Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Z: Zeitgeist #AtoZChallenge

If you were to define the spirit of the 21st Century, what would you say? What fashions, trends, priorities give a sense of the essence of this time in which we live? 

Will our posterity look back on the early decades of the 21st Century and think of Miley Cyrus and twerking as representative of our time, much as we see the flapper girls and Zelda Sayer Fitzgerald as an icon of the 1920s?

Zeitgeist, I think, embodies more than one cultural motif. For example, the zeitgeist of education may very well be standardization. The zeitgeist of politics in the 21st Century may be stasis. 

Thomas Picketty would probably argue that the 21st Century zeitgeist will be represented by a return to the Victorian economic paradigm. 

In 2007 a popular YouTube video articulated a vision for today's "Lost Generation." The poem by Jonathan Reed expresses a vision that embraces a reversal in that the creator challenges the snap chat generation to reverse today's trends, to create a new paradigm of success. Certainly, we don't see many of our leaders--Elizabeth Warren is an exception--choosing a path of reversal. 

Are we living in an age whose zeitgeist will be one of hopelessness? Certainly, to avoid the inevitable end, the path leading to environmental and social and political catastrophe, we should at least consider reversing course. Read Jonathan Reed's poem "Lost Generation" forward and backward. 

It's not too late to end at the beginning. 

*Thanks to all who joined me for my first A to Z Blogging Challenge. I'm thrilled to have met so many wonderful bloggers and to have learned so much. I'm also happy to have discovered some new authors and look forward to catching up on so much that I missed. I hope to see you here--and there--in the blogging future. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Y: Young Man Sonnets #AtoZChallenge

William Shakespeare turned 450 this year. He's no longer a young man, but his Young Man Sonnets, sonnets 1-XVII, remain youthful. Since I missed posting a Shakespeare-themed post on the Bard's birthday, I'm dedicating the letter Y in the A to Z Blogging Challenge to William Shakespeare. 

The Young Man Sonnets offer advice to a young man. The speaker in the sonnets advise the audience, a young man, to marry, settle down, and have children. This series of sonnets is also known as the Procreation Sonnets.
Among the advice offered the young man to whom the speaker addresses his comments:

Sonnet III:

Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest,
Now is the time that face should form another;
But if thou live, remember'd not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee. 

Sonnet IV

For having traffic with thy self alone,
Thou of thy self thy sweet self dost deceive:
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave? 

Sonnet V

For never-resting time leads summer on 
To hideous winter, and confounds him there;
But flowers distill'd, though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

Sonnet VIX

But beauty's waste hath in the world an end,
And kept unused the user so destroys it. 

Sonnet XII may be my favorite in the cycle. It reminds me of how fleeting time is and how temporal so much of what our culture deems important.

Sonnet XII

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o'er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake 
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

May 15 will be my last day of school with the senior class of 2014. Some have presented quite the challenge this year while others give me hope for our country's future. That is, I have the full academic and cultural gamut of students in my classes. 

While the Young Man Sonnet cycle speaks of marrying, settling down, and insuring one's place in the cosmic order through one's offspring, Sonnet XII speaks to me on a deeper level. We each leave our mark on the world in many ways. Will my students look back on their lives with a sense of time wasted? 

I speak in class frequently about the future, the importance of having goals, of preparing oneslf for life's choices. As with most messages, this one is met with varying degrees of success. The speaker in the final poem of the cycle asks

Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were fill'd with your most high deserts?

Perhaps the lesson of a senior English teacher will meet the fate of the poet's lines: 

So should my papers, yellow'd with their age,
Be scorn'd, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be term'd a poet's rage...

Could it be that old English teachers never die but live on in the lives of their students in a Yin and Yang dichotomy? 

But were some child of yours alive that time, 
You should live twice, in it, and in my rhyme.

Happy belated birthday, William Shakespeare. Rest assured your "posterity" lives on in youthful minds and time immortal. 

