Some Brief Thoughts on Teaching Poetry

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Recently, in my post “The Grip of Nonchalance,” I described teaching Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” A reader commented:

Your last paragraph regarding Frost’s poem: allowing your learners to see the poem through their personal life filters – your learners are experiencing the true meaning of “educate”, to draw out of the person so the child/youth/adult is able to figure out who she/he is and who they are in this world. Intensity is framed in these discoveries.

That comment surprised me, since I do not think of my teaching, especially of poetry, that way. I am not of the persuasion that every interpretation is valid, or that the poem is all about the reader–but on further reflection I realized that this was not what Susan, the commenter, meant. Rather, a poem has many undertones and overtones, and at different times in our lives we hear certain tones over others. But if we keep on listening to the poem, we will come to hear them all, or at least more of them than before.

So in that sense, yes, my students were reading and hearing the poem through their personal filters, but what they heard was there. The poem does hint at death, or at least sleep; to me the hint is so gentle, so practical, that it does not overwhelm the poem. For some students, the hint looms larger, but this is a question of proportion.

Reuben Brower writes about this poem:

The dark nowhere of the woods, the seen and heard movement of things, and the lullaby of inner speech are an invitation to sleep—and winter sleep is again close to easeful death. (‘Dark’ and ‘deep’ are typical Romantic adjectives.) All of these poetic suggestions are in the purest sense symbolic: we cannot say in other terms what they are ‘of,’ though we feel their power. There are critics who have gone much further in defining what Frost ‘meant’; but perhaps sleep is mystery enough. Frost’s poem is symbolic in the manner of Keats’s ‘To Autumn,’ where the over-meaning is equally vivid and equally unnameable. In contrast to ‘The Oven Bird’ and ‘Come In,’ the question of putting the mystery in words is not raised; indeed the invitation has been expressed more by song than speech. The rejection though outspoken is as instinctive as the felt attraction to the alluring darkness. From this and similar lyrics, Frost might be described as a poet of rejected invitations to voyage in the ‘definitely imagined regions’ that Keats and Yeats more readily enter.

Yes, there is something instinctive about the poem, something that does not put itself in words–and this “lullaby of inner speech” brings out our own. But as Brower points out, Frost is responding not only to the mystery itself, but to certain Romantic tropes, which he comes close to embracing but then gently rejects.

So is it good to read poems through our own filters, or should we resist doing so, trying instead to hear what is there, and how it responds to other poems? Both are necessary. We have personal relationships to poems; without them, poems become just exercises in form, or abstract specimens of beauty. Some schools–and some schools of thought–frown on such intimacy and thereby ruin poetry for students and teachers alike (not to mention writers). On the other hand, as with another person, there’s more to a poem than our own feelings and perspectives (otherwise there would be no need to read it; we could just read our own diaries instead). Coming to know it requires hearing beyond ourselves.

There is discipline to reading poetry, but there is also personal roaming. If a poetry class brings out both, even briefly, and does this well, it has not gone wrong.

I took the photo in November 2017.

 

Sunrise and Proportion

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I took the photo yesterday at sunrise; now, almost exactly 24 hours later, I am grabbing a few minutes to think and write before heading off into the day. It is already almost March, which almost means almost spring. Deadlines are rushing this way, one after another: tests, paperwork, an essay I promised for publication, and on and on. This week two colleagues and I are giving oral entrance exams to eighth-graders applying to the school. Some of my classes have few sessions left, since the seniors attend classes only through April. One of these classes meets just once a week; that means just eight more sessions, since we also have a spring break.

What do you do, when you want to make the most of the time? There are two contrasting principles, especially when it comes to school. First, plan the time well: consider how much time is left, decide how to distribute and structure it, and think about the substance in advance. But on the other hand, do not be too rigid with the planning, since some spontaneity is good, things often do not turn out as planned, and time runs out anyway. Both principles work together; the challenge lies in finding the right proportion.

