Category Archives: Literature

A Journal of the Plague Year: #12

Jesus, I wish the sun would come back out. The weather is still shitty, and it is Monday, March 30, the day we would have returned to the classroom after Spring Break had we no pandemic. Even in the early stages, the first school closure only included the five school days preceding the break and a few days after, meaning that school would have resumed on April Fool’s day. Then, only a few days into our extended break, the school closure was extended for students in Oregon until April 28. I’m curious, and I honestly don’t know: are there any states in the Union that have not shuttered their schools? Thanks to this world wide web, and according to Education Week, 47 states have closed their schools. I am still trying to wrap my head around the strangeness of these crazy days, and the enormity of it all.

Tomorrow morning at 9:00, somehow, teachers will remotely converge into some kind of google hangout meeting with our principal. I’m trying to imagine a zoom meeting with 35 to 50 people all floating around on my computer screen. Or maybe it’s just that our leaders will simply address us while we sit at home listening or watching or both; maybe they’ll let us know what the next steps are and give us some tips about how to use our 6 hour work day and how to log those hours. At any rate, we’re going back to work, one way or another, tomorrow. It does not feel that way. Unreal. Surreal.

I have intermittently in my journal of the plague year made references to the numbers, as they climb, of cases and deaths in Oregon. Often, what immediately concerns us is what immediately surrounds us, and, in our case, we’re in danger of developing a false sense of security. Our numbers are relatively low, but still alarming, but not nearly as alarming as the numbers from our neighbors to the North and to the South. Looked at globally, the numbers are terrifying. And looked at comparatively, the numbers in the United States are also terrifying. Dr. Fauci, our voice of reason in these crazy times, predicts that the death toll in the United States alone could range anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 by the time this whole thing is over, and these numbers, I understand him to be saying, could be accurate even if we do everything right from here on out.

Taking a wide view and then narrowing it down, according to The Washington Post at one o’clock this afternoon, there are 766,336 known cases and 36,873 deaths caused by COVID-19 in the entire world. In the United States, respectively, those numbers are 153,246 and 2,828. And then according to KATU, a local news outlet, in Oregon, 606 cases, 16 deaths. Numbers are insufficient to tell any kind of story here about the pain and suffering caused by this pandemic. Most of us have trouble, perhaps, seeing it as more than a pain in the ass–but thousands upon thousand of lives have been devastated by it. It is incomprehensible. It is unfathomable. I can find no way to express a suitable response. So I turn to literature. And I go way back, all the way back to the 17th century to John Donne. Meditation 17:

Who casts not up his eye to the Sun when it rises? But who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.

Within Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, if one who is not necessarily religious can move a little bit away from all the God talk, or at least take the God talk in its broadest possible metaphorical sense, there is wisdom for the ages. To my knowledge, I don’t know personally a single soul who is ill with COVID-19 or who has died from it, but nevertheless, I feel diminished, I feel the earth is impoverished by the loss of every one of those “numbers.” The economy will one day recover, but those that are lost in this battle with coronavirus never can be recovered. So stay at home, damnit.

In closing, and back to the front, regarding teachers going back to work tomorrow without classrooms and without students, I think of this great poem by Marge Piercy, expressing for all educators this deepest hope that we can, in these the strangest of circumstances, continue “To be of use.” And it’s impossible not to think of our heroic health care workers on the front lines, “who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,/who do what has to be done, again and again.”

 

 

 

 

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #6

This morning (upon waking? in the shower? during meditation, while Sam Harris spoke to me about conscious awareness? over breakfast?), I found myself thinking Thoreau. Passages from Walden were emerging from the memory banks where favorite books are stored. It occurred to me that if one were to grab a classic from American Literature off the shelf that might be of great use during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be Walden. In particular, the section called “Solitude.” If there was ever a prince or a king of social distancing, it would be Henry David Thoreau. This particular passage comes to me first, as he imagines what he would say to those who question his nutty project of living in the woods alone for two years:

Men frequently say to me, “I should think you would feel lonesome down there, and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and nights especially.” I am tempted to reply to such,–This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?

As things get more and more serious we tend to be more and more careful, and the difficulty of today was in telling our son that it would be best if his friend did not come over. She lives right down the road, is more than likely practicing her own social distancing, is likely safe to have around–but at what point can you know with any certainty that someone outside your family, no matter how trusted, is not carrying this stupid virus? What chance are you willing to take? It appears, at least today, we’re not taking chances. We’re only eight days into this thing and the chances are that it will get worse and that this conversation will get harder and harder. Us married folks, especially us long-time married folks, take each other’s company for granted, I suppose. If we had to, it probably wouldn’t kill us to be apart, but we don’t have to, and so we have each other’s company all through this thing, a huge comfort. But if you’re young and smitten, think what the prospects of weeks away from your friend might signify! The bloody end of the world as we know it. You’ll have to settle for your parents! And for solitude.

