Friday, July 18, 2014

Can You Hear Me Now?

My life is ever Seinfeldian.  Let me prove it to you, and for those of you who have never watched an episode of Seinfeld, ever, I think you may still enjoy the following:

ACT I.  The Speed-Dial. Scene opens with Nance answering her cell phone.  On the other end is her mother, St. Patsy, who is visiting her sister Shirley in Gettysburg.

Nance:  Hi, Mom.  I hear you're ready to come home already.
St.  Patsy:  Hi, Nance.  You're number four on my speed-dial.
Nance:  What?  Okay, but what, now? Number four?  How am I all the way down at number four?
St. Patsy:  Well, Voicemail is number one.  Then Bobby (my brother, with whom she lives) is number two. Coley (Bobby's daughter; Coley is a nickname--don't ask.) is number three, and you're number four.
Nance:  What the heck!  How is Coley ahead of me?  When the heck do you ever call her?  For anything? How does she rate the number three spot?  I don't get this at all.
St. Patsy:  Well, you're ahead of Patti. She's number five, and Susan at number six.  So, it's Bobby, Coley, Nance, Patti, Susan.  Maybe it's alphabetical order.  I don't know.  But you're number four.
Nance:  Oh, brother.  Well, maybe the next time you need a ride to the doctor or to Gettysburg, you should call Good Old Number Three, then.  See if Coley can haul your ass all over the place.  How about that? Why did you call in the first place?  Just to taunt me with your Speed Dial Hierarchy?
St. Patsy:  No.  I wanted to tell you that Shirley and Dick are bringing me home, so you don't have to drive to Gettysburg after all.  Isn't that nice?
Nance:  Yes.  For Coley.

End

ACT II. The Squirrel. Scene opens with Nance walking outside to take out the trash and recyclables.  She notices a baby squirrel barely moving on her deck.  Upon closer inspection, she sees it is badly wounded, bloody, and intermittently covered in flies.

Nance:  Oh no!  You poor baby!  Damn it.  Those damn hawks.  First my fish and now you.  I don't know what I can do for you.  Damn it. Damn.  Let me go look and see what I can find to help you.

(Leaves to go and look up a wildlife or metroparks rescue number...or something.  Shortly after, Rick comes home.)

Nance:  (greets Rick in garage)  Oh, Rick.  It's terrible.  I need your help with something.
Rick:  What happened?  What's wrong?
Nance:  Rick, it's this poor baby squirrel.  Something got it and it's all chewed up and mangled.  We have to help it. I feel so bad.
Rick:  Nance.  What are you talking about? Like, take it to the vet? I don't want to be on the hook for a huge vet bill and then have to bring home some wild squirrel.  I just got home. Where is it?

(Nance shows him the squirrel, who is now barely breathing.  Its eyes are glazed, and its body is covered in flies.)

Rick:  Nance.  This thing is dead.  Or practically.  There's nothing anyone can do.  Look at it.  I feel bad, too, but it won't even survive a car ride to a vet.  Or anyplace.  You have to let it go.
Nance:  I called the metropark office number and got a machine.  I left a message.  There's no place else to call.  I feel sick.  Rick, you have to do something. We can't let it suffer. (taps out a message to her friend in Maryland, Leanne, who relays it to her husband, Jim; pause)  Jim says to use a flat-edge shovel and break its neck.  Ugh.  That will behead this poor baby!  Rick.  Do something.  I'm not able to.
Rick:  Nance, what would you like me to do?  I don't want to kill it, either!  We just have to let Nature take its course.  It's sad, but there it is.

(An hour later, Nance goes out and finds the squirrel dead.)

Scene 2.  The next morning, Nance's cell phone rings.

Nance:  Hello?
Caller:  (brightly) Hi, Nance? This is Amy from the county metroparks returning your call.  How is the squirrel?
Nance:  Dead.

End

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Summer has been busy.  I promise to get back to posting more often as soon as I can.  And I owe so many people so many emails and blog comments.  Where is my time going?  Fun places mostly.  Be back soon, and I will try to get back on track!

