Tag Archives: writing

Some good reading for a lovely Sunday

If you haven’t read Verlyn Klinkenborg’s piece in today’s New York Times, here’s a chance to read it now.

Called ‘The Decline and Fall of the English Major,” it considers the tangible and intangible benefits of reading good literature.

Klinkenborg is one of my favorite writers, and in this piece he seems to be speaking for me as well as for himself. Click the link above and enjoy.


“He grew up with an alcoholic dad and a mother who was almost never home, until the age of eight when they both died.”

At last a student who can spell “mother,” and chooses to; but lo and behold, he can’t think of the word “father,” evidently. Does he intend to suggest that the subject of his sentence (alas, I have forgotten whom my student is writing about, and a hasty Google for “writer” and “alcoholic father” brings up an amazing number of possibilities!) was closer to his father than to his mother? Or possibly my student himself is closer to his father than to his mother. Certainly the use of an intimate term for the he-parent and a formal term for the she-parent raises this possibility. For the famous author in question, we can then picture dear old Dad lolling around the house in an alcoholic stupor but accessible to Sonny, and Mother out of the house day and night, a virtual stranger.

The tale is sad with or without the possible parental preference. But the sentence is sadder still.

The boy grew up until the age of eight. That’s what the sentence says. What he did thereafter is left for us to imagine. Did he arrest his development, remaining intellectually or emotionally eight years old for the rest of his life? We have to assume his physical growth was not arrested: even the death of both parents isn’t trauma sufficient to achieve such a corporal result. Probably he continued to grow up, but where and how are not addressed.

And WHO was at the age of eight, come to think of it? A comma sits there in the sentence but is being asked to do more than it is capable of (possibly too young also?). I know my student hoped the comma would enable the reader to see that parents died when the BOY was eight; but the nouns preceding “until the age of eight” are “dad” and “mother,” not “boy” (he). The reader is therefore free to assume that the parents died at the age of eight. If they were parents at the age of eight, I’d say they had every right to drink, or to wander around the neighborhood. Without the comma the sentence would have to be read to say that the mother was “almost never home until the age of eight,” and she would therefore certainly be a little kid, with a husband probably about the same age. My student flings in that comma like a tiny life-preserver for his sentence—but it doesn’t really look like a life-preserver, being only part of a circle, and I’m not sure I can let it succeed.

To be fair, I must admit that “until the age of eight” is an adverbial prepositional phrase (answers “when” about the verb) and therefore properly modifies “grew up”; thus the boy is eight when his parents die. Of course I knew what he meant, and his grammar actually means that too.

But the word order distracts my perfect parsing—”grew up” is SO far away from “until the age of eight,” and the verb phrase “was never home” is just itching to be modified by the phrase that follows it.  And “when they both died” clearly does refer to “dad and “mother,” and “age of eight” comes right after “mother” and therefore seems to modify her as well. A reader encountering this sentence for the first time is fully justified in getting lost in it, and imagining little kids (one a wino) parenting (!) somebody who actually grows up; he will walk beside their tiny coffins and then get on with his life.

Thursdays are always confusing: so near to, and yet so far from, the weekend.

“Eventually with this new technique melodies were better heard by the ears of the listener.”

And THIS, my children, is why we English teachers say AVOID THE PASSIVE VOICE!

My student is writing about the piano, as an advance over the harpsichord. “Technology” would probably have been a better choice than “technique,” since she was referring to the piano’s hammer-on-string mechanism, a change from the harpsichord’s plucked-string operation. And yes, the hammer (as well as the changed “box” of the instrument) did produce more volume. The volume was also variable, so the performer could emphasize melody over harmony by striking those keys harder.

Nothing really wrong with the contents of the sentence, then. Nothing wrong, either, with using the passive voice, although in most cases an active-voice sentence is more direct, smoother, more efficient. The passive frequently makes an awkward sentence.

And my my my, does the precision in this clause turn an awkward passive-voice sentence into something truly bizarre. The act of hearing generally involves ears, and ears are, more likely than not, attached to listeners. Specifying this is really not necessary: in fact, in this sentence the writer can assume the agent rather than specifying: “With this new technology, the performer could play louder.”

Aha! Maybe I’m wrong, and the agent for the verb does have to be expressed. Maybe that’s why students haven’t gotten the message yet! Okay, from now on I will say:

“Students, in order to listen to me, please turn your ears towards me. All right, now: “AVOID THE PASSIVE VOICE!”

