A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Category: literature

There’s a New Door to Narnia – An essay

I often share some detail or story from my day early in the family’s dinner conversation. I’ll just announce it to see if the kids find it intriguing. “I heard something funny today,” I’ll say, and if they quiet down, I know they’re ready. Often they quiet out of politeness, Big Sister nudging Little Brother to stop talking so I’ll continue, and on those days my story rarely grabs hold.

But yesterday was different.

“I heard about something interesting today,” I said, and they quieted enough for me to continue. “I read online that there was a well-traveled explorer who had completed a few adventures with adult clients, and, after he’d returned from one, his daughter was clamoring for him to take her on an adventure.”

They were listening. I had approached the story from the right angle. “So he agreed. But he is not the kind of father who sets out willy-nilly on a random jaunt. He planned every detail of their exploration, anticipating each contingency and emergency, each need they would have along the way. And after more than three years of planning, he told her to put on her shoes and come along with him.

From my essay “There’s a New Door to Narnia, and the Children Want In,” published at The Curator. Read the rest there.

I read Infinite Jest; but maybe I should keep that to myself

Last year I didn’t read nearly as many books as usual, because over the summer and into the fall I read Infinite Jest. (Can I count that one as two books? Maybe three? Do I get separate credit for the endnotes?) Considering that I’d discussed in public my starting the book but not completing it, I’d always assumed I’d write for publication some kind of reflection on Wallace’s magnum infinitum.

But no. One of the great troubles I discovered about Infinite Jest is you can’t mention you’ve read it, let alone enjoyed it, without coming across as pretentious. While the height of pretension is still Harold Bloom (the man who edited an anthology for children called Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages) (which I admit I own because I found it for almost free at the Tattered Cover in Denver and the collection is quite good despite Bloom’s vanity-flattering title), there is room below Bloom to still be pretentious. When half my book club drops out, when I discover old articles in The New Yorker about not reading it, when a colleague writes, “An interest in metafiction used to mean I pretended to legitimately like, understand, and enjoy Infinite Jest,” I grow gun-shy about discussing it publicly.

And yet but so, I read it. And I admit I even liked it. Not as much as lots of other books–my favorite last year was a second reading of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which left me breathless with its beauty–but enough to have been glad I read it. I compare it to Moby Dick in that I liked it and thought it as brilliant as its proponents say it is, but that I doubt I’d ever read it a second time. 

So here I thought I’d note a few things about the book, for the good of the order and for the good of anyone who is considering reading it.

1. Wallace’s essays provide an interpretive key. 

I have read a lot of Wallace’s essays and think I found every one of them embedded in Infinite Jest. In one sense it turned my reading into a word search with essays, but more importantly, my familiarity with their ideas lent me a sense of confidence about where Wallace was heading thematically. Thus, embedded in the story as an actual character, we meet the weird hydrocephalic Wallace opens “The Nature of the Fun” with, the one he attributes to Don DeLillo: a

hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around, forever crawling after the writer (dragging itself across the floor of restaurants where the writer’s trying to eat, appearing at the foot of the bed first thing in the morning, etc.), hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebo-spinal fluid out of its mouth as it mewls and blurbles and cries out to the writer, wanting love, wanting the very thing its hideousness guarantees it’ll get: the writer’s complete attention.

Knowing the ideas from the essay helped me see the symbolic richness of the character in the story, one whose significance reached beyond the essay’s ideas but definitely encompassed those I’d read there.

2. Wallace is funny but it’s virtually impossible to pass along. 

There is an extended scene in Infinite Jest at the Enfield Tennis Academy where kids play a game called Eschaton. Reading it you wonder if this is what would result from combining Quidditch with Risk and AP Calculus. I slogged through pages and pages of story and end notes filled with intricate description (and mathematical formulas!), wondering why I was reading. And then it all turned about and resulted in a scene so wild and funny I cried. In my delight I tried to explain it to a friend but I failed miserably. So much of what is funny in Wallace involves build up, the set up of a world and a situation so intricate that when the joke breaks it breaks with the force of a river exploding through a dam–an erumpent, one might say. I can read lines from Harrison Scott Key to friends and they’ll laugh. If I read lines from Wallace people wonder what my problem is. Which is one more reason it feels so pointless to write about the book.

