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.

By Words and the Defeat of Words

Nine years ago, I stood on the steps in front St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, looking east down the Via della Conciliazione in the twilight, and I saw something very much like this:

I was mesmerized.

I remember gazing and gazing, drinking in the strange juxtaposition of that wild, restless image with the stately columns of Bernini’s colonnade–the whole scene washed in that special golden light that settles on Rome in the autumn evenings. I remember trying to describe what I had seen to my friends who were back on campus south of Rome, to my parents back in Boston, to my journal, to God. “That’s neat,” they said. Or, “Wow, I’ll look out for that next time I’m in the city.” Or, “Beautiful, honey.” And, of course, God didn’t need me to explain it to Him.

It wasn’t until a year later, however, back in Dallas, that I discovered words that gestured at what I had seen. They were written by a poet who lived in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, who had visited Rome himself back in the 1950’s. And I knew at once he had seen it too:

An Event

As if a cast of grain leapt back to the hand,
A landscapeful of small black birds, intent
On the far south, convene at some command
At once in the middle of the air, at once are gone
With headlong and unanimous consent
From the pale trees and fields they settled on.

What is an individual thing? They roll
Like a drunken fingerprint across the sky!
Or so I give their image to my soul
Until, as if refusing to be caught
In any singular vision of my eye
Or in the nets and cages of my thought,

They tower up, shatter, and madden space
With their divergences, are each alone
Swallowed from sight, and leave me in this place
Shaping these images to make them stay:
Meanwhile, in some formation of their own,
They fly me still, and steal my thoughts away.

Delighted with myself and with the birds,
I set them down and give them leave to be.
It is by words and the defeat of words,
Down sudden vistas of the vain attempt,
That for a flying moment one may see
By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt.

That poet’s name is Richard Wilbur, and he died this past Saturday.

How lovingly he shows us in “An Event” what it is like to see starlings swirling in the twilight: they appear “as if a cast of grain leapt back to the hand” or “like a drunken fingerprint across the sky” (1, 8). Just savor those two images for a moment. Grain, going back into the hand that cast it! A fingerprint, drunkenly scrawled across the sky–both intricate and unpredictable! How well he captures their wildness and strangeness and beauty!

And yet how humbly the speaker admits that even his words cannot capture the birds or their movements: they “refus[e] to be caught / In any singular vision of my eye / Or in the nets and cages of my thought” (10-12). Indeed they, like all truly beautiful wild things, abandon us and the poet as well: they “leave me in this place / Shaping these images to make them stay: / Meanwhile, in some formation of their own, / They fly me still, and steal my thoughts away” (15-18). The poet, “shap[es] [his] images” to pin down what he sees, but even a master like Wilbur realizes that this is a futile endeavor. The birds themselves have their own sort of poetry, their own sort of “formation”, and their language forever eludes us.

Note how the speaker’s tone shifts throughout the poem: he is full of wonder in the first stanza as he gazes upon them–in the second, as soon as he takes his eyes of the birds and thinks of himself, he falters a bit; he is unsure, abashed: “Or so I give their image to my soul” (9). Perhaps his image is inadequate. And when he realizes his words really aren’t doing the birds justice at all, that these starlings refuse “to be caught” in any fancy metaphor or poetic device, that they “shatter” and “madden” space itself “with their divergences”, he admits a touch of loneliness and even a sense of deprivation in the third stanza (13-14). They have left him, and they refuse to remain with him even in his words on the page.

But then it’s that last stanza, with its rather sudden hopeful turn, that is so characteristically Wilbur.

The speaker is “Delighted“–not only with those beautiful birds, but even with himself, in the very face of failure (19). Wilbur delights not only in the natural world, but in the human capacity to love it, however imperfectly. And so he gives the birds “leave to be.” Their beauty and strangeness is beyond his power to articulate, and that is just fine.

Yet this gentle acquiescence is not some sort of meta-poetic anti-noetic white flag. The battle we wage with words isn’t over, even if we are always bound to lose.

Wilbur reminds us that “It is by words and the defeat of words” that we arrive at some small revelation of truth. It is worth it to write poetry, to write music, to write anything, to speak at all–to try to honor, with our feeble syntax and impoverished vocabularies, the reality we see and feel.