“Her poems were published in numerous journals…”

What’s the problem with that statement, you may ask. And I reply, No problem at all. My student didn’t even write “her poems were published in different journals,” a usage I really hate (“different” when the writer means “various”).

Ah, but you know the sentence doesn’t stop there. Here’s the full presentation:

“Her poems were published in numerous journals and attended graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.”

I’ve heard of scholarly articles, but it never occurred to me that the articles themselves might be scholarly, attending grad school and all. It occurs to me now, when I see poems going to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

These must be those creative works that, some writers say, seem to write themselves, with the writers functioning as facilitators rather than creators.

I know that feeling, actually. I have been given credit for various (not different) pieces—papers, editorials, letters, even a couple of poems—that did seem to have a will of their own, “want” to go in specific directions. Write a word and it begets more words; write a phrase and you close off a number of possible roads while at the same time opening others that will, if pursued, close off and open more. Go back into a fairly tightly-reasoned piece and try to insert another consideration: you will find that the paragraphs refuse to make room.

Still, having a mind of one’s own doesn’t necessarily lead to the pursuit of higher education. I’m glad to see some poems ambitious enough to make the effort. I hope they succeeded, earning their degree rather than wandering off after merely “attending.”

Oh, okay, I know my student meant that the poet attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In other words, he meant to supply a new subject for that second verb, to make a compound sentence instead of a compound subject. He meant “Her poems were published in numerous journals, and she attended graduate school….” Perhaps the second subject got lost in the course of a cut-and-paste revision; perhaps my student got interrupted mid-sentence (by a gentleman from Porlock?) and neglected to reread what he had written before going on. Perhaps he thought that “her” could function as a subject (oh, say it ain’t so!).

But I prefer to contemplate a group of poems—three ballads, several free-verse meditations, a villanelle or two, a modest haiku, and a sonnet sequence—rising, tassels and sleeves fluttering in the breeze, to accept their MFAs. Do you suppose one was asked to speak? She must have said “It feels wonderful to be a learnéd poem. I want to express my gratitude to my author, who made me what I am today.” And in the audience, the author, blushing and murmuring, “No, no, my dear; you did it all yourself, and I’m proud of you!”

I hope they at least took their author to dinner, instead of going out for celebratory drinks with a bunch of scholarly articles.

“Upon reading this, a strong sense of irony bestows itself upon the reader.”

Here’s another one of those busy non-actors.

I like the idea of a “strong sense of irony”—the whole phrase suggests spinach. What sense of irony wouldn’t be strong, being mostly iron? Perhaps it’s what inflated Popeye’s biceps whenever he glugged down a can of spinach (and canning–isn’t that a mean thing to do to a delicious, green, and leafy vegetable? But I digress…).

This sense of irony is so strong that it is capable of action. First it reads something (there’s that introductory participial phrase!); then it “bestows itself” upon “the reader”—who is someone else, or perhaps itself!

According to Webster, “bestow” can mean “put to use,” as  someone who “bestows his spare time on study”—I have to admit, I have never seen it used in that sense.

It can mean “to stow” or “to house or temporarily put up”: I will bestow my guests in a nearby motel? My childhood books are bestowed in the attic? I have never heard these uses either.

The fourth definition Webster’s lists is “to convey as a gift (with on or upon).” Now, this is the one I am familiar with, and the one my student seems to mean, since she uses “upon” with it. So, a strong sense of irony gives itself to the reader as a gift.

But in what way is a sense of irony, meaning a feeling of irony coming from an outside source (rather than a learned or inherent ironical point of view), a present? For certain writers and comedians it certainly is a gift, but only in the sense of talent or blessing, not in the sense of something that can be gift-wrapped, beribboned, and bestowed.

In a way, my student has written a rather creepy sentence, with irony coming in through the window like a pungent fog and settling itself generously on the innocent reader as he pores over his book. What did the fog itself read, to give it the inspiration to visit itself on someone (or, if it is itself the reader, then on itself!) that way?

That’s the kind of thing that happens when a student seeking eloquence reaches into the lexicon grab-bag: what she comes up with may not fit what she already has. Perhaps she wanted to say that the passage, or the piece, was ironic; perhaps she meant that the reader realized the irony of the passage only gradually (we didn’t read Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” but this is often the experience of readers of that wonderful piece of satire). But the word she chose doesn’t work for the sentence she wanted to write. I do love a student’s desire to write with a more sophisticated and spirited vocabulary, but I wish such students would take a closer look at the words they press into service—and at other, more “ordinary,” words that might serve better.

Surely some purple prose got to be that color by being beaten up. Would that be black-and-blue prose?