Category Archives: literary understanding

“On the Greek island of Lesbos…”

My Early World Literature students generally love Sappho, at least what of hers we read in the course. And I think some of what they love is her unknowability, if I can call it that, and the fact that much of the work we have by her is fragmentary. Her works were collected into volumes by admiring Greek and then Roman poets and others, but only papyrus scraps have come down to us, through various unusual pathways. She was born around 615 B.C. to an aristocratic family and lived for a time in a community of young women on the island of Lesbos who wrote and sang poetry, danced to their songs…. the word “Lesbian” was attached to the female-to-female sexual attractions described in some of her work. The site The Poetry Foundation sums up what is known or at least seriously believed about her today: “In antiquity Sappho was regularly counted among the greatest of poets and was often referred to as ‘the Poetess,’ just as Homer was called ‘the Poet.’ Plato hailed her as ‘the tenth Muse,’ and she was honored on coins and with civic statuary.” Beyond that, most of what we “know” is custom, legend, speculation…or downright fiction. Readers tend to believe her first-person poems are autobiographical because of that “I” and the frank, intense description of deep emotions and suggestions of intimate experience—but we don’t know.

Anyway, as I said, her poems—what we have of them—are compelling. Poets of many centuries and cultures have translated them into their own languages, often padding them out to fit ideas of structure and poetics quite alien to the originals. (If that intrigues you, you ought to visit the site Bureau of Public Secrets, where “some of the many” translations of her “Poem of Jealousy” are collected.)

In my classes, attraction to a piece of writing pretty much means you’ll have to write about it; hence today’s horror. Through the murky sentences I think you will still feel the affection:

“On the Greek island of Lesbos Sappho’s works were written and compiled, into the classic poems they are today. Despite knowing not much about her, her poems speak volumes.”

Oh, the use of the passive voice, which denies Sappho agency in her own work (the poems were written on an island; who wrote them remains unspoken)! Oh, the strange notion that some “compilers” made them into classic poems—again, she doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with it! Were they immediately classic because they were written in the sixth century B.C.E., or are they classic now because they’re still around or because we call them so, or are they classic because someone compiled them “into…classic poems,” or what? The writer leaves us to ponder those questions. Perhaps the writer himself is unsure what “classic” means. They can certainly be referred to as “classical,” because they are writings from the long period of Greek and Roman civilization we call the “classical age.” Well, be that as it may. They’re classics today.

“Despite knowing not much about her,” besides being a remarkably awkward phrase, is a dangling modifier. Of course I knew what he meant to say: Despite the fact that we don’t know much about her…or despite our not knowing much about her. But the sentence as my student wrote it has no such nouns or pronouns to be described (modified) by the prepositional phrase: the only noun offered is “poems,” but surely he doesn’t mean to say her poems don’t know much about her. He goes on to say that the poems “speak volumes.” This in spite of not knowing much about their author, I guess.

Now, generally when we use the verb phrase “speak volumes” we mean “say a great deal (books’ worth, in fact) even without words.” As in “she said not a word when he said he loved her, but her quiet smile spoke volumes,” perhaps. Is that what my student means to say about the poems of Sappho—that the fragments we have still suggest books’ worth of thoughts? I’m not sure. In view of the introductory phrase about not knowing much about her, I have to consider that he may mean the poems suggest a lot about their author. What’s truly odd here is a coincidence of terminology, the juxtaposition of fragments and “volumes,” and the association of poems with books as well.

Most readers of Sappho feel that the fragments suggest deep and complex emotions, or evoke them in readers, although for many of the poems what we have is so small a piece of the probable original that we can’t be positive where the poem as a whole might have taken us. In fact, what we respond to for so many of what we call her “poems” is a single breathtaking image. And the trouble with that is the nagging fact that almost all of us are reading Sappho in a translation. Only the knowledge that her words have struck readers this way regardless of the passage of time and the vagaries of literary “style” and translation gives us the confidence to attribute our response to her artistry.