3. Wallace’s delight with language is infectious. 

This book is full of words I have never heard before or never knew how to use: strabismic (squinty), puerile (childish, silly, immature), tumid (swollen, bulging), erumpent (bursting forth through a surface). The text is not full of such words, but Wallace clearly wasn’t hesitant to use them, and in my delight at them, I am more inspired toward precision in my own word choice.

4. You call that an ending? 

So the end is not exactly a Dickens-like denouement. It’s like I was holding a handful of loose strings thinking someone might try to tie it off, and then everyone left and I was looking at the mess of tangles in my hand wondering what had just happened. But after I read a pretty good survey of the ending situation from Mike Moats my confidence was restored. I found I had tracked all the important details and was fully aware of what was going on; I just hadn’t realized I would need to project beyond the last sentence so far to discover answers to some basic questions (like how did the ending pages lead to the opening pages, since the opening takes place ahead of all the action in the story?).

5. I surely missed many things, but much of the symbolism is possible to catch. 

I teach my students when we read The Scarlet Letter that Hawthorne uses physical characteristics to cue the reader into spiritual realities, and here Wallace uses the same tool (justifying even further my assigning The Scarlet Letter–it’s still relevant!). Who is the character who is best able to resist the temptations of his favorite release? The one who can resist the cage we feel trapped inside? He’s the one with the oddly indestructible head, whose buddies used to close it in elevator doors for fun (Again–see “This is Water” for a key to access this thematic thrust). Which character is actually happy, experiencing a sense of joy at times? The one who feels no pain, who has burns on his legs, which are covered with globs of ointment, because he leaned on the oven and didn’t realize it.

I could say more, of course, but that is enough. I suspect I’ll return to the book to search out scenes and moments of poignancy and insight. Maybe I’ll reference exchanges that capture some crucial tension–there were many such moments–but I know I won’t read it all again. Who has time for such things? Who would care to listen to me share all the things I’d discover on a second reading?

Aaron Belz’s humorous verse tethers readers to reality

Aaron Belz is a funny poet. Consistently funny, not “he slipped a giggle-inducing verse into a broader collection” funny (ala Billy Collins) but funny in a way that his readers have come to expect. Funny as a primary vehicle for communicating what he has to say.

glitter bombYet he defies any attempt to banish him to the poetic land of Light Verse, a land from which no amount of verbal wit can break Ogden Nash free. True to form, in his latest collection, Glitter Bomb, Belz stares solemnly into our collective mirror and uses humor to explain what he sees. That humor is witty and full of word play, but Belz’s insightful observations betray his contemplative mind.

Of course with any humorist the first thing readers do is laugh, and Belz utilizes a variety of methods to make us grin. A classic technique he uses differently almost every time is the unexpected twist. See his redirecting of cliches, like in “Ice Cream”:

I scream, you scream, we all scream
when we get stabbed in the heart.

or his inversion of words’ normal pairings, like in “Interesting About You,” when what’s interesting is the ways “you fail to distinguish yourself.” Other times he plays upon our accustomed expectations, like in “Palindromes,” when the second half of each palindrome is not a sensible line but a strange garble of phonetic nonsense akin to the Swedish Chef’s monologues.

Belz’s word play draws particularly skillfully from contemporary idiom and colloquialisms, sometimes teasing the idiom, other times celebrating it. Using expressions anachronistically sounds silly and highlights how dependent upon cultural context our language is, as in a stanza of “Trois Poesies Antiques” called “Wack Kings”:

Watch out for the wack kings,
clanking their armor,
riding their dope horsies over the hill.

or in “Hambone,” where the poet thinks of his relationship “in a completely old way”:

“What has gotten into thee?”
you asked. “I’m boogying!”
said I. “Why don’t thou gettest

thy groove on, too?”

Other times Belz toys with the raw frequency of our idiomatic expressions, like in “No Vacancy,” where he strings together a series of disconnected nothings to make a conversation of sorts:

“Actually,” they say.
“Let’s be honest,” they begin.

“On the flip side,” I respond.
“As fate would have it,” you admit–

you confess. “It wasn’t your
fault,” you continue . . .

or in “So this is Thursday,” where he begins fourteen separate lines with “So this is . . . “

As readers laugh through a first perusal of Glitter Bomb, a few dark clouds form. At least, that’s the common imagery of the humorist-with-a-purpose. If a writer is notably intelligent or satirical we must say they have a dark sense of humor, a label applied since Twain and Bierce. A better image here might be to say that while Belz’s wit supplies buoyancy to our spirits, we notice after a time he has us tethered to something solid: reality.

