Riddles as Poetry

Hobbit Day was Sunday, apparently. September 22 is the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and, as you recall, the day Bilbo famously disappeared from the Shire and left the Ring in Frodo’s keeping.

In their honor, let’s investigate something near and dear to hobbit hearts: riddles.

A famous chapter in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is entitled “Riddles in the Dark.” Gollum and Bilbo engage in a game—an old and ancient exchange in Middle Earth that carries, even for us, a kind of magic and authority. Gollum agrees to let Bilbo go if Bilbo can solve the riddles he poses to him; and Bilbo—well, given the spot he’s in, he agrees to be eaten if he loses.

This chapter hearkens to a very old tradition, not only in English, but in many languages and cultures, and makes you think of nursery rhymes, and kennings in Beowulf (if you’re particularly nerdy) and even the Sphinx in Greek mythology. Tolkien himself emphasizes the sacredness of that tradition when describing Bilbo’s thoughts after desperately asking Gollum “what do I have in my pocket?” as his last riddle:

[Bilbo] knew, of course, that the riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it. But he felt he could not trust this slimy thing to keep any promise at a pinch. Any excuse would do for him to slide out of it. And after all that last question had not been a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws. (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit)

I remember my dad reading “Riddles in the Dark” to me and my sister and pausing to give us the chance to figure out the answers. It was, I think, the first time I had encountered riddles, and I remember my mind bending and twisting in frustration, stretching to do a sort of thinking that it wasn’t used to.

Here’s one that Gollum poses to Bilbo:

Alive without breath,
As cold as death;
Never thirsty, ever drinking,
All in mail never clinking.

What’s so striking about this riddle is that three of the four lines are paradoxes. It pushes against your sense of what is possible. How can something be alive, and not breathe? A plant, perhaps? But then the next line nixes that: plants aren’t “as cold as death.” Well then; so what is never thirsty, but “ever drinking”? A riverbed? But then your mind is thrown again– apparently this thing wears “mail,” like a soldier? A mail that “never clinks”?

The answer is fish–and as with all good riddles, as soon as you hear the answer, you feel a sense of surprise at its obviousness: “oh! Why didn’t I see that before?”

You work backwards, and realize that each of the pieces of the puzzle fit really well, and invite you to see fish in a strange new way: alive, but not breathing, “cold as death”—and indeed there is something rather ghostly about the fish I observed in the Boston Aquarium as a young girl—, always “drinking” water but obviously never thirsty for it, and arrayed in fine, sometimes beautiful scales like silent mail. Fish are stranger than you think.

When I used to teach Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, I loved telling my students the story of how Oedipus became the king of Thebes, a story which precedes the events of the famous awful tragedy with a kind of unexpected playfulness. After diagramming on the board the (somewhat complicated) family tree, I always shared with them the famous riddle the Sphinx poses to Oedipus. Like Gollum, she places dire terms on the riddle: if he solves it, she will leave Thebes alone; if he fails to solve it, she will devour him:

What walks on four legs in the morning
Two legs at noon
And three legs in the evening?

As a class, we would spend at least fifteen minutes guessing all sorts of answers. I would always insist that students who had already heard the story not to give it away. I can still see the furrowed brows, confused smiles, frustrated frowns and eyes raised to the ceiling for inspiration—all proper responses to the riddle, the kind of intellectual language game that most of us don’t often encounter.

Eventually my students would reach the end of their patience and demand the answer. I don’t remember in my eight years of teaching anyone actually solving it:

Man crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult, and uses a cane in old age.

If you know what happens next to Oedipus in Sophocles’ play, you realize the depths of the irony: Oedipus solves the Sphinx’s riddle about the nature of man, but cannot solve the riddle of his own nature, his own fate.

Riddles don’t seem to be part of our common discourse today, but puns are, and they’re rather akin to them. I have two friends in particular who are really gifted at coming up with puns, and it always takes me several moments to even realize what they’re talking about.

Like riddles, puns rely on something similar to metaphor–on pulling together sounds that you do not normally associate, as riddles pull together disparate ideas or images. And, I would admit, despite my own personal frustration and lack of skill with both, puns and riddles have the unique ability to refresh language, to make you encounter words you think you knew in a new way.

Puns and riddles are poetic.

In his wonderful essay “The Persistence of Riddles,” my friend Richard Wilbur says that riddles “unlimber the mind, making us aware of the arbitrariness of our taxonomy; they restore us briefly to clear-eyed ignorance and a sense of mystery” (The Catbird’s Song 46).

“Clear-eyed ignorance and a sense of mystery.” I love that. Flannery would too.

We think and move and live in language–in a particular dialect, conditioned by time and location and class and economic status and ethnic background and all sorts of things we don’t even realize are forming the way we speak and think. But riddles–and, I believe, poems– have the power to engage us with language in fresh ways that can make words strange and new for us again.

Here’s a wonderful riddle Wilbur offers in that same essay:

In marble walls as white as milk
Lined with a skin as soft as silk,
Within a fountain crystal-clear,
A golden apple doth appear.
No doors there are to this stronghold,
Yet thieves break in and steal the gold.

