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 (1/31/14)



I bought a car today!

Yes, the first car I have ever bought!

It was a stressful experience. I have been looking for several weeks for a reliable used car, but everything came together over the last few days. A friend of mine suggested I particularly turn to Mary – “she will take care of you.” So I did.

And she did.

I am so grateful.


Speaking of milestones, Pope Francis had this to say while addressing representatives from the University of Notre Dame, my graduate alma mater:


The biggest way Notre Dame has done this has been the Alliance for Catholic Education, which is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary this year. As I have written about before, my two years serving with ACE were filled with blessings–and also with the biggest struggles I have ever encountered.


You should really read everything Pope Francis had to say to Notre Dame. I hope everyone at Notre Dame reads everything he had to say to Notre Dame.

I hope they don’t just hear whatever they want to hear. People have a tendency to do that when listening to Pope Francis.

This is the part I would like the administration to focus on:

Essential in this regard is the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors. (Pope Francis, via Vatican News)

I mean, I don’t want to foist my own personal biased political agenda (albeit backed up by Church teaching) on Pope Francis’ words, but that sounds a lot to me like: Don’t back down on the HHS mandate. Don’t give in. Don’t be like everybody else.

And, even more beautifully:

It is my hope that the University of Notre Dame will continue to offer unambiguous testimony to this aspect of its foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness. And this is important: its identity, as it was intended from the beginning. To defend it, to preserve it and to advance it! (Pope Francis, via Vatican News)



In other counter-cultural news:

I was really inspired by Natalie Grant’s decision to walk out of the Grammys–which, from what I hear, were particularly vulgar and demeaning to human dignity this year.

Best of all, this is what Natalie said on her Facebook page:

We left the Grammy’s early. I’ve many thoughts about the show tonight, most of which are probably better left inside my head. But I’ll say this: I’ve never been more honored to sing about Jesus and for Jesus. And I’ve never been more sure of the path I’ve chosen.
Read more at http://theblacksphere.net/2014/01/christian-grammy-nominee-natalie-grant-walks-grammys/#pVifQ5MBSoDq05kB.99

How beautiful, that she professed Christ and did not, instead, vent her frustration at the antics that prompted her to leave.


Another example of respectful disagreement and engagement I found particularly arresting this week was Marc’s post over at BadCatholic in response to Rohin Guha’s thoughtful article about the “gay male subculture.” Guha’s lengthy article is rather explicit in places, so be fair warned, but well worth reading if you want to really listen to the perspective of a gay man wrestling thoughtfully with personhood and the dignity of men and women.

Marc’s response at BadCatholic summarizes well what is best in Guha’s article, and then ventures into some very Hans Urs von Balthasar-esque meditations:

For surely every encounter with the particular subject a woman is, an encounter with her as her — a particular Amy or Donna or Martha or Rose — surely such an encounter requires me to offer myself as the particular subject I am. We do not encounter subjectivity by disinterested observation. If we are to encounter the actual person, we have to meet them. We have to throw ourselves in the mix. In short, we have to communicate. But what is communication?

When I communicate I express my subjectivity — my hidden, interior thought — through my objectivity — through my words and my body language — and thus I lead my listener to encounter my entire person, which is a synthesis of subjectivity and objectivity.  Communication is the revelation of subjectivity through objectivity, and thus requires a subject. (BadCatholic)

For Marc, the problem’s Guha’s article presents lies in trading in one (stereo)type for another: “gay” (and what that has come to mean) for “queer” (since it does not mean everything ‘gay’ has come to mean). The problem, though, is that in both cases, the human person is considering himself in the wrong way– from the outside in, as it were, instead of the inside-out:

How then, can we communicate, we who are happily estranged from our subjectivity, taking refuge from its loneliness in over-accentuated objective traits — or from our infinite responsibility before God, depending on what rubs your metaphysics the right way. How can we share express our interior if we are entertaining the illusion that our exterior life is our interior? It takes a person to encounter a person, and if we are going to encounter women as people, if we are going to love our neighbors at all, we must first begin the terrible task of holiness, of living as precisely the person we are, shirking the delight and ease and irresponsibility of living as a type. (Ibid)


Speaking of communication and intersubjectivity…

My students finished reciting their poems in my Coffee House/classroom. A lot of them did very well, and even surprised me.

