Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Sword in the Stone

"It is well fixed," he said.

He took hold of it again and pulled with all his might. The music played more strongly, and the light all about the churchyard glowed like amethysts; but the sword still stuck.

"Oh, Merlyn," cried the Wart, "help me to get this weapon."

There was a kind of rushing noise, and a long chord played along with it. All round the churchyard there were hundreds of old friends. They rose over the church wall all together, like the Punch and Judy ghosts of remembered days, and there were badgers and nightingales and vulgar crows and hares and wild geese and falcons and fishes and dogs and dainty unicorns and solitary wasps and corkindrills and hedgehogs and griffins and the thousand other animals he had met. They loomed round the church wall, the lovers and helpers of the Wart, and they all spoke solemnly in turn. Some of them had come from the banners in the church, where they were painted in heraldry, some from the waters and the sky and the fields about – but all, down to the smallest shrew mouse, had come to help on account of love. Wart felt his power grow.

"Put your back into it," said a Luce (or pike) off one of the heraldic banners, "as you once did when I was going to snap you up. Remember that power springs from the nape of the neck."

"What about those forearms," asked a Badger gravely, "that are held together by a chest? Come along, my dear embryo, and find your tool."

A Merlin sitting at the top of the yew tree cried out, "Now then, Captain Wart, what is the first law of the foot? I thought I once heard something about never letting go?"

"Don't work like a stalling woodpecker," urged a Tawny Owl affectionately. "Keep up a steady effort, my duck, and you will have it yet."

A white-front said, "Now, Wart, if you were once able to fly the great North Sea, surely you can coordinate a few little wing-muscles here and there? Fold your powers together, with the spirit of your mind, and it will come out like butter. Come along, Homo sapiens, for all we humble friends of yours are waiting here to cheer."

The Wart walked up to the great sword for the third time. He put out his right hand softly and drew it out as gently as from a scabbard.

from T.S. White's The Once and Future King (p 203)

This scene reminds me of the incredibly moving moment in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Harry and Voldemort's wands connect and temporarily lock together causing ghostly echoes of Cedric, Lily and James Potter, and others whom Voldemort has recently murdered to come out and offer their protection.

IMAGE: "Arthur with Excalibur" by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Sunday, August 17, 2008


We were very tired, we were very merry–
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable–
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry–
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

This is one of my favorite poems. It brings to mind images: night on the water, drinking coffee in empty cafes, starry lit streets; the feeling of a strong but pleasant wind blowing; images of New York, real and imaginary - glamorous, gritty, mysterious; that mood one gets in the middle of the night when you're out with friends or someone you're in love with - a wildness, a feeling of incredible happiness to be alive mixed with the knowledge that time is short so cram in everything you can, that tenuous balance between complete happiness and complete despair. And playing over everything the sound of The Bleeding Heart Show by The New Pornographers - probably because, to me, that song conjures up similar feelings.

IMAGE: "Couple watching the moonight" by Howard Sochurek

Thursday, July 31, 2008

"She learned romance as she grew older..."

"They knew not each other's opinion, either its constancy or its change, on the one leading point of Anne's conduct, for the subject was never alluded to; but Anne, at seven-and-twenty, thought very differently from what she had been made to think at nineteen. She did not blame Lady Russell, she did not blame herself for having been guided by her; but she felt that were any young person, in similar circumstances, to apply to her for counsel, they would never receive any of such certain immediate wretchedness, such uncertain future good. She was persuaded that under every disadvantage of disapprobation at home, and every anxiety attending his profession, all their probable fears, delays, and disappointments, she should yet have been a happier woman in maintaining the engagement, than she had been in the sacrifice of it...

How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been! How eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence! She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning."

from Jane Austen's Persuasion (Chapter 4)

* * * * *

Anne Elliot is my favorite Austen heroine. I agree with Jacqueline Reid-Walsh when she writes that the tone of Persuasion is not autumnal but rather spring-like. Or, it could be said that it transitions from winter to spring as Anne moves from a period of sadness and regret to experience a second chance at happiness in love. At twenty-seven, Anne is the eldest of Austen's heroines and I find her the most easy to sympathize with and relate to. She is past her first bloom of youth (as the novel explicitly tells us - see Footnote 1) and her chances of marriage, and with it a home and family of her own, have all but vanished.

