Penman No. 168: A Lesson in Poetry

Penman for Monday, September 28, 2015

WE’VE BEEN talking about poetry in my Literature and Society class this past month, and it’s been an interesting journey, taking us everywhere from the Japanese haiku master Issa Kobayashi to the American modernist e. e. cummings and the Filipino early feminist Angela Manalang Gloria, with a bit of Sylvia Plath and Ricky de Ungria thrown in. There are many more important poets we could have taken up—in another class I might have discussed TS Eliot, Jose Garcia Villa, Denise Levertov, Edith Tiempo, and Pablo Neruda, among others—but this course is just a peek into poetry for non-Literature majors, so we’re taking examples that are sufficiently challenging and instructive but also fairly accessible, pieces that speak to common experience wherever in the world the poem may come from.

A few meetings ago we took up one of my personal favorites, a poem titled “The Blessing” (originally “A Blessing”) written by the late American poet James Wright in 1963. It’s not a very long poem, and pretty easy to visualize. As it opens, the persona (what we call the speaker in the poem, the “I”) is traveling on the road with a companion, bound for a city in Minnesota.

The mood is set with the descriptive line “Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.” Two ponies emerge from the woods and greet the visitors. “They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness / That we have come. / They bow shyly as wet swans.” The persona feels a strong and strange attraction between himself and one of the ponies. “I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms, / For she has walked over to me / And nuzzled my left hand.” The contact is electric, and the poem ends with the persona achieving a kind of apotheosis (a word I don’t use in class—let’s just say a climactic moment): “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.”

It’s a lovely poem because of its consistency of tone and of its return to a Romanticism that seemed lost in an age of machines and pragmatism. (By Romanticism with the big R, we mean here an embrace of Nature as the source of all good things, and of the imagination over reason as the way to wisdom.) Indeed there’s a poignant optimism if not innocence in the poem that’s about to be shattered; in 1963, America stood on the verge of the Kennedy assassination and the escalation of the Vietnam War; the civil rights movement was rising to a crescendo. A darkening of the national mood—eventually affecting us half the world away—was imminent, if not inevitable.

That’s what I guide my students toward in the poem. It’s good to appreciate that glorious burst of ecstasy in the end, when the persona feels so in communion with Nature that he sees himself as a flower, but a couple of references earlier in the poem hint at another world—the “highway to Rochester, Minnesota” in the first line, and the “barbed wire” that the persona steps over to meet the ponies. Whatever “Rochester, Minnesota” might be (I’ve been to Minnesota but never to Rochester), it’s a city at the end of a long cross-country journey.

It’s the persona’s and his companion’s real destination, and the roadside encounter with the horses—as pleasant and as ennobling as it it—is just a stop. When the magical moment fades, the travelers will have to hit the road again, and lose themselves in the maw of the city.

At this point I pause to introduce a big word to my students, one of the few they’ll learn from me over the semester (as a rule, I hate big, showy words, and urge my students to do as much as they can with short, simple ones, but sometimes there’s nothing like a polysyllabic monster to wake people up). In this case, my word for the day was “prelapsarian,” referring to “the human state or time before the Fall,” in Christian belief.

The Christianity’s beside the point (we’re in UP, after all), but what’s important is the idea of a place of innocence we sometimes find ourselves wishing to go back to, especially when we feel overcome by the grime and the corruption of the modern world. We talk about the relationship (“dichotomy” would be another big word) between city and country, between a place we associate with sin and guile, and one we like to imagine as a refuge, a haven of peace and purity.

We then spend a bit of time on the image of the fence, which separates the road from the pasture. What are fences for, I ask? They keep some things out, and some things in, they’ll say. If Nature is as benign as the poem suggests, shouldn’t we knock all fences down? Let’s not be naïve, someone will say—not everything in Nature is so kind, and neither are many humans; we need to protect ourselves from each other. I bring in a quote from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Do they, really?

