Saturday, August 31, 2013

Six Word Memoirs


Stopped by Mary Ann Reilly's terrific blog today and saw that on April 30 she posted this slideshow about this interesting public arts project in Minneapolis, where citizens were invited to share something essential about themselves in six words. A lot of clever and thoughtful examples here. May want to bend it a little and try it out with my classes.





Friday, August 30, 2013

The Real Diehl


Guy Diehl is an artist in San Francisco who has an interesting take on still life painting. While he has a terrific sense of color and balance, his control over the paint is such that it doesn't really look like paint at all. His meticulous technique draws attention not to the making or to the gesture but to the beauty of the colors and the forms themselves. There is a centeredness, a stillness, a meditative quality to his works which is calming and inviting. His still-life settings are rendered in such a way that the shadows add to the suggestion that this is a particular moment that is being held so that we can enter into it and breathe within it.

There's also a kind of witty intelligence about his paintings; he often includes elements in his paintings that highlight his connections to other artists and writers. As for example in this painting, Still Life With Giorgio Morandi:


Diehl is clearly working in the tradition of artists like Morandi and William Bailey. In this painting, he explicitly acknowledges Morandi not only by the selection and arrangement of the various Morandi-esque vessels, but by including as horizonal elements in the composition two books, one of which has Morandi's name on the spine.


Likewise, in Still Life with William Harnett, he pays homage to that early American master of trompe l'oeil by including several books, one entitled American Still Life Masters and one entitled William Harnett. I like that there is a bookmark sticking out of American Still Life Masters, suggesting this is a book in active use, and I like that the books and the bottles suggest nourishment for the body and for the brain, the painting itself providing nourishment for the eye.



Still life with Orange Sphere links out to the world of architecture, and its elements - the sphere, the rectangle, the calipers, the bottles, the book are chosen and arranged in such a way as to emphasize the space between and around them in a way that is quite different from the more solid, triangular groupings in the first paintings. Architecture is the art of defining space through structure, and the composition of this painting emphasizes that:




During September Diehl has a show going up at the Dolby-Chadwick Gallery in San Francisco. All images in this post are from their web site, where there are many more.




Thursday, August 29, 2013

Global Concerns


And now for something completely different (and way cool):




Peter Bellerby, Artisan Globemaker.
(Thanks and a tip o' the hat to Beverley Shiller.)

I think that this is a good example of what can happen when you get lucky and fall down just the right kind of rabbit hole. Bellerby starts by wanting to buy a globe for his grandfather, can't find what he wants, decides to try to make one on his own, winds up teaching himself how to do it, and soon he's got a business going that is completely unique and engrossing. It's also a very interesting combination of digital and analog, high-tech and high-touch.

His journey is analogous to the journey I was encouraging my sophomore students today to open themselves up to in writing, where you start just by doing whatever there is to start with, and then, if you get lucky, the writing starts to run away with you in a direction you had not anticipated and leads you do to work you did not know you had it in you to do.

Watching the video put me in mind of a poem by James Reaney I've had in my files for years, but had not re-read recently:

The School Globe

Sometimes when I hold
Our faded old globe
That we used at school
To see where oceans were
And the five continents,
The lines of latitude and longitude,
The North Pole, The Equator, and the South Pole—
Sometimes when I hold this
Wrecked blue cardboard pumpkin
I think: here in my hands
Rest the fair fields and lands
Of my childhood
Where still lie or still wander
Old games, tops, and pets;
A house where I was little
And afraid to swear
Because God might hear and
Send a bear
To eat me up;
Rooms where I was as old
As I was high;
Where I loved the pink clenches,
The white, red, and pink fists
Of roses; where I watched the rain
That Heaven's clouds threw down
In puddles and rutfuls
And irregular mirrors
Of soft brown glass upon the ground.
This school globe is a parcel of my past,
A basket of pluperfect things.
And here I stand with it
Sometime in the summertime
All alone in an empty schoolroom
Where about me hang
Old maps, an abacus, pictures,
Blackboards, empty desks.
If I raise my hand
No tall teacher will demand
What I want.
But if someone in authority
Were here, I'd say
Give us this old world back
Whose husk I clasp
And I'll give you in exchange
The great sad real one
That's filled
Not with a child's remembered and pleasant skies,
But with blood, pus, horror, death, stepmothers, and lies.

The Painter, The Painting, The Paint


As I have mentioned at various times, I spend a fair amount of time on Tumblr, mostly because I follow a lot of art-based blogs, and I like the way that each day my right brain gets massaged by what shows up on my dashboard. Re-posting the ones that speak to me has also allowed my to put together my own digital art archive which now includes more than 11,000 works. While I enjoy the process of scanning, selecting, tagging, and posting these works, one thing I have been more or less constantly aware of is that while I've been going very broad I haven't been going very deep. I haven't spent as much time inside any of the works I've posted as they deserve.

So tonight I thought I'd just pick a few and stay with them for a while. Three seemed like a nice round number, and one that offered hope that I would be able to find something to say about them individually and collectively without writing myself into the middle of next week.

So here's Number One:


I have come rather late to an appreciation of Matisse. Rembrandt and Picasso and Renoir and Van Gogh I heard about when I was a kid. I never heard much about Matisse. But over the last few years I have come to love Matisse and to appreciate his freshness, his daring, his individualism. He combines a child's willingness to just play with terrific innate sense of design and color. And he was just amazingly prolific. I keep running across "new" pieces by him that I didn't know existed, like "Anemones au Miroir Noir." Compositionally this is a very clean and simple picture: a tabletop, a vase of flowers, a mirror. It's got basic shapes, mostly squares and circles, that echo each other, and a limited set of colors —black, white, red, green, gold—that highlight and emphasize each other. It's composed, it's elegant, and it is, at least to my eyes, extraordinarily beautiful. It's a celebration of the beauty of the simplest things. I like how the brushwork is rough and gestural rather than slick and precise; it calls to our attention that this is not just about the flowers, it's about seeing the flowers and rendering the flowers, it's about the paint as well as the painting.

Number Two:



Diebenkorn is another painter I came to late. He's best known, of course, for his big abstracts like the ones in the Ocean Park series, which I love as well. But he has a lot of earlier paintings that straddle the line between representation on the one side and interesecting planes of color on the other. This is a pretty straightforward interior still life: a book on a table, a chair, a wall, a window, the sky. As in the Matisse, there is a kind of deliberate roughness about the rendering of the objects that invites us to look through the objects to the geometrical layout: the four horizontal bands of color and the smaller eco-zones within each band. Look at the swirling orange and blue on the right hand side of the tabletop, the way the scumbling colors on the pages of the book create their own center of interest, the lurid sky in the background and the weird reflected light in the room, the startling and yet satisfying reds on the wall just above the tabletop. Again, this is a painter in love with paint. It's not something to be seen through, it's something to be seen and tasted.

Number Three:


Here's a wild card. It's typical of what often shows up on Tumblr, in addition to classic works by "major" artists: amazing pictures by artists most of us have never heard of. "Interior with Opera Cloak" by Scottish painter Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell is another compositional marvel. You can start looking pretty much anywhere in the painting and be led by the colors into the implied space and back out again. Start by looking at the cloak, and follow the red elements back up and to the right to the wall and then up and to the right to the window, which upon closer examination is actually a reflection in a mirror. We thought we were moving away, but we're being led back out. Or follow the lush green of the door back to the green seats of the chairs back further to the green vertical panel at the very heart of the picture, bathed in the light that also falls on the rug leading us back out of the room, where we find ourselves looking again at the chair and the cloak. Or consider the vertical blue stripe in the back, which enforces the contrast with the reds and the greens, but also frames and highlights the figure on the corner of the mantel, which directs us to look at the whole mantel, which leads our eye back out again toward the door, and calls our attention to the faintest echo of blue on the edge of the doorsill behind the green door. The whole composition invites us to come in, move around, keep looking. Keep looking and you start noticing yet other things: the golden rectangle of the crown molding at the top of the wall in the back, and how it echoes and pushes our eye toward the red rectangle on the right, which encourages us to start following the trail of rectangles: the mantel again, the horizontal panels on the door which more or less bisect the composition. There is a kind of magic here in the way that the two-dimensional plane of the picture becomes an inviting and inhabitable three-dimensional space.

