Slightly less difficult books

photo ann e. michaelI recently read Paul Bloom’s book Descartes’ Baby while simultaneously reading Daniel Dennett’s Content & Consciousness. Of these two, the latter falls a bit under the “difficult books” category, but it is not too hard to follow as philosophy goes. Dennett’s book is his first–the ideas that evolved as his PhD thesis–and in these arguments it is easy to see his trademark humor and his deep interest in the ways neurology and psychology have aspects useful to philosophy. Bloom’s book, a somewhat easier read, suggests that the mind-body problem evolved naturally from human development: young children are “essentialists” for whom dualism is innate; Descartes simply managed to write particularly well about the evolutionary project (with which, I should note, Bloom disagrees; as a cognitive psychologist, he maintains a more materialist stance).

It turns out that because I have read widely if shallowly in the areas of philosophy, cognitive psychology, evolution, art, aesthetics, and story-making, I find myself able to recognize the sources and allusions in texts such as these. Quine, Popper, Darwin, Pinker, and Wittgenstein; Schubert, Kant, Keats, Dostoevsky, Rilke…years of learning what to read next based on what I am currently reading have prepared me for potentially difficult books. [Next up, Gilbert Ryle and possibly Berkeley.] I don’t know why I feel so surprised and happy about this. It’s as though I finally realized I am a grownup!

And I am glad to discover I am not yet too old to learn new things, young enough to remember things I know, and intellectually flexible enough to apply the information to other topic areas. Synthesis! Building upon previously-laid foundations! Maslow’s theory of humanistic education! Bloom’s taxonomy! The autodidact at work in her solitary effort at a personal pedagogy.

If I ever really discover what consciousness is, I’ll let you know.

 

 

 

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Autodidact as adult student: Goddard & me

In a previous post, I mentioned my peculiar undergraduate experiences at alternative institutes of higher education (The New School) and how being a book-loving autodidact influenced, perhaps even configured, my approach to education. My favored learning strategies led me to a non-traditional graduate school program, as well. Reflecting upon my higher education, I realize that every institution I attended chose alternatives to standard pedagogy–and I am grateful that such colleges exist. The world needs outliers.

A kind of heaven.

The New School’s pedagogy for the “Freshman Year Program” was seminar-based. That worked very well for me. Classes were small, discussion-centered, predicated on the reading of significant original texts–no textbooks. The professor was not a lecturer but a participant-coach and mentor.

The program was only a year long, however, so I had to transfer. There were a number of experimental college programs in the 1960s and 1970s; without the miracle of internet searching, however, they were not easy to locate. I did not find out about St. John’s College, Reed, or Evergreen, for example. I stumbled instead upon Thomas Jefferson College (now defunct) in Michigan.

I completed my undergraduate studies without ever seeing a syllabus. Yet I read more books than the majority of my standard-pedagogy-educated peers and discussed classic and contemporary texts, science and history and literature, in depth with my peers and with scholars. I wrote a lot and did hands-on projects, independent studies, experiments and interviews. TJC drew criticism for its ‘flakiness’ and ‘lack of oversight,’ (some of which, I can attest, was deserved); however, the former college president “described TJC as perhaps too far from the mainstream, but attracting excellent students, noting that ‘Thomas Jefferson College…was sending a larger percentage to graduate school than the College of Arts and Sciences.'” Yes, but in my case it took awhile to get there.

Much water under the proverbial bridge: suffice it to say that in 2000, I returned to college to pursue a masters degree…and I wanted to learn in the kind of environment that suited my style. There were other factors then, as well: two children, for example, and responsibilities I had not encountered as an undergrad. On the other hand, by 2000 I was an adult and more motivated and disciplined than I could ever have been at age 19.

I chose Goddard College for a number of reasons, foremost its small seminar-style instruction, its mix of workshops and instruction, its focus on readings, annotations, mentoring, and community-building among students and faculty–reaching outward into the world at large. The low-residency format only works if the student is independent and self-directed, which–as a returning, “adult” student–I certainly was. I appreciated the school’s more interdisciplinary approach to the creative writing program. We didn’t have to face off, pegging ourselves as poets or fiction writers. And creative non-fiction was taken seriously as a genre to develop voice, style, and depth…it could be studied and parsed. That endeavor of interdisciplinary arts education is true of a few institutions now but was rather new among MFA programs in the late 1990s.

