Opportunity for Fresno Artists and Writers to Publish!

Chicano Writers and Artists Association Seeking Submissions for Reborn Journal

Attention Fresno and Central Valley writers and artists: The Chicano Writers and Artists Association is accepting all original submissions for its re-surging literary and art journal, Flies, Cockroaches, and Poets, a multimedia collective focused on issues of social justice, social awareness, and multiculturalism.

The journal is accepting submissions from multiple genres including prose (creative fiction, creative non-fiction, scholarly writing, etc.), poetry, and visual art.

If you wish to submit any of your original work for consideration, please send an email with the appropriate attachments to cwaasubmissions@gmail.com. Guidelines for submissions in the genre(s) of your choice are in the graphic below. You may contact me with any questions, and I will forward your information to the appropriate channels if I can’t answer your question myself.

The Momentum of Image in Yeats’ “The Second Coming”

The Momentum of Image in Yeats’ “The Second Coming”

(the full text of the poem can be found here, at the end of this post)

We have a tendency to want to categorize things in clear-cut groups; being able to classify something gives us a way of understanding and talking about concepts that may otherwise seem convoluted. Literature is no exception to this rule (literary periods in particular). My reading of Yeats places him as somewhat of an enigma in terms of categories: much of Yeats’ poetry is clearly influenced by the Romantics while at once is reminiscent of Victorian literature. So even though “The Second Coming” was written during the Modern period of British Literature, that doesn’t mean that it does not or cannot share some of the themes that were dominant in preceding periods like Victorian literature, namely spiritual crisis and a sense of uncertainty or doubt about ones place in the world. The open lines “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” precisely expresses a sense of uncertainty, inconstancy, and spiritual crisis, but the image of the “widening gyre” pushes the poem beyond mere uncertainty (1-3).

The gyre image—the first and primary image of the poem—pushes the tone of the poem beyond that of mere uncertainty, and it accomplishes this by illustrating how a sense of understanding or connection with the divine is cyclical in nature. In order for the image to work in this way, however, one must stipulate that the title of the poem, “The Second Coming,” immediately invokes a Christian presence in the text (which is not beyond reason). If the title weren’t enough, the second line supports this as perhaps the “falcon” that “cannot hear the falconer” is a metaphor for the current spiritual crisis of Yeats’ time; the falcon (humankind) cannot hear the falconer (Christ). This sense of disconnection with the divine is certainly an echo from late Victorian sentiments, not unlike Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” but Yeats has history beyond that of the Victorians to which he’s responding: World War I provides Yeats with physical and perhaps moral evidence that there must be some sort of disconnect between humankind and the divine. With images like “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned” it is impossible not to think of trench warfare and hear to “Mars” from The Planets by Gustav Holsts embedded somewhere between these lines (5-6). The second half of the first stanza informs attitudes in the first half of the stanza: the falcon clearly cannot hear the falconer because World War I just happened. This is the part of the gyre that is losing energy, the centre that cannot hold.

In the second stanza, the gyre image illustrates another period where there was perhaps a spiritual shift, but another stipulation is required here. “A shape with lion body and the head of a man” is unescapably a reference to the Sphinx, and given the overall dark tone of the poem, it is most likely that it is the Greek (Chthonic) version of the Sphinx, not the Egyptian (protective) version of the Sphinx to which Yeats refers (14). Granted that stipulation, another reference comes to light—and I may be reaching here—but the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the Greek Sphinx is the Sphinx’s defeater: Oedipus Rex. In that narrative, there is a symbolic transition from a world dominated by Chthonic forces like the Sphinx to a world dominated by the Greek pantheon at most, humankind at least. It’s another transition, another gyre that has lost momentum on one front while at the same time gains momentum on another front. The Sphinx’s inanition illustrated by the lines “A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, / Is moving its slow thighs” supports this stipulation as well (15-16). So now, after “twenty centuries of stony sleep,” we’re left to wonder where the momentum of the widening gyre will take us (19). As far as “The Second Coming” is concerned, the future looks even bleaker than Hardy’s where there is at least “some blessed hope” (“The Darkling Thrush” 31). Indeed things fall apart, and it is clear that at least part of Post-World War I Yeats had his doubts about a glorious second coming of Christ. No, it seems like a more Chthonic Anti-Christ is on its way, and—sadly—he turned out to be right. It came in the form of World War II.