This humorist has found some of the funniest parts of our lives are the parts we do not share or discuss with others. One such aspect is the ongoing battle we wage with what feels like our various selves. In a number of poems, like “Your Objective,” and “Song of Myself,” Belz splits these selves apart and toys with our denials of conflict and vice and our efforts and failures at virtue.

In “1-0,” for example, the speaker declares,

I’ve taken a vote among
myself and it’s unanimous
we’d like me to be slightly
less of a jerk if possible”

but by the end of the poem he concedes it might not happen. The verse operates subtly, teasing our lack of conviction in our demands of ourselves (“slightly” and “if possible”) and giggling at the oddity of a phrase like “among myself” even as it admits that 1) he’s a jerk and 2) he won’t be changing.

Such humor touches a reader close to the heart, and I get the sense that Belz is not only mocking others, but himself. How else could he discover the poignancy present in “Team”?

There’s no “I” in team,
but there’s one in bitterness
and one in failure.

Happily for Belz, his privacy is intact and I have no clue what might have inspired such verses. I do have a clue, however, about what parts of me connect so well to what Belz mocks, and I constantly laugh and pause, knowing I too may be the butt of the joke. As a sample, there is a part of me that, despite my best efforts to resist it, has succumbed to the promises of advertising. This version of me has begun to see myself in overblown, over-confident terms, like the speaker in “My Chosen Vocation,” who, though failing at his goals in life, is left “rather sexy-looking” with his messy hair that was “volumized / with Matrix Essentials / Foam Volumizer”; in his own mind, he is the picture of a modern day Walt Whitman, not a washed up, purposeless bum. I’d like to say I’m not that bad, but who am I fooling? Perhaps Belz is right.

E.B. White wrote of Mark Twain that he didn’t know that a humorist must always preach, as Twain claimed in one instance they should, but that they must always speak the truth. In this collection of poems Aaron Belz rebuffs for his poetry the label light verse and earns a better label, humorous verse, because he has tethered his playful wit to the noble satirical goal of speaking the truth.

He has succeeded, and readers of this volume can be confident their reading will begin in laughter and end in wisdom.


Is The Great Gatsby Post-Hypocritical?

I find myself thinking a lot about hypocrisy and irony as I contemplate The Great Gatsby and its place in American literature. Hypocrisy seems to me to be one of those characteristics that bothers people more than almost any other. It’s like it’s the great American vice, not in the sense that Americans do it more than other cultures, but in a sense that Americans seem to detest hypocrisy more than any other action or situation. A stringent totalitarian might be hated, but not nearly as much as a stringent totalitarian who doesn’t live by the same strict rules he enforces for others.

Among the novels my American literature students read are The Scarlet Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby (though this year is my first year teaching Gatsby, so it’s a new adventure for me). Hypocrisy was at the heart of what The Scarlet Letter was about–Dimmesdale’s public face was one of holiness, but secretly he was the most guilty sinner. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain took the hypocrites and made them look ridiculous, to make sure we didn’t miss it. He mocked the hypocrites, yes, but even more so he seemed to be mocking those of us who actually believed those hypocrites, those of us who fall for the hypocrisy of the king and duke and get lulled into accepting the reasoning of the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons.

Inherent in hypocrisy is irony–the way a person seems is incongruent with the way they are. In The Great Gatsby the first thing I see is irony, as these glittering rich people strike us as amazing: Gatsby’s fantastic parties; Tom’s profound wealth that allows him to turn garages into horse stalls and spend his time playing polo, the most exclusive and privileged game in existence, the game of royalty; and Daisy’s lounging on sofas and periodically having her daughter pop in to say hi. But undercutting their amazing glitter are their miserable lives (I’ve constructed a reflection for students opining that everyone in the novel is a total jerk). It’s ironic, but are they hypocrites? My first thought is that they were hypocrites, because they’re living like they’re awesome but they’re not. But then I realize they aren’t even pretending to be morally upright people. They just have so much wealth and privilege that they’re able to lead these miserable lives and no one is going to mess with them. Ironic? Yes. Hypocritical? Maybe not.

