Category Archives: imagination

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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meditation on memory: a flurry of birds

What stays in our minds, and why?

As I walked this morning, as the sunlight started to paint the tops of tall oak and pine, I heard a flurry of birds.  Blue jays gave their screech, which sounds much like that of the red-tailed hawk, towhees spouted their cup-of-TEA, and the tufted titmice emitted their little chirps.  Some mornings I am busy looking at the light arise, smelling the damp oak leaves on the ground, and hearing the various birds call.  This morning, though, I tried to focus on just the sounds, just the bird sounds.  Hence the flurry of birds in my mind.

This phrase, which also lives in the subtitle of today’s post, comes from a play my wife directed some time ago.  It’s a collection of vignettes all set during the American Revolutionary War.  The title came to mind because of the internal rhyme with “flurry” and “birds.”  Poets have been using this tool for thousands of years.  When they want to remember, and help others remember, important people and events, they employ such tools.  Devices like rhyme keep things in our mind.  Witness this morning’s walk.

Another tool is concrete imagery, meaning language that appeals directly to any of our five senses.  This morning,  my mind directed my ears to take the reins.  The flurry of birds became a symphony. I heard nothing but birds.

And here comes one of the values of concrete images like this collection of bird songs.  Now that I have returned to my desk, I will soon start a set of senior essays.  By the time I was climbing our driveway at the end of my walk, I had stored the memory of these birds– to use it as an image for my work.  In other words, the birds will help me listen to the student voices in these papers.  I have long believed that each student sings his or her own individual song.  To help these people grow, my job starts with listening.  I need to know where they are, in order to help them move into new skills and wisdoms.  So, as I grade papers today, what stays in my mind, I hope, is the image of this morning’s flurry of birds.  I am looking forward to hearing the range of ideas expressed by these high school seniors, who soon will fly off to other surroundings.

cropped-cardinal-with-nandina.jpg

 

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A few haiku for you at the Paris climate talks

the moon is waning

even oak leaves are falling

sharp bright stars now shine

___

let them fall, all brown

though they cling with reluctance

let all of them fall

___

in winter the leaves

have all fallen to the ground

traffic now sounds loud

___

leaf blowers have stopped

gone are the oak leaves that were

falling quietly

___

we’re quick to move on

but the seasons each take time

may we look to this

bare trees 1

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what I wish for, what I work for

penIn the days after extremists murdered magazine staff in France, I read essays from several journalists I admire.   This admiration reminds me of what I wish for and what I work for on behalf of students. The first essay was written by David Kirkpatrick, a former student from a school where I used to work.  This fact by itself occasions a certain pride.  Beyond this feeling, though, I admire the perspective he brings to the subject because he lives with his family in Cairo.  He knows his subject because he has made the commitment to inhabit the place.  As transplanted correspondent, he has credibility.  In a sense, he has done his homework.  His new home is his work.  The second essay, by David Brooks, I admire for its memorable metaphor–that and its ability to draw valuable distinctions in this challenging conversation.  For example, he distinguishes between the “adult table” and “kids’ table” of journalists.  Though I do not entirely agree with his placement of some professionals, his image remains with me.  Finally, the third essay, by Nicholas Kristof, shares qualities with the first two.  In addition, it expresses a thoughtful caution for those of us who might react to extreme intolerance with our own version of the same: “One of [the] things I’ve learned in journalism is to beware of perceiving the world through simple narratives, because then new information is mindlessly plugged into those story lines.  In my travels . . . extremist Muslims have shared with me their own deeply held false narratives of America as an oppressive state controlled by Zionists and determined to crush Islam.  That’s an absurd caricature, and we should be wary ourselves of caricaturing a religion as diverse as Islam.”  Kristof’s essay invites me to imagine the world I wish for and work for.  I wonder what extremists imagine as their intended world.  For my part, as a teacher, I wish for and work for students who can respond credibly to challenging situations, create memorable metaphors and beware of unquestioned thoughts.

p.s. I shared a draft of this paragraph with my students, as a way of showing them some of the reasons we do what we do together, in and out of class.  Periodically, I need to show these reasons to myself and to them.  The events of this past week reinforce my sense of purpose as one adult guide of their development as writers and thinkers.

photo credit: http://www.endlessicons.com/free-icons/fountain-pen-icon/

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Growing Writers, Season 2 Episode 1: Recycling

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July 8, 2013 · 10:31 am

homegrown haiku 5

Tall tree overhead

              Trunks sprouting like fireworks

                             Green celebration

In this haiku I wanted to render a tree outside my parents’ new home.  This tree, which none of us could identify, grows just off their patio.  It rises about forty feet, or so.  Its leaves are a translucent emerald green, and this poem is one of several in the series meant to help them remember beauty that surrounds them.  The tree is in their yard and will likely be there for a long time, but I wanted to leave a reminder of what they had already told us they liked.  It seems presumptuous to write a poem that tries to give something, like an appreciation, that they already have.  I suppose that the poem shows, more than anything, my desire that they enjoy their new home.  Like most writing, these poems are meant for someone else, while meaning at least as much to the writer.  The first line of the poem begins with a suggestion of protection.   The tree is tall, and its leaves create a canopy overhead to help shield my parents from sun and rain.

The second line made me work hardest; I wanted to capture the shape and arc of the multiple trunks.  They grow from a tight beginning then flare out and up.  I don’t recall the images I tried, but I like this one, and my niece’s endorsement confirms my satisfaction with it.  I suspect that I like the fireworks image not only for its physical description, but also for its association with the celebratory event.

p.s. I have attached no images to this post because I found none that match this particular tree.  Readers will have to use the poem to imagine it.

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homegrown haiku 3

Window PanelA close friend looks in

              From outside the window pane

                             Wishing to see love

This haiku comes from a dream–a dream of some substance because it arrived just three nights before my parents’ anniversary dinner.  In this vision, a man stood outside a set of patio doors.  He peered through the sheer curtains that covered each door’s two columns of six panes, from the inside.  As I watched him wish he could pull the curtains gently apart, I saw that he was a close friend of parents, especially of my father because he and his twin brother had been born on the same day as my father and his identical twin.  My parents had known this friend for a long time; they loved to laugh with him.  I remember laughing with him, too; he always worked to include me and other children nearby.  If I had ever dreamed of David before, I didn’t remember it.  So, he, effectively for the first time in my life, appears in a dream.  He wants to be part of my parents’ celebration, but can’t.

The feeling of David’s longing lies at the heart of the dream and therefore fuels the haiku.  My initial impulse was to write a poem that brought my parents’ friend to the table.  As I wrote, though, I began to see not only that David wanted to join the celebration, and thereby be connected to old friends and the experience of love, but also that everyone else at the table had some relationship to his feelings.  All of us, for various reasons and to different degrees, have experienced and desired love–love for a companion and love from such another.

The poem’s middle line, by referring to a “window pane,” echoes the hurt that comes from feeling outside the experience of love.  Many of us around the table have known, either first-hand or second-hand, directly or empathetically, the feeling of being  outside of the patio window looking in.

And this feeling helps explain my choice of “wishing” in the last line.  I may have tried “wanting” or a similar two-syllable verb, but “wishing” captures the  spirit of David’s longing.  A wish is a kind of dream.  What I wish for is what I dream of.  So then, David’s wishing to be part of the marriage celebration becomes my dream, too.  In this way, what he wants is what I want.  As it happens, then, he does join the table–in a real sense, a sense that began with a dream but became more than that.

photo credit: http://www.eichlerforsale.com/xsites/Agents/eichlerforsale/content/uploadedFiles/Window%20Panel.JPG

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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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F F F

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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