Category Archives: art

Do we really need poetry?

In several of today’s classes–two sophomore and one senior–we listened to the NPR piece about John Borling’s book of poems, Taps on the Walls.  Having heard this interview during my drive to work this morning, I wanted to share it with students, and hence with readers of this blog.  It is a remarkable answer to a question I have asked my poetry classes in the past:  do we really need poetry.

After students listened to the program, which I recommend you do (7’48” long), we literally tried our hands at composing with the code used by Major General Borling and his prison mates.  Since the sophomores are just finishing The Kite Runner, I asked them to start a poem in the voice of Amir–a poem expressing what Sohrab means to him.  Then they were to try tapping the first line of this poem for their neighbor, as one concrete way to appreciate the importance of poetry for Mr. Borling during his six and a half years of brutal captivity. You can catch a glimpse of their handiwork on the youtube video above. I hope this mini-lesson opens for them a small window on the remarkable human spirit and its need for artistic expression.

p.s. Apologies for the extra youtube videos; I am trying to learn how to post just the one video I made, without these extraneous, unendorsed connections.


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two simple stories: Glock and Bach

Without judgment, I offer two personal stories from this past week.  They occurred within a day of each other.

First story: At lunch–during a discussion of guns, death and violence–a colleague described his neighbor’s reaction to the death of Sandy Hook students and teachers, as well as to the possibility of additional regulation of guns and ammunition.  According to the colleague’s reasonable, and in my judgment sympathetic, report, his neighbor already owned an AR-15, and since the Sandy Hook deaths has purchased several more.  When asked why he had purchased these additional guns, the neighbor responded that he wanted to be ready when they, the government, came to his house.

Second story: At our high school’s weekly chapel service, two senior boys played a concert to benefit the Youth and Family Services of Newtown, Connecticut.  The seniors themselves requested the opportunity, chose the music and provided the commentary between pieces.  During their performance, which they entitled “Reflection and Outreach,” they explained that it can be hard to find words at such times, and that music can express emotions in these situations.  When I asked one of the boys about why they asked to do this concert, he said that the feelings expressed in the music could serve as one way to empathize with the Sandy Hook community.

To me, these two stories represent significantly different ways of seeing the present and future worlds.  I am also reminded of the two essential questions that guide my work with high school sophomore classes:  Who am I?  What are my primary responsibilities to myself and to the communities in which I live?  Most of our reading and writing focus on a student’s, character’s or author’s answer to these two questions.  I wonder how the neighbor and senior boys would answer these questions.  And I wonder what those answers mean for us–today and tomorrow?  Finally, I wonder how my responses to the colleague and the students defines my answer to these essential questions.


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The Art of Translation

The Art of Translation.

I wanted to share this recent reflection by a girl in one of my high school senior classes.

She typically writes with such clarity and depth.

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These three letters represent a course I have been considering for some time: “Farms, Factories and Facebook.”  In this course, students read literature, mostly fiction, that conveys the rhythms and mindsets of three ages in human history: agricultural, industrial and digital.  We might call the third “informational,” but for now I am simply collecting titles and ideas.  For the most part, this collecting has been happening privately.  Feel free to comment with your thoughts.  Feel free to launch such a course yourself.  I trust we will acknowledge each other, when occasion calls for that.

Meanwhile, an article in yesterday’s New York Times profiles a Korean writer whose work fits my picture of this FFF course.  Shin Kyung-Sook’s novel, Please Look After Mom, has made a lasting impression on my wife, since she read it  about a year ago.  When yesterday’s article appeared, we both said we want to read her other novels, I Will Be Right There and A Lone Room.  The Times article describes the  traumatic change in South Korea from an agrarian to industrial society–within just one generation.  Ms. Kyung-Sook’s stories reveal what this dramatic disruption means to Korean families.  The conflicts at the heart of the society reveal the distinct rhythms and mindsets of both eras. Therefore, one of these novels may suit the course I am imagining.

Other literature I have considered defines an era’s worldview from within–think Tess of the D’Urbevilles or Hard Times, for example–rather than across the “time zones.”  Given my experience with home-grown courses like this, I want to find good stories– ones that engage students initially and years later, for their emotional and intellectual impact.  Stories they carry with them.  Analyzing the eras we humans have navigated is part of the course, but I have learned not to impose too much of my own historical ruminations on high school juniors and seniors.  Those ideas provide a sturdy infrastructure, but individual students need to shape their own conclusions in their own way, largely through induction while reading these stories.