This isn’t a very funny post! My intention was to have a good time with my hapless student’s staggering couple of sentences and their inadequacies as praise of The Poetess. But it’s impossible to point out where my student went wrong, or at least limped through, without talking about the power and beauty of the words he was trying to respond to. Perhaps there’s a point at which we all become inarticulate.

Here’s someone else’s tribute to her. It’s described as “red-figure vase (hydria, or kalpis) by the Group of Polygnotos, ca. 440–430 BC. Seated, Sappho is reading one of her poems to a group of three student-friends. National Archaeological Museum in Athens….” This photographic image of the hydria is “by Μαρσύας (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.” She’s writing so intently, and the other women form a group around and above her that seems simultaneously loving and blessing. Beautiful, isn’t it?

You'll notice that, like Sappho's poems, this jar was once broken in pieces. How fortunate we are that unlike so many of her poems, all the pieces were found and carefully reassembled. We respond to its original beauty.

You’ll notice that, like Sappho’s poems, this jar seems to have once been broken. How fortunate we are that all the pieces are here, carefully reassembled, so we can be sure we’re responding to its original beauty.

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“Most, if not all, people can relate to Don during this troubling moment.”

First let me admit that one of my current crusades is to stamp out the phrase “relate to.” Particularly in literature classes, its use is pervasive and daunting: “I can relate to Hamlet.” “The Canterbury Tales is hard to relate to because it’s written in Old [sic] English.” “I can relate to the Puritans but they were wrong about witches.” “Beowulf brags too much to be relatable.” Oh, please!

One of my students even coined (or repurposed?) a  noun to express this concept: “relativity.” No, nothing to do with Einstein; just a variant form of “relatability,” evidently. (Nice to see that Spellcheck thinks “relatability” is something-or-other misspelled , not a real word…)

You can follow either of the links in the above sentences for fully-deployed RAB expressions of despair.

And now, Class, we turn our attention to friend Don, that possibly-universally-relatable chap. I wish I had recorded which of Don’s many “troubling” moments my student was referring to here, but perhaps that doesn’t matter: it was something most, if not all, of us would see ourselves in, understand, associate with our own experience, want to associate ourselves with, or whatever “relate to” means….

Is Don some friend of my student’s? A sibling of hers? Or perhaps someone famous, so famous that only his first name is needed for identification? Or, uh, a character in a play, named simply “Don”? (So many modern plays name their characters “Man” and “Woman” that “Don No-Last-Name” seems at least possible.)

Do you have a moment? Would you like to read a little about a famous composer named Bay?

So, if you went there, you will have read another RAB rant, this one about calling people by their first names even if they’re strangers to you, authority figures, or famous writers or composers. I’m trying to stamp that practice out, too, of course.

Furthermore, the lover of Bay compounded the informality with lack of knowledge, mistaking the first syllable of his surname for his given name, almost the same error my student makes with Don.

All this is mere preamble to the astonishing Don.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of Part II of one of western literature’s most famous and important works of fiction, and this is being celebrated by many groups, in many ways. For example, Dickinson College, my alma mater, has been celebrating it with a read-in and some festive campus and international events. Now you’ve guessed who Don is, haven’t you?

Yes, Don Quixote. Hero of Don Quixote. Good old Don.

What my student didn’t realize is that Don is, of course, not the gentleman’s given name, but his TITLE. Alonso Quixano, voracious reader, longs for the life of bygone knights errant; this member of the Spanish minor aristocracy therefore renames himself Don Quixote de la Mancha, persuades a tenant farmer to serve as his Squire, and sets off into the world he manages to imaginatively recreate as the land of his dreams, with various touching successes and howling disasters as the consequence. “Don Quixote” would be, in English, pretty much “Lord Quixote.” And nobody refers to George Gordon, Lord Byron, as “Lord,” any more than people refer to Alfred, Lord Tennyson as “Alfred Lord.” Well, nobody I’ve met yet, I hasten to qualify.