Even if only for a “flying moment”, Wilbur assures us that we can glimpse the strange “cross-purposes” that mysteriously dreamt up our mysterious world. And that brief look is worth the ultimate defeat of all our words.

richard-wilbur
Source: allanmurraypoet.com

Best Article I’ve read on Richard Wilbur: “God’s Patient Stet”

The Art of Losing

Elizabeth Bishop’s intriguing and delicate poem always comes to my mind at the end of the school year. I hope someday some of my own students will have poems like this in their hearts, poems that come to their aid and express what cannot otherwise really be expressed.
 

One Art – by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
 so many things seem filled with the intent
 to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

 Lose something every day.  Accept the fluster
 of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
 The art of losing isn't hard to master.

 Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
 places, and names, and where it was you meant
 to travel.  None of these will bring disaster.

 I lost my mother's watch.  And look! my last, or
 next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
 The art of losing isn't hard to master.

 I lost two cities, lovely ones.  And, vaster,
 some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
 I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

 ---Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
 I love) I shan't have lied.  It's evident
 the art of losing's not too hard to master
 though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

 

Friday was the last day of classes. I spent part of each class visiting the freshman and explaining their summer reading assignments to them, while the junior English teacher visited my kids. For the rest of the period I answered questions about the final exam, gave them some extra study guides and rubrics and things of that sort. It was pretty mundane, actually.

 

Honestly I like keeping things mundane at the end of the year. No standing on desks for me, thank you. I’m so emotionally wrung out by the end of the year that it wouldn’t take much to push me over the edge.
 
A few students, though, came and visited me during lunch or after school to say a special “thank you” – which was very moving to me. The student who asked me at the beginning of the year “Who is Christianity?” came and gave me a big hug before I could stop her. I wish I had taken greater care in thanking each of my own teachers at the end of the year when I was in school.  I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, / some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. / I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

 

On the other hand, I also had a student infuriate me by acting out quite rudely to another teacher. I kept him after school for a while writing a lengthy apology letter. The first one was not satisfactory, so he had to start over and write another. He was frustrated because he did not believe (or at least admit, at first) that he had done anything wrong. I was frustrated because he had acted so obtusely and rather maliciously, and did not seem to understand why I was making him write the letter.  Lose something every day. Accept the fluster / of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. 

 

There were the usual hordes coming in at lunchtime in desperation, hoping (for some reason) that I would give them an extension on their final paper… the day it was due. As usual, I was cruel and heartless. 

 

But I was saddened later to learn that one student in particular would not be returning to my school next year. She has tackled my class with tenacity, hard work, and lots of sarcasm. Unsure about her own beliefs about God and Catholicism, she has asked some of the best questions I’ve ever heard a high school student ask. I have loved talking with her outside of class about her papers and her questions. I wrote in her yearbook that she should never stop asking those questions. Those who seek, will find. I will miss her.  But I shan’t have lied. It’s evident / the art of losing’s not too hard to master. 

 

All in all, it was a very typical day except for the art of losing part. A junior, who was one of my kids last year, came in at the end of the day and remarked as he was leaving, “It must be kind of hard being a teacher. You have to say goodbye to so many people so often.” 

 

I agreed but added rather casually that one has to get used to it. So many things seem filled with the intent /
to be lost that their loss is no disaster…

 

Awhile later I pulled into the parking lot outside of my apartment, turned off the ignition, and suddenly found myself crying – maybe because I felt a little of what real parents feel when they send their kids off to college.

 

What a gift I have! To get to know these crazy people and come to care about them so much.

 

I definitely need a break. But give me a few weeks and I’ll be impatient for next year, for another batch of people to love and eventually to say goodbye to.

 

Good thing the art of losing isn’t hard to master. …though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

 

photo-4
my empty classroom

On Teaching Poetry, Part II

I taught my annual poetry unit at the beginning of the semester and have already blogged a little about it here.  In that post I posted these key questions:

The key to teaching poetry is answering the question how. How can we help our kids get inside a poem? How can we help them admire (even if they do not necessarily like) the games poets play with language? How can we help them respect poetry even if they do not understand it? (“On Teaching Poetry“)

A lot of teachers take one of two conventional (and mistaken) approaches: have the students read easy, crappy poems, or have them read classical poems and force them to try to get some meaning out of it. I have chosen another approach.

