Poem of the Week: “Much Madness is Divinest Sense”

Emily Dickinson

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I suppose there’s no better way for me to get back to my writing here than to start with this week’s Poem of the Week: Emily Dickinson‘s “Much Madness is Divinest Sense.”

Much Madness is divinest Sense —
To a discerning Eye —
Much Sense — the starkest Madness —
’Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail —
Assent — and you are sane —
Demur — you’re straightway dangerous —
And handled with a Chain —

Why did I pick this poem? There’s a rather convoluted story here.

  1. I wanted a short poem that I could easily fit into the schedule. We’re getting close to exam week, and we don’t have a ton of time to work with a highly complex poem.
  2. I wanted something by a woman poet. Right now my “scorecard” on women vs. men is 12 men to 6 women, and I’m not too happy about that. I can do better.
  3. I wanted something that I could use as a critical lens.

It’s the last one that’s the crazy one. I’m working up a new approach to teaching the “critical lens essay,” and I need a lens. My original plan was to have students outline an essay using the poem of the week and one other text. But then it occured to me that I culd simplify things by finding a poem I could use as the critical lens.

So then I went looking for a poem I could excerpt for a critical lens quote. And I found this one while flipping through my copy of Women’s Work. Incidentally, I was feeding the twins at the same time. Call me a modern father.

I promise that at some point I will write a piece explaining the whole “Poem of the Week” concept. For now, feel free to take a look at my class wiki, where I briefly explain the poem of the week and list the poems of the week I’ve chosen so far.


Philip Hoare’s “The Whale”: Review

Every now and then you read a book that really inspires you as a writer. A book that makes you think, “I could write that!” because its style is so close to what you want to do as a writer.

But the more you read, the more intimidated you get. The more you see the intricacy of the work. You read as a writer, and recognize the legwork done in libraries, the time spent in the field. And, when you finish the book and see the writer’s saved his best stuff for last… you wonder what you could do that would have a similar impact.

For me, that book was Philip Hoare’s The Whale. I finished it in less than a week, carving out time between writing, teaching and parenting to devour it. It lived in my briefcase many days.

The WhaleIn the book, Hoare traces the cultural history of whales. But he does it by blending science, history, literary analysis and memoir in a way that Alex Ross writes “inspires awe and shame.”

Ross meant awe and shame about whales. Me, I’m feeling awe and shame about the book. Awe in how good it is. Shame because I’m not sure I have the arrogant confidence to do something like it.

Literature drives this book. Even before writing a word of his own text, Hoare quotes Paradise Lost and the Bible (Jonah). Stuff like this is a puppy treat to the literary snob who picked up the book for its main course: Hoare’s discussion of Moby Dick. Both inspiration for his book and enabler of its analysis, Hoare breaks down the story of the book’s creation, applying a new-historicist-style lens to Melville’s book.There’s probably not enough here for the rabid literary scholar or the true fan of the book; Hoare doesn’t break any new critical ground here. But he effectively integrates literature with his explanation of whaling. This is of course completely appropriate, since Melville has Ishmael explain so much about whaling to the reader. So it makes sense for Hoare to quote Ishmael as a reference:

At one end, a sixty-ton animal. At the other, six men. Through the line they could feel the whale; an intimate connection between man and prey. The crew fought hard to haul the creature out of the depths as an angler tussles with a fish; an effort of resistance and power; a tug of war, or a tug of love. Suddenly, their enraged quarry surfaced with an almighty blow. Its very breath was fearful: sailors believed the spout to be acrid, able to burn skin or even, warns Ishmael, cause blindness, ‘if the jet is fairly spouted into your eyes.’ (147)

Hoare weaves literature in and out of his story. He also dips into the world history of whaling, scientific study of whales, popular culture and the economics of whaling. Foes of commercial whaling today will recognize the usual suspects, though they may be annoyed at Hoare’s non-judgmental explanation of the post-war context of Japanese whaling and the role the United States played in jump-starting the industry.

But it’s when Hoare dips into memoir that he’s at his most powerful. “Perhaps it is because I was nearly born underwater,” Hoare opens, making the powerful connection between his own life story and that of whales. There are moments when the connection is forced; moments when it seems the events requiring the personal “I” are used simply to drive the book’s structure, rather than offer any new insight. But the book’s ending—powerful, personal and lovingly written—excuses any conceit. Plus it will make any lover of whales insanely jealous.

It’s a wonderful book—precisely the sort of book I’d like to write. And it’s given me a few ideas about topics I might explore in a similar fashion.

