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in defense of poetry, with apologies to Percy Shelley

I spent about six weeks this semester teaching and talking about poetry with my students.  Almost to a person, they started the term with “eh…I don’t much like poetry,” and “I don’t get poetry,” and “what the hell is poetry even about, anyway?”

All reasonable questions, I guess, for students who have grown up in a world where they almost never encounter poetry, other than in song lyrics or spoken-word events.  Poetry, they tell me, is intimidating; it doesn’t make sense; it’s too complicated; it’s weird.

Full disclosure: I spent most of high school and all of college writing poetry. Whenever I’d get too philosophical during those late-conversations about Life that seem only to happen between the ages of 18-22 and only between the hours of 12-4AM, my friends would say “oh go write a poem,” as a way to get me to be quiet.

I kept writing poetry even after college—-poetry workshops, sending things off to magazines, the whole deal—-and stopped only when I got to graduate school, which pretty much thrashed every creative bone out of my body. Took me decades to get the graduate school’s pinched-face editor in my head to stop saying things like “maudlin!” “derivative!” and “you call that writing?”

All of which is to say is that although I knew my students wouldn’t be excited about spending all this time reading poetry, I was looking forward to spending time with words, nothing but words.  Someone said once that poetry is language calling attention to itself, and while I think poetry can be much more than that, that idea isn’t a bad place to start.  Poetry gives us a chance to think about how words feel in our mouths and sound out loud; poetry’s language works by compressing, distilling, wringing an experience or idea to a kind of essence that works on us in ways that we might not ever really understand.

We roamed through Seamus Heaney’s “Digging,” in which a gun transforms to a spade transforms to a pen in the hand of the poet; we looked at John Donne’s “Batter my heart three person’d god,” in which faith becomes a kind of ravishment, a physical experience; we talked about the bleak beauty in some of Anna Akhmatova’s lines; and marveled at the incandescent anger of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.”  The students put aside “it’s weird,” or perhaps, actually, they began to embrace the weird; they let themselves roam around inside the poems and not insist on absolute meanings.  And I got, perhaps, a little carried away by the whole thing and put a sign on my office door that said “Today’s Poem,” and then every day, I would post a new poem — a famous poem, an obscure poem, prose poem, haiku, nabati lyric — all kinds of poems.

One of the poems I put on my door is Ezra Pound’s imagist poem about being in the French Metro, called, fittingly, “In a station of the metro.”  It reads like this:

The apparition       of these faces       in the crowd:
Petals      on a wet, black    bough.

And yes, that’s what it looks like on the page, and yes, that’s the entire poem.  And yes, it’s a little weird.

But you know? Think about being in a crowded subway station, on a rainy day. Think about the blur of faces. Now think about the blur of wet, say, cherry blossoms on a dark branch.

See?

In his essay “Defence of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley (every time I say his name in class someone giggles, and I totally get it), said “Reason is the enumeration of qualities already known; imagination is the perception of the value of those qualities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.”

I guess the student who scrawled this comment at the bottom of the Pound poem wanted to live in a world governed entirely by reason. That strikes me as incredibly limited, and not a little bit sad.

IMG_7485Doesn’t make sense. Quit wasting paper.

Continue Reading · on November 13, 2013 in Books, Education, language, NaBloPoMo, reading, teaching, writing

Dave Eggers Has a New Book…and Big Brother look like a nice guy by comparison

I wrote a review of Dave Eggers’ new book, The Circle, for the newspaper here, and in their quest for space, the editors cut the first line of the review.  (I know–my deathless prose, snipped! Unbelievable.)

Here’s the line: “I didn’t like Dave Eggers new book, but I can’t stop thinking about it.”

And that’s the paradox: because as a novel, as a gripping story populated with characters we understand, it’s not that great. But as a novel of ideas–most of which are terrifyingly possible but I hope to god not accurate–it’s brilliant.

All of which is to say that probably you should read The Circle–but be warned: you will start to be warier about your whole social media world, if you have one. And if you don’t have a social media world, well, then, this book will scare the bejesus out of you, too.  And yes, of course I see the irony of me telling you about this technophobic thriller here, on this here newfangled interwebs thing. Of course. And frankly, I’m going to ask you to “like” and “tweet” and just generally social media my review all over the place, irony be damned.

Here’s the review--and I’d love to know what you think of the book, after you’ve finished it.

Continue Reading · on November 3, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, Books, tech life, The National

The Gift of the Snail

We’ve spent the last six weeks or so in the U.S. visiting friends and family, including a trip to Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts.  My kids go to a British school, so this trip was my attempt to offer them a dollop of U.S. history, which for some reason their school doesn’t offer.  Sore losers, if you ask me.

We stayed at a great cheap hotel right on the water and at low tide, the beach curved along the bay for what seemed like miles. You could see why the Pilgrims must have breathed a sigh of relief after their hell-trip across the Atlantic: the waters of the bay are calm, the beach is broad, the trees are green.  Pretty much the antithesis of the open ocean.