Being a UD grad, I’m all about the Western Tradition and legit poetry. But I’m also all about respecting where my kids are and acknowledging the fact that, for most of them, poetry is pretty boring. So instead of teaching what a poem is about or even why a poet wrote it, I teach them to ask the question how.

The first thing the kids need to learn when encountering poetry is the difference between tone and mood. Why? Because recognizing tone and mood in conversation, in writing, in emails, in text messages, in any type of human communication is a basic life skill. If you can’t identify tone and mood, then you miss out on 99% of the meaning in any given sentence you read.

Tone is how the speaker feels about what he is saying. It is his attitude.

Mood is how the speaker is trying to make the audience feel about what he is saying.

I ask them, “Have you ever met someone who has a hard time picking up on sarcasm?”

They always say yes. “That person, who cannot pick up on a sarcastic tone, unfortunately misses most of the meaning.”

I then give a real life example. I walk up to Charlie and I say with sincerity and a bright smile, “Hey, Charlie, you did a great job in class today!”

Then I ask, “How does that make you feel, Charlie?”

“Uh.. good, miss,” he replies.

“Great. Because I used a sincere or kind tone, I created a positive or happy mood in Charlie. But I could easily say the exact same words and create a totally different meaning.”

I walk up to Charlie again, this time with a bored and annoyed expression on my face. “Hey, Charlie. You did a great job in class today.” I make the sarcasm as evident as possible.

Then I ask, “How does that make you feel, Charlie?”

“Uh… kinda bad, actually…”

“Exactly. This time I used a sarcastic tone and that created a hurt or slightly depressed mood.”

So then we start to apply those terms to poems – usually simple Billy Collins poems first. Ask questions like, “Okay, what do you think the speaker’s tone is in stanza 1 – positive or negative? What words or images made you say that?”

Starting with the generic terms positive or negative really helps the kids at first. After they determine if the tone is positive or negative, they can more easily find a stronger tone word like “sad” or “furious” or “calm”.

So then we work on what I call “Tone and Mood Maps.” Basically, the kids get a poem with plenty of space in the margins. Then we go through the  poem stanza by stanza and put a plus sign + or minus sign – next to each stanza. Then, once we have mapped out basic positives and negatives, then we go back through the poem again and try to determine a tone word and a mood word for each stanza. Like so:

One of my students’ annotations. Notice the plus and minus signs on the left. Then the tone words on the left of each stanza, and the mood words on the right.

The next step is to put them in the place of the poet. Oftentimes students take for granted how difficult it is to write a poem. So I have them write their own “Introduction to Poetry” modeled after Billy Collins’ poem of the same name. The above picture shows one of these poems that was afterwards annotated by the student for tone and mood. Here is another one. The poem is worth reading!

photo-2
Again, notice the + and – signs, tone words on the left and the mood words on the right.

And I really like the way this student models her poem after both Collins’ and Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”: photo-3

Approaching poetry this way changes the question from what does a poem mean to how does a poem mean.

Which, in the end, is a much more meaningful question. It prevents the student from making assumptions about the poet’s intent, and instead forces him to watch what the poet actually does in the poem.

Even if I present them with (gasp!) a real poem, they can find a way into the poem through the tone and mood. Like this student, who wrote admirably about Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. Here’s his second body paragraph:

Throughout the second and third stanzas of the poem, Frost tells of many similarities between the two roads. However, he twists and controls language in these stanzas using an appealing tone to help the speaker convince the readers that the second road was the correct one to choose and kindle in them a desire for it. After looking at one road for a while, the speaker “took the other, as just as fair,/ And having perhaps the better claim,/ Because it was grassy and wanted wear,/ Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same” (6-10). This is what makes this poem difficult to understand. As a result of the appealing tone that the speaker uses, the reader is led to experience an intrigued mood and get caught up in the appeal of the second path, but forget that it is the same as the first.

