Blog Post, Buddhism, Monthly Review, Poetry, Teaching, writing

July, July!

Have you heard the song, “July, July!” by The Decemberists? You should.

This is the story of the road that goes to my house
And what ghosts there do remain
And all the troughs that run the length and breadth of my house
And the chickens how they rattle chicken chains
And we’ll remember this when we are old and ancient
Though the specifics might be vague
And I’ll say your camisole was sprightly light magenta
When in fact it was a nappy blueish grey
And the water rolls down the drain
The blood rolls down the drain
Oh what a lonely thing
In a blood red drain
July, July, July! it never seemed so strange

I always have two thoughts when July approaches. First: the song. It’s got a very “July” kind of vibe to it, which is appropriate. July comes just after the middle point of the month, and this song tackles the concept of memory, and how it fails us. But how much truth in memory matters? Does it matter that we remember things exactly as they happened? Or does it matter that we remember what we felt, what shaped us? The “ghosts there do remain,” indeed. Second: so many birthdays. My sister, two nephews, and some good friends all have birthdays in July. Maybe this is why I get along with Cancers so well?

Reading and Teaching

Anyhow, last month was my LGBTQ reading month and it went better than expected. I read a total of 7 books, all of them LGTBQ-themed. This month, I’ve turned my attention to poetry. I’m covering a few different approaches within this larger goal, though. For example, I’m reading two non-fiction texts on poetry and how to read and write it. I’m reading two short collections of poems by individual poets, and I’m reading one anthology. Finally, I will be reading one hybrid novel that contains poetry and is about a young poet.

As I work on my own novel, I find that I’m trying to avoid reading anything else in the genre (LGBTQ YA). I don’t want to be influenced or find myself doubting my abilities. So, instead, I’m pursuing other genres while writing, genres that are far from what I’m doing but still inspiring. I think, when I’ve finished the full draft and move on to edits and revisions, I’ll return to reading within the genre as a kind of research exercise. (“Am I doing what the genre is doing, generally, but in a way that’s unique to me?”)

I’ve become obsessed with Ocean Vuong, after reading On Earth We’re Briefly GorgeousI actually started following him on Instagram before reading any of his work, because I found his aesthetic interesting and had heard good things about him. And then reading him blew my mind to smithereens. I spent the last week reading some of his work in places like The New Yorker, as well as reading a bunch of articles about him in The New Yorker, Interview Magazine, The Paris Review, and Poet & Writer. In the interview with Poet & Writer, he commended his freshman English composition course and the community college experience with providing him a foundation experience, a welcoming and motivational environment in which to work with a diverse group of people, all of whom were there for the same reason: to improve themselves, to achieve a goal, and to fulfill a dream. It was a small but beautiful statement on the power of community college education.

All of this is to say, one of the collections on my reading list this month is Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds. I’ll also be reading Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here (incidentally, I picked up a copy of John Okada’s No-No Boy recently as well, inspired by the disgusting concentration camps our government is operating, dysfunctionally, at the southern border.) I guess I’m on some kind of thematic kick for Asian-American writing.

The others on my list this month include the two I am reading right now: Thomas C. Foster’s How To Read Poetry Like a Professor and Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry, edited by Timothy Liu (whose collection, Burnt Offerings, is a personal favorite). I’m half-way through both of these, and I’m really enjoying them. The anthology is particularly interesting because most of the included poets are new to me.

After the Foster, I plan to read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook.  When I finish the anthology and two poetry collections on my list, I will be completing the month’s project with Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X.