But imagining a book like this and creating it are two very different things. Still, if you’re going to write a book, you might as well start with a good model.

I recommend The Whale for anyone interested in whaling and anyone who appreciates a well-written and wide-ranging narrative.

Matthew Lewis’ “The Monk”

In her introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Monk, Emma McEvoy notes that “The Gothic tradition, for those used to reading realist novels, can prove strange and inaccessible.”

No kidding.

I haven’t had this much trouble with a book since I didn’t read Tristram Shandy in Dr. K’s Enlightenment Lit class. Sorry. It wasn’t out of trying, mind you. But after a hundred pages or so, I just couldn’t follow the thing.

The Monk

I’m older now and, if not necessarily wiser, at least a heck of a lot more disciplined. I finished The Monk — less than two hours before the start of class. And I managed to get a bit of writing done as well. I rock.

But I was so very confused so very often while reading. Lewis’ habit of jumping around, bringing in stories-within-stories-within-stories drove me wacko.

Where did Ambrosio go? Are Lorenzo and Raymond the same person? Will we ever make it back from Germany to Spain?

And why, just when I think I’m following the plot of the novel, does Lewis toss in multiple stanzas of poetry?

I guess I have trouble with texts that cut against the grain of the stereotypically chronological modern novel. I love Faulkner’s short stories, and I appreciate the novels of  I’ve read (As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury). But I really had to slog my way through them. And when I was done, what I felt most was a profound sense of relief at having finished the novel, rather than a sense of elation at the conclusion of what were spectacular novels.

That’s kind of how I feel about The Monk. There’s a lot in it that I enjoyed. Here’s a few things in no particular order:

  • The theatrical nature of the book. It makes sense that Lewis was mainly known as a playwright, because there’s so much in this text that screams to be made into a big-budget motion picture. Oddly enough, a lot of this theatricality happens with one character: the young novice monk Rosario, who turns out to be the young girl Matilda, who eventually transforms into an über-sexy sorceress in the midst of a crypt filled with blue flames. Cool.
  • The monkThe humor. I still don’t know for certain if I get all the jokes of the novel. But they’re there, and though some of them are a bit over-used, I appreciate the intentionally and unintentionally funny bits. And, just like Rick and Ilsa, I’ll always have the scene where the linnet bird flies into Antonia’s shower and “nestled its head between her breasts.” I had to read that one aloud to several people to share the joy.
  • The gross stuff. I haven’t ever been as icked-out by a description as much as I was when Lewis took the time to have Agnes describe how she refused to give up her child. Was that really necessary? Then of course there’s the ending. A bit gratuitous, perhaps? But I do appreciate how Lewis is flouting convention with such an over-the-top description.
  • The stories-within-the-stories. This is actually the part of the novel that drove me nuts. They went on for so long, I lost track of where I was. But I did enjoy some of the stories, particularly the story of The Bleeding Nun (see humor and gross stuff above).

I’m not sure I’ll be picking up The Monk again, but I’m very glad I read it. It challenged my ideas about what a novel is, exposed me to a genre of literature I likely wouldn’t have encountered on my own and provided me with a highly amusing read.

But now I need a break. So I’m going to kick back and read the first book in my now huge “To Be Read” pile. That’s Phillip Hoare’s The Whale. A nice, happy non-fiction book. That should function as a sort of palate-cleanser before I move on to the final two readings for my gothic class.

Yep, that’s two. In addition to the vampire book I knew was coming, my instructor tossed another one on the pile. I’m hanging on for the ride.

Poetry six-pack: the Renaissance

National Poetry Month posterI’m back again to celebrate National Poetry Month with a “six pack” of poems.  This time, the poems are from the Renaissance.  Yes, they’re old.  But they’re all, to one degree or another, timeless in their own way.

Here’s hoping you’ll find a few new poems to enjoy and revisit a few you remember fondly!