I love that this kid is comfortable admitting that this poem is “difficult to understand”. He doesn’t pretend to get the whole thing and turn it to some carpe diem cliche, like most people do when they read Frosts’ poem. Instead, he just describes how the poem means by analyzing the tone and the mood.

On Teaching Poetry

img_5830
“I ask them to take a poem / and hold it up to the light / like a color slide” (Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry” 1-3). Picture source: genius.com

More thoughts coming soon on my dramatic change in grading policy! (I sound like an advertisement…)

In the meantime, I’ve just finished teaching a poetry unit and thought I’d share some ideas.

The first time I taught a poetry unit to high school students a few years ago, I knew I was in for a rough time. I remembered how much I hated poetry when I was in high school (even though I loved reading challenging prose like Augustine and Dostoevsky). Indeed, from the moment I uttered the word “poetry” in connection to our next unit of study to my kids, I got so many groans and eye-rolls that I briefly considered skipping the thing altogether.

What helped me most was reflecting on the reasons I used to hate poetry. They were pretty straightforward and can pretty much be summed up by one idea:

I hated that poets were being difficult and obscure on purpose.

As a relatively open-minded high school student, I could forgive Shakespeare for the fact that his language reflected the 16th century and even Hawthorne for his interminable sentences and hopelessly flowery diction – he was a 19th century Romantic, after all. Charles Dickens was making money to support himself for every unnecessary descriptive paragraph he wrote in Great Expectations, and I could even forgive Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner for their mysterious and disturbing characters and plot twists.

I could not, however, forgive Emily Dickinson for her inexplicable dashes.

Nor e. e. cummings for his annoying rejection of simple capitalization and punctuation.

Nor Sylvia Path for her confessional whining.

Nor, especially, William Carlos Williams for his infuriating wheelbarrow.

What made things much worse was the fact that I felt like my high school English teachers were demanding that we find the “deeper meaning” of these stupid puzzles. But of course I had no idea what Emily meant by her “Certain Slant of Light” nor what “One Art” Miss Elizabeth Bishop was referring to nor why Edgar Allan Poe was so obsessed by some lady named “Annabelle Lee”. And yet my teachers seem to think the answers were obvious.

Like many other high school teachers, several of mine insisted upon psycho-analyzing the poets and explaining their weird defiance of all common sense writing by praising them for their “revolutionary” challenge of the “patriarchal norms” of the English language. Apparently, I was supposed to appreciate poetry and like the fact that these dysfunctional people called poets couldn’t just say what they meant like everyone else.

After thinking about my own hatred of poetry as a high school student, I saw at once that I would have to develop a different approach with my own kids.

I must not demand that they appreciate poetry, nor that they be expected to know what Wallace Stevens was up to, nor even understand it in the common sense of the word “understand.”

But my University of Dallas Junior Poet educated self, who had fallen in love eventually with Emily Dickinson and Richard Wilbur and W. H. Auden, was also unwilling to let them just rhyme along with Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss.

The key to teaching poetry is answering the question how.

How can we help our kids get inside a poem?

How can we help them admire (even if they do not necessarily like) the games poets play with language?

How can we help them respect poetry even if they do not understand it?

Marianne Moore, in her famous meta-poem “Poetry,” observes that “we do not admire what we cannot understand.” So how do we help them understand without demanding that they tackle the impossible?

I start with this poem by Billy Collins, which says better what I am getting at than anything else I have read:

Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry” from The Apple that Astonished Paris. Copyright � 1988, 1996 by Billy Collins. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Arkansas Press.

Source: The Apple that Astonished Paris (1996)

via poetryfoundation.org

More to come.

UD and Richard Wilbur – Humility and Poetry

Katie Davern, senior at the University of Dallas, recently wrote an article about Richard Wilbur’s relationship with the school. She talked to several alums (including me!) who had studied Wilbur and written to him, and included our perspectives. She does such a great job.

I will always treasure the letter Richard Wilbur wrote in response to me.

Dr. Roper, one of my English professors, says of Wilbur: “What’s really wonderful is that the really warm, generous spirit you see in the poems is confirmed in the man” (Davern).

So true.

If you’re interested, go check out the article on the University News website!