Writing

Speaking of writing: It has been going generally well. I joined Camp NaNoWriMo this month, which is like the regular NaNoWriMo except you can adjust your goal, create cabins to collaborate with others, work on any kind of writing you want (even though it’s an off-shoot of National Novel Writing Month in November, this one is really meant to get you writing whatever you want). The social media accounts also run regular “word sprints” to encourage people to sit and write, as well as offering up a variety of prompts, e-mailed encouragement, etc. My current stats on this WIP are as follows:

  • Today’s word count: 2,945
  • July word count: 24,492
  • Total word count: 34,545
  • Chapters: 11 complete of 31 planned

I’ve been averaging about one chapter a day. I get up early in the morning and head to “my spot,” which is the same spot I used for my 100 Days Journal project. I’ve found that creating and inhabiting one’s own writing space is crucial. Yesterday, after a sleepless night (thanks, insomnia!), I couldn’t get up to write. I tried later in the day and managed only about 1,000 words (about 25-30% of normal) and that was writing additions to a scene in a previous chapter, rather than working on a new chapter. I sat there staring at the “Chapter 11” header, at 2 in the afternoon, and simply couldn’t get anything onto the page. I guess I need my routine. (Is this what they mean by “creature of habit?”)

This morning, though, I managed to get up on time (despite another sleepless night) and got the chapter done. I’m happy with this pace and progress. If I can maintain it, then I’ll have a complete draft done by the end of July and can work on revisions and edits as the new school year begins, when the opportunity for new writing is, let’s face it, not readily available. I get too tired and too burned out from lecturing, grading essays, attending meetings and trainings, etc. I do plan to keep my mornings for myself, though, but rather than working on a lot of new material, I’ll probably be revising and editing, revising and editing. I guess this means, sometime around August I’ll be looking for beta readers. How does one go about doing that, anyway? And what about finding an agent? When is that supposed to happen? How does that happen? Oh dear.

Anyway, my first book, FROM A WHISPER TO A RIOT, recently received this very thoughtful review, and I’m so grateful.

Buddhism

Part of the reason I began my 100 Days Journal project about 4 months ago is that, in addition to wanting to “force” myself into a daily writing routine, I found I had been struggling with severe depression all year. Since about January, I’ve been in a slump. It’s not unusual for me to have ups-and-downs, but this was a long one, and that “light at the end of the tunnel” we who suffer from depression come to rely on, just wasn’t showing up. Not even a little pinpoint in the distance. I didn’t know what was taking so long to come out of it at the time, but I have my thoughts now. In any case, one of the things I’ve realized is that I’ve been craving a kind of reckoning with myself and my beliefs, for lack of a better word. I’m an emotional and spiritual person, though agnostic and anti-religion. Still, I do always, always look for connections. The bigger picture. The threads that connect all of us. I’m a hopeful person, I guess, and so part of my struggle lately has been finding hope in a time that seems hopeless, perhaps not even worth hoping for. As I thought about what might help me investigate myself and find renewed purpose, I started to learn a little more about Buddhism. Here’s what I wrote on Twitter:

Do I have any practicing Buddhist friends who would be willing to point me to good places to start my reading? History, tenants, meditation, zen, beginners guides? I can look up lists online, but I’d rather have personal recommendations from people living the path. To be honest, I’m looking to connect with myself spiritually, to understand and articulate my own value system. I need a philosophy or “faith,” for lack of a better word, that is without deity, and Buddhism is the closest practice I know of, currently. At my core, I’ve a desire to be driven by kindness and generosity. I’ve seen a lot about Buddhism’s mindful approach to acting and reacting with love. That’s the sort of thing I want to get better at, particularly now when, let’s face it, there’s a revolution of hate happening. Ultimately, even Buddhism might not be for me. It’s possible that no established “religion” will be. But I’d like to learn more about it anyway.

I received some excellent and helpful suggestions, as well as inspiring and motivational comments and conversations. I also discovered that some of my Twitter connections are practicing Buddhists, though I never knew it. What a world of possibilities and revelations can open to us, if only we have the courage to ask! I’ve begun my journey with The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation by Thich Nhat Hanh. So far, it is resonating with me. His style is warm and to the point. He explains a lot of how the history of Buddhism has been corrupted or altered (inadvertently or intentionally), and then gets into the tenants and philosophies, including what they mean and how to practice them independently. I’m excited to continue learning more, and I’ll probably stick with Hanh’s texts for now, though I also hear good things about Pema Chodron. Am I a Buddhist? I don’t know. I take a lot from Christ’s teachings, too, but I cannot be Christian (ask me about that some other time). It may end up the same with Buddhism, though something about this experience so far, and the embracing of human philosophy rather than the supernatural, is appealing to me.