We talk about the Pinoy penchant for building tall walls, topped by bubog and barbed wire, to ward off the presumptive manunungkit. Whatever happened to neighborly trust? We’re laughing, but when we go back to James Wright’s poem, everyone now understands why he gave it the title he did. Class is over, and we all step out to another late afrernoon in Diliman, finding our way home beneath the acacias and the bamboo.

PS / I don’t bring this up in class, because I don’t want “what really happened” muddling up anyone’s interpretation, but it’s interesting from a writing point of view to read what the poet Robert Bly noted down about a trip he took with his friend James (from the book James Wright: A Profile, quoted in english.illinois.edu):

“One day James and I were driving back to Minneapolis from a visit with Christina and Bill Duffy at their farm in Pine Island, Minnesota. Christina loved horses, had been a rider in Sweden, and continued to keep horses here. So horses were very much on both our minds. Just south of Rochester [Minnesota], James saw two ponies off to the left and said, “Let’s stop.” So we did, and climbed over the fence toward them. We stayed only a few minutes, but they glowed in the dusk, and we could see it. On the way to Minneapolis James wrote in his small spiral notebook the poem he later called ‘A Blessing.’”

[Image from mcleodcreek.farm.com]

Penman No. 163: The Gentler Path

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Penman for Monday, August 24, 2015

FOR THE first time in something like 20 years, I’m teaching two undergraduate classes this semester. I usually teach one graduate and one undergrad class, but thanks to what I’m taking as a glitch in the registration process, my graduate fiction writing class—which is usually oversubscribed—had zero enrollees this term, forcing its cancellation and my reassignment to a course usually reserved for young instructors, English 11 or “Literature and Society.”

I should make it clear that I’ve always insisted on teaching at least one undergrad class every semester, and have done so unfailingly since I returned from my own graduate studies abroad in 1991. The benefits go both ways—young students get to learn from more experienced professors, and senior profs get to know how young people think. With four years of active teaching left before retirement (it’s hard to believe, but I’m getting there), these encounters with some of the country’s brightest young minds will only become more precious, and as with every class I take on, I can only hope that, many years from now, my former students will remember something useful that they picked up from me.

I haven’t taught English 11 in ages, so it was with some trepidation that I entered the classroom on our first day a couple of weeks ago, under UP’s new academic calendar. Students don’t realize this, but professors can be just as full of anxiety at the start of the semester as they are. As I scan the roomful of faces, I’m already wondering who will likely give me problems and who will make it worth the effort of preparing for every day’s lesson as if I myself were taking an exam. Thankfully, most of these mutual apprehensions soon retreat as I reassure my students that I know what I’m talking about—and that I won’t scream at them if they don’t—and as I begin to understand what exactly I’m working with, which is always a welcome challenge.

This semester, I was glad to discover that my English 11 class of about 30 students was composed of mainly science and engineering majors. You’d think that teaching the humanities to them would pose problems, but I see it as a unique opportunity to lead smart people on an adventure they might have missed out on otherwise. Of course, UP’s General Education program makes sure that our graduates acquire a balanced outlook on life, so my students didn’t really have any choice, but I see my job as making them see Literature as much less an imposed subject than a welcome relief from everything else—in other words, fun. When you disguise labor as discovery, and emphasize incentives over penalties, the students—and you yourself—can feel more relaxed.

English 11 is what used to be English 3 in my time—an introduction to literature—and while some teachers see this as a chance to pile on the heavy stuff like The Brothers Karamazov (and I can understand why), I prefer to take the gentler path to literary enlightenment, and begin with things the students know or can apprehend. That way you can lead them to stranger and more intriguing discoveries about the way language works to convey human experience.

Last week, for example, one of the first poems we took up in class was “Southbound on the Freeway,” a poem published in 1963 by the American poet May Swenson. We could’ve done something like T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” but unless you train lay people to look at poetry a certain way—to see it as a puzzle or a riddle to be solved, for example—it’s often very hard for them to get a handle on what some poets do on a high and abstracted level of language and idea, much like the way Picasso’s departure into Cubism (think of his women-figures with their eyes looking this way and their noses pointing that way) can be better appreciated if you first consider what goes into a traditional portrait like the Mona Lisa.

