Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

Don’t look now

Okay, we are definitely in everything-is-my-problem territory now.  ABD Guy came in after school to hammer out an essay topic for the regular senior class.  The phone rang; it was the head of the high school, letting me know that Dinah had a death in the family and had to leave without preparing anything for her sub tomorrow.  I finished up the meeting with ABD Guy and set about figuring out what Dinah’s classes could do with a sub that would keep them at least marginally on track with the syllabus.  She was going to give them some Frankenstein background in one class, so I’m having them read a Gale overview for that.  In the other, they were going to talk about love in 1984, and I don’t know enough about what she had in mind to help there, so I put together a quick handout of three love poems that seemed to speak to the topic (Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How do I love thee,” Heaney’s “Scaffolding,” Millay’s “Love Is Not All”).  In particular, “Love Is Not All” feels quite different when considered against 1984.  Here is the sestet:

It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

Then I had to finish prepping my own class for tomorrow morning, and deal with a few other miscellaneous things before I could leave.  Fortunately, the Snork Maiden was off with Stubb at a saxophone lesson (she asked to take a few of these before auditions for the jazz ensemble) and I didn’t have to consult anyone else’s convenience in the matter.

But whew.  I was also the recipient of visits today by Romola (to talk about creative writing club), Dr. Tea (to talk about our shared AP Lit course), Ph.D. Guy (to talk about an issue with a student group), and a few students for different reasons.  And I taught four classes.

I need, though, to start reaching out to the people who aren’t in the habit of dropping in, and just touch base.  The GGE recommended that I make some informal, brief visits to classes early on, so tomorrow I’m going to finish letting people know that I’m doing that, and I’ll start next week.  (I think he’s right–it shows that I am not shy about popping in–but it also gives me a chance to make positive contact and positive comments before the real evaluation visits begin.)

The unexpurgated version

If you didn’t read the protected post, Adam Carolla’s observation to Lindy West in The Stranger covers a lot of it:

“Oh. Let me tell you somethin’, sister. If you are semicompetent, everything becomes your responsibility, because you end up fucking drowning in imbeciles and then you have to do all the shit.”


Today was a nice day.  I had two SA classes in which we read and talked about poems.  One thing I like doing with the ninth-graders is having students read several different poems together before we talk about any of them in any depth.  Then I can start by asking some comparative questions, ranging from initial-impressions questions like “Which one did you like the best?” and “Which one seems the most mysterious?” to more technical poetry questions like “Which one has the most unusual stanza form?” and “Which one has the lightest tone?” 

After we’ve rolled them around a little bit and they’re softened up–the poems, I mean, but also the students–then we can go more deeply into one at a time.  Their assignment–since they just turned in an essay draft–is to take one of the poems home and “introduce” it to someone else: a parent, another relative, a friend.  They’re supposed to read it aloud, read it together, talk about what they notice, what the poem reminds them of, how it makes them feel.  Then they come back and report.

And I hardly did anything NLNRU-related.  Tomorrow, though, I leave SA early and go to meetings at NLNRU.  I’d rather stay and bring the Snork Maiden home, but it’ll be good to get down to NLNRU with plenty of daylight left, and maybe be able to have a coffee with my chair apart from the scheduling meeting and the meeting about the stupid report.

I hear the mermaids singing

I can no longer remember what it was like not to have read “The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”  It was interesting to watch my students experiencing it for the first time.  Also played for them the Crash Test Dummies song “Afternoons and Coffeespoons.”  They kept giggling at the lyric “Someday I’ll have a disappearing hairline.”  This is because they are sixteen years old.

Little cat feet

Attributed, by Heather McHugh at her reading, to Allen Grossman: “A poem is about something the way that a cat is about a house.”

After the ecstasy, the laundry

Back from a really delightful Seder at my cousins’ place (we almost never go to their house for the first night, but this year my in-laws are doing the second night instead).  Note to self: see if the in-laws will do the second night next year, too.  And here I sit, pleasantly full of gefilte fish, reading blogs and the Sunday New York Times while the Snork Maiden’s soccer uniform swishes around in the washing machine.  More soccer tomorrow, but the season will be over soon. 

I got my students to observe Poem in Your Pocket Day on Thursday by offering incentives (extra credit or small prizes) to students who carried poems in their pockets and read them aloud in class.  Many students picked poems I had made available, but some brought poems they’d written or other poems they liked.  A couple brought song lyrics and only one or two brought truly awful verse found on the Internet.  Here’s the poem I carried (in my shirt pocket) and read several times during the day: Philip Larkin’s “The Trees.”  (“The unresting castles thresh” is brilliant sound.)