Take a breath, and onward.

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2019 TBR Pile Challenge, coming out, Coming-of-Age, Lesbian Lit, LGBT, Poetry, pride month, Sarah Henstra, Young Adult

A Lesbian Classic & Walt Whitman

I wrap-up my Pride Month reading with two final pieces of fiction, one a classic adult novel of lesbian literature, the other a young adult novel inspired by Walt Whitman. Please feel free to check out the rest of my pride month reads. I had planned to read 5 LGBTQ books this month but managed to read 7, and I wasn’t disappointed at all!

Don Juan in the Village

Jane DeLynn’s novel, Don Juan in the Village (1990), is a classic of lesbian fiction. It follows the escapades and sexual conquests of its female protagonist, a lady Don Juan, as she travels the world and sleeps with as many women as she can. The narrative spans the course of 20 years, beginning sometime in the 1970s and ending sometime in the 1990s. There is a clear and stark, sometimes painful, contrast between the freedom of the post-1960s sexual revolution and the advent of what the narrator labels, “the plague.”

Each chapter is titled with the name of a different place to which the protagonist travels. Within, she describes not just the place she is visiting, but the women—and types of women—she meets there and makes love to. These experiences range from the soft and sensual to the nearly sadistic, but in any case, the narrator is almost always “very wet.” Yes, indeed, the story is that bold, that graphic, that open about sexuality, and female sexuality in particular. As a gay male, these experiences are about as far removed from my own as is possible, and yet the importance of this kind of text, particularly in the cannon of LGBTQ+ fiction, particularly in the canon of women’s literature, and particularly at a time when AIDS was devastating the gay community, is not lost on me.
So, while the writing style did not particularly appeal to me (rather dry, like a kind of Gertrude Stein meeting Ernest Hemingway at the middle of an intersection), it also makes sense: what better way to share taboo experiences to the widest range of readers as possible than in a clinically modernist way, as if “these are the facts, and if you can’t handle them, you’re the problem.” So, upon consideration, it’s an incredibly smart approach by an obviously talented writer. I think many readers will respond to this one, though it wasn’t right for me. That said, readers of LGBTQ fiction and those interested in LGBT literary history, as I am, should not pass it up.

This book is also one of my TBR Pile Challenge reads for 2019.

We Contain Multitudes

Sarah Henstra’s We Contain Multitudes (2019) is one of those rare novels that catches my attention right away, keeps it word-for-word, line-for-line, and page-by-page, and then upends everything just as I’m wondering if I could possibly love a book more. Somewhere about 75% into the novel (no, let’s be honest, I counted the pages and it was exactly 75% of the way in), the story takes an unexpected turn, one that I was not prepared for and one that I did not appreciate. It felt like my world was shattering. I understand how hyperbolic that must sound. IT’S JUST A BOOK, MAN, you’re probably thinking. Except that’s just it. This wasn’t just a book. This novel, these two young Whitman lovers, these two young Walt Whitmans, indeed, are much bigger than a story.

The novel is told in epistolary form, as a series of letters written between two high school boys, a sophomore and a senior. They are given an assignment to write to each other, typically with some kind of prompt from their English teacher. As they are in different classes, of different ages, and in wildly different social circles, they had never spoken to each other before, though they each knew who the other one is. This is because, in their own way, they are both wildly inconspicuous. What begins as a series of assigned letters, though, quickly drifts away from a mandatory task and into true, good old-fashioned letter-writing. Henstra adroitly creates two different styles and voices that match the two different teenage protagonists.