Another college without core requirements, without syllabi, without standard formats. But, like New School and TJC, Goddard offers excellent professors dedicated to students’ intellectual enrichment and personal transformation, small-group discussions, and narrative evaluations. I knew how to balance life’s responsibilities when I enrolled, and I knew what kind of teaching I’d respond best to. How did I learn that? See above. Suits my philosophical, bookwormish, autodidactic approach to–well, practically everything!

Discourse: talking about poetry

This post is a response to Fox Chase Review‘s post which can be found here: Poetry in Decline?

“G” asked for responses to the need for a revolution in (USA) poetry, stemming from Diane Sahms-Guarnieri’s comments. Her ideas were excerpted, so I may be missing some of her assertions or evidence. In one way, she echoes Dana Gioia’s famous “Can Poetry Matter?” essay and book (1992): that is, in terms of questioning the isolated, academic support of poetry, poetry study, MFAs, and university publishers as elitist and as dampening a wider audience for poetry. While Gioia tends to support the literary canon in general, he stresses in his early essay that poetry has its own specialized, “frenzied” little circle of literary lights but that the art itself no longer exerts much influence on life, culture, and thinking in the USA.

From Gioia’s introduction:

The situation has become a paradox, a Zen riddle of cultural sociology. Over the past half century, as American poetry’s specialist audience has steadily expanded, its general readership has declined. Moreover, the engines that have driven poetry’s institutional success—the explosion of academic writing programs, the proliferation of subsidized magazines and presses, the emergence of a creative-writing career track, and the migration of American literary culture to the university—have unwittingly contributed to its disappearance from public view.

Sahms-Guarnieri further suggests that isolated, academic styles of poetry are partially to blame for poetry’s “decline” among US readers and calls for a return to realism.

I’m not sure “realism” is the answer, because many infusions of style, energy, or revolution that have done poetry good as a whole have not exactly fallen into that category (was Lorca a realist? just as one example). I embrace the idea of the narrative-lyric mode, which may be considered a kind of realism; but I also love many, many other styles of poetry, some of which are “difficult” and not easily accessible to the general reader. The main means through which I learned the diverse structures and approaches to poetry is through reading on my own, autodidact that I am. Yet formal study and literary criticism increased and deepened my passion for this art. I teeter on the fringe of academia though I am a poet who writes outside of the classic academic framework.

I feel compelled to defend the teaching of poetry, though I admit the process is often done badly. Still, one of the things academia does best is to examine the work, and I feel readers who examine what they love more closely will benefit from doing so (rather than taking the “I know what I like” stance). Academics have, since the 1970s, begun seriously to read beyond “the canon,” and that is all to the good. Academia doesn’t produce the best art, however. Knowing how things work in theory does not equal expertise. I know how a bicycle works, but I am pretty sure I couldn’t build one from scratch.

~

The poems that remain timeless are seldom elitist. The problem with the elite is that it eventually falls from grace. When that occurs, the allusions and puns and, often, the entire foundation of the piece get lost. This issue can be equally true of poems that are “realistic.” If the poem offers no recognizable aesthetic, purpose, or sensation, it ceases to be valuable to future readers. Many of today’s poems will suffer this fate–mine among them–and that’s not a bad thing. We don’t get to judge which art is revolutionary, prescient, timeless; later generations make those judgments.

And that is one reason many writers resent academia and university presses: it seems as though these institutions are “at the top of the mountain” and trying to keep their situations exclusive; in other words, they are acting as cultural, literary judges. So they are…in their time. They cannot enshrine themselves for the future. Art doesn’t work that way.

~

Contemporary Poetry Review claims it is there to resuscitate contemporary poetry, which implies poetry’s suffering a near-death experience. I do not think poetry is dying. I think it is changing, which it has always done, because art is responsive to and entangled with culture and therefore defies stasis.

Poetry, like most art, tends to exist on the cultural fringe, where it hangs out with curious, inventive people who bother to seek for it. Some of them look on the mountain top, and some of them look online, or in pubs that host open mics, or at independent bookstores, long may they thrive. With luck, and maybe some encouragement, those people might buy a book or two–including POD-published or self-published books (why not? –and while you’re at it, Water-Rites is still available!). This last point coincides somewhat with Larry Robins’ perspective in the Fox Chase Review piece.

