The Mind Awake When the Day Is Done

From Day Is Done
Peter, Paul, and Mary

The Mind Awake When the Day Is Done

School Is Out
Elizabeth Adela Forbes

The song is about a father being there for his young son when the day is done and things are difficult. The end of the day is often the toughest part of the day, our energies are spent, we have been working at whatever it is we work at, and there is an overall need for rest. But the “day” can also be a metaphor for the end of one thing and, hopefully, the beginning of another. In the painting we are told school is out. Is school out for the day or is it out for the summer. The students are too young to be finishing their education but that too might be suggested by the title.

When the day is done and a student leaves the schoolhouse either for another schoolhouse or for the world of work, or just the world, what ought that student to have learned? What is the purpose of getting an education? There was an article in the New York Times this weekend about a commencement address delivered by the novelist David Foster Wallace. The article is about reading the address, and other works of Wallace, in light of his recent suicide. But the address itself is about education and the reason he thinks it is important to have one. The gist of it is that our education does not teach us how to think so much as point out that we have choices about what it is we think about, especially when life becomes trying or tedious. It can also be an antidote to self-absorption.

But is that enough of a reason to devote the time and energy and financial resources that are required to attain that education? There are other things that are gotten of course that enable us to make our way more comfortably through life, but it is that other stuff about teaching us that we can choose what we think about, that we can change our thoughts that Wallace suggests is valuable. We can choose to empathize with those that annoy us, for example, rather than be angry with them.

Henricus de Alemannia Lecturing his Students
Laurentius de Voltolina

As a teacher this is an important question. Why do I do what I do? I like to believe I am not wasting people’s time and that what I teach has value. I look at the painting of scholars seated in a row reading from books along with their instructor I am struck by the fact that the look of the class has not changed much. In my classroom the students dress differently and I am not on a raised platform looking down on students, but other than that not much has changed. Did Henricus de Alemannia teach his students anything of importance? What did those he lectured do with what they were taught? The world has changed and the content of my class is probably different from his, but is it entirely different? Are there things that are important to learn that do not change over time, that are as important today as they were five or six hundred years ago?

In an English class students read books by folks who lived in vastly different times. How does Chaucer or Thoreau speak to the 21st century? Can they speak to the 21st century? Are Stephen King, J. R. R. Tolkien, Michael Connelly, or William Gibson (the novelist, not the playwright) more relevant to students today and their future aspirations than Shakespeare or Wordsworth? There was another article in the New York Times, a book review, that suggests, or at least the author of the book being reviewed suggests, that there are not really any poets worth studying today. The review is called “The Samurai Critic” and the title suggests the approach towards his material the author of the book being reviewed takes. But if his assessment is correct and if it is also true that older poets do not speak to the present day, how are students to be instructed in poetry if there are no poetic voices speaking competently to their time? Is it important or necessary to study poetry?

The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog
Casper David Friedrich

Sometimes teachers feel like the gentleman in the painting, that they are standing above the fog and as a result can see more clearly what lies ahead. Sometimes they feel like the fog is what separates them from their students and keeps them from communicating effectively why it is they teach what they teach. The fog that stands between them makes it difficult for each to see what the other sees and what the other values. Perhaps it is also what makes it difficult for students and teachers to find a common language.

I think that as an English teacher I should be teaching books that students cannot easily teach themselves. Writers whose works have spoken to generations after the generation in which they lived have probably caught onto to something about the human condition that resonates in the human psyche. When Wordsworth confronts his woods and waterways he gives language to an attitude towards the natural world that is not unique to the time in which he lived. When Hazlett talks about the familiar style he may be using a style that is unfamiliar and out of step with the present moment but the idea of using language to articulate clearly our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions is not unique to Hazlett’s day.

I think it is important to see that some battles have been fought for some time and that the struggles are not new. This issue of what are the important books that ought to be taught and preserved is itself an old argument. Jonathan Swift fought similar battles about 300 years ago and wrote about it in a little book called The Battle of the Books. In this story it is the books themselves that fight it out. But this is the teacher’s struggle. Cervantes’ knight Don Quixote struggles with making his idealism real in the world, using it to make the world better. Is he crazy, has read too many books and lived too little, is the world un-amenable to being changed for the better? If the language these writers use can be opened up to students there is, I think, some comfort in the knowledge that others have felt what they feel and have had had similar aspirations. It helps us to realize we are not alone and that we do not struggle alone.

