Tuesday, February 13, 2018

First Words First

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                                             …fruits that blossom first will first be ripe
                     Iago, Othello (2.3)

“First place,” “first glance,” "first" anything"—birthday, date, car, taste of pomegranate—is “first and foremost.”  In other words that embody firstness: we forefront priorities—primarily prize what’s premium.  Once there is that first mark on a blank page, the paper is forever transformed.  First impressions last.

This is especially true in reading literature.  Let's take Horatio's first word in Hamlet: “Friends” is Horatio’s first word Hamlet.  Throughout the play, he is, scene after scene, Hamlet’s only and most abiding friend.  Using the concept of friendship as our first-word point of entry—we can read Hamlet through the character of Horatio.  We can characterize Horatio either deductively—identify core characteristics of friendship and find examples of them in Horatio’s words and actions.  Or, we can interpret inductively—discern what friendship means by describing Horatio’s character as he moves through the play.  The most interesting interpretations combine both a deductive and an inductive approach.

For those who prefer to interpret Horatio deductively, it’s helpful to find what experts have to say about friendship.  In his book Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships, Geoffrey Greif identifies four levels of friends: must, trust, just, and rust.  The must friend is the go-to guy for all things earth-shattering.  The trust friend is less close than the must.  The just friend is just that—a casual acquaintance.  The rust friend floats in and out of the relationship.  Which kind of friend might Horatio be, and what’s our proof?

When, at the beginning of the play, Horatio sees the ghost of Hamlet’s father, he is the one who says

Let us impart what we have seen tonight
Unto young Hamlet; for upon my life,
This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him. (1.1.175-6)

A just or rust friend might run away both from the ghost and having to “get involved.”  A trust friend might be hesitant to get involved.  But must friend identifies the crisis, is aware of the context, informs his friend, and “has his back,” as they say.  The bearer of bad news is always at risk of the receiver’s reaction.  But Horatio will go boldly to his friend’s side. 

In the one expression “upon my life,” we can see how much Horatio would risk to empower his friend with information.  Note, as well, that Horatio does not say I will impart what I have seen tonight.  Horatio speaks in terms of us and we. He is a man who values connection.  He doesn’t say “Go tell him” or “I will tell him,” he says “Let us”—collaborative, respectful, inviting.

            And so we would proceed, seeking out scenes that either include or refer to Horatio, and considering each as proof or disproof of Horatio’s friendship.  We would apply Greif’s categories, deductively; and articulate, inductively, the various traits of friendship Horatio displays.  We might ask the question: “Is Hamlet a friend to himself?” We might compare and contrast how others treat Hamlet.  When we arrived at the scenes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we would further appreciate, because of their treachery, what a courageous friend Horatio is, in contrast.  In most productions of Hamlet, Hamlet dies in his arms at the end of the play.  How much more poignant and meaningful becomes Horatio’s final address to Hamlet because of our close attention to the course of their friendship:

                        Now cracks a noble heart.  Good night, sweet prince,
                        And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! (5.2.361-2)

Notice that he uses thee and thy, instead of you and yours.  Originally, the form you instead of thou was used by the elite English to align them with the fashionable French tu and vous. It was distancing and asserted power positions above inferiors. Thee and thy were more intimate uses of the second person pronoun, as would be used in prayers.  In our time, philosopher Martin Buber used the more archaic thou to distinguish a reverent from a casual regard for another.  Interesting, especially in this context, is that those who practice Quakerism use the thee, thy, thou, thine form address during meetings, and call themselves “The Friends.”

            Because of the nature of interpretation and Shakespeare’s genius, first words will dependably clue us into his characters.  Horatio would never begin with I, as Katharina does in The Taming of the Shrew, nor would she be prompted to start with “Friends.”  And that makes sense.  Traditionally, readers have interpreted Katharina as the shrew of the play (for an alternate reading, check out the Titles chapter on pages #-#).  “Shrew,” when designating a person, means ‘violent, scolding, argumentative.’  Such a person would be self-centered, self-satisfied, selfish—all about “I” instead, as in the case of Horatio, “we.” 

