28 February 2010

Interdisciplinary Language Arts

At the little homeschool college-prep program where I teach, my high school students are embarking on independent projects. I'm going to describe these projects briefly here, because they are a microcosm for just about everything I hope to accomplish. They unify literature and history, and both with an art form. They look at all three (history, literature, the arts) through a Christian worldview. They require academic and creative excellence. In this post, I'm putting an edited version of the instructions the students have to follow; in another post, I'll put little descriptions of the projects themselves. If anybody asks, I'd be happy to post the reading list, as well. Rather than feeling any sort of copywrite anxiety, I encourage teachers to steal this idea if they want!

1. Decide what medium you will use for your project: paintings, sculptures, poems, other creative writing, photographs, collages, posters, power point, musical composition and performance, dramatic script and performance, dance choreography and performance, film script and direction, traditional research paper, etc. (No one has chosen to do a research paper, by the way!)
2. The project should be a showcase of your favorite creative and academic methods and media. Choose a medium in which you know you can excel or which you have wanted to try out for a while.
3. All work must be your own original work (supported by research). However, you may recruit others to help you present it, especially if it is a play, film, or musical ensemble.
4. In addition to doing research, you may (and are encouraged to) consult with teachers or professionals in the medium you are using. (I will probably recruit drama and visual arts teachers to help me evaluate the students' work in those fields, since I am weaker in those than in writing and music.)
5. Plan ahead to practice, polish, and perfect both your work and its method of presentation. Do not leave the final product for the last week.
6. This project must take as much work as a traditional research paper; approximately 2 hours a week for three months, then more time for a week or two, then almost all of your waking hours for the last week! Make sure it is sizable enough in scope, but not too big. It should reflect the best of what you have learned this year, but be possible to complete without overtaking all of your other schoolwork—and life!
7. In addition to the book itself, you must use at least 4 good, scholarly, print resources.
- At least one source must be a biography of the author.
- At least two sources must be “literary criticism.” I can help you find these.
- Other print sources could include history books about the historical context of the work, other books written by your author, books about art or music that influenced your text, philosophical or scientific texts that influenced your author, magazine essays analyzing the book, articles discussing theatrical or film productions of the book, and book reviews of your text.
8. You must also use at least one primary source. It could be a print source or an online source. This could be music/art from the time period, newspaper articles, diaries/journals/letters, etc. Other teachers and I can help you find these depending on their nature.
9. Additional sources are optional: online sources (but make sure they are reliable), film or theatre productions of your book, interviews, art and music relevant to your study, technical manuals about your chosen medium, etc.
10. You may also choose to integrate an “issue” or “event” that is of importance to the book you are studying (like how we integrated the history of eugenics into our discussion of Brave New World, for example). In fact, this big idea or historical movement can almost end up being more important to your project than the book itself, as long as you are using the book as a platform or foundation from which to explore this concept.
11. The purpose of this project is to explore and present the content and ideas of your chosen book (and its overarching historical context) as fully as possible in a creative way. When you have finished, your audience/readers should feel as if they have (1) read the book, (2) thought about the social, political, and/or other historical context of the book, and (3) experienced your best possible creative work. It is a synthesis of your talent and the author’s.

25 February 2010

Inspired by Dr. Jeremy Begbie

A few weeks ago, I had the very great privilege of attending an event—actually, two back-to-back events—at which Dr. Jeremy Begbie spoke, played the piano, and generally inspired and amazed us all! A while back, Rosie posted some info about this remarkable man. He is a scholar, classically-trained concert pianist, theologian, and delightfully witty public speaker. Here is a little video of him playing, speaking, and inspiring. He’s got to be one of the top thinker-performers in the world of faith and the arts today. This dual event was hosted by Biblical Theological Seminary as the first in their Christianity and Culture Series.

The first event was a luncheon designed for worship leaders, pastors, and music ministers, but there were also quite a few teachers, artists, musicians, etc. in attendance. Dr. Begbie briefly gave a c.v., interspersed with hilarious, quirky comments, then opened the session to questions-and-answers. Predictably, many of the questions had to do with the function, choice, and quality of church music. Here are three that I remember pretty clearly and that are fairly representative.

