Category Archives: poetical

“By killing his son he did not give him the right to live.”

My student was not trying to examine the legitimacy of charging a killer with violating his victim’s civil rights; she was merely trying to explain what was so bad about killing someone. Even without reading the rest of the essay, we can gather this from the fact that the sentence does not claim the father was depriving his son of the right to live, or denying his son’s right to live; it says that he did not give him the right to live, which would imply that such a right was the father’s to give or deny in the first place…an idea certainly contradicted in the Declaration of Independence, where the right to life is proclaimed to be inalienable.

She just wanted to convey the seriousness of the act of killing someone. Negating the verb, though (“did not give him” as opposed to “refused him”), almost always produces a sentence that is weaker, not stronger, than another phrasing of the idea. My theory is that she began her sentence with energy and intention: “By killing his son he…” And then she didn’t know what to put next.

I thought at one time that a good way to explain to my visually-oriented students how to find concrete language was to suggest that they ask themselves what they would show in a movie if they had to tell their story that way instead of in words on a page. If I had to show this scene (it’s Football Father again), I would probably decorate the wall behind the son’s bed with photos of the kid catching a long pass, father and son laughing, maybe a college pennant, maybe a nice nature shot; this would form the backdrop as the father put the gun to his sleeping son’s temple and shot him dead. If I really wanted to sock it to my viewer, I’d let the kid take a deep breath and smile slightly in his dream just before Dad pulled the trigger. If I could see that in my mind’s eye I would then know the words to put it in writing, because I would know the point and the feelings I wanted to convey.

But I guess not being able to turn a verbal description into a mental picture is part of the same problem that impedes envisioning a movie scene. A few students have actually benefited from my explanation, and told me so; most, though, either don’t try to follow the advice or don’t know how to follow the advice. And such a student was THIS student.

Her sentence could have invited her reader into an experience, a point of view, ultimately a judgment; instead, it’s a circular sentence that actually undercuts its point by making it abstract and pedestrian.


Literary advent calendar

Some GOOD writing for a change! Enjoy.



“Nature possesses the ability to be seen in a multitude of perspectives.”

My students live in a panpsychist world.

How else explain the neediness of abstract or nonanimate things? Punishment needs to be dealt out. Merit needs to be rewarded. Attention needs to be paid.

With (reportedly first-remarker) Pythagoras, Spinoza, William James, and others, my students believe “everything is sentient.”

Here we have Nature, possessing the ability to be seen. She is visible! She is visible, in fact, “in” a variety of perspectives. This phrase evokes Andrew Marvell’s charming poem “The Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers.” It ends:

But O young beauty of the Woods,
Whom Nature courts with fruits and flow’rs,
Gather the Flow’rs, but spare the Buds;
Lest Flora angry at thy crime,
To kill her Infants in their prime,
Do quickly make th’ Example Yours;
And, ere we see,
Nip in the blossome all our hopes and Thee.

Little T.C. is “in” a prospect of flowers because she is “in” the picture, and the picture shows a prospect. I guess Nature could be seen “in” perspectives in the same sense.

But I believe my student meant that Nature can be seen from a multitude (why not “variety,” which is more to the point perhaps?) of perspectives: hence poetry.

Now, “can” might also imply sentience, or capability, on the part of Nature; acceptable usage lets that one slide. “Possesses the ability to” cannot be grandfathered in, though.

Well, on Thanksgiving Day, with a pie in the oven, one should not carp.

One should look up from one’s plate and gaze upon the variety (and, if you’re lucky, multitude) of faces looking back. One should consider the seemingly infinite variety of Nature, of which those dear faces are examples. One should be grateful not only that such variety—and such loveliness—exist, but also that they are visible. Whether everything is sentient or not, WE are sentient. Celebrate it.

Today, give thanks for everything. Tomorrow, the red pen. Tomorrow, gather the blossoms. Root out the weeds, by the way! But try even then to spare the buds. Mantra for a writing teacher?

