Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Thursday, May 5, 2016

WRA Speech, Part 1 of 3

I've decided to post the text of the speech I gave at WRA on April 8. It was part of a lecture series named for Keir Marticke, a WRA student who graduated in 2002 and, tragically, died during a trip to Vietnam while she was in college. Her father and brother were in the audience.

Marticke Lecture
Western Reserve Academy
8 April 2016

Is Anybody Listening?
It’s an honor to be here today—just as it always has been. I stood here for the first time in the spring of 1980—that’s thirty-six years ago for those of you who (like me) are mathematically challenged—and I am grateful, once again, to have the privilege of … trembling … on the very spot where so many wonderful speakers have loosed upon you the wolfhounds of their language and ideas. (BTW—remember “wolfhounds”; later, you'll see why.)
I’d like, especially, to thank Ruth Andrews for inviting me today, to Abbey Baker for finalizing everything, to Sherry Chlysta for that generous introduction, to Jill Evans and her English II-ers with whom I just shared a great class, to Headmaster Burner, and, especially, to the Marticke family for sponsoring this annual event, an event that has become—in not all that many years—an important part of the life—the vigorous intellectual life—of Western Reserve Academy.
And it’s nice to see some of you students whom I know from the Open Door Coffee Company. Seeing you down there is one small way I stay in touch with Reserve, a place I’ve loved for a long, long time. As I said last year on this very spot, it gives me hope when I see you studying, caring. But … well … you could offer me some of your pastry? (My mommy taught me it’s polite to share! Just saying …)
Also nice to see some former colleagues—some of whom, once upon a time, were my students here: Mr. Ong (English III), Mrs. Bormann (English I). For years I’ve been blackmailing them both. (Mr. Ong, your April payment is late!)
And hello to Mr. Butensky-Bartlett, whose father, one of my great college friends, served as an usher at my wedding in December 1969. Some students told me they call you BB. Well, BB, I’m DD. Welcome to the Reserve Alphabet Club!
And hello, of course, to my wife, Joyce. She taught here from 1979–1990, the year our son graduated. I’m thrilled they’re here. Thrilled and safe. Why safe? Because … now… someone will have to tell me I did a good job! Oh, the lovely lies that lovers must tell!
I first came here to teach in the fall of 1979. I’d already taught a dozen years at the middle school over in Aurora—a wonderful place, by the way. And then, in 1977, having finished my Ph.D., I thought: I’m gonna be a professor! I applied for a lot of jobs. Got one. At Lake Forest College just up the lake from Chicago, and off I went with my family (our son had just turned six). I was going to begin my career as an Intellectual.
It didn’t work out.
You may find this hard to believe, but I missed middle school kids (I’d taught 7th graders, mostly). Missed their energy, their devotion. Their fundamental insanity. I needed me some more!
So after that single year at Lake Forest College I tried to get back to Aurora, but the middle school had no openings. So I applied a few other places in the area, including Reserve, which hired both my wife and me. As I said, she would stay till 1990 (you can see her picture over in Seymour), and I lasted exactly … two years. In 1989 I got in a little … kerfuffle about my salary, and—in a huff—I abruptly quit, worked some part-time jobs for a year, among them: teaching freshman English at Kent State and clerking down at The Learned Owl, owned at the time by your Headmaster’s parents.
In  the fall of 1982 I finally got back to Aurora and taught eighth graders there until my retirement in January 1997. Afterwards, I ran around for a few years, not unlike a released balloon—traveling, reading, writing, feeling almost delirious with the freedom to do what I wanted to.
Then, in April 2001 I was downtown having coffee at the old Saywell’s Drug Store (RIP) with good friend Tom Davis, the now-retired chair of the English Department here. He was sort of whimpering, “We have three openings in English for next year.”
I thought a minute (maybe less than a minute) and said, “How about two?”
And that less-than-a-minute of thought—no, impulse—led to one of the most enjoyable decades of my life—2001–2011. Back at Reserve after a twenty-year absence.
That first year, 2001–02, Keir Marticke was a senior here. Although I did have a few seniors that year in what they used to call “Senior Seminar,” Keir was not among them. But she was a presence on the campus, I can tell you that. I remember her in morning meetings and on campus; I remember thinking that she seemed … at peace with herself—not a common quality in the turbulence of youth. (My own, I’ll confess, was sometimes seismic; my mom, now 96, has still not forgotten—or forgiven—those quakes of mine that shook our house.)
If you look at Keir’s senior page in the 2002 Hardscrabble, you’ll see a line from a 1990s pop song by Ari DiFranco: If you’re born a lion, don’t bother trying to act tame. And then Keir's own words: Thanks to everyone who helped make it happen. She has ten pictures on her page, and eight of them show Keir with some of those who had helped make it happen.  
And so—again—I’m honored to speak at an event that bears Keir’s name.

