Living · Reading · Teaching

Summer Reading During a Pandemic

So this has been a weird summer. And spring. You know; you’ve lived it too.

My campus went online after March 13, so we have been teaching, advising, and meeting from home for months. I have some thoughts. I have had some thoughts before now, but honestly I’ve had more feelings than thoughts. I couldn’t bring myself to write this summer, so I feel like I’ve got some catching up to do, but in keeping with what I’ve been telling my family, my students, my friends, and my colleagues, I’m going to be gentle with myself and just pick up the keyboard and start, not fret about what I didn’t do this summer.

I often post a blog or two about my summer reading, in part because it’s such a big deal for someone who teaches literature to be able to read something not for class, and in part because many of you wonderful folks who read this little blog are also big readers. This summer was something else. Here’s what went down:

  1. Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son. I took a seminar on Dickens in grad school, and this was my favorite. I haven’t, however, revisited it in the twenty years since then. It’s still lovely, but I have to tell you, I started in March, and I’m not through it yet. I’ve been reading it in little bites—a chapter or three here and there, then nothing for two weeks. Somehow I haven’t been able to sustain the attention Dickens requires. From time to time I had twinges of guilt or shame at being less capable of reading a big novel, but this is just not the summer for (multiple) big novels. Whatever. Someday this fall Florence will get her happy ending, and that’s just fine.
  2. James Nestor’s Breath, a new non-fiction book about how we breathe and how we should breathe for better physical and mental health. I have gotten one massage  in the last six months, and when I did, my massage therapist recommended it. And now I recommend it. It’s readable, practical, and I found myself reading passages out loud to unsuspecting family members about how to calm anxiety and get better sleep. Timely, no?
  3. A Book that Takes its Time by Irene Smit and Astrid von der Hulst. This is basically a compilation of articles suitable for publication in the magazine FLOW, and I enjoyed all the pieces and their piecemeal nature. It’s easier to read two pages of something delightful than, for instance, 900 pages of Dickens.
  4. Michael Watkins’s The First 90 Days. I recently started in a new leadership position with a wildly different job description, so I was looking for resources. Tragically, my first 90 days were all online, during summer, far away from the fine folks I’ll be attempting to lead, so all this one gave me was a vague sense that I was missing opportunities.
  5. Patricia McKissick’s The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural. This is a lovely collection of African American fiction for kids, and it was one of the several ways I started thinking about race and history and doing better personally and nationally. I also bought Alice Walker’s Hard Times Require Furious Dancing and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Walker is miraculous, but I haven’t read any Whitehead. I’m optimistic.
  6. Small Teaching: Online by Flower Darby and James Lang. Darby is adapting Lang’s Small Teaching, and I am frantically searching for ways to help my students stay connected to each other and the texts I teach. This has some good stuff, so I hope I finish it and put it to use in time. Cross your fingers for me; the countdown’s on.
  7. The first two novels in the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. These were the first choices of a friend who did what it takes to guarantee that I read a book—she bought me a copy and started a book club. We had good talks on Zoom about whether the murderbot is male or female and all the other things one talks about when one reads science fiction.
  8. Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee, which I found via her TED Talk, and which gave me lots of little, happy boosts from reading it and consciously looking for sources of joy. For an incontrovertible happy-ass like myself (who’s been struggling of late), I now feel super-charged in the “Notice Cool Stuff and Enjoy It” category.
  9. Lisa Schneidau’s Botanical Folktales of Britain and Ireland. If you know me, this has my name written all over it. I’m reading one a night, and they’re perfect.
  10. Allan and Jessica Ahlberg’s The Goldilocks Variations. It’s a picture book. That one I finished.  But it’s also outstanding in every way, and I highly recommend it.

So what have we learned? I’m scattered, or eclectic, looking for comfort and inspiration, sometimes finding them, sometimes not finishing what I start or even starting at all. It’s been a wild summer, hasn’t it? What I’ve learned above all is to be gentle—with myself, with others, with the world. That’s all that’s working for me consistently.

I hope wherever you are, you’ve found some comfort, some solace, some insight and inspiration this summer, and if you’d like to talk about books—books I read, or you read, or books half-finished or waiting patiently on the end table, filled with potential, let me know.