The Music Lesson
Johannes Vermeer

Our education also teaches us how to do stuff. In an English class students learn to read closely, to identify sub-text and nuance. They learn to write analytically and clearly. Hopefully they learn to observe and to listen as well (hopefully the teacher has learned how to observe and to listen well). The paintings above and below this paragraph are of teachers teaching students skills, one to play a musical instrument the other to dance. This is also an important part of education. We learn things that we need to know in order to do a job or work at something that interests us. Some embraced music lessons others fought them every step of the way. Can anyone become good at something they are unwilling to learn? Do any of those music students resisting their instruction ever change their view of learning an instrument, do any go on to become great musicians? Can anyone become a great dancer who does not want to dance?

Jules Perrot Ballet Master
Edgar Degas

What is the student’s responsibility for their education? Do students have a responsibility? If the state mandates that its youth must spend a dozen or so years of their lives getting educated does the state also have a responsibility to make it clear why? In the United States we believe all students can learn and achieve academically and go onto college. Is this a reasonable expectation? I think it is, but I think at some point the student needs to become a partner in their education, though I am not entirely sure when that point is reached or if there ought to be consequences for failing to participate. I suppose even students educated against their will retain some things.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Twentieth Century Fox

Then there is the character of the teacher to be considered. Miss Jean Brodie is an innovative teacher, she challenges the status quo, and her students seem to love her. She is subversive and challenges authority, but she is clever in her challenges and often authority is unaware they are being challenged. But there is a troubling side to Miss Brodie and it is not just that she seems to plan her students’ lives for them. By the end of the film we discover many reasons to be thankful that Miss Brodie was not our teacher no matter how compelling a teacher she seemed when first we met her.

Ultimately our time alone is worth minimum wage. What we earn above that is the result of the training and expertise that comes along with that time we are being paid to spend. That training or expertise is the result of our education, whether it is gotten in the classroom, in an apprenticeship of some kind, or from our experiences in the world of work. Darwin went to school, Lincoln educated himself, they both changed the world as they knew it and the world has never been the same since. It is obviously not important how we become educated; it is hard work whatever avenue we pursue, but it is important that one way or another we bring more than our time to what we do.

A Good Word, A Fine Phrase, A Printed Page

Paperback Writer
The Beatles

A Good Word, A Fine Phrase, A Printed Page

Artist in His Studio


“So, I want to be a paperback writer.” The song is about someone who will do anything to get a book deal. It’s not about the money, it’s not about art, it’s about a place on the shelf at the local bookstore. If all goes well, the money and the art may follow. This is the dream of the writer, or at least the writer at the center of the song. But what is it a writer does and how do you teach someone to be a writer? The painting is by Rembrandt and it is of him in his studio trying to make a painting. When we think of the painter making his art we have a picture, we know what a painter at work looks like. Of course we do not really know what the work is the painter is doing, we only know what the painter looks like when he is working. When someone is trying to master the art of putting paint on canvas, we know what that looks like too. The work of course is in the mind and the imagination but we kid ourselves into believing we know what the artist at work and the artist in training look like and what it is they do.

The writer may be at a desk with pad and paper or a typewriter, but the pad may be blank, the typewriter silent. The work is entirely invisible. Even if the pen is moving and the typewriter is putting letters on a page the work is somehow separate from the movement of the pen or the keys. Perhaps the same is true of the painter and the bits of color and the fragments of an image are not much different from the ink on the page. But it seems that a painting in process looks more like “something” than a text in process, though both the painter and the writer begin by confronting an empty space.

Hemingway posing for a dust jacket photo
Lloyd Arnold

The photograph of Hemingway was taken for the dust jacket of one of his books. It was intended to show the writer at work. It is a staged picture and it looks a bit staged. Anyone who has read A Moveable Feast knows how Hemingway presented his approach to the writing process and it wasn’t sitting at a typewriter banging away at keys. It was working and reworking sentences until they were “true.” Critics can argue over how true those sentences were in fact but he labored over them until they were true to him, or so he tells us. There is also a romance to this image of the writer punching keys. Hemingway is alleged to have said, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” I think he thought these “sports” because they involved personal risk and the one engaged in the sport was risking her or his life in way a football player or baseball player does not. Perhaps by this definition writing is a sport as well. It certainly proved deadly for Hemingway.

