We need a philosophy of education

Thomas Aquinas, who in many ways is the pre-eminent teacher of the Church, asked whether it was really possible to teach another person anything at all.

I say this is a sign that he really was a classroom teacher.

In the first part of the Summa, Q 117, he asks whether “one man can teach another, as being the cause of his knowledge”. My favorite objection he lists is the fourth one:

Further, the teacher does nothing in regard to a disciple save to propose to him certain signs, so as to signify something by words or gestures. But it is not possible to teach anyone so as to cause knowledge in him, by putting signs before him. For these are signs either of things that he knows, or of things he does not know. If of things that he knows, he to whom these signs are proposed is already in the possession of knowledge, and does not acquire it from the master. If they are signs of things that he does not know, he can learn nothing therefrom: for instance, if one were to speak Greek to a man who only knows Latin, he would learn nothing thereby. Therefore in no way can a man cause knowledge in another by teaching him.

I think most teachers could think of many instances in their experience that line up pretty well with that description!

You’ve got your students who already know stuff, and in some real way already have a kind of incipient grasp of your lesson before you even begin. They do just fine, with or without you it seems, and they ask all sorts of insightful questions about a topic they already love–or at least, a topic they grasp enough to be willing to investigate further.

But then you have other students who seem to know hardly anything at all–at least, not the things you think are important that they know–and by the end of the lesson it’s unclear if they are any better off than before. With or without you, they struggle.

I have always been rather disturbed by a passage in the Gospels where Jesus describes something very much like this:

The disciples approached him and said, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He said to them in reply, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted. To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because ‘they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.’ (Matthew 13:10-13)

This principle–“to him who has, more will be given; to him who has not, even what he has will be taken away”–seems to be an accurate observation about life in general and education in particular, but it also seems extremely unfair and upsetting.

Does Jesus speak in parables because stories are the best way to reach those of us who have not been granted “knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom”? Or is he speaking in parables, in a veiled way, in order to keep those mysteries hidden? I don’t know.

When I read Thomas’ question about whether or not one person can teach another person, I go back and try to remember how I learned things. How did I learn to write a thesis statement, or incorporate a quote? How did I learn to read? How did I actually learn to memorize Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem “Old Ironsides”? How did I learn to play that first chord on the guitar (it was D)?

It’s tricky. It’s hard to remember. It’s especially hard to unpack how one learned about the things one really loves—because they seem so intuitive and “(con)natural”—to use an Aquinas term. This makes it harder, in some ways, to teach things that you really love to someone else.

In some cases, I remember teachers being involved in the process of my learning, but many of these instances seemed for me to involve largely an interior process, a personal negotiation with reality, a task I had to wrestle with myself.

I remembering seeing the red marks scrawled all over my sophomore year summer essay, and then trying to apply that feedback (“your thesis needs to be arguable! split infinitive! tenuous connection!”) when I was writing my next essay. I saw on the chart where I was supposed to place my fingers on the frets of the guitar, but I had to bend my own small hands in various contortions in order to release the appropriate sound from the strings—and I had to do that over and over and over until I didn’t have to think about where my fingers belonged anymore.

I find it interesting that educational theories in the last thirty-plus years have focused on students learning rather than teachers teaching—and although perhaps when taken to extremes that approach underestimates the value of teachers as “experts”, as many classical educational models claim—there is something rather Aquinas-esque about the student-centered approach.

With gifted students, teachers sometimes feel superfluous. With really struggling students, teachers can feel helpless.

So, can you teach someone else something?

Or, despite popular perceptions of education, is learning really an interior cognitive task that only the individual can perform for herself?

In his answer to the question, Thomas Aquinas starts off by acknowledging how complicated the process of learning is: “I answer that on this question there have been various opinions.” Note that he says this after having already listed some of those opinions in the objections. There are more.

One of the opinions he explores in his answer is that of the Platonists, who perhaps veer too far in the student-centered direction in theory of how learning happens. They

held that our souls are possessed of knowledge from the very beginning, through the participation of separate forms, as stated above (I:84:4); but that the soul is hindered, through its union with the body, from the free consideration of those things which it knows. According to this, the disciple does not acquire fresh knowledge from his master, but is roused by him to consider what he knows; so that to learn would be nothing else than to remember. 

That is, according to the Platonists, the teacher isn’t actually giving the student any new knowledge at all; she is merely prodding him to “remember” something he already has inside of him!

