Summer Salmagundi

This is a strange summer. The sky is blue, the sun is hot, and the flowers need watering before another warm day, but this June and July feel different from every other summer I’ve experienced as a principal. 

The pandemic, of course, has changed things; taking the kids out for a boba tea or a matinee on a hot afternoon isn’t part of the equation, masks are hotter to wear in June than they were in April, and there’s always that thought lurking in the back of my mind that I neither want to get sick, nor pass anything on to my elderly parents. What’s the right line to walk between avoiding COVID-19 and still supporting the mental health of our kids and our families? How much is too much? How much is not enough? Is there any answer to any of those questions, any right answer anyway?

Our country’s newfound widespread acknowledgement of racial inequity is another force that has altered the tenor of the times. Difficult and important conversations are taking place all over the US (and beyond) and thinking about what these discussions might look like when students return to school in the fall is on my mind and the minds of school administrators everywhere. So too is the soul searching of white educators like me, the purposeful reflection about how to be a part of the solution, and thinking about what concrete steps we can take at our schools to promote a community that is anti-racist, values students who are LGBTQ+, and embraces as its identity the diversity of our many members.

But what it means to “return to school in the fall” is an unknown as well, and a part of this strange summer is preparing for an opening of school that is as yet undefined. We know that things will be different, but whether we’ll be on campus together for part of the week, have to transform to all remote learning, or some kind of ebbing and flowing between the two models has many of us doing our best to mold a system that can be flexible as it supports students, teachers, and families. We learned lessons from the spring of 2020, and know we need to make the fall (and winter?) of 2020 better for everyone. How? We’re working on it, step by step by step by step.

And those many steps, as well as an ongoing march toward some kind of senior celebration in August, and the usual planning that (in different budget circumstances) would have taken place in April and May are replacing the summer hikes and walks on the beach that usually fill late June and July. With furloughs dictating that employees like me who work year round can’t take vacation days during July, I wonder what the fall will feel like without that opportunity to step away and unplug that usually happens on camping trips or out of state visits to family or friends. We’ll see in August, I suppose, but the tether to work has further blurred the line between what I was doing in April and what I’ll be doing in July. Believe me, I’m thankful for a job I love, but more than 25 years into this career I never underestimate the value of some time away.

IMG_5684So…

I took the kids crabbing on Nehalum Bay. We barbecued corn and shrimp and some veggie burgers with my folks. A handful of paperbacks found their way off my shelf, silly books to entertain. My son and I watched the Back to the Future trilogy. Drive through ice cream cones have become familiar. Our family is figuring out day trips to natural areas where we can avoid crowds and be active. We’re doing our best.

Because the importance of that “time away” (in whatever incarnation it takes) is important for educators and for students, and while a coronavirus imposed separation makes the notion of summer vacation feel different than it has, the importance of finding ways to renew remains unchanged.

We’d all like to be back around each other: students, colleagues, the marvelous energy of school. We miss performances, talking in the hallways, and spending time together in class and beyond. Knowing that there are real limits on what we can (safely) do makes that desire to connect in person even sharper, and as much as we look forward to the day we can be together again, it’s just the truth that we don’t know exactly when that will be.

So we watched May turn into June, classes disappear, the days get longer, and summer arrive. The Fourth of July is next week, at least that’s what my calendar tells me (though as I work to plan some kind of senior ceremony for the Class of 2020 it feels unreal to be heading into July). 

We know we need to prepare. We know we need to renew. We know we need to plan and rest and stay connected and step away and be ready to step into another unknown. It’s all a salmagundi of questions, contradictions, and emotions. All will be well, but just how it will be is still up in the air, and any reassuring smile is hidden behind a mask.

This is a strange summer, but it is summer.

Poetry Kiosk

There’s a house in my neighborhood with a homemade kiosk in the front yard where they tack up pages of poetry. Every few days a new poem appears, and over the course of the year words from Alfred Noyes to William Stafford to Seamus Heaney have looked out from behind the glass offering little bits of verse to the world around them.

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Walking the dog, I make a point of passing that house every week, and the little bit of joy it provides —poetry in a prosaic world— is the same kind of magic I hoped to replicate in the series of posts that made up my “Year of Poetry” and ran from a sunny day in August through the end of the school year in June.

A couple of folks have asked about seeing a list of those poets and posts, and I include it here for anyone curious about the diverse group of writers I’ve spent time with over the year. They’re a fantastic bunch, spanning decades and continents, and my life is richer because of them.