“Southbound on the Freeway” reads like a rather simple and even funny poem, in which alien visitors on a spaceship look down at the Earth, and see creatures “made of metal and glass…. They have four eyes. / The two in the back are red. / Sometimes you can see a 5-eyed / one, his red eye turning / on the top of his head.” It doesn’t take much for the student to see that the aliens, hovering above a freeway, have concluded that the cars themselves are Earthlings, and even that some cars—like the “5-eyed” police car—are more special than others.

In literature, this is a familiar device we call “defamiliarization,” by which poets and other artists take something we see everyday and present it to us in fresh and unexpected ways, revealing facets and insights we never really thought about before. The Swenson poem seems like all it does is show us how perspective can change our perception of things, but it goes beyond that eye-trick and asks a very intriguing question at the end: “Those soft shapes, / shadowy inside / the hard bodies—are they / their guts or their brains?”

At this point, I ask the class, what’s this poem really about? Is it just about aliens and humans, or about cars on the road? Inevitably, someone spits out the magic word: technology! So what is it about technology that’s so important, I press on, and what does it have to do with our lives? Why, everything, the class exclaims in a chorus—we’d die without our cell phones and iPads!

We go into a brief and engaging discussion about what exactly technology means, and whether it has benefited human society—or not. We talk about mechanization, automation, better and easier ways of doing things, products that were invented to improve human life, and inventions that did the opposite. We talk about armaments, and about Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and how it actually helped to encourage more slavery in the American South. I tell them that at some point, later in the semester, I’ll talk to them some more about the legend of Dr. Faust and how it led to the stereotype of the mad scientist, all the way to Dr. Strangelove, Lex Luthor, and Doc Ock. I can see that the class is listening, and I’m happy.

I ask them what the real question is that the Swenson poem is posing, and they get it. It’s been a good day in school for Literature and Society.

Penman No. 63: A Poet Speaks

CBautistaPenman for Monday, Sept. 9, 2013

NOW 72, Cirilo F. Bautista towers over the writers of his generation. Though primarily known as a poet in English, Cirilo—“Toti” to his friends—also writes formidable fiction in both English and Filipino. His books of poetry alone number a dozen, and have won the country’s most prestigious prizes, including the Centennial Prize in 1998. Until his retirement, he was a full professor and writing guru at De La Salle University, and had, at some time or other, taught at other major universities here and abroad. His poetry is deep and complex, conscious of the need to separate the emotional from the intellectual—difficult to many—but not without wit and humor.

Bautista has been nominated for the hallowed title of National Artist, and it’s an honor he would richly deserve and invest with the necessary achievement and gravitas. I can only hope that the bestowers of this award will take this view—shared by many in our literary community—when they sit down next to consider our National Artist awardees. I can be fairly sure that there will be great rejoicing and little dissension when that happens, unlike the controversy that met the last batch of dagdag-bawas “laureates.”

Last Sunday evening, I was privileged to hear Cirilo speak at the 63rd Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature at the Manila Peninsula. He had been asked by the contest sponsors to be evening’s guest of honor. Although forced to use a wheelchair by muscular dystrophy, Cirilo showed no sign of slowing down where his mind was concerned. That night, in a mixture of polemic and poetry reading, Cirilo lamented the diminished role of the poet (by extension, the artist) in Filipino society, diminished since the days of Jose Rizal, when poets were heroes and heroes were poets.

