Monday, July 30, 2007


I finished up my grades and comments for the summer school session last Monday, and for the last week I've been having what is probably the closest thing to a real vacation I've had in a long time. I've been reading a lot, walking a lot, napping a lot, and letting the reptile part of my brain work through its slow processing of everything that has been going on in the last year and everything that is lining up for when the new school year begins in the third week of August. This summer ritual of retreat and reconstitution is something that's hard to talk about, because a lot of what goes in is preconscious or subconscious. It's not something I can direct; I just have to allow the time for it to take place. My brain needs time to let go of some things and to turn its attention, warily at first, to others.

One of the themes of this blog, and my teaching life, is a concern for the threads or connections that weave in and out of consciousness over time: not just a week or a month, but a year, an era, a career. The throughlines are not always or most frequently continuous. They come to the surface of consciousness, resubmerge, reappear. Sometimes when they go into hiding, there comes a point when I have to go seek them out.

As I think about what the new school year is going to be like, and try to prepare myself for starting over with new students, and a dizzying array of new tech tools, my concern is to try to find a balance between the traditions that I still honor—as for example, the reading of books and the slow, thoughtful appreciative engagement with the real world—and the opportunity for innovation, which may very well be technology-enhanced. I don't want to let go of what has always worked, and I don't want to give short shrift to what might be even better.

One of the books I've been returning to all summer, which I've written about before and am coming back to now once again, is Sven Birkerts The Gutenberg Elegies. In the passage that follows, Birkerts begins by talking about a thread of concern that arises with some frequency in discussions of Web 2.0 and School 2.0: the implications of the displacement of print culture by electronic culture, and then continues by speculating about how this particular trend matches up with, reinforces, and is reinforced by other parallel trends in media, politics, art, and education:

The order of print is linear, and is bound to logic by the imperatives of syntax. Syntax is the substructure of discourse, a mapping of the ways that the mind makes sense through language. Print communication requires the active engagement of the reader's attention, for reading is fundamentally an act of translation. Symbols are turned into their verbal referents and these are in turn interpreted. The print engagement is essentially private. While it does represent an act of communication, the contents pass from the privacy of the sender to the privacy of the receiver. Print also posits a time axis; the turning of pages, not to mention the vertical descent down the page, is a forward-moving succession, with earlier contents at every point serving as a ground for what follows. Moreover, the printed material is static—it is the reader, not the book, that moves forward. The physical arrangements of print are in accord with our traditional sense of history. Materials are layered; they lend themselves to rereading and to sustained attention. The pace of reading is variable, with progress determined by the reader's focus and comprehension.

The electronic order is in most ways opposite. Information and contents do not simply move from one private space to another, but they travel along a network. Engagement is intrinsically public, taking place within a circuit of larger connectedness. The vast resources of the network are always there, potential, even if they do not impinge on the immediate communication. Electronic communication can be passive, as with television watching, or interactive, as with computers. Contents, unless they are printed out (at which point they become part of the static order of print) are felt to be evanescent. They can be changed or deleted with the stroke of a key. With visual media (television, projected graphs, highlighted "bullets") impression and image take precedence over logic and concept, and detail and linear sequentiality are sacrificed. The pace is rapid, driven by jump-cut increments, and the basic movement is laterally associative rather than vertically cumulative. The presentation structures the reception and, in time, the expectation about how information is organized.

Further, the visual and nonvisual technology in every way encourages in the user a heightened and ever-changing awareness of the present. It works against historical perception, which must depend on the inimical notions of logic and sequential succession. If the print medium exalts the word, fixing it into permanence, the electronic counterpart reduces it to a signal, a means to an end.

Transitions like the one from print to electronic media do not take place without rippling or, more likely, reweaving the entire social and cultural web. The tendencies outlined above are already at work. We don't need to look far to find their effects. We can begin with the newspaper headlines and the millennial lamentations sounded in the op-ed pages: that our educational systems are in decline; that our students are less and less able to read and comprehend their required texts, and that their aptitude scores have leveled off well below those of previous generations. Tag-line communication, called "bite-speak" by some, is destroying the last remnants of political discourse; spin doctors and media consultants are our new shamans. As communications empires fight for control of all information outlets, including publishers, the latter have succumbed to the tyranny of the bottom line; they are less and less willing to publish work, however worthy, that will not make a tidy profit. And, on every front, funding for the arts is being cut while the arts themselves appear to be suffering a deep crisis of relevance. And so on.

Every one of these developments is, of course, overdetermined, but there can be no doubt that they are connected, perhaps profoundly, to the transition that is underway.

Certain other trends bear watching. One could argue, for instance, that the entire movement of postmodernism in the arts is a consequence of this same macroscopic shift. For what is postmodernism at root but an aesthetic that rebukes the idea of an historical time line, as well as previously uncontested assumptions of cultural hierarchy. The postmodern artifact manipulates its stylistic signatures like Lego blocks and makes free with combinations from the formerly sequestered spheres of high and popular art. Its combinatory momentum and relentless referencing of the surrounding culture mirror perfectly the associative dynamics of electronic media.

One might argue likewise, that the virulent debate within academia over the canon and multiculturalism may not be a simple struggle between the entrenched ideologies of white male elites and the forces of formerly disenfranchised gender, racial, and cultural groups. Many of those who would revise the canon (or end it altogether) are trying to outflank the assumption of historical tradition itself. The underlying question, avoided by many, may be not only whether the tradition is relevant, but whether it might not be too taxing a system for students to comprehend. Both the traditionalists and the progressives have valid arguments, and we must certainly have sympathy for those who would try to expose and eradicate the hidden assumptions of bias in the Western tradition. But it also seems clear that this debate could only have taken the form it has in a society that has begun to come loose from its textual moorings. To challenge repression is salutary. To challenge history itself, proclaiming it to be simply an archive of repressions and justifications, is idiotic.(122-24)
One of the things that impresses me about this piece is its prescience. Birkerts was writing this fifteen years ago, in 1992. That's fifteen years ago, and yet the questions and concerns he raises feel completely relevant to my own situation as I turn over in my mind how I am going to approach the 2007-8 school year. How much reading can I ask students to do? How much of my mission as a teacher is to provide them with a sense of history, of context? How much of the time that we spend together should be given over to the excavation of the past (close reading, historical and cultural studies); how much to exploring the ever-expanding range of present options (blogs, YouTube, social networking, Google docs, Powerpoint, iMovie, Skype, Twitter, Second Life, and so on and so on and so on and so forth); how much to planning for or strategizing about the future (sustainability, environmental awareness, service learning, etc.). If we are, as Birkerts suggests, "a society that has begun to come loost from its textual moorings," should our role as educators be to try get the ship back into safe harbor and re-tie the hawsers, or to catch the rising tide and head out to open sea?