I’m glad that Aquinas explicitly discusses this view, because as strange as it sounds, the process of teaching and learning often really does feel that way. Students who already know a lot are the ones who exclaim “Oh!!” in recognition during your class—almost as if they are remembering something. To “recognize” the truth seems awfully similar to this idea of “remembering” it.

You can hear echoes of this theory today in the literature that emphasizes student “construction” of their own knowledge— as if all the pieces of knowledge are already there, they just need the encouragement or proper environment in which to build those pieces of prior experience in whatever way makes the most sense to them. In this conception, the teacher is more of a facilitator than a source of knowledge.

But Aquinas doesn’t follow the Platonists. His view of how learning happens is more nuanced.

I’m still unpacking his complex answer– but part of what he seems to be saying is that learning happens on both an exterior and interior level:

In order to make this clear, we must observe that of effects proceeding from an exterior principle, some proceed from the exterior principle alone; as the form of a house is caused to be in matter by art alone: whereas other effects proceed sometimes from an exterior principle, sometimes from an interior principle: thus health is caused in a sick man, sometimes by an exterior principle, namely by the medical art, sometimes by an interior principle as when a man is healed by the force of nature.

I think he is saying that learning–the process of becoming educated–is like the process of being healed. Both an “exterior principle” (like the work of a doctor) and an “interior principle” (the work of the body) are involved.

At the same time, Thomas emphasizes the interior principle as being primary; that is, the fact that any exterior principle (like the instruction of a teacher) can only help or strengthen the interior principle (the intellectual work of the student), which is where the real learning is happening:

Secondly, we must remark that the exterior principle, art, acts, not as principal agent, but as helping the principal agent, which is the interior principle, by strengthening it, and by furnishing it with instruments and assistance, of which the interior principle makes use in producing the effect. Thus the physician strengthens nature, and employs food and medicine, of which nature makes use for the intended end.

Therefore it is possible to teach someone else something, but not in the sense of dropping knowledge into him like you might put apples into a bucket. What makes the endeavor so mysterious is that a teacher must encourage, inspire, and explain something to the student, so that the student herself can engage with the content interiorly in order to grasp it. Learning is not something that can be forced; the student’s own agency is deeply involved.

But the teacher is not thereby rendered superfluous:

Now the master leads the disciple from things known to knowledge of the unknown, in a twofold manner.

Firstly, by proposing to him certain helps or means of instruction, which his intellect can use for the acquisition of science: for instance, he may put before him certain less universal propositions, of which nevertheless the disciple is able to judge from previous knowledge: or he may propose to him some sensible examples, either by way of likeness or of opposition, or something of the sort, from which the intellect of the learner is led to the knowledge of truth previously unknown.

Okay, so, a teacher can give examples that tap into the student’s “previous knowledge” and experience, or she can invite the student into new experiences (“sensible examples”) in order to invite the learner “to the knowledge of truth previously unknown.” I can read stories to my students. I can give them examples of good writing. I can break down those examples into small, focused pieces. I can give them something new.

The teacher, according to Aquinas, also acts like a doctor:

Secondly, by strengthening the intellect of the learner; not, indeed, by some active power as of a higher nature, as explained above (I:106:1I:111:1) of the angelic enlightenment, because all human intellects are of one grade in the natural order; but inasmuch as he proposes to the disciple the order of principles to conclusions, by reason of his not having sufficient collating power to be able to draw the conclusions from the principles. Hence the Philosopher says (Poster. i, 2) that “a demonstration is a syllogism that causes knowledge.” In this way a demonstrator causes his hearer to know.

It sounds like Aquinas is saying one can go step-by-step through a logical demonstration or process with a student, leading him by the hand to the proper conclusion if he doesn’t yet have “sufficient collating power” to get there himself. Similarly, a doctor could give a prescription or propose a specific activity (extra rest, drinking lots of liquids) that helps the body do what it cannot do by itself, or is having difficulty doing by itself, to rid itself of a particular disease.

His reply to objection 3 is helpful here:

The master does not cause the intellectual light in the disciple, nor does he cause the intelligible species directly: but he moves the disciple by teaching, so that the latter, by the power of his intellect, forms intelligible concepts, the signs of which are proposed to him from without.