What does sunrise have to do with proportion? Well, yesterday I took the photo at just the right moment, from my balcony, but many other sunrise photos, taken on other days, were too dark or too bright. This one shows the layers of color. So the search for proportion often involves not only error, but recognition; you know when things go wrong and right, and you make continual adjustments. Recognition and adjustment are ideally at the heart of teaching, not only because you have to make adjustments in the classroom, but also because that’s part of what you’re teaching: the discernment of measures.

Water Fight (Villanelle)

snow balloonI have been thinking about villanelles a lot recently; one of my upcoming English classes will be devoted to Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” I’ve written at least one villannelle before; I think there are others, but I can’t remember or find them. This one I wrote in the middle of the night (tonight). It was inspired by a poem by Amy Gerstler (in the Winter 2019 issue of Literary Matters), but the relation is indirect, I think. All I know is that I read her poem and then immediately wrote the villanelle.


 

Water Fight (Villanelle)

You hurled a wobbly red balloon my way
and laughed when it exploded on my gut.
My hurl at you: so blue and full of say.

Each life must have its tousle in the hay,
or else it ends with an unwieldy “but.”
You hurled a wobbly red balloon my way.

Stop taking it to heart! I hear them bray.
Learn to leap lighter with each bruise and cut.
My hurl at you, so blue and full of say,

still had some wit, I counter, since my tray
of words spun swift and bright out of the rut.
You hurled a wobbly red balloon; my way

was to throw verse. Was that a lackaday,
a waste of rhyme? Or juggernaut,
my hurl at you so blue and full of say?

Yet either way, an end comes to our play.
You win; I exit left and no more strut
(you hurled a wobbly red balloon my way)
my hurl at you, so blue and full of say.

 

Image: Snow Balloon (painting) by Ju Won Jeong.

I changed four words and two punctuation marks after posting this poem.

What #MeToo Could Mean

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For a long time I have been thinking about the #MeToo movement and figuring out what I thought about it. My thoughts are not monolithic, because the movement itself takes many forms (and is also part of something larger). I support some aspects of it with full strength and heart. Yet sometimes I find that it goes too far, particularly with regard to public shaming, firing, and restrictions on language.

It is good that people are speaking out about harassment they have suffered–as students, employees, colleagues, parishioners, or other roles in relation to people with power. There was a time–I remember it well–when there wasn’t a good way to bring up such things. If you claimed that you had been harassed, many times you would just get ignored, or else you might pay consequences (a low grade, a demotion, humiliation, etc.). Many buried cases of sexual and other harassment are now coming out into the open, and that is good. Also, it is good for us to recognize how our words and actions affect others. It is not only men who harass; women do it too. Nor is harassment limited to the sexual realm. There are hundreds of ways to diminish another person’s dignity and power, and people do this daily. If we come to understand this better, if we perceive our own potential to harm and be harmed, we might live and work more humanely together.

At one point in college (back in the 1980s) I took a playwriting class, which I loved. In addition to teaching the seminar, the (visiting) professor met with each of us privately once or twice. In my meeting with him, he complimented me on a scene I had written, and then said something to this effect: “If you feel scared when writing this kind of thing, dear, you can call me.” I sputtered something awkward in response (I don’t remember what I said) and later went to the dean to ask for help. She strongly advised me to file a formal harassment complaint. I chose not to do so, because I didn’t want to hurt this man’s career. Also, I realized in retrospect that I could have said something like, “Thank you, but I would like to focus on my writing, not my feelings.” I don’t think he would have pressed the matter farther.

But I stopped going to class, or went irregularly, and ended up with a C for the course. The C was earned–I stopped turning in assignments and rushed out the final project. Looking back on it now, I think he was way out of line, while I myself was inept at handling such a situation. I wish there had been some way to get help in handling it, before filing a harassment: maybe a mediated conversation, for instance. I did not want to hurt him–and I was truly enjoying and learning from the course otherwise–but I now see that I should have done more to help myself.

