Category Archives: 2017

Photo finish Friday: “Broken”

Broken window, rundown house.

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Haiku to you Thursday: “Godly”

Thursday is forever /

banging his thunder hammer, /

chasing Friday’s love.

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cARtOONSdAY: “wALK oN bY”

A sort of dash-ing person.

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Free Fiction Monday: Forest for the Trees – Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Centuries ago, a tsunami hit the Oregon Coast, destroying miles of coastline. When beach erosion reveals the stumps of a dead forest from that disaster, Anne and Louisa cut school to see the trees.…

Source: Free Fiction Monday: Forest for the Trees – Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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Monday morning writing joke: “Pause, to consider”

“Let’s eat Grandma!”

“Let’s eat, Grandma!”

Commas save lives.

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Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman review – nice dramatic narratives, but where’s the nihilism? | Books | The Guardian

 

With its chatty gods and gentle giants, Gaiman’s good-natured version of the mythos lacks brutal tragedy at its heart

Source: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman review – nice dramatic narratives, but where’s the nihilism? | Books | The Guardian

by Ursula K Le Guin

Any retelling of a tale from times long past must be an interpretation, a translation into language and concepts that the present audience understands. The original myth may have been told as uninterpreted fact, but later re-tellers are and must be conscious of who their audience is and the purpose of the telling. To what extent does this consciousness shape the choice of what’s told and the language that it’s told in? Interpretation may clarify, betray, reveal, deform.

For the Norse myths, we really have no original, only interpretations. Most of the material was first written down by a single monk a century or more after Christianity had outlawed and supplanted the “heathen” religion of northern Europe. Later came scholarly attempts to translate and present the stories so as to glimpse what the lost original versions may have been.

Then came use of elements of the mythos in drama and opera, free adaptations for modern readers, and the appearance of increasingly familiar tropes in books for young children, cartoons, graphic presentations, animated films, and so on. A luxuriant growth indeed from the few, fragile stems of medieval manuscripts, one of which lay hidden for several centuries in a barn in Iceland.

Their survival is remarkable, for the Norse tales are about as un-Christian as you can get: no all-powerful creator deity, no human virtue rewarded but courage in battle, and on the Last Day, no salvation for anybody. Their fascination for us may be this near-nihilism: a world created essentially by nobody out of nothing, an existence of endless warfare and the rivalry of brutal, dishonest powers, ending in defeat for all. In contrast, the classical myths retold to us through centuries of splendid verbal and visual art can seem pallid. The stark cruelty and essential hopelessness of the Norse stories suits the artistic taste of the last century, our hunger for darkness.

Neil Gaiman tells us that he first met the Norse tales in the graphic narratives that we go on calling comics or comic books, a stupid name considering the breadth of their subject matter. It is a medium well suited to the material: vivid, sparing of words, long on action, short on reflection though given to pithy wisdom. Heroes, shape-changers, battles, superpowers and superweapons – a half-blind wizard, an eight-legged horse, the battlements of Asgard, the Rainbow Bridge – all are perfectly at home in the world of comics.

Gaiman’s characteristically limpid, quick-running prose keeps the dramatic impetus of the medieval texts, if not their rough-hewn quality. His telling of the tales is for children and adults alike, and this is both right and wise, it being the property of genuine myth to be accessible on many levels.

The language of books loved in childhood retains an authority it is useless to question even when impossible to justify. I grew up with Padraic Colum’s Children of Odin, published in 1920, and the stories exist for me in the fine cadences of his prose. Gaiman’s version is certainly a worthy shelf-partner to Colum’s, and perhaps a better choice for a contemporary child reader, used to a familiar tone and a “friendly” approach.

Gaiman plays down the extreme strangeness of some of the material and defuses its bleakness by a degree of self-satire. There is a good deal of humour in the stories, the kind most children like – seeing a braggart take a pratfall, watching the cunning little fellow outwit the big dumb bully. Gaiman handles this splendidly. Yet I wonder if he tries too hard to tame something intractably feral, to domesticate a troll.

It all comes back to the matter of interpretation. In her 2011 book Ragnarok, AS Byatt used the Norse mythos to express her own childhood experience of world war and as a parable of the irrational human behaviours that result in mass ruin and destruction. Such interpretations are perfectly valid in themselves but don’t serve well as a retelling of the myths. They are more of the order of meditations on a religious text, sermons on the meaning of biblical stories. Gaiman does not use the Norse material this way; he simply tells us the story, and tells it well.