If you really do know what you like, regardless of how you make that judgment, buy a copy of the book. And don’t get it second-hand from Amazon if you can help it–buy from the small press or the author or an indie book shop if you can find one in your area. Read it again and again, and figure out why you like it. Tell someone else. Discuss what you love.

That’s what keeps poetry alive.

water-rites_cover

Difficult criticism

I have a list of books to read, yet I am often reading something else. Something I have stumbled on in the library or on a friend’s site or bookshelf…

The most recent of these is Rosanna Warren’s Fables of the Self, a book of essays on lyricism in poetry that has a distinctly classicist bent. It’s an odd book, though, because there are tightly-controlled, scholarly critical essays in here and also memoir; the book closes with a journal witnessing her father’s dying. I’ve found the personal pieces thought-provoking and often lovely. I’ve found her criticism scholarly and difficult.

The fault is mostly mine: I have very limited background in classicism. No Latin, no ancient Greek, few readings of the classic writers even in translation. By the classic writers I mean such early Western poets as Horace, Virgil, Catullus, Theocritus, Ovid, Sappho, Euripides (but also Dante, Milton, etc.). These are foundational works, but they did not act as my foundation for poetry or poetics; I studied them later in my readings of poetry–and not in a scholarly way. Warren kindly offers translations for all of the original dead language passages she quotes, so she understands that her audience may be less familiar with the texts than she is. Nevertheless, I find this book quite difficult to read, since I am always stopping to look things up or re-read a paragraph and make certain I am following her exposition or argument.

It is challenging to me to read a discussion of, say, Mark Strand’s poetry that uses Horace’s odes or the poems of Alcaeus to demonstrate the thread of the pastoral that appears in Strand’s work. Yet by reading these essays, I learn about the alcaic lyric stanza and can pursue more on that topic if it interests me. I can go to Horace knowing a little more what to expect (as I only know his most famous/familiar georgics). I’m reminded of being in my 20s and reading Proust (yes, all the way through); I kept taking notes on what else to read…Racine, for example…as those allusions appeared in the novel. As a result, I got quite an education–if a rather eccentric, autodidactic one–in classic French literature and art and music. Then I read Hugo and Flaubert and Baudelaire. My life would be less rich if I hadn’t been moved to pursue those references beyond the text.

Similarly, I am likely to be reading more of the classical literature, and perhaps to understand it a bit better (as to how it relates to contemporary life and art) thanks to Rosanna Warren.

When the going gets tough, the tough get reading!

Autodidacts & higher education

An early-morning drive to work, low sun gleaming through the remnants of fog, Vivaldi on the radio: Concerto for Two Cellos, a deeply mellow, haunting work of music…and I tried to recall my first encounter with Vivaldi’s music. I am quite sure it was an old Angel Records LP of The Four Seasons in my parents’ modest record collection. When I was old enough to read, I was curious enough about the music to study the record cover, where I learned that Vivaldi was born in 1678 in Italy and had red hair. Our ancient set of encyclopedias (The Book of Knowledge) said he taught music to little girls in convent school. These details, which taught me little about baroque music itself, nonetheless appealed to me as a child who wanted stories. The music seemed to tell me stories, as well–thunderstorms, blizzards, birds at daybreak, mountain streams, slow rivers in the summer sun.

Because I wanted stories, because I sought information and details, I turned to what seemed to me the most obvious place: the library. For three years of my early reading life, that was the Yonkers Public Library’s “new” branch, which seemed impressively modern at the time and which had a fabulous children’s area.

Why I associate Vivaldi with colored light filtering through the clerestories of the library, I don’t know. That’s just how memory works. I also associate my visits to the children’s room at the library with the beginnings of a lifetime of self-teaching through books, music, museum-going, travel, art, conversation, observation, research, and writing. That connection is a little easier to make. Because I was an introverted child, I watched more than participated in the events going on around me. When I wanted to know more, I was often too shy to ask–so I tried to find the answers myself in the place I imagined to be the best repository of stories and information. It was also the only place I knew that could offer such knowledge.

This brief explanation suggests that I became an autodidact because I was socially maladaptive. Or maybe because I was passionately curious about the world. Or because the library room was so magical.