Poet: Book Post
Introduction Bee Loud Glade
Margaret Atwood: Two-Headed Poems Unshelled Turtle
Julia Randall: The Puritan Carpenter August Eyes
Octavio Paz: A Draft of Shadows Edén Subvertido
Seamus Heaney: Seeing Things Itinerant School Conjuror 
Maya Angelou: Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit… Darning Worn-out Dreams
Ted Hughes: Crow King of Carrion
William Stafford: Even in Quiet Places Wanderings
Alice Walker: Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful A Whistling Woman
Anne Sexton: 45 Mercy Street My Oily Life
Good Poems for Hard Times Not Single Spies
Tracy K. Smith: Life on Mars One Notch Below Bedlam
Jorge Luis Borges: In Praise of Darkness No será menos un enigma
Margaret Avison: Winter Sun Warming and Bewildering
Victorians “Tumultuous Life and Great Repose” 
Rita Dove: Grace Notes Penciled in as a Hawk
Kim Stafford: Places & Stories Writing on an Envelope
Pablo Neruda: Five Decades: Poems 1925-1970 Dios de los perros perdidos
Doug Moench: Hit It Crowning Madness
Mary Oliver:  Dog Songs  A Sweet Arrangement
“Finna” by Nate Marshall Finna
Floyd Skloot: Wild Light Time to Dream
Gwendolyn Brooks: Selected Poems Like Narrow Banners for Some Gathering War
Jane Hirshfield: The Beauty Noun and Story
Fatimah Asghar: If they Come for Us Making Eye Contact with Pain
Gary Snyder: Turtle Island Swirl in the Flow
Jack Kerouac: San Francisco Blues Breboac! Karrak!
Sharon Olds: The Wellspring Without Belief, Praying
Leonard Nimoy: We Are All Children Searching For Love A Being Little Known
Billy Collins: Picnic Lightning Wind like the hair of dryads
Dante: La Vita Nuova “Nature, disposed to love…”
Kim Whysall-Hammond The Cheeseseller’s Wife
Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems A Many-Sided Mind
Yrsa Daley-Ward: Bone Writing the Truth
Sidney: A Defense of Poetry In the Company of the Paperblurrers
C.P. Cavafy: The Complete Poems Indignant Immortal Nature
A Treasury of Great Poems A Treasury of Memory
Yeats redux (and end) “Take down this book…”

Poetry can be healing, challenging, kind, harsh, honest, and transformational. The poets on this list are just a random sampling, a selection of folks who fill my own bookshelf, but hardly comprehensive in the world of poetry. For anyone still reading this post about poetry, and that takes a pretty special person in my opinion, I’d love to know who would be on your list if you were to read a poet a week over the course of a school year.

George Sand said that “He who draws noble delights from sentiments of poetry is a true poet, though he has never written a line in all his life.” To all my friends, poets or poetic souls, I wish you happy reading.

Summer, I suppose

It is summer
I suppose
though the rain is falling
hard
outside my window
and the sky is gray
and we had to turn the heat on this morning
after coming back in with a wet dog.

It is summer
I suppose
classes ended on Thursday
of last week
I’m told (though the proof of it
is as unseen as faith)
there were no screams as students
left the building
no lockers left open or papers scattered
just that today the kids won’t log on.

It is summer
I suppose
though we’d like to be at school
seeing friends, at least, or
somewhere other than our houses
where it feels we have been
for so long.

It is summer
I suppose
though no baseball
comes from my radio
the cheering crowd a murmuring
that has never in my half century on the planet
paused
as it has now.

Crowds will return
it will stop raining
students will come back to school
and
sometime
the world will
say in more reassuring tones,
it is summer again.

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“Take down this book…” William Butler Yeats

I had it memorized when I was an undergraduate, a little poem by Yeats that spoke of love and books and old age. Why I chose to commit this to memory, or why it chose me, I can’t remember. Perhaps I didn’t know even then. 

As a bookend to this Year of Poetry, I knew I wanted to come back to Yeats, the fellow whose bee loud glade had inspired this whole silly enterprise. To do that, the poem that returned from the land of far away was “When You Are Old.”

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.”

Taken out of context, these thirty-odd posts about poetry are a little like that book on Yeats’ shelf, a poetic mirror to a year of life that in my corner of the universe was filled with more stress than some and benefitted to no end from the words of poets from across the decades and around the world. Whether it was Billy Collins’ wit or Maya Angelou’s soul, Alice Walker’s fire or Ted Hughes ice, the poems and poets that filled this year helped me slow down, reflect, and see my world (at least in a few stanzas) through different eyes.

I found comfort and challenge in these poets, “moments of glad grace” as Yeats describes it, and sometimes “Love fled.” And though I am not yet willing to class myself as “old and grey and full of sleep” as I look back at these posts, taking down this book of reflection on a cavalcade of poets, I am moved to read on. 

Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, George Herbert, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, so many didn’t make it off the shelf over the past few months, some because their collected works demand more than a week of perusal, some because they suggest summer days and reading beneath a blue sky. I’ll get to them in the next few weeks, even if I don’t scribble out reflections on them all.

And I end this year of poetry with a heartfelt thank you to anyone who has read along with my free-ranging thoughts on these good poets. Poetry is magical, and meaningful, and can make a difference. It has, and does, for me, and I hope to have captured some of that appreciation over the past few months.

COVID-19 inspired social distancing keeps me from going back to that hike at the coast where Yeats planted the seeds for this endeavor, but as I was taking the dog out to walk last week I was stopped short by a pair of bees buzzing around some flowers near my front door.

“Bee loud” I thought to myself. Full circle. There’s something poetic in that.

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Three Sparks of Joy

These past few weeks of sheltering at home I’ve felt the same sort of isolation that so many others have. I’m fortunate to be sequestered with a family I love and pets who keep things interesting. I’m in a neighborhood green with spring and the summer sun seems to be poised to make an appearance after the rainy cool weather than helps grass grow, but even so the reality of not being able to see friends and family, do the normal things (like take my son to the comic book store or eat falafel at our local kabobery) is disconcerting at best. That said, from time to time throughout this quarantine kind messages have found me from friends, art has sparked joy, and the powerful caring of my school’s artistic community has reminded me that hope is always just around the corner.

For anyone needing a bit of a boost today, I want to share three of those instances that brought me a bit of comfort and a smile to my face.

The first came by way of an email bcc’d me by a site administrator at my previous school. He reaches out to the departments he oversees every week (and sometimes shares those emails with me) and his messages of hope are always inspiring. I was pleasantly surprised to be quoted in this recent message, and then knocked off my feet by the video he shared of a poem that I didn’t know.