Why these three? What do they have in common? Well, in each of them, there is a there there, a space suggested by the arrangement of paint on surface. (This may seem obvious, a given, but I think it's not, at least not any longer.) They're each compositionally elegant in completely different ways.  Each of the artists has a highly individual and recognizable way of working. If I were to post three more pictures, one by each, it would not be hard to match them up. 

I could go on, either by looking again at each of these, or by choosing others. But this is perhaps enough for one night. Three down, 11,138 to go.

Tumblr links: Matisse, Diebenkorn, Cadell

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Yes. Absolutely.


All right. I want to warm up, and one way to do that is to find a game to play. This game is an old one, not the first time down this road for me. I told one girl in my class that she might want to play this game for a while and see what turns up on the page. "So why not try it?" I thought. And so here I am, peck, peck, peck, one small word at a time. How long can I keep this up? Well, for a while, at least. At times I ask kids to try and make it all the way down the page, and not have it sound weird or out of sync with the way your mind works. The goal is for it to be smooth and clear and not so odd that it gets smoked out right from the start. Of course there are a lot of words that you want to use that don't fit, so you have to sort of fudge it. Some (you?) may think it's a dumb thing to do, but what the heck, not much at stake, not much to lose, might as well go for it.

Then there comes a time when you think, I've gone on in this vein too long, I need to switch gears. But which ones? I could stay with the short word thing but write about, say, clams or young love or the way the clouds move in the dark blue sky when a storm is on the way. Or I could let go of the rule I started with just let a few key polysyllabic words creep in here and there just to get the juices flowing. Or I could just scale the whole thing and say, you know what, I was using this exercise as a warmup, as I pointed out at the start, and now that we're warmed up and on our way there's probably no compelling reason to continue to write with one hand behind my back, so to speak.

However, a return to normal diction and more or less automatic writing, while it has the salutary effect of liberating the writer (in this case me) from the artificial self-imposed constraints of monosyllabism, creates the conditions for different kinds of writerly challenges to manifest themselves, as for example the perennial conundrum that faces even the most intrepid of would-be authors facing the intimidating expanse of the blank page: what am I going to write about? An archetypal dilemma indeed, and one which one might be tempted to avoid by the invention—of course not entirely invented, nor, for that matter, entirely random—of a different kind of five-finger exercise, abandoning the Hemingwayesque—however reluctantly, for it has its charms—for the more rugged Faulknerian terrain which, daunting though it may be, with its elevated diction and labyrinthine syntax, also provides by reason of its lushness and malleability potentially munificent aesthetic rewards for those willing to push beyond the boundaries of conventional usage, not the least of which is the discovery, after the fact, that the search for a suitable topic has been brought to a satisfying conclusion simply by virtue of the means by which the search was conducted.

Are we having fun yet? Well, maybe. Some of us are, anyway.

Process Reflection:

This little exercise did in fact arise from a conversation I had with a student this morning. In doing the first assignment of the semester, she had elected to play with more elaborated, adjectivally embellished diction than what most of us would be likely to use in everyday conversation. While that's always an interesting thing to do, there is a predictable danger involved: you can push just so far before the language being used to communicate begins to overwhelm the idea being communicated. I very much admired the spirit of what she had set out to do, and told her so. But I also suggested that she might want to try a related experiment and go in the other direction, seeing if she could write more or less the same piece but making a conscious effort to use simple words and simple diction, a la Hemingway, just to see what that would feel like, and how it would compare to what she did first. So tonight I thought I'd try it myself. (As a matter of general principle I have always made an effort to do whatever assignments I give my students, for all of the reasons you might anticipate and a couple more you might not.) As I indicated before, it's an exercise I've done before, and somehow it always winds up leading me somewhere I had not really expected to get to. In this piece for example, I had intended to just stick with monosyllables. But as I told my students today in class when we were looking at a poem that had a turn in it about two-third of the way through, it's a simple fact that a writer starts by doing something and then continues doing that thing until he starts doing something else. And that notion was apparently in the back of my mind as I was writing this, because I made the very conscious decision to shift gears and then to shift again, and found myself reversing the poles, moving from the style of writing I had suggested to her to follow up with, to the style of writing she had begun with, thereby traversing a stylistic arc and providing the piece with a kind of internal narrative structure as well. And that's all (s)he wrote.




Monday, August 26, 2013

Beyond Good and Evil


Tim recently recommended a book to me, "The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning" by Maggie Nelson. It's not a book I would have normally been inclined to pick up on my own, but I started it on his recommendation and am enjoying it mostly because I like to watch the way her mind works, and the way she has with finding words to convey what's going on in her head. By way of example, here is a quote from page 17:

But [Artaud's] use of the term [cruelty], and his unwillingness to give it up, were not semantic accidents. Like Nietzsche before him, Artaud insisted on cruelty because cruelty is associated not only with implacability, but also with evil. And both men considered the riotous reclamation of evil something of a necessary pit stop on the way to dancing with cosmic forces which have no truck with the normative, especially religious, conceptions of morality. In other words, embracing cruelty is a step—a sort of hazing, or threshold—on the path to moving beyond cruelty, a space valorized by Artaud ( as well as by the Marquis de Sade, Georges Bataille, Camille Paglia, and countless others) as a more elemental, more animal, more "natural" realm than that of the civilized world, with the latter's internalized psychic limits, fretting over ethics, hypocritical moralizing, tedious social contracts and policy debates. "We sail straight over morality and past it, we flatten, we crush perhaps what is left of our own morality by venturing to voyage thither," Nietzsche wrote, rallying the invisible troops.

What do I like about this? First of all, I like the subject she has chosen, in that one of the most interesting things a good thinker can do is attempt to clearly articulate and understand points of view at odds with his/her own. Her rendering of the position of Artaud and Nietzsche is clear, energetic, precise, and, surprisingly, funny. The sentence "And both men considered the riotous reclamation of evil something of a necessary pit stop on the way to dancing with cosmic forces which have no truck with the normative, especially religious, conceptions of morality," might just as easily been written as something like "And both men celebrated the indulgence in evil because of what that indulgence potentially might lead to." Her hyperbolic diction (riotous reclamations) and colloquial metaphors (pit stop, dancing, having no truck with) offer an energetic alternative to scholarly dronespeak. Clearly she's having fun with this as a writer; as a reader, I am too. Likewise the last sentence might have ended before the tagline, "rallying the invisible troops," but look how much work that line gets done: it's accurately denotative (his followers being at least of the time of his writing unknown to him and to each other); it emphasizes how far outside the framework of thought of the vast majority of humans of his time Nietzsche was; and it suggests obliquely that however convincing he might be, he might also very well be mad. I laughed out loud when I read it.

Secondly, I'm impressed (and not just in this passage, but pretty much on every page) with the breadth of her reading, the depth of her understanding, and her overall chutzpah in even attempting to stake out this territory. In just the first twenty pages she cites, among others (and this is not even counting her many references to contemporary figures)  Rousseau, Hobbes, Bacon, Plato, Aristotle, Brecht, Marx, Walter Benjamin, Freud, Breton, Barthes, and R.D. Laing. This girl has done her homework.

Which of course puts a certain stress on the poor reader who has to keep up with her. As I read her I periodically have to fight off the feelings of inadequacy that her erudition induces. (I should have read more. I should have paid better attention. Then I'd know what the hell she is talking about.) But like most good teachers, she's adept at backfilling when she gets in deep.