1. QUESTION: We have three services on a Sunday morning. The 8:00 am is the a capella service: no instruments, very plain, prayer, etc. The 9:00 am is the family-friendly service (at a convenient time): contemporary music, band, guitars, drums, praise choruses. The 10:30 am is the traditional, high-church service: choir, robes, organ, Latin anthems with a little John Rutter thrown in for variety. The problem is that we essentially have three congregations [one might even say three churches] and never the twain [well, she meant the three] shall meet. The people in one service never see those in another, never talk to them…we are really three different congregations. What do you say to this?
ANSWER: Well, Dr. Begbie’s answer was really rather amazing, I thought. He started out by giving the disclaimer that he’s not currently a music minister and has never been a pastor in a church with just that situation, so he wasn’t going to offer a solution to the problem. But then he said, quite firmly, that he would approach the problem theologically, because it is indeed a problem. He said that: This must be seen as an interim strategy, not as a permanent situation. The reason that it must be temporary is that it is taking away from the main focus of the Church, which is Christ alone and Him crucified. If a church is organized primarily around something other than Christ, or defines itself by something other than His redemptive work, then that church is in danger of heresy. If a church finds its divisions over musical styles to be its defining factor, then it is in trouble. It simply must find a way to overcome those divisions and unite. Now, he went on to say, the other side of this problem is that it requires great patience. Lots and lots of time is necessary to make a change in a church’s music. The pastoral staff must exercise extraordinary patience and create a very long-term plan to overcome the division and introduce unity.

2. Next, someone asked the rather banal, predictable, and annoying QUESTION: If Jesus were alive now, what instrument and style of music would He play? Guitar, drums, organ? Praise choruses or Classical anthems?
ANSWER: Very cool and casual, elbow on the piano, the little Brit responded without turning a hair: ‘He’d be up here with me, trying to unify them all. ‘
After the laughter died down, he said, ‘But seriously, I do think He would be promoting unity.’ And then he went on to tell some remarkable stories about how he and others have tried to get churches to open out and listen to one another—indeed, even to listen to themselves sing, to enjoy the resonance and beauty of their own collective voices. He talked about a time that he visited a church that had a beautiful building; I picture one of those gorgeous old Gothic stone churches in rural England. He had the whole congregation just hum, first in unison, then adding note upon note until they had a thick chord just buzzing in their resonances, filling the space, rising up in glorious wordlessness. They were astonished: ‘I didn’t know I could sound like that!’ and such an experience could lay the groundwork for really getting the congregation to sing and not just sit listening to the choir/band/worship team.

3. QUESTION: What if you have a little group of musicians who really aren’t very good: singers who can’t sing, instrumentalists who can’t play. Is there ever a time you just tell them to sit down and shut up?
ANSWER: Rather than answer the question directly, Dr. Begbie again told some stories from his personal experience. He told about how he and his family minister at a church with really sub-par music. And in his humility, I gather that he is not even the music minister; it sounds as if he works in a support capacity, accompanying the choir and so on. He kept trying to get us to see beyond the simple binaries of good/bad music, music I like/don’t like, talented/untalented musicians and to see (or hear) it all anew. He encouraged us, rather than getting worked up over different musical preferences, to get to know one another and what motivates us to choose the music we do. He kept insisting that ‘It’s about the people’ rather than solely or even primarily about the music. And yet he has all sorts of sly tactics for introducing congregations to music they thought they didn’t like. He’ll take a praise chorus, for example, and I don’t know, perhaps rearrange it into lovely four-part counterpoint and have a robed choir sing it. Lo and behold, your High Church finds they’re loving a contemporary chorus! Gasp! Or, vice-versa, maybe he’ll take a piece of Bach or Rutter and liven it up, simplify the texture, and get a contemporary church rocking with it. Often he does the simplest step of all: he goes a cappella. He takes out instrumentation, and that often silences disputes, makes them irrelevant.

So, I’ve volunteered to get involved in some way in my church’s music (rather awkward for someone who hasn’t played solo classical piano for 9 years, hasn’t played in church for 5 years, and hasn’t really touched a piano in about 3! Yikes. But there are other ways to help, I should think). And who knows?—maybe I can bring some of Dr. Begbie’s wisdom into play J there somehow. At least I can keep quiet and listen to what motivates people to sing what they do, what it means to them, and so on. And indeed, I enjoyed a truly wonderful conversation with my church’s pianist/music director already as a result of Dr. Begbie’s inspiration. I am very grateful. What a blessing!

