Category Archives: poetry

“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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“This piece shows the lusty side of the 1600th century.”

You know what he meant: the 17th century. Or possibly the 16th century. I’ve written before about the trouble students have keeping the ordinals straight when referring to (notice how I resisted writing “referencing”?) centuries, and perhaps this student was trying to avoid making a mistake by making the actual date ordinal.

But I like to think rather that he’s imagining how much fun the future will be. It may be driven by technology, and robots (like corporations?) may by then be “people, my friend,” and because of climate change (if of course it’s real) the landscape may be unrecognizable—but fear not, it WILL have a lusty side.

We haven’t read any literature that predicts the future, but I’ll imagine my student had that in mind anyway. Always best to err on the hopeful side.

Today’s forecast for Connecticut is daunting: blizzard, white-out, closed roads, snow piling and drifting deep, probable widespread loss of power, cold temperatures… I looked for Horrors that had to do with any of that, just so my blog post could be topical, but I found none. Hence this post about “this piece.” At least the lusty 1600th century takes us into hyperbolic territory.

And in case you’re shut in by weather but still have power, I invite you to enjoy “Snowbound,” by John Greenleaf Whittier. My fifth-grade class had to memorize chunks of it, and any snowfall continues to evoke its images, its rhythms, its world, its human warmth. It was published in 1866 and is a reminiscence from the author’s youth: it is a 19th-century poem. A lovely, lovely one.

More snow for you:

Emily Dickinson… “It sifts from leaden sieves—”

Edna St. Vincent Millay… “The Snow Storm”

Ralph Waldo Emerson… “The Snow Storm” (this one has one of my absolute favorite last lines!)

Wallace Stevens… “The Snow Man”

Billy Collins… “Snow Day”

If you enjoy these, please leave a comment and your own favorite snow poem!

snow deck for blog

After a snowstorm a few years ago: view from my deck. NOTHING compared to what is forecast this time!

 

 

 

 

 

 


“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 piece started out with the line ‘I hate and love.’ …

My student was writing about a poem by Catullus, and he’s right: that’s how it started out. It’s quite similar to a poignant poem fragment by Sappho. Both poets are writing about being of two minds, being torn by two contrary emotions. No matter how familiar that situation, it never ceases to produce agony, at least in the world I inhabit (the same one Sappho and Catullus used to inhabit, I believe).

My student didn’t quite get that, though. Here’s what he had to say:

“The piece started out with the line ‘I hate and love.’ This can be interpreted as the speaker is indifferent about his feelings.”

Usually I can agree with students when they protest a correction or query with an insistent “But you knew what I meant.” But here, do I? For that matter, does he?

Every once in a while a student offers a flat-out piece of self-contradiction that I know can’t be intentional. But the ensuing paragraph rarely resolves the problem; more often, the writer seems to assume that truth has been uttered, insight offered, and it’s time to move on. The reader has to ask, though, how the writer could simply move on—indeed, whether the writer has actually read the sentence at all.

Is it possible that this student doesn’t actually know the meaning of “indifferent”? Might he think it means “confused” or “puzzled by the difference in” or even “different”?

It’s hard to imagine a college student unfamiliar with “indifferent.” (I never thought anyone would have trouble understanding the word “disinterested,” either—would think it meant the same thing as “uninterested”—but evidently a lot of people are in that particular boat, and if English continues to bend to accommodate usage pretty soon I may be the one who’s confused.) The more I think about a possible confusion between “indifferent” and “different,” the more attractive it becomes as an explanation, because I do have students who seem to disregard prefixes such as “in-,” which are unstressed and sort of sound as if they might just be little gulps preceding the actual word.

Probably I shouldn’t puzzle over this too much. After all, he did say that the line could be interpreted as, not that it actually meant that. He isn’t actually “owning” the idea; he’s just throwing it out there. I wrote “No, it couldn’t” in the margin; he may have read my comment and simply said to himself “Oh, huh. Whatever.”

