I own a strange collection of books that were handed down to me from my aunt and uncle many years ago. They had bought the set for their children, but the books appear untouched, unopened – like a well-preserved archaeological artifact. They are big, bulky, heavy books that take up precious real estate on the bookshelf. Finally, this week, I pulled a few off the shelf to study them – and boy am I glad I did not give into my usual Marie Kondo-tendency to chuck and declutter.
This 54 book collection, which includes 443 works by 74 authors, is called Great Books and was published by Britannica in 1952. Mine is a 1980 print. The first volume in the collection is called The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education by Robert M. Hutchins, and it explains the origin and the purpose of the collection. The tone of the Preface is notable.
[T]he disappearance of great books from education and from reading of adults constitutes a calamity. In this view education in the West has been steadily deteriorating; the rising generation has been deprived of its birthright; the mess of pottage it has received in exchange has not been nutritious; adults have come to lead lives comparatively rich in materials comforts and very poor in moral, intellectual, and spiritual tone.
And since we’re in the middle of what has now become a never-ending election season (like Macy’s one-day-sales), allow me to also include this long excerpt.
We believe that the reduction of the citizen to an object of propaganda, private and public, is one of the greatest dangers to democracy. A prevalent notion is that the great mass of the people cannot understand and cannot form an independent judgment upon any matter; they cannot be educated, in the sense of the developing their intellectual powers, but they can be bamboozled. The reiteration of slogans, the distortion of the news, the great storm of propaganda that beats upon the citizen twenty-four hours a day all his life long means either that democracy must fall a pretty to the loudest and most persistent propagandists or that the people must save themselves by strengthening their minds so that they can appraise the issues for themselves.
It is true that every generation has words of warning for the “rising generation.” And these words of warning ring true today, two “rising generation[s]” later.
The rest of this volume contains essays with titles like “Education and Economics” and “The Disappearance of Liberal Education”. In “A Letter to the Reader,” Hutchins reminds us that the editors are “not interested in general propositions about the desirability of reading the books; they want them read. They did not produce them as furniture for public or private libraries.” [see footnote] They see this as being near-panacea to alleviating the deteriorating condition of the modern mind.
The real bibliographic achievement of this collection of books, though, is The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon, which are volumes 2 and 3 in the set (written by Mortimer J. Adler, also a philosopher). “Syntopicon” is a word that was invented to describe the indexing of big ideas and themes that are discussed in Great Books. Take “Citizen” for example. There is an overview/introduction essay which is followed by an outline of subtopics and the comprehensive listing of all “citizen” references from all of the works in the Great Books. [See photos in the gallery below.] So, truly, this is quite a feat. There is no doubt about that.
When I sat down to write about this Great Books collection, though, my intention was not to celebrate the work of Hutchins and team. What I really wanted to do was complain about the lack of women in the collection. What – women didn’t write great books? In Great Books, there are no women. None. Nada. Nesunna. Aucun. Keiner. Not. A. Single. One. Nope.
You see, I’ve been culturally conditioned to celebrate women’s history and achievements during the month of March so this was on my mind when I approached the collection on my shelf. (Had this been February, I might have been thinking about the lack of racial diversity in the collection.) Thankfully, the second edition of Great Books which was published in 1980s added 59 writers, bringing the total number of women represented in the collection to – drum roll, please! – 4: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Willa Cather. This collection was made by men for men.
So, before I start hyperventilating, I remind myself that this collection is a cultural and historical artifact – that it represents a specific time of a particular place among a particular group of people with specific values. Sure, I get that. And, to be fair, Britannica continued to edit and add more works to each subsequent printings, by including more works not just from the twentieth century but also from earlier periods.
As a snapshot in history, the original collection by Hutchins and Adler (two philosophers) tells an important story about inclusion and exclusion. Hutchins writes a detailed explanation about the selection process. For instance, he explains why the Bible was not included (it’s already in every American home), why the collection ends with Freud (did “great conversation” stop after 1900?), and how each epoch or nation/language was represented (or not). I can’t help but to pause at these words: “I omitted Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, and Mark Twain, all very great writers, because I felt that, important as they were, they did not measure up to the other books in the set.” What a strange thing to say about Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, and Mark Twain. What would a debate about the merits of Emerson versus Pascal sound like? Mark Twain against Tolstoy?
The Great Books is a celebration of Western thought. For sure. Yet, the sturdy binds of these 54 heavy-duty, pristine books from 1952 (via 1980) seem so permanent and inflexible, the opposite of what these Great Books teach us to do with our minds. It has not escaped me that my reaction reflects my own cultural experiences in an age of digital books and “knowledge” that is constantly edited and updated, not to mention knowledge that has become democratized so there is no clear line between producers and consumers of knowledge. I get it.
