To Gather Around a Book

red book

(Gathered around C. G. Jung’s Red Book: Dr. Larry Allums, Dr. Joan Arbery, and I. Thanks to the Dallas Institute for the photo.)

This summer, for the sixth time, I had the joy and honor of serving on the faculty of the Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. (It was my fifth summer as full faculty member; in my initial, “junior faculty” year in 2011, I mainly observed but also gave some morning remarks and an afternoon lecture.) What makes the Summer Institute stand out, or one of many things, is its focus on literature itself. We alternate between epic (in even-numbered years) and tragedy and comedy (in odd-numbered years); in epic summers, we read the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Moby-Dick, Mwindo, Monkey, parts of Popol Vuh and Paradise Lost, and numerous poems, essays, speeches, and other works–all of this in three weeks. Jennifer Dubin’s article “Promethean Summer” (American Educator, Spring 2014) describes the program vividly.

Although the reading is intense and the course short, we have room to discuss the works in depth–precisely because of the focus. Through the substance of the course (the works themselves), the practice of coming together over literature, and the beautiful concentration, we not only cover ground but unearth new things. I hope to continue on the faculty for many more years.

Now I have turned my attention to my book, as well as college recommendations and two papers for the ALSCW Conference (Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers). The book’s working title (which may change) is Take Away the Takeaway (the title of the talk I gave in April at TEDx Upper West Side, the video of which should be available sometime this month).

I know that I will miss my school this year, but it is a privilege to be able to focus on writing (and one or two other big things, including a course I will take this year in advanced cantillation). Focus and stretches of time are some of the greater goods of life; to some degree they can be found in any given moment, but they also depend on the structures of our days. For years I have been building this structure; now I get to live in it for a while. I hope to do it justice.

Homophonia and Parekbasiphobia

This is now a well-known story (and no hoax): Blogger Tim Torkildson was fired from his position at Nomen Global Language Center, Utah’s largest private English as a Second Language school, for posting a piece about homophones on the company’s website.

Homophones are words with like sounds and different meanings, such as where/wear, or/oar, and pair/pear. They may have the same spelling (for instance, rose/rose).

A post about homophones is entirely appropriate for the website of an ESL school. But Clarke Woodger, Nomen owner and boss, told the Salt Lake City Tribune that “people at this level of English … may see the ‘homo’ side and think it has something to do with gay sex.”

Well, and so what if they did? They are learning English, correct? They would soon learn what “homophones” actually were. In addition, they could learn the meaning of the prefix “homo-.” Part of the point of learning a language is learning what words and their parts actually mean–not staying stuck in what you think they mean.

If you avoid the very sounds of words because of their possible associations, you will end up in a verbal noose. But that’s only part of the story. Woodger’s greater concern–as reported to Torkildson and to the Salt Lake City Tribune–was that Torkildson was going off on too many tangents in his posts, and that he therefore couldn’t be trusted. This post on homophones–a wild digression, in Woodger’s view–was “the last straw.”

If we look at this story in terms of a fear of tangents and digressions (which I will call parekbasiphobia, as parekbasis is Greek for digression), then Woodger’s complaint is typical of a larger tendency in education.

Since my entry into public school teaching in 2005, I have seen widespread distrust of digressions. Teachers themselves understand the value of digressions–allowing a conversation to take an unexpected direction for the sake of larger understanding, or even for sheer fun. But policymakers and teacher trainers see it otherwise: to many of them, if you stray from the point for even a few seconds, you are wasting precious instructional time. You may be robbing children of the opportunity to meet the stated objective and thereby to achieve measurable progress.

One of the first “inservice trainings” I attended included a presentation about sticking to the point. “We want our lessons to go straight to the objective,” the presenter said, “not where our own imagination takes them. We want to be like this”–here she made a gesture of straight motion–“and not like this” (a gesture of a zigzag).

