her heart and mind is a great and irreplaceable gift.
I teach poetry because I love words—I love reading them in books, writing them on paper, playing games with them, arranging them on the page, trying them out on my tongue. I teach because reading and writing and human connection are my life raft, my one true thing. I teach because I’m passionate about my vocation and because I think sharing our passions, whatever they might be, matters enormously.
Unfortunately, school administrators and policymakers at every level overwhelmingly conceive of education as career training rather than a search for individual vocation. So instead of sharing our intellectual and creative passions, we teachers find ourselves pressed to emphasize formula over discovery, grades over scholarship, rules over self-discipline, obedience over engagement. One SAD superintendent told a friend of mine that teachers must follow these kinds of premade patterns of curriculum and assessment; otherwise, they might only teach what they love! And this is horrifying to me.
I’m sure Mr. Superintendent would be happy to explain all the institutional reasons for this trend. But he won’t convince me. As I have seen in school after school, most students, by their late elementary years, have no curricular opportunity to trust their own links among images, words, ideas, sounds, experiences; to cut their own paths of discovery among poems and other art forms. Language arts textbooks and assessments routinely require students to find “meaning” in poems, as if “meaning” were a finite, two-word answer the poet withholds from the reader but writes down in the teacher’s manual. And when textbook assignments ask students to write poetry, those poems often involve gimmicky patterns or prompts rather than emerge as a child’s natural response to reading and experience.
Poetry is not the only form of creativity that suffers from this sort of fenced-in, quantifiable education. But it’s certainly a vital form for English teachers—and not only because it shows up on standardized tests. More important, poetry affects both the inner lives of our children and their confident handling of their native language.
In a lot of ways it just seems easier to skip a poetry unit in favor of routine grammar and punctuation lessons. But consider this idea: that grammar and punctuation are poetic tools—that you can teach students to care about commas if you lead them to care about what commas do. Then ask yourself the same questions about plot structure, adjectives, point of view, use of capital letters, dependent clauses . . . and a hundred other goals listed in your language-arts curriculum. This is exactly the role that poetry can play in education: it can teach children to synthesize basic tools of communication into precise and compelling forms and at the same time require open-ended, complex, personal engagement with the subject matter.
But really, it’s just as important that we teachers are teaching subjects that excite us—because, for the most part, our students believe in us as experts, as models. So if you flame up about the novels of Dickens, or contemporary short stories, or journalism, or whatever it was that led you to become an English teacher, your students are far more likely to ignite creatively and academically. Granted, it’s very difficult to reveal your passions to students and then watch the kids ridicule them, and that does happen; we all suffer through it. But dealing with that kind of pain is part of the risk of letting students know that we love what we do. It’s part of our job, to put our passions on the line.
John Keats, the nineteenth-century English poet, was also a great letter writer and spent a good deal of time trying to explain, mostly to his brothers, what it was like to be a poet-in-training. He was very young, hardly older than a high school student, when he wrote the following lines: “I myself am pursueing the same instinctive course as the veriest human animal you can think of—I am however young writing at random—straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness—without knowing the bearing of any one assertion of any one opinion. Yet may I not in this be free from sin?”
You, as teachers, are the gatekeepers of this imaginative yearning. Right now some student is sitting in your classroom “young writing at random—straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness—without knowing the bearing of any one assertion of any one opinion.” Trust your own love, your own vocation, and don’t close those gates on the inner voice.
Saturday, August 16, 2008
I’m forty-three years old, and to date I’ve read War and Peace eight or ten times. I’ve worn out one cheap paperback copy and am now working on wearing out an elderly Modern Library hardback I unearthed at a yard sale. My guess is that I’ll reread the novel a few more times before I die, though how many more times is impossible to calculate. As Arlo Guthrie says, “I’ll wait till it comes round on the gui-tar”—till I’m browsing along my bookshelves and am suddenly smitten with longing for the sight of Natasha dancing in Uncle’s hut, for fat Pierre innocently disrupting a fancy tea party, for Petya shyly asking a Cossack to sharpen his sword, for Nikolay stomping in to rescue Princess Marya from her confused serfs. One doesn’t plan ahead for infatuation; though after thirty years spent with the novel, I’m no longer surprised that it keeps appearing in my lineup.