I am completely fascinated by what Hutchins and team achieved in hopes of encouraging a strong liberal education in America. I have learned just a little bit about Great Books here, and I’m eager to dig deeper and learn more about Hutchins and team’s project. I might even go ahead and read their collection! What intellectual work and discussions must have gone on among the faculty of University of Chicago who put this collection together! Oh to have been a fly on the wall! And as a fly, I might have buzzed about their ears and whispered,
How about something from Hypathia the mathematician and philosopher? The letters of Heloise to Abelard? Julian of Norwich – presumed to be the first book written in English by a woman? Queen Elizabeth? Some of those letters and speeches she gave are worth noting, no? Christina Rossetti? No poetry? Okay, fine. How about a bit of Aphra Behn? Oroonoko is a very short novel. Mary Wollstonecraft? What about her daughter, Mary Shelley? No? Not even Frankenstein? Wow. Okay. Then, Kate Chopin? I guess it’s still 1952 and The Awakening has not made its comeback yet. Never mind.
But here comes the fly swatter –
 Speaking of furniture… Given the nature of information-creation and -exchange today, folks like Farhad Manjoo think Britannica was “exploitative.” And today in the age of Google, Siri, and Wikipedia, the Britannica seems completely irrelevant. Even back then, in the 50s or the 80s, I wonder if these books were ever really used. And even as I’m writing this, I can’t help but to look up “Great Books Britannica” in Wikipedia. There, I find that Hutchins started the project with a 2 million dollar budget but when the books didn’t sell, the company turned to door-to-door sales, which Hutchins had feared. Wikipedia also informed me that the Federal Trade Commission found Encyclopedia Britannica guilty of deceptive advertising and sales tactics. So not only were they exploitative but also deceptive and guilty of breaking the law.
Eamon Grennan’s voice from the stage was low, intimate and slightly scratchy, as if he were whispering his poems into your ear. It was a lovely effect, one which the audience quickly took a shine to, but induced by Grennan’s terrible respiratory affliction.
Sick as a dog, Grennan traveled to Columbia anyway, and read at HoCoPoLitSo’s 38th Annual Irish Evening of Music and Poetry last Friday. He knew, as a small organization with little fat in our budget, that HoCoPoLitSo would be floored if he didn’t read. So he coughed backstage, and before and after taping his appearance on The Writing Life (HoCoPoLitSo’s literary talk show), popped cough drops, mopped his nose and soldiered on.
HoCoPoLitSo, and its audience Feb. 19, was grateful, for his reading, his gentle humor and his poems about his native country and ours, the one he adopted fifty years ago. He still migrates every year between Poughkeepsie, where he taught for forty years at Vassar, and the west of Ireland.
Her Excellency Anne Anderson, the Irish ambassador, introduced Grennan as “deeply rooted in Ireland, yet totally versed in the international tradition.” Grennan, she said from the stage, “finds the extraordinary in the ordinary, and sacredness in the small moment.”
Judges agree. Poet Robert Wrigley noted, on awarding Grennan the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, that “Grennan would have us know—no, would have us see, feel, hear, taste and smell—that the world, moment by ordinary or agonizing moment, lies chock-full with its own clarifications and rewards.”
Grennan has a special way with poems about the natural world; several in the audience commented afterwards how much they loved “Listen,” a ruminative poem about cow conversation. Friday night’s audience laughed and clapped for his preamble to his disquieting poem, “Rats,”: “I’m usually kind to animals,” he said, with a wry smile.
At the last heartfelt line, “Come back and wish on us,” from his poem “Ladybird and Mother,” the audience burst into spontaneous applause. His superstitious mother, he said fondly, always wished on the tiny red and yellow spotted beetles that the Irish call “ladybirds,” and we call “ladybugs.”
Many in the audience nodded sadly when hearing his elegy to the late, great Irish poet Seamus Heaney (Nobel winner and HoCoPoLitSo guest three times). The poem “Sudden Dark” describes how Seamus himself would have found the sharp shards of light in the dark of mourning.
“Pulling light out of dark,” Grennan explained, “poetry is about recognizing both sides constantly.”
Grennan even read from William Butler Yeats’ controversial and beautiful poem, “Easter, 1916,” about the Easter uprising 100 years ago this April, and called it “the most responsible political poem in English.”
And he stayed late, signing every last seeker’s book, especially his latest, There Now, and chatting with Irish, American and English alike in the lobby. Finally, about 10:15 p.m., he gave up the ghost, and asked for a ride to his hotel. Unflaggingly grateful and polite, he chatted in the car about the crowd, migrating back and forth to Dublin, and his daughter’s career as a visual artist before he and his cough disappeared into the lobby.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Bonus: Below you can enjoy the episode of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life that Mr. Grennan recorded in 1995 when he last visited Howard County. In the video, he is in conversation with Terence Winch.
