Grading like readers

At times I am gripped by an absurd desire: that the sentence I am about to write be the one the woman is reading at that some moment.  The idea mesmerizes me so much that I convince myself it is true: I write the sentence hastily, get up, go to the window, train my spyglass to check the effect of my sentence in her gaze, in the curl of her lips, in the cigarette she lights, in the shifts of her body in the deck chair, in her legs, which she crosses or extends.

– From the diary of Silas Flannery in Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveler

Last week Meagan[1], one of my struggling ninth-grade writers, wrote a compelling essay on the subject of personal tragedy. The essay transitioned smoothly among narrative, analytical, and expository modes, and the command of language was strong enough to convey energy and deep thought. I don’t know much about Meagan’s family background, but over the course of the year I have received enough signals to piece together that something in her upbringing has been particularly painful. She alluded to this pain briefly in her essay in an effective and unaffected way, and she was careful not to become explicit about it. That care, in this first salvo fired on behalf of her freedom, only added to her essay’s force. Even in skirting the issue, Meagan had found ways to use language to better understand her experience and to record a kind of desideratum regarding it.

I thought about Meagan’s essay when reading Adrienne Rich’s 1972 essay “Teaching Language in Open Admissions,” which describes her years teaching basic writing to “ghetto students,” inner-city adults whose journey into writing coincided with – or perhaps hastened – their journey into “a frontier of self-determination” of a personal, political, and social nature (18, 24). To Rich, a composition teacher gets across grammar, mechanics, organization, style, and the many other skills traditionally associated with her job. But Rich believes that a composition teacher also aims to “release [her students] into language” – that is, to help her students discover that “they would not be content with a perpetuation of the conditions which have betrayed them.” By way of explanation, she states the inverse by paraphrasing Simone Weil: “those who suffer from injustice most are the least able to articulate their suffering” (26). Meagan, too, is taking small but firm steps in the direction of self-determination, and her paper benefitted from the power of those steps.

Rich understands her primary job, then, as reading her students’ writing. Putting herself in her students’ shoes, she realizes that “in order to write I have to believe that there is someone willing to collaborate subjectively, as opposed to a grading machine out to get me for mistakes in spelling and grammar” (23). This passage’s two key words for me are “collaborate” and “subjectively.” Regarding the former, literary theorist Louise M. Rosenblatt believes that literary critics and many of her fellow theorists have let the reader escape their collective peripheral vision as they’ve focused exclusively on the author and the text. Her own theory, on the other hand, centers “on the reader’s contribution in the two-way, ‘transactional’ relationship with the text” (ix). Her ideas have given me the theoretical bottom for my understanding of the teacher’s most essential role in a writers’ workshop – that of a model reader.

Rosenblatt believes also that the reader, as a collaborator with a writer, must be subjective. The subjectivity comes through an immediate awareness and reporting of his response to the text – the kind of metacognition, then, that we train our students to do in their reader responses:

[A reader or critic] can avoid the dessicating [sic] effect of excessive abstraction by incorporating as much as possible the personal matrix within which the work crystallized. Hence my insistence that much greater concern than is usual should be accorded the “first step,” the registering or savoring of the literary transaction. Whatever the reader may later add to that original creative activity is also rooted in his own responses during the reading event. His primary subject matter is the web of feelings, sensations, images, ideas, that he weaves between himself and the text. (136 – 137)

Of course, Rosenblatt recognizes that critics go further than their initial, subjective impressions, and I think she would agree that composition teachers also must go further: critics and teachers also have a necessarily objective response. She warns, though, against subsuming the subjective response into a fully text-oriented, objective response:

The “close reading” of the New Critics centered on the text. The transactional view also assumes close attention to the pattern of signs. But it assumes an equal closeness of attention to what that particular juxtaposition of signs stirs up within each reader. (137; emphasis original)

Rich quotes Sartre to the same effect: “the literary object has no other substance than the reader’s subjectivity . . . . Thus the writer appeals to the reader’s freedom to collaborate in the production of his work” (23). Sartre and Rosenblatt believe, in other words, that people don’t write to be critiqued. They write to persuade and move the reader, and they write to be understood. Like Sartre’s collaboration model, Rosenblatt’s subjective transactional model, with its consequent avoidance of desiccation and undue abstraction, allows the reader to come out from the shadow of the professional critic. From a less theoretical perspective, it allows the reader as well as the writer to move toward their respective freedoms. Rosenblatt’s model, then, is perfect for a basic composition course and aligns well with Rich’s practice.