When we trace Katharina through the first couple of scenes, we see her displaying what doctors Leonard C. Groopman and Arnold M. Cooper call “narcissistic personality disorder.”  Conducting a brief search, we find that the symptoms of this disorder include these:

  • envious
  • requires constant attention and admiration
  • calculating and manipulative
  • has no empathy for others 
  •  arrogant
  • expects special treatment

In 1.1, father Bapista calls Bianca, Katharina’s sister, “good,” and “my girl.” As we learned in the chapter on Rhythm, how a line varies from the classic ten syllable iambic pentameter is meaningful.  Katharina hesitates before she delivers these words, starting with a seven-syllable line:

                              A pretty peat! It is best
Put finger in the eye, an she knew why. (1.1. 78-9)

We can read that hesitation as proof of Katharina’s envy.  She feels slighted, and is calculating how to strike back at her father and sister.  Even without knowing what “peat” means, we can already discern the ‘scratch her eyes out’ violence of “put finger in the eye.” A quick dictionary check tells us that, in this context, “peat” means ‘a merry young girl’ and that “an” means ‘if.’ Katharina’s remark is sarcastic, devoid of empathy, angry that Bianca has their father’s affection.  In 2.1, Katharina ties up her sisters hands—in a gesture of bondage—and interrogates her as if Bianca were a criminal.  And does not relent when her sister pleads

                        Good sister, wrong me not, nor wrong yourself,
                        To make a bondmaid and a slave of me. (1-2)

In her book Identifying and Understanding the Narcissistic Personality, Elsa F. Ronningstam articulates the painful shame and insecurity that underlies the narcissist’s bravado.  In the rest of the play, we will see Petruchio humiliate, starve, isolate, and shame Katharina—thus reducing her to her underlying insecurities.  In the chapter on Dismounts, we will ask whether Katharina is ultimately tamed.

How do first words affect your life experiences?  How can focus on first words enrich your literary experiences?

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Prompts, Proctors, Pornography

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                   Think not to confuse me with poems or love beginning
                               Without a sign or sound...

                                            ~Mary Oliver, "Being Country Bred"

             A Google search for “poetry prompts” directs us to 33 million links, just over the broader “writing prompts” which yields 29 million. And Amazon offers 951 hits for book-length collections of poetry prompts; 6,000 for writing prompts in general.  In short, there is a whole industry based on the assumption that we must have someone’s hand clasped over our writing hand to guide it, much like that hand guided us while we learned the now-disappearing art of cursive writing. 

            Sappho, William Blake, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf did not need to look outside of themselves for someone to offer them prompts for writing. Nor did Rilke, Shakespeare, or Ice-T. Prompts are the invention of teachers who need to control variables so as to be able to grade students comparatively on the bell curve.  

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            A grade book and quarterly report card cannot wait for the messy process of inspiration and students straying into topics that are not easily accessible.  A lesson plan must be clear, consecutive, easily assessable if the teacher is to be rehired for tenure. And must be completed so that the students can turn to preparing for placement tests. A teacher can proctor how various students adhere to a prompt such as this:

Write a fourteen-line poem about your  mother in the form of a weather report set on a winter’s day.  For inspiration, listen to a weather report on television or through YouTube. Include the color red and the following words: “major, rabbit, kill, apple."

With a threat of grade hovering over them, students will dutifully mark out fourteen lines, watch reports, and tick off the color red and the required words as they contrive them into place.  Or students will balk.  I’m with the students who balk.  As student Germain Palacios said of writing prompts, “that regimental approach to writing often stifled my true voice and creativity.”
Yes.  I know the allure of prompts. I have written hundreds of poems in response to them—doing so saw me through recovery from bunion surgery, it secured a place for me in community publications, I saw my name in the lights of anthologies and literary journals, I kept a promise to someone who invited me to submit.  Like the smartphone, social networks, YouTube, and Netflix, prompts relieved me of the responsibility for focusing myself—prompts did that hard work for me. And I met all the requirements, no matter how intricate or distancing.
Prompts are as addicting as substances: numbing the discomforts of feeling and growth; tempting us with immediate gratification; fostering people-pleasing; making others responsible for us; distracting us from our higher, intuitive and risk-taking selves; eventually making our creative lives unmanageable without them.
 But the poems I have written to external promptings have never been my best poems.  Without knowing the genesis of all the individual poems, my friend Carole and I, when reading through each other’s poetry manuscripts, consistently choose for deletion the prompt poems.  Something doesn’t ring “authentic.”

In his collection of essays Poetry and Ambition, Donald Hall calls the poems marching off the assembly lines of academia “MacPoems.”  Generated in, from, and for the academic classroom and Poe Biz—publication, teaching positions, reading circuit—these poems are externally prompted for external approval and acceptance.  They are, too often, more about politics than poetry.

My students—hard-wired to write in response to prompts, to teacher-please, to supply their grade-junking needs—ask for me to tell them “what I want.”  Always apprehensive about making them my clones, of doing for them what they must do for themselves, I listened, instead, to what they said about themselves.  I got into the habit of noticing for them all the possible directions their own poetry might take:  “That’s a poem idea,” “Write about that.”  I became an idea mill, for the sake of being an idea mill. I became an idea mill for my own work—displacing the more important authentic need to listen to myself, express, explore, follow-through.  I saw “prompts” in everything.  It silenced me.

