Teaching · Writing

Crystals and Flames: The teaching edition

Italo Calvino’s essay on “Exactitude” exhorts tight, vivid writing and the continual quest for the mot juste. In each of his Six Memos for the Next Millenium, he presents a pair of contrasting qualities literature can have, and then he comes down on one side as being closer to his own practice and of most use to readers in the 21st century. So in the essay on Lightness, he also considers weight or gravitas, and says he simply “has more to say about lightness”(Six Memos 3).

This pattern holds for the remaining four essays—Quickness, not lingering; Exactitude, not vagueness; Visibility, not abstraction; Multiplicity, not singularity. He died before writing the sixth: Consistency.

Today a student expressed frustration with his even-handedness. If he’s going to argue for one side being better, why not stick to that? The short answer is because it’s complicated (as everything important is). The longer answer is because he sees the value of both traits in different contexts and in the interest of living a rich reading life. The deeper answer, I think in retrospect, is that while he chooses the side he most naturally leans toward, he admires and even envies those who occupy the other side. Today it came up in terms of teaching styles and professors.

The crystal: “the self-organizing system” (71)

When Calvino argues for the Party of the Crystal and the Party of the Flame, he conceives of placing authors in camps who favor structure over stream of consciousness—intrinsic order over associative, digressive, descriptive texts.

As I was explaining this dichotomy, I put it in terms of pedagogy. When I was in college, I had two professors who taught entirely differently. One came in every day and put a list of topics on the board, and no matter how esoteric the subject (I took themed courses entitled “Philosophy of Love” and “Philosophy of War” from her), we marched through those topics, in order and in detail. When I left, I knew what I had learned. I felt like there was significant content added to my brain every day.

The flame: “order out of noise” (71)

Another professor in the same department delivered content completely differently. I thought of him as a juggler of ideas. He came in and brought up one subject, which led to a discussion of a related subject, which led to another, like a juggler adding balls without your noticing. All those balls seemed to float in the air above us, one idea connecting to another, with students questioning and adding and variously contributing to the aerial show until it was time to wrap up. And when he did wrap up, all those topics seemed to fold back in on each other like Chinese puzzle boxes, and I sat in awe of how many disparate subjects and ideas seemed seamlessly connected in his lectures.

The juggler was a flame. The list-maker was a crystal.

When I realized that, I recognized the pull in Calvino’s essays toward the opposite side of each binary. He is a crystal, but he admires those who embody the flame in part because he could never pull it off. Every impulse he has directs him toward structure that builds meaning and reveals order. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t marvel at the apparent magic and mystery of the flame and those who embody it.

I know because as I was talking about my professors, I found myself envious of the list-maker. I can start with a list, but when I’m done, if we’ve hit 40% of those items in a class, I’m doing pretty well. I more often follow the interests and experiences of my students, so every class goes where they are more than where I guide. I would never compare my classes to the virtuosity of my idea-juggling magician, but I’m no crystal when it comes to teaching, and I stand in awe of those who are. Students respond well when they can leave with that feeling of having completed a list of tasks and mastered a body of knowledge, and I wish sometimes that I could give that to them. I can’t. I do something else which I think also has value, but I totally get where Calvino feels compelled to do justice to both sides, even though he favors one himself.

If I’m honest, it’s probably why I love him. I am a happy flame, but I remain fascinated by the crystal and its particular beauty.


Honey Magic

We interrupt National Poetry Month blogs with an unexpected bit of wonder. I recently became a bee foster-mother.

I care about bees. In recent years, as they have been victims of pesticide and other carelessness, I may have become sort of a bee-zealot. Some of this is because our eco-system and our food supply depends mightily on them. Some of it is that I have a sort of Moomin-like affection for All Small Creatures, and some of it is purely Alison aesthetic—they’re cute; they buzz; they produce honey.

We know that honey lasts a long time because we have found edible honey in Egyptian tombs. We know that honey has particular medicinal traits because it has been listed in healing handbooks for millenia. My favorite story about honey is the Finnish Kalevala’s account of its role in the resurrection of Lemminkainen.

There is a scene in the Kalevala where Lemminkainen is killed and dismembered, his body parts tossed in to the river of the dead. I’m not one to advocate for that sort of behavior, but this kid, in epic terms, really had it coming. He ignored sage advice, disobeyed his parent, and went off half-cocked on a crazy, invasive, revenge-fueled spree.

The upshot is that his mother can heal him. When she gets the right honey, she fishes his parts out of the river with a copper rake commissioned for that job, and sticks him back together with the healing goodness of honey. Lemminkainen awakens, thanks his mom for her knowledge and actions, and vows not to be such a big jerk next time.

So the honey, man. The honey is liquid gold. A panacea An antiseptic, antibacterial, antioxidant, wound-healing magic. And the reason I’m so excited about it today is that I had 20,000 bees removed from my front yard yesterday.