The first two lines begin gently, with similes. Similes are always easier to swallow than metaphors; they claim less. The marble walls as white “as milk”–like it, but not exactly; they have a skin soft “as silk”–an arresting image, to be sure, but nothing to get too worked up about.

But the riddle intensifies as it ventures into metaphor: “a golden apple” appears “within a fountain crystal-clear”–and your mind starts to stretch a bit as you imagine the apple bobbing up and down in the water cascading from some kind of source. Of course, the apple is a metaphor, but for what? And you can’t quite get the image of an apple floating in water out of your head, even though you know it obscures as much as it reveals.

The last clue is more tantalizing than it is helpful (at least it was for me, as I read it before finally allowing my eyes to slip down to the answer). Another metaphor appears: the apple in the fountain is somehow “a stronghold” that is nevertheless breached by “thieves” who “break in and steal the gold.”

Have you guessed the answer?

Wilbur again:

That rich and curious structure, that doorless stronghold, sounds as if it belonged in a fairy tale or chivalric romance. To someone unused to the aesthetic of riddles, it might seem anticlimactic, after all that marble, silk, and gold, that the answer should be merely “an egg.” But that is not how enigmas are to be taken; whatever else they do, they are out to restore for a moment the wonder of ordinary things—to make us amazed, in this case, that an egg should be what it is. (Ibid. 44, emphasis added)

That is what a riddle is—and a pun, and a kenning, and any truly metaphorical use of language. That is what poetry is: the mode of language that can “restore for a moment the wonder of ordinary things.”

If you want a bit of proof, look at Emily Dickinson. Her “Narrow Fellow in the Grass” is, of course, a snake—but she never says his name out loud in the poem, as if she were in a drawing-room full of delicate 19th century ladies.

Rather, she offers us a riddle that helps us rediscover the snake as “a spotted Shaft” or a “Whip Lash;” a creature who inspires in us a “tighter Breathing”; we gasp at the sight of him, and not just because we are afraid.

In “I Dwell in Possibility”, Dickinson poses a riddle whose answer is poetry itself: it is a “house” that is “fairer than Prose” with more “Windows” and “Doors”; that is, it somehow lets in more light. It’s “Chambers” are “impregnable of Eye” with a roof encompassing the “Gambrels of the Sky.” Indeed, poetry is capable of endowing the poet, with her “narrow Hands,” the power to “gather Paradise”.

No wonder Socrates felt that poetry was rather dangerous. Riddles are, too. They are both like magic spells because they are both human acts of renaming the world. They attempt to get a fresh look at things that would otherwise be disenchanted for us. They make the expected unexpected, the ordinary unusual, the profane sacred.

I’ll close with a poem containing a series of riddles that Richard Wilbur says describes the poet:

    Pitcher – by Robert Francis

His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,

His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.

The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.

Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.

Not to, yet still, still to communicate
Making the batter understand too late.

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.

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.

 

The “Calculus of English”

burningtiger

One of my students said something fascinating on Friday. He compared poetry to calculus. He said, “You know, Ms. Shea, I feel like poetry is the calculus of English. Not everybody is forced to take calculus in high school if they don’t want to, but for some reason everybody is forced to read poetry.”

The guy has a point.

I disagree with him on a fundamental level–I believe poetry is much more like art, like painting, than it is like calculus. One of the things that tends to bother some people about poetry is that there is no one right answer to it–it resists computation and calculation and most things left-brain related.

But you can see where he is coming from. He said, “Poetry is for the elite.” And to be honest, some poetry definitely comes off that way. And sometimes the way we teach it makes it seem that way.

Why, I wonder?

I alluded in my last post to not analyzing poems with students. This seems to be rather the opposite of what most English teachers do (and what I myself have done), and especially the opposite of what AP Literature teachers are supposed to do–but I think it is very important. And I also think it is important to explain to them explicitly that we are not going to analyze poetry todayI am not going to ask you today what you think X poem means. Eventually, I want them to be able to do analyze in a certain sense, but not right off the bat, not in the way they expect.

But this non-analytical approach is not unique to poetry.

Think about it. People spend their lives analyzing baseball–tracking players and teams, predicting outcomes, developing detailed spreadsheets to keep track of every single pitch. And they love it! But a Dad does not introduce his kid to baseball by sitting him down and explaining how stats work and what an ERA means and how to determine what your options are when you’re a left handed pitcher with a right-handed powerhouse at bat with the bases loaded.

No — he takes his child outside and plays catch with him. He teaches him how to throw a ball. And they have fun.

Or take another example that doesn’t involve any math.

If you’re someone who loves Bob Dylan songs and you want your boyfriend to understand the stark beauty of that scratchy voice, you don’t break down the lyrical allusions or explain the folk heritage influences. You put on your favorite Bob Dylan song and turn the volume up. Or you learn the song and play it and sing it with your own lovely voice– because surely he will be able to appreciate that.