I walked on the pilgrim’s beach the morning we were there and saw that the sand was crisscrossed with small trails, separate from the wavy rivulets created by the tide.

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Snails. Tiny snails, not much bigger than my thumb, going from the rocks at the beach’s edge to…well, I’m not sure where they were going. The open ocean? Some imagined rock in the distance? Or were they just out for their morning constitutional, like I was?

Maybe these snails were the pilgrims of the tide-pools, millimetering their way forward against immense hardship? Probably not in pursuit of creating a religious colony with a large profit margin, but then again, who knows what governs the soul of snails?

I looked at the snails for a bit and kept walking, and then a few hundred meters on I found a snail shell, empty, unbroken, and whisper-smooth.

The next morning, walking on a different beach, I found another snail shell.  And the next day another.

We were at a variety of beaches during our time in the States, and I found an unbroken snail shell almost every other day.

It’s as if Someone is trying to tell me Something.

I’ve been frustrated this summer—one writing project abandoned, another stalled in its earliest stages, another percolating in my brain but refusing to coalesce; I’ve spent way to many hours flipping through half-finished manuscripts without finding much worthy of development.  And while our trip to the States, was wonderful in almost every way (except for my spectacular wipe-out on an NYC sidewalk), it was not particularly conducive to getting any work done.

So. Snails.

Snails are all about patience and perseverance, right? Not to mention that they carry their houses on their backs and thus are comfortable wherever they find themselves—not a bad lesson for someone embarking on her third year as an expat.

Plus, you know, I’m ticking down the months to the big five-oh, so I could do worse than to adopt a snail as my totemic animal: their shells get better, smoother and shinier, as they get older.  True, I’d always fancied myself more of a cheetah gal, but let’s face it: I am never gonna be built for speed.

Okay, true, snails often become seagull escargot, and I suppose snails never know the pleasures of good champagne, but I’m going for the Big Metaphor here, so please don’t disabuse me if you know other, less than positive snail facts.

That’s the gift of the snail: I’m going take metaphors where I can find them; I’m going to see the beauty in the slow-and-steady; I’m going keep moving, avoiding crabs and gulls, until I find open water and a niche of my own.

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*We’re going to be traveling next week – a last hurrah of the summer before we all put our school shoes back on – so in the week that I’m away, I’m going to be dazzling you all with some posts-from-the-past. Enjoy – and enjoy your last weeks of August, too. Probably, you know, to keep you company in these last days of summer, you should have a good book to read. What’s that you say? You don’t have a good book? Why LET ME SUGGEST THE BOOK I’M IN! Click on over right here and buy yourself a copy or ten.

Continue Reading · on August 16, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, Books, expat, Kids, NYC, Travel, writing

You Have Lipstick On Your Teeth!

If you’re a woman-type person, then I would imagine at some point in your life, you’ve been to the ladies room, aka the female toilet, aka the powder room. (Does anyone still use powder anymore?)  And I would imagine that in that powder room, you’ve probably had at least one or two really great conversations, maybe a bitchfest or two, and probably at least a few honest conversations: your hair looks like crap, love those shoes, hate your date, you have lipstick on your teeth.

Don’t we all need a friend (or two or ten) who will tell us we have lipstick on our teeth or that the person we’re currently dating is a big loser? Yes, yes, we do.

And so let me present to you an entire BOOK of friends who will do just that! 3D_coverForPRINTI love this book, and not only because I’m in it but because I’m rubbing pages with writers like these:

Leslie from The Bearded Iris, Kim from Let Me Start By Saying, Anna of Random Handprints, Ellen and Erin from Sisterhood of the Sensible Moms, Suni from The Suniverse, and many more.   I guarandamntee that you will laugh out loud as you read through this book because the women in the powder room write about babies, boobs, boys; parenting, peeing, and perimenopause…and pretty much everything else, all with wit, intelligence, and more than a dollop of profanity.

You should probably order twenty or thirty copies of this book RIGHT NOW, using this here link to our amazon page.  And then you should probably take a few minutes and write a rave review about the book for that there amazon page.  Probably you should do all these things right this very second. Like, now. Immediately. Go. Buy. Read. Rite Rave Review.  What are you waiting for?

 

Continue Reading · on August 8, 2013 in Books, me my own personal self, pop culture, Products, reading, writing

Saturday’s Snapshot (surat al-sabat): لقطة السبت

Sidelines at Caleb’s soccer football match last week:

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I think we classify this image under “the new normal.” (Plus that little kid in the jacket looks like he’s developing some mad skillz)

When I wasn’t standing on the sidelines watching Caleb play, I wrote a post for the World Moms Blog about female heroines in YA literature.  Which is to say, the surprising lack of female heroines in YA literature, relatively speaking.  What heroines come to your mind? Leave a comment and join the conversation.

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Continue Reading · on March 23, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, Books, family, Kids, sports, World Moms Blog

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