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Friday, December 21, 2012

Advent Surprises

When I was about ten years old, one of my older brother's classmates wrote me a poem for my birthday. He and several of his siblings boarded at my parents' house during high school, and over the years have come to be a part of our family (literally, not figuratively -- he married my cousin). This poem is on a white piece of printer paper, written in red ink, saved somewhere special in my parents' house. I'll have to find it over Christmas break. It's delightful, full of simple rhymes and images perfectly written to make ten-year-old me feel very loved and special.

Over the last few weeks, I've been most pleasantly surprised and genuinely touched to receive a few gifts from some of you readers: a poem and two books. As I told the author of this poem when I asked if I could share it with you all, friends have written poems for me before, but I've never been given one so particularly for me; he has used many of my favorite words and phrases, thoughtfully and considerately weaving a picture of the Magi's journey with the language that he knows delights me. If you've read most of the posts on Taking Back Our Brave New World, you'll recognize some of the parts that make it mine and hopefully smile as much as I did:

Here's kind of an early Christmas present. I was just trying to figure out what on earth rhymes with "entrammel," and it sort of grew into a poem. Hope you like it.

(for Ellen)
The Magi, with sagacious eye,
Afar descried and came to Him
With kingly gifts, on camels high,
Entrammelled by a brightness dim.
They sought a sweet and merry morn
Through lands forlorn and paths unseen,
And night was thrice night overhead
Through deserts red, incarnadine.
Locutioners of stars and signs
From heathen times, now called away
To know a new and tiny God,
Their hearts, though awed, in disarray.
What kept them on their wintry road,
Though doubt forbode and toils were hurled?--
Faith's inexpugnability,
Which yearns to see a brave new world!
So let the martial lullaby
They heard on high still calm our souls
And rouse our minds for penitence,
Till merriments have made us whole.

Yes, Jamey -- I like it very much. Thank you a million times over!

As for the books I received, one is a light-hearted look at the lost art of sentence diagramming. My old roommate from college, Mary Powers, also lives in the DC area, and we've recently been discussing the gaping hole in our grammatical educations. I think I had one class in which I was required to diagram sentences, but it never made a whole lot of sense to me, and obviously didn't leave much of an impression. Honestly, I remember parsing Latin sentences far more clearly and successfully. So, I suppose Mary and I are two common unfortunates of the later generation that somehow missed this tool. We have decided that after Christmas we'll sit down with this new book and work on improving ourselves.

The second book is so beautiful that it did literally bring tears to my eyes. Now, if you know me, you'll know that a lot of things do that, such as skipping lunch. Imagine my surprise and curiosity, though, as I came home from work and saw a parcel from England waiting for me, so securely wrapped up that it took a pair of scissors, much shredding of cardboard, and patient coaxing of unusually persistent packing tape to figure out what was inside. It was a 1954 edition of H. W. Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage from Oxford University Press. It has the original dust jacket on it, and a rich dark blue binding with gold lettering very similar to my once unrivaled favorite book of all my books, a 1941 (?) edition of The Works of George Herbert, edited by F. E. Hutchinson (favorite in physical beauty; please don't ask me what my favorite book is. It might be Crime and Punishment, but I honestly don't know.) The age-induced discoloration shown in this picture is in someone else's book -- mine is beautiful.

A pertinent excerpt for you.

Thank you for my Advent and Christmas presents! In case you couldn't tell, I really really like them.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Helen Vendler on Yeats and Post Grads

Some of you perhaps know who Helen Vendler is. If you're not familiar with her, she is a well respected professor and literary critic who has taught at a number of big name universities, including Harvard, where she is now. There are people whose opinions I respect very much who do not think as well of her as I do, but anything of hers that I've ever read has made perfect sense to me. In fact, I respect her work and her opinions so much that when I was a senior in college I found her email address and wrote to her, asking for advice on life plans. Imagine my delight, my outrageous joy, when she wrote me a lovely response, addressing all of the questions I had asked her with kindness and consideration. I, of course, printed off the email and paraded it around campus, showing it to all of my fellow English majors, who nerdily oooed and awed with gratifying and complementary abundance. Although I'm fairly well settled against grad school at this point, and perhaps because of that fact, imagine my delight when last week I came across a recorded lecture of Vendler discussing one of Yeats' poems. Check out this page if you have a particular interest in Among School Children, or if you're simply ready to step back into a classroom and receive some edifying insights from a master instructor.