That’s it for now. Concerning this course, the time has apparently come to widen what Seamus Heaney calls the “circumference of understanding.”  If you want to see and/or comment on the google doc of ideas and titles, complete the following form.  Thank you.

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signifying nothing 5.5.23

This week, the seniors and I have been working on the difference between a poem’s speaker and author.  The following sequence of ideas arose this morning, while my wife and I drank coffee and talked on the deck,  and while the sunlight  touched the tops of our neighbor’s seventy-foot pine trees.

We saw his pine trees, as well as what used to be an equally tall oak, until a July storm dropped its top half.  During this morning’s coffee talk, I recalled that our neighbor, let’s call him Paul Bunyan, finally began cutting the fallen limbs with his chain saw last night.  Mention of the chain saw reminded me of Frost’s poem, “Out, Out,” which the seniors had recently read.  In fact, some seniors may be using that poem for their first essay about tone; I hope I steal none of their thunder with this post.  (Ssshh, don’t tell any  of them about this post, yet.)

Naturally, at least for us two career literature teachers, Shakespeare entered the conversation–in the form of Macbeth, whose speech after Lady Macbeth’s death includes the phrase “Out, out, [brief candle].”  When I repeated Frost’s title, my wife gave Macbeth’s next thought, “Life’s but a walking shadow” (5.5.23).  At this point, my mind returned to this week’s work with seniors; I often find my mind going there.

Here, I thought, is a fine example of the energy created by the difference between speaker and author.  My first thought on remembering Macbeth’s speech was that I disagree with his final claim that life is a “tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing”–especially as I sat with my wife during this morning’s sunrise.  Then I realized, perhaps in a freshly rich way, that so does Shakespeare.  If he agrees with Macbeth, why bother writing all of these plays?  At this point in the Scottish play, Macbeth has reached the very bottom of his despair and hopelessness.   Ever since he has told himself that he is in bloody murders too steeped to turn back, he has been pursuing an untenable human course.  He has separated himself from his most worthy being, as well as from other people.  His moral coherence, his ethical integrity has been dissolving, unlike the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands, which she cannot remove with her bootless cry, “Out, out, damned spot.”

Shakespeare, the author of Macbeth’s final desperate words, does see human life as signifying something, even while imagining a character who does not.  In fact, through his art, the author tries to lead us away from such despair by enacting the journey that led to it.  He wants to bring the lesson alive on stage.

And here, at this junction of  speaker and author, I am reminded of a critical thinking skill that appeared on my recent blog post’s list of such skills.  In this case, I am thinking of “shape meaningful schema.”  Students who understand the play’s plot, Macbeth’s decline and the speech’s words are ready to combine these understandings with the author/speaker distinction, in order to shape in their minds a pattern that makes sense, that means something, that signifies something.  With all due respect to Mr. Macbeth, I will keep making meaning–even out of his story.  I will keep helping students do the same.

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Regular Writing #1

Making things is harder than destroying them.  Who do you know who is a successful builder?  What does this person build or make—houses, clothes, food, friends or something else?

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what if?

In Wendel Berry’s Leavings (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010), his poem “IV” appears in the section called “2008.”  It sparked a series of associated thoughts.  First, his poem.

A man is walking in a field

and everywhere at his feet

in the shortgrass of April

the small purple violets

are in bloom.  As the man walks

the ground drops away,

the sunlight of day becomes

a sort of darkness in which

the lights of the flowers rise

up around him like

fireflies or stars in a sort

of sky through which he walks.

This poem reminds me of  Cree stories from the northern parts of the Americas.  I first learned about these stories from Howard Norman’s collection, Wishing Bone Cycle: Narrative Poems of the Swampy Cree.  Like those wishing bone poems, Berry’s piece turns an observation on its head by making the purple violets into sparkling stars.  By grabbing the flower and planting its negative, he lets us walk with the man in the sky.  He lifts us to new terrain full of previously unimagined possibilities.  Besides being fun, these transformations exercise the imagination–of creator and audience alike.

In days of personal or public depression, when individuals or groups can feel overwhelmed, the value of imagination grows.  What if?  Let’s just imagine. Although it sounds simple, some people lack the imaginative muscle.  For one reason or another, it has atrophied, which makes it hard for them to imagine circumstances as other than they are.  By itself, imagination does not solve all problems.  Can it help touch on a possibility?  No doubt.  Can it turn an earth-bound flower into a star of light?  Sometimes.