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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

“Long Is The Night To Him Who Is Awake; Long Is A Mile To Him Who Is Tired; Long Is Life To The Foolish..."--Gautama Buddha

I'm back from an Idyllic jaunt to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, where perfect weather and lovely people and a Secret Winery all converged in a Holiday Vortex that left me repeating, "This is so wonderful" overmuch. Our Vacation Friends from New York were staying at the inn; we had a convivial evening in the garden house with the innkeepers and some very good organic wine; we splurged and sat down to a winery chef's dinner of five courses (with wine pairings) where, astonishingly, I enjoyed a raw oyster sprinkled with flying fish roe. Enjoyed! It was a revelation.

With no television in our balcony room, I was blissfully unaware of the World around me. Vacations there are also a vacation from The News and, especially, The Politics. Tim, our innkeeper, keeps a table of newspapers in the breakfast room, but I assiduously avoid them. And I'm not the only one. Most of the American guests do, I've noticed, and the few Canadian guests do a cursory skim of the front pages of each section, then turn their attentions to the excellent homemade bread, yoghurt, or daily sweet, especially if Sharon has made her tempting cranberry coffeecake or lemon poundcake.

(This changes markedly if a Presidential election is News in the United States. Everyone, no matter his or her passport, wants to talk about that at breakfast. We are spared, at least for a bit.)

Still enrobed in my Zen--somewhat--I caught up on The News a little, and I reviewed some of the articles I have been saving. Quite a bit of The News and The Politics is frosting my cupcakes lately. Perhaps, I thought, if I try to address all of it at once and all of it while I am still a bit Warm And Fuzzy, things won't Get Out Of Hand.

Oh, let's do try. Shall we? On, then.

1. Hillary and President Clinton and Who Is "Dead Broke". My admiration and deep love for President Clinton is a Given. My vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Presidential Primaries was, too. But someone has to wrench these people and all politicians out of their extraterrestrial elitist circles and show them how the Real World lives. And, if necessary, show them Some Math. As in, a family has an income of $46K, and the average price of gasoline is $3.50 a gallon, and a loaf of bread is $2.00, and a pound of ground chuck is $3.59, and the average mortgage payment in, say, the Cleveland, Ohio, metro area is $800 monthly, and yada yada yada, do you get my drift? And that is for the people fortunate enough to be employed fully and gainfully. In the United States of America, %15 of our fellow citizens live below the poverty line. Now who is Dead Broke? Consider telling a family of four making ends meet on less than $24,5K a year that you, a former First Lady who spends more on haircuts and wine in a year than they do on...oh...living, are Dead Broke. These D.C. people need to get out and get The Questions. "Do you know how much a gallon of gasoline is in your district, or anyplace?" "How much is a steak at the grocery store?" "How much is a gallon of milk?" And no, it's not "wrong to focus on these small things in light of larger legislation" (paraphrasing here). Why? Because WE LIVE THE SMALL THINGS. I care a hell of a lot about the bullshit that the Supreme Court just shoved down my throat and up my skirt. But some people need to Get Real, too. Why do you think the Supreme Court handed down such tripe? Because they are Out Of Touch with the day to day realities of real people. Look at the vote. Duh. (And that's Real People. Not corporation people. Or people corporations. Or whatever the hell the 5/9 Supreme Beings want to call them/think they are.)

2. Ugly Americans and The New Gladiator Sport. I live, I guess, technically in a border state, but no Canadians come sneaking in across Lake Erie in milk jug barges or packed under fake-bottomed boats. I understand only from reading and watching news reports the concerns and issues that a burgeoning illegal immigrant population brings with it to a true border state community, its economy, and the government's resources. It has to be incredibly stressful in myriad ways. But what happened in Murrieta, California, made me so profoundly sick and ashamed. Three buses loaded with Central American women and children--all illegal immigrants--were met and turned away by protesters there. Over 100 angry, sign-carrying United States citizens swarmed the buses and shouted, among other things, "USA! USA! USA!" As I watched this on television, right before I left for my trip out of the USA, I had a churning mix of emotions. I knew the children inside those buses were already afraid, tired, and probably hungry and thirsty, too. This was not their fault, and it was not fair, as things often never are for children. I was shocked that such anger and hatred could be focused on women and children, and that it could turn so wildly afield: some posters were about Obama, some protesters interviewed rambled on about other political agendas. Finally, I was angry and ashamed. That chant, that cheer! I remembered it being so deafening during the USA/USSR hockey game at Lake Placid. It is supposed to be a cheer of pride, a cheer of support and national spirit. I felt such outrage that it had been co-opted for something so threatening, so ugly, so primitive. All I could think of was Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery." I honestly felt sick. How dare they? They do have a right to assemble, to speak freely. But they tarnish us all.

