Reflections

Reading Poetry

When did you get into poetry? Have you ever gotten into poetry?

I was first introduced to poetry in the eighth grade. The summer before classes started, the English teacher asked us to make a poetry anthology. I chose to focus on poems written about farm animals. Because I didn’t know any “fine” poets, I searched for fun children’s poems. I knew that Roald Dahl included poetry in his fiction, so I decided to start with him. Dahl wrote a poem called “The Pig” that is still one of my favorite poems. I recited it to my teacher before class one day, and I got a role in a school play with the poem. Even though my anthology focused on farm animals, the poems I loved the most were not about animals at all. I loved “Father William” by Lewis Carroll and “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe, so I recited both to my teacher. Nearly every week, I memorized a new poem so that by the end of the year I had memorized quite a few poems. While they weren’t necessarily the most sophisticated poems, I finally found poetry that I liked.

I dip in and out of poetry collections from time to time. Some poems resonate with me on a deep level like “Dirge Without Music” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I first came across it in the short, young adult novel Baby by Patricia McLaughlin. If you want a beautiful but depressing book, read Baby. Millay’s poem goes perfectly with yesterday’s post since it addresses grief.

My favorite French poet is Paul Claudel. His “Chemin de la Croix” (The Way of the Cross) is a 14-poem meditation on the Stations of the Cross. Claudel was a very difficult person and a fascist to boot, but I find his poems particularly moving. I also love “Zone” by the surrealist, World War I poet Guillaume Apollinaire.

So many young people hate poetry because of the way it’s taught in school. They spend hours dissecting a poem line by line, but they don’t get the point. Students today feel intimidated by the genre.

I am grateful to my 8th grade English teacher for having assigned that poetry anthology project. I found poems that I enjoyed, which encouraged me to read more poetry. At one time, most children’s books included short poems. They were a part of a child’s intellectual development. But today, students only encounter poetry in school where it’s dissected and analyzed bit by bit. I am not denying the value of literary analysis. I am a literature student after all. And I do it all the time on my blog. But poetry should be fun. Students should be encouraged to find poems that they love, even if they’re children’s poems.

I can’t say that I really understand poetry. I don’t have much experience analyzing poetry. But I care deeply about the poems that I’ve enjoyed. I’m sure that formal poetry courses would help me better appreciate 20th-century poetry, but that doesn’t mean that I am ignorant of the genre. I appreciate my favorite poems more each time I reread them. We would never tell a non-English student that she can’t understand The Great Gatsby because she hasn’t studied it in school, so why do we assume that those who lack formal education in poetry are completely ignorant of the genre? Find the poetry you enjoy and read it.

Reflections, Religious Texts

Those Grieving During the Holidays

Clear Glass Candle HolderThe holidays can be a difficult time for people who have lost loved ones. While it may seem that everyone is celebrating life and love with friends, some are alone in their grief. Thanksgiving may be a burden for someone experiencing a loss. It is with them in mind that I write today’s reflection.

The 12th century Cistercian monk and reformer Bernard of Clairvaux was known for his beautiful reflections on divine love as well as his fiery and aggressive personality. He was, above all else, a leader. And a leader wasn’t allowed to show emotional weakness – especially an austere abbot.

But in his 26th sermon on the Song of Songs, Bernard cut short his commentary to express his grief over the death of his biological and spiritual brother Gérard. Gérard joined his brother in the monastery and became the cellarer of Citeaux. He was Bernard’s lifelong friend and companion. Gérard wasn’t educated, but he kept the monastery up and running. His death devastated Bernard, but an abbot wasn’t supposed to mourn. Monks were taught to anticipate and embrace death. So, Bernard hid his emotions from the other brothers and stoically officiated his brother’s funeral.

But in Sermon 26 of the Song of Songs, Bernard finally broke the silence and shared his true feelings with the monks in his care. Perhaps, death was supposed to be interpreted as a great good, but it was only good for Gérard. Bernard had lost his best friend, and nothing would ever be the same without him.