If you want a friend to love Vietnamese food and she has never tried it before, you don’t describe all the ingredients or compare and contrast the flavor palette with Panda Express. You make her (or take her to a restaurant that serves) bot chien and pour her a glass of wine.

We must find ways to help our students experience and savor the beauty of something before we challenge them to “learn” it.

The word “analysis” (Grk: ᾰ̓νᾰ́λῠσῐς) means to unravel, to take apart, piece by piece, so that you can (presumably) come to a better understanding of it. But most things, when you take them apart too much, just stop working altogether. Like a human being, for instance.

A really good doctor should have a sense of the human being as a whole before she starts investigating the individual parts and organs. A man does not fall in love with a woman’s eyes, but with a particular woman. He notices her eyes, to be sure–but only insofar as they suggest the mysterious integrity of her person.

I am finally realizing that this is true of everything I teach, but most especially of poetry. How can you properly learn anything unless you have some kind of genuine love for it? Some simple awe and curiosity?

But I am still figuring out how. How do I impart that?

For my first full-on poetry lesson with my AP students (I know, I know, I really should have started earlier this year)– I gave them a packet of pretty accessible and short poems. Billy Collins, Naomi Shihab Nye, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wilbur (of course), a war poem, a Shakespeare sonnet (116 for the kids who loved watching “Sense and Sensibility”), a poem about rain, “Poetry” by Marianne Moore (“I, too, dislike it”), “The Questions Poems Ask,” … Anyway. Their homework was to read all these poems at least once and pick one they liked OR that they “didn’t hate” (since that more accurately described some of the super smart boys’ feelings). They were not allowed to annotate or analyze them.

“Remember–no analyzing! No annotating!” I said to them, smiling as they walked out my door. “Okay, Ms. Shea.”

When they came back to class two days later, I had them spend some “non-analytic” time with their poems. They copied the poems down by hand, line by line. (There were some grumbles at this about “busy work”— but then one girl realized that she hadn’t even noticed that the poem rhymed until she copied it down, and another student said “oh— every line ends with the word ‘rain'” and another student was like “whoah there are a lot of semicolons in this…” so I think they understood for the most part that it can be a good thing to just slow down with a poem and follow the poet’s thinking.) Then they chose their favorite image from their poem and had to draw it as literally as possible. I was particularly encouraging and stingy about this.

“I like how you drew your clouds in front of the sun instead of behind it. But how are you going to convey that the sun comes up ‘not in spite of rain / or clouds but because of them” in your picture?”

“I like your little guy waving on the shore, but how are you going to show that the other person is waterskiing ‘across the surface of the poem’, not across the surface of water?” (This student wrote the word “poem” and drew an arrow to point at the water.)

“That line has a ‘you’ in it. How are you going to show the ‘you’ in your picture?”

They huffed and puffed, but even as seniors in an AP Lit class most of them seemed to like the challenge of drawing and noticing.

I’m planning on having them recording themselves reading their poems out loud on their phones. Yes– they will be using technology–but last year, when I assigned this task as homework to my sophomores, those kids ended up recording themselves multiple times because they kept skipping words or pausing in awkward places. In fact, some of them re-recorded themselves so often that they memorized huge parts of their poems without realizing it.

Ah, yes. Exactly.

So, even as I try to model for my kids how to approach a poem humbly and carefully, without trying to tear it apart or lose the joy in reading it, I hope I can continue to just read poems aloud to them and find other ways for them to experience these works in their uniqueness and beauty.

As I tried to point out to them on Friday, even noticing “positive” and “negative” tones is something they do all the time with their friends in conversation. We are always picking up on the facial cues of others—and even if we do not know exactly how someone else is feeling on the inside, we can make some good guesses that help us encounter that person more deeply.

Poems are like that.

If calculus is also like that somehow, I stand corrected.

 

 

How do you read a poem?

I think one of the most challenging parts of teaching is the teaching not of what, but how.

How to read. How to write a thesis statement. How to identify an unclear pronoun reference.

It’s easy enough, in many ways, to define rules or to explain whens and whats and even–sometimes–whys. But hows are tough, because as teachers we ourselves don’t often remember how we learned the things we know.

For example, right now I am (re)introducing my AP Lit kids to poetry, and many of them have all sorts of negative associations. It’s boring, it’s confusing, etc. But I suspect the real problem is that most of them don’t know how to read a poem. They do not know how to enjoy it. (I, for example, feel the same way about football.) As Marianne Moore observes, “we do not admire / what we cannot understand” (“Poetry“).

Normally, I teach a simple process of how to read a poem in class by modeling it for the kids. I “think aloud” through a poem with them, usually with an overhead projector. This actually takes quite a lot of time usually, however, and does not leave much time left over for the kids to try it themselves in the classroom.

So this time, I am going to try something a bit different. After this past week of not analyzing poems– (maybe I’ll do a post on that later)– I am going to do a bit of a “flipped classroom” approach where my students will watch short videos of me “thinking aloud” through that same process I always teach. That way, the direct instruction part can be something they observe and think through at their own pace at home, and I’ll have more time in class to give them in-person assistance.

