Education Without “Stuff”

In many areas of life, the less “stuff” we have, the better. A person learning a musical instrument works toward simplicity. Technique that at first seems cumbersome and complicated later becomes easy; it is ultimately meant to be easy, so that one can do what one wishes with it. An actor goes “off book” as early as possible so as not to be encumbered by the book. In relationships and friendships, the less “baggage” we carry, the more open we are to others–and so on. The principle “get rid of unnecessary stuff” has exceptions and qualifications, but overall, it’s sound.

Yet education reform tends to pile the “stuff” on. That’s one of my main criticisms of the Common Core: that it results in extraneous work that has little to do with what’s important. But this problem is not limited to the Common Core. One sees it in everything from pedagogical mandates to bulletin board requirements to tenure applications to writing instruction. There’s a prejudice against brevity and simplicity, and a great push for more, more, more.

I do not envy colleagues who have to put together massive tenure portfolios. (I was tenured when the rules were different, so I haven’t been subjected to this.) In these portfolios, they must not only demonstrate the range and quality of their work, in accordance with a set rubric, but also demonstrate that they are demonstrating it, with labels, reflections, explanations, and so on. Even those who have worked assiduously on their portfolios–and who have plenty to show–may worry that they haven’t included enough. Recently a teacher told me that she keeps all of her students’ work (after showing them their grades and comments), just in case she needs to document what she has done.

Now, granted, there is value in keeping track of what one has done as a teacher–but does it need to be done in such volume? That leads to another area of bulk: the Common Core.

The Common Core State Standards are neither terrible nor spectacular. They have some decent ideas, imperfectly articulated. As a gesture, the Common Core is a valuable document. As a mandate, it complicates good work. Teachers of literature courses, for instance, must now document their implementation of the standards–with lengthy lesson and unit plans, “tasks” matched to standards, and so on. That would not be so onerous if they could take the standards at face value, but instead they must prepare students for assessments that reflect questionable (and sometimes even bizarre) interpretations of the standards. Thus their work is tripled: they must teach their courses, demonstrate explicitly that they are addressing the standards, and contend with official interpretations of what that means.

What’s lost here is a sense of economy, of keeping one’s basic duties as simple as possible so that one can do interesting things. Instead, teachers learn to produce volume: long, elaborate lesson plans, even longer justifications of these lesson plans, and still longer lists of evidence that the lesson plan attained the desired goals.

Students, too, face pressure to substantiate their statements with copious “evidence.” Now, using evidence is a worthy practice–but one must take care not to overdo it. More evidence does not automatically make for a better argument, nor do all arguments require “evidence,” strictly speaking. Machiavelli uses numerous historical examples to justify the points he makes in The Prince–but one can question his interpretation of these examples. John Stuart Mill uses very few concrete examples in On Liberty, but this is appropriate for his mode of speaking. In order to determine the proper use of examples, one must know what one wishes to say in the first place.

Standardized writing assessments (and, by consequence, writing instruction) rarely focuses on what one has to say, or even how well one says it. Instead, it emphasizes adherence to a rubric, where more is better (“at least two textual details to support your point,” etc.) Students get into the habit of making a statement, supporting it with two examples, stating that the two examples support the statement, and concluding that the statement is true. There’s a lot of faulty logic and excess verbiage in that. Here’s a made-up example:

John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” suggests that love can survive separation. For example, in the second stanza, he says, “So let us melt, nor make no noise.” This means that he is telling his wife that they shouldn’t cry when they have to part from each other. He says this because the love is stronger than the separation. Another example is in the fifth stanza, where he says, “Our two souls, therefore, which are one, / Though I must go, endure not yet / A breach, but an expansion.” This means that when lovers are separated, their love remains and is even expanded by the distance. He says this because he believes their relationship is strong enough to survive. In conclusion, Donne is saying in this poem that when lovers are separated, their love can continue and even get stronger.

This would meet the criteria of many a writing test–but there is much waste in it, and many missed insights. The idea that “love can survive separation” is fairly trivial; it’s the metaphors that make the idea rich. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to examine the word “melt”–in its immediate context and in relation to the final line of the fifth stanza, “Like gold to airy thinness beat”? Yet a student who did so might receive a lower score–because the essay didn’t include enough “evidence” (or seemed to go “off topic”). An essay that stays “on topic”–but states the topic over, and over, and over again–will often receive a higher score than an essay that follows the wit.