Should my student have known that “Don” is an honorific, not a name? Yes, I believe she should have. She should at least have noticed that in class I did not once refer to this character as “Don.” But since she knew the word “Don” already—perhaps does have a friend or relative of that name—she didn’t really think about it, either whether she should call this man “Don” or whether “Don” even sounded like a Spanish first name! She plunged into the assigned reading without looking at the textbook’s Introduction, noticing the book’s setting, or in any way considering that there was anything about the book that made it different from her own world. And THEN, having mistaken “Don” for the character’s first name, she proceeded to assume sufficient intimacy with him to call him by it—throughout a paper that supposedly discussed this literary work in an academic way.

The culture of the world in which we live, move, and have our being has changed a lot in the last few decades, and traditions of formality, conventions of academic writing, and various kinds of awareness seem to be falling by the wayside. This means that those of us for whom those things still have significance are more and more frequently disconcerted; it also means that consciousness of those concepts is disappearing and the young people of today may find themselves unable to understand more and more of the literature and life of the past. This is what I fear, anyway.

Well, I’m writing this post partly to celebrate the amazing fact that today my blog’s following reached, and passed, 8000. I’m amazed and grateful! (If it pleases you to do so, you may consider the tour of links throughout this post a kind of happy dance, or pilgrimage…)

So maybe I’m not tilting at verbal windmills alone. Maybe Don and I have 8000+ fellow warriors.

Welcome, all!

Don himself. This image of Don Quixote attacking the windmills is by early-20th-century illustrator G.A. Harker; one of the many sites on which it appears is https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3299/3503448168_7cfb49b975.jpg

Don himself. This image of Don Quixote attacking the windmills is by early-20th-century illustrator G.A. Harker; one of the many sites on which it appears is https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3299/3503448168_7cfb49b975.jpg


“Romeo and Juliet loved each other to death.”

This is a pretty good summary of the play, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, my student didn’t realize that: that their love led inevitably to their deaths (given their circumstances and personalities and impulsive youth).

Did she mean they loved each other a lot, as so many of us use this phrase: “Oh, I love you to DEATH, John!” (“To death” is used in this same way, to indicate a great amount or intensity, in such phrases as “he talked that subject to death!” and “she bores me to death.” Thus we can see that “to death” doesn’t necessarily carry a positive connotation–is, more often, negative…like death itself, I suppose…)

Judging from the rest of the essay she wrote, I have to think this was not her intention. No, it was an error much more likely: she had in mind the marriage vow to love the other “till death do us part.” Evidently what she had heard, or understood, when she attended weddings was “to death do us part.” So she was telling her reader that Romeo and Juliet kept that vow they probably murmured in Friar Lawrence’s monkish cell. They loved each other every minute until they died. They loved each other all the way to the moment of death. Her essay wasn’t even ultimately about the play; it was about love in general. Many people fall in love and get married and then they get divorced, unlike R&J, who were faithful to the end.

I will prefer to think that the sentence itself was a flash of insight, a conflation of Shakespeare’s entire play, and the fault was in the essay that didn’t live up to the moment of brilliance. A woefully brief visitation from Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy.

And next time I go to see the play in question, as soon as the Chorus mentions the star-crossed lovers, I will think to myself, “Yes, they loved each other—they loved each other to death.” End of story!

Romeo-Juliet-Death

She has already loved him to death; she’ll take his dagger and thus he will have also loved her to death. Death by loving. This engraving, an illustration, from an old book (note “Tales from Shakespeare” in the margin), is all over the Internet. No wonder.

 


“The knight gives his wife the choice, which I found…”

My student is writing about Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” (part of The Canterbury Tales). I’ve written before about the Prologue to the Tale and what my students think of the Wife herself; the Tale itself presents one of the Arthurian legends and gives us an understanding of the Wife’s definition of “what women want.”

