Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Essential Parts: Systems Thinking

Blog post in the early hours of the morning today. This is not my habit. My habit is to write in a journal and think onto the page with a pen in my hand at this hour. Sort my thoughts. Question myself. Call myself to task and ask myself the harder questions. But I cannot do this today because I left my journal - together with a pair of reading glasses and a pen - at the library last night, after teaching a Teens Write Here class. (Only those classes aren't so much "teaching" as experiments in pyromania. More on that in a moment.) First thought: maybe a blog post should be a morning habit, even if it comes after all the pen-to-paper work.

Second thought: what needs to come out of my head on this morning is Systems Thinking. Every one of my current systems is arranged in my brain this morning. They look like the various choirs from the olden days of "Musicale," when all the area's little Christian high schools would gather near one of them each year, and the adjudicators would come, and we'd take our turns impressing them, and then there'd be the night of the big performance, when all the choirs would sing a few pieces together. We'd have each been practicing them back at home for the whole school year. At Musicale, we'd sing them together. Hundreds of teenagers, each concentrating on their individual participation in the art. One year we'd learned a piece that had eight parts - two bass lines, two tenor lines, two alto lines, and two soprano lines. The choirs were split for the performance, so that four parts were one one side of that gymnasium and four on the other side, and we sang that piece back and forth across the space. It was incredible. Glorious. It was, perhaps, the most unified compound complex systems I've ever participated in, and almost forty years later I do not remember the title of the piece, but I remember that moment of glory.

This morning, I wonder if I remember it not only for its glorious art, or its focusing of all of that young energy into one laser sharp edge (was it that sharp? would a recording back up my memory of that?) ... not only for the choir-ness of it, but also for the system of it. This morning I realize how much the system matters to me. The systems. Plural. Lots of them.

There's the generally useful CAPER system I've been experimenting with.
  • Collect everything you need for the coming task
  • Arrange it in a useful, logical, and/or experimental way
  • Perform the task
  • Evaluate what happened
  • Rest
This is the system for shelving books at the library, cooking dinner in the kitchen, studying for a class, or going for a walk. Mostly, people tend to blitz through the C and the A, and revisit those steps in the midst of P, and never do the E or the R in any kind of conscious way. Mostly, in our era at least, people spell their days C A P A C A P A PPPPPP (now P is for Panic) C P - and life sounds like a sputter. I got tired of the sputter and started watching people who have articulated what they're doing or who are very good at what they're doing, and I saw that they CAPER. (And I do like a word that can be a food or a story.)

Then there's the Health and Well-being system. I'm working on that one right now. Trying to locate the pieces for the C part of it, and to Arrange what I do have and experiment with it to see if it hangs together in a sustainable way. For this system, so far, I've got:
  • Foundation Training to underlie a bit of Pilates and a lot of walking (which I don't Perform nearly as often or as consistently as I need to be). Foundation Training unifies what I've learned about "core" and aging and physicality and embodiment. 
  • Real Food Fermentation, and The Art of Fermentation - the beginnings of a library of reference material about getting the right systems of interactions restored in the gut. Plus, fermented foods taste good and if I can figure this out, I think I'll be able to get a healthful and delicious genuine honest to goodness local to my very house and home sourdough starter going and make some bread.
  • Practical Paleo, Mark Sisson's work and books, and the other "paleo," "primal," and whole foods resources which minimize carbs in the diet. This is not because the current craze is a bandwagon and I just loooooove me a bandwagon ride (she said sarcastically, being a habitual bandwagon avoider), but because ever since I first got solid health help, back when I saw my first natural medicine sort of doctor in the seventh grade (I was in the seventh grade - the doctor was a grown up), I've been told and I've known from experience that too many carbs cause illness for me. And too little protein is always my first preference and major obstacle. Pregnancies, arthritis style illnesses, mono, stress . . . all of the health problems or challenges I've ever had say the same thing to me: fewer carbs, more whole foods, more protein. This is the way I need to eat, and these recent comers to the party are being very helpful at the moment. 
  • And the newest addition to this choir, Michael Mosley and company. Fasting (restricting calories to 500 in women and 600 in men) two days a week (we're only doing one here so far) has a lot of current scientific backing, and it also has my favorite systems analysis already done on it. There have been millennia of people who fast, for a variety of reasons. The data's in. Longevity and health are enhanced by a body's not being too heavy and overloaded, and fasting is a way to give the body a break and a change to repair, and it's also good for the soul.
My whole life is made of systems like the Health and Well-being System. I try to remember to put all of the letters into my CAPER in the practice of any of my systems, and writing in the morning is one way to do the Evaluation for all the systems. Figure out which parts were only thought to be essential. Ask myself about my habits of thought, of words, of deeds. First thing in the morning, when it's still dark outside and my unconscious, dreaming brain is ready to synthesize its work of the night season, I get up and write. (Sun's up! Husband's up! Gotta go now.)

