Thursday, April 30, 2009

A way of happening, a mouth

In his book How We Listen, the American composer Aaron Copland notes the way music alters our response to the world around us. He writes,
You may be sitting in a room reading a book. Imagine one note struck on the piano. Immediately that one note is enough to change the atmosphere of the room--proving that the sound element in music is a powerful and mysterious agent, which it would be foolish to deride or belittle.
The experience he mentions is instantly recognizable to almost everyone. There are certain pieces of music that can alter my mood in just a few seconds, but this effect is not exclusive to music. It can happen while reading certain authors as well. I don't mean the effect created by a novel's plot or its descriptive atmospherics. It is more the sound quality of certain writers, their tone and language. I remember years ago reading Ulysses for the first time and having an alternately maddening and fascinating time of it. I had to use Stuart Gilbert’s outline to claw my way through, but I still found it an astonishing novel. My eye would forage along a line of Joyce gobbling up entire meals of words and phrases. It's a novel read as much on the tongue as with the eye.

Indeed, reading Ulysses was like having a language factory humming along on in my head. I had the desire to spew obscure words and long serpentine sentences. Only Shakespeare can give me the language flu like that. Tolstoy (in translation, of course) can create a certain flavor in my mind, a certain distinct feeling in my gut. Homer does this as well. Read enough of Homer and I can practically smell the cattle thighs roasting over open fires, but only Joyce and Shakespeare give me the hunger to let the taste of English spill over my tongue.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

An Irish Jag

Don't know why, but I've been delving into Irish literature of late. I blogged about Big House novels the other day. After finishing the The Big House of Inver, I looked around for something else. The only thing on the shelf was Dubliners, so I started rereading it yesterday (devouring it really). Now only the The Dead is left.

Some general observations: the fourteen stories and novella have the impact of a novel. Tied together by space and time, their sequence evokes the development of a single consciousness. The initial stories—The Sisters, An Encounter, Araby—have child first-person narrators. This intimacy is lost as the "protagonists" progress into adulthood and experience frustrated love, disappointment and a root alienation from a more cosmopolitan European culture.

The book, of course, is a very Joycean indictment of his native land but its tone is never angry or especially accusatory. Each of the characters is inexorably and tragically deadened by Irish provincialism, narrow-mindedness or the constipated antiquity of the Irish Catholic Church. Indeed, the book both begins and ends with frozenness, the old priest’s onset of paralysis in The Sisters foreshadowing the snow that will white out the city at the close of The Dead.

Dubliners is the most structurally conventional of Joyce’s major works, reminding one even of Chekhov at times. (Did Joyce read Chekhov? He must have.) This conventionalism, however, doesn’t mask that Joyce was moving in a new direction. The overarching development and consciousness that pervades the work is atomized into particulars, which mutes any 19th Century plot neatness. Characters are depicted at quietly dramatic moments or, to use Joyce’s own term, epiphanies. They are usually presented with the possibility of escape or a more healthy development only to shrink back or have their freedom curtailed by the larger forces of psychological or societal oppression.

Eveline, the daughter of an abusive father, cannot bring herself to leave with her sailor lover for South America. In After the Race, a young, rich, Cambridge-educated Irishman has a moment of cosmopolitan pleasure among his international friends, yet it’s clear that his experience of freedom is for one night only. In the morning his debts and responsibilities will return. The latter part of the book deals with public life: politics, religion, culture. Ivy Day in the Committee Room sends up the pettiness and fecklessness of Irish politics after the fall of Parnell. Grace depicts a businessman’s Catholic religious retreat and hints at the mercantile portrayals in Ulysses. And lastly, there is the great novella The Dead.

One is tempted to think that Joyce’s depiction of Gabriel Conroy is kind of self-portrait of who he would have been had he not left Ireland. And yet the story is more than that. A sensitive, educated, and cultured man discovers that his wife’s heart belongs to a romantic West Ireland boy who died years earlier. The bald cognates are that Conroy, like Ireland, is haunted by his past, by a romantic West country mythology that robs the richness of the present moment. Thus the dead are never truly dead; they walk among the living. Or that the living are just as dead. A brilliant story.

Walking the streets of Dublin today you can still see what a canvas Joyce had to work with. Even with all of the changes, the fast food joints and tourists traps, you can see the buildings he passed, the parks, the monuments. There are the obligatory shiny shopping districts that seem depressingly similar the world over. Still, there’s enough residual 18th and 19th Century architecture left to sense what it must have been like when Joyce lived there. The streets bustle with people. One wonders what a Marxist like James Connolly would make of O’Connell Street today as it teems with multinational brand names and souvenir shops. There’s a store for mobile phones across from the GPO today, the spot where the Irish Republic was first proclaimed.

Heading south from city center on the crowded inter-urban railway, you actually trace in reverse the path Stephen Dedalus took in Ulysses. When I was in Dublin a few years ago, I took this route. Just before breakfast, I walked a few blocks north from the B and B where I was staying to 7 Eccles Street, the address of Joyce’s fictional hero in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom. A hospital now stands there, but the spot is marked with a small plaque. Later I rode past the tower and the beaches of Sandymount.

It’s odd going to places you’ve read about in novels. I am sometimes struck by how literally a writer’s mind works. Kafka’s castle does loom over Prague­ and the beach at Sandymount is covered with rummaging seabirds when the tide is out. The long, flat, wrack-strewn shoreline stretches for a 1/4 mile or more to the ocean, and the sands glisten in the morning light. It's so easy to envision Stephen Dedalus glimpsing a wavering, crane-like girl in the distance.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Leaning in

In The Courage to Teach, the author and educator Parker Palmer writes about "The Student from Hell," a name he gives to those students who actively oppose all attempts to bring them into the discussion or class activity. He admits that he can become so obsessed with reaching this student that it distorts everything he is trying to accomplish. I suppose most teachers have met the Student from Hell. I've had people in class whose negativity and derision for the subject matter poisoned the entire course and made me dread walking into the room. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen.

On the other hand, I've also had "The Student from Heaven" or as I like to call them leaners. Around the room people will be half-listening, day-dreaming or making desultory notes, and then suddenly you sense that one is dialing in. It's as if what you are saying has become the single most important idea in the world and--almost in spite of themselves--they start leaning toward you. They stop making notes and even stop blinking. They are on high alert, completely engaged.

Last evening, for example, we were discussing John Lewis Gaddis' The Landscape of History, and I was glossing his point that historical representations control how we think about the present. At the same time, the very tools historians use to create their representations allow us to construct new and more liberating maps of the past.

I said something like this: "The first thing dictators do is rewrite the history books. If you control the narrative, you control what gets thought about in the present. It was completely necessary for Frederick Douglass to write the history of his life as a slave. He had to regain control of the narrative. An accurate awareness of history and how it gets made is a necessary precondition for freedom."