Okay, a couple of stories now. Stories that will illustrate what I’m going to focus on this morning—well, insofar as I can focus on anything at my age!
Story One:
It was the fall of 1966. Aurora, Ohio. Aurora Middle School. I was in the very first weeks of my teaching career and was feeling very … professional. I was 21! A legal adult! I had a briefcase (a gift from my grateful parents—He's out of the house!)! I had a couple of neckties! I had an apartment! A car! A salary (on the first and the fifteenth of each month I got a fat paycheck—$168.42; I was rolling in it)! My seventh-grade students listened to me! (Well, sort of.)
One late afternoon in early fall I attended a district-wide teachers’ meeting. At one point, I leapt to my feet and uttered some very forgettable words about a topic I’ve also forgotten. But I do remember this: I was urgent; I was earnest, maybe even passionate. I sat down, very pleased with myself, with my first professional remarks. I was gonna change some things!
But immediately thereafter, one of the veteran elementary school teachers, an older woman (probably ten years younger than I am now), bellowed out in her playground voice: “Now, we can all ignore what that boy just said ….”
BOY! Did she say BOY? She went on, but I’ve suppressed the rest of it. Deeply suppressed it. But still—I’ve never forgotten that boy. I huffed and I puffed and wished I could blow her house down.
Story Two:
            Fast forward about fifty years. Last Father’s Day (2015) Joyce and I drove down to nearby Green, Ohio, to visit our son, daughter-in-law, and grandsons, Logan and Carson (10 and 6 at the time). It was a warm day, and just before we left their place, we started shooting hoops out in their driveway.
Now—for this part you're going to need some imagination: I’d been a pretty decent basketball player, back in my high school days.  FYI—my senior year, 1962, I was on the county all-star team. No need to stand and applaud. It wasn’t all that great an honor. Back then, Portage County was full of small schools with small players with small talent.
Anyway, after a few minutes in our son’s driveway, the Old Rhythm came back, and I was sinking shots with shocking regularity. I was In the Zone! Logan—the ten-year-old, and a very good player—was stunned (he’d never really seen me shoot before), and when he came over to guard me, I whipped a long behind-the-back pass to my son. Chest-high. Perfect.
Logan stopped and sighed, deeply.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
And he said these immortal words: “Old guys aren’t supposed to be any good.” He was smiling, kidding, ironic, I knew. So I laughed.

Okay, what these two little stories show, I hope, is a simple and sometimes painful truth: People don’t really listen to you much when you’re young; they don’t listen to you much when you’re old. So you have a few decades, if you’re lucky, when people will consider you neither an infant/child/adolescent/BOY—or a dotard. And maybe—just maybe—listen a little.
(Okay—pause for an English-teachery word, dotage, one I always put on my English III vocab list: a state or period of senile decay marked by decline of mental poise and alertness. A dotard is someone in that period.)
Oh, and there’s a similar word like dotage for younonage: a period of youth.
So—between our nonage and our dotage—it’s possible that people will actually listen to us. Or not. (No guarantees.) So I guess the next question is When that time arrives, what are you going to say? And how? … We’ll come back to that.

