Kylo Ren, Confessional Poet

In what I think is the most interesting scene in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren, after killing his dark-side master and fighting off a bunch of guards with Rey, urges her to join him:

The Empire, your parents, the Resistance, the Sith, the Jedi… let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.

I think his words here reveal a lot about the Kylo Ren character, The Last Jedi movie itself, and the struggle in which the entire Star Wars franchise has been engaged for some time—a struggle I would characterize as negotiating one’s relationship to tradition.

Some context for my thoughts:

I was leading a poetry seminar a couple of weeks ago in which we discussed T. S. Eliot’s (in)famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, and one participant questioned the possibility of tradition at all. “In what sense is it even meaningful to talk about a ‘Western literary tradition’?”

Eliot and his modernist compatriots seemed to think of tradition as something very real–something you could have, or not have—and, for poets, something you were responsible for making sure you had in order to write proper poetry. But for many of us today, “tradition” is a very problematic term. The only safe way to use it in popular culture seems to be in phrases like “faith traditions” (with a respectable emphasis on the pluralizing “s” at the end); otherwise, to speak of “tradition” in the singular with any kind of reverence, one is perceived as advocating for a misogynistic unenlightened power structure, or of idealizing an ossified set of texts that neglect the literacies and voices of marginalized groups.

Even Eliot acknowledges that the term was problematic in his own time:

We cannot refer to “the tradition” or to “a tradition”; at most, we employ the adjective in saying that the poetry of So-and-so is “traditional” or even “too traditional.” Seldom, perhaps, does the word appear except in a phrase of censure. If otherwise, it is vaguely approbative, with the implication, as to the work approved, of some pleasing archaeological reconstruction.

Obviously there is much to be said about tradition in general and the poetic tradition more specifically, but I think an interesting way to explore how human beings grapple with tradition is to look at it through the lens of Star Wars.

Kylo Ren proposes discarding tradition altogether, no matter the source: “The Empire, your parents, the Resistance, the Sith, the Jedi.” One’s identity can only be uncovered by “killing” the past.

My dad was reminiscing about seeing the first Star Wars movie when he was a senior in high school, and one of the things he loved about it, apart from the incredible visual effects, was how the original movie engaged playfully and cleverly with film tradition. George Lucas incorporated elements of WWII movies, cowboy westerns, cheesy sci-fi thrillers and Japanese culture and films in a kind of hodge-podge that resonated rather deeply with American popular culture at the time; it was fun and recognizable, and yet fresh.

Lucas’ borrowing from those well-known motifs (and in some cases even specific storylines) reveals his engagement with, and sense of indebted-ness to, tradition. He was making something new (“make it new!” Ezra Pound says) but his innovations had a kind of reverence for the movie-makers that had come before.

I think the Star Wars franchise today — like so many other rebooted franchises that have to navigate nostalgia and memory — is grappling with conflicting conceptions of tradition. The characters within the story grapple with repeating the past, reinventing it, or rejecting it, and more importantly, the directors and writers of the films themselves do, too. They are trying to come to terms with a thing they did not create and which seems to have taken on a life of its own.

In an article tellingly entitled “Why Star Wars’ past is so important to the future in The Rise of Skywalker, we get some hints from one of the writers of the upcoming movie on this engagement with tradition:

“The idea of how the legacy of the Jedi is carried on and how the Force and its uses extend to the next generation [is] a thing that we for sure are taking up,” Chris Terrio, the co-writer of The Rise of Skywalker, told io9. […] “We first meet Rey, literally, in the wreck of the old war. The old war is so present in her life in every possible way,” he said. “So we wanted to explore [that] a little bit further and the origins of the First Order and how the past affects the present…And by exploring the story in the ways that we did, we could keep the sense of the past, even in the present war.” (emphasis added)

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, J. J. Abrams got the new trilogy into structural and plot problems by choosing to repeat the universe’s situation from the original movie — merely replacing the Empire with the First Order and the Rebellion with the Resistance — instead of imagining new challenges a post-Return of the Jedi galaxy with a fledgling Republic might encounter. As Eliot says in his essay,

Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. (“Tradition and the Individual Talent”, emphasis added)

On the other hand, choosing to have Kylo Ren be a microcosmic illustration of this approach within the film — acting as an inferior Vader wanna-be, helmet, black cape and all — was a much more interesting decision. Ren’s subsequent advice to Rey to “let the past die” seems to come from his own vacillation from slavish imitation to extreme iconoclasm, a pattern which Abrams’ The Force Awakens and Johnson’s The Last Jedi also exemplify structurally and thematically. Director Rian Johnson, in another memorable scene from the second movie, has Kylo Ren smash his Vader-like helmet to smithereens after Snoke shames him: “You are no Vader; you are just a child in a mask.”

Too add yet another thread to these musings, I’m reading a book of essays on poetry by Peter Balakian, Vise and Shadow. In a chapter on Theodore Roethke, Balakian gives an interesting description of the transition from T. S. Eliot’s modernism (exemplified in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) of the first half of the twentieth century to the confessionalism of the 1950’s and ’60’s; a description that I find profoundly echoes something that’s going on in Star Wars as well. The old, original trilogy that embodies the Jedi mythos, I would argue, has the feel of a T. S. Eliot-modernist reverence for and invention within tradition, whereas the new trilogy has the more fractious feel of the confessional poets’ approach.

See if you agree.

Balakian says,

American poems of the later 1950s and 1960s were a departure from the passion for mythic structures and Eliotic notions of impersonality (“the poem Eliot insisted should be a ‘flight from the self‘”) that dominated modernism.

Think Obi-Wan and Yoda’s teachings on a kind of self-denial and aestheticism as the proper way to wield “The Force”. The old Jedi tradition has a quasi-religious reverence for centuries of teachings, passed down to each new generation, and demands an intense self-discipline when engaging with them.

Balakian contrasts this T. S. Eliot modernism with the newer approach:

The new confessional orientation was embodied in a poetics that appropriated a more intimate and transparent sense of autobiography; it was created out of a personal mask that was forged from an idea of intimacy […]. (emphasis added)

Just think of all the stuff going on with Kylo and his mask. He wears it to imitate his grandfather Vader, of course– then he takes it off for most of The Force Awakens. In the second movie, as I mentioned above, he destroys it.

Interestingly, in the upcoming (and Abrams’-directed) third movie, he reforges it again for some reason, and, at least in the trailers, we see him wearing it, red-cracks and all. So much for “let the past die.” Maybe I’m being too literal here, but Balakian’s whole section on confessional poetics reminds me a lot of Kylo Ren:

This new aesthetic orientation was grounded in experience that was located in the personal realm […] [and] defined itself with a bold and visceral idea of a self located in the daily life and domestic space of stress and trauma, and often in a domain in which the dynamics of family become a location for self, history, and culture. […] In the way that classical myth and Western intellectual history were essential to the modernist poet, the domestic, the personal, and the family-historical–or some variant of personally inherited history—became central to a post-World War II poetic orientation. (Balakian, “Theodore Roethke’s Lost Son and the Confessional Era,” Vise and Shadow 56-57, emphasis added).

Now here’s the big distinction. Both the old trilogy and the new trilogy have a lot to do with the past and one’s family—but not in the same way.

Young Luke wants to become “a Jedi, like my father”—but the Jedi part for him ultimately comes first. His family legacy, the fact that Obi-Wan tells him Darth Vader “murdered” his father, is a point of entry for him into a larger, older, vaster tradition, that goes beyond his personal family history. The Jedi tradition itself is the real object of his desire. “The Force is strong with this one,” Vader observes, even before he realizes that Luke is his son, but Luke himself quickly realizes that his natural talents require a lot of hard work and cultivation.

Similarly, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot says, “[Tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.”

You see that kind of labour in Luke, especially in The Empire Strikes Back as he runs through the swamp with Yoda strapped to his back. His bloodline is important, but his struggle to learn and live the Jedi tradition is more important. Contrast his experience with Rey’s — who, as many have noted — seems to have inherited the force with no labour at all in a matter of minutes.