I am, I would say, a social person in small doses. I love small, intimate gatherings but I loath crowded social events–and I do love solitude. Thoreau again:

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

I think that my son has inherited some of this from me. He’ll spend gobs of time in his room “alone.” Most of that time he is not really alone, occupied as he usually is with communications in real time with his gaming buddies. But when he practices his drumming, or when he does his homework, or when he reads, he seems content often to be alone. But this will be difficult and it will get more and more difficult. And my thoughts move from Thoreau to Rilke.  In his Letters to a Young Poet, offering more advice about loving and living than he ever gives about writing, he gifts to the young poet and subsequently the entire world that famous and absolutely incalculable good advice: Hold to the difficult. Today’s reading, not a poem but a piece of prose–from a poet, a selection I hope you find as comforting as I do in times of difficulty.

 

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The American English Teacher Rereads a Clean Copy of Beloved

I’ve posted a slightly different version of this piece before, two years ago and some change. It seems appropriate to post this revision now in honor of Toni Morrison, whose fiction has over the course of my adult life completely changed my heart and my brain in immeasurably powerful and positive ways.

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The American English Teacher Rereads a Clean Copy of Beloved

My classroom copy is copiously marked in three or four colors of highlighter and underlined and bracketed and annotated with pen and pencil seven different ways to Sunday. I’ve read and reread and reread this novel perhaps eight or nine times now, but this time I choose a clean, elegant copy over my raggedy-ass classroom copy and it’s like reading it for the first time again. I’m a sucker for fine editions and could not resist this one. I can smell the ink. I can feel the lettering engraved into the spine like braille, or like the text carved into a tombstone, Beloved. And my reading this time is not cluttered by my previous readings, marked up by some earlier version of me who thought he had answers. I complain sometimes about the time I lack to read new work because I am always rereading to teach. And yet, with this gem, I might be happy if it were the only book I could ever read until I died. Every time I read it I find new things to love and new reasons to mourn or hope, and I understand more deeply how tragic our history, how tenacious our ghosts, how all the repair work in our country that needs doing (now more than ever before) springs from this, from this.

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The Book I Read: The Trouble With Men, Indeed

Photo on 3-7-19 at 4.30 PM #2

In this fourth month of 2019 I am making good on two of my new year’s resolutions, one, to write more, and two, to read more. I begin this endeavor by writing a poem every day for a month, while simultaneously writing more about what I’m reading more. Let’s start with this. For me, there have become three kinds of reading:

  1. reading the stuff I’m teaching (over and over again, because I have never felt able to teach a book that I am not reading along with my students, no matter how well I know the work),
  2. reading for pleasure (a thing I’m rarely able to do because I’m spending so much time rereading in preparation for teaching, and, as good as I think I am at it, I am a slow reader), and
  3. fake reading (skimming articles on the web, posts on facebook, sneaky advertisements I happen to be interested in–all things that require little if any deep attention.

My new year’s resolution, more specifically, is to do more pleasure reading, less fake reading, but I’ll have to hold steady on the reading of literature I’m teaching, again, because I have to–not because anybody cares, but because I would not be able to teach it well otherwise. Maybe some people care about that, but no one’s checking in with me, if you know what I mean. It’s not likely that any kid or adult would EVER ask me, Mr. Jarmer, have you done the reading for today? No matter: I have done the reading.

It is my intention to start reviewing the books I read here (responding to, really: I don’t know anything about writing reviews). And I have landed on this title for a new series: “The Book I Read,” after the Talking Heads song. If you have never heard it, you’ve got homework before you read another word. ’77 was a good year.

At any rate, the first book I have read this year that I was not reading in preparation for teaching is The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power by David Shields.

I’ve read The Trouble with Men I think three times now. Like in his recent books, most notably Reality Hunger and Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump, David Shields has continued to carve out what seems to be a totally new genre of literary essay: the mosaic, the collage—a work that, while it features at its center the writer’s thesis and his anecdotes and evidences delivered in short micro-bursts of lively prose paragraphs, is surrounded by a swirl of other voices, quotes from the famous and un-famous, dead and alive alike, shedding light and perspective and support for and arguments against everything that the author says. It’s exhilarating. It’s like being at the best party ever, where the conversation is consistently scintillating, and no one is too drunk to drive.  While Reality Hunger challenged the primacy of fiction as a literary form, and Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump theorized about our president’s self-loathing, this book here is about sex. Well, it’s about much more than sex—as the subtitle suggests–it’s also about, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power, all words, though, still, considerably bound up with sex.