This bit of writing brought to you by Jazzed by the Kids: the state of mind that follows a good fire. Last night's Teens Write Here session for the Imagined Ink contest at the library was ... WOW. If there's one thing I love, it's a good blaze that fills the fireplace, and last night, on the second session of TWH, there were four girls, aged 12-14. Three had been at the first session, one was new to the group. We've got a poet, a sci-fi writer, a creative nonfiction writer, and a graphic novelist! By the end of our 90 minutes, all four of those kids were completely wrapped up in enthusiasm for each other's projects, and I was barely able to keep from doing a happy dance all over the library. That's why I forgot to bring home my notebook. It took about a session and a half for the thing to catch, but when it did ... what a blaze! Go, teen writers, go!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

September, 2013

Other years, in some other times, I've heard a snap. She has a handbag, and the closure clicks. She has some glasses that she keeps at the ready, and they're in a case that makes a sudden, sharp thwack when she closes it. Or, the door closes with a particular click. Usually there's something. Some little sound, done in just her way, and we know the autumn is about to begin this year's course. It's almost time.

Usually, she gets into our room ahead of the scheduled season, and she makes herself comfortable and waits for the heat of the summer to subside. She doesn't interrupt the heyday. She has composure, this woman. Dignity. Calm. She knows how to wait in readiness.

But this year? This year I've been listening just like I always do. I'm the student at one of the corners, with a view of the room, and probably not in a conversation. People don't talk to me when I'm waiting. Not usually, anyway. Sometimes I say something engaging. Inviting. It's okay. You can talk to me. I sympathize with your nervousness or your lethargy. (Only I don't -- not with lethargy.) Anyway, I'm already here when she comes in. I love that moment, when the small sound happens and a flash of electricity goes through the room and gets forgotten in the next moment. I love the anticipation of the beginning of another term. I hold my breath. I wait. Autumn signals her arrival sometime near the end of August - or even earlier - and I love the delicious intake of breath when I hear her.

But not this year. The heat has come back on for the next little while, and all my wooly clothes are too warm to wear in full sun, and my sweaters and I must wait a little longer ... but ... wait a tick. Is that her? There's a teacher sitting down, right in the middle of the room, in an ordinary place, just like everyone else. She's ready to start. But I did not hear her come in.

This could be a very interesting year.

Friday, September 6, 2013

September Morning

Her window was open - that's why she caught it. The scraps of summer had begun to blow away, but she had not closed the windows yet. On this morning she sat at her desk in her little office, half listening to the familiar sounds of her husband's morning kitchen routine below, and found a slow smile relaxing her face and releasing something - something that had been waiting, unknown, unseen. The scent of wood smoke wafted through her window. The pellet stove was on. He must have turned up the thermostat. Salt of beach air on summer nights past. Comfort of the cotton sweatshirts slightly gritty with the sand, scratching against sun-tendered skin. But also the promise of early evenings and of candles lit in the dusky winter. Both the summer and the winter rode into her office, carried on that smell. She knew that there would be another sputtering blast of summer heat before she could settle into the damp and cool of her home in the rain forest - before the pellets would heat the house every day - but on that September morning, she woke again. The air carried the scent of her heart.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Low-Residency MFA and Me

Searching for information, and came across a few personal blogs -- those people talked about what they were doing in their search for an MFA program, and because of them I found a program I think I like, and besides -- this blog is very neglected, and it's still not even 6:00 in the morning, and I need to write some of this stuff OUT. OF. MY. HEAD. or it's going to drive me insane, so here it is.