One of my greatest teachers, the poet John Hollander, showed us in lecture after lecture, seminar after seminar, what digressions could do. There was no imitating him–in no way could his teaching be a “model”–but I would not trade a single one of his lectures for something that stuck strictly to the point. For Hollander, the point itself was multifaceted; to understand it, one needed to take excursions into etymology, history, architecture, music, and more.

Now, how do I reconcile a defense of digression with my insistence that focus is essential for learning? On the surface, it seems that these two principles contradict each other, but they do not. There is a big difference between digression and all-out distraction. If one is attentive to the topic at hand, one can move this way and that within it. How and when one does so will depend largely on the situation. Not all digressions are helpful, but some may open up insights into the lesson’s central questions. You can miss the point by sticking too rigidly to the point.

By contrast, what doesn’t count as focus is a willful inattention to a lesson or topic–a preoccupation with one’s iPhone, or with the latest social gossip, or with the homework for the next class. Now, some would argue that such “distractions” should be made part of the lesson–that instead of battling them, teachers should welcome them and search for their inner meaning. On the whole, I disagree. There is a simple practice of setting aside one’s own immediate preoccupations for the sake of something else. If students (and teachers and schools) do not develop this discipline, they will be at the mercy of their urges and impulses.

But once the general focus is established, there’s room for a great deal of adventure. Just how much, and when–that’s a matter of judgment, and judgment is at the center of a teacher’s practice. Take away judgment, and you take it all away.

In fretting over Torkildson’s “tangents,” Woodger may seem ridiculous–but he represents a current of our time.

Enter This Landscape

I recently came upon Cynthia Haven’s blog, The Book Haven—in particular, a post about the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, with a quotation of my translation of his poem “Tu, Felix Austria” (one of my favorites of the translations and of his poems). I continue to read her blog with enjoyment and admiration.

It was in 1988 that I first encountered Tomas Venclova’s poetry. I was a senior at Yale; he was directing my independent project on Russian poetry translation. Knowing that he was a poet, I wanted to read his work (but didn’t want to tell him this). So one day I made a furtive trip into the library stacks. I opened up a volume of his poetry and read the lines,

Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.
Stogų riba sutampa su aušra.
Byloja sniegas, pritaria ugnis.

What did these words mean? At the time, it didn’t matter. I was drawn into the sounds, or what I thought were the sounds. “Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.”

(Later, I learned that they meant, roughly, “Stop, stop. The sentence disintegrates. The border of rooftops coincides with the dawn. The snow proclaims, the fire repeats.”)

Not long afterward, Tomas (or Professor Venclova, as I called him at the time) invited me to translate his poems—not a coincidence, but a great honor. Throughout the project (which resulted in a book, Winter Dialogue, most of which later reappeared in slightly edited form in The Junction), I immersed myself in the original poems, through listening to recordings of them and poring over the Lithuanian. I also had Russian literal translations and Venclova’s notes to guide me along.

The strength and weakness of my translations was that I tried to preserve the sound, rhythm, and form of the original—or, rather, to recast the poem in comparable sound, rhythm, and form. When it worked, it worked splendidly (for instance, in “Tu, Felix Austria,” “Pestel Street,” and “Autumn in Copenhagen”). When it didn’t, it came across as stilted. I don’t regret taking this approach. I do wish, in retrospect, that I had trained my ear to hear the translations in themselves. I always heard the originals behind the translations.

I bring this up because I have been repeatedly remembering the poem “Pašnekesys žiemą” (“Winter Dialogue”) and its opening lines:

Įženk į šį peizažą. Dar tamsu.
Anapus kopų gaudžia tuščias plentas.
Su jūromis kariauja kontinentas—
Nematomas, bet sklidinas balsų.
Praeivis arba angelas sniege
Paliko lengvą užpustytą brydę,
Ir kranto atspindys juosvam lange
Mums primena bevaisę Antarktidę.