Framed as a weird kind of love letter to his wife, Shields explores all of these subtopics through the lens of his marriage and his sexual history and his sadomasochistic leanings. There’s danger here—which provides the dramatic tension—on a couple fronts. First, Shields indicates that his partner was less than enthusiastic about the book. “It’s so perfect that you don’t want me to write this book (because you don’t want to read it); therefore, I have to write it. So, too, if you were fine with me writing it, I’d have no desire to write it.” And two, it strikes me as dangerous because this is the stuff that everyone lives through, thinks about, and deals with, but that no one ever or rarely ever talks about. The book is an embodiment against the taboo of sexual discourse, and I find it challenging, brilliant, sometimes offensive, puzzling, brave, inspiring, and, obviously, worthy of rereading.

It is a book that defies summary, in part, because of its discursiveness. While each part of the book has its own title and seems to be organized around a theme, each paragraph will sometimes move in surprising directions, from, say, a childhood memory of his sister or his parents, to a quote from Susie Bright about pornography, to some commentary about a famous sportscaster, actor, athlete, to a direct address back to the “audience” of the work, his wife. In this way, the pieces of the mosaic are speaking to each other and even though to me sometimes the connections seem oblique, I am along for the ride the entire time. Reading Shields’ work is sometimes like channel surfing or having a dozen tabs open at once, and yet there’s method in’t. It just requires some attention–which is strange and paradoxical: we’re forced to move quickly from idea to idea, as many as eight to ten times on a single page, while simultaneously being asked to pay close attention.

I’m trying now, in conclusion, to say something sum-upish. How about a question or two or several that might approach the center of what I think this work is about: How well do our spouses or our romantic partners know us? How well do we know them? What secrets are we keeping? How vulnerable can we allow ourselves to be? What are the risks? While we long for intimacy, why do we have such difficulty achieving it? Why is it so difficult to talk about sex in this culture? What’s up with the uniquely American struggle between purity and perversity? Why so much shame and guilt? And perhaps, finally, what are the inter-relationships between sex, love, marriage, porn, and power? Can you have any of these without the others? What happens when sex is loveless, or when love is sexless, or when the question of power is absent from porn, or when porn is absent from love, marriage, sex? It’s becoming nonsensical. I guess the point is that none of these questions have easy answers, so perhaps the form Shields has chosen, the collage, the mosaic, is necessary, a multitude of voices between the same covers, in order to even begin to unlock these mysteries. Shields knows the topic is too grand to cover all by himself, so he invited a bunch of friends to help him out. I happen to be one of them, for which I am both grateful and mortified.

 

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: Kids These Days, Part the Third–On Being and Unbeing

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This is e. e. cummings

I’ve been writing lately about student behavior. In one blog I commiserated with my elementary school colleagues about young children who cause violent disruptions and I bemoaned the high school apathy I saw at my own school, and in another blog I wrote about surprising teenage shenanigans, you know, like bringing communion wafers to class. Today I want to write about an essay I’m studying with my 9th graders, an excerpt from “Nonlecture Two” by e. e. cummings. In this essay, cummings makes a number of assertions. One, that our idea of home is commensurate to our idea of privacy. Two, most of us have no conception of what privacy really is. Three, our “walls” are full of “holes.” Four (and there are more, but I want to linger here), we have difficulties being here, now, ourselves, and alone, in part, because we are terribly distracted beings, and here I have to quote directly and generously from the essay:

Why (you ask) should anyone want to be here, when (simply by pressing a button) anyone could be in fifty places at once? How could anyone want to be now, when anyone can go whening all over creation at the twist of a knob? What could induce anyone to desire aloneness, when billions of soi-disant dollars are mercifully squandered by a good and great government lest anyone anywhere should ever for a single instant be alone? As for being yourself–why on earth should you be yourself; when instead of being yourself you can be a hundred, or a thousand, or a hundred thousand thousand, other people? The very thought of being oneself in an epoch of interchangeable selves must appear supremely ridiculous.

