Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Greek Drama

In my Classical Civilization course, I am currently teaching the unit on Greek drama. The origin of theatre (as we know it today) comes from the classical world. The original language of theatre used by the Greeks is still used today.

The word theatre, for example, comes from the Greek word “theatron” (i.e., "seeing place"), which was the original location for dramatic productions. A more archaic word for actors, “thespians”, comes from the Athenian “father of theatre” by the name of Thespis. Even the legendary trilogies of Star Wars, Back to the Future, Pirates of the Caribbean and Indiana Jones (soon to be a quadrilogy... or tetralogy...?), are throwbacks to the original trilogies of Greek drama. Greek plays were originally crafted as trilogies (e.g., Sophocles’s Oedipus trilogy: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone.) George Lucas et al are paying homage to the Greek forebearers of the craft of visual story telling.

The value of studying Greek drama goes beyond simply celebrating the origins of drama, theatre, movies or trilogies. There is a great deal to learn from the observations of the human condition made by the Greek playwrights. Greek tragedies and comedies essentially ask the question, “how shall we live?” How do we function as individuals in a society, in a civilization? Dr. Peter Leithart, Fellow of Literature at New St. Andrews College, writes this about Greek drama: “written against the background of Homeric heroism, tragedy raises questions about how human beings, with all their ambitions and love of preeminence, can live together in a cohesive community.” The same question can be asked today about modern civilization.

As I commented on Dr. Haykin’s blog on Euripides, perhaps the greatest benefit of studying Greek literature is that you can see where pre-Christian attempts at morality fail to fully meet the needs of human beings. There are unpredictable gods, who deal with humanity inconsistently and in terrifying ways; men are often doomed to hopeless and damning futures, arbitrarily determined by the Fates. You can also see where the Greeks get it right—through insightful and careful observation they come to understand the truth of the humanity condition espoused clearly in Scripture.

I am currently teaching Euripides’ The Bacchae, which (among other things) is about the clash between ordered civilization and Dionysian chaos. Dionysus is a vindictive and unpredictable god who tears down and unsettles human civilization; “terror” (not biblical fear) is the beginning of Dionysian wisdom. I am all the more thankful for the faithful, merciful and constant God of truth and wisdom. Our God does what He says He would do; He is unchanging! He is the God who “builds up” and “establishes” and “creates”… a God of order and peace.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

On writing poetry...

“It’s silly to suggest the writing of poetry as something ethereal, a sort of soul-crashing emotional experience that wrings you. I have no fancy ideas about poetry. It doesn’t come to you on the wings of a dove. It’s something you work hard at.”
---Louise Bogan

In the last post on What is Poetry?, I included Burton Raffel's definition for poetry as a "disciplined, compact verbal utterance, in some more or less musical mode, dealing with aspects of internal or external reality in some meaningful way." I think modern readers and writers of poetry have a hard time with the word "disciplined." Horace, the great Roman poet, writes, "Not gods, nor men, nor even booksellers have put up with poets being second-rate." Excellence doesn't simply occur; it is achieved. A poet must account for every jot and tittle in his poem. In poetry, there is no room for excess and overindulgence. Being concise takes discipline and hard work.

What is poetry?

What is poetry?

What is poetry? What is the difference between poetry and prose? What is prose, for that matter.

The first question to answer is the easiest: what is prose? Prose is “ordinary” and “straightforward” writing. The Oxford English Dictionary defines prose as “language in the form in which it is typically written (or spoken), usually characterized as having no deliberate metrical structure (in contrast with verse or poetry)” The word "prose" originates from the Latin “provertere” which means to turn forwards. In otherwords, prose is straightforward and clear. Examples of prose are novels, short stories, essays, plays, articles, speeches, dialogues, etc.. Unless you are reading a James Joyce novel, the language of the novel is clear and straightforward. One of the primary goals of a writer of prose is to clearly communicate ideas and events to the reader. If an essay is not clear, straightforward and direct, then it will receive a failing grade.

So what is poetry then? Poetry is “extraordinary” and “complex” writing. W. Somerset Maugham calls poetry “the crown of literature… It is the end and aim. It is the sublimest activity of the human mind. It is the achievement of beauty and delicacy. The writer of prose can only step aside when the poet passes.”