What finally left me feeling dissatisfied is, paradoxically, the pleasant, ingratiating way in which he tells it. These gods are not only mortal, they’re a bit banal. They talk a great deal, in a conversational tone that descends sometimes to smart-ass repartee. This chattiness will be familiar to an audience accustomed to animated film and graphic narrative, which have grown heavy with dialogue, and in which disrespect is generally treated as a virtue. But it trivialises, and I felt sometimes that this vigorous, robust, good-natured version of the mythos gives us everything but the very essence of it, the heart.

The Norse myths were narrative expressions of a religion deeply strange to us. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are divine comedies: there may be punishment for the wicked, but the promise of salvation holds. What we have from the Norse is a fragment of a divine tragedy. Vague promises of a better world after the Fimbulwinter and the final apocalypse are unconvincing; that’s not where this story goes. It goes inexorably from nothingness into night. You just can’t make pals of these brutal giants and self-destructive gods. They are tragic to the bone.

 

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Poet: Why I would never tell a student what a poem means – The Washington Post

Poet: Why I would never tell a student what a poem means

Source: Poet: Why I would never tell a student what a poem means – The Washington Post

Sara Holbrook, the author of books of poetry for children, teens and adults, as well as professional books for teachers, wrote a piece on this blog earlier this year that was, to say the least, jarring, if not entirely unexpected by those who have been paying attention to how poorly many standardized tests are constructed. That post, “Poet: I can’t answer questions on Texas standardized tests about my own poems,” started this way:

When I realized I couldn’t answer the questions posed about two of my own poems on the Texas state assessment tests (STAAR Test), I had a flash of panic — oh, no! Not smart enough. Such a dunce. My eyes glazed over. I checked to see if anyone was looking. The questions began to swim on the page. Waves of insecurity. My brain in full spin.

[Poet: I can’t answer questions on Texas standardized tests about my own poems]

Now Holbrook is back with a piece about why she never tells a student what a poem means. Why is that a big deal? It is in direct contrast to a good deal of literature instruction today, which is designed to ensure that students take away not their own meaning but what a standardized test would consider correct.

Holbrook also visits schools and speaks at educator conferences worldwide, with her partner Michael Salinger, providing teacher and classroom workshops on writing and oral presentation skills. Her first novel, “The Enemy: Detroit 1954,” was just released.

By Sara Holbrook

Seems fitting that April is poetry month, a season brimming with blossoming possibilities and longer days. Like jolly jonquils, in April poets are released from our winter hibernation, we shed our black attire and start popping up at readings, sprouting bright colors and (presumably) speaking in stanzas. Not sure how April came to be poetry month. Maybe because at the time of its designation, April didn’t already belong to women’s history, colon cancer awareness, or toenail fungus.

Of course as most of the educated world knows, April mostly belongs to taxes and school testing. Still, poets who chew pencils and chase cursors every day all year wait for this month for a little acknowledgment. It’s not too bad of a deal, really. The five-paragraph-essay is still waiting in the wings for its month.

The poem below was not written as a poetry month challenge. I wrote it while sitting in the back of a summer poetry-writing workshop. Mostly, I was biding my time for my turn to present. The instructor began by asking us to write the words, “I remember” and write for five minutes, not letting our pen leave the page (actually a writing exercise conceived by Natalie Goldberg, I later found out). If we got stuck, we were to write, “I remember” again and keep writing.

But I’ve always been a little ornery. I began with “I don’t remember,” and went from there. The image that came to mind was of my mother and the big family secret the entire neighborhood knew. Mom drank too much and took too many pills. I don’t think she would mind my telling this story now since she was sober for the last seven years of her life, and she was really proud of that. But believe me, we had our moments over the years.

A poem is a snapshot in time. Not an entire movie. A focused moment. I do remember the time she brought me brownies as an apology, but I can’t for the life of me remember what she was apologizing for. Memory is a pegboard punched with holes. The older I get, the bigger the holes become.

Still, I remember the brownies, the hug, my forced smile.

 

Remember

 

I don’t remember the first time,

how it started

or when.

But I remember

the night you brought me brownies

and said

it would never happen again.

 

I remember,

your hair was longer then

and how your eyes swam over to mine.

I remember,

my smile stuck to my teeth.

I knew it wasn’t the last time.

 

My eyes were sealed with tears

and it was hard for them to wake,

but that didn’t seem to matter.

We hugged.

And the brownies tasted great.

©1997 sara holbrook “I Never Said I Wasn’t Difficult,” Boyds Mills Press

 

Forty years after the brownies were delivered to my bedside, four or five years after the writing and publication of the poem, I was visiting a school in the rural Midwest. It was April, and in preparation for the poet/author visit, kids had been asked to respond to one of my poems with: one their own poems, a hand-drawn picture, or a paragraph. What a display!