I invite anyone with greater knowledge of Aquinas to weigh in to my reading of him there—I might not be fully getting it. (In other words, I am willing to learn! to be taught! to be assisted in my “insufficient collating power”!)

It is true that Thomas Aquinas did not have access to modern science and psychology. But he was a teacher, and, I suspect, drew a lot from his own observations about teaching others in unpacking this question.

I think we in the Church need to do some serious work looking at the thought of Aquinas and others, and looking also at the findings of contemporary science, psychology, and educational research in light of Christian anthropology in order to develop a robust philosophy of education.

What does it mean to be educated? Is there only one way to be educated well? What are the ends of education, and how do we reach them? What does good teaching look like? What does learning look like? How do people learn, anyway–and therefore, how should we go about teaching? What are the responsibilities of the student, and of the teacher, to one another, to themselves, to the subject? Where does virtue come in–and holiness?–neither of which are dependent upon intellectual prowess, as the history of the saints suggests? To what extent is Catholic education about evangelization and to what extent is it about inquiry and knowledge?

Without articulating clear answers to these (and other) questions, we find ourselves limping along in Catholic schools, adopting unquestioningly or rejecting too hastily the secular models of education around us.

Blessed Cardinal Newman, who is about to be canonized, had a few things to say about these things.

Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman.

It is well to be a gentlemen, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life;—these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University; I am advocating, I shall illustrate and insist upon them; but still, I repeat, they are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness, they may attach to the man of the world, to the profligate, to the heartless,—pleasant, alas, and attractive as he shows when decked out in them. Taken by themselves, they do but seem to be what they are not; they look like virtue at a distance, but they are detected by close observers, and on the long run; and hence it is that they are popularly accused of pretence and hypocrisy, not, I repeat, from their own fault, but because their professors and their admirers persist in taking them for what they are not, and are officious in arrogating for them a praise to which they have no claim.

(The Idea of a University, Discourse V)

That is, acquiring knowledge and even cultivating one’s intellect are important and noble aims. We need a better understanding of how those things happen in order to formulate a more precise approach to Catholic education. But they are not the only thing. Formation in virtue and instruction in living the faith are even more important. Yet, as Aquinas noted earlier, there are exterior and interior principles at work, some beyond our reach or control.

Richard Wilbur has a beautiful poem about writing, but when I read it I often think about the process of learning in general. His attitude toward his daughter is so very much like the attitude of teachers toward their students. Watch the starling in this poem—and watch the speaker watching the starling. It sounds, to me, like a teacher watching a student wrestling with a new and challenging subject.

The Writer

Richard Wilbur

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back, 
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

Riddles as Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s one that Gollum poses to Bilbo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Puns and riddles are poetic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you guessed the answer?

Wilbur again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Pitcher – by Robert Francis

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

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

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

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

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

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)

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.

Source: allanmurraypoet.com

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

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

Richard Wilbur source: jackrichardsmith.com


7 Quick Takes Friday (1/17/14)



Thanks to my friend Peter for alerting me to the fact that my students, too,  believe literally everything I say. Because I am not teaching them how to think, I am teaching them what to think. They are expected to regurgitate whatever New Critical theory I have about the texts we study. They do not earn their grades, of course–I give them out depending on how I feel and whether or not I like the particular student in question. However, I do aspire to the control Professor Mabrey has managed to achieve over the minds of her minions–er–students:

“I could, honest to God, ask them to tear their copies of the novel in half because that’s what Kerouac ‘intended the reader to do,’ and they would do it.” (The Onion)

Haw, Haw. As Flannery Would say.


One of my favorite Channels on Youtube is JustinGuitar Songs. Justin is a guitarist from Australia who posts really helpful videos to help people master the guitar. I mostly watch his videos to learn how to play specific songs or riffs that I can’t figure out by ear, but his website, justinguitar.com, has wonderful links for beginners, intermediate players and advanced players on everything from how to choose a guitar to music theory.

I’ve been playing guitar since I was thirteen or fourteen years old, and play almost every day, but I peaked awhile ago and have never really improved my technical skills since. I’ve been pretty content being able to follow along by ear and write my own songs, but I have done little to challenge myself or learn new musical styles. One of my goals for this year is to push myself and become a better guitar player.


Speaking of better guitar players–


I play Tommy Emmanuel’s music all the time during Writing Fridays, when my students are working on in-class essays. A lot of them really love it.


“Does that mean you’ll play guitar for us again?”

