I read in my alumni magazine today that one of my old teachers, Douglas Sturm, died on May 6.
The freshman seminar I took with Prof. Sturm modeled for me what intellectual discourse could be like. It set me on my course.
Prof. Sturm was sharp as a tack but never used his analytic skills to make things smaller. Rather, he modeled a way of inquiring into big ideas by asking careful questions, and then asking more questions. He was a brilliant teacher.
Only after I graduated did I learn that he was a committed community peace activist. That side of him did not show up directly on campus. But I would have been very glad to have him as a neighbor.
Thank you, Prof. Sturm. As with all the great teachers, you taught me more than you know.
By coincidence a couple of days ago I wrote this poem. (Remember, we are required to forgive one another’s bad poetry.)
If the death of each we knew
were stored as we do corn,
we each would have to buy a mule
and load it every morn.
Poor mule it is who in our wake
clip-clops uphill and back.
Poor mule it is who for our sake
stays hidden in its track.
There’s a terrific article by Helen Vendler in the March 24, 2014 New Republic about what can learn about Emily Dickinson by exploring her handwritten drafts. Helen is a Dickinson scholar of serious repute, and she finds revelatory significance in the words that were crossed out, replaced, or listed as alternatives, in the physical arrangement of the words on the page, etc. For example, Prof. Vendler points to the change of the line in “The Spirit” : “What customs hath the Air?” became “What function hath the Air?” She says that this change points to a more “abstract, unrevealing, even algebraic” understanding of “the future habitation of the spirit.”
Unfortunately, the New Republic article is not available online. I very much hope that it will be since it provides such a useful way of reading the materials in the online Dickinson collection which are themselves available under a CreativeCommons license that enables non-commercial use without asking permission.
I woke up this morning with this forming in my head. Afterwards, I realized it’s about my friend Michael O’Connor Clarke who died yesterday.
The yew that margins our yard grew so implacably large that it shoved off the walk mothers with strollers, and brought dogs to curse at its succor for squirrels. So, when the cold days set in I did what the Internet said and lopped and sawed and hemmed past its quick, revealing the brute as a pile of scratchy sticks without shape except where it ends.
Now my yew is catching leaves from more proper plants that have learned by falling that autumn is a lie that winter smoothly tells.
My deepest condolences to Michael’s family. I cannot express the joy he brought to anyone within earshot, and especially to his friends.
You Barcelona birds don’t know how good you have it.
You give your city two stars
because once a tourist left you a crust that had some mustard on it —
Don’t eat the yellow bread, is that so hard to remember? —
and last February a pigeon bullied you aside.
You ought to come to my city some February.
Is there even a word in Spanish for slush?
Yeah, Boston would grow you a pair,
and then would shrivel them up until they make a high-pitched ting.
How you like them tiny frozen apples?
So why don’t you go back to TripAdvisor and fix your ratings
even if you have to make up a new login.
Stoopid Barcelona birds.
I’ve been reading John Barton’s book Playing Shakespeare, which pretty much transcribes a series of televised master classes. It’s a pretty amazing book, in which Barton claims that Shakespeare’s lines provide clues to how they should be read — the irregular stresses in the verse, the changes from prose to verse and back again.
I googled around trying to find the original series, but found these instead. Here are two ten-minute segments. Spanning the two is David Suchet reading Sonnet 138 several times, receiving direction. (I think I personally prefer his second reading.)
It is obvious to me that those who shun moderation and want a longer life are fools.
The days of an overly long life are filled with pain.
Happiness eludes those who want to hang on to life longer than what the fates have allotted for them and in the end…
…the same attendant awaits him: Hades! Hades waits upon us all!
No ceremony, no wedding songs, no dances and no songs…
Just death!The end of us all is death.
The best would be not to be born at all.
But then, if he is born, the next best thing for him would be to try and return to where he came from…
…in the quickest possible time!
While youth and its careless mind lasts, no thought is given to what pain, what misery will, most certainly, follow.
Murder, mayhem, quarrels, wars will come before the inescapable end…
The hateful old age, frailty, loneliness, desolation and…
…your own misery’s neighbour, is even more misery.
And so, Oedipus like us, is old. Unhappy Oedipus! Bashed about like a reef facing north…
Bashed about on all sides by tempests of all sorts.
Never ending rain and wind crash over his head…
…fierce waves crash over him.
Now from West…
Now from the East…
Some during the midday’s light…
Some from the mountainous North…
…which the deep night darkens.
I’ve loved the bleakness of these lines ever since I read them in college. But I’ve always wondered whether we should read them as eternal truths that apply to us all, or as an anthropological glimpse into another culture. Today listening to them I had a different reaction: Man, have I had it easy!
When I was a youth, my careless mind was actually fairly morbid. I thought about death a lot. I still do. Yet, I think I did not have a vivid sense of “what misery will, most certainly, follow. Murder, mayhem, quarrels, wars will come before the inescapable end.” In fact, of those four, all I’ve directly experienced are quarrels. Murder? No one I knew has been murdered. Mayhem? Nothing that didn’t occur around a conference table. Wars? I missed the draft and did not serve, although like every other American, I have lived with some of the awful consequences of war. But that’s really not what Sophocles had in mind. He was thinking about the imminent sacking of a city, the cleaving of skulls, the starving of children.
Life sucked back then. To those of us in affluent countries, with a job and some health coverage, I wonder whether Sophocles would have sung a different song.