Eight years before the novel begins Anne was engaged to a young naval officer but she relinquished the attachment upon the advice of an older and, supposedly, wiser family friend - thus the context of the quote above and the recurring theme of 'persuasion.' Since I read Emma and Persuasion right after the other, I can't help but compare the charming, very youthful Emma to the wiser, steadier but no less passionate Anne. While Emma goes through a series of errors of judgment, often humorous ones, Anne's predicament is pitiable rather then amusing. Her acceptance of the advice of her elder friend results in a life-altering mistake that causes her great pain and sadness. While Emma is certainly pained while she believes Mr. Knightley to be in love with Harriet, her experience is very brief compared to Anne's period of remorse which lasts eight long years.

Interestingly, once Anne has experienced pain, has 'learned prudence,' she is finally able to pursue romance when presented with the opportunity: a second encounter with Captain Wentworth. Wiser and more experienced, Anne seems quietly determined not to let this second chance pass her by. As Jacqueline Reid-Walsh puts it, when Wentworth comes to Bath, Anne "instigates a delicate pursuit of Wentworth which bends the conduct book rules," 'stretching and even overturning the rules concerning proper ladylike behavior.' While remaining true to the feminine ideal of the time, she exercises assertiveness - going so far as to deftly announce her constancy in front of Wentworth. The interactions between Anne and Wentworth are beautiful and amusing to read and in the process of her 'delicate pursuit,' Anne enters into a "second spring of youth and beauty," regaining that blush which she had lost prematurely:

"Anne saw nothing, thought nothing of the brilliancy of the room. Her happiness was from within. Her eyes were bright, and her cheeks glowed; but she knew nothing about it. She was thinking only of the last half-hour, and as they passed to their seats, her mind took a hasty range over it. His choice of subjects, his expressions, and still more his manner and look, had been such as she could see in only one light. His opinion of Louisa Musgrove's inferiority, an opinion which he had seemed solicitous to give, his wonder at Captain Benwick, his feelings as to a first, strong attachment; sentences begun which he could not finish, his half-averted eyes, and more than half-expressive glance, all, all declared that he had a heart returning to her at least; that anger, resentment, avoidance were no more; and that they were succeeded, not merely by friendship and regard, but by the tenderness of the past. Yes, some share of the tenderness of the past! She could not contemplate the change as implying less. He must love her." (Persuasion, Chapter 20)

Check out the full Jacqueline Reid-Walsh article: "She Learned Romance as She Grew Older”: From Conduct Book Propriety to Romance in Persuasion. It was only by reading some of the passages from the conduct books that Reid-Walsh references that I was reminded that while Anne may seem rather timid and restrained to me, she was actually acting quite boldly; particularly when doing something so seemingly tame by today's standards: initiating a conversation with a male acquaintance (Wentworth at the opera) instead of waiting for him to speak first.

IMAGE: Detail from "Portrait of Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan" by Thomas Gainsborough

1 "A few months had seen the beginning and the end of their acquaintance; but, not with a few months ended Anne's share of suffering from it. Her attachment and regrets had, for a long time, clouded every enjoyment of youth; and an early loss of bloom and spirits had been their lasting effect." (Persuasion, Chapter 4)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What the #$@%'s with the double standard?

I'm going through the Huff English blog archives. Two years ago she posted regarding a case in Washington (remarkably the news article is still up!) where a high-school English teacher was forced to step down after permitting a student to enter a poem which included an expletive in the school lit magazine. Since the magazine had already gone to press, all copies that could be found were shredded and the magazine was reprinted minus the 'offensive' poem. I've cited the poem below and the gist is that its about a girl's first sex experience.

The uproar over the poem began, unsurprisingly, with complaints from parents. Take this comment from parent Lorna Soules, for instance:
"This is not the kind of things we need; we need schools that support healthy living and healthy language, that take a moderate view and help parents raise kids," Soules said. "When I came upon that I said, 'Geez, this is too bad and unfortunate — somebody didn't do their job.' "
Interesting choice of words. We need schools that take a "moderate" view? What exactly does the word "moderate" mean in this context? Schools that don't fight the status quo? In the past, taking a "moderate" stance would have meant anything from denying women access to higher education or resisting desegregation in public schools. A moderate stance does not automatically equal a correct stance or a fair or a just one. In fact, this could lead to an entirely new tirade on my part so I'm going to move on for now to what I originally wanted to post about.

What I wanted to address is an apparent double standard. For Huff Teacher writes that schools have an established right to control what is printed in their publications (as per the American Supreme Court).

Alright, that makes sense.

However, does it make any sense that while curbing student expression by suppressing the usage of profanity in student writing, schools are simultaneously teaching students using literature that contains it?

