Why Poetry? However can we justify it?

August 13, 2014 Leave a comment

Hurting today. Suicides, a fresh conversation about depression that still isn’t the needful one, more black men gunned down in this our police state (it is a police state for brown boys). Less Greek and more raging, then writing, today. Maybe that’s the plaintive answer to “why ever poetry?” Because as much as today hurt, as a poet I can ask myself “how can I use this?” even as the feelings are overwhelming. There’s an outlet and a purpose, albeit manufactured with effort.

Also feeling grateful today that I feel part of a community of people to whom I’m responsible for responding clearly and with nuance when the world happens. Posted on Facebook tonight because I needed to respond somehow–and even though it’s the no-man’s land of social media, I felt connected to the writers pouring out words on the interwebs today.

The old anger is fresh today and it’s asking “why poetry? How, in this godforsaken world of ours?” I can’t put words to it. I have my doubts, as do all the faithful. A few attempts at an answer:

(1) Poetry, practiced right, is a running towards and not a seclusion from the world. It is absolutely not and cannot be direct political action or social change (and I’m not up to debating you on that today, just bear with me). But it can be a channel for anger that would otherwise simply make the piston waffle around furiously aimless. It is not a vehicle for making others see more clearly, but it is a step forward from stewing in emotions that would otherwise overwhelm the poet or narrow the poet’s world.

(2) I’m going to feel the anger and the hurt and the hopelessness anyway. If I write them down, they become choate (or less inchoate). Refined anger is more useful anger, even for a definition of useful limited to “actionable.” Distilled hopelessness takes up less space in the brain. At the same time, poetry is less pernicious than overt rationalization in how it lets us precipitate out a feeling for later consideration, rather than insisting the feeling doesn’t or shouldn’t exist.

(3) Practicing poetry is hard enough that it takes up at least a small part of my store of attention that would otherwise be spread thin over all the solid reasons not to value the world we have. It lets me actively call out one evil–though only to myself and for my own useless benefit–instead of throwing up my hands in the general direction of all of them. It thus gives practice in seeing into an evil in search of understanding. That practice might be important at some crucial instant, though probably not in my lifetime. The thin hope of this potential use is enough of a reason to keep practicing poetry and it is a value I can see, though the smallest thing.”

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Sappho Fragment 1 Recitation

August 12, 2014 Leave a comment

My recitation today went off pretty well. I love Eric’s challenge to always take an opportunity to perform seriously–not ever to make half-assed use of language, if you want to be serious about poetry. It pushed me to really get into the head of Sappho’s speaker and make sure my recitation was reflecting the meaning of the Greek, instead of being content with reciting without knowing the meaning fully. Performance nerves got in the way a bit, but I think I gave a dramatic spin to at least a few parts…

My favorites are the shift from “tas emas audas aiosa peloi“, where the participle is present and the peloi fills out the progressive aspect, to the dramatic (loose sense) aorist of “eklues” beginning the next line; the light, one might boldly say winged, touch of the light syllables “pter’ ap'” describing the sparrows in contrast with the long sounds of the (smushed together–technical term) “wranwther-os dia messw”; the running together of the plaintive question “tis s’ w Saph’ adikeiei;”; the forthright closing plea, “summachos esso.” 

I recited with understanding and performance work one of my favorite Sappho poems in the original Greek! Grinning so hard. This is, I think, a kind of pride baby-queer Jamie would adore, and more jaded queer Jamie can still dig, parades be damned.

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Love Notes to Language

August 9, 2014 Leave a comment

A few awesome things that happen to one as you get into the “head” of a new language or author–as discussed over beer and Korean food with Justine and Rey:


*When Rey or I have a particularly impossible time with a passage of Lucretius, both of us will check out an English translation. Especially for the passages where it seems the difficulty is all vocabulary–the purple-wreathed hegemon exulting in Arabian myrrh, or whatever. The really awesome thing about consulting a translation is that its poverty compared to the original actually HELPS you understand the original. I’ve had numerous times when, reacting to a translation of a passage I wasn’t quite getting, I have an intuition “that isn’t quite what was being said,” even though I was unsure what was being said in the Latin, and then I’m able to reverse-engineer my understanding to get closer to the Latin through precisely where the English translation seems to fail. So I don’t only get to appreciate and remember why it’s so important to be able to read the original, but the liberties of the translation, which might frustrate me or be sad in some contexts, actually end up strengthening my relationship with the source language. (And yes, I do think of it as a relationship…language is my first and best mistress…)

