Thursday, November 30, 2006

Trash Talking

I suppose it is just one of those weird coincidences, a case of art foreshadowing life, but today in Senior Seminar we were discussing "Bartleby the Scrivener," whose response to the most reasonable demands of his long-suffering employer was "I prefer not to." The students in the class made note of the fact that Bartleby's response, while initially amusing and not wholly unsympathetic, very quickly became annoying. One of the students confessed that she soon got to the point where she "just wanted to grab him and shake him."

A little later in the day, I went over to help out at the table where a group of students were selling t-shirts to raise money to help the refugees who are victims of the genocidal conflicts in Darfur. By the time I got to the table, the entire allotment of t-shirts had been sold out; testimony to the good will and generosity of the students at Our Fair School. Not only did they sell out, they took orders for another 200+ t-shirts that will be special-ordered and delivered next week.

So I went back to my office, worked at my desk until around 4:00, and then left the building to walk out the Bingham Gate to my home across the street. At the gate, I paused, as I have been doing the last few weeks, to take a photograph, which you see reproduced above. It's a picture of trash, the trash left behind today, as it is nearly ever day, as the students who hang out in that area simply get up and leave their crap behind. You will notice a bottle of water, an Icee container, a Coke container, two bags of food, a handwritten page, and a sweatshirt ON the table. You will notice various elements of clothing on the bench seats and on the floor. You will notice the papers under the table. You will also notice not one but TWO trash containers within arm's reach of the table, there is a third just out of the picture to the right.

I have spoken several times to this group about trying to clean up after themselves. I have spoken to the deans and to Mr. Hata, our unofficial Dean of Discipline, about it. THEY have spoken to the students, and have made arrangements for the trash barrels to be placed where they can be conveniently ignored.

Do I sound perhaps just the teeniest bit edgy about this? Do I sound unreasonably upset? After I took this photo, I turned and went back to my office. On the way, I passed three boys who were sitting on a bench just outside my office. There was a considerable amount of trash on the ground around THEM as well, so I was going in the building for a moment and asked them if they would mind doing a quick cleanup while I was inside. Three blank stares.

I came back out and there were the three boys, there were the three blank stares, and there was the trash all over the ground. I had made my request, they apparently preferred not to accede to it. So I asked them for their ID cards, wrote down their names, delivered what I considered to be an admirably restrained oration on the general theme of respect and responsibility, why I should not have had to ask them in the first place, but since I HAD had to ask them I didn't appreciate their lack of cooperation, yada yada yada. More blank looks. One kid wanted to know "Are we in trouble?" I told him that if I had anything to do with it, they would be, and went on home, seething. My wife met me at the door and immediately asked if I had been in a fight.

Well, sort of. This is just one of those small issues that is frustrating precisely because it is so, well, small. How is it that students at a school who are so caring of one another and so goodhearted about donating money for a significant cause in a continent on the other side of the world can be so willfully obtuse about picking up garbage at their feet. Every day I walk IN the Bingham Gate and pick up cans and bottles and potato chip wrappers in the gateway that at least fifty or a hundred students have stepped over on their way in.

I appear to be the only one who cares about this. Perhaps the fact that I DO care is just further evidence of how out-of-touch I am with what passes for reality. I don't know. All I know is that it's discouraging, and that writing this entirely useless rant has served only the purpose of letting me get past it, at least for today. If you're still with me, dear reader, my apologies. I'll try to write about something that someone might actually care about tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Getting Started with Poetry

Recently we hosted a Barbara Helfgott-Hyett as poet-in-residence for a week at Punahou. She worked with several of our writing classes and did a series of afterschool workshops with teachers.

If I were to try to summarize the basic message that comes through when you work with Barbara—or when you try to use Barbara’s techniques with students—it is that knowing too much about what you are doing is dangerous to your poetic health. One fairly straightforward commonplace notion about poetry that students seem to endorse reflexively is that if you know what you want to say and you say it well in a poem, you’ve got a good poem. Barbara, along with a large proportion of other working poets, would disagree. (I often share with students Robert Frost’s famous formulation: “Nor surprise for the writer; no surprise for the reader.”) Barbara encourages her students to put away the prefabricated ideas and start from scratch: “You have to start somewhere. The place to start is not with something in your own head. Try to write something you do not already know. Poetry isn’t about what you know. If you know it, you’re not writing a poem.”

So how then, if one does not start with ideas, does one get started? “A good thing to do, when you’re starting to write is just mess around with words.The disembodied language is the tool of the poet.”

Barbara often begins her workshops by simply asking questions (“What’s the first thing you saw when you woke up this morning?”) and having her students jot down words. Then she might read a poem about a memory or an object and ask the students to write down a few words or a phrase from the poem that they like. Then she might lead the students through a series of questions about the memory, or the object, with the goal again being just to get some words down onto the paper. She encourages her students to “explore the way words can work when meaning is not the first act... Step off the linear language and enter the words in a different way.”

Once you have a page full of words, you can go through and circle the words or groups of words that seem to have something to do with one another, or bounce off of one another in interesting ways. You can then decide on a sequence and put those words into a series of lines, something that may be the start of a poem.

But, she cautions her students, it’s not a poem yet. “We’re not writing poetry. We’re just messing around with words.” To emphasize this, she asks her students to perform various kinds of experiments with revision. She might ask them to do some, or all, of the following:

Add a line or a phrase from a poem you like.
Write your poem upside down, from back to front.
Cross out every other line, then fill in the gaps.
Take out every third (fourth, sixth) word.
Put an adjective in front of every noun that has nothing to do with the noun.
Underline your two favorite words or phrases or lines. Cut them.

The point of these revision experiments is threefold: First, in doing them you may surprise yourself by writing something completely unexpected and therefore delightful. Second, you learn not to become attached to your words, which is the first step toward really effective revision. Thirdly, you begin to enter the world of words in a way that shortcuts intentionality and opens the door to felicitous accident. Or, as Barbara tells us, “Whatever you do, don’t think. Poetry has nothing to do with thought. The trick is to write, accidentally, what you don’t know.”

Here's one of Barbara's poems:

The Inlet

Here again, the rough-cut jetty, the ridge
worn flat by men trolling bass and bluefish
and boys with plastic buckets full of porgies.
The hooks are taut in their mouths.
I comb the crevices for mussels, find
a baby flounder, stiff and gray, a shell.
Right side down a huge crab bakes on a rock.

Behind me, vacant, boarded up, the tenements
where I was born. Beige bricks, three or four stories
crammed with families, fathers who delivered milk
or sold potato chips from tall tin cans -
I scooped them into brown bags, watched the oil seep through.