24 February 2010

Faith, Arts, and Education: Classical Ed. part 4

A while ago I posted a rather negative analysis (well, really more like a series of questions) in response to a visit I made to a Classical School. Well, I don’t want to leave a bad impression, because my visit was really extraordinarily pleasant. I just had to mention those startling aspects first, because my whole shtick right now is kind of to find the holes in various educational methods and institutions so that I can dream up the perfect school. My big dream and prayer is to be able to implement at least the majority of the ideas that are created through this process of visiting, analyzing, and blogging. When and where, though, are a total mystery to all but the Divinity. And meanwhile, I try to uphold a high standard of teaching in myself and studying in my students, implementing as much unity as I can in my two current classes.

So then. The first and perhaps most important positive of this visit to a Classical school was simply how gracious the administration was in hosting me, showing me around, taking me to classes, introducing me to teachers, answering my questions during their few free minutes walking down halls, etc. (a teacher has not a moment free during the day, nor really any other time neither!).

And this attitude of courtesy extended through the school, down to the youngest children. The very first class I observed was kindergarten, and those tiny humans all stood up upon my entrance, and recited in unison, “Good Morning, Visitor!” The kindergarten teacher admonished them that they hadn’t said it well enough (my sloppy 21st-century etiquette didn’t catch the nature of the infraction), so they had to try again! I felt as awkward and uncultured as if I’d stepped into an Austen novel! But that’s a good thing. By the third class, I was prepared for this and could respond with a polite good morning thank you very much. Boys are required to open doors for girls. Students have to answer, “Yes, Mr. so-and-so” or “Yes, Mrs. So-and-so” when they are corrected or reprimanded.

Next, even though I critiqued the mindlessness with which some of the repetitions of material were performed, the very fact of the repetition and the vast memorization is impressive. Those children (and the teachers!) had an awful lot of material crammed in their little heads. I sat in on a 1st or 2nd grade class—I think it was first—that was reviewing their Latin declensions. Whew! Now that’s classical Classical, if you know what I mean. Miniature people in plaid skirts, navy trousers, and white Oxfords, reciting Latin verbs in unison. Just exactly right.

And they had an awful lot of Scripture memorized. Here’s a neat moment that I got to see. In that same class, 1st grade I think, the teacher was a very young, energetic girl with tons of energy and enthusiasm. She got all into acting out the Bible verses; they have a series of gestures that they do while they recite the verses to aid memorization, almost like sign language. I wonder is that standard or did she make them up? Anyway, she was having the kids recite a Psalm when one child said, “Look, there’s a rainbow!” The sunlight just hit the window in such a way that the glass became a prism and behold, there was indeed a rainbow on the wall. The wise teacher took the cue and asked the children what the rainbow signified. They told her of God’s promise to Noah. She went right on, using the moment, and asked them to see how much they remembered of the memory work from Genesis. Right then and there they went on to recite sizable portions of chapters from Genesis! Whew. Good work.

And then at the end of the day I visited an older class that was a unification of history and literature. Perfect. That’s just right. They were studying Herodotus; heavy stuff! It was maps and readings and discussion of the political situation. Very nice.

So, I’m still intrigued and intend to look further. Thanks to those who have aided me thus far!

05 February 2010

Comment article online

You may remember that I once put up a post about the myth of facebook; if you look for that post now, you won't find it here. Instead, you'll find it (in revision) as an article in the "Arts and Academy" section of the current issue of Comment. Some of you had responded to it, when it was here, asking me to discuss the positive side of facebook (which I really love, really!) Well, if you want to reinstate that conversation, read the article over on Comment, then come back here and, well, comment!

Nudity in Art in the Classroom

At one of my Ekphrasis session, a topic came up that I’ll treat separately here. There were two art teachers present. One teaches in the local Christian high school where I taught for one year; the other teaches art and art history to homeschooled students of all ages at the arts academy where I currently teach English. I should mention that both of these schools are fairly “conservative,” even “fundamentalist,” populated mostly by Evangelicals. In the high school, many of the families (and faculty/staff) would be of the Young-Earth no-dancing type of persuasion. In the course of Ekphrasis, the topic of nudity in art in the classroom was broached. Two widely different approaches became clear.

Teacher #1, the high school teacher, said that he puts post-it notes or little cut-out black construction paper shorts over the private parts of nude figures in his art books. He laughed that students will peak underneath the paper shorts of, say, The David. But on the other hand, students want to help cover up the nude figures and will participate in the cutting-out of paper shorts and the application of strategically placed post-it fig leaves.

