CONTRARIWISE Continues!

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Way back in the spring of 2014, the first boxes of CONTRARIWISE arrived at Columbia Secondary School. I was on alert for the shipment–but when it came, I would not open a box; I wanted to wait until the editors in chief were available, so that they could do the honors. I remember standing nearby as they cut the box open (with a key, I think, or maybe with scissors) and took out a volume–elegant, crisp, and colorful. All the work that had gone into this journal was now in their hands. The rest of the day was filled with signings, distribution of gift copies, sales, congratulations, exclamations.

Soon they received their first review: “NYC Techie Kids Buck Trend, Take On Humanities,” by Cynthia Haven. In May 2014, we had our first CONTRARIWISE celebration, at Word Up Books in Washington Heights. I have a short video of the part where I sang the “Contrariwise song”–based on the Major General’s Song–which I had written just for the event. (Thanks to Mr. Gerald Pape, who shot the video.) After the song, the editors in chief close out the ceremony, and a member of the audience–then in sixth grade–reminds them, “You were supposed to answer my question about time.”

That audience member is now in twelfth grade and—for the second consecutive year–one of the editors-in-chief of CONTRARIWISE. I just received a message from him that the sixth volume is at the printer–to be released very soon–and that the contest and writing prompts for Volume 7 are now available. I will copy the prompts below in just a moment. Right now I am contemplating what it took, from many people, to keep the journal going and lively all this time. I initiated it and was the faculty advisor for its first three years. Then Kim Terranova advised it for two years, and then John Beletsky stepped into the role. There have been four pairs of editors in chief: Ron Gunczler and Nicholas Pape, Kelly Clevenson and Alan Rice, Zosia Caes and Melany Garcia, and the current editors, Amogh Dimri and Theo Frye Yanos. In addition, CONTRARIWISE has had an editorial board throughout its history–students who read, discuss, and select submissions, judge the contests, help with sales, and plan events. Beyond that, CONTRARIWISE has been enlivened by its readers–people who buy copies, read them, enjoy them, and maybe even submit an Infrequently Asked Question or two (or five or ten).

Here are the new prompts and submission information, courtesy of the editors-in-chief. Everything except for the first one (the National Contest) is open to high school students around the world. Submissions must be in English. The deadline is December 22. The information will soon be up on the CONTRARIWISE website (which will be restructured as well as updated, according to my sources).

National Writing Contest (select one) — for students in the U.S.

  • How should crimes be punished in the ideal society, and should they be at all? What is the purpose of “punishment” — an act of enforcing individual justice, or of maintaining the cohesion of the broader society? You may relate your argument to history or current legal systems as well if you would like. (Below is a scenario that might inspire you along this line of thinking.)

    • You have been accused of a high-profile crime, but you have no memory whatsoever of the time you supposedly committed it. Moreover, none of your friends or family believe it is possible that you could have done it because they know you to be a very good person. Supposing that you did actually do the crime, should your punishment be any less?

  • Write about an idea that is impossible for humans to understand or a problem that is impossible for us to solve.

International Writing Contest (select one) — for students outside the US

  • Why do we laugh? Can all the causes of laughter, varying from dark humor, to simple gags, to tickling, all be explained by one theory? In whatever sense you take it, what is the purpose of laughter?

  • Can violence be justified to achieve political ends? If so, why, and to what extent can it be used?

Writing Open Call — for all students

  • Write whatever you want!

Remember, your submissions for the writing contests or open call can be in whatever form you want: reflection, short story, poem, dialogue, letter, or whatever else you can think of! Feel free to take the prompts in whatever way you are inspired to!

Art Contest — for all students

  • Many artists use abstract or surreal art forms in order to express philosophical ideas, purposefully subverting the confines of the real. Make a piece of art that does this. (Below are two ideas that might inspire you on the ideas of surrealism and abstraction.)

    • Surrealism — French writer André Breton: “The purpose of surrealism is to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, or super-reality.”

    • Abstraction — Vietnamese monk Thích Nhất Hạnh: “The secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts, in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself.”

Art Open Call — for all students

  • Make whatever you want!

Cover Contest — for all students

  • For this year’s cover contest, draw two abstract representations of non-mammal animals. Other than this guideline, be as creative as you want. Preferred width-to-height ratio is 2 : 3.

All submissions are due on December 22nd, 2019.