Those are just a few of the questions that are moving through the back of my brain as I doze on my metaphorical blanket under the seductive Hawaiian sun. No worries: I don't have to come up with the answers for at least another two weeks.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Poetry and Prosody

I use a lot of poetry in my teaching. There are a lot of reasons why. I like reading poems, for one thing. The poems I like the most are the ones in which the poet turns his or her attention to an idea or a question or a memory and thinks it through, re-presenting it in a way that allows me to work through the same process on my own. A good example of a poem like this, and one which I often use with students as an illustration (and because the is referenced by Adah, one of the characters in The Poisonwood Bible, which the students read second semester) is William Carlos Williams' classic eight-liner:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

It's a simple enough poem. The students are quick to observe that it's built around a single image, the red wheelbarrow, and that it's tightly organized: one sentence, four two-line stanzas, the second line of each stanza a single two-syllable word. If Williams had omitted the first stanza, the poem would consist entirely of the image; it would be in essence a snapshot. But he didn't omit the first stanza, and in including it he puts the reader into a field of play: the play of the mind which considers the assertion that this image has significance, that "so much depends" upon this particular wheelbarrow. That assertion raises the obvious question: what depends upon it? That question opens the door to a whole raft of interpretive possibilities. How you might choose to go about answering the question depends, for example, on which critical stance you choose to adopt or feel most comfortable with. A New Critic would insist that the answer to the question has to be embedded in the words of the poem itself, and so would begin asking further questions about word choice. Why "glazed with rain water?" Why the chickens? Why these particular colors? According to a New Critic, any plausible interpretation would have to account for those choices in a systematic way.

Adah's comment in The Poisonwood Bible, by contrast, comes at the poem from the point of view of the Biographical Critic, who would argue that in order to understand the poem we must understand the context in which it was written. She says, "He wrote the poem while he was waiting for a child to die." I'm not sure if that's true, but if I put that information in my head and then reconsider the poem, it certainly changes the way in which I find myself thinking about and interpreting the poem.

So much depends upon the point of view we adopt when we read. A Marxist critic, a Freudian critic, a Feminist critic, a Structuralist, a Deconstructionist, an aspiring writer: each would come at the poem from a different set of interpretive assumptions and thus would experience the poem in a different way than the others. The point I make with students is that there is not one right way to read the poem. But what you start with influences where you wind up. As a reader, you have options. Not just in the reading of poetry, obviously; every kind of reading one does is embedded in a point of view, whether or not one is explicitly aware of it. One of my goals as a teacher is to help students begin to become more self-aware about how they read. Poems provide the opportunity for little mini-workshops in how to go about doing that.

At another, more practical level, there is a lot of poetry out there that is short enough and thought-provoking enough to read, write about, discuss, re-read, and come to grips with in at least a preliminary way in one class period. I always feel, in dealing with a novel or a Shakespeare play, for example, that we are never so much finishing with the book as abandoning it for lack of time to do it adequate justice. So poems, at least some poems, offer the opportunity for something like closure in a finite amount of time.

Also, poets tend to be thoughtful, articulate writers who aspire to deploy words with artfulness and grace, and thus can serve as good models for certain kinds of writing and thinking moves that are applicable in pretty much any kind of writing, whether it be poetry, or fiction, or expository prose. I find, for example that while my students have a pretty thorough understanding of sound devices like rhyme and alliteration and even, to some degree, consonance, they have almost no sense at all of the way the meter works: why how a writer might choose to set up a metrical pattern and then, with design and intention, break that pattern in order to call attention, however subtly, to certain words.

I recently ran across a poem by the 19th century British poet John Clare, the subject of a recent biography by Jonathan Bate, which illustrates how this works. Here is his sonnet "Beans in Blossom":

The south-west wind! how pleasant in the face

It breathes! while, sauntering in a musing pace,

I roam these new ploughed fields; or by the side

Of this old wood, where happy birds abide,

And the rich blackbird, through his golden bill,

Utters wild music when the rest are still.

Luscious the scent comes of the blossomed bean,

As o'er the path in rich disorder lean

Its stalks; when bees, in busy rows and toils,

Load home luxuriantly their yellow spoils.

The herd-cows toss the molehills in their play;

And often stand the stranger's steps at bay,

Mid clover blossoms red and tawny white,

Strong scented with the summer's warm delight.

The poem is written, as most sonnets are, in iambic pentameter. The first line is an almost perfect iambic pentameter line: ba-DUm ba-DUm ba-DUm ba-DUm ba-DUm. But there are places in the poem where the rhythm is off, where an attempt to read the line with a walloping rhythm would not work at all, as for example in the second line. It BREATHES while SAUNTerING in A musING pace doesn't work. It's too many syllables and the accents fall in all the wrong places in the second half of the line. It BREATHES while SAUNT'ring IN a MUSing Pace is better, but it makes IN a stressed syllable, and no one would normallly speak that way. The solution which gives the clearest reading of the line seems to be to simply allow "sauntering in" to speak in its own non-iambic rhythm, ba-da-da-da, an pick up the iambic beat with aMUSing PACE. What THAT does, significantly, is to make the word sauntering stand out. The word, which denotes a sort of proud stroll, is given its own pride of emphasis by being allowed to break the pattern the poem has already established. It's subtle, but it's there. A quick scan of the rest of the poem shows other places where the words which break the pattern are words signal what the tonality the writer wants to establish:

The south-west wind! how pleasant in the face

It breathes! while, sauntering in a musing pace,

I roam these new ploughed fields; or by the side

Of this old wood, where happy birds abide,

And the rich blackbird, through his golden bill,

Utters wild music when the rest are still.

Luscious the scent comes of the blossomed bean,

As o'er the path in rich disorder lean

Its stalks; when bees, in busy rows and toils,

Load home luxuriantly their yellow spoils.

The herd-cows toss the molehills in their play;

And often stand the stranger's steps at bay,

Mid clover blossoms red and tawny white,

Strong scented with the summer's warm delight.

