Milosz #2: freedom of expression, freedom from suppression

In this morning’s local newspaper, two pieces reminded me of the book I introduced last time.  They also connect me to Milosz’s poetry.  For some time I have admired the freedom of his original phrasing.  He finds metaphors and surprises in his lines, or I find them there.  In a future post, I may offer an example or two from his Collected Poems.  For now, the two pieces printed in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

First is an article by Helene Bienvenu and Marc Santora originally published by The New York Times.  It describes recent protests by Hungarian citizens who oppose the re-elected Prime Minister Viktor Orban.  Both Hungary and Poland have received attention for their  movement towards authoritarianism and away from “liberal Western values.”  Among those values is “freedom of expression,” according to a “draft report issued by the European Parliament Thursday [that] accused Hungary of undermining” this freedom, among other basic values of liberal democracies.  One method of undermining free expression is to publish “a list of 200 Orban critics,” which is what a “pro-government magazine Figyelo” did.  Some see such publication as an attempt to intimidate people who raise their voices, who express themselves on topics related to government authorities.

The second piece from today’s paper that caught my eye is the announcement of ten nominees for a state-wide Georgia literary prize, The Townsend Prize.  Among the nominees is a friend and colleague, Chris Swann.  His debut novel, Shadow of the Lions, has earned a growing list of strong reviews.  His book tours of the Southeast region continue to attract enthusiastic readers.  In today’s article, the nominees each have a brief word about their novels.  Chris caught my attention with his comment that the adage ” ‘ write what you know’ can be incredibly freeing.”  Here again the idea of freedom emerges.  Chris sees freedom of expression coming from an ability to write what’s closest to him.  That proximity has power to propel his imagination as a fiction writer.

And now back to Milosz, whom I admire for the freedom I find in his poetic lines.  Those spots do not so much jar me as they surprise me.  To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, those lines do not take the top of my head off, but they do turn my head, a bit like a dog’s head is turned when he tries to understand human speech or human behavior.  I tilt my head while trying to unravel the full source of my surprise at Milosz’s metaphors.  This typically happens with successful poetry, but the freedom of Milosz’s expression catches me in new ways, ways I have not yet categorized.  Maybe I won’t ever categorize them, or won’t want to find handy labels.

A few excerpts from Part One of To Begin Where I Am opens a window onto the dynamics of Milosz’s free expression, and the high value he places on being himself, writing as himself, writing what he knows, and writing free from intimidation by government or other censors.  From personal experience, he knows Poland of the mid-twentieth century, which was caught between Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, which is to say he knows intimidation and unfree expression.  As writer and citizen, he sees the need to write (and make public) what you know, what you see in others and in yourself.

Some excerpts: “We are born on earth only once and we indulge in much mimicking and posing, dimly aware of the truth, but with pen in hand it is difficult to escape that awareness:  then, at least, one wants to keep one’s self-respect” (9); “A writer living among people who speak a language different from his own [as Milosz did in France] discovers after a while that he senses his native tongue in a new manner” (19); “The extreme vividness and intensity of my experience [as a young person] forces me to believe in its authenticity” (21); “Alpha’s [one of Milosz’s friend’s] hero [in Alpha’s novel] was not a man of deeds; on the contrary, he was a silent, immovable rock whose stony exterior covered all that was most human–personal suffering and longing for good” (135).

Another excerpt deserving its own paragraph because it best captures Milosz’s desire to write most genuinely and respectfully what he knows: “Perhaps the difference in our (Milosz’s and his friend Alpha’s] destinies lay in a minute disparity in our reactions when we visited the ruins of Warsaw or gazed out the window at the prisoners.  I felt that I could not write of these things unless I wrote the whole truth, not just a part.  I had the same feeling about the events that took place in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, namely that every form of literature could be applied to them except fiction.  We used to feel strangely ashamed, I remember, whenever Alpha read us his stories in that war-contaminated city.  He exploited his subject matter too soon, his composition was too smooth.  Thousands of people were dying in torture all about us; to transform their sufferings immediately into tragic theater seemed to us indecent.  It is sometimes better to stammer [emphasis added] from an excess of emotion than to speak in well-turned phrases.  The inner voice that stops us when we might say too much is wise.  It is not improbable that he [Alpha] did not know this voice” (140).