Good Morning, Folks:

Our former principal Bjorn Paige, himself a former English teacher, used to joke with me at the start of each school year by quoting Where the Wild Things Are. “Let the wild rumpus start!” he would say, as the first bell rang and the school year commenced. I bring this up because this past week, and the changes and challenges we have faced, felt just like that: a wild rumpus. While concerning, time-consuming, and a host of other adjectives, the week is over and the wild rumpus will go silent… at least until next Monday.

I hope this email finds you well… or as well as can be. Again, I turned to poetry this week with a poem I first encountered last night during my normal 2:00 am anxiety attack. I logged on to Twitter to find Andrew Scott, otherwise known as “Hot Priest” reading “Everything is Going To Be Alright” by Irish poet Derek Mahon. I must have listened to him read the poem three or four times and then read it four of five times more before I fell back asleep. I read it again this morning. It is moving. I share it because I share the sentiment. And Andrew Scott’s reading of the poem is fantastic. The text of the poem is below. Everything is going to be all right. I swear.

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
― Derek Mahon, Collected Poems

I miss you all. I hope you are well. I hope you are finding peace. Hang in there– we have just a few weeks left… and then the wild rumpus will go silent. For now.

I am here if you need anything. You will always find it here.

Cheers.”

This is an administrator who cares deeply, is willing to be vulnerable, and has a poetic spirit that can elevate those around him. I didn’t know the Mahon poem until I read his email, but am richer now for having read it, and even more for having Andrew Scott (that marvelous Moriarty) perform it.

Another flavor of performance that I’ve found myself turning to in this time of COVID-19 is music, and I realized when I was driving to the store this week that I’ve had one CD blaring in my car a lot lately: Swagger by the Irish band Flogging Molly. Admittedly, I like my rock and roll a bit more punk than pop, and song after song Swagger feels like the right balm on the wound that is Coronavirus. 

That said, it was a quieter Flogging Molly that I happened upon a few weeks ago, Dave and Bridget, two married members of the band, who are doing fireside sessions, two songs per week, from their home in County Wexford, Ireland.

Intimate, unplugged, and inspiring, these weekly reminders of the power of art have been something to look forward to. To hear a fiddle, pipe, and guitar played by two talented musicians, drinks on the table in front of them, fire in the hearth behind, is a reprieve from a world crazier than any of us could have expected. 

A little closer to home, and maybe a bit less Irish, a couple of weeks ago the staff at my little art school banded together (remotely) to put on a show for our students. Teachers, counselors, and classified staff sent in performances and messages for the kids, and we packaged it all under the title ACORN (Arts & Communication Online Revue Night). Just about every week we’ve tried to do some kind of all school activity, a scavenger hunt (for items in their houses), a Kahoot (about ACMA history and trivia), an open mic night for the students, and it felt right to have the adults in our students’ lives pick up the mic and perform. 

Screen Shot 2020-05-28 at 7.16.39 AMAnd perform they did: a math teacher who has been learning accordion over the quarantine, a science poem, a counselor with a tutorial on how to sew masks, some songs, juggling, photography, and a bit of performance art masquerading as a long story about pink ping pong balls. Along the way the heartfelt messages of love from everyone were reassuring, inspiring, and just what many of our students needed.

One of the happiest surprises during ACORN was a host of incoming students, who have yet to step foot on our campus, who joined us for the live viewing of the show. We know how disconcerting it can feel moving to a new school in the fall, particularly when what that fall will look like is still uncertain, but I like to believe that our playful ACORN gave these new to ACMA students a sense of who we are and some reassurance that coming to a new school will be okay (thanks in no small part to the awesome kindness of some of the comments from established ACMA students in the Zoom chat room). The incoming students even got to see that they’re not alone in their love of Gravity Falls, anime, or cosplay. As one of our juniors said in the chat: “We’re all a little weird here. Welcome!”

Art can spark joy. Homegrown or from Ireland, creativity can and does make a difference. It invites us, in the face of tragedy and stress, to contemplate “the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window / and a high tide reflected on the ceiling,” and even what might happen if we “ever leave this world alive.” Making art makes an even bigger impact, and as we allow our own creativity to be inspired (from an acorn grows an oak tree) we might even find that that joy is already within us.

I’m thankful for artists like Flogging Molly, Andrew Scott, and Derek Mahon, and to my friend Bobby for sharing his inspiration with me. I’m grateful for the creative spirits I get to work with, and to the art and kindness they share with our students, even across the miles during this time of sheltering at home.

At some point we’ll be back on campus preparing for the wild rumpus of school. Until then, inspired by art and by friends, I know in my heart that “everything will be all right.”

A Treasury of Memory

My 1942 edition of A Treasury of Great Poems has been kicking along on my bookshelf since I stole the volume from my dad on my way to college. I have memories of him reading the book in bed, though I never spent too much time thinking about it at the time. Later, much later, when I became an English major, I lifted the battered blue collection and have kept it close ever since.

IMG_4911A Treasury of Great Poems went with my wife and me to the coast on some of our early dates. I have a framed photo of us with ridiculous 1980s hair and equally silly sunglasses laughing on the beach, the book open in front of us. 

The volume traveled with me to Michigan State, where I went to graduate school, and then back to Oregon, where I got married. It saw a decade in the San Francisco Bay Area, and shifted to a bookshelf in Southern California before my wife and I came to our senses and returned to the rainy home we’d known most of our lives. 

