The organic mechanic
Thinks the space shuttle’s
A chiasmic message
Rising from the earth
Like a stalk of corn
The permanent marks
scatter their utterance
like crickets or bats,
subject to skip and
flights of sound
rounding a corner.
We covered Billy Collins last night in my American literature class. We talked a lot about the false dichotomy between poems that are reasonably direct and easy to take in and notions of intellectual complexity and depth. I love Collins, for thumbing the eye of such pompousness.
One poem that gave us particular insights was "Workshop" which is easy on the brain, but also as rich as any I've found in language about language, poetry about poetry, and similar abstractions that open levels of meaning beyond the surface message of the text. It's also funny. Really funny.
Another great thing about these poems is they still get the idea that poetry can move on an emotional level. Ever since I heard Collins read it a couple of years ago, "The Lanyard" has been one of my favorites. Again, funny, but also touching.
It also turns out that there is a small YouTube cottage industry springing up around composing animations set to Collins's poems. My favorite has to be "The Country." The visuals really do give the work an extra kick. In some ways, I sense a connection here as well with ideas about the future of English Studies. There are, for instance, somewhat similar videos set to Wordsworth's poems, but they lack the freshness, and I would guess relevance in forward time that I feel in these Collins adaptations. "The child [may be] father to the man," but "The Country" is winning the "Favorited" competition big time.
0:09 minutes (111.88 KB)
16:08 minutes (14.77 MB)
This is a repost of a playlist composition I want to share with some classes. I'm posting here an audio mix of the playlist and the textual mix below. Prompted by the phrase "was dead three days," the story is about missing time.
Three Days Dead
"One Tree Hill" U2 (lyrics)
The story begins today, steeped in references to our shared memories. The black center of The Heart of Darkness and the songs of folk found in Jara’s music trick us into thinking these are only our struggles. But the tale leans back, archetypal, toward the symbolic scene.
"Babylon" David Gray (lyrics)
Three days bind the story. Its deeper movement starts with anticipation.
An eager descent softened by hope:
Friday night I'm going nowhere / All the lights are changing green to red
A blessed mistake.
Only wish that you were here
You know I'm seeing it so clear
I've been afraid
To tell you how I really feel
Admit to some of those bad mistakes I've made
The long passage back.
Turning back for home
You know I'm feeling so alone
I can't believe
Climbing on the stair
I turn around to see you smiling there
In front of me
"Sympathy For The Devil" The Rolling Stones (lyrics; Salon piece)
This big picture plays out in close up, the curtains rich burgundy, velvet and deep as blood. Not fabric, but membrane screen image flickering as grey light comes up from the back of a stage. The lit grey screen contracts into a tight circle and swings off stage to the woman, wracked. The light swings back, center stage. The dead.
So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I'll lay your soul to waste, um yeah
(woo woo, woo woo)
The dead shimmer as the man extends his arms and gathers them, shapelike, collecting them like clouds dissipating in summer sun. He breathes deep. Looks off stage. The light dilates, brightens, and swings with his gaze, highlighting the woman. Her face is framed at the bottom by fingers, steepled over lips. Eyes closed with thought. Brow set, wrinkled. He looks to the light. Turns.
"In The Garden" Van Morrison (lyrics)
The streets are always wet with rain
After a summer shower when I saw you standin'
In the garden in the garden wet with rain
You wiped the teardrops from your eye in sorrow
As we watched the petals fall down to the ground
And as I sat beside you I felt the
Great sadness that day in the garden
His fingers curl over the back of her hand. Nerves race up his side and fire up his face. He radiates. She breathes, opens her eyes. He’s fixed. She too.
And as it touched your cheeks so lightly
Born again you were and blushed and we touched each other lightly
And we felt the presence of the Christ
And I turned to you and I said
No Guru, no method, no teacher
Just you and I and nature
And the father in the garden
The man awakens. He stretches, expectant. Remembering the garden. Sunday. Ascendance. The morning light warms the side of his face. Questions. The circle of light surrounding him on the empty stage expands and all around him the dead. He squints toward the sky. The morning sun makes no sense. Three days and still he sits among bankers, butchers, mothers, fathers, sisters, sons, the lost souls of the darkened world. Sunday’s past and something’s wrong: “They call it stormy Monday but Tuesday’s just as bad.”