According to the story, a young knight more full of self than courtesy encounters a young woman in the woods and decides to have his way with her (droit de seigneur). She accuses him of rape, and he is taken before King Arthur for judgment and sentencing. The King would kill him; but Queen Guinevere and her ladies, perhaps taken by his youth or good looks (shame on them!), persuade Arthur to set him a quest instead, and so he is given a year to find the answer to the question “What do women want?” If he succeeds, he will be free to go; if he fails, he will be executed. A year of wandering and questioning everyone he comes across gives him too many answers, none definitive; the deadline looms on the day that lo and behold! he sees a ring of lovely maidens dancing in a clearing in the woods, but when he approaches them they vanish, leaving nothing but an old (and of course ugly) hag. With a sigh and a shrug he asks her the Question, and she agrees to give him The Answer on condition that on his successful appearance before the Queen he will grant her a request. At court he offers the hag’s answer: Women want maisterye. This term has been translated variously but seems to mean power over their own lives (and perhaps power over their spouses as well). Guinevere and the ladies pronounce his answer correct, and he is freed. His joy is short-lived, however: the hag’s request is that he marry her. His consent shows that he is in fact a man of some honor. But once they are married, he refuses to perform in the marriage bed; she is simply too repulsive for a handsome young man such as himself. Finally she offers him a choice: she will be faithful and a good wife in every way but as ugly as he sees her now, or she will be young and beautiful but definitely not faithful to him. We see that he has taken her wisdom to heart when he answers: “You choose.” And so of course, happily-ever-after, she makes her choice: she will be faithful and young, beautiful and skilled in the homemaking department. That, after all, is what she wants.

You, dear reader, have been so patient, awaiting the completion of my student’s statement, so here it is:

“The knight gives his wife the choice, which I found to be the heroic jester in this story.”

Was it the Days of Yore and kingly setting that suggested a jester, or was it my student’s ignorance of the word “gesture”? Heroism aside, yes, what he has done can be called a “gesture,” in the sense of “geste,” behavior, action, or comportment. The word “gesture” can apply to physical motions that convey thoughts or emotions, or actions intended as formal indications of courtesy in order to impress or persuade, and clearly “gesture,” perhaps in both these senses, is the word he meant. I hold onto the hope that he was being sincere, though, not merely making a gesture—heroic or otherwise.

I certainly hope the knight didn’t intend it as a joke, a bit of merriment, a royal entertainment, the stock-in-trade of jesters.

And I hope my student will someday learn the difference between an heroic action and a comic ploy. Otherwise, I fear his own relationships in the romance department are doomed.


“These are poems that require re-reading, maybe even three times.”

She is referring to Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

How hard this poem is! she thinks to herself. I’d better read it a second time!

This explains why students come to class so woefully unprepared when the assigned reading is poetry. Once through, only a few lines, and it’s time to shut the book and party! Of course when I try to get them to talk about their experience of a poem, they tell me, for just about every one, “It’s about love and how sad love is.” Not a bad guess: many many poems are “about” this. Surprisingly, all these poets feel they must say that same thing over and over again, right? If I ask about a specific image in a poem, I get a generic answer: Q: What is the nightingale doing in this poem? A: It is a symbol of love. (Surprise: NOT ALWAYS! and NOT IN THIS POEM!) Now, I wouldn’t want to suggest that they have never read a poem that isn’t about love: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Beowulf, even The Lord of the Rings all boil down to this essential theme: “Never give up.” Literature’s great pageant.

Once, after assigning Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Snow Storm,” I asked everyone to open their books, reread the poem, and draw the picture created by the first lines—which are, if you haven’t already clicked the link to read the whole poem:

No hawk hangs over in this air:
The urgent snow is everywhere.

So I did not give them a task requiring a lot of artistic talent: the “artist” need only cover the paper with dots and dashes representing snow. The poem goes on to describe people bent over, scurrying under the sideways-driving snow like mice (except that there is no hawk to frighten them). Students might have drawn the people too. The speaker also says that the sharp, icy wind would be too much for the tender flesh under any hawk’s wing…. I’ll bet you have already guessed that of 19 drawings, 18 depicted, with greater or less skill, a hawk sitting on some snow. They swore that they had read the poem carefully. You tell me. Here’s what I’m pretty sure of: they didn’t re-read it.