My first, subjective response to Meagan’s essay involved wonder and, eventually, tears. Against the backdrop of my reading experience, her essay’s academic context wasn’t irrelevant, but it stood out to me at that moment as tangential, even cold; her writing was her second draft of the culminating essay assigned for a yearlong, inquiry-based-learning project. Early in the academic year, all high school honors students in our district select or create a “big question” and, throughout the year, examine the course’s texts through their chosen question’s lens. From an administrative standpoint, the essay assignment is our district’s answer to a relatively new state requirement: a district school system may allow English honors students to earn a half-point bump of their grade point averages only if the students complete an assignment that demonstrates the honors courses’ rigor relative to the district’s academic English courses. For the final draft, which counts as half the student’s final exam, a student’s essay is graded using a district-wide rubric by an anonymous English teacher who is not permitted to be her own teacher.

In anticipation of the final draft’s requirement, I used the district’s rubric in assessing Meagan’s second draft. Of course, this formal assessment based on the rubric didn’t begin to express my reaction to the paper as a reader. After I had read and graded her essay, I spoke with Meagan about how her paper had interested and moved me, and she took the compliments with genuine excitement. She asked me specific questions about what I had found to be powerful in her writing, and I answered her questions in detail. I had lots of suggestions for revising her essay for its final draft, but I left those in writing on the draft’s electronic version. Despite the suggestions, she had scored well on that second draft under the rubric’s categories. She approached her final draft with a resolve to make it even better than her second draft.

TheRubricA rubric’s necessarily canned response, as Maja Wilson points out, is the antithesis of Rosenblatt’s engaged reader: “Instead of emerging from what Louise M. Rosenblatt would call the transaction between an individual reader and text, the feedback offered by a rubric made bypassing that interaction all too easy” (63). Wilson finds that most rubrics don’t place value on things that matter in Rosenblatt’s transaction, such as risk-taking and voice. Rewriting rubrics to include better or more subjective values, however, only makes the rubric’s insult to the reader-writer relationship stand out more:

Writing rubrics to include risk-taking or promise didn’t help matters much since not every paper needed to meet all of my values about writing: while Krystal’s writing forged new ground, Felicity was a more traditional thinker and I didn’t think it fitting to hold her writing to the same set of values demonstrated by Krystal’s writing. The standardized criteria didn’t capture the nuances of students’ writing. More importantly, I found that my values shifted as students approached writing in new ways and we talked about their work and purposes. (Id.)

What’s an alternative to rubrics? Something straight out of Rosenblatt is in order, something that involves an awareness of ourselves as model readers collaborating with writers who need them. Wilson suggests that “we make ourselves transparent as we read – that we pay attention to what goes on in our minds and try to put our reactions and questions and wonderings and musings and connections and images into words – that we give students the gift of a human response. We are, after all, their audiences, while a piece of paper is not” (63 – 64). Humanity can replace paper. Conferences and revisions can replace bad marks. And we can still assess for specific, formative matters of grammar, syntax, usage, craft, and the like. Summative work, however, should be read by readers qua readers.

I don’t blame myself or my fellow English teachers for rubrics as long as we have looked into the matter, registered our complaints, and done what we can do to minimize rubrics’ negative influence. It’s hard to blame the teachers; after all, it cannot be said that rubrics are for the convenience of English teachers since they spend far too many hours grading with or without rubrics. Instead, rubrics help districts and states get away with sky-high writer-to-writing instructor ratios and help them also perpetuate the myth that, even in the English classroom, all assessments must be quantifiable to be qualitative. Rubrics also perpetuate the related notion of an objective standard for good writing with its usually unstated warrant that objectivity is preferable to subjectivity. Paulo Freire’s ethical pedagogy, in contrast, was founded on the reality and superiority of subjectivity: “I am not impartial or objective; not a fixed observer of facts and happenings. I never was able to be an adherent of the traits that falsely claim impartiality or objectivity” (Freire 22). Rubrics as a genre make the kind of false claims that Freire eschewed.