Interestingly, Huff Teacher believes that it does. In her opinion the school was entirely within its right to censor the poem and yet at the same time she strongly feels that "students should have access to reading material without censorship. I don’t agree with preventing access to works of literature."

So basically, its okay to censor students writing, but not their reading? When it comes to specifically school printed publications schools should be free to censor, while they simultaneously provide students with profanity-laden reading material that falls under the approved heading of "literature"?

Cases like these make me terrified of getting in trouble myself some day. I mean, this was an established teacher who had been in the profession for over 35 years who was forced to resign as magazine editor due to - so it would seem - a single misstep.

Does it make sense that such an experienced teacher would purposely go against school rules by printing the poem? It seems unlikely. Which leads me to believe that there were no specific rules regarding the lit magazine's boundaries on student writing! In fact the Seattle Times article specifically mentions that the school district had never taken action in the past when the magazine had previously contained profanities. So evidently the teacher simply made a judgment call based on past experience - that seems entirely reasonable to me. But instead of a discussion subsequently taking place on the rightness or wrongness of his decision, the school caved in and got rid of him when a few parents flipped out and demanded disciplinary action.

What was this really about?

Based on the evidence, it was not about this teacher's worthiness or ability. Jill from Feministe attended the high-school and says that Mr. Kelly was one of Shorewood's "most well-known and well-liked teachers." And the Student Press Law Center has a follow-up article stating that after a grievance hearing Mr. Kelly was subsequently restored to his former position as magazine adviser.

Rather then being a matter of a teacher's failure to use common sense as Mrs. Huff believes, I see it as being about parents' fear and a school which cowardly and unreasonably caved in to that fear instead of standing up for their own employee or even taking the time to address the complaints after some contemplation and conference.

Why did this poem incite such a reaction from parents in the first place?

Read it and deduce what you will....

My first fuck

sure he claims he loves me
and holds me oh so tight
he makes me believe this is special
that he can hold on all night
he claims he isn't pressuring me
but his hand is down my pants
temptation rises and I give in
he turns over
checks the time
gets up and drives me home
no kiss goodnight
no I love you
and no telephone call

by Zoya Raskina

I can understand censoring student writing in extreme cases - like instances of hate speech, statements of threatened harm to self or others - but in this case it seems like an overreaction. Censorship should be a last resort and not something to be taken lightly. In this case, the profanity was chosen to perfectly fit the tone of the poem. When I read the body of the poem and then compare the title, I can think of no other word more appropriate. The poet is talking about sex without meaning, without love, the experience of simply being used and discarded.

Which leads me to believe that what is really disturbing about the poem to parents, to adults in general perhaps, is not the usage of the "f word" but rather the idea that a young girl has possibly already experienced sex in such a harsh way.

I'm curious about Zoya -- where is she now? does she still write? -- and I'm impressed with her father's tempered reaction to the poem:
Her father, Vladimir Raskin, thinks the poem raises a genuine issue. "She is a grown-up person," he said. "I told her my opinion that the poem is good, the title is bad." "It's poetry; some people like it, some people don't," he added. "The problem discussed in the poem is actually relevant and good."
IMAGE: "Open Book" by Nancy R. Cohen

Monday, July 28, 2008

Suicide promotional literature for teens

I came into work an hour and a half early by accident today and since my car is currently indisposed that meant I was stuck here without a way back home. Thus I'm feeling tired, a tad cranky, and reading a lot of Hobo Teacher today mixed with the influx of idiotic customer calls has only increased my sarcasm level.

Anyhow, I just had a thought regarding the use of Romeo & Juliet in high school curriculum...

Who had the brilliant idea to promote a suicidal love story to large quantities of emotionally volatile teenagers?

My wonderment was sparked by Hobo Teacher's lamentation over the failure of students to sufficiently appreciate the... romance? passion? love? ...behind Romeo's choice to die rather then live without Juliet. And yet, if students don't immediately empathize with Romeo's extreme reaction to Juliet's death, if they actually feel it to be an unnatural overreaction, shouldn't we be kind of... well, glad? Are we actually supposed to be hoping that students will strongly identify with Romeo's decision to die rather then bear the pain of his loss? This with teenagers who are already often prone to emotional overreaction (hey, I know I was! possibly still am...) and are similarly going through all the turmoils of romantic love every day, often for the first times in their lives?