They’ll watch the video once without taking notes, then watch it again, pausing it wherever they like in order to take notes and jot down ideas on the steps I am suggesting. I’ll give them tips on what to try before I assign the homework, and I will try to get them to focus on the how, the process I am teaching, that can work with any poem.

Then, when they come to class next time, they will try doing this process for themselves with a poem of their choosing, but with me available and present to coach them through it.

Here’s unedited, stream-of-consciousness videos #1 and #2 I think I will be assigning this week:

Video 1 has students first read the poem out loud, and then track where the poem seems “positive” or “negative”.

Video 2, below, has students then determine what kinds of “positive” or “negative” tones the speaker is employing. I’ve called this developing a “tone map” in the past.

What I’m trying to do here is to teach the “how” — to unpack, for students, how I go about reading a poem. I also am trying to model for them that it is okay to be uncertain, to explore, to make guesses.

Persistent Concerns

I was teaching a senior elective a couple of years ago called “Christian Authors,” and I remember trying to teach my kids about this idea of the “persistent concerns” of a writer– the issues that an author keeps coming back to, over and over again, in story after story, book after book. It’s a hard thing to teach in a one semester course because you can only really see it if you have read lots of things that one person has written.

A wonderful professor of mine in college, Dr. Roper, mentioned something like this in our literature class in Rome. He compared the act of real, honest writing to the rather unattractive image of scratching an itch that just won’t go away. And great writers, I suppose, are those people who keep scratching perpetual itches.

So, think about your favorite author– someone whose wide body of works you have read. Think of this person’s novels, short stories, essays, letters–whatever you have gotten your hands on over the years. Aren’t there certain threads that keep pulling on each other again and again? Isn’t there this sense that, somehow, every story he ever wrote is somehow the same story? Or perhaps there is an image or moment that keeps coming up over and over– not in a way that is forced, or even intentional–but nonetheless unmistakably patterned on another scene you’ve seen her try to articulate before?

You may have discovered this phenomenon long ago, but when I finally did, I felt like I had stumbled upon a small revelation: most writers, even the really great ones, keep writing about the same darn things.

And for most of them, it’s just one thing. Maybe two. Three at most.

It may look like lots of different things. C. S. Lewis wrote about everything from lions in wardrobes and men traveling to Mars to older demons teaching young devils the ways of temptation–but, in the end, wasn’t he always really writing about that mysterious, unbidden joy and longing? Lucy follows it, Ransom is baptized in it, Screwtape tries to kill it, Orual stifles it, Reepicheep plunges into its depths– but it’s always there. The most beautiful passages in all of Lewis’ stories and apologetic works describe that longing he called “joy”.

For Austen, one obvious persistent concern is marriage. For Flannery, it’s that violent intervention of grace. For Dostoevsky, it seems to be something like human suffering and the beauty of God.

What are the persistent concerns of your favorite writer? What questions or ideas do they keep going back to?

My kids actually notice this phenomenon all the time with the very few authors the curriculum demands they pay attention to more than just once, but they express their recognition with something less than awe: “Ms. Shea, why does Shakespeare always write about relationships with trust issues?”

I don’t mean to ignore the complexity and nuance of what great writers and poets do–but I believe that considering a large body of someone’s work in this way can help us find a more meaningful path towards knowing him better. When I was assigned the onerous Junior Poet project in college, and had to absorb all the writings of a particular chosen poet, I found that sitting back and asking myself rather simply about Richard Wilbur’s persistent concerns helped me to see connections in his work I had been too overwhelmed to appreciate before.

I bring this idea up because something occurred to me today as I was thinking about the Feast of Christ the King– a feast, I admit, that never has captured my imagination or spiritual feelings in any powerful way before. Gaudete Sunday always does, the Easter Vigil does, the Visitation… and lots of other minor memorials. Most of them probably have some kind of connecting thread to one of my own persistent concerns. But not the Feast of Christ the King. It’s the feast that lets me know that I can finally get excited for Advent, and that has been about it.

Yet for some reason today, as I was listening to a podcast about this last Sunday in Ordinary time and thinking how the whole kingship thing doesn’t really resonate with me, I remembered a priest asking once, in a homily perhaps, “Do you know what Christ talks about most in the Gospels?”

I remember my mind flitting through a list of possibilities. Love? No, too obvious. The poor? Mm, Jesus acts always with them in mind and heart, but how often does he actually use the word “the poor” besides in the Beatitudes and “the poor you will always have with you”? Maybe forgiveness– or something nobody would say, like bread? Fish? No. Ah, of course. Abba. Father. That must be…

“The Kingdom.”

What?

“The Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven as it is called in Matthew. The Kingdom is what he loves to talk about most.”

I remember being rather astonished and almost… disappointed? Not love? Not hope? Really, Jesus? What you talk about most is “the Kingdom”? What even is that?

Even now, as I write this, I decided to do a quick Command+F (mac!) search. In the King James translation of the Gospel of Matthew, the word “kingdom” appears 57 times. In Mark, 21. In Luke, 46. In John, only 5 (!).

