Friday, February 17, 2012

Why Not Offer Miracles If You Can?

WHY! who makes much of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in the edge of the water,         5
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love—or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with my mother,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive, of a summer forenoon,  10
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds—or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sun-down—or of stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite, delicate, thin curve of the new moon in spring;
Or whether I go among those I like best, and that like me best—mechanics, boatmen, farmers,  15
Or among the savans—or to the soiree—or to the opera,
Or stand a long while looking at the movements of machinery,
Or behold children at their sports,
Or the admirable sight of the perfect old man, or the perfect old woman,
Or the sick in hospitals, or the dead carried to burial,  20
Or my own eyes and figure in the glass;
These, with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring—yet each distinct, and in its place.
To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,  25
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same;
Every spear of grass—the frames, limbs, organs, of men and women, and all that concerns them,
All these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles.
To me the sea is a continual miracle;  30
The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—the ships, with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?
                                                  Walt Whitman
"To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle." To me, this poem is a miracle.

I could spend hours looking out the window and thinking about this. I did spend hours thinking about the poem at night as I walked my dog in the canyon and looked up at the stars and heard the breeze brush through the palms and in the morning as I took my daughters to school and we crested the hill and caught sight of the ocean and the islands and in the evening as I took out the trash and saw the sunset so garish that if it were a painting, you'd make fun of the artist.

I came across this poem because recently I had the great good fortune of having the opportunity to think about how to bring the American Romantics into certain high school classrooms in a certain state (intentional vagueness required by both professional courtesy and the stipulations of the non-disclosure agreement that is part of my contract).

For a week, I read Emerson, Lake, and Palmer Emerson ("To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius"), Whitman, Dickinson, Dunbar. Leaving out Thoreau wasn't intentional; it's just that I started with Emerson, but once I was in the thick of the poetry, decided to stay there and tackle the essays another time.

This work was pure pleasure. Poetry and grade 11 are a match made in heaven. All those emotions, for one thing. And there's a poet for everyone. Baudelaire was the original Emo:

Dark one, I am torn
By your savage ways,
Then, soft as the moon, your gaze
Sees my tortured heart reborn.
                                      --from "Afternoon Song"

Not the least of the pleasure was my thinking about the students. Maybe there would be one or two who for whom these poems might be a signpost to the onramp to the highway that leads to this gorgeous world of poetry and self-knowledge.

Last week, I went to hear a friend and fellow alumnus from the College of Creative Studies at UCSB  speak about literature and read from his writing. He told the students about how, when he graduated, he had this sense of having a gift, a talent, that was bigger than he knew what to do with.

It was true of all of us, I think. I'll go further and say that it may be true of everyone, but maybe everyone is not lucky enough to understand that he has a gift, or not lucky enough to land in a place where he has the room and space and encouragement to find and exercise his gift.

My daughters sweetly and patiently listen when I talk about my work and endlessly quote from my readings. They have more than a passing familiarity with Emerson by now. Erin, my eldest, showed me what her social studies textbook says about Emerson and Thoreau.

The targeted standard is to read the writings of the American Transcendentalists. The means employed by the textbook writer to address this standard was to write one spare paragraph about these two in which Thoreau is described as someone who was jailed because he refused to pay a one-dollar federal tax and Emerson is described as someone who didn't want to go to jail and so he paid the tax. That's it. Thus summing up the philosophies and values of American Transcendentalism. There was no context, no real biographical information, there were no excerpts from the essays.

Why in the name of all that is holy would a writer (or a publisher, as surely it was not solely the writer's decision--as a writer, I often bump into the decisions of editors and publishers) pass up the opportunity to offer more?

In the immortal words of Emily Dickinson (see below), the brain is wider than the sky. Even at 14. I'm sure their brains could not only accommodate bushels, nay, truckloads of real information, rather than a dismissive tag line. Why not offer the miracles and let the students sort them out?

THE BRAIN is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.

UPDATE: Fixed link to College of Creative Studies at UCSB.

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