There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love. – Washington Irving
Thank you, Washington Irving.
I cry. A lot. Often. I am a crier. I have no problem crying in front of people. I do an impressive ugly cry, too.
Sometimes I cry because I’m overwhelmed or happy or sad or angry. But often I’m crying for other people, real and fictional. Any time an emotional scene unfolds on the screen, for instance, my husband and my son automatically turn to look at me with “Are you crying?” The old Folgers Coffee commercial with the brother and the sister and Christmas morning – I can’t even. Also, any stories of under-privileged or disenfranchised people getting hard-earned scholarships to go to college – hands down, those just destroy me.
Poetry readings are no exception since poems are often charged with emotions. I will admit, though, sometimes all the crying is a bit embarrassing. It feels like a shortcoming to not be able to experience poetry with just a meaningful nod or a thoughtful “hmm.” Such responses seem more intellectual and sophisticated. For me, it’s almost as if my body reacts to the poetry by immediately turning on the faucet, and I feel betrayed by the body.
For example, at a recent poetry event with Steven Leyva and Josh Soto (“Beans with No Salt” hosted by HoCoPoLitSo for the Columbia Festival of Arts), just one word set me off. One tiny, little 4-letter word had me bawling. So embarrassing.
Leyva read a poem called “Tsunade, I’m afraid” and his performance was a brilliant illustration of how the “white space,” the silence, the pauses, and the breaks are crucial to the task of the poem. I held my breath during his short pause. Then, when he finally uttered the word, immediately my eyes watered. That was not the word I expected to hear. Then, the poem ended. On that word. I won’t tell you the magic word. You’ll have to wait ’til Leyva’s next book is published. And it will destroy you, too.
At the January 30th launch reading of Little Patuxent Review (Myth) at Oliver Carriage House, however, I wasn’t the only one crying.
Amanda Miska came from Philadelphia to read her poem, “Missed Connections for My Self.” Her poem follows the conventions of a Craigslist section called “Missed Connections” where people post messages looking for strangers they almost met and now want to find to re-connect. In her introduction, Miska explained that she had been struggling to re-connect with her self and her new, different body after becoming a mother. There are 6 sections to the poem, which she says she wrote on her iPhone, with titles like “I Know You Were Doing the Best You Could – w4w (XSport Fitness)” and “I Want to Show you the Delicious Side of Life – w4w (Dunkin’ Donuts).”
Miska couldn’t help but cry a little as she read her poem. The poems were deeply personal. And needless to say, I cried. Like a baby. No, that’s not true. I cried like a grown woman who knew exactly what Miska was talking about, who could feel her words, who lived (and still lives) those emotions.
Later on in the reading, Edgar Gabriel Silex read several poems, but it was “Demeter” that made the poet himself fight back the tears. The last stanza of the poem reads, “and saints and angels were all gone he came into my room / one day trying to harm me and I hit my father threw him down / and stood over him crying […]” Well, when the poet chokes up, what chance do I have? None. Out poured the tears.
As Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
In school, we are taught to differentiate the poet from the speaker of the poem. Of course many poems speak in the voice of persona or character created by the poet. But sometimes poems speak for the poet, the poet’s experiences, the poet’s life, the poet’s memories, and the poet’s knowledge – sometimes directly and other times indirectly. Whatever “Demeter” is as a work of literary art – fiction or nonfiction – it’s one of what Silex calls “the ninety-plus essential human stories” that are believed to be out there. He says, “our libraries are filled with variations of these stories, told over and over through history, culture, and time. What changes in them, of course, is the Time-the-Teller.”
Perhaps this is why we cry. We know these stories. We know all of these stories, that is. But instead of making us dull or our lives mundane, they make us understand one another, draw us closer.
In the words of James Baldwin…
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
It’s not the intellectual understanding or the cognitive awareness of the feeling – like pain, hunger, fear, hurt and so on – but the ability to imagine how someone felt it – that’s what triggers my empathy. Empathy requires imagination. Without imagination, we cannot put ourselves in the shoes of another.
I can imagine, for example, the shame that the speaker of Miska’s poem must have felt when she almost fell while trying to walk inconspicuously out of Dunkin’ Donuts. I can imagine, again, the anger (fear? hope? triumph? sadness? regret?) that the speaker in “Demeter” must have felt as he fought back his father and ran away. And when he says, “I ran / and still run from anything stinking of heaven or hell” I can picture this person who is haunted and even hunted by these memories and emotional bruises. Maybe Paulo Coelho is right – “tears are words waiting to be written.”
So, the next time you see me crying at a poetry reading (most likely at Irish Evening on February 19th), pass me a Kleenex and join me in the crying.
