In Defense of English Majors, Part II

greatbooks72213
Source: udallas.edu

So I have been thinking a lot lately about being an English major and the value it has, ever since exploring the topic in my first post here.

And then a good friend of mine posted this article on Facebook: “Who Ruined the Humanities?” by Lee Siegel. In this highly interesting (and highly irritating) critique, Siegel argues that it is a good thing that the humanities–and the English major in particular–are falling into decline. 

In the swirl of recent online articles about why the humanities are disappearing and how  we can possibly save them lest we suffer intellectual and moral armageddon, Siegel’s approach offers a kind of appealing, unique alternative. He offers the ever attractive counter-intuitive advice: Don’t attempt to stem the tide–roll with it. The English major in particular is not worth saving, anyway.

Now he’s got our attention.

After outlining the brief history of the English major–which Siegel proposes developed chiefly as a  post WWII response of academic people trying make sense of the moral devastation the world had just experienced–he describes how the academic study of literature actually ruins  “the expression of feelings too prismatic for rational articulation.” Indeed, he claims that “Literature is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read.”

I can hear my students cheering in the background (especially the ones who don’t read).

Siegel describes how, in his own life, he loved reading at an early age but so many of his college classes twisted what he had loved into some kind of unrecognizable intellectualized ideo-babble. The English major is, hence, both harmful and unnecessary:

Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods. Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught. Why does Hector’s infant son, Astyanax, cry when he sees his father put on his helmet? All you need to understand that is a heart.

So you see, I am not making a brief against reading the classics of Western literature. Far from it. I am against taking these startling epiphanies of the irrational, unspoken, unthought-of side of human life into the college classroom and turning them into the bland exercises in competition, hierarchy and information-accumulation that are these works’ mortal enemies. (Siegel, “Who Ruined the Humanities?”)

It’s a rather compelling argument. I, too, learned to love literature long before I really studied it. And I majored in English because of that love, that incandescent experience Siegel describes. I try to show my students all the time how works that seem at first so distant from us–Beowulf and Pride and Prejudice and Antigone–are actually speaking to our deepest questions and fears. “All you need to understand [them] is a heart.” That is true.

But the English teacher in me, who also loves analyzing syntax and diction and discovering the intricate ways authors create those works of art, objects very strongly to the rest of his argument. Here are my two main objections:

1) This is perhaps the most obvious point: poor English teaching does not, by itself, discredit the value of good English teaching. As Siegel himself acknowledges, there are both wonderful and horrible college professors who can either foster or destroy students’ love/understanding/interest in almost any subject. Although it may be true that many (perhaps even most?) literature departments across the country are doing more harm than good with their ideologically-driven abuse of art and language, there are also many that approach English the proper way. See the University of Dallas English department website for a stellar example. To entice you:

The [UD] program in literature provides a course of study in those authors who best exemplify the capacity of imagination to grasp truth. Teachers and students seek to learn what the best of the poets understand of nature and human experience. In this mutual learning enterprise, students and teachers are related as beginning and advanced students of their common masters, the major imaginative writers. (from website)

This is hardly the stuff of books being “taught like science” and “reduced to mere facts” or “occasions of drudgery and toil” (Siegel).

Okay, and I have to include this too:

After my first visit to UD in the spring of 2005, I came upon my friend and colleague, Alban Forcione, surely one of the five or fewer greatest scholars of Cervantes alive, [and told him] that we had wasted our lives teaching in the Ivy League and that I had found the place at which we could have spent our careers with better effect.

-Robert Hollander

Princeton University Professor of European Literature and French and Italian, Emeritus.

You can’t really get better praise than that for a humble Catholic liberal arts school.

2) And then there is this idea that literature is too “sacred” to be taught. What nonsense. (Please excuse my irritated tone in this paragraph, but I’m using it because I’m feeling irritated.) I suppose we should dismantle all theological studies in all universities as well since God–much more so than literature–is too sacred for our prying minds. Or perhaps the biological sciences because the earth is too beautiful and too sacred for the taint of intellectual inquiry. Or the medical fields since the human body, this mysterious and intricate composition of ensouled matter, is too sacred for X-rays and CAT scans.

Is literature sacred?

Yes.

Is it therefore something *only* to be “experienced” and “appreciated” by the emotional and spiritual sides of us, and protected from our ravenous intellects?

