(Photograph by Endre Szabó.)

This morning, before five, I heard a bird song I had never heard before, or at least never noticed. I opened up the balcony door to hear more; the cats stepped outside and looked intently through the opening. The melody was slightly arpeggio-like; the sequence almost always ended in a high-pitched whistle, but no two phrases were identical. I recorded about thirty seconds of it (unfortunately there’s a machine noise too). When I played it back, I could hear the recording against the actual singing, which went on and on. For a long time I still heard it, until other sounds drowned it out.

I didn’t recognize the song, so I listened to various recordings. I believe that it may have come from a feketerigó (sometimes spelled as two words)–that is, a “black thrush,” known in English as a “common blackbird” or “Eurasian blackbird,” a species of true thrush. If so, then I might not have heard it before.

I thought about what it meant to hear this bird for the first time. Now there’s another reason to open the balcony door early in the morning.

I also thought back on an opinion piece I wrote eight years ago about teaching Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush.” I objected (and still object) to the overemphasis on objectives and strategies in schools. I argued for going right into the poem, posing questions along the way. I hold to almost all of this; I would adjust the questions and observations but would teach the poem more or less the way I described. I revise one thing I said, though. At the time, I believed that students did not need to see any pictures or hear any sounds before reading the poem;  the poem would speak for itself. Now I think differently.

There is a difference between knowing the sound of a thrush and not knowing it. It isn’t just any bird song. It stops you in your tracks. If you know the sound, or one of the sounds, then the word “thrush” will bring those sounds to mind. If you don’t, then it won’t. Hardy knew the sound and expected his readers to know it too. Today I would play not just one, but several recordings of thrushes; I would encourage students to listen for them, if they lived near any.

How much a word can hold. Thrush, blackbird, feketerigó–these are just words for birds, until they become words for sounds, and beyond that, for the the encounter with the sounds, since any word, heard in its fullness, holds an encounter, except for those words that dismiss and disparage encounter, that reduce language itself. I have thought recently about how we live in a war of words–but it’s not just a battle of simplistic language against subtle language, or of crass words against noble ones. Anyone, no matter how rich in vocabulary, must stay alert to language in order to use it well. The “war” is against the forces, internal and external, that dull the alertness, that make language rushed or sluggish; imitative or solipsistic; crammed or empty; abusive or noncommittal. To use language well, you must seek not just words, but their histories, structures, and rhythms; both within and without you must seek them.

There is something to be learned from a bird. I mean this not in a naive or silly way. I don’t mean that we should go around imitating them, or that they hold any life solutions. I mean only that a birdsong can change a life slightly; you hear it, and from then on you listen for it (and reject those things that would not have let you listen before). Through the casting off, waiting, searching, and listening, you find your way into form.

The photograph of the blackbird looking in the mirror is by Endre Szabó. The video is by Liza Bakos.

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.

Fiction Is Not Fluff

A slew of recent articles have reported on the push for more nonfiction in schools around the country. The Common Core State Standards specify that by twelfth grade, 70 percent of a student’s assigned reading should be “informational” text, and 30 percent “literary” text. This ratio applies to the curriculum across the subjects, but English teachers are trying to squeeze more nonfiction in their courses. After all, they will be judged on their students’ performance on tests. Nonfiction is fine, but the pressure is not. In pushing nonfiction because it is nonfiction (or its non-equivalent, “informational text”), we are hurtling into a big mistake.

The rationale for the ratio is that students need to read widely. They must be able to understand informational texts in order to succeed in college and careers. Unfortunately, this argument often carries an overtone of hostility toward fiction and literature overall. If nonfiction is serious, essential, practical, and real, then fiction, according to some, must be a waste of time. A commenter on Jay Mathews’ blog complains that students don’t know how to read closely, because they have been fed a diet of “feelings books” instead of texts that explain how things work or what happened. Now, this may be true, but it has little to do with fiction or nonfiction. A nonfiction book may be primarily a “feelings book,” whereas a work of fiction, drama, or poetry may be intellectually and aesthetically complex.

The nonfiction mandate (mixed with rumor and anxiety) comes in response to a lack. Many elementary and middle schools around the country devote large portions of the day to “literacy blocks,” where students practice reading strategies on books of their own choice. Little or no subject-matter instruction occurs during these blocks. As a result, many children enter high school with scant background knowledge across the subjects. Many continue to struggle with basic reading. The problem affects students, teachers, and schools. A students might drop out of school, a teacher might lose a job, and a school might face closure, in large part because of curricular deficiencies in the early years.

Thus it makes sense to have students read across the subjects—to build their knowledge on a wide range of topics. This will ultimately make them stronger readers of literature as well as science and history. For some, it will make school interesting. Some students may find themselves engrossed in the anatomy of a beetle or the history of a river. It will enrich future courses as well; teachers can build on knowledge and insight that students have already acquired.