Okay, it was not an especially profound point, but I looked across the room and there she was, a young African-American single mother taking night courses and struggling to finish her degree. She was the student from heaven, leaning in toward me with her gaze intensely fixed and her mind whirring away at the idea of history as a path to liberation. She slowly raised her hand.

"Yes?" I said and then listened as she told me that Gaddis' argument reminded her of Orwell's 1984. History, she said, is like the memory hole, but it can also be a tool for retrieving the past that has been thrown down it. And now I'm leaning too, moving almost unconsciously across the room, drawn toward the holy grail of teaching, a fully engaged mind.

Like I said, this doesn't happen in every class, and you can't force it to happen, but it does happen. And thank heaven it does.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Very well then, I contradict myself

Most of the professors I had in graduate school entered the profession in the late 1960s or 1970s. They were perhaps the last generation to be schooled on critics like T. S. Eliot, Cleanth Brooks, and F.R. Leavis, the big critical cats of 50 or 60 years ago. Quite naturally they rebelled. By the time I entered graduate school the rebellion was complete and discussion of the New Critics or the Scrutiny crowd only arose as a way of explaining the sweeping egalitarian changes that entered literary studies in the 70s and 80s. I had one professor who always sneeringly referred to the old gang as “High Anglican A-Holes.”

My grad professors went into battle with slogans like “Always Contextualize.” Ironically, they seldom contextualized their elders. The standard line I heard about the old guard was that they had seen themselves as mandarins carefully guarding something called “The Tradition,” which was exclusively white, Western European and male (although Jane Austen and George Eliot usually made the cut). At best, these critics were characterized as snobs and fuddy-duddies; at worst they were charged with imperialism, racism, sexism, and crypto-fascism.

What I did not understand until later was that the High Anglican A-Holes had also been in rebellion. Much of their carefully de-contextualized, “apolitical” criticism was a reaction to what they perceived as the diminishment of literature by the superficiality of mass culture. Their aim—in as much as they had one—was to protect the aesthetic experience from being overrun and destroyed by the prevailing context. They had a kind of embattled worldview that saw middlebrow and popular culture as threats. They shut out this world and tried to approach poems as ahistorical objects that had to be understood solely by their own internal structures.

More and more I find myself half in sympathy with these older critics, but I’m of two minds about them. They were racist, exclusionary, sexist and, yes, not a little crypto-fascist (a few of them even overtly fascist). At the same time they were also right in their assertion that the aesthetic nature of poetry is its primary intelligibility. I first came to this view years ago while taking a grad course on British Romantic Poetry. The professor had assigned us to read Jerome McGann, who wrote a pioneering New Historical essay on Keats' "To Autumn.” McGann purposefully chose this poem because it had been an exemplum of the apolitical nature of poetry for the old guard.

So McGann started his analysis by putting "To Autumn" in its "tight" socio-political context. Keats had written the poem in September 1819 after walking through some stubble fields and open country. But McGann's move was to point out that only a few weeks earlier, and not too far from where Keats walked, the authorities had suppressed a crowd agitating for universal sufferage and protesting the Corn Laws. This event, which became known as the Peterloo Massacre, fueled much resentment against the government. McGann argued that Keats' evasion of dealing with politics was a political move in itself. In as much as the poem evoked a timeless escape from the problems of the day, it actually colluded with power to perpetuate the myth that some ahistoric sanctified individualism remains outside the political reality.

So there it was. With that neat little trick McGann could make everything about politics. His criticism reduced all poetry to a vulgar binarism. Either a poem acknowledges its political agenda or it helps to perpetuate the in-place hegemonic power structure by obscuring the truth that all is politics. This struck me as a little too cute. McGann hadn't proven that "To Autumn" was about politics. He had simply demonstrated that a clever person can interrogate an object away from its primary intelligibility.

By the fall of 1819 it's likely that Keats knew he was dying of tuberculosis. He had been a medical students after all and he'd seen his brother die of TB. So he was 23 and dying. Perhaps we can forgive him for his inattention to the Corn Laws. There is a context for the poem's structure, of course, but it's as much an aesthetic or personal one as it is political. As Helen Vendler notes, the structure suggests a dialog with Milton, with Shakespeare, and also with Keats’ own earlier odes. Keats wasn’t evading anything. He was just talking about a subject that McGann wasn’t interested in.

A person can have aesthetic concerns and political concerns that have nothing to do with each other. Indeed, it’s perfectly possible for wonderful metaphors to be in the service of evil ideas and god-awful ones to be in the service of an absolute good. In the end, ethics and aesthetics never quite cohere. At root, there’s something fundamentally amoral about poetry—and that’s okay. Our politics and our tastes can stand in contradiction.

Take me for instance. Yesterday I engaged in some snotty, elitist caterwauling about half-educated students who will graduate on Saturday (Hoots and Air Horns). At the same time I truly believe that education (and poetry is a part of that) can be amazingly transformative. It opens up possibilities for students to reconceive their ideas, values, self-definitions, and sometimes even their politics. At the same time I just as firmly hold that anyone who teaches poetry trying to achieve any of these goals has made a dreadful error. Do I contradict myself?

Yes, proudly.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Hoots and Air Horns

Next Saturday is graduation and this year’s ceremony will differ little from those in the past: names will be read, air horns blasted, and smiles and empty diploma sleeves will be flashed before digital cameras. For the students this event is supposed to mark the culmination of all their “hard work.” For many of them it does, but for just as many it doesn’t. The dirty little secret of American higher education is that we graduate a lot of people who’ve been singularly unaffected by the experience.

Every year I watch students walk across the stage who cannot write a clear English sentence, draw a logical inference from a paragraph, or name one of Newton’s three laws of motion. Yet on Saturday we will mouth words about these people entering the “community of scholars.” This is certainly not exclusive to my institution. The meager nationwide data we possess on educational outcomes for liberal arts graduates is not heartening. Less than 11 percent of seniors and juniors are rated as “proficient” in critical thinking by the Measure of Academic Progress and Proficiency exam (MAPP).

The usual faculty response to this depressing data is to decry standardized testing, criticize how the tests were constructed or (the last refuge of a scoundrel) insist that our efforts simply cannot be measured or turned into a number. Get a few glasses of wine in us, however, and we will confess sotto voce (and after looking both ways to see who’s listening) that we too have our doubts.

Don’t get me wrong. Education works. I could not keep doing this job if I did not see many of my students' lives transformed by a college education, but I also see many who aren't changed. Perhaps the problem is taxonomic. We have only two categories to describe people: educated or uneducated. We seldom speak of the half-educated, those who can read but usually don't; those who can think but prefer not to. The existence of a large class of half-educated citizens is a relatively recent phenomenon. Historically speaking, most societies have consisted of a small educated elite and a mass of uneducated and often illiterate people. Ironically, the uneducated tend to have more respect for learning and culture than the half-educated. I guess a little familiarity breeds contempt.