  • For writing, please share a Google Doc with editors@columbiasecondary.org. Do not forget to put a title and write out your full name as you want it to appear (or say that you would like it to be published anonymously).

  • For art, if it is digital please send an email with the file to editors@columbiasecondary.org, or for CSS students you can also give physical art to Prof. Beletsky, Theo Frye Yanos, or Amogh Dimri in person, or put it in Prof. Beletsky’s mailbox.

Don’t forget to credit any inspirations or inclusions of other works in your submission! (That is, cite sources and quotes, and credit any works that inspired or contributed to your own work.) An added comment from Diana Senechal: Borrowed/adapted art and photographs can lead to tricky copyright problems (and, in some cases, hefty fees). It’s better if your art is entirely original–that is, created from scratch, not a digital adaptation or direct copy of someone else’s work. But if you do adapt someone else’s work in some way, please provide the source, so that the editors can look into the copyright issues. As for writing, cite your sources accurately and thoroughly.

I hope many students in Hungary–and Turkey and around the world–submit their work!

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Image credits: The photo at the top was taken by Shirley Reynozo at the inaugural CONTRARIWISE celebration on May 18, 2014. The video was recorded at the same celebration by Gerald Pape. I took the second photo at a CONTRARIWISE editorial board meeting (in October 2015).

Loneliness vs. Solitude

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Recently I received a thoughtful, respectful message from a former student (who is now at university). He was curious to know how someone like me–warm, caring, intelligent–would be without a partner, or seem to be without one, at any rate. He understood if I chose not to answer the question. I think I understood why he would ask. For one thing, young people (and older people too) wish to understand the world better, and asking questions is one of the best ways. Also, there are cultural differences at work. Moreover, it’s a question I could stand to ask myself.

I replied that my answer was not going to be anywhere close to complete, but that there were a few things I could say briefly. One was that being single is much more common in the U.S. than here in Hungary. (The difference is marked, actually.) Another was that I truly enjoy being alone–not all the time, but for substantial stretches and for certain things that I do, such as writing, biking, thinking. The third part was that the situation could change, that I was open to the possibility of meeting someone, here or elsewhere, with whom I would want to build a relationship.

All of that leaves a lot unanswered, but it’s also true. How the situation took shape–that’s a much more difficult question. If I were to do it all over, I probably would marry and have kids, and they would be grown up by now, or at least well into their teenage years. But we don’t get to do our lives over; we can only live them from the present onward, or rather, in the continual present, with memories and anticipations, but no choices except for the ones right before us, including choices of attitude.

Back to the point about enjoying being alone. Right now I want to look briefly at the difference between loneliness and solitude. I wrote about this in my first book, Republic of Noise. The distinction isn’t absolute or clear-cut; the two can overlap. Nor does either of these have to do entirely with the presence or absence of others. You can be lonely–or solitary–when someone is right beside you. So what are they, and how do they differ?

Loneliness is a felt lack of human company. It can come upon you when you are all by yourself, or when you are around others with whom you do not feel at ease, or when you are enjoying the company of others but missing a particular person, or even when there’s no one in particular you are missing, but you feel a longing or ache, maybe even for someone you haven’t met yet. Loneliness isn’t always bad; sometimes you need it to pull you into the world or to see things more clearly. But in its extreme forms, it can be crippling and can take hold of millions of people.

Solitude exists at many levels and takes different forms. It can be understood as a basic, elemental aloneness that we carry with us at all times. People sometimes define it as productive or healthy aloneness. But I think there’s more to it than that. At one level, solitude is part of us whether we enjoy it or not, whether we think about it or not, whether we do anything with it or not. From there, it’s possible to shape the solitude that you have. Even in conversation, solitude comes into play; it allows you to stand back from the trend and form your thoughts.

Solitude can take the form of spending time alone. Over time, I have come to find this form essential; I need it not only for writing, not only for thinking things through, but also, often, for experiencing and enjoying things. I love going on long bike rides alone, because I don’t have to talk or stop, I can just be on the road as long as I like, going as fast or as slowly as I wish, looking around me, and letting my thoughts fly. I also love going to performances and films on my own, because I can take them in fully that way. I find solitude essential (paradoxically) for learning a language.

