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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

in which teaching becomes a metaphor. or something.

Next week I am teaching Virginia Woolf’s brilliant and amazing essay A Room of One’s Own.

So on my list of “to do” for the weekend is this note, jotted down while I was in a meeting: “find a way in to Room.”

Indeed.

Of course, what I meant (I think) was that I need to figure out how to help my students tackle this long essay.

But the metaphor?

Woolf says that if each woman could have her own income (which Woolf pegs at being about 500 pounds a year) and a room with a lock on its door (one assumes locking from the inside, not outside, which is to say locking out and not being locked in), then it would be possible to develop “the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think.”

Wouldn’t that be nice?

It is a room of independence, I guess you could say; and Woolf was smart enough to understand that without freedom from economic worry, it’s very difficult to feel the freedom to create.

In this house that we’re renting, there’s a little room tucked in between the entrance to the garage and the laundry room. On the floor plan of the house, this room is designated “maid’s room.” Lots and lots of people have live-in help in Abu Dhabi, in part because if you hire someone full time, you have to sponsor the person’s visa–and in order to get a visa, you have to have a place to live.  We don’t have any live-in help (I don’t want any witnesses), so I have adopted that room as my office.

My god. It’s another room-based metaphor: my “room of my own” is…the maid’s room.

And that’s the challenge, isn’t it? In between driving and errands and laundry and housekeeping, in between earning money and making lists and going to meetings, somewhere in all that, a person should find the courage to write exactly what she thinks.

image source

 

 

Continue Reading · on October 5, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, Education, Feminism, Gender, me my own personal self, teaching, writing

if your dinner guests don’t behave, does that make you an ineffective hostess? (from the archives)

One story: this semester, I teach two sections of the same class. One class meets at 930AM and has sixteen students, all of whom are native English speakers.  The students are lively (probably stoked on the morning coffee); they seem to keep up with the reading. The second section meets at 2PM and has twenty-six students, seven of whom are non-native English speakers. It’s a less talkative class and I don’t think all the students are keeping up with the reading.  On the mid-term I gave last week, the morning class earned far more As; the afternoon class had a higher number of Cs.

Clearly I am an ineffective teacher, if I compare my afternoon with my morning test scores.

Another story: Liam’s first grade class was team-taught by a special ed teacher and a general ed teacher; the students in the class were a combination of kids who needed various types of extra help and kids who didn’t need extra help.  One student that year had some significant behavior problems and subsequently went to a school that could better serve his emotional and developmental needs. One of the two teachers was brand-new to the school and brand-new to the team-teaching concept.  And, horror of horrors, in mid-year, it happened that the brother of one of the teachers was shot and killed in the Virginia Tech massacre.

Let’s just say that there wasn’t a lot of learning happening in that classroom, as the teachers struggled to figure out their partnership and their students, and then had to deal with an unimaginable tragedy.

If there had been testing done that year, I’m going to bet the scores would’ve been abysmal.

A third story: Have any of you ever had a dinner party? A real dinner party, where you carefully  invite the guests, plan the menu, spring for the fifteen-dollar bottle of wine as opposed to the Two Buck Chuck? And then the party for whatever reason fizzles?  But other times, people stop by, you order pizza or whip up some kind of soup, the Two Buck Chuck goes down easy and you have a wonderful night of laughter and conversation?

Teaching reminds me a bit of throwing a party (if you were dumb enough to throw a party two, three, five times a week). You can do all the planning and organizing and prep work in the world, but if the guests aren’t willing, you can’t force them to have fun. We’ve all been at those parties, right, where the hostess smiles maniacally and insists that you have another locally sourced organically grown whipped kudzu foam canapé, and all you can think is “jesus, for this I got off the couch?”

There’s talk afoot these days that “all” we need to do to fix public education is find effective teachers and get rid of the ineffective teachers.  So simple, right? We don’t need to worry about poverty, over-crowding, inadequate classroom supplies, or anything else. We just need better classroom managers!  At least, that seems to be the theory espoused by Michelle Rhee (glam edu-gal about town, unofficial star of “Waiting for Superman,” and free-floating reformer). In this week’s New York magazine, Rhee–ex-chancellor of the D.C. public schools–spends a lot of time talking about effective teaching, and she seems willing to let Eli Broad bankroll her ideas (click here for a less-flattering portrait of Broad than what Rhee says).

New York City has fallen with this effective teacher idea, too, with its “teacher data reports” that measure (or attempt to measure) the teacher’s value-added score. The value-added score gets compiled through some incredibly arcane formula that even its supporters admit might be both too complicated and…um…inaccurate.  So, for instance, a wonderful new teacher interviewed by Michael Winerip in The New York Times last week,  got a score that placed her in the 7th percentile—but that score could be actually as low as zero, or as high as the 52nd percentile.  And even that higher number doesn’t do justice to the glowing reports this teacher regular gets from her peers, her principal, and her students, many of whom go on to the city’s most competitive high schools.

