Is Poetry Dangerous?

Sappho and Alcaeus *oil on panel *66 x 122 cm *1881

Plato, according to some readings, seemed to think so.

It’s an odd question to ask because poetry, as we usually conceive of it, has been so marginalized from our daily discourse, relegated to esoteric journals and graduate courses, that most people feel as though they don’t even know how to read it, never mind worrying about its nefarious influence. This absence could be partially due to the inaccessible and exasperatingly experimental nature of much contemporary poetry–but then again more traditional forms don’t seem to be faring much better.

However, we could expand our definition of poetry to include music, and we’d have strong justification for doing so. Lyric, of course, comes from the Greek word lyre, an instrument played often to accompany ancient recitations and performances of poetry. The Anglo-Saxon scop chanted the three-thousand lines of Beowulf and Virgil wrote “I sing of arms and the man” in the opening line of the Aeneid, just as Homer “sang” of the wrath of Achilles in the Iliad and the man of many ways in the Odyssey. Historically, poetry was inseparable from song. Including modern music within its domain might make Plato’s anxieties more understandable.

Wordsworth famously defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and Socrates, in The Republic, seems inclined to agree; he is especially concerned with the power of poetry to elicit our emotions:

And the same may be said of lust and anger and all the other affections, of desire and pain and pleasure, which are held to be inseparable from every action—in all of them poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue. (The Republic, Book X)

Charles Griswald observes:

The debate about the effects on the audience of poetry continues, except that today it is not so much poets strictly speaking, but the makers of others sorts of images in the “mass media,” who are the culprits. Controversies about, say, the effects of graphic depictions of violence, of the degradation of women, and of sex, echo the Platonic worries about the ethical and social effects of art. (“Plato on Rhetoric and Poetry,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

In The Republic, Socrates famously recounts multiple examples of Homer’s unseemly descriptions of weeping heroes and badly-behaving gods in the Iliad as evidence that even great poetry is bad for people. Eventually, Socrates concludes that most poets should not be allowed to enter his ideal city–since even the best ones entice the listener with misrepresentations of the divine. Only the “rougher and severer poet or story-teller, who will imitate the style of the virtuous only, and will follow those models which we prescribed” will be allowed inside.

That is, the only poetry he’ll countenance is the didactic sort that unambiguously directs the listener toward the practice of virtue. I can’t help but think about the recent hoopla in some Catholic circles (yes, again) over the dangers of reading Harry Potter.

Socrates’ solution seems rather puritan, even obtuse, until you consider the sorts of lyrics most young people are listening to on a daily basis. I’m not living under a rock, but I remember chaperoning many high school dances where my stomach twisted at the kinds of things, especially about women, blasted from the speakers. And it’s pretty evident that these messages were being absorbed and even enacted by my students; I had to step in to firmly interrupt a lot of “dancing” that ought not be occurring anywhere, much less a Catholic school gym. What we see and listen to inevitably shapes our imagination and, in ways we may not fully understand, our behavior.

On the other hand, it is hard to conceive of a sanitized poetry that would satisfy Socrates and, at the same time, be worthy of the name. In Book 10, he grants that poetry could return from her exile, but only if her defenders could articulate an argument as to her purpose:

Let them show not only that she is pleasant but also useful to States and to human life, and we will listen in a kindly spirit; for if this can be proved we shall surely be the gainers—I mean, if there is a use in poetry as well as a delight?

Ah, yes, the old objection. What use is it? Why should we read this stuff?

Still, the interlocutors in The Republic seem to have a kind of awe before the power of poetry that is difficult for most people today to understand. If poetry could only be proven to be useful to the city–and, by extension, to the harmony of the human soul–Socrates and his friends would consider subjecting themselves to its spell.

Perhaps the most important danger of poetry articulated by Socrates is its tenuous relationship with the truth:

Then must we not infer that all these poetical individuals, beginning with Homer, are only imitators; they copy images of virtue and the like, but the truth they never reach? The poet is like a painter who, as we have already observed, will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling; and his picture is good enough for those who know no more than he does, and judge only by colors and figures.

The poet is a mere “imitator”, and unlike the craftsman of swords or musical instruments, he doesn’t have a precise knowledge of the thing he makes in words. He is at several removes from the thing itself which he describes.

This seems like rather an odd objection–especially if you read Homer, because he seems to take great pains to describe the disembowelments on the battlefield in somewhat excruciating detail in many places–but if you understand the objection to be referring to something rather oblique in the nature of poetic language itself, it becomes somewhat easier to see the “quarrel between philosophy and poetry” that Socrates identifies.

Emily Dickinson has a kind of response to Socrates, I think, in one of her most famous poems:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

She insists upon telling “all the truth,” but seems to think that the best way to do so is in a “slanted” manner–that is, through poetry.

I think it’s worth pondering her claim that poetry, perhaps even because of its indirectness, its strangeness, has a unique capacity to wound us. It does stir up our emotions, as Socrates fears, but I would argue that the best poetry does not do this in a cheap or unfair way. Poetry affords us a unique way to approach the dazzling and dangerous truth–a way that does not try to seize it in a grasping way but rather, in a phrase Virginia Woolf uses, “alights upon the truth”.

Dickinson seems to locate the danger more in the destination than in the poetic path: the “Truth” itself is dangerous; it is like “Lightning” and has the power, paradoxically, to “blind” us.

It seems to me that Plato must–to some extent–agree with her. The Republic itself, as well as his other dialogues, though they are philosophical works, are highly poetic. They don’t read at all like Aristotle or Aquinas. He seems to approach the truth indirectly as well. The Socrates of one Platonic dialogue is sometimes quite incompatible with the Socrates of another, and Plato’s own views are never clearly reducible to those of any of his characters. He, too “tells the truth slant.”

In a really wonderful essay in Poetry magazine entitled “Unknowing Lyric”, which I have been reading in preparation for the seminar I’m leading this fall, Matthew Bevis digs deeply into the experience of reading lyric poetry. Why read it?

Encountering poems, I seem to know lots of things (“this is a sonnet”; “this is an off-rhyme”; “this is typical of Paul Muldoon”) but one of the reasons I read (I think) is to be disoriented. “We want to feel poetry turning against itself again and again,” James Longenbach suggests, “not only because we need to interrogate our best ideas but because we want to experience the sensation, the sound, of words leaping  just beyond our capacity to know them certainly.”