You’ll have to forgive me if I seem especially cynical today. I was teaching until 10:20 pm last night to a room full of students who hadn’t read the material and couldn’t see the point of doing so. And I’ve tried every trick in the “active learning,” “student-centered,” “problem based,” “hands-on,” “learning styles” handbook. After a while you begin to feel as though you are perpetrating a fraud. You pretend to be teaching, they pretend to be learning, and we’ll all pretend that this is a legitimate enterprise.

Sociologists tell us that rituals are rarely dictated by logic or necessity. They simply reinforce the continuance of traditions. This strikes me as especially true this morning. I suddenly can find no reason why anyone would want to dress up in a funny hat to listen to empty platitudes on a fine spring afternoon. Grrrr. I hope my mood improves tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Final Answer

I gave up on final exams a few years ago. I wish I could say I did so for high-minded pedagogical reasons, but it was more exasperation. The use of heavily-weighted finals seemed to cause unnecessary stress for students and encourage the worst kind of bulimic learning: shove it in, puke it out. Sometimes, too, I would find cryptic acronyms written in the margins of the exams that were actually mnemonic devices. In other words, the student was so nervous that the facts would disappear from memory that he or she had to make a note in case the information vanished before the first page was turned!

In What the Best College Teacher's Do, the education writer Ken Bain recounted a study conducted by two physicists at Arizona State University. In the early 1980s these two professors wanted to know whether students really changed their understanding of motion after taking an introductory physics course. They used a carefully validated test to determine how students understood motion and gave it to four different sections (taught by four different professors). Here's what happened:

On the front side, the results surprised no one. Most students entered the course with an elementary, intuitive theory about the physical world, what the physicists called “a cross between Aristotelian and 14th-century impetus ideas.” In short, they did not think about motion the way Isaac Newton did, let alone like Richard Feynman. But that was before the students took introductory physics. Did the course change student thinking? Not really. After the term was over, the two physicists gave their examination once more and discovered that the course had made comparatively small changes in the way students thought.

Even many “A” students continued to think like Aristotle rather than like Newton. They had memorized formulae and learned to plug the right numbers into them, but they did not change their basic conceptions. Instead, they had interpreted everything they heard about motion in terms of the intuitive framework they had brought with them to the course.
In short, the students did not learn physics; they simply learned how to pass a physics course.
So what to use in place of exams? I've been using reflective essays. During the first week of class I have the students write what they know about the subject I will be teaching. They get full credit if they follow the directions and meet the length requirement (three pages). Then during finals week I have them reread their initial essay and write a new one that details how their thinking has changed.

To prepare them to write the essay, I hand out a list the concepts and ideas we've discussed in class and ask them to make a mark next to those things that intrigued, scandalized or interested them. If something doesn't ring a bell, I tell them to ignore it. I only want to know what stuck and is likely to be there a few years from now. Again, they get full credit if they follow the directions and make a sincere effort.

Among the questions they must address is whether the ideas we discussed have arisen outside of class. Many students say they haven't, but not a few of them tell me interesting stories of how ideas learned in class have been applied to their everyday experiences. For example, a concept I teach in Humanities 101 is Saint Augustine's notion of sin. Here's a response from a student's final paper:
The first day of my religion class, a student sitting next to me told me that he hates how the college makes students take a religion class. He then proceeded to tell me that he doesn’t believe in God. I was a little freaked out because I thought this was a really strong statement for this student to make, especially to a complete stranger.

Later in the semester I had another conversation with this student. He told me that he does not believe in God because there is so much evil in the world. He then asked me why I believe in God. At first I felt as though I had been slammed up against a brick wall. I tried explaining to him how I have felt the presence of God in my life, but came to realize that this was not a good way to convince an atheist that there is a
God.

All of the sudden, I remembered what we had learned in Humanities. I told him about St. Augustine’s idea of all good and no evil. I explained to him that we have a choice between a lower good and a higher good. As humans, we make mistakes when we choose the lower good over the higher good. He said that he had never heard of this idea of no evil. He had no arguments against it. I am not sure if this student is still an atheist or not, but what I do know is that I challenged his ideas.
It's really hard to measure this kind of stuff for academic assessment, but it's a lot more interesting to read than hastily scrawled acronyms.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Bronco Strain

Sometimes you find a poem that really surprises you. I knew a bit about the late British poet Donald Davie, and always found him proper, clear, donnish. I had even read his books Articulate Energy and Purity of Diction in English Poetry. He was a bit better known as a scholar than a poet. Mostly I knew him as a critic associated with The Movement, the early 1950s reaction to the neo-romanticism of poets like Dylan Thomas and George Barker.

I liked those Movement poets: Kingsley Amis, Phillip Larkin, Thom Gunn. But I was surprised to find this quiet little gem by Davie in old copy of the Times Literary Supplement (I was throwing out old issues this weekend):

Or, Solitude
A farm boy lost in the snow
Rides his horse, madrone,
Through Iowan snows forever
And is called "Alone".
Because gone from the land
Are the boys who knew it best
Or expressed it, gone
To Boston or Out West,
And the breed of the horse madrone,
With its bronco strain, is strange
To the broken sod of Iowa
That used to be its range.
The transcendental nature
Of poetry, how I need it!
And yet it was for years
What I refused to credit.

I have no idea whether Davie ever set foot in Iowa, but the analogy about the absence of "the boys who knew it best" captures a certain melancholy about my home state (Larkin once wrote the line "home is so sad"). But this poem isn't really about Iowa. Davie is having a conversation with himself. That cry in the last line is a very out of character admission for him. It lets slip the sensuous and even anarchic energy of poetry that cracks through Davie's much-prized cut stone clarity of diction.

Even so, those who don't live in Iowa may find this poem resonating for any number of reasons. We've broken the sod, plowed it into the comprehensible Grant Wood furrows that ring the low hills. We've bred the bronco out of the draught horse, beaten language into spare lucid trimeter, but beneath it all there remains a longing to leave this neat, well-ordered land and its somnolent rationality. Davie! Of all people! Here is the advocate for spareness and restraint in poetry at last giving the Romantics their due, even lifting the title from Wordsworth. Sometimes stuff surprises you.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Frankly proposing nothing...

Last night while driving to my night class, I decided to call an audible. I had something planned but was bored with my stale old routine. So I rewrote the whole lesson in my head. Instead of slogging through a dull discussion over the text, I walked into the room and put the following thesis on the board:
Understanding, appreciating and evaluating works of aesthetic creativity is no longer relevant in a society that needs a competent, well-trained workforce and a self-sufficient, productive citizenry. Given this, and the exorbitant cost of higher education, there should be no required courses in aesthetic appreciation in the general education core curriculum.
We then went on a campus tour and I showed them how to read architecture like a text. We came back to the room and I had them analyze the structure of a poem by W. H. Auden. Next, I gave them a short lecture on Baroque style as manifested in painting, architecture, and sculpture. Then I had them analyze the concerto format in a piece by the Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi. They had to show me how the musical composition corresponded to the values expressed in other Baroque works.