"Black" Pearl Jam (lyrics)
The sadness smacks personal and profound. Lured by pain and beauty to betray the world, he feels now the loss and fingers at his own soul like a sore, remembering. That joining. That giving, that, allowed just an instant, instantly changed forever.
And now my bitter hands shake beneath the clouds
of what was everything?
Oh, the pictures have all been washed in black--
the Cage" Bruce Cockburn (lyrics)
Reflection comes much later and brings with it nothing more than the slow turn of the proverbial screw. The unjust judge and the pearl of great price. He wanders the timescapes of the past, stepping into this very present. The rusted ships, scuttled on distant shores and waiting to turn to scrap. The lights of cities, biting and empty in their brilliance. The thrum of the engine soundtracked beneath the song of the lark. He wonders aloud, how is it that you’re just now “finding yourself in a place that you've willingly waltzed into. Suddenly, you realize it's not such a good place to be, and it's hard to find your way out, hard to know where the next step is supposed to go.”
Along The Watchtower" Bob Dylan (lyrics)
Swiveling days compile their despondencies and urgent little victories. An adoption in Armenia. Plundering in Mertz. A library in Egypt. A Caldera vaporizes a village. A man has a dream. Resigned, he turns toward each event, draping shawls over corpse and cold soul alike. Lowering and lifting to the timeless rhythm of the rise and fall. More, he finally cries. I now need nothing more.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.
"Across The Universe" The Beatles (lyrics)
The sound of horse’s hooves rises from the edge of the stage in clops like gentle rain. The ebbing and flowing circle of light that baths the man swells to full brightness and the two riders join the scene—the woman and the father, smiling. Musical feet fill the gaps as the horses stop, and with each beat figures step on the stage. Teachers. Farmers. Runners. Writers. Young and old, they step forward like members of a choir and mouth the sounds that change the world.
Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world,
Nothing's gonna change my world.
Nothing's gonna change my world.
Nothing's gonna change my world.
"With or Without You" (live) U2 (lyrics)
As the crowd gathers on stage, another sound swells from behind. A whistle. Clap. Clap. Whistle. Clap. Looking out he sees more souls pouring in from doorways and climbing down from the rafters. The days, he understands, have nothing to do with the scattered sequences of noon and night. The days instead have played out over these millennia in each ragged cough and lover’s cry. Three days dead, he understands he’s not alone and he “give[s himself] away”
My hands are tied
My body bruised, she's got me with
Nothing to win and
Nothing left to lose
And you give yourself away
And you give yourself away
And you give
And you give
And you give yourself away
She takes his hand. The sound turns smoky and swirls over the scene. It surrounds the man and the woman and slowly lifts them, as if on filaments of thought, invisible and rising skyward.
We'll shine like stars in the silver light
We'll shine like stars in the Christmas night
One heart. One home. One love.
Cheryl asked me about a phrase from an e-mail message in which I mentioned thinking about the writing course as shop class. I’ve been considering the writing classroom as a studio for a while, an approach that has great promise if only for the counter-force it applies to the analytical inertia of most language arts pedagogy. It’s hard to fall back on consumption and analysis when making stuff becomes the main activity of the class—a point particularly helpful when working with media. Over time, I’ve modified my thinking about this studio model to put back some analysis, ending up with a core of activity/making (maybe 70 or 75%) woven through with threads of analysis and critique.
So why switch metaphors now? What might be found in the shop class that would make it worth reconceptualizing my teaching? For one, shop classes use a lot of tools. My take on the debates about tool metaphors resonates with what might be found in Stuart Selber or Andrew Feenberg. Tool metaphors and fixation are dangerous—they tend to blind us to the human or ideological motives invested in those tools. And yet, tools can also function to implement human intentions. Not neutral, certainly, but not off limits for use and in fact helpful, even necessary. So, I’m OK with making tools and tool use a key part of teaching.
In fact, I’m more than OK with making tools a key focus of composition classes. I’m a regular subscriber to the belief that the focus of the writing class should be students’ writing. But I’m not sure that the best way to focus on that writing is always to foreground it. Sometimes, I think the writing gets in the way of the thinking and of the connecting that matter as much as the compositional moves. Here’s where a tool comes in handy. Learning to use a digital audio recorder creates a space to push aside for a moment the high pressure concerns of producing and evaluating writing. Through the use of the recorder, composition emerges, but it’s mediated by practical/fixable concerns. Tools. Tools of misdirection.