There is much more “evidence” that education places inordinate value on “stuff”–but I believe I have made my point.

On a tangent (but speaking of “stuff”): I am dismayed to see the new “look and feel” of poets.org It used to be one of my favorite websites, as it allowed for focus on the poetry itself. It didn’t try to look like the flashy websites. It didn’t try to get all social. Now you have to scroll through a frame to read a whole poem, and you’re surrounded by “easy reading” font and social media icons. Someone on the staff must have persuaded others that rhinoceroses are in fact beautiful.

“Goe, and catche a falling starre….”

The summer after eighth grade, I read most of a poetry anthology for my required summer reading. I was supposed to pick out a few favorites; I remember choosing John Donne’s “Song: Goe, and catche a falling starre.” I didn’t understand much of it, but it beguiled me. Today it is still one of my favorite poems, and it still beguiles me, though I understand it much better. I will comment a little on it now. This isn’t a thorough analysis, just a look at a few things that fascinate me.

Why not start with the most peculiar moment in the poem: the first four lines of the final stanza? The poem is presumably “about” the impossibility of finding a woman who is both “true, and faire.” But what a strange twist!

If thou findst one, let mee know,
aaSuch a Pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet doe not, I would not goe,
aaThough at next doore wee might meet,

In other words, “If you find such a woman, let me know… then again, don’t bother to tell me; it isn’t worth your trouble or mine.” There’s something mischievous about this change of mind, and humorous, too, despite the bitters. What role does it play in the rest of the poem? Let’s look at the first stanza.

Goe, and catche a falling starre,
aaGet with child a mandrake roote,
Tell me, where all past yeares are,
aaOr who cleft the Divels foot,
Teach me to heare Mermaides singing,
aaOr to keep off envies stinging,
aaaaAnd finde
aaaaWhat winde
Serves to advance an honest minde.

Much has been said about the assemblage of images and suggestions here. They seem like a rather arbitrary collection of impossibilities, until one looks closer and sees how well orchestrated they are. Each impossibility is of a different kind: physical, sexual, philosophical, theological, mythological, emotional, or, finally, intellectual and spiritual. (These are rough characterizations; each impossibility holds more, of course.) The elusive last three lines, with their playfulness and prolonged trope, make one wonder what kind of “winde” is at stake. Is it a wind that propels sails? Is it false knowledge, false rumor? Is the implication that an honest mind needs something other than wind for advancement (something more substantial), or is it that an honest mind cannot advance, because of the ways of the world?

The second stanza seems to answer the implicit question: it proposes that someone “borne to strange sights” take a voyage until old age and then return with a verdict.

If thou beest borne to strange sights,
aaThings invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand daies and nights,
aaTill age snow white haires on thee,
Thou, when thou retorn’st, wilt tell mee
All strange wonders that befell thee,
aaaaAnd sweare
aaaaNo where
Lives a woman true, and faire.

This voyage appears as a complement to the impossible marvels of the first stanza. The traveler may “ride ten thousand daies and nights,” see “strange wonders,” and yet come back with snow-white hairs to tell of nothing: there is no “true and faire” woman to be found. The parallel with the “winde” and the “honest minde” of the first stanza suggests that the travel itself will bring no advancement of mind. In other words, the juxtaposition of “And finde / What winde / Serves to advance an honest minde” with “And sweare / No where / Lives a woman true, and faire” leads one to associate the “winde” with the travel, and the speaker’s own “honest minde” with the outcome. The “honest minde” cannot move forward because there is nothing simultaneously enticing and trustworthy–in particular, no woman with both beauty and truth.

Or is something else keeping the “honest minde” in its place? Now we come to those four lines that I quoted at the outset. Is it possible that the world-weary mind keeps itself from advancing–because as soon as it considers a possibility, it turns back on itself? Is this gesture “Yet doe not” the crux of the poem?