But first, let’s take a quick look at these two extremes—nonage, dotage. When you’re young, it’s often true, isn’t it, that  no one’s really listening?  Oh, sure, when you’re a wee one, people will ask you if you want some juice—will ask you about kindergarten and your pet—or if you have to go p-p—but here are some questions I’m guessing none of you ever heard directed your way in early childhood: What do you think about our reliance on fossil fuels? Or: In Macbeth, what would be the metaphorical significance of having the three witches remain on stage the whole time? You get the picture …
The same thing happens when you’re much older. Let’s use my dad, for example. Edward Dyer. Now, you’ll need just a little background for this story to sink in as deeply as I want it to. Born in 1913, Dad grew up on an Oregon farm, the second oldest of eleven kids. When he was about your age, his own father died. So during the Great Depression he went to work to help support the family. But he also began college, worked his way through. Eventually earned a bachelor’s, two master’s degrees. Got married in 1939, began his career as a preacher. Then … December 7, 1941 … Pearl Harbor. He joined the Army, became a chaplain, earned a Bronze Star for bravery, served both in the South Pacific and in Europe. Back home after the War, he earned his Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma, switched his profession to Teacher Education. Then came the Korean War in the early 1950s. Called back to active duty, he was stationed for two years at Amarillo Air Force Base in Texas. When that war ended, he returned to university teaching and ended his career out at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, as an associate dean of the graduate school. He and Mom retired out on the Oregon coast; then health problems felled him, so they moved to Massachusetts, near my two brothers. Dad died in November 1999. I miss him every single day. When I taught here, I wore his academic gown every year at Commencement.
Now, here’s what I’m getting at … when I would go out to Massachusetts to visit him in his assisted-living unit, and, later, in the nursing home, some of his caretakers would talk to him like this: Hi, Ed! How’s your pudding today? That sort of thing. All of his history—his magnificent history (farm, Depression, World War II, graduate degrees)—was either unknown or forgotten or irrelevant. He was a toddler again, in many of his caretakers’ eyes, an attitude expressed not just with words but with tone of voice … how’s your pudding today?
Let’s invite Mr. Shakespeare to comment here … he always seems to have something to say—though we can’t always understand it, can we? Of course, if he were to materialize this afternoon down at Open Door and sit with some of you, he wouldn’t be able to understand a thing you were talking about—or a thing that he saw or experienced. (Except tables, chairs, and the like.) Your clothes, haircuts, smart phones (What are your thumbs doing?); your food, your drinks—even your smells—would baffle him. (And how's that music coming out of the ceiling?) In order for him to communicate with you (which, surely, he wants to do—otherwise, what’s he doing at Open Door—looking for the Bachelorette?), he would have to learn your vocabulary, your culture—would have to catch up on world history since 1616, the year he died. And, likewise, if we want to understand him, we have to grant him the same courtesy. Not always easy, I’ll grant you. But worth it.
Okay … keeping it a hundred. When I read Shakespeare in high school—Julius Caesar my sophomore year, Macbeth my senior—I hated every second of it. I just could not get it, and at that point in my life, I figured if I couldn’t get it—right away—well, it obviously wasn’t worth getting. Take this little speech from Caesar, delivered by Brutus:
BRUTUS: Swear priests and cowards, and men cautelous,
Old feeble carrions, and such suffering souls
That welcome wrongs: unto bad causes swear
Such creatures as men doubt.  (2.1)

What the—? Reading that in tenth grade, I realized I despised Shakespeare. Always would.
Then things changed. Much of that change is Reserve’s fault. When I came to teach here in 1979, English I (which I taught) included … Julius Caesar (NO!) and English III (which I also taught), Hamlet (IMP0SSIBLE!). So … not wanting to look like a dolt in front of my students, I started to work on Shakespeare—and I’ve never stopped. Joyce and I have seen every single one of his three dozen plays onstage (some of them many times); I’ve visited his birthplace, read all the plays and sonnets and other poems multiple times, memorized lots of his lines, read many biographies …. I’ve stood by his grave at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.
And speaking of that grave … the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death is very near—on April 23rd. You may have heard the news that the church recently granted permission to some researchers to conduct a sophisticated radar scan of the grave. And one of their first discoveries: His skull appears to be missing! Purportedly taken by souvenir hunters in the late 1700s. And just last week I read that one of the supposed head-snatchers was named Dyer! I don't know whether to be ashamed or proud?!?

To be continued ...