In summer, mothers gave up unemployment
to work in tourist places hawking beach chairs,
vegematics, tickets to Ripley's Believe It or Not.
Mothers didn't swim. They sent us to stay
at the lifeguard stand with a quarter for lunch.
We'd swim past the jetty to the rotted pilings, then back
to the shallows and the puckered seaweed. I'd open my eyes
underwater, watch the silversides skimming my cheek.
When my towel underneath the boardwalk was all in shadow
and the sand had turned quartz cold, I went home.

At Zwiebacks, after dinner, I'd read comic books
or else I'd buy one used. Later, at Altman Field
the boys from Philly who stayed at the guest house
would start to shoot some baskets.
Sometimes I'd just sit on the bleachers
licking salt from the back of my hand.
Everything was like that then: crisp, expectable,
a silent movie, the ocean and the hoop disappearing
gradually from the end of the playground
until I couldn't see the ball anymore.

In my bed, I'd watch the sway of the clotheslines
on the rooftop outside my window and listen
to the men playing pinochle at the dining-room table,
the stogie smoke gray and small-winged down the hall.
The women swept the floors, laid roach traps,
ate chocolate at the mahjongg game downstairs.
They'd laugh, and clack the bone faced tiles,
a sound of summer when summer wasn't time
but place, ordinary as the low cry of a loon
diving at night, the voice of a beach block,
its muggy rhythm, the click of the tide
just before it turns.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Dilemmas I - Spinach

(Explanatory note: At Punahou the 30 members of the English department are spread across 26 courses, most of which are electives. Teachers who share a particular course—say, Identity and Culture, or Creative Writing—generally participate in regular subdepartmental meetings, at which they share ideas and current practices, and also make nitty-gritty decisions about course content. Each of the major subdepartmental groups also has a representative on what is called the SHIP group (SHIP is an acronym for Spirit, Heart, Intent, and Purpose.) The SHIP group meets once every (6-day) cycle, in order to try to explore and clarify the overall departmental mission, to draft policy initiatives to be presented to the department as a whole, and to assist one another in answering questions which have arisen in the subdepartmental meetings. The post which follows is my own attempt to think through one issue that arose at this week’s SHIP meeting.)

How should we decide what texts to put in front of our students? Each year in each of the subdepartments a kind of debate takes place. Our freshmen, for example, currently read four major texts during the year: Haroun and the Sea of Stories and The Odyssey during the first semester, and Midsummer Night’s Dream and Woman Warrior during the second semester. This year, as in every previous year, there are teachers who strongly advocate for dropping Woman Warrior in favor of a text the students would enjoy reading more. This year, as in every previous year, there are teachers who advocate strongly for keeping Woman Warrior in the curriculum on the grounds that it is a rich and challenging text that rewards close study and works very well to foreground issues of voice and identity which are thematic in the freshman English program as it is currently configured. The same arguments might be made for any of the other core texts with the exception of Haroun, which presents another dilemma: does the user-friendliness of the text justify its rather self-indulgent forced humor and one-dimensional allegory?

As we discussed these texts, and the larger issue of the logic of text selection generally, I found myself entertaining two quite different visions of what we are trying to do as educators. At one extreme I am certainly prepared to endorse the position that our job as teachers is to place challenging texts in front of our students and then teach the students how to read the texts well. That’s what happened to me when I was in school. I would, in all likelihood, never have read Oedipus Rex, or MacBeth, or The Scarlet Letter, or "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'" if one of my high school English teachers had not made the decision that it would be beneficial for me to do so. And I am grateful to them that they did: those texts, and many, many others like them, opened for me the door to the life of the mind. I think a course which placed rich, challenging texts in front of students and helped them come to appreciate and value them would be a hell of a course, and that students would benefit tremendously from it.

At the other extreme, I am certainly prepared to endorse the position that our job as teachers is to develop in our students a love of reading and the habit of being a lifelong reader. And I’m not sure that any of the texts I just mentioned—or, for that matter, many of the books that are in our current core curriculum—are going to get that job done. I have taught, and enjoyed teaching, a more or less pure reading workshop course of the kind that Nancie Atwell and others have made famous with middle-schoolers. I can easily envision a course in which ALL of the decisions about what books students are going to read—as well as what writing they are going to be doing—would be made by the students themselves, individually. I think it would be a hell of a course, and that students would benefit tremendously from it.

At the same meeting, we had a parallel discussion about the electives we offer, and what sorts of constraints, if any, we should place on the number of electives available and on the kinds of choices students can make. We could, for example, simply say, that during junior and senior year you have to take four electives: one writing course, one literature course, one philosophy course, and one performance course. (Most of our elective courses are semester-long.) Or again, taking the broader view, we could simply say, “Here’s the menu, choose what you like.”

I had a conversation with a grade seven teacher last year who noted with a combination of alarm and resignation that she recently for the first time has students coming up to her and announcing “I’m not a reader,” as if it were a lifestyle choice, like deciding not to try out for basketball. When a student has already decided at age 12 that s/he is “not a reader,” it’s pretty clear what is going to happen freshman year when that student bangs up against The Odyssey. Whatever is done in class will get done. Whatever is to be done at home will not get done, and if pressed, the student will in all likelihood resort to the same strategic subterfuges that have sustained reluctant readers all along, and which are now made easier by the ready availability of online cheat sheets and prewritten essays.

I don’t have an answer to the dilemma. Or rather, I guess I have three: Option A (“Eat your spinach, it’s good for you.”), Option B (“Eat whatever you want.”) and Option C (“After you eat your spinach, I’ll let you choose a dessert.”). I guess what I’d like to see is a coherent schoolwide (K-12) vision of what option we endorse. Or perhaps the smorgasbord of options we currently offer is ultimately in the best interests of the students after all. (And yes, Virginia, that does sound suspiciously like a copout. But that’s where we are today, November 27. Tomorrow is, as my mother was fond of saying—after Scarlett O’Hara—another day.)

Monday, November 27, 2006

What It Takes to Make a Student...Part II

I’ve been teaching for 38 years now. If you were to ask me to name off the top of my head the five, or the ten, or the fifteen best students I have had the chance to work with, pretty much all of the names would be female. I’ve often wondered why that is. Some small proportion of it probably has to do with sexual politics: I would assume that at some preverbal, perhaps Oedipal level women teachers might be expected to do better with male students and male teachers do better with female students. I’ve noticed that male students in male-taught classrooms—not just my own— tend to opt either in favor of a breezy camaraderie or a kind of calculated withdrawal into the cocoon of cool, neither of which is going to give them much credibility as a student. But I don’t think it’s only that, and it’s certainly not only me. There have been rafts of books published in the last few years about the achievement gap between girls and boys, and experts like Michael Thompson now earn a very good living trying to explain what is going on inside the heads of our young men, most of whom feel uncomfortable at best in the role of student.