Any of which may be at least partially true. But what I want to say in this post–far too briefly because the idea deserves further reflection–is that while I work in an institution of higher learning and while I believe in the value of higher education, I also believe we can educate ourselves exceedingly well without college degrees. Lack of a degree can limit people in the job market, no doubt; yet some of the most intelligent, interesting, best-educated people I know happen to be largely self-educated. The autodidact has the motivation of personal passion and the ability to be directed by chance and interest, not just to be guided through coursework considered culturally or economically valuable. Most of my older friends have become wise and clever by attending the school of hard knocks and through their personal curiosity and inventiveness; they are true autodidacts, even the ones who actually do have PhDs…but especially the ones who don’t.

Can I go so far as to suggest that we need our libraries more than we need our universities? Why not? I think I started my “college education” when I was six or seven years old because I had the desire to know, the curiosity, the interest. My parents encouraged me, which helped. (For one thing, I could not have gotten to the library if my mother hadn’t taken me there!) Some of my school teachers were also encouraging, but their encouragement mattered surprisingly little. What made the difference was the reward of finding something new, learning a new story, adding details to a foundation of things that interested me.

One of my tasks as a teacher, a poet, and as a mother is to foster that element of excitement when I sense it in someone and to encourage self-directness in each person’s education. Delight: a crucial ingredient in learning that can take awhile to locate but that will motivate a lifetime of knowledge-gathering. Maybe you can find it at the library, too.

Ambition & failure

Some of my non-writer friends are surprised to learn that I am in the process of trying to get a new book into print. After all, Water-Rites just came out! So shouldn’t I be concentrating on selling that book and resting on my laurels awhile? To be sure this collection is a “success” before continuing on?

Those who write poetry or literary fiction, however, recognize that by the time a book finally gets published, the work in it is “old.” We are already well into new projects, working on new ideas, using new styles to express ourselves, addressing different topics. If I were to wait to write new poetry until after my book got into print, I’d probably never write another collection. The economics of the poetry world are too close to what Lewis Hyde calls the “gift economy” to imagine we can stop writing, sell a book, live off of the income and then write another one. Even many best-selling authors cannot do that. Poets are lucky to sell 500 copies of a book. We write for other reasons. Need. Love. Ambitions of a non-monetary kind.

Like all artists, poets take risks. Sometimes the changes we make in our work are not well-received. Sometimes they aren’t any good. Failure, however, can be a most excellent instructor. Sometimes, to shake myself up when the writing seems stuck, I attempt a completely different activity. Gardening clears my mind, and gardening offers many chances to fail at what I do. I’ve also tried watercolor painting, sumi ink calligraphy, modeling clay, embroidery, dancing, piano, and many other endeavors. I cannot claim to be remotely good at any of them yet each of these pursuits has taught me much…often through my lousiness.

janis ian

Janis Ian, 2012. Photo by David Sloan.

Recently, Janis Ian–singer, songwriter, science fiction author, and philanthropist–offered the commencement address at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. In her speech, Ian talked about being self-taught; being a self-taught success. And she had important things to say about failing, as well. She said, “We are rarely asked what success really represents to us, or why failure is so demeaning.” Then, she admitted that she herself had always avoided failure but that at a point in her life when she felt unhappy with everything she was producing, “I had to learn to fail before I could find my way again.”

Her approach was to take ballet lessons! At age 33. And she was awful at it, but she enjoyed doing it. Then she attempted other things at which she was terrible, and she learned to overcome some of her fear of failing.

An autodidact myself, even though I do have academic degrees, I found I could easily relate to Ian’s experiences. The part of her speech that spoke to me most was this section:

“You see, I am an artist. I believe that art saves. I believe it is often the only thing that stands between us and chaos. I have faith that while the world is crumbling, art survives. So to feel like my work was a mockery of what I could do, that I was not living up to my talent…well, it was killing me.”

Art requires us to do our best, to be ambitious and strong, to take risks and –occasionally– to fail. To fail spectacularly perhaps, or just to produce a bunch of small, humiliating, stupid failures…like dancing badly in your own room where no one can see you.

But dancing can feel so wonderful, so freeing, so different from writing! It’s worth doing badly. Sometimes when we have less at stake, we find new methods of expression and new ways to keep our fears, including the fear of failure, at bay.

~~

The full speech is available on Warren Wilson’s site here.