The Second Coming Word Cloud

The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

*The 18th line is often printed as the beginning of a 3rd stanza, but The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats edited by Finneran prints lines 9-22 as a single stanza, and given that Finneran is a well respected scholar of Yeats, I trust his delineation.

On Teaching Literature, Perception, and Bloom’s Taxonomy

I was recently asked to write a paper where I was to reflect on several works from ancient literature while at the same time analyze my own reflections, the goal being to gain some sense of understanding as to what sort of reader I am. In this, I asked myself several questions: Do I tend to read as a man? An American man? A 21st century American man? Further, what does it mean to be a reader within those perceptions? Ultimately, I found that if I read with an awareness of my own perceptions, I was more easily able to step outside of my own perceptive bubble and read from a point of view that was outside of myself, and this leads to the one thing I would take—if limited to only one thing—from my entire undergraduate study: never allow oneself to become a victim of one’s own perceptions. This approach to reading and writing goes hand-in-hand with an approach to teaching literature—where one does not allow one’s own perceptions to influence how they teach a work of literature, and this completes a sort of trifecta or hat trick of literature studies.

What I have found occur time and time again during my time observing the teaching of literature in English 102 is a smooth movement up and down the pyramid of Bloom’s Taxonomy which allowed students to discover how and which puzzle pieces of the literature fit into their minds in a way that was relevant to their own lives. What I most appreciate about this approach is that students get to navigate their way up the pyramid without being encumbered by a teacher’s own perspective. Bloom's Taxonomy. Image courtesy of http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/bloom.html Now Bloom’s Taxonomy might be considered “dated” by some (one would be using Bloom’s Taxonomy in order to make that evaluation), but I would like to stress that what I have seen is, as mentioned, a smooth movement: here, Bloom was used more as a guiding principal than a steadfast rule where the blueprint was always to move from knowledge to comprehension to application and so on. Additionally, I have found that this schema worked on multiple levels: each text was approached in a way where every level of the taxonomy was hit, and the over-arching structure of the course was shaped in a way that reflected the taxonomy as well.

Instruction in each individual class and with each individual text can certainly reflect the movement up Bloom’s Taxonomy to great effect. “General comments, questions, or thoughts [on the material]” is the phrase that begins the journey up the pyramid where students often tread ground between knowledge and comprehension, and often times—like coming up with a 7 in the first roll at Craps—the payoff is that the comments, questions, and thoughts provide a roadmap for the class discussion of that day. Navigating this area of the pyramid is a critical step no matter what level of reader one is. Acknowledging my own perspective as a literary scholar, I realize that my tendency is to skip over the significance of some plot details and immediately jump to the analytical and theoretical side, and this has potential to leave holes in my analyses. From the perspective of a reader who is not necessarily a literary scholar, it is important to acknowledge and comprehend what the literature is saying in order to get to the analytical level. So starting each class with the mindset of discovering what the text is “saying” is an absolutely crucial step toward discovering what the text is “doing.” Once the “saying” portion of the class passes, the question “What do we do with this?” generally allowed students to begin their way further up the pyramid: some students find a niche at the level of application and analysis while others spend more time with synthesis or evaluation. Even though the levels of the pyramid at which students discuss the text vary from student to student, day to day, the overall trend is definitely upward.

Also to great effect is the reflection of the pyramid at the course level with the end of the semester resulting in a project focused on synthesis and evaluation, and I believe this strategy leaves students with the feeling that—because they have been able to synthesize ideas from the literature into something new that has kinship with who they are as individuals—literature is applicable to their own lives in the present. The base of this pyramid lies in the daily journal entries that are required for each reading. This is a perfect way for students to maintain their footing at the knowledge, comprehension, and application levels. The prescriptive element of the journal requirement also has the added bonus of encouraging students to read with purpose and, perhaps, take steps outside of their own perceptions (each journal entry required students to address their expectations of the texts followed by whether or not those expectations were met, challenged, etc., and why). Prompt-driven course papers clearly force students to spend time treading the level of analysis, an important (albeit sometimes painful) step in helping students understand the place of literature in its own time and culture as well as the student’s own. Organizing the materials in sub-units that have thematic ties also provide a way for students to make analytical connections to related texts. Finally, the final project to create a new adaptation based on any selection of literature that was read throughout the course clearly has students transgress into the levels of synthesis and evaluation.