A few years ago a colleague showed me an article which described the frustrations of a group of university professors working with low-achieving students in an after-school setting. Using computer-assisted programmed instruction, they were able to significantly raise the students’ performance on standardized tests given in the lab.

But the professors were surprised to learn that these advances did not carry over into the classroom. So they decided to go to school and see what the problem was.

"With few exceptions our students acted like dummies," they noted, "even though we knew they were ahead of the rest in knowledge. They were so used to playing the class idiot that they didn't know how to show what they knew. Their eyes wandered they appeared absent-minded or even belligerent. One or two read magazines hidden under their desks thinking most likely that they already knew the classwork. They rarely volunteered and often had to have questions repeated because they weren't listening. Teachers on the other hand did not trust our laboratory results. Nobody was going to tell them that "miracles" could work on Sammy and Jose."

They began to work with their students on a limited set of interactive strategies that included looking the teacher in the eye, raising their hands, and asking questions. And, after some initial skepticism on the part of both teachers and students, their grades began to improve.

In the article referenced in yesterday’s post, Paul Tough talks about KIPP (the Knowledge is Power Program) and Achievement First, programs which are trying to help struggling students succeed. But, as the researchers above noted, success has behavioral as well as academic components. Paul Tough writes:

Students at both KIPP and Achievement First schools follow a system for classroom behavior invented by Levin and Feinberg called Slant, which instructs them to sit up, listen, ask questions, nod and track the speaker with their eyes. When I visited KIPP Academy last month, I was standing with Levin at the front of a music class of about 60 students, listening to him talk, when he suddenly interrupted himself and pointed at me. “Do you notice what he’s doing right now?” he asked the class.

They all called out at once, “Nodding!”

Levin’s contention is that Americans of a certain background learn these methods for taking in information early on and employ them instinctively. KIPP students, he says, need to be taught the methods explicitly. And so it is a little unnerving to stand at the front of a KIPP class; every eye is on you. When a student speaks, every head swivels to watch her. To anyone raised in the principles of progressive education, the uniformity and discipline in KIPP classrooms can be off-putting. But the kids I spoke to said they use the Slant method not because they fear they will be punished otherwise but because it works: it helps them to learn. (They may also like the feeling of having their classmates’ undivided attention when they ask or answer a question.) When Levin asked the music class to demonstrate the opposite of Slanting — “Give us the normal school look,” he said — the students, in unison, all started goofing off, staring into space and slouching. Middle-class Americans know intuitively that “good behavior” is mostly a game with established rules; the KIPP students seemed to be experiencing the pleasure of being let in on a joke.

I think it’s interesting that a fairly simple strategic paradigm like SLANT can such a strong impact not only on how the students are perceived by the teachers but also on how they actually perform: “it helps them to learn.”

I think back over 38 years of faces, is it any wonder if I remember the ones who were sitting up, listening, asking questions, nodding, and tracking me with their eyes? And why do those behaviors seem to come more naturally to girls than to boys?

I remember seeing a striking video done by a researcher (email me if you know the source) who took small groups of kids of various ages and placed them in a room with some chairs strewn about. At every age, if it was a group of girls, they would gather the chairs in a circle, lean in, and begin conversing animatedly, eyes on each other. At every age, if it was a group of boys, they would place the chairs side by side, lean back with their feet out in front of them, and converse without looking at each other. Can this be biological? Or is it learned behavior? In any case, it’s apparent that students can be taught how to act like students. Is this something we should all be doing? If not, why not? If so, when and how?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

What It Takes to Make a Student

"What It Takes to Make a Student," the lead article by Paul Tough in today's New York Times magazine, looks at the causes and cures for the "achievement gap" between high-achieving and low-achieving students across the country. It's a thought-provoking article. The author points out the debate about causes seems to take place mostly in academia, the debate about cures in the public arena, and particulary in those reform-based and charter school settings. The problem, he acknowledges, is that "The two debates seem barely to overlap—the principals don't pay much attention to the research papers being published in scholarly journals, and the academics have yet to study closely what is going on in the schools."

The author includes summaries of several research findings. In one segment, he summarizes the work of Betty Hart and Paul Risley, who were trying to find out why "poor children fell behind rich and middle-class children early, and stayed behind."

"They recruited 42 families with newborn children in Kansas City, and for the following three years they visited each family once a month, recording absolutely everything that occurred between the child and the parent or parents. The researchers then transcribed each encounter and analyzed each child’s language development and each parent’s communication style. They found, first, that vocabulary growth differed sharply by class and that the gap between the classes opened early. By age 3, children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children whose parents were on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words. The children’s I.Q.’s correlated closely to their vocabularies. The average I.Q. among the professional children was 117, and the welfare children had an average I.Q. of 79.

When Hart and Risley then addressed the question of just what caused those variations, the answer they arrived at was startling. By comparing the vocabulary scores with their observations of each child’s home life, they were able to conclude that the size of each child’s vocabulary correlated most closely to one simple factor: the number of words the parents spoke to the child. That varied greatly across the homes they visited, and again, it varied by class. In the professional homes, parents directed an average of 487 “utterances” — anything from a one-word command to a full soliloquy — to their children each hour. In welfare homes, the children heard 178 utterances per hour.

What’s more, the kinds of words and statements that children heard varied by class. The most basic difference was in the number of “discouragements” a child heard — prohibitions and words of disapproval — compared with the number of encouragements, or words of praise and approval. By age 3, the average child of a professional heard about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare children, the situation was reversed: they heard, on average, about 75,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements. Hart and Risley found that as the number of words a child heard increased, the complexity of that language increased as well. As conversation moved beyond simple instructions, it blossomed into discussions of the past and future, of feelings, of abstractions, of the way one thing causes another — all of which stimulated intellectual development.

Hart and Risley showed that language exposure in early childhood correlated strongly with I.Q. and academic success later on in a child’s life. Hearing fewer words, and a lot of prohibitions and discouragements, had a negative effect on I.Q.; hearing lots of words, and more affirmations and complex sentences, had a positive effect on I.Q. The professional parents were giving their children an advantage with every word they spoke, and the advantage just kept building up."

And another:

Another researcher, an anthropologist named Annette Lareau, has investigated the same question from a cultural perspective. Over the course of several years, Lareau and her research assistants observed a variety of families from different class backgrounds, basically moving in to each home for three weeks of intensive scrutiny. Lareau found that the middle-class families she studied all followed a similar strategy, which she labeled concerted cultivation. The parents in these families engaged their children in conversations as equals, treating them like apprentice adults and encouraging them to ask questions, challenge assumptions and negotiate rules. They planned and scheduled countless activities to enhance their children’s development — piano lessons, soccer games, trips to the museum.

