25 December 2009

Hopkins poem for Christmas

Merry Christmas! Here is a gorgeous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins which, while it is not an occasional poem for the season, tropes on Incarnation and our response. Enjoy!

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme

AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 5
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; 10
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

-- Gerard Manley Hopkins

21 December 2009

Rembrandt, the prodigal artist

Sorry most of what I've been posting here lately has been links to work by other people. I just haven't had time to be original recently.

Anyway, my art historian friend Laurel Gasque has published a great article on Rembrandt van Rijn in Christianity Today: The Prodigal Artist. In it she describes how "Rembrandt’s art, like his life, traced the contours of sin and grace."

18 December 2009

Evangelicals, Faith, and the Life of the Mind (WSJ)

The Wall Street Journal has a very interesting article today by Jonathan Fitzgerald: Winning Not Just Hearts but Minds : Evangelicals move, slowly, toward the intellectual life.

It mentions Comment magazine, for which I write a column, and Mark Noll's book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which was a great influence on me in the 90s.

This article makes a perceptive distinction between a real intellectual and an "intellectualist" -- one who puts on that sheen but doesn't really wear it from the inside. I'll muse further on that thought. A true intellectual wants to learn for the love of learning, not for any external purpose (e.g., to appear smart so he or she can win intellectuals to Christ). Being an intellectual is not mutually exclusive with being a devout Christian, as some have thought. Read the wonderful classic The Love of Learning and the Desire for God by Jean Leclercq, a study of monastic culture and how its excellence of the mind led to a deeper faith, not a casting away of same. Intellectualism can lead people away from faith, but it need not.

16 December 2009

Visual Sonnet

Here is a short movie two of my students made for an English class. They filmed Edna St. Vincent Millay's sonnet "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed" with a very interesting antiphonal rationale, using two actors to represent the same person. The first young lady is always filmed in color; she represents the "summer" of the happy past full of love. The second, always shown in black-and-white, represents the heart-broken present. I thought that was a simple but excellent idea.

06 December 2009

Jeremy Begbie: Theology Through the Arts

Jeremy Begbie is someone whom anybody with an interest in faith and the arts should be acquainted with, so if you haven't heard of him, let me introduce you. He is a musician (concert pianist), an ordained minister in the Church of England, and an academic theologian. He founded the Theology Through the Arts research project, which involved collaborations between theologians and artists in creating commissioned works of visual art, music, and drama. Out of that project came Spicer's "Easter Oratorio" with libretto by N.T. Wright, among other things. Begbie is currently Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School. He is also senior member at Wolfson College, Cambridge, and an affiliated lecturer in the Faculties of Divinity and Music at Cambridge. Prior to that he was Associate Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and also honorary professor and co-director of St. Andrew's Univerisity's Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts. He has also taught numerous times at Regent College Summer School, and has published several books, including "Voicing Creation’s Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts," "Theology, Music and Time," and "Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts." He is a man of intense energy, passion, wit, and incredible brilliance. And he has a really cool bald head. :-)

Here is a video of him presenting some of his Theology Through the Arts ideas, produced by Faith & Leadership at Duke Divinity School.

01 December 2009

December poem of the Month

I regret that this poem has nothing to do with the Advent season. If I get any Christmas-related inspirations, I'll post them. Meanwhile, well, here's something (continuing my new, freer style).


my overcoat is a pelican
my umbrella is a stork
the flowers I plant have
grown down into the soil
their roots are enjoying the sun
and all I have to say
pours back inside my lungs.

my garden is a laundry bin
my kitchen a game of chess
the dishes I feed you were
gleaned from a railroad
a transcontinental surprise
and every last sip I slip down my gorge
tastes like checkmate at sunrise.

my tires are elephant’s knee-bones
my speakers house bumble wasps
when I taste between sheets, feet
first through the sandwich of dark
nothing is not scented
of you and of you and of you
oak-gentle, gray-pillar, wind-eye.

~ Sørina

24 November 2009

Ekphrasis report #1

As the natural real-life extension of both my teaching and the kind of ruminative writing I do here, just about once a month I host an artsy workshop. It is a gathering of Christians who do art—any kind of art. We have writers (poetry and prose), painters, musicians, composers, and at least one actor[ess]. Many of them are students and former students; several are teachers. We come together to share our original work and/or performances, and to critique what is shared. These meetings are always very lively, full of fantastic conversation and good, solid advice for revision and improvement. I have a high standard of quality, and attempt to impart that to the participants. If you live in Eastern PA and would like to participate, you may request an invitation. Meanwhile, I thought it would be a good idea to post a kind of report about the meetings here, especially about any cultural conversations that come up, as an extension of its influence. I’ll keep the participants anonymous unless they request otherwise. Enjoy, and please write your thoughts to me as a comment.

This past meeting was rather small, but inversely intense. It was more heavily focused on the visual arts than on the written word, which is unusual—and nice! I had a couple of poems, which the group kindly took to bits so that I may put them back together. They were both “Persona” poems, in which I take on the first person perspective of some character, usually mythological, and explore what that personality has to say as metaphor about myself or someone I know—or even, though more rarely, just a universal human characteristic. I find this to be a rich vein, and I intend to keep on mining it. It connects up, of course, to the true myth idea that I frequently reference.

Then S. shared an original painting. She had created it for an art class, and the assignment was to copy a famous masterpiece, attempting to imitate the technique as closely as possible, but with the liberty to adapt it. She chose Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” replacing the Cyprus tree in the foreground with a cross and painting a verse from Psalm 8 over the wind-curls in the sky. She also modified a bit of the landscape to present an open tomb. In addition to talking about technique, we also discussed various ways to integrate a message into a work of art so that it is intelligible and persuasive while also being subtle. In literature, I said, one of the reasons I write “complicated” stuff with big words and mythological or natural topoi is to try to season the truth to make it palatable. That, by the way, is one reason that cheesy gift-shop Christianity is not art—in addition, of course, to its lack of technical prowess.

Next, D., a high school art teacher, shared two portraits he painted of students. They were what I might call, in my non-technical visual art vocabulary, fantastical-realist, perhaps with a touch of the surrealist. In other words, they were perfectly recognizable as representations of their subjects (I knew one of the boys, but not the other), but not in a photo-realist way. In fact, the luminous, extra-natural colors they use (vibrant yellows and violets highlighting the African-American’s face, greens and greys the image of a philosopher) go further in expressing personality and character than pedantically “realistic” colors could. He had also given a texture to the canvas before painting, bringing out certain areas in touchable 3-D, adding to the surrealistic lifelike impression these works conveyed.

L. was also there, providing excellent comments and critiques, especially of my poetry. She is a good writer (as well as an actress and visual artist), and has a good eye for the tones, connotations, and interactions of words, pointing out tiny details and large movements that need alteration.

Now, I don’t remember how we got into it, but somehow the five works we considered (two poems and three paintings) and the discussions surrounding them catapulted us into a discussion about just exactly what the current philosophy is. Oh, I remember. We asked S., who attends a community college, how her classmates and professor received her overtly religious painting. While she said they received it with equanimity, which is encouraging, that somehow led us on to this final topic.

I am taking Literary Theory this semester at a local university that is part of the Penn. State system. I love it; I’m learning just for fun, without any grade or career pressure at this particular point (although, of course, I intend for it to further my career at some stage). Our professor is very, very good. She has many strengths, which I could gladly praise with gusto, one of which is that she’s totally up-to-date. She’s very young (not too many years older than myself, which is actually pretty depressing) and chic in an academic way and totally current. She chooses to stand in the longest line at the supermarket so she can read Vogue; she knows all the latest popular films as well as indie and other marginal movies. She’s fluent in contemporary pop novels and high-brow poetry and theory. Amazing. Inspired by her and several other influences in my life, I’m reading a lot more poetry written by living people. Maybe more on that in another post, we’ll see.

Anyway, one day we were talking about generations, and how each generation in America for the last half century anyway has had a name and a collective personality, if you will. My parents are the Baby Boomers; their parents were the Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best generation. I am Generation X; current high school students are Generation Y. Those born after 9-11 (when the world changed forever) are—get this--Homelanders. They were born into a world of Homeland Security, of increased surveillance, of (some would say) a growing Socialism and/or collective consciousness of insecurity and need for group conformity. Sounds like dystopic novel to me.

Along with everything changing at 9-11, apparently, postmodernism ended that day. Seriously. That’s what she said. There have been ripples for years, discussions of how we’re no longer a post-Christian society, we’re a post-post-Christian society, and how we’re not in post-modernism anymore, we’re in whatever come after it. And what comes after it?