As a comparison, the English word “love” occurs 57 times in John, 18 times in Luke, 10 in Mark, and 16 in Matthew.

That’s 129 to 101 in favor of “kingdom” over “love”, folks. And we know there are (at least four?) different Greek words for love, and John employs different ones throughout his Gospel, and so that 101 number would go down quite a bit if we distinguished the different actual Greek words being translated with the one English “love”. (For a brief but interesting summary of key Greek words in John, see this website.)

But the consistent word for Kingdom, βασιλεία or Basileia in Greek, appears 162 times in the New Testament according to Wikipedia–and most of those instances are from the lips of Christ himself.

Okay, so even if this priest was exaggerating, and even if you did more searches and found out that another word appeared more frequently, it’s clear that “the kingdom” is certainly a persistent concern of Jesus.

So why, I wondered, isn’t it a persistent concern of mine?

Partially, perhaps, because I don’t fully understand what the kingdom is. It always seemed synonymous with the Church or with heaven, or perhaps with the new creation–and those identifications are all true. Yet still it is only in the context of the term “kingdom” that I ever identify those already mysterious concepts with one another.

I remembered vaguely that in Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict reflects on the meaning of “the kingdom” quite a lot, so I searched for his explanations:

“‘Kingdom of God’ is…an inadequate translation [of the Hebrew malkut and the Greek basilea]. It would be better to speak of God’s being-Lord, of his lordship” (emphasis added, 56).

“He, who is in our midst, is the ‘Kingdom of God,’ only we do not know him (cf Jn 1:30)….He himself is the treasure; communion with him is the pearl of great price” (60-61).

“The Kingdom is not a thing, it is not a geographical dominion like worldly kingdoms. It is a person; it is he. On this interpretation, the term ‘Kingdom of God’ is itself a veiled Christology. By the way in which he speaks of the Kingdom of God, Jesus leads men to realize the overwhelming fact that in him God himself is present among them, that he is God’s presence.”

Mysterious still.

But at least I’m beginning to think about the Feast of Christ the King in a different way–that is, I’m actually thinking about it.

It’s a feast that celebrates the consummation of that kingdom, the already-but-not-yet reign of the one true king.

And then I remembered–how did I not see it before–how so many of Jesus’ stories are about the kingdom, how one must be “like a little child” to enter it– how the teacher of the law who answered him wisely was “not far from” it — how the poor in spirit would “inherit” it — how it is like a treasure in a field or a pearl of great price.

He even seemed, sometimes, to struggle to put it into words for us–as sometimes we all do when we are talking about what we love best: “What is the kingdom of God like? To what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that a man planted in a garden… To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour…” (Luke 13:18-20).

There is much more, of course, to think about here. Like the kingly gifts he received from the magi as a poor infant, or the mockery of his kingship that he suffered at the hands of the Romans. The crown of thorns and the purple robe and the “King of the Jews” notice by Pilate take on a new poignancy when you reflect on how much Jesus loved to preach about the kingdom. And that pointed question we actually heard in the Gospel this Sunday from Pilate touches, rather deeply, on the whole mystery of what Jesus meant by the term:

Pilate said to Jesus,
“Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own
or have others told you about me?”
Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I?
Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me.
What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.
If my kingdom did belong to this world,
my attendants would be fighting
to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.
But as it is, my kingdom is not here.”
So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say I am a king.
For this I was born and for this I came into the world,
to testify to the truth.
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

John 18:33-37

Perhaps as we get ready for Advent– a season full of persistent concerns I can more easily relate to like waiting and hope– I can first pause and reflect, in this last week of ordinary time, on one of Jesus’ favorite things to tell stories about: his Father’s Kingdom.

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TeacherCounselorParentCoachFriend Part II

Continuing from Part I–What does it really mean to be a teacher? What is our role in the lives of our students?

St. Thomas Aquinas actually has this beautiful image of the teacher as a doctor, and the act of teaching as an act of healing. (I highly recommend this great talk by Fr. Vivian Boland, O.P. on “The Healing Work of Teaching: Thomas Aquinas and Education” if you want to learn about it in depth.)

I mean, just think about that for a second.

As I mentioned before, there is a certain appropriate professional distance between the student and the teacher, as there is between the counselor or doctor and the patient.

Yet Aquinas draws this comparison for other reasons–namely, because of the actions of teaching and learning.

He says, “Learning is produced in the pupil by the teacher, not like heat in wood by the fire, but like health in the invalid by the doctor” (Treatise Of Spiritual Creatures. Art IX. in conjunction with a polemic against Averroës, as quoted here).

He also says, “We do not say that a teacher communicates knowledge to the pupil, as though the knowledge which is in the teacher is numerically the same as that which arises in the pupil. It is rather that the knowledge which arises in the pupil through teaching is similar to that which is in the teacher, and this was raised from potency into act, as has been said.  As the doctor is said to cause healing, although he works exteriorly, while nature alone works interiorly, so man is said to teach the truth, although he declares it exteriorly, while God teaches interiorly” (Aquinas, Questiones Disputatate de Veritate Q 11, a 1).