Of course not.

When functioning at its best, human reason approaches mystery with an audacious kind of humility. Dare we approach Homer and Dante with our fallible intellects and our flawed academic theories? Yes- just like Saint Augustine, with far greater trembling, approached the Holy Trinity with his clouded mind, sinful heart, and theological talent.

For more great reading on English majors, and the “cognitive empathy they bring to the table,” check out this interesting article that adds more fuel to this conversation by Bruna Martinuzzi.

When my kids this year ask me why they have to study all this stuff in English class, I’ll just tell them I’m helping them develop “cognitive empathy.” And when they say “Why do we have to analyze this? Can’t we just read it?” I will say, “Yes, let’s just read it. And then we’ll analyze it.”

Dante warns his readers that plunging into his Divine Comedy is dangerous, and is a journey that cannot be taken lightly. But I think a good English teacher, like Virgil, does his or her best to guide the student through the labyrinth of analysis and context and all the other academic jargon, and does so as a fellow-traveller, filled with wonder at the images they encounter together.

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Students during their Rome semester. Source: udallas.edu

Cliches and the Death of Thought

Source: oneguyrambling.com

Okay, that title might be a little overly dramatic.

But it definitely captures my feelings about cliches.

One of the biggest struggles my students have in writing is succumbing to cliches and / or what I like to call “universal truths.”

A cliche is

a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder but wiser, or strong as an ox. (Dictionary.com)

A “universal truth” is the same thing really, only it applies more to ideas than to particular words or phrases. The way in which the idea is expressed may or may not be cliche, but the idea itself is. For example: “Family is important” “Love helps you overcome difficulties” “Perseverance leads you to success” etc.

So, a typical high school student’s thesis statement begin something like this:

“In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare shows how love can overcome great evils through his use of…”

Hold it right there. Everybody already knows “love can overcome great evils” and nobody would disagree that this idea is present in the play. Therefore, there is no point in writing an essay about it. As I taught my kids, the heart of an essay has to be an opinion that can be argued for and against, not a universal truth that everybody believes already.

But where did students learn this fallacious approach to writing?

Well…

From English teachers, of course.

In middle school and often the early years of high school, most English teachers do a unit on “theme.” Students learn how to pick the “theme” out of a story, and to support their choice by using evidence.

And what is theme, you may ask?

The underlying message or lesson that the author is trying to convey to the reader. These often include universal values dealing with life, society or human nature. (www.readworks.org/lessons/concepts/theme)

In other words, theme = universal truth / cliche / overused idea.

So, students learn to approach literature as a process of theme-hunting. What’s the underlying message? Or, a favorite among my students–the “deeper meaning”?

In other words:

What is the over-used, boring, universally known idea that I can find in this work of literature and slap into my thesis statement so I can say something half-way true and uncontroversial about this book so I don’t have to do any real thinking?

Flannery O’Connor puts it this way:

I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction. (“Writing Short Stories,” Mystery and Manners)

I have heard people say things like, “Oh, I loved my high school English class. We learned all about symbolism and deeper meanings, like how water represents cleansing and purification and how the color red is usually a symbol of passion.”

To which I can only respond:

rolleyes
source: glogster.com

You think you’re feeding the chickens with talk like that, but actually you are choking them to death with boredom.

Today I was helping out with the English Content ACE class at Notre Dame, full of second-year high school and middle school teachers. We were talking about establishing a writing vocabulary with your students, among other things, and this whole idea of cliches and universal truths came up.

One of the middle school teachers had a really insightful question about whether or not we should teach theme at all, since it does encourage students to think in cliches. But she added that for her kids, coming up with  “friendship involves being loyal in tough situations” in Harry Potter is actually a big discovery for them a lot of the time. Kids need to learn these messages.

Here’s my thought: in middle school, go ahead and teach theme, even if it means teaching your kids to think in cliches. Push and challenge the stronger students on it if you can (“well, that’s what lots of people would believe about this story, but how could you go deeper?”) but don’t worry too much. Developmentally, universal truths might be age-appropriate for middle schoolers.

But they are not age-appropriate for high schoolers. Or anyone older than that.

For me, cliches are the death of real thought. Where cliches begin, thinking ends. When a high school student says, “Well, I guess that story just really shows us how important it is to be loyal to your friends,” they have, in effect, stopped thinking. They have stopped the conversation. They have resorted to safe and hackneyed ideas that nobody can possibly disagree with. They have closed the book. Even Worse, they have closed their minds.