I knew when we realized that we had a “bee problem” I didn’t want an exterminator, but to relocate them. Through a friend, I found a hobbyist bee keeper and a professional bee handler, and they came to my house, sawed through the stucco on my front porch, and removed by hand (and by bee-vacuum) somewhere around 20,000 adult bees, eight 8” x 12” frames of eggs and larvae, and three buckets of honeycomb.

There are people who work with bees, and someday I may be one, but this was my first encounter, really. For them, this was just another day at work. For me, it was something of a revelation.

The bees were relocated, along with their queen, and will be re-homed on land away from city zoning and nervous neighbors. But they were nice bees, and I was delighted to have hosted them temporarily.

I was left with a sizable chunk of honeycomb to do with as I please. Today it pleases me to fish through internet videos and watch people employ different methods of honey extraction and wax rendering—to filter out some fresh honey made by bees in my yard, from flowers in my neighborhood, and eat it with all the atavistic delight of some pioneer woman living off the land, grateful for the bounty of the earth and the magic of bees.

I’ll make some toast and as I drizzle fresh, super-local honey on it, I’ll toast the bees who gave it to me. I’ll make some lip balm for sure, and maybe a candle or a stick of sealing wax. And I’ll make a poem about bees—probably a short one, but an earnest one. But I’ll leave you tonight with the image of the noble, little bee getting its quest from Lemminkainen’s mom:

“Honeybee,” she said once more,
“Bird of air, fly a third time,
Fly up to the highest heaven,
To the very ninth of heavens.
There the honey is overflowing
To the height of your desire,
With which once the great Creator,
Jumala himself made magic
For the healing of his children
Injured by an evil power.
Dip your wings into the honey,
Pinions in the liquid nectar.
Bring the honey on your wings,
Fetch the nectar in your mantle
As a medicine for the wounded,
An infusion for the injured.”

Words of magic worthy of the bees–and today’s piece of a poem for National Poetry Month.

Living · Picture Books · Reading

Three for National Poetry Month

Today my daughter accused me of being a large 5-year old. She was talking about how excited I get around holidays, so I let it slide. She’s not wrong. I also love children’s books and poetry written for children. In honor of National Poetry Month, here are three poems by Edward Lear, the 19th century British writer and illustrator who often gets credited with inventing the Limerick. In all his anapestic glory, I give you “The Owl and the Pussycat,” “The Pobble Who Has No Toes,” and “The Duck and the Kangaroo,” which inspired a certain tiny boy’s Hallowe’en costume about 15 years ago. Timballo!

“The Owl and the Pussycat”

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea 

   In a beautiful pea-green boat, 

They took some honey, and plenty of money, 

   Wrapped up in a five-pound note. 

The Owl looked up to the stars above, 

   And sang to a small guitar, 

“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love, 

    What a beautiful Pussy you are, 

         You are, 

         You are! 

What a beautiful Pussy you are!” 


Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl! 

   How charmingly sweet you sing! 

O let us be married! too long we have tarried: 

   But what shall we do for a ring?” 

They sailed away, for a year and a day, 

   To the land where the Bong-Tree grows 

And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood 

   With a ring at the end of his nose, 

             His nose, 

             His nose, 

   With a ring at the end of his nose. 


“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling 

   Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.” 

So they took it away, and were married next day 

   By the Turkey who lives on the hill. 

They dined on mince, and slices of quince, 

   Which they ate with a runcible spoon; 

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, 

   They danced by the light of the moon, 

             The moon, 

             The moon, 

They danced by the light of the moon.

“The Pobble Who Has No Toes”

The Pobble who has no toes
Had once as many as we;
When they said “Some day you may lose them all;”
He replied “Fish, fiddle-de-dee!”
And his Aunt Jobiska made him drink
Lavender water tinged with pink,
For she said “The World in general knows
There’s nothing so good for a Pobble’s toes!”

The Pobble who has no toes
Swam across the Bristol Channel;
But before he set out he wrapped his nose
In a piece of scarlet flannel.
For his Aunt Jobiska said “No harm
Can come to his toes if his nose is warm;
And it’s perfectly known that a Pobble’s toes
Are safe, — provided he minds his nose!”

The Pobble swam fast and well,
And when boats or ships came near him,
He tinkledy-blinkledy-winkled a bell,
So that all the world could hear him.
And all the Sailors and Admirals cried,
When they saw him nearing the further side –
“He has gone to fish for his Aunt Jobiska’s
Runcible Cat with crimson whiskers!”

But before he touched the shore,
The shore of the Bristol Channel,
A sea-green porpoise carried away
His wrapper of scarlet flannel.
And when he came to observe his feet,
Formerly garnished with toes so neat,
His face at once became forlorn,
On perceiving that all his toes were gone!

And nobody ever knew,
From that dark day to the present,
Whoso had taken the Pobble’s toes,
In a manner so far from pleasant.
Whether the shrimps, or crawfish grey,
Or crafty Mermaids stole them away –
Nobody knew: and nobody knows
How the Pobble was robbed of his twice five toes!

