Bread and Change

February 15, 2012

The rhythm and pulse of a community are expressed in speech. To speak that language in that tempo is part of what it means to belong. As a young girl bemoaning her lack of southern accent, I’m pretty sure I attempted to express this sentiment more than once. That being said, John Steinbeck does it so much more eloquently in Travels with Charley. Take a look:

Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident or human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.

I who love words and the endless possibility of words am saddened by this inevitability. For with local accent will disappear local tempo. The idioms, the figures of speech that make language rich and full of poetry of place and time must go. And in their place will be a national speech, wrapped and packaged, standard and tasteless….What I am mourning is perhaps not worth saving, but I regret its loss nevertheless.

Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days…and that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance. It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better. But it is true that we have exchanged corpulence for starvation, and either one will kill us. The lines of change are down. We, or at least I, can have no conception of human life and human thought in a hundred years or fifty years. Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know. The sad ones are those who waste their energy in trying to hold it back, for they can only feel bitterness in loss and no joy in gain. (83)

“The endless possibility of words” would be a beautiful motto. (On the other hand, “I do not know” would be a far more accurate one.)


Three Trees on the Low Sky

December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Sesshū's (1420-1506) "Winter Landscape."

The Journey of the Magi
T.S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

3 Days of Holiday Poetry

December 24, 2011

I apologize: the twelve- (then eleven-) days model died rather quickly. Accept, from remorse, a subpenultimate Christmas poem.

The House of Christmas
G.K. Chesterton

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

Holiday Poetry for Day 11

December 15, 2011

To give the holiday fortnight a poetic note, I’d like to share some of my favorite Christmas poems with you. First is a poem with a captivating rhythm and powerful words. Read it aloud — in my opinion, that’s the best way to experience it.

Illustration by Frederic B. Schell

Ring Out, Wild Bells
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

What are some of your favorite holiday poems?

(Just because)

November 13, 2011

…and then this happened.

Feminist Ryan Gosling.

My life will never be the same.

Reading and Return

October 6, 2011

When a conversation turns to politics, or religion, or any of the other taboo subjects known to produce ire and dispel good humor, the tone in a room changes perceptibly. Longer pauses precede speech for some; others begin to flush. Air passageways constrict, and feet shuffle on the floor. Without needing to be told, everyone present knows that the stakes have risen.

I found myself thinking of this scenario when I was reading a passage from Virginia Woolf’s essay, “How Should One Read a Book?” Take a look:

Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticise at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this, and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite. (CR2 259, emphasis mine)

I love Woolf’s advice in the middle of this passage. In her vision, to read is to open yourself to the mind of another. The subject matter may be just as sensitive and controversial as the conversation I described, but something about the form of a book differentiates the two scenarios.

In a conversation, you have one chance at a particular encounter, a particular moment in the conversation — one chance, as it were, to say the right thing. You can cycle back to the same topic again, but the encounter is not the same. (Thus, the air of hesitancy or of reckless abandon: the first response is crucial and irrevocable.)

In contrast, the beauty of a book is the ability to return and revisit an idea exactly as it was. You will have changed, your response to the ideas having been modified by what you have read and seen since your first encounter, but the text of the book remains the same.

The implication is that a book provides a safe venue in which to encounter ideas wholly outside your comfortable paradigm. It is safe to open yourself to an author in the manner Woolf describes, because you can read the book a second time, with a critical eye. You can accept the author’s preconceptions and presumptions on their own terms, then return to question their merits.

As a result, you can identify the pathos in Shakespeare’s greatest villains. You can appreciate Machiavelli’s subtlety and pragmatism. You can read Kipling and Orwell alongside Coetzee and Rushdie. You can suspend judgment long enough to see, as Woolf writes, “signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, [which] bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other.”

However, if this type of encounter remains possible only with a book or a fictionalized narrator, then the promise of literature is a weak one.

Rather, my hope is that our practices of reading could begin to translate to our practices of encountering others and other ideas. Although I have made the claim that a one-to-one comparison is impossible, I believe we gain something when we train ourselves to read for “signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness.” Literary encounters could serve as “training wheels” for the encounters in which we must meld critical thinking and openness, wisdom and empathy.


On Leave in Books

March 11, 2011

My apologies for the recent dearth of posts. I’m currently writing my Masters’ thesis and haven’t had much time for extra writing. I should be back in a little over a month.  In the meantime, I leave you with this somewhat appropriate poem by John Donne. Enjoy!

Valediction to His Book

by John Donne

I’LL tell thee now (dear love) what thou shalt do
To anger destiny, as she doth us ;
How I shall stay, though she eloign me thus,
And how posterity shall know it too ;
How thine may out-endure
Sibyl’s glory, and obscure
Her who from Pindar could allure,
And her, through whose help Lucan is not lame,
And her, whose book (they say) Homer did find, and name.

Study our manuscripts, those myriads
Of letters, which have past ‘twixt thee and me ;
Thence write our annals, and in them will be
To all whom love’s subliming fire invades,
Rule and example found ;
There the faith of any ground
No schismatic will dare to wound,
That sees, how Love this grace to us affords,
To make, to keep, to use, to be these his records.

This book, as long-lived as the elements,
Or as the world’s form, this all-gravèd tome
In cypher writ, or new made idiom ;
We for Love’s clergy only are instruments ;
When this book is made thus,
Should again the ravenous
Vandals and Goths invade us,
Learning were safe ; in this our universe,
Schools might learn sciences, spheres music, angels verse.

Here Love’s divines—since all divinity
Is love or wonder—may find all they seek,
Whether abstract spiritual love they like,
Their souls exhaled with what they do not see ;
Or, loth so to amuse
Faith’s infirmity, they choose
Something which they may see and use ;
For, though mind be the heaven, where love doth sit,
Beauty a convenient type may be to figure it.

Here more than in their books may lawyers find,
Both by what titles mistresses are ours,
And how prerogative these states devours,
Transferr’d from Love himself, to womankind ;
Who, though from heart and eyes,
They exact great subsidies,
Forsake him who on them relies ;
And for the cause, honour, or conscience give ;
Chimeras vain as they or their prerogative.

Here statesmen—or of them, they which can read—
May of their occupation find the grounds ;
Love, and their art, alike it deadly wounds,
If to consider what ’tis, one proceed.
In both they do excel
Who the present govern well,
Whose weakness none doth, or dares tell ;
In this thy book, such will there something see,
As in the Bible some can find out alchemy.

Thus vent thy thoughts ; abroad I’ll study thee,
As he removes far off, that great heights takes ;
How great love is, presence best trial makes,
But absence tries how long this love will be ;
To take a latitude
Sun, or stars, are fitliest view’d
At their brightest, but to conclude
Of longitudes, what other way have we,
But to mark when and where the dark eclipses be?

Source: Donne, John. Poems of John Donne. vol I.  Ed. E. K. Chambers. London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896. 30-32. Accessed from