Flannery again:

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully. (“Writing Short Stories,” Mystery and Manners)

Now try to wrestle with that, and you’ve got an essay.

So, You Want to Teach Like a Champion?

elementary_school_kids_raise_hand_in_class_4x3I have mentioned before that one of the most helpful books I have ever read on teaching (and I have read quite a few now) is Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov. What I love about it is that, unlike most educational literature out there, it is not bogged down by ideology and theory. (Although of course all books are motivated by a certain perspective.) Rather, Lemov focuses on practical techniques that the best and most effective teachers use in the classroom.

I just discovered today that Lemov has his own blog, which he updates frequently with new ideas and examples of great teaching. I love the way he describes his blog:

Welcome to Field Notes. I’ve named this blog that to emphasize the idea that just about everything in my books is someone else’s brilliant idea. My idea was just to write it down. I like the role of the observer and think there’s a lot of power in it. Think about it—there isn’t a problem in teaching or learning that someone somewhere hasn’t solved. We just need to find them and take some field notes. (Lemov, Field Notes Blog)

I don’t know if I completely agree that “there isn’t a problem in teaching or learning that someone somewhere hasn’t solved”–but his practical, hopeful attitude has been really helpful to me.

Take a look here:

Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion Blog

As I prepare for my third year of teaching, I plan on re-reading his book and choosing specific techniques to focus on. If you’re a teacher, I recommend that you do so as well.

Teacher or not, if you’d like to see some of these techniques in action, take a look at this great video of a 9th grade classroom on day one. It’s not fancy, but it gives you some food for thought about developmentally-appropriate ways to establish your classroom expectations on the first day of class.

Memory and Faith

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Photo credit: tour.nd.edu

I just graduated yesterday from the University of Notre Dame Alliance for Catholic Education program. These past two years have been, by far, the most challenging experience of my life. But I’ve been having trouble thinking about it all, or making sense of what has happened to me. Yet graduations are times for memory and telling people all the wonderful things you have learned and all the amazing ways you have changed.

During our commencement retreat this past week, Father Lou DelFra, our ACE chaplain, gave us a beautiful homily to help us process our experience. For our retreat, he chose one of my favorite Gospel readings, the story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus.

So my thoughts here are largely inspired by Father Lou’s words and a few passages from Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Lumen Fidei.

As you know, the two bewildered disciples are leaving Jerusalem, overcome by the horrific events they have just experienced. The Lord was crucified. All of their hopes have been dashed. They are struggling to interpret their experience of the past three years with Jesus. When the Lord, whom they do not recognize, begins walking with them, they are shocked to discover that He hasn’t heard the latest news. He begins to interpret these events for them in terms of the Scriptures, and, fascinated, they beg him to stay with them for the night. Yet they only finally recognize him “in the breaking of the bread.”

Father Lou reminded all of us that our experience on retreat, which involved the famous ACE “paired walks,” was very much like that of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. We were likewise trying to make sense of all that we have experienced, and perhaps we were having some trouble doing that.

ImageBecause for every triumphant teaching story I can tell you, there are a dozen more that do not involve visible triumph. For every miracle I saw, there were a dozen more crucifixions that had no apparent resurrection. Let’s be real here. One of my students was involved in some kind of attempted murder, and is on the run, and I still don’t know what happened to him. There was another I struggled with my entire first year, who suffered terribly from psychological challenges, whom I was never really able to reach and who is gone now. I don’t know what will happen to her either. There are kids who failed my class and who, despite my efforts, did not really seem to improve over the two years. And then there are the kids I know I did not try hard enough with, who slipped through the cracks.

As much as graduation is about our accomplishments in ACE, and the stories we love to tell each other, and the students we love to remember, it’s also about all the failures and the situations we would rather not recall.

But Father Lou’s message to us was simple—don’t be afraid to remember them. Don’t be afraid, over these next weeks, months, and years, to try to make sense of it all. Father Lou seemed strangely confident that we would find Christ there if we looked for Him—that we would see He had been walking with us the whole time, even when our “eyes were prevented from recognizing him.”

