Sunday, October 31, 2010


Just realized that The New York Times is running a column right now called "Disunion" to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. I'm linking to Tony Horwitz's opinion piece about the potency and candor of the language in this era. See here for the full article, some of which is excerpted below:

But as we approach the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s election, on Nov. 6, and the long conflict that followed, it’s worth recalling other reasons that era endures. The Civil War isn’t just an adjunct to current events. It’s a national reserve of words, images and landscapes, a storehouse we can tap in lean times like these, when many Americans feel diminished, divided and starved for discourse more nourishing than cable rants and Twitter feeds.

'The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.' Those famous lines come from President Lincoln, delivered not in the Gettysburg Address, but on a routine occasion: his second annual message to Congress. Can you recall a single line from any of the teleprompted State of the Union messages in your own lifetime?

The Civil War abounded in eloquence, from the likes of Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, the Southern diarist Mary Chesnut and warriors who spoke the way they fought. Consider the Southern cavalryman J. E. B. Stuart, with panache, saying of his father-in-law’s loyalty to the Union: “He will regret it but once, and that will be continually.” Or Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, brutal and terse, warning besieged Atlantans: “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”

These and other words from the war convey a bracing candor and individuality, traits Americans reflexively extol while rarely exhibiting. Today’s lusterless brass would never declare, as Sherman did, “I can make this march, and make Georgia howl!” or say of a superior, as Sherman did of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, “He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk.”

You can hear the same, bold voice in the writing of common soldiers, their letters unmuzzled by military censors and their dialect not yet homogenized by television and Interstates. “Got to see the elephant at last,” an Indianan wrote of his first, inglorious combat. “I don’t care about seeing him very often any more, for if there was any fun in such work I couldn’t see it ... It is not the thing it is bragged up to be.” Another soldier called the Gettysburg campaign “nothing but fighting, starving, marching and cussing.” Cowards were known as “skedaddlers,” “tree dodgers,” “skulkers” and “croakers.”

From "The 150-Year War" by Tony Horwitz, The New York Times

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Oh the heavy burden associated with this one word. If you are a dear friend who has not heard from me in ages, this is why. This week I am wrapping up my teaching of this opus. The play that has had me breaking out in cold sweats at just the mention of it. Having never taught it before, I seriously considered putting it off til the spring. And then maybe, just maybe we'd run out of time and have to - god forbid - cut it from the syllabus. What's strange is that the procrastinator in me surprisingly lost this battle. Instead, I decided to dive right into my uncertainty, and during the busiest fall ever. In the middle of college rec writing, parent-teacher conferences, grades & comments, not to mention life, I was cramming Hamlet. My goal was to make sure that my students weren't scared of it the way I was in high school. All I remember about reading that play senior year was my failure to comprehend it. So, we act it out every day; we watch the glamorous Kenneth Branagh and Kate Winslet; we debate the true nature of Hamlet and Ophelia's relationship; we talk out our confusion. Some classes go well; others are messy. The burden I was feeling has lifted, though. After all, as a wise teacher once told me of trying to teach Moby Dick, this is only their first Hamlet. Their senior year Hamlet. There will be many more readings or viewings to come, and with these, many new ways to understand the play. Hamlet at 17 is invariably a different play than Hamlet at 21 or 33.

As an older reader now, I have to say, I'm mesmerized by it. This transformation occurred for me in Act V, along with Hamlet's own transformation. He finally gets out his head, stops dwelling on things outside his control, and decides to leave a few things up to fate. There is a lightness to his language that is missing in the earlier acts, even when he is jesting (albeit bitterly) under his antic disposition.

Hamlet's epiphany to live in the moment reminds me of my favorite line in Beowulf: "Fate goes ever as it must." Similarly, Hamlet tells Horatio, "There's a divinity that shapes our ends,/Rough-hew them how we will - / That is most certain."

It's the hardest thing in the world to do sometimes: to surrender. Particularly for those of us who think we can map life out, solve all of its quandaries intellectually. Apparently I'm not as far off from Hamlet as I first thought. I'm pretty sure I told several people at the outset of this little endeavor, "I just don't relate to this guy." Ha. The joke was on me.