So, freedom of expression, freedom from intellectual suppression is important, is vital.  But this freedom is not free of responsibility.  In fact, Milosz shows me, as has Ralph Ellison, among others, that writers who work hard to tell their truth, who lift their voices, who raise their voices at times against the current winds and at times in the face of danger, these writers are not entirely free.  They have an obligation–that is, a constraint, a discipline– to remember “all that [is] most human–personal suffering and longing for good.”

 

hungary

Protesters in Budapest against the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Credit Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

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Milosz #1: why

I think it was in Edward Hirsch’s book How to Read a Poem that I first learned about Czeslaw Milosz.  And I think his name appeared in a chapter about Eastern European poets who wrote during and after World War Two.  After hearing Milosz’s name and seeing a poem or two in Hirsch’s book, I was drawn to the richness of his metaphors, the sharpness of  his insight.  The fearful backdrop of his particular time and place in Europe also attracted me because I feel that many people who grew up, who came to their world view and their view of human nature in places like Poland in the 30s, 40s, and 50s,–these people have a deeper understanding, a more immediate and visceral understanding of the light and dark sides of human beings than I do.  I respect this background of Milosz, and just as much, I have come to appreciate his ability to pull me through my ignorance to a small knowledge of what he, and others like him, thought, did, and felt.  These are some of the first reasons I started exploring more of his poems.  Add to this initial reading my growing interest in memoirs, especially those of writers.  I can’t help but think of Elie Wiesel here because the first part of his book Night memorably describes the almost-overwhelming challenge he faced in trying to find words for his experience on trains and in concentration camps.  He says he had to work hard to locate the right language to do some kind of justice to, to make expressible the almost unimaginable pain and grief he faced with his family and alone.  His challenge, in turn, reminds me of Seamus Heaney’s introduction to his translation of Beowulf.  In one part of the introduction, he describes his struggle to find the best way to wrestle with his Anglo and Celtic heritages.  He would not, could not start the translation project, until he found the most effective way to bring his full historical self to the phasing of his translation.  When he finally reaches this point of satisfaction, he writes–and this quote sits atop the entrance to my classroom: “my heart lifted again, the world widened, something was furthered.”

So, my interest in writers who find the right words has apparently been building for some time.  As I read this edited collection of Milosz’s essays, I will watch for those special moments when the words he chooses, and the order in which he puts them, open a window for me onto his particular hopes and fears.  His experience has been very different from mine, and I look forward to learning how different.

poland-vector-maps

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This is the first of four blog posts about a collection of Czeslaw Milosz’s essays entitled To Begin Where I Am, edited and with an  introduction by Bogdana Carpenter and Madeline G. Levine.  I am reading this book alongside high school seniors in my classes who each have chosen their own biography, autobiography, or memoir.  Technically, my chosen book fits none of these labels, but (I hope) I have clearly communicated to my students their freedom to blur some lines in choosing a book about a person who truly interests them. During the course of their reading, students will publish weekly posts, starting with Monday April 9 and continuing with a new post each of the next Mondays in the month.  I will do my best to publish one ahead of their schedule, to help guide those who want some guidance.  The writing above is my first about the book of Milosz’s essays.  

 

map credit: https://www.vector-eps.com/poland-vector-maps/

 

 

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GISA ATL 2017: Poetry Fridays

Link to my presentation at the Georgia Independent Schools Association annual conference in Atlanta on Monday, November 6.

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open a door for empathy

 

The following paragraph comes from a high school sophomore girl’s reflection on a poem she recently wrote.  Below her paragraph is my comment.

When I started writing [the poem], I wanted to write about the same type of refugee and what their refuge would be for all lines, but as I wrote I discovered that it was hard to know what their refuge would be. As I have never been a refugee or needed refuge, I do not know their struggles.  I can’t assume what it’s like to flee religious oppression or natural disaster or receiving pain from someone who loves me.  So as I wrote I thought of all the types of pain a person could go through and what would help them.  It was extraordinarily hard and made me upset but it made me think about how I could help these people.

After reading the girl’s entire reflection, I shared this paragraph with all of my sophomore classes because I wanted them to see her problem and solution.  I pointed out that by generalizing, she opened the door for empathy.  Her adept conceptual adjustment is impressive, and I was excited to explain it to her classmates.

The poem assignment grew out of our study of Nadine Gordimer’s short story, “The Ultimate Safari.”  Afterwards, each student was asked to write a reflection, which I call a PDF.  (Click here to see the instructions.)  The above excerpt comes from the student’s PDF–the Discovery section.

