Monthly Archives: April 2009

A Shot at Yahtzee

If Emily Dickinson is right that “hope is a thing with feathers,” it’s a blast-beruffled bird, a puff-ball clamped to a twig, its eyes fixed on distance, some deep gene crying “Survive, survive.”

Hope doesn’t come so naturally to me, but I assure you it’s there, buried as deep.

I remember assuming success, my youthful confidence believing, thinking, speaking, or acting.  Everything would be fine, and, if it weren’t, so what?  Failure was truly another opportunity.  Possibilities cascaded from any risk before me. I didn’t rule the world, but I made laws for my part of it.  I anticipated obedience.

Now, not so much.  Gather enough experience of mishaps—or just read the newspaper every damn day—and you’re sure to despair.  The older I get, the harder optimism becomes.  It requires will.  My predilection is to collect doomsday scenarios like box tops, each closer to the grand send-away.  Perversely, I find myself desiring the thought to end all thoughts, the other side where my mirror self says, “The worst has happened.  From here, only hope.”

But Emily still isn’t wrong.  Each flip is a new coin, an opening for flight. As long as chance dictates, I might roll yahtzee yet.  Humans have to be constructed that way or we wouldn’t bother to eat, sleep, or breathe… and even I see far enough to do that.

Hope is more properly a flame, a trick birthday candle sure to re-ignite, fire impossible to extinguish.


Filed under Doubt, Emily Dickinson, Essays, Experiments, Hope, Laments, life, Meditations, Survival, Thoughts, Writing

My Assignment

My students are busy this weekend writing a paper about an American poet’s ars poetica. The term comes from a poem by Horace describing the place and purpose of poetry and many poets have written ars poetica after Horace. However, not all the poems I gave my class even mention poetry, so I wanted them to think of a poet’s ars poetica in more general terms. Going with the idea that every poem is in some way about poetry, I asked them to think about what a specific poem says about what poetry should be and/or do.

The assignment is challenging. To start with, the task of getting at the truth the poem implies isn’t easy. And then the bigger question looms—how, on the basis of this one poem, can a reader guess at this poet’s approach and beliefs about poetry?

I wonder if I could write this paper.

My students might howl at my saying so, but my defense is that the thought counts. I want them to grapple with one poem. I want them to examine what’s distinctive and idiosyncratic about one poet’s approach. I’m not expecting a polished, perfect, and professional product, only a worthy attempt to hear the poet’s voice.

Maybe all we can hope for is one poet’s definition of poetry. “What makes a poem a poem?” is the hackneyed first question of many poetry courses, and teachers usually follow the initial inquiry with a reductio ad absurdum pursuit of what poetry is not. Rhyme doesn’t make poetry because not all poems rhyme, nor does meter or other aspects of form because some poems are (or at least seem) quite informal. Figurative language and imagery don’t help because some acknowledged poets run from poetic language altogether. Billboards can be poetry as can many other found sources. So this activity usually ends with the resounding assertion, “Isn’t poetry great? It must be, we can’t even define what it is!”

Okay, but you won’t help anyone read or write poetry by saying so. After two years of graduate studies examining Poetry, I was more confused than ever and paralyzed when I sat down to write. How was I supposed to write a poem without knowing when I’d written one?

I’ve never been altogether comfortable with calling myself a poet, but, since graduate school, I have learned to go with my gut and write again, whatever it is I write. I’ve lost patience with what poetry might be.

Since I’m asking my students to say what a poet thinks poetry is, however, I’ll venture an answer. To me, the one big umbrella that covers all poems is that they are oracular.

Oracular, an adjective form of “oracle,” means—strictly and unhelpfully—“of or relating to an oracle or prophet,” but also—more generally and helpfully—“solemnly prophetic,” and “mysterious or ambiguous.”

My mind presents objections immediately because some poetry is quite funny, and I don’t really believe poetry has to be difficult either. “Mysterious or ambiguous” sounds a little hoity-toity.

Still, I’ll stick by my answer, and here’s why. Most of the funny poems I know carry at their heart some piquant (and hidden) vision of human nature that brings the laughter to an end with an “Oh. Why am I laughing?” Consider “Resume” by Dorothy Parker:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp;
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

This poem isn’t difficult—the humor is apparent—yet, it’s mysterious in the way poetry often is, in presenting the pointiest tip of an iceberg fathoms deep. What gave rise to this proclamation? Is this a funny poem about being sad or a sad poem about being funny? It happens to rhyme and, in its rhyme, pleases readers where it might appall them. Rhyme often rubs against sentiment in that way, making a sore subject jaunty and deflecting a more obvious assertion.