“The Puritans in that time frame are known today as Seventh Day Adventence.”

Once upon a time I was teaching remedial-level freshman comp at a Catholic Church-related university. In a class session devoted to topic development for a short (7-page) research-based argument paper, one student said he planned to write on the topic of “Protestants.” I asked him to clarify his central question, and he replied, “You know, who are they, where do they mostly live, what do they believe.” It took me nearly a minute (tick…tick…tick…) to frame a question in reply—that is to say, a question that did not too obviously express its subtext of “What the F?!?!?!?!

And I don’t mean “once upon a time” to imply that things have changed. I’m teaching now at another Catholic Church-related university, for instance, and I’m constantly amazed at how little my students (most of whom claim to be Catholic) know about major concepts and even holidays in their own religion, let alone other religions. At my “other” school, culturally more of a mixed bag, the situation is no different: most students will say that religion is important to them, but most of them are pretty hazy on the major beliefs or texts of any particular religion.

In a truly secular society this might be understandable (although, in literature classes, no less frustrating and saddening), but American society seems to become more vocally and dogmatically “religious” with each passing day—or so at least it seems in the media and in politics. The main problem with ignorance about religion, and religions, is that it is frequently accompanied by gullibility and especially a willingness to believe the worst. This is the case with ignorance of any kind; and, discouragingly enough, although most kinds of ignorance can be remedied by a little research, doing a little research seems to be the last thing that occurs to anyone.

All of this is merely prologue to today’s Horror.

Here was a student in my American Lit (first half) survey. The course is subtitled “Beginnings to Civil War,” meaning that the assigned readings cut off around 1865, or more accurately, the course closes with writers who “fl“ed around 1865. So we begin with the Puritans. (Interspersed are Native American readings, but dated according to when they were written down, not when the words or thoughts may have first been uttered.) Lately I’ve been arranging the syllabus according to themes (religion, the idea of America, slavery, women’s rights, “toward an American art”), with each theme’s readings arranged chronologically. Students are responsible for integrating the readings into a master chronology (which the anthology pretty much does for them), but reading thematically we can focus on the ways in which specific kinds of ideas emerged, evolved, battled, faded. At least my theory is that we can do that.

My student does understand that “the Puritans” flourished in a “time frame”: that is, they’re not still around—their writings and influence are time-specific, and even the changes the Puritan community underwent occurred within a specific period. But then she’s trying to associate the Puritans with today, for some reason: to make their beliefs clearer to her readers? to feel more closely related to them? to reassure herself that nothing truly disappears? to indicate to me that she understands more than she actually does?

The course never addresses Seventh Day Adventists. That sect wasn’t officially established until 1863, for one thing. (For another, the course doesn’t attempt to address all religions present in the United States at any given time.) So their presence in a paper written for the course is, shall we say, unexpected.

My suspicion that she doesn’t know much about the sect is deepened by the reasonable assumption that it’s only something she’s heard of, not something she knows anything about: how else to explain “Adventence” for “Adventists”?

What would “adventence” even be? “Advent” is arrival, the culmination of a process that leads to inevitable emergence or appearance. The advent of Spring. The Advent of Christ. Ad + venio, I come to; advenio, I arrive after a journey. Well, in English the suffix -ence or -ance adds “instance of an action or process, instance of a quality or state.” “Adventence,” then, might mean the condition of having arrived. The blooming daffodils confirmed the adventence of Spring. Would then the Seventh Day Adventence be the state of having arrived on the seventh day? Did the olden-day Puritans re-arrive in our midst seven days ago?

Yes, the Puritans were conservative and strict in their personal behavior, and so are Seventh Day Adventists supposed to be. Yes, both advocate a God-centered life, spiritual and personal humility, and the basic tenets of Christianity (and its Jewish roots). There are a few less-general beliefs they also share. But there’s no reason to think of one as an earlier (or later) version of the other…unless you’re a student with fuzzy notions about both and a desire to make something clear to readers that isn’t clear to yourself.