Reading · Teaching

Reading Dante in Isolation

I recently moved my teaching online, along with the rest of the world. I was in the middle of Dante’s Inferno.

The course on Epics (this term) wound its way from Greek and Roman treatments of the Trojan War to Dante’s critique of some of those tropes and characters, and we were just about to talk about how low in Hell Ulysses gets placed when we disbanded. We left some things hanging as we moved in to a new, foreign medium.

But the conversation continued. We were fortunate to have built a good base; we were about halfway through our semester, so comfortable with each other and our content. And the content is all connected.

The last day we met in person, we talked about Dante’s treatment of thieves. As we considered why thieves get transformed in to snakes in hell, we teased out all the imagery and traced through-lines. For about four cantos, Dante winds the image of a coiling snake through theft and fraud and lying to achieve personal ends: thieves and liars, snakes and friars. In a  beautiful confluence of word and image, all of Dante’s snake imagery fits those who steal, like the serpent who stole Paradise from Adam and Eve, with his forked, venomous tongue, through Ulysses, who counseled fraud and convinced his men to seek that which was beyond their reach (the mountain of Purgatory). Because we had a firm grasp of the snaky thieves, our first discussion online went almost as smoothly as it would have face to face.

Gustave Dore’s illustration of a thief transforming to a snake

After that, though, two things happened. First we went deeper, and trying to envision the fractious Sowers of Discord and the ultimate traitors in the 9th circle were harder to get our heads around. That Dante places those who create division among humanity—divisions in religious sects, in families, and between people and their lords reminded us of our distance from one another during our quarantine.

We are stronger together in so many ways, but one of them is in education. Dante argues this negatively in Inferno, when he shows how destructive division is to humanity, and he argues it in Paradiso, where he shows that the unity of humanity is godlike. We are most like god when we gather together and support each other as one. That’s why the Sowers of Discord are in deep Hell. That’s why even the introverts are feeling the sting of a quarantine. That’s why we learn better in a classroom than on the internet.  

Lucie reads the Inferno. Her Italian is impeccable.

But sometimes we have to be apart. So I am grateful for all the ways we have found to create community virtually. The next big event was that the midterm took place as scheduled–a dramatic reading of seven cantos of the Inferno. People read from their own homes, some with sound effects (because they’re way cooler than I am), and on their phones or their laptops or with whatever means they had. And we heard Ugolino confess his cannibalism and Nimrod shout his babble and Satan mumble with his mouth full. And we shared in the horror of those scenes and the power of performance to unify actors and audience.

Finally, we discovered my cat and Dante share a birthday, so they decided my cat was Dante reincarnated. Therefore, despite what feels like the theft of our face to face community, I’m confident in our ability to come together in other ways, building unity and shared knowledge, and optimistic about the rest of the term.

Reading · Teaching

Primary and Secondary Epics, or Why Virgil is Harder than Homer

Primary vs. Secondary Epics, or why students have more trouble with the Aeneid than the Odyssey

My students finished the Odyssey last week. I think it went well. We had good talks about all the things—from the mythic underpinnings to the historical details to the glory of oral formulae and the literary delights of the epic simile. (They found the animal similes charming—Odysseus as lion, as octopus… I still prefer Odysseus imaged as a sausage rolling in a pan, close to bursting.) We even discussed translation issues, and the fact that class issues are not obscured in Emily Wilson’s new translation—slave status was clearer than ever.

And we wrapped up, thinking this old tale is still beautiful, provocative, useful, and relevant. Mission accomplished.

Then we started Virgil’s Aeneid. And many of them balked.

It’s harder to read. They feel like they’re missing something. It’s so dense. And they’re absolutely right.

The Odyssey is a primary epic. Even though we pin our hopes on someone named Homer, it doesn’t feel authored. It feels straightforward, accumulative, formulaic, inevitable. It feels like it has been composed orally, around hundreds of hearths. It reads quickly, and it’s full of action. Everyone felt able to comment because it invites everyone inside. It builds its lessons by comparing examples of how to treat guests, for instance.  