One girl in particular stood out. She memorized a poem that is four pages long and somewhat unconventional – more in the “slam poetry” genre than anything else. I will give you the link to Janette Ikz’s own recitation of the poem, which is powerful.

But somehow, hearing this from a sixteen year old sophomore was even more powerful:

And yes. She memorized the whole thing.


And, ahem, Notre Dame, take note.

My beloved undergraduate alma mater is featured over at National Catholic Register: “University of Dallas Renews Catholic Identity.”

A taste:

Added the University of Dallas president, “Enrollment has never been higher, and revenue has never been higher. And we are joyful about our fidelity to the Catholic faith.”

Read more: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/university-of-dallas-renews-catholic-identity/#ixzz2s1rjIrU7

Catholic identity is, and I would venture to say, always will be, a struggle for universities. But I am proud to call the University of Dallas my intellectual home, and I am thankful for the amazing education I received there.

The Skill of Life

One reader, who blogs over at Adam’s Task, has this to say in defense of poetry:

Poetry compels one to take a delight in language and in the single word, to have a feeling for subtle shades of sound and meaning, for the nexus of structure and syntax, and for the vast historic associations which lie in any developed language whereby even the most trivial instance or mode of Being can be made ostentatious, can be made to demand of us that we ponder it deeply. It requires that in some sense one make oneself translucent to one’s own experience, that one know oneself. This is why we should memorize it.

It reminds me of something W.H. Auden said reflecting on the life and death of W.B. Yeats: “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/ In the valley of its making where executives/ Would never want to tamper, flows on south/ From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,/ Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth.” Yep, that’s why. It’s “a way of happening, a mouth.”

I like especially this: “[Poetry] requires that in some sense one make oneself translucent to one’s own experience, that one know oneself.”

source: savagechickens.com
source: savagechickens.com

I wonder if that might be why, when I myself was in high school, I used to hate poetry. I thought it was always trying to be difficult and confusing on purpose— that poets were playing a sort of maddening game with me in which they made their meaning as hidden as possible.

And by this time, I had already read lots of huge complex novels, books on religion and philosophy, and all sorts of convoluted prose. But there was something about poetry that was very annoying and elusive to me.

Many of my students feel that way now. “Ms. Shea, this is so hard.”

It wasn’t until college that I finally began to love poetry–and only then, after I was forced to learn about it.

But perhaps in high school I found poetry so confusing in part because I was not “translucent” to myself– I was still a such mystery to me. Moreover, I was still so new to my own historical context that the rich allusions so essential to most poetry, to millennia of human thought and art, remained quite opaque to me.

These “vast historic associations which lie in any developed language” elude most high school students and, unfortunately, more and more of the general adult population as well. Our culture is so caught up in what is easy and accessible–perhaps because technology has made so many parts of our lives easy and accessible–that poetry (which is neither) does not resonate with us.

Although I don’t like making logical fallacies about “the good old days,” I am inclined to believe that previous generations weren’t so annoyed by poetry. (Hence the older practice of making kids memorize poetry in school–from the time of Homer until 60 years ago). Life itself was very difficult and inaccessible for most of the human beings who have ever lived–so why should language be any different?

Dr. Gregory, one of my favorite professors at the University of Dallas, is a masterful teacher of poetry and of lyric in particular. She has this to say about the importance of poetry in the life of students:

The study of the lyric [poetry] teaches something quite other than critical thinking, and certainly something distinct from common or conventional notions of the interior life. In the context of a common culture that so brutalizes and trivializes the life of affection, desire, and reflection, lyric poetry offers a kind of counter-terrorism training of the heart and mind. (“Lyric and the Skill of Life”)

“A kind of counter-terrorism training?”

Yes- because poetry helps us to become vulnerable. We have to let go of our supposed power over language and allow it to have power over us.

“Something quite other than critical thinking?” But isn’t that what the Common Core — indeed, most educational standards– love to emphasize?