Wednesday, May 4, 2016

May 4, 1970 (re-post)

The previous four years, I've posted this piece about the experiences Joyce and I had on May 4, 1970.  Here it is again, lightly edited.




In May 1970, Joyce and I had been married just four months. I was teaching full time at the old Aurora Middle School (102 E. Garfield Road) and was taking graduate courses at Kent State University at night. Joyce was a full-time grad student at Kent, working toward her master's in English. Although both of us were strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, we were not involved in any of the demonstrations. It was safe for me to oppose the war: After all, I had a teacher's deferment and would soon turn 26--the cut-off age for the draft. I do not recall that attitude with pride--but it was how I felt at the time. Both Joyce and I had grown up with many family members who'd been in World War II--and my dad stayed in the Air Force Reserves, retiring as a Lt. Col. So it was not military personnel whom we opposed (we loved our parents, aunts and uncles); it was the war in Southeast Asia.

We were living in our first apartment (in a four-flat building at 323 College Court), just a couple of blocks west of the campus (see the red marker in the photo), and we both routinely walked to our classes--and to the library. Son Steve was more than two years in the future.

There had been lots of protesting in the streets in recent days; police and fire sirens sang our lullabies each night. Searchlights were our nightlights.

On Monday morning, May 4, I drove to school in Aurora (a little over twelve miles due north), knowing that Joyce had planned to be up on campus for the day for classes and then for some research in the library.

I was in our teachers' lounge when I heard the first news of the shootings: Someone came in and said he'd heard that several National Guardsmen had been shot on the campus.  (That was the first story we heard--soldiers shot, not students.)  But when the actual news came through a bit later, I was alarmed.  Four students ... shot and killed. Others wounded.

I tried to call home, but everyone else on earth was trying to call Kent also. Nothing but a busy signal. And computers and cell phones lay far in the future.

I went to see my principal, Mike Lenzo, and told him I had to get home to find out if Joyce was all right. He quickly agreed (I don't remember who took my afternoon classes), and I headed for Kent, south on Rte. 43.  But when I got to Streetsboro (about halfway to Kent), I saw that the Highway Patrol was blocking 43--no access there to any points south (meaning: Kent).  Although I was frightened, I'd grown up in Portage County, so I took some back roads I knew and got to our apartment without any other problems.

And Joyce was there. The relief I felt I cannot to this day express.

Joyce told me that a student had run into the library while she was there. They're killing us! he'd cried.  They're killing us! His hands were bloody.

We decided we would not stay in town.  Helicopters were hovering overhead; armed soldiers were in the streets of Kent. We had no idea what the night might bring. Mike had told me we could stay with them, so we packed a few things and headed for the Lenzos' home in Twin Lakes, a few miles north of town. We stayed there a couple of nights.

Our only frightening moment: As we were driving out of town on Depeyster (see map) we were stopped at the Main Street intersection. (Yellow star marks our position.)  To our left--what was then a rooming house (now a BW3); to our right, the parking lot of the Firestone store. In the Firestone lot was a National Guard Jeep with a heavy machine gun mounted on the back. Two soldiers.

As we sat there at the red light, a student leaned out of an upper window of the rooming house and yelled, Fuck all you murdering pigs!

We looked at the soldiers, who swiftly swung the machine gun our way.

I ran the red light.

In a few days, back in our home, we walked the streets of Kent and marveled. All the driveways to the university were blocked by armed Guardsmen. Downtown, I took a picture of a store window. It bore a large message: Happy Mother's Day!  But the reflection showed an armored military vehicle passing by. (I can't find that old photo now--will look more assiduously later.)  Mother's Day was on May 10 that year.

We had to finish our courses by snail-mail.  (No faxes in those days; no email.)

So ... we were not directly involved.  No one shot at us.  We had a very dear friend who was involved that year, though. Harry Vincent, from Garrettsville (I'd played on baseball teams with him, had been in college with him and his older brother, Jim), had to hit the ground when the bullets flew.

Both Joyce and I, though--and millions of other Americans--were wondering what was happening to the country we had grown up in.  JFK, 1963.  MLK, 1968.  RFK, 1968.  KSU, 1970. Jackson State, 1970.  It was a horrifying time of blood and loss, of dreams shattered by gunfire, while a country lost its moorings and drifted toward madness.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Oops! Shoulda checked before I posted ...