Thirdly, despite the conceptual challenges, there is something that cuts very close to home, at least for me, and I suspect probably for everyone to some degree, in the embedded critique of the world most of us inhabit: "the civilized world, with the latter's internalized psychic limits, fretting over ethics, hypocritical moralizing, tedious social contracts and policy debates." Who among us has not wished, with varying degrees of frequency and intensity, for a world in which we would not so often feel compelled, in order to keep peace in the family or in the workplace, to bite our tongue?



Sunday, August 25, 2013

Cheap Thrills


All right. Since I 'fessed up last night to having a secret weakness for Korean soaps, I might as well go all the way down the road of ritual self-abasement and own up to another guilty pleasure. I was reading the paper this morning and was delighted to note in the books section that Lee Child has a new, or at least new to me, Amazon single out, a short story in his Jack Reacher series called High Heat. It took all of about 30 seconds to download it and start reading, and maybe forty minutes to finish it, although I broke the 40 minutes up into segments in order to prolong the pleasure. This one is a sort of pre-prequel, picking up Reacher as a teenager on the streets of New York City (before his career as an army MP and subsequent incarnation as itinerant angel of justice and dispenser of beatdowns to the deserving). In very short order he has met and managed to piss off a Very Bad Man and has become involved in the lives of two young women, one more or less pre-professionally, and one more or less pre-romantically. The usual satisfying and engrossing mayhem in the pursuit of justice ensues.

I originally found out about Lee Child when out of the blue I got a box of books from my brother Otto—who was not in the habit of sending me books—about six or eight years ago that included several Reacher novels. I read those in huge, satisfying gulps, and have been a fanboy ever since. For those of you unfamiliar with Reacher, I suggest you give High Heat a shot. If you find it to your liking, there are, I believe, at last count, 30 novels in the series to choose from. I've read 'em all, and am eagerly awaiting Never Go Back, due out on September 3.

There. It's out in the open. I feel better now.

Birth of a Family


Jam packed tonight. I've been working on transcribing an audio file of an art demo by George, and also reading a manuscript he's been working on. I went over to the gym. I'm working on this post, which is going to be short, in between taking a break from transcribing and tuning into tonight's serial installment of the Korean soap opera Birth of a Family, which I have recently gotten hooked into against my better judgment. I first found out about Korean soaps six or eight years ago when I was laid up after an operation and didn't have much energy to do much but lie in my recliner and watch whatever was on TV. The first one I watched was about a woman who died and whose heart was transplanted into another woman's body after an accident. Somewhere down the line the husband of the woman who died meets the woman who has her heart. (He of course does not know this, and he falls for her becauses.... there's something about her that seems familiar, and thereby hangs a tale that gets dragged out over something like fourteen episodes.)

After that experience, I gave them up for a while, but from time to time I've delved back in. Problem is, once you're in, it's hard to get back out. There are usually multiple plot lines which keep getting temporarily resolved only to be ripped open again at a higher level of angst. I'm not even going to attempt to outline this one, except to say that it has to do with an adopted child who finds her birth family, and the complications which ensue. It's clichéd. It's shamelessly melodramatic. It is not remotely plausible. And it's totally addictive. Oop, it's on. Gotta go.




Friday, August 23, 2013

Hour One of 56


Friday night. Hot and muggy. The evening of end of the first week of school, although actually we've only had two days of classes. (Somebody must have thought that through once upon a time. A good way to start: two days on, a weekend off, a week of classes, a long (Labor Day) weekend, four days of classes. A gradualist approach. Letting teachers and students get their feet underneath them before the long march begins. Actually not so long, as I was talking about with my students. We have a modular schedule at our school which divides the semester into 14 six-day cycles. Each class meets for an hour four times a cycle. 56 hours. As compared to most schools where the class meets an hour a day for 90 days. Adjusting to having 34 hours less per semester for every class was one of the first major adjustments I had to make when I arrive at my school 15 years ago. There are benefits: more processing time, more conference time, less likelihood of burnout. But still, 34 hours is a lot to let go of. It means that we must try to be disciplined and efficient about how we use the time we do have.) Anyway, met each of my classes once. Felt myself bathed once again in the million and one simultaneous overlapping stimuli that put into motion even (especially) on Day One: some by active planning on the teacher's part, some by the fact that people are paying a particular kind of attention at the start, many more by the complex dynamics of having 20 people in a room taking their cues from one another about how this is going to unfold.

Somehow it puts me in mind of Stephen Dunn:

Poetry

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.


This is a poem which delivers some notions about how poetry (or, within the framework of comparison I'm entertaining, the class as an entity) evolves by enacting that process. You begin somewhere. It probably doesn't matter where; it's the "grey zone," regardless. Whatever you do wind up saying at the start comes from someplace within, and is thus recognizable even if it seems random ("An apple orchard, an old hotel—when I introduce them I feel I've been taken somewhere I've been before..."). The beginning sets the direction, but soon enough the poem (class) takes on a life of its own, and leads into territory which could not have been predicted at the start. (I love the appearance here of the fast car, the girl who enlivens the conversation.) Then suddenly, sooner that you expect or might wish for, you look up and you're getting close to the end, just as the music was starting to cook, and people were feeling amped up enough to dance.

That's what most semesters feel like to me. Those last few weeks are always interesting, and for me this year will be even more so, for reasons that were perhaps most eloquently expressed by Uncle Will  (in another, even more intimate context) 400+ years ago:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.







What You See, and What You Think About What You See


I've spent a lot of time over the last two years following Tumblr blogs that focus on art, and reposting things I like to my own page on Tumblr. One interesting subgenre of painting that I've taken an interest in is paintings of people reading. One not-completely surprising fact about the subgenre is that the vast majority of paintings of readers focus on women reading, and so over time I've tried to keep an eye peeled (there's a saying you don't hear much these days) for paintings of men reading. An unfortunate truth of contemporary American culture that Michael Thompson and others have noted is that our young men are increasingly likely to see literacy based activities like reading and writing to be girly things. Even the boys who love to read and write are often at some pains to keep that fact from becoming known. I had a student several years ago, a middle linebacker on the football team, who made a strict discipline of shuffling into my English class and dropping himself into the chair, where he would maintain the appearance of complete disengagement. It was several weeks into the semester before I was able to determine, from the writing assignments he was handing in and the occasional offhand remark he would permit himself in class, that he was in fact listening intently to every word that was said, thinking about it afterward, doing his reading and writing assignments at home with care and thoughtfulness, and was as smart as a whip (seems to be my day for paleologisms). He just couldn't afford to let any of his peers know that; that would have been very uncool.

So today I began using a new LMS with my classes. My school has been using Moodle for a number of years, and we have a handful of teachers using Haiku, but we've been looking at other alternatives and one of the ones that often comes highly recommended is Canvas, so I signed up to be one of a group of teachers who would pilot Canvas this year in order to see how it compares to Moodle. I spent part of the afternoon designing a home page for my sophomore course, and I thought it would look better with some kind of artwork on it, so I went into my tumblr archive to see what I could find that might serve, and wound up selecting this painting by Martha Kiss:

via antelucanhourglass


One of the functions of art, and of teaching, is to arrest one's attention, to make one stop, and linger, and look again, and, in the best-case scenario, to start thinking about, well, something. This painting does that, at least for me. It's well-executed and interesting to look at, and it raises questions. There's a guy sitting at a table reading a book. He seems to be enjoying whatever he's reading; he's smiling. There's a bowl of apples on the table. Simple enough. Behind him there's a painting on the wall of a woman. (Not just any painting of any woman, it turns out, but a carefully rendered re-presentation of a well-known Modigliani, a portrait of his wife Jeanne Hébuterne.) Everything in the painting is pretty straightforward, except, of course, for the one thing that throws everything else up for grabs. The woman in the picture on the wall is reaching down onto the table to grab an apple. Okay, question time:


How is it possible that the woman in the painting could extend her arm OUT of the two dimensional plane of the painting on the wall into the room where the man is reading?

Is there a some sort of implicit connection between the left hand side of the painting, where the man is reading, and the right hand side, where the woman is swiping the apple?