To Gérard, Bernard exclaimed:

All my delights, all my pleasures, have disappeared along with you.  Already cares rush in upon me, troubles press about me on every side; manifold anxieties have found me companionless, and, since you departed, have stayed with me in my solitude.  In my loneliness I groan under the burden.  Because your shoulders are no longer there to support it, I must lay it down or be crushed.  O, if I could only die at once and follow you!  Certainly I would not have died in your stead, I would not deprive you of the glory that is yours.  But to survive you can mean only drudgery and pain.  My life, if you can call it that, will be one of bitterness and mourning; it will even be my comfort to endure this painful grief.

Could Gérard still hear his brother’s voice? Did he care about his brother’s suffering even though he was in a better place? Bernard concluded that it was impossible for any soul in contact with a merciful God to be indifferent toward the plight of the living. Therefore, Gérard was present in spirit. He did care about his brother’s suffering. But he was no longer in the flesh, and Gérard’s physical presence mattered.

I am that unhappy portion prostrate in the mud, mutilated by the loss of its nobler part, and shall people say to me: “Do not weep”?  My very heart is torn from me and shall it be said to me: “Try not to feel it”?  But I do feel it intensely in spite of myself, because my strength is not the strength of stones nor is my flesh of bronze.  I feel it and go on grieving; my pain is ever with me.

Bernard may have been the abbot of Citeaux and one of the most powerful men in his day (his student became pope), but he was still human. He was tired of putting on a show, of pretending that death didn’t matter.

Will you say then that this is carnal?  That it is human, yes, since I am a man.

It must have been shocking for the brothers to see their abbot in this emotional state. Many of the monks were former knights, so they were probably accustomed to hiding their emotions and acting tough. In a patriarchal society, men especially feel discouraged to show their true feelings.

As I mentioned above, I’m writing this post with the grieving in mind. Holidays can be wonderful times of the year. Friends and family gather together to celebrate Thanksgiving (in the U.S.) or Christmas. But holidays can also be burdensome for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. They may feel like they have to perform for the occasion, and if they can’t, they may experience guilt and regret. They don’t want to “ruin” the occasion. And of course, they may miss their loved ones the most during the holidays because the holidays are supposed to be joyful occasions. The grieving often experience the most loneliness during the holidays.

For personal reasons, Bernard’s story resonated with me when I first read it at the end of 2016. We still live in a society in which emotion is interpreted as weakness. We are asked by society to hide our pain not only at work but among friends, and especially during the holidays. But death is a tragedy. It leaves a mark on the living.

During the holidays, we who are not mourning need to remember those who are and give them space and support to do so. Advertisements tell us to have the perfect Thanksgiving or the perfect Christmas. But the need to play a certain role in company (as a teacher, a CEO, a parent, etc) is a huge burden for those who are grieving. They may feel that they don’t matter as human beings. Let’s not preference our celebrations over the lives of our loved ones.

If you are grieving, I hope you find the comfort and support you want and need this season.

Reflections

My Blogging Experience

Every night around midnight a car comes by to pick up some people living in the next door apartment complex. I know they’ve arrived when I hear music booming from a car stereo. As I write, it’s 12:10 am. The car has picked up its passengers and driven away.

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Today, I want to talk about my blogging experience. I believe I started this blog in 2013. Before December 2013, I had launched two blogs that failed within the first six months. I have kept other blogs in addition to this one since 2013, but none of those other blogs gave me much pleasure. I wasn’t very passionate about the topics I was writing about. I also didn’t belong to any community, so I felt very alone. I finally started Exploring Classics to review books and to discuss them with others. Because I didn’t know many people who read the kinds of books I enjoyed, I took to the internet to see what was out there. I wanted to talk about classics with other readers, but most people my age read YA. After searching for blogging communities, I came across the Classics Club Blog. If you are following this blog, you probably already know who they are. But I’ve included a link just in case.

I used to be a lot more active in the Classics Club and the blogging community in general. I participated in most of the club challenges and read dozens of blog posts a day. I still read a handful of posts every day, but I don’t comment nearly as often as I used to.