In my translation (in The Junction), this reads:

Enter this landscape. Darkness still prevails.
Filled to the brim with voices, though unseen,
The continent takes up arms against the seas.
Across the dunes, the empty highway wails.
A passerby or an angel in the snow
Has left a subtle covered trail behind,
And, in the blackish pane, the seaside’s glow
Becomes the bleak Antarctic in our minds.

In the beginning, the landscape consists of sounds—the voices, the wailing. So, the invitation into the landscape is indeed an invitation into the poem’s sound, much like the invitation that I heard when I first read “Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.”

I love remembering this poem and reciting it to myself. One of my favorite stanzas is the sixth (remember that this is a dialogue):

Po sunkiasvorio debesio tinklu
Tarytum žuvys blizga ankštos aikštės.
˶Ar tu atsimeni, ką sakė žvaigždės?”
˶Šis amžius išsiverčia be ženklų,
Tėra statistika.” ˶Mirties trauka
Sukausto žmogų, augalą ir daiktą,
Tačiau sudygsta grūdas ir auka,
Ir štai tada, manau, ne viskas baigta.”

And in English (the translation takes a few minor liberties):

Beneath the screen mesh of the weighty cloud,
The squares, like fish, are glittering and playing.
“Do you remember what the stars were saying?”
“This century is managing without
A sign; there’s just statistics.” “Gravity
Of death has fettered person, plant, and thing,
But sprouts burst forth from seed and sacrifice,
And then not all is over, or so I think.”

How many people have room to enter a landscape of this kind? Even I don’t have that room in the way I once did. I am cluttered with obligations and concerns. A pile of tests to correct lies in front of me. Emails await my response. But at least I know what it means to enter something like this, and I can do so, up to a point. I know there is more to this poem than I can grasp–a history that I have not lived, a consciousness I have not known, a language that is not mine. All the same, when I listen to it, some of the barriers fall away. I understand something of it, beyond the aspects that I can analyze.

What worries me as a teacher (and what sometimes overwhelms me) is that many students don’t know how to still themselves to enter poetry. (I don’t mean this poem in particular, which probably requires adult understanding.) Many children and adults have a persistent need to make noise—not only out loud, but in themselves. I am not referring to my students in particular. I hear from teachers around the country (and even from professors) that students do not know how to quiet down, in part because adults don’t know, either, or don’t practice it.

I am not recommending that schools start including meditation in the school day, though some schools do. The quiet should come through the very attention to the subject, be it a poem, a math problem, or a historical document. But “should” is one matter; “does” is another. Quieting down takes practice, and given all the buzz around us, it may need a kind of practice in itself, even a simple kind.

Nor am I suggesting suggesting that we have all lost our focus and quiet (or that any of us has lost all of it). Nor do I blame technology for the problem. Technology, after all, gives us audio recordings. I can listen to many more recordings in Russian, Lithuanian, and other languages today than I could a few decades ago. It’s possible to listen to “Pašnekesys žiemą” (and other poems) by downloading the MP3 version of Venclova’s album “Winter Dialogue: Chants from the Holy Land” (for those interested, “Pašnekesys žiemą” begins around 56 minutes and 25 seconds into the recording).

Nor would I say that humanity has ever been fully focused. We need a mixture of focus and distractibility in our lives, and the relationship between them is intricate. Problems arise when we tip too far toward the one or the other, when we forget how to navigate between the two.

What would help, then? Maybe more poetry in the curriculum—where students memorized, recited, discussed, and (sometimes) wrote sonnets, villanelles, and other kinds of verse. This isn’t a fix (what is?), but it would help young people start to listen to language and form.  They would develop a tolerance for poems that they didn’t understand immediately. They would learn to hold things in their minds. Also, memorization is a gesture of a kind. It’s a way of saying, “This is important, and therefore I will preserve it.” Students may not agree immediately (or ever) that a given poem is important. But they will gain something from the gesture.