Do the apples symbolize something? (There's a sufficient history of apples in art to suggest the possibility.)

Why Modigliani's wife? Does her story have something to do with his?

What's the connection between the man reading and the woman in the painting? (There are enough compositional connections—the tilt of their heads, the light on their foreheads, the length of their noses, the downward angle of their glances—to suggest that the artist is nudging us to see one as a counterpart to the other. What sort of counterpart?)

Is this a painting about reading? A painting about art? A painting about the intersection of parallel worlds? Or what?

I don't have ready answers for any of those questions. I've got some hunches, which at this point feel subliminal or preverbal, and it would take a fair amount of time to work through them deliberately, and that's not going to happen tonight. But they are interesting questions, and this is a painting that I'm looking forward to living with for a while in my head. I'm also more than a little curious to see what my students will make of it. Especially the boys.






Thursday, August 22, 2013

Hexasyllabics


With apologies to Hayden Carruth

Full moon tonight. I write
bemused because the true
light seems to want to hide
tonight deep beneath some
barrel – I would enjoy
this more perhaps if it
were easier than it
is turning out to be –
but still, the act of will
it takes to keep taking
one step, then another,
eventually brings us 
to… what, pray tell? Well, how
about this? A red horse
stands steaming, sweat streaming
in front of a saloon, while
the cowpoke who rode him
stamps into the saloon, 
slaps a gold piece onto
the bar and shouts, "Whiskey,
Barkeep!" Now I ask you,
where did this guy come from?
Does it matter whether
he gets his beer, or not?
What if, hiding deep in
the shadows at the back
of the bar another
man unholsters his gun,
walks up behind our friend,
puts the barrel into
the small of his back, and
pulls the trigger? Are you 
still with us? Or are you
already marshaling
your objections to the way
the plot is unfolding?
Perhaps you would rather
have had a raven-haired
beauty, his long lost love,
waiting for him, instead
of the guy with the gun?
And in the meantime, what
about the horse? To whom 
does he belong now? Who 
will take him home, put him
in a stall, brush him down,
give him hay and water?

 Process Reflection:

In a conversation today I made reference to a poem by Hayden Carruth entitled "An Outbreak of Hexasyllabics." The point I was making in conversation, following up on yesterday's post about scansion, is that sometimes when you don't know where to start you can just make up a game to play, or set up a set of constraints to work within, and see where that takes you. I had started an entirely different poem earlier in the evening, but it quickly became clear that that poem was going to take a much longer than one evening to develop, so I decided to set that aside and instead play around with the six syllable line for a while. This is very wet draft, and probably some of the lines don't scan right, but I did manage to write myself into a place I had not expected to get to. Which is sort of the point, and the habit of practice I try to encourage in students: adopt an experimentalist mindset. Try stuff and see what happens. That's how you surprise yourself. That's how you learn.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Scansion


I was talking today with Alia, and later with Zöe, about scansion. I'm not an expert on the subject by any means, but it seems to me both on the basis of my own experience as a reader and writer there are several reasons why a writer might choose to work within a defined rhythmic framework, and that those reasons are usually not discussed in English classes. (They were never discussed in any classes I took, and I've never heard them discussed by any of my colleagues.)

The first and perhaps most important reason is that by subjecting yourself to the discipline of attending to the rhythmic pattern as you write, you are voluntarily forcing yourself to attend to the sound patterns of the words you are choosing, which adds an extra level of care in the deployment of words. You're not just blurting or free-associating, you're selecting words by virtue of the way they fit. In poker terms, you're upping the ante, you're making the stakes higher. Not any word will do. The first word you think of will often not do, so you're forced to create a language which is by constraint out of the ordinary. You put yourself in the way of coming up with pleasant surprises.

Another significant reason is that by setting up a pattern of language you are giving yourself a way of creating emphasis when by choice you vary the pattern. If you arrive at a picnic in an evening gown, you're going to stand out because in that context you are likely to be the only person dressed that way. It's not that there's anything wrong with how you're dressed, it just doesn't fit, and so you stand out, just as you would if you wore shorts and a t-shirt to the senior prom. Likewise, once a pattern of language has been established as the default, any variation is going to have the effect of calling attention to the "offending" words. The effect may very well be subliminal, especially for readers who don't read carefully enough to make conscious note of the anomaly. But it's still there.

By way of illustration, here's a sonnet by Donald Justice.

The Poet at Seven
And on the porch across the upturned chair,
The boy would spread the dingy counterpane
Against the length and majesty of the rain,
And on all fours crawl under it like a bear
to lick his wounds in secret, in his lair;
And afterwards, in the windy yard again,
One hand cocked back, release his paper plane
Frail as a May fly to the faithless air.
And summer evening he would whirl around
Faster and faster till the drunken ground
Rose up to meet him; sometimes he would squat
Among the bent weeds of the vacant lot,
Waiting for dusk and someone dear to come,
And whip him down the street, but gently, home.

Okay. Standard sonnet form, iambic pentameter, established quite precisely in the first two lines. The first wrinkle appears in line three: "Against the length and majesty of the rain." Majesty doesn't fit the rhythm. (There's an extra syllable in there.) Nor does it fit the level of diction establish in the first two and a half lines. It's a surprise of sorts, not the word you or I might perhaps have predicted, and the denotative and connotative surprise of the word is reinforced by the fact that it's breaking the pattern of iambs.

Scanning the rest of the poem, we can make note of a number of other places where the rhythm shifts either subtly ("among the bent weeds") or exaggeratedly ("faster and faster"). Like this:


And on the porch across the upturned chair,
The boy would spread the dingy counterpane
Against the length and majesty of the rain,
And on all fours crawl under it like a bear
to lick his wounds in secret, in his lair;
And afterwards, in the windy yard again,
One hand cocked back, release his paper plane
Frail as a May fly to the faithless air.
And summer evening he would whirl around
Faster and faster till the drunken ground
Rose up to meet him; sometimes he would squat
Among the bent weeds of the vacant lot,
Waiting for dusk and someone dear to come,
And whip him down the street, but gently, home.

In each case, once the shift has been noted, it's not so hard to either infer or intuit the logic of the variation. "Frail as a May fly," for example, is another place where an unusual choice of words is reinforced by the rhythm shift: it's an invitation from the author for us to stop and attend, to linger, not to just read through the figure of speech and cruise on. That whole line, "Frail as a May fly to the faithless air," is worth lingering on for a variety of reasons. It's a very elegant and artful and surprising way of focussing our attention on the evanescence of the experience which the poet is at such pains to recall to memory. "Faster and faster" generates excitement in three ways: by the denotative meaning, by being the only repetition in the poem, and by the fact in both words the substitution of trochees (BAdum & BAdum) for iambs (baDUM BaDUM), highlighting the FASTer part. The spondaic "Bent weeds" are rhythmically bent as well. The poem returns to exact iambic pentameter in the last line, but two commas serve to interrupt their flow just enough to gently emphasize—visually and aurally—the word "gently."

I love how the explicit, exquisite tension that the boy feels, (or the author feels, looking back), between the constraints of obligation (time to come home, which might for another boy be heard as "Get your ass in here!") is balanced by the love he feels: "someone DEAR to come, and WHIP him down the street, but GENTLY... home." It seems like this must have been, at least in this respect, a wonderful childhood.

If you're still with me and not overflowing yet with objections, perhaps you'll entertain one more hypothesis or hunch: it seems to me that the way in which this sonnet mirrors or enacts the balance between a predictably structured environment and the pleasure and advantage to be taken in pushing against or playing within the edges of that structure is an almost perfect analog for the childhood experience of "The Poet at Seven." His life is bounded, and grounded, and structured in predictable ways, within which he is able to play wonder-ful games. But when the adventures are over, how nice to be able, however reluctantly, to arrive at... home.


Monday, August 19, 2013

Seven Ways of Thinking about Longing


This is orientation week at my school. At our first department meeting we were asking first to freewrite and secondly to discuss in small groups to this bon mot from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

It was a good discussion starter. But I knew as soon as we started talking that I wanted to re-collect some of my thoughts about it tonight. So here goes.