The working-class and poor families Lareau studied did things differently. In fact, they raised their children the way most parents, even middle-class parents, did a generation or two ago. They allowed their children much more freedom to fill in their afternoons and weekends as they chose — playing outside with cousins, inventing games, riding bikes with friends — but much less freedom to talk back, question authority or haggle over rules and consequences. Children were instructed to defer to adults and treat them with respect. This strategy Lareau named accomplishment of natural growth.

In her book “Unequal Childhoods,” published in 2003, Lareau described the costs and benefits of each approach and concluded that the natural-growth method had many advantages. Concerted cultivation, she wrote, “places intense labor demands on busy parents. ... Middle-class children argue with their parents, complain about their parents’ incompetence and disparage parents’ decisions.” Working-class and poor children, by contrast, “learn how to be members of informal peer groups. They learn how to manage their own time. They learn how to strategize.” But outside the family unit, Lareau wrote, the advantages of “natural growth” disappear. In public life, the qualities that middle-class children develop are consistently valued over the ones that poor and working-class children develop. Middle-class children become used to adults taking their concerns seriously, and so they grow up with a sense of entitlement, which gives them a confidence, in the classroom and elsewhere, that less-wealthy children lack. The cultural differences translate into a distinct advantage for middle-class children in school, on standardized achievement tests and, later in life, in the workplace.

Taken together, the conclusions of these researchers can be a little unsettling. Their work seems to reduce a child’s upbringing, which to a parent can feel something like magic, to a simple algorithm: give a child X, and you get Y. Their work also suggests that the disadvantages that poverty imposes on children aren’t primarily about material goods. True, every poor child would benefit from having more books in his home and more nutritious food to eat (and money certainly makes it easier to carry out a program of concerted cultivation). But the real advantages that middle-class children gain come from more elusive processes: the language that their parents use, the attitudes toward life that they convey. However you measure child-rearing, middle-class parents tend to do it differently than poor parents — and the path they follow in turn tends to give their children an array of advantages. As Lareau points out, kids from poor families might be nicer, they might be happier, they might be more polite — but in countless ways, the manner in which they are raised puts them at a disadvantage in the measures that count in contemporary American society.

The article continues with a pretty interesting review of current initiatives—and problems—in the charter school movement, and in other innovative educational remediation programs like Knowledge is Power (KIPP), Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools.

The author ends on a note of somewhat ambiguous optimism, or perhaps optimistic amibiguity:

The evidence is now overwhelming that if you take an average low-income child and put him into an average American public school, he will almost certainly come out poorly educated. What the small but growing number of successful schools demonstrate is that the public-school system accomplishes that result because we have built it that way. We could also decide to create a different system, one that educates most (if not all) poor minority students to high levels of achievement. It is not yet entirely clear what that system might look like — it might include not only KIPP-like structures and practices but also high-quality early-childhood education, as well as incentives to bring the best teachers to the worst schools — but what is clear is that it is within reach.

Although the failure of No Child Left Behind now seems more likely than not, it is not too late for it to succeed. We know now, in a way that we did not when the law was passed, what it would take to make it work. And if the law does, in the end, fail — if in 2014 only 20 or 30 or 40 percent of the country’s poor and minority students are proficient, then we will need to accept that its failure was not an accident and was not inevitable, but was the outcome we chose.

Overall, an informative article. Check it out. Tomorrow, I'll have a followup post on one behavior-based classroom strategy that is mentioned in the article.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Break Down

My son Oren is a hip-hop musician, and through him I first heard a song by Gorillaz called "Feel Good Inc." I wound up putting in on my iPod and in multiple listenings got caught up in the spirit of the song, the lyrics of which present, with a cheerful indifference to logic, a number of assertions which don't make much sense taken one by one but seem to add up to something when taken together. As I noted in an earlier post, I've been working on a series of poems with epigraphs taken from pop music, and I was intrigued with the idea of writing a poem that would explore that middle ground between sense and nonsense. The poem wound up being unlike pretty much anything I've written up to this point, although many of the preoccupations that I have already articulated in this blog inevitably seem to be pushing up from under the words. (Sometimes I ask my students to do an assignment called "Stop Making Sense," where I ask them to write a page of complete nonsense. It's a lot harder than you would think. Our brains are wired to make meaning even when—and many poets would argue especially when—we're not trying to, or even trying not to.) Anyway, that's how this poem started. It's been through perhaps 20 drafts at this point, and has begun to find something like its final shape, I think:

Break Down

City's breaking down on a camel's back.
They just have to go 'cause they don't know wack
So all you fill the streets it's appealing to see
You wont get out the county, 'cos you're badass free
You've got a new horizon It's ephemeral style.
A melancholy town where we never smile.

- Gorillaz

Lost apparitions of the Radiant One
Floating in the chamber ‘til the service is done.
Action overtaken in the manner of grace;
You won’t have a clue until you see His face.
Black star, trolleycar, a bump in the night;
The sidewalks are inviting but there’s no one in sight.
Sirens in the marketplace, the hour of lead,
Don’t let the carborundum into your head;
Watch the Mona Lisa, you can see her frown,
Eyes that will collar you and batter you down.
Smooth operators have infused your brain
With sentimental memories the color of rain.
What’s gonna happen next is anyone’s guess,
but the water pump is broken and the yard is a mess.
Up in the stratosphere the rockets rejoice,
The afterburn is speaking in a modular voice.
Emily and Lucy threw a party for Bear,
You may not remember but you know you were there.
Nothing is the ratio of centripetal force;
laugh if you want to, it’s a matter of course.
Here in the moment, if you just keep still,
you can listen for the horses coming over the hill;
seven scarlet feathers in a coonskin cap
will tell you where you’re going when it ain’t on the map.
Run until you’re broken but the heat won’t fade;
The hurricanes keep wiping out the plans we made.
Uptight, dynamite, the hour is nigh,
the comet is approaching and erasing the sky.
Rendezvous and wrestle with the muscular man,
argue with the angel and explain if you can
how the last of the ravens must have taken the seed;
the boy with the shotgun wasn’t up to speed.
Late night, oversight, the city’s asleep
stars in the stratosphere invite you to keep
asking questions but they never say why;
you’ll only find the answers on the other side.
Claptrap, gingersnap, according to Hoyle
You can’t cook the rice if the water won’t boil.
Here in the moment, when the weedwhacker whirls,
The wind whips the hair of the carnival girls.
They can dance all they want to but they won’t get paid;
The sailors keep on calling all the bluffs they made,
And out on the ocean they don’t know what to do;
‘cause the underwater models only shimmer in blue.
But you can let it simmer in the back of your mind:
What you think you’re seeking may not be what you find;
Flashlight, fistfight, the eye of the toad:
We have to keep on driving to the end of the road.
All right.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Thunderbolt Kid