Verbum sap: Never claim more than you can support.

Never try to explain something you lack the means to understand. Look up what you don’t know. Think.

The late Stanley Crane, dearly beloved and deeply missed former Head Librarian of the Pequot Library in Southport, Connecticut, was once bemoaning to me students’ dependence on Cliff Notes. (This dependence has only grown, now on Spark Notes and other easily-accessed computer crutches as opposed to those yellow-and-black Caution-striped books that actually cost money.) “Why,” he asked, “do they feel they have to copy down and then parrot ideas that they don’t even understand? Why are they willing to take the Cliff version of a story rather than reading it for themselves?” And then his point: “Why don’t they have the courage to use their own beautiful minds?”

I agreed with, agree with, him. Courage, wisdom, or energy—why don’t they use their own beautiful minds? Teachers (and librarians) continue to believe in the eventual adventence of these minds, a flowering or flourishing of that Inner Student. Oh, let it be.

“The rhyme scheme is scattered throughout the poem.”

I’m sorry, but if it’s scattered, it ain’t a scheme.

The two words may actually occupy the same page of a dictionary (they do in my Webster’s), but, despite Zelda Gilroy’s belief, propinquity does not make a relationship.

“A systematic or organized framework; a plan” is how Webster’s defines “scheme.” All the other definitions, dependent as they are on context, still share that central idea of planning and structure (even when the planning is “crafty or secret,” as in “The brokers devised an investment scheme crafted entirely of regulatory loopholes…”).

“To scatter,” on the other hand, means “to fling away heedlessly; to distribute irregularly; to sow by casting in all directions; to divide into ineffectual small portions; to occur or fall irregularly or at random.” You can scatter chopped pecans over the apple-pie filling, but that lattice crust is a scheme.

I evidently set my students up for failure when it comes to talking about poetry. They would like to cut to the chase, starting right off with pronouncements like “I think what the poem is trying to say is to never give up!” But I insist that they begin the discussion of any poem by noting its title, its length, and its structure—the way a musician takes note of the clef, key, and meter before launching into the concerto. I know they’ve had lessons on rhyme and meter in high school, but I scrupulously review those things, and also present examples of the major traditional forms. I review definitions. I even have a little game I play with them to try to get them to hear different metrical forms. And still I have a number of students who can’t even tell the difference between “rhyme” and “rhythm” (okay, they look alike, but so do “Mother” and “Mothra” and I’ll bet most people don’t confuse them), let alone “meter” and “rhythm.”

So what’s going on here is that my student is conscientiously looking for a rhyme scheme but isn’t quite sure what that means.

She may be looking at a piece of blank or free verse, in which case she’ll never find that scheme. Or perhaps it’s a poem by Dylan Thomas such as “Poem in October,” where rhymes may be pure ( turning/burning), or in some way imperfect (heaven/heron/beckon; wood/rook/foot; chapels/parables), or very nearly perfect (snail/tales). Or, heaven help her, she may be looking at a regularly-rhymed poem (Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” for example). She just isn’t sure what it is, or how to hear it. But, she assures us, there’s rhyming going on somewhere.

When I decided in the ninth grade that I would one day win the Nobel Prize for Literature for my poetry (still waiting, by the way, Oslo!), my notion of poetry was guided to a great extent by my then-favorite poet, e.e. cummings, and my sketchy understanding of what he was doing. My words were all lower-case, and the words themselves were “scattered” all over the page. If they were willing to behave in a more pedestrian manner, as sometimes happened, they were still simple and beautiful (no fancy vocabulary or references to mundane things like cars or school or airplanes). But, although cummings frequently rhymes, I cast that off with the ankle socks of childhood (all my poems rhymed when I was a child, but I was determined to put off childish things). And of course, everything I wrote was actually a soul-spill, heart-cry, my endlessly fascinating adolescent emotions making their way onto paper the way I would walk: one foot after the other, one word after the other. I had not yet fallen in love with structure, and so I wasn’t particularly interested in, or curious about, it.