Then last summer, I renamed my blog Exploring Literature because I wanted it to reflect my current reading tastes. I no longer read only classics. I read modern literary fiction from time to time, but the bulk of my reading is nonfiction. I wonder whether it’s appropriate to have a nonfiction section on a blog called Exploring Literature. Does nonfiction constitute literature?

I have changed a lot since 2013. Not only have my reading tastes changed, but I would like to think that I’m more mature now than I was at 20. My old design reflected my teenage age, so my blog needed a facelift. I strongly disliked being a teenager, so I don’t want my blog to remind me of those years.

I would like to reintegrate into the Classics Club blogging community. I enjoy blogging and sharing my thoughts, but I miss the experience of reading the classics with others. I also miss interacting with certain bloggers.

I am very happy with the direction my blog is going. I am finally making the posts that I told myself for years I wanted to make, but I didn’t have the motivation to follow through. In the past year, I’ve developed a renewed interest in book blogging. I also enjoy reading book reviews more than ever before.

But I am a bit disappointed by my lack of involvement in the blogging community. I have barely made a dent in my Classics Club list, and I haven’t communicated with certain bloggers in months. I would like to rejoin the Classics Club community in 2018.

Reflections

Creating Self-Motivation

To remain motivated in my day-to-day life, I try to perform actions during the week that remind me that I have the capacity for self-control. Take this blog post, for example. It’s currently 12:30 am, but I just began writing my 500 words for the day. I will count this post for Sunday because I haven’t slept yet. I could skip a day, accept my failure, and resume the daily writing challenge tomorrow. But I won’t because I gain self-confidence whenever I successfully complete a personal challenge, however small.

In our lives, we often feel controlled by others. We have to obey the rules others set for us. But when we set our own rules, we become our own masters. I love the feeling of having completed the goals I set for myself; I feel like I can do anything. Our friends and coworkers can motivate us, but our greatest motivation can only come from within. We have to be our own motivators. I have to truly believe that I have the ability to overcome my weaknesses otherwise I will give up on my goals. I need this conviction after I have received harsh criticism or when I feel overwhelmed by deadlines.

I have decided to write this post because I want that feeling of satisfaction of having completed a challenge I set for myself. On November 30, I will be proud of my small accomplishment. Not only will I be less intimidated by the idea of writing, but I will have more self-control. Self-control contributes to our personal freedom when we know why we are abstaining from something or taking up something. I know why I have taken up this writing challenge. It’s an exercise with many benefits and few drawbacks.

There are other ways you can develop self-control and the resulting self-motivation. You could finally complete the household tasks you have put off for the past month. You could commit to a weekly exercise schedule. Or maybe you’re like me and you never exercise, so you decide to exercise twice a week for a month. Choose a task and complete it. The feeling of having completed a task is the best feeling in the world. When I face obstacles in other aspects of my life, my past achievements remind me that I have the capacity to overcome any obstacles in my path.

The millennial generation is popularly known as the “snowflake generation”. We grew up with external motivators. We received trophies for participating in sports games and smelly stickers for average grades. Because we are accustomed to receiving motivation from external sources, we are easily disheartened when we don’t receive positive feedback for something we’ve done. We interpret silence as criticism even though we know that it is unreasonable to expect constant praise in our lives. My generation, especially, needs to learn to develop self-motivation because people don’t praise you all the time in the “real world”. You have to learn to move on from failure and try again.

So many of us search outside of ourselves for motivation, but we need to convince ourselves that we have what it takes to tackle the large projects in our lives.

It’s 1:30 am. I have completed my daily word count.

Reflections

When Intellectuals Are Prejudiced

I first encountered Guillaume de Machaut’s name while reading René Girard’s 1982 book The Scapegoat. Machaut was a fourteenth-century French lyric poet and composer. During the past few months, my medieval lit professor has frequently cited Machaut.