The Low-Residency MFA and Me

I'm trying to remember why I started looking in the first place. For the last couple of years, my advisers, and most respected and admired instructors, and even my fellow students on some occasions, have spoken in some kind of huge, strong, clear theme of Grad School. It's come with a "duh - are you joking here?" face, and it's come with an "I hate to be the one to break it to you" face, and it's come with the "you'll see it when you're ready" face, and it's come with the "no, this is the truth" face ... but it's always come with the same message - the same answer to my constant whining worry, What Am I Supposed To Do With This Degree? Answer: go to grad school. (Or, go to grad school, silly. Or -- go to grad school, and it's obvious, so stop pretending you don't know the answer.) 

And yet, until this month, on the first weekend of the month, I couldn't see it. I couldn't see it until I found out, at dinner, in Ashland, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, sitting across from instructors, and near instructors, and in conversation with instructors, that the MFA in Creative Writing is a "terminal degree." (cue: semi-hysterical laughter -- really? We call it "terminal"? Perfect.) "What does that mean, 'terminal degree'?" I asked. "It means," she said, "that in that discipline, it's the highest degree people achieve. There isn't a PhD in Creative Writing -- so you could teach." 


So ... grad school? There's an idea.

Come home from Shakespeare in Performance (taken for credit), and write performance analyses. Write Graphic Novel analysis of Chris Ware's Building Stories (see below). Do an Improv on Twitter of Midsummer Night's Dream, Act III, as a final project (freak out at the homework assignment that goes with it because formatting stuff out of Twitter and putting it into a document is horrid). Write final for the other Shakespeare course, and bash brains against the stones trying to make a coherent argument about Othello's fragmented self being his downfall. And then ... in a haze of brain mush and a stupor of wonder, notice that the three letters - M F A - are floating in the air around my head, like cartoon birds when the person's been clobbered. There it is. MFA. Terminal Degree. Teach. Teach. MFA. Google.

Find #1: Already considering Goddard, because a lot of people to go Goddard from Marylhurst, and because back in the day (a few months ago), their Transformative Language Arts degree looked -- purposeful. It looked purposeful. It looked like a Reason To Go to Grad School. It looked like a way to be of some use in the world. It looked like what it is -- brilliant. And it's the only domestic version of the cutting edge work happening in the UK, Australia, and Canada (all of which are a bit too far away for me to go for grad school) But it's not - right. I've been trying it on for a while, and it simply doesn't fit me.

Find #1a: Goddard's MFA in Creative Writing, out of their Port Townsend campus. Okay. Put that one into the Definite Possibilities pile. It's still Goddard, and it fits better.

Find #2: Bennington. This is, in fact, what I believe about a real Liberal Arts education. I believe this in my bones and cells and breath and pulse. The (retiring) president of Bennington said this at the close of a TED conference a few years ago, and it makes me want to follow her into battle.

And besides ...the motto of their MFA program is: Read 100 books; write one. ALSO exactly what I believe and how I want to do this.

Find #3: The ratings lists. In the past little while, the top schools emerging include Bennington, Goddard, and a few others, and so I looked at them all, and I started a bookmarks tab for keeping track, and I went back over and over (because on the Saturday after finals week I felt unable to do anything else) and one of them is a lot closer to home than Vermont. I live in the Pacific Northwest. Pacific University is only a couple of hours away from here. A low-residency at Pacific makes all kinds of sense. My teachers have suggested it. Top rated. On all the lists. This should be a good fit.

Except . . .  I need some cross-pollination, and it needs to be from a part of the country where sincerity and truth are not assessed by our cultural habit of earnest self-referential, self-conscious, self-amazed, and self-validated ways of knowing. I need someone to tell me something besides Find Your Own Truth. I don't want to be enabled. I want to be workshopped.

Find 3a: Now, whoever heard of this? "The Whidbey Writers Workshop Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (MFA) Program is the first in the country - and perhaps in the world - to be offered not by a college or university but by an organization of writers." Well, that's interesting. Info sent for. Local, but not, apparently, all about the self-reference, and there's a strongly pedagogical vein in this one. That's good. Available online writing samples, though ... not so good. Hm.