The Pobble who has no toes
Was placed in a friendly Bark,
And they rowed him back, and carried him up
To his Aunt Jobiska’s Park.
And she made him a feast at his earnest wish
Of eggs and buttercups fried with fish, –
And she said “It’s a fact the whole world knows,
That Pobbles are happier without their toes!”

Please note the tiny duck riding at the end of the kangaroo’s tale. This child is a walking poem.

“The Duck and the Kangaroo”


Said the Duck to the Kangaroo,

    ‘Good gracious! how you hop!

Over the fields and the water too,

    As if you never would stop!

My life is a bore in this nasty pond,

And I long to go out in the world beyond!

    I wish I could hop like you!’

    Said the Duck to the Kangaroo.


‘Please give me a ride on your back!’

    Said the Duck to the Kangaroo.

‘I would sit quite still, and say nothing but “Quack,”

    The whole of the long day through!

And we’d go to the Dee, and the Jelly Bo Lee,

Over the land, and over the sea;—

    Please take me a ride! O do!’

    Said the Duck to the Kangaroo.


Said the Kangaroo to the Duck,

    ‘This requires some little reflection;

Perhaps on the whole it might bring me luck,

    And there seems but one objection,

Which is, if you’ll let me speak so bold,

Your feet are unpleasantly wet and cold,

And would probably give me the roo-

    Matiz!’ said the Kangaroo.


Said the Duck, ‘As I sate on the rocks,

    I have thought over that completely,

And I bought four pairs of worsted socks

    Which fit my web-feet neatly.

And to keep out the cold I’ve bought a cloak,

And every day a cigar I’ll smoke,

    All to follow my own dear true

    Love of a Kangaroo!’


Said the Kangaroo, ‘I’m ready!

    All in the moonlight pale;

But to balance me well, dear Duck, sit steady!

    And quite at the end of my tail!’

So away they went with a hop and a bound,

And they hopped the whole world three times round;

    And who so happy,—O who,

    As the Duck and the Kangaroo?

These poems were written by Edward Lear (1812-88) and found on the Poetry Foundation site (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems) except for the Pobble, which I found here: https://web.cs.dal.ca/~johnston/poetry/pobble.html

Living · Reading

A Poem A Day

National Poetry Month rolls around once every year, and some years it slips by without my notice amid the bustle of an academic spring. I try to remember Poem in My Pocket Day (April 18 this year!) because I adore the idea of carrying words of power with me in my pocket, like a spell that no one suspects I bear. I usually enlist my daughter in this happy conspiracy, and we have had wonderful, serendipitous moments like her having the poem in her pocket that a teacher referred to and she shouted out, “Hey! That’s in my pocket!” to the amazement of her teacher and the annoyance of her gobsmacked peers.

This year I’m celebrating by posting a poem every day of April on my choice of social media. (It’s Facebook. I’m old). But I’m excited because it feels like taking part in the same magic mojo of Advent or a gratitude journal–a small, lovely thing that builds toward something substantial and rewarding.

I know it’s small. But it’s really also lovely. I promise.

It means I have to think of thirty poems. The first couple I pull right out of my head. They’re short. I own them. I have swallowed them like Zeus swallowed Metis—whole, so they can still advise me. I carry them everywhere.

Some poems I associate so strongly with people, that I can’t think of or read the poem without an accompanying memory of the person. E.A. Robinson’s “Miniver Cheevy” is the first poem I remember my dad reading to me. He was extolling the virtues of a set of books he’d owned as a child and was passing on to me, and he proved their worth by plucking “Miniver Cheevy” out of the pages like a flower, reading it aloud, holding it up to the light for me to look at.

How much happened in that moment for me is hard to gauge. It may have been the first time a poem was presented to me like a gem. Was it the first time I thought about someone being so enchanted by the past? The image of Miniver dreaming while drinking certainly stuck with me. It is a tragic poem, but an incredibly evocative image.

Some poems are locked in my memory as emblematic of a certain time in my life. I know it’s cheesy, but Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is probably the first grown up poem I memorized, and it’s absolutely due to my watching of the movie The Outsiders in about 1984 on HBO. I can see 12 or 13-year old me on the couch in the family room thinking to myself, “something big just happened there.” So I memorized it and kept it with me. I vowed to stay golden, like Ponyboy, but not by dying young. I started looking at flowers as something with an expiration. I let it change me.

35 years later, many, many more poems have changed me.

Because some poems are like people. Once you encounter them, they offer you a new perspective you never considered. They open up a window on the world that you hadn’t had access to before. Some friends have introduced me to Buddhism and homemade tamales. Some poems have introduced me to reincarnation and sugarplums.

So in anticipation of when I run out of poems in my head, the commitment to produce a beloved poem a day is an occasion to sift through books of poetry looking for treasure. I know the internet exists, but I prefer to start with books. So I’ve just set myself a reading assignment. Part of me thinks I may go beyond the month. Probably I’ll let myself slip back into the mundane world where my daily responsibilities outweigh my self-indulgent word-love, but one can always, always hope.

Poetic Poppies for attention.