As an English teacher I struggle with teaching writing. I do not believe anyone can be taught an art but they can be taught the craft that the individual can transform into art and proceed from craftsman to artist. I do not expect that many of my students will attempt this transformation, though I know some will. Most just want to know what they need to know to write a college paper so they can go on and get a college degree, in other words they need to become craftsmen with words. I do not know of any other way to become a good writer than by writing. This makes for a lot of repetition and drill in the classroom. My experience is that the more students write the better they write. They must spend some time building vocabulary, looking at what good writing looks like, and thinking about what they want to say. But to write well they must write regularly, But in the class much of this is monotonous and dull. Each day of each school year I wrestle with how to make this interesting. But writing is a solitary business and writers must bring their own excitement to the process. This is difficult to do when all the student aspires to is competency or something less than competency. For most of them this is not a sport.

Plot Chart for Harlot’s Ghost
Norman Mailer

This paragraph is sandwiched between two images of two different writers’ process (or at least a part of their process) for constructing a novel. The image above is Norman Mailer’s plot chart for one of his novels, Harlot’s Ghost. It demonstrates that he had a plan when he wrote, someplace he wanted to get to. The book is a long book and the chart looks complicated. I do not know how closely he followed this chart but it is evidence that though inspiration may be a part of the process, it is certainly not the whole of the process; in fact it may be a very small part of the process. The other image is of Julian Barnes’ “completion scheme” for one of his books, Flaubert’s Parrot. I am not sure how to read the chart but it looks like he is trying to bring loose ends together, but that may be just my take on what I see. But it shows that careful thought and planning goes into the making of a book. It goes into the making of any piece of writing of consequence, from the term paper to the Great American Novel.

Completion Scheme Flaubert’s Parrot

Julian Barnes

But what is equally important to notice is that Barnes and Mailer do not approach their compositional problems in the same way and there is a lesson in this as well. As writers, whether we write as craftsmen or as artists, we have to have a method that works for us, that can help us put words on a piece paper when the words will not put themselves there, that will help us when the inspiration does not come, or after the inspiration has come and gone and the real work of writing begins. It is my experience with the writing process that the words that come most directly from inspiration are usually the worst words I write and the hardest words to part with. There is an emotional investment in words that flow from inspiration. It felt good getting these words and writing them was a thrilling exercise, it was form of ecstasy, a kind of “speaking in tongues.”

These words are important because they begin the process and wonderful things can follow from them, but they are words about which it is difficult to be objective and when the emotions clear and objective thought returns they are often embarrassing. But the words in which I take some pride would probably not have come if those that embarrass had not come first. This is part of the work of writing. This is what it means to be truthful. If we are not truthful with ourselves about what we have written our words cannot be true for others.

There was an article in The Guardian this weekend about Australian writers and their use of language. It was called “Australian Authors Defend Language.” There are many countries in the world that have English as their national language. But none of these English speaking nations speak entirely the same language. They have all evolved differently. For example, when the first Harry Potter book was published in England it was called Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone. The stone that Nicholas Flamel in fact created was the philosopher’s stone that was sought by all the medieval alchemists. For American audiences, though, the title was changed. Perhaps Americans had less experience with alchemy and with philosopher’s stones but the publishers obviously thought that “The Sorcerer’s Stone” would play better with American readers than “Philosopher’s Stone.”

The problem for Australian writers though goes deeper than this. When a book that began in Australia does well in America it is often in part because the American publishers Americanize the text. This wouldn’t normally be a problem for Australian books in Australia but the Australian government wants to change import laws so that the American editions can be sold in Australia. The end result is that the Australian vernacular is purged from successful Australian literature. For Australian writers this must be terribly frustrating because part of what a writer does is capture a reality that is real for the writer.