How beautiful, and how true. The poems that stay with us contain the words that speak to, but also speak just beyond, our experience. We are like this with our favorite poems, but with people too. Isn’t the experience of falling in love killed most quickly by the (incorrect) sense that you have suddenly “figured someone out”? A riddle or puzzle delights only as long as it bewilders us, but a good poem re-bewilders us on every rereading.

Bevis continues,

One sign that it may be a good poem — I feel this especially when I’m “teaching” poetry — is that, whenever I return to it, I’ve forgotten it. Or: not forgotten it, but forgotten my way through it. I’m not sure how to offer pedagogical guidance: I have difficulty in saying who is doing what to whom on the Grecian Urn, or where it’s being viewed from; or I find myself having to figure out (again) who might be pulling the trigger in a life that had stood — a loaded gun.

I’ve said this to students before, and I will again: I think poems are a lot like people. They are frustrating in a lot of the same ways people are, and lovely in a lot of the same ways. And I’m not trying to be overly romantic. Some poems are downright disturbing; some are frightening; some are so long-winded and complex (Eliot) that you’re not sure you could manage a second reading; some are so simple and short that you’re not sure how to move forward (“Red Wheelbarrow”, anyone?). But learning how to approach all poems well, to develop a kind of love that allows you to return to them again and again, with a humble attentiveness, can help us read the folks around us better, too.

I suppose that’s one way of explaining to Socrates why they are useful to the city.

And finally–last quote from Bevis, I promise, but really you ought to read the whole thing:

My feeling whenever I get to the end of [“Ode on a Grecian Urn”] is something akin to the one Proust describes in “On Reading”: “we would like to have [the author] give us answers, when all he can do is give us desires.” Lyrics always leave something to be desired.

But sometimes it would seem that we don’t want desires, we want answers — want answers, indeed, as a way of being done with desire. “How does the individual get from needing to needing to know?” Adam Phillips asks in Missing Out; he suggests that it’s “as though knowing someone was a way of having them in safekeeping.” We may claim to know the other person in order to evade our desire for them; knowledge becomes a means to tame and triumph over loss, or longing, or both. One thing that seems to me striking about lyric poems — or, more accurately, about my relationship with lyric poems — is how often they seem to raise the question of knowability (their own, and other people’s), how they highlight the ways in which I might be tempted to reach for knowledge at the earliest opportunity and as a last resort.

A necessary but not sufficient condition for lyric, one of the signs I know it by, is that it makes me wary of saying “I understand this.”

So, is poetry dangerous? Yes. And one way it is dangerous is that it makes you painfully aware of what you do not know–a highly Socratic experience, I might add. That kind of intellectual wounding just might open you up to wonder.

An odd couple: shop class and word-craft contra mundum

It does seem rather strange that for the past twenty or more years, although many people have been lamenting the decline of the liberal arts in both the secondary and collegiate levels in favor of more “useful” or career-driven pursuits, there has not necessarily been a comparable rise in techne or craft or apprenticeship in secondary schools. 

There are, at least, robotics classes or robotics after-school clubs, and there are art classes, which involve some kind of physical engagement with material things beyond pen and paper, but there are very few home-ec or shop class courses left in most schools. For all the hand-wringing over reducing classical education in the liberal arts to mere career-prep, one does wonder how useful many of the courses students take in this supposedly utilitarian educational era actually are. The liberal arts and classical education advocates among us may be missing the mark somewhat if we are lamenting an over-emphasis on the practical in education. 

The above musings are provoked by my reading of the first few chapters of Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work for a reading group I recently joined. From the back cover:

Those of us who sit in an office often feel a lack of connection to the material world and find it difficult to say exactly what we do all day. For those who felt hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, Shop Class as Soulcraft seeks to restore the honor of the manual trades as a life worth choosing.

Crawford intersperses personal narrative, detailed descriptions of grappling with stubborn motorcycles with history and philosophy as he diagnoses our dissatisfaction with abstracted office work.  But abstracted office work is often preceded by abstracted schoolwork.

In a chapter entitled “A Brief Case for the Useful Arts,” which paradoxically calls to mind many recent essays attempting to defend the liberal arts and humanities against the encroachment of more pragmatic areas of study, Crawford explains how “blue collar” trade and craftsmanship brings human beings into contact with a stubborn, material world that resists our manipulation and ideological interpretation.

In other words, shop class reorients us toward reality:

The craftsman’s habitual deference [unlike the consumer or typical student] is not toward the New, but toward the objective standards of his craft. However narrow in its application, this is a rare appearance in contemporary life–a disinterested, articulable, and publicly affirmable idea of the good. Such a strong ontology is somewhat at odds with the cutting-edge institutions of the new capitalism, and with the educational regime that aims to supply those institutions with suitable workers—pliable generalists unfettered by any single set of skills. (19, emphasis added)

That last phrase could be easily inserted into many a typical defense of the liberal arts: we aren’t reducing education to “any single set of skills” but are preparing our students for life itself

But when Crawford says “unfettered” here his tone is unmistakably ironic: it is this lack of tethering to concrete things that has unmoored us from reality, from ourselves. 

You could quibble a bit over his identification of man-made objects and tools with the natural, physical world that we did not make, but I see his point.

I wonder… perhaps there could be a rapprochement between the liberal and utilitarian (“servile”?) arts as mutually ennobling and distinctly human endeavors—and mutually resisting the fragmented mishmash of undergraduate ideological offerings at your typical university or the lock-step college-prep courses at your typical high school?

At the risk of stretching his ideas too far, I will say that I’ve been surprised by how so much of what Crawford says about working with cars and motorcycles applies to working with a different kind of reality; not material, but nevertheless stubborn and resistant if you take it seriously: the world of words—of poetry and literature. 

He observes, “The repairman has to begin each job by getting outside his own head and noticing things; he has to look carefully and listen to the ailing machine” (17).

I mean, that description could easily describe Elizabeth Bishop crafting one of her attentive, perceptive poems about a fishhouse or a moose (the latter actually took her twenty years to finish). Her poems, though personal and warm, are famously self-effacing– she “gets outside of her own head and notices things” with a kind of relentless dedication rare even for poets.