But that doesn’t mean I dislike company. My friends are dear to me. I have friends from across the years, from the various places I have lived, gone to school, and worked. I can’t imagine my life without them. I also have room in my heart for a relationship, should it come along. I imagine there’s someone out there with whom I would get along terrifically well, who wants to build something with me, who can make me laugh, who finds life interesting, who isn’t already with someone, who is fairly close to me in age and priorities, who understands solitude, who shares some interests with me, and who doesn’t ask me to be anyone I am not. I would offer my own version of the same.

Such a thing is possible and wonderful; at this point I have no idea who it would be or how we would meet, or even whether it would happen. If it happened, I think we would meet in person, not online. It would feel right to both of us, not forced. In the meantime–that is, the main time–there is much to do, learn, and enjoy: teaching to do, languages to learn, projects to work on, places to bike to, concerts to listen to, people to spend time with, pictures to take, questions to ask, and things to puzzle through and dream.

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Sátántangó (the film)

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I had been looking forward to this for weeks: Sátántangó, Béla Tarr’s 1994 film based on László Krasznahorkai’s novel. Over seven hours long, with two breaks, this event lasted from 2 until 10 p.m. (I took the picture at the end of the second break; this shot stayed still for a minute or two before the film resumed.) There were ten to twelve of us in Auditorium “E” at the Tisza Mozi. I expected that I would know or at least recognize someone there, because the people who show up for this film probably have something in common, and because I have been living in Szolnok for over two years now. And indeed: a parent of one of my former students was there, and someone else looked vaguely familiar.

When I entered the movie theatre, it seemed like a Krasznahorkai setting itself: the place was being torn down, nothing recognizable was in sight, and the workers didn’t know where the movies were. I soon found out that I had to enter through the side (the front entrance was being renovated).

The film unrolls and reveals human depravity–cheating, affairs, swindling, idolatry, gullibility, all-out alcoholism, and greed. There’s nothing redeeming in the characters (except perhaps the doctor and the girl Estike), no sentimentality at all, nothing romanticized, no one to feel sorry for (except Estike, maybe, and the cat), and nothing in the scenery except for mud, rain, more rain, trees, dilapidated buildings, more mud, more rain. But somehow this becomes gorgeous–through the long, slow scenes, Krasznahorkai’s sentences and phrases, the long gazes, the bells ringing and ringing, the animals mulling around, the dance that goes on and on, the accordion haplessly playing, and the scoundrels’ indomitable belief that they will be led to a better life by the arch-schemers Petrina and Irimiás. The latter has a gift for soft-spoken oratory and–in a brilliant performance by Mihály Víg–leads people to want to believe him and his partner, against all evidence. I loved the ending, which I won’t give away here, except to say that everything goes dark and the story begins.

The SzolnokTV Interview

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SzolnokTV interviewed Gyula Jenei, Marianna Fekete, and me about the Dallas Institute events. You can see the video here: http://www.szolnoktv.hu/hirek/?article_hid=56533. Today Gyula had a second interview, which I will add here as soon as I can.

Thanks to Judit Kassainé Mrena, the librarian at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, for the interview location (the beautiful new library)! And thanks to SzolnokTV.

Packed Days, Words, and (Now) Bags Too

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How do you pack a few days like these into a blog post? For the past week, my colleagues Gyula Jenei, Marianna Fekete, and I were guests of the Dallas Institute and Cowan Center; these days keep opening into more.  The Education Forum on Monday and Tuesday evening, the various introductions and conversations, the visits to various places in the city, the assembly yesterday morning at the Terrell Academy, the luncheon, the sightseeing in Fort Worth yesterday–all of this was so full, warm, and brimming that we will be thinking about them for a long time. Not only that, but new projects and ideas are coming out of them; I have a lot to do over the coming months and years.

On Sunday we visited the Dallas Museum of Art, and on Monday during the day we walked around a lot and visited the Aquarium and Sixth Floor Museum.

Both evening events were terrific; the audience took genuine interest, and we enjoyed the readings and discussions. On Monday, Gyula Jenei read seven of his poems, and I read my translations of them; afterward, he, Marianna Fekete, and I held a panel discussion and took a few questions from the audience.

On Tuesday, I read aloud my translation of Marianna’s essay about the haiku poetry of Béla Markó; then Gyula, Marianna, and I had a panel discussion, followed by a Haiku haiku workshop, in which Marianna taught the audience how to pronounce several of the haiku poems, and I explained the individual words. You can see the Flickr album of the Tuesday night event here; I have included just a few below (and at the top of this post).

