Re-vision

I like revising–literally, re-seeing. I’m so left-brained that it’s often easier for me to revise and edit something already there than it is to write something in the first place. Not all writers are left-brained, and not all writers like revising. I tell my writing students there are two extremes.

The first comprises those who edit themselves all the times, changing words as they go, trying to eke that idea out while being yelled at by their “inner critic” or “inner editor.” The other extreme incluides those who just want to shoot that draft out in one fell swoop (I believe it was Coleridge who claimed to have done that with one of his poems, until rough drafts were discovered later) and would really rather not revise it at all. They don’t like all that nitpicky sort of thing.

We each write differently, and we each revise differently–maybe not totally differently, just like we don’t each speak a unique language–but we do each have a unique dialect (it’s called your idiolect), and that’s probably a better analogy. So what I’m about to describe may resonate with you, or somewhat click, or not even come close.

Like many writers, I fall somewhere in-between those two extremes I mentioned in the first paragraph, but I’m definitely closer to the first of the two.  I have a strong inner critic. I have to beat him back with a stick in order to let ideas and creativity (aka “right brain”) flow. But just knowing that about myself as a writer helps arm me for the battle.

For instance, I started what eventually became my first published novel by freewriting. What a wonderful exercise that is, and what an ironic wonder that a left-brained writer creatively thought it up one day. (After all, why would a right-brained writer need it? They already have ideas. What they sometimes lack is follow-through, but that’s not what freewriting’s for.)

But to write, nonstop, for seven or eight minutes, from some kind of kernel of initial idea, yes, but just a kernel is all you need–then just write, don’t judge, don’t question, don’t stop–in other words, hit the off-switch on your inner critic. Then stop and look back at that seven-to-eight minutes worth of words, which, by the way is a pretty good word-horde for me in any one nonstop stint of writing–and voila! see what you’ve got and you have what you see.

You can edit it later. And you should. But now you’ve got something to work with.

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I’ve got the paper-grading blues….

In my teen and college years, I wrote quite a few songs.  I still play a couple of them on the piano from time to time.  For most of my adult life, I’ve moved from songs to poems.

But tonight, I returned to songwriting.

I’m in the midst of a paper-grading marathon, and I thought I’d unburden my soul by penning a little ditty about the things you put on hold for awhile in order to do your job and try to do it well. For me, that happens amidst the lows (and occasional highs) of grading.

Please keep in mind, this ain’t no poem, or even a terribly polished song.  But hopefully it will give you a laugh, and maybe more. Enjoy.

I’ve got the paper-grading blues

Can’t help friends who have a crisis—

Gotta mark these comma splices.

Can’t step out to hear a bird’s voice;

Must stay in and notice word choice.

What is that great food I’m smelling?

Can’t eat now; I’m checking spelling.

Someone’s out on our front doormat?

But I’m on M.L.A format.

You’ve got candy—Skittles—Reese’s—

I’ve got someone’s unclear thesis.

The game’s on? Set the recorder;

this paragraph’s out of order.

But as my mind goes out of joint,

I’ll try to dwell on your good point.

And as my life drowns in red ink,

I’ll note your thought that made me think.

Hang on for the land of living,

for a break they call Thanksgiving.

That Olde English

When I make my undergraduate students read Shakespeare, someone usually complains about the difficulty of understanding that “Old English” Shakespeare wrote.  I see their point, but of course I try to help them see mine too.  For example, I grant that some of the words the Bard uses, we don’t use anymore. And granted, some of his word order takes a little getting used to because he wrote many of his lines in poetry (iambic pentameter, to be specific).  But most good editions of Shakespeare have good footnotes at the bottom of each page to help us along with words and phrases that may seem foreign to our modern eyes and ears.  And I tell my students that reading Shakespeare can be a bit like working a jigsaw puzzle–don’t spend too long agonizing on the pieces you can’t find or can’t fit; instead, start with the ones you do recognize, and then as you build that framework, you more easily fill in the pieces that go within.  So with the Bard.  You start with the words you can figure out (and there are many of those; some students are always surprised how many), and from that, with the help of your handy footnotes,  you can fill in the gaps. After a while, you can get beyond just figuring out what the words say, and go on to enjoy the rich images, interesting plots, fascinating characters, and amazing insights into the human mind and heart.