Many of the students said they hadn't looked at buildings and sculpture this way before (as a statement of ideas, values and aspirations). Others said it was interesting to listen to a piece of music in a different way (on a purely musical plane) or think about the "sound sense" that Auden so artfully loaded into his poem.

Then we came back to the thesis. "How many of you think that all of this stuff we've been doing tonight is interesting and maybe even fun, but--in the end--it's just a lot of self-indulgent twaddle? Let's face it. A college education is expensive and time-consuming. Few of you came here to read poetry. You came to enhance your value as potential employees. And, frankly, who the hell cares about Baroque anything?"

I asked those who agreed with the thesis to go to one side of the room and those who disagreed to the other. Each group had to formulate arguments to support its view. Most opposed the thesis, but three students supported it. Their argument was that this stuff ought to be an elective. No one should be forced to take music appreciation and art courses. The other students tried to argue that the analytical skills used to think about art were transferable. They said learning to analyze a painting or a piece of sculpture might just make you a sharper accountant. One young woman said it would help her be a better nurse if she could talk to her patients about a wide range of subjects.

I sided with the minority on this one. I doubted the skills were in anyway relevant or transferable to accounting. Besides, does the subject of Baroque music often come up during a sponge bath? Maybe, I said, the pro-thesis side is right. Maybe this stuff is really useless. I challenged those defending the teaching of the arts to come up with a better justification. They couldn't and neither can I.

For years I just assumed that education was some kind of personal and civic-betterment project. If we could just educate enough students to realize that there was something more to life than getting and spending… I even used to quote that old Fabian Socialist H.G. Wells: “The story of humanity is the story of a race between education and catastrophe.” I quoted this whenever any of my students asked if we were dismissing early. I would feign shock, quote Wells, and tell them I was trying to stave off catastrophe (and they weren't helping).

But I've slowly come to the conclusion that the things I love and teach are completely useless in a world that demands a ruthless functionality. Make no mistake. I’m not apolitical and I have my causes, but I no longer quote Wells. I’m far more more likely to quote the much-maligned Walter Pater, who wrote, “Art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.”
Sometimes, too, I quote another sage, Willie Wonka, who said, "A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Husker Du?

Memorizing poetry is a task usually undertaken for dubious reasons. It's sometimes required by teachers. I had to commit Eliot's Prufrock to memory for an undergraduate professor, and the thing is still there all these years later. Oftentimes, too, one commits poetry to memory as part of some ill-advised self-improvement project (not unlike those ads you see suggesting that you can become a business success by improving your vocabulary). Then there are those memorizers who hope to impress others with vain displays of erudition. Sadly, I've memorized verse for all of these unflattering reasons. Even so, I'm glad I did.

The problem, of course, is that the opportunity to recite seldom arises-- unless you're with drunken Irishmen of a certain grizzled age. One night in Milwaukee I found myself with a bunch of Irish musicians in a rooftop hotel bar. Everyone was pretty well lit, and someone said a poem aloud. Having more than enough in me, I decided to recite one as well (and anyone who knows me understands it takes a lot to get me to perform in public). Anyway, I gave them some Louis MacNiece, a poem called "Alcohol," a gloomy little thing whose last lines go like this:

Enough of your slogans! Give us something to swallow.
Give us beer or whiskey, schnapps or gin.
This is the only road for the self-betrayed to follow,
Not the road that leads out, but the road that leads in.

And then, as if in response to a challenge, up pops an old Irish guy who recites this long, long ballad, which was wonderful. Everyone in the bar fell silent and listened. The guy really nailed it. Maybe it was the booze or his Irish charm, but that was a magical moment. Anyway, the next day I was hung-over and a friend told me that the guy I had been swapping poems with was Liam Clancy of the Clancy Brothers.

Like I said, however, such opportunities seldom arise. In the end, there is just not much use for memorizing poetry. It is, like so many uselessly worthwhile pastimes, its own strange reward. More than once, I have passed the time on long trips intoning verse to an empty car. I recall a lengthy train ride between Carlisle and the southwest coast of England near Bristol. Bored, I began silently to go over some of my own poems. To my surprise, I found that I liked a lot of them – even liked the person who must have written them. Going through those old poems was like meeting myself afresh. In Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, Whitman writes, "Who was to know what should come home to me?"

I realize that my own poems are little more than snarky limericks or formless and inept attempts to be profound, but they’re mine, so I retain an affection for them despite their flaws. They are, as my friend once grandiloquently put it, the “collected detritus of my unfinished being." So I think everybody should memorize a few poems, maybe even a few of their own. If nothing else, it gives you something to do in prison.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

More Lemonade?

Yesterday in the freshmen honors seminar we were watching a video entitled The Mind's Big Bang, in which a number of anthropologists were describing the origin of symbolic culture about 100,000 years ago. This development set in motion cultural evolution, which moves at a much faster rate than evolution and natural selection. Indeed, cultural evolution is a kind of auto-catalytic reaction that builds and builds. The Clovis spear point was the cutting edge of technology (no pun intended) for thousands of years, whereas software today may last only a few years before its outdated. I thought the video made this point rather well. It even discussed the physical development of brain capacity and compared modern and Neanderthal skulls.

When we began to discuss the video, however, one of my students blithely dismissed the validity of Carbon-14 dating. I couldn't figure out where this was coming from, so after class I Googled "Reliability of Carbon-14 Dating" and came across hundreds of Young Earth Creationist web sites on which challenging Carbon-14 dating is a hot topic (although not so much for practicing scientists). Good grief. I've stepped it in again. If only I taught something else, something less likely to disturb my students' received worldviews: metallurgy perhaps, the history of fashion design.

You know, every now and then we get some fresh-scrubbed Mormon boys walking through the neighborhood who want to talk religion. Nice boys, always wearing a tie. By and large their religion is no more unusual than any other. What always strikes me about our little chats is that it never dawns on them that the religious beliefs they hold are almost as heritable as eye color and seldom chosen from a range of faiths after careful examination. Instead, their belief system is almost entirely a matter of the culture in which they were raised. Richard Dawkins put it this way:
Out of all of the sects in the world, we notice an uncanny coincidence: the overwhelming majority of believers just happen to choose the faith that their parents belong to. Not the sect that has the best evidence in its favour, the best miracles, the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass, the best music: when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord of available religions, their potential virtues seem to count for nothing, compared to the matter of heredity. This is an unmistakable fact; nobody could seriously deny it.
So I sometimes ask these boys if they have ever seriously considered any other religion. Judaism, say, or maybe Catholicism. There's a heck of a lot of Catholics in the world, I point out. Sometimes they ignore the question. Sometimes they say "no."