I love that in Pope Francis (and Pope Benedict’s) encyclical, they express how closely tied together faith and memory are:

Yet this remembrance is not fixed on past events but, as the memory of a promise, it becomes capable of opening up the future, shedding light on the path to be taken. We see how faith, as remembrance of the future, memoria futuri, is thus closely bound up with hope. (9, Ch 1)

Faith as memory is therefore linked to hope that sheds “light on the path to be taken.” Father Lou, as well, seemed to suggest that if we had the courage to remember our experiences—all of them, the good and the bad—that we would find Him there and He would tell us where to go next.

ImageThe two disciples on the road to Emmaus tried to remember and understand. In the Eucharist, their eyes were opened and Christ showed them the real meaning of what had happened—and thus they were able to run back to Jerusalem to share their memories with the others. And the Church has been doing this ever since. She shares her memory of Jesus with us, and because Jesus gave her the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist (“do this in memory of me”), we can trust her memory of Him.

Obviously my thoughts are still forming on all of this, so I’ll just end with the beautiful words of the encyclical that I recognize not only as applying to the universal faith, but to my own personal faith that He has been there with me in ACE—even if I still cannot recognize Him.

Language itself, the words by which we make sense of our lives and the world around us, comes to us from others, preserved in the living memory of others. Self-knowledge is only possible when we share in a greater memory. The same thing holds true for faith, which brings human understanding to its fullness. Faith’s past, that act of Jesus’ love which brought new life to the world, comes down to us through the memory of others — witnesses — and is kept alive in that one remembering subject which is the Church. The Church is a Mother who teaches us to speak the language of faith. Saint John brings this out in his Gospel by closely uniting faith and memory and associating both with the working of the Holy Spirit, who, as Jesus says, “will remind you of all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26). The love which is the Holy Spirit and which dwells in the Church unites every age and makes us contemporaries of Jesus, thus guiding us along our pilgrimage of faith. (38)

Juxtapositions

juxtaposition
Juxtaposition

Sometimes life is like a poem. (Read: mysterious and really difficult to interpret). Two experiences can work like two images juxtaposed by the poet, working off of each other, challenging each other, challenging you. Like this oft-quoted line by Emily: “I heard a Fly Buzz–when I Died.” Strangely, she pushes two images together, a commonplace one and the ultimate one: a fly buzzing and death. You have to deal with that weird juxtaposition throughout the rest of the poem.

Anyway, being an English teacher/English major, I’ve been thinking about an interesting juxtaposition that happened to me, and juxtapositions within that larger juxtaposition.

The other day I went to a Chicago White Sox game. Sitting behind me and my friends were two couples, probably in their late 20’s or early 30’s, and inevitably I heard most of their conversations during the game. Eventually they began discussing their future children and whether or not they wanted to send them to Catholic school, comparing notes on their own various Catholic school and public school experiences, and joking about whether the expense was worth it. (Little did they know that four Catholic school teachers were sitting in front of them, but, tempted as we were, we didn’t turn around). They talked about how their years of education had funded all the rich mosaics of “St. Pete’s” in the Vatican. They recalled the crazy, strict morality of Catholic school, but the liberal immorality of their Catholic school friends. “They did worse stuff than my public school buddies!”

Then one of them said,

“But I mean, the Catholic Church is a big joke, right?”

“Yeah. I mean, I’m Catholic, but I’m not Catholic.”

(Laughter)

(Silence)

I almost turned around. Not because I was angry, though. And not because I wanted to. I didn’t want to.

But I should have said something.

That was image number one. It already includes lots of strange juxtapositions within itself.

Then, yesterday, I was sitting outside reading and enjoying the beauty of the Notre Dame campus. A man came up to me and asked me if I worked for the music department, or if I knew anything about it. And then he noticed my book: The Return of the King. And that started a long conversation. Apparently he had applied to the ACE program years ago, but was not accepted ended up doing a different teaching program in Baltimore. Teaching was not for him, however, and he asked me very kindly about my own experience. There he was, and there I was.

As always, I was surprised to find myself engaging in a rather intense conversation with a complete stranger.

Somehow our conversation turned to faith, and it turns out that he had discerned the priesthood and visited various monasteries, but about ten years ago had had a conversion experience in which he had joined one of the pre-Vatican II groups of Catholics who believe that the Catholic Church, during Vatican II, had apostatized.