Things kept getting better and better. On Wednesday morning we gave an assembly at the I.M. Terrell Academy for STEM and VPA, which is one of the Dallas Institute’s Cowan Academies. We spoke in a huge, elegant auditorium to several hundred students, who listened attentively and asked sharp questions at the end. Then we went on a tour of the school and saw (for instance) the music room and several classes in progress. We were moved and impressed.

Then we returned to the Dallas Institute for a luncheon with special guests, including the poet Frederick Turner–who, with Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, has translated many Hungarian and other poets–and the publisher Will Evans. (Dr. Ozsváth was unable to be in town for the event, but I felt her presence anyway.) The conversations and readings brought us together not only around the table, but for something ongoing too. Nothing I say right now will do it justice; I can only thank everyone who was there. Much more will come of it, visibly and invisibly.

I am in a rush now, so I will finish with a few pictures from yesterday (at the steakhouse–Larry Allums is wearing a bib, one of two that I brought for him and Claudia MacMillan, from our faculty trip to Serbia last August), on the golf cart at the Fort Worth Botanical Gardens, where Claudia took us for a long and lovely walk, and in South Dallas last night). I am grateful for all of this. More thoughts and photos soon.

Photo credits:
Monday night event: Marshall Surratt;
Tuesday night event: James Edward (Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture);
Halloween photo: Marianna Fekete;
Terrell assembly photos: Jerrett Lyday;
Group photo outside Terrell Academy: Claudia MacMillan;
All other photos: Diana Senechal.

I made a few additions to this piece after posting it.

If Only

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Often in my English classes we work with counterfactual conditionals: “If I hadn’t overslept this morning, I wouldn’t have arrived late”; “If I knew that you would be waiting, I would have called you”; etc. The curious thing about all these statements is that we have no idea whether they are true. We think that if we had done such-and-such, things would have turned out differently, but we don’t know precisely how. All we know is what actually did happen, and (to a lesser extent) what choices went into it. So when I look back on the past sometimes, and think, for example, “If I had taken a class with Harold Bloom, if I had majored in English while also taking Russian literature classes….” my conclusions, though appealing, come down to speculation.

I tried positing this–the unreality and uncertainty of the things that didn’t happen–in a one-session workshop on the philosophy of time (which I taught at school last year on Katalin Day). I didn’t talk about my own experience but focused on the texts I had brought and on the discussion in the room. A few students protested vigorously that my argument denied free will. But it doesn’t; it merely posits that we have no way of knowing what would have happened if we had done this or that differently. This doesn’t make the choices unimportant or unreal. To the contrary: by choosing an action, we give it a reality that the other hypothetical possibilities can never attain, except in the mind. It is true that we can return to, and embrace, a rejected option later. But we are now doing it as a different person from before, with the accumulated experience.

Well, I take that back. There are certain physical certainties, or relative certainties. If I take a book out of the bookshelf in my apartment, it will stay out until I put it back in; if I do not take it out, it will stay there. I can say, with some confidence, “If I hadn’t taken that book out of the bookshelf, it would still be there.” But as soon as other people and complex situations are involved, the alternative possibilities and their outcomes become less definite.

Let’s take the example of majoring in English. I see now that my reasons for not doing so were foolish. I paid too much attention to the amateur advice-givers around me. People were saying that the English major was overcrowded and that you “couldn’t do anything” with a degree in English. I don’t know about the first assertion, but the second was false. English majors can become writers, editors, scholars, critics, and much more; if they decide to change fields–for instance, to go into law–their studies will serve them well. Moreover, they will carry many of the works they read, and memories of the lectures and discussions, for the rest of their lives.

Why do I sometimes wish I had majored in English? Part of the reason is that I wanted to do this, early on, but let myself be dissuaded. Part of it is that I had a difficult time choosing a major at all; I finally chose Russian, but this came after I entertained many other possibilities. And there lies the catch. There are many reasons why I had difficulty choosing a major: a multitude of interests, contradictory and confusing advice, too many opportunities to change my mind, and profound uncertainty about what I was doing. There is no guarantee that any of this would have abated if I had chosen a different major.

Moreover, I loved the study of Russian literature and excelled in it. The one problem was that I didn’t want to go to Russia to study for a semester or year. I wasn’t required to do this, but it would have helped my Russian greatly. I wanted to stay put–having traveled and moved a lot in childhood–and this placed a limit on my Russian. My Russian was considered proficient at the time, but it wasn’t fluent. I could express myself well in certain areas, write essays, and read Dostoevsky without a dictionary, but there were swathes of vocabulary and colloquial expressions that I didn’t know. My deficiencies were even more basic than that; I made mistakes with perfective and imperfective verb forms and was far from mastering the prefixes.