1

Nice sentiment, nicely expressed, but fundamentally flawed. You can't teach longing. Longing arises when an object of sufficient beauty or loveliness is experienced to be unattainable. (If it were within reach, there would be no need to long for it.) Longing arises organically from within, it can't be willed, or willed away, for that matter. Sometimes it fades away of its own accord, as a function of time and/or distance.

2

A Buddhist would argue that even if it were possible to teach longing, that would be the wrong thing to do: what we need is less attachment, not more. Buddhist practice centers largely on using practice, such as meditation, to arrive at a state of mind in which longing (desire) is extinguished, in order that we might live more fully in the present moment.

3

That much said, there is a point to be taken here, and that has to do with the mission of teaching and the nature of learning. If I were to paraphrase Saint-Exupéry in a way that makes more sense to me, I'd say that his point is that telling people what to do and how to do it is an ineffective way of engaging them; better to start by asking them what they care about, where they want to go, and how they propose to get there. They will work longer and harder and more willingly and to greater effect if they are working on something that moves them closer to what they desire. That is common sense, borne out by my own personal experience.

4

Is it then possible to instill longing in one who has not previously experienced it? I think so. If as a teacher or mentor or friend or lover you are able to direct the attention of the person in question to something they may not have previously seen as beautiful or lovely or desirable in such a way as to arouse that desire, then yes. I've heard teachers describe their work in terms of seduction: they want their students to be seduced by the subject matter. It's a fine distinction. I can't teach someone to long for literature, but I can perhaps put them in the way of experiencing literature that has the power to evoke longing.

5

Everyday life consists in large part of learning to cope with the gap between the world as it is and the world as we might wish it to be. The value of longing is that it fuels aspiration. If we long for a better grade or a better mousetrap or a better world, we are perhaps more likely to try behave in such a way as bring ourselves and those around us closer to that we long for. The danger of longing is that it blinds us to what is miraculous in front of our faces.

6

Case in point :

The Song of Wandering Aengus 

I WENT out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
 
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
 
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Aengus sees a girl, who calls his name and disappears. His longing and determination to recover her defines his entire subsequent life. Even though he is old, he is still on the quest. Futile though it may turn out to have been, it has given meaning and focus and value to his life. Is he a fool, or a wise man? Answers may vary.


What do I long for? An end to the stupidities of war and prejudice and short-sighted me-first moneygrubbing that defines so much of American business and politics and culture. Just deserts for those who for their own benefit create misery for others. A world in which we might have the least hope of sustainability of food enough and water and enough and clean air for everyone. Yes, I know. As if. Never going to happen. So perhaps I'll have to settle for longing for this: the ability to open up for my students whatever the analogue might be, for each of them, of "the endless immensity of the sea."


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Axioms, Principles, and Rules of Thumb


In brainstorming mode, a preliminary list of thematic motifs in my teaching and learning:

Writing is the means by which thought gets bodied forth. Writing practice is thinking practice. Writing makes first thoughts visible, which makes second thoughts possible. That's why students—and teachers, and anyone else wanting to think more carefully and deliberately—should keep reflection journals.

Writing is not always, or most effectively, the means of communicating what we already know or think. Writing can be the means by which we arrive at ideas and thoughts we did not know we were going to have. It's a generative process, not merely a reportorial one.

All thought is embedded in a point of view. One way to broaden your thinking is to ask yourself what the factors are that are influencing your own point of view, and consider how someone who was coming at the problem or issue from another direction might look at it. If you practice shifting your point of view, it gets easier after a while.

When you are working in a group, you have a choice as to the role you want to play at any given moment. Instead of just doing what you are naturally inclined to do, you might try asking yourself "What does this group need me to be today?" and then try on that role, even (especially) if it's one you are not normally inclined to take. (Conceptual frame: servant leadership.)

Question sequences which might frame thinking investigations:

  • What do you see? What do you think about what you see?
  • What do you know for sure? What do you have hunches or suspicions about? What questions do you have?
  • What's one question you have? How many plausible answers can you identify? Which one works best for you? Why?
  • Where have you been? Where are you now? Where are you going?
  • What are you working on? How is it going? Do you need any help?
  • How many parts does this work have? How are the parts related?
In any written work, the author starts doing something and then keeps doing that until he starts doing something else. As in art and music, the composition consists of a sequence of moves. What did the writer do first? What did he do next? How many moves did he make? Where are the turns? How are they signalled?

The importance of endings: last word in the sentence, last sentence in the paragraph, last stanza in the poem, last chapter in the book. How/why do you think we wound up here


There are questions and there are questions. Some questions invite answers that are terminal, some questions invite answers that lead to more questions. Part of becoming a better thinker is to learn how to ask better questions. The essential questions are ones which matter to you, tend to recur in your life, and are worthy of extended investigation. What are your essential questions?

The Universal Intellectual Standards: clarity, accuracy, specificity; logic, relevance, significance; breadth and depth. (NB: the semicolons matter. Can you see why?) (List adapted from Richard Paul)

Asking students to read poems or stories in pairs or clusters puts them in the position of being able to see how the same subject might be approached in different ways, and how the choice of an angle of vision affects what you wind up attending to or thinking about. Reading each work in the context of the others highlights the differences in thought and in the method of of conveying thought.

There's a difference between asking "Are there any questions?" and asking "What are your questions?" One suggests that it's okay, and perhaps preferable, not to have any. The other suggests that questions are an anticipated, expected part of the process of thinking well, that they signal engagement and serve to move us forward.

Reading as a writer; writing as a reader. If you write in the genres you are reading, you bring your experience as a writer back to what you read next, and you read more alertly and attentively. If you read in the genres you are writing and are alert and attentive to authorial decisions—especially when you make note of writerly moves you would not have thought of yourself—you come back to your writing with new things to try out. Your writing informs your reading; your reading informs your writing. It's a virtuous cycle.






Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Training of Mind


Every time I start reading John Dewey, I am reminded of how fresh and convincing his ideas about education are even a century later and how clearly and gracefully he is able to organize his thoughts and present them on paper. As part of my preparation for the workshops I made reference to in yesterday's post, I was googling references to critical thinking and came across this excerpt from his book How We Think (in the public domain and available for free online in a number of locations, and in a free Kindle version here.)

In Chapter Three, for example, he asserts that there are "certain subprocesses...involved in every reflective operation. These are (a) a state of perplexity, hesitation, doubt; and (b) an act of search or investigation directed toward bringing to light further facts which serve to corroborate or nullify the suggested belief. He illustrates how this works by several analogies, one of which is this one (written, it might be worth noting, ten years before Robert Frost wrote his own famous analogical rendering of a very similar situation):

A man traveling in an unfamiliar region comes to a branching of the roads. Having no sure knowledge to fall back upon, he is brought to a standstill of hesitation and suspense. Which road is right? And how shall perplexity be resolved? There are but two alternatives: he must either blindly and arbitrarily take his course, trusting to luck for the outcome, or he must discover grounds for the conclusion that a given road is right. Any attempt to decide the matter by thinking will involve inquiry into other facts, whether brought out by memory or by further observation, or by both. The perplexed wayfarer must carefully scrutinize what is before him and he must cudgel his memory. He looks for evidence that will support belief in favor of either of the roads -for evidence that will weight down one suggestion. He may climb a tree; he may go first in this direction, then in that, looking, in either case, for signs, clues, indications. He wants something in the nature of a signboard or a map, and his reflection is aimed at the discovery of facts that will serve this purpose.

The above illustration may be generalized. Thinking begins in what may fairly enough be called a forked-road situation, a situation which is ambiguous, which presents a dilemma, which proposes alternatives. As long as our activity glides smoothly along from one thing to another, or as long as we permit our imagination to entertain fancies at pleasure, there is no call for reflection. Difficulty or obstruction in the way of reaching a belief brings us, however, to a pause. In the suspense of uncertainty, we metaphorically climb a tree; we try to find some standpoint from which we may survey additional facts and, getting a more commanding view of the situation, may decide how the facts stand related to one another.