A short while later, after we had studied several more short stories, they each wrote an essay ranking three of the stories according to how effectively they evoke empathy.  Their analysis was expected to include one or more of these basic fictional elements: setting, character, plot, and teller’s position.  The student excerpt below comes from a boy’s essay draft that shows at least one case where a student applies an idea learned from a classmate.  Personally, I think the lesson he learned is valuable not just for the study of imaginative literature.

“The Ultimate Safari” evokes the most empathy of these three stories in readers because of the lengthy journey the characters endure, dangerous setting, and the ending to the plot that leaves us with more questions than answers. The characters in “The Ultimate Safari” are forced to go on a long and treacherous journey to reach safety: “I don’t know which day it was- because we were walking, walking, any time, all the time” (Gordimer 15). Though we may not all know what it is like to be starving in the jungle, everybody has had a task before in their life that seemed impossible and never-ending. It is easy to empathize with what the characters were forced to go through.          [edited for clarity; emphasis added]

The underlined sentence strongly suggests that this boy had heard, absorbed, and applied my explanation of his classmate’s solution.

Therefore, giving high school sophomores meaningful and manageable challenges  produces insights phrased in their own language, which makes the dissemination of those insights more likely.  When I first read that girl’s paragraph, it was a wonderful day.  The wonder grew, when I showed it to her classmates, and as some of them used the insight in their own writing.  Naturally, I wanted to share this whole story outside the classroom walls.

In closing, let me ask what value such skills have for US citizens, as we hear stories about walls between people.  “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Victor Frankenstein, Harvey Weinstein, and #metoo

[Disclaimer: this post is not intended as a platform for personal stories as told on other platforms–as with the Facebook or twitter #metoo posts.  Instead, it is an invitation to my students and other readers of this blog to offer thoughtful, respectful responses to the questions below, each of which grows out of Mary Shelley’s novel.  I reserve the right to decide when this conversation veers too far from its intended purpose. I acknowledge the risk in publishing this post, and promise to monitor the conversation in a responsible manner.  As administrator of this blog, I decide which posts to approve before they become public.]

A young woman writes a novel about a man whose passionate pursuits create unexpected misery for himself and those around him, including those he claims to care about.  What he does not claim soon enough is responsibility for this misery.

What went wrong?  What makes a monster? Who is a monster?  What is monstrous?  What influences how we respond to monsters and struggles, internal or external?

I have invited high school seniors in my literature classes to discuss the title of this post–in light of recent events, and in light of Mary Shelley’s novel, published two hundred years ago.  If these students are not already old enough to vote and enlist, they will be soon.  Why not encourage them to discuss and respond to significant social/cultural issues?  Experience teaches me to trust their opinions and insights.

If you are not one of these students, you are welcome to contribute to this conversation, or simply to see what today’s young adults are thinking about an important moral issue.

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neutron stars: Antigone and Kreon

colliding stars create energy in gravitational waves

stars that have died and collapsed

measuring device in pasadena, ca

telescopes capture image of collision–killernova, 1k brighter than normal explosions

gold and platinum produced [?]

130 million years ago collision occurred–just now reaching us

bob gausch [sp?] for bbc world service radio 5:25am EST

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energy in literary universe comes from collision of forces–like Antigone vs. Kreon

two moral, political views collide

 

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Monster Drugs

After high school seniors in my classes read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, they wrote a prospectus for an original essay that explores what kind of light her novel sheds on a significant issue they see in society today.  Once they had written those pieces and started the essay itself, I showed them my prospectus.  Here it is.  As often as possible, I like to model for them.  In this case, I waited until they had completed their prospectuses, which allowed me to address an issue that had not come up in their writing.

 

Prospectus: Monster Drugs

 

According to the US National Archives, just over 58,000 Americans have died as a result of the entire Vietnam War, which began in the 1950s. The number of Americans who died last year of opiod overdoses is 64,000 (AJC 01 Oct 2017: A22).   How has this epidemic happened? The editorial board of the AJC cites several elements of this problem, all of which echo Mary Shelley’s novel. First, the editors’ opinion refers to “the human toll of suffering” caused by widespread opiod abuse. Second they claim, “It is a problem not confined to what many might believe are the usual suspects.” In more general terms, the editors mention “opiod abuse and its societal consequences.” Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, the AJC editorial board notes that the accompanying guest columns “point out practical strategies for gaining control of this societal scourge.” Attempts to gain control of this national problem echo Frankenstein’s creature because the monster became uncontrollable.   So, how has this monster-drug problem happened, and what light can the novel shed on it?