And I do one more thing to help people deal with that “Old English” before we even start–I show them real Old English.  Now that’s virtually a foreign language, gang.  Then I show them Middle English; and compared to Old English, it looks pretty good.  You can recognize a fair number of words.  Then, finally, I show them Modern English–which Shakespeare falls into (early Modern English, yes, but Modern nonetheless).  And compared to Middle English and Old English, Shakespeare looks great.  Try my little exercise below.  Look at the Old English first; maybe you can recognize three or four words if you look hard enough.  Then look at the Middle English–looks better, right?  And then finish up with King James and Shakespeare, both of which are early Modern English.  Piece of cake, relatively speaking!  See what you think:

Old English: 500-1100

“Heald Þu nu, hruse,      nu hæleð ne mostan,

eorla æhte!                     Hwæt, hyt ær on ðe

gode begeaton.               GuÞ-deað fornam,

feorh-bealo frene            fyra gehwylcne

leoda minra,                    Þara ðe Þis life ofgeaf,

gesawon sele-dreamas.   Nah hwa sweord wege

oððe feormie                  fæted wæge,

drync fæt deore;             duguð ellor scoc.

Sceal se hearda helm      hyrsted golde

fætum befeallen;             feormynd swefað,

Þa ðe beado-griman       bywan sceoldon;

ge swylce seo here-pad, sio æt hidle gebad

ofer borda gebræc          bite irena,

brosnað æfter beorne;    ne mæg byrnan hring

æftrer wig-fruman          wide feran

hæleðum be healfe….”   (-From “The Last Survivor’s Speech,” Beowulf)

Middle English: 1100-1500

          Whan that April with his showres soote

The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veine in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flowr;

Whan Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heath

The tender croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,

And smale fowles maken melodye

That sleepen al the night with open ye—

So priketh hem Nature in hir corage—

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages—

And palmers for to seeken straunge strondes

To fern halwes, couthe in sundry londes;

And specially from every shires ende

Of Engelond to Canterbury they wende,

The holy blissful martyr for to seeke

That hem hath holpen whan that they were seke. (-From “The General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer)

Modern English: 1500 – present

23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

-Psalm 23, King James Bible, 1611

“Great rivals in our youngest daughter’s love, Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn, And here are to be answer’d. Tell me, my daughters,– Since now we will divest us both of rule, Interest of territory, cares of state,– Which of you shall we say doth love us most? That we our largest bounty may extend Where nature doth with merit challenge. Goneril, Our eldest-born, speak first.”

-Shakespeare, King Lear, 1606

What’s the point?

One thing I’ve observed in my own life, and in that of many others, is that, amidst life’s varying ups and downs, sometimes we reach a particularly low point.  After coming to such a point in my own life years ago, I also realized that it acted as a turning point of sorts:  I learned things from that time of great difficulty, and those things helped me understand life better, what it’s made of, what it’s for.

So that low point, which in and of itself seemed bad at the time, really did me a world of good, shedding light on life for me in a way that the “good times” don’t necessarily do.

Since then, I’ve learned to stop and take a good look when one of those low points hits, and to ask, What am I supposed to learn from this?

And I decided too to write a poem about this phenomenon–about how, for many of us, it takes a low point to help us see what we hadn’t seen so clearly before.

Here it is:

The Point

We all come to it,

be it via

the walls crashing

down around us,

or the bright light

focusing our sight.

When viewed in perspective,

it all comes to a point:

the background and foreground,

the lines, the design

draw to a point.

Foreseeing but forestalling,

the Welsh poet missed

the point.

Don’t rage against

the dying of the light;

see that the light’s out.

A great height isn’t the point.

Ascending to the Alps’ apex,

look down.

Your bootstraps break,

and air’s beneath your feet.

Picture that air.