Yes, but poetry isn’t really about “critical thinking.” It’s more about critical feeling— the ordering and shaping of what is not really quantifiable or nameable in the usual sense.

Which is why, perhaps, terms like tone and mood are so essential to poetry. Poems develop our emotional intelligence, if we let them. The skills we use to read people’s faces, understand their feelings, anticipate their desires are the same skills we need when we read poetry.

Again, Dr. Gregory:

The lyric [poem] performs continually a sense of the risk and danger of reading.  The challenge in teaching lyric is to make its dangerousness felt, to allow its edge to cut.  At the heart of learning, one might say, is the capability of always acknowledging that condition of dereliction out of which alone we can know the preciousness of what we love.  The lyric puts us in this danger: that is its irreplaceable value within education. (Ibid)

Poetry, because it does not submit to normal conventions of language or our expectations about literature, invites us to take risks. In high school I really hated this– but since then my illusions about the conventions and expectations I used to have about life have begun to fall away. Poetry does not seem difficult on purpose any more– it is difficult because life is difficult. It is confusing because life is confusing. It is strangely beautiful–or ugly–or elusive, because life is all of those things.

That’s why there are Great Poets as well as mediocre ones. The Great ones are able to reflect or imitate, in writing, something of the mystery of human life. The mediocre ones try to explain the mystery away.


All Saints’ Day

Five years ago today, I was in Munich, Germany.

I was here:

A picture I took while in the Cathedral in Munich, Germany for All Saint’s Day.

(And then after that I was at the Hofbrahaus. Ahem.)

It was the very end of the famous (in the UD world) “10 day”–that fabled time during our Rome semester in which the campus was closed to us and we were told to go have some adventures. And boy, did we have some adventures!

Sidenote: By the way, this is one of the many reasons I love UD. They push us to go beyond our comfort zones and to not be afraid. We can read Nietzche (and even like him, and some of the things he says) and still be Catholic. As St. Paul says, “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).


I was in Munich, this day, five years ago, after having spent three days in Paris and a day before that in Lourdes and the days before that in Barcelona, Spain.

On my third day in Paris, the eve of All Saints’ Day, I had gone to Notre Dame Cathedral for the Vigil Mass. Actually, we barely made it to Mass on time because we had spent the day exploring Versailles. I remembering running from the metro stop to the cathedral, and being astounded that, although the choir was singing, no one had begun to proceed down the main aisle. For some strange reason, the Mass had started late and we were therefore on time.

I snagged this photo before dashing into Mass.

It was one of the many little things on that memorable trip that added up to grace.

My grandfather had died earlier that year, and I had been struggling for months trying to really accept it. For the first time, death had become real to me. And yet, during Holy Communion that evening, with the choir’s voices swelling behind me and lifting up my grief to the highest parts of the cathedral, I felt very close to him, and very aware that in the Communion of Saints, he was with me. I remember walking down the aisle of Notre Dame for Holy Communion and asking him to help me.

I love All Saints’ Day. I don’t think we really think about it enough, or what it really means. Or at least, not until someone whom we love dies. Then, I think, we begin to see it.

C. S. Lewis, for many years already an apologist for Christianity, became far more convincing when his wife died. In his amazing book, A Grief Observed, he shares his pain and brings some real clarity to what is at stake when we talk about death, and the saints, and heaven. He gets to the heart of the matter – of the fear we all feel when we encounter death. Is it The End? Is there really a Heaven? Or do we simply just stop existing? Were the saints wrong after all? Is there Nothing?

What about the people we love who die?

These questions only start to really matter to us when we face death for real:

If H. ‘is not,’ then she never was. I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person. There aren’t, and never were, any people. Death only reveals the vacuity that was always there. What we call the living are simply those who have not yet been unmasked. All equally bankrupt, but some not yet declared.

But this must be nonsense; vacuity revealed to whom? Bankruptcy declared to whom? To other boxes of fireworks or clouds of atoms. I will never believe — more strictly I can’t believe — that one set of physical events could be, or make, a mistake about other sets. (Lewis, A Grief Observed)

All Saints’ Day is about this frightening experience. In it, the Church affirms that, not only the somewhat distant halo-bearing statues and stained-glass images, but also the living and breathing people we knew and loved for years, are still real. More real, in fact, than we are now — even as we struggle to remember them as clearly as we would like – that face, that laugh, that way of saving something just so, that odd habit, that wink.