 

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High School Seniors: what matters, what counts, what next

Recently, I asked students in my two Senior English sections to leave comments on an earlier post from this blog–about “senioritis.” (You can read the comments themselves at this link to the post.)  The two sections make up about a quarter of the whole senior class.  After reading comments, taking notes and grouping ideas, I wanted to reflect on their comments, as a way of honoring their thoughtful responses and clarifying my own thinking.  Therefore, I write for them first, and then me and anyone else wanting to join the conversation.  The first three paragraphs summarize comment constellations.  In the fourth, I reflect on how best to spend the last months together, and what their comments suggest to the whole school.

What Matters

Woven throughout the comments is some version of the question “What’s the point?”  By this they mean why should I continue working hard after getting into college?  What’s the point?  Asked another way, why does this work matter, anymore?  They want to do things that make life “important” and “meaningful.”  They say it is easy to slip into “senioritis”–i.e., to shut down after college acceptance.  What is the point of trying when they already know where they will be going next year?  Since before their senior year, some students have preferred spending time on things they want to know or need to know, instead of things they feel are being “shoved down their throats.”  Most students, though, express the general idea that their high school work has served its main purpose, which is acceptance to the “dream college.”  After that, with the possible exception of AP courses, what’s the point of trying hard?  To quote one student: “nothing you do matters [now], what’s the point?”

What Counts

Grades count.  The majority of students express this idea, directly or indirectly.  One student writes that the need for good grades is “pounded into your head” from a young age.  Many students mention the sign taped to their freshmen lockers: your transcript starts now.  They are told the grades count now that you have entered high school.  After college acceptance,  the corresponding idea emerges : the grades don’t count anymore. Despite the obvious caveat that colleges notice falling or failing grades, many students feel that the pressure for good grades eases after college acceptance.  The clear systemic answer to the question of what counts is: grades count.  That’s the primary institutional message.  The same student who mentions pounding into heads concludes his comment by recommending we remove grades, making room for truer, deeper learning.  Another thread in the question of what counts is the idea of goals.  Most students write about the goals they have pursued: get into a good college, and get a good job.  The motivation for school work comes from these goals.  Even in elementary school, writes one student, they start thinking–encouraged by the school, parents, and other adults–about their “dream school.”  Why learn more than necessary to reach these goals, for they are the main reason for working hard.  They provide the primary incentive.

What Next

Once the goal has been achieved, what next?  The trouble comes when seniors find themselves asking this question while still in school.  Many of them answer this question by shifting energies to relationships and things they want to remember.  Though most are ready to leave school, many are reluctant to leave friends and classmates.  This is a liminal period, a time of transition.   It is its own kind of time.  With less pressure, students can learn new things about themselves and their classmates, experiment, or “slack off.”  For some, the excitement about college dims their view of the monotonous, constrained high school days.  While slogging through the muck of remaining homework and tests, these students look forward, .  In the short term, the forward glance makes some sad about less time with friends and family members.  Others can’t wait to break out into new communities.  I am particularly grateful for the observation that most students do not care any less than they have.  They are the same people, but the circumstances have shifted.  In response to this situational shift, they have re-allocated their energies and attentions–to things that now seem more relevant and important.  They have a similar amount of motivation and energy, but they spend it in new places.

What Now

If you dig around in the student comments about what matters and what counts, you find several people advocating what we might call true, deep, or meaningful learning.  Some students are genuinely thirsty for this.  For example, they acknowledge that students and society bear responsibility for the school dynamics that favor grade-hunting over the chance to “truly learn.”  Ideally, a student “should want to learn [for its own sake].”  Instead of grades, this student argues, people should aim “to constantly be learning.”  While some admire “rigorous study,” not everyone enjoys work that fits that description.  (Personally, I believe that the genuinely curious person, which is most of us, can enjoy rigorous study.)  Still others see the ideal goal of learning at school this way: “to shape your intellectual growth.” In sum, many students see themselves as part of a learning system that sometimes does not “cultivate a love for learning.”  They have nearly finished navigating this system.  When looking back, they see soft spots in the system of incentives.  Many acknowledge that they share responsibility.  At the same time, they understand what genuine learning feels like.  I want to agree with one student who calls school a “powerful force,” rather than simply a job.  Patterns in these student comments suggest ways to make the experience even more powerful.  For example, we could give “less emphasis on number grades, test scores, [while] looking to explore topics.” This student’s comment reminds me of an article recommended by a friend–a BBC article about Singapore’s move beyond grades.  Here’s the article.

