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Filtering by Tag: Dante

Three Roads

William Coleman

"Green Gables House, Cavendish, P.E.I." by Markus Gregory / Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons “Look for contrast, look for repetition—you’ll find your melody.”    —Larry Sayler, violin teacher, Northfield School of the Liberal Arts (2005-2009)

My former colleague Larry Sayler said the words above to a sixth-grader during morning convocation at my school in 2008. His topic was the sonata form. He'd just played a particularly tricky one—a late example, perhaps by Mahler—on his beloved instrument. The boy’s hand went up. He was having trouble, he said, figuring out what exactly he should listen for inside of what seemed a jumble of noises. Where was the melody? He knew it was there, for he had learned that from Mr. Sayler already. But how could he tune his ears to hear it?

Mr. Sayler’s response immediately spoke beyond the subject at hand, and has become central to the way that I teach, for it resonates with the metacognitive process that underlies the understanding of every subject at hand: the progression the ancients called the trivium.

Grammar (broadly speaking, the defining and assembling of the basic units of any subject), logic (the practice of discerning how such units interrelate), and rhetoric (the communication of what’s being discovered) is central to any search for meaning. In this way, to discern import within a given work of literature (and perhaps within any given life?), one must

—distinguish and define individual “grammatical units” within the work itself (in the language of music, these take the form of notes and measures, key signatures, tempo; in literature, we speak of diction and syntax, etymology and connotation, images and meters, alliteration and personification)

—in order to find patterns within and among those grammatical units (what sounds are repeated? what images? what words? which words are dissonant? what images? which sounds?)

—so that we may arrive at an articulation of a theme, a meaning, that’s at play within the work (The etymology of “salvage” on the first page of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf contains the tension between the pagan and Christian world views that defines the Anglo-Saxon work as a whole)

Thus, whether reading The Tempest or Native American myths, The Divine Comedy or A Christmas Carola book-length poem in medieval literature or a back-page print advertisement in capstone rhetoric, we look for patterns of congruence and antithesis in order to arrive at meaning, the integrity of which we test in class discussion and essay-writing.

And, once we learn to discern themes playing within a given work—once we learn to distinguish meaningful patterns within a work—that book or poem or essay itself becomes, in essence, a unit of grammar, one that can be compared and contrasted with other works within its time, or with contemporaneous historical or scientific events that have become “grammatical units” to the students via their other classes. (In what ways is Macbeth lodged against—and within—the forces that gave rise to the Gunpowder Plot, and the cultural forces at work in its aftermath? How did the ideas of physicist Niels Bohr find passage into the poetic consciousness of one of his dinner companions at Amherst College in 1923, Robert Frost?)

What’s more, these larger grammatical units—these poems and plays and novels—though rooted in time, can be compared and contrasted with other grammatical works across space and time. (What lines of thought and feeling connect the Elizabethan Dr. Faustus with the Romantic Dr. Frankenstein? How does Plato’s Allegory of the Cave intersect with Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation”? Why does the rhythm and syntax of a line in Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek echo those of a line of William Wordsworth’s, written two and a half centuries before, and an entire ocean away?)

To read literature is to enter what Sven Birkerts calls “deep time,” a contemplative space where one can discern “the shadow of import alongside the body of fact.” In our classroom, the trivium’s three roads lead us into that space .

We read slowly. We read aloud. We talk about what we’ve read. We write about it. We strive to be people, as Henry James once wrote, upon whom nothing is lost. We want to hear the music.

Retreating together

Nathaniel Hansen

image4 Writing is an act I do alone. In my home office before anyone is awake (just as now). In my school office between course prep, grading, and the dozens of other tasks that demanded my attention. Even at one of my local coffee shops, when others are present, I’m still by myself. Solitude is my preferred working method.

Yet one month ago, and for the second consecutive October, I reserved time and money to attend a weekend writing retreat in a three-story house facing Lake Michigan, a retreat with a dozen other writers from various states. For a self-acknowledged introvert, for someone who works alone (preferring it), what is the draw?

The gorgeous fall colors that are absent back home in Central Texas, sure. The temperature thirty degrees cooler than the above-average fall temperature back home, yes. The walk along the Lake Michigan shore, my bare feet chilled in the off-season sand, yes. Still, those aren’t the only reasons.

*                *                *

For much of Saturday, each of us carves out hours of space in the lake home to work on our projects. I sit in a lower bunk in my room, small reading lamp on, windows open to the breeze rushing in off of Lake Michigan, the heater set low enough to offset the brisk air, coffee cup within arm’s reach.

