Goodbye to a Friend

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It had been a while since I had heard from my friend Johnny Strike (John Bassett), so this morning I googled him and found out that he died of cancer in September 2018. I then started reading tributes to him–by people who knew him, people who admired his music and writing, people who remembered him sharply, or all three.

We were initially colleagues in San Francisco, where we worked as counselors. He had been a legendary rock musician back in the 1970s–the frontman of Crime–but by now he had accrued a stately, slightly professorial quality (with a chuckle and a hint of dark wisdom). He, our mutual friends, and I loved to make fun of bureaucracies and buzzwords. We formed a band at work that did just that. Then I joined him in another band (Biff, Johnny, and me, as pictured above, and, in reverse order, below) that he created mostly for recording purposes. We recorded a demo.

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As the bassist, I was definitely not good enough for his band, I lacked the technique and texture, but he never said this; he seemed glad to have me there, and when I left San Francisco, he found someone else. The band came out with a recording and later morphed into a new lineup of Crime.

Once or twice, when I came back to visit, we met up for brunch. In Brooklyn, in 2002, I started a literary journal, Si Señor; not only did he contribute, but he connected me with artists and writers who became part of the journal as well. For the first issue, he submitted a piece on literary rejection. We agreed that it would be funny if I “rejected” it and publish it as a rejected piece, with a satirical editorial comment. So it turned into a combo: his piece on rejection combined with my bombastic rejection of the piece. I will post it here one day after I retrieve a copy from the U.S. (I have them in storage in NYC).

He wrote four novels and a collection of stories. I edited one of them (Name of the Stranger) and briefly reviewed another (Ports of Hell). Many of his tales came out of his long travels; he would go off to Thailand, Mexico, Morocco, and other places for months. I enjoyed his crisp, morbid, funny narration, his imagination, and his way of creating characters that you could hear in the dark.

I miss him as a friend, acquaintance, colleague, and accomplice–someone I could listen to, talk with, and joke with. The last time I went to San Francisco–in November 2016, for 20 Minute Loop’s record release–Johnny said he wasn’t sure he could get together with me, since he was having health troubles. He wrote a few times after that; the last time was a group email, in August 2018, a month before his death. It contained just a link: “Make a Suggestion–Berkeley Public Library.” (The link is broken now.)

I will. But an earlier email contained another link–to his essay “Sunrise Tangier,” which I read too quickly at the time and reread more slowly just now. I am sorry that our correspondence dwindled down to links and silence and that I didn’t understand what was happening. Even less did I know how much was in those links and silences. Now I am catching up, slowly, on my own.

“Self-Partnered”? Or Self-Branded?

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A recent New York Times opinion piece by Bradley B. Onishi posits that many single people are in fact “self-partnered“–in other words, that they are in a relationship, not primarily with others, but with themselves. Onishi seems to see this–including the branding–as a good thing. While I see many joys in being single–and do not view marriage as the key to human legitimacy–I find this argument preposterous. A relationship with oneself is not the same as a relationship with another. Using the term “partner” for singleness creates confusion. But beyond that, I see no reason to justify single life, or any other kind of life, with a big idea.

First of all, singlehood is not a partnership with self. When you’re by yourself, you more or less know yourself. You may question yourself, search yourself, or even argue with yourself–but all of this happens within yourself. In contrast, when you face another person, you are confronted with what and who you do not know, even if in some way you know the person well. Even Odysseus and Penelope call each other “strange.”

Second, no matter what your relationship or lack thereof, you don’t have to justify it with a big idea or catch-phrase. It can exist on its own terms, and it can change. Why would anyone want to be “self-partnered”? It sounds more lonely than not being partnered at all–because the term evades the solitude. Why not let there be solitude, and company, and anything in between? Why not let these things be a little bit wordless, too?

One of the commenters on the NYT piece wrote, in response to my first comment,

Bingo. Everything has to be portrayed as some kind of new discovery of The True Way (same with diets, exercise, our relationships to technology, religion, and so on).
Looking for a ‘soul mate’ has little to do with reality. A partner is something else. Not to say that there aren’t good reasons to live on one’s own; there are plenty. But do we have to call it being your own soul mate?

That’s right, we don’t! Terms like “self-partnering” create the illusion that our choices are equal to any others. In fact they are not. Nothing is complete. No matter which way we choose in life, we give up something else. Some of us wonder what might have happened if we had chosen (or at least allowed for) a different way. Such questioning is fine. We can rejoice in what we have; we can bewail it. But we don’t have to petrify or laminate it in phrases. It can take surprising and changing shapes. I would rather learn from life than sum it up; I would rather work with words over time than scavenge them for an instant brand.