In our particular course, we are ending with three different books–two I chose and one they will choose.  In the first case, we explored the topic of what it means to be human, in light of the Old English poem Beowulf.  Now, we explore the unexpected consequences of science and technology by reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Finally, students choose a biography, autobiography, or memoir that interests them–given where they have been and what interests them.  I hope that our final activities match this transitional time for most of them.  Time will tell.

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blended yearning

“lux aeterna” composed by Edgar Elgar and sung by Voces8

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wrestling with uncertainty and the pressure to please

 

During a recent class activity with high school sophomores, I was surprised to find students checking phones and laptops.  They were working in various locations near the classroom, to which I had sent them with a small set of basic materials: a paper copy Gordimer’s short story, “The Ultimate Safari;” a paper copy of study questions on which they could record notes from their conversation; and a pen or pencil.  When I visited each group to assess progress, I ended up asking what they needed the phone or laptop for.  Since I had imagined them discussing the main question together and coming up with a workable answer to report to the whole class, I was caught off guard by seeing the phones and laptops.  Because of my own imagination and assumptions, it had not occurred to me to ask that they leave these devices in the classroom.  I will next time.  This time, though, as calmly as I could, after all groups had finished reporting,  I asked each individual to email me with a brief explanation of the behavior pattern:  three groups and three different reasons for accessing the phone or laptop.  I asked for individual emails to help me understand the origin of this behavior. In apparently honest and clearly expressed emails, each student offered his or her own analysis.  What follows here is a paragraph summarizing their responses.

 

Either explicitly or implicitly, all of the emails indicate a pressure to please or perform.  The pattern across the emails shows how these students experienced and then responded to the pressures.  For example, one student expressed the pressure to be “good enough”:  “I personally think that the reason all of the groups went outside the resources is because often we don’t think that our work is good enough. We always are striving to get the best grade possible, and sometimes we feel as if we need a little bit of extra help.”  For this individual, the pressure is tied tightly to grades, even though I never said anything about this exercise being graded.  Apparently, sometimes students operate according to this likelihood, whether or not the teacher mentions grades in the instructions.  A second kind of pressure appears in another student’s email: “In doing a group presentation there is always the pressure to make your presentation pleasing and good for the teacher.”  Even if grades do not go in the grade book for an exercise, students still make decisions according to the impression they think their work will make on the teacher.  This same student went on to write that “At certain times people struggled with interpreting the question and no one understood so they looked to outside resources like a laptop for help” [emphasis added].  Not being sure that their work would please the teacher, they turned to an easily available additional resource.  Pure ease of access helps explain their response to various pressures they felt.  A different student explained the principle this way: “I guess it was an automatic thing to grab the thing that we are most familiar with. The laptop provided more comfort with the assignment.”  Not only was the laptop readily available in this particular case, but it has been available for long enough that reaching for it is automatic.  In other words, it happens without conscious thought.  To put this principle in the words of yet another student, “Another reason is the accessibility of electronic devices. All the groups had an easy time opening their laptops or phones just for a little help.”  Accessible.  Available.  It was as easy as easy can be to reach for one of these tools.  Finally, not only is access easy, but the thinking, the intellectual work is easier, when google comes to the rescue.  As one student beautifully expressed it: “I think the origin of what happened in all three groups going outside of the resources provided is just our dependency on technology. We’re in the age where everything can be found on Google and it’s easier and more convenient to just look it up rather than racking your brain when you have limited time.”  Ease of access breeds automatic behaviors.  Such behaviors, as shown in this email, cause dependency.  Unnoticed, unconscious–some might say thoughtless or mindless–dependency.  I love this student’s reference to “racking your brain” because students need to wrestle with the pressures of performance, and with uncertainty in the face of challenging questions.  They need to turn to each other, and listen to each other, in such exercises.  They need to stay close to the text, as I had imagined they would, rather than outsource their thinking.  At the same time, in order to encourage this wrestling, I need to find ways to reward evidence of struggling.  What does such evidence look like?  I don’t know, but I’d like to wrestle with the question.

 

 

 

 

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