THE POST HUMAN ERA. That’s where we are now, so “they” say. So, I brought this up at the Ekphrasis meeting, and we talked about what it might mean. We came up with some possibilities in the social and ethical realms, although we didn’t know what it meant in the metaphysical and epistemological realms. In the social, it means radical environmentalism. It means that human beings are—of course—not only not the center of the universe (we ceased to be that in 1555 or so with the discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo), but are now viewed as invaders, even infestations, on this planet. We not only aren’t essential to the planet earth, we are bad for it. Earth will be better off when we are gone. In the ethical realms, it is the natural extension of the worst forms of atheistic Evolution (there are other brands, that I will not discuss here) , which postulates the worthlessness of human life and/or the equality, or even subordination, of human life with/to animal life. One of the worst results is the acceptance of bestiality, which is already prevalent in some circles. Watch, one day soon, somebody is going to have a court case because he wants to marry his dog.

But before you despair: as with all world movements of the mind, no matter how apparently bleak, this attitude (1) will pass and (2) meanwhile has a positive side on which we ought to capitalize. Here are some of the positives and/or opportunities that I see. First, it can cultivate humility. We are not the center of the universe; God is! Humanity, while fantastically creative and amazing, is fallen and needs redemption. Maybe this will encourage some to get out of their own faces and see their needs. Also, while the radical environmentalism describe above is an extreme, the Church as a whole should get on board with an awful lot of stewardship of the earth that is being proposed. We need to take care of this gorgeous, verdant planet! We need to consider the condition of the other species that are under our care—not to mention of our own descendants, too. So, keep your eyes open for posthuman sentiments, and look for the opportunities to turn it to good.


"Ekphrasis," in its most narrow sense, is a written description of a work of visual art. In its broader application, it is any art directly responding to another work in a different genre or medium. I have appropriated this term for my own use. As the natural real-life extension of both my teaching and the kind of ruminative writing I do here, just about once a month I host an artsy workshop called "Ekphrasis." I have taken the name to mean the description, or even translation, of experiences -- especially faith encounters -- into art.

Ekphrasis is a gathering of Christians who do art -- any kind of art. We have writers (poetry and prose), painters, musicians, composers, and at least one actor[ess]. Many of them are students and former students; several are teachers. We come together to share our original work and/or performances, and to critique what is shared. These meetings are always very lively, full of fantastic conversation and good, solid advice for revision and improvement. I have a high standard of quality, and attempt to impart that to the participants. If you live in Eastern PA and would like to participate, you may request an invitation. Meanwhile, I thought it would be a good idea to post a kind of report about the meetings here, especially about any cultural conversations that come up, as an extension of its influence. The first report will be my next post, which will repeat some of the introduction here. Enjoy!

06 November 2009

MACSA conference paper

Yesterday I presented a paper at the Mid Atlantic Christian Schools Association. What follows is a shortened version of that presentation.

“Restoring the Backwards Glance:
Unifying Literature and History in the Curriculum and Classroom”

Very few language arts teachers today present courses from an historical perspective. Relatively few schools unify their entire curriculum according to a chronological schematic (if you want to see how many, go to the website of the Association of Classical and Christian Schools). Outside the Classical Education subculture, why should you even consider following this totalizing theory? I would like to offer several compelling reasons to contemplate restructuring your course syllabi, department curriculum, or school-wide vision around an historical perspective—without necessarily going totally Classical.

Why should you consider teaching history, literature, and maybe all of the other subjects in a chronological unity? Let us take a look at the failure of contemporary education, which is due in part to a departure from this ancient and medieval method. Dorothy Sayers asked: “Do you ever find that young people, when they have left school, not only forget most of what they have learnt (that is only to be expected), but forget also, or betray that they have never really known, how to tackle a new subject for themselves? Are you often bothered by coming across grown-up men and women who seem unable to distinguish between a book that is sound, scholarly, and properly documented, and one that is, to any trained eye, very conspicuously none of these things?” I am. She goes on to say about “educated” adults: “They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.” And, commenting upon ideas for change that sound frighteningly relevant today: “we postpone the school-leaving age, and plan to build bigger and better schools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school hours; and yet, as I believe, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.” I have observed this firsthand in many educational institutions of various kinds and at various levels. We teachers fling dissociated bits of information at our students, then crumble in despair when they cannot remember anything and simply do not know how to think. They have no reasoning power; they have no critical thinking skills. Above all, they have no concept of the trajectory of history and how its development is relevant to them.

I often assign a timeline as homework in my Language Arts classes. Students are asked to create a chronological presentation of the works of literature they have studied. This is a good assignment, because it appeals to learners of various sorts. Artistic types can make this into a beautiful work of art, drawing freehand, decorating, using colors and cut-outs, etc. More technologically inclined can create it on a computer. It can be oriented horizontally, vertically, or in any other way the student can imagine. They do this at home, with all of their notes and texts (not to mention the internet) available as resources. This past year, my high school sophomores turned in their timelines—and at least 6 students had put the New Testament on the “B.C.” section of the timeline. Let me repeat that: half a dozen 10th graders (who have, presumably, had 10 years of something that goes by the name of education), most, if not all, who had spent some years in Christian schools, thought that the New Testament was written before Christ (if they thought at all). And you thought the Old Testament prophecies were miraculous!

C. S. Lewis said, in a sermon in 1939, that “…we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present… A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” This is true; the local mind does not know that the current fads of philosophy and worldview have been tried (and failed) before under different names, and so becomes petrified—both terrified and immobilized—by their apparently irresistible attack upon morality, Christianity, and social stability. However, this only supports the study of history itself and not the other subjects in conjunction with it. It is the “piecemeal” nature of postmodern education, as much as its a-historicity, that I denigrate.

Dorothy Sayers, again, laments the fact that grammar, public speaking, etc. (all the ordinary school classes) “are cultivated more or less in detachment, as belonging to the special subjects in which they are pigeon-holed rather than as forming one coherent scheme of mental training to which all ‘subjects’ stand in a subordinate relation.” It is “one coherent scheme” that I am advocating today. When students are taught math, science, and literature as unrelated, a-historical pieces of discrete material, their minds do not develop the ability to retain information, to perceive connections, or to think critically. Presenting all the standard subjects as a unified whole, year after year, succeeds in teaching “the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning” (Sayers) so that s/he can then apply those mental tools to all educational and everyday informational tasks. Sayers concludes by emphasizing that she is “concerned only with the proper training of the mind to encounter and deal with the formidable mass of undigested problems presented to it by the modern world…. For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.” I have observed, firsthand, education in vain; and I have also observed education that succeeds.

One of the major differences between unsuccessful programs and successful ones (besides the absolutely necessity of uncompromising high academic standards) is historical unity. The students whom I and other teachers have trained in historical unity are able to think for themselves by around age 12. Those who have suffered through the fling-random-information-at-you method never learn how to learn, nor how to think. They are the ones who cannot write a thesis statement (nor a cover letter), do not know the difference between the Renaissance and the Reformation (nor between exegesis and personal interpretation), and cannot point out the logical fallacies in a work of philosophy (or a letter to the editor, or a headline, or an advertisement).

Now, here are five specific reasons that literature and history (and, ideally, all the other subjects) ought to be taught together in a chronological unity. First, historical events actually happened in a certain order, so they make the most sense when studied in that order. History classes ought to be taught so that students go through the historical time periods in order as they mature. The cycle can be repeated so that older students can study earlier periods in depth, and/or so that different cultures can be investigated. But studying, say, PA history in isolation from American, European, and world history is a vain endeavor. How can we expect students to grasp the larger economic morality of, for example, slavery and its impact on Pennsylvania’s economy and social history unless we study Quakerism and the worldwide slave trade? A lesson about the trade triangle or about William Penn, taught in isolation from worldwide movements and concerns, will not prepare a young mind to interact with contemporary socio-political debates with multiple facets, such as the class-conscious and economic-driven aspects of our abortion genocide or of the contemporary scourge of human trafficking.

Second, works of literature were written in historical context, and come to life when studied in conjunction with that context. Here is an example that I find exciting. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a fairly standard high school text. Some conservative families are concerned about the witches. If we simply toss out all texts that deal with topics of concern, obviously we would be left with little to read—and the Bible would have to be high up on the list of combustible books. But an understanding of American and English attitudes towards witchcraft, a study of witch hunts, and (especially) an examination of Shakespeare’s motivations can be extremely enlightening. King James (the same one who commissioned the “Authorized” version of the Bible) ruled England at the time that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth (c. 1611). In fact, he was the patron of Shakespeare’s acting troupe, The King’s Men. King James was fascinated by witchcraft. He had served as a judge at witchcraft trials and had written a book on the subject. Shakespeare was naturally eager to please his monarch, and so he included this cultural hot topic in his play. Yet a close interrogation of the text can reveal places in which Shakespeare destabilizes the idea of omnipotent witches (did they actually predict the future, or did Macbeth cause the prophecies to come true by his actions?) and shows the dangers of consulting with demonic powers. Macbeth, after all, ends up crazy, despairing, then dead (sorry for the spoiler)! This can be taken as a very relevant warning against dabbling in the occult. Studying this play in this way can disclose the historical reasons for topical choices, present a valid spiritual perspective on troubling material, and encourage critical thinking about contemporary consequences of older texts.