*I can’t wait for the frustration and joy of starting an author we haven’t read in the Greek program, having the familiar “WTF DO I REALLY KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THIS LANGUAGE?” feeling–then gliding right past that shit and getting into the flow of that author. It’s so life-affirming, since the thought processes and stylistic taste of the new author gets in your head, fucks with you, and stays with you.

*Trying to puzzle out a few lines from a Greek “papyrus” in the paleography lecture made me proud of my progress in Greek. With no word divisions, I could still with my group get most of the 10 lines, and I was making judgements *based on knowing Greek morphology*, like “this is more likely a finite verb than a participle, so that’s probably an “ntai” ending and not “nta.” Sometimes I find, for example, paleography in Middle English tiresome. Because I know much of what I’d expect the Middle English to be, and I think it’s more a feeling of getting the manuscript to match something I already have in my head of what the possibilities are. With Greek (and I assume with other of my non-native languages), I feel closer to the text and language per se, since I bring fewer assumptions about what the forms “should” be. It also feels good to feel my understanding of Greek morphology increasing as I make hypotheses about what forms something could be–especially when you can still recognize the part of speech or ID the form a verb that isn’t in your lexicon. So Greek Paleography can increase my feeling of competence and it makes morphology come alive as something that really helps you, whereas English paleography doesn’t seem to change my understanding of English as much. Then again, I just haven’t done enough English paleography 🙂

*Sight translating has been going really well. I have wild conjectures, I make silly week 1 mistakes, but the Greek comes to make sense in a much shorter time than I would’ve imagined, even though I knew the same thing happened to me with Latin. I love the concrete and immediate sense of accomplishment of getting through a Greek passage at sight–and I love that in our Aristotle elective, the literal Greek is making enough sense to us quickly enough that we get to dive into the commentary and talk about concepts — it’s been too long! Funny, though, that I didn’t miss philosophical and conceptual debates about what a text means that much. Translation itself and sticking real close to the language really is my jam.

*Separately–I am a poet who loves language itself, for itself. Language could be one of the things “good according to itself” for me, per Aristotle. I love how my relationship with language is stronger than “I like the sounds of this” or “these lexical items are striking,” but it’s really based on grokking the syntax and structure, and how different languages allow speakers and writers to have different effects on their audience by playing with different expectations. For example, it’s definitely changed the way I think about style to read Ciceronian Latin and get viscerally the effect that an inflected language with flexible word order can have via periodic sentences. Like music–suspension and resolution, when you get participles giving background, cum inversum, relative clauses filling in more detail, then suddenly, blissfully, the finite verb…

As Rey said, the more you get into languages, and every time you start a new language, everything is strange, wonderful and frustrating…and the world just gets richer and richer and stranger as you learn more languages. If everyone needs something to hope for in order to live–and I think we really do–the promise of getting to deepen my relationship with language as a lifetime avocation is a hell of a saving hope.

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Aristotle! Or, the Joys of Greek

Sight today was so cool! Now we have relative-corelatives, the verb “to be” in all its existential utility, and the sorts of puzzles I love from Latin. The sight passages are starting to be of the sort about which (heh, unintentional Greek-speak) one can debate and ponder conceptually. (Today, for example, a part of Aristotle’s Politics where he’s comparing men to animals, and we learn the colors of verbs, in a way–what’s a sense perception versus a cognitive perceiving. Aristotle was describing “voices” (sounds a human makes) as the reactions to felt things hitting one, as they are for animals, and he goes on to talk about reason and understanding these “signs” as the mark of man. 