Now it occupies a place on a bookshelf in my office, between a two volume set of Sherlock Holmes stories and a book of Borges’ collected non-fiction. I knew it would be one of the last books I picked up for this Year of Poetry, and one of the few anthologies; I also knew that I wouldn’t let this silly project end without returning to its pages, at least for a little while.

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With more than 1200 pages of verse, A Treasury of Great Poems is broad river and this modest post a teacup, so I’ll limit myself to three poems, and allow the reminiscences that this week has brought me to infuse what it can with a sense of nostalgia.

Starting nostalgically, earlyish in the collection are selections from Shakespeare, including one of Oberon’s monologues from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in:
And with the juice of this I’ll streak her eyes,
And make her full of hateful fantasies.”

It’s always a little weird to excerpt from a play, but spending time with A Treasury of Great Poems made me realize that some bits of Shakespeare I encountered first in this way, even before I read or saw the play as a whole. “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” is, in this book, its own entity, and as such invites a closer reading and encourages us to pause there in the forest and really listen. Rereading that poem now took me back to a time before I had as much poetry on my bookshelf, when my area of lit’ry expertise extended about as far as Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe, and Moon Knight comic books. I’ve come to appreciate language much more since then, and I think A Treasury of Great Poems contributed to my being able to slow down and appreciate words more. Shakespeare’s rich language, lulling us “with dances and delights” shows the power of poetry to capture, in just a few words, the spirit of something grand. 

Nothing could be grander than love, and some 500 pages later A Treasury of Great Poems finds “Love’s Philosophy” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The book opened to this poem, an envelope tucked inside with my name on it in the handwriting of a college coed who would become my wife.

The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?—

See the mountains kiss high heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?”

Was this one of the poems I read aloud with my wife to be on the beach? I’m a gentleman, so I’ll leave our courting for more private revery, but more than thirty years later she’s just in the next room, so I think I really ought to pause in typing this and go read her a poem.

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Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is a nice end to the earthier subject matter from the other two poems. An old standard, this poem speaks to life and loneliness, class and culture, death (of course) and what it means to live.

Gray’s opening stanza, a powerhouse of literary devices (that any reader who has stuck with this post this long knows without me enumerating them) sets the tone and gives us four of the most memorable lines in poetry.

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”

Gray goes on to describe the landscape, a landscape that a century later writers like Hardy will make real for readers of novels, including a “moping owl” complaining to the moon and swallows “twitt’ring from the straw-built shed.” Within that landscape he places the rustic inhabitants of his poetic vision, and introduces the death that prompts the elegy in the title.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.”

It is a noble death, or noble life as it were, and Gray warns “the boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r” not to discount that hand-wrought honor.

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.”

Death is death, and like Hamlet chiding his uncle with the king going progress through the guts of a beggar, Gray puts rich and poor alike in the same reality of death, asking:

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?”

Gray spends some time reflecting on poverty and the injustices it brings to the potential of the poor.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.”

Then Gray’s elegy takes us into that country churchyard of the title and invites us to walk the grounds with the poet, far, as he tells us, from the madding crowd.

Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect,
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.”

We walk in “lonely contemplation” with Gray as he takes us to “the foot of yonder nodding beech / That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high” where the subject of our elegy was wont to sit, past the “brook that babbles by” and “the heath and near his fav’rite tree,” all vacant now that our rustic has been borne to the churchyard of the title, where we are invited to: “Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay, / Grav’d on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.”

IMG_1047I thought a lot about my dad when I read this poem. His memory (except for a few people and places) has been brushed away by dementia. His poetry reading days are gone.

I can still see him with a book in his hand, his favorite Don Quixote, a little poetry, or one of the more philosophical books he read when last he read. That younger man is gone, replaced by a fellow who takes delight in the dog and watching ducks at the pond, rustic pastimes if there ever were any.

The poetic epitaph inscribed (by a poet within Gray’s poem) on the gravestone in that country churchyard reinforces the ideas from “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” and reminds us to keep perspective, even as the world around us slips continually away. 

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy mark’d him for her own.

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heav’n did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,
He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.

No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose)
The bosom of his Father and his God.”

I could spend a year reading only poetry from A Treasury of Great Poems and not run out of subject matter. Instead, I’ll keep this volume close to my heart and bring this post to a close.

I don’t know if either of my kids will steal A Treasury of Great Poems from me. Right now neither show any signs of such imminent thievery, though at their ages neither did I. Until one does it will stay with me, pulled from the shelf when I need a spot of verse, treasured as much as anything I own. It is my first memory of poetry, my introduction (even before poems in school) and a fitting (almost) end to a year of living more poetically.

 

Finishing this year of poetry next week with one final post that takes us back to William Butler Yeats.

Indignant Immortal Nature: C.P. Cavafy

I saved C.P. Cavafy for the end of this Year of Poetry. He’s been a favorite of mine for a long, long time, the poet I turned to when I had my first chance to teach a pack of students at ACMA, the poet I went to for my first commencement as a principal back in Oregon (when rather than give a speech I simply read Cavafy’s “Ithaca” to the graduates), the poet who provides the final book by single poet this spring until I wrap up, full circle, with Yeats in a couple of weeks.

A number of years back, a surprising number as I do the math in my head right now, when a new translation of Cavafy’s poems came out I bought a copy for my dad. I’d learned to love poetry from him and thought the volume, a hardcover with a rich Greek mosaic on the dust cover, would be a good gift. It was, but that’s not the book this post is about.