What is so lovely about Aquinas’ view is that the teacher, like the doctor, works in harmony with nature– that is, the teacher appeals to the capacity of reason that already belongs to the student. The teacher is not so much giving what the student does not have, but is rather cultivating, nourishing, and drawing out capacities that are already in him by virtue of his human nature. The teacher helps to actualize potentialities that already exist in the student.

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Phil helps Hercules hone his “god-given” strength.

Moreover Aquinas seems to imply that the teacher is a kind of “coworker” with God– a favorite term of Pope Benedict as well, whose episcopal motto was “cooperatores veritatis” : coworkers of the truth. God does the interior work, according to Aquinas, but we have a part in the “exterior declaration” that God uses to bring about the inner transformation.

But the key is to remember that this image is an analogy–and so although there are elements in being a doctor that are like those in being a teacher, there are also elements that are unlike, even according to Aquinas.

I cannot heal my students of their physical, emotional, or mental infirmities in the same way a medical doctor or therapist can, because I am not trained to do so. I can, like any other human being, listen with attentiveness and sensitivity and care to whatever problems or sufferings they express, but in that sense I find myself more like a caring (but untrained) friend than like a counselor.

And yet, are teachers friends?

Yes, and no. Like friends, we are on a journey with our students toward the truth of whatever we are trying to teach. And like friends there is a certain level of equality through shared experience in the classroom and in the school community of certain events. And like Aristotle’s “friendship of virtue,” we are hopefully engaging in a relationship in which we encourage our students on to greater goodness, and likewise ourselves receive the ways in which they encourage us to greater virtue and love.

But as Aristotle also points out, equality is necessary for friendship. And there is a marked inequality in the student-teacher relationship. Even the most egalitarian among us would admit that there is, at least, an imbalance of power; the teacher has (some) authority over her students, and even evaluates their “performance” and evidence of learning. So friendship, in the traditional sense, is not even possible (nor, I would argue, advisable).

I’m still thinking about all this. More to come.

 

Leitmotifs and LIFEmotifs

No, go back and watch that first! ^^

I showed this video to my AP classes the other week in order to help them enrich their understanding of literary motifs– which are recurring images, symbols, ideas or patterns in a story that help highlight or develop a theme. (See previous post for the difficulty with themes.)

As I explained to my students, in the video above, the Nerdwriter uses the word “theme” where, literature-wise, I would use the word “motif.” He does an amazing job showing how Howard Shore develops the same series of notes (eg: the “Fellowship theme” /  motif) throughout the trilogy of movies in a way that highlights and qualifies the meaning of the scenes.

Literary motifs are not too hard to spot once you know what to look for–and they can really enrich your experience of a story.

For example, proposals are definitely a motif in Pride and Prejudice:

Mr.-Collins
“Almost as soon as I entered the house I singled you out as the companion of my future life. “

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“You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

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“On opening the door, she perceived her sister and Bingley standing together […] the faces of both, as they hastily turned round and moved away from each other, would have told it all. Their situation was awkward enough […]”

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“It taught me to hope,” said he, “as I had scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before.”

Notice that, although each instance of the motif includes different characters in different situations with vastly different moods, etc– (like different instruments!) there is the common pattern of notes throughout. In fact, there is a thread weaved in the plot, if you tug it, you might be able to pull in order coax out a theme somewhere. What is Austen saying about proposals? Or even — what are adequate grounds for making a proposal? Answering those questions would give you a modest theme that Austen is probably getting at.

Interestingly, I find it rather unlikely that Austen thought to herself– “Hm, I think I will put a proposals motif into my story.” Maybe she did think that. But likely the proposal scenes occurred naturally in the plot. Motifs, like so many other amazing patterns in literature, often arise out of an organic process that isn’t always the result of the author’s conscious or deliberate intent; yet they are there just the same. I think of the Eucharistic sunset motifs in Flannery O’Connor stories, or the confession-rehearsals throughout Crime and Punishment, or the countless goodbye exchanges between friends in The Lord of the Rings. They are meant to be there, but not always, consciously, by the author.

Previously, my students had been thinking of motifs in King Lear as sort of static key words that show up frequently in the work; oh, look! There’s the word “sight” again! And then King Lear is acting “blind”! And now Gloucester’s eyes have been removed… so he’s literally blind… But although they could notice repeating images or words, they did not yet have the sense of the richness inherent in motifs. That’s why the video above is so helpful. There’s an almost visceral level that music in movies can touch that is not so easily accessed (at least anymore) by literature– but once you are reminded of it you can return to the page with awakened senses.

So, now that we’re reading Beowulf, what I want my kids to see is that the images or ideas that recur throughout the poem — like gold and treasure, the concept of fate, the use (or uselessness of weapons)— do so in much the same way as the stirring “Fellowship” motif recurs throughout LOTR or the foreboding Darth Vader or mysterious Force motif recurs throughout the Star Wars Saga. Sometimes, the same motif is played with different instruments, or with a different tempo, or with a minor shift of some kind. The change in tone, in instrumentation, in context, is as important in musical scores as it is in literature– and these changes suggest something about meaning.