At the end of sight, Aramis read aloud and translated for us a passage from Sophocles’ Oedipus, which included delights like “mechanorrafon” (I need to learn beta code), reminiscent of Dido “weaving the pretexts of delay” in Book 4. I’m starting to see some of how Greek makes new words from old ones (verbs from nouns and v.v., like “a sense perception” from aisthanomai, etc.) and it makes the language really come alive for me. As does the chance to sit in an air conditioned, albeit windowless, room the whole summer and occasionally get glimpses of what it’s like to have, say, Aramis’s level of fluency in Greek.

The sense of Greek as a joy and a refuge is coming to me much easier, this summer, than that feeling did for Latin, last summer. Last summer, that sense came after the program. It was such a struggle to work on Latin some days. I’m not ever, really, feeling that way with Greek–it’s delightful! And totally unexpected–I wonder why. Partly, the language has more morphology, and thus in a way, less syntax–less ambiguity in forms, more you can do with fewer words (I think–I’ll contradict myself in a few months when I actually know something about Greek). Partly, it’s actually loads better to be doing this language for no practical reason at all, because it keeps me in the happy and rarefied mental place where the language matters because poetry and the history of science matter. And those two thoughts, untenable some nights in my version of the real world outside the Institute, within it are mutually reinforcing–the language makes me care about poetry more, just-so stories (and more rigorous ones) about ancient science motivate learning the language.

The biggest difference, which I hope I remember when I fall off the diligence wagon, is that I am drilling my morpho and syntax like hell this summer. Last summer I think I was still somewhat in student mode (immature one at that)–oh, I’m doing okay on assessments, so I can afford to be lazy about knowing exactly what the syntax of this one ablative is. Now I don’t feel like it’s an option for me to be lazy about syntax or uncertain about morphology (that we’ve learned and practiced, I mean–sight is of course different). It makes such a huge difference for how much I enjoy the language! Which I knew it would, even when I was not doing it quite right last year. But I’m glad I’ve been able to carry through and treat Greek with the care and attention a beautiful language (redundant? yes–) deserves. I wanted to go in and “do the Institute right” at the beginning of the summer, and I’m feeling grateful to all the people supporting me, and yeah, proud and excited, that I haven’t flaked on myself (or the community that is the Institute), as I so often do.

Time for sentences! Then more drilling old & new morphology. I really am finding it all fun–with Ray, I hope (wish incapable of fulfillment in present or future time) that our shirt this year isn’t something about bitter study bearing sweet fruit. This is a joy and a privilege. This is a community getting an astonishing amount of good things done in a summer together. This is what learning could be, if we give and get elsewhere the kind of support we give and get here. I get wanting to be in an insider’s club that’s done this terribly hard thing, but I hope we talk about the Institute in a way that does justice to what happens here when we’re through. Is it a harsh way to learn a dead language? Sure. Maybe. It certainly doesn’t work for everyone–and we shouldn’t get into “special flower” thinking if it happens to work for us. But it is, and could also be, such a joyous way to learn that really affirms, continuously, progressively, repeatedly, emphatically, that this language and what was written and thought in it matters. Just because. Because it’s sacred, to my (devoutly atheist) way of thinking.

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Notes from the Institute

I’m feeling, intensified, some of those same things about Greek in particular, language in general, and learning in general that came, happily, last summer. I miss diagramming sentences – I’m looking forward to it; the relatively heavy morphology and light syntax we’ve had in Greek is a different sort of challenge than Latin was (during the Institute) and has been (since). I feel my nascent Greek reading abilities coming more fluidly than my Latin did, both because the languages are different and because I know how to learn a dead language now. Greek word order (in the fake Greek we’ve had) and the unambiguity of most forms has made Greek less like a puzzle and more like what will, I can feel, be a fluent reading experience at some time. Knowing morphology cold seems to have a clearer payoff in Greek than in Latin–not that it was in any way not essential in Latin, but I have a greater sense that you’ve fought more of the battle once you know what possible forms a Greek word could be in a sentence.

So far it’s not demanded as much systematic thinking of me as Latin, which I miss on the one hand, but which has a certain joy of intuition on the other. At first it drove me crazy that the Greek verbal system is much more sprawling and demanding of memorization than the thing of algorithmic and mathematical beauty that is Latin’s stem-infix-ending. Now I kind of like that about Greek–I’m starting to regain the zen feeling I got with Latin verb synopses, and I appreciate how verbs like lambanw are a mish-mash of principal parts from different verbs, since the commonest verbs often are. These irregularities that made me groan under the weight of irregular principal parts now give me a feeling for how Greek was a living language that evolved, that standardized its usage, in which different verbs once had different flavors and odd usages before coming together into one verb.