Teacher #2, the homeschool teacher, on the other hand, shows nude art to her students. She begins when they are fairly young (I would guess late elementary school?). She talks to them about why artists do this: To celebrate the beauty of the human body, perhaps, or to practice their own technical skill in depicting such a difficult subject. She explains the difference between nudity and nakedness. And they’re fine with that.

Here’s a personal anecdote. At the same school where Teacher #1 works, I was teaching a Greek Mythology unit to the 10th graders. In addition to learning facts and stories about the Greek gods, goddesses, and heroes, they were responsible to learn how to recognize these characters by their distinctive features, objects, and so on. We had a Visual Arts quiz, thus. I chose ten or so of these Greek characters, found online two works of art for each, and presented a slide show of the images. The students had to identify the god, goddess, or hero in each pair of paintings/sculptures. But before we got into this unit, I gave them a little lecture about nudity in art. I explained why the artists did it (see above) and told the students: “You are going to have to be mature about this. If anyone is uncomfortable, come and tell me and we won’t do it. But once we begin, you are not allowed to laugh, snicker, make snide comments, or anything. Just act calm and adult and don’t be weird about it.” And you know what: it worked! One class was totally fine: just looking at the images and quietly focusing on the identification task at hand. In the other, one young wag started to laugh and make a comment at the first picture of Zeus (with rather prominent masculinity), but caught himself immediately, said, “Oh, wait, we’re not allowed to do that,” apologized, and acted mature all the rest of the time.

So I do not wish to cause any young people to stumble by putting before them images that might cause them to lust. But I believe that there are three different approaches to the unclothed human body: (1) sexually, lusting after it carnally (2) artistically, appreciating its glorious beauty as created by God (3) medically, looking at it as flesh whose health needs to be promoted and maintained. However, it’s hard to know for sure if we can appreciate the unclothed human body purely artistically: I mean, be honest, we’re fallen, we’re sexual, we’re driven (sometimes, to some extent) by appetites. Yet I’m not convinced that keeping away from great art, simply because one has an overblown libido, is the answer—anymore than keeping away from certain classic literature that describes sex, sexuality, or attractive persons. Shouldn’t we strive to raise our desires from the merely carnal to the aesthetic in situations in which the carnal is inappropriate? Shouldn’t I learn to look at the David without blushing?

Here is a Classical school's position paper on nudity in art; it falls pretty far on the 'conservative' side, keeping students away from such art unless they happen to encounter it in supplemental materials.

On the other end of the Christian spectrum, here's a statement on the use of nude models from Gordon College, my alma mater.

04 February 2010

Faith, Arts, and Education: Classical Ed. part 4

In an earlier post on the topic of Classical education, I promised to ponder the staffing/scheduling problem with the whole-school-in-one-time-period method, suggest ways of integrating math and science, give examples of interdisciplinary lessons, and relate some observations of the Classical school I visited. Well, I still intend to do that, but I’d like to take the discussion out of order. I’d like to share with you what I observed at a Classical school I visited.

On Tuesday, January 26th, I visited a Classical school that shall remain nameless. Most of what I have to say is positive, but I also intend to critique, or at least query, so there’s no need to incriminate anyone. This school is only seven years old. When a Classical school opens, it usually does so with only the first few grades. This is mainly because it could not function properly as a Classical school if it had only transfer students in the upper grades; students cannot do the Classical thing in middle- and high-school unless they’ve been properly trained in it during their younger years. Now, Classical schools will take transfer students (they put them through a summer program to try to get them caught up), but they don’t want any one grade to consist of exclusively transfer students, or even for transfers to be the majority; that would compromise the integrity of the program. This school, therefore, only goes up to 9th grade. So right off the bat, that meant I didn’t get to see any of the results of the Grammar phase working in the Rhetoric phase; I didn’t get to see whether Classical high school students are more articulate, better writers, more critically aware abstract thinkers, more well-informed, or better behaved than the plain vanilla variety—or than my homeschoolers. I did sit in on part of a history/literature class of 7th-9th graders studying Herodatus. I was only there for half an hour, so I really can’t judge—but I wasn’t impressed. My middle school students are more engaged with the material than those students were. They appeared uninterested and the few questions they asked or answered did not reveal any deep understanding of—anything, really. But as I said, that’s not really enough to go by.

But there were a few other funny things that surprised me.