At the denotative level, it is, like countless others of its genre, a pretty tame little poem about nature. But it's the "wild music" that Clare is trying to convey as he writes, the luxuriousness, the sense of sensual overload bordering on ecstasy. I've read a lot of student (and adult) sonnets that pounded away with all due denotative earnestness at a subject, but did not convey much in the way of emotion. John Clare here is giving us a lesson in how use rhythm to convey depth of feeling.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Autobiographical Notes: Joy

A few days ago I wrote a post entitled Back in the Saddle which got me thinking about a particular chapter in my life that had to do with horses, and one horse in particular:

When I was eleven years old, my parents bought a farm. My father was 61 years old. He had spent 30 years working as an engineer and had been planning for years to retire to a farm in upstate New York. The whole idea of starting one’s life over by buying a parcel of land was intriguing to me. We eventually settled for a 97 acre parcel of land at the top of a hill between Hillsdale and Craryville, New York. It had a big two-story white farmhouse, a barn with stanchions for perhaps twenty cows and stalls for five horses, a hayloft, and two garage areas, one for the car, the other for a tractor.

One of the big attractions for me of moving to the farm was the possibility that I would be able to own a horse. I had grown up reading about Jack Ramsay and the Black Stallion (another post here), and most of my favorite television shows - Hopalong Cassidy, Rin-Tin-Tin, Bonanza, Wyatt Earp - were about cowboys or life in the wild west. I had a suburban kid’s romantic vision of horseback rider as a dashing hero, one with mobility and an implicit sense of honor and justice. Once we had passed papers on the farm, my mom and my older brother Geoff and I moved in. My father took a hotel room in the city until his official retirement day; in the meantime, he planned to take the three hour train ride up to stay with us on weekends.

I don’t remember what the occasion was. I do remember that my mom came home one afternoon and told me that she and my father had bought me a horse, and that it was going to be delivered this weekend. I spent the intervening days cleaning out the box stall in the barn, going with my mother to purchase stores of straw and hay and grain, and buying some of the necessary hardware: ropes, buckets, a halter, a bridle.

I spent the Saturday morning the horse was to arrive out in the front yard, looking down the dirt road for signs of a dust cloud that might indicate a truck was on the way. At around 11:30 in the morning, a pickup truck pulling a horse trailer pulled into our driveway. From inside the trailer came sounds of banging and whinnying. There was definitely a horse in there. A pretty frisky horse. The wrangler, a grave looking dark-skinned, muscular man with a beard, stepped out of the truck grabbed a rope, opened the back doors of the trailer, lay out a ramp leading up to the trailer bed, and stepped in. There was a momentary silence, and suddenly about twelve hundred pounds of dark brown muscle came exploding out of the trailer, dragging with it the wrangler who was holding onto the rope for dear life and calling out “Whoa! Whoa there!! Hold ‘on! Easy there girl!!” It took him about a minute, but eventually the wrangler had her more or less stationary, but she kept lifting her feet in place, tossing her head, pulling against the rope as he spoke to her, trying to calm her as she stood snorting, eyes wild. We showed him where the box stall was, which I had layered knee deep in fresh straw. He led her into the stall, slide the door shut, and I stood outside, looking in through the barred opening just at eye level. Looking at her as she skittered around the edges of the stall, trembling and sweating and looking for a way out, I decide to name her “Joy.”

It wasn’t until some time later that we figured out what had happened. My parents had gone to a horse auction in Millerton, looking for a nice gentle horse for their son. They had seen Joy displayed at the auction by her handler, who had demonstrated her gentleness. He had walked underneath her belly, stood behind her to show she would not kick, had climbed up on her and over her from both sides to show she was not skittish. Knowing nothing about horses, nor about auctions, they had not realized that the horse they were so impressed with was in fact heavily sedated at the time. It wasn’t until I began to try to ride my new horse that we found out just how crazy she was.

In the beginning I was taught how to ride by my sister Priscilla, who had taken riding lessons at some point and who also had some experience working at a stable. She was the one who taught me approach the horse slowly from the side so as not to spook her, how to put on a bridle, how to reach my finger into the corner of the horse’s mouth - just behind the foreteeth which could smash your finger if the horse was in the mood - and touch the tongue in order to get the horse to accept the bit into her mouth. She taught how to put on the saddle blanket and saddle, how to cinch and tighten the girth, how to adjust the stirrups to my leg length by measuring it with my arm before I got on. She taught me how to approach the horse from the left on order to mount, how to turn the stirrup to face me so that I could get on the horse by standing at its side facing backwards - holding both reins with my left hand at her withers - put my foot in the stirrup, and then step up and swing my leg over in one motion, transferring the reins to my right hand in the process. She taught me how the difference between a western saddle and and eastern saddle, and between riding western and riding eastern. All of what she taught me would have been a lot easier, and a lot more fun to learn, if it hadn’t been for the horse.

Joy knew all the tricks in the book. She knew how to blow up her stomach while she was being saddled, so that once I was aboard and she let the air out, the saddle would fit too loosely and cause me to lose my balance, fall off entirely, or, on one memorable occasion, swing around underneath her and leave me dangling there between her legs while she bolted for home. She knew how to grab the bit between her teeth and run away. She knew how to sidestep quickly to throw me off balance. She knew how to look for low-hanging tree branches, wait until she was near, and then suddenly break for the branch and try to scrape me off. She knew how to rear and kick, how to run and then stop dead in her tracks to send my flying over her head and onto the ground. She made every minute I spent on her back a struggle for control, and every movement of her body an opportunity to dismount me. Once I was on the ground, she would run away riderless, loose reins and empty stirrups flapping in the breeze. Then it would take my sister and I an hour or more to chase her back to the barn, where she would finally return to her stall, sweaty, eyes rolling, feet stamping.

The worst part of it was that she needed to be ridden, and ridden hard, every day. Despite the fact that there were many days when I was too tired, or too discouraged, or too beaten up from the previous day’s disasters, to want to ride, I knew that if I didn’t ride her, the next day would be worse, for both of us. She needed to be worked, or she would get really crazy. My sister had a friend, Helen Hyland, who showed us the value of getting her tired. After hearing about my troubles with Joy, Miss Hyland came to the farm one Saturday afternoon and got out of the car with a whip in one hand and a fabric rope about fifty feet long. It had a clip at one end and a loop at the other, and was called a luge line. Miss Hyland clipped the rope to Joy’s halter, led her out to a flat field near the barn, then dropped the line on the ground, holding on only to the loop at the end, which she wrapped around her shoulder. Then she cracked the whip which gave off a noise like a pistol shot. Joy took off like a rocket, hit the end of the rope, and then, constrained by the luge line, began running in a large circle around Miss Hyland. Every time she showed any sign of slowing down, Miss Hyland would crack the whip. She kept her running for the better part of fifteen minutes, until Joy was shiny with sweat and clearly worn out. Then she reeled in the luge line, tied Joy to a fencepost, and saddled and bridled her. For the first time in my experience, Joy offered no resistance. Once the saddle and bridle were in place, I swung up into the saddle, and rode her around the field. It was like riding a different horse altogether, a kinder, gentler, much less fractious horse. We continued to exercise Joy on the luge line for several weeks, until she finally had gotten somewhat used to me, and me to her. From that point forward I was able to ride her without actually taking my life into my hands, but she never did really get to the point where riding her was anything like a pleasure.