Presenting Beans with No Salt: a Performance of Poetry and Percussion with Steven Leyva and Josh Soto
Kittleman Room of Duncan Hall
Howard Community College
February 6, 4-6 pm (Get Tickets)
Join HoCoPoLitSo for a coffeehouse afternoon of poetry and music, flavored with a bit of Zydeco as a warm-up for Mardi Gras.
Baltimore poet and Little Patuxent Review editor Steven Leyva reads from his work, centered around his tuneful hometown of New Orleans. He will be accompanied by drummer Josh Soto on congas and drum set. Coffee and snacks will be served before and during the performance, and a question and answer session follows.
In Créole the word Zydeco could translate to “Green Beans,” but colloquially a better approximation would be “Beans with no salt,” which is a sly way of expressing hard times. The reciprocal movement between lack and plenty, famine and feast, often inspires innovation in literature and music, making the borders of genres porous. Using improvisation, audience participation and a bit of luck, Leyva and Soto seek to carve out a space in the ear and imagination where hard times breed a new music for the heart, and percussion becomes the poet’s blank page.
This event is presented by HoCoPoLitSo in partnership with the Columbia Festival of the Arts winter performance series, “Beyond the Blues.” Join us for Poetry and Percussion at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, at the Kittleman Room on the campus of Howard Community College. A book signing and reception will follow. Tickets are $15 general admission and $10 for students and seniors. They are available online through Brown Paper Tickets.
2015 was the year of binge-watching TV shows on Netflix. I’m ashamed to reveal the actual number of hours I’ve spent watching shows like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Sherlock, Dexter, and so on. All good shows. Still. Shame on me.
When I look over my bookshelves, the night stand, the coffee tables, and really everywhere around the house I see many books that I haven’t read yet. This is because despite the fact that I was watching more than I was reading, I continued to purchase books. I am a avid shopper of books. I enjoy Amazon and second-hand book stores (online ones like Thrift Books and real ones like Second Edition Books and Music). My favorite is browsing yard sales, garage sales, antique shops, flea markets for books. I love shopping for books (almost?) as much as I love reading them. Remember my post about the physical life of books or the one about the journey of books?
I love going to the local library, especially with the kids, but I haven’t borrowed books in many years. The last time my kids borrowed a few books from the local library I ended up owing 20 bucks in late fees. For someone who is fairly organized, I can’t seem to return books to the library on time. Maybe I’ll give it a go again this year. There is another resolution.
So without buying any new books this year (although this excludes buying books at or for author readings), I am committing to reading at least 12 books, mostly from my own bookshelf and maybe a few from the library. This goal seems so wimpy given that Amy McLay Paterson read 164 books in 2015. But I gotta start where I can.
A friend tagged me in a 2016 Reading Challenge, and this may be a good way to get to my 12 books for the year. So, here’s the plan.
- new release: I’ll have to decide on a new release – but I won’t buy it – I’ll wait to get it at the library
- finish in a day: Blue Shoes and Happiness OR The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith – Thanks Tim!
- meaning to read: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
- recommended by librarian: I don’t know yet! I haven’t been to the library in ages!
- should have read in school: Black Boy by Richard Wright
- chosen by a BFF: The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver – Thanks Sarah!
- published before born: The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
- banned at some point: Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
- previously abandoned: Kings of Infinite Space by James Hynes – Thanks Ryna for the recommendation!
- own but never read: The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
- a book that intimidates: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff – Thanks President Obama for the recommendation!
- a book I’ve already read: this one, I will leave blank for now – as a treat for myself later…
If you’re looking for some inspiration, a list of what to look for in 2016, here are some articles that will guide your reading journey this year.
- In a Dark Time The Eye Begins to See: A 2016 Poetry Preview (NPR)
- Books in 2016: A Literary Calendar (The Guardian)
- Book Releases in 2016 (International Business Times)
- Most Anticipated: The Great 2016 Book Previews (Millions)
- 12 Books You Need to Read Before They Become Movies in 2016 (MTV)
- Book SF/F Editors Want You To Read in 2016 (Barnes and Noble)
Happy new year of reading! Please let us know what you are planning to read this year!
As for me, if EVERYTHING works out, this is the year that I spend less money, read more books, and watch less TV. Oh, and become a Yogi. In other words, my new year’s resolution is to become a better human being.
Quality Poems: Offering a Window and a Voice
by Ann Bracken
So few of us ever visit a prison, yet many of us already have a vision of what it’s like, thanks to TV shows, such as the popular Orange is the New Black. On November 10, 2015, sponsored by the Howard County Poetry and Literary Society, I visited the Patuxent Institution to offer a writing and poetry workshop to some of the incarcerated men in the youth program. Pseudonyms have been used to protect the men’s identities.