If thou findst one, let mee know,
aaSuch a Pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet doe not, I would not goe,
aaThough at next doore wee might meet.

It seems so, as the speaker sees through the illusion that deceives the traveler (and for that reason, he won’t even go next door). The traveler may think he has found a woman “true, and faire”–but the speaker knows better.

Though shee were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
aaaaYet shee
aaaaWill bee
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

Look at the play of “true” and “false” and the numbers one, two, three (and the implicit zero). There’s also a hidden “first” in the combination of “last” and “false”; so one can also hear “first, next, last” in jumbled order (though “last” appears here in the sense of “endure”). This, and the play of true and false in this and the previous stanza, gives a sense of card-and-number tricks (not entirely unlike those in Alexander Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades“).

What does all of this mean? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the “honest minde” isn’t honest at all–that its act of turning back on itself is a sign of falsity. That doesn’t seem to be Donne’s intent, nor would I go so far beyond his intent. No, this mind is honest but reduced to itself, set against the falsity of woman (and, in a larger sense, the world and its wonders). It need not venture out; after all, if it does, it knows what it will find. Still it conveys this in an adventurous way.

The implicit conundrum is this: to advance, a mind must be somewhat naive, for the mind that considers things rightly has already made its voyages. Yet it goes ahead and sings of them, thus voyaging anyway.

Note: I made some edits to this piece after its initial posting.

Accuracy of Imagination: Part 1

duff

Catarrhally clogged and dizzy, I am enjoying the slowness of these first few days of break. Yesterday I read William Duff’s Essay on Original Genius (1767) with excitement. I was drawn to it by David Bromwich’s book A Choice of Inheritance: Self and Community from Edmund Burke to Robert Frost (1989). I will not discuss the latter at length, as I would not do it justice. Duff’s essay I will discuss today.

In the second chapter of A Choice of Inheritance, Bromwich examines the changing meanings of “genius” over the centuries—from Edward Young’s conception of genius as complete and natural originality, to Wordsworth and Darwin’s intertwining of genius with interpretation and history, to a more specialized sense of the word, and then back to a sense of genius as something mysterious, separate, and natural. Despite this seeming reversion, what matters is the “displacement of the idea of nature by an idea of history” (24).

Bromwich devotes an intriguing paragraph to Duff, drawing attention his phrase “accuracy of imagination.” According to Bromwich, Duff retains some of Young’s idea of original genius but stops short of denying genius’s link with tradition. Duff perceives “accuracy of imagination” (a phrase he appears to have invented) as the gift of philosophical genius; Bromwich sees this as a “hint of a convergence between the ideas of genius in science and in art.”

The idea of “accuracy of imagination” interested me so much that I wanted to find out what Duff meant by it. His essay consists of two parts; each part, of five sections. The first part examines the ingredients, indications, and modes of genius; the second focuses on original genius and its various manifestations—in poetry, art, music, oratory, architecture, and philosophical science. Genius, according to Duff, need not be wholly original; yet the most sublime genius, poetic genius, is marked by originality.

At the outset, Duff associates genius unequivocally with invention: “To explore unbeaten tracks, and make new discoveries in the regions of Science; to invent the designs, and perfect the productions of Art, is the province of Genius alone” (5). Yet, as we find out later, such invention can take many forms.

Genius, according to Duff, has three ingredients: imagination, judgment, and taste. They exist in different proportions, according to the nature of the work, but imagination assumes primacy, and none of the three can be absent. If genius were to consist of imagination alone, then “there is scarce any means left us of distinguishing betwixt the flights of Genius and the reveries of a lunatic” (23-24).

In poetry, according to Duff, imagination comes first, then taste and judgment; in philosophical science, imagination still comes first, but judgment follows as a close second. Because imagination, judgment, and taste influence each other, the philosophical imagination is different in nature from the poetic imagination. The former is distinguished by “regularity, clearness, and accuracy”; the second, by “irregularity, vehemence, and enthusiasm.”  They need not always be separate, though; Duff regards Plato as both philosopher and poet (104):

Of all the Philosophers of antiquity, Plato possessed the most copious and exuberant imagination, which, joined to a certain contemplative turn of mind, qualified him for the successful pursuit of philosophical studies, and enabled him to acquire an extraordinary eminence in those various branches of Science, to which he applied his divine Genius. He is the only prose writer, who in Philosophy has dared to emulate the sublime majesty of the Mœonian Bard. He was indeed animated with all that ardor and enthusiasm of Imagination which distinguishes the Poet; and it is impossible for a person, possessed of any degree of sensibility, to read his Writings without catching somewhat of the enthusiasm.