After several months of tending to two horses, I was surprised when my sister asked me if I might be interested in boarding two more. Miss Hyland had another set of friends who had two palomino mares. One, who I renamed Steinway, was a huge draft horse with Percheron blood. She was gentle and not very bright, but she was strong. Her neck was nearly twice the size of Joy’s, and sitting on her back was like sitting on a piano: my feet stuck out nearly horizontally on both sides. She had what riders sometimes call a hard mouth, which meant that when you wanted her to turn or stop you really had to haul on the reins to get her attention. But she was goodhearted and willing, and riding her was hard but uncomplicated work. Spike, on the other hand, was a light horse, about the same size as Joy. She was quick and light on her feet and was fun to ride when she was in the mood. But she was, like many horses, deeply attracted to life in the barn. Given the choice, she would prefer to stay home rather than go out into the world. As a result, riding her was always a comedy in two acts. The first act was trying to get her to ride away from the barn, which involved continuously trying to kick her sides with my heels, making clicking sounds in her ear, tapping her lightly about the neck with the reins, and doing everything short of beating her to get her to move. The second act, the return trip, was the opposite: it consisted of hauling back and sawing on the reins continuously to keep her from going back to the barn at a full gallop. Once one of the reins broke and I was carried back to the barn at warp speed. She ran into the stall and stopped dead in her tracks, scraping my leg on the door in the process and then dumping me onto the floor.

In the spring of the year after we got Joy, my father died. We had bought the farm in June, and moved in in September. Originally the plan had been for him to retire at the end of the year, but his employers told him that they needed more time to find a replacement, and begged him to work another six months while they recruited and trained someone to take over for him. Reluctantly, he had agreed. He made arrangements to stay in a hotel room during the week and come upstate by train on the weekends. Three months into the six-month extension we got a phone call from a New York City hospital saying he had had a heart attack. My mom immediately drove down to the city and I stayed at home with my sister. I remember arriving home on the bus from school one March afternoon. I put down my books on the kitchen table and went around the corner to where my sister was standing at the sink, doing dishes. I opened the refrigerator to get a snack, and asked her “How’s Daddy doing?” I looked over to her and saw she was in tears.

“Daddy’s in heaven,” she told me.

I was stunned, I hadn’t really thought about the chance that he might actually die. The first words that came out of my mouth were “What’s going to happen to the farm?”

She came over and held me. “I don’t know.”

I don’t remember a whole lot about the immediate aftermath. The only really clear memory I have is of standing in the back yard a month or two later in the early summer feeling mostly anger at my father for having left us like that, for having worked himself to death and leaving us behind. Looking back at it now, I realize that I did something else: I took my anger at my father, and all the other feelings that I probably had but did not have words for, and stashed them way in the back of my mind. It wasn’t until I started writing poems in my late twenties that I began to deal with my father’s death. Every time I sat down to write a poem, my father wound up showing up in it. The very first poem that I felt really good about was an early memory of me and my father doing some yard work in the spring, and in its imagery and its tone it captured a great deal of what I had managed to keep suppressed for nearly twenty years:

Yard Work

Spring arrives, clear and dry. Out back,
my father and I collect branches
and twigs, pile them on the brush heap.
Blown against the fence, our Christmas tree
now brown and dry, trails tinsel as
we drag it over and toss it on top
of the pile. It's time. My father takes
newspaper and shoves it beneath
the twigs and leaves at the bottom.
"Stand back now, son," he tells me.
From his pockets he pulls a pack
of matches, tears one out. He bends
and strikes, then - cupping his hands
against the breeze - lights the fire.

First a curl of smoke, then orange fingers
fan upward. Upward! Leaping, the flames
catch and claw. The first lick touches the tree,
and with an enormous crackling whoosh!
it blazes, a yellow wall against the sky.
Lashed by the heat, I stumble back into
my father's arms. I stand stunned, shielding
my face, as black vapors stream skyward,
hissing; my eyes sting and tear. In seconds,
the tree is turned to black bones; the flames
subside. Cool air sweeps my face. Behind me,
my father stands. In silence we watch
the crumbling limbs burn slowly down to ash.

With my father gone, we all went on, as we had to, with our lives. I went back to school, and to the horses. I wound up taking care of these horses - and eventually several others, for three years, starting the year I was in sixth grade. My life during those years took on a steady and ultimately depressing rhythm: wake up at five, dress and go out to the barn, feed and water the horses and clean out their stalls, come back in, shower and eat breakfast, catch the bus to school, catch the bus back home from school, get changed, ride and exercise and then curry comb and brush all four horses, feed and water them again and clean out their stalls, eat dinner, do my homework, fall into bed, and then wake up the next morning and do it all again. By the time I was in eighth grade I was deadly tired of the whole routine. When my mother told me that she was thinking about sending me to a boarding school in New Jersey, the most attractive thing about that possibility was that it meant I would no longer be responsible for the stupid horses any more. So we sold the horses off, one and two at a time, and in the fall of 1960 I went off to boarding school in New Jersey, where I went for two years before rejoining my mother after she moved to Fairfield, Connecticut, where the next chapter in my life began to unfold.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Independent People

So I've been reading, with increasing satisfaction and intermittent delight, Independent People. Halldor Laxness is certainly my current candidate for the Best Writer I Never Heard Of. I'm only about a quarter of the way into Independent People, but I'm already hooked. Even before the main characters are introduced and the story of their lives is set into motion, there is much to admire and take pleasure in, as in this passage from early in the book, describing the croft-house which will be the setting for much of what follows:

On a knoll in the marshes stand the ruins of an old croft-house.