“UDers enjoy a special connection to famous poet” by Katie Davern

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Richard Wilbur source: jackrichardsmith.com

 

On Teaching Writing in High School – Or, Why Anthony Esolen is Wrong

Anthony Esolen is a teacher and writer whom I profoundly respect and admire, and with whom I find myself almost constantly in disagreement. (Except for most of his stuff in the Magnificat publication. That’s usually great.)

This is a piece he wrote a year ago in Crisis Magazine that continutes to nettle me. You will basically get the gist of his argument from the title: “The Common Core’s Substandard Writing Standards.”

I’m not going to tackle the whole thing here. Rather I’m going to obnoxiously excerpt two particular passages that make me roll my eyes whenever I think about them.

Esolen writes:

So, when I don my robe as the Unteacher, I never say to my students, “Follow these steps and you will be a great writer,” as if I were imparting the secret ingredients of an infallible potion.  I say, “Never pretend to know what you do not really know.  Never pretend to believe what you do not believe.  Never affect a certainty you cannot reasonably claim.  Never affect uncertainty so as not to offend the muddled.  Never use a word whose meaning and usage you are unclear about.  Never open a thesaurus unless you are looking for a word you know quite well but cannot at the moment remember.  Never put on airs.” (Esolen)

And, poof! With a few more inspiring speeches, he teaches them how to write about the true, the good and the beautiful.

Ahem.

Besides snarkily commenting on the “airs” he may or may not be “putting on” in this very passage, I would also like to point out that Esolen lives in the blissful ivory tower of academia, where of course following formulaic “steps” to writing is considered exceptionally mundane and lowly. In his Crisis Magazine bio, we learn that he “teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College.”

Thus I suppose many of the college students Esolen teaches already know, at least partially, how to write coherently. Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t be going to Providence College.

But the Common Core standards are not written for college students. They are also not written for college professors who seldom see the miserable sludge the passes for thinking in high school essays. Indeed, these standards were not written with you in mind at all, Professor Esolen, and so you cannot really fault them for not ringing true to your experience of pedagogy.

The Common Core Standards (imperfect as they may be) are written for high school educators who are still trying to get their kids to write in complete sentences.

I sympathize with how Esolen feels. The Common Core seems to be a dumbing-down of the mysterious art of writing. It talks a lot about using evidence and not very often about telling the truth–which is, in the long run, far more important. Esolen is right about that and I wrestle with that valid point here: “Language, Truth and Power in the Classroom”.

But Esolen believes the authors of the Common Core

do not read poems at all, really.  They read texts, or, as they put it with the air of technicians, text.  When you read a passage by Dostoyevsky, or a poem by Donne, or the maunderings of a politically correct doyen, you are reading text, and reading text requires the same techniques, always and ever, just as there is a correct way to dissect a dead cat on the laboratory table. (Ibid)

You know, he has a point. The Common Core does treat pretty much every work as a “text” you can approach in a systematic, perhaps even coldly scientific way.

As a high school student myself, I would have hated this. Writing always came naturally to me, and I glanced snobbishly at the formulaic outlines my silly high school teachers made me write and ignored them because I didn’t need them (or think I did). I was too busy, with Esolen, contemplating the true, the good and the beautiful.

But what I did not see then, and what Esolen does not see now, is that the “steps” and “secret ingredients” he so easily dismisses are very necessary to 90% of high school students.

Nobly, he professes his writing creed:

But I and my comrades believe that rhetoric is subordinate to the humanities.  We attend to Keats’ words and metaphors so that we will better see what he is saying to us about what it means to be human.  We do not invert the order of ends.  We care ultimately about the good, the true, and the beautiful, and what vision of those that Keats was granted to see.  We read poetry as poetry, and we rejoice in its truth and its beauty, nor do we presume to know all about it. (Ibid)

This is very noble, and even very UD of him–but as far as most of my high school kids are concerned, it’s also a bunch of crap. They don’t rejoice in poetry because they do not know how. They don’t “care” about “the good, the true and the beautiful” because most of them don’t know (yet) what those are. They ignore the “vision” of Keats because they have too much obstructing their own vision right now.