The Aeneid, in contrast, is VERY authored. Commissioned by Augustus Caesar to give weight to the destiny of Rome, this story follows the Trojan survivor, Aeneas, on a comparable path through the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, but continues on to the west coast of Italy, where he will found the city of Rome. The content is comparable, but everything else is different.

First, Virgil has a commission. He’s writing for the emperor—the most glorious audience, about the origins of Rome—the most glorious of subjects. So he’d better make it sound glorious. He does. But what makes a poem glorious can also make it difficult. He uses elevated language; he relies on his audience for allusions he makes to other texts and myths; he weaves in subtext about the possible collateral damage on the way to Rome. Especially for the protagonist, Aeneas, the founding of Rome must take precedence over anything he might want for his personal life—a happy second marriage in Carthage, for instance.

So we have a lot to unpack that we didn’t when reading The Odyssey. The poem begins, for instance, with Juno raging about Aeneas’s relative success. It summarizes neatly three main reasons Juno despises Aeneas. (Trojans have spurned her beauty and taken her daughter’s job, not to mention the fact that Trojan-founded Rome is destined to overthrow her cherished Carthage in the Punic Wars.) Virgil expects that his audience is familiar all these intertexts, and that they know the history of Troy and its many founders, and all the variant names of Roman gods. Spoiler alert: we don’t.

This means the first day of the Aeneid discussion was more literary and history lecture than most. It was more damage control and me assuring them that it was a really good story, worth the time to sink in to. Fortunately, there’s plenty to appeal. All I have to do (with any text, really) is show them where to look.

What you gain with an author over a folk composition is detail. Virgil details scenes and the emotions they evoke with painstaking, breathtaking precision. When the old Trojan king, Priam, dies at the hands of Achilles’s son, all the pathos of the young, disrespectful thug desecrating the sacred altar of the Trojan gods bring one to tears:

                “…he dragged him to the very altar stone,
                with Priam shuddering and slipping in
                the blood that streamed from his own son. And Pyrrhus
                with his left hand clutched tight the hair of Priam;
                his right hand drew his glistening blade, and then
                he buried it hilt-high in the king’s side.
                This was the end of Priam’s destinies.” (Aeneid II. 738-43)

And when Dido falls in love with Aeneas, tempting him to linger in Carthage, his divine mandate to leave and get back to his destiny makes Dido desperate, and she lashes out at him:

“Deceiver, did you even hope to hide
so harsh a crime, to leave this land of mine
without a word? Can nothing hold you back–
neither your love, the hand you pledged, nor even
the cruel death that lies in wait for Dido?” (IV. 410-14)

She vacillates between outrage and despair, and she sounds at once timeless and current–psychologically real. That’s what an author adds that oral formulae don’t achieve. These characters pulse and bleed. We feel we know them. The emotions  they feel are real and immediate; we feel with them.

So it may take a little longer to get in to, but when we do, all will be well. Authored texts offer different experiences, and they’re usually the kind that English majors respond well to—ones where we can talk about how knowledge of the culture and the author add to our understanding. Folk texts are not less cool, with their archetypes and patterns and regional “flavors.” But they are different. It depends on whether you’re in the mood to read about “Jack” or Jay Gatsby. You get to choose.

Except when it’s assigned for a class. Then you read what is assigned. Yes, there will be a quiz.

Living · Reading · Teaching

The Road to Memory is Paved with Giant Teeth

I’m thinking about memory again.

My position on reading print over electronic texts is not changing. When I discussed Maryanne Wolf’s recent book, Reader, Come Home, I was looking (because she was) at the different ways we read when we read print on paper versus screen. Wolf demonstrates that we read more superficially when we read on a screen, in part because of the distractions possible through advertisements and notifications. We are more interruptible in that context, and we read more content, but much less deeply.

This weekend on the patio I had a moment.

My well-worn Penguin edition of the Prose Edda. I am a reader, not an illustrator.

I was strolling through the fertile fields of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda on Saturday for… I don’t know… maybe the thirtieth time, reading about the creation of the cosmos from the head and body of the giant Ymir. After they kill the evil frost giant, Odin and his brothers dismember him and use his parts for raw materials. They use his skull to form the dome of the heavens (and install unfortunate dwarves at the cardinal points to hold it up). The use his bones to make Midgard, the realm of humans. They use his blood to make the oceans.