Tom is one character that makes me confused. He is a hypocrite of sorts, since he’s an adulterer. What adulterer is not a hypocrite? He’s just not very good at it, since though he’s technically hiding this affair from Daisy, everyone knows about it (Nick tells us people are mad at him for not hiding it more when he goes into the city, so there’s a sense in which there must be a code of decorous hypocrisy Tom is breaking). Tom is so cruel and confident about his playing around that he seems less like a hypocrite and more like a privileged bully. Of course, you could say that he’s a hypocrite for getting all upset when he discovers Daisy loves Gatsby, but that seems not like hypocrisy and more like . . . the actions of a control freak. After all, he seems not to be bothered by the idea of it having happened once he is confident Daisy won’t actually leave him.

Yet isn’t Gatsby a hypocrite? He’s a rich cool guy, but he’s built his wealth from some sort of illegal activities, which seem at least to include some bootlegging. But again, like Tom, he’s not so much acting one way when he’s really another as he’s just not emphasizing his bad way. He was “an Oxford man”–technically true, but obviously misleading, as all he did was go to a few classes and never graduate. Is that hypocritical? Not in the pure sense like Arthur Dimmesdale or the Shepherdsons and Grangerfords, but it certainly contains an element of hypocrisy, since he is living a kind of lie.

It seems like we could do this for just about everyone: look at their lives and quickly see the places where they are either liars or the places where they don’t live up to anyone’s standards. But in each case but Nick’s, no one really made any great claim to being better, morally, than they are.

Nick seems different because early on he insists, “I am one of the few honest people I have ever known” (59), but Jordan calls him on it at the end of the novel, saying, “I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride” (177), implying that she discovered he’s nothing of the kind. That seems to be the most clear representation of hypocrisy in the book.

The kind of irony, or hypocrisy, that is looked down upon in the book is Gatsby’s. He has presumed to be wealthy and important, but he’s not. He’s fake: fake in acquiring his wealth through crime, fake in being popular, as he throws parties for people who don’t actually know him, fake in his claims of being an “Oxford Man,” fake in suggesting his family is wealthy, fake all the way down to his name. He’s “new wealth,” living in West Egg, trying to get the attention of East Egg but really just drawing their scorn (see the time Tom and his friends on horseback invited him to lunch and couldn’t believe Gatsby thought they really wanted him to come). It’s sort of hypocrisy in that he’s ultimately different from what he portrays, but it’s more like he’s looked down upon for aspiring to be something different than he is.

But the book doesn’t seem to suggest that we should view him in the same way. We might think less of him, but not for aspiring to a new life. We might actually think less of him for trying for a life that isn’t worth having–after all, who really wants to be like Tom and Daisy?–and for thinking he could make Daisy transform into the form of his ridiculous dreams of the past, but those are different reasons for criticism than the other characters have of him.

So I’m left with in incomplete interpretation of the book and a sense that this particular great American novel is not so much about hypocrisy as it is about irony. In a sense it’s almost post-hypocrisy: what happens when people stop even aspiring to or claiming a moral high ground and instead act on their selfish impulses. When the hypocrisy is gone all that is left for us to see is the irony. We’re on the outside, looking in at the lavish privilege and parties of the rich, aspiring to be them, just like the poem “Richard Cory,” and ironically, when we get close enough to see the reality, those folks are 1) empty, hollow, and miserable, and 2) not willing to allow access to those who aren’t them, who aren’t the old wealth of East Egg. The disconnect of the irony is between the beautiful exterior (that their wealth provides them) and their corrupt interior (that makes up their personal lives).

And that confuses me the most, because my saying that triggers a saying from the Bible where Jesus criticizes a group of Pharisees: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25). The Pharisees tend to have this cultural place as the ultimate or first examples of hypocrisy. They’re the purest archetypal version of the hypocrite, and his description of them is precisely what I stumbled into using for the characters of The Great Gatsby: clean on the outside, filthy on the inside. So maybe this is a book about hypocrisy after all.

I don’t know. If you have an opinion, help me out here.

Thanks for reading.