As my Facebook friends know (to their sorrow) I occasionally post pages from The Book Lover's Calendar (I call it my book-nerd calendar). During the weekdays, each page deals with a single book (many of which I've never heard of), but on the weekends there's sometimes a Q&A about a book or writer--or, as in the case of this past weekend--a quotation.

I'm going to note here the oddest coincidence: the year when the book summarized on November 11 (my birthday) The Call of the Wild (I've published two annotated editions of that Jack London novel). Weird.

Uh oh: Weirder than I thought. I just found that calendar page in one of my Jack London folders, and I see it was October 11--a month before my birthday ... Traitor Memory strikes again. (Dyer, you gotta check stuff before you post it!)

But ... I had a strong memory that this page had appeared on a significant day. I just checked my journal, and, yes indeed, it was a most significant day, the day I was inducted into the Hall of Fame for teachers in Aurora. And I taught Wild in the middle school there for the last fifteen years or so of my career. So there!

Anyway ... the Tubman quotation. I confess that I did feel a tiny trickle of doubt dripping in my brain when I read it--but I quickly dismissed it (If you can't trust a calendar, then what can you trust!?). And posted it.

And not long afterwards I got a shock of embarrassment. A former student from years ago--Steve LaBonte, whom I taught in 8th grade in 1991-92--sent me note with a link. Here's what he said: Steve LaBonte Apparently there is no historical basis for this quote, and it didn't start appearing until the 1990's. Here's the link.

WELL!

That was a shock--not only the realization that I'd posted something bogus (unintentionally) but two other things: (1) I hadn't followed up on my initial skepticism (though mild, I confess); (2) I've often judged others who have failed to check out the veracity of the quotations and images they've posted on Facebook. (I've often seen photographs, especially of the Obamas, that have been clearly photo-shopped or cropped in such a way as to confirm some anti-Obama point-of-view--see the one below, for example, the first showing them "failing" to salute with the correct hand; the second, the full original shot.)


Anyway, this kind of stuff--posted by people on the Left as well as the Right--is rampant on Facebook--and on the Internet in general. I've always sniffed in disdain.

And then discovered, yesterday, that I was sniffing my own odor, as well.

After Steve posted his reply, I wrote him a thank-you (I really don't like to post something bogus). I also double-checked on Snopes.com--and, yes, the quotation is bogus. (Link to Snopes.)

I posted the Snopes link on my own FB page--thanked Steve for what he'd done. And felt humble and a tad embarrassed the rest of the day.

But I decided not to take down the original post--and its aftermath. I think it's something we all need to think about in this digital era when truth and falseness and deception and all other sorts of things fly around our world at astonishing speed.

And so I want to thank Steve LaBonte again. For I am now resolving to be a More Skeptical Poster--Checking before clicking.

BTW--I just checked the Harmon School yearbook for his 8th grade year, and I see young Steve, now in his later 30s, looking youthful and sober and serious, wearing glasses (as I did and do). And over his picture he has written a note to me: Mr. Dyer. You're a great teacher. Have fun in Alaska.* Steve LaBonte. 

Well, I can now add something: Mr. LaBonte. You're a great teacher. Have fun wherever you are. Daniel Dyer.


*The next school year, 92-93, I was on sabbatical, the culmination of which was a trek over the Chilkoot Trail (an important trail in The Call of the Wild) from Alaska into the Canadian Yukon. You can Google the series of posts I did a few years ago about that hike.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Frankenstein Sundae, 224


A final Byron-related story ...