When foreign publishers can do what they want to a writer’s work what happens to that work? Is it really the author’s work any more but the work of an anonymous editor someplace? What does it say about a nation when it is willing to sacrifice the purity of its literary tradition for a few dollars more in profits? Mark Twain said, “The Difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and the lightening bug.” What happens to a literary tradition when non-literary folks are able to change the “right word” into “almost the right word” and transform a writers lightning into the lightning bug?

Finding Forrester – “You’re the Man Now Dog”
Columbia Pictures

This clip from the film Finding Forrester makes a point about an aspect of the writing process. Forrester tells his young student to sit at the typewriter and type. Don’t think just type. He is trying to get the student to see that the writer has to have something to work with and words on a page are the writer’s tools. I think this is good advice. I try to encourage students to do a first draft of any essay they do for me as a free write. That trying to make a first draft the finished draft is often an invitation to writer’s block. But what Forrester does not address, and perhaps he did not need to address, is where do the ideas come from. For a writer of fiction the ideas, or at least the initial idea, often comes from inspiration.

Research can be done for a story, but research rarely produces a story. But for the student writing an essay for class the research often comes first, there is a topic that was assigned or selected. That topic is then researched and the paper is written. To do the first draft students must fill their minds with the information that can feed that draft. But I think it is best to write quickly and freely and then edit and revise later. But it is often the editing and the revising that the students are trying to avoid. Anthony Trollope once said, “There is no way of writing well and also of writing easily.” But for most who see writing as a means to something else and not as an end in itself, writing quickly and easily is the goal.

On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt

Claude Monet,_Seine.jpg

I like this painting because it illustrates for me how sub-text works in a piece of writing. There is a house behind the trees under which the young lady is sitting. We cannot see the house because it is hidden behind the trees. But we know the house is there because we can see its reflection on the surface of the river. This is how sub-text works in writing, it is not said explicitly anywhere but it is reflected on the surface of the language from which the text is constructed. This for me is where the true interest in writing lies. It is in what the imagination of the reader must bring to the reading. The writer has put it there but the reader must find it. The reader must look at more than words on a page they must look for all that lives between the words and between the lines. It is in part here that the voice of the writer lives.

Enjoying the Spring and the Stories That It Tells

The Four Seasons – “Spring”
Nigel Kennedy and the English Chamber Orchestra

Enjoying the Spring and the Stories That It Tells

The Los Angeles Public Library Central Library – Pools

The music is by Vivaldi and is the opening of the “Spring” section of his Four Seasons concertos. It is bright and upbeat, just like the spring after a dark cold winter. Spring is often associated with new beginnings. The world looks new again; the frosts have passed (if you live in a place that has frosts.). Spring is also when the library book sales begin (some go on all year long, but the spring and summer is a popular time for annual book sales). Since first introduced to library book sales I have been a great fan of them and have found some marvelous books. Right now my favorite is an edition of John Gower’s poetry that was published in the early 1800’s and is bound in rather old and fragile leather.

There was an article in an edition eSchool News recently about the struggles school libraries are having meeting the requirements for 21st century technology standards while maintaining their traditional services. Libraries are marvelous places and most cities of any age or reputation take pride in their libraries. It is an essential part of any school. How, after all, can students be taught to do research, especially historical and literary research, if the school does not have an adequate library. Add to this fact that the world is changing radically and the way research will be done in the very near future bears little resemblance to how it was done when I was in school. How will our students survive in the 21st century world of college and of work if they are being trained for the world as it looked and behaved yesterday? It is expensive to prepare students for the world they will encounter and relatively cheap to prepare them for the world that was. We are living in an age, it seems, where cost takes priority over value.

The image at the top is of the Los Angeles Public Library. It often appears in movies, especially television movies, but rarely as a library. The last time I saw it in a movie it was supposed to be a courthouse. A few years before I moved from Los Angeles to Massachusetts the library was seriously damaged by a fire. The city rallied to restore it by donating large sums of money to restore the building and its collections. Even a local pastor known for his ability to raise large sums of money conducted a few fundraisers in support of the cause. The library was successfully rebuilt and though some aspects of its collection that were lost were irreplaceable (if I remember correctly it had copies of every addition of the Los Angeles Times since it first began publication), it has a healthy collection once again.