"But if you haven't examined the alternatives, how can you be sure?" I ask.

"Because I don't need to know anything about those religions. I know what I believe," they say.

At this point I realize it's time to change the subject. I smile, ask if they need more lemonade and inquire about their families. Nice boys. Very polite.

And now this old semester is just about over. I am so ready to change the subject.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The False Promise of Critical Theory

Ask someone to justify the teaching of critical theory and you will often hear that familiarizing students with a range of critical approaches enables them to make more interpretive choices. The implied assumption here is that theory is an instrument of reader empowerment. I have always been suspect of this justification. After all, what was it I used to do when I read with little or no consciousness of critical theory? If, as those who defend teaching critical theory contend, all reading is governed by implicit interpretive strategies, then I must have had a strategy? So what was it?

In reviewing my own experience, I seem to have been after a couple of things. The first was fun. I read because I enjoyed it. Secondly, I read under the assumption that insight was to be gained from books. In a fuzzy kind of way I just assumed that books taught me something. Now whether they ever did -- whether they contained any insight that I wasn't in fact supplying myself -- is a debated issue, and not one I'll argue here. All that I'm saying is that before I knew much about critical theory, I was inclined to think that books did have insights to offer.

Third, as I read in those days, another very interesting thing sometimes happened. If a book was particularly engrossing, I would begin to assemble the act of reading it into a remembered personal experience; for, indeed, my life was transpiring as I was reading. I was moving through a series of thoughts and emotions occasioned by the book. Sometimes, upon completion of a book, I may have looked back at this period of my life alongside the book and fit it into my other lived experiences. In short, as I tried to make sense of that particular lived experience, I engaged in a casual, text-occasioned self-examination of my own impressions.

Then I began to take literature courses in which the goal was to heighten my awareness of the many interpretive choices available to me, and I soon discovered that my initial, often highly successful reading strategy was no longer relevant. This became apparent in class whenever I said something like "That book was a lot of fun" (which before had always before been a sign of a successful interpretation). Now the instructor would ask “What made it so fun?”

Me: I don't know, it just was.
Instructor: What do you mean it just was?
Me: I mean that when I was reading, I felt like I was having fun.
Instructor:
But why? What specifically in the text made you feel like you were having fun?
During this interrogation something revealing occurred, for it became apparent that in order to answer these questions I would have to systematically analyze my responses. But this highly conscious analysis would require suppressing my old impressionistic approach in favor of one that I could later articulate in a rhetorically coherent manner. In other words, the instructor was demanding that I read with a heightened self-awareness of what I was doing as I read.

Now here is the point I want to underscore: when I read with little interest in or awareness of what I was doing (awareness of my governing norms, contexts and the need eventually to justify my interpretation), I was engaged in an interpretive strategy. Moreover, when I began to read with a heightened awareness of critical issues and demands, I was also engaged in an interpretive strategy. They are both legitimate interpretive strategies (is there an illegitimate strategy?). Moreover, both can be successful at what they set out to accomplish. They differ only in their aims. More to my point, though, I could not read with both aims in mind for they seemed to work against each other. As soon as I heightened my awareness of what I was doing, my strategic aims were unavoidably altered.

It therefore seems that a pedagogy designed to empower a reader with choices can only do so by eliminating a choice. That many instructors devalued my old approach was apparent in their disapproval of my impressionism in favor of views I could successfully defend. To be unconscious of critical issues, I was told, was to be "suckered" by the text (but what if that was the whole point of my strategic interpretive aim?).

And there is another irony in heightening my awareness of what I am doing as I read. Imagine a classroom situation where one student has just finished justifying her reading to the instructor, and so the instructor moves on to ask another student how he saw the text:

Instructor: Well, how did you read the text?
Student: Ditto.
Instructor: Ditto? What do you mean ditto?
Student: (Pointing to the other student) I mean I agree exactly with what she said.

Now it's not enough that students are aware of all of the critical possibilities. They must also justify their reading in a way that is unique from how others have done it (else there is nothing distinguishable for the instructor to assess). From the point of view of the unconscious interpretive strategist, originality of response is meaningless. Why should unoriginality of justification devalue the reading? Was it not as authentic? Did the reader not live it? And what's more, are the reader's impressions any less a part of his life because of their lack of originality? But the devaluation of unoriginal responses is often what happens in literature courses where other, quite separate aims are valued. Students first find themselves confronted with having to justify their reading, a kind of miniaturization of the publish or perish dilemma, and then find themselves in still another quandary. Whatever their justification is, it must be original.

So what am I saying? Is this an essay that could be entitled "In Praise of Unawareness and Unoriginality"? I hope not, and I don't mean to echo Pink Floyd in saying, "Hey, teachers, leave those kids alone." No, what I am seeking to point out is that the ability to interpret literature is not acquired; it is constitutive of being human. Thus raising students’ critical awareness is not inherently better than what can get done in ignorance of such awareness, in the same way that what gets done in Marxist criticism is not somehow inherently better than what gets done in Feminist criticism. It's just different.

If we seek a rationale for teaching critical theory, it can't be found by arguing or implying that the unexamined critical approach is not worth having. Obviously, many millions of people do live and read without any such detailed examination of their critical approach, and with every sign of keen enjoyment. No, to rationalize the teaching of critical awareness we will have to look elsewhere.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

"But of course you can, old sport."

A few years back I paid a visit to Jamestown, or I should say what’s left of it. There’s not much there: the ruins of a church tower built in the 1600s, a few glass cases of pottery shards. Later, I did a little reading about the colony, and the impression I had was not flattering. Essentially, the Jamestown colonists were a bunch of ignorant, avaricious schemers, in whom one can see many of the future sins of our country. Of course, the film at the National Park Service’s Visitors’ Center (narrated by the sensually-voiced Sally Kellerman) tries to present the story in the best possible light. But even a cursory look at the facts and you can see what a disaster the entire thing turned out to be.

It was, to be sure, the first North American English settlement to make it, although just barely. Ninety percent of the 104 original colonists died within the first year in what later became known as “the starving time.” Yet despite their sheer ineptitude, they managed to eke out survival in the pestilential swamp in which they had chosen to live. Fortunately, they quickly realized the commercial potential for marketing an addictive carcinogen, the cultivation of which was only made profitable by the importation of African slaves.

So within 15 years, they had set in motion the least salutory aspects of American history: our genius for predatory capitalism and the exploitation of slave labor. Add in the depletion of the land through wasteful farming practices and a real talent for displacing and eventually eliminating the natives, and you have just about got the whole dispiriting picture. Unlike the Pilgrims, the Jamestown colonists lack even the moral veneer that they came here for religious freedom.