Ultimately, though, for all his fascination with the Jedi tradition, Luke does need to contend with his personal family history—he needs to come to grips with the legacy of his father. His greatest fear seems to be becoming the man behind the mask, as his famous tortured reaction to the “I am your Father” reveal in Empire Strikes Back shows.

Yet Luke does find a way to integrate his vocation as a Jedi with his personal identity as son. Even when Obi-Wan warns him that Vader is “more machine now than man,” Luke insists that there must be “still good” left in Vader, and tells Leia this as well. In accepting the truth about his family, Luke does save his father.

But notice, in the key scene in Return of the Jedi, when he cuts off Vader’s hand in a fit of anger, just as Vader had done to him in the previous movie, he looks at his hand, pauses and throws away his lightsaber. He refuses to merely repeat the past, and tells the Emperor, “I will never join the Dark side. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”

His sense of particular family legacy is fully integrated with his sense of the larger, deeper Jedi tradition. And it is his love for family and that tradition that saves him and his father. The redeemed Anakin, as he dies, asks Luke to help him take off his mask so he can look his son “with my own eyes”; that is, with love. The final unmasking of his father is a powerful moment that also unmasks and disarms, finally, Luke’s fear of what lies hidden in himself.

Kylo Ren, on the other hand, the embodiment of the new trilogy’s ethos, seems to be a kind of confessional poet who puts on a mask in order to manufacture an identity for himself. His “art” is all about releasing and unleashing his pain, his anger, his trauma. His obsession with his family legacy becomes the lens through which he interprets the world and it precludes any reverence for or sense of a larger, older tradition or schema in which he can find meaning. His interest in artifacts (Vader’s helmet) is not about Sith teaching, but about family bloodline and how it fuels his own experience of pain and power.

Despite his obsession with family, the only way Ren can cut himself off from the larger tradition is, ironically, by literally killing his own father. In this way he is an anti-Luke. He has no desire for tradition in the broader sense, though paradoxically by forging his own “new” path he seems to tread a very well-worn one down into dark side despair.

The prequel movies, also the work of George Lucas, reveal a lot of problems with the Jedi tradition. By these late ’90s early ’00s movies, the tradition is no longer a source of wisdom, but rather a kind of blind, ossified set of restrictions that alienate the young Anakin (a proto-Kylo-Ren, especially in his experience of unleashing his trauma on the world) and blind the Jedi themselves to the obvious machinations of Palpatine. You get the sense that over-adherence to tradition is what pushes Anakin away.

Rian Johnson’s older, embittered Luke in “The Last Jedi” seems to have adopted the Kylo Ren approach; his own trauma over the loss of his academy and his nephew seems too much to bear, and he lashes out in disgust against the tradition that he once reverenced as a young man but now feels has betrayed him: “the Jedi must end,” he says, in a moment that initially horrified even Mark Hamill (and, I suspect, still kind of does). He tells Rey, “Now that they’re extinct, the Jedi are romanticized, deified. But if you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure. Hypocrisy, hubris.”

In The Last Jedi, tradition is symbolized by the sacred Jedi texts, old books which Yoda surprisingly seems to incinerate when he comes to comfort Luke towards the end of the movie. (We find out later, however, that Rey somehow saved them.) They don’t seem to play a very important role in the movie practically-speaking, and I suspect this is due in part to Johnson’s own perplexity as to what to do with tradition. The books are there, but nobody seems to actually read them—what they actually say is never discussed. (A powerful image of contemporary education.)

I kind of doubt that they will appear again in the Abrams’ movie, but we’ll wait and see what happens next week.

If I were penning this new trilogy, I would have liked to explore Rey’s character as a possible “balance” between these views, between the Eliot-style desire to recover and insert oneself into an ancient tradition and the confessional-poet approach of Kylo Ren that rejects tradition in favor of the trauma of ones’ personal experience. That would, however, require that she actually read those old books and learn about the past, and not simply “inherit” her power without “great labour”.

