"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Van Doren on Teaching

The following is a quotation from the Autobiography of Mark Van Doren, quoted in "Mark Van Doren and American Classicism" by Jeffrey Hart, The New Criterion (XXIV.9, May 2006), pp. 24-25:

"From the beginning I assumed experience in freshmen. Perhaps the chief novelty consisted in my assumption that nothing was too difficult for students. Freshmen have had more experience than they are given credit for. They have been born, have parents, had brothers and sisters, been in love, been jealous, been angry, been ambitious, been tired, been hungry, been happy and unhappy, been aware of justice and injustice. Well, the great writers handled just such things, and they did so in basic human language men must use whenever they feel and think. The result, if no teacher prevents its happening, was that freshmen learned about themselves. And so did the teachers, at least if they read and talked like men of the world, simply and humbly, without assumptions of academic superiority."

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Summer Paradox

My teacher Mary Holmes used to call Los Angeles the “last gasp of Western Civilization.” She might have expanded her geography to include San Diego had she known about this little poem that my friend found scrawled on the Mission Beach sea wall several years ago:

Surf, dooby, chow,
Party, helmet, sleep.

Say it over a few times. It has many virtues: simplicity, clarity, rhythm, honesty. It has become one of my favorites. Not only because in it one may, in Philip Thompson’s words, “Behold the darkness of one long good time.” The poem is an instance of a profound paradox. Its being says more than its words.

Why did the anonymous poet, whose words proclaim that he lives in the body, of the body, for the body, bother to compose this ditty, to write it on a wall? From whence sprung his affection for metaphor (“helmet”), his embrace of rhythm (trochaic trimeter catalectic), his fidelity to chronology, his generalizing of an ideal day? Why not just live it? What is the impulse also to say it?

The Mission Beach poet is a pagan, of course, worshiping nature and sensation. Or so he thinks. Yet is there a more devoted worshiper of the invisible in our time than such a surfer? He rises from sleep to surf, desiring to ride the perfect wave perfectly, to find his way into harmony with the mysterious nature of the land-longing waves, the sea itself, rhythm, beauty.

As in surfing, so in verse, something in him craves more than physical sensation. The poem exists because the poet craves to embody meaning in an artifact, to convey it to his fellow human beings. He may know nothing of the forms of Plato or the logos of John or the ordo amoris of Augustine, but being human like them, he cannot live without more meaning than the merely physical world can provide. And so he writes a poem, worshiping the invisible whether he knows it or not.

My teacher would not have been surprised by the poem’s paradoxical nature. In Mary Holmes: Paintings and Ideas, she calls paradox “the natural condition of the world. It is both the working principle and the mystery of life. . . . We are always surrounded by paradox because all of creation is the union of opposites. All energy comes from the union of opposites.”

By mysterious paradox the Mission Beach poet consoles me. Even as his words depict Western Civilization’s dying away into mere sensation, his poem cannot help revealing that there is more spirit to our life in the body than our body can contain.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

For David in Iraq

One of my former students has just sent pictures from where he and his men are in service in Iraq. Please hold them in your prayers and, whatever your political persuasion, be grateful every day that men like David and those he commands have chosen to serve in the defense of our nation and the ideals on which it is built.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Quotation to Ponder

Here's a quotation to ponder. It comes from "Limits to Democracy," an article by Roger Scruton published in The New Criterion (Vol. 24,Number 5) January 2006, p. 27.

Scruton describes the "moral obesity" afflicting "ordinary voters, to the point where ideals and longterm goals induce in them nothing more than a flummoxed breathlessness. A politician who offers short-term advantages in the form of subsidies, welfare programs, and distractions will secure their vote more easily than the one who promises short-term sacrifice for the greater long-term good. And as a result of this, democratic societies may use up their inherited capital of virtue, and find themselves facing the future unprepared."

Several paragraphs later, he writes:

"It is a characteristic error of the times in which we live to confound the virtue of tolerance with the refusal to judge. To be tolerant and to be 'non-judgmental' are in fact opposite characteristics. The tolerant person is the one who makes room for things of which he disapproves; the non-judgmental person is the one who disapproves of nothing, and therefore tolerates nothing. The refusal to judge is also a part of moral obesity, and the egalitarian culture, which is deeply hostile to any form of judgment other than the blanket condoning of human weakness, is therefore preparing the ground for a new kind of intolerance--the intolerance of virtue."