This is indeed what has drawn me to Plato over the years—the combination of exuberance and reason. One might also find a combination of poetic and philosophical imagination in the poetry of John Donne (whom Duff does not mention) and the philosophy of John Stuart Mill.

When it comes to “accuracy of imagination,” Duff has two contrasting things to say. On the one hand, as mentioned before, he regards it as the gift of philosophical genius. On the other hand, he concurs with Longinus, who maintains that sublimity is inconsistent with accuracy of imagination—that (in Duff’s words) “native grandeur of sentiment which disclaims all restraint, is subject to no certain rule, and is therefore various and unequal” (164). It is not only that genius must risk error in order to rise high; it is that the very freedom of genius brings inconsistency. (I will comment more on this in a later post.)

But Duff makes ample room for genius that is not original, or not entirely original. For one thing, even poetic geniuses begin by imitating their predecessors: “one who is born with a Genius for Poetry, will discover a peculiar relish and love for it in his earliest years” and “will be naturally led to imitate the productions he admires” (37). The other arts definitely rely on predecessors: “There never arose an eminent Painter, Orator, Musician, Architect or Philosopher, in any age, completely self-taught, without being indebted to his predecessors in the art or science he professed” (263). Thus original genius in these fields is not independent of the past. Poets, by contrast, are better off, according to Duff, if they don’t have much of a past; he gives reasons for this toward the end. (This, to me, is the least convincing part of the essay, though parts of it make sense.)

Duff allows, likewise, for genius that is not so much inventive as interpretive or even imitative. Here, on p. 74–75, is one of the most striking passages of the essay:

We may farther observe, that Genius may, in a very considerable though much less proportion, be displayed in the illustration of those truths, or the imitation of those models, which it was incapable originally to discover or invent. To comprehend and explain the one, or to express a just resemblance of the other, supposes and requires no contemptible degree of Genius in the Author or Artist who succeeds in the attempt. Thus we allow Maclaurin, who has explained the Principles of Newton’s Philosophy, and Strange, who has copied the Cartoons of Raphael, to have been both of them men of Genius in their respective professions, though not men of original Genius; for the former did not possess that COMPASS of IMAGINATION, and that DEPTH of DISCERNMENT, which Were necessary to discover the doctrines of the Newtonian System; nor the latter that fertility and FORCE of Imagination, that were requisite to invent the design, and express the dignity, grace and energy, displayed in the originals of the Italian Painter.

Duff goes on to say that genius can be found in the mechanical arts—that a watchmaker and carpenter show genius when they bring special elegance into their work. “So diversified are the forms of Genius,” says Duff, “and so various its modes of exertion” (75).

What I find remarkable is that Duff allows for many kinds of genius without treating them as equivalent. He does not say that everyone is a genius; genius, no matter what form it takes, stands apart from ordinary life and production. Even so, he makes fundamental distinctions between various kinds and degrees of genius. These distinctions are not absolute; “original” genius often relies on tradition, and the acts of interpretation and imitation may involve genius.

There’s a hidden paradox in Duff’s argument: this very diversity of genius may encumber it and bring it down. At the end of the essay, Duff argues that the poetic genius (in particular) fared best in ancient society, where it was unfettered by manners, criticism, distractions, tradition, and so forth. He admits that he has no proof for this, yet he offers Homer and Ossian as evidence. If this is so, then the great abundance and multiplicity of genius may trample down certain kinds of genius. Ah, well, some may say, but new kinds may come forth. Yet if the highest form of genius suffers (and Duff appears to regard poetry as the highest), what happens to genius as a whole?