This time I stopped here and pondered. It’s gross and gory, yes. And I usually just tromp right through, almost mechanically tallying the parts with their upcycled functions, so I remember them when students ask: his bones become mountains, teeth become rocks, brains become clouds. His blood becomes the oceans.

I paused. I lifted my eyes from the book and gazed for a moment into the distance as one does when contemplating spiritual truths. In mid-ponder, my partner bustled out, mid-chore, and couldn’t help but notice my philosophical stance. He asked what on earth I was doing.  

Processing. I was processing. I imagined giant blood for oceans and, put off by the sheer grossness of it all, I pushed on that image for a minute in my brain. This guy was a frost giant. What do frost giants bleed? Maybe water. Thirty times reading this, in all sorts of contexts with people way more and way less experienced than I, and it had never occurred to me that frost giants must perforce bleed water. The oceans are water.

Well, then. That’s fine.  Way less gross. Cool, even—those clever Norsefolk.

Rob was still looking at me.

And it occurred to me how I read differently online than in a book. When I’m staring at a screen, it’s much harder for me to glance away and think, so I don’t do as much questioning or imagining or connecting to other books and things I know. The screen keeps me riveted, and that keeps me in receiving mode exclusively. I read more quickly. I don’t reflect as much. And if I don’t reflect and somehow connect what I’m reading to other ideas in my head, I don’t remember as much.

Books present information in a lovely, static format. If I lift my gaze, there is no risk that when I look down again the text will be altered or gone. But virtual text taunts me with that possibility all the time—sometimes from faulty internet connection, but sometimes I hit the wrong key or place on my phone’s screen, and I lose the whole damn thing and can’t get it back. (Totally justified) comments about my technical ineptness aside, the risks are greater in the ephemeral world of electronic text, and that may be one reason why I dare not look away. And there is always the risk that some ad in the margin or some clickbait at the bottom will draw me away from the Thing I’m Trying To Read, and I’ll never wend my way back.

This has far-reaching ramifications, my friends. If we only receive a steady stream of information, and don’t give ourselves time or mental space to process it thoroughly, it’s no wonder we read more superficially.

But we also won’t remember as much.

“I’m reading,” I said to my expectant spouse. “This is what reading looks like.”

Reading · Teaching · Writing

Fables are Real: Thoughts on Marcovaldo

I’m teaching Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo this week, and the older I get, the more I get out of it. I’m so full of things to say, I have to sort through them or risk imploding.

Marcovaldo is the protagonist in a short novel that doesn’t feel like a novel. It feels like a cartoon series to me more than anything—short vignettes with a guy who is sort of a caricature, but also one I can identify with sometimes and pity other times. The book’s subtitle is “Seasons in the City” and begins to explain why some classify it as a mid-20th century “nouveau roman,” or New Novel in the French tradtion. It’s a series of vignettes organized by seasons, not by events in an ongoing plotline.

The seasons pass in the city, but they pass more subtly than in the provinces. And poor Marcovaldo–whose history readers piece together from details dropped occasionally, but even more from his attitudes toward the world–must have been raised in the country, been drafted in to service during World War II, and later moved to the city where all the jobs were to raise his family.

All the jobs, but none of the humanity. All the jobs, but very little from the natural world.

He finds himself trapped in a demeaning job, resentful of the family he struggles to support; the story reads like a list of repeated attempts to escape.

This sweet image is from an Italian version aimed at young readers. This book can be read “simply.” But seriously, the more I read it, the deeper it gets. (Also, there is no point in the book where Marcovaldo stares at a ladybug, on his hand but it is very much the kind of thing he would do–perhaps not this sadly.)

So he’s an idealist in the sense that he thinks he can stumble in to a scheme that will rescue him from this. In the first chapter he finds mushrooms growing wild in the dirt near a tram stop, and he immediately plans a huge feast for his family—watching the mushrooms grow and bringing his kids to help gather them by the hundreds.