The day was rainy and cool, and the gray skies nearly matched the gray walls and somber mood of the prison. Because I have worked with another writing group at the prison complexes in Jessup, I knew all I could take in were my art supplies, papers, and a book, in addition to my car keys and my license. The screening procedures are very much like going through the check-points of airport security, except that you must be patted down each time you enter the prison. I was not allowed to bring in my tote bag for the class supplies—instead, I was given a clear plastic bag.
Once I made it through security, Hillary Battle, a social worker who works with the youth program, escorted me to the education wing of the prison. I was curious about the designation of “youth program” because I knew the approximate ages of the men were between 25 and 35 years old. Ms. Battle explained the disconnect, “In order to be eligible for the Youth Program, the men must be sentenced under the age of 21. We could receive them at any time during their incarceration because the program distinction is based on when they were sentenced for their crimes.”
I’ve walked those long halls to the classrooms several times now, but I still shudder a little when I get on an elevator and the barred doors clank shut behind me. As Ms. Battle and I walk towards the classroom, many thoughts run through my head. Will the activity be beneficial for the men? What will they be like? Will they write and share? Do I have enough time for all I want to offer?
After discussing the men’s needs with Ms. Battle a few weeks earlier, we had both decided that my activity using J. Ruth Gendler’s book Quality Poems would provide a familiar starting point for the men to explore poetry. In her series of prose poems, Gendler personifies 100 character traits and invites us into their world—a world where “Commitment has kind eyes,” “Forgiveness is a strong woman,” and “Courage has roots.”
Dr. Cynthia Carter, the team leader for the youth program, greeted me with a warm smile and thanked me for coming when I arrived in the classroom. The men sat at their desks, quietly waiting for the lesson to start. As I surveyed the room, I noticed the standard furnishings: a large blackboard, several file cabinets, a few TVs, and about five computers. Nine men sat at desks arranged in rows. Because I’ve been a teacher for my whole career, the classroom felt familiar—even down to the four men who chose to sit in the back row. “We just feel safer here,” they told me and smiled. After I put my supplies on the desk, I walked up to each man, shook hands, and introduced myself. They smiled at me and thanked me for coming. In that moment I prayed that things would go well and that what I had planned would speak to their needs.
I began by reading the poem “Courage.” After a few moments of reflection, Claudio said, “Courage is quiet. He keeps to himself.” The other men chimed in, feeling more confident now that one of their friends had spoken. “Is Courage ever afraid?” Tony asked. My take? Yes, Courage is often fearful, but chooses to move ahead despite the fear. Tony shared his thoughts and said, “I like the line in the poem that goes, ‘Courage is not afraid to pray.’” I read another poem about “Forgiveness” and the men were visibly moved. As I read, they were nodding their heads. I knew they were ready to write when I heard Julio say, “Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.”
All told, the men wrote two poems—one on a positive character trait they possessed and one on a trait they wanted to improve or change. When it was time to share their work, I invited all of them to form a circle with their desks so that we could all see and hear each other better. Here is a sample of the traits they wrote about and some lines from their poems; I found their words both powerful and beautiful.
Danny spoke up from the back row and offered to share first. He wrote about “Distrust” as if the character were a woman. “She lives within herself … I stood at the door of her heart … to let her know I understood, I called her by her name, Distrust.” For his other characteristic, Danny chose “Uncertainty”: “ … harsh forms like factory smoke … moist, unanswered questions.”
Claudio, with short-cropped hair, offered to share next. I had met Claudio during another visit, and I knew him to be a fine painter. He wrote these lines about intuition: “Like vapor in gulfless canyons, travels like a gadfly. Intuition chooses friends like a coal miner searches for diamonds.” As I listened to Claudio’s poem, I was struck by how he seemed to literally paint with words.
Armando, sitting in the front row, offered to read next. “Confidence is not arrogant. He takes responsibility. Confidence is a good trick to have.” All of us loved that last line—a real surprise.
Bernardo sat in the corner and raised his hand to share after his friends had read. He had this to say about creativity: “Creativity comes in every size. He recites rhymes for fun and lives in the forefront of my mind. Creativity has a humble hobby.”
The men’s poems were full of rhythm and memorable phrases. Even though I wanted copies of their work to share with HoCoPoLitSo, I didn’t feel right asking the men to give me the poems they had written that day. I encouraged them to keep writing more about the qualities they had chosen. I did ask them for permission to use some of their work and they all agreed, as long as I used pseudonyms to preserve their anonymity. Dr. Carter, Ms. Battle, and all of the men told me I was welcome to come again any time.
Once again, I could see that poetry had offered people two vital elements: a unique expression of their voices and a safe place to explore their lives.
Poet, certified poetry therapist, teacher
So we are at the end of one year and the beginning of another. For many, it’s the time to make a few resolutions. For me, I like to take a look back at what I have read and ponder what to read next. I don’t know which is more of a treat: looking backward at the cache or looking forward, ambitiously. Here’s a bit of both.