This solemnity is about all the uncanonized saints. This solemnity tells me that yes, in fact, I may meet C. S. Lewis himself someday — and Flannery O’Connor, and my great-grandparents, and all the people whose words I have read or whose stories others have told me or whose faces I have seen in photographs and icons, but who have remained for me silent witnesses.

Two of my friends who I was traveling with, Rachel and Teresa, had to bolt out of the cathedral after Mass to catch their overnight train to Munich. They were late. Far too late.

But so was the train.

I remember thinking, rather stubbornly, that my grandfather had to exist still, because I knew I was still his “sweetheart”–as he used to call my sister and me. Not even death could change that.

I’m not saying it was (or is) easy for me to believe this. I think atheists and agnostics have the wrong idea if they think that believing in heaven or in God is easier than not. As O’Connor says,

I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do.

What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God. (O’Connor, The Habit of Being, my emphasis).

One of my friends on our ten day journey was struggling a lot with faith, and with believing in particular providence (the idea that God actively intervenes in our day-to-day lives, rather than in a more general way). Yet I think those ten days gallivanting around Europe did more to lead her to convert to Catholicism than anything I ever could have said or done. Throughout our Rome semester, I prayed for her at the tombs of many saints — in particular, the tomb of Saint Monica (Saint Augustine’s mother), in Rome.

We probably have no idea how many saints are paying attention to us right now, and how God gives us grace through them.

My favorite image from Narnia is the scene in The Last Battle where Tirian stumbles through the stable door and finds himself in the “Real Narnia,” and sees for the first time all the old heroes he had only heard of in stories – and his own father, and all those whom he had ever loved. One of the other characters says,

I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia so much is because it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in! (Lewis, The Last Battle)

And to any of you who are grieving the loss of someone dear to you, and are confronting death face to face, I think ending with Lewis’ words is best. Here, he describes an experience that happens to him many months after the most harrowing stages of his grief. Excuse the very long quote, but it is worth it:

… Something quite unexpected has happened. It came this morning early. For various reasons, not in themselves at all mysterious, my heart was lighter than it had been for many weeks. For one thing, I suppose I am recovering physically from a good deal of mere exhaustion. … And suddenly, at the very moment when, so far, I mourned H. least, I remembered her best. Indeed, it was something (almost) better than memory; an instantaneous, unanswerable impression. To say it was like a meeting would be going too far. Yet there was that in it which tempts one to use those words. It was as if the lifting of the sorrow removed a barrier.

Why has no one told me these things? How easily I might have misjudged another man in the same situation? I might have said, ‘He’s got over it. He’s forgotten his wife,’ when the truth was, ‘He remembers her better because he has partly got over it.’

Such was the fact. And I believe I can make sense of it. You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears. You can’t, in most things, get what you want if you want it too desperately: anyway, you can’t get the best out of it. ‘Now! Let’s have a real good talk’ reduces everyone to silence. ‘I must get a good sleep tonight’ ushers in hours of wakefulness. Delicious drinks are wasted on a really ravenous thirst. Is it similarly the very intensity of the longing that draws the iron curtain, that makes us feel we are staring into a vacuum when we think about our dead? ‘Them as asks’ (at any rate ‘as asks too importunately’) don’t get. Perhaps can’t.

And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually come to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear. (Lewis, A Grief Observed)

candles at the back of the cathedral in Munich.

In Defense of English Majors, Part II

Source: udallas.edu

So I have been thinking a lot lately about being an English major and the value it has, ever since exploring the topic in my first post here.

And then a good friend of mine posted this article on Facebook: “Who Ruined the Humanities?” by Lee Siegel. In this highly interesting (and highly irritating) critique, Siegel argues that it is a good thing that the humanities–and the English major in particular–are falling into decline. 

In the swirl of recent online articles about why the humanities are disappearing and how  we can possibly save them lest we suffer intellectual and moral armageddon, Siegel’s approach offers a kind of appealing, unique alternative. He offers the ever attractive counter-intuitive advice: Don’t attempt to stem the tide–roll with it. The English major in particular is not worth saving, anyway.