I used to think that by the time students got to college they understood that poetry, a highly compressed and usually highly allusive genre, required close and participatory reading from the reader. I discovered e.e. cummings all by myself in high school, and I used to pore over his lines, so playful on the page some of them, working to get inside his mind, inside the poem. I didn’t just read the words “as freedom is a breakfast food” or “anyone lived in a pretty how town” or “in Just-,” say “huh!” and feel I grasped the phrase, let alone the whole poem. Who taught me that? Well, I know my English teachers expected it, but I think I just knew it: poetry demands work on the part of the reader.

For Shakespeare, I like to assign “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” along with “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” Class begins with the obligatory review of the sonnet form, demonstration of iambic pentameter (Your last name is O’Neill! You’re an IAMB! If I say your name five times that will be IAMBIC PENTAMETER!), illustration of Petrarchan and Shakespearean rhyme schemes…and then we “talk about” the sonnets themselves. Here’s what Shakespeare is “kind of saying” in Sonnet 18: The girl he loves is just like a summer’s day, just as beautiful and warm, and she will never fade away, no matter how old she gets. Here’s what he’s “kind of saying” in Sonnet 130: She is ugly! (How rude! He must suddenly hate her now!)

And then I read the actual sonnets aloud, line by line, and walk them toward what the speaker is actually saying. They are always quite surprised. This may be why a student long ago defined “poetry” as “when the writer never says what he means.” Anyway, after this careful reading-cum-discussion, some students always come up after class to say they now LOVE “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” My joy is brief, though: the next time the class discusses poems that were assigned reading, back we go to the “kind of saying,” the pervasive bird=love pattern, and all the other signs of the old once-over.

Is this because they’ve had too many “find the symbol” and “guess the meaning” exercises in the lower grades? (And it’s not just poetry—this is what they want to do with short stories and plays also.) I know my students have trouble developing a thesis, and I attribute that to hanging around exclusively with people who share their opinions, so they don’t even know a judgment requires a rational defense. For literature, they rush to a quick general “moral of the story” and feel they have said all that needs to be said.

When I think of all the literary lines, images, characters, moments that have enriched my life and given me insights into emotions and ideas I have not previously been able to put into words or even perceive—when I think of how richly textured my imaginative life has been as a consequence of all my reading—I am filled with grief and rage for my students. There is no way that they’re going to learn the reader’s habit of mind and its attendant joys in one semester. I can show them my joy, offer them my insights and knowledge; but until they manage to work their way through to their own, they won’t have the experience themselves. Why has this not already happened for them? Why have they been permitted to equate the reading of literature with moving their eyes over words?

So I laugh at the notion that understanding Shakespeare might take a second and maybe even a third reading, and also hope that this basic discovery might somehow prompt appropriate action and, down the line, bring joy.

Could happen, right?


“The Babylonians and Greeks prayed and gave sacrifices…”

I’m not sure that once I’ve finished this choice quotation there will be much I need to say:

“The Babylonians and Greeks prayed and gave sacrifices to numerous gods, while the Hebrews only had to keep track of worshiping one.”

This totally explains the ascendance of monotheism. Only one god to keep track of.

Certainly when it comes to following the action in literary hero tales, the student must be grateful for monotheism. All those gods, with all their nicknames, affairs, relatives, and feuds, every human action calling for bribing a different god to get through it, all those temples and shrines…and then on top of it, most of the gods could change their shapes, take on human form and identity, show up unexpectedly, mess around with people—good grief! What a nightmare!

And then look at those lucky Hebrews—only one god to keep track of. Whew. Even if Jahweh has his whims and expectations, even if he chooses to be inscrutable at times, even if he occasionally decides to knock down a tower, or wipe out humanity, having only him to try to keep happy sure simplifies your day.

 


“Of all the Blake poems we read, the one that caught my attention was ‘The Little Black Guy.'”