The tool stands in for so many other things. I’m thinking of the first stanza of Ron Wallace’s “Hardware”
I won’t reproduce it, but the second stanza is the kicker where, after the death of the father, the speaker of the poem is left holding “watchamacallits” and “thingamabobs.” Knowing about the “set screw and rasp” opens up a secret language that binds the users of these tools. These bonds eventually become the focus of the poem. So it is with technologies in the writing classroom. The tours and translations go better with tools.
There’s a lot more I need to think about regarding the shop space, but I guess I’ll wrap up with one more rumination on the use of tools. It could be argued that working with words on a page is little different than plugging in input jacks and setting the gain on a mixing board. Both are technologies, variations of tools created to make sounds or words. True. So what gives the mixing board more promise in my mind as a helpful thing to monkey with in the writing classroom? It’s got to be the mediation. Text on the page is so naturalized that it no longer mediates in the way that a microphone might—the microphone (at least for those sopped with the prosaic twelve or thirteen years of public education) has more potential to act as a translator—channeling some Latour [track 2] to mix with the Wallace [track 1] here.
I don’t doubt there’s a bit of a tangle developing in my thoughts between the tool and the medium. But still, I’m going to say that working with the less familiar tool is more powerful not just because it leads to new media—in this corner, representing printed text we have the word processor; in the other corner representing sounds we have the mixing board. Which is more likely to serve as a mediator, linking teachers, learners, ideas? To be intellectually honest, I suppose I’m not sure. Which one am I going to grab as I enter the classroom tomorrow? No contest.
From a piece called “The Domain of Creativity” I take this quote, "Many creative individuals have pointed out that in their work the formulation of a problem is more important than its solution . . . yet when measuring creative thinking processes, psychologists usually rely on problem solution, rather than problem formulation, as an index of creativity" (Csikszentmihalyi 138).
It strikes me that the same can be said of the way a good deal of writing instruction is conducted in college. Consider the assign, respond, evaluate movement of most writing tasks. Instructor assigns problem, student responds with solution (essay), and then instructor assesses the essay based on the coherency and acceptability of the solution—write an essay in which you take a position. . . . analyze the rhetorical dimensions of a text. . . . report on findings. . . . etc. . . . etc. . . .
The problem is this does little to inspire creative thinking or engage students. Csikxzentmihalyi, citing Getzels, outlines an alternative model that places problem solving and problem discovering on a continuum:
The model describes intellectual activity as taking place on a continuum between two poles: presented problems at one end and discovered problems at the other. A presented problems is one that is clearly formulate, has an accepted method of solutions, and has a generally agreed-upon solution. A puzzle, for example, presents the problem of assembling the pieces so as to form a picture; how to do it and when the task is complete are clear to everyone. A person confronted by a presented problem needs only to apply the accepted methods until the desired solution is achieved.
At the other end of the continuum is a discovered problem. Here instead of a clearly formulated task there is only vague unease and dimly felt emotional or intellectual tension. Because the problem itself has yet to be defined, there can be no agreed-upon method for resolving the tension. For the same reason, one cannot even imagine in advance what a “solution” might be. (138-9)
I’m eager to latch onto the model as I contemplate how far I can possibly stray from assigning projects composed with the written word in first year writing classes. Layer over the continuum model of problem solving and discovery this quote from Kristen Pierce:
Before this assignment, I had never thought of representing a song with one picture. The idea seemed almost impossible until I saw how to do it on PhotoShop. This is another program I took home and just mess around on sometimes when I'm bored. I never thought I could get a bunch of random pictures with completely separate meanings and put them together in a way that represents what I personally want. Especially because I am far from being artistic, I thought this project would be impossible at first. However, while I was researching and experimenting with random pictures, I would stumble upon something I could make work. I really liked the freedom of the assignment; it let me experiment with different ideas until I finally got to what I wanted to do.
Kristen was responding to a collage assignment that asked students to represent a song visually. In terms of open-ended assignments, I suppose this one is not that flexible. It lays out the goals or the problem to be solved pretty clearly—represent a song visually. I think the reason students found themselves in discovery-oriented experiences is two-fold: First, they were not working with the familiar mode of alphabetic text. Regardless of how strict the assignment parameters might be, the switch to an alternative medium meant “unease” and “tension” that had to be resolved.