I had just informed my sophomores about my exciting plan to transform my classroom into a coffee shop.

“We’ll see. This is a poetry coffee house event. You guys are starring in it.”

“But music is a type of poetry, Ms. Shea.”


Next week, my students will be bringing in poems they have chosen to memorize (though these poems must meet certain criteria) and the week after that they will be performing them in front of the class. We’ve worked a lot on tracking tone and mood, and they will be using their interpretations of the poem to give a successful, compelling delivery.

Source: home-treats.co.uk
Source: home-treats.co.uk

To make this daunting prospect more attractive, I am having my students transform my classroom into a coffee shop for this event. We will be arranging the desks in little circles, like the tables you see at Starbucks, and volunteers will bring in Christmas lights and other decorations to set the mood. Most thrilling of all (and they are really pretty psyched about this), they can bring in coffee and donuts. Last year in Louisiana, I had a couple of kids bring in coffee-makers so they could brew themselves fresh coffee!

I guess perhaps I am sort of distracting them from the real issue–memorizing a poem and trying to deliver it in front of your peers–but this tactic really works.

Some of them have already been showing me poems they like and want to learn.


It’s been popular in education over the last thirty years to jettison knowledge of “mere” facts and “rote memorization.” Memorizing things, in particular, has been condemned as uncreative, limiting, and requiring only lower levels of Bloom’s learning verbs.

But I’ve discovered that memorization is one of the best things you can force your students to do.

Especially when it comes to poetry.

At UD, during our legendary Junior Poet semester, all English majors are required to not only become intimately familiar with the entire corpus of a chosen poet–we are also required to choose an “exemplary poem” of said poet to memorize and deliver as part of our oral examination. Delivering this poem to a panel of professors and explicating it, and then being ready to answer any sort of question they ask you about your poet’s life and work, was extremely terrifying–but was also one of the best learning experiences of my life.

Essential to my experience was memorizing “An Event” by Richard Wilbur (and several other of his poems as well). It was amazing how much easier it is to understand a poem when you have memorized it–when you have allowed it to sink in and become a part of you.

Brad Leithauser, in a New York Times article on the subject, describes this phenomenon beautifully:

So why undergo the laborious process of memorizing a poem these days, when—tap, tap, tap—you have it at your fingertips? Has this become another outmoded practice?

[…] The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.” (Leithauser, “Why Should We Memorize”)

But best of all is when, unbidden, those cherished words come to you in a moment of need or joy or loneliness. I remember walking to class one day in October of my senior year, and seeing that the trees were absolutely radiant with color. And Wilbur’s words, which came to me then, helped me to really understand and articulate the beauty I was beholding–something I could not have done without those words:

The leaves, though little time they have to live,

Were never so unfallen as today,

And seem to yield us through a rustled sieve

The very light from which time fell away.

A showered fire we thought forever lost

Redeems the air. Where friends in passing meet,

They parley in the tongues of Pentecost.

Gold ranks of temples flank the dazzled street. (Wilbur, “October Maples, Portland”)

If my kids are able to choose poems that they really love, I hope they may have a similar experience.


Over at First Things, Peter Lawler continues the discussion on the worth of the humanities, which I have addressed before in my post series “In Defense of English Majors,” Parts I, II and III.

Lawler adds some interesting fightin’ words to the debate:

The problem is the proliferation of all those techno-lite majors, such as marketing, beverage management, environmental studies, public relations, sports broadcasting, museum science, graphic arts,  and so forth.  They are allegedly VOCATIONAL majors.  But they are actually majors in limiting one’s options in life–or narrowing one’s horizon. (Lawler, “Are the Humanities a Shoddy and Overpriced Product?“)

Do you think “marketing,” “environmental studies,” “public relations” et. al. are majors that “limit” your options in life and “narrow [your] horizon”?

In a way, I think the answer is yes. As poor as liberal arts majors are stereotyped to be, those who “specialize” have different struggles. What if you major in “sports broadcasting” and aren’t hired by ESPN or even some more modest network? Or worse–what if you realize you hate sports broadcasting? Whatever skills you acquired while pursuing that major are less likely to serve you in other areas. The common argument for the liberal arts majors–English, philosophy, math, history, theology, etc.–is that they have a much wider applicability to various areas of life, professions and vocations.