I will leave that question aside for now and return to the phrase that first drew me to Duff: “accuracy of imagination.” What is it? Duff perceives it as a requirement of philosophical science, where “allocations of ideas will be perfectly just and exact” and “no extraneous ones will be admitted; it will assemble all that are necessary to a distinct conception and illustration of the subject it contemplates, and discard such as are no way conducive to those purposes” (33–34).

I would say that such “accuracy of imagination” has a place in poetry as well, though there it’s a different kind of accuracy, or rather, an illusion of accuracy. (I return here to Bromwich’s idea of a “hint of a convergence between the ideas of genius in science and in art.”) When reading a poem, one wants to sense that it could only be that way, that nothing in it is makeshift, extraneous, or compromised. In my next post, I will discuss that kind of “accuracy of imagination” in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day.

A Few Thoughts About Thomas Hardy’s “The Going”

All week I have been thinking about “The Going,” and so I will walk through it now. This will be neither a thorough analysis nor (I hope) a ghastly “think-aloud.” It is just a preliminary gesture, but one that I put together in my mind.

The poem has to do with a woman (his estranged wife, Emma) who left suddenly through death. The speaker laments not only her loss, but the loss of the moment when he might have known she was leaving. Because he did not know she was leaving, he was not allowed the moment’s significance or sorrow.

I have been drawn to Hardy’s poetry lately (by which I mean over the past few years, and stretching back farther). They have the ghostliness of loss. They hint at something of Donne (in my ear) and anticipate something of Auden—but they have an idiosyncratic mixture of song-like cadence and stark individual expression. As I read them over and over, I find myself taken into certain words and phrases.

In  this poem, the verse is accentual, with alternating stanza patterns. The first, third, and fifth stanzas begin with the question “Why” and follow the pattern (of stress counts per line): 4 4 4 4 2 2 4. The even-numbered stanzas give no answer, but instead reflect on something that the question brought up. Their stress count pattern is 3 3 4 4 2 2 4. Both stanza types have the same rhyme scheme: ABABCCB. The “Why” stanzas are somewhat stylized; the reflective stanzas, while close in form, contain a more private and unusual language. The rule does not always hold but describes the overall gist.

Here is the first stanza:

Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrow’s dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here, up and be gone
aaaaaWhere I could not follow
aaaaaWith wing of swallow
To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!

The word “quite” may sound, to the modern ear, a little stilted after the adjective “indifferent,” but that’s due to our tone-deafness, not any enhanced modern sensibility. I will discuss “quite” more at the end; it has rich meaning and was still used after the adjective in Hardy’s time. It’s use in that position was already somewhat archaic (it seems) but still had meaning and resonance.

But look at the second and third lines of “The Going”: “That quickly after the morrow’s dawn, / And calmly, as if indifferent quite….” The words “quickly” and “quite” form the outer ends of a series of symmetrical alliterations and assonances. “Dawn” and “calmly” contain the same vowel sound (and prominently so); “dawn” and “indifferent” punctuate the “d” sound. The sounds of these lines suggest something enclosed, wrapped up—the one who departed, or the one left behind, or the closed-up “term” itself.

Now the second stanza:

aaaaaNever to bid good-bye
aaaaaOr lip me the softest call,
Or utter a wish for a word, while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
aaaaaUnmoved, unknowing
aaaaaThat your great going
Had place that moment, and altered all.

There are the stunning lines “while I /  Saw morning harden upon the wall,” and “That your great going / Had place that moment, and altered all.” I pause over “That your great going / Had place that moment, and altered all,” which suggests time, place, and motion all in one—a moment that physically exists and is gone, and in going takes something great away, but without the speaker’s knowledge. He saw “morning harden on the wall” (also a unity of thing, time, and motion) and was oblivious to the greater and more terrible unity.

The third stanza cries:

Why do you make me leave the house
And think for a breath it is you I see
At the end of the alley of bending boughs
Where so often at dusk you used to be;
aaaaaTill in darkening dankness
aaaaaThe yawning blankness
Of the perspective sickens me!

What a contrast—between the “end of the alley of bending boughs” and “The yawning blankness / Of the perspective.” It is a contrast not only between the memory and the loss, not only between the hope and the disappointment, but also between a lilting, lyrical language and something vacant and strange. Without knowing it, the speaker is emerging into his own life, which to him seems desolate but rings fiercely.