Most of my students seem to think that writing is largely a matter of one word after the other, and they want to start with the first word and stagger ever forward. What happens in the course of writing, then, has a certain random, or at least ad hoc, quality, and they assume that’s the way it is for everyone. No surprise, then, to find them stating that “the themes of love and death are littered all over the work” or “an example of how there is no rhyme scheme can be found anywhere.

It’s all chance. Maybe if you plan to rely on chance, the result is a scattered scheme?

“Frederick Douglass knew singlehandedly what it was like being a slave.”

My students are always deeply affected by Douglass’ Narrative of his life. To learn about “slavery” is one thing; to see it lived, through the eyes of someone who not only survived it but also fought his way through to a voice to express it, is quite another thing. Being in his agonies, his sorrows, his frustrations, his realizations, his incremental accomplishments beginning with learning to read and reaching not only freedom but also the platform to assist in freeing others, many of my students say their lives have been changed, or their understanding of life has been changed. This is what good writing can do.

I think my student’s error here was a simple retrieval problem: she meant “first-hand,” but her mental file clerk found “single-handed” instead. Obviously.

But in a sense he did know it single-handedly. He makes clear in his book that self-awareness, and particularly self-awareness for a slave, does not just happen; it is built. And Douglass built his himself: by listening to what his “masters” said among themselves, by pursuing reading once he realized that it was the key to a kind of power and liberty otherwise inaccessible, by deciding consciously what he wanted and what he was willing to risk in order to get it. His understanding of what it meant to be a slave, his awareness that what he felt was a consequence of being a slave, was knowledge and perspective that he achieved on his own. Single-handedly.

And in view of what Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass achieves, over and over, for readers—in view of the fact that before experiencing his book they think of “slavery” and “slaves” in only a generalized sense and afterward see it as a particular personal horror multiplied by millions—surely we can say Douglass did something single-handedly. We English profs wouldn’t say he “knew single-handedly” what it was like to be a slave, but single-handedly he has given millions of readers a deeper knowledge of it.

None of this is what my student meant. She just meant “first-hand.” I know this because that’s the point she went on to explain, not metaphysical musings like my own.

Still, she opened up these musings, and I’m grateful.

Frederick Douglass at mid-life

I feel personally close to Frederick Douglass because he and I have crossed paths via the places of my education. Frederick Morsell, Dickinson College class of 1962, has been doing a one-man show presenting Frederick Douglass since 1988; although we weren’t at school at the same time, Morsell and I did study with the same theater director at Dickinson, David Brubaker, and Bru talked about Fred a lot, even before Fred’s Douglass days. (Fred has also appeared at Dickinson with his show, but that alas was after my time. I hope someday to get the chance to see him.) When I went on to the University of Rochester, every time I went to the campus center I saw the magnificent bust of Douglass, the man after whom the center (the Frederick Douglass Building) had been named. In fact Rochester, New York, is a place with great resonance for Douglass: here he gave his famous “Fourth of July” speech; here he lived and eventually was buried, in the cemetery I walked past every day to get to campus. And now I teach some of his writing. Our paths have lightly crossed, and because of his works I understand some of his experience along the long and amazing actual path of his life.

“The Deceleration of Independence”

Maybe AutoCorrect is to blame, and maybe not. It can’t be a sounding-out phenomenon: who would say “deck-ell-eration”? For whatever reason, I got this from TWO students. I do decelere. (Or is it “I do decelerate”?)

Considering our more-or-less trusty spelling conventions, the “c” is usually pronounced like “s” if it’s followed by an e or i. Perhaps this “Deceleration” thing is about a child’s refusal to join the family in eating celery?