Dear lord, where to begin?

We “read” perhaps eight of the more accessible Blake poems in the British Literature survey. I’m glad ONE of them caught this student’s attention. First of all, is this another example of the agency of inanimate objects? We do use the expression, and the idea, that something catches our attention; but now I come to look at it, I wonder what our attention is doing until it is caught, and what the “something” has to do to catch it.…

At any rate, Blake’s poem is “The Little Black Boy.” The first time I read this poem, I was perhaps twelve years old. I remember that even at that age I felt a heavily painful confusion of pity, religious joy, and horror. Here it is:

The Little Black Boy

By William Blake

My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.
My mother taught me underneath a tree
And sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And pointing to the east began to say,
Look on the rising sun: there God does live
And gives his light, and gives his heat away.
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning, joy in the noonday.
And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love,
And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.
For when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear
The cloud will vanish; we shall hear his voice,
Saying: come out from the grove my love & care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.
Thus did my mother say and kissed me,
And thus I say to little English boy.
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:
I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our father’s knee.
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him, and he will then love me.
                           (source of this text: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172927)
Blake published this poem in 1789, when slavery was still legal in England and America. We see here a world where white is the “default” color, the color most related to God (the English child is “white as an angel”); and even though the force of God, like the force of the sun, is a heat that must be borne, only the blacks must learn to bear it. The boy’s mother comforts him in his beclouded labor that in heaven the cloud of color will vanish and his soul will skip like any lamb around the golden tents of God: that is, in heaven, color makes no difference. But then see how the boy translates his mother’s message: BOTH colors are clouds, and death frees both individuals. Still in heaven, though, the black boy serves the white, sheltering him from the heat of God until he, too, can bear God’s love. And when they stand side by side, the black boy says, he will stroke the “silver” hair of the white boy and “be like him.”

Most chilling is the last line: the white boy will love the black boy once the black boy is like him. White is still the default. And this happy reconciliation, this happy quasi-equality, is only what the little boy imagines; it was not in his mother’s promise, and it is perhaps not in God’s promise either. The “little English boy” is the one with the agency when it comes to loving.

We know Blake, though. We know the songs of children, in his hands, are often laden with irony, with condemnation of society, with the injustices inflicted by social, economic, and religious institutions on human lives and souls. Read the “chimney sweep” poems if you have any doubt. Blake himself is not offering this “comfort” to the little black boy; he is writing of the boy’s heart, hopes, and helplessness, and the mother’s comforting words and images are all she can offer to alleviate the injustices of his life. Blake does not approve of the world as it is.

Dare I hope these complex ideas in the poem, uttered in such deceptively simple lines, are what “caught” my student’s attention?

Alas, all goes out the window with the change of “boy” to “guy.” Talk about trivializing language, talk about dismissive language, talk about the off-handedness that seems to dismiss the poem, or the character, in the very act of singling it out for praise.

I can theorize that my student didn’t want to use the word “boy” in conjunction with “black,” perhaps having learned how demeaningly that word was applied to adult males, how offensive its use is still because of that. I have spoken with a few students over the years who said they didn’t know how to refer to a black male under the age of ten, since they knew they should never say “boy.” Were the same reluctance and confusion operating here? Yes, I tell myself, not really knowing.

There’s always the chance that the student couldn’t actually recall the poem’s title, or that he just prefers the word “guy.”

I like my theory better. Language is such a potent thing. We are right to be observant in its use.

Here is the ending of the poem, in Blake's own hand and with his own illustration. (source: wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/65/Blake_Little_Black_Boy.jpg)

Here is the ending of the poem, in Blake’s own hand and with his own illustration. (source: wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/65/Blake_Little_Black_Boy.jpg)


“In my own opinion I think that…”

Student writers never get tired of writing these two phrases.