And, for a little firsthand knowledge of the Lady, here is our correspondence:

Dear Dr. Vendler
I hope you don't find it odd that I am writing to you -- my name is Ellen Turner, and I am a senior English major at the University of Dallas. I want to go right into grad school next fall, so I've been looking around at different graduate programs for English Language and Literature. I've been trying to decide if I should attempt to enter a PhD program right away, or just start with an MA in English and see what happens with that. One of my professors here, Dr. Andrew Osborn, did his undergraduate work at Harvard and has encouraged me to apply, but I wonder if it might not be smarter for me to wait a few years. I'm only 20 now, and much as I would love to dive into the program at Harvard, part of me thinks that I would get more out of it if I let my mind grow up a little more. Not to mention, there is of course a very real possibility that I won't get accepted if I apply now.
 You are the big draw for me at Harvard. Any of your critical essays that I've had a chance to read make so much sense to me -- they just fit with the way I understand things. During the Junior year here at UD, all of our English majors have to choose a poet with whom to become intensely familiar, not just by reading the poet's complete cannon and a full length biography of them, but also by reading about twenty-five or thirty critical books and essays on their work. After a semester of living in the poet's mind, we have oral examinations with a panel of three of our professors. It is a huge amount of work, but very gratifying. After a lot of changing my mind, I finally settled on George Herbert as my poet, and it was through researching him that I came across your work The Poetry of George Herbert -- it was just wonderful. One of my professors also just lent me your book, Invisible Listeners; besides revisiting Herbert, I'm trying to understand Whitman a little better, so I'm sure it will be a great help. I was very excited to learn that you are still teaching, and I very much want to study with you.
So I suppose I'm writing for advice -- do you think I'm too young to fully appreciate what is offered at Harvard's PhD program? Should I work on my Master's for now, and apply to Harvard in a few, or maybe five years? Also, do you ever teach at the Harvard Extension School, and is it possible to take your classes without being enrolled at Harvard as a full-time, degree-seeking student?
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I really do appreciate it!
Ellen Turner
Her response:

Dear Ellen,

(Forgive me, I sent you an empty e-mail because my finger slipped. This is the real e-mail.)

Thank you for the very kind remarks on my work. I enjoy doing it, and so it's good to feel that someone has enjoyed reading it.

As for advice: since I haven't taught you, and don't know you, I can only answer in generalities. Twenty is I think too young; I was out for 2 years before graduate school, and entered here at 23. I felt then that some of the students were really immature; they had done nothing from kindergarten to graduation except be in a classroom. I'd suggest you work for a couple of years, and read while you're working. Your undergraduate English major won't have covered everything; and you'll do better on the GREs if you read some more. I of course remember Andrew Osborn, who was one of our best students; I'm glad to know where he is; give him my best.

The second thing I should tell you is that Harvard only admits to the Ph.D. It is very hard to enter our program if you already have an MA; we prefer that people do all their course-work here (since there isn't that much in the way of course-work; perhaps we require too little). Getting an MA would not help in admission here.

Barring death (smile), I hope to stay on teaching. But I can't say for sure, of course, at my age. However, there are other poetry people here that you'd like--Gordon Teskey, Peter Sacks, Jorie Graham, etc. I don't teach in Extension; and Harvard doesn't permit auditors.

Have you thought of things you might do for a year or so? One of my students went, under the Fulbright program, to teach English in a French University. There are other things--Teach for America, the Peace Corps, etc.--that are both intellectually interesting and good for the growing up you should do before applying to a high-profile program. I am sure you are a very good student if Professor Osborn is encouraging you to go to graduate school--and your intense work on George Herbert certainly shows you'd enjoy it. But I'd say wait, read, travel if possible, get a sense of a larger world, learn another language (preferably Latin)--and then apply in a year or two.

I hope this helps a little. Finally, you must do what your heart tells you. You should apply widely, but only to places you could bear living in for 6 years. . . .