Demand for the solution of a perplexity is the steadying and guiding factor in the entire process of reflection. Where there is no question of a problem to be solved or a difficulty to be surmounted, the course of suggestions flows on at random; we have the first type of thought described. If the stream of suggestions is controlled simply by their emotional congruity, their fitting agreeably into a single picture or story, we have the second type. But a question to be answered, an ambiguity to be resolved, sets up an end and holds the current of ideas to a definite channel. Every suggested conclusion is tested by its reference to this regulating end, by its pertinence to the problem in band. This need of straightening out a perplexity also controls the kind of inquiry undertaken. A traveler whose end is the most beautiful path will look for other considerations and will test suggestions occurring to him on another principle than if he wishes to discover the way to a given city. The problem fixes the end of thought and the end controls the process of thinking.

Summarizing later, he says

Given a genuine difficulty and a reasonable amount of analogous experience to draw upon, the difference, par excellence, between good and bad thinking is found at this point. The easiest way is to accept any suggestion that seems plausible and thereby bring to an end the condition of mental uneasiness. Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance. Reflective thinking, in short, means judgment suspended during further inquiry; and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful. As we shall see later, the most important factor in the training of good mental habits consists in acquiring the attitude of suspended conclusion, and in mastering the various methods of searching for new materials to corroborate or to refute the first suggestions that occur. To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry—these are the essentials of thinking.

What are the implications of these ideas for the classroom teacher? Dewey says:


Education has accordingly not only to safeguard an individual against the besetting erroneous tendencies of his own mind—its rashness, presumption, and preference of what chimes with self-interest to objective evidence—but also to undermine and destroy the accumulated and self-perpetuating prejudices of long ages. When social life in general has become more reasonable, more imbued with rational conviction, and less moved by stiff authority and blind passion, educational agencies may be more positive and constructive than at present, for they will work in harmony with the educative influence exercised willy-nilly by other social surroundings upon an individual’s habits of thought and belief. At present, the work of teaching must not only transform natural tendencies into trained habits of thought, but must also fortify the mind against irrational tendencies current in the social environment, and help displace erroneous habits already produced. 

To which I would add that if it is true that all reflective thinking is in response to the "demand for the solution of a perplexity," then it would seem to follow that the teacher's role must be to help students first of all articulate the perplexities and wonderments that they may already have—in other words, to give them practice in asking essential questions (or in their absence, to provide them with experiences which are likely to perplex them to just the right degree: sufficient to raise questions but not so intimidatingly complex as to make students despair of every being able to work out the answers.). Then teachers need to provide students with the time and encouragement to engage in exploratory investigation of the answers, and finally to help them identify ways of weighing and assessing the relative strength of the various plausible answers they are able identify. 

Of this last imperative, Dewey has this to say:


While it is not the business of education to prove every statement made, any more than to teach every possible item of information, it is its business to cultivate deep-seated and effective habits of discriminating tested beliefs from mere assertions, guesses, and opinions; to develop a lively, sincere, and open-minded preference for conclusions that are properly grounded, and to ingrain into the individual’s working habits methods of inquiry and reasoning appropriate to the various problems that present themselves. No matter how much an individual knows as a matter of hearsay and information, if he has not attitudes and habits of this sort, he is not intellectually educated. He lacks the rudiments of mental discipline. And since these habits are not a gift of nature (no matter how strong the aptitude for acquiring them); since, moreover, the casual circumstances of the natural and social environment are not enough to compel their acquisition, the main office of education is to supply conditions that make for their cultivation. The formation of these habits is the Training of Mind.

Students are not going to get better at thinking by being told how/what to think. They are only going to get better at thinking by consistent thoughtful practice. That's our job, to "supply the conditions" that make it possible for students to develop the habits of mind they will need to be able to think well throughout their lives. Can I teach a student to think well? No. Neither can you. Can we create conditions in which students can learn how to think better? That we can do.
- - -
Postscript: A passage from Roger Shank's brilliantly provocative book Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools (2011):

There is no better way to make people think than by annoying them in a way that makes them defend their point of view, especially when their point of view may not have been well thought out. It is important... to make students question their beliefs. No one is a better teacher than a teacher who makes a student wonder whether he has been wrong about something.









Friday, August 16, 2013

Thinking, Again


I have been doing some brainstorming and some reading in preparation for a series of short workshops on teaching critical thinking that I'm scheduled to begin on Tuesday. I had begun an inventory of the various activities that might be considered to be specific kinds of thought processes: remembering, observing, visualizing, hypothesizing, asking questions, and so on. Once I got done with my first pass at that (coming up with 40-something possibilities), I decided to see what others might have come up with. I didn't find exactly what I was looking for, but I did run across an interesting essay by a forward-looking historian named James Harvey Robinson (1863-1936) entitled "On Various Kinds of Thinking."

After talking in a general way about what he sees as the limitations of philosophical approaches to thinking:

Most philosophers...have exhibited a grotesque ignorance of man's life and have built up systems that are elaborate and imposing, but quite unrelated to actual human affairs. They have almost consistently neglected the actual process of thought and have set the mind off as something to be studied by itself. But not such mind, exempt from bodily processes, animal impulses, savage traditions, infantile impressions, conventional reactions, and traditional knowledge ever existed...(Italics in the original.) Kant entitled his great work A Critique of Pure Reason. But to the modern student of the mind pure reason seems as mythical as the pure gold, transparent as glass, with which the celestial city is paved. 
Robinson argues, in language that is always accessible and often witty, that our mental processes are determined to a much greater degree than we are generally aware of by "hidden impulses and desires and secret longings." (In this sense his work presages the work of a lot of 21st century cognitive scientists like David Eagleman who arrive at some of the same arguments with the advantage of a lot more sophisticated brain research than Robinson had access to.)

Robinson goes on to argue that to his way of thinking there are four basic thinking processes:

  1. reverie, or the "free association of ideas
  2. practical decisionmaking
  3. rationalizing, or "finding arguments for going on believing as we already do
  4. creative thought, which "makes things different from what they seemed before"

He's particularly convincing (and entertaining) on the subject of rationalization. After arguing that "the real reasons for our our beliefs are concealed from ourselves as well as from others,"he cites Wilfred Trotter on the subject of sacred cows:

When...we find ourselves entertaining an opinion about the basis of which there is a quality of feeling which tells us that to inquire into it would be absurd, obviously unnecessary, unprofitable, bad form, or wicked, we may know that that opinion is a nonrational one, and probably, therefore, founded upon inadequate evidence.

That certainly rings true to me. [I posted that last night. This morning, I came across this passage by John Dewey from the beginning of his book How We Think, saying much the same thing:

Such thoughts grow up unconsciously and without reference to the attainment of correct belief. They are picked up—we know not how. From obscure sources and by unnoticed channels they insinuate themselves into an acceptance and become unconsciously a part of our mental furniture. Tradition, instruction, imitation—all of which depend upon authority in some form, or appeal to our own advantage, or fall in with a strong passion—are responsible for them. Such thoughts are prejudices, that is, prejudgments, not judgments proper that rest upon a survey of evidence.]


Robinson goes on to suggest that "It will become apparent as we proceed that the fact that an idea is ancient and that it has been widely received is no argument in its favor, but should immediately suggest the necessity of carefully testing in as a probable instance of rationalization." And furthermore, that most of our convictions on matters of importance are "pure prejudices in the proper sense of the word... They are not really our own ideas, but those of others no more well informed or inspired than ourselves, who got them in the same careless and humiliating manner as we. It should be our pride to revise our ideas and not to adhere to what passes for respectable opinion, for such opinion can frequently be shown not to be respectable at all."

I take that as the core mission of attempting to work with students in the hopes of getting them to be better thinkers. Let us beseech them, following Oliver Cromwell, to think it possible that they may be mistaken.