Surprise of the year was Jen Grow’s book of stories My Life as a Mermaid. Not sure I have been as excited reading a collection of stories for the first time since Edith Pearlman. Get it; read it. Can’t wait for her next collection. The pressure is on, Jen, the pressure is on.
There were many things I expected to be great and they were. Pearlman’s Honeydew, Toibin’s Elizabeth Bishop, a number of works translated by Ted Hughes (magnificent), The Odyssey (Fitzgerald trans.). There were surprises, things that I wasn’t really expecting to have in my hands, but did and was thankful for them: Zachary Lazar’s first novel Aaron, Approximately, Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, Edmundo Paz Soldan’s The Matter of Desire, to name a few.
This was the year I finally finished Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker. It had been sitting bedside for dip-ins every now and then since it was published. It’s been replaced with Words In Air. Wonderful stuff. Thank goodness she was a prolific letter writer – years of joy ahead.
As you would expect for a HoCoPoLitSo-er, I do try to fill they year with a good selection of poetry. I’ll only name drop here as I tend to binge read, going through what I have on the shelf for a particular writer (if you see your name here, time to start publishing a few next books [hint hint Patricia Smith]). Patricia Smith, Bruce Ross, Saigyo, Marie Howe (she’s coming to Columbia in April), Eamon Grennan (he’s here in February), lots and lots of Maxine Kumin, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Breyton Breytonbach, Grace Paley, a Rilke revisit… I’ll stop there or you’ll stop reading as it’s just a list of names.
On to that year ahead: Susan Sontag suggests one should read a book a day. That is a mighty goal, completely unrealistic for a mortal. In fact, I’d find two books a week and a day job to put a roof over those books unattainable. A book and a half a week: more realistic, though probably just as dreamy. (I bet I might bring books into the house some years at one a day on average — I’ll not stop to figure that out, it might get me in trouble – does that count for anything?)
There are a few things already in the pile to read next-ish. I have already started Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. A couple of years ago I started reading the works of Agatha Christie. In order. All of them. There’s always one to read next-ish. (Why? The story is for a future post.) I know I’ll be reading more Grennon and Howe in advance of their visits. James Hillman’s A Terrible Love of War awaits with its insights into our bellicose behavior. Julian Barnes Keeping An Eye Open was a Christmas gift that won’t be waiting long, as is Rahael Jerusalamy’s The Brotherhood of the Book Hunters. And I do aim to have Jane Kenyon’s A Hundred White Daffodils in the mind soon, long overdue to do. Sontag is also on the list.
The treat I have been saving to start the year is Belinda McKeon’s Tender, though. So looking forward to it. I had wanted to read the copy that crossed the Atlantic for me as summer ended, but I started teaching a semester of Philosophy 101 and that had me reading other things. Lots and lots of other things (Helen Buss Mitchel’s textbook Roots of Wisdom is excellent). I’ll start reading the McKeon after I put down Patti Smith’s delightful M Train. I think it is time to go back to that now. Happy reading, everyone, and Happy New Year!
Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo Board
Some say poetry is irrelevant. That it belongs in the ivory tower.
Listen to this:
Earlier this year, The New Yorker published an article called “Battle Lines: Want to understand the jihadis? Read their poetry” by Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel (June 2015). The article is a study of the function of poetry in Arabic cultural history as well as in contemporary jihadist poetry. The authors write that, “For the jihadist, poetry is a mode of manifesto, or of bearing witness.” Creswell and Haykel remind us of the important role of poetry in shaping and propagating a culture. But that influence can go in the direction of “good” or in the direction of violence and hatred.
Analysts have generally ignored these texts, as if poetry were a colorful but ultimately distracting by-product of jihad. But this is a mistake. It is impossible to understand jihadism—its objectives, its appeal for new recruits, and its durability—without examining its culture. This culture finds expression in a number of forms, including anthems and documentary videos, but poetry is its heart. And, unlike the videos of beheadings and burnings, which are made primarily for foreign consumption, poetry provides a window onto the movement talking to itself. It is in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad.
The article gives many examples of the prominent role that poetry is given by some militant jihadist leaders, but the most shocking one is this:
Bin Laden himself recited an elegy for the nineteen hijackers of 9/11: ‘Embracing death, the knights of glory found their rest. / They gripped the towers with hands of rage and ripped through them like a torrent.”
What we must recognize in all this is that poetry is not only a tool that helps us see the world in all its beauty, but is also a tool that can aid the world in its ugliness. Sure, some poems are about roses and rainbows, about love forever and love unrequited. And those are beautiful and absolutely necessary to our humanness. However, we must not assume for a second that poetry is fluffy or inconsequential. It is a powerful mirror for the human condition – the good, the bad, and the scary.