I visited that other Virginia shrine as well, Monticello, the mountain top aerie of our national political saint. A biography I picked up on Jefferson in the obligatory gift shop was equally disillusioning. Written several years ago by Joseph Ellis, it tried to assess the great man’s character outside of the romantic myths that have grown up around him. Before plunging into it, I sensed something of its theme while I was at Monticello. Indeed, I was struck by the improbability of the place. Jefferson had attempted to create a kind of Utopian vision of gentleman farming in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but it never worked.

The very place he chose to build was incapable of supporting a plantation. The view was magnificent, but the soil was lousy. Yet he persisted, building and rebuilding his dream house while his debts mounted. For some reason, I kept thinking of Gatsby while I was there, that perfect metaphor for reaching after a beautiful dream while ignoring the reality on which it is premised.

To my surprise, that’s the main theme of Ellis’ book. Time after time he demonstrates how Jefferson was able to maintain the chimera of an agrarian, democratic utopia by carefully ignoring its un-sustainability. Here was a man who often decried slavery, yet used it to maintain his gentleman farmer existence. But Ellis isn’t of the camp of historians who want to trash Jefferson as a hypocrite. Instead, he tries to understand him in the context of his conflicts, and in so doing he locates within Jefferson’s psyche the fons et origin of one of our most cherished national myths. Like Jefferson, we Americans have an amazing ability to separate our noble aspirations for equality and individualism from our morally dubious track record. I just keep thinking of the line in Gatsby. Nick tries to tell Gatsby you can’t rewrite the past, to which he jauntily replies, “But of course you can, old sport.”

It’s funny; years ago when I taught the novel, I was intrigued that my international students had little difficulty seeing that Gatsby was delusional. They saw the story as an indictment of his moral failure. My American students, however, could only see the novel as a love story, somewhat tragic no doubt, but a love story nonetheless. Yet the novel is both. The tragedy and the romance are forever intertwined, but we Americans never seem to see this. We keep building our Monticellos.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Retirement Cull


There is a certain agrarian rhythm to academic life. You follow the seasons more or less and perform work that is not unlike planting and harvesting. The ground that you cover year after year becomes as familiar as any family farm. You even come to accept that a lot of things are out of your control. Some crops are just going to be better than others. My semester comes to an end next week, which means that the college is moving into a series of annual events: honors convocation, baccalaureate, graduation. The faculty will trot out the academic attire in all its finery and formulaic speeches will be made.

There are other annual traditions that occur at this time of year. One of them I find rather bittersweet. Along about mid-April, invitations will be issued for retirement culls. Departing colleagues may invite you to their office and let you pick through their book case. "Take what you like," they will say. "It saves me from having to move them."

There is an unspoken etiquette involved in the cull. The retiring professor is often in the room as you pick over the bones of his academic career, and it's always a mistake to draw attention to the symbolism of the moment. It is after all a professor's life you are looking at on those shelves. You must also never get greedy and haul off everything in sight. At the same time, it's insulting not to leave with at least one box of books. I remember once going to the office of a professor who was retiring after 45 years. He told me that I could have anything I wanted. I was aware of how much he admired Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson, and he had a very handsome illustrated edition. Though it wasn't to my tastes, I knew I could not leave his office without it.

So each April you receive a box of someone's life, find room for it on your own shelves, and wonder what the hell you are going to do with it all when you retire.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Demotic Vistas

My first introduction to public poetry occurred in a construction site porto-potty. You know the kind of stuff: "Here I sit broken hearted..." These little ballads were often signed works of art, their authorship always attributed to "The Outhouse Poet."

I often imagined he was the same wag who used to scrawl "This gum tastes terrible" on condom machines. I haven't found a poem in a public restroom in years. Sometimes, especially near large universities, you can still find gnomic statements or bits of lowbrow repartee:

God is dead – Nietzsche.

And underneath in a different handwriting:

Nietzsche is dead –God.

Once in Madison I found this line scrawled across a bathroom wall: "Eat dignity, excrete self-righteousness." It's always stuck with me for some reason. Sadly, the quality and quantity of such verse has declined in recent years. In most places it's practically an abandoned genre. I do read poetry in the bathroom, however, almost every morning. The wife will be running around getting ready, the kid enacting some six-year old psychodrama, and me? I'm quietly slipping into the bathroom with the collected works of Elizabeth Bishop. The Outhouse Poet may be dead, but the Outhouse poetry reader lives on.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Out Hitting Ted Williams

Reader Solveig sent a note the other day about the inclusion of a few lines from Edna St. Vincent Millay in a post (SeriouslyApril). It just so happens that I have been reading some Millay lately. Her sonnets are so seemingly effortless. They aren't contorted by the formal requirements. Indeed, you only realize they are sonnets upon close inspection. She attains such a freedom within the form.

The sonnet, of course, is taught in just about every English literature class on poetry. The problem is that no English teacher I ever had was able to impress upon me the stupefyingly complex demands of writing one. In class we would examine a few sonnets by Shakespeare or Petrarch, count the syllables in each line and dutifully put little letters next to the end rhymes. The exam question inevitably had us distinguishing between the Italian and English forms.

But if this is all you know about sonnets, then you really don't know much. I never realized just how demanding a form of poetry it is until I tried to write one. Nothing ever gave me a greater respect for Shakespeare's genius than trying to do what he did in the sonnet form. I may as well have been trying to out hit Ted Williams. Of course anyone can compose a sonnet that conforms to the rules, but most of us only end up with formally-correct gibberish.

Writing a sonnet that actually makes sense and works as poetry is like juggling five balls while riding a unicycle, drinking hot coffee and reading the paper. Not only must you attend to meter and rhyme, but you've got to thread the poem with consistent imagery and satisfy the content demands of the octave and sestet. It's like laying the proverbial overly-large carpet in a too small room.

But Millay makes it look effortless. Here's an example,

So she came back into the house again
And watched beside the bed until he died,
Loving him not at all. The winter rain
Splashed in the painted butter-tub outside,
Where once her red geraniums had stood,
Where still their rotted stocks were to be seen;
The thin log snapped; and she went out for wood,
Bareheaded, running the few steps between
The house and the shed; there from the sodden eaves
Blown back and forth on ragged ends of twine,
Saw the dejected, creeping jenny-vine,
(And one, big-aproned, blithe, with blue sleeves
Rolled to the shoulder that warm day in spring,
Who planted seeds, musing ahead to their far blossoming).

Keep in mind that she is writing a sonnet sequence--literally narrating a story arc through a series of sonnets. This sonnet (the first in the series) presents us with a woman taking the first step back toward life after her vigil over death. The subsequent sonnets will chart her journey. So this sonnet has to fulfill its internal demands, but also the demands of the overarching design for the entire series. In other words, Millay's juggling, riding a unicycle, drinking hot coffee, reading the paper, and telling you a story.