Now he’s got our attention.

After outlining the brief history of the English major–which Siegel proposes developed chiefly as a  post WWII response of academic people trying make sense of the moral devastation the world had just experienced–he describes how the academic study of literature actually ruins  “the expression of feelings too prismatic for rational articulation.” Indeed, he claims that “Literature is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read.”

I can hear my students cheering in the background (especially the ones who don’t read).

Siegel describes how, in his own life, he loved reading at an early age but so many of his college classes twisted what he had loved into some kind of unrecognizable intellectualized ideo-babble. The English major is, hence, both harmful and unnecessary:

Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods. Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught. Why does Hector’s infant son, Astyanax, cry when he sees his father put on his helmet? All you need to understand that is a heart.

So you see, I am not making a brief against reading the classics of Western literature. Far from it. I am against taking these startling epiphanies of the irrational, unspoken, unthought-of side of human life into the college classroom and turning them into the bland exercises in competition, hierarchy and information-accumulation that are these works’ mortal enemies. (Siegel, “Who Ruined the Humanities?”)

It’s a rather compelling argument. I, too, learned to love literature long before I really studied it. And I majored in English because of that love, that incandescent experience Siegel describes. I try to show my students all the time how works that seem at first so distant from us–Beowulf and Pride and Prejudice and Antigone–are actually speaking to our deepest questions and fears. “All you need to understand [them] is a heart.” That is true.

But the English teacher in me, who also loves analyzing syntax and diction and discovering the intricate ways authors create those works of art, objects very strongly to the rest of his argument. Here are my two main objections:

1) This is perhaps the most obvious point: poor English teaching does not, by itself, discredit the value of good English teaching. As Siegel himself acknowledges, there are both wonderful and horrible college professors who can either foster or destroy students’ love/understanding/interest in almost any subject. Although it may be true that many (perhaps even most?) literature departments across the country are doing more harm than good with their ideologically-driven abuse of art and language, there are also many that approach English the proper way. See the University of Dallas English department website for a stellar example. To entice you:

The [UD] program in literature provides a course of study in those authors who best exemplify the capacity of imagination to grasp truth. Teachers and students seek to learn what the best of the poets understand of nature and human experience. In this mutual learning enterprise, students and teachers are related as beginning and advanced students of their common masters, the major imaginative writers. (from website)

This is hardly the stuff of books being “taught like science” and “reduced to mere facts” or “occasions of drudgery and toil” (Siegel).

Okay, and I have to include this too:

After my first visit to UD in the spring of 2005, I came upon my friend and colleague, Alban Forcione, surely one of the five or fewer greatest scholars of Cervantes alive, [and told him] that we had wasted our lives teaching in the Ivy League and that I had found the place at which we could have spent our careers with better effect.

-Robert Hollander

Princeton University Professor of European Literature and French and Italian, Emeritus.

You can’t really get better praise than that for a humble Catholic liberal arts school.

2) And then there is this idea that literature is too “sacred” to be taught. What nonsense. (Please excuse my irritated tone in this paragraph, but I’m using it because I’m feeling irritated.) I suppose we should dismantle all theological studies in all universities as well since God–much more so than literature–is too sacred for our prying minds. Or perhaps the biological sciences because the earth is too beautiful and too sacred for the taint of intellectual inquiry. Or the medical fields since the human body, this mysterious and intricate composition of ensouled matter, is too sacred for X-rays and CAT scans.

Is literature sacred?


Is it therefore something *only* to be “experienced” and “appreciated” by the emotional and spiritual sides of us, and protected from our ravenous intellects?

Of course not.

When functioning at its best, human reason approaches mystery with an audacious kind of humility. Dare we approach Homer and Dante with our fallible intellects and our flawed academic theories? Yes- just like Saint Augustine, with far greater trembling, approached the Holy Trinity with his clouded mind, sinful heart, and theological talent.

For more great reading on English majors, and the “cognitive empathy they bring to the table,” check out this interesting article that adds more fuel to this conversation by Bruna Martinuzzi.

