Polish poet & Nobel Prize Winner, Wislawa Szymborska passed away on February 1st. I had been thinking about her poetry more as of late because of a creative writing class I was asked to guest lecture.
I had been trying to think of a challenging writing activity for the students–one that might expand their perspective. I immediately turned to Szymborska’s poetry, which as a younger woman, I had found not only challenging but rewarding and fertile with new ways to conceive of poetry, language, and everyday objects.
I vividly remember reading my first Szymborska poem, “Some Like Poetry” –for a high school English class, photocopied in a poetry packet alongside Seamus Heaney, Li Young-Lee, Keats, Wallace Stevens, and various other famous poets and chock full of regional New York writers–on the front porch of my grandmother’s house.
I feel fortunate to have encountered her poetry early in my life and I continually recommend her to others. The poem I introduced to the creative writing class was “On Death, Without Exaggeration.” A poem that endows an abstract concept, like Death, with a personality that is at once knowable or understandable. Death is depicted as a blundering serial killer who is often, an inept failure who “halfheartedly” works. I read the poem aloud to them and then challenged the students to give something abstract a personality or characteristics so that the reader might gain a different idea about that particular concept/abstraction. I was quite pleased with the results of the activity (plenty of them wrote about hate, love, and truth but a number of them choose difficult abstractions like peace & solitude). I hope I encouraged more readers of her poetry and would urge you, if you have not already encountered her work to seek it out.
I, for one, look forward to her last book of poems–to be published later this year (according to the BBC’s obituary & interview with Mr. Rusinek).
Throughout my summer reading (geared ever onward to my dissertation) I have encountered a number of modern texts that eerily critique the very issues & questions we grapple with as scholars today.
Wyndham Lewis Portraits, National Portrait Gallery's excellent catalogue
One such text is Ezra Pound’s How to Read (which I think every graduate student of English should crack open despite their fields of study). At times I found myself agreeing with Pound, especially when he champions a pedagogical method against rote memorization: “We are not asked to memorize a list of the parts of a side-wheeler engine” (12), for example. Pound advocates that we study literature “with a little of the common sense that we currently apply to physics or biology” (12). His argument reaches its zenith when Pound decries that the study of literature is “designated…to draw the mind of the student away from literature into inanity” (15). Wait a minute! Void, empty, vain…the study of literature? Pound’s penultimate question surfaces, “Why Books?” (15).
Why indeed? I think we all arrive at our own answer–often they seem a bit abstract or general. Pound offers a few speculative answers for his reader (that also seem like generalizations): literature is a “refining influence,” it “incite[s] humanity to continue living,” it offers “clarity” and “vigour” (15, 16, 17).
For me, this raises another important question–one that I must research–when did the study of literature emerge? And why? What cultural/political/historical events or inventions might’ve influenced the university/academe to include literature into its curricula?
Any thoughts, comments, or suggestions for reading?
On a happier (tangential) note, I just received my copy of the National Portrait Gallery’s catalog of their exhibit on Lewis’s portraits. The book includes a concise chronology of Lewis, introductory essays by Paul Edwards, and blurbs that poignantly and precisely summarize each portrait and subject. I highly recommend it!
What a busy summer it is turning out to be! I am teaching a class, just finished my “16 Days of Bloom” challenge, and I have begun work on my prospectus.
Day One: Shadowbox Collage
What are the “16 Days of Bloom”? It was a creative challenge I set for myself this year. From June 1st to the 16th I created one new Joyce inspired piece of work a day. Here’s a Bloomsday postcard (Steampunk Joyce Postcard Final) I made that you can download.
This year I also attended my first Joyce conference! I presented my paper (“Education is all very fine and large….”: James Joyce’s Scenes of Teaching) for the North American James Joyce Conference in Pasadena. The experience was truly invigorating.
I will be presenting a paper (for which I won a graduate student prize) in September at the International Rebecca West Society’s Bi-Annual Conference at Baruch College in New York. My paper is titled, “‘Giving Passion to the Spectacle’: Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier & Its Ballet Adaptation.”