Find #4: The east coast is better at being sharp. Pointed. Rigorous. A couple of years of externally imposed rigor. Yes. That's what I want. Okay ... so what's there? So far, it's Bennington (crazy expensive), Goddard (weirdly west coast in the enabling department - but that might be a false impression - info packet sent for), and ... wait. What's this? Stonecoast. I've seen those ads. University of Southern Maine has a low residency MFA called Stonecoast. "A Top 6 ranked low residency program offering courses in Creative Nonfiction, Fiction, Poetry, and Popular Fiction." Okay, that sounds good. "Monthly packets encompass original writing, revision, and critical essays and annotations as well as optional interdisciplinary research and internships in teaching, publishing, and community service/social justice." Oh. Yeah. That sounds very good. More info please.

So there it is so far. At the end of the month, I have appointments with advisers because next year at this time, I'll have graduated from college for the second time. This time, my degree will be accredited, and I will be prepared for grad school, and I want to go, so now I only have one more question.

Can a woman of my age who lives where I do become an employed MFA? Because - well - grad school's all fine and good on its own merits, but if I'm going to borrow all this money, I need a job when I'm done so I can pay it back.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Love's not Time's fool

On May 23, 2012,

artists of all kinds came together at the Royal Academy

 for a party with Queen Elizabeth II

to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee. 

 The gathering of artists was assembled to mark the contribution

 of the creative arts in Britain in the last 60 years.

The pictures presented here,

taken from the UK's MailOnline,

span the 65 years of the Queen's marriage

to Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.


 At the event Dame Judi remarked

to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme's presenter, James Naughtie,

that she liked to read a Shakespeare sonnet every day,

so he asked her to recite just one.


 She obliged with Shakespeare's sonnet 116

which she recited from memory.


Press play. Listen.

And scroll again through the images

while you hear Shakespeare's words of faithful love

and see it photographed

across 65 years of one of the most well-known

marriages in the world. 



Sonnet 116
by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out ev'n to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


In the classroom at the top of the stairs
(turn right - there are two doors
use either)
on the counter,
there are three bowls.
Clay, they're made of, impressed
with little fingerprints
pushed in.

In the bowls there are small mementos
snippets of lessons
the teacher hopes were learnt
or anyway, that they will be remembered when the fingernail sized heart
red felt clipped a little off-center
is touched.
Or maybe the bean
or the seed will remind.

In the light that falls through very tall windows
three clay bowls sit.
They are unbroken.
They hold the lessons.

Please be careful if you clean.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Skills Ancient and Modern

We Anglicans have long and lofty (and sometimes low) tradition of hymnody. (Yes, hymnody is a real word.) One of the most famous of Anglican hymnals is called Hymns Ancient and Modern - a title so extravagantly popular that there's even this easily packed edition. See the fingernail in the image? Um, yeah. This hymnal is 2 1/4" x 1 7/8" -- it's microscopic! How did anyone ever read it? Anyway, the title came into my head today because of what's happening in my school life. This quarter I'm taking a Shakespeare course that requires the students to use both Twitter and Pinterest. Um ... really???

Among students of the Western world, is there any more iconic topic signifying all things dull, stultifying, or perhaps just incomprehensibly old than the study of the Bard? I mean, Branagh and Fishburne notwithstanding, Shakespeare is synonymous with all that is old fashioned and academically traditional - right? I think of putting my Shakespeare coursework into the Twitterverse of babble in short bursts and some sort of anachronistic aneurism threatens my brain. I'm suddenly very very old. Just ... old. (My husband's grandmother got as far as toaster ovens but refused to learn microwaves. Somewhere in Paradise, she's laughing at me today.)

Then I did my morning prayer office. I calmed down. I remembered that the globe has convulsed and endured its spasms and fits on its way to modernity before. There was a little thing called the industrial revolution, after all. Or, more recently, the thrum of doom, doom, doom, as the End of Books was prophesied. Ha!! The end of books. What a joke! E-books are one more kind of books, and the computer has made the old-fashioned kind with pages in it into a work of art and wonder, not an obsolete museum piece. Sheesh. What am I so afraid of? Why should Twitter and Pinterest make me feel like a time traveler in a fur loincloth? New stuff doesn't eliminate old stuff - it winnows it.

New movies make the best of the old ones show up better. New books make old books useful and desirable and lovely in a whole new way, and the chaff and fluff and goop dies off. That, I think, is what new technology is doing. I think it's the vibrating screen that sorts things into various sizes and separates the big from the small. And, when the screens have shaken the load, some things remain. Some things are still here. I got to thinking about this and I started to compile a list in my head.