Really, my favorite moment in the play (aside from when he's messing with Rosencrantz n' Guildenstern) is when he and Horatio are discussing his upcoming duel with Laertes. The duel is unlooked for; it's just been thrust upon him by Claudius. And it's happening right now, no delay. Get thee to the Great Hall for the show. Horatio, sensing Hamlet's discomfort (this, after all, wasn't in Hamlet's plans), says he'll stall the duel and tell the gang they'll just have to wait. (What a good friend, that Horatio.) And Hamlet the planner, Hamlet the thinker, Hamlet the procrastinator would do just that. But the new Hamlet has a better approach: just wing it.

Horatio: I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit.

Hamlet: Not a whit, we defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come - the readiness is all. Since no man aught he leaves knows, what is't to leave betimes? Let be.

I love it! It is the perfect answer to his "to be or not to be" moment. Hamlet just "is" here. He accepts what is to come with grace and dignity(I admire his apology to Laertes). Maybe I'm terribly misreading, but to me, he becomes a true king in these moments.

Thank you to the kind souls who shepherded me through Hamlet this fall.
You know who you are.

Monday, October 25, 2010

happiness is

finding my first issue of Poetry in my school mailbox today. And in it

"Memorizing 'The Sun Rising' by John Donne"

Every reader loves the way he tells off
the sun, shouting busy old fool
into the English skies even though they
were likely cloudy on that seventeenth-century morning.

And it's a pleasure to spend this sunny day
pacing the carpet and repeating the words,
feeling the syllables lock into rows
until I can stand and declare,
the book held close by my side,
that hours, days, and months are but the rags of time.

But after a few steps into stanza number two,
wherein the sun is blinded by his mistress's eyes,
I can feel the first one begin to fade
like sky-written letters on a windy day.

And by the time I have taken in the third,
the second is likewise gone, a blown-out candle now,
a wavering line of acrid smoke.

So it's not until I leave the house
and walk three times around this hidden lake
that the poem begins to show
any interest in walking by my side.

Then, after my circling,
better than the courteous dominion
of her being all states and him all princes,

better than love's power to shrink
the wide world to the size of a bedchamber,

and better even than the compression
of all that into the rooms of these three stanzas

is how, after hours stepping up and down the poem,
testing the plank of every line,
it goes with me now, contracted into a little spot within.

~Billy Collins

I have to add a post-script here. One of the reasons I love this poem is that this summer I memorized "Terns" by Mary Oliver. Just for the hell of it. I don't have a television, and so at one point memorizing a poem seemed like a highly underrated way of whiling away the scorching August afternoons (note to self: probably shoulda been reading Hamlet). For the life of me I can't seem to meditate, but repeating the lines "Don't think just now of the trudging forward of thought" was essentially this. It was such a different kind of task than I'm used to. And I loved it.

...after hours stepping up and down the poem,
testing the plank of every line,
it goes with me now...

Friday, October 22, 2010

autumn begins

"Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio"
~ James Wright, 1963

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Work, Sometimes

I was sad all day, and why not. There I was, books piled
on both sides of the table, paper stacked up, words
falling off my tongue.

The robins had been a long time singing, and now it
was beginning to rain.

What are we sure of? Happiness isn't a town on a map,
or an early arrival, or a job well done, but good work
ongoing. Which is not likely to be the trifling around
with a poem.

Then it began raining hard, and the flowers in the yard
were full of lively fragrance.

You have had days like this, no doubt. And wasn't it
wonderful, finally, to leave the room? Ah, what a

As for myself, I swung the door open. And there was
the wordless, singing world. And I ran for my life.

~Mary Oliver

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Procrastinating. As we speak.

I am finding this New Yorker essay/ book review titled "Later: What Does Procrastination Tell Us about Ourselves?" fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which is that procrastination, to me, can be a form of art. Here is a short excerpt but the good stuff is all throughout the essay:

"The term itself (derived from a Latin word meaning “to put off for tomorrow”) entered the English language in the sixteenth century, and, by the eighteenth, Samuel Johnson was describing it as “one of the general weaknesses” that “prevail to a greater or less degree in every mind,” and lamenting the tendency in himself: “I could not forbear to reproach myself for having so long neglected what was unavoidably to be done, and of which every moment’s idleness increased the difficulty.” And the problem seems to be getting worse all the time. According to Piers Steel, a business professor at the University of Calgary, the percentage of people who admitted to difficulties with procrastination quadrupled between 1978 and 2002. In that light, it’s possible to see procrastination as the quintessential modern problem."

Read more