There is poetry in prose and prose in poetry. However, poetry stands distinct from all other forms of writing. Poetry is distinct historically. Poetry is the oldest form of human writing. For thousands of years, poetry was the means of human expression. Ancient epics like the Odyssey and the Iliad, both written in dactylic hexameter. Most of the pre-Socratic philosophers wrote in poetic form. Poetry remained paramount in the world of literature well into the 20th century.

However, the historical importance of poetry doesn't answer the question "What is poetry?" What is it about poetry that makes it so important and so distinct? Why is it “the sublimest activity of the human mind”? What is poetry?

The challenge in defining poetry is that poetry by its very nature defies “defining”—to define something means that you determine the boundary or limits of something. The OED uses the words “limit, restrict, confine.” If your defintion of poetry is too specific, too limiting, then it fails to capture the expansive nature of poetry. In order to “work” as a poem, poetry needs to defy the boundaries of ordinary language. I tell my students that poetry conveys more than words can tell. Where prose is limited to the literal and abstract meaning of words, poetry is able to pack incredible meaning and depth into the words, going beyond lexical meaning to higher levels of connotation and implication. In essence, poetry is compressed language. So much is packed into so little words. Delving into a good poem is like splitting an atom; the reader unleashes the power bundled up inside the words, commas and metaphors.

To try to define poetry is like trying to capture the wind. Once you “bag” the wind, it ceases to be “wind”. The answer to “What is Poetry?” must be broad enough to permit the creative and boundary-breaking aspects of great poetry. In his book, How to Read a Poem, Buron Raffel answers the question by defining poetry in the following way: “Poetry is a disciplined, compact verbal utterance, in some more or less musical mode, dealing with aspects of internal or external reality in some meaningful way.”

What is poetry? Raffel’s definition is the best I have ever come across. Many definitions are either too narrow (e.g., poems must rhyme) or the definitions use poetry to define poetry: take Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Perhaps more obscure is e.e. cummings’ definition of poetry; poetry is “the algebra of the heart”.

Even though Raffel’s definition is far more useful because it is written in prose, the poetic definitions seem to capture the essence more powerfully. Thomas Gray’s defines poetry as “thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.”

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Poetry: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Yesterday morning I began teaching poetry to my English students. I argue that poetry is the most powerful means of communicating the “human experience” to other human beings. Where prose “tells” and art “shows” and music “impresses” (i.e., gives an impression to the listener), poetry causes the reader to “experience”. Poetry is the “sublimest activity of the human mind” (W. Somerset Maugham). It shows, tells and impresses. Prose is enhanced when poetry is added. Art is deepened when poems are written about it. Music becomes powerfully meaningful when “put to words”.

This is a tough sell for many students. They have either read a lot of lousy poems or they didn’t understand the poems they have read. Also, students don’t associate the lyrics in a song with poetry nor do they recognize poetic elements in prose.

Yesterday, I tackled the first of the problems. I set out to prove that good poetry and bad poetry exist. This is a tough sell too. We live in a relativistic age; standards for beauty and goodness are set by the “eye of the beholder”, not a perfect, beautiful God of all creation. I begin with a comparison between two poems. I owe this comparison to author Patricia Westerhof.

The first poem is called, “Keep Believing in yourself” by Deanna Beisser. I have provided the opening three stanzas.

There may be days
when you get up in the morning
and things aren't the way
you had hoped they would be.

That's when you have to
tell yourself that things will get better.
There are times when people
disappoint you and let you down,

but those are the times
when you must remind yourself
to trust your own judgments and opinions,
to keep your life focused on believing in yourself
and all that you are capable of…

You get the gist. There are four more stanzas... It is a good message, but it comes across less like a poem and more like a speech by a motivational speaker.

The next poem I show them is a poem by Langston Hughes.

Mother to SonLangston Hughes

Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards all torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor-
But all the time
I'se been a climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes going in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps
'Cause you finds it kinder hard
Don't you fall now-
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

Without question, Hughes poem impacts the reader in a far deeper and more profound way. It presents the same message as Beisser’s poem, but it seems to “work”. I explain to my students that Hughes uses the devices of a poet to impact the reader. Here are some of the devices he uses: persona, vernacular, punctuation, rhythm, diction, apostrophes, line length, extended metaphor… Hughes poem is significantly shorter than Beisser’s poem. However, it communicates much more. Hughes poem is sincere. Beisser’s poem is sentimental. Hughes’ poem is influential, powerful and beautiful.