Bill Bryson has recently published The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a memoir of his life growing up in Iowa in the 1950s. He describes life in middle America at a time when things were about as good as they were ever going to get:

By 1951, ... almost 90 percent of American families had refrigerators, and nearly three-quarters had washing machines, telephones, vacuum cleaners, and gas or electric stoves—things the rest of the world could still only fantasize about. Americans owned 80 percent of the world’s electrical goods, controlled two-thirds of the world’s productive capacity, produced more than 40 percent of its electricity, 60 percent of its oil, and 66 percent of its steel. The 5 percent of people on earth had more wealth than the other 95 percent combined. (5)

Bryson is precise and engaging and often hilariious in his description of the inner life of a child in a cultural epoch where childhood seemed like an eternal vacation, with lots of time to explore:

...Long periods of the day were devoted to just seeing what would happen—what would happen if you pinched a match head while it was still hot or made a vile drink and took a sip of it or focused a white -hot beam of sunlight with a magnifying glass on your Uncle Dick’s bald spot while he was nappting. (What happened was that you burned an amazingsly swift, deep hole that would leave Dick and a team of specialists at Iowa Lutheran hospital puzzled for weeks. (33)

Thanks to such investigations and the abundance of time that made them possible, I knew more things in the first ten years of my life than I believe I have known at any time since. I knew everything there was to know about our house for a start. I knew what was written on the undersides of tables and what the view was like from the tops of bookcases and wardrobes. I knew what was to be found at the back of every closet, which beds had the most dust balls beneath them, which ceilings had the most interesting stains, where exactly the patterns in the wallpaper repeated. I knew how to cross every room in the house without touching the floor, where my father kept his spare change and how much you could safely take without noticing (one-seventh of the quarters, one-fifth of the nickels and dimes, and as many of the pennies as you could carry.) I knew how to relax in an armchair in more than one hundred positions and on the floor in approximately seventy-five more. I knew what the world looked like when viewed through a Jell-O lens. I knew how things tasted—damp washcloths, pencil ferrules, coins and buttons, almost anything made of plastic that was smaller than, say, a clock radio, mucus of every variety of course—in away that I have more or less forgotten now. I knew and could take you at once to any illustration of naked women anywhere in our house, from a Rubens painting of fleshy chubbos in Masterpieces of World Painting to a cartoon by Peter Arno in the latest issue of The New Yorker to my father’s small private library of girlie magazines in a secret place known only to him, me and 111 of my closest friends in his bedroom. (33-4)

During the course of the book, Bryson discusses many dimensions of small town life: the shops, the shopkeepers, the neighbors, his friends, elementary school, baseball, movies, having a paper route, reading comic books, the advent of television, the coming of the malls. He also talks about larger, more disturbing realities: atmospheric nuclear testing, McCarthyism, and, inevitably, the slow accumulation of changes which would re-shape that world forever:

I was born into a state that had two hundred thousand farms. Today the number is less than half that and falling. Of the 750,000 people who lived on farms in the state in my boyhood,, half a million—two in every three—have gone. The process has been relentless. Iowa’s farm population fell by 25 percent in the 1970s and by 35 percent more in the 1980s. And the people left behind are old. In 1988, Iowa had more people who were seventy-five or older than five or younger. Thirty-seven counties out of ninety-nine—getting on for half—recorded more deaths than births....

Without a critical mass of farmers, most small towns in Iowa have pretty well died. Drive anywhere in the state these days and what you see are empty towns, empty roads, collapsing barns, boarded farmhouses. Everywhere you go it looks as if you have just missed a terrible contagion, which in a sense I suppose you have. It’s the same story in Illinois, Kansas, and Missouri, and even worse in Nebraska and the Dakotas. Wherever there were once small towns, there are now empty main streets...

The best that I can say is that I saw the last of something really special. It’s something I seem to say a lot these days. (185-6)

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
is a nice read: nostaligic, informative, and, as one reviewer had it, “snort-root-beer-out-of-your-nose funny.”

Thursday, November 23, 2006


I'm currently reading, on the recommendation of a colleague, Isabel Allende's retelling the of the legend of Zorro. It's an interesting idea. There's a story that's already out there, a cast of characters—Diego De La Vega, Bernardo, Sergeant Garcia, and so on—already in place, all sorts of questions to be accounted for: what made Zorro become Zorro? Why can't Bernardo speak? What did Diego do while he was a young man in Spain? How did he come by his prodigious skills with the sword and the whip? What in the course of his upbringing in a propertied family made him into a defender of the oppressed and downtrodden?

Allende goes after all of these questions with dedication and a sense of humor. She revels in the details. Here, for example, is a description of a street scene in Barcelona on the day that Diego arrives:

Foreigners in assorted attire walked around the docks, insulting one another in incomprehensible tongues: sailors wearing striped stocking caps and sporting parrots on their shoulders, stevedores rheumatic from carrying too-heavy loads, rude vendors selling jerked beef and biscuits, beggars bubbling with lice and pustules, derelicts with ready knives and desperate eyes. Prostitutes of the lowest degree mingled with the crowd, while the more pretentious among them rode in carriages, competing in splendor with privileged ladies. French soldiers trooped around prodding pedestrians with the butts of their muskets for the pure pleasure of annoying them. Behind their backs, women cursed them and spit on the ground. (111)

The passage illustrates what I find myself discussing with my students pretty much every day: the effectiveness of specificity. There's something deeply satisfying to me as a reader when I can be brought down onto the page and then, well, transported in this way. I often tell my students that I want to be able to run a movie in my mind as I'm reading. Their habit is generally to indulge themselves in what I call BUGs, that is, Big Unsupported Generalities. This passage by Allende, a minor passage which is not really advancing the plot at all, shows evidence of a lot of writerly care. There's nothing there which a student would be incapable of thinking of, no single detail which is itself remarkable at the linguistic level. But taken together, the details accumulate into a convincing, visualize-able scene. And because the images and the words and images are concrete, there's a crackle and texture to the language ("prodding pedestrians with the butts of their muskets") which is satisfying at a purely aural level as well.

Ya gotta love it.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Catastrophist

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

- Cormac McCarthy, The Road (241)

It’s only in the last year or so that I have begun thinking of myself as a catastrophist. The threats that once seemed to be far-fetched or hypothetical now seem to be clear and present dangers. How will our world end? There are more threats than we can shake a stick at: Nuclear War. Global Warming. Oil depletion. Water Pollution. Soil Exhaustion. Ozone dimunition. Terrorism, and the resulting breakdown in government (see Iraq). Overpopulation. AIDS. Avian flu. Megastorms.