Hundreds of responses were posted in the hallways. There was an entire wall in the foyer devoted to my poem, “The Dog Ate My Homework.” Middle-school kids love to laugh and the student poems told tall tales of dogs, goats, and chickens munching on math problems and swallowing spelling words. One, as I remember, involved no eating but did reference cat pee.

But down the hall, around the corner, out of the florescent glare of the reception area, on the tiled wall by the room where (before inclusion) they used to keep “those kids,” I found Paul’s interpretation of my poem, “Remember.” While his classmates were having fun with poetry, he was evidencing his understanding that all of life is not a sit-com.

Paul was 11 years old when he wrote this. I know. I asked. When students are 11, the topic of sex doesn’t come up in the classroom. Teachers and parents make sure of it. What Paul brought to the text of my poem is background knowledge he had acquired somewhere other than school. We can only speculate.

Paul and I are both more than 25 years older now. Still, that spring day is sealed in my memory. I visited two schools, Paul’s in the morning and then I moved on at lunch break. But I took time to make a big deal out of Paul’s response, taking it to the office to have it photocopied (era before cellphone cameras). The secretary read it and wearily sighed, “Yeah, there’s a lot of that ’round here.” I took it to the guidance office. I took it to the vice principal. I don’t know if Paul, age 11, ever got the help he needed. It haunts me.

But one thing I do know, I am not the one to tell Paul what the poem “Remember” is about. Paul knew and probably still knows what this poem means. In my mind, this is not even my poem anymore. It belongs to Paul, age 11.

Famed educator, guru, and overall smart person Louise Rosenblatt wisely distinguishes between interpreting expository writing (journalism, nonfiction) and aesthetic writing. “A novel or a poem or a play remains merely inkspots on paper until a reader transforms them into a set of meaningful symbols.” The reader creates meaning, I heard her explain in a talk she gave at the National Council of Teachers of English in November 2004 at the no-nonsense age of 100. She was peeking over the podium giving a roomful of academics what-for, explaining that the meaning of a poem floats somewhere between the page and the reader’s mind because each reader brings a unique experience to the piece.

A few months ago I wrote an essay, “I Can’t Answer These Texas Standardized Test Questions About My Own Poems,” in which I questioned those of unknown academic distinction who anonymously compose proficiency test questions. Many teachers wrote to tell me that they too are unable to answer these vaguely written test questions being used to evaluate their students. One teacher reported that her kids had to endure 17 days of testing this year. Considering there are only about 20 days of school in a month and that every test requires preparation on the devices and manner of testing, that’s a lot of lost instructional time.

Parents wrote. I did a few television interviews and radio programs. It was my 15 minutes. Additionally, I took some heat from a (very) few academics who jumped to inform me that authors do not own the meaning of a poem, it is up to literary critics to make this determination. Good grief.

It was not my intent to kick off an argument on of the relative merit of learned literary analysis. I’ll leave that to those with letters after their names. But friends, parents, educators, learned folks, please remember, middle-schoolers are not just short college sophomores. They are not lit majors. These are kids like Paul. Kids who are often grappling with a world of unseen and sometimes unspeakable challenges.

As teachers and parents, our main goal is to get them to love learning, to be curious, and grow to understand the difference between fact and fiction. Writing poetry can help with this by the way, poets are into facts, and not just in April. But how can testing help with this? Geez, Louise! Proficiency test questions don’t even have to be fact-based!

One industrious Advanced Placement student wrote to walk me through two of my poems and each STAAR standardized test question, dutifully explaining how to determine which of the right answers on a multiple choice test is the most right. Clearly he has mastered the game of analyzing minutia. A smart, articulate kid; I found his dedication to compliance, well, disconcerting.

“Big can’t get you if small’s got you,” civil rights leader Rep. Elijah Cummings said recently, quoting the wisdom of his sharecropper father.

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I worry we are raising a generation of students who view success as the ability to focus on marginal minutia while (too often) missing the big ideas in a piece of writing. Worse, children are learning to disregard their own instincts, their histories, their cultural references by devoting themselves to predetermined interpretations. When we tell students what to think, we short sheet their own thought processes.

What if, in that long ago April, some test had told Paul his interpretation was wrong?

I stick to my contention that if a child reads a poem or a story about a red house, it is fair to test the kid’s reading mastery by asking, what color was that house? Once we ask, why did the author paint the house red, we’ve slid off the pedagogical sidewalk. It may be a good question to stimulate rich discussion, but the answer, particularly when it comes to poetry, is not a right or wrong equation. Deciding why the house is red is where we meet, reader and writer as the reader brings a unique experience to the interpretation. This is how we nurture thinking in students.

Besides, if the author hasn’t told us why the house is red, we just can’t know. In fact, the author’s perception of her intent in writing, of the very meaning of her own poem, may in fact change over time.

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