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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

blocked

I came back from summer vacation revving with ideas about writing projects. My mind bubbled with book proposals, blog posts, novel revisions, pitches for magazine articles.  Words and ideas tumbled around in my head like socks in the spin cycle. I was on fire, people, on fire.

A Russian composer – Shostakovich, maybe – said you should write everything down because the brain is a fragile vessel (especially if you live in Stalinist Russia), and that’s what I did with all those ideas. I jotted notes and lists and phrases into my new favorite notebook and figured once the fall semester was underway, my jottings would jolt me back into action.

Insert sound of brakes screeching to a halt and maybe add the sound of breaking glass for good measure.

I got nuthin. Oh, I’ve got lists and notes and little phrases; I’ve got pages of those. I’ve got some good photos, some funny photos, some hipsta-insta retro-photos.

But more than that, I ain’t got.

I tease my writing students about the fact that you can’t wait to be “in the mood” to write. Usain Bolt doesn’t wait until he’s “in the mood” to go for a run; baseball players don’t wait until they’re “in the mood” to stroll onto the field. Writing, I say to my students, is a muscle like any other; it needs regular exercise to work fluidly, and that only comes with practice.

You can’t wait for the inspiration fairy to come whack you on the head with an idea, I say, and they laugh, and I laugh, because we all know that ideas don’t come from fairies.

Except right now I am wishing, hope upon hope, that the idea fairy wafts into my apartment on a sandy breeze and whacks me in the head, or at least whacks the thin-lipped, long-nosed, pissyass editor who has taken up residence in my mind.  With each of my attempts to start anew, the editor sneers; she scoffs; she shakes her head in dismay at my frivolity, my lack of insight, the complete absence of intellectual heft. She throws up her hands and asks what the hell any of this blogging stuff is good for, anyway?

I have no answer for that last question other than to hang my head and mutter  “mumble mumble writing practice….mumble mumble creative outlet…mumble mumble connections with home mumble mumble…”  Pissy editor lady is unimpressed. And the longer she reigns, and the longer I go without producing some solid pages of writing, the worse it gets.

To make matters even worse, I teach writing. I spend hours and hours a week talking about writing strategies, about tools and tricks and techniques, about evidence, story, detail; revision and argument and authorial control.  You’d think I could cure myself of writer’s block – physician heal thyself, right?

This physician, however, can’t heal herself, but I think I know who can. One of the staples in my writing-teacher bag of tricks is Anne Lamott’s brilliant, hysterical Bird by Bird. I always give students at least a few chapters to read (a frisson of excitement always runs through the classroom when the students notice that one chapter is called “Shitty First Drafts.” You can see them thinking “shitty…oh boy…this is college!).  If you’ve not read Lamott’s book, you should, even if you never plan to write anything other than a grocery list.

source

Lamott would call my Pissy Editor Lady an anti-writing voice–we all have them, whether it’s the impossible teacher you had in eighth grade, an overbearing father who red-lined your every word, or the teacher’s pet in 11th grade who cheated on her essays and always got away with it.  Wherever those voices come from, Lamott says, imagine picking them up and dropping them, one by one, into a glass jar. Then clamp on the lid.  Then put the jar high on a shelf somewhere, preferably in your next-door-neighbor’s back closet.

Then go to work.

This post, then, is my equivalent of a glass jar and my neighbor’s back closet.

Take that, Pissy Editor Lady. I’m hitting publish right now.

 

 prune picture

 

 

 

 

 

 

Continue Reading · on September 10, 2012 in Education, language, teaching, writing

the hard part about learning something new is that you don’t know how to do it

Caleb came home from his third day at his new school and said “look, mommy, I can write my name in Arabic!”  And he did:

It occurs to me that he may have actually written “suck it,” and I will never know. But still…he did it in Arabic.

Linguists talk about a “critical age” for language acquisition: to become truly fluent in a non-native language, you need to start at about age six. Caleb just turned seven. Every day, he comes home from school with new words: ketab, kaluam, bata, baqara, mimha, and of course that quintessential Arabic word, sabudra, whiteboard.  (I just asked him to say all these words to me and as I typed them, going by sheer phonetics, he was correcting me: “no, that’s not a “k,” it’s a “q,” no it’s not an “e” it’s an “i.”  So that’s nice. Now in addition to kicking my ass in Monopoly, he can correct my Arabic spelling.)

Liam is also taking Arabic and it delights him. His baroque nature finds great satisfaction in the flourishes and curlicues, in figuring out that the shape of letters change depending on where the letter occurs in the word.

Yes, you heard that correctly. The letters don’t look quite the same, depending on where they occur in the word. Oh, and another thing? Vowels aren’t so much included in the word. They get added afterwards, above, if you want to. There are 14 extra-alphabetical symbols that I’m supposed to remember on top of the 28 consonants.

Liam and Caleb think it’s all fascinating, like learning a new code.  Studying a new language works for them because they have brains like this:

My brain, unfortunately, looks like this:


And just like my kids, I’m also taking Arabic. But with a rock brain instead of a sponge brain. Letters that change depending on where they’re positioned? No vowels written down? An entire second layer of meaning floating in the symbols above and below the word?  It makes my rock brain hurt.  On the first day, I didn’t even open the book the right way. Which is to say that I opened it from left to right. Fail. It’s right to left, people, right to left. The workbook is written in English, thank god, and comes with a DVD that I’m supposed to watch in order to learn an entirely new system of mouth moves. Which sounds like a porn movie but won’t be as much fun.

I’d forgotten how hard it is to learn something new. I’m not sure I even remember the last time I deliberately set out to learn some new brain thing. Learning physical stuff—kick-boxing, karate, surfing—that’s hard too, but I think that brain calisthenics are even harder, because with physical stuff, someone can at least watch you and say you’re leaning too far to the right, or that you’re doing some weird torque with your hips which is why you’re falling over.

A few weeks ago, I went to the gym for a session with a personal trainer.  He said that it was important to do different exercise routines during each workout to “confuse the body,” because then your muscles have to work harder and you see better results.  After a few sessions with him, I wasn’t magically thinner or stronger (dammit!) but my aches and pains showed me that new muscles were emerging.

It occurs to me, as I make this analogy, that my brain isn’t as fit as my body. Who knew it was possible to have swags of back fat and poochy love handles on one’s brain? It’s a medical miracle. Someone call Dr. Oz.

My brain may not know it yet, but it’s just been put on a new fitness regimen that goes from right to left. I’m going to confuse that gray matter muscle and make my brain all perky and renewed, the brain equivalent of a midwestern gymnast. Who knows. Maybe the process will, inshallah, ward off Alzheimer’s: being temporarily confused as a way to ward off further, more permanent confusion.

The second Arabic class is on Sunday.  Maybe I can get my kids to help me with my homework.

 

brain coral in the photo above was a gift from Nancy Horwich to Caleb, who treasures it (not knowing that it’s a metaphor for his mommy’s brain)

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Continue Reading · on September 16, 2011 in Abu Dhabi, Children, Education, expat, language

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