Everywhere I look, I see danger. Everything I read, literally everything, gives me pause. I wake up each day and wonder how much longer American citizens can expect the way of life we have enjoyed for the last two hundred and fifty years to last.

Cormac McCarthy has been worrying about this too. His last book, No Country for Old Men, was roundly criticized in the national press for its cinematic hyperviolence and for its apparently straight-line plot. But none of the reviews I read—and I read a lot of them—seemed to get the point. The point, as I take it, is McCarthy’s intuition that the world is changing in ways that are no longer a matter of degree but a matter of kind.

The interchapters of the novel are narrated by Sheriff Bell, a man who has been around the block once or twice, and now, in his declining years, is beginning to see things that he has never seen before:

I read the papers ever morning. Mostly I suppose just to try to figure out what might be headed this way. Not that I’ve done all that good a job at headin it off. If keeps gettin harder. Here a while back they was two boys run into one another and one of em was from California and one from Florida. And they met somewheres or other in between. And then they set out together travelin around the country killin people. I forget how many people they did kill. Now what are the chances of a thing like that? Them two had never laid eyes on one another. There cant be that many of em. I dont think. Well, we dont know. Here the other day they was a woman put her baby in a trash compactor. Who would think of such a thing? My wife wont read the papers no more. She’s probably right. She generally is. (40)

Sheriff Bell meditates, here and elsewhere, on the origins of the evil he encounters, and wonders why the nature of that evil is becoming darker as time goes on:

I read in the papers here a while back some teachers come across a survey that was sent out back in the thirties to a number of schools around the country. Had this questionnaire about what was the problems with the teachin in the schools. And they come across these forms, they’d been filled out and sent from around the country answerin these questions. And the biggest problems they could name was things like talkin in class and runnin in the hallways. Chewin gum. Copyin homework. Things of that nature. So they got one of them forms that was blank and printed up a bunch of em and sent em back out to the same schools. Forty years later. Well, here come the answers back. Rape, arson, murder. Drugs. Suicide. So I think about that. Because a lot of the time when I say anything about how the world is goin to hell in a handbasket people will just smile and tell me I’m getting old. That it’s one of the symptoms. But my feelin about that is anybody that cant tell the difference between rapin and murderin people and chewin gum has got a whole lot bigger of a problem than what I’ve got. (196)

The most riveting character in the novel, a psychopathic contract killer named Chigurh, embodies all of Sheriff Bell’s worst fears about the direction in which we are heading. And it was apparent to me as a reader that Chigurh is in some ways McCarthy’s personification of That Which is Beyond Our Control, the objective correlative of the entire inventory of catastrophic potential with which I began this post.

McCarthy’s new novel, The Road, elaborates on this set of apocalyptic apprehensions and takes them to their logical conclusion: a world in which everything has been lost:

On the far side of the river valley the road passed through a stark black burn. Charred and limbless trunks of trees stretching away on every side. Ash moving over the road and the sagging hands of blind wire strung from the blackened lightpoles whining thinly in the wind. A burned house in a clearing and beyond that a reach of meadowlands stark and gray and a raw red mudbank where a roadworks lay abandoned. Farther along were billboards advertising motels. Everything as it once had been save faded and weathered. At the top of the hill they stood in the cold and the wind, getting their breath. He looked at the boy. I’m all right, the boy said. The man put his hand on his shoulder and nodded toward the open country below them. He got the binoculars out of the cart and stood in the road and glassed the plain down there where the shape of a city stood in the grayness like a charcoal drawing sketched across the waste. Nothing to see. No smoke. Can I see? the boy said. Yes. Of course you can. The boy leaned on the cart and adjusted the wheel. What do you see? the man said. Nothing. He lowered the glasses. It’s raining. Yes, the man said. I know.

They left the cart in a gully covered with the tarp and made their way up the slope through the dark poles of the standing trees to where he’d seen a running ledge of rock and they sat under the rock overhang and watched the gray sheets of rain blow across the valley. It was very cold. They sat huddled together wrapped each in a blanket over their coats and after a while the rain stopped and there was just the dripping in the woods.

When it had cleared they went down to the cart and pulled away the tarp and got their blankets and the things they would need for the night. They went back up the hill and made their camp in the dry dirt under the rocks and the man sat with his arms around the boy trying to warm him. Wrapped in the blankets, watching the nameless dark come to enshroud them. The gray shape of the city vanished in the night’s onset like an apparition and he lit the little lamp and set it back out of the wind. Then they walked out to the road and he took the boy’s hand and they went to the top of the hill where the road crested and where they could see out over the darkening country to the south, standing there in the wind, wrapped in their blankets, watching for any sign of a fire or a lamp. There was nothing. The lamp in the rocks on the side of the hill was little more than a mote of light and after a while they walked back. Everything too wet to make a fire. They ate their poor meal cold and lay down in their bedding with the lamp between them. He’d brought the boy’s book but the boy was too tired for reading. Can we leave the lamp on till I’m asleep? he said. Yes. Of course we can. (7-8)

The man and the boy described in the passage are wandering in a frigid, burned-out, ash-covered landscape in the aftermath of what appears to have been some kind of nuclear or environmental holocaust. All vestiges of civilization, of creature comforts, infrastructures of any kind, have ceased to exist. There is no electricity. There is no government. Cities, like the one in the second paragraph, exist only as ruins. The earth is populated by small groups of humans scraping out a living by foraging, hunting, and, often enough, preying upon one another. It’s a vision of life on earth that once might have been characterized as dystopian science fiction, but today it reads more like tomorrow’s news. McCarthy’s accomplishment in this book—and I think it is a significant one—is to dramatize with great precision and compassion exactly how vulnerable and fragile our present world is.

The critic Christopher Clausen once wrote, “All great literature addresses directly or indirectly two questions: What kind of a world is this? and How should we live in it?” While McCarthy’s most recent paint a picture of a world which is bleak and getting bleaker, they also offer a sort of endorsement of something that balances that bleakness, something more fundamentally benign and immediate. Here is Sheriff Bell again, speaking the final lines of No Country for Old Men:

At supper this evening she told me she’d been reading St John. The Revelations. Any time I get to talking about how things she’ll find somethin in the bible so I asked her if Revelations had anything to say about the shape things was takin and she said she’d let me know. I asked her if there was anything in thre about green hair and nosebones and she said not in so many words there wasn’t. I dont know if that’s a good sign or not. Then she come around behind my chair and put her arms around my neck and bit me on the ear. She’s a very young woman in a lot of ways. If I didn’t have her I don’t know what I would have. Well, yes I do. You wouldnt need a box to put it in, neither. (309)

When I awaken each morning to do my exercises and prepare for my day, I watch the sun rise outside my window and try to find space in my mind for appreciation. Unlike many in the world right now, much less in the broken future, I live in a place where we have pure running water, electricity, supermarkets stocked with every kind of food might want to eat, roads, cars, good schools, good people, safe streets. I don’t know how long it will last, but I’m grateful for what we have.