Useful Skills Ancient and Modern
  • needle and thread sewing;
  • good breath support during singing, and the ability to read music;
  • the making of a well-built fire of wood;
  • making stories up, telling old stories aloud and without any visual accompaniment (and listening to those stories);
  • acting stories out;
  • hiking, walking, strolling, ambling, and generally taking the world a the pace of a human stride;
  • spelling and punctuation conventions (because if you don't know the rules you don't know when to break them);
  • asking for forgiveness;
  • forgiving;
  • cleaning a house, a body, and clothing, without the use of commercially manufactured products;
  • being ill and getting well without pharmaceuticals (and knowing thereby when pharmaceuticals are a wise choice);
  • being quiet;
  • focusing the attention;
  • synthesizing old and new learning, information, and the wisdom of others.
Studying Shakespeare as a distance learner (which doesn't mean enrolling in "correspondence school") doesn't have to be a lonely slog through the pages of textbooks. Scantrons, be gone! Grueling exam schedule, join all antique academic bullies and take your rightful place with palm-thwacking rulers. It's time for Twitter and Pinterest and films streamed online ... skills modern for the study of the old. Lots of old things are better than ever in our brave new world - and I see that the new can enhance and enlighten the old. I see that. But you know what else I see? There isn't yet a time-turner anywhere but in the imagination of J.K. Rowling and her legions of readers, and so I will still have to tweet and pin and watch and write in the course of ten weeks worth of 24-hour days. (Dear Granny: the microwave's not that good for food anyway. I'm sorry I laughed at you even though you didn't know it. Pray for me.)

Saturday, February 2, 2013

"Shift"!! Those ACTORS said, "shift" - in PUBLIC!

Two telegrams tell the story of the opening night of JM Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. Both were sent to WB Yeats by flamboyant Lady Gregory, who was helping him run the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland's embryonic national theatre. He was woken up in Aberdeen by the first, sent at the close of act one: "Play a great success." Two acts later, she sent a second: "Play broke up in disorder at the word 'shift'."
According to William Fay, playing the lead, the audience had become "a veritable mob of howling devils" at this mention of a petticoat. Soon, "the uproar had become a riot". The mob was only prevented from storming the stage by the call-boy, who "had armed himself with a big axe... and swore by all the saints in the calendar that he would chop the head off the first lad who came over the footlights". (Samantha Ellis, The Guardian online)

You know, sometimes you just need a good call-boy and a big axe, and nothing else is going to do the trick.

 This week, in Irish Literature, we read two plays by J. M. Synge. The first one, "Riders to the Sea," is a quick punch to the solar plexus in one act. A mother and her two adult daughters, in the kitchen of their tiny little windblown, seacoast, dirt poor house, waiting for the news of the death of the last remaining brother. Read this one and weep. You won't be able to help it much.

But "Playboy"? Oh my oh my oh my. Believe me, the public mention of the name of a lady's undergarment is the least of the worries here. This is a bawdy, rowdy, hilarious, in your face and slap your pants ride into everything the polite people of the world want stopped. If you were born and raised in the particulars of propriety, this is not the sort of thing you want on the stage.

Set in a small village in County Mayo, The Playboy of the Western World is a lyrical comedy which tells the story of lonely dreamer Christy Mahon who wanders into a pub, claiming that he has killed his father. Captivating the locals with his tale of bravery he becomes an instant hero but it turns out that there is an unexpected twist in his tale. (London Theater)

Ha! "Unexpected twist" indeed. Spoiler alert. He didn't do it.

But it's worse even, than that. A country's fragile ego was at stake here. Ireland was getting sick and tired and tired and sick and shut yer face about it with all of this condescending claptrap coming at them from England's hoity toity mucky mucks. The national theater was somber, artistic and important, and th' divil take y' if y' don't understand that!