I changed the title slightly after posting this piece.

Dancing Into the Dance

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This was my third year attending our school’s annual Kati Day (on Friday) and ball (last night). On “Kati Day” (the saint day for Katalin, and the culmination of a week of serious silliness at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium), the ninth-graders compete against each other in performance (after a week of campaigning with costumes, stunts, games, and acts) and then are “initiated” into the school in a humorous ceremony. At the twelfth-graders’ ball, members of the eleventh grade officiate; the principal gives an address, the seniors get pinned with ribbons (symbolizing a step toward graduation and adulthood); and they (the seniors) perform ballroom and modern dances for their peers, families. There’s dinner too, and time to get hungry for it.

It was a special year for me, since I am the “vice form teacher” for Class 9C (who won first place) and teach students from every twelfth-grade class (A, B, C, and D). Also, knowing students better and being more familiar with these traditions, I could see, more clearly than in previous years, that not every student felt comfortable participating in them. What do you do if you’re asked to do something that you feel awkward or even pained doing? When everyone else seems to be having a great time? To me, that’s one of the most important aspects of these traditions. They teach you how to dance into the dance. As I see it, that is part of the meaning of these days: that they have room even for people who don’t feel fully part of them.

In life we often come up against things that we don’t want to do. We have several choices. We can walk away, say “sorry, that’s not for me,” and go on with life. We can try to change our feelings about them. Or we can walk into them as we are, finding a way to participate without giving ourselves up. This third way offers flexibility; without it, the choices would be grim. Walking away may be necessary at times, but if it’s the only choice you perceive, you can end up isolating yourself and ignoring real possibilities. Trying to make yourself enjoy things may occasionally work, but often it will just lead to more stress. Finding your own way into it requires imagination, and that’s part of the beauty of it too.

The headmaster gave a speech about entering adulthood. If I understood correctly, he said that adulthood requires two things (among others): the ability to concentrate and the ability to exercise fantasy. The second isn’t commonly associated with adulthood; to the contrary, people think of adulthood as the end of fantasy. But it’s precisely in adulthood when fantasy becomes necessary: for raising children, imagining possibilities in life, and seeing a situation from different angles. In this sense, finding your way into the dance requires fantasy too (and the ability to concentrate, for that matter).

Even teachers have to find their own way to participate. A few don’t attend–maybe they can’t, or maybe once in a while they opt out. A few cheer for every act and take dozens of pictures. A few relax, talk with their colleagues, and enjoy what there is to enjoy. A few are fully involved as form teachers–leading the students during the pinning ceremony, and maybe even dancing too. A few take this time to say hello to former students who come back to visit.

I was a mixture of the second, third, and fifth of these. I was thoroughly enjoying it, and also had a chance to talk a little with colleagues and say hello to former students. I was hoping that it wouldn’t be rude to leave at 8:45, since I had a ticket to go hear Krisztián Grecsó and Róbert Hrutka in concert at the Tisza Mozi at 9. As it happened, people were just starting to leave at 8:45, so I left too, walked quickly to the Tiszavirág bridge, clattered over it in my semi-high heels, arrived at the concert just on time (in a packed hall–it is good that I got the ticket in advance), and got absorbed in the music and readings. Grecsó read stories, a poem, and novel excerpts in between the songs, which were sometimes duos and sometimes Hrutka’s solos. They also joked quite a bit and had the audience laughing, but there were sad parts too. It was a gorgeous performance. This video, from a different performance, gives a sense of what it was like. One of my favorite songs that they played starts at 2:14 (the video gives just an excerpt, though, in two parts). I look forward to hearing Grecsó read from his new novel, Vera, when he returns to Szolnok on October 12. (He will give readings at both Varga and the library.)

So it is possible–not always, but often–to find your way into something, to participate as yourself. There’s something profoundly rewarding about doing so. As an editor-in-chief of CONTRARIWISE once said, “It took a lot of time, but I think we finally saw the cake.”

Image credits: I took all the photos; they are all of last night’s ball, except for the three at the bottom, which are of Kati Week and Kati Day. The video was filmed and posted by OrosCafé (camera by József Dancsó, editing by Ádám Patakfalvi).

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.

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.