Which puts me in mind of the conclusion of the chapter entitled "The Fallen Angel" in Neil Postman's The End of Education. (There's a version of this chapter available online here.) Postman, who has argued earlier in the chapter for a embedding student learning a meta-narrative acknowledging that, well, "to err is human," makes the not entirely facetious suggestion that we replace our final exams in our various disciplines with something like this:

Describe five of the most significant errors scholars have made in (biology, physics, history, etc.). Indicate why they are errors, who made them, and what persons are mainly responsible for correcting them. You may receive extra credit if you can describe an error that was made by the error-corrector. You will receive extra extra credit if you can suggest a possible error in our current thinking about (biology, physics, history, etc.). And you will receive extra extra extra credit if you can indicate a possible error in some strongly held belief that currently resides in your mind.


Recommended


Just a quick notation about some recommended readings tonight, transparently because I've been able to keep posting every day for a while and I don't want to break the string. At some point I will write about them in more detail, at least the Knausgaard, but to do that reading experience justice would be many days' work.

Probably the best books I've read this year have been Book I and Book II of Karl Knausgaard's microscopically detailed and painfully honest multivolume memoir My Struggle. I also really enjoyed Jennifer Haigh's collection of short stories News from Heaven and the novel which set it up, Baker Towers.

In poetry, I was intrigued and impressed with Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red and Red Doc>. That's six suggestions, if you're desperate for something to read.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Tune Out, Turn Off, Drop Out


There were a couple of interesting questions posted on Quora today. One was "What does everyone need to know about writing?" (with 109 answers) and one was "Why would someone pay $140M for Jackson Pollock's"No. 5"? (with 27).Both are questions that interest me, and ones that I myself would be tempted to attempt an answer to, had I but world enough and time.

I like the idea of Quora, and have been browsing it more frequently of late, but I don't usually have the time to sit down and scroll through , say, 109 answers. So far at least, I tend to look at the list of questions in the email update I get each day, check out and bookmark the ones that interest me, skim the list of answers (there were some answers to the Pollock question which looked to be very carefully developed, complete with photo illustrations of different kinds of art in sequence), and then go on with my day. It seems silly to print out 25 pages of comments just to be cull the ones I want to think about or respond to, but I am not really adept at or interested in doing a ton of scrolling either. (I was just checking back at the site and between the tools already available on the page and the annotation tools available through Diigo, maybe I could find a way to interact with the site in a way that works for me. Some day. Maybe.

But as of this point Quora hasn't wormed its way into my daily life in the way that Blogger and Tumblr and Pinterest have.(Conservative estimate of those three sites at this point in my life: two hours a day. The only way I get away with it? I don't watch television. Period.) Since Google Reader went down I haven't been keeping up with the blogs I was following either. (There is a site called The Old Reader that replicates Google Reader, and I set up an account there and transferred all my subscriptions, but I fell out of the habit of using it and at this point don't even remember which browser I had it set up in or what my username or password is. Note to self: track it down. ) And I've got accounts with Facebook and Twitter too that at this point I barely ever manage to keep up with, not to mention the subscriptions I've got on Flipboard on my iPad, the print magazines that arrive in the mail, the books waiting on my desk and on my Kindle. There's only so much time in a day. There are only so many things I can keep track of.

One of the things I like value about writing is that it is a kind of forced-choice path away from that mode of processing. It's linear. It's accumulative. It's slow. It's about putting one sentence down on the way to getting to the next sentence and the sentence after that. (Although in fact  there are skips and reversals and recursions. Although chronologically every word I have written has come after the words I wrote before, the order in which you are experiencing this text as a reader is not the order in which I wrote it. This paragraph, for example, was inserted as a second-thought elaboration after I wrote the two paragraphs which follow.) Writing is in this sense at least potentially a practice of mindfulness, like meditation or yoga, and in its analog linearity an antidote to the nonlinear horizontality of the digital realm.

There's been a ton of articles written over the last few years about the deluge of online options competing for our attention, what it may or may not be doing to our brains, and what it clearly IS doing to our patterns of social interaction. Every time I go to the mall to walk I have to be careful not to be run down by people who are texting while they walk and navigating the crowds not with their eyes but with a kind of intuitional proprioception. If I stop to sit down to rest or eat, the odds are that most of the people in sight will be scanning screens. I've seen families at dinner where mom, dad, and the two kids are all on their phones at the same time, ignoring each other.

So where are we going with this? Are we on a parabolic curve that is only going to get steeper?  Will our brains cease to be able to function the way they once did? Will all of humanity wind up being electronically collected to a hive brain that will create a superintelligent metahuman terrestrial entity? Or will there perhaps be some kind of backlash or backtracking or reversion to the mean at some point? Stay tuned.

Or, alternatively, breathe. Tune out, Turn off, drop out.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Tuesday Night: Printmaking


So here's what I was doing this evening:


It's a monoprint prepared on an acrylic plate. Lines incised with a stylus, some textures worked in with sandpaper. Then water-soluble graphite worked into the lines, and watercolor paint brushed on wet and allowed to dry. Run through the press, the wet paper releases and absorbs the pigment. This particular paper is also interesting: it's recycled from an old art book. The number 16 at the bottom is embossed on the paper. I like the mottled effect of the watercolor which pooled on the surface of the plate as it dried.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Sitting Here in Limbo


I can't say what life will show me
But I know where I've been
I can't say where life will lead me
But I know what I've seen
Tried my hand at love and friendship
But all that is passed and gone
This little boy is moving on...

There's a lot of activity in the back of my brain these days—nothing completely conscious yet but a kind of anticipatory subliminal gurgling or burbling—about what I will be trying to do this fall when I return to the classroom for what will in all likelihood be the last time. In anticipation of the small move next week to a new office and the large move in January to a new state, I've been going through my books and files and winnowing them down, and all along as I have been doing so I've been stirring up memories of what I've read and taught and written in the past, and pondering which things I might want to ask the students to try again this fall. At the same time I'm thinking, again in a kind of preliminary way, about what I might want to do that I have never done before.

It's always been hard for me to plan in advance anyway. I once taught down the hall from a woman who had her lesson plan book filled out in August for the entire year, every single day. She would stand up at staff meetings and oppose planned field trips on the grounds that if students were to skip a day it would mess up her entire plan for the year. On the one hand I was impressed; on the other hand I was, and remain, horrified. I really feel like I need to get into the room with the students and get a read on where they are and what kinds of experiences and attitudes and inclinations they have already before I can plan what to do next. Throughout most of my career my "plan book" has been actually filled out after the fact, so I know where I've been, but the plan has evolved in large part from day to day.

Which is not to say that chaos will reign. There are some general curricular constraints: books we've agreed to read as a subdepartment (Joy Luck Club, Othello), implicit and explicit expectations about quantity of writing and the qualitative standards that are to be highlighted, an emphasis on metacognition, my own philosophical orientation to working with students to help them investigate the various ways in which reading, writing, and thinking enrich and support one another. I've been doing this work for forty plus years and have a pretty clear sense of the general parameters of what the semester will look and feel like. But what I'm really looking forward to is the surprises. (May they all be happy ones.)





Sunday, August 11, 2013

Why Make Art?


Osiris (Decommissioned)
Moral philosopher Peter Singer's famously provocative essay "The Singer Solution to World Poverty," offers a very readable and straightforward set of arguments which culminate with the assertion that anyone who has money s/he does not strictly need should be giving it away: "I can see no escape from the conclusion that each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be life-threatening." It's an essay that generates good discussion, and often a fair amount of squirminess, when I ask my students to read it. The squirm factor arises from the fact that while the logic of the essay is quite compelling, its conclusions do not square with the vision the students have of their place in the world nor with the sense that they have that they are entitled to what is their own. That's exactly why I ask them to read it. I want them to at least entertain the notion that there are questions of equity and justice and moral obligation underlying the routines and habits of mind of our everyday lives. The way it is is not necessarily the way it should be. If you see it as a worthy objective to spend your life in a way that creates value, then what sorts of value do you endorse? And how would you wish to spend your time in the furtherance of those values?