In a story about a coffee table he made as a young man, Crawford muses on that object in the same way that many a poet has mused upon the (im)permanence of his poems: “Shared memories attach to the material souvenirs of our lives, and producing them is a kind of communion, with others and with the future” (15). Crawford really sounds like a poet there, reflecting on the ability of his art(ifact) to outlast himself and to bring him into connection with others. One thinks of Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, or Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

“This,” of course, being the carefully-crafted poem that we’re still reading four hundred years later. Communion with the future, indeed.

In this same section, Crawford quotes philosopher Hannah Arendt in order to explain the satisfaction a mechanic experiences in successfully fixing a particularly troublesome engine, but his reflection speaks just as beautifully to the poetic act:

“The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors.” All material things turn to dust, ultimately, so perhaps ‘permanence’ isn’t quite the right idea to invoke here. The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self. (16)

Later, he argues that shop class has the potential to cultivate the virtue of humility and a unique way of reading the world: “Piston slap may indeed sound like loose tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly attentive to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is an ethical virtue” (99).

And as he interweaves quotes from Iris Murdoch (this guy did get a Ph. D. in political philosophy from U Chicago), Crawford explicitly acknowledges the similarity between artist (poet?) and mechanic that I’ve been noting:

[…] to respond to the world justly, you first have to perceive it clearly, and this requires a kind of “unselfing.” […] “[V]irtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.” This attempt is never fully successful, because we are preoccupied with our own concerns. But getting outside her own head is the task the artist sets herself, and this is the mechanic’s task, too. Both, if they are good, use their imagination “not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real.” (100, emphasis added)

There’s this strange overlap then, I think, between the “useful arts” and the “liberal arts”, between mechanics and poetics, between shop-class and word-craft—at least insofar as these human activities involve a wrestling with a reality that resists you, that calls you out of yourself and yet, in a way, gives you back to yourself. Both are deeply engaging, and, when done well, ennobling.

I included the phrase “contra mundum” (“against the world”) in this post’s title but maybe I ought to have said “pro mundo” (“for the world”). Both shop class and word-craft are very human activities that can orient us in a more humble attitude toward the world, yet against worldliness, and I think Crawford would agree with me there. It’s odd, isn’t it, to associate techne (practical knowledge) so closely with sophia (wisdom)?

But then again, Jesus was a carpenter.


How Columbo Educates

A few years ago I taught a one-semester Creative Writing course, and the unit that was by far the most successful was the one on mystery stories. Before my students wrote their own mysteries, we read Conan Doyle, Chesterton, and Christie — watched an episode of the new Sherlock and — in my opinion, best of all — an episode of Columbo.

If you don’t know, Columbo was a murder-mystery t. v. series starring Peter Falk that originally ran from 1971-1978 (and again from 1989-2003).

I wanted my students to see the different ways in which one could structure a mystery plot so they could try to develop one themselves– and, to my mind, the most interesting way is the Columbo way.

The funny thing about Columbo is that the show isn’t suspenseful in the way you’d expect. You know, right from the beginning of the story, whodunit. You see how they dun it. And usually, why they dun it. That is, the first twenty minutes of every episode show you the murderer committing the murder—and, usually, the reasons for it. The titular character himself never appears until after this sequence finishes.

What’s interesting about this plot pattern is that its consistency and predictability liberate the show from the challenge most crime shows face: finding new ways to conceal from the audience the real criminal in a way that does not seem cheap or unfair. Misdirection is almost never an issue. The audience knows, before even Columbo does, the truth—but we still find ourselves captivated by watching how he finds it and proves it.

The real action of the story, instead of being about finding out who committed a murder, is rather centered around the relationship the detective develops with the murderer. It is through this relationship that the show can make its jokes, its social commentary, its reflections on human nature. It’s entertainment, to be sure, but it’s of a much more thoughtful sort than many t.v. crime shows. In fact, I would argue that it’s educative.

How does Columbo educate?

  1. The show celebrates attentiveness.

Like Monk, his spiritual heir, Columbo’s genius lies largely in his obsessive attention to detail. He frequently apologizes to the killer for his incessant questions about these details: “Ya know, these things just botha me. I was up all night. I was wondering if you could help me understand why the victim’s shoelaces were tied with da loop on the left insteaduh the right.”

Indeed, the more you watch Columbo, the more you start looking for such details yourself during the first twenty minutes during the murder sequence, just to see if you can spot the key clue that might “bug” him later.

Attentiveness is the key to Columbo’s success; he has a particular way of reading the world that allows him to see what most other people can’t see. But unlike Sherlock Holmes’ “powers” or Hercule Poirot’s sophisticated genius or Monk’s OCD hyper-sensitivity, Columbo’s ability isn’t super-human—nor is it even a kind of spiritual charism like that of Father Brown. His gift feels almost accessible to us—as if we might be able to cultivate that kind of attentiveness, too, with enough practice. If we only learned how to pay attention to people more, to relate to them in the way Columbo does, we would be able to see a lot more going on around us.

2. Anagnorisis is key to the plot

In ancient Greek tragedies, the turning-point of the story often occurs when the tragic hero recognizes something about himself or his situation. The Aristotelian term for this is anagnorisis, and surprisingly it’s the heart of almost every Columbo episode. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, anagnorisis is

the startling discovery that produces a change from ignorance to knowledge. It is discussed by Aristotle in the Poetics as an essential part of the plot of a tragedy, although anagnorisis occurs in comedy, epic, and, at a later date, the novel as well. 

In Oedipus Rex, the tragic hero experiences anagnorisis when he finally realizes that it is he who unwittingly killed his father, the previous king, and married his mother.

The discovery here, of course, isn’t about the moment when Columbo recognizes the killer—he usually seems to intuit who it is within his first five minutes on screen. Nor does it a moment when the killer realizes the wrongness of his action–he usually doesn’t.

The discovery is usually more modest, but still significant. The killer recognizes a key mistake or oversight he has made. Columbo, like Tiresias, always needs to explain this error to the killer in order for him or her to see it. And this discovery, though not necessarily redemptive, is nevertheless humbling.