I mean, if suicide is romanticized and seemingly justified in Shakespeare... (Which is practically biblical, right? I mean, King James Bible/Shakespeare = practically interchangeable.)

There's no denying that R&J is a pretty darn attractive representation of death. There's even the whole "happy dagger" bit. I mean, R & J are right in there with the other ultimate pin-ups for star-crossed love: Heloise and Abelard, Antony and Cleopatra, Dante and Beatrice, Tristan and Isolde, Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley... okay, that last one might be a stretch. I suppose teachers could always draw upon the sorrow that Romeo and Juliet's families experience to negate any justification for the double-suicide. (Not to mention perhaps adding a mini-lecture on the pitfalls of impetuous decision making - if Romeo had just waited one second longer!)

Anyways, I'm not by any means trying to start a campaign for pulling R&J from classrooms (although I wonder how successful said campaign might turn out to be). I love Shakespeare and I love R&J. Artists aestheticize death and killing all the time. And I mean, we read Macbeth in high school as well and I know that it doesn't immediately follow that teaching it will cause kids to go out on a murderous rampage of politicians. Right? (Now, A Clockwork Orange - maybe.)

But I do think having teachers lecture teens on a play which romanticizes the suicides of its specifically teenage heroes is just a tiny bit funny.

IMAGE: "Antique key and metal heart on open book, close-up" by David Muir

Sunday, July 27, 2008

"O lady, my heart..."

Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind,
child of Zeus, who twist lures, I beg you
do not break with hard pains,
O lady, my heart

but come here if ever before
you caught my voice far off
and listening left your father's
golden house and came,

yoking your car. And fine birds brought you,
quick sparrows over the black earth
whipping their wings down the sky
through midair---

they arrived. But you, O blessed one,
smiled in your deathless face
and asked what (now again) I have suffered and why
(now again) I am calling out

and what I want to happen most of all
in my crazy heart. Whom should I persuade (now again)
to lead you back into her love? Who, O
Sappho, is wronging you?

For if she flees, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them.
If she does not love, soon she will love
even unwilling.

Come to me now: loose me from hard
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish. You
be my ally.

by Sappho (translated by Anne Carson)

IMAGE: "Woman wearing a black dress" by Bragi Thor Josefsson

Friday, July 25, 2008

Piles of Books & Puppets

The stacks of books lying around the apartment have been slowly growing and may become ridiculously numerous in the very near future as I just learned on Wednesday that I get a 50% off discount at the used bookstore I've been working at. Above are a few of the treasures I grabbed as soon as I found out about the discount. Among them are The DNA Dimension by Carol Matas, The Dying Earth by Jack Vance, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (a total perv, by the way), The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, and a Longman anthology of world literature.

Carol Matas is an old favorite. I still remember clearly the day in fourth grade when I pulled The Fusion Factor (disregard the "with reservation" comment at the end - even at 9 years old I had no difficulty comprehending the utter horror of nuclear war) at random off a shelf in my elementary school library. Along with Roald Dahl's The Witches and C.S. Lewis' Narnia series, it comprised the beginnings of my love for fantasy and science fiction. The Dying Earth has been on my Amazon WishList for so long that I can't remember why I added it - I think I was reading about great sci-fi classics and came across it. Hopefully it'll prove to be better then Vance's Big Planet - which I thought had horrible characterization. From what I've read about Faulkner I anticipate loathing The Sound and the Fury, but I could definitely be wrong (I anticipated loving Milan Kundera only to find him totally misogynistic and egotistical; I anticipated hating Anne Michaels and yet now Fugitive Pieces is possibly my favorite book of all time). In any case, I've heard mention of it so many times and have seen it feature on so many high school English teachers' lesson plans/curriculums now, that I've decided to suck it up and give it a try. As for the Longman, I've always liked anthologies of any kind - poems, short stories, plays, etc. And this one actually contains 11 novels/novellas, including The Metamorphosis - which will be my first introduction to Kafka. Plus, I've been reading a bunch of teachers' blogs lately and one, Hipteacher, kept mentioning World Literature classes that she has to teach. Since the extent of my exposure to World Lit in university has basically just been Canadian, American, and British I feel like I should start to broaden out on my own.