Over the long term, I learned and accomplished things I never would have predicted–but beyond that, this is the only life I know. All those things that might have happened, that might have turned out differently, stay part of the imagination. Like any human, I take them up in the mind, but I can be certain of none of them.

Back to my students’ objections: If there is only one way for things to turn out, what happens to free will? I question the question’s premise. There are many ways that things can turn out, but only one way that they actually do. But even that is only partly true. Do we ever know, with certainty, how things turned out? To a degree, we can state what happened. But the meaning of what happened is continually changing; our perspectives change, and we learn from others’ perspectives. So, in a sense, an event many turn out in many ways at once. We have more free will than we even know: we not only make choices in life, but later choose how to interpret what we and others did. In this interpretation, the things that did not happen play a large role. There is still a distinction between things that happened and things that did not, but both sides involve the imagination, and the choices are infinite. (I didn’t manage to say all of this in class; these thoughts, provoked by the students’ challenges, came later.)

I am very sorry that I never took a class with Harold Bloom (or even met him in person). That’s on my mind now, since he died last week. But in ways I didn’t realize, I was learning from him indirectly. My friends and professors (and later my colleagues) spoke of him often; I picked up and returned to his books, which I read in passages and parts. He was in my life in some way, and he remains.

I have a similar (though different) feeling about Toni Morrison, who died in August. I would have learned so much from being in the room while she was speaking. I thought the day would come, but it did not. Still I continue to learn from her.

I didn’t miss out, though, even in terms of English courses; I had the great joy of taking two classes from John Hollander, as an undergraduate and a grad student. I think that was how things were supposed to be, since I sought those classes out. There was nothing like them in all my years of school; I return to them often in my mind. I am so far from missing out in life that a regret seems frivolous. But regrets have a place, when not taken too far. They help us perceive things that did not come to pass and that never will. Without such imagination we would fall for a much more dangerous illusion: that we are always justified, right, and complete.

Babits and Beyond

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Today, for the first time in months, I visited my favorite bookstore in Szolnok, the Szkítia-Avantgard Könyvesbolt és Antikvárium. I walked out with an armful of books: some literature textbooks (I want to understand better what students are reading in literature class and what they are learning about these works), a volume of Mihály Babits’s poems, and a big, thick book of Hungarian folk and historical songs.

I first opened up the Babits to p. 48, “Egy szomorú vers” (A Plaintive Poem), narrated by a poet with no friends, which amazed me when I got to here:

barangoló borongó,
ki bamba bún borong,
borzongó bús bolyongó,
baráttalan bolond.

which looks like nonsense syllables, but it isn’t–this not only means something in Hungarian, but makes sense in context. Still, it sounds almost like nonsense, and that brings the loneliness home, because when you’re at the extremes of loneliness, even your own words feel foreign. I have not yet read anything like this in Hungarian, and I see, looking through the rest of the volume, that Babits often plays with words and sounds.

This is the first weekend in months where I haven’t been in the midst of intense preparations- I have much to do–the trip to Dallas is just two weeks away, and I have some other projects–but things are in good shape.

It all came together–Rosh Hashanah, the ALSCW Conference, and Yom Kippur–but I know I took on too much. Even before the conference, before Rosh Hashanah, I had felt a slight sore throat, but I thought I had overcome it, and the conference itself was thrilling. Yet during my flight back to Hungary on Sunday night (with a transfer in Istanbul), I started feeling distinctly sick. This affected my voice badly at the Kol Nidre service on Tuesday evening, which I was co-leading with the rabbi and another lay cantor. By the morning of Yom Kippur, though, I was already a bit better, and halfway into the morning service I had come back into full swing. (The rabbi led most of the morning service so that I could give my voice a break, but it became clear that I could re-enter without qualms.) Shacharit, Mazkir, the afternoon shiur–things became fuller and fuller, and at the end of the day, in the Neilah service, when we all gathered in a circle and sang “El Nora Alilah,” I knew that we had built something together.

My colleagues at school were helpful and kind–those who covered my classes on the days that I was gone, those who asked how everything went, and others too.