One struggle is that, given the design, the boys must re-tell each other the events to which they were both a party (otherwise, how would the reader know about them?) That said, even the author recognizes this complication and manages to address it through the characters’ letters as well. This is perhaps the only place where the author’s identity (or narrator’s, if we want to be more academic) can be felt. That said, a benefit to this is that the boys recount their shared experiences from their own perspectives, which turns out to be revealing to the reader, but also to the other person involved. A significant question that comes about, then, is how much can we really know another person?

I won’t reveal what happens at that three-quarter mark, except to say that it crushed me. The book resolves in a mostly satisfactory way, in my opinion, but I personally had been so distraught over the major conflict, that I was—I still am—left reeling. In a way, this speaks to the brilliance of Whitman, first of all, and to the brilliance of this novel and its characters, too. Upon reflection, I realize that Adam Kurlansky is deeper and more complex than he is given credit, and far crueler than I am or could ever be. I realize that Jonathan Hopkirk is stronger and more flawed than he seems, and far more forgiving than I am ore ever could be. And so, in this way, the point is proven: they do contain multitudes. We all do. The poetry is the point, and the poetry is in us all.

I haven’t felt this connected to Whitman or to myself since, well, since reading Whitman. It is not without its pains, nor without its fearsome joys. When I finished reading, I could only think of Whitman’s poem, “To You,” which, unless I’m mistaken, does not make an appearance in this novel. And yet…

Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem,

I whisper with my lips close to your ear,

I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you. O I have been dilatory and dumb,

I should have made my way straight to you long ago,

I should have blabb’d nothing but you, I should have chanted nothing but you.

-Excerpt, “To You” (Walt Whitman)

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Poetry, Poetry Project

Six: The Aeneid

From The Aeneid of Virgil (circa 29-19 BC)

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Arms, and the Man I sing, who, forc’d by Fate,
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting Hate;
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan Shoar:
Long Labours, both by Sea and Land he bore;
And in the doubtful War; before he won
The Latian Realm, and built the destin’d Town:
His banish’d Gods restor’d to Rites Divine,
And setl’d sure Succession in his Line:
From whence the Race of Alban Fathers come,
And the long Glories of Majestick Rome.
O Muse! The Causes and the Crimes relate,
What Goddess was provok’d, and whence her hate:
For what Offence the Queen of Heav’n began
To persecute so brave, so just a Man!
Involv’d his anxious Life in endless Cares,
Expos’d to Wants, and hurry’d into Wars!
Can Heav’nly Minds such high resentment show;
Or exercise their Spight in Human Woe?


Response:

On this sixth day of my poetry project, I’ve decided to visit Virgil’s Aeneid, which takes as its source Homer’s Greek epics. Book XX of the Illiad tells of a battle between Aeneas and Achilles, during which readers (or listeners) learn about Aeneas’s lineage: this inspires Virgil to write a history wherein Rome is essentially descended from Troy (Aeneas flees Troy after the Trojan War to found a new city).

The Romans were quite adept at borrowing from the Greeks (not just stories, of course, but politics, art, science, military strategies, etc.). Later societies, including perhaps most famously and effectively (though the current climate might speak to the contrary) the United States, then borrowed from Rome. Indeed, there’s an excellent book by John C. Shields called The American Aeneas which puts Aeneas, rather than Adam, at the heart of American foundational cultural theory. Virgil was the most celebrated Roman poet of his age, and for many ages afterward. It took him eleven years to write The Aeneid, but even after all that time and effort, and just before his death, Virgil wanted his manuscripts burned because he felt the story was incomplete. Fortunately, Emperor Augustus (Octavian), published the work anyway.