IMG_4734My copy of The Complete Poems of Cavafy (translated by Rae Dalven) is a well worn paperback with a yellowed photograph of the author looking out at anyone there to see him. His tight lipped expression is that of a banker, maybe, or petty bureaucrat, which Cavafy was, working in Ministry of Public Works in Alexandria for decades. It’s an old soul that looks out through his round eyeglasses. His dark suit and thick striped tie tell a conventional story, only the handkerchief escaping from his breast pocket provides a hint at the poetic soul beneath that suit.

Cavafy was not a banker, but he would have slept with one, if the fellow was young and pretty.

A result of Cavafy’s sexuality, still taboo in the early twentieth century when he was writing, was that many of his poems, particularly the unapolgetically erotic ones,  were not published until after his death. Poems like “He Came to Read” show Cavafy’s longingly loving voice as he describes love, youth, and best laid plans oft gone awry.

He came so he could read. Lying open
are two or three books: historians and poets.
But he’d barely read for ten minutes,
when he put them aside. On the sofa
he’s half asleep. He’s completely devoted to books—
but he’s twenty-three years old, and very handsome;
and this afternoon desire has come
to his flawless flesh, and to his lips.
To his flesh, which is beauty entire,
the fever of desire has come;
without foolish shame about the form of its enjoyment. . . .”

Less shocking today that it would have been in the 1920s poems like this, and more ribald appreciations of male beauty and longing, are a facet of Cavafy’s work, sharing a very human spirit with even the more epic verses.

But Cavafy’s subject matter is not only love. Some of my favorites, and the ones I pulled from when I got to teach a class who were reading Homer’s Iliad, look back at the classics through more modern eyes.

“The Horses of Achilles” is a good example of Cavafy’s reimagining of ancient Greece. 

When they saw that Patroclus was slain,
who had been so stalwart, and strong, and young,
the horses of Achilles started to weep,
their immortal nature was indignant
at the sight of this work of death.

They would shake their heads and toss their manes,
stamp the ground with their feet, and mourn
Patroclus who they realized was lifeless— undone —
worthless flesh now— his spirit lost-
defenseless— without breath —
returned from life to the great Nothing.

Zeus saw the tears of the immortal horses
and grew sad. “At the wedding of Peleus,”
he said, “I should not have acted so thoughtlessly,
it would have been better my hapless horses
if we had not given you! What are you doing down there,
among woebegone humanity, the plaything of fate?

You for whom neither death nor old age he in wait,
you are harassed by transitory calamities.

Men have implicated you m their troubles.”- Yet the two
noble animals went on shedding their tears
for the never-ending calamity of death.”

This poem led to some of the richest discussions when I was working with the students. Fresh off their study of The Iliad, they talked about the humanity Cavafy brings to this epic story, and how differently he approaches this familiar and grand story. Whether talking about Patroclus or the patron at the cafe, Cavafy’s approach to humans is so very human.

There are other less heroic poems in The Complete Poems of Cavafy, poems that give modern readers a glimpse of taverns and old books, colored glass and broken hearts, flowers, inkwells and “Melancholy Hours.” 

The fortunate ones profane nature.
Earth is a sanctuary of sorrow.
Dawn drops a tear of unknown pain;
the wan orphan evenings mourn
and the select soul intones sadly.

I hear sighs in zephyr breezes.
I see sadness on the violets
I feel the painful life of the rose,
the meadows alive with mysterious sorrow;
and within the dense forest echoes a sob.

People honor the fortunate ones
and poetasters sing hymns to them.
But Nature’s portals are closed
to all those who indifferently, callously deride,
aliens who deride in an unfortunate land.”

He brings a poet’s eye to the city around him, and the result is small snapshots of life in a world now extinct.

But my copy of Cavafy falls open to the poem “Ithaca.”

It is, like the poem that started this series of posts (Yeats’ “Isle of Innisfree”), one of the poems that continues to inform my world view, always near the surface of my consciousness ready for the opportunity to be said aloud.

When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclopes and the angry Poseidon.
You will never meet such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty,
if a fine emotion touches your body and your spirit.
You will never meet the Lestrygonians,
the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.

Then pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many,
that you will enter ports seen for the first time
with such pleasure, with such joy!
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and pleasurable perfumes of all kinds,
buy as many pleasurable perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from those who have knowledge.

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind,
to arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would never have taken the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.
With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,
you must surely have understood by then what Ithaca means.”

Ye gads, what a poem. 

Always more of a fan of The Odyssey than The Iliad, not only does the story of Odysseus resonate with me, but Cavafy’s perspective on what that journey means reminds me to slow down and “pray that the road is long.”

In many ways that’s what this Year of Poetry has been about. Borges, Stafford, Brooks, and all the others, these are the “ports seen for the first time / with such pleasure, with such joy!” Angelou, Asghar, and Dove, these are the “beautiful voyage.”

Cavafy’s poems, familiar, beautiful, and human, are worth finding out and reading, or rereading, particularly in these uncertain times. And when I feel frustrated or overwhelmed, which is too often sometimes, I’m wise to turn to him to be reminded that if I “find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded” me, and hear him whisper to me: “With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience, / you must surely have understood by then what Ithaca means.”

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with A Treasury of Great Poems.

Strained

If you’re looking for someone to be mad at the choice of suspects is long, and I have no doubt that I’m on it. If remote learning has you frustrated, angry, sad, you’re not alone. It has lots of us feeling emotions we aren’t used to associating with school, all of us: students, teachers, parents, and even principals.