I have more thoughts about all of this than I could put down here, or that I even want to put down–but I learned and thought a lot over these past two weeks. More thinking lies ahead, and more learning, and some rest.

Honors, Arts, and Travels

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This is a short post, since I leave early in the morning for the U.S. (for the 2019 ALSCW Conference in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I will be leading a seminar and presenting a paper). I will get to see my friend Joyce, who lives in Worcester, tomorrow evening.

Last Friday I had the great honor of being interviewed by Zsolt Bajnai, author of the wonderful blogSzolnok (which I read daily) and many other articles, essays, interviews, and stories. it was my first interview in Hungarian. Here it is.

Rosh Hashanah at Szim Salom was beautiful. Lots of people came. Now I have to stay strong and healthy for Yom Kippur (and beyond). I have many more thoughts about the holidays than these brief jottings convey.

Last night I saw a film that doesn’t leave my mind: Akik maradtak (Those Who Remained), directed by Barnabás Tóth. I recommend it to everyone and hope to say more about it another time. It was followed by a discussion between Zsolt Bajnai and the director and producer. They talked about how the film differed from the movie, how the actors were chosen, and more.

The week was filled with performances and other good things. Yesterday, during our long break in the morning, the music teacher (Andrea Barnáné Bende) and a group of students put on a short concert in honor of the school’s 90th anniversary. They sang and played a selection of songs from the past 90 years.

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And today (see the picture at the top) the ninth-grade bilingual class, under the direction of the drama teacher (Zsuzsanna Kovácsné Boross), rehearsed a short play on the theme of libraries and humanity, which they will perform this week (and next, I think). Since the rehearsal took place during our regular English class, I got to see it–in the beautiful new school library, curated and maintained by the school librarian, Judit Kassainé Mrena.

Also, Issue 12:1 of Literary Matters came out! It contains my translations of Gyula Jenei’s poems “Piano,” “Cemetery,” and “Madeleine“; my review of John Wall Barger’s The Mean Game; and much more.

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Finally, I am grateful to my colleagues for covering my classes during my absences. Speaking of absence, it is now time for sleep.

Singing in Class

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Songs are not a frill or luxury, in a language class or anywhere else; they are part of what we live for. A language class without song–entirely without song–is incomplete, since songs not only help with language, but make language learning more worthwhile than it would otherwise be. A song takes a place in your life; you can sing it, hum it, play it in your mind, listen to it–at least one of these, whenever you want.

We learn more language from songs than we realize. Song lyrics are full of the grammar and words we use every day, but slowed down (or sped up), reshaped, cast in melody. But it isn’t just for their utility that we learn them. They are ends in themselves, or some combination of ends and means. They stay with us. We remember them years later. They connect, unexpectedly, with other things.

The evening before my first session of the year with one of my tenth-grade classes (with whom I meet just once a week), I received a message from one of the students in the class: “Look at what I found🙄 maybe an idea for a warm-up exercise for tomorrow.” He had attached a photo of his own copy of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which we had sung last year. I agreed that we would sing it. When we did, I could see how much the students were enjoying the return: the song itself and the remembering of it. What it brought back, and what it was right then. I then taught it to the ninth-graders (pictured above).

The third week into the school year, I was in for a surprise. Yesterday I was filling in for another teacher (during the ninth graders’ math lesson), so I decided to do a combination of math and poetry. First I challenged them with Thales’s theorem, which they figured out with a little help, and which one student then explained eloquently from start to finish (in English). Then I taught them Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” First I recited it, then took them through it bit by bit, and then asked them to find a contradiction in the poem. They recognized it: on the one hand the two roads are “really about the same”; on the other, the speaker imagines a time far in the future when he will be “telling this tale with a sigh” and saying “I took the one less traveled by.” I asked them: Is this about the tricks memory plays on us, or the way we fool ourselves with our stories? Or is there a way that both of these things can be true: that the two roads are, at the outset, both equally untraveled, and yet, by the end, the speaker has taken “the one less traveled by”? We considered “how way leads on to way” and how, as time goes on, the sequence and combination of paths that the speaker takes must grow more and more singular. Not at the outset, but over time, not on that initial road, but on the long stretch of roads, forks, and turns, the speaker takes “the one less traveled by,” since the probability of anyone else taking that precise combination of roads grows smaller and smaller. That is just one way of hearing the poem, but it holds up and brings the many parts together.