3. Guns, Guns, and More Guns. Unlike the paid politicians in Washington, D.C., who I am loathe now to call Our Representatives, my feelings never stop being wounded by news reports of shootings, bursts of gun violence such as Chicago's bloody Independence Day Weekend, and here in the Cleveland area, the sight of mothers so bowed down by profound grief that they literally cannot walk behind their child's casket. After Newtown failed to move these morons, I got very wide-eyed with the knowledge that those in government saw The American People as disposable or trivial, whereas their own Ideologies and Bank Balances were not. It has been difficult to live with the idea that, and this is not to be immodest or overly simplistic, Stupid and Sometimes Evil Idiots are in charge, and I cannot expect anything from them, ever. Something is terribly wrong when a heap of dead (American) elementary children and their teachers are an insufficient catalyst for change. Show me an unarmed nation, a gun-controlled nation with a high rate of gun violence akin to ours. Show me the graves of their dead schoolchildren. Show me their "good guys with guns." They're like Starbucks, the NRA. Everywhere, yet never enough.

Speaking of Starbucks, they've even infiltrated Niagara-on-the-Lake. So irritating. Can't a nice, independent coffee place open up there? No, apparently not. At least this Starbucks is in a completely closed building, though. No windows at all, and the door is always shut, although as we walk nearby, it opens about eleventy thousand times per half hour. Sigh. People. Many, many times, they get what they ask for, I suppose.

Rick just sent me a text message. Tough re-entry day back at work, he said. Isn't it terrible how Real Life ruins any Vacation, whether it's physical, mental, or spiritual? As I try to maintain my Zen--Post-Canadian Holiday Type--I think I'll ignore The Ugly today. And do my level best not to contribute to it.


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Monday, June 30, 2014

Do Me--And Edgar--A Favour With This Poem, Won't You?


June, my Golden Month of Summer, burns out at midnight tonight. When I was teaching, June was my True Summer month, for it seemed that once July blazed in, time began running much faster, the days sizzled so much hotter, and soon, my countdown of the days back to school would start in earnest.

This year, however, June proved to be my July. Over almost before it started, June made me feel as if I never stopped driving, doing, and squeezing things in. And now, Poetry Month is over with this post. Perhaps I shall beg your indulgence and discuss poems every now and then regardless of the month. As St. Patsy, whose birthday is in June (hence her middle name!), would say, "We'll see."

My final poem must be one of my favourites, and it must be by one of my favourite authors. All of my Loyal and Longtime Readers know that I have long felt a strange sense of responsibility toward defending the memory of Edgar Allan Poe. Vilified by a rival who wrote a scathing obituary, Poe's legacy was left to wallow in a mire of jealous inaccuracies and sad half-truths. The blanks were filled in by ignorant analyses of his macabre stories and poems, which, because they have first-person narrators, were mistakenly seen as autobiographical and psychological unburdenings.

As if the facts of his poor life, both childhood and adult, aren't pitiful enough.

This poem is sad, but I want to look at something else about it. First, of course, you need to read it. It is the incredibly beautiful

Annabel Lee.


It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of ANNABEL LEE;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me-
Yes!- that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we-
Of many far wiser than we-
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling- my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Edgar Allan Poe was a careful, meticulous, downright picky craftsman when it came to his poetry. Nothing--and I truly mean nothing--was by chance in his poems. Every single word, line, stanza, set of parentheses, and exclamation point had been sweated over. He was a bit of the egomaniac; he held most other contemporaries in disdain, so he had to be perfect by comparison.