Helping students imagine the created world of a poem or a fictional character exercises this important muscle.  In a world that people say is changing at an ever-increasing rate, the ones with strong imagination can be more prepared for change, and more able to help the rest of us navigate it with compassion.


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literature: super-collider

In the first of my #twittertuesdays @bllbrwn423–a weekly series on tweeking writing–I quote from a novel called The Book Thief.  Liesel, the young female protagonist, finds the first of many gifts in a discarded, deflated soccer ball.


Today’s New York Times reports that teams of scientists have observed a “striking bump” in the data from their colliding particles.  The “suspicious bumps” have become “striking bumps.”  This sub-atomic categorical movement, this small gift, has produced a “tantalizing hint” of the existence of the Higgs Boson, which some call the God particle.

This recent scientific news story intrigues me for all kinds of reasons.  For example, what is the elusive sub-atomic particle at the base of effective, enduring teaching and learning?  Today, however, it intrigues me because I see students in literature study as teams of interpreters.  When particular matter collides in a novel like Frankenstein, for example, how do these students make sense of the resulting material, or the material results?  When Mary Shelley designs her experiment to collide creator and creature, how do these teams of young minds interpret the results?

For example, does Victor Frankenstein’s world of pains transform him from “an Intelligence” into “a Soul”?  Students wrote answers to this question, based on a letter from John Keats to his brother George, as practice for their recent semester examination.  On the exam itself, they agreed or disagreed with the proposition that, unlike Beowulf, Mary Shelley’s novel blurs the lines between protagonist and the “monster.”     Having stated their position, they  explained their claim’s effect on an understanding of the term “monster.”

As a last thought, I cannot help but observe that much of Mary Shelley’s fanciful story orbits around Geneva, home to the noteworthy super-collider that is producing “striking bumps” and “tantalizing hints”–small gifts all, the first of many.


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to articulate sweet sounds

“. . . Better go down upon your marrow bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.”

from W. B. Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse”

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Transtromer, the Transformer

I could not help the fun pun, in honor of the newest Nobel Laureate in Literature, Tomas Transtromer of Sweden.  Eighty years old, with limited speaking and moving abilities due to a stroke twenty years ago, he still produces poetry.

The seniors and I, on “Fun Friday,” explored his life and several of his poems–as much as one can in forty minutes.  I was struck by his response to a New York questioner, as reported in this past Friday’s New York Times.  To the query about how his work as a psychologist has affected his poems, he wondered why few people ask the mirror question:  “How does your poetry influence your work?”

What does this oversight suggest about the questioners’ view of art?  The newest literary laureate implies that making art can affect internal transformation.  Over and again, people–both those with and without developed poetic sensibility–have said that poems tilt the angle of our lens.  They catch the light just right, helping us see not only the Golden Gate Bridge in front of us, but also the moon and city skyline behind us.  By transforming our vision, the poems change us, too.  Hence, “Transtromer, the Transformer.”

On a final note (musical echo intended), here is the first stanza of Transtromer’s “Schubertiana,” from the collection called Truth Barriers, translated by Robert Bly and published by Sierra Books (San Francisco, 1980).  The students and I have been recently studying Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”  I told them that the last line of Transtromer’s stanza helps me think about Keats’s idea that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”  The piano player in Transtromer’s poem understands this, I imagine:



Outside New York, a high place where with one glance

you take in the houses where eight million human

beings live.

The giant city over there is a long flimmery drift,

a spiral galaxy seen from the side.

Inside the galaxy, coffee cups are being pushed across

the desk, department store windows beg, a whirl of

shoes that leave no trace behind.

Fire escapes climbing up, elevator doors that silently

close, behind triple-locked doors a steady swell

of voices.

Slumped-over bodies doze in subway cars, catacombs in


I know also–statistics to the side–that at this instant

in some room down there Schubert is being played,

and for that person the notes are more real than

all the rest.


So, beauty is truth.  What is more real is more true.  Those notes mean something to the lone piano player.  That resonance is beautiful, Keats might say.  Epistemology has always intrigued me.  What do we really know?  Wendell Berry, in his collection called Leavings, writes, ” . . . a million leaves / alive in the wind, and what do we know?”  What do we “need to know”?  Good questions for people inside or outside of schools.  Especially helpful questions in today’s rapidly revving engines of the “information” age.


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