Almost all the killers in the series are extremely proud, and they often dismiss the man in the shabby coat with the cigar and the blue-collar demeanor. As clever as they all are, they are usually ignorant of human nature, and this ignorance often leads them to misstep or miscalculate in a manner that confirms their guilt. In the anagnorsis, they are forced to acknowledge the shortcomings of their own cleverness and the power of Columbo’s wisdom.

This is admittedly not the kind of radical grace Flannery O’Connor’s characters experience, the kind that seems to anticipate a possible conversion, but I believe it is a kind of grace nonetheless. Humility, a professor of mine in college always said, is “the reality principle.” It’s the ability to see things as they really are. Columbo often leads the murderer to recognize, at the very least, her own inattentiveness.

But the audience, too, despite their prior knowledge of all the steps the murderer took to set up and execute his crime, is somehow also limited by that perspective. You get the sense, after a while, that simply having factual knowledge about events isn’t enough in order to really see into the truth of things. The murderer, after all, also has access to all the facts of the case. It takes a deeper kind of wisdom to see how all those facts connect to one another. Columbo often solves the case through his insights into how human nature works, and we too often find ourselves saying in recognition, “Oh—that was what we missed!”

3. Uncommon courtesy is the rule.

Something that sets the Columbo character apart from other popular detectives is his deep sense of courtesy and respect for all the other characters—even, and especially for the murderer. His relentless affability and endearing clumsiness may be an act to put criminals off of their guard—but his deep kindness never is.

In my favorite episode, “Any Old Port in a Storm,” (remember I’m not really giving anything away since you’ll know who the murderer is in the first few minutes!) a sommelier seeks to protect his family’s wine business by killing his wayward, thrill-seeking half-brother. After explaining to him the evidence that will convict him, and before he drives the murderer to the police station, Columbo gently offers him a glass of very fine wine. Surprisingly, the guilty man accepts.

There are similar moments like this throughout the series, where despite his relentless pursuit of justice, Columbo shows respect and understanding to everyone around him, even the murderer. He reminds us that even people who have committed terrible deeds have dignity.

4. Anger is the appropriate response to injustice.

Columbo so rarely loses his calm disposition that when he does show anger, you know the murderer really is in trouble.

There are times when a murderer’s cruelty and manipulation of other characters elicits the detective’s anger in ways that even the act of killing itself does not. Columbo does not seem surprised or even particularly offended by run-of-the-mill envy, fear, or selfishness. But there are certain behaviors that inspire his clean and blazing wrath.

In the above scene, for instance, from “A Stitch in Crime,” the killer not only murders other people to conceal his efforts to murder a colleague, he abuses his role as a surgeon. You get the sense that what Columbo finds particularly repulsive here is the man’s betrayal of the nature of his otherwise noble profession of saving lives.

I say this with some hesitation, because any kind of offense against human life is an extremely serious sin and deserves unambiguous condemnation, but I do think the show demonstrates wisdom in suggesting that there are various depths of depravity. Dante himself places murderers and other perpetrators of violence down in the seventh circle of hell–but the ninth and lowest circle, where Satan is incased in ice, is reserved for the treacherous.

Perhaps because it is so rare, Columbo’s anger teaches us the difference between the motives behind vengeance and justice.

Oh, and one more thing–

5. The show’s pervasive humor is delightful, not derisive.

There’s a kind of light, old-fashioned touch to the humor in Columbo. Some scenes almost seem slap-stick because of Peter Falk’s gift for physical comedy in his gestures.

The humor often runs on motifs that develop throughout the series: there are references to the never-on-screen “Mrs. Columbo”: “Oh, well sir, my wife always tells me…” “Would you sign this? My wife–she’d get a kick outta that. She’s got pictchas from you’re movies everywhere.” “Oh, no thank you ma’am, my wife’s been buggin me all week to get home earlier.” There’s Columbo’s dilapidated car that’s frequently breaking down and getting all sorts of strange looks and bemused comments from the people around him. There’s his dog, a sleepy, stubborn basset-hound–named Dog–who he often takes to the vet and instructs to wait for him in the car while he’s on a case. There are his cigars–the odor and ashes of which sometimes get him into amusing dilemmas.

And then there’s the class motif. Columbo’s humor often explores the the relationship between the rich elites and the common man. In one particularly delightful and relatable scene, Columbo wanders into a fashionable modern art studio and, for once, cannot make head nor tails of what he sees:

There is often deeper irony lurking around too, yes, as here–but not of the sarcastic or acerbic kind. Laughter about the circumstances of the case is usually elicited by Columbo himself rather than by any derision of the crooks and their cronies. It’s this kind of pervasive humor which pokes fun but never ridicules that helps keep an otherwise serious show about the greed, ambition, and folly of human beings a joy to watch.

Columbo is entertaining certainly, but it invites a kind of engagement from the viewer that educates as much as it delights.

Silences, Empty Houses and Poetry

Photo by Flo Dahm

One of my favorite writers, Heather King, while reflecting on her pilgrimage seeking silence and prayer, recently observed, “I see that a lot of the ‘noise’ for which I blame the world is really noise inside of me!”

Oh, yes.

When people ask me what brought me to my new job, or what caused me to leave my old one, I have been saying things like, “I wanted more time to think” or “write” or even “be human.”  Those are just other ways of saying I wanted more silence, more space. I thought, if I didn’t have to grade papers all the time, or fret about tomorrow’s lesson plans, I’d have more time to pray! To write that novel! To be involved in my community! To really flourish!

And I have had more time, it’s true. And I have been writing more. And it’s been wonderful.

But I also find myself filling a lot of that time with Columbo episodes, and NPR, and podcasts, and plenty of social media scrolling.

The “noise inside of me,” you see. Or perhaps concerted efforts not to listen to it.

Jesus, that expert on human nature, said once that when an evil spirit is driven out of a person, it wanders “through arid regions searching for rest but finds none” and, upon returning “home,” finds it “empty, swept clean, and put in order.” And then the spirit brings back lots of its demon friends and “the last condition of that person is worse than the first” (Matthew 12:43-45).

My gloss on that rather terrifying parable is that this pattern applies to other kinds of evil spirits, too—less alarming but perhaps therefore more insidious: spirits of exhaustion or discouragement or burnout or busyness. We get rid of them, we think, by changing jobs or going on retreat or embarking on a pilgrimage. We set aside real time for prayer. We get ourselves situated, “swept clean and put in order”, if you will. But notice that Jesus begins his description of the recently freed soul as “empty.”