I think this integration of tradition, family legacy, and personal experience is the un-woke balance Luke achieved in the original trilogy, and therefore one that we are not very likely to see unfold in this one.

But who knows? Perhaps Abrams’ has realized that neither Johnson’s wholesale rejection of Star Wars mythos nor his own overly-nostalgic imitation of it really work. Perhaps we will see a new balance that successfully integrates the old and the new in The Rise of Skywalker. As Luke says to Rey in one of the trailers, “We’ve passed on all we know. A thousand generations live in you now.”

But it’s Kylo Ren I’m really interested in. He’s the archetypal millennial, embittered by the the family pressures and traumas the boomer-generation bequeathed to him, unsure what to do with his pain and power, attracted to and yet repulsed by the tradition.

Interestingly, he says to Darth Vader’s helmet early in The Force Awakens, “Forgive me. I feel it again. The pull to the light. Show me again the power of the darkness, and I will let nothing stand in our way. Show me, Grandfather, and I will finish what you started.”

At the end of Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader is redeemed by the love and example of his son and (seemingly) defeats the Emperor who had enslaved him for so long.

With Emperor Palpatine back for the final movie, Kylo Ren’s words to his predecessor carry some new weight.

"The feathers of some unimaginable bird"

Photo by Pixabay

I was reading the lovely winter poem “White-Eyes” by Mary Oliver for my last poetry seminar, and sort of expecting one of her characteristic detailed observations of a creature or specific scene—but by the end of the poem I felt like something had slipped past me or perhaps through the words on the page in a way that was unusual.

Does this happen to you, when you read it?

White-Eyes
BY MARY OLIVER

In winter
    all the singing is in
         the tops of the trees
             where the wind-bird

with its white eyes
    shoves and pushes
         among the branches.
             Like any of us

he wants to go to sleep,
    but he’s restless—
         he has an idea,
             and slowly it unfolds

from under his beating wings
    as long as he stays awake.
         But his big, round music, after all,
             is too breathy to last.

So, it’s over.
    In the pine-crown
         he makes his nest,
             he’s done all he can.

I don’t know the name of this bird,
    I only imagine his glittering beak
         tucked in a white wing
             while the clouds—

which he has summoned
    from the north—
         which he has taught
             to be mild, and silent—

thicken, and begin to fall
    into the world below
         like stars, or the feathers
               of some unimaginable bird

that loves us,
    that is asleep now, and silent—
         that has turned itself
             into snow.

Poetry Foundation

There is something about that transition going on in the middle of the poem, from what at first seems like a literal bird making music in the tops of trees, to clouds, to wind, to snow, and back to “the feathers / of some unimaginable bird” that “turn[s] itself / into snow” again. And this latter bird somehow “loves us”. It is strangely “asleep now, and silent”. With my Christian eyes I can’t help but think of Christ, and death, and the Holy Spirit.

Confused, I let my eyes slide back up the page to the title for some guidance, where I expected to be told the name of the bird (a name which the speaker tells us in stanza six she doesn’t know), and I was surprised to see instead “White Eyes”– a phrase of the second stanza that I had barely noticed during my first reading. What kind of bird has “white eyes”? What kind of animal has white eyes? Human beings do, around their irises–but not any bird I’ve ever heard of.

In the first stanza the speaker mentions the “wind-bird”, which at first I took to be yet another avian creature with which I’m unfamiliar, but just to see I googled “wind-bird,” expecting pictures of something lovely and “white-eyed,” and instead the first thing that came up was a description of the wuchowsen. This term is affiliated with the Abenaki, Penobscot, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Mi’kmaq native tribes who evidently lived in what is now known as New England.