In another chapter, he reads in an old newspaper that bee venom has been used to treat rheumatism, and he turns his one-room basement apartment into a clinic, applying angry wasps to people’s skin under a paper cup. He’s receptive to the natural world and its opportunities.

But this is the city. The only mushrooms that grow there are poisonous. The wasp clinic (obviously) goes south and lands him in the hospital. He doesn’t give up, but readers can get tired for him, as he tries one way after another to get something for nothing.

Students sometimes get hung up on this aspect of him and label him as greedy. So this time I’m going in ready to redirect that line of thought. It’s not wrong; it’s just superficial.

First, Marcovaldo is poor. He’s not so much greedy as he is desirous of pretty reasonable things—enough space to house his family comfortably, enough food for them all to eat, enough time to enjoy the world around them. He’s an unskilled laborer with a wife and six kids. His wife has to be home to raise the kids, so it’s all on him to provide for eight people. That he continues to do that seems admirable to me. That he also looks for moments of delight and opportunities out seems healthy.

That is where I’ll start this time. He’s not greedy; he’s burned out.

He’s also lots of other things. He’s an early environmentalist; he notices and cultivates the natural world; in fact, he yearns for it. He’s a class warrior, showcasing the inequities in post-war Italy. He’s full of childlike wonder, always looking for butterflies and stopping to watch birds fly. He’s also kind of a caricature of Calvino—an introverted, disillusioned, middle-aged dreamer. He’s not yet Mr. Palomar, but he’s moving in that direction.

And now I’m thinking I need to write a paper about Marcovaldo. Maybe that would help get him out of my head, like listening to the whole song does, when I have a line repeating in my mind. I need to do something to stop channeling him. Because I can’t stop looking for butterflies and noticing the sunlight hitting pine boughs and freezing when I hear birdsong to see if I can find the bird. I just live in an area with too many birds for that kind of behavior to be practical. 😀

Reading · Teaching

Layers like a cake, not like an onion: In Praise of Allegory

I love The Faerie Queene. There. I said it. I feel better.

I don’t have a horse in the Catholic/Protestant race, so I can read it without passion in that regard, but I do in the It’s All Connected race, and Spenser is ringing all my classical and medieval fangirl bells.

It’s a brilliant, sometimes hilarious compilation of previous works in service of a new narrative and a context where Spenser was interested in showing off his learning and skill. When I teach it, I scribble on the board an over-simplified equation that nonetheless helps students wrap their heads around it. Spenser uses classical epic conventions + medieval content + Protestant allegory to create the Faerie Queene.

I teach the third book (the story of Britomart, the knight of Chastity, and the only female knight) pretty regularly, but I haven’t had occasion to dive in to the rest of the book for many years.

It was right there waiting for me, as all the great books do.

Maybe that’s a definition of a classic—a text that waits for you, and when your crazy life lets you get back to it, it is every bit as delightful, surprising, and moving as it was when you first encountered it.

So the Faerie Queene….

Book I is the story of the Redcrosse Knight, the knight of Holiness. And it’s an allegory, right? So he IS holiness; he embodies holiness. But during the course of his quest, he is tested, he errs (literally!) from his path, and he needs to be rehabilitated; thus his faith is tempered. He is stronger than he was before.  

Redcrosse’s quest is to liberate Una’s (the One, True, i.e. Protestant Church) parents from the dragon.  But to focus on Redcrosse is to miss Una and her Perils of Pauline melodrama (or Penelope Pitstop, for 70s cartoon fans).

Una accompanies Redcrosse at the beginning, guiding him on his way (she knows where she lives; he doesn’t) and giving advice and encouragement. She’s lovely, really. And Holiness–in service to the One, True Church–defeats Error and her monstrous brood in the darkness of ignorance. So far, so good.

But even before the end of the first Canto, the wizard Archimago (Hypocrisy) sets deceptions in motion to raise doubts about Una’s virtue, and Redcrosse flees without her. Una wanders after him, alone and afraid, and in to her own adventures.

A lion tries to eat her. But as he gets close enough to see her, he is calmed and tamed by her… what… aura of goodness? Sure. He goes from wanting to eat her to giving his life to protect her; she’s that compelling a personage.