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Sound and sense

Here’s a story (via Avoiding the Muse) about a $3.3 million bequest to Southern Methodist University from the estate of the widow of Laurence Perrine, who authored the classic poetry textbook Sound and Sense.  The Laurence and Catherine Perrine Chair will go to a professor of creative writing, and an endowed fund will establish scholarships for students in English.

I used Sound and Sense in high school and used it as a course text when I first began to teach the sort of “college writing about literature” course of which many colleges have a version.  It is now in its twelfth edition under the title of Perrine’s Sound and Sense, by Thomas Arp and Greg Johnson.  I haven’t used it recently, mostly because there are books that are better suited to my needs, but I have great fondness for this book, which taught me to pay close attention to how poems are made and gave me so much of the vocabulary we use for talking about them.  (I still explain the difference between synecdoche and metonymy using Perrine’s examples.)  In my mind I always see certain poems–“Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” “Naming of Parts,” “Those Winter Sundays”–in the typeface and layout of the Sound and Sense edition I used in high school.  It might have been the sixth.  It was purple.

The object of my affection

I’ve added a new tag to my list: comic strips.  I love comic strips.  So does Stubb.  We have quite a lot of comic-strip collections, many of which are finding their way off the shelves and into the Snork Maiden’s room.  She loves Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, and Sherman’s Lagoon, and is starting to read Fox Trot.  I’ve already mentioned my love of the Comics Curmudgeon, and I believe I initially found Pop Culture Junk Mail because of a discussion of the Foobocalypse–which, if you’re not already familiar with the term, is the denouement of the long-running storyline in For Better or For Worse in which Elizabeth and Anthony finally Find Their Way Back to Each Other.  (Josh, the Comics Curmudgeon, has been credited with originating the term Foobocalypse, but it might have been his frequent commenter yellojkt.) 

I’m thinking that maybe I’ll do Friday comic-strip blogging instead of poetry or cat blogging.  I think about poetry a lot anyway (not that you could tell from this blog), and have no cats at the moment (though I do love me some lolcats).  And I have Things To Say about such developments as the summary dismissal of Robotman from Monty (The Comic Formerly Known as Robotman) (okay, this happened in 2001, but I’m not completely over it yet, although Monty is a terrific strip), the impending death of Lisa Moore in Funky Winkerbean, the morphing of For Better or For Worse into a partially retrospective strip, and so on. 

I’ve had some wonderful conversations about comic strips with writers (the poet Kay Ryan turned me on to Ben Katchor), but I don’t think writers love comic strips more than the general population does.  Still, I think they should.  Well-written comic strips are marvels of economical writing.  Look at the character definition and snappy dialogue in the fabulous Clear Blue Water  or the short-lived but awesome Bliss. 

Oh, I miss Bliss.  But maybe Clear Blue Water will come out with a collection soon.  Karen Montague-Reyes, I heart you. 

Being geniuses together

Yay for Stuart Dybek and Lynn Nottage, two highly accomplished writers who have been recognized with MacArthur grants.  (And congratulations to another recipient, who is someone I went to college with!)  Nottage is probably best known for her striking play Intimate Apparel, which was in the running for the Pulitzer in 2004 but lost to I Am My Own Wife (tough choices that year).  Dybek is a terrific fiction writer of the sort sometimes called a “writer’s writer.”  For a while almost all his published fiction was out of print, including his deservedly celebrated collection The Coast of Chicago (when he visited a school where I was teaching some years back, we had to order a few copies of it from Alibris!), now fortunately back in print with Picador: it was a One Book, One City selection for Chicago a couple of years back.  I’ve been a fan since 1986, when I read the sexy, wistful “Pet Milk” in the O. Henry Prize Stories collection.  (“Hot Ice,” another story from The Coast of Chicago, was in the O. Henry collection the preceding year–in fact, it tied with Jane Smiley’s “Lily” from The Age of Grief for first prize–but although I read most of that O. Henry volume many times, I kept not quite getting into “Hot Ice” until much later.) 

Dybek moved from his longtime position (1974-2006, according to the MacArthur folks–32 years!) at Western Michigan University, where he had a wonderful reputation as a teacher, to a reportedly much cushier job at Northwestern.  Great though it is that he’s been honored with a MacArthur, you can see how it comes after he’s climbed into a position that presumably offers the time and freedom to concentrate (though admittedly probably not the kind of money) that the MacArthur offers.  Awards in most of the other fields skew young; I wish the MacArthur folks could dial back to about ten years ago and give it to him then.  I bet it would have saved him a lot of worries about mortgage payments and college tuition.

(And I’m extra happy for Lynn Nottage, b. 1964.  Good call, MacArthur people!  I hope the award translates to time and freedom for her.)