So your dinner party flops because one couple has had a huge fight in the cab on the way over, another guest heard some disturbing news at the doctor’s office earlier and is distracted, your husband drinks too much and tells bad jokes, the scintillating new friends from your job prove to be insufferable snobs. Does that make you an ineffective hostess? Continue Reading →

Continue Reading · on August 26, 2013 in Education, NaBloPoMo, NYC, Politics

Malls as far as the eye can see…but what about a science museum?

Today in The National, I’m writing about the speed with which Abu Dhabi is growing: everywhere you look, there are construction sites, cranes, earthmovers.  But the construction seems dedicated to malls and apartment buildings…I’m wondering whether someone couldn’t design a children’s science museum?  When it’s 44C in the shade, wouldn’t it be great to take the kids “science-ing” instead of shopping?  Click here to read the article–and let the newspaper hear your comments!

Continue Reading · on August 7, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, Education, expat, family, Kids, UAE

in which the godless heathens go to a wedding

wedding

image source

Old Longtime friends of my husband’s got remarried this past weekend. For those of you in blogland, yes, I know, can you imagine? They got married on Blogher weekend, thus forcing me to choose between…well, between blogging and my family.

My family won although frankly, it was a tough call. Not only would I miss actual face-to-face conversations with people I generally talk to only on the interwebs, I would also miss the amazing writers who were chosen as Voices of the Year.

But you know, marriage is all about compromise, or so they say, so I bid farewell to my Blogher dreams and off we went to Cape Cod for this wedding. Which was great and lovely and optimistic, as all weddings are and maybe even more so for being the second time around for both bride and groom. After all, in round two, you know what’s coming: stinky socks and weird sleep habits and fortheloveofgodputdownthetoiletseat. In other words, you know that “happily ever after” is more of a wish than a certainty.

My kids have never been to a wedding that they’re old enough to remember, so they had no idea what to expect from this one. Their most recent context for “marriage,” in fact, has to do more with the Supreme Court’s decision about DOMA than about two people plighting troth.  This wedding reminded me, once again, that while I grew up in a nominally Episcopalian household, my children are growing up without any religion, other than the rituals they witness because they live in a Muslim country.  Their lack of religious education meant that instead of spending the ceremony looking at what people were wearing and running my own little Tom and Lorenzo dialogue in my head, I was trying to field questions that should really only be tackled by a licensed theologian.

What’s a Eucharist? What’s a celebrant? What’s a communion?  Are the bride and groom Christian? Are we Christian? What’s an Episcopalian, anyway? Do I have to get married as an Episcopalian? What if I don’t want to get married? What are these books for? What’s a hymnal? Do people know all these prayers, like memorize them? Did you and Daddy get married like this, with a minister? Do you know these prayers?

I got through Eucharist and celebrant, but communion meant trying to explain the whole body-blood-bread-wine thing, and that’s where we went a bit off the rails: how to explain that something can be a literal truth to some, a symbolic truth to others, but not relevant at all in other religions. Caleb was adamant: I am not eating that! Not someone’s body, no way.  Needless to say, we stayed seated during the communion bit of the ceremony

As for the rest of it, what surprised me is that some of the basic prayers stuck with me–the Lord’s Prayer, the call-and-response recitations–although I haven’t said any of those words in decades.  I remembered that when I was a little girl, I had a nightgown with the “now I lay me down to sleep…” prayer embroidered around the collar. Because really, what could be more comforting to a small child about to go to sleep than the phrase “if I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take?”

It’s as if along with that prayer, the others also stitched themselves into my subconscious, all because my mom thought she “should” take us all to church when we were young, even though she was not herself a particularly religious woman. I don’t know that my life has been significantly improved by my years in Sunday School or my stellar performance as a horse in the Noah’s Ark pageant, but I suppose it’s been useful to have what amounts at least to a cultural understanding of religion, if not an actual, you know, faith.

I know that cultural awareness and understanding have to be learned; they’re not innate. So my mom chose to teach us about, or at least expose us to, Christianity, while Husband and I are making a very different choice with our kids. Sitting there in the pew, as our friends pledged their troth (again) and my kids flipped through The Book of Common Prayer, I realized that my kids probably won’t ever have Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or Zoroastrian) prayers swimming in their subconscious; there is an entire body of ritual that they aren’t learning.

Most of the time I think that’s fine…although I think it’s too bad neither boy will get the opportunity to play an animal in the Noah’s Ark pageant. They’d make great ocelots, or maybe meerkats. Noah saved the meerkats, didn’t he?

 

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Continue Reading · on August 1, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, Education, family, Kids, marriage, Parenting, religion

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