Now, we’ve read a biographical sketch of our poet, and have read and probably even recorded the years during which cummings was alive. We’ve maybe even glossed over the publication date of this essay. But in our attempt at a close reading of this piece, that information does not resurface. Not right away. So here’s a tale of two different classes responding to the same text:

In my first period today, one student, in response to the above passage, in particular to the “pressing a button” and the “twist of a knob,” says, “He’s talking about our smart phones.” At this point in the discussion I am so excited that I can remember nothing of what was said afterwards verbatim, but I clearly remember talk about how our smart phones allow us to go “whening all over creation,” allow us to be “a hundred thousand thousand other people,” and perhaps most ominously, prevent us from being alone, from being and knowing ourselves. And I specifically remember the priceless look on another student’s face as she begins to understand. These moments are the moments I live for as a teacher. And when someone asks the question, “When was this piece written?” Our mouths all fall open with amazement when we remind ourselves that the book i: Six Nonlectures was published in 1953. The knobs and buttons cummings refers to are likely radio tuning knobs, rotary dials, and if one was lucky enough to have a television, the channel selector. The poet saw and (perhaps) exaggerated (maybe) the dangers of his technology but managed to predict with perfect precision the powers and the dangerous reality of our own. Our addictive use of smart phones epitomizes the point he’s making.

Second period. I try and fail to recreate the epiphany from the period before. I fail for a couple of reasons. First, I move against the tenets of this particular strategy that students must construct their own knowledge while the teacher simply records their observations, questions, and conclusions. Instead, I ask a guiding question: “Do you notice in this passage the images of pressing a button or twisting a knob?” Then I admit, “This absolutely blows my mind.” Then I follow up, having already established that the piece was published in 1953: “What knobs and buttons might he be referring to?” In response, students talk about their knowledge of 1950s technology, radio, maybe television. I ask another question: “What do you think of his claim that radio or television might be having these adverse effects on us? Why is your teacher blown away by this?” Crickets. And as I scan the room, I notice a different kind of failure: a number of kids, a much larger number than I would care to admit, stare intently at their smart phone screens. They are, in this moment, “whening all over creation,” distracted by others, being anybody else, incapable of being alone, incapable of grasping the fact that they are the subject and the object lesson of this essay. We are indeed in an “epoch of interchangeable selves.”

Five (I’m continuing here, with the list of the poet’s assertions): poetry is being, not doing. Six: and if you’d like, at whatever distance, to follow “the poet’s calling,”

you’ve got to come out of the measurable doing universe into the immeasurable house of being.

He continues with his seventh, eighth, and ninth assertions, expressed in these two glorious sentences:

I am quite aware that, wherever our so-called civilization has slithered, there’s every reward and no punishment for unbeing. But if poetry is your goal, you’ve got to forget all about punishments and all about rewards and all about self-styled obligations and duties and responsibilities etcetera ad infinitum and remember one thing only: that it’s you–nobody else–who determine your destiny and decide your fate.

I love it that he says that this is what you must do if poetry is your goal. I love that, because I don’t think it’s really what he means. Or, rather, he’s not being literal. Poetry is my life, or, poetry can be your life even if you never write a word! And that’s what my greatest hope is for my students, not that they run out the door with a burning desire to write poetry (although that would be nice), but rather, they live their lives as if they were poems, they recognize that poetry is being, that it’s difficult to be, much easier and “rewarding” to unbe, but that somehow they  gain the wherewithal and the self knowledge to regain their privacy, their aloneness, their sense of self-identity unclouded or polluted by the never-ending noise and distraction of the stupid smart phone, to determine their own destiny and fate so somebody else doesn’t do it for them.

 

 

 

 

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: It’s Raining and I’m Flying By the Seat of My Pants!

Yesterday I made a video blog so I could test my new microphone, and during part of my little talk there I kind of bemoaned the fact that it had been so long since my last entry, months, in fact. Afterwards, I was struck by this single observation: It took me three and a half minutes to make that video. I tried afterwards to see if I could do a better job, but the two takes I took after the initial one were disappointing. The one in which I flew by the seat of my pants was leagues better. I thought to myself, what if I flew by the seat of my pants more often? First take. No edits. No do-overs. So I tried it again today. This could become a thing.

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#306: Letters to His Sister (Point of View Cluster in Frankenstein)

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Q: Hey kids, what’s the point of view in this here novel? You know, who speaks and to whom are they speaking?

A: Well, Walton, he’s the speaker, and he’s writing letters to his sister. But at some point, Victor is speaking to Walton who is writing letters to his sister, but then, Elizabeth is speaking through a letter to Victor who is speaking to Walton who is writing letters to his sister, and then, at another point, Victor’s father Alphonse is speaking through a letter to Victor who is speaking to Walton who is writing letters to his sister, and then, still later, the monster is speaking to Victor who is relaying all of this to Walton who is writing letters to his sister. And Victor, of course, has a photographic memory, not a detail is omitted; and Walton, obviously, has serious-mad dictation skills, doesn’t miss a single beat in those letters to his sister.

 

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