From my point of view, this three-layered use of the pyramid was ultimately successful, and this strategy will greatly influence how I structure any course of literature that I may have the pleasure of teaching in the future. Every day of class, every overall discussion of each individual text, and the overall course worked toward an upward trend on Bloom’s Taxonomy to great effect: the synthesis and judgment portions of the taxonomy allow the perceptions of both teachers and students to grow; in this way, Bloom’s Taxonomy has in itself built in the potential to challenge and expand one’s own perceptions. The new meanings generated by the class in the final project allowed the students to walk away with the notion that literature has the potential to renew itself throughout time in the hands of thoughtful readers, so there’s no reason to ignore a corpus of literature even if it’s from a different time, a different country, or a different perspective. That is what teaching, learning, and experiencing literature is all about, is it not?

On Teaching Shakespeare – Freytag and Nunn for Them, Bloom for Me, and Growth for Us

The Setup

What to Give First (if anything)

Shakespeare is for everyone, and we are all valid interpreters. Those are the two things, if anything, I wish for the students of my Shakespeare unit in English 102 to take away. In a previous post, I wrote about the place of literary devices in the literary discourse of a classroom and the question as to whether or not students should be made aware of certain literary devices being used in a text before they are assigned to read the text. In planning my unit on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, this question played a big role in how I ultimately decided to frame the unit. For the most part, I believe I was loyal to what I anticipated with my previous post. In order to avoid the risk of corrupting the students’ initial reading of Twelfth Night, I decided just to have them read the first two acts of the play without any introduction to Shakespeare or reading plays in general, knowing that I would later supplement their individual reading with the larger class discussion and with modes one may use to gain insight into drama.

The Challenge

Introduce Shakespeare and Instill Confidence

The idea here isn’t to make anyone an expert on Shakespeare: The idea is to allow the students a way to prove to themselves that they can both read and enjoy Shakespeare. Of course the circumstances behind teaching this unit must come in to play; English 102 is not a Shakespeare class nor is it a class for English majors. It is an upper-division general education class, which means there are students from different majors of different colleges of the university. The great advantage to this is the extremely diverse educational background that these junior and senior level students bring to the table. The challenge is that the terrain of discourse in a classroom of literature is, at times, unfamiliar territory. Additionally, this is Shakespeare we’re talking about, so not only is the terrain unfamiliar, but it’s unfamiliar grounds in a country (and time) that isn’t even their own. In the beginning, the modern-day English scholar has a level of familiarity that is once-removed: they have an idea of the discourse, but the terrain of time between the language of Shakespeare and their own is challenging if not intimidating. These students face a level of familiarity that is removed two-fold. But that doesn’t matter. They are just as valid interpreters as any English major. I know this. Professors know this. The challenge is getting them to believe in it. And I only had three 1-hour class sessions to cover the text of the play.

Day One | The Introduction and Act 1

Shakespeare’s plays are applicable to all cultures and languages throughout time, and they are thus because they respond to issues that concern the human condition. This is what makes Shakespeare great and worthy of study over four hundred years after his plays were performed for the first time. In order to convey this idea to the students, I could not help but to try and do justice to some of my favorite Shakespearean moments from plays outside of Twelfth Night. That’s why, before I said anything to the class on Day 1, I chose to read the “All the world’s a stage” monologue from As You Like It.