Poetry is, I’d argue, always deflecting things a little, like a quizzical and strange oracle who won’t tell you the straight truth—maybe because this version of it is the best he or she can do. As Emily Dickinson put it, poets “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” With line breaks and images over ideas, metaphors over definitions, poetry can be more link than chain, more silence than notes.

My students sometimes resist the finery and, from their perspective, snobbery of poetry, but to me its virtuosity also serves an oracular end. When a poet writes a perfect sonnet or villanelle, I wonder how such slippery and sublime thoughts could be trained into such regularity… without coming to a reductive conclusion.

One of my favorite poems about poetry is Elizabeth Bishop’s “Man-moth,” a tour de force of imagery and enigma. In the poem, the speaker describes the creature (the title is from a misprint of Mammoth) climbing buildings to escape through the hole of the moon. He fears the climb but, Bishop says, “what the Man-Moth fears most he must do,” seeking truth even in misperception, even when the search is painful or arduous. What the Man-moth returns with is equally troublesome. He can’t look at the third rail of a subway because it is a “draught of poison” and “a disease / he has inherited the susceptibility to.”

I gape at Bishop’s inventiveness and can never understand how, over and over, she comes up with another apt quality to ascribe to the Man-moth, but the last stanza particularly gets me.

If you catch him,
hold up a flashlight to his eye. It’s all dark pupil,
an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens
as he stares back, and closes up the eye. Then from the lids
one tear, his only possession, like the bee’s sting, slips.
Slyly he palms it, and if you’re not paying attention
he’ll swallow it. However, if you watch, he’ll hand it over,
cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.

The tear, I’m hardly the first to notice, is like a poem, something that might so easily and perhaps properly be swallowed again. It is, after all, his only possession and as costly as a bee sting to a bee. That he hands it over expresses his desire that it will speak to you, if only distantly, of its source and creation. He is an oracle granting what he knows, knowing it may not be enough to make himself understood. The dream, as Bishop expresses it, is that it will be “pure enough to drink,” nourishing though you can’t say entirely why.

I suppose being oracular is in the eye of the beholder at last, but thinking about my students struggling—maybe making some of their own tears—I hope they’ll reach some odd truth in the words they study. I hope they will at least sense the truth is being spoken or attempted. I hope they’ll see truth is itself a mystery. Though truth ultimately eludes formulation, it insists on voice, sometimes the poet’s voice, an oracular voice, to express it.

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Filed under Education, Elizabeth Bishop, Essays, High School Teaching, Hope, life, Meditations, Teaching, Thoughts, Tributes, Writing

I Only Know I’m Crazy

I don’t know who said insanity is “doing the same thing and expecting a different result,” but, by that definition, I am hopelessly insane.  There’s so much I’d like to accept and cannot, so much I’d like not to believe and do.

My students have healthier minds—they undermine premises and find good reasons for rejecting theories and philosophies.  They deny Marx because he predicted the wrong future and cast Thoreau out for being unrealistic and anachronistic. They know what’s interesting but wrong and what’s flawed but right.  For them, capitalism has problems, but no other economic system can surpass it… case closed.  For me, we might do better.

I wish I excelled at slamming doors, rebuffing thinkers, discounting and discrediting, overcoming reservations to accept ideas wholeheartedly. People like that move on. They know what they think. They have convictions and the strength of those convictions.  They’re admired.

I’m adrift. “Sure,” I say, “Marx and Thoreau (and Confucius and Jackson Pollock and Freud, and a host of other famously suspect people) aren’t entirely right, but….”

It’s always “But…” with me.

Maybe it’s that shadowy gap between “ought” and “is.”  How can I concede the right or wrong answer and yet not accept it?  Why do I still want the answer to be something else?  When the genie is out of the bottle or circumstances have brought us to here, I’m still pulling the stopper again or twisting my head back like Lot’s wife. I can’t reach a conclusion.  If you say, “That’s the way it is,” I’m going to ask, “Really?”

I hate the words, “Give it a rest” and “Enough already.”

Debates should settle things but make me terribly unsettled.  I stop trying to win and begin sabotaging every argument including my own. Jane Addams said all arguments are finally emotional, not intellectual, and I see that particularly clearly when I’m losing.  I begin to see the actual truth—I don’t care about being right, only feeling right.  And my emotional desire leads to desperate delusions, baffling naiveté, stupid idealism.

Even now, you hear my secret pride. I say I’d like more confidence, but I somehow can’t accept certitude is a good idea.  I wonder why everyone isn’t like me, always reopening cases and exhuming the dead. I keep quoting Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”  What’s wrong with being perpetually confused about what’s what?  What’s wrong with doing the same thing and expecting a different result?  Who is really insane here?


