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Blog

Filtering by Tag: William Wordsworth

On Literary Companions

Jill Reid

19 Reid photo Perhaps, I am flirting with literary sacrilege in confessing I am not a huge William Wordsworth fan. It’s a dark secret I keep from my students each time we traverse the timeline of the British Romantic movement. While I appreciate his massive and game-changing contributions to the canon, I prefer to make my way through the literary landscape of the 1800s deliciously horrified by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I mean, who can resist a text that incorporates the diversity of grave-robbing, romance, a “monster” who recites Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the line “by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open”?

Still, out of literary respect, I always make sure we spend a little time on Wordsworth. This year in my British literature class, we read “We Are Seven” from his famed collection of Lyrical Ballads. Sing-song and balladic, the poem is structured by short stanzas of dialogue between an adult and a child, and, in the dialogue, directly contrasts the adult and child’s differing views of what can be considered “real” and alive.

In the opening stanza, the speaker asks the reader: “A simple Child/what should it know of death?” (lines 1-4). This questioning of the child’s ability to distinguish the real from the non-real continues as the adult argues that the little girl cannot logically claim, “We are seven” when two of her siblings have died and two have moved away. But the adult cannot argue this child down. An imposition of a more logical and tangible reality will not overcome the intangible but very real understanding of her family identity:

“But they are dead; those two are dead! Their spirits are in heaven!” Twas throwing words away; for still The little Maid would have her will, And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

I admire Wordsworth’s little Maid. My grandmother would call her “hardheaded.” But I understand that stubbornness. Her brothers and sisters are alive unto her. The adult and all his logic cannot diminish their presence in her life.

In class, I often talk about “being human.” For me, one aspect of being human means being haunted. We are, knowingly or not, haunted by people—the family and friends who imprint so deeply into our lives that we are never truly separated from them—their influence and shadows, their words and DNA. But Wordsworth’s poem also prompts thinking about another kind of “haunting.” As readers, we are often haunted by the fictional. There is something about the companionship of characters, of literary characters, that can haunt on some level the way the dead can.

For passionate readers, how much of our “everyday lives” are saturated by the presence of characters? How often has the fictional become something more than fiction, a bond formed with companions that continue to exist influentially in our lives long after their book is clapped back on the shelf? It is a wonder that in a stifling crowd of people I sometimes find myself wondering about Scout Finch or having an inner dialogue with Anne Shirley or thinking about Shakespeare’s Viola or Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne so completely that each of them are as present and part of that moment as the noise and heat of the crowd pressing against me.

A good writer can make characters as real as the ham sandwich we packed for lunch, as tangible as Louisiana humidity in July. There is comfort in that realness. There is comfort in not giving into the rigidity of Wordsworth’s adult speaker and in choosing to let the imagined be “alive unto us,” in walking through our lives alongside our literary companions. In doing so, we find that there is community anywhere there are carefully written words. Surely, the dead have great influence over our lives, but perhaps, the imagined, in their own way, also haunt, in the best possible sense, the way we move through and perceive the world.

The Current

William Coleman

27 Cafe A few years ago I was asked to write an essay on the importance of poetry in our time and place. I did not accept right away. The task was daunting; my impulse was to say no.

At the same time, however, I’d been teaching improvisation, and the first rule of improv is to say yes.

And so, though I felt panicked, I said yes, and the moment I did, an extraordinary thing happened. I felt like some Midwestern Robert Burns, composing a tune: “My way is: I consider the poetic Sentiment, correspondent to my idea of the musical expression; then chuse my theme … [and] I walk out, sit down now and then, look out for objects in Nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom…”

With the theme I’d been given playing always in the background, I experienced the world differently. The news of the day, the way my daughter turned a phrase, the words of a student’s essay: everything felt charged with meaning with which I wanted to connect. I extended every conversation with my wife. I read more. I took walks.

I was seeking what T.S. Eliot sought: “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work,” he writes in “The Metaphysical Poets." "[I]t is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”

I started to feel what Wordsworth longed for us to feel: a sense of a consciousness that experiences the world and its inhabitants not as commodities to be gained and spent but as possible occasions for the marvelous:

Great God! I'd rather be A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

And when some unforeseen experience—receiving W.S. Merwin’s Migration as a Christmas present from my wife and daughter, or hearing a young couple in a coffee shop discussing Kierkegaard’s sense of irony—chimed with what I was trying to discover, I felt the jolt David Kirby felt when composing “Get Up, Please,” one of his witty poetic fugues:

“Anybody can stitch a bunch of parts together to make a creature—the secret is to know when to apply the current. In this case, the limbs and torso of my poem were just lying there when a stranger slipped them the juice.”

Throughout the Christmas holiday and well into the New Year, I grew more attentive, and so my relationships flourished. Because I was compelled by the rules of play to say yes to writing, I came to love the world more. I came to love life more.

“So here’s to music, poetry, and chance encounters that give you exactly what you need,” Kirby continues, “especially when you don’t know it’s coming your way.”