Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What is Education?

"Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die." -- John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing us Down

Monday, January 18, 2010

Iron Music

Forth he sends the good news, making
Iron music through the land.
How they shouted! What rejoicing!
How the old bell shook the air,
Till the clang of freedom echoed
From the belfries everywhere.

The old State House bell is silent,
Hushed is now its clamorous tongue,
But the spirit it awakened
Still is living, ever young.

~~Author unknown

We visited countless memorials, museums, battlegrounds, and places of historical moment during our last vacation, but the only time I was moved to tears was when I stood in front of the Liberty Bell. I tried to analyze my unexpected burst of emotion: what was it about this icon that touched me so deeply? Perhaps it was a respect for the incredible history this venerable bell has witnessed. Or was it the crack, the jagged gash that evokes memory of the scar our nation bears from her Civil War? Was my emotion tied to my deepening belief that there is an impending need for its iron music to sound anew?

I shelved my feelings for further examination at some more private and convenient time. That appointment with myself came due today as I was reading Bruce Feiler's book, America's Prophet. The 13 page chunk he devoted to the liberty bell and its history affirms that my experience is by no means unique.

One reason cited for its universal appeal is the fact that it is a flexible symbol, borrowed by the people for purposes beyond the Revolution. It was sent from state to state after the Civil War as a unifying symbol. It was borrowed as the symbol of hope for women suffragettes, civil rights activists, and others who deemed themselves oppressed. Even though the bell was created to be heard, it has become a visual object of hope. Its famous inscription only enhances its ringing purpose:

"Proclaim Liberty thro' all the Land to all the Inhabitants Therof." Leviticus 25:10

I love this quote from the book:

"Hearing is our most fundamental sense. Even a deaf person can feel vibration. And it's the same with this place. The bell is the most important part of this otherwise public building. It's the universal part. It sings the Declaration of Independence. The smallest part of the building turns out to have the biggest voice." ~~ Karie Diethorn

Singing the Declaration. Making iron music. The clamorous tongue hushed, but the spirit of liberty awakened. I love these phrases.

Our American icons are packed with meaning. They deserve a special place in our hearts and in our heritage.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Cinematic Poetry: Wit

If there is such a thing as cinematic poetry, Wit fits the description. John Donne's poems serve as the backdrop for this drama, the story of a middle aged college professor (Vivian Bearing) who has spent her life studying and teaching his poetry. During her final, eight- month battle with ovarian cancer, Vivian has much to say in monologue fashion. Her words reflect some of the wit that John Donne is known for:

"This is my play's last scene Here... 'Heavens appoint my pilgrimage's last mile And my race Idly, yet quickly run Hath this last pace My span's last inch My minute's last point And gluttonous death Will instantly unjoint my body and soul' John Donne... I've always particularly liked that poem. In the abstract. Now I find the image of my minute's last point, a little too, shall we say... pointed."

Vivian flashes back to a time when she sat at the feet of her mentor, learning about the significant comma in Donne's poem Death Be Not Proud:

"Do you think that the punctuation of the last line of this sonnet is merely an insignificant detail? The sonnet begins with a valiant struggle with Death calling on all the forces of intellect and drama to vanquish the enemy. But it is ultimately about overcoming the seemingly insuperable barriers separating life death and eternal life. In the edition you choose, this profoundly simple meaning is sacrificed to hysterical punctuation.
'And Death, Capital D, shall be no more, semi-colon. Death, Capital D comma, thou shalt die, exclamation mark! '

If you go in for this sort of thing I suggest you take up Shakespeare. Gardner's edition of the Holy Sonnets returns to the Westmoreland manuscript of 1610, not for sentimental reasons I assure you, but because Helen Gardner is a scholar. It reads,

'And death shall be no more' comma 'death, thou shalt die.'

Nothing but a breath, a comma separates life from life everlasting.

Very simple, really. With the original punctuation restored Death is no longer something to act out on a stage with exclamation marks. It is a comma. A pause.

In this way, the uncompromising way one learns something from the poem, wouldn't you say? Life, death, soul, God, past present. Not insuperable barriers. Not semi-colons. Just a comma. "

Poetry, lovely though it be, cannot meet Vivian's true human need in the final moments of her life. The mentor who spoke the eloquent words above is Vivian's last visitor and she offers to recite Donne as a well-meaning act of consolation. But Vivian's need is not poetry; her need is love. In a most touching final scene, the elderly mentor climbs into bed with Vivian and extends that love to her. She cradles her head and speaks to her soothingly, as a mother. She opens her bag and takes out a children's book (The Runaway Bunny) and reads it to her. Vivian is comforted and quieted by her touch and her simple ministrations.

This is the kind of movie that leaves a mark on your heart and mind, and I've found myself thinking on it and digesting its message for several weeks following my initial viewing. If you are a crier, you'll want to have kleenex handy for this one.

As an addendum: Shortly after viewing Wit, I came across some interesting information about "poetry of wit" in my current reading, How Does a Poem Mean? The author cites John Donne as the consummate poet of wit. This type of poet "welcome into their poems the rush of every sort of experience." In contrast, poets of high seriousness (Wordsworth is an example) are more concerned with diction and fine writing. This type of poet would exclude certain words or metaphors as being crass or unworthy of mention.

It's always enriching to connect threads of understanding from disparate sources. That is the delight of intellectual freedom.