This method of delivery served our purpose in three ways: It caught the students’ attention, it gave the students an opportunity to hear Shakespeare instead of just read the words on the page, and it gave us an easy way to hook in to the human-condition aspect of Shakespeare. After I read Jaques’ speech, I asked the class what they thought about it, and we briefly discussed what we all thought it meant (even outside of the context of the play). It was especially helpful that several of the students had interpretations that were both insightful and “accurate,” or perhaps “on the page” or even “on the mark” are better phrases. Next, I read the climax from Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice’s great speech where she says that she “cannot be a man with wishing” and therefore “will die a woman with grieving.” A similar class discussion followed; this time, we concluded that Shakespeare seems to express concern about issues surrounding women and what power they have (or lack) in their culture. Finally, I read briefly from The Tempest where Prospero decides to give up his “art,” concluding that “the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” With these speeches, we found concern for life and death, one’s place and power in culture, and virtue. The surface of Shakespeare had been scratched, and students were already actively engaged.

On to Act 1 of Twelfth Night itself, I knew that digging through the language of Shakespeare would be our biggest challenge, and I had to be diligent in reminding myself that my task was not to make anyone an expert on the play. I wanted to stay lower on Bloom’s Taxonomy for most of the unit, and when we only had the first act to deal with, going scene by scene and outlining the plot in a question-answer mode worked well. In fact, it worked so well that I thought I would be able to get away with the same mode for Acts II and III, which I later discovered was a mistake. “Okay, so Act 1 Scene 1: what happens here? Okay, now Act 1 Scene 2: what happens here?” All I was looking for here was to see if the students were getting the language and discovering the fundamental plot elements, introduction of characters, their motivations, etc. As time ran short, we weren’t able to finish the first act, making the next day even more difficult.

Day Two | Way Too Much

In accordance with my idea on providing a rhetorical framework after the students had been initially exposed to the material, I knew that I wanted to talk about dramatic structure on the second day. This would give us a mode to discuss what happened in Act 1 from the previous day, what is happening in Acts 2 and 3 on the current day, and what to expect from Acts 4 and 5. The trouble is that I had to finish going through Act 1, discuss Freytag’s Pyramid as it pertains to the five-act play, and somehow plow through the plot of Acts 2 and 3. Needless to say, the question-answer mode of “What happens in Act 2 Scene 2” etc. didn’t quite work as well. I was later made aware that the students may have been reticent to respond to those questions because they felt I was asking for a yes/no type of answer as opposed to an interpretative answer; therefore, they did not want to speak for fear of not giving the “right” answer. Surprisingly enough, however, we were able to trace a sort of circumference around the plot of the first three acts as well as see how they plugged into Freytag’s Pyramid. Of course, all of this discussion was underscored by looking at specific characters, their motivations and choices, and the consequences thereof (which, naturally, both reveal and drive the plot, which drives the drama in question). Under ideal circumstances, I would have preferred to spend an hour class session each for Acts 2 and 3, given that they are the most complex acts of the play, but given the constraints of the course, it was time well-spent, even if we tried to cover too much in one day.

Day Three | Bringing it Together

I have to thank Professor Jenkins for this one: in her response to my concern regarding the class’ hesitancy in responding to my plot-driven questions, she suggested that I try splitting the class into groups and asking them to identify what they felt were “key moments” in the closing acts. At some point, I had neglected to include one of the basic tenants of our craft in a classroom environment, that we were not yes/no communities but interpretative communities. This mode of group-work allowed the class to get back to the interpretative mode, and–ideally–they would be able to use the rhetorical tools with which I had provided (like Freytag’s Pyramid), to fuel their interpretations.

I was not surprised yet pleased when, as we brought things back to the class at large, the students as groups all highlighted great key moments which gave us a way to chart the plot on the whiteboard. Once the course was charted, we were able to navigate the play as a whole and discuss the broader themes relating to the human condition aspect from my introduction–life and death and the place and power of certain people in their culture (namely women here). We missed virtue as a class, but my hope is that they saw that theme illustrated in the play’s play-within-a-play between Sir Toby/Sir Andrew/Maria/Feste vs. Malvolio.

Moving Up the Taxonomy

Beyond Plot and “Saying it Back”

In order to give students the confidence in the knowledge that they could definitely pick up Shakespeare and read him on their own, I felt it was important to move beyond knowledge and comprehension. Those levels were my goals from the reading of the text. The format of the class provided me with a great opportunity to take our reading of Twelfth Night to another level though. In watching Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night (1996) and with the classes built-in journal entry requirements, I had the students watch for and write about film-making choices they felt stood out or found interesting when held against their own ideas of the text. This gave them a way to analyze and interpret someone else’s adaptation of the play, which I felt marched beyond knowledge and comprehension and into application and analysis.