This poem, like so many of Poe's works, has a first person speaker. He starts out very rhythmically, very calmly as he recalls for his listener the love of his life. But by the time you get to the third stanza, and the speaker is recounting a more emotionally taxing part of his love story, the meter/rhythm begins to unravel. Your reading is a bit choppier; it's as if you are perhaps fighting those sobs, that you are breathing a bit heavily, becoming upset. The fourth stanza is the emotional peak of the poem. You can really see the heavy punctuation, the frequent stops for breath. And the speaker stops using euphemisms for his dear Annabel Lee's fate: in the last line, he says "killing my Annabel Lee." Notice, however, that after this catharsis, the speaker begins to reassure himself, and the poem's sound reflects it. In the fifth stanza, he calms and regains the rhythm of the poem, and the language becomes beautiful again; it is about love and how romantic love is enduring. In the final stanza, the language is at its most beautiful in sound and imagery. The moonbeams bring him dreams of his love, and the stars are Annabel Lee's shining eyes. He will be by her side always as long as he is near the sea. The final stroke of Poe's mastery is that the rhythmic sound of this poem, especially the last stanza, is that of the ocean's waves. He uses repetition and internal rhyme to do it (beams/dreams; rise/eyes and "Of the beautiful Annabel Lee", among other things).

A great many of Poe's poems were meant to be read aloud precisely because of his attention to sound. There would be days when I could not get through this one, and eventually, I stopped teaching it. My threshold for beauty was ever inexplicable to many of my sophomores.

Bring joy to yourself and to Edgar and read this poem aloud if you can.  Do it proudly and with great expression.  I know you will be glad that you did.  And so, somewhere, will he.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Percy Bysshe Shelley Meets Alanis Morissette Meets The Iraq Mess: Plenty To Look Upon And Despair

Every year in Creative Writing II (CW2), which we also called All Poetry All The Time, I assigned the
English Sonnet. To deafening groans and much wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was positively Biblical. We even developed together a Sonnet Map, which was a helpful worksheet showing the metric pattern, the rhyme scheme, the quatrain numerals, and blanks for each syllable so that students could write their poem on it with these reminders in place. Eventually, with peer and teacher conferences, my writers created sonnets that were read aloud and critiqued, and they survived it all. Many times, their sonnets were wonderful: some were traditional, some were funny, some were romantic, and others retold stories from literature, film, or even current events.

I love the form of the Sonnet, and the Elizabethan, or Shakespearean Sonnet in particular. Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter arranged in three quatrains (four-line sets). Each quatrain has a rhyme scheme. The final two lines, or couplet, rhyme with each other.

Some people don't realize that there is actually a pattern of development for the Sonnet as well. The first quatrain presents the problem; the second quatrain is supposed to develop or complicate the problem; the final quatrain restates or summarizes the initial problem with more intensity; finally, the couplet reaches a conclusion or solution. The Sonnet offers a chance for a poet to work Creatively Within Limits. For me, I find this liberating. For many others, it is a prison sentence.

Of course, a lot of Sonnets aren't perfect, and a lot are not the classic Shakespearean. I like all kinds, generally. One of my favourites is by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was a pretty reprehensible individual in a great many ways. Like several of the Romantic Poets, he was a selfish jerk (I'm looking at you, Byron) whose conduct of his personal life was not as beautiful as his poetry.

This particular poem has been on my mind lately, thanks to the mess in Iraq.

OZYMANDIAS

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'

If you read this poem with a sing-songy voice, making sure to start on an unstressed syllable, you can sustain it throughout. That's the iambic metric pattern. You'll have to force it on "boundless" and "Nothing," words for which the natural stress pattern is reversed. (Alanis Morissette does this all the time in her hit song "Uninvited"; it's okay.)

But, in spite of having to Follow Some Poetry Rules, Shelley has crafted a wonderful poem of imagery and wordsmithing. I don't like the device of the poem being the recitation of some unnamed tourist, and I often wonder, "Which antique land has native people who speak so gorgeously? I want to go there!" But beyond that, there is an awful lot to like about this poem.