If one admits, for the sake of argument, to an objective writing standard, one must also deny any writing a subjective reading. “It’s possible,” Alfie Kohn points out, “to get a bunch of people to agree on what rating to give an assignment as long as they’re willing to accept and apply someone else’s narrow criteria for what merits that rating. Once we check our judgment at the door, we can all learn to give a 4 to exactly the same things” (13). When teachers agree on what a paper must have and look at no other attribute with which it may present, they are refusing to read that paper on its own terms.

Rubrics therefore perpetuate the idea that a text can be read only one way and is, consequently, subject to a single standard. The rubric’s poor example, therefore, helps to keep poor readers reading poorly. How can we encourage students to explore our chosen texts if our exploration of their texts ends in facile objectivity before it even starts? Part of fostering the art of reading, and the art of writing with it, is “rejecting the preoccupation with some illusory unspecifiable absolute or ‘correct’ reading or ideal reader” (Rosenblatt 140), the notion of a false absolute that rubrics tend to perpetuate no matter how subjectively their cells are written.

Despite any rubric’s reassuring, pseudo-mathematical claim to objectivity, teachers often find that even the same paper graded with the same rubric receives two different – sometimes widely different – scores from two different teachers. A few days ago I received Meagan’s final draft back from the committee that had graded it. The teacher assigned to her essay gave it the lowest possible mark. The mark was without explanation – each of us graded all day and didn’t have time to give feedback – but I have no reason to doubt that the grade was the teacher’s honest attempt at applying the rubric to Meagan’s essay.

In a writers’ workshop, a teacher must model not only writing but also, and just as importantly, reading. Deep revision – and therefore good writing – comes only from someone else’s deep reading. Young writers need deep readers. If a teacher can model the deep reading of a student’s writing, she will, in so doing, tend to help the student grow to give the same close attention to the teacher’s selected texts. Though I’ve never heard anyone else express this relationship, a teacher’s transactional and initially subjective reading of student writing is the foundation for teaching students to read like writers.

 

Works Cited

Calvino, Italo. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. London: Everyman’s Library, 1993. Print.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Trans. Patrick Clarke. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998. Print.

Kohn, Alfie. “The Trouble with Rubrics.” English Journal 95.4 (2006): 12-15. Print.

Rich, Adrienne. “Teaching Language in Open Admissions.” Teaching Developmental Writing: Background Readings. Ed. Susan Naomi Bernstein. Fourth ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. 12-26. Print.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1994. Print.

Wilson, Maja. “Why I Won’t Be Using Rubrics to Respond to Students’ Writing.” English Journal 96.4 (2007): 62-66. Print.

[1] Not my student’s real name.

My dream Job

3PictureBookScheindlinJobJob is like Lear. The curtain opens on a fairy tale. In it, the play’s chief authority, God (or King Lear in Lear), cuts a dubious deal, relinquishes authority and, in the process, does his most loyal subject a bad turn. When the fairy tale fades, the dialog develops between the newly minted sufferer and his newly dubious friends. This conversation dominates both plays.

And, like Lear, Job is theater. It’s mostly dialog, of course, and the absence of a setting (unless you know where Uz is) puts us all on stage, like any good play. Job refers to “east . . . west . . . north . . . south,” but Jewish Theological Seminary Professor Raymond Scheindlin prefers translations that have Job refer in chapter 23 to what Scheindlin calls a “smaller compass” – to “forward . . . backward . . . left . . . right” (197). Job’s left is our north; Job’s stage is our world, firmly founded on the primeval waters that separate it from Sheol (201).