Ireland in 1907 saw itself as ready for self-rule and it expected its artists to promote the image of a steady, sober, self-reliant people. Instead, with The Playboy of the Western World, Synge gave them a play in which a village loon splits his father's head open with a spade, runs away, tells people he "killed his da" and is promptly installed as a hero by excitable women and drunken men. Worse still, this drama was staged not in some backstreet art-house, but at the Abbey, Ireland's national theatre, one of whose mission statements was to show that Ireland was not the home of buffoonery but of an ancient idealism. (Declan Kiberd, The Guardian, online)

Ireland, in all of living memory now, and for a long time before that, is a place where the unforgiving ocean's tide changes and the violence of it can be heard inside the kitchen of the praying mother's house. England hammers on the one side, colonizing, unmaking the Irish people and their mother tongue, and the bogs suck at the boots of anyone walking there. To have such a portrayal of the Irish, to make their most vulnerable country rubes the laughing stock of the theater ... it was too much.
 Some writers who had admired Synge's earlier work felt that now he had gone too far. "It is not against a nation that he blasphemes," wrote Patrick Pearse in a journal of the Gaelic League, "so much as against the moral order of the universe." The Irish Times's critic identified one cause of the trouble: "It is as if a mirror were held up to our faces and we found ourselves hideous. We fear to face the thing. We scream." (Kiberd)
So far, this all makes sense. (The Guardian's Kiberd does a great job of discussing all of this. Click on the link for "The Riotous History" of this play.)

But theater goers also rioted in New York and in Philadelphia when the play came to this side of the pond. This is a play about something horrible (a son killing his abusive father), which is made funny by the antics of the women who swoon over the scrawny, lying little twerp who has the gift of the blarney (and they're not exactly proper, those women).
Like Christy’s own tale of slaying his Da, the story of his injuries to Ireland’s good name continued to grow with the years. When the Abbey theatre took the play on tour to the United States, the clash between the idea of a pure nationhood cherished by Irish immigrants and what they saw on stage was even more pronounced. In New York missiles were thrown on the stage, and a hundred police attempted to keep order. Lady Gregory, who led the tour, received death threats; Theodore Roosevelt’s presence at the second performance ensured a more sedate reception. But when the company arrived in Philadelphia all hell broke loose, and the players were hauled into court by an Irish-American patriot who accused the company and the play of indecency. The case was dismissed when the judge learned that the accusers had not read the text. (Anne Saddlemyer, Oxford University Press, online)
Ah, for the love of Mike! The riots over this play tell the story of every purist, every fundamentalist, every rampaging, prohibition-championing, thin-skinned, small-minded, fear-mongering zealot of a lunatic that has ever drawn breath on this whole glorious planet. Would someone call the call-boy out here? And give him an axe!

Irish Lit: Poetry in Week Three

Scrambling to catch up, before the middle of the term!

We read Yeats in week three, and for our blog post, we're supposed to take one poem, and address a few points. They are:
1. What is this poem "about"?
2. Who is the speaker (or speakers) in the poem?
3. What is its tone or mood? Does the tone change?
4. Comment on any images in the poem.
5. Does the language itself have any notable features (e.g. is it plain or ornate, difficult or easy, colloquial or scholarly)?
6. Is the poem itself musical and rhythmical to the ear or is it more of a textual experience?
And now, for your entertainment, I shall attempt to do all of this on a high wire. No. Not a high wire. A high aware(ness) that this is my own personal public blog of ordinary me, me doing this, here, now. I'm going to talk about this poem without numbering my answers. I'm just going to talk.

It's not hard. It's Yeats.

It's not easy. It's Yeats.

Yeats of the old school. Yeats of the era of Serious British Education, the native Dubliner, Yeats. Yeats who longed to "build up a national tradition, a national literature, which shall be none the less Irish in spirit from being English in language" because Yeats loved Ireland. William Butler Yeats turned his Ireland into words in stanzas, and these stanzas shimmer with his love.

The b
eauty of his poetry transcends time and space, and, I think, it even transcends Yeats himself. Here. I'll show you what I mean. This is a recording of his own reading of "The Lake Isle of Innesfree," -- he reads his poem in a completely dated and sonorous style which we, today, can find melodramatic and just a little silly. The text of the poem is below the imbedded video, so you can read along.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, 
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made: 
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee; 
And live alone in the bee-loud glade. 

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, 
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; 
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, 
And evening full of the linnet's wings. 

I will arise and go now, for always night and day 
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; 
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, 
I hear it in the deep heart's core. 

He sounds like he learned public speaking from men in black robes who stood in high pulpits or behind lecterns at the front of cavernous naves and classrooms, before the era of the false intimacy of the microphone. And, of course, he did. (Our era's public speaking all sounds like a revival tent meeting or a night club act, if you ask me. He's dated, but at least he's not trying to whip me to a fervor by shouting - then whispering - then shouting -  his emotional manipulations. He wants us to hear the poem.)