However, Girard cited Guillaume de Machaut as a medieval anti-Semite. Machaut, the brilliant lyric poet, believed that the Jews were responsible for the outbreak of the Bubonic plague and for the poisoning of wells. While prejudice is often associated with ignorance, Girard was fascinated with Machaut’s anti-Semitism because he was highly educated. In fact, many vocal anti-Semites throughout history have been intellectuals teaching at universities. Guillaume’s scholastic contemporaries wrote political treatises in which they accused the Jews of sorcery. How could otherwise intelligent people be so prejudiced?

These intelligent people of the late Middle Ages were often the same people who praised dispassionate Reason. The Scholastics were very concerned about the reasonableness of their beliefs, even their religious beliefs. Reason was based on observation and was seen to be in conflict with the passions. If prejudice derives from an irrational and a passion-driven response to personal crisis, we should least expect prejudice in “reasonable” people. But there were many German professors and doctors in the 1930s who belonged to the Nazi party.

Gerard’s introduction challenges a common assumption in developed nations that education necessarily leads to tolerance. I find his observation particularly disturbing because I value higher education and usually consider liberal arts education to be in conflict with fear-mongering ideologies. But Guillaume de Machaut was both highly educated and a rabid anti-Semite.

Although I never finished The Scapegoat, I did finish Girard’s analysis of Guillaume de Machaut’s anti-Semitism. Girard argued that prejudice seems rational to the prejudiced. In the minds of the prejudiced, one person is perceived as representing an entire group of people. That, of course, is the definition of prejudice, but Girard moves from this obvious definition to the following point: The association of one person with an entire group appears reasonable to the prejudiced. The reasonable appearance of this association merely reinforces lifelong prejudices.

If a society already has a fear of Muslims or black men, or Mexican workers, only one person of each group needs to behave badly to convince those in power that entire groups cannot be trusted. The prejudiced think that the laws they are passing are reasonable because they are very loosely based on observation. How many data points are necessary to condemn or exonerate an entire group?

Education has the potential to challenge our preconceived notions or to reinforce them. Prejudice is reinforced when data is misinterpreted. If someone is already prejudiced, that person is looking for data that can reinforce his/her views. If one black man rapes a white woman, lifelong racists will point to that one rape case in defense of discrimination against black man everywhere. They think their conclusions are reasonable because they’re based on observation, but they never take a critical look at their assumptions.

This, I believe, is the number one reason why we need to have diversity in higher education. When material is consistently taught from only one perspective, we risk reinforcing prejudices in our students. Guillaume de Machaut was surrounded by other intelligent Christians who defended anti-Semitism on rational grounds. It was one giant echo chamber, and the Jews didn’t have a voice. Jewish intellectuals did not share educational spaces with Christian intellectuals. Prejudiced people have to learn to challenge the assumptions that lead to their faulty conclusions, but that is nearly impossible in an homogeneous environment where assumptions are interpreted as fact. Besides, prejudiced people (most of us, unfortunately) are keen to find information that seem to support deeply held views.

Reflections

Why Do We Rate Books The Way We Do?

adult, books, businessSome would say that you should never trust my star ratings on Goodreads. I give four or five stars to nearly every book I read. I am easily pleased. However, just because I give a book five stars on Goodreads doesn’t mean that it will make my Best of the Year list. The books I put on that list are the ones that have had the greatest influence on me in the past year. They have resonated with me the most.

But I love certain books for very sentimental reasons. They aren’t critically good, but I read them at the perfect time in my life. Take Beezus and Ramona, for example. It’s essentially a collection of related short stories about a young girl with an overactive imagination. It is certainly not the most thought-provoking children’s book I’ve ever read, but it helped me through many a sleepless night. I also loved The Secret Language by Ursula Nordstrom and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Because these three books were childhood favorites, it feels wrong for me to leave them out of a list of my all-time favorite books.