Funny thing # one: the school was not organized around any historical rotation. They do try to have students study the same time period in history and literature during most grades, but there’s no sense of “First grade is the Ancient Period” or “Academic Year 2010-2011 will be The Baroque” as I expected. Maybe I expected too much; maybe the unity of history and literature is all I ought to look for.

Funny thing # two: the Grammar phase, the “parrot” stage, lasts all through sixth grade in that school. I expected it to last only through fourth grade. After that, kids get super bored with repetition; they’re asking “WHY?” by age 10, 11, or certainly 12 (unless they have a developmental disability). At that point, as soon as they start asking that question, push them forward! Let them go on! Start teaching them logic and let them debate.

Now, I did observe half an hour or so of a 5th-6th grade combined class that was studying poetry for the first time; that day was their first introduction to poetry. [As a poet and avid teacher of poetry, both the study of it and the writing of it, I am about to die of shock that they didn’t encounter poetry until January 26th of their 6th grade year, but that’s beside the point. I guess. What in the world were they doing the rest of the year—the rest of the 5 ½ years??? How do you study the literature Ancient Greece and Rome without studying poetry? it’s all in verse!!!]. This class was not doing the rote memory thing. The teacher was doing almost exactly what I do when I give an introduction to poetry. She had them brainstorm what they thought poetry was, then she gave them an “official” definition, then she gave a handout that included a random selection of poems and they read them and did some activities with them. Not bad. But the:

Funny thing # three: During that poetry class, the following odd occurrence startled me. On the board, the teacher put a list of what she called “categories” for poetry, then proceeded to list “Nature,” “Religious,” “Descriptive,” “Narrative,” and “Humorous.” Why in the world didn’t she teach them the term “GENRES” and then give them the actual genre names (pastoral, lyric, and so on)? I mean, if this is a Classical school in which students are supposed to be drilled in all the most time-honored facts and figures, learning Latin by the time they’re 7 and learning how to think critically by the time they’re 14, surely 6th graders can handle the word “Genre.” I teach it to my middle schoolers, no problem. That was weird. It felt an awful lot like dumbing down, to me. Hum.

Funny thing # 4: I understood why the biggest criticism leveled at Classical schools is that “You’re just teaching them to parrot facts, not to think or to understand!” And this was exacerbated, I believe, by extending the Grammar stage thought 6th grade. I observed a 4th grade English class. For at least 15 minutes, the teacher stood up in front and held up one big flash card after another. On the front of the card, the side the students saw, was a prefix, suffix, or other morpheme. On the other side, apparently, was a super complicated rule about how that morpheme gets used in the spelling of English words. Not its meaning, just its spelling (and sometimes pronunciation). The students were required to rattle off, in unison, that rule. I had never heard of any of these rules for different times –ight occurs, or how to use pairs of vowels, or any of this stuff. And the poor kids just mumble through it as fast as they possibly could without the slightest symptom of comprehension. Naturally enough, they were awfully fidgety, wiggling and swivling around. So was I, inside.

All of that rather confused me. Perhaps I wasn’t there long enough to see how well it really works. I intend to email the high school English teacher and ask to read some writing samples, so I can see if student writing is better via this method than the others I’ve encountered. Maybe I should go back in a few years and talk to some seniors. Or maybe I’ll visit another, longer-running, school closer to me.

Sorry: I said this post would be mostly positive. I guess I didn’t get to the positive stuff. Good thing I withheld the name of the school!

In future posts, I'll compare the homeschool program where I now teach to the official Classical method. Perhaps I’ll dedicate a post in future to the problem a Classical education faces during the decline of “Western” culture. I’ll also post a bibliography at the end of the series.

"Eighth Sacrament" (by guest blogger Rudi Krause)

[Comment by Rosie Perera: This article was written by a friend of mine from Regent College who is also in my Dante reading group. It was originally published in his church newsletter, accompanied by an invitation to his fellow Vancouverites to come join him for contra dancing, with the particulars. I've edited that part out. I thought the topic was fascinating though. Sorina and I have had some back and forth about this article before I posted it here, and we'll be following up with our discussion about it in the comments. Posted and editied with permission of the author.]

During the first two decades of my life the people in my world didn’t talk or think much about the sacraments. If the topic ever came up it was treated with suspicion, perhaps contempt, and - I dare say - ignorance. Over the course of the next four decades my experience of, and thinking about, the sacraments has evolved; now they are central to my understanding of the faith.