Dear Reader, wherever you are: Happy Thanksgiving.

(Addendum: In his comment below, Mark Maretzki mentioned that the McCarthy passage cited at the top of today's entry reminded him of Hemingway, specifically of "Big Two-Hearted River," where Nick, like the father and son in The Road, wanders in a kind of wasteland and gives himself over to the rituals of survival. Jennifer Egan, writing in Slate, has developed this idea felicitously.)

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

"Sunrise tantalize evil eyes hypnotize: that is the morning..."

Every morning between 5:30 and 6:00 I wake up and wander into the living room to do a series of exercises—stretching and tai chi, mostly—that keep the arthritis that lives in my body at bay. During the summer, the sun is already up when I awake, but during what passes for "winter" in Hawaii, the sun is just rising when I am halfway through my exercise routine. The other day I paused between exercises to take this picture from my lanai, looking past the palms trees in front of our condo and out over the Punahou campus at the sun rising over the mountains framing Manoa Valley.

I've recently been working on a series of poems with epigraphs taken from songs I am listening to. This one is elaborates on the view from the same location as in the picture, but on a different day and a little later in the morning.

On the Lanai

In the morning when I wake up and listen to the sound
Of the birds outside on the roof
I try to ignore what the paper says
And I try not to read all the news
- Neil Young

Sun so bright I have to squint
to read Zagajewski’s Without End.
The cars roll down Punahou Street
with a sound like the long exhaled breath
of meditation. In the monkeypod trees
birds flit and chitter. Deep in conversation,
a man and a woman jog down the street,
arms waving. In front of the Bingham gate
a man in an aloha shirt, paces back and forth,
cell phone to his ear, shaking his head.
A dove alights on the landing and peers in
at me, twisting and turning his neck,
then retreats to the fronds of a nearby palm.
The bank of cumulus clouds over Tantalus
unravels into wisps in the blue sky over Kaimuki.
Overhead, a plane thrums toward the Ko’olaus.

(In case you were wondering: the title of this post is the first sentence that Adah speaks as a narrator in The Poisonwood Bible.)

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Very Very Short Story

The November 6 issue of Wired magazine features a series of six-word short stories. Taking a cue from Ernest Hemingway (For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.) they invited a number of well-known authors to take a shot. A few of my favorites:

Longed for him. Got him. Shit. (Margaret Atwood)

Wasted day. Wasted life. Dessert, please. (Steven Meretzky)

The baby's blood type? Human, mostly. (Orson Scott Card)

Kirby had never eaten human toes before.
(Kevin Smith)

Easy. Just touch the match to... (Ursula K. LeGuin)

Don't marry her. Buy a house. (Stephen R. Donaldson)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Revision Again

Last week was Ted Kooser week in Hawaii. I attended a reading that he gave at UH on Monday night and an afternoon workshop at WCC on Wednesday. He had some interesting things to say about his practice.

He sits down early every morning with an artist's sketchbook and begins fooling around by sketching and writing down words and phrases that occur to him. When he has a group of words or phrases that interests him, he goes to the word process, types out those lines, and then pastes them back into his sketchbook, and then begins to do more doodling and building around them. He says that he often works a poem through 20 or 30 drafts, working "away from complications and toward clarity." The overall goal is to make the poem look like it was dashed off easily - and Kooser admits ruefully that some of his detractors assume that his poems are - but that offhandedness is the product of painstaking attention to every syllable.

By way of illustration, here's my one of my favorite poems from Delights and Shadows:


A farmhouse window far back from the highway
speaks to the darkness in a small, sure voice.
Against this stillness, only a kettle's whisper,
and against the starry cold, one small ring of blue flame.

This poem is typical of Kooser at his best: it's compact, clean, tight. It balances the intergalactic with the atomic, darkness and distance with light and presence, the world of nature with the world of man. It has the feel of a snapshot, of a poem which "just happened," but my guess is that it took a lot of work to bring it to this level of precision.


About two weeks ago a student appeared in my doorway and asked if I would look at a poem that he had written. I knew this young man by sight, and happened to know his name, but I had never had him in class.

The poem turned out to be six or eight lines long, describing the narrator's feelings as he sits and listens to the movements and noises of birds circling overhead. The poem was, as first drafts of student poems tend to be, somewhat uneven. There was one very specific image of the birds jabbing the air with their beaks. There were a number of vaguer, more generalized lines, and my suggestion to the student was that he cut some of those fuzzy lines out and try to generate some more concrete, specific images that would have the same impact as the strong line about the birds. I suggested he might want to take another piece of paper, write eight or ten sense-oriented lines quickly, and then select two or three of those lines to insert in his poem.

The student looked at me in befuddlement. "Is it all right to do that?"

"To do what?"

"To change your poem after you've written it."

"Why would it not be okay to change your poem after you've written it?"

"Well, I've always thought that good poems were supposed to be spontaneous. You know, like, "First thought, best thought?"

I spent the next ten or fifteen minutes attempting to disabuse the student of the notion that good writing is something that happens automatically. Once in a blue moon, perhaps, a writer may sit down like Coleridge awakening from his opium-induced dream and dash off a work of transcendent literary merit, but for most good writers, and for most of the rest of us mere mortals, reality is much more mundane. So I put aside my existential questions (like How does one get to be a junior in high school in what is purported to be one of the better private schools in American and have no notion that poets are allowed to revise?) and trotted out what evidence I had at hand to give him an alternative way of thinking about revision.

I showed him Yeats's poem "After Long Silence,"
Speech after long silence; it is right,
All other lovers being estranged or dead,
Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,
That we descant and yet again descant
Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:
Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young
We loved each other and were ignorant.

and then showed him what Yeats started with:

Your hair is white
My hair is white
Come let us talk of love
What other theme do we know
When we were young
We were in love with one another
And therefore ignorant.

(The draft is cited by Richard Ellman in his book The Identity of Yeats (280), and has been much anthologized since then.)

I showed him the photocopies of the 50 pages of drafts of Randell Jarrell's poem "Jerome," which were collected and published in the book Jerome: The Biography of a Poem (Grossman, 1971) by his wife after his death.

I showed him the passage in David Huddle's terrific essay "Let's Say You Wrote Badly This Morning" where he says

Revision is democracy's literary method, the tool that allows an ordinary person to aspire to extraordinary achievement.

And I showed him my all-time favorite quotation about revision, from Donald Hall, writing in regard to a poem called "The Black-Faced Sheep" (in David Berg's Singular Voices

Things come together—or they seem to, which is enough. If I am patient with a poem, things will come together..."The Black-Faced Sheep" took between two and three years, more than a hundred drafts.