According to the site, the wuchowsen, “wind-bird” or “wind-eagle,” is

a gigantic immortal bird spirit whose wings make the wind. Though Wuchowsen is monstrous in size and the winds he creates can be deadly, he is not treated as a monster in Wabanaki legends, but rather as a natural force of the world that must be respected. In most legends, either Glooskap or a mortal hero attempts to stop Wuchowsen’s wings from flapping, only to find that the world cannot survive without wind; Wuchowsen is restored to power, but is either persuaded to moderate the wind he creates or forced to do so by having one of his wings tied or broken. (Native-languages.org)

I have a feeling Oliver knew all this.

In this poem, in what seems to me to be a rare instance for Oliver, her subject is not literal– or, at least, not physical. The wind-bird is perhaps a kind of metaphor for the wind itself that “sings” in the “tops of the trees” and “shoves and pushes / among the branches”—a kind of movement more appropriate to breezes than to birds, I realize now.

The bird has “white-eyes”, and, taking my cue from my previous discovery, I found that there was a leader of the Lenape (Delaware) people during the revolutionary war era named Koquethagechton, or “White Eyes,” who sought to negotiate a relationship with Americans, and who married a woman named Rachel Doddridge, the daughter of English colonists who was adopted into the Lenape people after attacking her family’s farm.

I’m not sure if Oliver had him in mind in the background of this poem, or if the titular character (?) has white eyes because he is a “wind-bird”, or because he is associated with snow and winter. But the historical association with this man is possible.

At any rate, the bird is “restless,” the speaker tells us— like the wind always is, and like we human beings often are in winter: sleepy, but somehow unable to completely succumb to hibernation. The bird “has an idea” which turns into “big, round music” that is “too breathy to last.”

I’m not sure in what sense this wind makes a nest in the “pine-crown.” But the word “glittering” the speaker uses to describe the wind-bird’s beak is an adjective more appropriate, I would think, for snow.

It’s easier for me to imagine wind “summon[ing]” clouds “from the north” — but then, once more, the movement of the poem gets dream-like and mysterious. The clouds turn into an (interestingly un-named) snow that is likened to “stars”.

There’s this strange, graceful, almost circular motion (like falling snowflakes?) as the poem wanders from the image of the “wind-bird”, to what wind does in trees, to how wind calls clouds and sends snow falling down to the ground like stars, and then also like the feathers of a bird, pulling us back once again to the opening image.

The speaker admits that her subject is, for all of these poetic descriptions on the page, “unimaginable”—perhaps most of all because he “loves us.”

Strange, and beautiful.

Limitation and Freedom

On my LinkedIn newsfeed, a Nike advertisement popped up with an image of a man finishing a race and the following inspirational message:

“I run to prove to any human in this universe that there are no limitations.”

The man in the picture, and the origin of those words, is Eliud Kipchoge, who recently became the first person to run a marathon in under two hours.

This accomplishment, even despite the fact that it was not done “under race conditions” and even included other time-optimizing elements, is nonetheless astonishing. His average mile was under 4 minutes and 34 seconds!

But his observations on his feat have given me pause.

“I run to prove to any human in this universe that there are no limitations.”

As a teacher who has admired the work of Carol Dweck on mindset and the importance of cultivating in my students (and in myself) the sense that my mental capacities and abilities are malleable–that intentional practice and effort does make a difference–this statement feels inspirational and motivating. I have seen so many students trapped by their perceptions of their lack (or, oftentimes worse, their surplus) of talent. Students who have decided at fourteen that they “just don’t like reading” or they “can’t write”. Or, conversely, that they have always been “A students” and need to maintain that confining, impoverished, grade-based identity. And I look at someone like Kipchoge and his example gives me hope. I remember what many of us were often told when we were young: “You can be anything you want to be.”

“I run to prove to any human in this universe that there are no limitations.”

But then, I start to wonder.

To be a creature is to be limited. To be a human being is to be confined by one’s biology, location, health, intellectual assumptions, cultural milieu, prejudices, anxieties, talents, desires, wounds.

And, to be clear, we aren’t just minds trapped in bodies, free except for these unfortunate physical constraints on our consciousness. We are our bodies, for all the frustration they sometimes cause us. It’s through the body that we see and touch and taste and love and desire and think.