I think this is a testament to a community’s commitment to learning. Perhaps times were better than. I think that it is interesting that the symbolism employed by the structure, the pyramid on top being the most obvious, is Egyptian (one of the old classic movie houses was also called “The Egyptian Theater” but it may have disappeared in my absences). I like to think this is a nod to the most renowned of classical libraries, the Library at Alexandria, Egypt. But being next door to Hollywood it may have more to do with the silent film version of Cleopatra.

The Library of Congress main reading room, Jefferson Building

The library serves as a kind of symbol of a culture’s literacy and its commitment to literacy and scholarship. This paragraph is sandwiched between two images of famous library reading rooms, that of the Library of Congress and that of the British Museum. Thomas Jefferson sold his book collection to the nation to start the Library of Congress. The British Museum’s reading room has seen many important works assembled beneath its roof and at its reading tables. I am told, for example, that it was here that Karl Marx worked on his Das Capital. On a different side of the coin Mahatma Gandhi also used the Museum’s reading room.

The British Museum Reading Room

There is something inspiring about the thought of so many people doing serious scholarship (and I am sure some not so serious scholarship as well) at these tables jammed on top of each other. If everyone did not work quietly it would be very difficult for anyone to work at all. The Library of Congress, at least in this photograph, has only tables, books and papers, while the British Museum Reading Room is equipped with banks of computers. I have not seen a card catalog in a library in a very long time and I imagine even in the Library of Congress the traditional catalog is being replaced by the computer and the digital card catalog. Maybe not, it is one of those things I will have to check out.

There was an article in the Sunday Guardian on The Free Access World Digital Library. According to the article a number of the world’s major libraries worked together to put their collections online so that they could be accessed anywhere by anyone. The project was the idea of the librarian of the Library of Congress. When the European version was given a test drive it had so many visitors it had to shut down temporarily because it could not handle the traffic. For those interested in seeing a sample of what the library houses there is an online sampler of sorts. The irony of this is that about a month earlier The Guardian published a different article on the disappearing libraries (actually it is series of photographs of library scenes, one of which is the original British Museum reading room). It is odd that at a time the “World Library” suggests the interest in libraries is great, libraries are struggling to survive.

I have an iPod Touch. I also learned this week that through Google Books I can gain access, when I am online, to a huge library of digitized books. This library is available to anyone with a computer, a smart phone, or a device like the iPod Touch. This suggests, among other things, that the library of the future will be a very different place. Copyright laws and such have to be worked out, but that is likely only a matter of time (I suppose until those with the power to say yes recognize a library is a library). My iPod already has about fifty books on it and with the Google app I have access to thousands of books, as long as I also have access to the web and the server is not down.

St Jerome Reading in the Countryside
Giovanni Bellini

If one does not look too intently one could almost imagine that the book in front of St. Jerome is in fact a Kindle. Jerome lived in a time when a book was copied by hand and was probably quite costly. About a thousand years later Gutenberg and moveable type made books available to most anyone who could read one and about two thirds of a millennia later books as we know them are perhaps becoming obsolete. The book itself, though, will probably take on another incarnation and survive in a somewhat different form for another millennia or two.

The City of Dreaming Books Virtual Book Club (suggested by Walter Moers book The City of Dreaming Books)

The film clip shows strange creatures in pursuit of knowledge, learning, and a good story. In the book that inspired the clip a bookstore or a library can be a dangerous place and the championing of a literary text could get a person in very serious trouble. Perhaps a book is a dangerous thing. The ideas found in Jefferson’s library inspired a revolution, as did the ideas developed in the great library of Britain. What is the difference between a good idea and a dangerous one, ideas like Jefferson’s and Ideas like those of Marx? Is it Marx’s ideas that are dangerous or only the way that those ideas were implemented? Like many valuable things in life thought and the ideas that thought produces come with their own special dangers.

The photo of Radcliffe Camera of Bodleian Library, the main research library of the University of Oxford.