My first project is tightening a forthcoming creative nonfiction publication. I read aloud off the paper copy, marking it up, the task wonderfully slow. Next, I transition to completing those edits in the file itself. By late morning I have finished this first big project, and there is a feeling of success, a feeling of momentum.

I slide in socked feet down the hallway: others are still sleeping. Two rooms over, a friend is reading Dante’s Inferno. I descend the creaky stairs, each step a tree limb snapping, despite my attempts to be stealthy.

In the kitchen, someone has claimed a spot at table, gathering essays for a book-length manuscript. Another person is editing a collection of poems. We chat in snatches, each respecting the need for quiet. I pour the last of the coffee and prepare a new pot.

In the living room, a few people sit on the world’s most uncomfortable couch, each working with words in some way. I sit down, stretch my legs, having already written for several hours, the most my brain can handle in one span. I ask others what they’re working on; I share what I’ve been doing. And then it’s back upstairs.

*                *                *

Back in my room there’s a new sound. I approach the window, glance down. My friend sits on the deck two stories below playing her fiddle. It’s one thing to listen to music when I write (which I often do), another to listen to live music by someone whose written words months earlier moved me to seek help. Instead of being states away, she is in the sunshine bowing melodies that help me sort through images and scenes.

I am ready to work on the next project, a piece about something that has bothered me for decades, something I am not yet ready to disclose, and the revision comes easily. I acquire a new vision for the piece. Although I am alone in this room, I am supported by community around me in this three-story house, and that is enough to move me forward, to brave my way through what is painful to write.

*                *                *

Oh, it’s not all quiet, no. A bunch of writers together?

Over three days I laugh more than I have in months.

Over three days I’m a part of a community of writers, some of whom I know well, some of whom I barely know, some of whom I’ve just met, and somehow something creative, something sacred happens over this quick span.

Over three days there are communal activities: the evening meals preceded by our rendition of the Doxology, the evening jam sessions (my fingers aching from playing an acoustic guitar for hours), the reading at a nearby public library where each of delivers a couple poems, a short prose piece.

Over three days my heart is filled, and when I touch down in Austin on Sunday night, my heart still overflowing with fellowship, I have already been plotting the probable retreat dates for 2016.

Trusting Dante

Vic Sizemore

Lakeland Terrier x Border Collie Bess scratching herself I grew up in a poor town along the Elk River in West Virginia. Elkview had no leash laws, and flea-infested mongrels ran free. We lived beside a garbage truck garage and a busy stretch of US Route 119. Dogs found the hot reek of trash irresistible, and I saw many of them ripped open by cars and strewn down the road. Hunting was also big in Elkview. It was also a town of hunters. The sight of a boy hiking toward the woods with a gun slung over his shoulder was common—also the sight of gutted deer. Memories of these things come to me every time I return to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

I think if those mongrel dogs when I read Dante’s description of souls writhing in the seventh circle of hell, plagued by fire from above and burning sand from beneath: “They were in fact, like a dog in summertime / busy, now with his paw, now with his snout, / tormented by the fleas and flies that bite him.” In reading this passage, I can imagine Dante as a boy watching, just as I did, a dog continually scratching and biting at its relentless parasites.

I think of shot and gutted deer when I read his description of one who sowed schism in life, ripped bodily in half, “from his chin to where we fart…. Between his legs his guts spilled out, with the heart / and other vital parts, and the dirty sack / that turns to shit whatever the mouth gulps down.” I know what a physical body looks like when split open and the innards dumped out; I believe our poet knows as well.

Dante intended for his writing to work on four levels: literal, allegorical, moral or didactic, and anagogical. While he saw his art this way, what makes me trust him is the fact that he has so carefully observed the literal. His descriptions are so concrete and physical that, though his characters are in this fantastical hell, they have real flesh.

In On Moral Fiction, John Gardner goes as far as to claim that a writer’s failure to pay close attention to the literal amounts to a moral shortcoming because the writer “is not deeply involved in the characters’ lives.” He maintains that, “what truth the writer might have discovered if he’d carefully followed how things really do happen we will never know.”

In my experience, though you cannot tell immediately what a fiction writer’s worldview is from her fiction, if she has cared enough to pay close attention to concrete reality, you can be sure that, whatever she tells you will contain truth and have value. The same goes for any artist—any human being—who wants to communicate with other human beings. Are you concerned with truth? Look at what is in front of you and describe what you see.