But I was not innocent either; in my late teens, and throughout my twenties, I was rather difficult, I think. If I was attracted to someone, I had a hard time letting go, even if the feelings were not fully reciprocated. People told me things like “Love yourself and others will love you,” but that made no sense to me; how do you go about loving yourself ex nihilo? What I really needed to learn was a principle of ethics and manners: treat others as free individuals; honor their liberty. If you want to be their friend and they do not want this, let them go, difficult as this may be. If they are your friend but do not want to be your romantic partner, accept that and keep an appropriate distance. Do all of this with the confidence that others will come along. Also, maintain appropriate boundaries. I never dated any of my teachers, professors, students, or bosses–and I never was a boss myself–but it took me a while to understand what boundaries are and why they matter. (I do not think it is always wrong for bosses and employees, or professors and students, to date each other, when they are adults, close in age, relatively close in power and status, respectful of each other, and loving in their decisions–but these are special situations, which, like all the others, require discernment, principles, and conscience.)

The point here is that many people, myself included, had things to learn. We were caught up in social changes that we didn’t fully understand. Families, workplaces, relationships were changing; homosexuality was now discussed and expressed openly; many people were getting married later than their parents had, if they got married at all; members of oppressed groups were gaining power and recognition. As a result of these changes, we started to form new models for treating each other. Now that some of these models have become explicit, new questions arise: to what extent should people be faulted for past conduct? What are the standards for conduct? Is harassment simply anything that makes another person uncomfortable, or are there objective criteria? And what actions are appropriate in response?

It will take a while to resolve these questions. It is important to work toward doing so. What troubles me is the rapid and rash arrival at answers: the assumption, for instance, that every case of harassment should be broadcast online, or that those accused (even of mildly offensive comments, or of consensual dating) should be publicly shamed, online, and fired from their jobs and careers (or pressured to resign). This is not only wrong but shortsighted. It can lead to an overly cautious and litigious environment, where, instead of dealing with each other spontaneously and genuinely, people watch every word they say. It can also upend a basic legal principle: the presumption of innocence.

#MeToo and its associated movements can help to humanize workplaces, schools, colleges, and other institutions. But for this to occur, those involved must be willing to admit to error, distinguish among situations, and act fairly. It takes courage to speak out against harassment; it takes at least as much courage to resist pure revenge, recognize one’s own faults, and seek out the good for all. #MeToo can mean not only “This happened to me too” but “I, too, am fallible.”

 

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it, but the substance is unchanged.

Had there been no mistake….

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Yesterday I rushed out the door and forgot to take my glasses with me. I made it through my first two classes–even a reading and discussion of Hamlet, with a fine-print edition–but was then able to bike back home for that pair of lenses, which (the trip, I mean) led me to see and come near this swan. Forgetting sometimes does this: it forces a return, which is never exactly a return but rather a new variant of the old path.

So forgetting, mistakes, blunders, and so on are no cause for shame. Most of us don’t want them all the time. If I forgot my glasses every day, I’d be taking a lot of time just to go back for them. But without forgetting, without mistakes, there would be no way but forward, and that would not allow for much perception or understanding.

For three years I was reeling over an acquaintanceship that went wrong–where I became attached to an email correspondence and put much more into it, in terms of thought and importance, than those on the other end did. I kept thinking, if only I had handled this differently, if only they had understood…. All of that has some truth, but both conditions were, in a sense, impossible. I acted as I knew how to act at the time, and they understood as they knew how to understand. The acquaintanceship had its limits. Today I put much less into email overall; I prefer speaking face to face. I also recognize that not all people are meant to be friends, even if they seem to have much in common. Friendship is chosen, or admitted, by the people involved; it can’t be forced or formulated.

But the mistakes brought me to a different place in life; as the forgetting of glasses brought me to the swan, so other mistakes have brought me to books, to new and old friendship, to teaching, to music, to thought.

What’s Happening on the Ground in Hungary?

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People sometimes ask me what’s happening on the ground in Hungary–that is, what people think of Orbán and Fidesz. I get puzzled by the question; why assume that political opinions tell us much at all? Political slogans and stances involve so much reduction that they don’t come close to representing life. That said, a rally took me by surprise today.

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I was having a restful afternoon when all of a sudden I heard a sound that I have never heard in Hungary before (except in performances): the sound of slogan-chanting. I looked out the window and saw people marching over the bridge. I ran out the door and across the river to see what was going on. Mind you, there have been many rallies since I arrived here over a year ago, especially in Budapest, but I have not seen or heard them. I usually learned about them after the fact.