It is my goal to help them improve their vision so they can see and travel the road ahead, but unless you give them specific tasks and directions to hold onto, most of them will wander and get hopelessly lost in the jungles of adolescent thinking.

High school students don’t need a preacher. They need a teacher– a fellow-learner–who is willing to see how complicated and crazy it all looks, and try to help them make sense of it.

Esolen would probably cringe at the lessons I’m teaching my kids right now on writing: the 4 methods for incorporating a quote, quote sandwiches, the thesis formula (A is B because of 1, 2, 3!), the 3 parts of an intro paragraph, the 4 parts of a body paragraph, how to use textual(!) evidence…

I am offering my kids “secret ingredients.” I am giving them “steps.”

Because you know what? They work.

And I hope learning these steps will help my kids eventually make the long journey toward the True, the Good and the Beautiful.

But you can’t run until you can walk.

And if we have to start with crawling, then so be it.

 

 

More on the Core:

Language, Truth and Power in the Classroom – Part II

Getting to the Core

If I Could Teach One Thing About Writing…

 

 

Literature and the Present Tense

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source: buzzymultimedia.com

Warning: the following thoughts are not completely coherent or organized.

A former student, now a freshman in college, contacted me the other day asking about whether or not she should use the present tense in the essay she’s writing for class.

I said yes, and gave her some examples.

And then I began to think about how strange it is that we say things like: “Emily Dickinson urges us to approach reality with care in her poem ‘Tell All the Truth but Tell it Slant'” or “Homer challenges prevailing notions of war in The Iliad” or “Dostoevsky confronts the problem of evil like no other writer.”

Urges, challenges, confronts.

We say that these people do these things, now — even though we know they stopped doing things at all hundreds or sometimes thousands of years ago. The University of Richmond’s Writer’s Web and many other sources call this mysterious grammatical custom “The Literary Present”.

Why is that?

Why do we use the present tense in writing about literature — especially the literature created by the long-dead?

It’s a question that continually perplexes (and confuses) my high school students. Essay after essay, they slip into the past tense no matter how many times I tell them otherwise. For so many of them, practical and down-to-earth as they are, literary authors remain irrevocably entombed in the past – in the coffins of Romanticism and Realism and Colonialism et al. “Ilibagiza told her readers to forgive” and Shakespeare “used really complicated words” and that random poet “showed a sad tone.”

I think that for many of my students, Dickinson is always that weird lady in white from Massachusetts obsessed with death and dashes. Homer is a Greek or Roman guy (we can’t remember) who wrote about Brad Pitt – er – the Achille’s heel. And Dosto-who?

In some sense, aren’t they right? Why do we treat them like they are alive when they very clearly are not?

If you google “the literary present” you will find that lots of websites claim you should use the present tense when referring to art or literature, but not when you refer to historical events or scientific things.

But really –

Michaelangelo created his Pieta sometime back in 1499 and Charles Dickens published the final chapters of Great Expectations in 1861.

These things are no less historical events than Colombus sailing the ocean blue in 1492 and Martin Luther beginning the Protestant Reformation in 1517. (Thank you, Dr. Hansen, for forever ingraining these dates in my memory.) And yet we talk about how Michaelangelo decides to create a youthful Mary and Dickens illustrates the abject material and moral poverty of his time.

So why is it that art – and, most particularly, literary art – earns a special place in the “eternal present” while the conquests of Alexander the Great, Caesar, and Ghengis Khan do not?

It’s not even as though art always lasts, as Shelley reminds us in his famous “Ozymandias”:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. (Shelley – full poem here)

I don’t think the ironic transiency of the poem itself was (is?) lost on Shelley, either.

And I’m not sure that survival alone earns literary works the honor of inhabiting the present tense, while the impressive Pyramids of Egypt, Great Wall of China, and continual influence of ancient Indo-European languages remain embedded in the past tense of history.

If you think I’ve got the answer… well, I don’t. That’s really why I’m writing about this. Why do you think we enforce this strange custom?

This is my experience. In college, I wrote about Flannery O’Connor like she was sitting right next to me (or, more probably, gazing skeptically over my shoulder). I read Augustine’s Confessions in high school and found myself constantly forgetting that he was some old saint from the 4th century. As I child I heard C. S. Lewis’ voice resonating in my ears: “I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia” (The Silver Chair).