Very well. But it is folly to privilege “informational text” over literature—to imply that it is more serious, important, academic, advanced, or useful. We see this tendency even in this year’s ELA tests (or what little information we have about them). In a New York State test scoring guide, two sample tasks involve judging a fictional text against “facts.” Third graders are asked to read an Algonquin legend and then explain why it could not happen in real life. Sixth graders are asked to read a Nigerian folktale and an article on the sun and the moon, and then “explain how the folktale would have to change if it were based on the facts in the article.” Granted, these are just samples, but they suggest an effort judge fiction by fact. If we continue in this vein, we’ll be in deep trouble, and so will the students who have to tackle these strange tasks.

Such privileging of fact is not good preparation for college. Each field has its language and logic. It is as misguided to insist that literature be true to fact as it is to turn mathematics into a series of word problems. Moreover, any serious study involves play. In literature, we thrill in the paradox, the impossible, the imagined, the uncertain, even as we focus on details and structures. We stop to admire passages without knowing exactly why, even after years of analyzing them. We laugh and laugh over the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Tristram Shandy, Akaky Akakievich, and Humpty Dumpty. Other subjects, too, have their uncertainties, rumination, and delight. In mathematics, insights do not come when called. No matter how much we learn about methods, we are often left blundering, turning a problem this way and that, until suddenly the solution comes through. In history, no structure is perfect; we search for the one that will explain events clearly without oversimplifying them. Facts are part of each field but not the sum total. If they were, the fields would be dead.

The domain of literature is nothing to scoff at. Literature is made-up stuff, yet it takes us to old truths—not through data, not through statistics, but through story, image, rhythm. It shows us things we might not otherwise see; it reminds us of things we heard long ago. Take this passage from The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy:

Henchard bent and kissed her cheek. The moment and the act he had contemplated for weeks with a thrill of pleasure; yet it was no less than a miserable insipidity to him now that it had come. His reinstation of her mother had been chiefly for the girl’s sake, and the fruition of the whole scheme was such dust and ashes as this.

Even out of context, the passage shows mastery of language and form. The final phrase brings to mind the words from the Anglican burial service, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” (as well as Genesis 18:27 and Job 30:19). There’s a funeral in Henchard’s mind, a death of a fantasy and plan, combined with a “fruition,” a dream come miserably true. There is a cadence, a lasting quality, in the way the passage ends. This passage and the novel demand close reading; there is nothing trivial here.

Granted, not many students read Hardy in school or elsewhere today. But they certainly won’t read it if English teachers cut down on literature. Novels (and even poems and plays) will get short shrift; in some districts, apparently, teachers have been instructed not to teach more than one novel per year (see the fourth comment). (I’d be content with two superb novels per year; there’s every reason to make room for lyric poetry, epic, drama, short stories, and essays. But it should depend largely on the course.) Some students may read such works on their own, but most will not; they won’t see the point of doing so. Thus, a mandate intended to lift the intellectual level may end up bringing it down.

There are practical problems, moreover, with a fiction/nonfiction ratio. First, the definitions of fiction and nonfiction get fuzzy in places. Where would Homer’s Iliad fall? What about Plato’s Republic? What about Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio,” Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, or Auden’s “September 1, 1939”? If you answered fiction-nonfiction-nonfiction-nonfiction-fiction-fiction, you’re probably right by educators’ standards, but the terms seem somewhat arbitrary here. All of these works are worth reading; all could be included in a first-rate curriculum. What does it matter whether they count as fiction or nonfiction?

Second, there is no adequate way to measure the ratios. Shall it be by number of works? By word count? By some formula that weighs word count against difficulty level? Any approach will render itself absurd. The number of titles is certainly misleading, as some works are much more demanding than others. The same is true for word count. A formula will only prove frustrating; it could wield far too much influence over the actual selection of works. Teachers will find themselves testing various combinations on the formula until something passes. Out of anxiety, schools will err on the safe side and eliminate a good deal of literature from their curriculum. When people must follow foolish directives, they will often do foolish things.

What should schools do instead? There’s nothing wrong with including more nonfiction for its merits. Yes, students should be reading historical materials in history class. In science class, they could certainly read the textbook, and there may be room for classic scientific works and modern articles as well. In English class, students should read literature and literary nonfiction and perhaps other materials that shed light on them. The focus should be not on the proportions, but on the substance. In a good curriculum, the proportions will come on their own.

But policymakers get ruffled over the idea of a good curriculum. What is it? Should schools decide this for themselves? What if their definitions vary widely? How can we ensure any level of accountability? In addition, isn’t it likely that schools will find some rationale for what they’re already doing? All of these are worthy concerns, but let’s not assume that schools are devoid of good ideas and practice. There are excellent curricula that could inspire others directly and indirectly. There are teachers who create and teach substantial and memorable courses. We don’t need a uniform curriculum, but we can define some common elements and shape individual curricula from there. We could identify a few works that all students should study, and leave the remaining selections to the schools.

There is no substitute for good sense and good education. The push for more nonfiction (because it’s nonfiction) will not raise the level of learning in schools; it may even depress it. What’s needed is careful thought about what we’re actually teaching—the subjects and works themselves—and how we can make our offerings stronger and more beautiful. Yes, more beautiful too. Beauty is not a frill.