But it bothered me a little to hear his reading of his own poetry. His reading sounds as if he is trying to stay in speech, but he hears a tune in his head. It sounded like the reading of a canticle when you're used to chanting it musically. Maybe, though, he didn't hear a melody, but only the long, drawn-out rhythms of the inhale and exhale of a vacation at the lake. Maybe this is the slow pace of the kind of snoring a boy could do in a hammock in the yard.

His words could have been easily understood by the boy he used to be. There is nothing too scholarly or ornate to understand - at least, not if the listener has ever loved the peace of a place like that. But a boy in a hammock might not catch the exhausted tones of the man who wrote these words. It takes a man to know what sort of effort is meant by the need to "arise and go" - from a life of noise and stink of town, and from the constant clamor or too many people being too busy in a far too mechanized world. The boy would not wonder if that tired, sighing man might even be longing for the quiet and completely natural state of death itself.

From his own explanations of the poem (found here), it's easy enough to tell that this is him - his own self - Mr. Yeats - remembering a very real time and place, and the splash of water that made him feel like this memory made him feel. His own boyhood is being remembered. Like anyone whose family roots are visited in holidays and kept alive by a parent (in his case, a mother) who sang its songs to him, his love of Ireland is as deep as his own skeleton and muscles. There, he can have the sounds of crickets and bees. The lapping water of a lake at the edges of a lake sound like peace for him - beans growing where those bees are the loudest thing to listen to sounds like the best kind of noise in the world - especially when he's standing on the unyielding, grey pavement of the modern city, far, far from his deep heart's core. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Ostentatious Pecksniffianism, I say!

Getting to it a bit late in the week this time ... that needs to change if my course load isn't going to bury me entirely, to be lost forever under a pile of hard-to-find videos (Masculinity in Film), hard-to-articulate, half-written theories (Modern Philosophy), and hard-to-put-down literature (Irish, old and new). Anyway, here's the week's blog challenge from the Man of Irish Letter and Lore:
As late as 1899 Robert Atkinson, the Professor of Comparative Philology at Trinity College, Dublin, said that stories such as those you've read this week and Irish folklore in general was "at bottom abominable", and that in ancient Irish literature it would be difficult to find a book "in which there is not some passage so silly or so indecent as to give you a shock from which you would not recover for the rest of your life."
What do you think might have been behind such a judgement, given that creative writers found the same books to be remarkable and stimulating? 

Um ... I don't know?


I'll need to do better than that. There are no classmates sitting in this room, and therefore no one eager to show how much research she did on the topic before coming to class (there is always at least one Hermione Granger in class at Marylhurst - usually, there are several), and here in my office, late on a Saturday afternoon, there is no past master ready to discuss all the other things he knows about the topic. There's me. There's only me. Wondering about Robert Atkinson. Was the man being ironic? Is that actually a funny thing to say, what he said?

Apparently not.

Since I have to be my own Hermione for this one, I did a bit of reading. It turns out that Atkinson was no idiot! He was not, apparently, clowning around. And he knew exactly what he was saying, and to whom he was saying it. He made this poke-in-the-eye statement at the end of the 19th century, as an enormous wave of Irish language interest was taking the academic world by storm. He "outraged the Irish language movement with his disdainful dismissal of the entire corpus of early Irish literature" which he made during official testimony being given before the Vice-Regal Commission on Intermediate Education. He was not being funny, and he was not being overheard. He was being a pill. And when the reporters got hold of his statement, they included it in an article with the title, "Trinity's Attack on the Irish Language." They were not amused (O'Leary, 223).

In his 1994 Prose Literature of the Gaelic Revival, 1881-1921 Ideology and Innovation, Philip O'Leary calls this blasting from Atkinson a Pecksniffian charge, which was given and taken in completely earnest and serious intent. That's right. He called it Pecksniffian. (Go ahead. Say it out loud.) So I had to look that up! (Well, first I called across the hall, and asked The Great Husband, "What is Pecksniffian?!" He only said, "It's not good...." So then I looked it up.)