With his permission, I’m excerpting portions of his speech, in the hope that more Filipinos will take notice of their poets in general, and of one named Cirilo F. Bautista in particular. What follows are his remarks:

Small as the Philippines is, smaller still is its literary community—poets and fictionists caught in the bright dream of making a difference in its aesthetic and cultural development. Some are good, many are terribly bad. I speak of the good ones only since charity has no place in the critical evaluation of artistic excellence. To those who live with words, who are engaged in the art of counting syllables and harmonizing metaphors, whose constant fear is not finishing their work, to be poets in the Philippines is to live in a surreal world whose stress and strains shape their concept of existence. People regard you as a specimen of some strange thing to encounter, to examine, even to touch. But not of something to take seriously. You live on the border, on the periphery, on the edge of society, considered unique, but nothing more. The institution that you represent—the world of fine writing—has not made the priority list of any government in the history of the country, whatever our political fathers may say about the importance of cultural advancement. Poetry receives no significant financial allocation, no institutional support, no artistic infrastructure. Not that the poets should depend on the government, but that since the government is tasked with the overall progress of the people, certain measures must be taken to insure that poets do not wallow in the quagmire of neglect.

… Now we see manifestations of the absence of support for the poets. Poets are generally unknown in their own country. Few read them but in the lingering and strengthening vestiges of colonialism prefer the work of Western writers. We are led by the nose by American capitalist interest in the arts. We read what they give us, and have not been sincere and brave enough to assert our own taste and preferences.  Our culture is a borrowed culture, disguised as modernistic simply because it arrived on the Internet. But of the values that assert our roots, they seem to have been devoured by TV novelas and rock concerts. Our taste is largely a mixture of truncated native idealism and borrowed Western adventurism. That we adapt to them may be our virtue, given difficult times; that we are controlled by them may be our downfall. But like them we do. They appeal to that inexplicable part of us that needs to resolve the ironies and contradictions of our existence. And it is in this that, quite strangely enough, the poets seem naturally equipped to provide explanations.

… I am a veteran poet; as I have said, I have published some 12 books of poetry. None of them made a print run of one thousand copies. By American standards I should be rich from the sale of these books, but I am not. It seems they are read only by the inquisitive and misdirected. On a few occasions when, feeling generous, I give my books to relatives and acquaintances, they ask me why I am punishing them. Those who don’t like reading poetry considering reading it a punishment; that’s the only way of interpreting the situation. And poetry becomes a burden to society which has reached a certain stage of insensitivity to the stark harmonies of the soul. This baffles me. I can’t understand why in an affluent society like ours (we are called Third World only by the political elite who handle the greater portion of our national budget for self-improvement and establishing political dynasties), a true literary resurgence cannot take place, or why we cannot remedy the effects of a fractured culture and mismanaged patrimony. The elite in society do not buy Filipino books but patronize foreign ones. It is their pride to be amongst the first to have the work of this or that European poet or novelist, but they will ignore the works of their countrymen. Is this colonial mentality or crab mentality? They still find it difficult to believe in Filipino excellent artistry, or they will down to lower ground Filipinos who exhibit excellent artistry. I find this prevalent among the young who regard foreign shores as sources of cultural inspiration. Always the Filipino is never first in their appraisal.

… It is of course an error to belittle our poets. They have proven that they can compete with the best in the world, given certain assistance and patronage. Their works appear in international publications, they have won important prizes, they are invited to global conferences and festivals of art, they exchange ideas with prominent figures of contemporary literature. Why then are they not patronized in their own country? As I said, I’m baffled by this, short of saying what I don’t want to say—that like crabs we pull down those we perceive to be making names for themselves, and consign to neglect the products of those names. Some are even proud not to be readers of Filipiniana.

… We are proud to point to a poet as our national hero. A poet laureate reflects a country’s coming to terms with the importance of poetry in the overall conduct of its affairs, but mostly with the progress of its artistic sensibility. Poetry is a civilizing factor that drives away the rudeness and coarseness of practical existence. It confers on the individual a high sense of being-ness and a true perspective of life. The poet laureate serves as a bridge to connect the people’s aesthetic education and spiritual well-being. It is seeing their world in another way, and making connections with realities that seem hazy at the start. A moon is not a moon, flying is not leaving the ground—but something else. What? That’s the exquisite area of poetic discovery that only the knowledgeable may enter.

(Photo courtesy of the Cultural Center of the Philippines)