Saturday, January 30, 2010

love this one!

"In Shakespeare"

In Shakespeare a lover turns into an ass
as you would expect. People confuse
their consciences with ghosts and witches.
Old men throw everything away
because they panic and can't feel their lives.
They pinch themselves, pierce themselves with twigs,
cliffs, lightning, and die - yes, finally - in glad pain.

You marry a woman you've never talked to,
a woman you thought was a boy.
Sixteen years go by as a curtain billows
once, twice, Your children are lost,
they come back, you don't remember how.
A love turns to a statue in a dress, the statue
comes back to life. Oh God, it's all so realistic
I can't stand it. Whereat I weep and sing.

Such a relief, to burst from the theatre
into our cool, imaginary streets
where we know who's who and what's what,
and command with Metrocards our destinations.
Where no one with a story struggling in him
convulses as it eats its way out,
and no one in an antiseptic corridor,
or in deserts or in downtown darkling plains,
staggers through an Act that just will not end,
eyes burning with the burning of the dead.

~James Richardson

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I should probably comment on Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek since I excerpted a chunk of it below in an earlier post.

Dillard doesn't exactly explain the premise of her book, but from what I can gather, in a Thoreauvian move she lived alone in a cabin near Virginia's Tinker Creek for several years. I'm still reading it here and there, but I've found it similar to reading a science text book. Last night I fell asleep in a part where she deliberately camps out next to a copperhead. (I'm sorry: who really does that????!) The thing is, before she even gets to the copperhead I know what is coming. She sets out with a sleeping bag, a flashlight, and a sandwich across some fields, presumably to spend a night out under the stars. I'm thinking to myself: Is she insane? She could be eaten by a bear or a snake. Bad idea. But of course she finds the copperhead and decides to camp right next to it! Very saucy of her: "There was something about its eyes, some alien alertness...what on earth must it be like to have scales on your face? All right then, copperhead. I know you're here, you know I'm here. This is a big night. I dug my elbows into rough rock and dry soil and settled back on the hillside to begin the long business of waiting out a snake."

Not surprisingly, Dillard seems sort of superhuman to me. I'm in awe of her capacity for wonder. Here she is explaining her quirkiness in her own words: "I have often noticed that these things, which obsess me, neither bother nor impress other people even slightly. I am horribly apt to approach some innocent at a gathering and, like the ancient mariner, fix him with a wild, glitt'ring eye and say, 'Do you know that in the head of a caterpillar of the ordinary goat moth there are two hundred and twenty-eight separate muscles?' The poor wretch flees. I am not making chatter; I mean to change his life."

cure for insomnia.

I wish. Until then, I'm digging some clever Inspector Morse mystery novels that I picked up in Oxford. A friend put me on to Colin Dexter a few years ago, and I had forgotten all about him until last week. I'm not really a mystery reader. I like these because they are set in and around Oxford, and they move at about the pace of a small snail. No nail-biting going on, which makes them easy to read at 2 a.m. when I can't sleep.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

"Self-consciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies. It is the glimpse of oneself in a storefront window, the unbidden awareness of reactions on the faces of other people -- the novelist's world, not the poet's. I've lived there. I remember what the city has to offer: human companionship, major-league baseball, and a clatter of quickening stimulus like a rush from strong drugs that leaves you drained. I remember how you bide your time in the city, and think, if you stop to think, "next year...I'll start living; next year...I'll start my life." Innocence is a better world.

Innocence sees that this is it, and finds it world enough, and time. Innocence is not the prerogative of infants and puppies, and far less of mountains and fixed stars, which have no prerogatives at all. It is not lost to us; the world is a better place than that. Like any other of the spirit's good gifts, it is there if you want it, free for the asking, as has been stressed by stronger words than mine. It is possible to pursue innocence as hounds pursue hares: single-mindedly, driven by a kind of love, crashing over creeks, keening and lost in fields and forests, circling, vaulting over hedges and hills wide-eyed, giving loud tongue all unawares to the deepest, most incomprehensible longing, a root-flame of the heart, and that warbling chorus resounding back from the mountains, hurling itself from ridge to ridge over the valley, now faint, now clear, ringing the air through which the hounds tear, open-mouthed, the echoes of their own wails dimly knocking against their lungs.