Okay, yet another Byron connection. In her Lord Byron and Her Daughters, Markus mentions a play I’d not heard of by a playwright I most definitely had heard of—Tom Stoppard. I think the first play of his I ever read was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, first performed in 1966, the year I graduated from Hiram College. I did not read the play in college but a number of years later—not long after I was married (December 1969)—I began a membership in what I think was called the Theatre Guild.
The Guild was like the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild (in fact, I think the Theatre Guild was an offshoot of the latter), but instead of novels and works of nonfiction, the TG specialized in plays. Every month we’d get a circular from the Guild that described the main selection for the month—and all the other titles they had available. They offered not original publishers’ editions; no, their volumes were cheap reprints (like the BOMC and LG titles). But at that time I was not very knowledgeable about the future value of books; I was more interested in what they could supply to us now. Joyce and I would buy quite a few of them over the years (she’d had a theater major in college), before we realized that if we ever wanted to sell any of our books, we would need to focus on original publishers’ editions, first printings. And so we have.
Anyway, one of the first ones we bought was Stoppard’s Rosencrantz, and, some years later, teaching Hamlet at Western Reserve Academy, I would sometimes whip that play out and show it to the students (I seem not to have done so in later years … not sure why).
One day an English-teaching WRA colleague—who shall remain nameless and genderless—asked me if he/she could borrow Rosencrantz (he/she also taught Hamlet), and I quickly supplied him/her with our copy. Months passed. More months. Finally, I asked him/her about it: Oh, I gave that back to you months ago, he/she lied.
And I, like Hamlet, cried, O, vengeance!
But dithered and didn’t do anything about it. Just like the Melancholy Dane.


Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sunday Sundries, 100


Can it be that I have written one hundred of these posts! Seems impossible--that's nearly two years' worth. Time's not flying; it's flirting with the speed of light ...

1. AOTW--At the health club Saturday, the AOTW had a locker right next to mine. When I emerged from the shower, I saw he had his stuff spread out along the entire length of the bench that's supposed to service a half-dozen lockers. He made not the slightest move to give me some room. Oh ... and there was even more bench space beyond our bench--another 20 feet or so. I handled it maturely (on the outside),and homicidally (on the inside).

2. Joyce and I had a great time on Wednesday night at the Hudson Library listening to Joanna Connors, there to read from and talk about her new book, I Will Find You (Atlantic Monthly Press), about her journalistic (and personal) investigation into the man who raped her in 1984. Joanna was also the final books editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and was the finest editor I've ever worked with. We got to meet her husband; they got to meet Joyce; and Joyce took a cool picture of us together during the signing afterwards (and, yes, I was the first in line!).

3. Last night (Saturday) we sat through one of the worst films I've ever seen in my life--Mother's Day, Gary Marshall's latest multiple-story film about a holiday (Valentine's Day, 2010; New Year's Eve, 2011). I kind of liked the first one, but they have gotten progressively worse, and Mother's Day is a noisome, noxious mix of cliche and racism (yes, a token black friend!), ageism, tone-deafness (do we really care what a bunch of rich white people--oh, such problems they have!--are doing on/for Mother's Day?), and featuring no real surprise whatsoever. The "older" parents were right out of the Hollywood Cliche Book: clueless about the Internet, naughty, riding around in a mobile home, fatuous smiles on the Old Guy's face, racist and homophobic (oh, but they come around--sort of). The only fairly "wise" people in the film, of course, are the teens. It's the adults who are screwed up, not the kids (an increasingly unbearable Hollywood cliche). I sat there in disbelief at the artlessness and cultural cluelessness of the whole thing--and, of course, at my willingness to sit there and watch it all. Enjoyed Timothy Olyphant's snarky smile--that was about it. Oh, and the handful of outtakes we saw during the credits at the end--the best thing of all. The film itself? Sucked. Big Time. (Link to film trailer.)