The idea of Job as theater recurs while reading Scheindlin’s The Book of Job. Scheindlin, for instance, discovers a number of what he calls “buried stage directions”:

But you, all three, return! – Come back! –
Not one wise man do I find among you.
You turn the night to day,
……pretend that light is closer than the face of darkness. (17:10, 12)

Marvin Pope describes the stage directions in his Anchor Job a generation before Scheindlin’s 1998 translation, but Pope doesn’t sharpen them the way Scheindlin does. Scheindlin’s translation also emphasizes how Job’s words feed off those of his friends, an essential component of theater or even plain, old argument. The above lines leave out verse 11, for instance, because Scheindlin flips verses 11 and 12, the latter verse being, as Pope says in the Anchor translation, “quite incompatible with the context.” Scheindlin’s move sharpens the dialogue.

I’ve had the feeling, reading the usual English Bible translations, that the swords between Job and his friends clash only when some ancient, unfathomable convention permits, that Job and his friends are delivering set pieces, speeches that require all parties to chiefly parrot the Bible’s party line. Scheindlin doesn’t find this approach in the original. For instance, Job isn’t going along with his friends’ reliance on discernment and on the ancients’ wisdom in chapter 12, as the King James and its progeny suggest. As a good rhetorician, Job simply restates his opponents’ position before challenging it:

“The ear,” they say, “is the best judge of speech,
……the palate knows what food is tasty.”
“Wisdom,” they say, “belongs to elders;
……length of years makes a man perspicacious.”
He has wisdom and power;
……He has counsel and insight. (12:11 – 13)

Prof. Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Jewish Theological Seminary
Prof. Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Jewish Theological Seminary

(Emphasis Scheindlin’s.) By restating his friends’ positions, then, Job isn’t assenting to them. Instead, by setting God’s omnipotence above aphorisms championing human discernment and the ancients’ wisdom, Job anticipates Elihu’s argument, and even God’s, towards the end of the play.

Turning to a bigger swath of text, Scheindlin resolves the problem of chapter 27 by emphasizing Job’s mockery of his friends through his close adherence to their argument structure. Some scholars read this last response to Job’s friends as Zophar’s missing third speech because it seems to take up the friends’ argument. Here Scheindlin, unlike other translators, doesn’t move a line but sharpens the focus as far as the text allows to take “Job’s imprecations as ironic.” Job repeats his friends’ insinuations that laden their talk about the wicked’s fate, but he makes it into a curse against his friends for their own unproven wickedness.

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James Baldwin, Karl Popper, & other stuff I’ve read this year

3PictureBaldwin3Lists of books read are misleading. For instance, I spent the first half of this year reading Karl Popper every night, and I spent the second half of the year reading James Baldwin every night. This slow going through two authors presents a better idea of my reading this year than the more comprehensive list that follows of the books I’ve read. Popper and Baldwin – particularly Baldwin, and along with Shakespeare and Reinhold Niebuhr – really got me thinking over the past twelve months.

Due to my job demands, I read most of the listed books by listening to unabridged recordings of them while walking to and from school or while driving. Some books I both read and listened to using Whispersync, which I described in my post about my reading in 2013. Some books I read pretty quickly this year; others, like Robert Alter’s translation of the Book of Psalms, I read over several months. (I read Alter’s book as a devotional many mornings over nine months.) Except for the Psalms, poetry doesn’t make the list because I didn’t read any other poetry book from cover to cover. But I sure read many poems many times from Robert Lax’s work and from Tom Montag’s In This Place: Selected Poems 1982 – 2013. Overall, though, I read a lot less poetry this year than I have in years past.

My biggest experiment with slow reading methods involved slow reading on a Kindle. I typed 452 margin notes in my Kindle edition of Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies and then used the notes to write about what I read.

So Popper I’ve written about this year, but Baldwin I’ve only written around. I may never really write about Baldwin: he’s getting too close. But I’ll summarize here what I hear in him besides his heartbeat, which is indescribable.

Baldwin has a few themes that he returns to, book after book. One is the idea that identity is a mask, a rather fragile but essential mask that I construct – or that I allow my society to construct for me as I, wittingly or unwittingly, aid in its construction. An identity is usually false and shallow, and “it is questioned only when it is menaced,” as Baldwin says in a book of essays, The Devil Finds Work.