Wait. What? How is Atkinson being Pecksniffian? He has the credentials to talk about this stuff!  In fact, "in 1884 he became Todd professor of Celtic languages in the Irish academy. In Celtic studies Atkinson was a pioneer. He edited : The Passions and Homilies from the Leabhar Breac (1887); Three Shafts of Death (Tri Bior-gaoithe an Bhais, 1890), and also wrote introductions for many of the facsimiles issued by the Irish academy" ( So ... he did not loathe all of Irish language. And his comments created a firestorm of rebuttal at the time. Surely he knew that this would be so. Surely he planned what he would say, in advance, on purpose. So what was the man on about? Why was he being so scathing in his testimony? What was behind such a judgement?

The only thing I can figure out is that the man was an Englishman in New York Dublin. He was not Irish. He was opposed and criticized in his day for his lack of facility with the Irish language ("Atkinson of T.C.D. // doesn't know the verb to be" ~ O'Leary quoting a critic, p. 224, in a footnote), and maybe he'd had about enough hostility from the uppity Irish. Maybe he just needed to be an Englishman. Aloud. In all of his own, personal, educated, over-bumptious ostentation. Besides, they warmed to him eventually. He got some very nice tributes after his demise. One person said, "There's many a person who criticized the work of Atkinson who doesn't do his own work half as meticulously as Atkinson did his." (That's another footnote in O'Leary) What was perhaps behind his excoriation of the wild and wonderful, crazy, raw, windblown tales of cows and women and childbirth and fearless magic? Well, maybe those things can be translated just fine - but they're just not proper for the young. They're just not proper.

If, "Manners maketh man" as someone said
Then he's the hero of the day
It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile
Be yourself no matter what they say

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Irish Lit: Week 1

 So ... apparently there IS a first time for everything. My instructor for the course, LIT420: Irish Literature and National Identity, has as part of the weekly requirement a blog post! No kidding! We are supposed to start a blog, use one we already have, or use his. And this means I'll have a whole list of other student blogs to add to my personal blog roll, which I think is very cool, but now I'm all nervous about other students and an instructor seeing my blogs, and two otherwise rather separate universes have just collided. The violence of this collision just about suits the material we've started looking at.

That's the poster from our course site (cool, huh!), and here's the theme for this week's blog post - a quote from Oscar Wilde.
“We Irish are too poetical to be poets; we are a nation of brilliant failures, but we are the greatest talkers since the Greeks." Oscar Wilde
I'm a bit stuck on the thought of being "too poetical to be poets." Or, rather, it's got its hook in me. Some kind of bent sliver. It's irritating, but I cannot yet see it well enough to pull it out. I will have to come back to that when I can find the words for what I can only feel at the moment.

"Brilliant failures" - nah. Not going to touch that one either. Not yet, and probably not ever. What else is history but a record of all the brilliance and all the eventual failings of all the peoples of all the ages and nations and kindreds and tongues? That's just a very Irish way to express it.

"The greatest talkers since the Greeks" sounds about right. I've known some Irishmen. They've all been talkers. It's the Irish who are full of blarney, after all. Ireland is where the leprechauns are clever chatterers who will not let you catch them lest they have to show you their gold - and be forced to surrender it to you. This is the isle where local bars keep the talkers sheltered from the local rain, under the eaves and in the warmth where they can ply each other with the stories they can tell.
 To say that the Pub is the center of Irish social life is merely stating the obvious. When its good, the craic is only mighty. Craic (pronounced crack) is that wonderful mix of drink, talk, good spirits, and exuberance that suits ceol so well. Ceol? Song.
Wilde wasn't inventing a national identity - he was just noticing it.

We are in the first week of the term. I know there will be a lot to discover about the words of these people. I already love several of those authors, and the one small classroom scene from War of the Buttons packed enough punch to have haunted me for a long time. The schoolmaster is having the children write in their native tongue. Their own language - and not the language of their English oppressors. To use the words of one's own people, in the language of one's own people - this is a humanizing and ennobling act of self-assertion. The words of the Irish will, I suspect, come to mean rather a lot to me this term. And since my instructor is a madman who requires public blog posts about our course material, all my friends and family will be here while I wrestle with this stuff.

After all . . .

my ancestors were Norse marauders

and my faith is practiced in an Anglican expression

so this is a bit like forming a friendship with a verbose garden gnome (who's really a mighty high king under a spell - and if I ignore that circumstance it will be to my own peril)