I am thinking of Martin Espada – a lawyer turned poet – and his poem, “Imagine the Angels of Bread.” He says, “This is the year” the meek will rise and the powerful will fall because justice will be served cold and raw on a silver platter. Well, no, he doesn’t say that – but that’s how I hear it. (And that’s how I heard it when Mr. Espada read this poem on the Smith Theatre stage at Howard Community College for the Blackbird Poetry Festival in 2013). In this poem, we sense the urgency for change. And we see how we might change the world for the better.
We also look to poetry to react to events that shock and frighten us. Like when Billy Collins‘ poem “Names” honoring the 9/11 victims broke our hearts – in a way, a powerful answer to Bin Laden’s elegy of the hijackers. But we also look to poetry to challenge our own thinking, like when E. Ethelbert Miller wrote “Looking for Omar” in reflection of 9/11 and the growing anti-Muslim feelings and actions in our country. We might do well to read this poem once more today.
In November this year, a group of terrorists bombed Paris. I saw many friends turn to poetry to understand fear, tragedy, violence, and hatred as well as peace, comfort, and compassion. One of the favorites circulating social media platforms was Wendell Barry‘s “Peace of Wild Things.” It begins, “When despair for the world grows in me” – and you just know you have to read the rest. In it, you find sadness but also hope.
In January of 2013, a professor at University of Illinois discovered a poem by Carl Sandburg called “The Revolver.” It begins with “Here is a revolver,” and after comparing the revolver to the court of law, the poem ends with, “And nothing in human philosophy persists more strangely than the old belief that God is always on the side of those who have the most revolvers.”
The poem was discovered a few weeks after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place in Newtown, Connecticut (December 14, 2013). Now almost three years later, we again turn to this poem as we are angered and frightened by the two mass shootings in one day in Georgia and California on December 2nd.
In Claudia Rankin‘s Citizen (2014) we see the world through yet another lens.
Dean Rader of Huffington Post says, “Citizen has changed how we imagine a book of American poetry interacting with and commenting on the world we live in. It reminds us that the poet is first and foremost a citizen. It reminds us that American poetry can be both urgent and vital.” Holly Bass, writing for the New York Times, says, “Citizen throws a Molotov cocktail at the notion that a reduction of injustice is the same as freedom.”
As The New Yorker article on jihadist poetry reminds us, through poetry we can possibly know one another, about what propels our actions and shapes our beliefs. We must allow poetry to bring to light the violence and the injustices we commit against one another. We must recognize also the potential power of poetry – like many other forms of art – to comfort our sadness, calm our fears, expose our frailties, shape our vision, and even change our thinking.
HoCoPoLitSo’s guest for its 38th Annual Irish Evening is the award-winning poet Eamon Grennan. He will read from his work starting at 7:30 p.m., February 19, 2016, at the Smith Theatre in the Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts on the campus of Howard Community College. Grennan’s reading will be followed by Narrowbacks Eileen Korn Estes, Jesse Winch, Terence Winch, Linda Hickman, and Brendan Mulvihill on fiddle in a concert of traditional Irish music, with stepdancers from the Culkin School and Irish coffee and beer for sale in the lobby.
Starting with Wildly for Days in 1983, Grennan’s work has earned him much praise from the literary collective, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins said of Grennan: “To read him is to be led on a walk through the natural world of clover and cricket and, most of all, light, and to face with an open heart the complexity of being human.”
Grennan has published more than twenty books of verse, along with translations and a collection of essays about modern Irish poetry; his latest is There Now (July 2015). His works have won the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation for Leopardi: Selected Poems (1997), the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets for Still Life with Waterfall (2002), and Pushcart Prizes. His collection Out of Breath (2007) was nominated for the 2008 Poetry Now Award and he was a finalist for both the LA Times Book Prize for What Light There Is and Other Poems (1989) and So It Goes (1995) for the Paterson Poetry Prize.
Grennan follows other luminary Irish authors who have come to Howard County, including Frank McCourt, Eavan Boland, Hugo Hamilton, Paula Meehan, Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, Colum McCann, and Emma Donoghue, to name a few. For 38 years, HoCoPoLitSo’s Irish Evening has recognized and celebrated the enormous impact of Irish-born writers on the world of contemporary literature.
General admission tickets are $35 each; available on-line at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2465863 or by sending a check payable and self-addressed envelope mailed to HoCoPoLitSo, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Horowitz Center 200, Columbia, MD 21044.
Writing is a discipline and it takes discipline to write.
So how does one learn and practice to become a writer? What’s more, how does one teach others to become writers?
In the next few months, you will hear from those who teach creative writing. Consider this your mini, free Creative Writing 101.
We kick off this series with Dr. Tara. Hart. Tara is one of two Co-Chairs of HoCoPoLitSo. In addition to being a community advocate for poetry and literature, she is a scholar, a poet, and a teacher. Listen to Tara read her poem “Pine” published in TriQuarterly. She teaches poetry and creative writing at Howard Community College. Here’s what she had to share with us.