Second, the technical literacies required a good deal of problem discovery. Our approach is studio-based, whereby we open up the software and start making stuff; I offer help as we go and composers discover all kinds of hurdles as they figure out how to make the program do what they want. Working with more familiar media, even with the non-alphabetic assignment might not have had the same effect, as Jessica Stinger points out:
I am a collage-freak. I have collages all over my room at home, my dorm here, and on things like binders, notebooks, and assignment notepads. Although the playlist collage came second, it was this one that really showed me the possibility of computer generated collage. While it was immediately frustrating not being able to manually use scissors and glue, I loved the undo button (which is sadly not an option in real life) and the opacity tool. Being able to layer pictures brought more meaning to the collage. Two or more images on top of one another added depth in a new dimension as the two could work together, showing similarities or provide stark contrast.
The final point to be made, however, is that the productive problem discovery facilitated by such assignments extends itself into domain expertise and discoveries that we might normally associate with tried and true methodologies. Students don’t just discover problems with visual expression or software, but new insights into the subject areas in which they are working. Consider Joanna Bell’s collage interpretation of “The Race” by Sharon Olds:
I love the poem "The Race". It is so powerful and dark...yet it possesses a quality of anxiety and a hint of happiness. I wanted to portray the speaker's feelings of helplessness in my collage. I wanted to place a plane between the woman and her father...the connecting vehicle that allows the daughter to reach her father. The speaker's actions at the airport emphasize her anxiety of not being to see her father before he dies. The hand represents the father reaching out to his daughter. It was difficult to play with the lighting of this collage. Some of the images were very bright and "sunny" almost. Others were dark and dreary. I like the presence of this light vs. dark opposition in this collage.
It’s a great poem, and you can hear a version of Olds reading the poem online. The point is that through working with the visual medium and engaging the sometimes frustrating problems that crop up from the challenge, students discover new ways of expressing ideas. Again, Joanna says it best:
I especially like the concept of having images represent certain aspects of a character's (or poem's) presence in literature. It was difficult learning how to work the Serif program at first, but with any new system, I know that you have to slowly learn the ins and outs of the program. Learning how to mask images was quite challenging for me, but this tool ended up being my most valuable one. Working on the collages allowed me to express myself in a whole new way. Instead of simply writing down prominent characteristics of Julian of Norwich, I could mold together images that I believed represented her persona. Instead of dissecting "The Race" and discussing its poetic elements, I could place images on a canvas that helped me portray the speaker's struggle to reach her father before he passes away. I love how a collage can truly bring literature to life. I love how a collage does not set boundaries for interpretation. I think that the collages actually encourage differing views
Since I've been thinking much of sounds, both verbal and musical lately, this commercial from Volkswagen struck home. First, the words are written by Dylan Thomas and taken from the film Under Milk Wood. I've yet to see the film, but I've put it in the que. The language is measured and evocative of the sounds and scenes of night.
Second, I really like the way the soundtrack with the soft melodic keyboard evokes the atmosphere described through the language: "You can hear the dew falling / and the hushed town breathing."
Then there is the voice--in this case, Richard Burton. The timbre (low-pitched and slighly husky, but clear) and the tempo create a kind of soothing blanket, warm and regular.
Finally, there are the visuals. The dark scenes piled one over the other prepare a kind of inky foundation. Over this foundation is layered the soothing sounds rising toward the conclusion, and then layered in at the end is the brighter image with the car. Visually, we get the same message delivered by Burton: "Only your eyes are unclosed / to see the black-enfolded town / fast and slow asleep."
Just a short dabbling. The flow's not right but for some reason, I'm wanting to suggest reading the poem with "Wheels" by Cake as the accompaniment.
Muses nine, line up
Like highway song
And passing cars:
Into view as
In a movie,
From the curb,
Gearlike in cortex,
Like worlds hurled
Into expansion by
That primal, eternal,
Personal big bang.
Music takes its name
From the nine,
Dancing like fire
In the eye,
And floating home
With throaty notes
Wheels whirl like worlds
Collapsed with words
When blowing flow rises
Over landscape, panning
Hills and lakes and trees,
Smearing past beneath
Vision field, fixated
On the passing
Of the moment,
Of the now.