The thrill of language and the continuous feeling of stretching and miraculous competence and the restructuring of my English thought patterns are all there. Perhaps because having taught intensively this past year, I have more meta-cognition about what this program (happily) does to me. I notice more of the pedagogical moves that program instructors make, the incredible design and coordination of the whole thing, and I LOVE that. I’m trying to make my thoughts more explicit this year as I have them, about the unique combination of fast and slow reading, fluency and philology that the Institute fosters. What I loved half-wittingly last year, I understand my love for this year. This is a sort of haven for language and literature lovers, but a rigorous one, for once. Again, there are several fellow math folks among the students. I can confidently say after a day of Greek that “I know how to say something I didn’t yesterday”, which is a unique joy of language-learning for a poet and reader. How often, as a writer, do you get to feel that you’ve figured out how to say something right–an image, a word, a turn of phrase, an analogy, a reference, an anecdote–that you couldn’t yesterday?

My days when I am writing (or mathing) are marked by intense mental effort that often goes nowhere, or moments of solution and insight that mostly turn out to be false. Greek isn’t like that in this learning phase. I have the pleasure of analytical thinking like in math–but I get to say not just that I’ve learned a new technique for sparse graphs, but that with my poor grasp of Greek, I yet got to tackle the story of Prometheus or witty one-liners from Menander. How often do you get to feel like you’re making steady progress and unambiguously growing your toolbox for attacking what Anthony Storr, (following Thomas Szasz, in The Art of Psychotherapy) calls “problems of living”?

The Institute is unique in my life for its explicit encouragement of both philology and fluent reading–being able to dive down the rabbit hole, but not by default thinking of a sentence in an ancient language as a puzzle to be solved, instead of something one can aspire to read continuously. It’s perfect for someone like me who finds it hard to give up either of thinking analytically or synthetically, and it’s an amazing corrective to the turn towards contextualizing and cultural situation of texts, away from texts themselves. (It lets me keep this historicizing and contextualizing impulse, but be rigorous about the words in a poem too in a way that I partially pretend at in English.) Last year I think I was too overwhelmed by the newness of both classical languages and Institute methods to reflect much. This year, the structure I am looking at is more explicitly of the Institute itself and how it works, since I’m not too bogged down in the emotional roller coaster of learning a language this way.

Something else strange and COOL is happening in my relationship with the Institute this time around. I remember Alice getting frustrated at us one day in our Augustine elective because (probably) we were underprepared. She framed the situation in terms of our responsibility to do what the Institute asked of us, and I remember thinking it was a little grandiose. We were all there voluntarily, had paid tuition, and were going to take out of it what we would; we didn’t “have” to do any of this, even though we’d signed up for this–at least in the strong sense of moral requirement. Of course I took her framing seriously, because philosophical approaches to the sanctity and obligation of the classroom aside, she was right that we were underprepared and that was hurting the community.

I feel much more moralistic about it this time around. The sense of responsibility I feel is not because “I agreed to take part in this”, but because the Institute has to work a certain way for it to work, and I as a student have to (moral requirement, this time!) play my part fully and enthusiastically. I think I was a little more dazed and shocked by the pace of things last year, and more prone to complaining. Perhaps there were more people learning Latin for a requirement than there are learning Greek this year (medievalists in various fields, historians, etc. – there’s only a few students wonderfully crazy enough to be taking Greek the Institute way because they need it for something basically unrelated, like Koine for seminary). Either way, I find myself much more oriented towards the needs of the community and the mutual investment of all students and teachers in this crazy thing. I feel energized after a week of Greek, and I’m probably annoying some fellow students when I call this “fun”, unironically, with some frequency…and as much as I love translation and composition over drilling vocab and morphology, I can even get myself to do that with some enthusiasm, knowing, this time, around where I will be in my Greek on Day 31, 41, 51 if I do right by the program.

