Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Dunn on Creativity

One of the local high schools hosts a second-hand book fair every year. It's a pretty big deal, and runs from Saturday to Saturday. Monday afternoon after work I went down and picked up some things, including a book of poems, Loosestrife, by Stephen Dunn, whose understated, good-humored, philosophically grounded poems have always given me pleasure. Here's one poem that addresses - and embodies - the creative process in a way that intuitively feels right to me:


It makes no difference where one starts,
doesn't every beginning subvert
the tyrannies of time and place?
New Jersey or Vermont, it's the gray zone
where I mostly find myself
with little purpose or design.
An apple orchard, an old hotel—
when I introduce them
I feel I've been taken somewhere
I've been before; such comfort,
like the sound of consecutive iambs
to the nostalgic ear.
Yet it helps as well
here in the middle, somewhat amused,
to have a fast red car
and a winding, country road.
To forget oneself can be an art.
"Frost was wrong about free verse,"
she said to me. "Tear the net down,
turn the court into a dance floor."
She happened to be good looking, too,
which seemed to further enliven her remark.
It always makes a difference
how one ends, aren't endings where you
shut but don't lock the door?
Strange music beginning,
the dance floor getting crowded now.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


This is a drawing I've been working on of the Lutheran church across the street from my apartment. Several times a year the gold tree comes into bloom and then drops its yellow petals all around. Whenever that happens it makes me think of fall in New England. There's also some other weird reverberation going on that has something to do with the iconography of churches, and the presence of this island of traditional small-town structure surrounded by condominiums and city traffic. Something about it speaks to me in a very quiet voice in a language I don't quite comprehend.

Periodic Inventory

The shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave, the neon signs in a foreign country whose language we don’t speak, the shape of a cloud that Hamlet and Polonius both saw one afternoon in the sky, the sign Bois-Charbons that (according to Andre Breton) spells Police when seen from a certain angle, the writing that the ancient Sumerians thought that they could read in the footprints left by birds in the mud of the Euphrates, the mythological figures that the Greek astronomers recognized in the connectable dots of distant stars, the name of Allah that the faithful have seen in an open avocado and in the logo for Nike sportswear, God’s fiery writing on the wall of Belshazzar’s palace, sermons and books that Shakespeare found in stones and running brooks, the tarot cards through which Italo Calvino’s traveler read universal stories in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, landscapes and figures recognized by eighteenth-century travelers in the veins of marbled rocks, the ripped notice on a billboard reinstated in a painting by T├ápies, Heraclitus’s river that is also the flowing of time, the tea leaves at the bottom of a cup in which the Chinese sages believe they can read our lives, the shattered vase of Lugan Sahib that almost became whole in front of Kim’s incredulous eyes, Tennyson’s flower in the crannied wall, the eyes of Neruda’s dog in which the unbelieving poet saw God, the He kohau rongorongo or “speaking wood” from Easter Island that we know holds a message undeciphered to this day, the city of Buenos Aires that for the blind Jorge Luis Borges was “a map of my humiliations and failures,” the stitches in the cloth of the Sierra Leone tailor Kisimi Kamala in which he saw the future alphabet of the Mende script, the wandering whale that St. Brendan took for an island, the three peaks of the Rocky Mountains that outline the profiles of three sisters against the western Canadian sky, the philosophical geography of a Japanese garden, the wild swans at Coole in which Yeats unriddled our transience — all these offer or suggest, or simply allow, a reading limited only by our capabilities.

- Alberto Manguel, Reading Pictures: What We Think About When We Look at Art (7-9)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Two Million Minutes

I was recently at a conference where I saw a presentation by Robert Compton on the theme of Two Million Minutes, which is roughly the amount of time a student spends in grades 9-12. Compton is a self-made multimillionaire who now has the luxury of time, which he uses to travel and to make films that dramatize the condition of American education in the context of worldwide education. The statistics are sobering. According to Compton, there are 54 million high school students in America, 194 million in China, and 212 million in India. And his argument is that in addition to being dramatically outnumbered, American students are drastically underprepared. His core argument — and it would be a hard one for me to refute, based on what I see going on around me — is that American students don't seem to even realize that they are in a competition, much less how far behind they are. In his presentation he presented what he called America's four great education myths:

  1. Our kids are more well-rounded.
  2. Asian education is rote memorization.
  3. Our kids are more creative and more innovative.
  4. U.S. education is the best in the world.