I've noticed that since I've started to read teacher blogs, I've begun to become considerably more nervous about the prospect. Previously I was simply worried that I'd be a bad teacher. And still am. But as I'm at least 3 years away from getting into an actual classroom, I'm a long way away from finding out whether that fear will turn out to be justified (but nevertheless I'm preparing a stratagem that I hope will help at least a bit). My new fear is that I won't be well-educated enough to be a good teacher, that all of the other teachers will have had more of a "classical" education then I'm getting in my undergrad degree, that my knowledge isn't going to be well-rounded enough, etc, etc. - basically, the fear that I'm not going to be "smart enough," that I won't be a brilliant teacher, just an average one. I think there are actually a lot of things I can do to counter both of these worries - read more about teaching, for one and do more volunteer work with youth, for another. I've picked teaching after so much indecisiveness and now that I've made a choice I'm going to do my best to throw myself into it.

On Wednesday I was at the store shelving Poetry, Local Authors, Literary Biographies, Prairie Fire, and a bunch of other sections (have I mentioned I really like jobs that involve me going through piles and piles of interesting books?) near the front entrance when a woman and her husband started chatting with me. It turned out they were both English teachers from BC and had dropped in to get some ideas as they're planning on opening their own used bookstore on Vancouver Island. The woman actually doesn't teach in the classroom anymore, but her husband does so she kind of shoved him at me so he could give me some ideas. However, he seemed really shy, and, being tired and covered in book dust, I wasn't in that talkative a mood even though I knew I was in the midst of a great opportunity. I was pretty much standing there racking my brain, trying to think up some intelligent questions to ask. Eventually we talked a bit about BEd's and since I said I was looking at options all over the country and the US, he and his wife recommended Malaspina (now the University of Vancouver Island).

He also said that when he started teaching he was completely and utterly terrible at it.

And since he absolutely refused to tell me why, I deduce that there must be some kind of interesting story behind it.

He's now over sixty, has been teaching for over thirty years, and loves it.

Hearing that a rough start isn't a sign of total doom is good to know.

(The finger puppets are lying out so that I remember to bring them along on Sunday when I go to see a weird Lovecraftian themed Fringe play. You get a discount if you bring your own puppet.)
"We must carry each other..."

“We must carry each other. If we don’t have this, what are we? The spirit in the body is like wine in a glass; when it spills, it seeps into air and earth and light… It’s a mistake to think it’s the small things we control and not the large, it’s the other way around! We can’t stop the small accident, the tiny detail that conspires into fate: the extra moment you run back for something forgotten, a moment that saves you from an accident – or causes one. But we can assert the largest order, the large human values daily, the only order large enough to see.”

from Anne Michael's Fugitive Pieces (p. 22)

1: Lodz Ghetto, child deportation (Wikipedia)
2: Nazi soldier laughing at Jews (United States Holocaust Memorial online archive)
3: "Austrian Nazis and local residents watch as Jews are forced to get on their hands and knees and scrub the pavement" (The History Place)
4: "Child prisoners at Auschwitz just after its liberation in 1945" (Source unknown, probably a Google image search)
5: Nazi soldiers, "Laughter lines the faces of camp staff as they prepare for a sing song" (United States Holocaust Memorial online archive)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Village

Ivy Walker: When we are married, will you dance with me? I find dancing very agreeable. Why can you not say what is in your head?

Lucius Hunt: Why can you not stop saying what is in yours? Why must you lead, when I want to lead? If I want to dance I will ask you to dance. If I want to speak I will open my mouth and speak. Everyone is forever plaguing me to speak further. Why? What good is it to tell you you are in my every thought from the time I wake? What good can come from my saying that I sometimes cannot think clearly or do my work properly? What gain can rise of my telling you the only time I feel fear as others do is when I think of you in harm? That is why I am on this porch, Ivy Walker. I fear for your safety before all others. And yes, I will dance with you on our wedding night.

from The Village (M. Night Shyamalan's best)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

"Altered beyond his knowledge"

"Captain Wentworth is not very gallant by you, Anne, though he was so attentive to me. Henrietta asked him what he thought of you, when they went away, and he said, `You were so altered he should not have known you again.'"

Mary had no feelings to make her respect her sister's in a common way, but she was perfectly unsuspicious of being inflicting any peculiar wound.

"Altered beyond his knowledge." Anne fully submitted, in silent, deep mortification. Doubtless it was so, and she could take no revenge, for he was not altered, or not for the worse. She had already acknowledged it to herself, and she could not think differently, let him think of her as he would. No: the years which had destroyed her youth and bloom had only given him a more glowing, manly, open look, in no respect lessening his personal advantages. She had seen the same Frederick Wentworth.

from Jane Austen's Persuasion (Penguin edition, p. 57)

IMAGE: Photograph by Robert Warren