For me, these people were there.

Better yet, they are here.

They are speaking now, to me, in this moment, as I lie on my couch under my blankets and type at the bright Macbook screen. Just as they spoke to me years ago. Just as they spoke to their first readers. Just as they whispered to the type writer, the blank page, the fresh parchment, the scribe.

And somehow we know this and therefore require our students to speak of them in the eternal present tense.

I can’t help but wonder if all this may have something to do with God being “I am”?

“It’s Really Baffling”

A few days ago, I wrote a post about the one thing I would love to teach about writing, if I could.

I was thinking about Flannery O’Connor’s advice: “Wouldn’t it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write than to impose one? Nothing you write will lack meaning because the meaning is in you.”

It takes a lot of courage to write like that. To be really truthful – especially when you’re in over your head.

And then a friend of mine who teaches 5th graders sent me a paragraph, composed by one of his students, that shows so perfectly what I was trying to express about good writing I was absolutely amazed.

Here is the poem this student was writing about:

A Patch of Old Snow

by Robert Frost

There’s a patch of old snow in a corner
That I should have guessed
Was a blow-away paper the rain
Had brought to rest.

It is speckled with grime as if
Small print overspread it,
The news of a day I’ve forgotten —
If I ever read it.

One is tempted in all sorts of literature to over-analyze, to impose, to project–but most of all to do such things (to) poetry, because it’s so elusive. So many high school students (I was one myself) dislike poetry because of its difficulty. As my favorite UD professor says, poetry demands you to develop “the skill of life” which is “the capability of always acknowledging that condition of dereliction out of which alone we can know the preciousness of what we love” (Gregory, “Lyric and the Skill of Life”).

Good writing always comes from humility before what is true.

What would you say if you had to write a paragraph about Frost’s poem?

This is what my friend’s 5th grade student said:

Untitled copyI think (I don’t know) that Robert Frost is trying to remember a day in the past. The simile “It is speckled in grime as if small print overspread it” doesn’t mean a lot until it said “the news of a day I’ve forgotten if I ever read it.” It gave me the idea he’s trying to remember the past. It’s almost as if he has lost his mind and can’t remember anything from that day. It’s really baffling though. That’s what I think about the poem.

I think that is so beautiful. Flannery would be proud. So would Frost.

7 Quick Takes Friday (1/24/14)

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Obituaries usually make me feel sad. This one made me feel really happy. It’s an obituary all of us can aspire to having someday.

You should read it:

“If you’re about to throw away an old pair of pantyhose, stop.”

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I am a recent alum of the University of Notre Dame. Although I have not developed the same love for the school that I probably would have if I had attended as an undergraduate, I do love her a lot. Notre Dame is a wonderful place. It’s one of the few Catholic universities that still cares about being Catholic.

Moreover, I remember being surprised and pleased when Notre Dame lead the charge on the HHS Mandate back in 2012…

…but it looks like the university is giving in after all, for the time being:

“Today, the university advised employees — myself included — that its third-party administrator (Meritain Health) would be in touch about the ‘free’ services — which include abortifacient drugs and devices,” noted Gerard Bradley, a professor at the Notre Dame School of Law, in a post on National Review’s Bench Memos.

“[T]he university could refuse to ‘certify’ its conscientious objection to the TPA, thus holding back on the trigger necessary for Meritain to initiate coverage,” said Bradley, who expressed regret with the university’s apparent decision to sign the self-certification form authorizing a third-party administrator (TPA) to provide the mandated services.

