Silences, Empty Houses and Poetry

Photo by Flo Dahm

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

Oh, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1251)

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

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

Photo by Tobi

Back to school tips for teachers

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


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

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

Loaves and fishes and stepping away from teaching

It’s strange.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Good Teachers Quit

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

How to Survive as an Introverted Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metaphor as Postlapsarian Naming

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

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

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

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

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

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

How strange, and how beautiful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sed Contra: Precise language “preserves mystery”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To which I would say, “sed contra”:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What teaching has taught me about relationships

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

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

A:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mimesis, and Teaching Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The “Calculus of English”

burningtiger

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

The guy has a point.

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

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

Why, I wonder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, yes. Exactly.

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

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

Poems are like that.

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

 

 

How do you read a poem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Persistent Concerns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Kingdom.”

What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mysterious still.

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

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

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

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

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

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

John 18:33-37

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

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