Free from that troublesome spirit, yes, but free for what?

Without something to fill the space inside us, we may just fill it with noise, or invite the old spirits in through the back door so we don’t have to hear the echoes in the empty house.

In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper explains,

Leisure is a form of that stillness that is necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. Such stillness is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness; it means, rather, that the soul’s power, as real, of responding to the real — a co-respondence, eternally established in nature — has not yet descended into words. Leisure is the disposition of perceptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion — in the real.

Since I’m leading a seminar on poetry this fall, in which I propose that poetry develops in us habits of attention that help us read ourselves and the world better, I think one way I might fill my new empty spaces of time is by memorizing some poems. Poems aid us, I think, in filling silence well without resorting to distraction, because they help us re-attend to the world. Lyric poems in particular often have that companionable voice that can visit us in our clean-swept houses. Emily Dickinson knew all about that:

(1251)

Silence is all we dread.
There’s Ransom in a Voice —
But Silence is Infinity.
Himself have not a face.

I might add, though, that poems like hers often offer us that “Ransom” without thereby rescuing us from the silences we all need to confront.

Photo by Tobi

Back to school tips for teachers

As they prepare for their first year, brand-new teachers often focus on educational theory, idealism, and policy. More experienced teachers, on the other hand, tend to take their methodologies and philosophical assumptions for granted. They spend the last weeks of summer break on the practical elements: setting up classrooms, making copies, and ensuring their previous years’ lesson plans are within easy reach.


But it seems to me that just the opposite approach is needed. Brand-new teachers need to focus far more on the practical day-to-day logistics, whereas veteran teachers need to spend more time reflecting on their experience and re-evaluating their philosophies of education.

Read the rest of my new article over at Public Discourse!

Loaves and fishes and stepping away from teaching

It’s strange.

I’m not standing on desks, hanging up posters, devising seating charts, making copies, and agonizing over my lesson plans for the first days of school.

Nor am I re-examining my classroom management techniques, watching a bunch of teaching videos, and looking at my notes from last year.

Every day for the past three weeks, I have gone to work without anxiety. I’ve arrived at 9:00am. I have left at 5:00pm. I have had a daily hour-long lunch break with no supervision duties. I have received no disgruntled emails, asked nobody to stay after class, and not taken one single piece of paper home from the office.

When I’m home, I don’t need to contact parents or grade papers or lesson-plan. I can, you know, cook dinner.

You see, I’m no longer teaching high school English.

My new position at a research institute will still involve working with students– I’ll be leading a seminar on lyric poetry in the fall for college undergraduates, and two more as yet unknown ones in the spring, and in the future I may lead seminars for high school students in the summers–but my day to day looks completely different now. And my new job description doesn’t include the word “teach.”

I remember, a little over four years ago, reading a blog post by another teacher I admire who was leaving her Title I school. She articulated her reasons for leaving this way:

[I]t feels like I have three choices: 1) stay where I am, continue working hard and destroy myself, 2) stay and protect myself by putting in less effort, or 3) leave and abandon a profession and kids I care about. (“What I Wish I could Tell Them About Teaching in a Title I School” Love, Teach)

I’ve never taught in a Title I school, and don’t pretend that my experiences over the past eight years have been nearly as challenging as hers. I have been really blessed with at the institutions I have worked in.

But, not to be dramatic, her words resonate with me. It wasn’t all that difficult a decision for me to leave the Catholic high school classroom behind for now. Even in eight years, I just couldn’t figure out how to be a good teacher and have a full life outside of school. It always felt like I had to make a choice– I could be a mediocre teacher and a happy person, or a great teacher and an emotionally-exhausted person. And I’m not alone:

Why Good Teachers Quit

I Feel Stuck in a Profession That’s Making Me Ill

How to Survive as an Introverted Teacher

Some teachers, thank goodness, have figured out how to strike that balance or even to flourish– but the secret has always evaded me. (I do have the suspicion that there is something fundamentally broken in our education system in the US, and even in many Catholic schools, where respect for the dignity of work and of the person should be much more apparent than it often is, but that’s a post for another time.)

I remember when I read this teacher’s article I wrote a brief post here expressing sadness and (rather dramatically) referenced Senator Smith’s “lost causes.” To see a teacher I identified with and admired so much leave her position shook me rather deeply at the time.

But, I also wrote, “Not everyone is called to be a teacher. And not everyone who is called to be a teacher needs to be one forever.”

I never thought that those words would ever apply to me.

I’m so grateful for the people I’ve worked with, and most especially all the students I have had, from whom I have learned so much. And I admit it: there’s a part of me that feels a little guilty for taking a step back, for taking a new job that pays more and demands less.

But I think there’s sometimes a glorification of over-extending oneself in the teaching profession. Catholic school teachers, in particular, are frequently thanked and applauded for their “sacrifices” and the ways they contribute to the mission of the Church. And this, of course, is beautiful–and all of us are indeed called to give ourselves away in love in lots of ways. The cross comes in various shapes and sizes and all of us are called to carry ours and to help others bear their own. Being a teacher is a great privilege and a noble vocation. But the “thank you for your sacrifice” talk can start to be problematic when we, perhaps unintentionally, spiritualize away real issues of justice.

After sending his disciples out on a rather intense journey of proclaiming the kingdom, casting out demons, and healing the sick, Jesus says to them, “Come away by yourselves and rest awhile” (Mk 6:31). I find this invitation comforting. God invites us into his work, but he also invites us into his rest.

In the same passage, Mark even notes “People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat.” This detail always makes me smile because it reminds me of most teachers’ lunch “breaks.”

So the disciples get into a boat with Jesus and go to a deserted place… but, like high school students on the day of a test, the people find them and actually arrive there before they do! And watch how Jesus responds:

When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34)

Did you notice? Jesus teaches the people. I kind of imagine the disciples sitting off to the side, napping or walking or chatting with one another, taking a break. The next line supports this–evidently Jesus teaches the people for a long time and the disciples eventually come over to tell him to wrap things up:

By now it was already late and his disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already very late. Dismiss them so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” He said to them in reply, “Give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Are we to buy two hundred days’ wages worth of food and give it to them to eat?” He asked them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out they said, “Five loaves and two fish.” So he gave orders to have them sit down in groups on the green grass.  The people took their places in rows by hundreds and by fifties. Then, taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to [his] disciples to set before the people; he also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied. And they picked up twelve wicker baskets full of fragments and what was left of the fish. Those who ate [of the loaves] were five thousand men.