Still, because I cling to the idea that my students really do try, I would welcome any other explanations for his bizarre assertion. Was he confused about the meaning of “indifferent”? Did he fall asleep at the end of the first sentence or in some other way completely forget it as he plunged into the second? Or is something else entirely going on?

There’s always the possibility, albeit remote, that he’s right. Perhaps those of us who think we are wrestling with fiercely contrary feelings are actually completely indifferent, and just don’t know it. Perhaps we should just get over our silly romantic stance, put our feet up, and change the channel.


“Right from the bat Shakespeare is using his words…”

It’s phrases-in-the-blender day, folks. “Off the bat” becomes “from the bat” for some reason. An image from cricket or baseball, “right off the bat” means “immediately, without delay,” and comes as a metaphor from such observations as “right off the bat the ball was headed out of the park.” My student was writing about one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Now, Shakespeare referred to just about every feature of life, large and small, grand and ordinary, formal and casual, clean and unclean, in his plays, and he wasn’t averse to experimentation with imagery in his sonnets (or to mocking other poets’ dependence on formulaic image traditions such as coral lips and sun-like eyes). I don’t recall any bat-and-ball metaphors, though; and when I think about Shakespeare as a writer I generally don’t do so in sports imagery. My student evidently does, although she doesn’t get the phrasing exactly right. Well, be that as it may: right off the bat, Shakespeare is getting busy with that poem. He doesn’t waste any time.

But the formulaic phrase that follows Shakespeare-as-Babe Ruth is from another sphere of life entirely: “Shakespeare is using his words.” I’m sorry, but I’ve never heard this phrase except in connection with admonitions to temperamental children: “Henry, stop hitting Kaitlin with that bat; use your words!” So now I recast Shakespeare the Slugger as Shakespeare the Well-behaved Child.

Why is Shakespeare using his words? To share, of course. Here’s the whole statement:

“Right from the bat Shakespeare is using his words to share how much love he has for the person he is talking about.”

The “share” keeps us in that mommy (or support-group?) vernacular. Probably after “using his words” the “share” just insisted on following. He’s going to share how much love he has. Now, this does NOT mean that he’s going to share his actual love here, no, not with the reader; “share” doesn’t mean “give part of , divide and distribute, experience or enjoy with others”; in this usage it means, as all us modern speakers know, “tell, express, confide.” For some reason we don’t say “tell,” “express,” or “confide” anymore, I guess: “share” is so much warmer and less precise.

We know Shakespeare isn’t going to share any love with us because the writer is clear that the love is for the person he is talking about, not for the reader. My relief at seeing the word “talking” is huge because it’s a word I pretty much know, used in a way it’s traditionally used. Or not, of course: Shakespeare is writing, not talking. But in this instance, close enough.

He’s not going to actually express his love, evidently; he’s going to “share how much love he has.” An overabundance of synapses that may have come with age takes me all over the literary landscape with this one, from Elizabeth Barrett Browning (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”) to that pop song Petula Clark sang:

My love is warmer than the warmest sunshine
Softer than a sigh
My love is deeper than the deepest ocean
Wider than the sky….

Neither of these associations takes me deeper into Shakespeare, though; and his sonnet is like neither of them.

My apologies if the rest of your day is going to be played out against the background of that perky Petula number… Do take comfort in the fact that mine will be too.

I am relieved at the realization that Shakespeare is going to talk about his love for the person he’s talking about, at least. A sonnet is too brief a poem to clutter up with expressing love for someone other than the person he’s talking about, although I suppose he could “share” that he doesn’t love the person he’s talking about as much as he loves someone else. He wrote a sonnet sequence, after all, so the someone else could be talked about further in the other sonnets. In fact three characters do inhabit the sequence Shakespeare wrote: the young man, the “dark lady,” and the speaker. Sorting them out has kept graduate students and other scholars busy for about four hundred years. But my student isn’t concerned with this at all; she’s just commenting on a single sonnet she read.

A sonnet is also too brief to waste time at the beginning; it really does have to start right off (okay, from) the bat. A Journal entry is also a brief form, as I have assigned it. My student does not start right off the bat, though: she noodles around with bats and shares and other vagueness and wordiness rather than coming out and saying something.