This knoll is perhaps only in a certain sense the work of nature; perhaps it is much rather the work of long dead peasants who built their homes there on the grassy bank by the brook, generation after generation, on the other's ruins. But for over a hundred years now it has been a lamb's fold; here ewes and their lambs have bleated for more than a hundred springs. Out from the fold and its knoll, mainly to the south, spread miles of marshland dotted here and there with islets of ling, and through Rauthsmyri Ridge a little river runs down into the marsh, and another from the lake in the east through the valleys of the eastern moors. To the north of the knoll towers a steep mountain, its lower slopes scarred with landslides, and the tongues between covered with heather. The crags soar up from the landslides in sheer castellations, and in one place above the fold in the mountain is cloven by a gully in the basalt, and down from this gully in spring cascades a waterfall, long and slender. Sometimes the south wind blows the spray up and over the brink again, so that the waterfall blows backwards. At the foot of the mountain, boulders lie, scattered here and there. This lambs' fold, where once stood the bigging Albogastathir, has for the past few generations been known as Winterhouses.
I am taken here with the easy authority that arises from the patient accumulation of details: the croft-house itself is subordinated in the description, as it has been in history, to the harshly elegant landscape surrounding it. The first two sentences are workmanlike but unspectacular; anyone might have written them, even me. But as Laxness begins elaborating the description, the language takes on density and texture; the words become more specific and harder-edged, the landscape comes alive in the imagination: The crags soar up from the landslides in sheer castellations, and in one place above the fold in the mountain is cloven by a gully in the basalt, and down from this gully in spring cascades a waterfall, long and slender. Sometimes the south wind blows the spray up and over the brink again, so that the waterfall blows backwards. No, Dorothy, we're not in Kansas anymore. We're in an Iceland which is both literal and mythic. There are passages of gorgeous description like this often in the book.

When it comes to describing people, Laxness writes with similar patience and attention to detail. This conversation — not directly connected with the main plot of the story, but crucial to establishing the texture of the daily life of the farmers in Iceland — is worth quoting at length, because it illustrates how Laxness can be simultaneously be reporter, storyteller, and satirist. A group of men are at the wedding of Bjartur, who will become the main character of the novel:

The crofters were standing about on the paving in front of the door or leaning against the wall, making faces as they took snuff, or talking to the bridegroom. The conversation was the conversation of spring, the themes fixed and immutable, with the emphasis heavily laid upon the various ailments of the sheep. For years and years the tapeworm had been a national curse, but with increasing progress in canine hygiene some ascendancy had at last been gained over this ill-omened guest. Of late years, however, a new worm with, if anything, less patriotism than the old one had begun to make its presence felt in the sheep. This was the lung-worm, and through the tapeworm never lost its absorbing seasonal interest, the lung-worm showed with each fresh spring that it was rapidly ousting the former from pride of place as a subject of conversation.

"Well," said Thorir of Gilteig, "if you were to ask me my opinion I should say that there's nothing left to fear as long as you manage to keep them clear of diarrhoea in the wintertime. Even if the maggots are coming out of their nostrils I don't see why you should worry as long as their bellies are clean. And as long as their bellies are clean, surely anyone would expect them to stand the early spring grass. However, I may be wrong in this as in so many other things."

"No," said the bridegroom, "you're quite right. Ragnar of Urthasel, who they say is lying on his death-bed, was of the same opinion, and he was a genius with diarrhoea, I can tell you. But where it was lambs that were affected he was a great believer in chewing-tobacco. I remember he told me when I stayed with him a year or two ago that there were some winters when he gave his lambs as much as four ounces of the best; and he said that he would sooner stint his family of their coffee, not to mention sugar, than see his lambs go without their chaw."

"Well, no one ever praised me for my husbandry," observed Elinar of Undirhlith, the psalmist and commemorative poet of the district, "and I can't say that I mind at all, because I've noticed that those who worry most about making both ends meet prosper least in this world; fortune seems to make them her special sport. But if I was to give you my opinion, according to my own understanding, I should say that if the fodder does little to keep the lambs free of maggots, chaw will do even less. Chaw might well be of some help when things are desperate, but when all is said and done, chaw is chaw and fodder is fodder."

"True enough, every word of it," cried Olafur of Yztadale, swift of speech and rather shrill of voice. "Fodder is always fodder. But there's fodder and fodder, as I thought anybody could see for himself, considering the number of times zoologists have said so in the papers. And one thing is quite certain: it's in some of the fodder that the damned bacteria that produce the maggots are hidden. Bacteria are always bacteria surely, and no maggot was ever produced without bacteria. I thought everybody could see that for himself. And where are the bacteria originally, may I ask, if they aren't in the fodder?"

"I don't know, I don't argue about anything these days," replied Thorir of Gilteig. "We try to see that the animals have decent fodder; and we try to see that the children have a good Christian upbringing. It's impossible to say where the worm begins — either in the animal kingdom or in human society."

This piece cracked me up when I first read it, it cracked me up again as I typed it, and it's cracking me up again now. There's a multilayered subtlety, a tightly orchestrated dance of cooperation and competition between the speakers. They're taking what limited materials they have at hand — and the choice of material is part of the comedy — and managing to entertain each other and pass the time. As Laxness suggests, it's a conversation that has been and will be replayed over and over again at similar gatherings, a kind of ritual bonding procedure. I'm reminded often of Jane Austen as I read Laxness, and he does not suffer in the comparison.

The overall tenor of the book is, however, is not comedic. The life of the independent people of rural Iceland is not a comedy, and although Laxness is often transparently amused by his characters, he's also deeply sympathetic to them, and to the particular fate of this particular country. As Brad Leithauser says at the end of his lengthy and worshipful introduction:

Given Iceland's tiny size and its subordinate role in modern history (it did not declare independence from Denmark until 1944), it's hardly surprising that Laxness is generally perceived not only as the country's foremost artisan of the century, but as its most influential citizen. He looms larger than any modern statesman or religious figure. Not merely through his fiction but through his journalism and essays and political stands, he has shaped the mores of his rapidly changing nation.
He continues:

The reader who comes, unexpectedly, on the book of his life is apt to feel that nobody else fully appreciates it. This is an illogical feeling, of course — but why should our passion for books show any more sense than our passion for people? I'm continually having to rein in a boastful suspicion that I alone am Independent People's ideal reader...
Move over there, Brad. Coming aboard.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Correspondence Course

A visual thought experiment:

Inside, Outside
Small, Large
Microcosm, Macrocosm
Classic, Romantic
Past, Future
Left Brain, Right Brain

Back in the Saddle

I've been remiss. I've been slacking. I've been AWOL. I had a good run going there for about six months, where I was writing and posting something pretty much every day, and, because I am a creature of habit and a somewhat pigheaded one at that, for as long as I was keeping it going, the additional incentive of not wanting to fall off the wagon helped me to keep going. Now the wagon is gone, over the hill, out of sight; even its memory is fading. What sort of a wagon was it? I can't quite recall...