I don’t think the average reader rates a book on Goodreads solely on its literary merit. Many give five stars to a book that they enjoyed even though it wasn’t very well-written. Or, those books are favorites for very personal reasons. Stories could be written about the role certain books have had on our lives. This may also explain why so many adults count the Harry Potter books as favorites. They grew up on the series. They read each book four or five times. Even if Harry Potter may be lacking in certain areas, adults who loved and continue to love the series will include the books on their “Favorites” list.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Not only do we all read for different reasons, we all rate our books for different reasons. I gave four stars to Dan Brown’s Origin recently even though it certainly wasn’t a literary masterpiece. I wanted a fun Robert Langdon book, and I got a fun Robert Langdon book.

I love the “amateur” reviewing industry that has emerged online in the past decade. I consider myself a part of this industry. We amateurs share our true feelings about the books we read. Professional reviewers try to be “objective” in their reviews, but I often want to know how a book has influenced the reader on a personal level. My intention is not to criticize professional reviewers. I follow professional reviews as well as amateur reviews. But we love books for a wide range of reasons, and professional reviewers tend to focus exclusively on character, plot, and sentence structure.

I personally decide whether I will read a book based on written reviews. I read the 5 star reviews and the 2 star reviews. They give me a good idea of what people liked and disliked about a work. But I often choose a book based on the themes it explores. If the book is set at sea, I will definitely give it a try.

And who knows? Maybe I will read the book at the perfect time in my life or in the perfect environment and it will become a favorite.

Reflections

Graduate Students and Writing

author, blog, businesswomanSome book bloggers talk about being in reading slumps, but literature students can’t afford to be in reading slumps. We are forced to read all the time even though that doesn’t always help our productivity. We read multiple books at the same time, and we get hardly a break between reads to collect our thoughts. There, inevitably, comes a time when we have to choose between reading for class and reading and researching for final papers.

I am taking four courses this semester. I am assigned at least three books a week, and I am now beginning to do the research for a few of them. That means that I have to read secondary source material as well as the relevant critical theory.

I often envy PhD students in the UK who don’t take classes. They spend the entire 3 years of their PhD working on their thesis. However, I understand the value in knowing the French canon so that I can teach general literature courses.

Ironically, graduate students in the humanities don’t get nearly enough writing practice throughout the year. Most of the writing comes at the very end of each semester. Students are asked to produce well-written papers after months of minimal writing.

I played the classical guitar for most of my childhood. I hated practicing, so I usually practiced the night before my weekly lessons. A few times a year, I performed in student recitals. I would binge-practice a couple weeks before each recital. I would certainly have been a more accomplished musician if I had practiced daily.

Graduate students treat writing the way I treated classical music. They get very little practice during most of the semester, and then they’re asked to perform for all their classes during the few weeks at the start of December.

Small wonder then that so many ABD (all but dissertation) students suffer from writer’s block. They are not accustomed to writing on a regular basis, let alone for 6 hours a day.

Most of the last month leading up to the end of the semester is spent doing research for my final papers. I probably spent a week to a week-and-a-half writing the darn things.

I am not about to tell graduate programs how they should conduct their literature courses. I don’t even know what I would change. I have done graduate work at different institutions, so my observation about graduate writing is certainly not exclusive to the program I’m currently in. All American graduate students face this problem of trying to balance reading and writing throughout the semester.

I have a few ideas that I might try in the next few weeks to think on paper about the texts I’m studying. Anything is better than nothing. I will most likely not share my ideas on this blog for privacy reasons, but I will let you know how it all goes.

Graduate students don’t often think of themselves as writers. Indeed, they hardly write during the semester to feel the need to call themselves writers. We need to start calling ourselves writers. Someday, we will write a dissertation and (hopefully) send out book manuscripts for publication.

If you are a graduate student in the humanities, I encourage you to start thinking of yourself as a writer. If thinking of yourself as a writer makes you feel like an impostor, start writing short pieces a few times a week. You don’t have to go public with your writing, but you can’t say you’re a writer if you don’t write.

I certainly feel like an impostor. That’s why I started this daily writing habit. It’s hard coming up with post ideas. I don’t know what I will do in December. But, I do feel less intimidated by the idea of writing than I did in October.