When my kids this year ask me why they have to study all this stuff in English class, I’ll just tell them I’m helping them develop “cognitive empathy.” And when they say “Why do we have to analyze this? Can’t we just read it?” I will say, “Yes, let’s just read it. And then we’ll analyze it.”

Dante warns his readers that plunging into his Divine Comedy is dangerous, and is a journey that cannot be taken lightly. But I think a good English teacher, like Virgil, does his or her best to guide the student through the labyrinth of analysis and context and all the other academic jargon, and does so as a fellow-traveller, filled with wonder at the images they encounter together.

Students during their Rome semester. Source: udallas.edu

Wilbur Wisdom

Let me introduce you to one of my dearest poets, Richard Wilbur.


At the University of Dallas, all the English majors participate in a Literary Study class during their junior year of a chosen poet. My chosen poet was Richard Wilbur, and so I have spent many hours and days with his poems.

I was thinking of him today thanks to a wonderful post on the power of labeling by Alexander at his blog, Retrievals. Yes, his post is on the new movie Monster’s University. To understand the connection that provoked my thoughts on Wilbur, you will have to read to the end of his post to where he makes the fascinating point about labeling. Go read it.

Anyway, I think it was Wilbur who really convinced me to love poetry in the end. For a long time, although I loved novels, I shied away from poems. They seemed purposefully and annoyingly difficult– or worse, [the ones I read in high school were] confessional. Poets seemed to be so preoccupied with themselves and their own feelings. It was Wilbur who convinced me otherwise.

I think his words on the dangers of confessional poetry apply to blogging as well:

I do feel that the truth, especially the truth about oneself, is hard to report, and that if you set out to confess, what you are likely to do is tell lies in addition to reporting some of the truth. And the fact that you are consciously part of the material of the poem may lead you to falsify in ways that are not good. There are good fictions and bad fictions. The kind of fiction that glamorizes you is not good either for your sake or for the reader’s, and I think that very often the confessional poet is drawn to glamorize himself, whether he is aware of it or not. (The Paris Review, The Art of Poetry No. 22)

I would venture to say that, similarly, the best bloggers are not confessional writers. Their blogs are not about their personal lives, although over time you get a pretty good idea of what they are like through their exploration of other things. The same is true with the best poets. Although intensely personal, the best poets are not exclusively so. I think this is largely what separates amateur poetry (even if it is technically brilliant) from masterful poetry– the great poet can write from and within his feelings but is not limited by them from comprehending, in some sense, the feelings of others. That is why I have always rather disliked Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling.” This is no doubt involved, but if it stopped there we would only have confessional poetry.

Sylvia Plath

Consider Wilbur’s critique of Sylvia Plath’s work. In his frequently discussed poem, “Cottage Street, 1953,” Wilbur describes the first time he met Sylvia Plath:

Outliving Sylvia who, condemned to live,

Shall study for a decade, as she must,

To state at last her brilliant negative

In poems free and helpless and unjust.

Here is the full text of this (rather controversial) poem.

An interviewer, like many others, questioned Wilbur’s diction here. “Unjust?” Personal, yes. Painfully honest, yes. But unjust?

Wilbur responds this way:

Its helpless one-sidedness. I tried to sprinkle a whole lot of words around there that would add up to a kind of just estimate of her. That, together with the picture I had given of her as a slumped, pale, drowning person. Let the record show that I said brilliant: “her brilliant negative. In poems free and helpless and unjust.” I suppose she was freed by the onset of her desperate condition of mind to be brilliant in the way the poems of Ariel are brilliant. At the same time, she was helpless because it required that condition of mind to bring on those poems. She was unjust because a sick and prejudiced perception of things is—well, that’s the limitation on the usefulness of her poetry to any reader, I think. It gives you some insights into a desperate condition of mind that is not absolutely foreign to the rest of us, but that goes farther towards morbidity than I’ve ever gone, thank God. At the same time there’s a lot she can’t tell you. She’s all wrapped up in herself and her feelings about her children, and herself as a writer, and her fantasies about her dead father, and her arbitrary connections between her dead father and her husband. I don’t suppose we need to know that her father was not a Nazi in order to read that poem [“Daddy”] rightly, or do we? In any case, she’s rather unjust to him. She’s certainly unjust to her mother. (Ibid)