The Bodleian Library is affiliated with one of the word’s oldest and most prestigious universities. The Radcliffe Camera originally housed the science library and dates back to the eighteenth century. In the mid-nineteenth century it was made a part of the Bodleian, the Universities principle library. J. R. R. Tolkien, according to Wikipedia, thought this building looked like Sauron’s Temple to Morgoth, which suggests a view of some towards libraries, especially libraries dedicated to science. Perhaps Tolkien’s view of this library has more to do with the time he spent there as an undergraduate than with his view of libraries in general.

I think libraries are exciting places, especially in springtime. Harold Bloom talks about reading his way through libraries. He read the books of various libraries, though I do not know if that means he read everything or only the things that interested him. I have never read my way through a library but the idea is an appealing one, though probably unlikely for one with a reading speed like mine. It was said of Milton that he had read every book that was available in print in his lifetime. He was a very learned man, and knew enough and read enough to make the story plausible. If Google and all the other folks trying to digitize libraries are successful it may not be long before we can carry in our pockets every book that Milton was thought to have read, even if we cannot find the time to read them ourselves.

Chapters and Verses

“Fern Hill”
Dylan Thomas

Chapters and Verses

Dylan Thomas

Augustus John

My first memory of college is of a professor who when he found out I liked poetry took me to the audio-visual center of the college and set me up with a record player and a two disk recording of Dylan Thomas reading his poetry. The poem, “Fern Hill”, that opened things up was on this recording; in fact the record included most of Thomas’ known recordings to that date. I went out afterwards and bought my own copy of the record. It was produced by Caedmon Records, a company that specialized in spoken word recordings.

Years later when I went to England I rode my bicycle from London to Swansea, Wales on a kind of pilgrimage to Thomas’s hometown. I was nearly run over by a student driver in Windsor and had a horrendous climb up a mountain in a coal mining section of South Wales just above Cardiff (I was told later that I should have visited the north of Wales, that the north was much more beautiful). It was an arduous uphill climb but the ride down the other side was a pleasant coast much of the way. But I finally made it to Swansea and the seashore. I went into the local bookshop and bought a copy of Thomas’s poetry so that I would have an edition that came from his hometown.

T. S. Eliot

Wyndham Lewis

This same professor later checked out recordings of T. S. Eliot reading his poetry and he also gave me my first copy of Eliot’s poetry, a paperback book with a yellow cover that included most of Eliot’s major poems. The critic Edmund Wilson was quoted on the cover of the record as saying no one read poetry better than Eliot. After listening to the recording I thought Edmund Wilson could not have listened to many poets. In any event the recording did not impress me, though I have always enjoyed Eliot’s poetry. What did impressed me was the time the professor took with me and how he cultivated and fed my interest in poetry. I still have the yellow paperback copy of the poems.

I remember the first poem that I read that captured me. I do not know if it is a very good poem, it is often anthologized and it was in my twelfth grade English textbook. It is John Masefield’s “Sea Fever”. I still teach it when I get a class of seniors and I tell them that it is Masefield’s fault I devote as much time to poetry as I do in the classes I teach. I also tell them that I am often moved by poems I do not understand, that the poem makes me feel something but it is difficult to pin down why it makes me feel as it does. I often cannot point to specific passages and explain the meaning of the words in a way that clarifies the feelings evoked by the poem. This is not always a bad thing.

So what is it about poetry that moves people? It never sells as well as fiction, but it does maintain an audience over the years. Bookstores still set aside a section for poetry. People still write poetry. Most of it may come to us through other channels like radio and popular music, but it is always present. And even when it is not highly valued there seems to be an aura about it that leads some to cultivate the “image” of being a poet. There are some that say Yeats wanted to be thought of as a poet before he worked seriously at becoming a poet.

W. B. Yeats

Augustus John

Yeats also represents the power that poetry can wield over a culture. His poems captured the turmoil that produced the emergence of an Irish state. But he did it in a way that speaks to cultures in tumult to this day. He also speaks to those trying to age gracefully and to those who are in love, as well as to the mythology of his culture and of others cultures and what that mythology has to say us about how to live our lives. This is what poets do. In his poem “Lapis Lazuli” he talks about the poets capacity for gaiety. He speaks of Hamlet and of Lear who suffered greatly but whose suffering was transfigured by the gaiety of the poems they recite in their few hours upon the stage.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce. (lines 9-24)

Even when the poet is sad there is a celebration somewhere in the language that they use. No matter how tragic the scene, the tragedies growth is stunted by something the poet brings to the event.