The next stanza evokes memories of the departed one, who used to ride horseback “Along the beetling Beeny Crest” and would “rein” near the speaker (not “reign”—I believe the homophone is significant) and “muse and eye” him “While Life unrolled us its very best.”

aaaaaYou were she who abode
aaaaaBy those red-veined rocks far West,
You were the swan-necked one who rode
Along the beetling Beeny Crest,
aaaaaAnd, reining nigh me,
aaaaaWould muse and eye me,
While Life unrolled us its very best.

Now, “to beetle” in this context is “to project or overhang threateningly”; “Beeny Crest” is a cliff in Cornwall that overlooks the sea (cf. Hardy’s “Beeny Cliff”). Thus the “very best” of life already has something foreboding in it—a precipice and a woman who only “reins” nigh him but does not stay. It’s the “red-veined rocks” and the “swan-necked one” and the “musing” and “eying” that make up this good Life unrolling. Now life is unrolling again (as we see in the final stanza), but in a different way, and with different lyric.

The next stanza is to me the saddest:

Why, then, latterly did we not speak,
Did we not think of those days long dead,
And ere your vanishing strive to seek
That time’s renewal?  We might have said,
aaaaa“In this bright spring weather
aaaaaWe’ll visit together
Those places that once we visited.”

The plea seems already an admission of defeat; the speaker knows that there would have been no new places to visit, that the best they could have done would have been to “visit together / Those places that once we visited.” And yet, isn’t that what long-term spouses do? Does it really suggest an end to love? That frail hope that something might be renewed through revisiting—is it really that frail? But here the speaker recognizes, for the first time, that the failing was not only the woman’s, but his as well. “Why didn’t we think of doing that? It would have been so simple,” the stanza suggests. There’s a poignancy and a gentleness in the last three lines, the words that could have been uttered by either one but were not: “In this bright spring weather / We’ll visit together / Those places that once we visited.”

This seems to point toward a reconciliation, which the final stanza only partly provides. Yes, it seems that the speaker has accepted the state of things—but this does not prevent or ease his final cry.

aaaaaWell, well!  All’s past amend,
aaaaaUnchangeable.  It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. … O you could not know
aaaaaThat such swift fleeing
aaaaaNo soul foreseeing—
Not even I—would undo me so!

There is the matter-of-fact “Well, well! All’s past amend, / Unchangeable. It must go.” It sounds like someone shaking his head and getting on with his day. But that isn’t quite the point; it’s his own life that seems about to go; he seems “but a dead man held on end / To sink down soon.” Then comes the brilliant unraveling of the final lines, which have a complex grammatical structure. “You” here is the subject, “know” the main verb; then, the subordinate clause “such swift fleeing … would undo me so” has the participial phrase “No soul foreseeing,” which modifies the “fleeing”—and then the phrase “Not even I,” which in turn modifies “No soul foreseeing.”

Thus the speaker is included among all souls, none of whom foresaw the swift fleeing, which in turn has undone the speaker—an event that the one addressed could not have foreseen. There are two levels of foreseeing: foreseeing the fleeing itself, and foreseeing how it would undo the speaker.

Now back to the word “quite.” One finds it in Shakespeare where rhyme does not require it, for instance, in Henry VI, Part 1:

Lords, view these letters full of bad mischance.
France is revolted from the English quite,
Except some petty towns of no import:

“Quite” derives from the adverbial form of the Middle English “quit, quite,” which meant “free, clear.” It originally meant “thoroughly” but came to mean “somewhat.” It is related to “quit” and “quiet” and even to “while”; it derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *qwi- “rest.” One can hear all of those tinges of meaning in Hardy’s “quite” in the first stanza. It is about quitting, quiet, utter removal, and thoroughness, all of which come up in the final stanza again.

I have read no criticism of this poem, so I don’t know to what extent these observations overlap with what has been said before. I like to think about poems on my own before reading what others have to say, unless the criticism is especially compelling in itself (in that case, it takes nothing away from my own thinking, but instead spurs thoughts). I was looking forward to laying down these thoughts all week, and know that they are just a beginning.