Unfortunately I think this tendency on the part of some writers toward confessionalism has seeped into the way we read poetry, and the way high school literature is traditionally taught as well. So many of my students find it difficult to read any work, and most especially poems, without resorting to the biographical explanation of details: “Well, Emily Dickinson was a crazy recluse so that’s why her poetry is so weird and hard to understand.” Or “Tolkien is saying that about the ring because he lived through WWII and was using the ring as a metaphor for the atom bomb” or other such nonsense.

The difficulty, of course, is that there can be a lot of truth in this. One’s history does influence one’s writing. But limiting writing of any kind to one’s history, to oneself, is either a mistake of the writer or the reader or both.

 Wilbur’s explanation of the true role of a poet is something I think bloggers and other writers should always aim for:

One of the jobs of poetry is to make the unbearable bearable, not by falsehood but by clear, precise confrontation. Even the most cheerful poet has to cope with pain as part of the human lot; what he shouldn’t do is to complain, and dwell on his personal mischance.

Read the fascinating interview at The Paris Review.

What writers and bloggers do you suggest achieve this “difficult balance” (a Wilburian phrase) or “precise confrontation” with reality?

Speaking of Amazing Catholic Schools…

A recent UD graduate just published a beautiful article about my alma mater – capturing not only the love so many of us feel for her, but also a glimpse into what Catholic education should be like. It is on the University News website.

Very much worth the read: Goodbye, Farewell, Amen: An Adieu to UD by Daniel Orazio

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.
– Pied Beauty, Gerard Manley Hopkins



Here are three articles I think everyone interested in Catholic education and society should read:

1. John Jalsevac on Marriage – Controversial, yes. Disturbing, yes. Thought-provoking, yes.

In a provocative but carefully-argued article, Jalsevac seems to get to the heart of the matter about the marriage debate (often a topic of discussion and perplexity in my high school classroom):

After all, huge numbers of heterosexuals are sleeping with whomever they want, are divorcing and remarrying willy nilly, are avoiding children like the plague, or are bringing children into a single parent home or placing them in the unconscionable position of either choosing which parent they like best or being condemned to the permanent impermanence of being shuffled about from one parent to the next for the duration of their childhood. Nobody seems to be particularly bothered by all this, and so, many are beginning to wonder (quite rightly) why we should begrudge gays the right to do the same thing, and to honor it with the same name.

2. Stanley Fish on education, the law, and conscience. Controversial, disturbing, and thought-provoking – yes.

What methods are appropriate to use in the classroom to get our students to really engage with the material in more than a “theoretical” way? Although Fish is describing college education here, I think his thoughts are very helpful to the high school teacher as well:

[…] the brouhaha is not about “material” — books and essays — it’s about the appropriateness of asking students to do something that brings to the surface, out in the open, some of their deepest commitments and anxieties. Whereas in the theater-exercise case you are engaged in a performance that brings with it the distance that attends artifice, in the step-on-Jesus case there is no distance at all between what you are asked to do and who you are; discovering who you really, and not theatrically, are is both the point and goal.

The goal, no doubt, is a worthy one, but is it a pedagogical goal or does it belong more to the therapy session than to the classroom?

3. Dr. Susan Hanssen on religion in public life. Dr. Hanssen is one of the best professors I learned from at the University of Dallas, and her incisive inquiry into the real role of religion in public life is something I think about often as a teacher. I have the privilege of (somewhat) taking for granted the “public” nature of faith, at least in my classroom–but many other teachers in public and charter schools do not.

It takes some real intellectual labor for us in the third millennium to grasp the definition of religion as essentially one of the res-publica, the public things, that ought to concern patriotic men.

Pay close attention, as well, to what Hanssen says about rights and duties–that human rights are intrinsically connected to human duties and responsibilities: what we have a right to do is inseparable from what we ought to do.

It seems to me that all three of these articles suggest important implications for what Catholic teachers should do in the classroom. I thought about my kids a lot while reading them.