Third, scientific and mathematical discoveries were made contemporaneously with—and even frequently caused by—socio-political movements. Science, then, can be unified with literature and history. For example: why would the Roman Catholic Church condemn Galileo as a heretic for claiming that the earth goes around the sun? Well, a reading of selections from Dante’s Paradiso is a more effective explanation than the most detailed doctrinal lecture. In this third volume of his Divine Comedy, Dante embodies Christian theology in the heliocentric universe so perfectly, thoroughly, and beautifully that it is hard to see how Christianity could survive the Copernican Revolution! The artistic symmetry of Dante’s universe is a more persuasive orthodoxy than all of Kepler’s and Copernicus’s complicated epicycles—and will translate the historical reality into teenager’s terms more readily.

Fourth, studying all subjects chronologically fits in neatly with the psychological, academic, and moral development of students: the ancient (or classical) time period was a time of symmetry and balance that is reassuring to freshmen or middle school students, whereas the modern period is fraught with disaster, despair, and nihilism that should only be approached by students who have developed spiritual maturity. Alternatively, repetitions of the historical cycle allow for greater depth in each repetition as the student’s mind develops. Susan Wise Bauer, today’s leading proponent of Classical education in the homeschool, suggests “that the twelve years of education consist of three repetitions of the same four-year pattern: Ancients, Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, and Modern Times. The child studies these four time periods at varying levels — simple for grades 1-4, more difficult in grades 5-8 (when the student begins to read original sources), and taking an even more complex approach in grades 9-12, when the student works through these time periods using original sources (from Homer to Hitler) and also has the opportunity to pursue a particular interest (music, dance, technology, medicine, biology, creative writing) in depth” (“What is Classical Education?”). There are many ways others of structuring curriculum to incorporate historical development with psychological development, too.

Fifth, this organization of all academic material promotes both memorization and understanding. During the Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance periods, or during the first cycle (depending on which paradigm you choose), students are drilled in the memorization of facts. This is the “Grammar” or “Poll Parrot” phase of the Classical model (Bauer, Sayers). During the Neoclassical and Romantic eras, or the second repetition, students learn to question given facts and discover the reasons behind them and connections between then. This is the “Logic,” “Dialectic,” or “Pert” phase. Finally, during the Modern and Postmodern periods or the third repetition, students learn to express themselves through whatever fields fit their talents. This is the “Rhetoric” or “Poetic” phase.

Finally, Susan Wise Bauer, again, points out that an education grounded in history and the great books teaches children to be critical thinkers because, among other reasons, it presents the honest complexity of historical and contemporary reality. She writes: “Religious educators are often too afraid to admit that devout believers did bad things; secular educators are often all too happy to point out that the love of God is the root of all evil. My public school would teach my 9-year-old that Columbus was a self-aggrandizing representative of an expansionist empire determined to acquire more money and power while wiping out native cultures. On the other side, the mother of a Christian-school student told me with wide-eyed exhilaration of her son's American history lesson the week before: ‘Columbus went to the New World to share the gospel with the Indians! I never knew that! Doesn’t that change the way you think about this country? We were founded on the declaration of the gospel! Isn't God good?’ So was Columbus a patriarchal aggressor or a humble servant of God? He was both” (“Dodging the Home School Stereotype”). And by putting Columbus, or anybody else, into his context and studying the arts, sciences, mathematics, religion, and literature or his time, your students will understand that, remember it, and apply it to the Crusaders, Imperialists, and Saints of today.

Well, now I hope that you are inspired to rush home and transform your entire school according to the Classical model of education! Maybe you can do that—so much the better—maybe you cannot. Either way, now I will present several practical methods for incorporating the historical perspective into a classroom—methods that fit traditional and non-traditional schools and that can be easily worked into any state requirements or test preparations you may have. So this section is first addressed to English and History teachers, but then I’ll get a little more universal and give other teachers some ideas, too. These techniques include the adaptation of a compulsory textbook, the use of primary sources, details for teaching a literary text to all ages, and the integration of math and science.

So, you probably have a required textbook you must use, maybe a state-issued one, and I’m guessing that unless it’s a senior Survey of Brit Lit, it’s not chronological. I faced this problem one year. I was hired at a new school, tossed the textbooks, and told to have fun. So fun is exactly what I proceeded to have! The 10th grade textbook was awful. I can’t imagine a cheesier organization or more dumbed-down selection of texts. Some teacher had gone and ordered books behind the department chair’s back, and the school was tied by budget considerations to that book for five years. The units in the book were based on “Themes”—and you can’t imagine a more tacky set of themes about identity, courage, etc. After some brainstorming, I decided to construct my own units, using most of the reading selections in the book, around historical time periods. I created power point presentations to introduce each time period, complete with works of art, famous people, and historical events. That way the students had an obvious visual to mark the end of one unit and the beginning of another (reinforced by a test). I added supplemental readings, especially for the Ancient and Apostolic eras (from the Old and New Testaments) and the Seventeenth Century (the book was predictably weak on the Metaphysical Poets). It was a big success! I turned out a class of sophomores who had a good idea of historical developments, literary styles, etc. They were well prepared to fit 11th grade American Lit and 12th grade Brit Lit into that schematic. So you can take a required textbook and simply rearrange the order in which you assign the readings. You can do this with a history, art, or drama book as well as English.

Next, I recommend using some kind of a reference tool for every historical event or literary work your students approach. In my case, this is what I call a “Ten Facts” sheet. It is essentially a list of ten reading objectives for each work of literature. This is a great tool when you’re reading multiple poems in a week; you simply require the students to fill out two of these, and they get to choose which two poems they’d like to do. Then we go over as many of them as we can in class. They’re really handy for test review, too. And when the students are ready, they include a “Historical Context” category. That way they can start to make connections. Why is Yeats’ poem called “Easter 1916”? What was going on in Ireland on Easter of 1916 and how did it affect him and how did he feel about it? How does he work it into the poem? And so on. You could make a sheet like this for every historical event you study and include a “Literary Context” category in addition to the basic What, When, Where, Why, Who questions. You could make one for each scientific discovery or invention—but more on that in a minute.

Next, if your education is going to be good quality at all, you absolutely need to introduce students to primary sources as early as possible. What is a primary source? In literature, the definition is simple: Any piece of literature written in the time period. It is a source for the literary styles, forms, genres, and concerns of the day. This is essential for the development of taste, reading comprehension, and prose style. Studying historically is helpful here, too, because Greek and Roman classics in translation are exciting and more accessible than, say, John Donne or Jacques Derrida. In history, I do not believe there is any better way to study historical events than through first hand accounts. History teachers have to be more particular in choosing their primary sources than English teachers do. For you, you need to ask about any given document, “Is this a primary source for the event in question?” In history, a primary source is identified by its proximity to the event on which it is reporting. Letters, journal entries, eyewitness accounts, trial and speech transcripts, and other first-hand documents provide excellent evidence about historical events and their contemporary reception.

And now let me bring in the math and science teachers. You don’t have much flexibility: you just have to teach algebra I, algebra II, geometry, calculus, trig, physical science, biology, chemistry physics…. You can’t exactly say, OK, the 2010-2011 academic year is the Ancient Time Period and then spend all your time measuring pyramids and doing dissections on Egyptian mummies. You’ve got those labs to get through, after all. Well, sure. But math and science developed historically, just like everything else, and there are certain fields of study that fit with certain time periods. The more elementary courses should correspond to the year the school is doing the earlier periods, the more advanced courses with the modern and postmodern phase. But let me just tell you a simpler way to do it, since that way requires an enormous faculty to cover all eras for all grades at once. Once a week, have a student give on oral presentation on a mathematician, scientist, discovery, or invention from the time period the whole school is in. Have them sign up on a list at the beginning of the year and proceed through the presentations chronologically. Whenever relevant, give a mini-lecture on the history of math or history of science that led to whatever concepts or experiments you are presenting. Provide a supplemental reading list of biographies and books about discoveries from the time period. In other words, open the door to your classroom. Let the students listen for a few minutes to what was going on in the rest of the world when, say, Euclid drew up his geometry. He didn’t do it in a vacuum; why should they?
I’ve seen some amazing projects develop out of historical math and science. One young lady did an impressive study of cartography: the making of maps. Her final presentation was a synthesis of historical research, mathematical calculation, geography, written explanations, and art. Another student studied and solved the Euler's Konigsberg's Bridges Problem, then created a 3-D topographical map, written discussion, and equations.