The point dawns

that you don’t

Let there be light.

The ultimate how-to book

This is something pretty cool that I use with my classes when I teach processing writing (how-to writing).  I knew the Bible had lots of examples of “processes” or how-to examples, but I didn’t realize how many until I went through the whole book specifically looking for them.  Here is what I found.  Check it out:

How to make an ark:                                              Genesis 6

How to make the ark of the covenant:             Exodus 25

How to make the tabernacle:                              Exodus 26-27

How to make priestly garments:                       Exodus 28

How to make incense and an altar of incense:   Exodus 30

How to offer a burnt offering:                            Leviticus 1

How to offer a grain offering:                             Leviticus 2

How to offer a peace offering:                            Leviticus 3

How to offer a sin offering:                                 Leviticus 4

How to deal with leprosy:                                    Leviticus 13-14

How to spend the Day of Atonement:              Leviticus 16

How to celebrate various Feasts:                      Leviticus 23

How to fulfill a Nazirite vow                               Numbers 6

How to tithe                                                              Deuteronomy 14

How to administrate cities of refuge              Joshua 20

How to take refuge in a kinsman redeemer  Ruth 3-4

How to build Solomon’s Temple                        1 Kings 6; 2 Chron 3

How to make its furnishings                               1 Kings 7; 2 Chron 4

How to walk in the fear of the Lord and in His wisdom                                                                                               Proverbs 2-4

How to come (back) to the Lord                       Isaiah 55:1-3, 6-7

How to repent                                                          Joel 2:12-17

How to turn the other cheek                              Matthew 5:38-42

How to pray                                                              Matthew 6:5-15

How to have church                                              Acts 2:42-47

How to find salvation in Jesus                          Romans 10:9-10

How to present yourself to God                        Romans 12:1-2

How to use certain spiritual gifts                     Romans 12:6-8

How to act like a Christian                                 Romans 12:9-21

How to do Communion                                       1 Cor. 11:17-34

How to handle tongues and interpretation in church

                                                                                      1 Cor. 14:13-33

How to live life in the Spirit, not the flesh   Galatians 5:16-26

How to have a godly marriage                          Ephesians 5:22-33

How to fight the spiritual battle                       Ephesians 6:10-18

How to put off the old man and put on the new  Colossians 3:5-17

How to qualify as a bishop or elder               1 Timothy 3:1-7*

How to qualify as a deacon (and deacon’s wife) 1 Timothy 3:8-13

How to deal with widows                                  1 Timothy 5:3-16

 *see also Titus 1:6-9

James: the “how-to book”

How to deal with trials                                        James 1

How to respond to temptation                         James 1

How to avoid favoritism                                     James 2

How to have real faith                                         James 2

How to control your tongue                              James 3

How to live unselfishly                                        James 3

How to live in purity and humility                  James 4

How to let the Lord make your plans             James 4

How to resist materialism                                  James 5

How to have patience and pray effectively   James 5

How to be fruitful in the faith                            2 Peter 1:5-9

 

“Annabel Lee”: Whatever it is, it’s not a love poem

“Poe’s Unreliable Narrator in ‘Annabel Lee’”

Through its first several stanzas, one could read Poe’s “Annabel Lee” as merely a poem about a romantic relationship between two ill-fated but forever faithful lovers. Gömöri, for example, in tracing the poem’s influence on a poem by Jenö Dsida, starts from this apparently assumed conclusion (117). And Pollin, though he does a good job tracing parts of Poe’s poem to ideas from an earlier work, reductively refers to “Annabel Lee” as a “simple ballad” (133). The poem, however, is neither simple nor primarily about love or about Annabel Lee. When we get to the last stanza of the poem and find that the narrator lies “down by the side of [his] darling,” his “life” (38-39), his dead wife, “in her tomb by the sounding sea” (41) every night, this shocking statement places the poem’s ultimate focus not on Annabel Lee, but on the narrator himself—a not uncommon “shift” in Poe–and prompts us to go back through the poem, where we find several other problematic statements that create a picture of Poe’s disturbed and disturbing narrator.