If pressed, I could give reasons. I can rationalize. I have excuses. I've been teaching summer school. I've been giving workshops. I'm taking a lot of pictures. I'm trying to play piano. I'm working on my power naps. I've taken up chess again and am burning an hour or two online every day honing that particular set of useless skills. But I've gotten to the point now where the internal psychic pressure is building. It's time to get back in the saddle.

Assuming I can find a horse to ride. This horse I'm riding right now reminds me of a horse I once owned when I was about twelve, named, in an act of naive and wishful folly, Joy. I'm not going to get into the Joy story right now, although it is a good story. Suffice it to say that Joy was a horse with a mind of her own. She had no particular interest in going in whatever direction I was trying to ride her, and she found it entertaining to try in various diabolically creative ways to toss me off her back. When we were heading out from the barn, she'd balk and sidestep and keep trying to turn around. When we were heading back to the barn, she'd grab the bit in her teeth and run like hell, no matter how hard I sawed the reins and hollered "Whoa!!" (Somehow in class this week we got off on the subject of Homeric similes. And now I've got my horse metaphor running away with me. Funny how that works.) Anyway. Where was I?

Oh yeah. I guess what I'm writing about here is rhythms. My life seems to consist of various intersecting sine waves. The rhythms of writing, of reading, of walking, of teaching, of chess, of photography, of eating and sleeping, of crossword puzzles. This morning I was noting, not for the first time, that the first half hour of every day consists of a series of steps and gestures that are so habitual that I can do them in my sleep. Which is a good thing, because I really am not fully awake until toward the end of the sequence waking, walking into the bathroom, walking from there to the living room, stretching (in a ritual sequence), doing tai chi by the lanai facing the sunrise, coming to the bathroom to shower (another set of rituals, right down to which arm I use to open the shower door, which to turn on the hot water, which shoulder to soap first, which hand to put the shampoo in), shaving, dressing, eating breakfast (a half bagel and orange juice.) If I manage to get locked into a rhythm, I'm good at staying with it. And if I lose the rhythm, it takes a while to get it back.

There's another horse I've been trying to get back on. I've gotten out of the rhythm of reading. It's not that I haven't been trying. I've got about a dozen books open and scattered about the house, but I seem to be having trouble staying with them. In the essay by Sven Birkerts that I referenced last week, he has a passage of typical elegance in which he describes what it's like to be on that horse:
When I am at the finest pitch of reading, I feel as if the whole of my life—past as well as unknown future—were somehow available to me. Not in terms of any high-definition particulars (reading is not clairvoyance) but as an object of contemplation. At the same time, I register a definite awareness that I am, in the present, part of a more extensive circuit, a circuit channeling what Wallace Stevens called "the substance in us that prevails."

The state of being elsewhere while reading was once, in childhood, a momentous discovery. The first arrival was so stunning, so pleasant, that I wanted nothing more than a guarantee of return. Escape? Of course. But that does not end the discussion. Here was also the finding of a lens that would give me a different orientation to what was already, though only nascently, the project of my life. Through reading I could reposition the contents of that life along the coordinate axes of urgency and purpose. These two qualities not only determined, or informed, the actions of whatever characters I was reading about, but they exerted pressure on my own life so long as I was bathed in the energies of the book.

If anything has changed about my reading over the years, it is that I value the state a book puts me in more than I value the specific contents. Indeed, I often find that a novel, even a well-written and compelling novel, can become a blur to me soon after I've finished it. I recollect perfectly the feeling of reading it, the mood I occupied, but I am less sure about the narrative details. It is almost as if the book were, as Wittgenstein said of his propositions, a ladder to be climbed and then discarded after it has served its purpose.

No matter what the shape or construction of the ladder, the ideal state of arrival is always the same. Deeply familiar—like the background setting of certain dreams, like travel, like the body sensations of crying.

I remember that "ideal state," and have been feeling the need to re-experience it. I wanted to once again climb the ladder into that state of exalted awareness and engagement that Birkerts describes. But it's been a while. The reading I have been doing recently — re-reading Birkerts being an exception — has too often felt like work, and unsatisfying work at that. I'd read, I'd put the book down, and I'd feel no tug to get back to it. But finally, last week, I pulled off the shelf a book that I bought a while ago after I had read about in several places. It's a book that a number of people in a position to know — Jane Smiley, Annie Proulx, and Brad Leithauser among them — consider to be one of the best books of the twentieth century. It's called Independent People, by the Icelandic author Halldor Laxness, and I've got to tell you, it's the real deal. It's got me back in the rhythm. I'll have more to say about why a little later on.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Monday, July 9, 2007

Close Encounter

Each morning I wake up at pretty much the same time, around 5:45, mostly because the birds starting chirping outside the window of our condo at about 5:30, and soon after they begin there is one particularly loud bird that shows up without fail and begins a loud, insistent, repetitive declamation of his territorial rights. So each day he wakes me up, and then I wander into the living room to do my morning stretching. Since today was Sunday, after I was done stretching I grabbed my camera and went across the street for a walk around the campus. I found myself poking my camera into a lot of odd places, and came away with some interesting shots, some of which I later posted on flickr. But the picture that's going to stick in my head was a sort of accident, the result of an encounter with one of the semi-wild feral cats that live on campus. Next to Montague Hall there's a sort of elevated porch with a stairway leading up to it, and I decided to walk up to see what sort of an angle that would give me to take a picture of the nearby baseball field. On my way up, I saw a cat looking around the corner at me, and then as I continued to move toward him he started getting very anxious. I was coming at him, he was clearly a little panicked, and the only way to escape was to go past me down the stairs. There was this moment when he was poised, alert, trying to read my body language, and not understanding what I was doing pointing a camera at him.

Just after I snapped this picture, he moved back to his left, hugged the wall to my right, and then, as I took another step toward him, he darted to his right and past me down the stairs. An adrenaline-inducing moment for both of us.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

A Certain Kind of Person

A friend recently passed along a book by Mike Schmoker called Results Now: How We can Achieve Unprecedented Improvements in Teaching and Learning. Schmoker gives a pretty good overview of what he sees as the problems and the possibilities with literacy education in the public schools. I particularly liked one section from Chapter 6 ("The Power of Authentic Literacy") on Writing and Thinking:

Writing and Thinking

Writing, combined with close reading, is among the most valuable, but least understood elements of schooling. Very few teachers have had the chance to consider the real case for writing, or to consider claims like the following:

If students are to make knowledge their own, they must struggle with the details, wrestle with the facts, and rework raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they can communicate to someone else. In short, if students are to learn, they must write. (National Commission on Writing, 2003, p. 9) (emphasis added)

As we've seen, Ted Sizer declares that writing is no less than "the litmus paper of thought" (in Marino, 1998, p. 20). To more fully appreciate the central role of writing, consider the reflections of Dennis Sparks, executive director of the National Staff Development Council. Writing, he informs us,

is a way of freezing our thinking, of slowing down the thoughts that pass through our consciousness at lightning speed, so that we can examine our views and alter them if appropriate. Writing enables us to note inconsistencies, logical flaws, and areas that would benefit from additional clarity. (Sparks, 2005, p.38)

When we write, Sparks is saying, we engage in a singularly close, intense examination of the quality of our own thoughts with respect to logic and clarity. The very act of writing — and revising — teaches us to identify and correct contradictions, to refine and improve and clarify our thoughts — to think (Hillocks, 1987). Writing may very well exercise the critical faculties in a way that can't be matched. As the National Commission on Writing tells us, writing "requires students to stretch their minds, sharpen their analytical capabilities, and make valuable and accurate distinctions." (2003, p. 13).