You see, in this story, the tension between rest and work, between having “enough” for ourselves and giving our resources away to others. It’s the tension teachers feel all the time.

Jesus asks the disciples for the loaves and fish– the very little that they have– but he transforms that offering into enough for everyone, including the disciples themselves. Yet this is the kind of miracle only he is capable of. It’s not the kind of thing we can manage on our own, nor demand that we produce by our own efforts.

The passage ends, once again, with Jesus giving his disciples a break and then seeking rest himself:

Then he made his disciples get into the boat and precede him to the other side toward Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And when he had taken leave of them, he went off to the mountain to pray. (cf Mark 6:34-46)

There comes a time, even for Jesus, when the work ends and the rest begins.

It’s not like this passage provides a clear answer to the dilemma of a teacher, even a Catholic school teacher, a disciple who is called to evangelize. But it does emphasize a few things: 1) Jesus values giving us rest, 2) Jesus asks us to give him the very little we have–to trust him, 3) Jesus takes care of other people and us, but with our participation.

I’ve been teaching ever since I graduated from college, so I’m not sure what this year will look like for me. And though I feel like I have a lot more time and energy to write, I’m not sure what this blog will look like, either. But I appreciate your reading. And I hope all of us, no matter what our work is, might take Jesus’ invitation to rest just as seriously as we take his invitation to offer him our loaves and fishes.

James Tissot, “La multiplicité des pains” at the Brooklyn Museum

Metaphor as Postlapsarian Naming

In one of my favorite poems by Richard Wilbur, “She”, the speaker suggests that it is impossible for us now to guess what Eve’s original beauty was. But the reason for that is rather peculiar:

What was her beauty in our first estate
When Adam’s will was whole, and the least thing
Appeared the gift and creature of his king,
How should we guess? Resemblance had to wait

For separation, and in such a place
She so partook of water, light, and trees
As not to look like any of these.
He woke and gazed into her naked face.

Note the lovely enjambment between the first and second stanza, where the line describing a mysterious “separation” is itself cleaved in two.

I think the “separation” Wilbur’s speaker is referring to here is the fall. And if that is so, the idea he is developing becomes all the more interesting. We can’t understand what Eve looked like in Eden because in order to do so now, we would need to make some kind of comparison. We would need metaphor. And metaphor, which underlies all our language, is the art of comparing unlike things–that is, things that are separate from one another.

But, the speaker tells us, “Resemblance had to wait / For separation” (4-5). Before the Fall, things did not resemble one another because they participated in such a profound unity: “in such a place / She so partook of water, light and trees / As not to look like any of these” (5-7, emphasis added). She was not like, nor could she be likened to, anything else–she was herself.

How strange, and how beautiful.

So Adam wakes from his slumber and gazes “into her naked face”– unencumbered by comparison or by any need to bridge separation because there was none.

The poem then shifts, alluding simply, but ominously, to the fall: “But then she changed” (9). The speaker then seems to explore Eve–woman–as she has been named and understood (by men?) throughout the rest of history. Towards the end, the speaker tries to name her with metaphors others have employed before, but unsuccessfully:

Tree, temple, valley, prow, gazelle, machine,
More named and nameless than the morning star,
Lovely in every shape, in all unseen,
We dare not wish to find you as you are…

In this poem, it is as if metaphor shields us from Eve. Metaphor is, indeed, a way to bridge the gap between things, a way to articulate and describe, yet it leaves the subject paradoxically “nameless” and “unseen.” We “dare not wish” to find her as she really is. I think of Lewis’ remark that there are no “ordinary people”; if we were able to perceive one another in this direct way, we would be tempted to fall down in worship.

For Wilbur, metaphor is somehow postlapsarian– and, at least in this poem, it obscures more than it clarifies. But it is not, for all its inadequacy, therefore futile–and its true origins go farther back.

In a talk he gave in 1966 entitled “Poetry and Happiness”, he recalls a lazy afternoon he spent as an undergraduate with a friend whimsically composing “A Complete List of Everything.” The catalogue included “beauty, carburetor, sheepshank, pagoda, absence, chalk, vector, Amarillo, garters, dromedary” … you get the picture. As silly as this game seems, Wilbur says,

… there had been a genuine impulse underlying our afternoon’s diversion, and I think that it stemmed from a primitive desire that is radical to poetry–the desire to lay claim to as much of the world as possible through uttering the names of things. (“Poetry and Happiness”, Responses: Prose Pieces, 120-121)

At once, one thinks of Adam in the garden before the fall. God says “it is not good for the man to be alone” so he decides to make for him a “helper”– and then proceeds to make all the animals and birds and creatures. “And he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each living creature was then its name” (Genesis 2:19).

Adam names the animals in the Canterbury Cathedral Bestiary
Adam names the animals in the Canterbury Cathedral Bestiary

So the naming impulse precedes the fall and even the creation of Eve in the Genesis story, and it is this impulse that Wilbur sees as “radical to poetry.”

But after the fall and the profound separation that occurred not only between us and God, but between us and creation, between us and ourselves, our desire to name is ever-after expressed in metaphors, those enchanted images and phrases that try to make the leap back into the unity of Eden.

Let me conclude with Wilbur, in another essay collected in the same volume. He widens the scope of the idea of the poet’s use of metaphor to the means employed by every artist attempting to render the world:

In each art the difficulty of the form is substitution for the difficulty of direct apprehension and expression of the object. The first difficulty may be more or less overcome, but the second is insuperable; thus every poem begins, or ought to, by a disorderly retreat to defensible positions. Or, rather, by a perception of the hopelessness of direct combat, and a resort to the warfare of spells, effigies, and prophecies. The relation between an artist and reality is always an oblique one, and indeed there is no good art which is not consciously oblique. If you respect the reality of the world, you know that you can approach that reality only by indirect means. (“The Bottles Become New, Too”. Ibid., 277)

Sed Contra: Precise language “preserves mystery”

James Keane and Sam Sawyer, S. J., in an essay for America magazine criticize the sensational headlines about the recent Pew Research study that found a vast majority of American Catholics (almost 70%) asserting that the Eucharist is just a “symbol” of the body and blood of Jesus. They acknowledge that this statistic is troubling for many people, and they even begin their article with Flannery O’Connor’s oft-quoted statement that if the Eucharist really is only a symbol, then “to hell with it.”