She is then claimed by Sans Loy (Lawlessness), who kills her lion and drags her off. She’s saved from him by a band of satrys, and saved from them by a mysterious half-satyr, half-human knight. It’s a little ridiculous, at least to a modern reader who can’t read Una among the satyrs as Princess Leia in the Ewok village.

And of course, Spenser is counting on his readers recognizing scenes, characters, and elements from other books like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and others. As a medievalist and a reader with a heavily annotated edition, those references are not lost on me, and there is a special pleasure in “getting the references” an author like Spenser drops. But what slays me is the pile of continued narratives since he wrote. My reading of The Faerie Queene is filled with moments of recognizing Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Marvel movies, Disney heroines, and countless other literary and pop culture references Spenser couldn’t have predicted but I can’t unsee.

Una will forever be the One, True Church, but also Princess Leia, Penelope Pitstop, even Eowyn the shield maiden from The Lord of the Rings. I don’t know if that would make Spenser spin in his grave, or if he’d think that all recognition was good recognition, but it sure makes for a delightful experience.

Reading · Teaching · Writing

On Light and Lightness

Apollo is the god of light in the sense that he inspires all things we associated with enlightenment: culture, arts (especially music and poetry), civilization, reason, medicine, and prophecy. As the sun, he IS light. So everything he touches is illuminated or illuminating.  Latin lux/lucere à English light. (Never trust a vowel.)

But when Italo Calvino writes his essay on “Lightness” in Six Memos for the Next Millenium, he’s not talking about brightness or illumination; he values weightlessness in the fabric and content of literature. This comes from Gothic leihts, and Latin went the leviarius/(“leviosa”)/levity route.

When I teach this essay, someone always asks if he means lightness like the quality of being bright or lightweight. If we were reading the original, the question would not come up; it’s entitled “La Legerezza,” of which we only have a relic in “legerdemain”—sleight of (or lightness of) hand. In Italian  the word for bright light is la luce.

Also if you read very far in to the essay, Calvino makes this distinction abundantly clear, but if you are an English reader who imagined brightness first, it can be hard to let go of. After all, we want our literature to be illuminating, don’t we? To light fires in our minds and to shine light on problems and people and practices. Good books do that.

That’s not what Calvino meant. He wouldn’t be so moralizing, to begin with. But he was aestheticizing. (I know that’s not a word in the sense of prescribing literary values, but I want it to be.) He was interested in defining ideals of literature, not humanity.

He strove to remove weight from his works, sometimes in terms of content (like making a suit of armor trot around empty, without the weight of a body inside[The Nonexistent Knight] or like reducing gravity’s pull so that people could float up to the moon [“The Distance to the Moon” in Cosmicomics, which is the basis for the Pixar short “La Luna”].

He also tried to remove weight from his prose, so that it seemed somewhat diaphanous. He quotes Emily Dickinson as an example:

A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer’s morn—
A flask of Dew—A Bee or two—
A Breeze—a caper in the trees—
And I’m a Rose!

Occasionally one of my students will dig in, claiming that it is a higher good to strive to be illuminating than weightless, to which I can only respond that he’s talking about style, and that doesn’t have a moral obligation. Calvino means literature should tread lightly; it should lighten our load by lifting us above the weight of the world and in to the flight of the clouds and imagination. It should inspire contemplation, which is completely abstract and therefore weightless, and it should do so by means that feel light: literature’s form (lightened prose) should follow its function—lightening our spirits.

What began as an etymological exercise has turned in to an analysis of Calvino’s essay, which I didn’t plan on. But I have read and taught and thought about that essay so many times, it is hard for me to think of lightness in any form without also thinking of Calvino’s words. At the risk of sounding repetitive, it’s all connected.

Have a good weekend, y’all. Enjoy the light of the Harvest Moon.

Oak leaves in the sunlight on Mt Palomar
Reading · Teaching

Intro to Welsh: The Back to School edition

The school year has begun. It is not fall in Southern California by any measure but the academic calendar, but officially, fall semester has arrived. Kids are back in school, in air-conditioned classrooms one hopes, and my partner and I are swinging back in to a routine of lunches and carpools and homework and class preparation and grading.

But it’s August. Part of me is still offended.