Poetry often does not translate well because there is in it a marriage of a specific language to a specific cultural or human experience that often gets lost in translation. The music of the poems is in the words that are used and it is in part the music that awakens the emotions. The ideas that are contained in a poem are often easily captured in translation but the ways the words talk to each other in the poem are often difficult to capture. There was an article in the New York Times Review of Books a few weeks back that looked at how different translators put the words of the Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides into English. It was a review of a translation of A House of Atreus done by the poet Anne Carson.

In comparing Carson’s translation with that of other poets and translators there is a discussion of translation and how it is most effectively done. The translators of these plays struggled with the language employed by the original and the language that would most effectively reach a 21st century English speaking audience. All versions had their strengths and shortcomings and none fully succeeds. Perhaps the poetry is a bit like an incantation and it is not enough to get the meanings right but for the spell to work the charm must be spoken in its original language. It is not the ideas that awaken the spirits but something that sings from within the original words.

The Death of Chatterton
Henry Wallis

This image of Thomas Chatterton is the stereotype that many carry of the Romantic poet, a bit of tragedy and a noble gesture in the face of a world that does not understand. But one of 20th century America’s finest poets was an insurance salesman, as was one of its finest composers. In the poems of Wallace Stevens it is impossible to read for meaning the way we read an essay or a story. There are images of snowmen, of boats in a harbor in Key West, of cigar rollers and emperors of ice cream. It is very difficult to read the words and find a meaning. But often a poem moves us long before we understand it.

I was moved by The Waste Land the first time I read it, but to this day I do not know precisely what it means. I know mostly how it makes me feel and how the images and symbols and other tricks of language help to shape that emotion. But it is not like “The Gettysburg Address” where a word can be seen to mean a specific thing and to contribute a specific idea to an overarching argument. The mind plays a part in untangling the mystery in a poem but in most cases the mind must listen to the heart if it is to find meaning.

“Night Driving”
Ad by Volkswagen
Richard Burton reading from Dylan Thomas’ play for voices Under Milkwood

That poetry can move people to do things that they would not do if they were thinking clearly is attested to by this ad. It uses the poetry of Dylan Thomas to sell automobiles. I do not know how successful the ad campaign was, but the ad itself has a beauty to it that is enhanced by the power of Dylan Thomas’ language. Poetry often wins people over and the poet has a power. The skaldic poet Egil Skallagrimsson wrote a poem in praise of a king he despised in order to escape execution. The poem was so finely done the king had no choice but to let Egil go. Once free Egil created a different kind of poem, a curse, that expressed his actual feelings.

This week’s New York Times Review of Books, no doubt because April is poetry month, ran an article on memorizing poetry. The article is titled “Got Poetry” and was written by Jim Holt. At the end of the day the only reason to memorize poetry, according to the author, is because of how it changes the memorizer and brings the poetry to life inside the mind. Reciting a poem from memory is vastly different from reading it off the page. He mentions the suffering that English teachers of his generation inflicted upon students by requiring them to memorize large chunks of poems the students did not really understand. This sort of memorization is rarely fruitful and is often no more successful than requiring students to memorize words for a vocabulary test, once the exercise is finished the memory begins to go blank.

For a poem to live in the imagination it does not really need to be understood, but it needs to be valued and attention needs to be paid to how the poem is working on the imagination. Poetry ought to be an essential part of any curriculum, or so I believe. I think poetry trains the mind and the imagination to work in ways that prose fiction or non-fiction cannot. There are many English teachers who do not agree; that think studying a poem kills the poem. There is truth to this, but it is a statement that is equally true when applied to the teaching of any text and there are some that think the English classroom should focus only on writing and leave the teaching of literature to others.

I think that poetry touches us in ways that other writing does not. Whether the magic resides in the rhythms and meters, in the rhyme, or in the sound of the words themselves I do not know, it probably involves all these things. I think this love of poetry, though, is a relationship that needs to be cultivated; it does not happen of itself. There need to be introductions, a period of liking and friendship and getting acquainted, and then perhaps a betrothal. It is very like a courtship.