What I call innocence is the spirit's unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration. One needn't be, shouldn't be, reduced to a puppy. If you wish to tell me that the city offers galleries, I'll pour you a drink and enjoy your company while it lasts; but I'll bear with me to my grave those pure moments at the Tate (was it the Tate?) where I stood planted, open-mouthed, born, before that one particular canvas, that river, up to my neck, gasping, lost, receding into watercolor depth and depth to the vanishing point, buoyant, awed, and had to be literally hauled away. These are our few live seasons. Let us live them as purely as we can, in the present."

~Annie Dillard

Sunday, January 10, 2010

on not loving the Kindle

The school where I teach never ceases to amaze me. The latest example of this would be that Kindles are now available for library checkout. I took one home over the break, but the experience of reading on it was a bit like eating a dry piece of bread. I realize I am probably in the minority here, which is why I am writing about it. I am on my computer so much during the day that another screen seems like overload. To turn the page, you And if the content is boring, you just keep clicking. I clicked my way through thirty pages of Let the Great World Spin before I realized what was happening. And then almost as easily I had clicked to the next book, dumped that one and clicked to the next. No reading going on here. Maybe it was just a bad combination of books for me. But in truth, I love ecru, typeset, margins, texture, weight. I like, no, LOVE, being able to underline. Here is what I underlined on the plane to London a few days ago:

"Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home." ~ Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

And here is a poem that so many people already know and love. But doesn't it say it all?

"Marginalia" by Billy Collins

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
"Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
who wrote "Don't be a ninny"
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
"Absolutely," they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
"Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird singing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."

- Billy Collins

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy new year!

Although I am starting 2010 by grading more exams, I am also really excited about this morning's fantastic New York Times review of a new book out by Jack Lynch called The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park. Here is a snippet from Neil Genzlinger's review:

"It is dictionary makers who have to confront most directly the dilemma of Mr. Lynch’s title. Is their job to tell people how the language should be used, or to reflect how it actually is used? Mr. Lynch, as might be expected, gives each view its due, but throughout this very readable book he makes clear that he thinks the grammar scolds need to shut up, or at least tone it down.

“Too often,” he writes, “the mavens and pundits are talking through their hats. They’re guilty of turning superstitions into rules, and often their proclamations are nothing more than prejudice representing itself as principle.”

And, as he notes in his final chapter, the grammatical doomsayers had better find themselves some chill pills fast, because the crimes-against-the-language rate is going to skyrocket here in the electronic age. There is already much whining about the goofy truncated vocabulary of e-mail and text messaging (a phenomenon Mr. Lynch sees as good news, not bad; to mangle the rules of grammar, you first have to know the rules). And the Internet means that English is increasingly a global language.

“All the signs point to a fundamentally reconfigured world,” he writes, “in which what we now think of as the English-speaking world will eventually lose its effective control of the English language.”

While as an English teacher I am probably higher up on the grammar scold scale - evidenced this morning by my repeated slashings of noun-pronoun disagreements in my students' essays (aggh!) - I am still in awe of the English language's endurance and mutability. I appreciate in the review how Lynch traces the split infinitive's trajectory from de rigeur to expletive. I honestly don't know if the split infinitive would make a grammar scold's top ten list in the 21st century. There are so many other issues to contend with. Perhaps what I've noticed the most is the absence or misuse of the comma, and I'm sure this is a direct result of the electronic age. What does it mean when a person cannot pause in a paper or in speech? Seems like some kind of metaphysical condition, really.

On an altogether different note, I have to include a link to Bill Cunningham's report on the fashionable state of silver in clothing, accessories, etc. Be sure to catch the monkey motif while you are marveling over this man's whimsy and creativity as he tells a story about color....