William Zinsser, a widely read authority on the subject, sees writing as "primarily an exercise in logic," that helps us to "write our way" into an understanding of texts or concepts that previously mystified us. (1988, p. 14) He urges us to recognize that

Meaning is remarkably elusive... Writing enables us to find out what we know — and what we don't know — about whatever we're trying to learn. Putting an idea into written words is like defrosting the windshield. The idea, so vague out there in the murk, slowly begins to gather itself into a sensible shape... all of us know this moment of finding out what we really want to say by trying in writing to say it.

This magical moment, so crucial to our ability to think and process knowledge, currently gets hardly a mention in teacher and administrative training. When we help students to write and revise, we are helping them to create and refine meaning itself, to make connections and see patterns that are at the heart of sophisticated thought. These connections lead to insight, invention, and solutions to problems in every realm — social, professional, political. With reading as its raw material, writing exercises the intellect as it moves from amorphous understanding toward precision and practical application. In the end, writing allows us to discover and produce thought in its clearest and most potent form.

For all our talk about the importance of higher order thinking, we continue to overlook the fact that writing, linked to close reading, is the workshop of thought — with an almost miraculous effect on students' critical capabilities.

All of what Schmoker has to say in this passage about the connections between reading, writing, and thinking strikes me as being patently obvious, and yet he is certainly correct that the message has not gotten through to many of our teachers, or worse, to many of their teachers. As I suggested in my previous post, a large part of what I do every single blessed day with my students is to work the connections between reading, writing, talking, and thinking. We read, we write about what we've read, we talk about what we've written, we go back and read again. We ask questions, we try out answers, we go back to the text to test the validity of the answers. Once we've arrived at one set of answers, we consider whether there might be another set of questions and another set of answers if we shift our point of view. It's a process of exploration. Generally, it works. If it isn't working, we try to turn our attention to the process itself and figure why it isn't working and how we might approach it differently.

The goal, the end product, of the process, is only incidentally to come up with a set of understandings about the text in question. The real goal is to come up with a set of understandings about what it means to be a student. This is something that I am at some pains to try to communicate to my students. We're here for a purpose. The purpose does not have to do with learning a discrete body of facts or achieving a particular grade. The purpose has to do with you learning to become a better reader, a better writer, a better thinker than you were at the beginning of the semester, so that when you move beyond this class to your other classes, and onward into the rest of your life, you will have a conscious and flexible repertoire of strategic reading and writing and discussion and thinking skills that you will be able to draw upon.

A colleague and mentor of mine once said that the longer she stayed in the profession, the more she realized that the goal of her teaching was to help the students learn how to be come a certain kind of person. I think I understand that, and I think I know what kind of person she meant: someone who is thoughtful, patient, openminded, flexible, and competent: able, in the words of our departmental mission statement, "to read compassionately, think exactly, write clearly and gracefully, and act with the compassion, exactitude, clarity, and grace they derive from their engagement with the English language and its literature."

It's a tall order. But it makes for interesting days in the classroom. I don't think I would want to settle for anything less.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Read, Write, Discuss: Repeat

About twenty years ago I participated in a six-week summer workshop sponsored by the Boston Writing Project. The instructor began each class by having one of us read out loud an excerpt from a piece of writing that interested us, after which we would be given seven minutes to write down our first thoughts in response to the reading. One the writing time was up, we would share our responses in discussion, either as a large group or in smaller groups of two or three. I don't remember too much about what else we did during that summer session, but that one activity stayed with me. There is something very satisfying, very connected, very grounded, about that sequence: read, write, share. It gets at core skills, it brings reading and writing and thinking and talking together in an integrated way, and it leads in a very organic, unforced way to explorations of elements of craft that are, well, educational.

It usually takes about forty-five minutes to work through the entire process. If digressions or spinoff conversations occur, and they often do, it can take longer than that. During the regular school year, most classes are either and hour or an hour and a half long, so it's not really possible to use the read, write, share sequence as a part of the everyday routine. But right now I'm in the middle of a six-week summer school session, and we have class for three hours a day, so we've been doing the drill every day.

One of the things I like about the exercise is that I get to find out about new things as well. For example, on Friday a student named Megan decided to share with us an excerpt from a YA novel called Inkheart by Cornella Funke. In the selection we read, there is a band of what seem like a group of pirate mercenaries, led by a man named Capricorn, who are forcing a captive named Mo (nicknamed Silvertongue) to read out loud, because in so doing, he brings the world rendered in the book to life, and the pirates are able to plunder real gold and jewels from the virtual world. After the reading is done and the riches plundered, the pirates insist that the book itself be burned.

It seems like a pirate's dream: an inexhaustible source of riches. But there's catch: sometimes people from the books come to life and present themselves to the pirates (who immediately lock them up for later use as slave laborers); and sometimes people from the real world, like members of the pirate gang, disappear from this life, presumably into the fictional world that exists as a kind of parallel universe. Here is what happens as Silvertongue begins reading The Thousand and One Nights:

A boy was suddenly standing between the still smoldering braziers where Capricorn had burned the books. Meggie was the only one to notice him. All the others were too absorbed in the story... The boy was some three or four years older than Meggie. The turban around his head was dirty, his eyes dark with fear in his brown face. He blinked and rubbed them as if he could wipe it all away — the wrong picture, the wrong place. He looked around the church as if he had never seen such a building before, and how could he have? There wouldn't be any churches with spires in his story, or green hills like those he would see outside. The robe he wore went down to his brown feet, and in the dim light of the church it shone blue as a patch of sky.

Meggie wondered: What will happen when they see him? He's certainly not what Capricorn was hoping for.