*Looking for Shakespeare resources, either on the plays or the sonnets? Check out my favorite Shakespeare site, The Folger Shakespeare Library

Monday, April 28, 2014

X: Xanaduism, Xenia, and Xenophanic #AtoZChallenge

X-1: Xanaduism and the Utopian Ideal:

I'm looking for a utopia. Perhaps the best place to search is Xanadu, which is the mythic place Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes in "Kubla Kahn"

In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn 
Astately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
     Down to a sunless sea....

In the utopia Coleridge imagines, flowers bloom, trees emit fragrant scents. But as is often the case with utopias, imagined or otherwise, a dystopia lurks. In Coleridge's imagination, Kubla hears the echo of war.

Coleridge imagines building the pleasure dome in the air and ends the poem 

For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise. 

I stopped trying to understand "Kubla Kahn" years ago and instead read it in the moment. I tell students this is my suggestion for them, too. I just can't worry about what an unfinished masterpiece means. The romanic idea is enough to create a utopian moment for me. 

Xanaduism, a literary term I just learned, asks: "What is the source for a work of imaginative literature?" The source of xanaduism is a 1927 book by John Livingston Lowes titled The Road to Xanadu. I suspect this is at least in part because academics have had such vigorous debates about the poem for over a hundred years, and Lowes seeks to answer the seemingly unanswerable question: What is Coleridge's source for "Kubla Kahn?"

Yosemite National Park
X-2: Xenia, a Traveler's Utopia: 

What if we lived in a world in which travelers were welcomed into our homes without question? Would we willingly welcome strangers without concern for our own safety? Could travelers count on us to protect and provide for them along their journey? 

Xenia existed in the world of Ancient Greece and in other classical cultures. Simply, in a world without Hilton, Sheraton, Weston, etc. travelers relied on the largesse of strangers as they traveled. This meant that on one's journey, one had a reasonable expectation that strangers along our route would provide food, shelter, and provisions to help weary travelers. Hosts literally had the responsibility to provide for the safety and comfort of travelers. These Laws of Hospitality incurred Zeus's (Jupiter in the Roman) wrath when broken. 

I like to teach students about Xenia when I teach classic texts such as The Odyssey, The Epic of Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, etc. I don't know the extent to which xenia existed in Anglo-Saxon culture. The question, How did we go from xenia to xenophobia? is one I want to explore. 

In my utopia, we'd have more xenia and a lot less xenophobia.

X-3: Xenophanic Poets and the Rise of Satire:

Satire seeks to criticize in order to reform. Thus, I think of xenophanic poets as those who seek a utopia. Dr. L. Kip Wheeler, whose website of literary terms is a go-to for me, defines xenophanic thusly: "This adjective refers to itinerant poets who make use of satire and witticism."

My passion for modern satire began when "Saturday Night Live" debuted, but my literary love of satire might have begun when I met Jonathan Swift and his contemporaries. John Dryden's "Mac Flecknoe" is one of my favorite xenophanic poems. 

In "Mac Flecnoe" Dryden takes aim at a poet he identifies only as T.S. Here are a few of my favorite lines from the poem:

Shadwell alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dullness from his tender years.
Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirm'd in full stupidity.
The rest to some faint meaning make pretense, 
But Shadwell never deviates into sense.
Some beams of wit on other souls may fall,
Srike through and make a lucid interval; 
But Shadwell's genuine night admits no ray,
His rising fogs prevail upon the day:
Besides his goodly fabric fills the eye, 
And seems design'd for thoughtless majesty: 

Imagine the name Shadwell replaced by Christie or G. W. Bush. Dryden seems very relevant when the character names change. 

When we study satire in my classes, I share satire from popular culture, such as "The Colbert Raport," "The Daily Show," "Saturday Night Live," The Onion, and/or "The Borowitz Report." Of course, these satirists and the issues they target offer a nice segue into the classic satirists, including Chaucer, Mark Twain, Joseph Heller, and others. 

In the dystopia my students often call school, xenophanic poets and satirists offer a little utopian vision.