I caught up with the crowd and looked around. There were people and flags from at least five political parties ranging ideologically from right to left: Jobbik, Demokratikus Koalíció, Lehet Más a Politika (Politics Can Be Different), Momentum, and MSZP (Magyar Szocialista Párt). I am not sure what exactly they were protesting (beyond Fidesz and Orbán), but my guess is that it had to do with the new “slave labor law.” As I stood on the outskirts and listened, a woman complained to me that they were doing the wrong thing, that this would only lead to confrontation. Then they marched onward, chanting “Orbán takarodj!” (“Orbán, get out!”). 

“Orbán, get out,” but then what? I don’t deplore this kind of action, but I see it as a rough draft of something to come. Many young people are astute observers of the situation; they analyze the problems, arguments, and flaws on all sides and deliberate over solutions. I often get keen news analyses from students: commentary on current events in Hungary, the future of the EU, Brexit developments, the situation in Venezuela, and more. In ten years or so, a new generation of adults will point out new possibilities, if they have not left the country and if Europe has not fallen apart.

But back to my original point: as understood currently, politics only grazes the surface, if even that. Because of its pressure toward certainty and allegiance, political speech often disregards human complexity. Point the finger at others, and you get all sorts of approval; question yourself, and you fall into obscurity or even ridicule.

This does not have to be so; politics can involve discernment and probing. To reach this level, it must be informed by literature, history, philosophy, and arts, by mathematics and science, by practical experience and wisdom, and by difficult introspection. This kind of politics is even more daring than slogans and platforms, but it takes courage and knowledge.

So, although the rally represented more than I know, it did not encompass life on the ground this week, which was full of literature (in particular, two readings by the poet Béla Markó, on one of his rare visits to Szolnok), music, language, work, bike rides, dilemma, speech, translation, silence, theatre, sleep, waking, and thought. 

 

The two pictures of the end are of my bike ride to school on Friday morning and the opening moments of the Varga Katalin Gimnázium drama club’s performance in the annual Ádámok és Évák theatre celebration at the Szolnoki Szigligeti Színház on Thursday night.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it, and then a few more later.

A Literary Evening About Death

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I have been promising to describe an event I attended in Debrecen on January 17: a reading and discussion hosted by the literary magazine Alföldon the topic of death.

The theme was not mortality but death. Mortality is the abstract condition; death, the actual event. Mortality is death in a suit and tie (or cocktail dress); death can’t dress up if it tries. Why would a literary event on death draw such a large, dedicated crowd on a winter evening in Debrecen? I can only answer for myself: I went because I admire at least one of the writers and was eager to hear this topic approached openly, a topic that often gets euphemized and sidestepped. Introduced by the editor-in-chief of Alföld, Péter Szirák, the event consisted of discussion–led by the poet and Alföld editor János Áfra–and readings by Krisztián Grecsó, Gyula Jenei, and Márton Meszáros. I left with more than my limited Hungarian can assemble right now, but even if I were fluent in the language, I would need a long time to put together what I had heard.

They began by considering how, for many, the first encounter with death was through the death of an animal. Gyula Jenei read his poems “Tyúkszaros” (approximately the adjective “Chicken-shat”) and “Dögkút” (approximately “Carcass Pit”). Krisztián Grecsó read his story “Jó nap a halálra” (“A good day for death”). Márton Meszáros, a literary scholar, spoke of some of his work. I am not giving translations here of any of the works, because I would want to take time to do it adequately, ask the authors’ permission, and look for a better place for the translations than this blog.

The discussion and readings brought up many memories. I have not raised animals for food and do not know what that is like. But I remember a time when, at age eight or so, I found an egg in the woods, a blue speckled egg, on its own, on the ground, without a nest. I took the egg in my hand, squeezed it, and felt it crack. I remember not knowing, in the moment or afterward, whether I had meant to do this and whether I had taken a life. I wanted to think not, but I wasn’t sure.