All Ted Williams had to do was keep his eye on the ball and swing.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Notes on Larkin

The late British poet Phillip Larkin wrote two novels before turning full time to poetry, yet many of his anti-romantic themes are apparent in these novels. Indeed, some critics feel he had potential enough to become the novelist of the 1950s. Jill, 1946, is an Oxford novel, but decidedly different from Waugh’s nostalgic Oxford of the 1920s. Set during the war years (1940 to be exact) Jill depicts the first term of John Kemp, a shy, working class scholarship boy from the north of England who has been plucked from his grammar school class by an ambitious but essentially shallow master. Drilled in English literature, John works hard and gets into Oxford. There he rooms with a wealthy but arrogant rowdy named Christopher Warren.

Kemp feels at sea, lonely and unambitious. After an initial period of admiring Warren and his equally dissolute crowd of friends, who alternately exploit and ignore him, he finds solace by creating an imaginary young girl named Jill. He composes letters from her, eventually progressing to penning her diary, which reveals her unhappiness and loneliness at an all-girl’s school. One day in a bookstore he sees a young girl who resembles his imaginary creation. He sees her again elsewhere in town but is maddeningly unable to make her acquaintance. Eventually he discovers that she is a cousin of Elizabeth, a sometime member of Warren’s drunken circle.

After some initial setbacks, he determines to meet Jill. Unfortunately, he drinks too much before the rendezvous , misses his opportunity, gets lost in the rain, and finally finds Warren, Elizabeth and Jill exiting a party. In his inebriated condition (and romantic delusion) he seizes the girl and kisses her, whereupon she screams and Warren punches him. His drunkenness in the rain brings on a bout of pneumonia, and as the novel closes he is lying in the college infirmary reflecting over his behavior. He realizes that even if he had succeeded in forming a relationship with “Jill” it would have ultimately made little difference:

...he fell to pondering within the framework of a dream how the love they had shared was dead. For the fact that in life he had been cheated of her was not the whole truth. Somewhere, in dreams, perhaps, on some other level, they had interlocked and he had had his own way as completely as life had denied it. And this dream showed that love died, whether fulfilled or unfulfilled. He grew confused whether she had accepted him or not, since the result was the same: and as his confusion increased, it spread to fulfillment and unfulfillment, which merged and became inseparable. The difference between them vanished.
Kemp’s happiness, fulfillment, and success come to bear little difference from his unhappiness, unfulfillment and failure, and he follows this realization by asking “how could there be any difference between any other pair of opposites? Was he not freed, for the rest of his life, from choice? ...What control could he hope to have over the maddened surface of things?”


This negation of ambition and romantic aspiration becomes Larkin’s poetic program, but is it a complete negation? I think not. Negation is a poor starting place for theology, and Larkin’s negations are often themselves undercut (barely) by a hesitancy about doubt itself. His is an obverse of the hesitancy that afflicts the high Romantics. Instead of fearing that “it may come to nothing,” Larkin’s poetry is often quietly haunted that it may come to a something we are unable to fully grasp (or is forever incapable of being grasped). In his well-known poem “Church-going” (1955), for instance, the narrator finds some inarticulatable solace standing amid an empty church whose dogmas he no longer believes:

A serious house on serious earth it is
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Indeed, his poems often “gravitate to this ground.” At the moment Kemp becomes less deceived, his attention turns toward the wind-thrashed trees outside his infirmary window:
He watched the trees, the tops of which he could just see through the window. They tossed and tossed recklessly. He saw them fling their way and that, throwing up their heads like impatient horses, like sea waves, bending and recovering in the wind. They had no leaves. Endlessly, this way and that. They were buffeted and still bore up again to their full height. They seemed tireless. Sometimes they were bent so low that they passed out of sight, leaving the square of white sky free for a second, but then they would be back again, clashing their proud branches like antlers of furious stags.
And here is the same image in his poem “Trees” (1974):

The trees are coming into leaf again
Like something almost being said;
Their recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In full-grown freshness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Note the hesitancy. Newness, hope, promise is “like something almost being said.” It is something that “seem[s] to say, begin afresh.” Yet it does not say it with certainty. Note also the way Kemp’s observations move upward to the white square of sky (“white,” Larkin says elsewhere, “is not [his] favorite color”). Nevertheless, this looking up, albeit with uncertainty and an inability to articulate a final hopeful message, appears over and over again. Here’ s his poem “High Windows” (1974):

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

In miniature, the last line captures the essential Larkin move. It appears to come to nothing, but its haunting endlessness preserves a doubt that gnaws at a complete nihilism. The “high windows” are indeed transparent and ultimately revelatory of empty sky, but they do frame one’s view above. They are windows that forever tempt one to look up.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Flat Ephemeral Pamphlet

I was driving home a while back and listening to NPR. They were featuring the work of a Mexican woman poet (the name escapes me). A voice read one of her long poems that impressionistically leapt from one scene of oppression to another. Valiant campesinos were being slaughtered by hired thugs from the hacienda, the US military was testing missiles on sacred burial grounds; on and on it went. The language was occasionally beautiful, sprinkled with unexpected turns of phrase, a striking image.

And yet, for some reason, I bristled at it. Why? Was it because the poem was so overtly political? And what’s wrong with that? Why can’t a poem be political? Heaven knows, there are whole critical schools of thought that argue even poems that avoid politics are political. I’ve decried that tautological reasoning elsewhere, but--still--why is it that I want poetry to stand at odds with politics? My standard reply is that poetry makes poor politics. Auden, it seems to me, made this point best in his “New Year’s Letter”:
Language may be useless, for
No words men write can stop the war
Or measure up to the relief
Of its immeasurable grief.
And Auden knew whereof he spoke. He took a spin as a political poet and even travelled to Spain to support the loyalists against Franco (a trip that became almost a fad for left-wing writers of the 1930s). In lines he came to regret he urged his readers to set aside "the bicycle races" for the "boring meeting and the flat ephemeral pamphlet." Later he realized that fascists were better fought with guns than words; and injustice better fought with action, not well-crafted rhyme. Indeed, what attracts me to poetry is its very uselessness. In a world whose paradigm demands a ruthless functionality, poetry seems oddly out of step.

One wants to avoid making any special claims for poetry, not even that it preserves a sanctified individualism, the still small voice. There is no refuge from politics. It washes the food we eat, determines who prospers and who starves. And a person with any conscience at all should not make grandiose claims for verse. About all we can say is that poetry reminds us from time to time that politics is not everything. Were justice achieved, oppression vanquished and utopia founded, people would still be writing poems.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Seriously April


It's April, that alternately refreshing and depressing month. It's a month that shows up throughout literature. It’s the month of Chaucer’s “perced roots” and Eliot’s “dull roots.” It's the month in which students begin to sense the end approaching. Their bare knees and sockless, sandaled feet reemerge from seclusion for the first time since that last warm day in September. My institution returns to classes in early January, which means that the semester is completed by mid-April.