If you just want to scream, lash out at someone who made a choice that you think was wrong (no, you’re sure was wrong), or someone who sent a message that didn’t carry the right tone, or hold accountable someone on the other side of a computer screen, you will not find it difficult to find a name to put in the “To:” line of your email. These are frustrating times, and sometimes it feels like it should help if there is a person whose feet might get held to the proverbial fire. We see it all around us these days. So many of us are strained.

And before we type that email, assign that blame, or choose rigidity over kindness (and all are things that all of us are sometimes tempted to do) I’d encourage us to take a moment and think that…

Teachers are people. People doing their best to balance home and work, work being something that all of them know has the possibility of changing lives, work that involves kids we care so much about, and work that all of us feel obligated to do well. Really well. And for all of our professional lives those of us in education have been given a specific set of guidelines about what doing that job well entails.

Doing our job well means that when kids leave our classrooms they are prepared for what comes next, the next grade, the next level of math, the next English class that builds on the fact that students have already learned “x, y, and z.” This year we’re struggling to get halfway through “y.” 

And this kills us. One teacher I admire told me that he was struggling with the grading approach he was being told by the state to practice. “My classroom integrity and the faith I have in the system is really shaken when I’m asked to lie about what a student can and can’t do,” he told me. “It makes my work even more difficult to stand behind and do on a daily basis.” How will that student who leaves his class cope with the next class that she won’t be prepared for, and how can he hold on to the integrity that helps to define him if the “P” (for passing) at the end of the year doesn’t accurately reflect what happened in his (virtual) classroom? This isn’t a silly or frivolous question; we want teachers with integrity, and the strain he’s feeling from the situation is real. 

Another gifted teacher called a passing mark at the end of June “a governor’s P” (as opposed to “a gentleman’s C”). It was his way of processing what was being asked of him, imperfect, but true.

For many teachers, who work so hard and in this time away from campus are working as hard as ever, the tension caused by lack of student engagement, frustration with technology, and the chorus of concerns raised daily from all sides can feel overwhelming. Some see them as heroes; some call out every decision they make as the wrong one. They continue to work to help kids learn, but with every week that job feels harder. Students aren’t always engaging as we wish they could, some are struggling, and…

…and it’s important to remember that students are people. Midway through our discussions about how to best support our kids in this remote learning situation my staff had a discussion about the challenges our students were reporting to us and the fact that we all might benefit from taking a deep breath and thinking about the kids as “people, not pupils.” 

We batted around ideas for a coordinated response to some of the things our students had been telling us, things like: 

“This is a very stressful time for students and even though it may seem like we have more time to do work, it doesn’t mean we can necessarily. Anxiety and depression have gotten worse since the start of online school. Some students just feel like they are always behind and can never catch up. … The biggest concerns seem to be being behind next school year and failing classes as well as teachers assigning too much work, procrastination and pressure from parents.”

“Students have been dealing with stress by crying, breaking things, cutting or just not dealing with their stress and those are not healthy ways to deal with stress.”

“Some of us students are now facing food insecurity, abuse at home, a loss of support staff, and financial instability at a higher rate than ever before. I personally have A.D.D, and would not have been able to even begin to cope with the amount of work we are being given if I hadn’t had parents who were able to set up a complex system to help me. Many students do not have parents who either a) understand the issues their kids are facing or b) know how to help their children cope with online learning.”

These were very real student voices, strained by circumstances beyond what they were prepared for. Exactly zero of them had signed up for online school at the start of the year, the same number of teachers who had signed up to teach completely online. The stresses they were feeling were profound, immediate, and heart wrenching. They didn’t know what to do, and they were looking to the adults in their lives to help. And… 

…and we adults are stressed out too, particularly some of the moms and dads, aunts and uncles, grandparents and older siblings who are raising our kids. It’s easy for students to feel grumpy that their parents are forcing them to sit down and do schoolwork, and it’s easy for teachers to feel frustrated at some of the emails they get that question their teaching ability, dedication to the students, and (at least in one case I know of) even their parenting. That’s not fair, but…

Parents are people. And parents are people who are feeling as much strain as the teachers and kids. As one mom told me: “Sometimes I look at this situation and think to myself, ‘this is insane!’ It feels a tad impractical for my eleven year old to navigate seven classes remotely, all the while missing strong connections with her peers (which, arguably, peer-to-peer aids in the navigation of middle school). To state what you already know, it’s completely upside down. I’ve written to all of my daughter’s teachers to let them know she is struggling, and to get a grasp on what’s past due and what’s coming up. Since she’s behind in most of her classes, I’ve devised a plan to help her get caught up, but again, school work is met with negative emotions, the tears, the stress, the overwhelming feeling she can’t shake. For my family, the next 5 weeks looks like a mountain.”

Lots of parents feel the same. We want our kids to learn, we want our kids to engage with school (and with peers and with teachers). We see the stress in their eyes and just want to help …and want others to help.

There’s a line in Shakespeare that comes to mind when all of these stresses tempt us to lash out. It’s from The Merchant of Venice, a complicated play that knows its way around anger, bitterness, and societal stress. Midway through Act IV one character tells another (who is steeped in anger and embroiled in a lawsuit): “The quality of mercy is not strained.”

For context, the line is delivered to encourage the character to show mercy not because he is compelled to by law, but because it is the right, the kind, thing to do. Showing mercy, she tells him, not only blesses the person receiving mercy, but blesses him as well. The lines go like this:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”

In this modern age it isn’t only monarchs who get to have an opinion; we all have the power to speak our minds. But if I read Shakespeare correctly, it’s not in the vehemence of our opinions that we show our best true selves. Our criticisms, our angry words, our stated frustrations, and our calls for justice may all have merit, but it is when we allow “mercy to season justice” that we bring ease to our strain (and maybe the strain of those around us).