4. Finished three books this week--well, two and a play.

  • I finally got around to reading a book by a friend I made a couple of decades ago when I was more or less a full-time resident of Jack London World. Jeanne Campbell Reesman is a fine
    scholar (Univ. of Tex., San Antonio) and has published a disquisition on Jack London's racial issues--Jack London's Racial Lives: A Critical Biography (U of Georgia P, 2009).
    • I should add that I read the book because I was going to be in Michigan doing some JL presentations and wanted to make sure I was up-to-date. I'd been meaning to read it--just hadn't gotten around to it.
    • Reesman argues that London's racial issues were more nuanced and complicated that many have believed. Yes, he has some vile books (Adventure, 1911)--and Jeanne acknowledges this bluntly (though she does not talk much about his two posthumous books, Jerry of the Islands and Michael, Brother of Jerry, both 1917, both with some disgusting racist language and stereotypes).
    • Much she says is very, very convincing. London, pretty much an autodidact, was continually changing his attitudes based on what he'd happened to read, on where he'd happened to travel (she convincingly shows that his later South Sea tales often featured the whites as the Bad Guys, the islanders as the better human beings). Jeanne also invites us to distinguish between "racialism" and "racism"; the latter is what you think it is; the former, as she says, is "The belief that one's race is superior but not necessarily implying hatred for other races (though of course hatred could be the result) ..." (35). She believes this distinction "clarifies London's beliefs"--though I can't help feeling it's principally a scholarly distinction, one that those suffering from racial discrimination might consider a nicety (Ibid.). Or barely relevant.
    • Anyway, I enjoyed her book, learned a lot from it, softened my attitude a bit about his racial beliefs, and reinforced my great admiration for Jeanne's scholarship and thoroughness.
  • Reading that fine work recently (Lord Byron's Daughters), I came across a reference to a play by Tom Stoppard--Arcadia, a play that features Lord Byron throughout (he does not appear, but
    he is very much on the characters' minds), a play I'd not heard of before. But I ordered it, got it, read it this past week. And loved it. It premiered in London in 1993, but its relevance remains.
    • It takes place in an English summer house--in two distinct time periods: the present, the Regency era when Byron was around and was, in fact, once a house guest at this particular place, where he did (or did not?) transgress with a woman and kill another man in a duel. The action, scene by scene, shifts from one time period to the other, but by the end they're all prancing around in front of us.
    • Issues of reality, and computers, and the nature of the physical world, of literary scholarship, of sex and attraction and celebrity.
    • I thought when I began it that it might be a cool play to do with high school kids--but changed my mind. It became increasingly more esoteric as it proceeds (though funny, as well), and Stoppard requires that his audience know a bit of literary history (Byron's story, especially), and I certainly don't think we can assume that any longer ...
  • Finally, I finished yet another book by the John A. Williams, the writer who died last summer (and whom I'd never heard of until I saw his obit in the Times). He wrote a lot of nonfiction to support himself and his family between novels (which never sold well--to our shame as a reading public, I'm coming to believe), and he collects much of it here in Flashbacks: A Twenty-Year Diary of Article Writing (Doubleday 1973).
    • He's divided his pieces chronologically and thematically, going back to some of his
      earliest pieces (the 1950s) to his most recent (see pub date above). He is so good. To each section and each piece he's attached a little introduction (sometimes no more than a paragraph long) telling us about the genesis of the piece, the fate of the piece (some were rejected, never printed), and I love how he, well, "tells it like it is." He rips editors, publications, the publishing industry and writes passionately about how difficult it is for him and his fellow African American writers to break through the white ceiling. One piece guaranteed to ignite your fires of frustration is his account of how he won a prestigious fellowship, then had it withdrawn (within days) when some Rich White Guys got nervous about him (Rage, rage, against the lying of the White).
    • My favorite section is the last--personal essays--to which he's appended a tight little essay about what personal writing is and how he approaches it. Love this:
      • "It's easy enough to tell how I write a Personal Essay, generally, but the specific points remain even to me a mysterious mix of individual chemistry. I do two things. I climb inside myself and check how I feel, what I see and what I think, given certain defined situations. And second, I climb out and watch myself from at distance as it were, as objectively as I can Finally, I edit the two views into alternating tight and long shots. In the end I have what I've called the Personal Essay" (355).
5. Stumbled across a term this week--contronym, a word to describe how one word (e.g., sanction) can mean two quite opposite things (in this case--to approve, to disapprove); context is all. It turns out there are quite a few of these, and they are going to be the unwilling "stars" of my next Daily Doggerel series (as soon as I finish the current one later on this Lusty Month of May.



Saturday, April 30, 2016

Millay Arrives ... Again ... 3


I've posted the last couple of days about this new (annotated) collection of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay (Yale UP, 2016), mostly riffing on my memories of learning about Milllay, reviewing some books about her, chasing her story here and there. Today (and finally!) a little bit about the book itself.