I also remember the deaths of various pets: cats that roamed far and never came back, a big St. Bernard dog who went off by herself into the back yard and lay down to die, and Fred, my favorite dog, who died while we were living in Holland and our friends were taking care of him. (My parents couldn’t bring themselves to tell me until a few months after his death.)

We encounter death frequently, even though we do not always acknowledge or name it. It is part of how we come to know the world and ourselves. Deaths shape, scare, humble, sometimes even relieve us. Stories upon stories come to mind. But we also evade death (and discussions of death) with language, technology, medicine, and all kinds of escapes.

Later the writers discussed how people keep death at a distance; János Áfra brought up extreme sports and the fantasy of being a superhuman. They discussed whether euthanasia was an acceptable way of helping a dying person: does it prevent a person from experiencing the transition from one state to another? Should death be experienced fully, in the presence of loving people? On the other hand, does the full experience really do anything for the dying person? Is there really something to be experienced here, besides a sudden terror and pain? Are others able to help at all?  (There was much more to the conversation, and I may have some of this wrong, but this is what I was able to glean.)

The final readings–which appear in the current issue of Alföld–would have made the trip worthwhile on their own, without anything else. I have the texts (and a copy of the journal; there were free copies at the event), so I will be able to read them many times over the years to come. Gyula Jenei’s long poem “Isteni műhiba” (“Divine Malpractice”), the third part of which appears in Alföld, begins:

rendkívüli eseményre készülök. az időpont még
kérdéses, de a dolog elkerülhetetlennek látszik,
s húsz éven belül valószínűleg megtörténik.

You can read the second part of the poem (along with these opening lines) in the January 2019 issue of Kortárs.

Here is the opening stanza of Krisztián Grecsó’s “Magánapokrif” (maybe translatable as “Self-apocryph”):

A mindeneim mára üres árkok,
Kopár földsávok a kincstári mezőn,
Kifosztott oltár a harmadik napon,
Tucatnyi mérgezett varjú a tetőn.
Róluk mondatott le, intett, az Úr,
És elhagytak engem ők könnyedén,
Mintha nem én szültem volna őket,
Általam voltak, mert léteztem én.

I had come here by cab; afterward I walked back to the train station, through the snow, and looked at statues and buildings. A few things were moving slowly in my mind. First, I knew that it was a quietly historic evening, an event that people will remember, not only silently, but in their writings, teachings, conversations. Second, it wasn’t flashy or shocking; it relied on its own quality. The discussion was thoughtful and probing (and funny too, at moments), and the literature worth rereading slowly, many times. Third, I felt fortunate not only to have gone, but to have wanted to go, to have figured out how to do so. I think I understood only a fraction of it (maybe between a third and a half, and a fragmented slice at that), but isn’t that part of the point? You step into something like this, and no matter how much or little you understand, you leave with all three sides of it: the things understood, the things not understood, and the in-between, which together begin their own building.

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I took both pictures in Debrecen on January 17. The statue has an interesting history and has given rise to a variety of interpretations.

What’s Not to Like About Likes?

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I do my share of “liking” online (on Facebook and elsewhere). Like many deplorable things, it isn’t all bad. Or even if it is, it’s unavoidable. Liking, like it or not, is part of life, at least for likers.

But its not being all bad does not mean that it is “all good.” Something there is that doesn’t love a like. The problem with “likes” is not just their invertibility, inverness, insincerity, insouciance. No, their greatest problem is their statue effect: their way of propping “liking” up too high.

Liking isn’t all it’s lifted up to be. There are things I respect or love but don’t like. There are things I don’t like because I don’t yet understand them. Liking is pleasant, accommodating, satisfying, convenient, streamlined; it’s the hotel room of the soul.

The people who taught me the most, throughout my life, were not the most likable in the usual sense of the word (though they might have had stores of wit, kindness, and what have you). They had something to say and said it–or, if they didn’t, they said nothing. Today there is far too much emphasis on pleasing others: counting among the affable, sociable, cooperative, team-fashioned, pre-approved. That is the problem with “likes”: their mild demeanor, their cheery dominion, their wan wish to prevail as units of measurement and worth.

The title of this piece was inspired by Lex maniac. The photo is of Minnaloushe.