  1. Sonnet #116-– William Shakespeare.  How could I not start off with Shakespeare?  There are 154 sonnets by the man to entertain you for years.  And while I won’t pretend they’re all equally great, there are a lot of good ones.  This one is special to me because my mother read it at our wedding.
  2. The Sun Rising — John Donne.  I’ve always enjoyed this poem because it’s one half of the fascinating before and after story of England’s favorite rake turned minister, which you see in…
  3. Holy Sonnet #14 — “Batter my heart, three person’d God” — John Donne.  This one is intense.  To me, it’s always seemed that this was Donne’s take on the stereotypical Petrarchan relationship of renaissance love poetry.  Only in this poem, it’s God that’s holding the proverbial whip.
  4. Lux, My Fair Falcon — Thomas Wyatt.  This one makes the list for the most profoundly disturbing use of metaphor to describe the loss of his friends after falling out of favor in court.
  5. The Faerie Queene — Edmund Spenser.  Okay, so this is not exactly the shortest of poems.  But Spenser’s allegorical tribute to Elizabeth has to be on any list I might make of great Renaissance verse.
  6. Sonnet #138 — William Shakespeare.  I wanted to bookend the six-pack with another poem by Shakespeare, and this is one of my favorites.  It’s sad in a sense, but it’s a wonderful poem.  His pun on the word “lie” is spectacular.

Again, no order or ranking is intended here. These are just a set of poems from the Renaissance I like. There are others. Anyone have any other favorites?

National Poetry Month: The women’s six-pack

National Poetry Month posterSo a few days back I kicked off National Poetry Month with a “six pack” of poems I liked.  I was horrified to discover that, among my numerous oversights, I hadn’t chosen a single poem by a woman.  Does this mean my subconscious has betrayed my feminist street cred?  Ugh.

But I need to make amends.  So here, again with minimal explanation, are six poems by women I like:

  1. The Prologue — Anne Bradstreet.  One of the most interesting facts about American “Literature” (define it how you will) is that the first published author in New England was a woman.  While she’s better known for her more “domestic” poems, I always prefer this one, as it gives the reader / student some good things to chew on.
  2. #324 — Emily Dickinson.  Lots of poems to choose from here, but I think this one will amuse frequent visitor and fellow literary chap Misha.
  3. Poetry — Marianne Moore.  How do we find the “imaginary gardens with real toads”?  This is the challenge faced by all fiction writers.
  4. We Real Cool — Gwendolyn Brooks.  The voice here is cutting, powerful, and important.
  5. The Well — Denise Levertov.  This is one I’ve only recently come across.  I really like it, and want an excuse for teaching it in combination with something like Speak, perhaps.
  6. Living in Sin — Adrienne Rich.  It’s the details in this poem that always attracted me; the “beetle-eyes”; the yawn of the boyfriend.  The cat actually prompted me to write a fiction story once.

Again, no order or ranking is intended here.  These are just a set of poems by women I like.  There are others.  Anyone have any other favorites?

What if Shakespeare talked just like you?

Just had to throw this out there for the general population who may not be familiar with SparkNotes or their “No Fear Shakespeare” series.

It’s not as though I’ve got a grudge against the site — I recall when it was just a bunch of Harvard graduates cranking out study guides.  One of my favorite teaching activities was to download a chapter of a poorly written sparkNote and have my class poke fun at it.

Now, the guides are a lot better.  So I’m reduced to poking fun at their advertisements.

So.  What if Shakespeare talked like you?  Who’s got the best answer?

National Poetry Month: Poetry six pack

National Poetry Month posterIt’s National Poetry Month.  And I know that a lot of people right now are participating in “Poem a Day” challenges or working on “Favorite Poem Projects.”  I’m not that organized right now and, quite honestly, I’ve got enough projects running right now to know I can’t handle another one.  But as a good English teacher, I do solemnly swear that before the month is out, I will complete a Favorite Poem Project posting.  Though I think that I ought to be exempt, given that much of this site qualifies as a Favorite Poem Project.

Meanwhile, in no particular order, with only minimal explanation, here are six poems I love.

  1. Mowing — Robert Frost.  It’s the sound of this one that always gets me.
  2. Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night — Walt Whitman.  The narrative , along with the pictures painted by the poet, make me read this one aloud a lot, even when I’m by myself.
  3. Ulysses — Alfred, Lord Tennyson — I know this is an old war-horse of a poem, but I love it.
  4. Fern Hill — Dylan Thomas.  “Nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows / In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs…”
  5. Under Ben Bulben — William Butler Yeats.  There are poems by Yeats I think are much better, but I love the idea of the poet “pulling it all together” near the end of his life.  This was one of the last poems he wrote.
  6. Introduction to Poetry — Billy Collins.  This one probably says a ton about my experience — good and bad — with poetry and school.

So in compiling this list, I note that I have not selected

  • any poetry by women;
  • any poetry outside the traditional western canon;
  • any Shakespeare, Spenser, or anything else from the period that’s supposed to be my specialty.

Horrors!  I promise to complete more six-packs before the month is out to address these oversights.