It has that startling irony there in the last three lines, and that's where the tone of the poem changes, too. The traveler's story is a bit bitter, and his cadence is staccato and abrupt as he describes Ozymandias. Of course, when you read the inscription, you have to read it with that pomposity it demands, and it's the best part of the poem, really, "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Then it drops dead with quietude, and you can almost hear the sighing of the winds over the desert, "boundless and bare." Ozymandias' kingdom is wrecked and gone, and we know that his hubris was the cause.

I'm not going to go into why "Ozymandias" comes to mind lately due to Current Events, or talk now about how heartbreaking (and frightening) it is to hear words like Mosul and Shiite and Tikrit again with some frequency.  Or even mention whose "shattered visage" it is that I see when I look at the face "half sunk" in the sands.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Having A Reverend Dimmesdale Moment. Back To Poetry Soon. But, Did You Know Miss Indiana Was The New Normal For America's Women?

It's a terrible thing to get up a Good Head Of Steam--and Self-Righteous Steam at that--and run smack up against a Huge Wall Of Startling Self-Realization. It's a humbling thing, too. But because it helps to illustrate my point all that much more, I'm going to Embrace it and lay it all out there, my own cracked armour on display for all to see.

For some reason, in this Day And Age, we still have women who agree to participate in so-called beauty pageants. I am not going to present nor argue their reasons, nor am I going to entertain the discussions regarding whether or not it is Feminist to be the one deciding to put your own body on display for whatever purpose or reward. None of that is my point, and I can end most of the discussions by asking where the Male Counterpart for these beauty pageants is.

My purpose for raising the topic is due to the uproar on social media following the appearance of Miss Indiana in a bikini during the Miss USA pageant televised 8 June 2014.  Here she is.


To quote one news outlet: "Nia Sanchez, aka Miss Nevada, may have won Miss USA this week, but it was Mekayla Diehl, 25-year-old Miss Indiana, that grabbed Twitter's attention. Why?...Diehl, who is also the first registered Native American to represent Indiana in the pageant, stood out during the bikini portion of the two-hour-long competition for the fact that she had 'womanly curves'."

Here also is Miss Indiana's Facebook page, where it is revealed that she is 5' 8", 137 pounds, and a size 4. She has also inspired a teeshirt that reads I'm The New Normal. People from all over the country have posted positive messages, thanking her for being a role model for normal women everywhere. One woman enthused, "God picked YOU to travel this road and speak for others! You are so poised and a true inspiration."

I have no problem with Miss Indiana, aside from the fact that she makes the egregious lose/loose error in spelling.  She is lovely and seems to be sincere about her Platform for her pageant issue.  (Her shoes in this photo are absolutely unforgivable, but maybe they were not her choice.)

No, Miss Indiana is fine.  But can someone, anyone out there, please tell me how a Size 4 is curvy and The New Normal?  Are American Women so incredibly brainwashed by airbrushed magazine advertisements and anorexic fashion models and wispy, starving film actresses that a Size 4 looks chubbily robust to us?  Was there really someone out there--or several Someones--watching that night saying, "Whoa!  Get a load of Miss Indiana!  Bet her car knows the way to all the buffets in Muncie!"?

That was the gist of my Rant to my husband after I read a few blurbs about the Voluptuously Curvaceous And Womanly Miss Indiana.  I had just gotten into my Zone, using a ton of SAT Words and Emphatic Gestures (for lack of Pretentious Capitalization), when suddenly, I stopped and fell silent.  Shocked, I looked up at Rick.

"Oh my god.  Oh. My. God," I said, as the realization struck.  "I'm no better than any of them. What have I been crabbing about for weeks now?  Why have I been so down lately?  Because I have gained weight. Because I'm not a Size 2 anymore like when I was working.  Because now, thanks to my new migraine meds and menopause and a lack of killer stress, I'm never seeing a Size 2 again. And Size 4 is looking iffy. Because I'm Huge.  Holy Effing Crap.  Do you know how, even when I was twenty, I would have killed to be this size?  What is wrong with me?  I am so much smarter than that, but...apparently not.  Even I have fallen for the years and years of marketing and airbrushing and false representation of the Ideal Woman.  I'm fifty-five years old, educated, well-read, a Feminist, and the most pressing issue on my mind right now is that I hate my body because I can't fit into certain clothes like I used to and that they aren't labeled with a certain number which I find desirable or acceptable."