He talked a lot about the Third Secret of Fatima, and how the Vatican had been covering it up. How it’s easy to tell that the Lucia presented by the Church is clearly not the “real” Lucia. How the events of the book of Revelation are occurring as we speak. How it makes sense that the Anti-Christ would come, not seeking political power as some predict, but rather spiritual power, leading souls away from Christ by the very institution that was originally supposed to lead them to Him. How the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon because she has been unfaithful to Christ.

I told him politely that that’s what some Protestants call us, too.

He gestured at the basilica, and said how he never goes in there. But he comes to Notre Dame frequently, and enjoys the library, where he has looked at many old (Pre-Vatican II) documents of the Church. He told me how strange it was.

“That must be very painful,” I said.

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The Grotto

He agreed. “It is very beautiful here,” he said. “I do go to the Grotto sometimes. Do you have a devotion to Our Lady?” I told him that I did. He prays the rosary daily, all fifteen decades, but of course not the Luminous Mysteries, the ones introduced by Pope John Paul II. He walks around campus and talks to people, and it is so strange for him because “ten years ago I was like you.”

The church he goes to an hour away belongs to the Society of St. Pius X. But he, and others, actually don’t belong to that society, but a group that split off from that society.

I said that it was strange, because that’s what seems to happen so often with the Protestant Churches, too.

He asked me a lot of questions. He suggested a website for me to look at if I wanted to learn more. He was very kind, and very polite. Twice he apologized for interrupting my reading, and gave me many opportunities to close the conversation if I wanted to. But I liked talking to him.

At the end, I asked him to pray for me and I told him I would pray for him, too.

“What intention do you want me to pray for?” he asked.

I was a little surprised, but then I said, “For the unity of Christ’s Church. I know you and I disagree about what that means, and maybe we’ll end up praying for opposite things, but that’s okay.”

He said that he would.

He said goodbye and went to get a drink of water, because the air was very humid. “Nothing like in Louisiana, I expect!” he said, referring to my time there.

I thought about him kneeling at the Grotto to pray even though it’s part of a university belonging to the Church he believes abandoned the true faith. Lighting a candle with us. Juxtaposition, no?

I admire him because even though I don’t think he’s right, I think he really is trying to do what is right.

And I thought about the people behind me at the baseball game, and this man, and how hard it is to be Catholic, and how so many people struggle with what that means. How I struggle with what that means. And how easy it would be to roll one’s eyes at the people who think that the Church is a just a big “joke,” and others who think she is the “whore of Babylon.” And the people who think of the Church as some sort of corporation, making all sorts of human decisions. The Church of the old white men oppressing women, people who are gay, minorities. The big rich Vatican Church ignoring the cry of the poor. The out of touch Church. The “spirit of Vatican II” Church who moves with the times and who has abandoned tradition. The traditional Church who refuses to move with the times and clings to tradition.

Chesterton also noticed such juxtapositions of images that did not quite fit, that challenged each other. And he does a good job reminding us that the result of juxtaposition, whether it is in a poem or in your life, isn’t about striking a “happy medium,” or even Aristotle’s “golden mean,” exactly. Life and poems are too complicated for that.

He says:

As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind—the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than another demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west. No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness.

[…] It must be understood that I did not conclude hastily that the accusations were false or the accusers fools. I simply deduced that Christianity must be something even weirder and wickeder than they made out. A thing might have these two opposite vices; but it must be a rather queer thing if it did. A man might be too fat in one place and too thin in another; but he would be an odd shape. At this point my thoughts were only of the odd shape of the Christian religion; I did not allege any odd shape in the rationalistic mind.

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St. Francis

[…] And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still thunderbolt. There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation. Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape.

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Blessed Pope John XXIII

[…] The Church swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom—that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

(G. K Chesterton, excerpt from Orthodoxy)

Wilbur Wisdom

Let me introduce you to one of my dearest poets, Richard Wilbur.

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At the University of Dallas, all the English majors participate in a Literary Study class during their junior year of a chosen poet. My chosen poet was Richard Wilbur, and so I have spent many hours and days with his poems.

I was thinking of him today thanks to a wonderful post on the power of labeling by Alexander at his blog, Retrievals. Yes, his post is on the new movie Monster’s University. To understand the connection that provoked my thoughts on Wilbur, you will have to read to the end of his post to where he makes the fascinating point about labeling. Go read it.