For anyone thinking that we don’t need Shakespeare for this, I’ll shift gears and offer a little mid-80’s pop to bring the point home.

Thanks, Depeche Mode. 

People are people.” All of us. We’re stressed out. We’re frustrated that we aren’t able to help in the way we’d like, that we aren’t able to do everything we wish we could do. But maybe what we’re able to do is simply what we’re able to do. Our best. Maybe we can show kindness to one another, recognizing that our current circumstances feel overwhelming …for all of us.

So I encourage all of us to pause, breathe, and allow ourselves to accept that while people make mistakes and can be easy to be mad at, one of the most human things we can do is show each other mercy.

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In the Company of the Paperblurrers: Philip Sidney

“Year of what?”
“Poetry.”
“Why?”
“Well…”

For anyone just tuning in to this blog, once a week (or so) since the start of the school year I’ve turned my attention to writing about poetry. It started with a hike along the Oregon Coast and a bunch of buzzing bees, and has since then led across continents and centuries through a roll call of amazing poets, alphabetically from Angelou to Walker. The merit of an enterprise like this? Well…

I think it’s helped me slow down, look more philosophically at the world around me, no, not philosophically, but poetically. There’s a line by Mary Wollstonecraft that reads: “The generality of people cannot see or feel poetically, they want fancy, and therefore fly from solitude in search of sensible objects; but when an author lends them his eyes, they can see as he saw, and be amused by images they could not select, though lying before them.” Poetry has done that for me this year.

sidneyAnd as I enter the final stretch of this Year of Poetry, with just a handful of books between me and the end of the series in June, I wanted to spend a week with a book that is not written in verse: Sir Philip Sidney’s A Defence of Poetry.

It’s a slim volume that has been on my bookshelf since I was an undergraduate, and the marginalia I re-read when I picked it up this week (scrawled in the cursive of a nineteen year old) reminded me of a time, a lifetime ago, when people like Philip Sidney were a bigger part of my life.

I’ve come a long way since I first picked up my copy of A Defence of Poetry at the Pacific University bookstore. It cost me $8.95 back then, a steep price for 112 pages, but if my jottings in the margins are any indication, I dug it back then. 

I certainly enjoyed it now.

A Defence of Poetry was written in the late 1570s, and at the time was Sidney’s attempt to define and explain poetry, its place, its power, and its purpose. With the thoroughness of a classic scholar, Sidney takes readers through a history of poetry, explicating the value of verse across cultures, and emphasizing the power of a poet “freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.”

Poetry, Sidney explains, can sometimes tell truths unavailable in prose, and its influence reaches beyond rhyming verse. “It is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet—no more than a long gown maketh an advocate, who though he pleaded in armour should be an advocate and no soldier. But it is that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by.” It is a concept echoed centuries later in that line from Wollstonecraft, and articulated in some of the prose poems I’ve seen in the volumes I’ve read since September, from Snyder and Borges this winter to Daley-Ward last week.

Spending the year with a cavalcade of poets, I’ve come to appreciate Sidney’s perspective that a poet is not tied to describing nature, but “lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature.”

Sidney’s “Defence” does much to categorize and rationalize the making of verse, but the middle aged reader I have now become focused less on his argument and more on the flashes of wit dotting the plain of his rhetorical battlefield. “Since the excellencies of [poetry] may be so easily and so justly confirmed,” he tells his readers midway through the text, “and the low-creeping objections so soon trodden down: it not being an art of lies, but of true doctrine; not of effeminateness, but of notable stirring of courage, not of abusing man’s wit, but of strengthening man’s wit.” He goes on, summarizing his careful arguments in bursts of sixteenth century insight.

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He does this not only as a critic, but as a poet as well. Sidney wrote the Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence and other short verse, and comes to his work in A Defence of Poetry in “the company of the paperblurrers” adhering to the “old proverb” orator fit, poeta nascitur (an orator is made, a poet born).

And while across town a scruffy playwright/actor was having his character respond an aging courtier who asked him what he was reading with the line “words, words, words,” Sidney spends a detailed section looking at the “diction” of poetry, or as he says from “the outside of it, which is words.” Critical of imitators whom he wishes would “not so much keep Nizolian paper-books of their figures and phrases, as by attentive translation (as it were) devour them whole, and make them wholly theirs.” Poetry is about sincerity and truth; imitating without owning an idea is, to Sidney, like casting “sugar and spice upon every dish that is served” regardless of taste.

That ownership of poetry is particularly praised with regard to the “lyrical kind of songs and sonnets, which, Lord, if He gave us so good minds, how well it might be employed.” He calls out Dante (though Shakespeare’s sonnets were too close for a contemporary nod) and those ideas Sidney lays out in the 1590s ring as true with poetry written today.

Reading A Defence of Poetry during this 2020 COVID-19 quarantine was a nice reminder that my own little appreciation for verse over the course of this year is something that an old courtier like Sidney would think is okay. 

And since this is a “Year of Poetry,” not a year of essays about poetry, as I near the end of this post I’ll include Sidney’s own Sonnet 21, from Astrophil and Stella. It says in verse some of what Sidney suggested in A Defence of Poetry, particularly the value of the heart as captured in a poem.