He understands his holy-roller preacher adolescence as a space where a mask was menaced. Although he disowns his Christianity, forty years after leaving the church he doesn’t “pretend to have surmounted the pain and terror of that time of my life.” In his early religious phase he “encountered the abyss of my own soul” in some measure. My own, legalistic religion benefitted me with a similar experience some time ago.

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Marginal

On The Tempest. Baldwin says something very similar to what Langbaum says in one of my post’s epigraphs, but from a broader perspective.

Langbaum: “. . . romance deals in marvelous events and solves its problems through metamorphoses and recognition scenes – through, in other words, transformations of perception.”

Baldwin wouldn’t disagree, I don’t think, but he sees “metamorphoses and recognition” as inherent in theater, not just in romance. The “tension between the real and the imagined is the theater,” Baldwin says, “and this is why the theater will always remain a necessity. One is not in the presence of shadows [as at the cinema], but responding to one’s flesh and blood; in the theater, we are recreating each other . . . we are all each other’s flesh and blood.”

Baldwin got converted as a young teen, he suggests, to escape Macbeth and the flesh and blood of theater: “Macbeth was a nigger, just like me, and I saw the witches in church, every Sunday, and all up and down the block, all week long, and Banquo’s face was a familiar face. At the same time, the majesty and torment on that stage were real . . .”

Baldwin was a playwright as well as a novelist and essayist. My quotes are from Baldwin’s No Name in the Street, the fourth book of his essays I’ve read this year.

The Tempest

The reason that it is important – of the utmost importance – for white people, here, to see the Negroes as people like themselves is that white people will not, otherwise, be able to see themselves as they are.

 – James Baldwin, from Nobody Knows My Name

. . . romance deals in marvelous events and solves its problems through metamorphoses and recognition scenes – through, in other words, transformations of perception.

 – Robert Langbaum, from his introduction to the Signet Classic edition of The Tempest

 

3PictureBookTempestThe island’s sand is bright white. Its lone palm is curved, like the line to a high kite. The storm clouds clear, and Ariel drifts down, bound to what the Washington Post calls “an amusingly thick rope.” She seems to miss her runway. She passes Prospero, but she delivers her lines, anyway, as, upside down, she reaches for the oncoming palm. She sounds dutiful and put out.

Will tomorrow’s show be the same, or is the actress making the most of tonight’s haywire high wire? Either way, I reflect, it’s Ariel: she wants to please Prospero because she wants her freedom. She’ll disorient every castaway, and also maybe herself, to leave.

We walk later the high, black catwalk from which Ariel was suspended. Beneath the stage, we touch the forbidden fruit on the banquet table that an hour before fell through a trap door.

But real magic pervades the wig room. Bethany and I are startled to see, on a black mannequin, fair Miranda’s hair. Our friend, who is showing us the ropes backstage, designs the wigs and costumes. She is visibly pleased. I’ve done my job well, then, she says.

Beforehand, I walk upstage in a parking garage. I’m a level below the lowest level with elevator service. An anxious Capitals fan behind me in an SUV drove me to this hell. I wanted to insinuate my car into a narrow spot a few levels up, but I didn’t want to hear more honking.

Outside it’s cold, and a man, covered in a surplus blanket or coat, sleeps against the garage. I’ve no sense of direction, and I’ve dropped Bethany, who has, off at the theater before parking. I’m disoriented. He could be dead. Then a guy comes out of the night as if he were the night coalescing.

He has a badge on a lanyard, just like the college kids that come to my door summertime in the suburbs. Except he’s around fifty, around my age, or he says he is, but I don’t believe him at first. He says he remembers the riots here after they shot King. He was five years old then. His dark dreadlocks fall behind him down somewhere near the dark street. They pull at the wrinkles on his forehead and make his eyes big and sweet.

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Slow reading on a Kindle

3PictureMarja-Leena-Rathje-paperwhites2014I live out essentially two notions of slow reading. One focuses meditatively over a verse’s or small passage’s phrasing. The other digs into an entire book through marginalia and multiple reads. One is meditation and the other is study, though, happily, the lines blur.