From the start, the narrator causes us to question his credibility. As he begins to introduce Annabel Lee and their relationship, he makes the odd suggestion that we “may know” Annabel Lee (3). Since it is unlikely that we would have heard of an individual who died long ago in some small, unnamed “kingdom,” the speaker’s statement suggests that he inflates the fame of his lover. His next statement shows that he also inflates the nature of their relationship: “And this maiden lived with no other thought / than to love and be loved by me” (5-6). If we take this statement at face value, then we must see it as exaggerative since no one, even one at the height or depth of love, has no other “thought” besides that of love. And we can take the statement at face value; it is not simply poetic hyperbole. Throughout the poem, the speaker makes assertions that, though clearly exaggerative, he just as clearly presents as truth. The speaker intends for us to believe him.

Next, the speaker tells us that he and Annabel Lee were very young when she was with him—“I was a child, and she was a child” (7). Again, there is no reason to take this line other than literally, and we should not take the line romantically. The romantic idea that children are more capable than adults of pure feeling, including love, occurs in Wordsworth (“Intimations of Immortality”), but it’s not a common idea in Poe. (For example, the speaker in his early poem “Introduction” notes that, when “a child,” he had “a most knowing eye” [10], but he does not claim that he knew more at that time than he does now that he’s older.) The speaker in “Annabel Lee” apparently realizes that his statement may make us wonder what kind of love he and Annabel Lee could have had as youngsters–because he tries to explain it: “But we loved with a love that was more than love” (9). This assertion, though romantic-sounding, is simplistic and not really explanatory, not what we expect from Poe when he’s using a reliable narrator. The statement is of course also illogical, a common thing among Poe’s unreliable narrators

Nevertheless, the speaker takes this already shaky premise—the amazing love that he and Annabel Lee shared—and builds another assertion upon it, claiming that their love was such “that the winged seraphs of heaven coveted her and me” (11-12). Elsewhere when Poe writes about angels, he doesn’t give them human failings. His poem “Israfel,” for example, makes it clear that the titular angel would have human traits (e.g., coveting) only if he and the poem’s human speaker exchanged worlds (45-52). Another question the speaker’s assertion raises is whether angels, even if they were capable of coveting, would wish their love to be like that of human “child”ren. But according to the speaker, the angels not only did so but, out of envious rage, killed Annabel Lee.

Perhaps realizing that this argument sounds dubious, the speaker then recasts it: “the angels” were, he claims next, “not half so happy in heaven” as he and Annabel Lee were on earth (21). Like envy, covetousness, and murder, the lack of happiness that the speaker now ascribes to angels seems hard to believe. He repeats the previous stanza’s information with empty emphasis (“Yes!—that was the reason”), trying to bolster his claim by adding that “all men know” this, which, as we’ve noted above, seems unlikely (23).

The speaker then brags that the murder of Annabel Lee has not stopped their love, a love which “was stronger” than that of “those who were older than we—of many far wiser than we” (28-29). Here he uses the same sort of problematic argument found in stanza two, that the child is more capable of depth of feeling than an adult is. The speaker then makes the assertions that he and Annabel Lee still love each other and that nothing can separate him from his soul-mate (30-33), in order to lead up to his shocking admission in the poem’s final stanza.

The explanation in the first half of the last stanza seems believable and even sensible: Annabel Lee is still present with the speaker in his dreams, and stars in the heavens make him think of her when he sees them. But Poe cannot end the poem on this note if he intends to complete the disturbing portrait of the speaker that he has been developing throughout the poem. Rather, we find that the speaker lies down next to his dead wife each night, “his life and his bride” (39), in her tomb. The poem ends with this confession, which, unlike his exaggerative statements throughout the poem, the speaker neither explains nor defends, suggesting that he senses nothing unacceptable in the statement. We can believe him here, and so if we had any remaining belief in the speaker’s sanity up, it should be gone now.