Yours, Helen Vendler 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Stench of Hell

I have rarely been as upset by any book as I was by Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. James Joyce is heady, not to be attempted lightly, and I doubt I would have known what to do with him if I hadn’t been introduced to him in a classroom. But, at the same time, he is mesmerizing, and he has the ability to make his readers care about his characters in a way that few authors can. If you haven’t read this novel, it is the story of Stephen Dedalus’ intentional and rational movement away from all of the things that formed him; he rejects his language, his religion, his traditions – in short, he rejects beauty. This is not me imposing beauty as the composite definition of language, religion and traditions; this is how Joyce sets it up in the book. When, on the second to last page, I realized how it was going to end, I was furious, wished that Stephen would come to life so that I could hit him and tell him to wake the hell up, accept beauty, and stop being a pretentious, lazy ass, and then I fell into a funk that lasted a solid week. The only other time I’ve been so depressed at the end of a book was when I finished Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark. I’ve been told that I’m misinterpreting that, and that said resultant funk was irrational. I’m not convinced.

James Joyce, 1904

  As I’ve been repacking books, I came across this passage marked in Joyce’s novel. Part of me has been feeling like it’s about time for me to read Dante again, and this has certainly whetted my appetite. What can I say? Fascination with horror and things that we’re afraid of is a very human inclination. Given the fact that Christmas is just around the corner and that Advent is actually a penitential season, dwelling on fire and brimstone for a few minutes isn’t such a bad idea. At this point in the novel, Stephen, who has been raised in Catholic Ireland, is on an Ignatian retreat. The retreat is led by conservative Jesuit priests, one of whom gives the following meditation:
Consider then what must be the foulness of the air of hell. Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jellylike mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a million fold and a million fold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus. Imagine all this and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of hell.
Gustave Dore, Canto 14

Take away from this: don’t be as much of an idiot as Stephen Dedalus. I’m convinced he went to hell. His last name is enough to make that clear.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Literally vs. Figuratively, Horses

This distinction made popular news during election season this year, thanks to the occasional fuzzy-headedness of some of our candidates. I first became aware of it in this regard when Rick Perry said something along the lines of, "And we're going to be moving, literally, at the speed of light!" And I was like, whoa! Calm down, Rick! No. He has not and never will move literally at the speed of light. I haven't done any Christmas shopping yet, but once I saw this t-shirt I knew what I was going to get for at least a few of the people on my list. Ok, fine, I haven't even made a list yet, but once I do...

Thank you, readers, for all of your book suggestions! Once life calms back down, I will find them and read them. I'm moving again this weekend, in search of greener pastures (lower rent). And, since I'm already making excuses, I might as well say that I know that the depth of my recent posts hasn't been what it was, and I doubt that there will be much of substance and real pith until after Christmas.
One good quotation to help beautify your day: "What he loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them. All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardenthearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise." (Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses, 6)
That's a line you have to read out loud, and pulse every time you hit an "and." 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Ghost of Christmas Future Perfect Passive

Many, many thanks to The Thin Man for his contribution:

On another note, I need some fresh book suggestions, something along the lines of The Sisters Brothers or Peace Like a River, both of which, by the way, you should read IMMEDIATELY if you haven't read them yet. The Sisters Brothers is a fantastic western, a sort of Cormac McCarthy meets Zane Grey meets... Zorro? Anyway, it's great. And Peace Like a River has a western soul, but comes under... umm, a To Kill a Mockingbird guise, complete with a Scout-like little girl. So yeah, I guess I'm looking for a good western. And I don't mean Louis L'Amour. He's great for what he is, but a little substance would be good. Any ideas?

Friday, November 30, 2012

That vs. Which

One of the things I'm really starting to love about my job is all of the grammar-confusion-induced discussions I've had with people on Facebook. When I get stuck on a sentence, know that something is off, but don't quite know how to fix it, I post it as my status and wait for the suggestions to come in. Many, many thanks to all of you who have been active and resurgent participants in those discussions.

One rule that I've looked up many times, which I still do not seem to be able to impress permanently, is when I ought to use "that" rather than "which." Perhaps many of you suffer from the same malady. But thanks to old classmates, aunts, cousins and past co-workers, I think perhaps today I have come a little closer to remembering the rules. Look here to see how the Oxford Dictionary explains it.

In addition to my understanding of that distinction being increased, I was given the gift of a truly remarkable, outrageous and totally awesome sentence. One of my facebook advisees (thank you, Elaine!) shared this with me. I showed it to several people in my office, and, sadly, most of them either scratched their heads or gently mocked my enthusiasm for nerdy grammar stuff. If you are a faithful reader here, I'm sure that you'll appreciate the brilliance of the following construction:

I know that that that that that lady used was correct.