But their main point seems to be to set the minds of very concerned leaders like Bishop Robert Barron and outraged O’Connor-minded folk at ease. The wording of the Pew Research study question itself, they claim, may be partly to blame for the troubling Catholic response: “When language more familiar to Catholics is used and the surveys are clearer about what is being denied by the ‘symbol’ answer, belief in the Eucharist is nearly double what Pew found.”

Moreover, they suggest that the Thomistic language employed by the Church herself regarding the Eucharist is rather difficult:

In that sense, at the consecration the “substance” of the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ, while the “accidents” remain those of bread and wine—which is why we experience them physically as being unchanged. This distinction between substance and accidents, however, is a feature of technical language about metaphysics, not everyday description. And even as technical language, “substance” and “accidents” are no longer in widespread use among philosophers and theologians outside of Thomistic circles (except, perhaps, in reference to the Eucharist).

(“Explainer: Why the Eucharist is confusing to many Catholics (and survey researchers)”)

To emphasize this point about the Church’s apparently confusing language, the authors explain that theologians Schillebeeckx and Rahner in the last century tried to come up with other terms (“transignification” and “transfinalization”, respectively) to describe what happens during the consecration while still “affirming the church’s teaching on the real presence”. The authors admit that “these approaches found little traction when up against the weight of centuries of Thomistic language used to describe the Eucharist”–a rather odd description to begin with–but odder still if you realize that in fact the uses of those newer terms were not just unable to find “traction” but were actually determined to be “false and disturbing opinions” by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Mysterium Fidei.

That is to say, language matters. And making mistakes in language, especially language about the Eucharist, is a serious matter.

The authors conclude the article with the consoling thought that for most Catholics, “a theologically accurate description of what ‘actually just happened’ on the altar is less important than faith in the sacrament, a sense of sharing in the community, an experience of thanksgiving.”

To which I would say, “sed contra”:

Absent a theologically accurate description, what kind of “faith in the sacrament” are we really talking about here?

Keane and Sawyer seem to want to calm those wringing their hands over the results of the Pew survey. The way the question about the real presence was asked and the way the Church has articulated the teaching itself are problematic for Catholics today, they explain. The point seems to be that most Catholics aren’t heretics, they’re just confused.

But the underlying assumption there seems to be either: 1) ordinary Catholics can’t be expected to understand Thomistic language or 2) ordinary Catholics are so unaware of the centrality of the Eucharist to their faith that (arguably) ambiguous language in a poll is going to completely throw off their responses.

If either (or both) of these scenarios are true, I think we have a good reason for consternation.

But if, as I suspect, neither of them are true–that is, ordinary Catholics CAN understand Thomistic language about the Eucharist and they SHOULD be able to respond accurately to questions from secular sources about central tenets of the faith–then, well, we still need to be concerned and we actually need to do something. We need to reclaim the Thomistic language that helps preserve the mystery of the Eucharist from error, and we need to evangelize and catechize. That is, we need to share the Gospel.

We also may need to seriously consider the reasons why so many Catholics report not believing that the bread and wine really change into the body and blood of Christ. Lex orandi, lex credendi…

The essay’s concluding reminder that the Church’s “greatest thinkers” have always resorted to the phrase “it is a mystery” when people have tried to define doctrines like the Trinity is also problematic. The silent implication here seems to be, “Why bother trying to explain something you can’t explain?” Or even, “It is prideful to try employ human language to pin down what is happening during the mass.”

Of course, they aren’t wrong. The Eucharist is a profound mystery, and human language cannot fully describe any of the mysteries of God. Thomas Aquinas himself famously called all of his work “straw” after his mystical experience of Christ. (For more on that fascinating story, do read Josef Pieper’s The Silence of St. Thomas.)

Nevertheless, the Church has had an odd habit throughout the centuries of trying to do just that: of using human language to describe the divine mysteries when the need arises. And the form this need usually takes is heresy.

The reason the Church approved St. Thomas’ “technical” language of “substance” and “species”/ “appearances” in her official teaching on transubstantiation during the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and reaffirmed that language as being “fitting,” “proper” and “most apt” during the Council of Trent (1551) is that misunderstandings and heresies had run rampant and she needed to clarify the truth for the faithful. A similar response was required for the much earlier distinction between the divine and human “natures” and one divine “person” in Jesus Christ (Nicea in 325) or, a little later, the distinction between one “nature” and three “persons” in the Trinity (Constantinople I in 381). The former definition was made to combat Arianism, the latter to combat Arianism again, Apollinarism, and other heresies.

I point out this history (of which I am sure the authors are aware) in order to emphasize how important precise language has always been to Church teaching.

The Church is taking her cue, of course, from the Lord Himself, who likes communicating in human language. He spent centuries communicating with the Jewish people and with Moses in particular “as a friend speaks to a friend.” The result is the Torah and the entire Old Testament. Later, He became a human being in Jesus Christ and used his human intellect and human tongue to share all sorts of parables, stories and exhortations.

In one of her letters, Flannery O’Connor says, “Dogma is the guardian of mystery. The doctrines are spiritually significant in ways that we cannot fathom” (emphasis added). In an essay published in Mysteries and Manners, she takes up this theme again:

Dogma can in no way limit a limitless God. The person outside the Church attaches a different meaning to it than the person in. For me a dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not of restriction. It preserves mystery for the human mind.

I think this is exactly what the language of transubstantiation does. It does not exhaust the mystery; it preserves it.

Although most Catholics are not called to be theologians, we are, by virtue of baptism, “priests, prophets, and kings,” called to share in the sacrifice, proclamation, and mission of Jesus Christ. As such, we need to keep the mysterious words of the Gospel, and the language we need to share it with others, “on our minds, on our lips and in our hearts.”

What teaching has taught me about relationships

Text of a brief talk I gave at a luncheon at Notre Dame a few weeks ago:

Q: How has your ACE experience and the mission of ACE impacted the trajectory of your life? 