The other day I wrote a post about some of the questions that were presenting themselves to me as I somewhat reluctantly went about the process of throwing out a number of pieces of my own artwork. One question that I raised, and promised myself to try to work through, was the question of time/value as in applies to art?

Questions abound. What is the point of art? Does it do anything positive? Does it make our lives better in any way that can be convincingly articulated? Why bother taking pigments and smearing them about on a canvas? Would a world without, say, Rembrandt and Picasso, be any less full or miraculous than the world we have now? Following Singers's logic, given the enormous number of hours it takes a Rembrandt or a Picasso to learn his craft and the lifetime given over to the practice of it, would not that time be better spent in doing work which would be of some direct benefit to others who are in real need of help, rather than in doing work which will only be of interest or value to people with enough wealth, education, leisure time, and expendable income to be able to decorate their lives with it?

These are not new questions. Throughout history there have been those who have, on religious or political or philosophical grounds, argued for the destruction of artwork, the burning of books, the leveling of class distinctions based on wealth. Some of these people have been psychopathic autocrats, some of them have been intellectuals, some of them have been celebrated as saints. A full-fledged review of these questions and how they have been answered throughout history would take me the rest of my life to conduct. And the question would re-present itself with regard to that enterprise as well: why study art or art history? Why not serve meals at a soup kitchen instead, or plant a garden, or work on a cure for cancer, or spend one's hours in meditation or in prayer?

In my own case, the time/value question I was posing to myself was whether the time I myself am spending, as an amateur artist, results in the creation of any sort of value I can endorse, or whether it's simply an act of self-indulgence, the frittering away of untold hours in the creation of work which the world could well do without.

So here, in the spirit of a thought experiment, are some of the things that occur to me as I attempt to justify the ways of myself to myself:


The Value of Attentiveness

Let's start with the idea that it is better to be attentive than to be inattentive. Being alert to, and aware of, and taking care of, our environment and the things and people in it, would seem to be a positive good, just as being inattentive, careless, or oblivious would seem to be conditions of mind to be avoided. So if attentiveness is a habit of mind to be cultivated, if it's something we'd rather be good at than bad at, how might we go about developing it? It stands to reason that practice would help. And what better practice than drawing? Drawing forces you to focus, to take note of what you see and to direct your hand to re-present what you see. Other kinds of artwork as well, even collage and abstract art, demand first of all that you attend to the materials at hand, and then assemble them in some purposeful way. Time that one spends in the creation of artwork allows us to practice and strengthen our capacity for focused attentiveness. The same might be said of other disciplines: writing, meditation, gardening. It doesn't have to be art. But if it is art, there are personal benefits to be reaped from one's engagement in it, even if the products are not at the level of Rembrandt and Picasso. Or even if they are not very good at all.


The Value of Engagement

One might imagine having to pay attention to something but not deriving much pleasure from it. "Engagement," as I am using it here, is the experience of doing something that you enjoy in a way that produces satisfaction and makes the time feel rich. There are some people for whom drawing or artwork might not be engaging. In my case, I really do take pleasure in the physical process of doing artwork. Thirty years ago, I was perhaps most completely engaged when I was playing basketball, another activity which produces not overt social good but which indirectly confers other benefits (fitness, camaraderie, the development of a set of skills). Now that my basketball days are over, I find the same kind of personal satisfaction in the creation of artwork. I don't expect that every piece will succeed. But from time to time there are pleasant surprises, and the in-between times feel like time well spent.


The Value of Appreciation

I never played hockey when I was growing up. In my middle years I taught at a school where hockey was a big thing, and I went to a number of games to see students I taught playing in them. But I could never really distinguish the better players from the rest because I did not really understand or appreciate the skill set involved. With basketball it was different. I spent forty years playing the game and twenty coaching it, and to this day I can "read" a basketball game much more skillfully and with greater appreciation than I can a hockey game. My thesis is this: if you want to improve your understanding and appreciation of whatever it is—hockey, basketball, basket weaving, carpentry, guitar—it's enormously helpful that you have some hands-on experience in that area. As an English teacher, one of the core experiences I try to provide for my students involves learning how to read as a writer and write as a reader. For example, a student who has actually been recently and actively engaged in the writing of poetry is going to bring a different set of eyes to any poem s/he reads than a student who has never even tried writing poems. Likewise, a student who has read a great deal of poetry brings a fuller experiential sense of what a poem might be, how it might be constructed, how it might unfold, than a student who loves to write but has no real sense of the work that others have done before.

I can say this from personal experience: until I began drawing and painting, I did not notice or register the artwork that was in my environment, and even when I did, I very often did not "get it." After five years of working on my own artwork, I am much more aware of and appreciative of the work that other artists have done and are doing. In other words, doing art is educative. As I began to develop my own ways of working, I became more interested in and knowledgeable about other artists locally and throughout the world who share my particular quirky set of obsessions. Appreciation, whether of literature, or of art, or of any other area of human endeavor, is a good thing.

So yes, while I understand the reservations some may have about whether the time I spend, or anyone else spends, producing art is justified, for my own self it has brought, and I hope will continue to bring, real benefits.






Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Nothing that Is



The Night, The Porch

To stare at nothing is to learn by heart
What all of us will be swept into, and baring oneself
To the wind is feeling the ungraspable somewhere close by.
Trees can sway or be still. Day or night can be what they wish.
What we desire, more than a season or weather, is the comfort
Of being strangers, at least to ourselves. This is the crux
Of the matter, which is why even now we seem to be waiting
For something whose appearance would be its vanishing —
The sound, say, of a few leaves falling, or just one leaf,
Or less. There is no end to what we can learn. The book out there
Tells us as much, and was never written with us in mind.

- Mark Strand (via insipidexpectations)

What to say? While I was writing yesterday about leavetaking and self-abnegation, there were some thoughts like ghosts making their presence felt in the corners of my mind—the kind that disappear when you look right at them, but that you sense are still there—and I knew that I had recently read, copied, printed out, and pasted in my commonplace book something that was relevant. So I checked and here was this poem.

I like the way it opens, the two clauses of the first sentence, making parallel assertions that taken together express very precisely something deeply mysterious, an existential paradox: that we are here, in the world, alive and attentive to what is in front of us; but that we are also present to, if not explicitly aware of, another, perhaps more fundamental reality, which is not accessible to us, "something whose appearance would be its vanishing."

I've been reading Jim Holt's book Why Does the World Exist? A lot of the early part of the book is basically a historical survey of the way in which thinkers throughout history have attempted to answer the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" A secondary epistemological question has to do whether Nothing can be said to exist at all, or whether that's a logical impossibility, a linguistic trap of some kind. It seems to me that much of the poetry of writers like Mark Strand and W.S. Merwin is grounded in the assumption that Nothing does exist, as source, as destination, as underlying reality, larger and more transcendent than the world we know, and that its existence is instructive, a portal to wisdom: "There is no end to what we can learn. The book out there tells us as much, and was never written with us in mind." My favorite Merwin poem, Search Party, gestures at some of the same territory: there is that which we know, that which can be enumerated, that which can be accounted for, and yet it is not enough, it is never enough. There's more that we will never be able get at. We can only sense its presence.

Here's Strand coming at the question from another angle:

My Name

Once when the lawn was a golden green
and the marbled moonlit trees rose like fresh memorials
in the scented air, and the whole countryside pulsed
with the chirr and murmur of insects, I lay in the grass,
feeling the great distances open above me, and wondered
what I would become and where I would find myself,
and though I barely existed, I felt for an instant
that the vast star-clustered sky was mine, and I heard
my name as if for the first time, heard it the way
one hears the wind or the rain, but faint and far off
as though it belonged not to me but to the silence
from which it had come and to which it would go.

And here to round us out is the magisterial Wallace Stevens:


The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.