Or it would be, if it weren’t so fun. It takes a couple days to figure out where classes meet and to put names to faces, and to move past the preliminaries of setting expectations and selling the class and yourself. For me the first week or two are always the most stressful, even though grading and responsibilities increase over the term.

In the first week I convince people to pay attention to me. I sell the class as important, useful, and fun. I sell myself as an authority but also as a person, because I know how much more pleasant a class is if you like your instructor. (This certainly does not always work, but I try. It’s a fine balance to hit—I’m kind of a dork, but an interesting, funny dork. If I push too far, they stop thinking I’m an interesting, funny anything, and all that’s left is the dork. This is impossible to come back from in my experience.)

When I’m teaching an English class, the odds are in my favor. I am largely surrounded by people who love books and have come there to talk about them. When I’m teaching a General Ed class, it varies.

This term I have mostly non-majors in my Folklore course. In the first week there has been a steady flow in and out of my class, as the prospect of all that reading and writing deters some people, or the dorkness proves insurmountable. People trickle in too, adding every day this week, not knowing what they’re in for.

Today I had enough laughing that I predict they will all stay.

We are reading the Welsh Mabinogion, a collection of folklore contained in two manuscripts that people agree come hundreds of years after the tales had been circulating. The first hurdle is convincing people to care about medieval Welsh stories. The second hurdle is convincing people to read Welsh.

I don’t give them the text in Welsh, of course, but I do give them a crash course on pronouncing Welsh so they can read the names and places more easily. I’m trained as a linguist; I got this. I break down the names in to sounds and help them pronounce the ones non-native to English. But today just when they got comfortable with short, one or two-syllable names, and were feeling pretty good, I hit them with the YouTube video.

 There is a twenty-second video of a normal, respectable-looking weatherman doing his job that has over twenty million views because he effortlessly pronounces a Welsh town whose name is fifty-eight letters long. Of course he does. He’s from Cardiff. But it’s kind of amazing anyway.

So I sprung this on my students near the end of the language discussion. They were feeling good. They could pronounce Rhiannon with appropriate breathiness. They wrapped their mouths around the double d sounding like the beginning of ‘then.’ Then Liam Dutton commented about the weather in Llanfairpwyllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, and they lost it. And I had them.

I know it’s a gimmick. I know it’s cheap. But if it makes them laugh, builds a connection with their fellow students, challenges them to figure out how that word holds together, sparks a curiosity about the language that extends to the literature and culture, and gets me a little buy-in to a fairly kooky subject matter, I’ll take it.

And we’re off.  Happy Fall, y’all.

Reading · Teaching

The Modern Medieval Commentary

It’s summer, and I’m shaking things up again.

Fall semester is right around the corner, and I’m sitting here reading medieval commentaries and having Eureka! moments.

I regularly teach excerpts from Macrobius’s Commentary on The Dream of Scipio—the passages where he delineates the different kinds of true and false dreams one can have–and I’m wondering why it hasn’t occurred to me before that it’s a useful genre.

The medieval commentary tradition is a wonderful thing, really. There are many commentators like Macrobius—well-educated, well-intended, and busy saving the works of antiquity from oblivion. Macrobius uses the Roman orator Cicero’s text as a vehicle to collect or “compile” classical knowledge and package it for a Christian audience.

The text of the Dream of Scipio is included, of course, all eight pages of it, and then the Commentary of Macrobius adds upwards of 150 pages. It’s very medieval of him.

He collects other information in order to help explain the Dream. Scholars have spilt considerable ink deciding what texts he used as source material for which passages, but the point here is that he did. He used other texts to understand this one. He gathered outside information to clarify the context and associate the content with other, comparable texts. He isolated passages and looked closely at them, using all his faculties and all his resources to do justice to the subtleties of the text.

In short, he did literary criticism. But he did it in a medieval way.

Medieval authors valued authoritative texts. When I teach Chaucer, we talk about how he repurposed old tales for his Canterbury Tales rather than making things up ex nihilo. Originality meant going back to origins, not being novel. So a commentator would do that very important medieval writing task of compiling materials and putting them in conversation with one another to learn new truths. A compilator was not an auctor, an established authority and the root of our modern ”author,” but the job was vitally important nonetheless. A compiler made it possible for readers to gain fuller understanding of the auctor. A compiler opened doors, shone light, brought clarity, and most importantly, inspired the reader to deeper appreciation of the text.