Can we throw a party now?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Home Burial - Robert Frost

Thanks to some wise words from one of my faithful readers (see the comments on this post), known to all of you as The Thin Man, I decided last week that I should use a road trip to memorize one of my favorite longer poems. Perhaps favorite isn't the right word; I go back to it regularly because it troubles me and worries me and I want to sort it out, but of course I haven't been able to yet. My planned method for memorizing it involved recording it and playing it back about a hundred and fifty times as I drove home to Massachusetts for Thanksgiving, but of course I got in the car only to discover that I had no batteries for the recorder. I'm sorry, Thin Man. Next time I will plan better.

Besides reminding us that the occurrence of a child's death is so troubling, so seemingly senseless, this poem also helps us to look at the troubling aftermath of such an event. The scene, set and related fluidly without any hint of restriction by the meter (evidence of a master wordsmith at work), presents a husband and wife who are trying to navigate their life together after the death of their child. While the husband seems more able to cope with his grief, he does not seem to be able to understand why his wife, Amy, is still so unhappy, still unable to communicate with him, and still apparently directing her anger at him.

I was convinced when I read this in college that they are ultimately able to work things out, if for no other reason than the husband's determination, emphasized in his final and italicized word. Much to my surprise, one of my professors, Dr. Eileen Gregory, disagreed with me. I don't remember what her rationale was; perhaps it was that the husband's determination could too easily be manifested in an attempt at forcing Amy to do what she ought, which would ultimately drive her spiritually and emotionally further away, increasing rather than healing the rift between them. I think it possible that my early interpretation of this poem stemmed from a naive expectation and unrealistic optimism that everything, both in literature and the reality that it communicates, turns out well. While I am not yet convinced of the opposite, I am not so certain of my initial interpretation as I once was. I'm interested to hear your take on it.

He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him. She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again. He spoke
Advancing toward her: “What is it you see
From up there always—for I want to know.”
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time: “What is it you see,”
Mounting until she cowered under him.
“I will find out now—you must tell me, dear.”
She, in her place, refused him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.
She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see,
Blind creature; and a while he didn’t see.
But at last he murmured, “Oh,” and again, “Oh.”
 “What is it—what?” she said.
“Just that I see.”
“You don’t,” she challenged. “Tell me what it is.”
“The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it—that’s the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill. We haven’t to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
But the child’s mound——”
“Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,” she cried.
She withdrew shrinking from beneath his arm
That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs;
And turned on him with such a daunting look,
He said twice over before he knew himself:
“Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?”
“Not you! Oh, where’s my hat? Oh, I don’t need it!
I must get out of here. I must get air.
I don’t know rightly whether any man can.”
“Amy! Don’t go to someone else this time.
Listen to me. I won’t come down the stairs.”
He sat and fixed his chin between his fists.
“There’s something I should like to ask you, dear.”
“You don’t know how to ask it.”
“Help me, then.”
Her fingers moved the latch for all reply.
“My words are nearly always an offence.
I don’t know how to speak of anything
So as to please you. But I might be taught
I should suppose. I can’t say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man
With women-folk. We could have some arrangement
By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you’re a-mind to name.
Though I don’t like such things ’twixt those that love.
Two that don’t love can’t live together without them.
But two that do can’t live together with them.”
She moved the latch a little. “Don’t—don’t go.
Don’t carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it’s something human.
Let me into your grief. I’m not so much
Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out. Give me my chance.
I do think, though, you overdo it a little.
What was it brought you up to think it the thing
To take your mother-loss of a first child
So inconsolably—in the face of love.
You’d think his memory might be satisfied——”
“There you go sneering now!”
“I’m not, I’m not!
You make me angry. I’ll come down to you.
God, what a woman! And it’s come to this,
A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.”
“You can’t because you don’t know how.
If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand—how could you?—his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs
To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.
Then you came in. I heard your rumbling voice
Out in the kitchen, and I don’t know why,
But I went near to see with my own eyes.
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.”
“I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.”
 “I can repeat the very words you were saying.
‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.’
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlour.
You couldn’t care! The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretence of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
But the world’s evil. I won’t have grief so
If I can change it. Oh, I won’t, I won’t!”
“There, you have said it all and you feel better.
You won’t go now. You’re crying. Close the door.
The heart’s gone out of it: why keep it up.
Amy! There’s someone coming down the road!”
“You—oh, you think the talk is all. I must go—
Somewhere out of this house. How can I make you——”
“If—you—do!” She was opening the door wider.
Where do you mean to go? First tell me that.
I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!—”