The passage I’ve chosen to consider is the first stanza of the poem, as translated by John Dryden (1631-1700). Dryden’s translation is generally out of fashion these days, but I still find it to be one of the more beautiful versions. The stanza itself should read quite similarly to the first stanza in Homer’s Illiad. Just as in the original Greek version, this Roman stanza introduces us to the plot, setting, and major conflict, as well as some of the characters, human and godlike. Virgil intentionally paralleled Homer’s introduction and techniques because he was both paying homage to the master as well as writing a new Roman story for his Roman audience — by telling a Roman tale in a style they would be familiar with, there was a greater chance that the population would understand, accept and essentially assimilate it as their own. The English would eventually do something similar, centuries later, and the Americans likewise followed suit centuries after that.

One interesting difference in this first stanza is it alludes to the two Homeric epics, Illiad and Odyssey, in the verse “warfare and a man.” That is, there is something of the journey to come (recalling Odysseus) as well as a great battle (the Trojan War). Virgil reverses the tale, however, first giving us Aeneas’s odyssey and then following it with the war to establish Rome.

We learn, too, that Virgil will face off against nature and the gods, just as Homer’s heroes did. In addition, we have a first-person voice singing introduction to Aeneas story, followed 10 lines later by a call to the Muse to tell the singer why the goddess was angry and hateful, intent on punishing Aeneas. This is a striking difference from Homer’s version, where the Muse is evoked in apostrophe in the very first verse and asked to relate the whole tale. Here, the muse is encouraged only to fill in the blanks, as it were, clueing-in the audience to the whims of the gods; in other words, the information to which we couldn’t possibly be privy.

Contemporary critics tend to agree that Homer was the better poet, and the Illiad and Odyssey the better tales; still, I respond quite well to Virgil’s Aeneid and especially this Dryden translation. There are some problems in his choices, the use of “heavenly,” for example, is far too Christian for this ancient Roman tale; but of course he was writing to a Christian audience, much like Virgil himself was adapting a Greek story for Romans. That divine justice is being questioned (“For what Offence the Queen of Heav’n began / To persecute so brave, so just a Man!”) is fascinating, particularly as this translation would be read by devout monotheists who would be soundly discouraged from questioning the will of god; did Dryden consider this purposefully when introducing certain Christian phrasing, as Chaucer and the Medievalists often did?

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Five: To Lesbia

Song #5 to Lesbian by Gaius Valerius Catullus (circa 84-54 BCE)

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Come and let us live my Deare,
Let us love and never feare.
What the sourest Fathers say:
Brightest Sol that dyes to day
Lives againe as blith to morrow;
But if we darke sons of sorrow
Set; O then, how long a Night
Shuts the Eyes of our short light!
Then let amorous kisses dwell
On our lips, begin and tell
A Thousand, and a Hundred score
An Hundred, and a Thousand more,
Till another Thousand smother
That, and that wipe off another:
Thus at last when we have numbered
Many a Thousand, many a Hundred;
We’ll confound the reckoning quite,
And lose our selves in wild delight:
While our joys so multiply,
As shall mocke the envious eye.


Response:

Today is the fifth day of my 100-day poetry project, so I thought I’d continue chronologically and coincidentally (but not really) with Catallus’s “Song #5 to Lesbia.” Catullus is one of the most influential late Roman poets; although he lived only thirty years and wrote a limited number of pieces, his poetry remains widely read and has influenced other artists and poets from generation to generation, movement to movement. Rare are the artists who can boast such a level of influence and perpetuity.

My limited understanding of Catallus suggests that he often wrote in hendecasyllable rhyme, of which this poem is an example (whether I chose one that proves the rule, I can’t say; maybe it was just a happy correlation!). The translation above is of course not hendecasyllabic because it has been rewritten into English, but an example of the 11 syllable phrasing from the original is as such: Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus (line 1).

What I enjoy about this poem is that it praises the two-person love, raises it above the “rabble” of opposition, from family or friends. There’s also a great deal of passion in these lines. The lovers bathe each other in kisses, the argument being a type of romantic carpe diem — soon enough, the dark falls on everyone, so it is best to ignore the snide remarks of judgmental busybodies around us, love while we can, and then fade into that forever-sleep having, at least, loved completely, and having been loved.  There’s little confusion as to why Catallus, and this poem in particular, went on to inspire so many others, from the medievalists onward.