Maybe it’s just by chance–or maybe it’s because I went to UD–but this story about a new Benedictine Brewery has been showing up a lot lately on my newsfeed. Jennifer over at ConversionDiary is actually related to one of these monks.

According to one label, “every bottle [is] brewed to the glory of God.”

Cheers to that!

“The Spirit’s Right Oasis”

A World Without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness

Richard Wilbur

The tall camels of the spirit
Steer for their deserts, passing the last groves loud
With the sawmill shrill of the locust, to the whole honey of the arid
Sun. They are slow, proud,

And move with a stilted stride
To the land of sheer horizon, hunting Traherne’s
Sensible emptiness, there where the brain’s lantern-slide
Revels in vast returns.

O connoisseurs of thirst,
Beasts of my soul who long to learn to drink
Of pure mirage, those prosperous islands are accurst
That shimmer on the brink

Of absence; auras, lustres,
And all shinings need to be shaped and borne.
Think of those painted saints, capped by the early masters
With bright, jauntily-worn

Aureate plates, or even
Merry-go-round rings. Turn, O turn
From the fine sleights of the sand, from the long empty oven
Where flames in flamings burn

Back to the trees arrayed
In bursts of glare, to the halo-dialing run
Of the country creeks, and the hills’ bracken tiaras made
Gold in the sunken sun,

Wisely watch for the sight
Of the supernova burgeoning over the barn,
Lampshine blurred in the steam of beasts, the spirit’s right
Oasis, light incarnate.

source: wendythomasrussell.com

I love this poem. Especially for Advent.

It seems to me Wilbur is wrestling with a philosophical problem–maybe Bishop Berkley’s strange insistence on the priority of perception over “objective” things which I learned about only recently–a problem anyway that involves a sort of Gnostic emphasis on the “spiritual” over the material world. This is, indeed, a problem to which Wilbur continually returns. His poetry is often about the dignity and goodness of the world in all it’s messiness and decay–making him rather a literary brother to Flannery O’Connor, and rather an appropriate poet to read during this Season of the Incarnation.

Wilbur gets his title from Thomas Traherne who says “Life without objects is a sensible emptiness, and that is a greater misery than death or nothing” (as quoted by Engel, here). Rather a strange sentiment for those of us who don’t want to be too materialistic during Christmas, no? Yet fleeing from “objects” is exactly what Wilbur wants us to avoid.

In this (Christmas?) poem, the “beasts of [his] soul,” dissatisfied with lowly corporeality, turn away from John the Baptist’s “shrill of the locust” in the “last groves” of trees, toward the golden “whole honey of the arid / Sun” (3-4). They  “long to learn to drink / Of pure mirage” and thus set out deep into the desert, often an image suggesting retreat from the world (10-11).

Alluding gently to the wise men from the East, here the “tall camels of the spirit” traverse the sands in search of some “sheer horizon” (1, 6).  It’s rather an understandable longing that we all feel–wanting to extract ourselves from the clutter and bustle of living, peeling away icky fleshiness so that we can wander peacefully in the clarity of intellect. Perhaps Wilbur is alluding to the common practice of Eastern religions and philosophies of trying to separate oneself from suffering and all forms of earthly attachment.

But Wilbur insists that such detachment is a horizon of impossibility. Such places of spiritual purity are nothing more than “fine slights of the sand”–the pun is rather irresistible–that “shimmer on the brink of absence” (19, 12-13).

He then turns, unexpectedly, to iconography: “Think of those painted saints” who were “capped” with halos (15-16). For the Eastern Church, icons are sensible ways to reach the divine. Yet you reach God by praying through them, not around them.

Similarly, Wilbur argues that going out into the desert of intellectual reverie is not the right way to arrive at truth: “[A]ll shinings need to be shaped and borne”–we should not look for the light apart from material things upon which it shines (14). And thus he calls back the “camels” of his own prodigal spirit from their arid deserts–go back the way you came, to the trees, to life, to the messy world you tried to escape:

Back to the trees arrayed
In bursts of glare, to the halo-dialing run
Of the country creeks, and the hills’ bracken tiaras made
Gold in the sunken sun

All natural, material things aglow (even halo-ed!) with the light you were looking for in the first place. This image of all things shining with heavenly light reminds me a lot of C. S. Lewis’ oft-quoted saying: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Loving Christ does enable you to see everything–even the most mundane things–in new ways. All things, especially the things you used to overlook, suddenly become important.