I’ve had the chance to ask what the phrases mean, or why they are needed. Here are some answers:

  1. “I don’t want to sound like a know-it-all.”
  2. “I want the reader to know I really mean it.”
  3. “I want to show that I’m not using any sources, that I myself think this.”
  4. “I know there are other opinions.”
  5. “I think I’m right, but I don’t know.
  6. “This is a thesis, not a fact.”
  7. “The sentence sounded kind of rude without it.”

Here’s what I say: “Every essay begins with two invisible words: ‘I think…’ If you then write those words, you’re saying to the reader ‘I think I think…,’ or ‘I think it’s my opinion that….'” Several times I’ve even asked the students to write those words in capital letters after the heading of their paper so they wouldn’t feel compelled to write them in the essay itself.

Doesn’t help.

The phrase/clause is even more ridiculous when followed by something that is provably or obviously true—as in today’s example:

“In my own opinion I think that once again Sappho is talking about something or someone.”

Most writers write about things or people whenever they write. Sappho clearly falls into this category, even though so much of what we have of hers is fragmentary. No poems celebrating generalized abstractions or undefined emotions. She more or less takes my students’ collective breath away, in fact, particularly because they’re surprised to recognize real emotions of their own in these “old” texts.

So why would my student bother to make this silly statement? To be fair, I know what he probably meant. If he had only added one more word before ending his sentence—the word “specific”—he would have been fine. We do discuss the fact that poets, like writers of fiction, often construct characters, or embody ideas in fictional people, for literary purposes; that “I” in a poem is no more definitely the poet herself than “I” in a short story is the writer rather than a narrator. And here my student is trying to say, I believe, that Sappho seems to we writing of or to actual, specific people, about actual, specific events, rather than creating poetic situations. IF that’s what my student meant, I applaud him for recognizing the immediacy and urgency of the images, the circumstances, the carefully delineated emotions in her work.

But, as is always my lament, he didn’t say what he meant; he said something else, or at least something less. He said something so self-evident as to strike the reader as completely unnecessary, completely obvious—to evoke in the reader either the classic laugh or the PoMo “Well, Duh.”

And the “once again” suggests that this writing-about-something is a habit of hers. There she goes again.

Combine that with the rest of the sentence and this is what you get: “I’m not sure, and I don’t want to sound like a know-it-all about this, but it seems to me that Sappho is falling into that old habit of hers of writing about something. But others may disagree.”

For people who are so VERY certain of most of their judgments and notions, students can turn into shaking aspens and shrinking violets and sensitive plants when asked to commit their thoughts to paper.


“It is important to note that God’s forgiveness does not mean Christians are free to run amuck.”

By the time I was in high school I had seen “amok” in print, had thought it was a very peculiar spelling, had looked it up, and had then used it myself from time to time.  The OED lists a number of spellings for this term—amuck, a muck, amocke, amock, amok, amoke. Webster’s, the only spelling resource I used in my youth, goes with amok, noting that amuck is a variant. I read that it was originally applied to “a frenzied Malay” (the word is from the Malay, and an English citation from the 1600s gives it as a noun, amoco, meaning “frenzied Javanese mass killer.” Nothing to do with oil companies, by the way.)

Possibly it’s describing a person in the same kind of exalted violent frenzy as the Berzerkers, who gave us “berzerk,” but that has nothing to do with what my student wrote, even though it has momentarily dashed to the forefront of my brain.

The main adjectival sense used by other Englishmen in the 1600s and forward is “engaging furiously in battle, attacking with desperate resolution, rushing in a desperate frenzy to the commission of indiscriminate murder.”  Marvell in 1672 wrote of someone, “Like a raging Indian he runs a mucke (as they call it there) stabbing every man he meets.” The OED notes that the adjective is rarely used with any verb other than “run.” The OED also provides the aspect that fits the context in which I first encountered “amok”: “applied to any animal in a state of vicious rage.” I read it in connection with elephants…and, I believe, sex.

However you spell it, it’s a great phrase, “to run amok” (especially if you don’t think only Malays, Javanese, and “Indians” do it). I read it in a story set during the British Raj, and to me it has a distinctly British tone and attitude.