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Four: Canticles

The Song of Songs (circa 3rd Century BCE)

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The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love
is better than wine.
Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name is
as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins
love thee.
Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me
into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in
thee, we will remember thy love more than wine:
the upright love thee.
I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as
the tents of Kedar; as the curtains of Solomon.
Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun
hath looked upon me: my mother’s children were
angry with me; they made me the keeper of the
vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept.
Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest,
where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon: for
why should I be as one that turneth aside by the
flocks of thy companions?
If thou know not, O thou fairest among women, go thy
way forth by the footsteps of the flock, and feed thy
kids beside the shepherds’ tents.
I have compared thee, O my love, to a company of horses
in Pharaoh’s chariots.
Thy cheeks are comely with rows of jewels, thy neck with
chains of gold.
We will make thee borders of gold with studs of silver:
While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth
forth the smell thereof.
A bundle of myrrh is my wellbeloved unto me; he shall lie
all night betwixt my breasts.
My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the
vineyards of En-gedi.
Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou
hast doves’ eyes.
Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant: also our
bed is green.
The beams of our house are cedar, and our rafters of fir.


Response:

Although the Song of Songs is attributed in the Bible to King Solomon, the actual author remains unknown. As with my reading of Psalm 23, I’ve chosen the King James Version of the Bible, not because it is closest to the original, but because it tends to be the most poetic.

What I appreciate about this chapter is that it is blatantly sexual. With the exception of rape and spiritual possession, the Bible is rather short on acknowledging sexual/carnal relations, let alone in a celebratory way. Some read this as religious adoration (love for God) masquerading as erotic love; I don’t necessarily agree with that reading, but I appreciate that the complexity and ambiguity of the poem, and the lack of clear rhyme scheme or structure, allows for multiple interpretations. That’s what makes literary study so much fun.

Reading an ancient piece like this also rekindles my desire to learn languages such as ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, among others (such as Aramaic, which is the language in which this particular text seems to have been originally written). The original texts are rich with indicators, such as gender markers, that have been lost and/or accidentally or intentionally altered over the generations. Alas, my only experience with Ancient Greek is a reading of the first Harry Potter book in that language. (I’ve also read that book in Latin, but I do have a bit more experience with Latin overall). My knowledge of  Aramaic is limited to just a few words.

As for the Song itself, it is another example of the pastoral, this time in the tradition of Theocritus. I also respond to the clear indicators of race, although it should not be surprising that anyone would be darker skinned in these texts, considering the region where they were written (all of these contemporary folks who imagine Jesus was caucasian — I can’t get over it).  Economics is the real factor, here, in that the woman’s skin is dark supposedly because of all the work she’s done in the sun, which would indicate that she was either a poor farmer or a slave. If we are to take the other partner as King Solomon, then, it’s an interesting marrying of two worlds, two spheres.

I also understand that this poem has roots in ancient Sumerian, Hebrew, and Greek religions, but is one that was essentially usurped by and repurposed for use in the Christian tradition. I’m fascinated by Christianity’s great success in assimilating other cultures and religions into its own, thereby rapidly and effectively increasing the popularity and lasting-power of the Christian religion. I find this is a nice contrast to the Psalm that I posted yesterday. The themes, style, structure, mood, tone, and origins of the two couldn’t be more diverse, and yet they are found within the same canonical text. Just another reason why studying the Bible as a literary and historical piece can be such a rich, rewarding, and revealing experience.

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Three: Psalmist

Psalm 23: The Psalmist (circa 6th Century B.C.E.)

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The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth
me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of
righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of
death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine
enemies: thou anoints my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of
my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
for ever.


Response:

For believers and non-believers alike, one thing that can surely be agreed on by all is that the Bible as literary text and historical artifact is immensely significant. How can one presume to study western literature or culture without being familiar with one of its most influential foundational tomes? Even Gutenberg chose the Bible as the first book to be printed on his printing press.