OK, but maybe this is still too overwhelming. You have no time; you have to grade papers and go to faculty meetings. That’s fine: just do me a favor—do yourself and your students a favor. Try one interdisciplinary, historical lesson plan. Here are some ideas.
1. Unite art, science, and history or art, math, and history around drawings by M.C. Escher and lessons on symmetry, tessellations, polyhedra, spacial relations, relativity, strange loops, or Gödel’s theorem.
2. Unite history, art, and literature with a lesson on the Spanish resistance to Napoleon, Goya’s painting “The Third of May,” a quick look at Christological/hagiographical iconography in war paintings, and a discussion of mythic archetypes in literature. To put that in more simple language: talk about heroes. Contrast Napoleon and the martyr in Goya’s painting and David's famous depiction of Napoleon, and both to Christ.
3. Unite government, literature, and dance. In a government class, bring the concepts of monarchy and democracy to life. Contrast the poetry of Milton with that of Walt Whitman, then teach students how to dance one of the courtly dances in Playford’s English Dancing Master, then the very egalitarian Virginia Reel!
4.Unite history and comparative lit. When you’re teaching the French Revolution, read selections from Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution, Michelet’s History of the French Revolution, and parallel passages in Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. For younger students, try The Scarlet Pimpernel. For advanced students, add some Edmund Burke. Talk about the French perspective, the English perspective, and a fictional English retrospective.
5. Let me give one more, textually specific, way that reading Macbeth historically can bring it to life. This is cool because it could be used in a history class, a literature class, a drama class, or an art class —or some ideal mixture of all four. In Act IV, scene i, Macbeth has gone to consult the witches after killing Banquo. He sees several prophetic visions, the last of which is “A show of Eight Kings, the last with a glass in his hand.” These are, of course, meant to be Banquo’s crowned descendants. The mirror, says Macbeth, “shows me many more.” Now, picture the scene when Macbeth was performed in 1611. King James himself sat in a special box seat while his own dramatic troupe performed this new play in his honor. When this scene came, the last actor in line passed in front of King James, holding the mirror. What did the king see in the mirror? Himself, of course. Why does this matter? Because King James claimed to be descended from Banquo—so Shakespeare wrote this historical compliment into the play. Once you explain this to students, that scene comes to life, as do some aspects of Elizabethan theatre, politics, etc. Then you can launch into a full-scale lecture on the problems of succession after Elizabeth, the religious conflicts in England from the Reformation until the Glorious Revolution, the enactment of legend as part of political campaigning (cf. the Kennedys and American Camelot, or the recent “discovery” of Michelle Obama’s slave ancestry). Or, even better, you can send the students off to do research projects on these topics.

01 November 2009

November Poem of the Month

Brogue on an Empty Road

the fields are lonely, Lovely
while rabbits dislodged at the sound of me
and I by the magpies above
in anonymous trees
spring quick with the consonantal heft
past ivy-sleek windings and streaks
of whatever is left from whatever was said

unseen cattle shadow my steps
the other side the ditch the hedge
or else my foreign feet
echo their clumsy phobias
their bovine gentle bulk

Ben Bulben’s head sage with clouds today,
distant as eyes of livestock
watching solitude and glad of it

‘Are y’on the wrong road?’
a timeless, wind-worn farmer asks
but who’s to know
and how high lifts the ancient slope
and how far goes the growing thing

I reach beneath the bramble-branches of the rose
searching for a tuber that goes away, away
a long way back

beyond where hope has opened out
into lonely, Lovely,
into now.

~ Sørina

09 October 2009

Why the arts matter even during a recession

There's a recent article in Christianity Today by Canadian singer-songwriter Carolyn Arends that I thought was worth bringing to your attention:

Saying More Than We Can Say: Why the arts matter even during a recession

01 October 2009

October Poem of the Month

Ode to Uncertainty

You come with Janus-face, your quartet of eyes
turned towards me in a quick succession: psychedelic
cycle, counterpoint of circle and plane, a lunacy
contrived by velocity with valence and designed well if

madness is the goal. Only your luminous glances,
dancing a whirling dervish, are colored: a gloom
for your robe is a charcoal carving, a sketch-book fancy
faded into nightmare, a chiaroscuro gone monochrome.

Your motion in stillness could nauseate;
your monstrous size inside my small mind is uncanny—
strange, then, how solid you are in this crowded place,
and you stink like a dead man and squall like a baby.

Yet I never thought to question: are you real?
Or are you just a side effect of how this century wants to feel?

29 September 2009

Counterpoint of Composition

I was going to write a lovely post on static vs. fluid arts, but I find I haven't made the time. So instead, here are some of Northrop Frye's thoughts on the topic:

"Some arts move in time, like music; others are presented in space, like painting. In both cases the organizing principle is recurrence, which is called rhythm when it is temporal and pattern when it is spatial. Thus we speak of the rhythm of music and the pattern of painting; but later, to show off our sophistication, we may begin to speak of the rhythm of painting and the pattern of music. In other words, all arts may be conceived both temporally and spatially. The score of a musical composition may be studied all at once; a picture may be seen as the track of an intricate dance of the eye. Literature seems to be intermediate between music and painting: its words form rhythms which approach a musical sequence of sounds at one of its boundaries, and form patters which approach the hieroglyphic or pictorial image at the other. The attempts to get as near to these boundaries as possible form the main body of what is called experimental writing. We may call the rhythm of literature the narrative, and the pattern, the simultaneous mental grasp of the verbal structure, the meaning or significance. We hear or listen to a narrative, but when we grasp a writer's total pattern we "see" what he means..... Narrative and meaning thus become respectively, to borrow musical terms, the melodic and harmonic contexts of the imagery.

--Northrop Frye, The Archetypes of Literature.

23 September 2009

The Making of Meaning

I just read a really stimulating article by Stanley Fish. It does not appear to be available in its entirety online, but here are selections. You might want to skim those to get the gist of his Reader-Response approach to theory before reading my response (!) below.

This essay evoked in me a very powerful visceral and cognitive response. It is delightful, scintillating, virtuousic, brilliant—and absolutely infuriating. Fish is an extremely clever writer who knows how to play with language, manipulating it to create layers of simplicity and complexity to suit his whim. Yet although the tone is whimsical, the purpose is deadly serious: this is a logical, syllogistic apologetic for his critical approach. While it is initially persuasive, it is full of holes—and it’s tons of fun to stick one’s metaphorical fingers into these rents and tear them open.

Here’s the first hole. That student, the one who approached his colleague with the question about a text: surely she was joking? Surely she was being coy, presenting a question that she knew would have one meaning in the assumed context, just for the fun of being able to play with the professor’s mind for a moment with the delicious words, “No, no, I mean…”? Surely she knew exactly what she was doing, and presented the ambiguity purposefully?

And that, I believe, is the biggest fissure to catch Fish. He says, “Sentences emerge only in situations.” Assuredly. But the situation is not the room full of readers or the mind of the reader: the poem is the situation. The poet’s skill, experience, craft, and historical context guide the structure of the situation and therefore DETERMINE THE RECEPTION. Meaning is located not in the reader’s context, but in the author’s.

For example. If I speak the word “Batter,” with no explanation or further context, a whole host of associations will determine whether you take it as a culinary noun or an aggressive verb. If, say, you are a literature professor and you happen to know that I just gave a presentation last week centered on Donne’s poem, it is likely that you will take it as the latter. Fine. But in the poem, there are no two ways about it. There is no cookie dough in his sonnet. It is authors, not readers, who determine meanings.

Certainly, various readers will come up with various readings. But many readings are dead wrong. If, as Fish claims, meanings are the products of circumstances, well, a poem is a carefully crafted circumstance designed to convey its singular, determinate (or intentionally ambiguous or multiple) meaning(s). Fish chooses words, phrases, and sentences (from his eponymous query to Hirsch’s 'crisp air') and wrenches them out of context in order to give them his own variety of selective, various contexts: the whole poem is the utterance! Why extract sound bites in order to prove that they could mean different things given different frameworks? We all knew that.

He also omits any discussion of new utterances, neologisms, or the intentional ambiguities I mentioned above. A contemporary poet might use “batter” in both its meanings—or “wrench,” or “tool,” as in this poem by William Aarnes. If the poet acknowledges several (I won’t say infinite) meanings of a word and s/he invokes them all, where does that leave the reader? The reader does not then create meaning. At most s/he can choose among the meanings and discard others; which detracts from the poem rather than enhancing or fully appreciating it. There are bad readings. And what of new, nonsense, or purposefully defamiliarized utterances? What can we make of “ ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimbel in the wabe” without a serious gloss, in this context? It conveys no meaning to the reader’s mind without assistance. Once the research has been performed, however, it might convey one particular reading. The author (perhaps tongue in cheek) himself translated it into “It was evening, and the smooth active badgers were scratching and boring holes in the hill-side; all unhappy were the parrots; and the grave turtles squeaked out” ( 23 September 2009>source). I grant that perhaps Carroll/Dodgson was playing with readers here: but his game was in fooling with language to allow ambiguity; again, the multiplicity is located in the author, not in the reader.

This leads to my last big gripe with Fish. (Oo, couldn’t “gripe” be a verb there?) He claims that there is no pause, no dead space, between experiencing language and comprehending it. We could, he says, miscomprehend, but we never simply uncomprehend. I strongly disagree. I have most distinctly experienced a “two-stage procedure in which a reader or hearer first scrutinized an utterance and then gives it a meaning.” I know this happens to my students: I will read them a poem, and they will respond with a blank, “Huh?” Then I will walk them through definitions, historical relevancies, author biography, literary device, and BOOM, the poem leaps into meaning. A meaning, if a complex one.