The volume features an introduction by Holly Peppe, Millay's literary executor, a good, concise account of her life and career. Following that is a short description of the "editorial method" that the editor Timothy F. Jackson employed--useful information.

Then follow the poems, arranged both chronologically and by the collection in which they originally appeared (from Renascence and Other Poems, 1917, to the posthumous Mine the Harvest, 1954); Jackson also includes a couple of previously unpublished poems and an essay--and some letters (one of which has not been previously published).

Jackson's annotations, which appear in the margins, are generally very useful--and (best of all for readers) neither obtrusive nor annoying. An occasional vocabulary word, some information about the creation of the poem, some literary analogues and parents, some suggestions for additional reading--these are what readers will find in the margins. Oh, and not all pages or poems contain them. Just when necessary.

My favorite Millay poems are here ("What Lips My Lips Have Kissed," "Only until This Cigarette Is Ended," the "Figs" ("My candle burns at both ends"; "Safe upon the solid rock"), "The Courage That My Mother Had" (which I recited at my dear mother-in-law's funeral), "Dirge Without Music" (which I recited at a memorial for a close friend), and others)--and there are plenty more I can now easily peruse and (probably) memorize.

Missing, however, is the sonnet that Judith Guest used as an epigraph (well, the final four lines of the sonnet) at the head of her 1976 novel Ordinary People, which later became a popular film. (Link to trailer.) That 1980 film won Oscars for Robert Redford (in his directing debut) and actor Timothy Hutton. Much of the filming was in Lake Forest, IL, where Joyce, Steve, and I lived during the 1978-79 academic year (Joyce and I were both teaching at Lake Forest College; Steve was in 1st grade), so it had some personal resonance, as well.



Here's that sonnet:

Read history, thus learn how small a space
You may inhabit, nor inhabit long
In crowding Cosmos — in that confined place
Work boldly; build your flimsy barriers strong;
Turn round and round, make warm your nest; among
The other hunting beasts, keep heart and face, —
Not to betray the doomed and splendid race
You are so proud of, to which you belong.
For trouble comes to all of us: the rat
Has courage, in adversity, to fight;
But what a shining animal is man,
Who knows, when pain subsides, that is not that,
For worse than that must follow — yet can write
Music; can laugh; play tennis; even plan.


A lovely book to own is Selected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay--even better to read. And savor.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Millay Arrives ... Again ..., 2


Yesterday, I wrote about the arrival at our house yesterday of this new book--an annotated collection of the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay (Yale University Press). And I found myself on something of a riff about her rise and fall--and, now, return--in our cultural world.

Although (as I noted) her work was not exactly in the forefront of my education in high school and college, I was (dimly) aware of her. But my own interest in her accelerated considerably when I found I was going to be reviewing (for the Cleveland Plain Dealer) two new biographies of her in 2001--What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, by Daniel Mark Epstein, and The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, by Nancy Milford. (The review ran on September 16, 2001, five days after You Know What.)

I had known so little about her that both books were a revelation (I believe I said that Epstein was more interesting on her verse, Milford--who'd known her sister well--on her life). Despite my admiration for what Epstein had done, I was a bit predisposed, I guess, towards Milford because of her earlier biography Zelda, about the troubled life of Zelda Fitzgerald (1970)--and Milford had spent years on her Millay bio, coaxing from Millay's surviving sister Norma the documents and papers and information she needed. By the time Epstein was at work on her life, Norma had died, and all those papers were in the Library of Congress.

Anyway, Millay's life fascinated me, and soon I was requiring my students in English class to memorize poems by her, and my wife, Joyce, and I were whizzing around visiting relevant sites, particularly Millay's final home (Steepletop, named for the flowering steeplebush) near tiny Austerlitz, NY (and I mean tiny), a farmhouse up in the hills where she died after a tumble down the stairs, a tumble perhaps caused by drugs and alcohol (she had serious problems with both by then).



That farmhouse is now open to the public (link); it wasn't during our initial visits (though we were free to roam around the grounds)--and we've still not been inside, though we talk often of going there again, of touring. Anyway, here are a few pictures of the place we've taken--as well as the stones under which she and other family are buried (nearby on the property).

Tomorrow--I'll get into the new volume of poems and see what's going on ...