When you need them

I mentioned that one of the books I’ve read recently is Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Last of Her KindIt’s one of the best novels I’ve read this year; I point you to Andrew O’Hehir’s review in Salon for a rundown of why*.  Here’s an observation by the narrator I particularly liked (quoted in the review, so I don’t even have to type it out myself):

I believe you have to reach a certain age before you understand how much life really is like a novel, with patterns and leitmotifs and turning points, and guns that must go off and people who must return before the ending.

Isn’t that lovely?  (Not to mention true?)

I’ve been thinking about this lately, as tiny coincidences sprout in different corners of my life, and I get fleeting glimpses of ways in which things I did twenty years ago sort of make sense in the context of my life right now.  More on these things soon, perhaps, but as a small example, I had a phone conversation today with my friend The Violinist, whom I met on a train platform a dozen years back.  She’s pretty much the only friend I met with no continuing shared context–we never worked together, were neighbors, went to school together, belonged to an organization together or had any group of friends in common.  We were raised and educated in different countries, are of different races and religions, and our daily habits and practices differ pretty radically as well.  What we have in common is that we are both women, wives, and mothers, and that we are both practitioners of an art, though not the same one.  Based, I think, on these things, we just get each other.  And we seem to come back into each other’s lives at particular moments of need.  If you were writing one of us as the main character in a novel and the other as a recurring character, you’d probably be hard put to explain why Recurring Character kept showing up just as Main Character needed her, with the very observation or suggestion that Main Character needed.  Or maybe you wouldn’t be hard put to explain it.  Maybe it would feel like real life.

*Salon readers seem capable of fighting over anything, as you’ll see if you read the letters on O’Hehir’s piece (which in which people who haven’t read the book argue about Nunez’s choice of names for her characters, misinterpreting in the process what O’Hehir says about the names).  A fiction writer I know slightly published a nonfiction personal essay at Salon touching on mental illness and was promptly buried under a dogpile of letter writers discussing her personal life, recommending herbs and acupuncture and various drugs, speculating about fairly intimate matters, and–of course–describing at excruciating length episodes from the letter writers’ own experiences.  And all that was as nothing compared to what they routinely used to haul out for Ayelet Waldman and Anne Lamott.  If you ever write anything for Salon, for crying out loud, don’t read the letters. 


The poet Denise Levertov used Tesserae (a tessera is a tile in a mosaic) as the title of a collection of autobiographical prose.  The poet John Hollander used it as the title of a collection of poetry.  I’m using it here as the title of a post listing a bunch of random junk.  (Deal with it.)

  • It’s time to make another to-do list on the blog.  It really helped me to see the biggest to-do items in the sidebar.
  • The New RU faculty meeting was fascinating.  One’s eyes are never quite so innocent again.  One faculty member objects to something the dean says: is he sincere?  Showboating?  Missing the point altogether?  Are the others supporting him or placating him?  I think I know, but in six months I might have a completely different interpretation of the situation.  I introduce myself to as many people as I decently can, and resolve to attend at least a couple of department events this semester even though I won’t be teaching until January.  A few days later, Tenured Radical’s excellent post on being a good visitor shores up my resolve on this.  
  • The New CC classes seem to be coming together OK, though a phone call on Friday to check up on the textbook revealed that the order was never placed (“My e-mail’s been acting up lately,” explains the textbook coordinator on my voicemail.  Then she goes on to explain that to place the order, she really needs the ISBN of the book I want, in a tone of voice that implies that I don’t understand how crucial this bit of information is.  Of course I know how crucial it is; that’s why I put it in the e-mail). 
  • It’s early days, of course, but so far the students at New CC seem to be a nice lot.  On Monday, however, I’m probably going to have to tell a bunch of them no, they cannot add the class.  There were 50 people in the room last week (enrollment cap is 35).  Six enrolled people didn’t turn up last time, but I don’t think I can legally drop them until they fail to turn up a second time.   And this is composition; sure, I might take two or three over the cap on the assumption that there will be some attrition, but I can’t do a good job with 40, let alone 50.  Fortunately, New CC’s computers generate waiting lists up to 20, which I have to follow, so I don’t have to rely on my own personal judgement about who needs the class the most.  
  • The Snork Maiden started soccer this week.  It’s neat how much more focused and skilled the girls are, compared to last year at this time.  They lost 1-0, but played well. 
  • I took a catnap yesterday with New Niece napping on my chest.  Divine.
  • Have to get back to the dissertation this week.
  • The copy of Anything for Jane I reserved has come in at the library.  Will try to exercise the self-control not to start it right away (too much grading to do anyway) in order to save it for my public-transportation commute on Tuesday.  It will probably still be hot enough that the p.-t. commute will seem less desirable than riding in an air-conditioned car, so the novel will sweeten the deal.