But Capricorn had already noticed the boy.

"Stop," he commanded, so sharply that Mo broke off in mid-sentence and raised his head.

Abruptly, and rather unwillingly, Capricorn's men returned to reality. Cockerell was the first on his feet, "Hey, where did he come from?" he growled.

The boy ducked, looked around with a terrified expression, and ran for it, doubling back and forth like a rabbit. But he didn't get far. Three men immediately sprang forward and caught him at the feet of Capricorn's statue.

Mo put the book down on the flagstones beside him and buried his face in his hands.

"Hey, Fulvio's gone!" cried one of Capricorn's men. "Vanished into thin air!" They all stared at Mo. There it was again, the nervousness in their faces, but this time mingled not with admiration but with anger.

"Get rid of that boy, Silvertongue!" ordered Capricorn angrily. "I have more than enough of his kind. And bring Fulvio back."

Mo took his hands away from his face and stood up.

"For the millionth time, I can't bring anyone back," he said. "The fact that you don't believe me doesn't make that a lie. I can't do it. I can't decide who or what comes out of a book, nor who goes into it."

I was struck as this passage was being read by how cleverly the author is using the narrative to explore indirectly and concretely the same sorts of questions from the domain of metacognition that some theoreticians and literary critics have been trying to work out about how those parallel worlds — the world of the here and now and the world conjured in the imagination by black marks on a piece of paper — are related. Here, for example, is the opening passage from Sven Birkerts "The Woman in the Garden" (from The Gutenberg Elegies ):

I HAVE IN MY MIND an image—a painting. Either it really exists, or else I have conjured it up so often that it might as well.

The painting belongs to a familiar genre—that of the pensive figure in the garden. I see a bench, a secluded bower. A woman in Victorian dress is gazing away from a book that she holds in one hand. The image is one of reverie and privilege. But these attributions hardly begin to exhaust its significance. If reverie or privileged leisure were the point, then the book would not figure so profoundly in my mental reconstruction. Indeed, it is the book that finally grips my attention. I have it placed, if not literally then figuratively, in the center of my visual field. At the vanishing point. The painting is, for me, about the book, or about the woman's reading of the book, and though the contents of the pages are as invisible as her thoughts, they (the imagined fact of them) give the image its appeal.

Writing this, I feel as though I'm venturing into a labyrinth I may never exit. Already I find that my thoughts are cross-hatched with corrections and qualifications. For one thing, I suggested just now that the woman was thinking, had thoughts, as she looked away from the page. Not true. The whole point of my summoning her up is to fasten upon a state that is other than thinking. If she were thinking, she would be herself, contained fully within her circuits. But for me the power of the image lies precisely in the fact that she is planted in one reality, the garden setting, while adrift in the spell of another. That of the author's created reality. The business of interpretation gets more complicated when I think that the image was presumably held in mind and executed by a painter working at an easel, and that I have it in my mind not through direct perception, but in memory — or in my imagination.

What compels me is that the painter has tried to find a visible expression for that which lies in the realm of the intangible. Isn't this the most elusive and private of all conditions, that of the self suspended in the medium of language, the particles of the identity wavering in the magnetic current of another's expression? How are we to talk about it?

I zero in on the book itself. It is unmarked, unidentified — a generic signifier. But it does not belong to the ordinary run of signifiers: It is an icon representing an imagined and immaterial order. The book, whatever it is, holds dissolved in its grid of words a set of figments. These the reader will transform into a set of wholly internal sensations and emotions. These will, in turn, prove potent enough to all but eclipse her awareness of the surrounding world. The woman looks up from her book. She looks not at the garden but through it. What she sees, at most, is a light-shot shimmering of green, nothing more. Of the bench she is entirely oblivious.

I see the book. Inside the book are the words. They are themselves the threshold between the material and immaterial, the outward and the inward. The book is a thing, the page is a thing, as are the letters of the words, pressed to the pages by the printing press. They are tiny weights of ink. But if the physical book can be seen as a signifier, then the words are signifiers raised to the hundredth power. Signification is their essence, their entire reason for being. The word is the serpent eating its tail; it is the sign that disappears in its act of signing — the signing is not complete until the word has disappeared into its puff of meaning. At the instant of apotheosis it ceases to be itself; when it has brokered the transaction, it vanishes, reappearing only when the eye has moved on. This is the paradox of paradoxes: The word is most signifier when it least signifies.

But enough. What about the woman in the garden? About the meaning of reading? What is it we do when we brush our eyes over sheaves of print, and why do so many of us elect to do it for our own pleasure? What is the connection between the reading process and the self? Is this a question that can even be answered? I'm not sure. But if it can't, maybe there are others that can be, such as: What is the difference between the self when reading and when not reading? Or: "Where am I when I am involved in a book?

Since I have just been re-reading Birkerts, that connection was easy to make, and it's one of the things I wound up writing about during my seven minutes.

The students had other fish to fry. One thing that came up in the discussion was that the students were impressed with the description. When I asked them to point at passages that they thought had particular descriptive power, one student selected this one, from earlier in the excerpt:

There was no smell of salt and rum when Mo began reading this time. The air in Capricorn's church grew hot. Meggie's eyes began to burn, and when she rubbed them she found sand sticking to her knuckles. Once again, Capricorn's men listened to Mo's voice with bated breath, as if they were turned to stone. Capricorn alone seemed to feel nothing of the magic. But his eyes showed that even he was spellbound. They were fixed on Mo's face, as unmoving as the eyes of a snake, and his body seemed tense, like a dog scenting its prey.
So, if this is "good description," which the students agreed it was, now the question becomes, what makes it good? What is this writer doing here that works? If you wanted to write something which was successful in the way that this piece of writing is successful, what would you have to do? The students zeroed in pretty quickly on the two similes in the last sentence: first, that similes and metaphors are useful for emphasis, for dramatic impact; and secondly, that the placement of the similes at the very end of the sentence redoubles the emphasis. Once the students, reading as writers, have made this kind of functional observation about the way that a pretty good writer has achieved a certain effect, they can begin thinking about how to use this fairly interesting new tool in the next piece of writing they do.

This whole post has been by way of illustration of a process. I've been thinking a lot this summer about what exactly I'm trying to do as a teacher, what exactly it is that I'm hoping students are going to learn in my class, and what kinds of classroom experiences seem to foster whatever that is. I've got answers to each of those questions, but the answers do tend to move around on me a lot. In my next post I'll try to walk myself through one set of answers, following up on what I've been sketching out here. But what I like about the read, write, discuss sequence is that it models the connections I'm trying to make. More to come.