A:

A few weeks ago, at the beginning of June, I sat in a pew of Sacred Heart Basilica and watched a former student of mine from my very first year in ACE get married. It was a surreal, beautiful experience. Out of the blue, it seems, I had received an invitation in the mail, and then a request to do a reading at her wedding. I thought how strange it was that M. was now older than I had been when I was her English teacher eight years ago in Donaldsonville, LA. One of her bridesmaids was also a former student of mine, and other former students sat nearby in the pews. Watching them and praying with them during the Mass, I felt immense gratitude for the gift ACE gave me all those years ago in bringing these people into my life, and for sparking in me a great passion for the unique craft that teaching really is. Yet as I witnessed M. enter into her vocation and this radically new relationship with her now husband, a relationship that mirrors that between the Church and Christ, I realized how much ACE has radically changed the way I see relationships. 

So often, growing up, I thought of relationships primarily in terms of how they made me feel. Maybe that sounds a little naive, but I kind of thought that was what I was supposed to do. After all, a friend is a good friend if we feel safe with her and have fun with her, right? And isn’t a partner a good partner if we feel uniquely seen and understood by him? And certainly parents are good parents if they help us feel secure and at the same time push us to be our best! But ACE disrupted this self-referential view of relationships for me in a really necessary and beautiful way. 

ACE taught me that the relationships we form with our students are like both works of art and like science experiments. They require the care, precision, and planning of a painter or sculptor, but also the humility, openness, and willingness to adapt of a chemist–these relationships even may require safety goggles as various decisions we make result in unexpected explosions!

ACE taught me that sometimes relationships don’t feel very good at all. Good teaching and learning is often accompanied by frustration, uncertainty, and discomfort–for both the teacher and the student. 

ACE taught me to see teaching itself as a craft that doesn’t necessarily come naturally. “Common sense” approaches to classroom management, helping students read and write, or interacting with parents are not necessarily the best ones. Being a teacher is a more like being a doctor–you need to keep up with the best research in your field and to stay open to new discoveries and solutions, even if they challenge your habits.

ACE has helped me to realize that all relationships are rather like that. Not only have I learned to become a student of my students, but also a student of my friends, of my parents, of my community members. All relationships are crafts that require practice and flexibility and continual development and adjustment.

The Gospel reading for M.’s wedding was the story of the wedding at Cana. And even there, the two most perfect people– the divine Son of God and Mary, his immaculate mother–who, you might think, have all the right talents and gifts to interact with one another in a harmonious, conflict-free manner–seemed to strangely experience the need to adjust and adapt. Mary expects her son to help the bride and groom–“They have no wine!” Jesus expects His mother to understand that His actions are on a divine schedule– “My hour has not yet come.” There seems to be this moment of conflict, of even incomprehension. And yet Mary then says to the servants, and to all of us, with complete open-ness and trust in Jesus, “Do whatever He tells you.” And then, in something that seems like obedience and deference, the Son of God performs his first miracle: He changes the water into wine–because perhaps His hour has come after all.

It’s this kind of humble open-ness that both Jesus and Mary show one another in this story that ACE taught me to see as so essential to the art of teaching and, by extension, to the art of all relationship. By allowing ourselves to be humble students of one another, we open ourselves to be students–disciples–of Jesus. 

This year I am going to be leading seminars and developing curriculum for an institute that serves Princeton University undergraduates and develops summer programs for high school students. So my classroom is going to look rather different in the days ahead; yet I know that the relationships I will form there will be shaped by the dynamic, humble hermeneutic that ACE imparted to me–the pattern of openness and discipleship. And for that, I am truly grateful.

Mimesis, and Teaching Writing

As I explained in my last post, I am trying to make explicit a rather intuitive, implicit process–the act of writing about a poem.

So, I of course quote Flannery O’Connor as I attempt the beginning of the first body paragraph video:

“I write to discover what I know.” And believe me, that’s what I was doing. I was not sure where this essay was going to go or what I was going to say, and I hoped fervently that Flannery would once again turn out to be right as I fumbled my way narrating the first part of that paragraph.

Many of my students have been responding well to this step by step process. It may be a bit too slow for some of them– but even the ones who already know (intuitively or otherwise) how to write a poem analysis will benefit, I think, from making some of these good habits clear and explicit.

I tried making the video below as I had done the one above and the others before, thinking out loud as I wrote it. But, as I moved from merely describing or summarizing the poem to analyzing it, I found this dual level of thinking to be extremely difficult and distracting. I couldn’t focus on the poem AND focus on HOW I was focusing on the poem at the same time–at least, not adequately.

So, for the video below, I deleted my first attempt and simply finished writing the first body paragraph and then pressed the “record” button, explaining to my students my thinking process. I went sentence by sentence through the paragraph, immediately after I had finished writing it, to try to capture that elusive thought process that can seem so opaque to so many kids. I also employed a highlighting exercise to help them see the difference between summarizing a poem and analyzing or interpreting it. They need to do both.

The reason I am approaching teaching poetry analysis this way is largely because, when I try to think back and remember how I learned to write, I realize a lot of it had to do with imitating good writers. When I read lots and lots of C. S. Lewis in middle school, it seeped into my eighth grade English journal entries. When I read lots of Chesterton in high school, I found myself playing around with sentences and trying to make them sound more paradoxical (not always with elegant results). I’ve even noticed that some of my earlier blog posts here employ abrupt sentences with ending ironies that sound a little like Flannery O’Connor.

Aristotle, in his Poetics, says that art is imitation, or mimesis. Tragedy, for instance, is the imitation of a particular type of human action. Watching a tragedy can bring about catharsis, or the cleaning of our own pity and fear–and thus is an educative and even a healing experience for us.

Teaching itself is an art and I think needs to involve a lot of mimesis. We can’t just expect our kids to go and do something–we need to show them what that something looks like. After all, imitation is how we all learned to do so many things without fully even realizing it–to walk, to speak, to argue…

These acts of imitation are not always conscious or intentional, but if we can make them so for our students, we may be finding a way to work with their human nature instead of against it. There is a reason for the cliche “the apple does not fall far from the tree.” Whether we like it or not, we learn how to be human from the other humans around us–and, I would argue, we learn how to write from the writings we read.