My student was writing about the Christian Bible and Jesus’ emphasis on a forgiving God. I like that he realized Jesus wasn’t giving blanket permission to sin one’s brains out. But “important to note,” with its scholarly overtones, and the churchy “God’s forgiveness” lead so madly into those potentially wild-eyed and murderous Christians and the pursed lips of onlooking disapproval in “run amok.” Presumably if we don’t note that God is not giving free license to Christians we might imagine, or join, stampeding congregations bent on murder and mayhem on a vast scale. And if the reader is Yours Truly, those Christians all look a bit like elephants.

One Christian does run a-muck in a way, actually, and that’s Christian, protagonist of John Bunyan’s 1678 allegory Pilgrim’s Progress. Resolved to leave his home in the City of Destruction and travel to the Celestial City, he’s only a short distance out of town when he falls into the Slough of Despond (one of the great place-names in literature!). It’s so mucky in there that he can’t really climb out by himself, let alone run; he needs the help of, guess who, Help. He is not bent on death and destruction, either: in fact, that’s what he’s trying to avoid. Nevertheless, he gets himself mixed up in my student’s sentence, in my imagination, by association with that “amuck.” My student had no thought for the Slough of Despond; that’s Brit Lit II, not World Lit I.

So, technically, no errors here. Just a funny sentence. And the better-read you are, the funnier it is.


“There are many images in the poem that depict strong and easy images to visualize…”

I love an image that depicts an image, especially an image that depicts a strong image. This poem, I am told, has many of those.

Most often when we use the term “image” we’re referring to something that is visual. Literature depends for much of its impact on the skillful deployment of images; the reader’s emotional and intellectual experience is created by the pictures evoked in the mind that create or give depth to the events and emotions presented by the writer. The image affects the “mind’s eye,” or sometimes the mind’s ear or nose or fingers. So it’s fortunate that the poem my student is describing has a lot of images—or, rather, that it has a lot of images that depict strong images—and that they’re easy to visualize: that is, they are clear and accessible to the reader.

(She does say the images are “strong and easy,” where she actually meant “strong images that are easy to visualize,” but we will assume her intentions rather than her sentence structure and say Yes, good, lots of strong images that are easy to visualize, glad you commented on that!)

Here’s the whole sentence, though:

“There are many images in the poem that depict strong and easy images to visualize, such as ‘you walk by faith in the darkness.'”

She is being conscientious here, following her general statement with a clarifying example.

Except that the example does not offer clarification, beyond the clarification that she’s really not sure what an image is, or what visualizing involves. “Faith” isn’t an image, although I guess if it had been capitalized the reader might imagine “you” walking alongside a friend named Faith… Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” comes to mind… but here the word “faith” is an abstract term for a whole range of ideas and absolutely no pictures.

And I guess I can visualize darkness—actually, visualizing darkness is a component of a get-to-sleep exercise I sometimes engage in—but most writers would try to present an actual image to help the reader imagine the quality or character of that darkness, not merely say “darkness,”: I don’t know, “black as the pit from pole to pole” springs to mind, thanks to William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” memorized back in the eighth grade. See, now, that’s an image, and largely for that reason the line lingers in the mind.

Student writers often try to pump up an idea or a reading beyond what it deserves or can bear. Such was the case here, where my student had chosen for her analysis essay a poem by a sincere beginner, a poem that was a poem by virtue of its short lines, not the experience offered to the reader, and the poet a beginner who had not yet learned that poetry is much more about showing than telling. This poem spoke throughout in terms like “generosity,” “courage,” “sacrifice,” “love”… the only actual image in the whole poem was “trembling hand,” and that was meant literally. But the assignment asked that the analysis include a discussion of the poem’s use of imagery, and so my student did her best to engage in such a discussion, rather than comment that this poem actually lacked imagery, instead leaving the reader to give substance to a list of abstractions through his or her own experience or insight.

So I, as the reader of her essay, am left with this image, a picture of someone walking by faith in the darkness:

Image of darkness