What this means is: what I’m not naturally inclined towards is still fun because I know in my Latin-Institute bones how helpful it is and will be. I trust more completely that Hardy, when he and Gerald Quinn put together this marvel of a textbook, and all three teachers, when they prepared for this summer, know exactly what they are doing when they tell us learning some particular thing is more essential than it might seem. I’m not so focused on the emotional impact the program has for me, this time, because I recognize–partly from last year, partly from more teaching experience of my own–the orders of magnitude harder our teachers have to work than we do. Just conceiving of how much true coordination and common preparation this level of synchronicity takes is doing wonders for how I think about everything from my board work to how to say exactly what I want to say and not a word more to the new level of thoroughness I realize can exist in preparing lessons and lectures. I’m not a little in awe of Institute teachers. (And wishing I were gonna be a classicist so there could be some sliver of hope that I’d teach here one day…)

I love what I didn’t see fully last year, too. I felt emotionally supported as well as pushed, last year, of course. I had a few breakdowns in Aaron’s office and pushed back against and finally accepted the wisdom of Akiva’s iron insistence on knowing the syntax of everything. (I have to remember to go genuflect to his teaching insights sometime soon…I’m now that person who knows the syntax of every word in a Greek sentence and not all of the vocabulary meanings, which doesn’t *only* speak to how I need to step up my vocabulary retention…). Now I see more clearly the things our teachers are doing minute by minute to strike this delicate balance of unwavering support and tough love. “No, you’re not being too slow translating, and yes, you need to get faster,” they manage to say, and make us believe. “Yes, it’s okay how this is going–and yes, we want you to progress and go at Greek differently.” That’s a series of subtle moves that I have a lot to learn from pedagogically (and as a person!) 

As much as I feel humbled by the dedication of my fellow students and the faculty, I feel some pride in how I’m handling this year too. I’ve had a few nights of being sick or utterly beat, but for the most part I’ve pulled through on my promise to myself to thoroughly prepare every sentence and prose comp for drill the next day. From my experience last year and listening this year, I feel some level of independence and competence in how I know what questions to ask myself about each sentence. I look for what is new about the sentence, what Hardy (and Quinn) are clearly reinforcing from a few units ago, all the interesting features that one could conceivably examine in this sentence. Then the same for the next. I think I’m really doing my part in drill this year in a way I didn’t last year–I don’t keep questions to myself or leave them until during drill. There hasn’t been a sentence where I say “pass on me, I don’t have this one”–which there were not many, but too many of, last year. I don’t feel complacent about how much I need to drill morphology on the weekend, really knowing how much it’ll help and how I can always do better at Greek. So much more goes into teaching at the Institute than I can imagine, but I really feel like I’m holding up my end of the implicit learning contract we have here. 

I even, blessedly, get to encourage and help along some of my fellow students with insights from last year 🙂 Not that I know anything better than last year, not at all–but I think, and certainly hope, that it might be making a difference to hear from a fellow student that the steep learning tasks the faculty are asking of us pay off. I think maybe this would be some of the joy of teaching at the Institute–I feel a thrill watching fellow students who haven’t learned languages before, or here, and having some sense of what part of the roller-coaster they’ll be on today, what the Greek learning landscape must look like to them right now, and where they’ll be with their language in a week, then two, if they keep up what they’re doing in their learning. I guess it’s weird to say this, but I feel okay saying it having done a lot of teaching myself, even though not at the Institute: I feel so proud of what my fellow students have learned about Greek and about what they are capable of learning so far. I’ve seen them grow so much already in how they approach language in particular and learning in general, and the many inspiring things I’ve heard from them about how they’re figuring out the Institute way and how to make it work for them are inspiring me in turn.

I feel so grateful and privileged to be here this summer. The Institute is beginning to occupy a special place in my life not just for making me learn my languages like gangbusters, but for the special dedication, community and pedagogy that’s grown up around it all these many years.

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“The Bee Box,” Lowell Parker

Found this absolute gem at The Wondering Minstrels, which appears, sadly, to be defunct, but at which I’ve already rediscovered a bunch of old favorites. This is a stunningly original take on a love poem.