Further, Professor Jenkins showed the class She’s the Man (Fickman, 2006), which is not an adaptation of Twelfth Night but an interpretation. Here, the students were responding to someone’s interpretation of the play, which moves even closer to synthesis and evaluation in that they’re discussing someone else’s synthesis of Twelfth Night.

The Response

The goal of the course is to expose students to pieces of literature that they would likely otherwise not see and–perhaps–show them how Masterpieces of British Literature can be relevant in their lives. Several students came to me individually and said they liked the play and enjoyed watching the films, and the general consensus of the class is that they “got it” especially after having viewed the new interpretation of Twelfth Night in the form of She’s the Man. Admittedly, I was surprised that She’s the Man forced me to look at Twelfth Night in new ways myself. Given the general responses of the class, I believe the strategy of letting hermeneutics unfold organically was, for the most part, a success.

Multiple Interpretations of Hamlet

For CSUF English 102 Students and Casual Passerbys

From perhaps the most famous passage in all of Shakespeare, here is a clip that combines multiple interpretations of Hamlet’s third soliloquy, the “To be or not to be” speech. Note the similarities and the differences between the scenes. You may find a transcript of the Hamlet’s Third Soliloquy at the end of this post.

A point of interest in this soliloquy tends to be the debate over if this passage truly reflects Hamlet’s struggle of whether or not he should commit suicide. For my part, I really do think that is but one of Hamlet’s considerations, but I think there’s much more going on here than that. This is one of the things that makes this particular clip compelling: I think one can get a sense of which actors and directors want to emphasize the suicidal aspect of the soliloquy while others have opted to “read” Hamlet with a different emphasis, and here’s the fun part (or the hard part…): each one of these interpretations has merit, even the parody! So here are some questions for your own consideration and reflection:

  • Which scene(s) do you think emphasize(s) Hamlet’s inner-struggle with suicide?
  • Which scene(s) seem(s) to be emphasizing something else?
  • What is it about the setting, the acting, the lighting, etc., lends each segment to various interpretations?

The same questions can be asked between the multitudes of any Shakespeare productions including the “inspired by…” interpretations i.e. Twelfth Night the text itself, Trevor Nunn’s Film (1999), and She’s the Man (Fickman 2006). What from Twelfth Night do you think Trevor Nunn is trying to emphasize? What from Twelfth Night do you think Fickman is trying to emphasize with She’s the Man?

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. (III.i.58-90)

The English 102 Project | Literary Devices

On Explaining Literary Devices
either Before or After Reading the Text

Looking Back…

The first night in my most recent creative writing class (English 161: Advanced Poetry Writing), the professor dedicated the entire class—all three hours—to an abridged lesson in grammar with a special emphasis on the independent clause. At first, I was a little perplexed as to why we would be spending so much time in an upper-division writing class on things so fundamental. Surely, at this level, we all knew what constitutes a complete sentence and how to punctuate between multiple independent clauses in a single sentence. To my surprise, most of the class was at a loss when it came to commas and coordinating conjunctions, semicolons, colons, and dashes. Then I thought about it: had I not been a writing tutor for the last several semesters, I probably would not have known the concrete differences between those modes either. We began that class making sure that the primary tools with which we would use to express ourselves were well understood by all. Once those tools are acquired and widely used, it becomes easy to take your craft for granted—this is why it’s of paramount importance to discuss the tools of literary discourse both in advance and as they come up in the literature itself.