Your words my friend (right healthful caustics) blame
My young mind marred, whom Love doth windlass so,
That mine own writings like bad servants show
My wits, quick in vain thoughts, in virtue lame,
That Plato I read for nought, but if he tame
Such coltish gyres, that to my birth I owe
Nobler desires, least else that friendly foe,
Great expectation, wear a train of shame.
For since mad March great promise made of me,
If now the May of my years much decline,
What can be hoped my harvest time will be?
Sure you say well, your wisdom’s golden mine
Dig deep with learning’s spade, now tell me this,
Hath this world ought so fair as Stella is?”

Sidney’s self deprecation continues in his closing paragraphs of A Defence of Poetry, when he writes: I conjure you all that have had the evil luck to read this ink-wasting toy of mine, even in the name of the nine Muses, no more to scorn the sacred mysteries of poesy; no more to laugh at the name of poets, as though they were next inheritors to fools; no more to jest at the reverent title of a rhymer; but to believe, with Aristotle, that they were the ancient treasurers of the Grecian’s divinity.” Why a year of poetry? Just maybe because poetry matters, poetry tells the truth, and poetry can make a difference.

 

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with The Complete Poems of C.P. Cavafy.

Three (nice) Surprises

It’s my job to look for silver linings. As a principal one of the most important things I do (along with working hard to help my school continue to improve, addressing concerns, and supporting teachers and students) is keep fixed in my mind a vision of my school at its very best. Some days that’s tougher than others, particularly in this strange COVID-19 spring, when the challenges seem to outweigh the celebrations, at least in my in-box. And… 

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Even though we can’t be together on campus (a place where magic is commonplace), this past week saw three very happy surprises, beacons of hope in these uncertain times. Sharing them here makes me happy, and I hope can be a modest reassurance that even though there is much to be stressed by in the world around us, there is always the chance that very, very soon we might just get an unexpected surprise that doesn’t involve coughing.

Surprise #1: We are a school that makes things. Music, paintings, poems, stories, ACMA is a creative cauldron where students and staff support each other, applaud often, and encourage artistic risk taking. We love the polished performances we see on stage, whether a dance recital, play, or concert, and we love gathering together to entertain each other at more casual affairs like Open Mic Night (or Open Mic Afternoon during this pandemic). This leads to a real challenge for some of our classes, and has seen our art teachers offering to bring paint and sketch books to students, our staff finding ways to get musical instruments to kids, and most recently one of our art teachers to go the extra mile to help a class work that really shouldn’t during this time of sheltering at home: Ceramics.

I came to campus last week to find our ceramics teacher cutting and bagging clay for her advanced ceramics students. She filled ziplock bags with clay, put student names on them, and placed them in the shade in the front of campus. She’d reached out to her students and every one who wanted to create with clay at home had a package waiting for them. It wasn’t something she had to do, but it was something she wanted to do for her students. Kind, inspiring, creative, a surprise provided by an amazing teacher.

Surprise #2: Once a month ACMA students gather at lunch for an ACMA Student Forum. A pair of students run the event, an open conversation about what’s happening on campus and what we all ought to do about it. I’ve written about ACMA’s Student Forum before (a new tradition at our school inspired by a longstanding student forum at a fabulously funky school a thousand miles south of here), and when we left campus in March I wondered if we were done for the year. We weren’t.

The two moderators reached out to me a couple of weeks ago and we set an online version of the ACMA Student Forum for Friday. Students from 6th to 12th grade showed up and talked art, coping with the separation from school, and things they were doing to stay sane. Kids shared ideas, and positive words, and afterward one moderator told me “This student forum was great! I am glad we got to hear from the younger grades, and looking at participation, an online format is almost better than when we had it in-person.” Now I will never discount the thousand benefits of being in the same room with students sharing their voices, but that moderator was right: this was a pretty great event.

Surprise #3: At our little art school we have a “Sixth Grade Wheel” where our youngest students get to sample a mix of creative pursuits from instrumental music to theater to art. Since we left campus before the final rotation of the wheel, some students only got three flavors of ACMA this year rather than the usual four, and one family reached out during one of my (online) coffees with the principal to ask if there was any way her student could get the syllabus for the fourth and final spoke of the wheel, visual art, that he’d be missing since we opted to keep students in their third quarter classes to minimize disruption and not ask them to meet a new teacher and subject only through Zoom. It was a fair request, and one we said we’d follow up on, so after an email to the art teacher I figured we were about done. I was wrong.

The art teacher, so student supportive that I want to burst with pride, wrote back: “I could send the syllabus but what would be more helpful for them is if they could maybe get access to the class on Canvas as an observer. That way they could access and do the assignments and activities.” She didn’t know how to do this, she went on, since she had never met the student, but she hoped we could help make the connection. Our Canvas master, a middle school science teacher, hopped on the challenge right away. He found a solution and talked us through how to add the student to the class, so the student could see more than a list of topics, but get some instruction if he wanted it, and participate as much as he’d like. 

In a world where some choose to do the very minimum, to see a student and parent reach out asking for the opportunity to learn, a teacher willing to support them, and another teacher quick to help out gave me hope that as rocky as sometimes things can be, we’re going to be all right.

Those are just three of the many good things that happened last week. More did, and more will this week as well. As we navigate these waters, the final four weeks of the school year, I encourage all of us to look for those nice surprises. Celebrate them. Don’t ignore the frustrations, or swallow the angst that has a natural place in this situation, but allow yourself to see beyond the stress, breathe in the positive, and appreciate when things happen that bring us a smile. We will get through this, and if we look for the good in the world we might just be surprised.