Give her rhymes, not poetry, and they’ll likely stay with her

I dropped a link last week to an article from Sally Thomas on poetry–“Re: Is Billy Collins Killing Poetry?“–because I was intrigued by her thoughtful explanation of the oral tradition in poetry. She draws attention to the link between the sound of a poem and our ability to remember it:

I’m an avid reader-aloud of poetry, especially to my children, and I’ll tell anyone willing to listen (again, my children, who really have no choice) that it’s our ears primarily, not our eyes, which remember poems.

When I teach poetry to my freshmen and we ask the question, “What is great poetry?” one of the sub-questions we ask is, “Is it the sound of a poem?” The question is an important one for me, and students can tell I love the sound a poem makes. I suppose they pick this up from my passionate readings of every poem we encounter–I usually read as if I were auditioning for a the book-on-tape version–but I also like to tell them about my love for John Keats, a love borne almost entirely out of the sounds of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale” (admittedly a fascination with his early death helped). These were my favorite poems before I comprehended half of what they said.

Not that I remember them that well–they’re a bit too long to remember without expending actual effort, and I have yet to try–but what I do recall, I recall through my auditory experience.

Thinking about the poetry I have memorized, the rhyming appears to be the dominant thread of success. Mrs. Sutton had us memorize  “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in fourth grade, and when I walked into my student-teaching 17 years later and heard a class reciting it, I had it down again within two minutes. Could I have done so without the rhyme or the meter to guide me? I highly doubt it.

I also remember a handful of poems from William Carlos Williams, but that’s mostly because it’s not that difficult to recall one sentence. Even then, I can’t say with confidence whether so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glistening with rain water beside the white chicken or whether it depends upon the red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens (by the way, it’s neither). And as much as I enjoy Billy Collins and Jane Kenyon, I keep losing “An Introduction to Poetry” despite opening my poetry unit with it every year, and I am so bad at remembering “Whirligigs” that I haven’t ventured to commit any of Jane’s more powerful work to mind.

Yet I spout off Puck’s last words in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with nary an effort and accidentally memorized the prologue to Romeo and Juliet. What a mess I am.

Or rather, what a fool I would be to give up on the power of the rhyme and consistent meter, which is exactly what I have done in recent years while reading poetry. I tend to develop an obsession with a new poet each year, usually beginning the affair about a month before my teaching of poetry (this is why poetry is consistently my favorite unit), and as I think back to the last five or six obsessions, I can’t recall anyone who used rhyme more than sporadically. Not surprisingly, I also cannot recite any poems that I encountered for the first time within the last five years. For the most part, I have gravitated towards the insight and the image, neglecting the meter and the rhyme almost completely.

I don’t use meter or rhyme in my own poetry–I tend to mimic  Collins and find that he is right: when I read his poetry, “it encourages the writing of more poetry.” Not being a poet, I imitate that which is possible for me to imitate. That does not compliment Collins, a man whose poetry has brought me much pleasure, but it is the truth. For me, rhyming simply alerts me of the limits to my vocabulary, so I avoid it. It is easier to build a poem off one image and to tie that image to a more general insight, letting the lines break where they will, than to make the poem regular or rhyming. Saying that reminds me of an admired colleague who always discourages her students from using rhyme in their own poetry–perhaps she discourages it because their vocabularies cripple the first couplet and then paralyze the work that follows.

But, oh, this is not the fault of the device! Inspired by Thomas’s stories about her children’s favorite poets, I have been reading poetry to my daughters this week. I like Jack Prelutsky a lot and we did listen to Shel Silverstein’s “A Light in the Attic” readings, if for no other reason than to let me recall the cassette of Shel I wore out in my Fisher Price tape deck. What my eldest has begun to do is ask me for more. That’s nothing notable, I realize. What is notable is that she doesn’t ask for another poem. She asks “for another rhyme.”

Prelutsky’s vocabulary is frequently beyond her ability to comprehend. A tomato’s “unmitigated rancor” would stupefy most of my freshmen, let alone a four-year old. Yet she knows enough to follow it (I help with the details) and worries none about the words she doesn’t understand.  To her, language is play. She wants the silly situations, the wild characters, and the playful words we encounter. Ultimately, she wants “rhymes,” not poetry.

She’s not quite five, but she is more in tune with Sally Thomas than I have been for the last few years. I plan to remember both of their opinions the next time I head to the library to discover my next poet of obsession.

Thanks for reading.