Lately, poems have not been coming so quickly.

That last line kills me.

Anyway, the student seemed genuinely surprised by this strange new set of ideas. He went away and worked on his poem, and came back with a redraft, which we talked aout again. Yesterday he came in with a new poem. I'd like to believe he's on his way to becoming a better writer. At least he's working at it.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

What Oft Was Thought but Ne'er So Well Expressed...

There's a lively debate among historians over the question of whether the record of the forty-third the worst in American history or merely the worst of the sixteen who managed to make it into (if not out of) a second term. That the record is appalling is now beyond serious dispute. It includes an unending deficit—this year, it's $260 billion—that has already added $1.5 trillion to the national debt; the subcontracting of environmental, energy, labor, and health-care policymaking to corporate interests;repeated efforts to supress scientific truth; a set of economic and fiscal policies that have slowed growth, spurred inequality, replenished the ranks of the poor and uninsured, and exacerbated the insecurities of the middle class; and, on Capitol Hill, a festival of bribery, some prosecutable (such as the felonies that have put one prominent Republican member of Congress in prison, while another waits sentencing), some not (such as the reported two-million-dollar salary conferred upon a Republican congressman who became the pharmaceutical industry's top lobbyist immediately after shepherding into law a bill forbidding the government to negotiate prices for prescription drugs.

In 2003 and 2004, the ruling party avoided retribution for offenses like these by exploiting fear of terrorism. What is different this time is that the overwhelming failure of the administrations Iraq policy is now apparent to all. This war of choice has pointlessly drained American military strength, undermined what had originally appeared to be success in Afghanistan, handed the Iranian mullahs a strategic victory, immunized the North Korean regime from a forceful response to its nuclear defiance, and compromised American leadership of the democratic world.

Hendrik Hertzberg, in the November 6 New Yorker

The Primacy-Recency Effect

In spring of 2004 I attended the Learning and the Brain Conference in Boston. One of the keynote speakers was Kim Carraway, who asked us to do a little exercise in which she flashed on a screen for a vertical list of twelve three-letter nonsense words (kef, lak, mil, nir, vek, lun, nem, beb, sar, did, fow, pok). Before she put them up she told us we would be able to look at the list for about fifteen seconds, and then we would be asked to try to replicate from memory as much of the list as we could. Once we had taken a shot at it—it was harder than you would think—she gave us the correct answers and then polled the group as to how many of us had gotten each one correct. The results turned out to be predictable—in retrospect. Most of us got the first two or three, and the last two. Most of us forgot the stuff in the middle. This phenomenon, Kim explained, is known in psychological circles as the "primacy-recency effect," and it has some obvious implications for classroom practice, and some more subtle implications in terms of rhetorical strategies.

One implication in terms of classroom practice is that if it is true that students are more likely to remember the first thing you do at the beginning of a class session and the last thing you do at the end, perhaps it would be a good idea to break up the class into segments, with breaks in between, so that there are more beginnings and endings.

When I work with students, I often wind up talking with them a with about the position of emphasis. The position of emphasis in a sentence is the last word. (And, as the primacy-recency effect would suggest, the first word as well, to perhaps a lesser degree.) The position of emphasis in a paragraph is the last sentence. The position of emphasis in an essay is the last paragraph. The position of emphasis in a novel is the last chapter.

Understanding the logic of structure insfar as it affects emphasis helps students both in terms of their reading skills and their writing skills. For example, my sophomore class has just finished reading The Poisonwood Bible and we have been paying particular attention to the last words of each of the narrators: Orleanna, Leah, Rachel, Adah, and, surprisingly, Ruth May, who returns at the end of the book to speak from beyond the grave to her grieving mother. What the characters say last, and where the author chooses to drop us off at the end of a novel, goes a long way toward shaping what will wind up remembering about a book. Authors understand that, and shape their stories and essays and poems with that reality in mind. And student writers are well-advised, I think, to consider the implications of the logic of structure not just at the macro level, but at the sentence level as well.

So while we've been having the big discussion about the last words in The Poisonwood Bible, we've also been having a side discussion about last words in individual sentences that they have been writing. The other day I resurrected and revised a worksheet that I wrote a while ago to at least try to call attention to the issue.

Excerpts from the last monologues in The Poisonwood Bible:

Leah: There is not justice in this world...What there is in this world, I think, is a tendency for human errors to level themselves like water throughout the spheres of their influence. That's pretty much the whole of what I can say, looking back. There's the possibility of balance. Unbearable burdens that the world somehow does bear with a certain grace. (522)

Adah: We constructed our lives around a misunderstanding, and I ever tried to pull out of it and fix it now I would fall down flat. Misunderstanding is my cornerstone. It's everyone's, come to think of it. Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet. They are what we call civilization. (532)

Ruth May: Every life is different because you passed this way and touched history... Listen: being dead is not worse than being alive. It is different, though. You could say the view is larger. (538)

God, I love that book.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Toeing the Line

Okay, this is the start. I've been keeping a commonplace book—old-fashioned, pen-and-paper, analog style—for years, and recently Chris Watson, a colleague of mine, asked if I had ever considered keeping the commonplace book online in the form of a blog. He started an online commonplace book of his own last week, which I find I like a lot, so I'm going to try to get one going here myself.

Brief intro: I'm a high-school English teacher at Punahou School in Hawaii. Pauahi Hall, the building where I am typing this right now, is the large building to the left in the picture just above. The picture is actually a photograph of a part of a series of mosaic panels on the junior school side of the campus.

This is my 37th year of teaching, and my ninth at Punahou. I have particular interests in the teaching of reading, writing, and thinking. There is a web site I have created for my sophomore English class, and another which contains a lot of resources for Critical Thinking which I have developed at Punahou.

Perhaps the first poet I discovered on my own was William Stafford. I was a senior in high school in Fairfield, Connecticut, and working part-time in Parker's bookstore in the middle of town. It was a small store that sold mostly greeting cards and not many of those. Afternoons, I often had time to kill when nobody was in the store. One day I came across Stafford's book Allegiances and was at once taken with the way in which his quiet, non-assertive, meditative poems seemed to gather resonance as they moved forward. I've returned to his writing all my life. A year ago I found this poem and pasted on the inside cover of my the commonplace book I was just beginning at that time. It seemed like an auspicious start. It still does:

What's in My Journal

Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
Things, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for
Alaska. Evidence to hang me, or to beatify.
Clues that lead nowhere, that never connected
anyway. Deliberate obfuscation, the kind
that takes genius. Chasms in character.
Loud omissions. Mornings that yawn above
a new grave. Pages you know exist
but you can't find them. Someone's terribly
inevitable life story, maybe mine.