Works Cited

Gömöri, George. “The Myth of Youthful Love in E.A. Poe’s Annabel Lee and Jenö Dsida’s Serenade for Ilonka. New Comparison 9 (1990): 117-127. Web.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “Annabel Lee.” Great Short Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: Harper, 1970. 88-89. Print.

—. “Introduction.” Great Short Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: Harper, 1970. 58-60. Print.

—. “Israfel.” Great Short Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: Harper, 1970. 62-63.

Pollin, Burt R. “Traces in ‘Annabel Lee’ of Allan Cunningham’s Poem.” American Notes & Queries 22 (May-June 1984): 133-135. Web.

Wordsworth, William. “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.”

The Good Old Days (Part 1 of 2)

The Good Old Days

In a typical editorial passage in the midst of one of his novels, a famous author has lamented the sorry state of affairs of modern life—how the hustle and bustle of life make people forget what is truly valuable in life. And based on that, he forecasts an even worse future:

“It is the iron rule in our day to require an object and a purpose in life. It makes us all parts of a complicated scheme of progress, which can only result in our arrival at a colder and drearier region than we were born in. It insists upon everybody’s adding somewhat—a mite, perhaps, but earned by incessant effort—to an accumulated pile of usefulness, of which the only use will be to burden our posterity with even heavier thoughts and more inordinate labor than our own.”

Do you ever feel like you’re some mechanical part in “a complicated scheme of progress”? Perhaps we all feel that way from time to time, and perhaps there’s nothing really wrong with feeling that way. But when we do feel that way, we also often tend to hanker for a better, simpler time, some time before the present, a time when “progress” didn’t move quite so fast and life was somehow more meaningful. So it’s interesting to discover that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the above passage, in the Marble Faun, over 150 years ago. And we can find similarly bleak assessments of mankind from others writing long before Hawthorne. Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan, bemoaned the fast pace of life and the results of said pace back in 1651: “There is no such thing as perpetual tranquillity of mind while we live here; because life itself is but motion.” How long have such sentiments, that life today is the worst it’s ever been, been around? Well, back in the 1300’s, Geoffrey Chaucer noted that “There’s never a new fashion, but it’s old”—which reminds me of Solomon’s observation several hundred years before Christ, that there is nothing new under the sun. Hawthorne’s generation, our generation, every generation seems to have believed that the world is just now sunk to a new low, and the implication behind that belief is that things were a whole lot cheerier back in the good old days (some time a generation ago or longer), when a man’s word was his bond, life was kinder and gentler and so were people in general—and countless other idyllic conditions supposedly held sway.

II

I would like us to consider whether that magical time or place has ever really existed. When we operate under the assumption that it does or did, we may find a response in us rearing its ugly head every time some new step in human “progress” cramps our style: the idea that if we could just stay in or get back to the better times of the past, the good old ways, things would be so much better now.

Was there ever such a time? That question itself is at least as old as Solomon, who said in Ecclesiastes 7:10, “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For you do not inquire wisely concerning this.” Sixty years ago, that question got asked once again when Flannery O’Connor wrote her parable of human hypocrisy, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” In that story, the two most ignorant characters trade ideas that in 1955 were already clichés. Red Sammy complains, “You can’t win. These days you don’t know who to trust. Ain’t that the truth?….A good man is hard to find. Everything is getting terrible. I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more.”   To which the Grandmother in the story responds, “People are certainly not nice like they used to be….It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust.” Like the Grandmother, we too pay homage to dimwitted Red Sammy when we operate under the idea that in some previous generation, things went along pretty well and most people behaved.

So if that time didn’t really exist a generation or two ago, what about if we go way back in human history? We’ll find it at some point, right? In the Bible, human history starts with Genesis. If the world has truly gotten progressively worse over time, then good people would be more the rule, not the exception, way back then. Let’s try just the sixth chapter of human history, the sixth chapter of Genesis. Here God made a statement about mankind, stunning in its clarity: “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). Absolute language is used three times in this single sentence, to describe the evil of the early human race: “every inclination,” “only evil,” all the time.” So the sorry state of affairs of this world and this life didn’t start thirty or sixty years ago, with our parents or our grandparents; it started with Adam.