And at that moment, what made me really, really sick and disgusted was that I knew, deep down inside, if my neurologist told me that I could either be a Size 2 again or have no migraines ever again, at that precise moment, I would have chosen being a Size 2.

Something is terribly wrong.  With me, yes.  I'm admitting that, owning it, and without delving any further into my personal trove of the wherefores behind it, putting it here for the Interwebs to see.  Beyond my faults, however, are those of the Others.

It's Terribly Wrong that, despite the public health campaigns regarding eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, the bulk of advertising continues to promote only one body type, a sylph-like, slender, and angular female with jutting hipbones and no discernible padding underneath her skin unless it is zeppelin-like breasts for a bra manufacturer.

It's Terribly Wrong that, when Mattel redesigned Barbie's body, it was not so that it was a more realistic reflection of what a young woman's body really looked like. It was in order "for her to have more of a teenage physique," says Mattel spokesperson Lisa McKendall. "In order for [the new doll's debut outfit] to look right, Barbie needs to be more like a teen's body. The fashions teens wear now don't fit properly on our current sculpting."  It's also Terribly Wrong that this occurred in 1997, and almost twenty years ago, the writer of the article observed, "Barbie may not be the cause of eating disorders and body hatred, but her universally recognizable profile makes her a flashpoint, an image of female perfection, a symbol of the drawbacks of any such images, and a convenient scapegoat for our cultural troubles with them."

Pageants are part of the problem.  Miss Indiana is being lauded by many for things like "starting the discussion" and "raising awareness" and "being a role model."  I have to disagree.  Until there is an identical pageant for men in which they are walked in front of a judging panel in various outfits, asked questions, required to showcase their talent, and perform some hokey song and dance in a state costume along with a host of other inane activities, I can't see a true and meaningful purpose for any pageant.  For anyone.  Hasn't anyone--any woman--ever asked herself why there hasn't been a male pageant like the Miss USA, Miss Universe, or Miss America pageant?

What sponsors would pay for time on that?  What network would want that ratings dog?  Who would watch it (besides Mumsy and Popsy of each contestant)?  And let me tell you why it is a ratings dog.  This.  The summary is all you need to read.

But there I go, preaching again.  There's nothing worse than the sinful preacher preaching against Sin.  (Ask Hester Prynne.)

I'm currently on a jaunt in Maryland.  While I'm here, I plan on doing a great deal of deep breathing and re-centering.  It's obvious that I need some Redemption.  And a helluva lot of New Normal.

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Monday, June 09, 2014

Poetry: The Cilantro Of The Literary World? I'm Dying To Convert The Haters Out There

Sometimes I think Poetry is like cilantro; you either love it or you hate it. Probably English teachers are largely to blame for this. We can never, ever leave things alone. "Why, what a lovely poem," Innocent Student says brightly after reading. "I liked the idea of that winding vine and the gate. The whole thing sounded nice. And the white rose was pretty, too. Okay, next."

"Oh, really?" English Teacher asks, one eyebrow lifted. "You mean you didn't think the vine was choking the gate, making it struggle to open? You didn't think that was...oh, I don't know...symbolic? Didn't you think that perhaps the gate was a symbol of freedom? And why was the rose white? And what about the word choice? Did it really sound nice?"

Sigh. All that carping can take the fun and enjoyment and appreciation right out of Poetry for some readers. (Even as it puts the fun and deeper appreciation right in for others.) It turns people against Poetry because they become afraid of it. They think that there is some Hidden Meaning that only English teachers and SmartyPants have the key to. They decide that Poetry is For Others. Therein lies the problem.