On its face, this phrase is referring to a slowing-down of independence. Reading comments on news sites and political sites and general Facebook pronouncements, I see that a lot of people do seem to have slowed down their independence in favor of parroting rumors they don’t bother to fact-check or think through for themselves. Listening to the loudest of the politicians, I gather that a lot of people (other people? same people?) want to bring social, scientific, cultural, and all other change to a screeching halt, or even turn back the hands of time (as the old rock song had it), not decelerating progress so much as longing for the 1880s. (Amazingly, just as with people who have their “past lives” read, none of them would be a peasant, a laborer, one of the vast number of the underclass; in past lives and the fantasized Gilded Age, everybody’s a Tudor or a Rockefeller…or Cleopatra.)

I once met Art Carney in an airport. He was waiting for his rental car; I was waiting for relatives to arrive on a plane. My Uncle Joe thought I was mistaken and took me across the room to share the joke with the man I “thought” was Art Carney. The joke was on Uncle Joe. Mr. Carney talked with us for a good fifteen minutes, and most of the conversation, believe it or not, was NOT about The Honeymooners, or his fame; it was about the weather, his hopes about the rental car, my school, where my relatives were from, what was fun about traveling. How likely is such a meeting today? How likely is any meeting? Perhaps the deceleration of independence is due to how much time we spend on our personal computers and other “devices,” how many movies we watch in the solitude of our own homes, how much of our shopping is done online, how few houses have front porches, how infrequently we walk anywhere, and (a natural consequence of our solitude?) how frightened we are of strangers, of one another. How much of our fear of change is rooted in our fear of the unknown; and how much larger is the “unknown” because we don’t leave home to experience it? Last Sunday I was waiting for the train to New York when a group of five teenagers or early-twentiesers came up onto the platform. They stood together in a little semicircle as they too waited for the train; but every one of them had his or her eyes on an iPhone or Android or whatever, and no one spoke. On the train there was a little conversation in the air, but what predominated was people on cellphones and children watching cartoons on their own little computers. Across from us we had mother and child: mother on phone, child on computer. When I arrive at a classroom I find silence rather than the friendly hubbub that used to spill into the hall: everyone is doing something-or-other on a personal device. At the end of class, nobody turns to anyone else to talk on the way out; everyone whips out that personal device and plunges into cyberchat or Angry Birds.

What would Walt Whitman say? Who hears America singing? Who looks at his fellows and says “I am you, my brother”?

But I was talking about the Declaration of Independence, and by association about the Constitution. Those gentleman activists of the Enlightenment had some noble ideas that they were able to elaborate into a plan of action and then into a governmental structure designed to serve a whole nation (not just themselves) and flexible enough to change as the world changed. Their ideas, and others’ articulations and interpretations of them, continue to inspire everyone who actually reads and thinks about them. They galvanized individuals committed to the common good to devote their lives to serving that common good, or lay down their lives to achieve or maintain that common good: the freedom to build their own lives in a society where all had that same freedom and where all had access to the rewards of the society they were building together; where childhood was about hope, youth was about preparation, adulthood was about achievement, and all human life was about dignity. The Constitution refers to building “a more perfect union,” implying that the work goes ever on.

Let us not decelerate our work toward independence, dignity, and the commonwealth. Declare allegiance to it (the idea, that is). If you attend a parade today, notice that the procession, and the flag, moves always forward.

“Everybody looks at Beowulf as an idle figure…”

The English language is pocked with pitfalls of various sizes and danger—even the best speakers can’t get through a day without making speech errors and, unless they proofread carefully, writing errors. Almost every rule comes with its list of exceptions; dialects and idioms vary from country to country, state to state, town to town, in some cases street to street; the vocabulary shifts and morphs and burgeons; synonyms and homonyms and look-alikes confuse the eye and ear. Every native speaker is aware of some or all of these sources of frustration, and every serious speaker or writer struggles with them.