The seniors, of course, are so close to the end that doing any work seems pointless. They will graduate, so why come to class? Why put forth the effort? And then there are the refrains of "can we have class outside?" I always tell them no. I can't compete with April. This month is just not conducive to learning. And everything conspires with its charm.

Even the rain seems young and restless. I have been listening to Louis Armstrong on the rainy days. It seems to fit somehow. And on cool sunny mornings on the way to work, I’ve been listening to Chet Baker’s sweet-voiced 1950s love songs. To keep a balanced perspective, I try to remind myself that Baker ended up a smack-addict stoolie, who, broke and alone, threw his ruined body out of an Amsterdam hotel window. About this month, Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote:
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
April
Comes like an idiot,
Babbling and strewing flowers.
Ye'p, it's April.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

What I saw was Adlestrop--only the name.


In my freshmen honors seminar we have been discussing our tendency to anthropomorphize nature, and in the senior capstone we've been discussing John Lewis Gaddis' Landscape of History, in which he analogizes the study of history to map making. All maps distort the object they represent, Gaddis claims. That is at once their benefit and drawback. A map of Minnesota the size of Minnesota would be useless. Map makers simply have to omit some features and emphasize others just as historians must focus on some historical events and not all of them. Something similar could be said of teaching in general. We map our subjects but inevitably leave other things out. At times it is the language itself that distorts what is there, a notion that always makes me think of Edward Thomas' poem Adlestrop.

A few years ago I got into reading Edwardian and Georgian poets and was especially struck by the work of Thomas. He is sometimes classed as a war poet, although few of his poems are explicitly about WWI. (He just happened to die in it.) Anyway, Adlestrop is his most anthologized poem.

Yes. I remember Adlestrop --
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed.
Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform.
What I saw
Was Addlestrop -- only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycock dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that moment a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Deceptively slight, the poem depicts the narrator’s momentary awareness of nature from a briefly stopped train. More than that, though, it suggests the movement outward of the his consciousness, as if the moment were expanding -- placing the memory and the moment into the broader context of the landscape.

The first two stanzas suggest a hesitant verbalization of impressionistic sensations: “The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.” The hesitancy here is skillfully accomplished by initial stresses that complicate the meter. There are also forced caesuras after “Yes,” “the name” and “Unwontedly.” But the narrator’s mind moves beyond this fragmentation, turning on the actual word “name." A name, of course, is what has been humanly superimposed upon the natural landscape.

In the last two stanzas the narrator’s awareness begins to move beyond this conventional human-imposed ways of perceiving place and then gently back into convention. In stanza three, the verse becomes more regularly iambic and lyrical: “And willows, and willow-herb, and grass/ And meadowsweet, and haycock dry."

More interesting, though, is the use of bird songs to move the speaker’s focus outward in rapid stages. A single singing blackbird attracts the poet’s attention, which is then transferred to the surrounding birds, and then to still more distant bird songs. This tripartite expansion is accomplished with economy in three short clauses: “close by, and round him, mistier." These three clauses catch in meter and meaning the quiet breathlessness with which the narrator’s perception is widening. And then, in the next line, gently constricting again.

This subtle constriction saves the poem from making any full claims of transcendence, for the last line reintroduces the human place names that the expanded consciousness had sought to efface. Nevertheless, there is a sense that Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire enter the poem here as much for sound (or song) quality as for their locational value. “Mistier” and “Gloucestershire” are by far the softest rhymes in the poem, creating something more of an echo than a rhyme. One does feel, too, that some slight change has taken place within the narrator, a feeling reinforced by the poem’s first word, “Yes," which affirms the significance of the moment in the poet’s mind.

I always associate this poem (and the line “close by, and round him, mistier") with Robert Frost's For once, then, something.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

You mean there's a name for that?

I was thinking about the post I made yesterday (The Highest F). It reminds me of an old trick that is sometimes used on the first day of basic news writing courses in college. The prof asks the class if they know how to write a news lead. Most students in a reporting class have done a bit of writing for the high school paper, so they raise their hands and spout something about who, what, when, where and how, the inverted pyramid, etc.

“Okay” says the prof. “Let's see your stuff. Here are some facts. I want you to put them in order from the most to the least important and write me a lead that nails the most newsworthy detail in the story." Then she walks to the board and writes down the following facts:

Who: The college faculty.

What: Attend an excellence in education conference.

Where: Chicago.

When: Monday, September 2.

Why: To improve instruction.

How: Leave by bus at 6:00 am and return at 8:00 pm.

Now the students start writing their leads, careful to get all of the facts into the first paragraph. The prof walks around the room looking at their efforts and snorting derisively. She says, “I can’t believe it. Everybody single one of you missed the story. How is that possible? I thought you said you had written for a newspaper before.” Now the students are starting to feel a bit uneasy. They look back at their leads and wonder ‘Did I miss a something? What’s she want?’

“For cryin’ out loud," she moans, "The lead is There will be no classes on Monday because the entire faculty will be in Chicago attending a conference. Any idiot with tape recorder can get the facts. It takes a reporter with a brain to get the story.”

I have never forgotten this lesson, but it was not until years later that I realized it actually demonstrated a concept from cognitive psychology called “field dependency," which is the inability to move back from a dataset to see larger patterns or the implications of the information's totality. Over the years, too, I have used all kinds of self-designed in-class exercises without realizing that what I was doing had some basis in cognitive psychology or educational theory.

Point in case: I used to teach an introduction to mass communication course, and I would ask the students on the first day if those two boys who shot up their high school in Colorado were the product of watching too much violent mass media. To a person, the students would say no. “Those kids were screwed up. Besides, I have watched all that stuff and I haven’t shot anybody.” I would wait until the next class and ask if they thought there was a connection between anorexia and all of the images of painfully thin fashion models in the media. “You bet," they would say. "Those images are the cause of anorexia and bulimia.”

“Now, wait a minute,” I’d say. “Two days ago you said mass media could not make two guys become violent, but now you are saying media can cause thousands of young women to starve themselves to death. Sounds to me like you have a problematic theory of mass media effects on behavior.” And then I would get them to refine their theories.

So a few years later I am at this conference and a guy is talking about the pedagogical uses of something called “expectation failure.” The trick, he says, is to get students to state an expectation or articulate their thinking and then allow them to discover that this expectation or mental model is problematic. And I am sitting there thinking, “You mean there’s actually a name for that thing I do in class?”

If I ever did know what I was doing, I’d be dangerous.

Poo-tee-weet?

One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...