On its simplest level, rereading books is a childish habit, like biting my nails or agreeing to play Monopoly only if I can be the dog. But children understand there’s satisfaction in familiarity. When I reread a book, I already know the characters and what they will do. I’m prepared for all sudden deaths and thwarted romances. The “shock of the new” is not, to me, a literary recommendation. It’s not that I dislike discovering unknown books. I just like reading them again better. Sometimes my desire to reread a well-loved book erupts twice in one year, sometimes once in a decade. Often I reread books I only sort of enjoyed the first time through, and fairly often I reread books that actively annoy me but that I hope will have a medicinal effect on my character or my brain. I’ve been known to reread books that have no good qualities whatsoever, just for old times’ sake.
Yet this clingy, childish attachment to books—this cozy insularity, this familiar pacifier—constructs its own lived history. That is particularly true of my inner circle of favored works, primarily novels, which have come to constitute an alternate lineage of near-equal reality. Among backward-looking literary types, it’s a common-enough list, including, among other works, most of the novels of Dickens, Eliot, Austen, and the elder Brontë sisters; several Gaskell, Bowen, Woolf, and Murdoch novels; and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Probably the only unusual factor is that I’ve reread each of these books ten or fifteen separate times without any intention of teaching them in an English class.
Lately I’ve learned that a new translation of War and Peace has been published, and by all accounts it’s a far better effort than the old Constance Garnett standby: more accurate to the rhythm of Tolstoy’s sentences, so the experts report, more attuned to the nuance of class-inflected language. The reviewers’ explications make good bedtime reading; and flipping languorously through the pages of the New York Review of Books, I’ve enjoyed various compare-and-contrast-the-translation extracts, easily convinced that the new edition would be a shiny addition to a bookshelf.
I’m relieved, however, that no one thought to give it to me for Christmas. For when it comes to my inner circle of books, I’m not all that interested in accuracy, or readability, or accessible notes, or pertinent introductions, or any of the typical reasons that drive a serious reader to purchase a new edition of a classic work. I do prefer to read a book that doesn’t fall apart in the bathtub; and since I’ve read many of my favored books to rags, I’ll occasionally acquire sturdier copies if I run across them at the Goodwill. But the idea of reading a new translation of a book I know intimately makes me anxious. I haven’t yet gotten used to the idea that Anna’s last name now translates as “Karenin,” not “Karenina,” or that the English title for Proust’s linked novels is no longer Remembrance of Things Past but In Search of Lost Time. What if a new translation of War and Peace spells Prince Andrey’s name in a new way? The thought is distressing in the way that any rupture in a comforting routine is upsetting. It opens a scary door. If Prince Andrey’s name has changed, will he be different from the man I love?
Friday, August 15, 2008
Dinner: unfortunately tacos, but at least we had local beef, real spices, garden cilantro, and beer. Call it almost-not-fast-food.
And in honor of looming Labor Day weekend and the Harmony Fair, a poem from Boy Land:
The Skillet Toss
Harmony Fair, September 2002
A loose, laughing huddle of women
gathers alongside a swath of packed dirt,
hot children milling underfoot
clutching half-empty cans of soda;
and now husbands drift over, and we
arrive, who don’t throw skillets,
ready to cheer on our friend Tina,
who baby-sits our kids and doesn’t take shit.
Ask the contestants what they’re aiming at
this year, they’ll all say husbands.
Men are proud to have a wife who can
fracture skulls, if she thinks it’s worth her while.
They watch, amused but unsurprised—
married too long to doubt the plain lack
of vanity a high school sweetheart
acquires by forty. Tina practices her swing,
all knees and elbows under the sun;
the crowd watches, relaxed
and easy-tempered in the heat,
last hurrah of a Maine summer:
such weather can’t last; frost on the way:
in this town we never forget January;
so oh, the pleasure now of watching
sweat run down a brown arm,
first arc of a skillet in the heavy air
and the slow rise of dust when it lands:
Applause, laughter; Tina wipes
her forehead and takes aim for the next,
all eyes on her target: invisible Everyman
in the haze, asking for it, his voice
a low grumble of content, like oxen
flicking their tails in the barn—
and just fool enough to turn his back,
bare elbows propped on the fence,
watching a couple of ponies drag
their burden of concrete across the ring.