He then presented data, student schedules, and samples of student work that demonstrated fairly convincingly that all of these statements are in fact based on false assumptions and misinformation. He then showed us an edited version of his film, Two Million Minutes, (trailer here) in which he profiled two American students, two Indian students, and two Chinese students. The American students, although stars in their own worlds, did not come off well.

In yesterday's post I quoted Galen Guengerich's meditation on "the steadiness of days." Gungerich uses the Twitter prompt "What are you doing?" as a framing device for an investigation of the ethics of time. I walked out the Compton presentation more convinced than ever that as
educators we have to engage our students in some discussion about what time might mean, and how they might use it in a way that enables them to create value. Taken in this context, the seemingly innocent "What are you doing?" might turn out to be the most essential of essential questions.

Time and Materials

The library in my school gets both ArtNews and Art in America. When the new ones come in each month, I usually page through them to see if there's anything that catches my eye. This month there was a notice of an exhibition of abstracts by Gerhard Richter, and I liked the one pictured so I wound up looking at and downloading some others. Then last night I was at Barnes and Noble looking in the poetry section to get a gift for a friend and I ran across a new book of poems by Robert Hass called Time and Materials, which, it turns out, has won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.) I turned to the title poem and there, as a subtitle, were the words "Gerhard Richter: Abstract Bilden" (Bilden being the German word for "pictures"). I took that as some kind of a sign and wound up buying the book.

When I was thinking about doing this post, I looked online to see if the text of "Time and Materials" might be available, and while the whole text was not, there was one site which quoted part of the text, and it turned out to be in the context of a sermon by a Galen Guengerich, the pastor of a Unitarian Church in New York City.

Now, I'm not usually a sermon-oriented person. But this sermon, entitled "A Steadiness of Days," was pretty interesting. How many preachers have you heard recently who would be likely, in one sermon, to reference not only Robert Hass, but Twitter, Technorati, Wired writer Clive Thompson, astrophysicist Richard Gott and (my all-time favorite writer) short story master Andre Dubus.

It turns out that Guengerich has posted pretty much ALL of his sermons online, and I've bookmarked them for future reference. I'll conclude this post with the closing paragraphs from his sermon, which include the Dubus reference:

To be sure, many religions seem fixed on the ends of the earth—either the creation or the apocalypse, or both. But enlightened faith thrives not in the miraculous but in the mundane, the steady unfolding of days. I recall a scene described by the late Andre Dubus in his book titled Essays From A Movable Chair. Dubus was an award-winning writer who had lost his leg in an auto accident. He tells about making sandwiches on Tuesdays for his second- and seventh-grade daughters and taking the sandwiches to school. He writes:

On Tuesdays when I make lunch for my girls, I focus on this: the sandwiches are sacraments. And each motion is a sacrament, this holding of plastic bags, knife, of bread, of cutting board, this pushing of the chair, this spreading of mustard on bread, this trimming of liverwurst, of ham. All sacraments, as putting the lunches into a zippered book bag is, and going down my six ramps to my car is. I drive on the highway, to the girls’ town, to their school, and this is not simply a transition; it is my love moving by car from a place where my girls are not to a place where they are; even if I do not feel or acknowledge it, this is a sacrament. If I remember it, then I feel it too. Feeling it does not always mean that I am a happy man driving in traffic; it simply means that I know what I am doing in the presence of God.

If I were much wiser, and much more patient, and had much greater concentration, I could sit in silence in my chair, look out my windows at a green tree and the blue sky, and know that breathing is a gift; that a breath is sufficient for the moment; and that breathing air is breathing God.

Enlightened religion is a way of life that humbly accepts the sufficiency of each moment. It embraces the steadiness of the days as they unfold, and the purpose we can fulfill within them, and the sacrament of gratitude we can express through them. Presenting us with time and materials, it asks: “What are you doing?”

That's a sermon that makes sense to me.