To be embodied is to be bound by time and space. We grow old. We get tired. We get sick. Eventually, we die. There are limitations.

And as much as the human person continually strives to overcome these–to go farther, faster, deeper, higher–in ways that are often awesome and admirable, I think that some people have discovered a different kind of liberation, an expansive freedom in limitation.

Chesterton has this great image that illustrates the tension I’m talking about:

We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased. (Orthodoxy, Ch 9)

Without walls of some kind, we actually lose our freedom. Limitless autonomy is a kind of horror.

Is it just me, or are women especially attentive to this kind of freedom in limitation?

Emily Dickinson, unrecognized for the genius she was in her lifetime, self-confined to her Amherst house as the mysterious “woman in white”, describes the expansiveness she finds within the boundaries poetry imposes:

I dwell in Possibility – (466)

BY EMILY DICKINSON

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

She names poetry “possibility”—even though her poems were written on little pieces of paper, on tiny notes to friends, and only a few were published during her lifetime. Her “narrow Hands” are nonetheless capable of “gathering Paradise.” Life itself, fleeting and fragile, is stretched between possibility and poverty:

In this short Life that only lasts an hour
How much – how little – is within our power

For Dickinson, literature, despite the humble pages upon which we grasp it, is by its very limited-ness and focus on a particular story, a particular character, a particular life, able to transport us toward infinite horizons:

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –

I have my doubts that the new show, “Dickinson,” will be attentive to this important part of Emily’s self-understanding.

My dear friend Flannery O’Connor, to whom I often refer in this blog, was limited by her community, her illness, her prejudices, her sin, but she saw her limitations and the kind of freedom I am describing more clearly than most. Throughout her twenties and thirties (she died at 39) she hobbled about on crutches and lived with a mother who loved her but did not often understand her and a Catholic community that often regarded her stories with incomprehension and dismay. She found her freedom in her vocation as a writer, but as her stories attest (they are all about strange, wounded and distorted characters encountering violent intrusions of grace in the rural South) she embraced the boundaries of her knowledge and of her talent:

A novelist is, first of all, a person who has been given a talent to do a particular thing. Every serious novelist is trying to portray reality as it manifests itself in our concrete, sensual life, and he can’t do this unless he has been given the initial instrument, the talent, and unless he respects the talent, as such. It is well to remember what is obvious but usually ignored: that every writer has to cope with the possibility in his given talent. Possibility and limitation mean about the same thing. It is the business of every writer to push his talent to its outermost limit, but this means the outermost limit of the kind of talent he has. (“Catholic Novelists and Their Readers”, emphasis added)

What she says of artists could be applied to all of us insofar as we recognize our own lives as a kind of art:

The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists. He must first of all be aware of his limitations as an artist—for art transcends its limitations only by staying within them. (Ibid)

Isn’t this, really, what it means to be a saint? Saints are often trail-blazing and controversial and provocative, to be sure, but not at all in the way that celebrities are. Francis binds himself to poverty, Dominic to homelessness and preaching, Benedict to a particular place, Edith Stein to the cloister, Dorothy Day to the worker community, Mother Teresa to the untouchables of Calcutta, John Paul II to the burden of the papacy, Gianna Molla to the life of her unborn child, Therese to her littleness.

They have, of course, Jesus as their model—Jesus, who imposed upon himself the limitations of our nature, who was born in an obscure village, belonged to a conquered and beleaguered people, “never travelled two hundred miles from the place he was born,” who wed himself, finally, to the cross.

And yet, as James Allan Francis observed a hundred years ago:

All the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever were built, and all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that One Solitary Life.

And so I wonder about the limitations in my own life. To what extent do I resist them? Which ones am I called to break, and which ones am I called to embrace as doorways to a deeper freedom?

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, shop class reorients us toward reality:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then again, Jesus was a carpenter.


Silences, Empty Houses and Poetry

Photo by Flo Dahm

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

Oh, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1251)

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

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

Photo by Tobi

Metaphor as Postlapsarian Naming

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

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

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

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

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

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

How strange, and how beautiful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.