Pornography is isolating/wresting one aspect of someone or something to use for our momentary pleasure.  Writing to a prompt, I wrest my writing capacity from all other aspects of myself—my angst, questioning, fecund chaos, wonder, patience, possibility—to have the momentary pleasure of saying “I wrote a poem,” or, worse, “my poem will be published.”
 As opposed to inspiration—“in,” as from within; “spira,” as from one’s own breath, own internal promptings—external prompts invite us to exploit ourselves—as in ‘attempt to capture,’ ‘military expedition,’ ‘overworking,’ ‘using’—in the service of amassing, hoarding, piling up more poems or grades.  Relying on outer prompts instead of inner promptings are living a reactive as opposed to proactive life, of buying gifts by bridal registry instead of loving attention, shopping for the sake of shopping, writing to say I’m writing, Astro Turf instead of leaves of grass, shadow instead of substance.


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Scrolling, Scrolling

Scrolling, Scrolling

          Let’s imagine Khamet, a young scholar in Egypt, 2,018 B.C.E., the year Abraham was born in the Babylonian city of Ur.  On a high, open shelf, Khamet finds “The Story of Sinuhe” on a scroll—two wooden dowels, about 12 inches high, onto which a 30-foot length of papyrus is rolled left and right. This paper is made of special reeds that, lain flat, adhere to each other by their own natural gum.  Khamet hefts down the scroll, brings it toward his body, hugs it to himself until he  lays it on a table.  Here he unrolls the texts inscribed with special inks made of burnt wood and acacia sap.  A fragrant woody scent, reminiscent of the scroll’s natural origins, wafts up.  Khamet visits his favorite books so often, that he can recognize them not only by touch but by their individual scents. These perfumes etch the words into his memory on a cellular level.  Tonight, at dinner, he will recite a portion of the story to his family, by heart.  He traces the words as he reads, the raised edges of the letters as familiar to him as the brailling that won’t appear for another 3,809 years, when Napoleon’s soldiers had to devise a way to send night messages without exposing their location with light.

          To open this scroll is, for Khamet, to spread his arms wide—an inviting gesture that has lodged itself into his strong arms and muscular back. His burly wrists turn in coordination as he reads. This is the only scroll he will read today, spending time to discuss it with his fellow scholars, ruminating over it as he walks home by the Nile, where the papyrus grows wild, and crocodiles eyes peek above the surface of the green waters.

          Let’s now imagine Jennifer, 2018 A.D., a student with her smart phone. She’s opened her free Shakespeare’s Sonnets APP, but texts are pinging in, and Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest notices.  She has plenty of time, she thinks, and taps over to Pinterest, and scrolls, scrolls, scattered images and words spinning into a blur.  She is as devoted to her scrolling as Khamet is to his.  But whereas he practices an expansive gesture, spreading open his arms all day; Jennifer curls around her phone, like a conch, small and cramped. Khamet has defined biceps and lats—Jennifer has texting claw, Tinder finger, carpal tunnel syndrome, and cell phone elbow.  Khamet strides into the world with his head up; Jennifer is hunched and distracted—no fragrance, no exercise of her muscles or capacity to memorize, no seeing the scenery or greeting others for long talks as she walks. 

          Because it’s the same glassy surface all day and most of the night, her fingertips are dulled to touch.  And as she scrolls, the message to herself is—hurry to the next thing. Dismiss. What’s next? What else? Go away.  Her brain is enchanted by this flick, flick, flick, this not having to stop, this constant running-away-from to something from-which-to-run-away.  Gertrude Stein once wrote that to know someone’s nature, notice what she or he repeats. What we repeat is what we become.  Jennifer is always hunting, never arriving—a life of fleeting dopamine hits.  Nothing sticks.  Nothing lasts.
          Jennifer will not remember much, if anything, what scrolled past her today.  Instagram promises “Along with making over-posting a non-issue, the new feature also eliminates the permanency.” Jennifer has been entrained by her scrolling to skim—skim past nature, skim past people, skim past her own sensations.Tonight, Jennifer will not recite a sonnet to her family.  She will scroll through dinner as her family scrolls, too. She will swipe away this day as she will tomorrow, all blurring into each other.  And, oops, she forgot to read those sonnets, and, after making thousands of scrolling decisions, she ran out of willpower to even brush her teeth last night.  And now she’s already late for class.

 Between Khamet and Jennifer, we had Jack Kerouac, who wrote his travelogue On the Road, on one continuous 120-foot scroll of paper in a three-week binge.  His manuscript, like his travels, were one continuous, unbroken, cohesive artifact. In comparison, with today’s smart phones, we scroll away our lives, in a blizzard of confetti.