Although this psalm is not my favorite passage in the Bible (there are many others I prefer, from the “Sermon on the Mount” to “The Christmas Story;” from Jonah to Jonathan and David; and of course the entire book of Revelations, which has inspired others, like William Blake, to a kind of maddening brilliance); nevertheless, I chose this passage in particular because it is one of the most familiar. Any child who grows up in an even remotely Christian environment will have heard and/or memorized this piece at some point. We read it in works of fiction, we watch as characters on television and in movies recite it. It’s nearly ubiquitous.

Many historians believe that this psalm was written by King David. I don’t have any evidence to the contrary, though I remain skeptical. The penchant for crediting aristocratic and royal figures with creative works, without evidence, has been widely noted (consider the controversies surrounding the “real” Shakespeare and the arguments that it was actually someone like Edward de Vere the Earl of Oxford or Sir Francis Bacon — someone titled– who must have done the work, because a “commoner” could never have accomplished such genius).

Authorship aside, the psalm itself is a great example of the early pastoral, which was popular in much of classical literature, including Greek, Latin, and Germanic traditions, among others. Jesus as Shepherd would of course fit into that idealized, Arcadian vision. The contrast between the first lines of calm purity and the middle section which forebodes danger and death is quite the juxtaposition. The technique aids memorization, but it also creates a heightened pathos which is difficult to remain indifferent toward. Of course, the ending ultimately finds the Shepherd leading us, his lambs, through that danger and not simply into the green pastures, but onward to a place of permanent, never-ending peace and harmony. Religion aside, it is masterful poetics.

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Two: More than a Hero

Sappho’s “He Is More Than a Hero” (7th Century BCE)

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He is a god in my eyes –
the man who is allowed
to sit beside you – he

who listens intimately
to the sweet murmur of
your voice, the enticing

laughter that makes my own
heart beat fast. If I meet
you suddenly, I can’t

speak – my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under
my skin; seeing nothing,

hearing only my own ears
drumming, I drip with sweat;
trembling shakes my body

and I turn paler than
dry grass. At such times
death isn’t far from me.


Response:

Considering what I do for a living, and my area of expertise, my very limited knowledge of and engagement with Sappho is fairly inexcusable. I won’t beat myself up over it, but I do at least want to acknowledge this limitation and include an excerpt from Sappho in this project. What we have left of Sappho’s works are just fragments, but Sappho herself is legendary. Most of her work, from what I understand, explores themes of friendship and womanly love.

What’s going on in this particular poem?  Similarly to yesterday’s poem, we see heightened emotion linked to a particular subject in a particular situation. MY reading of the introduction to Iliad, poem one of this project, was wrapped-up in my current sentiments regarding the love between Achilles and Patroclus, and the rage of Achilles that led him to annihilating the Trojans, and, eventually, to his own death (of course that was reading beyond the first stanza, but these things happen).

I continue that type of sentiment here, where the speaker (Sappho, or a Sappho-like person? This is strikingly similar to Whitman’s autobiographical poetry) is envious of her friend’s husband or lover because that man benefits from the love interest’s proximity, companionship, etc. I find the first stanza particularly interesting. There’s a delightful turn from the first line, where the attention is first drawn to the exulted man, “a god”; but then we’re immediately corrected in our first impressions; the man won’t be the subject of this poem, he’s simply the secondary object of envy. It’s another woman being pined for, here!

It’s a clever start, followed by an impassioned and truly effective description of the physical responses caused by being near the one you love and long for. The sensory details are extraordinary: “a thin line runs beneath my skin”; “paler than dry grass”; “the sweet murmur of your voice.” The tactile, the visual, the aural — every element of human response is explored briefly but precisely.

All of these reactions lead to a final conceit describing “death” which, in many cases in classical poetry, is a euphemism for orgasm (John Donne, anyone?). Voyeurism, envy, descriptive physical responses to a passionate lust — no wonder Sappho endures.

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