“Sacrament” has to do with “sacred” or “holy.” In one sense only God is holy; but because the trinitarian, that is, relational, God has entered the created world, everything is now holy - touched by grace, held in the gaze of divine love. All of life has become sacramental. Communion allows us to see all meals as holy, as opportunities to experience grace. Baptism changes the basic pattern of how we live our lives, in fact, turns it upside down. Marriage is always a reflection of God’s loving relationship with his bride, his people.

Yet, even though we are invited to see all of life as sacramental, there is something special about some of the sacraments. A sacrament (in this special sense) is a practise, an activity with something tangible: water, bread, wine, oil, bodies (hands, taste buds, skin, and so on). A practise which allows us to experience God’s immanence, God’s incarnational presence in the ordinary things and activities of daily life. The Eucharist, for instance, opens up in two directions at once: by receiving and consuming bread and wine, we receive - once again - the gift of eternal life which is meant to transform us in all that we are and do. We receive grace (salvation, love, the gifts of the Spirit) so that grace can flow out from us every moment of every day.

One can think of a sacrament as a powerful metaphor, a metaphor big enough to inhabit, a metaphor (image, practise) significant enough to transform us. I have already mentioned three sacraments: baptism, Eucharist, marriage. Lutherans recognize two special sacraments; Catholics have seven. I have discovered another one, and so I propose an eighth.

Dancing. Now all kinds of dancing could be seen as sacramental in that broader more general sense I discussed above; but I’m thinking of a particular kind of dancing - contra dancing. It has become a special sacrament for me, a means of grace, a metaphor for how we are meant to live, trusting one another, staying light on our feet, letting go as well as reaching out to each other, being in a generous relationship with “partners” and “neighbours,” listening to the music, being willing to risk and make mistakes, forgiving one another, and getting on with life without remaining stuck in regrets.

I guess other kinds of group folk dancing could work equally well, dancing in a circle for instance (like Israeli dancing; which makes me think of the song, “Draw the Circle Wide,” found in our hymnal). But it is contra dancing that has become part of my life on a regular basis. From September to June, on the first Saturday and the second Friday of each month, at St James’ Hall, a live band and a good caller lead the people who gather in a series of lively dances. There is laughter and good will among the participants who range in age from under ten to over seventy. One goes away at the end of the evening feeling very good.

I think it is quite appropriate that these dances are held in a church building named after the apostle who emphasized that faith needs to be put into practise. I believe it is also appropriate that the building is no longer used for church services; this reminds me that for followers of Jesus the boundary between “sacred” and “secular,” between “religious” and “everyday” has been erased. Because of the sacraments all of life is holy.

The best part of contra dancing is that I am able to “get out of my head and into my feet,” into my body. And (horror!) here I am turning this sacrament back into disembodied words which you may toss around in your head for a while before forgetting it.

03 February 2010

"Croagh Patrick" poem part 4

'Way back when, I posted the first two sections of a poem about a profound mountain-climbing experience I had. I've finally written the last two sections. Here's section one; here's section two; section three was posted yesterday. Now, finally, section four.

IV. Into the West

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.

And then, the top!
Suddenly, not one bread-sized rock between my boots
and the rain-heavy sky. The mountain levels out
so the sphere of the world is spread around like a clock
and I the eye that points the seconds’ hands.
Strange how the eye cannot stay on distance, but strays
to nearer things: the rim of this island in air,
a plaque that proclaims redundant absolution,
the whitewashed wall of a chapel. Locked.
My sneakers clack on bland rocks,
but now the all-important feet are only a founding,
are no more than a base. I am tall, my arms outcrossed,
turning and turning the hands of the clock,
ribboning the rainbow, bringing the sun,
shouting a laughter of fabulous tears
into the endless. Ringing the joy.
And there was never more humility
in one exultant saint.

Whatever: this incarnate being, does.

~ Sørina

02 February 2010

"Croagh Patrick" poem part 3

'Way back when, I posted the first two sections of a poem about a profound mountain-climbing experience I had. I've finally written the last two sections. Here's section one; here's section two. Now, the third part; tomorrow, the fourth.

III. A Storm is Coming

But the spirit can, and the body does. It sets its teeth
and its feet for the heights.

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….

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.
The soul takes each step and knows each strain, and all is paid
in performing. No double recompense. No Purgatory: all is purged.
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.