For example, the first time we see the treasure motif appear in Beowulf is in the context of death: Shield Sheafson, a paradigmatic king and warrior whose hallowed memory strangely opens the tale of Beowulf, is given a water burial. He is lain in a boat by his thanes and covered with treasure:

They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,

Laid out by the mast, amidships,
The great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures
Were piled upon him, and precious gear.
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished
With battle tackle, bladed weapons
And coats of mail. The massed treasure
Was loaded on top of him: it would travel far
On out into the ocean’s sway. (Heaney, Beowulf 34-42)
Yes, like Boromir.
The next time treasure in Beowulf appears, however, it does so in the context of the gilded gold in the hall of Heorot. The hall itself cannot protect the people from the brutal devastation of Grendel, and so once again treasure is associated with death. This time, however, it is clear that treasure does have some kind of protective mythic quality:
So Grendel waged his lonely war,
Inflicting constant cruelties on the people,
Atrocious hurt. He took over Heorot,
Haunted the glittering hall after dark,
But the throne itself, the treasure-seat,
He was kept from approaching; he was the Lord’s outcast. (Heaney, Beowulf 164-9, emphasis added)
Treasure is linked with death here, certainly– Grendel “took over Heorot” and “Haunted the glittering hall.” Treasure cannot ultimately protect men from their fate. However, treasure is also associated with kingship and a special kind of providence: “the throne itself, the treasure-seat, / [Grendel] was kept from approaching.”
One word for king in the poem is a kenning– “ring-giver”– that is, a treasure-giver. Kings and chieftains bestowed treasure upon their thanes in return for loyalty and mighty deeds. Their thrones are evidently “treasure-seats” protected by God, who keeps Grendel “from approaching.” It would be a mistake to think that treasure in this poem is a materialistic indulgence or source of vice in the same way that money is in, say, in The Great Gatsby. It is associated far too often with honor and nobility for that kind of dismissive interpretation. Yet at the same time, treasure and weapons and gold are left in the barrows of heroes long gone.
The more you notice the places in which this motif appears throughout Beowulf, the stranger and more mysterious it becomes. Beowulf lays aside his treasure, his arms, to fight Grendel– and only thus is victorious. Grendel cannot be defeated by ordinary means. And yet Beowulf needs treasure — a magic sword– to defeat Grendel’s mother. Much later, as he dies from battle wounds, the old King Beowulf asks his young thane to bring to him some of the treasure from the dragon’s hoard– pulling us back once again to the association of treasure with death.
I could be conflating different motifs here — perhaps it would be better to distinguish gold from weapons within this idea of “treasure.” But nevertheless I think the point holds; recurring images and patterns in stories are worth noticing. They can open up initially obscure tales in surprising ways.
The kids will be researching a topic in Beowulf for their first mini research paper, and each topic they can choose from is tied– at least obliquely — to a motif.
One of my students asked if he could trace rewards exchanged in Beowulf between king and thane in order to explore their impact on the rewards system in the RPG game Skyrim–which apparently borrows a lot from Anglo-Saxon culture. I said, go for it.
Ultimately, it would be cool for them to ponder the extent to which there are any motifs in their own lives. Admittedly, it’s dangerous to go pattern-hunting in one’s own life– it is better to cultivate a humble disposition that welcomes each day, acknowledging that day’s uniqueness, and that doesn’t too hastily categorize moments into pre-conceived patterns.
Still, I think God Himself sometimes has favorite ways of working with different people in a motif-esque kind of way: He seems to think exile is a recurring pattern that is necessary for the Israelites. Abraham is told to make all sorts of journeys– exterior and interior. Peter’s recurring motif is to make a fool out of himself. If we approached our own lives with prayer (the proper literary approach for this genre, if you will), I think we might discover some beautiful motifs woven throughout them. How much more intricate they are than movies and novels– and how much more strange and mysterious.

Theme and the Holy Spirit

382467-Flannery-O-Connor-Quote-I-write-to-discover-what-I-knowI remember during my first year of teaching being rather terrified of students asking me to help them, because I wasn’t sure that I could.

I distinctly remember the sinking feeling in my stomach when one of my seniors asked if he could stop by during lunch and get help on his first essay for my class. “Sure!” I said cheerfully, as dismay and tension settled into my shoulders.

Fast forward to this afternoon during my planning block in the library of my new school. Another senior had asked for help on her first in-class essay. I’m teaching the AP classes how to write the dreaded “Open Prompt” essay in preparation for the exam— where, in roughly 40 minutes, you need to choose a play or novel “of literary merit” with which to respond to a thought-provoking prompt about life and literature. (See this link for all the prompts on AP Literature exams from 1970-2017. They’re really worth reading– some of them are fascinating to ponder.)

My student is writing about the motif of blindness in King Lear, but was having trouble formulating a theme statement, what the AP exam usually calls “the meaning of a work as a whole”. In other words, what is Shakespeare trying to say to us about blindness?