I have experienced this myself: I will read a dense text and it will, on a first reading, convey no meaning whatsoever to my mind. There is, very plainly, almost tactilely, a mental fog where a comprehension of the text belongs. This is not merely a symptom of exhaustion or illness; it is the first stage, the necessary if painful first step towards comprehension of the text’s intended communication. If it is a complex but not particularly obscure text, the meaning will begin to take shape in my mind on a second reading. If it is more difficult, on a third. If significant patches of mental fog remain after an attentive third reading, I know the time has come for the dictionary, the scholarly gloss, the research into the author’s life and times, the search for allusion, etc.

An example might help here. I’m working on the poetry of Charles Williams, which is dense and packed with obscure allusions to both the work of previous poets and to his own idiomatic, symbolic system of theology. When I first approached some of his lines, they meant nothing to me. Here is a quote from “The Calling of Taliessin”:
The cone’s shadow of earth fell into space,
and into (other than space), the third heaven.
In the third heaven are the living unriven truths,
climax tranquil in Venus.

When I first encountered those lines (I think it was a Sunday afternoon in Blackwell’s or another bookstore café in Oxford; days of bliss), I had no idea what they meant. They conveyed no sense to my brain. I suppose I had a confused image of a shadow and of Venus. On a second reading, I could connect “the third heaven” with the sphere of Venus in the Ptolemaic system. Then I resorted to some scholars, who explained that Williams has earth’s cone-shaped shadow touch Venus in order to show how fertile Nature imprints her form upon receptive matter. Well. This gives me a Platonic sense, which aids in deciphering “the living unriven truths.” I could go on, but I hope the idea is clear. There was a moment when the text had no meaning. Soon after, it had only vague, unassociated images. Then it had snippets of unconnected meaning. It still does not convey one holistic sense, and that is due to my failure in research, not to Williams’s failure as a poet or to the indeterminate nature of language. Williams knew exactly what he was doing. And if I keep studying, I will know exactly what he was doing. Taking those lines in context helps: and the poem, Williams’ oeuvre, the body of Arthurian legend to which he was responding, and his historical times are the context. I am not the context.

22 September 2009

More on television and film

This was started as a comment on Admonit's post "Turn On Your Television," but I realized it was becoming long enough it deserved to be its own post, so I promoted it.

I have never owned a TV myself. I've always prided myself in that fact. I had a button (distributed by my undergraduate university's bookstore) which had a picture of a TV surrounded by a circle with a slash through it and the words "Read instead."

We did watch some TV as kids, but my parents restricted us to an hour a day, only during the time between school and dinner. And we could never eat in front of the TV. When we watched, we were concentrating on the show. (I do remember one special occasion when they let us all, as a family, eat dinner on my parents' bed -- which is where the TV viewing space was in our house -- because it was a Christmas special or something.)

I used to hate it when I'd go over to someone's house and their TV was on as background noise throughout our visit. It made me feel unappreciated. There was something else competing for my host's attention with me. Even if she had learned to tune out the TV noise and focus just on her company, the noise was distracting to me and bothered me.

I'm like you, Sorina. When I do happen to sit in front of a TV for any reason (e.g., at the health club during the first Gulf War), I can easily get sucked in. For a few years I was making a point of trying to watch one episode each of several of the shows that were big at the time: E.R., Melrose Place, Survivor (the first season), Frasier, Desperate Housewives, one of the many cop/crime ones. Can't remember what else. I wanted to stay somewhat educated about popular culture. But it appalled me how easily I was gripped by Survivor; I wanted to know what would happen in the next episode. This was after I'd been ridiculing the show based on what I'd heard of it. I mean, what a stupid concept: reality TV. Who would want to watch real people interacting with each other? That's what your own real life is for! Get a life! But surprisingly, I found the format compelling, and could easily have seen myself getting hooked for the whole season if I'd had a TV. I was disappointed with myself, but glad I had that safety valve in place.

Now several years later, I'm still adamant about never getting a TV. I watch films on my laptop computer -- now with a big projection screen and digital projector which I bought. But the creep towards a unified system of computer-Internet-TV-DVD player-recording device has meant that I get to see "TV" clips quite often, either on news websites or YouTube. I've taken to watching entire archived episodes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and "The Colbert Report" for an occasional dose of laughter and astute political analysis. (NB: The Daily Show just won an Emmy for best variety, music or comedy series.)

So I've relaxed on my principles a bit, I guess. I'm not sure how I feel about that. I don't sit there for hours watching TV with commercials in it, so I guess that's a benefit. But I did see this one commercial today (passed around on Facebook) which is amazing: clever, funny, poignant, and great short filmmaking:

Don't read further in my comments until you've watched it twice.


OK, you can read on now.


Did you get that this guy is the Wind? I had to watch it a second time to get it, and a third time to realize that all those things he did which alienated people were things the wind normally does. Notice how none of the people got angry at him (people don't get angry at the wind), they just ignored him and went on their way.

It's brilliant that the actor they chose is apparently someone who suffers from acromegaly. Those are people who are often not accepted in society because they are large and ungainly and ugly. Thus, the giant having a hard time making friends represents the wind, which is not appreciated for being just itself, until someone recognizes its potential. A wonderfully creative story. Advertising has come a long way since the days of "ring-around-the-collar" and Mr. Whipple!

Here's more about the piece. It's called "Power of Wind" and it "garnered a Cannes Gold Lion [in 2007] and was one of the main contenders for the Grand Prix, and [last] year again [rose] to the top of the heap to earn a 2008 Creativity Award." (this quote is from which tells more about the production). I've been trying to find out the name of the actor, because he looks familiar to me, but with no luck. Someone pointed out that the actor was very gusty to take on that role! :-)

Back to watching films at home vs. in the theatre: I prefer the latter, too, when it's possible. But so much of what's being made these days is schlock that I don't want to see. There are probably enough decent movies each year to keep me getting out to the cinema once a month if I made time for it, but I don't. However there is such an abundance of great classic films in the archives (Netflix, or the Vancouver-based Videomatica which I joined instead since Netflix doesn't operate in Canada) that it'd be a shame not to educate myself on the history of film. Most good films today owe a great deal to films of the past and pay conscious homage to great directors of yesteryear. So if you know the films they are referring to, you'll get that much more out of the current ones. It's just like with literature. In order to be a good reader, you have to know good books, and in order to enjoy and understand good books, you have to be a good reader. It takes a while to enter into this cycle. A while of stumbling and bumbling around not really knowing what you're doing. (I remember in high school being hopelessly frustrated in English class, positive I'd never be able to figure out what a book's theme was, as if it were some hidden mystery that only the author knew and he'd hidden it in there, and there was only one right answer, and I was always wrong when I tried to guess what it was for a school assignment.) But if you press on, it's well worth the time investment. So it is with film.

Since I bought my large projection screen for home, watching films in my family room has been a pleasure! I opted for an Elite ez-Cinema 72in 4:3 Portable Pull Up Screen. It's easy to use, light, excellent quality, and a good value for the money (about $250). I can have friends over now for movie night (still need to find time to start planning those regularly).

I agree with your comments on media overload. Sometimes less is more. But as long as I'm not feeling the overwhelm yet, I keep trying to absorb more because there are so many more great books I want to read and films I want to see. I've nearly stopped listening to music altogether, which makes me sad. I just don't like listening to music as background to something else, and I'm usually not willing to take time to sit and just listen to music. The one exception is doing house cleaning, which I do so seldom that it's pitiful.

a little more on Plato

I know there's been a lot on this blog in the past about Plato's metaphysics and their implications for the arts. But I'm taking a class now in which we read snippets of Plato and Aristotle and wrote a tiny response. So, here's my response, to remind us of the ongoing struggle between the earthly and the divine -- and th pressure both put on the poet.

Response to selections from Plato & Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle, two foundational philosophers in the history of “Western” thought, are a bit of an odd couple. Their minds work similarly, by means of investigation and logical progression, but their assumptions, conclusions, and practical applications are extremely dissimilar. I find this comparison/contrast fascinating, because I am (in theory) a Neoplatonist, but resonate more sympathetically with Aristotle’s literary conclusions.

The introduction to our reading selection from Aristotle’s Poetics gives a convenient comparison between this writer and his teacher, which I paraphrase here.

considers poetry in comparison to forms/ideals
thinks art is propaganda
says that poets are skillful LIARS
thinks analogically
considers poetry as a general category
stresses the similarities among all arts
focuses on content/subject matter
all art is COPYING
writes poetically, eloquently, dramatically

considers poetry itself
thinks art is…art
says poets are SKILLFUL liars
thinks analytically
considers generic categories
stresses the differences between works of art
focuses on artistic form
all art is CREATING
writes dryly, technically

To this list I add some observations of my own.

likes, but condemns, Homer
wants to dry up emotions
considers art in the ideal world
poets have no access to the Good
relevant only for philosophers and great men

praises Homer as a great example
wants to evoke fear and pity
considers art in the real world
poets communicate Universal Goodness
relevant for everybody

It might not be an exaggeration to summarize these differences thus: Aristotle is actually interested in poetry (he loves the gritty metrical details of it, the rhythm and swing and sway of it); Plato is not (he looks beyond it, with a vague look of distraction in his eyes, to the shapeless invisible Forms in the eternal world). Plato, of course, banishes almost all art from his Republic. But then, he does feel great regret over this action, and gives poetry a chance to defend herself. And Aristotle does rather analyze poor poetry to death, dissecting it, sorting the severed limbs into neat little piles and labeling with a Sharpie in clear, stubby capitals. So this dichotomy is not, perhaps, as neat as I might like it to be.