The thing that makes me feel like an ogre is that she really, really likes this sonnet, as the rest of her Journal comment made clear. She likes Shakespeare. And I am beyond delighted that she does—I do, too. Because I don’t want to dampen or trivialize her appreciation, my comment on her Journal entry (which isn’t, after all, a “writing” assignment) won’t even mention her diction level, although I will underline the formulaic phrases and hope she stops in during office hours to find out why. (She didn’t.) But how someone could read Shakespeare’s specific, witty, allusive, cadenced writing and then respond with this sentence is beyond me. I imagine it’s that people who aren’t habitual or observant (or, perhaps, trained) readers don’t make these linguistic distinctions, don’t look for precision of meaning in trendy or commercial speech, don’t hear the competing voices and attitudes in their own verbal Smoothies. Hence the frequency of references to “Grendel’s mom” and “Hamlet’s dad” in student papers. I suppose.

Perhaps I should just give in. A living language is a language that changes. Perhaps there were people in Shakespeare’s audience who shook their lordly heads at his use of street slang and his coinages: “What is the Queen’s English coming to?”

Just the same. English is a huge and vigorous language (thanks partly to Himself). I wouldn’t send a boxer into the ring with both hands tied behind his back, or a violinist into the orchestra pit without a bow, and I hate to send students into the world with only the sketchiest notion of how to wield the mighty instrument that is available to them.

 


“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)


“Keeping your promises is very important in ‘Gawain’…”

We’re referring here once again to the ever-interesting (and, for student writers, ever-risky) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

My student is correct that keeping promises is important in the poem. It is a mark of honor not only for the individual knight but also for the reputation of the Table Round altogether. Morgan-le-Fay has set out to destroy the credibility of Camelot, and the ploy she uses is the famous beheading game between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain takes the dare to strike G.K.’s head from off his shoulders with an axe, agreeing to search out the Knight a year later and receive a comparable blow. Severed, the head reminds Gawain of his promise; the reader then watches the months go by as Gawain anticipates fulfilling the agreement with growing dread. But he sets off in good time to keep the appointment.

After a difficult journey he happens on a delightful castle where he rests, exchanges promises in an evidently less deadly game with the castle’s lord, flirts with the lady, hears Christmas Mass, and duplicitously secretly accepts a sash that supposedly will protect him from the Green Knight’s axe.

On his way once again, he is offered an “out” by his guide: run away and the guide won’t tell. But Gawain keeps his promise; and the Green Knight, impressed with Gawain’s essential honesty and pluck, lets him off with the merest nick.

Gawain returns to Camelot ashamed that his honor was proven flawed; but the lords and ladies are so proud of him that they all don green sashes like the one he considers his badge of shame.

And Morgan-le-Fay loses, this time.

My student understands that the promise Gawain makes is of critical importance:

“Keeping your promises is very important in Gawain because it shows you are a man of your word.”

She should have stopped at “important,” but she felt compelled to go on. “Explain why it’s important,” she must have urged herself—and that was a good instinct. But her explanation is no such thing: it is a circular, or self-defining, definition. “Keeping your promises,” she’s saying, “is important because it shows you keep your promises.”

Now, I believe she meant more than that. Keeping your promises proves that you are a man of honor, perhaps. The behavior of keeping promises attests to the knight’s integrity of character. Something like that. And if that’s what she meant, she was right. She was right, too, that the first clause is insufficient to make that full point.

But the second clause is insufficient to make it, too, because it’s virtually identical with the first. It adds nothing, amplifies nothing, explains nothing, contextualizes nothing, clarifies nothing. The cause-effect connection promised by “because” is never earned. All the second clause does is make the sentence feel as if it says something, feel finished, feel significant.

Her instincts are fine. But her sentence promises more than it delivers.

Kind of like Gawain, if you want to be cynical about it.

 


“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.


“Sunjata is a very interesting epic…”

This blog entry writes itself.