LY: How would you describe – to someone brand new to teaching creative writing – your approach to teaching creative writing?
TH: I’ve realized over the years that the greatest challenges students face in their creative writing are getting it done on time and overcoming a sense of vulnerability, and that realization has significantly impacted my course design. I set up the grade distribution to reflect the fact that in the professional world of creative writing, you might have tremendous freedom in your assignments but you must hit your marks. Students might struggle to produce creative work by a certain deadline because they haven’t consciously made time or created the right environment for their creative process and habits, or because they fear the judgment that follows sharing their work, which can be very personal. So one of our first assignments is to create an action plan that anticipates difficulties, and every assignment they do receives full credit/points if it meets the required length and deadline and is on topic; I don’t “grade” individual pieces of creative work a la A, B, C, D, F.
This design motivates them to meet their deadlines and push forward even when it’s not perfect or even close. Their final portfolio of work, containing their best pieces and a reflective essay on their own strengths and goals for improvement, is graded at the end of the semester, but it’s now a much lower percentage of their overall grade, and it’s quite remarkable how the “best” writers very often do end up with the highest grades, even though the vast majority of the final grade is really about completing work on time. It affirms my idea that strengthening the habit of writing consistently and pushing through fear to meet the challenges of writing in unfamiliar genres and on a variety of topics produces, ultimately, better quality writing.
I heard a “Moth” storyteller on NPR say that a turning point in her life when she decided to “stop being a writer” and decided to “actually write.” I think my class, with its emphasis on production and feedback, distinguishes those students who are compelled to write and to develop the habits and discipline of a writer, from those who just like the idea of writing and might otherwise use the excuse that the instructor doesn’t “like” their writing – if they don’t do well in the class, it’s because they simply didn’t produce and engage.
LY: What is the most challenging thing to teach in creative writing?
TH: I have struggled most and improved most in the area of designing valuable peer review experiences in which students consistently give, receive and respond to each other’s feedback. Peer review skills are important in composition as well, but it’s harder, in a different way, for students to critique someone’s personal memoir than an expository essay. When I gave creative writing students choices in terms of whom to review, the same strong writers would get the most feedback and others would be neglected. Now I deliver the course most often as a hybrid, so that the Canvas learning platform becomes the “workshopping” portion of the course, and I use its automatic peer review feature to make sure everyone receives equal amounts of attention.
I’ve also worked hard to teach them how to work effectively within a writing community. I give very specific guidance and requirements about how to review each other’s work, using the model of What Works? What Doesn’t Work? and What If? , and as they explicitly improve in the quality of their feedback they implicitly improve their own writing because their self-editing skills are inevitably sharpened. I have learned to come in with my comments at the end of a unit, such as writing to them about patterns and possibilities I see in their fiction or in their poetry after they’ve worked a while with that genre – this gets them in the habit of listening to each other first and for quite a while without waiting for or deferring to the “real” critique from the professor.
Students might say that the most challenging/scary part of the course is reading their work aloud, which I’ve required to greater degrees over the years. I want them to learn more about the rhythm and music of their words. Also, the literary readings we do together, in which each student gets on the stage of Monteabaro Hall and reads for two minutes, make the students feel closer to each other, often increase their self-confidence in their writing, and illustrate the power of a supportive writing community.
LY: You are a poet. What’s the best suggestion/tip/teaching that you received from your own creative writing teachers?
TH: I didn’t study towards an MFA but trained in criticism, so my best creative writing teachers have been the master poets and writers I’m fortunate to read and meet and listen to as they are interviewed about their process for The Writing Life or present in venues here on campus or at the Dodge Poetry Festival every other year. I tell and require my students to READ, and to “read like writers,” which an astonishing number do not do extensively or widely. I ask those who do not read often, “Who, then, do you think is going to read your work?”
Billy Collins has had the greatest impact on my own writing when he teaches that readers don’t really want to hear about the writer’s thoughts and feelings but are looking to find themselves in what they read; that readers need to be oriented in concrete, specific ways before you launch them into abstraction or profundity; and that as writers we need to stop hiding behind vagary or ego. I’m better at spotting the difference between self-indulgent “bravery” (in which facts and feelings are wielded as weapons) and the tender commitment to offering truth.
LY: What is the most common advice/suggestion/tip you find yourself giving to your students?
TH: Show, don’t tell! Let the reader “be there” through the use of sensory details, rather than summarizing or explaining the experience for them. I’m also (in)famous for crossing out lots of text. I can do lots of slashing because I’ve already given them full credit for doing their work – I’m free to tell them how unnecessary lots of it is. Student writers tend to over-explain and interrupt their own compelling action or images with redundant “telling” of what we’re already inferring and feeling.