As often as high school English teachers talk about theme, I’ve realized it’s actually a very difficult concept to teach well. In fact, I never used to teach it ostensibly because I agreed with O’Connor that trying to “find the theme” of a story is actually the wrong way to go about reading literature in the first place:

The result of the proper study of a novel should be contemplation of the mystery embodied in it, but this is a contemplation of the mystery in the whole work and not or some proposition or paraphrase. It is not the tracking down of an expressible moral or a statement about life. (O’Connor, “The Teaching of Literature,” Mystery and Manners 129).

Yet theme is a statement about life–some kind of claim, the theory goes, that a novel or play makes without ever coming out and spelling the idea out for you word for word. People often mistake the theme of a work for a mere topic like “revenge” or “ambition” or “the role of women”–but a full-fledged theme is a sentence with a subject and a predicate.

Flannery goes on to say in the very next sentence, “An English teacher I knew once asked her students what the moral of The Scarlet Letter was, and one answer she got as that the moral of The Scarlet Letter was, think twice before you commit adultery” (Ibid).

Okay, Flannery, but you could (with some fear and trembling) argue that a theme in The Violent Bear It Away is that “spiritual hunger is, for all its pain, a kind of poverty that makes way for satiety.” Or something like that. Couldn’t you?

51uTjOmSPXLFlannery responds,

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.

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 96)

I mean, I do plan to share that quote with my AP kids… but not until they have more confidence in developing themes and have written some good ones in a bunch of essays.

I’m essentially teaching them how to do something I plan on un-teaching them later.

Alas, the depths to which prepping kids for the AP exams will make one descend.

But my feelings about theme have softened over time through repetitive exposure and also through the private (perhaps naive) hope that I’m teaching in a way that does not encourage merely the “tracking down” of morals, cliches, or definitive life lessons.

So I’m sitting in the library, listening to this new student describe how hard it is for her to “come up with” a theme for King Lear that will “work” in this revised version of her essay. (I sense O’Connor’s non-plussed gaze–not on her, on me.) The good thing is, my student, like Socrates, knows that she doesn’t know– she sees that her essay can’t really go anywhere without a real thesis, without some kind of guess as to what Shakespeare is up to, but the reality is she simply doesn’t know what to say. “I don’t just want to say X is the theme,” she explains, “because that’s not what’s really going on.” Bravo. She cares about saying something true. (Another student I had spoken with earlier, after she had finally come up with a theme statement about undergoing trials in order to mature, when asked if she thought Cormac McCarthy was actually trying to convey that theme in his novel, replied that she didn’t care. She could write an essay about it, and that’s what mattered, and now, I suppose, she could go “feed the chickens”. Yikes.)

“I tried last night to come up with a theme, but they all just didn’t sound right,” my current student explained, gazing at her laptop screen with its strikethroughs and different colored fonts and other fragments of her labor.

As I listened, I realized, in the back of my mind, that I didn’t know how to help her.

That is, how to really help her. I could pretty easily come up with a theme statement and just give it to her, or ask her extremely leading questions that would help her to think of something rather similar to what I had in mind–but how to help her discover a central theme in King Lear on her own? I recalled, momentarily, that sinking feeling I got during my first year of teaching.

Flannery O’Connor says somewhere, probably in one of her letters, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say” (source).

It’s an idea I try to share with my students, especially those that feel like they have to have everything planned out before they can start writing. Although I fully support outlines if they are helpful, I do think kids need to learn that so often we only get to discover the deeper riches and beauty and meaning in a work while we write about it– not before.

Flannery says elsewhere, “I write to discover what I know.” Perhaps her preference for an organic meaning over a formulaic theme comes from her experience of what writing is really like. She knows that real writers don’t plant themes in stories like trophies to be dug up once you’ve cleared away enough of the distracting dirt of the plot. In fact, this is impossible. All they have is the dirt–the plot, I mean. There are no trophies to hide. Meaning simmers in the words themselves. The author only really knows what the work is going to mean after she has written it–and even then, not completely.

This rambling blog post itself, which has moved from a distant memory to an event in the library today to some musings on theme and the act of teaching illustrates her point too. I didn’t know, exactly, what I was going to write about until I began writing. (This post also highlights the importance of editing, and how once you DO discover what you want to say, you should probably go back through your work and delete all the irrelevant parts, if you have the time or inclination…)

I find O’Connor’s experience of writing in order to find out what she wants to say to be true of teaching as well. When I was a student I had this notion that teachers walked into a classroom with all of their thoughts carefully planned out–almost like a speech. And, perhaps, some teachers do teach this way, especially if they are giving a lecture of some kind. But there is so much in teaching high school kids that cannot work that way, that is unexpected, that cannot be planned ahead of time. The conversation comes and goes where it wills and often seems to have a plan of its own that you never could have anticipated. That definitely happened today.

So, back in the library, I paused for a moment, cleared my throat, and—gathering some confidence in the Holy Spirit who also likes to come and go when He wills and “who intercedes for us with sighs to deep for words” when we pray, but also, hopefully, when we teach—I said,

“Tell me more about the first time you saw Shakespeare mention blindness in the play. What did you notice?”