Anyway, I think it was Wilbur who really convinced me to love poetry in the end. For a long time, although I loved novels, I shied away from poems. They seemed purposefully and annoyingly difficult– or worse, [the ones I read in high school were] confessional. Poets seemed to be so preoccupied with themselves and their own feelings. It was Wilbur who convinced me otherwise.

I think his words on the dangers of confessional poetry apply to blogging as well:

I do feel that the truth, especially the truth about oneself, is hard to report, and that if you set out to confess, what you are likely to do is tell lies in addition to reporting some of the truth. And the fact that you are consciously part of the material of the poem may lead you to falsify in ways that are not good. There are good fictions and bad fictions. The kind of fiction that glamorizes you is not good either for your sake or for the reader’s, and I think that very often the confessional poet is drawn to glamorize himself, whether he is aware of it or not. (The Paris Review, The Art of Poetry No. 22)

I would venture to say that, similarly, the best bloggers are not confessional writers. Their blogs are not about their personal lives, although over time you get a pretty good idea of what they are like through their exploration of other things. The same is true with the best poets. Although intensely personal, the best poets are not exclusively so. I think this is largely what separates amateur poetry (even if it is technically brilliant) from masterful poetry– the great poet can write from and within his feelings but is not limited by them from comprehending, in some sense, the feelings of others. That is why I have always rather disliked Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling.” This is no doubt involved, but if it stopped there we would only have confessional poetry.

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Sylvia Plath

Consider Wilbur’s critique of Sylvia Plath’s work. In his frequently discussed poem, “Cottage Street, 1953,” Wilbur describes the first time he met Sylvia Plath:

Outliving Sylvia who, condemned to live,

Shall study for a decade, as she must,

To state at last her brilliant negative

In poems free and helpless and unjust.

Here is the full text of this (rather controversial) poem.

An interviewer, like many others, questioned Wilbur’s diction here. “Unjust?” Personal, yes. Painfully honest, yes. But unjust?

Wilbur responds this way:

Its helpless one-sidedness. I tried to sprinkle a whole lot of words around there that would add up to a kind of just estimate of her. That, together with the picture I had given of her as a slumped, pale, drowning person. Let the record show that I said brilliant: “her brilliant negative. In poems free and helpless and unjust.” I suppose she was freed by the onset of her desperate condition of mind to be brilliant in the way the poems of Ariel are brilliant. At the same time, she was helpless because it required that condition of mind to bring on those poems. She was unjust because a sick and prejudiced perception of things is—well, that’s the limitation on the usefulness of her poetry to any reader, I think. It gives you some insights into a desperate condition of mind that is not absolutely foreign to the rest of us, but that goes farther towards morbidity than I’ve ever gone, thank God. At the same time there’s a lot she can’t tell you. She’s all wrapped up in herself and her feelings about her children, and herself as a writer, and her fantasies about her dead father, and her arbitrary connections between her dead father and her husband. I don’t suppose we need to know that her father was not a Nazi in order to read that poem [“Daddy”] rightly, or do we? In any case, she’s rather unjust to him. She’s certainly unjust to her mother. (Ibid)

Unfortunately I think this tendency on the part of some writers toward confessionalism has seeped into the way we read poetry, and the way high school literature is traditionally taught as well. So many of my students find it difficult to read any work, and most especially poems, without resorting to the biographical explanation of details: “Well, Emily Dickinson was a crazy recluse so that’s why her poetry is so weird and hard to understand.” Or “Tolkien is saying that about the ring because he lived through WWII and was using the ring as a metaphor for the atom bomb” or other such nonsense.

The difficulty, of course, is that there can be a lot of truth in this. One’s history does influence one’s writing. But limiting writing of any kind to one’s history, to oneself, is either a mistake of the writer or the reader or both.

 Wilbur’s explanation of the true role of a poet is something I think bloggers and other writers should always aim for:

One of the jobs of poetry is to make the unbearable bearable, not by falsehood but by clear, precise confrontation. Even the most cheerful poet has to cope with pain as part of the human lot; what he shouldn’t do is to complain, and dwell on his personal mischance.

Read the fascinating interview at The Paris Review.

What writers and bloggers do you suggest achieve this “difficult balance” (a Wilburian phrase) or “precise confrontation” with reality?