Which makes sense, given my own artistic and theological struggles. I’ve written a lot about the pleasures and pains of my own Platonism. I’ve rejoiced in how it provides artistic motivation—always striving to express the true Form, knowing that all failure here is only a weak copy of some success in the other world, longing for the multi-dimensional reality that will be that much more beautiful than even this achingly lovely terrestrial existence. I’ve been relieved to find how it helps make theological sense of suffering and imperfection by the promise of the Ideal, Incarnate, finally ruling in a complete kingdom without spatial or temporal boundaries. Indeed, that’s how I’ve reworked Platonism to fill in some of the holes in the Allegory of the Cave etc.: by reinterpreting the Realm of Pure Forms into (now) the Mind of God and (future) the final Kingdom of God (heaven/new earth). This is all very C. S. Lewisian, of course, and Charles Williamsian. No wonder: I was raised on the Inklings as well as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. They were my baby food, my childhood meats, my mature sweet wine of the soul.

But then there’s the other side: the terrible body-soul dichotomy that arose throughout Christendom as a result of widespread misapplication of Hellenization. If the body is only a copy of an Ideal one, and a poor sickly shadowy copy at that, and (furthermore) if the “flesh” is the residence of sin, then the body must be the house of evil. Hence all kinds of abuses in the historical Church, both of oneself and of others.

And this has artistic consequences, too. The simplest to relate came up in a workshop just a month ago. My fellow poets chided me thus: “Nothing ever actually happens in your poems. It’s always going to happen, or speculation about what might happen, or what could or should, but it’s never actually happening in the poem. You never feel or experience anything in the poem itself.” Indeed. That is the problem. But I suffer from an overdose of Plato, which Yoda expressed so well: “Never his [/her]mind on where [s]he is, what [s]he is doing.” Precisely. This is the result of Plato’s moratorium on creation, his denial of true invention.

So Aristotle is kind of a breath of fresh air, for all my love of the Ideal. Even though he is dry enough to put anybody to sleep at any time of day (hurrah! a cure for insomnia!), he’s kind of bracing compared to Plato. There’s something there to chew on. Lots of nice earthy, solid, papery examples to analyze. I tried last night to write a poem in which something actually happened and in which the narrative persona actually felt something. It ended up being mostly a list of anatomical terms for the physical sensations of climbing a mountain. But maybe that’s a start. At least my narrator made it to the top of the mountain. If the mountain was really there!

21 September 2009

Turn on your television

(for only certain, specific shows)

The lady who lives in the apartment below mine turns on her television everyday at 7:00 a.m. and turns it off at 11:00 p.m. She is hard of hearing, so the volume is very high for the entirety of those 16 hours. Now, this is usually not a problem for me, because I generally have music playing. In the hiatus between two pieces of music, or the switch from the radio to iTunes, however, I can tell what show she’s watching and sometimes even pick out bits of the conversation. There’s one commercial that employs the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth, which plays at least once every commercial break.

Now, this is not going to be a tirade against my neighbor (she’s elderly and lives alone; I imagine the TV is just a substitute for companions, a noise to block the terrors of solitude). Instead, I want to talk about the negative artistic effect of too much of one medium. I want to discuss how watching TV all day, listening to the same radio station all the time, playing your iTunes library on shuffle indiscriminately, and so on, can deaden our sensory and intellectual experience of art.

Let’s start with the TV example. I was brought up completely without television; we rented videos occasionally. I still don’t have TV. We have rabbit ears; we bought a converter box, but we don’t have it set up right now. Even with it, we only get one PBS station, two local Christian channels, and two Spanish broadcasts. So, I never watch TV. We rent movies, and it’s a special treat. So, here’s what happens to my senses. I am completely and totally distracted by television. When there’s one playing in a room anywhere (doctor’s office, friend’s house, electronics section of Walmart [dozens of huge ones! All playing the same film clips, over and over!]), I am mesmerized. I can’t pay attention to what anybody says, if the TV’s on. Now, although this can have negative affects on, say, my shopping or my social life, from an artistic point of view I think it’s a good thing. I am still sensitively aware of the art form of the television. I critique cinematography; I listen to the musical score; I analyze the screenplay; I am drawn into the lives of the characters and can’t bear to be torn away from even the most trite drama. That’s really, in a sense, one reason I don’t watch television; from the little I see, it’s not great quality. It’s basically the visual equivalent of the cheap-paperback-romance-novel. So I watch movies, selectively, rarely, and enjoy them as a beautiful, extravagant indulgence in art as well as entertainment. I would love recommendations here of films whose artistic value far surpasses that of the sloppy chick-flick forgettable series knock-off.

I’m sure if I watched more—movies or television—I would become inured. Immune to the magical spell of the screen. I don’t watch anything on a tiny screen (iPod, etc.); that takes away the awe of immersion. I love the big screen, and try to plan ahead to see anything important in the theatre. The darkness, the size of the image, and the power of surround sound enhance what is still a powerful experience for my emotions and my mind.

This is one reason I encourage my students not to listen to music or to have the TV on while they’re studying. Not necessarily because it detracts from the quality of their studies—which it might—but because it detracts from full enjoyment of the music or the TV show. One of my sisters always sews while watching TV; I can’t do that! I don’t want to miss a frame.

So then, let’s talk about music. I’m not pleased with what I’ve been doing to music recently. I used to be a selective and intentional about music as I am about films. But for the past few years, ever since I got my iPod, I’ve been less and less thoughtful. Now I generally just pull up iTunes and let it shuffle through everything I’ve got. This makes for some funny juxtapositions; Arabic pop gives way to a movement from a Beethoven sonata, which fades into a U2 song, then Glenn Gould playing his austere and precise Bach sinfonias, then a piece of Celtic folk music, then a Chopin etude, then a Wagner prelude, then an impressionistic piano composition by one of my former students, then something by Janacek, maybe a track from a Lord of the Rings score, and finally Domingo singing his heart out in a Puccini aria. It’s weird. And my iTunes library is small enough I’ve listened to every number dozens of times. The result is that I don’t actually listen to anything anymore. It’s all blurred together. The sharp distinctions between those genres and pieces I listed above have faded. New recordings temporarily revive my listening attention (have you heard the new U2 CD, “No Line on the Horizon” yet? It’s great). But it isn’t too many times through before it jumbles into the old stuff and loses its edge. I rarely listen to a piece of Classical music all the way through, movements in order, focusing on its architecture and structural development. I’m working to correct this: last week I loaded only Mahler symphonies (and podcasts, but that’s a different story) on my iPod, and listed intentionally to numbers 1 and 2 while working on Charles Williams research in a quiet library. Tomorrow, it will be symphony #4 (I don’t have #3; I guess I should purchase it right away). The point here is that I believe one should be thoughtful and intentional about music consumption, just as one should be limited and selective in film/TV watching.

The same can be true of the [static] visual arts, but is not usually a problem for us middle-class Americans. Have you experienced sensory overload in an art museum? There comes a point that you just can’t look at one more sculpture, no matter how sensuously pure and thrilling, nor one more painting, no matter how lush or verdant or celestial. Your eyes just get dazzled, your mind cluttered with images. This is rarely a problem at home: who has an art gallery in their hallways anymore? Having just one great work of art on the walls, though; hum. Does that create insensibility to the work, or greater sensitivity to its complex charms? I have two lovely paintings on my walls: “The Artist's Honeymoon” and “Windflower”. You know, I never stop to really look at them. I will try to be intentional about that, soon, too.

In the words of Susan Sontag, “We must learn to seemore, to hear more, to feel more”—by looking at less, listening to less, and touching less, or fewer, works, in order to see, hear, and feel BETTER.

I saw the PA Shakespeare Festival's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream three times this summer!!! It was fantastic, unforgettable -- but seeing it three times did dull the sharp tang a bit. Twice would have been perfect.

So, tomorrow, chose one piece of music to listen to straight through, uninterrupted, and one poem to read out load three times. Find a quiet room. And see what happens! Let me know.

18 September 2009

The Aural Aesthetic

Today I read, in my French textbook, this lovely little poem by Paul Verlaine. I apologize to any French readers/speakers for the lack of accents in this transcription.

Il pleure dans mon coeur

Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville,
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui penetre mon ceour?

O bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits!
Pour un coeur qui s'ennuie
O le chant de la pluie!

Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s'ecoeure.
Quoi! nulle trahison?
Ce deuil est sans raison.

C'est bien la pire peine
De ne savoir pourquoi,
Sans amour et sans haine,
Mon coeur a tant de peine.

Now, reading this poetry brought to mind some old questions about the nature of art, in response to the lovely sounds of the words. I found I was compelled to read it out loud to myself, enjoying the many rhymes, assonances, and consonances. My simple, sensory pleasure at the sounds was enhanced by my elementary comprehension of French. I am able to translate this poem, with a little dictionary help, but my first response is to the sounds, not the sense. And that distance, that primal response driven by the ear and not the mind, gives me a fresh perspective on poetry.

This reminds me of the first poetry writing workshop I ever took, to which (on the first or second day) we were each asked to bring in and read a favorite poem. I read Hopkins' "Windhover," a poem packed with auditory pleasures. The teacher asked each of us why we had chosen that particular poem, what we liked about it. I was in the throes of just learning to really read and understand poetry, and I could not have accurately paraphrased every phrase of that dense work with precision. I said, "I just love the sounds. Even when I'm not sure exactly 'what it means,' it moves me as a piece of music does. I believe I would love this poem just as much if I didn't know English." And now, here I am barely knowing French, and being musically moved by the sounds of these verses.

I do not have the knowledge to make a literary critique of the Verlaine poem. For all I know, it might be bad poetry. It kind of strikes me that way -- very simple, rather cliched, kind of emo. But my ignorance holds me at a distance, to the point that the individual dots (like those in a Monet) blur and render the entirety that much more beautiful.

I will probably always participate in some way or other in the debates about "What is art?" and "How do we measure artistic quality?" Those debates are valid, perennial, and important. But tonight I was reminded that simple pleasure is one measure of artistic quality. And pleasure of the ear is as important as pleasure of the mind.

01 September 2009

September poem of the month

This is the third section of a poem whose first section I posted in July and whose second section I posted as the August poem of the month. There should be one more section forthcoming.

III. A Storm is Coming

Eyes can see a sizable swathe, and the mind can take
spectrum and miscellany, the gamut, with ease. Why then
is the brain astounded and confounded by the diachromatic scheme
of this simple scene? Only the brown of a catastrophe of rock
backed by the pale of a terrible sky. Between annihilation and me
a crumble of granite, pebbles stacked by a laughing titan,
sloping up into exclusion, complete and indifferent.
Give me more complexity!
I cannot stand the stark, the tranquil, horror of it,
nor the endless stretch of bread-sized rocks, piled, mile-high, silent,
wild in a way no beast can be, set as a quest in solidity.

But the spirit can, and the body does. It sets its teeth
and its feet, in all their acrophobia, for the heights.
This is virtue, or something palpable that deeds
of less tactile goodness can only adumbrate. There is no afterlife
for embodied acts of topographic goodness:
defy gravity, encounter vertigo, drown paranoia in sweat, strain tendons
past the point of hesitation, bend knees to climb, and the act lives on.
Eternally. The immaterial self, inseparable from plain materiality,
takes each step and knows each strain, and all is paid
in performing. No double recompense.
The aching thighs, the listening for an avalanche, the thinner air
clearing the fog inside and out the skull, the alert tension
in pectorals abs and calves, the Achilles taut and strong:
all delight in terror and tread down the fear.

Whatever the spirit does, does something to the flesh.
This touchable meat of me and the glorious intangibility
both suffered and endured: both ache as the summit nears,
and both will be stiff with victory tomorrow.
The mind fought panic, the body fought shakes;
the mind won over fear of heights, the body won
from fear of heights. I see no separation, no divide.
No Purgatory: all is purged.

10 August 2009

The Necessity of Mediocrity: A Satire

Mediocrity is good for art.
More specifically, mediocrity is good for artists.
It is especially good for Christian artists.

There are many reasons that every artistic group needs at least one representative bad poet (or novelist, painter, etc.). Now, he or she can’t be TOO bad. For example, it can’t be the work ethic that’s bad: if s/he never produces a work, that’s not useful. It might be best if the Mediocrity is the most prolific member of the group. So when you all get together to share, s/he always has something—maybe two or three somethings—to read or display. Maybe the really good members get writer’s block, or are their own worst critics and refuse to show any work below their own nearly impossible standards. But the Mediocrity will always pull out that piece of work. And it’s never a poor display, either. The Shakespeares in the group drag out creased, smudge, dog-eared papers from obscure pockets. The Picassos have their paintings stuffed indifferently between random pages of cheap sketchpads. The Austens print their insightful prose double-sided, or on the backsides of their father’s used sales records. But the Mediocrity: s/he always goes to Staples and has the awful stuff bound up in a lovely cover, framed in gilt, laminated, copyrighted, signed, sealed, delivered. As if the cover can make up for the book; as if the matting can improve the art.

But I haven’t yet told you how useful these fellows are. You see, we can practice kind white lies and secretly indulge righteous hatred, simultaneously. It’s very helpful. We artistic types need somewhere to vent our sense of insecurity and inferiority. We can better maintain our precarious sense of self-righteousness if there’s somebody else it’s easy to tear to shreds. And those kinds of criticism come easily, and sound quite erudite. If we’re talented, we can even do it to his or her face, framed in polysyllabic technical terms and surrounded by appeals to the common opinion. A real master of verbal analysis will use the same terms used for praise, but just but a little shortness of tone to show the Mediocrity is not in favor. That’s why the work can’t be totally awful. If it were, it would be easy to dismiss and/or criticize outright. But then we wouldn’t get the chance to hone our skill of esoteric, hermetic, elitist jargon: the kinds of speeches made in a stage whisper in a gallery full of strangers with the sneaking hope that someone will overhear and think how intelligent, how cultured, we are. We need our own home mediocrities to practice on.

But a Mediocrity never gets it. Whenever you plan a session, that’s the one person you know will come. S/he is unfailingly faithful. And criticism never hits home. All the other members of the group, who understand your nuances so well, chuckle into their sleeves. But the Mediocrity goes serenely on, sharing work after lousy work, never improving, blissfully unaware of the low quality s/he is imposing on the group, ignorant of the concurrent psychological suffering and comfort eddying around the piece as it is passed, or rippling from the reading into silence. How nice, that we know we’ll always feel good. Righteous anger is a cleansing flame. Self-satisfaction is an addictive drug.

It’s also handy to have somebody on whom you can always count to share a piece of work worse than yours. In fact, if you’re tired one day at your desk or in your studio, it’s good to know you really don’t have to push yourself to the next level, you really don’t have to revise that clumsy line, because s/he is sure to share a piece so much worse than yours that yours will look quite a bit better than it is. You’ll just have to manipulate the sharing time so s/he goes after you. Or maybe right before. Yes, maybe that’s even better: if the lame poem is read just before yours, the assembled members will be that much more amazed by yours and won’t notice the lack of structure, the inevitable repetition, the occasional amateurish prosody. If those poor cardboard characters strut their two-dimensional stuff before you read, well, your slightly caricatured dramatis personae will maybe come to life. If those watery, Pollock-could-do-better-when-he-was-five blots of paint circulate with yours on their heels, no one will notice that you painted over mistakes instead of beginning again. In fact, if you rehearse the right mental tricks, you can almost become a Mediocrity yourself, but just never quite as bad as the official one. If you enter your workspace or worktime chanting mantras about how awful s/he is and how much better your work will look, why, you might not even need to produce any new work after a while. Your one epic masterpiece, the one that’s not finished but really works better as a Romantic fragment anyway, so much more suggestive, will serve to circulate and reciculate many times. There are always new members of the group anyway, or ones who haven’t been there for a while, so if you just tweak it or show it in bits and pieces you can stretch it over a good half-a-dozen meetings at least, tuck it away, and sit in smug ease while the Mediocrity proves to your associates that if you can’t produce anything new, well, at least your one piece was so good that maybe you needn’t bother. As long as there’s such rot in the world, your piece can stand as a monument to Excellence. Or at least Excellent in Comparison. Isn’t that convenient?

It's kind of like sin. I can feel virtuous as long as I have at least one immoral friend around, to make me feel good about myself.

01 August 2009

August Poem of the Month

This is the second section of the poem I posted last month. I hope that a few more sections are forthcoming.