In World Lit I we read, among many other works, Sunjata (also spelled “Sundiata,” as in the translation I used the last time I taught this work). It’s an extended poem, originally from the oral tradition and still intended for oral performance, from and about Mali and the great hero Sunjata; it tells of that part of Africa during the time when Islam was becoming established.

My students like it very much. The episodes are amazing, the hero is delightful, and the presentation is spellbinding.

You can tell that, from this highly appreciative sentence by one of my students:

“Sunjata is a very interesting epic that has many interesting adventures that keep the reader interested.”

Please feel free to write your own tribute to the value of a good vocabulary.


“Poe had his readers’ sweaty hearts racing with his famous words, ‘Nevermore.'”

I’m not sure whether my student is trying to convey genuine enthusiasm or imitating that hearty voice that used to be the voice-over for the opening of The Lone Ranger. Either way, she is doing her best to ramp up the passion of the sentence. Those racing hearts, those famous words, the sonorousness of the final word as the emotion drops to despair….

Actually Edgar Allen Poe sometimes does have my heart racing. All the exclamation marks and dashes as the narrator insists on his sanity to the accelerating heartbeat under the sentences in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The blind groping in the perilous darkness as the scythe-blade  swings closer and the walls push inexorably toward the fetid abyss in “The Pit and the Pendulum.” My startled realization that the “you” in “The Cask of Amontillado” is not a narrative convention, but an actual inclusion of me as a character, the aging murderer’s confessor, in the story.

Certainly the speaker’s heart has its racing moments, too, in Poe’s poetic triumph of rhythm, sound, and sensibility, “The Raven.” I’m not sure the reader’s heart follows suit, though: the refrain “Nevermore” is a long hollow fall rather than a shrilly climbing scream.

Nevertheless, a racing heart is what my student wants to point out. I hope her heart did race. And that must have been quite a race, too, to leave the heart all sweaty. Or perhaps the heart is always sweaty: the sentence is unclear as to that.

Did I miss something back there in Anatomy class?

The image is really almost too much. The reader of this sentence must, I think, take a moment to quell the rising laughter that accompanies the vision of a sweaty heart.

And the quelling is only momentary. Why in the sweet world did she put that “s” on “word”? Yes, the worD is famous. Poe’s own essay “The Philosophy of Composition” traces the intellectual process by which he crafted this poem, and puts special emphasis on his reasons for choosing the worD “Nevermore.” I’m glad my student responded to it. But she herself typed the worD correctly: “Nevermore.” Had she mistaken the line and transcribed it as ending “Never more,” she would have been talking about more than one word. She makes no such error, though.

Perhaps her sweaty heart dripped onto her typing fingers and caused them to slip onto the “s” unbeknownst to her.

Language is conceptual and often pictorial. Many of my students are blind to the pictures. A heart completing its first 10K race, flushed with pride and heat, dripping with sweat, its little undershirt soaked…didn’t she see the picture she evoked in her sentence?

Probably not. A student who actually capitalizes on the pictorial quality of language is a rare bird indeed nowadays, rarer than a talking raven sitting on a bust of Pallas.

For instance, on quite a fundamental level: If you read a lot of writing by younger people, you will wonder where the phrase “based on” has disappeared to. My students say, and write, “based around” and “based off of.” I bring in a little statue and a block of wood, identify the wood as a “base” for the statue, and then put the statue next to the block. They know that’s wrong. Presumably they know that a runner who is “off of” the base in a game of baseball is vulnerable to being tagged out, and they have not seen many base-runners run rings around the bases rather than actually step on them either. Yet even after my little object lesson (yes, I tried it this year, in frustration), my students continued to “base” interpretations, conclusions, and plans “off of” or “around” observations and data. This supposedly visually-oriented generation has no mind’s eye.

And I’m afraid they’re not going to develop one.

“Villain!” cried I, “thoughtless student, can you not be wise and prudent,

Standing things upon their bases as they stood in days of yore?”

Quoth the student, “Nevermore.”

(In a word.)

Ah, well. After all, she seems to have liked the poem. It seems to have stirred enthusiasm in her. So I have to say this: Bless her sweaty heart.