Over the past seven months, I’ve tried both kinds of close reading on the latest Kindle Paperwhite. Each morning I’m reading a psalm, or part of a psalm, depending on its length and how things are going, from an unfamiliar translation.  I’ve also tried to wear out two larger Kindle books. In the process, I typed 178 margin notes in one Kindle book and 452 margin notes in the other. (I love marginalia: my best writing is in my margin notes.) This post reflects on my experience of close reading these three texts on the Kindle.

By the way, the psalms translation is Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. The first of the two larger books is Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, and the second is Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies.

While I was reading Niebuhr’s book on my Kindle, I was also alternately “reading” it by listening to an unabridged recording of it on my phone’s Audible app. I’d stop this performance on occasion to record notes, and a transcribed version of my recorded notes would collect along with my typed margin notes when the phone’s app synced.

I wasn’t reading these books just to test the Kindle, of course. But I was curious, as I went along, to see how close reading on a Kindle stacked up against close reading a physical book. I also wondered what a well-lived-in Kindle book would feel like. Here’s what I’ve discovered in terms of both function and feel.

1. Typing margin notes on a Kindle is slow, but that’s not all bad. More ideas sometimes occurred to me as I used a single finger to press the tiny keys at the bottom of my Kindle. In a way it was more tactile than writing notes with a pen in a paper book. I found that I reflected more on what I was writing.

2. With 452 margin notes in Open Society, I need a way to search them. The search function on the Kindle and on the computer’s Kindle app doesn’t search my marginalia; it searches only the book’s text. To search my notes, I log into kindle.amazon.com on my laptop and click “Your Highlights.”

3. The “Your Highlights” page produces my few thousand notes on a single, slowly loading page. To search the page, I type Command-F, as I’d type to find something on any web page. Amazon hasn’t developed a serious research tool for Kindle yet, though any search function beats searching for marginalia in paper books, of course. Continue reading

Bad writing instruction: the first-paragraph thesis

3PictureBookNewkirkSchoolManifestoHere’s a worthy little book to get you caught up on the sorry state of school essay instruction. I got The School Essay Manifesto: Reclaiming the Essay for Students and Teachers to find out some better ways to write first drafts before shaping them into literary analysis essays. Thomas Newkirk, the author, does describe three excellent methods for writing essays, and two of them involve close readings of texts. But I was pleased to discover that his essays weren’t only the first drafts. They were the subsequent drafts, too, and the finished products.

Newkirk starts off arguing against the mind-numbing structure of the first-paragraph thesis and the five-paragraph essay. But he ends up suggesting that the literary analysis essay itself should lose its prominent place in American high schools. In this respect, his book tracks the development of my argument in “The Tyranny of the Secondary School,” a post I wrote seven years ago.

I’m surprised that Newkirk, a University of New Hampshire English professor and one of these writers-workshop-for-grade-schools Heinemann Books authors, didn’t turn in a more erudite performance. I often think that, because the literary analysis essay came from the universities over a hundred years ago, our deliverance from it will come from there, too. (And, in fact, some colleges are beginning to show more interest in nonfiction texts and rhetoric and less interest in literary analysis.) Don’t get me wrong: he argues well. But Newkirk, who also taught at-risk high school students in Boston, mostly talks like one of us high school teachers. And that gives me hope: maybe we English teachers, despite everything, can really rid ourselves of some of these major impediments to good writing instruction.

Newkirk’s means of persuasion aside, all three of his essay ideas are worth the price of this slim volume.

In This Place: Tom Montag’s spare, sweeping retrospective

3PictureBookMontagInThisPlaceA week before I visited the National Gallery’s new Andrew Wyeth retrospective, I had gotten my hands on Tom Montag’s new In This Place: Selected Poems 1982 – 2013. In This Place is a retrospective of sorts, too, though by a man who is sometimes called a “minor regional poet.” Montag’s regionalism, though, is like Wyeth’s – a particular window on human conditions and feelings. I thought of Montag’s poetry often while walking through the show.

Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In concentrates on Wyeth’s windows, and most of the show’s studies and paintings are of windows from only two houses, the Kuerner Farm in Pennsylvania and the Olson House in Maine. The inexhaustible subject matter Wyeth finds in two houses reminded me of the cover photograph of In This Place: the front of “the big red house” where Montag and his wife Mary have lived for upwards of forty years in their Wisconsin farming village. Like Wyeth, Montag finds unlimited inspiration from a handful of things within a fixed geographic radius. He has written over a thousand pages of observations, for instance, for his blog, The Middlewesterner, just from things he observed during his daily drives to and from work.

Five years after Wyeth’s death, the NGA show asks, have we begun to see beyond his realism and beyond his insistence on a limited, regional subject matter? Part of the narrative of Wyeth’s show is the universalism in his regionalism as well as the renewed critical appreciation for the “detachment and nonbeing” undergirding Wyeth’s realism, as Charles Brock puts it his essay “Through a Glass: Windows in the Art of Wyeth, Sheeler, and Hopper” appearing in the show’s catalog (66). I hope In This Place generates a similar appreciation for the universalism and detachment in the corpus of Montag’s poetry.

The partly negative connotation of “regional” persists, of course, and Wyeth would have sympathized with Montag becoming known as a regional poet. In her essay “Wind from the Sea: Painting Truth beneath the Facts,” also published in the show’s catalog, Nancy K. Anderson quotes Wyeth as saying, “People like to say Robert Frost is a bucolic poet. Just as people say I’m a painter of rustic scenes – that has nothing to do with it!” (26). Wyeth and Frost were great artists, Anderson contends, not because they were regionalists, though they were, but because they effectively used the natural world to suggest significant feelings and thoughts that moved their audiences. Explaining the name of the Wyeth retrospective, Anderson writes that, as “a keen observer of the natural world, [Frost, like Wyeth,] used exterior prompts for interior purposes – looking out triggered looking in.” The same is true of Montag. Continue reading

The winter in winter

The snow is almost gone, a lot of it eaten by a neighborhood dog but most of it melted by still-below-average temperatures. Winter returned three times in March, each time with a few inches of snow. Sixty-two inches this winter — a lot for Virginia, even for its northernmost corner where we live. Four inches of snow this past Monday, but I rode my bike for an hour and a half Friday. Winter, that symbol of life’s final stages, may be in its own final stage. Some final flurries are expected here tonight, but I might mistake them for moths.

“Death, thou shalt die.” My tenth graders are busy emulating conceits such as John Donne’s by writing their own Metaphysical poetry. Some of their poems examine life’s common paradoxes well. My students’ relative success makes me wonder if there’s room for Metaphysical poetry’s drama, argumentation, idealism, and tough artificiality today. Eliot learned a good deal from these poets. And many modern poets have been (maybe unknowingly) returning to their concision, uneven meter, and irony for decades.

I keep returning to my best posts. WordPress tells me that I’ve revised “Ice, hail, & the reign thereafter” sixty times and “Jesus teaches the compare & contrast essay” sixty-five times. Neither post is even more than two months old. But all that refining is when I do my best writing, maybe because my imaginary reader is the most present with me, threatening to read a flawed version I posted in my haste. I almost wish my feed wouldn’t feed until a post’s fiftieth revision.

But my revising is also a working out of my ideas — well, more of a working in. After fifty drafts, even if it doesn’t seem like it to my reader, my post’s theory gets personal. “Ice” is teaching me that I’m never going to be fulfilled in this life. In fact, my faith teaches me that I wasn’t designed to be. “Compare & contrast” is teaching me that my passivity isn’t often very spiritual. In fact, it’s passive aggression towards the Father I never had.

“Compare & contrast,” then, is teaching me that I’ve buried my talent for too long.

The trick for me is to live in the still-inchoate paradox birthed from these two posts’ relationship.

No two snowflakes are alike, but I’ve seen identical snowflakes. This seeming paradox is easily resolved: if winter can return after three years away, then maybe snowflakes can, too. Maybe I’ll see an old friend tonight.