Up a dried-out river bed, along an almost panoramic ridge,
sudden burst of rain and hail. Temperatures turned.
And rounding a turn, the cone loomed bare: doom in the very rocks.
Nothing else so sheer, nothing so spare
with no trip to spare, no mercy between a slip and the air.
A crumbling peak was the only material reality against the intolerable sky.
A force of will the only wall against the mental fall.
Every step of my foot took one more foot of its steppes.
Whatever the body does, does something to the soul.
The enormous pressure of the empty space behind
nearly broke my little mind.
I panted to hold the panic back,
thought by not thinking, progressed by repression
and ignorance.
And I can see my body arc, out, curved like the rainbow through which it falls,
glorious in suspension. A waterfall of raven hair against the clouds, the color
of flesh in contrast to the Irish green and blue, a masterpiece
and a disaster. The crash of bones on distant stones, the spatter of blood
in penitence for insuccess. Whatever the body does…

But it did not. The mind must be enormous, to enclose in one ignored corner
such a massive swathe of space, undusted. If I can pack
a sidereal fear and my idea
of the entire size of the universe,
not ending with the atmosphere, on past planets, out past galaxies,
(all pressing, more than the heaviest pack, on my unstopping back)
into some tiny corner of my mind and hide it there
(just a nagging, unacknowledged noise: a dust feather in a draft),
then how huge is my mind!
Whatever the psyche does….

29 July 2009

The things these students say!

This is not really a post, not really; just a compilation of some pretty hilarious answers from or exchanges with students over the last year or two. No insult is intended to any students quoted herein (and they shall remain anonymous, to protect the guilty). Enjoy!

“What event in 1660 restored drama in England and allowed female actors on the stage?”: Charles II put in throne.

What meter does Shakespeare use?: The rhythm of Shakespeare’s poem is five beats per a line with ten synonyms.

In her research paper about Jane Austen’s life, one young lady wrote that Jane made a new acquaintance, an Irishman named Tom Lefroy: Tom was a law student in London, wanting to work at an Irish bar.

Me, to a student who just received the lowest possible grade on his research paper: So, what did you think of this paper you wrote?
Him: I thought it was OK.
Me: What did you think was OK about it?

Student: Mrs. Higgins, can you define “Romanticism”?
Me: Wow, you want me to define “Romanticism”? There are more books on how to define “Romanticism” than there are books of Romantic literature! Let’s see…. How about “A literary and artistic movement in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries characterized by emotionalism and individuality.”
Then we looked it up in NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms
Me: [reading] “A literary and artistic movement in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries characterized by…dzzzzzzzzzz, dzzzzzzzzzz [as I skimmed over irrelevant bits] emotionalism and individuality.” See, that’s just what I said!
Student: Yeah, except for the dzzzzzzzzzz, dzzzzzzzzzz!

Me: I’m canceling one of your assignments for next week. You do not have to give an oral report.
Student: Thank God! –wait, did I just take the Lord’s name in vain?
Me: Not if you meant it!
Student: Oh, I meant it.
Me: And isn’t there somebody else you should be thanking?
Everyone: Thank you, Mrs. Higgins!
Anther student: Wait, did we just take your name in vain?

Fill in the blank:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your hearts.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your swords.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your hand.

To you our swords have leaden edges, Mark Antony.
To you our swords have leaden tips, Mark Antony.
To you our swords have leaden hearts, Mark Antony.
To you our swords have leaden blood, Mark Antony.
To you our swords have leaden dull, Mark Antony.

Marley’s ghost: I wear the clothes I forged in life.
Belle: Another Christmas has displaced me; and if it can cheer
and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.
Ebenezer Scrooge: What Christmas has displaced you?
Belle: A golden one.

"What kind of diction does Donald Hall use?"
He starts at the beginning and goes to the end.

"What country is Seamus Heaney from?"

"Define Protagonist": Someone who agrees with a lot of writings
"Define Antagonist": Someone who goes against everyone’s writing

"Name one historical event that was important to Charles Dickens and his writing": His Life.

"What is the moral of 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' by Keats?": Don’t date with sloppy person.

“How did Antigone die?” She went into a cave and hung up herself.

One student, in an essay on Beowulf, claims that Beowulf wrestled with knickers. I still haven’t figured that one out!

25 July 2009

Art Teaches Me God

I’m reading an article in the Chronicle of the Oxford C. S. Lewis society, entitled “Mirrors, Shadows and the Muses: C. S. Lewis and the Value of Arts and Letters.” The author, Rod Miller (who gave a paper on “The Synoptic Lewis” at the Perelandra Colloquium), surveys a problem in CSL’s writing. He aptly observes that Lewis cannot seem to figure out the rightful place of the arts and ‘culture’ in the life of a Christian. Lewis says that it is OK to be an artist (composer, dancer, actor, etc.) if that is one’s vocational calling (as long as it is not an idol) and that art can have the side effect of calling one to God, since it often communicates values that are, at least, not in conflict with the truths of Scripture.

Shame on him.

I would have thought more of Lewis. But I agree with Mr. Miller, at least as far as the nonfiction prose goes. In CSL’s poetry and fiction, art naturally takes a higher place. Maybe this is an idea I can pursue in a paper sometime. For now, I just want to talk about the high place art has had in my spiritual life. I’m not propounding a theory, doctrine, or truth (at least not explicitly); however, I imagine that if this has happened to me, it is designed, and has probably happened to others, and therefore a theory/doctrine/truth can be extrapolated from it.

The purpose of human existence is to know God. “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” as the catechism has it: but one cannot glorify and enjoy that of which one is ignorant. It could be argued that the entire Christian life is the process of getting to know God. That is the cry of my heart: to have some sense of knowing God: emotionally, experientially, intellectually—all three, for choice. So how does one know God?

Well, I’m someone who lives in a constant battle with doubts and un-knowing. I have had few moments of certainty. Some have come during suffering: I never had a more assumed sense of God’s presence than when I was suffering. But more have come as an aesthetic response. That’s the way I’m wired: I know God, in some incontestable, un-discussable way when I’m thrilled by a work of art.

Not too many months ago, one of my sisters surprised me with a gift in the mail. It may very well be the best gift I’ve ever received. It’s the volume of Charles Williams’ Arthurian Poetry: Taliessin Through Logres & The Region of the Summer Stars, along with CW’s essays on Arthurian themes and CSL’s prose commentary on the whole. When I was looking through the book—not even reading the poetry, just browsing the table of contents—I knew this was true beauty, this was true subcreation, this proved God’s existence. I remember even saying to myself, in more distinct words that I usually use in my mind in response to such sensations, “This proves that God exists.” I would be hard pressed to really say why, but I felt it. I am aware of the troublesome subjectivity of that statement. But that was, incontestably, a sudden sense of God’s existence, and, what’s more, of His nature. In an atheistic world (were such a thing possible), no such beauty as CW’s Arthurian poetry could exist. It’s not just the beauty: it’s also the scope, the complexity, the suggestiveness, the concepts, and the incompletion. These are, I believe, features—if not of God’s actual nature—of the way we are able to understand Him in the created order. They are part of General Revelation. To be more specific: I experienced (or received?) General Revelation when reading the list of pieces in that volume of Williams’ verse.

A few weeks ago, during our travels in the British Isles, G & I went to a performance of Romeo & Juliet in the Globe Theatre. It wasn’t the greatest performance I’ve ever seen (the best production of R & J I’ve encountered, by far, was the one performed by the BreadLoaf acting company in the summer of, oh, it must have been 2005). The actors at the Globe are not great. I guess the appeal is the location: the price is low, so every tourist can come and catch a Shakespeare play in Shakespeare’s “own” theatre. I mean, that’s why I went! So, anyway, the actors were not spectacular, but the text was uncut (I’ve never seen a full production of the text before, so that was great). And there were some sublime moments. Really, the thrill came from standing in the yard, first while the sun burned our heads and shoulders, then while the crowd rustled and cowered under quite a heavy rain shower, my elbows on the stage, my face at the heels of the players. That was priceless, and unforgettable. There was one moment that is ‘in my memory locked.’ Romeo came and stood right in front of me. I had to move my elbows off the stage, he stood so close. The rain was falling lightly. Romeo was clad all in black. I believe it was the ‘strange dream, that gives a dead man leave to think’ speech. He stood quietly, arms down at his sides, slowly pondering those timeless words out loud. ‘I dreamt my lady came and found me dead—/ Strange dream, that gives a dead man leave to think!— / And breathed such life with kisses in my lips / That I reviv’d and was an emperor.’ I stood directly below him, looking up the length of his slender body: trim slippered shoes, black tights and fitted knee-length britches, close doublet, black smooth skin on his taut neck and thin young face, cropped black hair; the rain slanted down in perfect lines all around him, parallel to his body, framing him. From my perspective, the rain seemed either suspended—streaks or tiny cords stretched taut, etched on the image—or rising up in gray rays all about that pensive lover. It was an experience of faultless minimalism: everything was pure, and perpendicular, and gray-and-black. All was quiet and thoughtful, before the blow of grief. In my mind, I did not hear his dream speech; instead, I heard Hamlet’s ‘…this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable. in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals; and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me….’ All the nobility and tragedy of man’s glorious condition stood quietly before me, slanting up into the monochrome overcast sky. And I felt the exquisite craftsmanship and vast indifference of Omnipotence in such a creation. I knew God for the duration of that speech: the divine discovered in an actor’s shabby costume and mediocre work, buoyed up by profound words, tempered by the stark colouring of that scene, limned by geometric Nature. It was a remarkable moment.

So, those are just two examples of times that Art has taught me something about God.