After yesterday’s lesson, I think the students understood that there are certain poems that are not sublime at all. They also learned that perhaps there are poems out there that just might be sublime... or at least, might be pretty good. I think I am making progress.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Elizabeth Code...

I recently watched the film, Elizabeth: The Golden Age. It was a dazzling film, filled with remarkable costumes, breath-taking sets, great performances and inspiring music—in other words, not a bad film. However, I couldn’t help but be disturbed by the underlying message of the film-makers. The movie was used as a political soapbox and historical allegory to attack recent British and American foreign policy. Am I reading into things too much? Am I cursed with an over-analytical “English major” mind? Let me tell you what I saw and you can be the judge…

All of the points below are “sort of” true… a dash of historical truth mixed a great deal of “updating”…

1) Elizabeth was presented as a promoter of 21st century tolerance. She accepts everyone, even the dread pirate Raleigh. She was also portrayed as a “modern”—i.e., subtlety cynical about traditions and religion.
2) Mary, Queen of Scots, on the other hand, was intolerant, power hungry and manipulative… and a devote Catholic.
3) Philip of Spain was also intolerant and portrayed as a religious nut who declares Roman Catholic “jihad” on England.
4) If Elizabeth had only been tolerant of those who differed with her, then there would be peace. Unfortunately, she executed Mary, Queen of Scots, for attempting to assassinate her… which ultimately precipitated the Spanish invasion.

The only glitch to this tidy recreation of events is the fact that Elizabeth wasn’t tolerant of the invading Spanish Armada. They had to include that part, though, because of the cool special effects. The role of God in the defeat of the Spanish Armada is also downplayed.

To sum up the hidden meaning... Christians a few centuries ago are just like Muslims terrorists today. Therefore, the US should abandon religious squabbles and be tolerant of different perspectives. Also, if the US would stop declaring revenge war on the Islamic extremists/fanatics, then maybe we could all get along… Lastly, the Spanish Armada can be seen as a metaphor for US military excess, especially in Iraq. They should stop that too.

The moral of the story is that "history repeats itself"---especially when a film-maker re-writes history to prove his point...

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Historical Ignorance

"History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." Winston Churchill

That may be true, but what if no one studies history...? Or worse, what if no one believes in history at all? I recently came across this article below (refered on Dr. Haykin's blog). Apparently one in four Britons do not believe Winston Churchill ever existed! Here is the article published on FOXNews.
One in four Britons don't believe wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill existed, according to a recent survey. Churchill is compared to Florence Nightingale and Sir Walter Raleigh, seen by many survey respondents as a mythical person, the London Daily Mail reported Monday. The survey, conducted with 3,000 respondents to test their general knowledge, reported other historical figures such as Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, Cleopatra and the Duke of Wellington were made up for books and films, the Mail reported. The survey, by UKTV Gold, also found that Sherlock Holmes was a real person. Young Britons under 20 lack a basic historical education according to the survey results, historian Correlli Barnett told the Daily Mail. "This suggests a complete lack of common sense and respect for our greatest heroes of the past," Barnett said.

This survey adds irony to Churchill's famous double imperative, "Study history! Study history!"

Renovated Blog

It's a whole new me. I finally figured out how to add "labels". I also added a MapLoco, which shows the places of visitors. (Thanks to bestsister)

Will I be posting more often...? Hard to say. The big question of the moment... Is the new earth tone colour scheme hard to read?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Reliving the Past

I have been slack on postings lately, and I was inspired by TV reruns. Check out these postings from bygone days (i.e., the last couple of years). I have been blogging since 2005 but I have yet to figure out how I can put posts into catergories... Anyway, take a look...

About Shakespeare:

Shakespeare the Pirate and pirating Shakespeare

Why Study Shakespeare

Shakespeare in the 21st century

About Literature:

Classics and the "Weak" student

Why teach kids about literature

On teaching English literature...

A comment about Fantasy and English classrooms

About writing:

Bacon, Chickens and the Art of Teaching Writing

The Art of Teaching Writing