One aspect of English that we “native speakers” don’t think about much is the pronunciation of individual letters, but that’s a factor that makes the learning of English, especially by a speaker of a Romance language, even more confusing—the vowels are particularly tricky.

When I’m working with the writing of a student who is speaking English as a second (or third, or fourth—Americans are comparatively very lazy about language acquisition) language, I remind myself of these issues, spelling especially. And I try not to present an ESL error as a “Horror” because I am deeply impressed by anyone who not only ventures to speak a new language but also copes with it on an academic level of reading and writing. (I studied French for six years. I had a good accent, could converse and read with some fluency, and wasn’t afraid of it. But I never took a course in a literature other than my own—not even French—that involved reading fifty or more pages a week, sometimes in an earlier form of the language, as all my English lit students including ESL must. I can’t imagine doing so, although probably if I had moved to France while still a student I would have discovered and perhaps achieved the profound improvement necessity can spur.)

Nevertheless, I couldn’t pass up this assessment of Beowulf, the great hero of Anglo Saxon poetry, slayer of Grendel, Grendel’s mother (how’s that for the name of a monster?!), and the hoard-guarding dragon. Courteous, confident, courageous, and evidently charismatic, he was admired by foreign kings, feared by enemies, and loved and respected by his own people. Obviously an “idle figure”?

Here’s the whole sentence:

“Everybody looks at Beowulf as an idle figure because he saves the lives of his people.”

My student clearly had no intention of criticizing Beowulf as a layabout, a lollygagger, a do-nothing, a malingerer, a sloth, a laggard, an indolent otiose oaf (Wow, look at all the Ls in there! L as in LLLLLAZY!). Nobody who is any of those things is likely to save even his own life, let alone the lives of his people.

My first thought was that she had meant to call him an “idol.” Certainly he was held in high esteem, and when he died his people built a high barrow, or burial mound, over the hoard he had won, both in his honor and as a (temporary, alas) deterrent to enemies who might doubt the greatness of the tribe and its hero.

I then wondered if she had in fact meant an “ideal figure.” He was that too.

This student is Spanish-surnamed and speaks with an accent that suggests that English is probably her second language, or at least her second-acquired language. So I played with Spellcheck. I typed in “idel,” thinking “idehl” or “idayl.” The recommended change was “idle.” Choice number two was “idol”; number three was “ideal.” I then typed in “idil,” thinking “ideel” or “idill.” Choice number one was idol; then “idyll,” “idle,” “dial,” “idols,” and “ideal.” If Spellcheck could come up with “idol” and “ideal” for either of these misspellings, then I think my student might have intended “ideal” or “idol” with either of these spellings.

See what you think.

And while we’re on the subject of heroes who save the lives of their people, let us remember that today is Memorial Day in the U.S. (previously called Decoration Day, because the first celebrants of the day were decorating the graves of Union soldiers who had fallen in the Civil War). The terms “Memorial Day” and “Decoration Day” coexisted until 1967, when “Memorial Day” became the official one. In 1968 Congress, those idle figures, changed the date of this and three other holidays from a specific calendar day (Memorial Day had been May 30) to a Monday near the specific day, in order to make three-day weekends; Wikipedia is probably right to speculate that “changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.” We might also consider whether ending the draft, and consequently making war deaths less immediate in many communities, has contributed to this nonchalance.

But be that as it may, honoring those who gave their lives to protect their people is, as a phrase I recall from Responsive Readings back in my church-going days would have it, “meet and right.” Even a pacifist should be proud to say that whether or not any war was right, or any individual soldier was an idol or an ideal figure, anyone who offers to lay down life for the sake of his or her people deserves respect, appreciation, honor. While waiting for the coals to heat up in the barbecue, build a mental barrow for our noble war dead. Think of all the things you treasure; put them in the barrow, because those are the things that have been won and preserved. While you’re at it, you might also think of other heroes of this nation, all those who fought selflessly against the powers of darkness: the champions of civil rights, human rights, workers’ rights; the teachers; the scientists and physicians; the artists (Decoration Day/Memorial Day at one time was an occasion for honoring all the beloved dead and festooning their graves). Make the barrow high, to celebrate the greatness of our tribe and our heroes.

an only marginally-relevant but perfectly self-indulgent post….