I hope, this Christmas, I can similarly turn back toward the messiness of living in a new way.

Wilbur concludes with the image of the Star of Bethlehem over the stable and the “right oasis” for our thirsty spirits–a humble, earthly oasis in the desert:

Wisely watch for the sight
Of the supernova burgeoning over the barn,
Lampshine blurred in the steam of beasts, the spirit’s right
Oasis, light incarnate. (24-28)


Thought and Language

Mali’s point about speaking with conviction is a very good one: “In case you haven’t realized, it has somehow become uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about?” He’s being very meta, of course, by actually enacting the phenomena he is describing — using an interrogative tone when he is actually making declarative statements, interjecting with mindless phrases like “you know what I’m sayin’?” etc.

He is basically showing us the way the average teenager speaks all of the time, and the way many adults speak too much of the time.

I plan on showing this video to my kids next semester.

But I think his video raises other questions, like: What is the relationship between language and thought? How does the way we speak reveal the way we think?

Yet the funny thing about language is that it not only reflects our thinking — it also shapes it.

A lot of people think of language this way:

you think something  —- THEN —- you say it

ie: language REFLECTS thought.

When really you should take into account this phenomenon:

you say something —- THEN —- you think it

ie: thought REFLECTS language.

That is, you have to be very careful what you say. Because you might start actually believing it.

People who go around searching for compliments by saying things like, “Oh I look so horrible today!” or “I don’t think I’m going to do well on that test!” — not because they actually believe it, but because they want affirmation, often end up believing those statements if they say them often enough.

What you say and how you say it shapes what you think and how you think it.

I see this all of the time with my students.

But to be more precise, the commonly accepted temporal succession between language and THEN thought, or even thought THEN language, is really quite silly. Thought and language are more like the chicken and the egg. Which came first? Well…

Your average dualist would probably say thought came first, then language.

But I’m not so sure.

“In the beginning was the WORD” (John 1:1). The nicely ambiguous thing about logos though, in Greek, is that it kind of means both “word/speech” and “rationality/thought” at the same time.

One of the things my kids say to me all the time is: “I know the answer, Ms. Shea, I just can’t say it.” Or “I remember it, I just can’t put it into words.”


We have all felt this way, but we are all deceiving ourselves. As a teacher, I have found that if you cannot put something into words, then, practically speaking, you don’t really know what you’re talking about at all.

When you really and fully know something, you can also articulate it.

*Caveat: For certain people with certain learning disabilities, there may be some kind of gray area here. But for the average person without said learning disabilities, I think my claim holds up pretty well.

What’s the point of all this?


1. I think an English teacher really needs to ponder this relationship between language and thought if she plans on helping her students write, read and think coherently. So much of the difficulty in teaching, after you get past the classroom management / grading / parental horrors, comes down to getting inside the heads of the kids and figure out what the heck is going on and how to help them fix it. That’s why I try to focus on “metacognition” so much in my classes.

2. The famous Catholic “both/and” of grace and nature shows up everywhere. Separating thought and language, soul and body, grace and nature, scripture and tradition, form and matter is the kind of Gnosticism our culture suffers from very badly these days. When you separate things like that you are unable to see either of them clearly.

3. The mysterious immateriality of language and thought shouldn’t make us forget how intimately tied both are to the “stuff” we are made of — neurons and gray matter etc. But neither should it make us reduce language or thought to our neurons and gray matter either. If that is *all* thinking is, then we have really no reason to trust it.

Poets seem to understand this language-thought, word-world thing better than most.

Here is one of my very favorite poems by Richard Wilbur. Note his description of how the English language works — and his Edenic imagery at the end. For him, in Paradise, language and thought, word and world, were not separate as they are now.

Games Two 


From barren coldness birds

Go squadroned South:

So from the hollow mouth

The way of words

Is East. When written down

As here, they file

In broken bands awhile,

But never noun

Found what it named; for lame,

Lost, though they burn

For the East, all words must turn

Back where they came

From, back to their old

Capital. Still,

As pilgrims on a hill

Fallen, behold

With failing eyes from far

The desired city,

Silence will take pity

On words. There are

Pauses where words must wait,

Spaces in speech

Which stop and calm it, and each

Is like a gate:


Past which creation lies

In morning sun,

Where word with world is one

And nothing dies.