Before this discussion began, a student made everyone laugh by singing the poem. But when I listened more closely, I recognized he was doing something serious, although it sounded comical. He wasn’t simply setting it to a random melody. He was chanting it; each line followed the same melodic pattern, which brought out the poem’s cadence and rhythm. I told the class that ancient poetry was often chanted in this way–that this was a natural thing to do with poems. And then the student said something that made me curious. “I see something similar between this poem and ‘This Land Is Your Land.'” At the end of our discussion we returned to his comment.

He then explained. “It isn’t that the two are similar, but they come out of a similar feeling. Of homesickness.”

Neither “The Road Not Taken” nor “This Land Is Your Land” mentions homesickness, but you can feel it in both of them. I stood stunned for a few seconds, hearing both of them in a new way.

But that’s the point: hearing. It’s when you hear the poems and songs that you understand them, that you go below the surface.  Singing and hearing go together; this is part of why I love leyning Torah, chanting liturgy, memorizing poems in different languages, listening to songs over and over again. This is why singing belongs in language classes–why it is not a frill, not an extra, but one of the necessities that you bring along.

 

I took the photo in class (in the first week of school) and am posting it with the students’ permission.

 

Unhyped

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In Hungary I am relieved of the pressures of hype. Here, by and large (with exceptions and shadings), people care more about the quality of a thing than about the publicity surrounding it. It is more important to write a good book, song, or play than to “succeed” in terms of sales and numbers.

Not that this is always true here, or always false in America. Here in Hungary, artists have to promote their work just to keep on going; to make a living off of it, they have to win a large audience. Conversely, in the United States, people are not always impressed with big publicity; especially with music, they look beyond the fame.

But often, in the United States, you are judged by your external success. If you want to be considered–yes, even considered–by a major publisher, you must find a literary agent. To persuade a literary agent to represent you, you must usually show that you have a “platform”–that is, a built-in audience that will guarantee sales. Or you must have connections with the big media outlets. Or else your idea must look like a big hit–something that will sweep the country and the world. Once the book (or other work) is out, you are judged by the splash that it makes–even though that splash, in many cases, has been pre-engineered. “Everyone’s talking about such-and-such”–people forget that sometimes the strongest reaction to a book is silence.

Beyond all of that, in the United States there is a fantasy of “making it”–of hitting upon something that makes you famous and rich and that tells the world that you matter after all. Many people believe that if they make it, they are legitimate human beings, and if they don’t, they aren’t. I know musicians who were profoundly and widely appreciated and who still believed they hadn’t made it. Some quit out of discouragement. Some shifted their attention to other things. Some switched to other kinds of music, where the “scene” didn’t matter any more. (Granted, this wasn’t always out of discouragement; sometimes they just wanted to take a new direction.)

In Hungary, from what I have seen, people recognize that life is difficult and bounded, that external success involves a lot of luck (and sometimes privilege too), and that you are better off focusing on your work itself than on the attention it is or isn’t receiving. Every writer or artist wants an audience that grows over time; audiences are necessary. Everyone wants recognition–awards, positive reviews, and so forth. But a small audience is not taken as a judgment against the work or its creator. Or maybe it is sometimes, in some places, but not everywhere.

Also, in Hungary there is intense emphasis on quality, sometimes to a fault. People readily criticize their own and others’ work, not always to put it down, but to point out how it can be better. The adjective “good” is a serious compliment, not freely given. People do not often laud creativity in the abstract; that is, they do not respect it as much as they respect a created thing, if it comes out well, and its creator. This has a negative side: judgments can be harsh, inaccurate, and overly self-assured. But in the best circumstances they can encourage discernment.

Take, for instance, the band contest in Törökszentmiklós. I had never seen anything like this before. The bands were being judged by a jury on the quality of their musicianship, lyrics, uniqueness, and overall stage picture. The results made sense. Contests abound in Hungary–academic, artistic, athletic contests of talent and accomplishment. These contests have limitations and imperfections, but they can bring out the good. In the U.S., there are contests aplenty, but one contest reigns supreme: the “buzz” tournament, the challenge to produce something that everyone will be talking about for months to come. As though talk were a measure of anything.

This topic could be the subject of a book, but it wouldn’t be easy to write. I would have to go much farther into the essence of the matter. Right now I am dissatisfied, knowing I have barely touched the surface. Much remains to be asked, considered, probed, rethought. We shall see.

I made some revisions and additions to this piece after posting it.