This morning just browsing through an old journal, I came upon a limerick (one of my favorite literary forms) on, I guess, spelling.

In haste because of end-of-semester grading and other rituals, I ask your indulgence as I present this 1978 ditty:

How strange this mysterious rite

Whereby some people learn how to write…

Because when Shakespeare wrote

He did not learn by rote:

Playwrights just get the writing rite right.

If this isn’t enough self-indulgence/ spelling whimsy for you, you might revisit my other masterpiece.

Mind your Ps and Qs!

“Basho’s ‘Narrow Road of the Inferior’…”

Matsuo Basho, the great 17th-century Japanese poet and teacher whose hokku developed the form later known as the haiku, engaged in a number of “wanderings” during which he meditated, observed the Japanese countryside, and wrote. The coastal roads were heavily built up, crowded with travelers on all sorts of journeys including mercantile, dotted with inns (one of my favorite books of all time is Japanese Inn, by Oliver Statler, which recounts the history of a venerable inn on the Tokaido Road and along the way gives a rich history of the road and the people); Basho followed instead the less-traveled roads and paths into the interior of Japan, stopping at small inns and various shrines. (Blue Highways, by William Least Heat–Moon, takes a similar journey in the late-20th-century United States.)

The last of Basho’s wanderings, which he took with a fellow poet, resulted in a journal that included numerous poems he had written along the way, copies of some of which he had left behind as memorial notes and thank-you notes. I tell my students that if he had had a modern camera, the world would have gained a great photographer and lost a great poet, since the verses he wrote seem to me to be like the pictures taken by my friend Maressa Blau Gershowitz—wonderful, insightful views of moments and details of a journey that is both physical and spiritual.

Basho called this book (published posthumously) “The Narrow Road to the Interior.”

As you can see above, my student referred to it as “Narrow Road of the Inferior.”

In terms of the actions of the eye, this is not a difficult error to make. Take a quick look at these two letters:




Now look quickly at the two words:



Now read fifty or so pages of a smallish-print anthology (on “bible paper”) and take another look. At what point did you have trouble telling the difference?

The trouble isn’t that my student mistook a letter; the trouble is that she didn’t question what she thought she had seen.

Just where, in my description of Basho or his journal, does the idea “inferior” fit? The word “of” is ambiguous: what is the “inferior” to which the road is attributable? Was the road inferior, since it wasn’t commercial or heavily traveled? Was the inland part of the island inferior, being less heavily populated and not built up—is coastal Japan “superior”? Or is my student somehow under the impression that Basho himself is inferior to something or someone? His life may not have followed the lines his birth would have predicted, but surely in terms of its richness and the contribution he made to culture and poetry there was nothing “inferior” about him (and although he seems to have been modest of manner and means, he was admired by his students and generally would not have considered himself inferior in most senses of the word).

So we’re looking here at the interesting moment when a mere mistake becomes a real error: when a misapprehension is accepted as correct. The journal reflection that followed didn’t present anything as of lesser value, but she must have seen no disconnect between the word she had used and the ideas she was discussing, or she would have gone back and double-checked that title.

Basho called the road he traveled a “narrow” road because it was narrower than the main road—a rural road is narrower than a highway—not because it offered a narrow view or narrow experience, or evoked trivial thoughts. He was interested in it primarily not because it was “lesser,” but because it was itself, and worthy of note.

Despite what packagers and advertisers try to imply, big is not always better. and popularity is not always an indicator of superiority.

Viewed through eyes that see clearly and do not judge, any road is interesting, and nothing and no one is by definition “inferior.”

Happy trails to you!