Or maybe that’s just a conceit. Heraclitus’s famous adage: “You cannot step into the same river twice.” I’m slowly reading twentieth-century Austrian philosopher Karl Popper’s political masterpiece, The Open Society and Its Enemies. It’ll be winter again before I’m done. Popper thinks Plato hated Heraclitus but nevertheless believed him and wrote The Republic in reaction to him. We must stop change, Plato believed. Poets lead the people astray, Plato said. It all adds up, and I’m with Popper so far: Plato was a brilliant and dangerous reactionary.

One’s politics is based on two things: how one understands the river, and to what extent and by what means others should be made to understand the river the same way.

Theodore Roosevelt, for his part, understood politics in kaleidoscopic terms: all the fragments — the people, the politicians, the ideas — had to fall into alignment to get things done. To me, poetry readings are a twist of the kaleidoscope. Different people read the same poem different ways, emphasizing and, with their inflections and pacing, seemingly rearranging certain of the poem’s pieces. The resulting patterns are sometimes striking. Voice Alpha recently asked its readers to perform Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “The Windhover.” Nic Sebastian, Voice Alpha’s curator, collected fourteen readings, including my own. Some of them taught me new ways to return to and engage with a very old friend.

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Above: “Broken Stained Glass — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania” by Randy Calderone. Used by permission. I took the above Vine video in our neighborhood earlier this March.

Teju Cole’s spacious & taut new release

3PictureBookColeEveryDayTeju Cole was in Washington Tuesday when his novel Every Day Is for the Thief made its American release. I bought a copy that evening at Politics and Prose, where I heard him read from Thief and from Open City, his later novel, which was released stateside in 2011.

I’ve read Open City, one of my favorite novels, twice. But Thief is proving to be the rare novel I feel I can live in. Its vignettes and language are as spacious and taut as a well-staked tent. Oh! To write like this:

In December, dust drowns the city. But one Friday morning in the third week of the month, it rains heavily for only the second time in the dry season. It is a relief. It makes the roads torturous. Where there were shallow depressions, lakes suddenly appear. Rivulets rage along the roads. The rain falls for an intense half hour just after I head out. On Allen Avenue, through the gray scrim of the rolled-up windows, I see a swarm of lime-green shirts and yellow trousers, lime-green blouses, and yellow skirts: students caught in the rain, racing for shelter. These teenagers, thrilled by the weather and by the excitement of running together, are laughing, but are inaudible through the heavy rain drumming on the car roof. I drive slowly through this dream of hurrying bodies.

How to characterize the paragraph? Nothing overheated. Unobtrusive alliteration beginning with the paragraph’s first four words and puddling here, there, and now assonance: “Allen Avenue.”  The first sentence’s soft chiasmus is alliterative at 1, 2, and 4, reminding me of Sir Gawain and early English verse: “dust drowns . . . rains . . . dry.”

And the pacing. Breath units, which Joe Glasser defines as syllable counts between punctuation marks, well mixed at 4, 5, 13, 17, and then 5: “It is a relief” — syntactically and musically, too, a relief. An implied metaphor — “rage” — and another — “swarm.” Sparse, measured drams of metaphor’s strong stimulant. The whole effect makes space for a “dream of hurrying bodies” — just right, nothing purple. The clothing that makes the teens alike in age but separate in gender anticipates the next scene, his grown-up visit to his first, teenage love. (After the rain stops, Lagos is “becalmed and devastated,” just like the narrator, perhaps, by this visit’s end.)

The paragraph may have been inspired by the next page spread’s thoughtfully conflicted black-and-white photograph — running bodies in dark tops and light pants and skirts through a car window’s pimply raindrops.

Everything serves tone.

The structure’s as spare as the style. The varied vignettes, some focused more on Lagos, some focused more on the narrator, leave space for the reader to experience the tension between the seemingly objective view of the city and the rather fragmented, young narrator, who has returned there after many years in America. I like Cole’s choice to rely on style and suggestion instead of on detailed relationships and plot, the reflexive choice of many a lesser novelist. In this respect, Thief reminds me of the finest poetry. But the resemblance to poetry isn’t obvious. Make no mistake: this is lean, muscular prose.

(Here’s a thoughtful review of Every Day Is for the Thief published yesterday in the New York Times. And here’s Cole’s interview Tuesday on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show.)