“The reasons for doing so would be, as Notre Dame asserted in its formal complaint in the local federal court, that so ‘triggering’ the coverage would be tantamount to facilitating abortions in violation of the university’s Catholic beliefs,” added Bradley, who noted that the Jan. 2 announcement “implies that the university has indeed pulled that trigger.”  (Joan Desmond, National Catholic Register)

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The South Bend Tribune has even more sad news, that several ND students have sought to fight the University’s lawsuit because they are “very much in need of contraception” and “hopeful that they would finally be able access it,” according to Ayesha Khan of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Shearer points out, with an incisive response:

They [the students] are privileged to attend a university with a distinctive Catholic identity, and one would assume that, given their admission and the effort expended seeking legal counsel from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, they have both the intellect and resources to locate one of the two local Planned Parenthood clinics, either of which would be happy to help them with their contraceptive needs. Should they not wish to avail themselves of that organization’s services, a visit to any public health clinic or a general practitioner will likely result in a prescription for “the pill” which may then be procured at a quite reasonable cost at any given Walmart or Walgreens. Any notion that they “would finally be able to obtain access to it” (contraception) only in the event of university provision of it is absurd.

Birth control of all sorts is readily available in this area, from multiple venues at a cost, in general, which imposes little to no burden upon the user, thus not requiring denigration of the values of the institution to which they are supposedly committed in intellectual, if not spiritual, harmony. (Shearer, “Student’s Role in Notre Dame Lawsuit Utter Nonsense”)

You should read the entirety of Shearer’s excellent response here.

For better or worse, Notre Dame is in many ways the flagship of Catholic universities. She is wealthy and influential. When Notre Dame speaks, people listen. She carries a huge responsibility to be faithful to her mission, “the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake,” and to the “basic inspiration from Jesus Christ as the source of wisdom and [to] the conviction that in him all things can be brought to their completion.” (ND Mission Statement)

I hope that the leaders of Notre Dame will be faithful to that mission, and to encouraging all members of the university to be faithful as well.

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Over at Cosmos in the Lost, Mr. Rosman says, “Writing really is a process of discovery, a form of thinking. You don’t know what you’ll end up writing until you actually sit down and write it.”

I love this – and I repeat this idea all the time to my students. Flannery O’Connor put it this way: “I write to discover what I know.”

I was especially intrigued by the title of Mr. Rosman’s post: “Everything Under the S(u/o)n: Von Balthasar’s and Milosz’s God Metaphors.”

If you know me, then you know that Hans Urs von Balthasar is one of my favorite theologians. I wrote my theology thesis about his work in Theo-Logic.

Go read Rosman’s post to find out what those God metaphors are.

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Richard Wilbur notes that metaphor is the grounding of human language and thought–which is partially why metaphor is so essential to poetry. If you think about it, many of the everyday phrases we use to describe reality are, in fact, metaphors. We don’t notice this anymore because some metaphors have become so common they don’t even seem figurative or poetic:

“I need a minute to digest what you’ve said.”   Thinking:Eating

“Keep your eyes peeled!”  Eyes: Fruit? Potato?

“That’s music to my ears!”  Some statement: music

“That assignment was a breeze!”  Assignment: breeze

“She broke his heart.” Heart: Something delicate and breakable, like china.

“They didn’t want to acknowledge the elephant in the room.” Elephant: awkward truth

See here and here for more examples.

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Father James Martin, SJ, is always showing up on my Facebook newsfeed and making insightful statuses about prayer or suggesting interesting articles like this one over at America magazine:

“Truth and Truthiness: What Catholic Catechists Can Learn from Stephen Colbert”

A taste:

Stephen Colbert has figured out how to reach people, and Catholic educators should take notice. […] Fans of the show do not just tune in for a laugh, turn off the TV set at show’s end and forget about it. They take action based on what they hear, and our culture has been changed as a result. (Patrick Manning)

Really great article that even brings in Saint Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine.

As a very imperfect teacher, what Manning says really resonates (uncomfortably) with me. I’m not Stephen Colbert–but it is the Stephen Colberts of the world who reach their audiences and effect change. They entertain, instruct and persuade.

All good teachers do this. You can’t really get around the entertaining part, either.

Especially in a high school classroom.

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Speaking of high school classrooms, my classroom is going to be transformed into a coffee shop next week! Complete with coffee. And donuts. And tea. And yes, you may bring in muffins. Yes, breakfast burritos are okay, too. No, you may not come in dressed as a beat poet with a black beret. You have to stay in uniform. Yes, as I said before, coffee is okay. Yes, Starbucks too.

My students will be reciting their poems on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. So if you could spare a prayer for them, it would mean a lot to me.