Looking Now…

For me, the question becomes to what degree should literary students be given a “heads up” when it comes to the rhetorical content of the literature they’re about to read. For example, in English 102 we lately read “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. On the one hand, I wonder if it would have been a good idea to explain the concept of irony before they read the text. On the other hand, this would have risked corrupting the reading experience for the students because, chances are, they would have been so focused on finding examples of irony that the rest of the piece would have sat on the back burner. The next option would have been to discuss the concept of irony as it came up during the discussion in class. The immediate temptation would have been to ask, “Does anybody see the irony with the narrator, being a runaway slave, giving this speech at Pilgrim’s Point?” Now if Alanis Morissette and the mainstream media are any proof, the general population has an inaccurate picture of what irony really is, so this tempting question would come at the risk of assuming that the students—and this goes even for English majors—actually knew what irony as a literary device is. So here I see two extremes with potential risks: On one side, you may explain irony and make the students aware of its presence in the text before they read it at the risk of them reading only for irony; on the other side, you may bring up the concept of irony as it comes up in the text during the class discussion at the risk of the students still not having a clear perception of what irony as a literary device is. The two median solutions are clear: one ought to make sure to thoroughly explain the literary device in question as it comes up in the text thus avoiding the trap of assuming that all of the students know (by giving a silent nod and blank stare) exactly what the device in question is—or, alternatively, plan the rhetorical-side of the discussion ahead of time and frame the discussion by explaining the literary tools after the students have read the text but before they discuss it. I feel that the latter is especially preferable because it gives students an anchor point for discussing the piece using the new literary discourse tools they’ve just been provided in real time.

Looking Ahead…

William ShakespeareWith my section of Shakespeare and Twelfth Night on the horizon, I foresee some challenges with maintaining this balance of giving a “heads up” and challenging students to see things in “real time.” Given the goals of the syllabus and the limited amount of time we have to cover Shakespeare, I feel like the best option lies with allowing the students to get their feet wet with the first act or two, that way when I frame the discussion with the literary devices that are more specific to plays and Shakespeare, there will be some context in advance. Again, this goes back to the idea of allowing the students to explore the text on their own first then providing a rhetorical framework before the discussion of the actual text comes into play.

The English 102 Project | First Thoughts

First Thoughts

It is my extreme pleasure to be taking part in this course not just as a student, but as a sort of teacher’s assistant whereupon I have been given the privilege of helping with lectures and reflecting on what it is to talk about and teach literature. English 102 at California State University Fresno is a course designed for the non-English major which aims to expose these students who otherwise may never take any other literature curses to “Masterpieces of British Literature.” Our course starts with Beowulf, includes sections from Chaucer, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (which I’m lucky enough to be taking the lead on teaching),Book Pride and Prejudice by Austen, some great English poetry by John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Seamus Haney (to name a few), and we end with Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro.I look at this list and can only smile, because I’ve already experienced these pieces multiple times. Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare no longer intimidate me, but it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t so long ago when they did.

So the question I must ask myself as this course plays out is this: what are the tools I take for granted that help me understand, appreciate, and love literature? The most obvious first step in beginning to understand literature is to understand exactly what literature is. What is it that makes literature different from, say, a check list for chores, a grocery list, or a diary entry? Knowing what makes literature literature is, at the most minimalistic, foundational. To no surprise, this was touched on the first day of class; as a class, we decided that literature was writing that was crafted. A good beginning, for sure.

As with any other discipline, an understanding of the language of the land is fundamental as well. For example, it would be extraordinarily difficult to talk about a piece of art when one has not the vocabulary to talk about the colors used in the piece (let alone how one color interacts with another and what that interaction might say or add to the piece). This is where a broader understanding of what makes literature literature will hopefully develop: what are the elements of craft in literature, why do authors choose to use specific elements of craft, and how do the chosen elements of craft help to shape the text into something that grows beyond the words on the page? IT is from these discussions, spread throughout the course as examples come up in the texts, that I help to help nurture a love for literature.

Over 400 Years Later…

Prospero from The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Prospero from The Tempest by William Shakespeare

In case there was any doubt as to why we’re still reading and watching him today, here’s something from a production I saw last week that, somehow within, a part of me is made to resonate. With incredible power at his fingertips, the mastery of the elements and the sprites themselves, this character gives up his power for the sake of a greater happiness for both he and his daughter. Earlier, Prospero says “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep,” which makes me wonder if Shakespeare thought that this sort of sacrifice–the laying down of great power for the greater good of others and the greater joy of forgiveness–is only the stuff of dreams:

“Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part: The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance.”
– William Shakespeare, The Tempest, 5.1

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