In this small box, my love,
 you'll not find a ring,
 but instead, a brave, little bee.
 He'll be dead by morn, having given his life
 defending his flowers against me.
 I felt his sting
 while picking the small, purple pansies
 growing wild along the roadside,
 in hopes of an afternoon bouquet for you.
 And I grieved the sting,
 more for him than me,
 knowing full well the price he paid
 for my small pain.
 And I allowed him his victory,
 leaving his flowers as a memory,
 and brought you instead
 this brave, little bee,
 who proves there is love
 even in the smallest
 of things.
Categories: Poetry

Hacking Learning

I’ve realized recently that one of my primary goals in my free time is to learn to learn efficiently. Thus, the stress I put on myself to learn a lot quickly is really a desire for methods that will help me (1) beat procrastination to focus on the things that really matter to me and (2) actually learn the material I go through, to the point where I can solve real problems and retain information long-term. I’d previously thought that I just had too long of a list of things I wanted to learn, and that stressed me out, so I started looking at people’s advice and research on how to get it all done. But I ended up not reading so much about organizational strategies, which I thought I needed to focus on because of my ADHD, but on how to revise the learning process itself–not how best to manage my list, but how to be effective at tackling each item on it. I’ve developed a professional interest in learning itself, not just what to learn.

There are three main prongs that I’ve been pursuing that take up most of my time of late:

(1) Thinking about pedagogy, and in particular how learning professionals can best support independent learning outside the classroom: I’ve read a lot about continuing and professional education, adult education, online classes and their effectiveness, and what makes successful online (and in-person) learning communities tick. A lot of this has been focused on a major shift in my thinking–from focusing on how to be a good teacher to how to be a good learner, and from fostering good learning by being a good subject-matter teacher to fostering good learning by being a good community builder. A lot of this has focused on observing various online lecture series and the forums that grow up round them (both officially supported, like the Coursera or MITx discussion forums, and unofficial communities of learners that band together online and otherwise to tackle learning together, like the StackExchange forums and the people who organize group read-alongs with discussion of a book).

(2) Researching and attempting to implement new learning strategies without the constraints of classroom instruction, and moving beyond the standard model of “lecture-take notes-read-revise notes-repeat-do problems” as a way to learn. At some point I abandoned my attempts to plow through lots of material and turned my attention to how that plowing can stick long term, and that meant that I couldn’t ignore the research on learning techniques anymore. It’s exciting, mostly because the research is so much more multifaceted than I thought–what started out as a corrective or defensive investigation for me to overcome the limitations ADHD and anxiety put on me became an active interest in the habits of highly effective learners for its own sake.

(3) Thinking about what it means to have a professional code of ethics in the teaching profession, and more broadly, what a Hippocratic Oath for teaching would look like and how to hold ourselves accountable outside of the assessment-based or value-added models that dominate the NYT Education section. This was sparked by a transformative encounter with Atul Gawande’s book on the Checklist Manifesto: what are a teacher’s professional obligations? How does professional development balance with daily interactions with student? To what extent is it ethical to try a “teaching experiment” with high risks and potentially high rewards, if it might mean your current class doesn’t do as well as it could? Partly this is my attempt to understand teaching as a profession, and to recreate it in my mind as a profession–society doesn’t exactly encourage us to think of teaching as a complex profession with its own societies, standards and ethics codes like law or medicine, but I think it should.

I’ll have more details on lots of this in future posts, but for now a few sites that have provoked my thinking on these things:

The StackExchange plaforms – check out math.stackexchange.com or physics.stackexchange.com, including their “Meta” sites, for examples of an online learning community and discussion of what direction it should go.

Scott Young’s extensive blog articles about effective learning strategies at: http://www.scotthyoung.com/blog, including, for example, his MIT Challenge (to learn the curriculum for 4 years of MIT courses more quickly and without the support of a formal school environment), and his extensive focus on the psychology behind how we learn best.

Physicsforums.com, for a perhaps older model of online learning in standard BBS format, where a community feel is created by prominent users but attention is more focused on discussion and less on answers to specific questions than on StackExchange sites.

Udemy, Coursera, MITx, Open Yale, and MIT OCW, for examples of online content offered by major universities.