Found this beautiful reading of the above Wilbur poem, as well as some others: “Joining World and Mind: On the Poetry of Richard Wilbur” by Rhina Espaillat

My Mouth is Dry

source: acg.org

I have moved to Denver!

I am sitting in my new classroom, imagining the faces that will occupy the empty desks, the colors I will use to mitigate the overwhelming whiteness of the walls, the procedures I intend to begin practicing with them on day one…

…and my mouth is dry.

It will probably feel a whole lot dryer on the first day when I have to speak to my new students (whom, I hear, have been informed that I am a very hard-core scary teacher by my ACE predecessor).

Or the first time a student doesn’t follow directions, and I have to administer a consequence.

Or that first parent phone-call I make… even though I plan on the first one being very positive–a reaching out and introducing myself to all the parents before they know what hit ’em .

Or that first summer reading assignment I hand back… their first taste of my high expectations.

But right now, sitting here, typing and imagining and predicting, my mouth is dry.

They tell you when you move to Denver, you should drink a lot of water. Something about the high altitude and the climate makes dehydration pretty common, especially for newcomers. So I’ve been carrying a water bottle everywhere I go.

And my mouth is still dry.

When I was in Louisiana, sometimes I felt like I couldn’t breathe because of all the moisture in the air. Every time it rained, the water flooded the streets because it had nowhere to go — I guess the ground was saturated already.

Richard Wilbur’s beautiful poem, “Grasse: The Olive Trees,” was floating in my waterlogged thoughts all the time these past two years:

Here luxury’s the common lot. The light

Lies on the rain-pocked rocks like yellow wool

And around the rocks the soil is rusty bright

From too much wealth of water, so that the grass

Mashes under the foot, and all is full

Of heat and juice and a heavy jammed excess.

If that ain’t Louisiana, I don’t know what is.

Funny, because Wilbur is from Massachusetts like me, and lives a couple of hours away from where I grew up. Apparently the South made a big impression on him though (as it has with me). Look at how beautifully he describes the stillness, brought about by the thick heat. I was warned that people in the South walk more slowly, and talk more slowly. Sometimes, during my first year teaching, my kids would ask me to slow down. And it makes perfect sense that they think we rush around so quickly:

Whatever moves moves with the slow complete
Gestures of statuary. Flower smells
Are set in the golden day, and shelled in heat,
Pine and columnar cypress stand. The palm
Sinks its combs in the sky. The whole South swells
To a soft rigor, a rich and crowded calm.

And then, to my Northern delight, Wilbur notices something that protests the South, and all it’s sticky hot sweetness. And, to my even greater delight, it’s an olive tree — evoking images of that golden time I spent in Italy during college, biblical images, this whole idea of thirst….

Only the olive contradicts. My eye,
Traveling slopes of rust and green, arrests
And rests from plenitude where olives lie
Like clouds of doubt against the earth’s array.
Their faint disheveled foliage divests
The sunlight of its color and its sway.

Take a look at this olive tree, and then reread that stanza again:

source: israeltours.wordpress.com

Yup. It “contradicts” the landscape, the richness, the “excess.” The olive tree is still thirsty, for all of that water and warm sunshine.

But then this, as well:

Not that the olive spurns the sun; its leaves
Scatter and point to every part of the sky,
Like famished fingers waving. Brilliance weaves
And sombers down among them, and among
The anxious silver branches, down to the dry
And tsisted tgrunk, by rooted hunger wrung.

And then he ends his poem, in this incomparably beautiful way, gently evoking images that make you thirsty too, but perhaps for something else:

Even when seen from near, the olive shows
A hue of far away. Perhaps for this
The dove brought olive back, a tree which grows
Unearthly pale, which ever dims and dries,
And whose great thirst, exceeding all excess,
Teaches the South it is not paradise.

And you think of Noah in that sea of water, after that great excess of the great flood, searching the horizon for the little dove he had sent away. And eventually the dove comes back… bearing an olive branch, and the hope of dry land. (Genesis 8:11)

The South indeed “is not paradise,” but neither is Colorado, as beautiful as it is. I can’t really imagine two places more different from one another than Colorado and Louisiana, but here they are, juxtaposed, and here am I in the middle of them, missing the humidity but loving the clearer air.

And my mouth is dry, it seems no matter how much water I drink.

Or, I guess, no matter where I go.

Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:13-15)