Filed under Blogging, Doubt, Education, Essays, Hope, Laments, life, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing


Writing recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kevin Carey cited the Sloan Consortium’s finding that 3.9 million people—20% of all college students—took courses online in 2007 and that The University of Phoenix now enrolls 200,000 students a year. For-profit Kaplan University shows similar growth, and other college “products” like recorded lectures do brisk business as well.

However, the title of Carey’s column, “What Colleges Should Learn From Newspapers’ Decline,” indicates his trepidation about the success of alternative college courses.  He sees the struggles of The Tribune company (owners of the Chicago paper and LA Times) and the failure of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as harbingers of what awaits universities if they do not adapt to the new business climate. Just as online sources shrink readership, the internet shrinks student bodies, and Cary worries online schools will redirect cash that brick and mortar schools need to survive.

As economic analysis, his thinking is valuable, but it rests on a devastating assumption—that education must make economic sense.

Some aspects of education are marketable.  Some are not.  It’s true, the end-result—a degree—is an appealing commodity.  The promise of better pay and the prestige of new initials often sell consumers on continuing education.  But that’s the product and not the process.  As long as studying is convenient, as long as students can take classes on their time, as long as assessments like papers and tests are minimal, and as long as classes are not too expensive, too arduous, or too consuming, people who don’t particularly like school can be convinced education is worthwhile.

The trouble is, as a process, getting educated can be uncomfortable and, to sell it, marketers must minimize or ignore its less desirable aspects.  For one thing, education is unreliable.  Like a drug that may work for some people and not others, schooling may rely more on the patient than the product.  True education can’t make any promises about anyone’s capacity to learn or retain information and skills.  The success of taking any course of study—at least measured in learning rather than credits—rests on students’ efforts.

This effort often translates as a desire to struggle, a willingness to be tried and tested by the unknown.  Grappling with difficult reading and addressing challenging questions are essential elements of face-to-face learning… but how do you sell that?

Some marketers are making a strategy out of telling students, “You will be tried.  You will discover thoughts and ideas you never conceived.  You will train weak or neglected parts of your brain with difficult and complicated skills and information.  You will benefit from these trials.”

But that’s not happening as much as it should.

Instead, online universities promise convenience and getting your money’s worth—in the most craven, materialistic, product-oriented terms, telling consumers they will experience increased earning power or certification when they finish.

And it’s cheaper.

The cost of education seems to be Carey’s chief concern.  To be fair, he’s interested in dollars, not in what the growth of virtual education means about what an education should be or do. But he barely musters any defense of real-time teaching,

Some people will argue that the best traditional college courses are superior to any online offering, and they’re often right. There is no substitute for a live teacher and student, meeting minds. But remember, that’s far from the experience of the lower-division undergraduate sitting in the back row of a lecture hall. All she’s getting is a live version of what iTunes University offers free, minus the ability to pause, rewind, and fast forward at a time and place of her choosing.

If lectures were all there were to schooling, maybe iTunes University would be a suitable substitute to lecture courses.  Being able to pause, rewind, and fast forward is handy but won’t matter much if the student has no compulsion to do so.  And what’s wrong with being trained to listen the first time around–isn’t that valuable too?  A podcast of an Ivy League lecture is appealing because the listener needn’t worry about understanding.  You can always come back… if you come back. With these lectures—and some University of Phoenix courses—you can always sidestep personal struggle.  Yet these challenges give education much of its value.

Carey laments the economic competition represented by online resources, not the way they may stress education’s convenience and, in the process, fundamentally distort its definition, meaning, and value.  He celebrates the forward thinking of Lamar University in Texas for offering a graduate educational administration course (a “cash cow,” he calls it) in coordination with a for-profit online provider and then splitting the profits.

If you can’t beat them, join them?  Perhaps it’s naïve to ignore such opportunities—non-profits need money too—but, if colleges are making economic judgments, shouldn’t they examine the cost of that sort of survival?  What will survive exactly?

Anyone who’s taken an economics course understands the temptation to see everything in economic terms, as if all value might be charted on a supply-demand graph and every choice resolved through cost-benefit analysis.  Educational institutions are certainly not immune to such considerations.  They operate in the same world businesses do.  But are universities, in the end, purely businesses?  If they are and it’s a product their students are buying, why not sell degrees outright?

Maybe you can win the competition with online sources by maximizing the economic advantages of education. Perhaps universities should ask, however, what kind of victory they seek.


Filed under Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Humanities, Opinion, Teaching, Thoughts, Work