While traditional "Dead White Guy" poetry usually does employ all kinds of symbols and devices that add meaning and depth, plenty of modern poetry just doesn't go that route. Twenty-first century poets, especially, enjoy experimenting with moments--expanding them, magnifying them, changing them, lending them weight and import. Some poets want to make you feel the way they do about a subject, so they show it to you as only they see it. Still others want to play a bit of The Magician--with a collection of merely a dozen or so lines, they can cleverly beguile you, only to leave you breathless and completely astonished at the end.

photo by Jeannette Palsa
One of my most virulent Poetry Haters became a poet himself. I bullied him into taking my Creative Writing I and II class, and he is now an oft-published author of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction with a few awards here and there to keep his ego warm at night. He's no longer afraid of poetry, and even blank expanses of paper don't scare him. Once, after a long talk with a friend, he decided to write a poem about the One Thing that truly frightens him. Meet my friend Eric Anderson and read his poem about


Zombies

At first, I mistook them for the hedgerow. That's how still
the dead were, as they stood in my front yard.
In their hands, they held the snow
which they brought all the way from Canada. They had icicles
on their cheeks and chins, heads tilted back, snow
covering their faces. I watched
from the warm window, and when they saw my hand
parting the curtains, they thought I was waving.
The dead waved back. I felt obliged
to put on my coat, go outside. I brought
hot chocolate. The dead weren't thirsty. They were
lonely for the living. We made dead snowmen,
dead igloos, packed the snow into a slide for the dead
children to go down. The dead love to leave
their footprints in fresh snow,
even if they drag their feet. I don't know why
I went with them when they started walking back,
past Canada, past Hudson Bay, farther.
We came to the North Pole. We kept going north;
when you're dead, it's important to stay cool.
I carried snow, no warmth in my hands to make it melt.
To get where the dead are going, it takes forever. You think
you'll never arrive. Then you're there.

--Eric Anderson

This poem works on so many levels that Everyone can appreciate it.  The subject matter is delightfully absurd:  the speaker looks out the window and discovers that what he thought was his row of shrubbery is actually a gathering of zombies. Instead of being terrified, he waves at them (since they waved first), takes them hot chocolate, and plays in the snow with them and their children.  Soon, they leave, and inexplicably, he leaves with them, following them all the way to the North Pole and beyond, where the speaker ultimately arrives at his final destination.

For me, as a creative writing teacher, I love the line breaks.  Each line breaks at a place that creates a bit of suspense or ambiguity for a split second before you get to the next line.  Notice how the line break creates a duality of meaning in some cases, such as here:

The dead love to leave
their footprints in fresh snow,
even if they drag their feet. I don't know why
I went with them when they started walking back,

"I don't know why" could be talking about the the previous image of zombies dragging their feet in the snow, but you don't know until you get to the next line.  This sort of enjambment (bigass poetry term!) also creates a halting, deadening movement to the reading of the poem that is appropriate to its subject.

Yet--you don't have to know or care about any of that.  The poem is like microfiction.  It's a funny little story all on its own.  It has enough imagery that you can picture the scene.  There are enough concrete details (hot chocolate, icicles on cheeks and chins, snow covering their faces) that you can fill in the blanks.  You can even get a little shudder at the idea of dead children going down a snowy slide.

But...but...what's the Deeper Meaning?  What is The Theme?  What did we all Learn?  Is the poem really a Metaphor for Living Life To The Fullest and all that crap?  (Whenever asked for the theme of anything, my students always yanked out "Live Life To The Fullest", and I always threatened to stab myself in the eye.)

Here's what I would say:  Hey.  It's a zombie poem.  I'm not about to go looking for a Deeper Meaning in a perfectly wonderful poem about zombies.  But, by all means, if you would like to, then certainly, go right ahead.

And, if you would like to read more of Eric Anderson's poetry, you can read him herehere, here, and here. Oh, and here.

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Friday, June 06, 2014

And Now For Something Completely Different (And Undead)



The Dept. of Nance interrupts Poetry Month to bring you this Moment Of NEO Neighborhood Culture.

I was sitting in my leather easy chair one morning, coffee in hand and catten on lap, about a week ago (30 May, to be exact), when I happened upon this little item in my beloved Cleveland Plain Dealer:


I took the above photo with my iPhone and immediately sent it to Jared and Sam via text message. They live in Lakewood, a Cleveland suburb that is not too terribly far from where I am, but for its culture, it may as well be eleventy thousand miles away. "That is so Lakewood," Jared responded. I think Sam sent me a photo of a sleeping baby giving me The Finger. Sigh.

Maybe I'll post a Zombie Poem next. I know just the right one, too. Until then, be careful out there.

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