This is where I’m headed in the fall.

I’m not going to make my students write hundred-page theses explaining flash fiction, but I am going to introduce them to the process and purpose and pleasure of the commentary.

In a modern classroom, a commentary may include annotations, summaries of parallel or illuminating texts, historical context, analysis of language and style, and may very well include illustrations or other visual elements. I’m thinking it will be a notebook devoted to a single text that students work on all term—an interactive account of their experience reading their chosen text.

I can already imagine them knocking my socks off.

Reading · Teaching

The Return of the Verse Novel

People tell me all the time they don’t like poetry.

They don’t get it; they don’t see why it has to be so hard. They think it’s pretentious—you should just say what you mean, already; why torture your words in to form? They think it’s out to trick them and to make them feel inadequate. They’re on guard and defensive.

I think that’s all wrong.

I think poetry is just distilled language, in sharper focus, with the volume turned up–pick a sense. It’s true some of the writers I teach want to challenge their readers, but it’s not the poetry that challenges, generally; it’s the content. Dante is not dense because he writes in terza rima; he’s dense because we don’t know enough of his historical and political context to get all his references, nor enough of his religious context to grasp his spiritual claims in their fullness.

But man, the guy can sing.

So I’m on a perennial quest, every term, to break down walls in people’s minds and help them feel poetry. And lately I’ve discovered a tiny resurgence of a genre I was not expecting: the verse novel.

On our last trip to Solvang, my daughter and I each bought, without consulting the other, a verse novel. I don’t know about you, but I have very little experience with verse novels, and the one that comes first to mind is the quite forbidding. The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning is a 600-page whopper that I bought as an ambitious undergrad and left on my shelf. 21,000 lines of iambic pentameter had intimidated even me, the poetry lover.

But there is new hope. My daughter picked up a book that is sort of a biography in verse of Joan of Arc: Stephanie Hemphill’s The Language of Fire. And I bought a retelling of the Minotaur’s story called Bull: A Novel by David Elliott. Then she read mine and I read hers, both in a sitting.

These are novels told in verse, published in 2019 and 2017, respectively, and I thought also of Jane Yolen’s 2018 Finding Baba Yaga, and realized this might be a thing. If it is, let me just shout from the rooftops, Hurrah! Because all three of these are wonderful—lively revisionings of a well-known story spun in readable, small spurts of poems.

The poems are mostly free verse—the kind of poem that makes me wonder why the poet chose to break the lines there… or they would if I weren’t swept up in the narrative. Some of them are visually poetic, and by that I mean the very way the words are presented on the page is beautiful. Some of Yolen’s have very, very short lines—two syllables. Or they build from short to long lines and back. Or they intersperse voices in italics. Elliott’s have pages that get progressively darker as Asterion the Minotaur’s perspective darkens.

This is good stuff, y’all. This is poetry that lets you in. It may be my predilections that lead me toward the myths and fairy tales (Joan’s legendary status notwithstanding), but they seem perfect subjects for this medium. You already know the story, or think you should. (Yolen’s first poem, in fact, is entitled “You think you know this story.”) So the content is not going to be the problem, as in Dante’s case. This time through, you just get to enjoy the show.

But all three of these are marketed for the Young Adult audience, which means that many readers will not know the stories. If this is the first introduction to these stories, that’s good too. They are more expansive than the myths, more personal than a “real” biography, more psychologically vivid than a fairy tale.

But they also get to sing.

And if they’re selling, that means young people are getting exposed to old stories through poetry. It’s brilliant, of course. (It always has been.) The poems are short, moving briskly through the narrative, switching voices, clapping back—even making Hamilton references–and because there are simply fewer words on each page, you get the sense that you’re flying through the tale. And that helps skittish readers feel like they accomplished something, which they absolutely have.

I hope what they’ve done is hopped on the bandwagon to revive a wonderful form. I hope that means more will come to my classes with less fear of poetry and more sense of its potential.