~ Sørina

01 February 2010

Ekphrasis Report #3

(7 Jan 2010)

I wrote in the last Ekphrasis report that “I’m going to talk later about how far one can go and still be a creator of ‘Christian’ art—or even a Christian making art. Surely there must be a line, beyond which too much profanity, or heresy, or pornography, disqualifies one from membership in the roll of ‘Christian artists’?” Interestingly, the next Ekphrasis meeting brought that topic to my mind with even greater force. I’ll get to that in its proper place.

This was an interesting meeting, for two reasons. First, we held it in my new house, which we’ve finally just finished building, and into which we moved on New Year’s Eve. Surrounded by boxes, scrambling for anything to sit on, trying to find batteries for a keyboard so we could have some music, giving people the “Now try to imagine that this room is painted and that there are carpets on the floor” tour—all this made the day very interesting. The other was that we had two phases of the meeting. Due to some scheduling complications, I indicated a long range of hours, so some people came at the beginning and some came at the end and only two stayed the whole time (because they had traveled long distance). So here’s what was shared.

JA traveled up from Doylestown. I had never met him before, but we were published in Windhover magazine together, and I saw he was local. I always cull the “Contributor bios” sections of literary magazines to see if there’s anyone around here who might like to come. He’s been trying to make it for months, and finally did. He was very gracious about the surroundings and the company. It was just myself, my sister, and LH (a friend from Massachusetts who was on her way from Florida back up North and stopped by!) at that point. Anyway, JA read a poem to us, and we workshopped it. We had a delightful time pretending that he wasn’t there and trying to decode the poem, as it were. Since I want us to create classic, canonical poetry, we try to read poems as they’ll be read when the author is not longer accessible, to see if the poem stands on its own. This one did. It took some figuring, but it finally came to light as a short, emotionally descriptive, spare, almost Hemingway-esque tale of a fight between a husband and wife. After JA talked about it a bit and confirmed and clarified our reading, I congratulated him on how little critique we had. “We usually shred the poems to bits,” I told him. “Well, I know,” he responded. “In our email exchange, you really shredded my last poem!” That’s proof of how good his poem was; it survived our critique, intact!

He had another poem, unintentionally printed on the back of the one he meant to share. We read it and talked about it only briefly. I also really liked this one: a tale of dockworkers looking for jobs. But “tale” is the wrong word, because it was not narrative. More reflective. I look forward to reading more of JA’s work, and hope he has success in publishing more of it. We need more thoughtful, non-cheesy Christian poets.

Then NK, my sister, shared her work with us. She’s getting her Master’s in Vocal Performance at one of the SUNY campuses, and is pursuing some independent research. As she explained to DS later, “Every singer needs a niche of some sort, some specialization on which to focus. I’ve found my niche.” Her niche, then, is Greek vocal music. She’s studying Greek traditional and composed forms: opera, art song, folk song-and-dance. She gave us a wonderful little lecture about the musical techniques and dance style of Zeibekiko, the most popular of these dance forms. She intends to travel to Greece and do scholarly work on Greek song; specifically, on the diction of the Greek language as performed by singers of both popular music and opera. So, after a very lively description of the bizarre and delightful conventions of this dance (which was traditionally sung, as well as danced), she sang one of these songs, while we kept time in the crazy 9/8 meter! Jumping ahead in my narrative: in the second half of the afternoon, she also danced for us! It is a powerful dance, strong and moving. Fantastic!

In the second half of this Ekphrasis meeting, LH and I collaborated (I use that term very loosely) on a musical-poetic presentation. Way back when, I had begun a poem about a profound mountain-climbing experience, but had given up after three of four sections. Well, L called me on her way from Florida, said that someone had given her a keyboard, and that she wanted to play some background music while I read a poem. I didn’t have anything new that would be suitable for this meeting, so I sat down that morning, rewrote section three, and wrote section four. I’ll post these tomorrow and the next day, with links back to the previous sections. When she arrived, just at the time the meeting began, we had no time to practice together, nor even to choose suitable music. She had a film score with her, somewhat “atmospheric” music, so she chose that and played away while I read. The resulting synthesis, while not what we would have developed if we had had time to discuss and rehearse, was a fascinating combination of verbal and musical sounds. I do like reading over music, although that can be distracting. I once read a similar poem, about diving underwater, accompanied by Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan. The other members of the group said that they enjoyed the experience of music and poetry, but that they listened only to the sounds of the poem, not the sense (or the “meaning,” if you will). That’s what I often encourage listeners to do; one can hardly grasp the meaning of a complex poem on a first hearing, and most readers need to see it on the page to get it; I do. So this was a different sort of experience. Then I went back and reread the last section out loud in order to be able have some discussion. But as a performance technique (rather than one for a workshop), I like the musical accompaniment.

I’m going to narrate out of order here, for my own purposes. NJ, NJ, NJ, and TJ attended: three siblings and their mother. Only NJ the first had something prepared to share; he brought a poem that he wrote about his college, where he has spent one semester, and which he loves. The poem was tons of fun. It was written in rhyming quatrains, but with such strong enjambments that the rhymes were subtle. It described the narrator walking around the campus and enjoying each of the buildings in turn. But he hinted that there was some kind of, I don’t know, hidden code? That’s too strong a term; there was something allusive that I would find if I searched. Then and there, during the discussion, I couldn’t find it. Later on I spent more time rereading it and discovered what he meant; each stanza smuggled in words and images that alluded to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, thereby praising his college’s architecture and academics even more. Nice work, N!

Right after my little duo with LH, DS shared two of his paintings that are intended for a triptych of sorts. Again, we talked about one of the paintings for a while without allowing him to say a word, to see if we could decipher them. Although we had lots to say, we could not decode them. We were fascinated by the images: a dismembered Cubist head down in a blood-filled ditch, a dead-white arm thrown off to one side, a corpse- or mummy-like figure caught up in a circle, entangled in or hanging from a brambled tree. The whole surface was completely flat—no perspective—and employed startlingly different styles. The Cubist head and the thorn bush/hanged man sections looked as if they had been done by two different artist at different times. While we had lots of theories, we couldn’t agree on who the two people were; we generally thought they were two impressions or expressions of The Artist himself (especially since his name was signed across the decapitated head in the bloody ditch). Finally, D spoke to us. We were all wrong. It depicted Cain and Abel; the first murder. We suggested a title to that effect to get viewers on the right track sooner. He explained that the circle around Cain signified Sacred Space, and that Abel’s blood crying out from the ground might very well be crying for mercy towards his brother rather than revenge. He pondered whether even a fratricide like Cain could enter into sacred space.

Then DS showed us his second painting. This one was much more abstract, I would say even surrealistic, although I’m not an expert on style labels in the visual arts. TJ, who was there, is an art teacher; T, if you’re reading, maybe you can let me know if I’m right? Anyway, this one also had a circle, green red and black with three blue spots, in the middle of a golden keyhole shape. Outside the keyhole stood two unidentifiable figures, with flower blossoms scattered over them. One figure was much larger than the other and had three flowers directly over it. D explained that this was Eve; the smaller figure was Adam. He proceeded to expound his pondering the beauty and intuitive power of women (perhaps I should say Woman) and whether Eve’s act of eating the fruit were not at all the beginning of all our woes, but rather was the ultimate act of human courage; she dared to step in to where God was and to where God had forbidden; she pierced the sacred space. Rather than condemning this act, D thought that perhaps Eve should be commended for the greatest human creativity. So I, naturally, asked him if he were joining with Philip Pullman in affirming The Fall as humanity’s first step into creative autonomy and that we should all fornicate in order to express our independence and then end by murdering God. OK, I didn’t phrase it quite that strongly (there were children present), but I did ask him if he were on Pullman’s side, the Devil’s side. He didn’t answer.

So this is why I asked that question at the beginning: Surely there must be a line, beyond which too much profanity, or heresy, or pornography, disqualifies one from membership in the roll of ‘Christian artists’? Affirming The Fall as a positive event is heretical. Well, let me qualify that. I’m not sure it is a heresy, if by a heresy I mean some unorthodox suggestion within the Christian religion. It’s just flat-out not Christianity. The basis of the Gospel is that the Fall was a bad thing from which people need to be redeemed. I guess taking the Fall as a good thing is a rather Rousseau-esque humanism. I’m not sure about that.

Now, I don’t think that artists should be forbidden from expressing Rousseau-esque humanism; I love Pullman’s fantasy trilogy, both as Art and as a great chance for me to debate with him in my head and get young people to ponder the reality he proposes. And I don’t think that asking the question necessarily excludes one from being considered a “Christian” artist (or a Christian, but that’s not for me to judge). But I do believe that answering the question in favor of Eve’s act does put one outside the pale of public Christianity. So that’s a problem.