Halloween night is the worst possible night to have the doorknob on your front door cease to function.
I’m meeting with a student and talking to him about the presentation he’s working on, which has to do with the pros and cons of soldiers publicly disclosing personal information on the internet, and I’ve got a bunch of windows open on my screen from my previous meeting. And the cadet looks up, and sees a YouTube screengrab of a puppy, and says, “Can you hit the back button, Sir?”
I hit the back button.
“I think that’s me in that video.”
OK. The video plays: soldier’s feet, cute golden lab, black nose and lips, all nippy.
“Sir, those are my feet. That’s Bambi, the puppy my platoon adopted in Iraq.”
And yeah. It’s totally him. It’s his voice.
I thought this was wonderfully clever. Standard limerick form: first, second, and fifth lines are longer, and similar in rhyme and meter; third and fourth lines are shorter, and similar in rhyme and meter. The toughest part is figuring out how the first and last lines rhyme.
I just picked up The Best American Poetry 2007, and I’ve had mixed feelings. There’s an interesting mix of really, really good stuff and stuff that seems to me silly, gimmicky, and simply self-indulgently bad. Stuff by prominent folks we all know (Louise Glück, Robert Pinsky); stuff by less prominent folks doing increasingly interesting work (Brian Turner, Joe Wenderoth); and stuff by former teachers and classmates, none of whom remember me, I’m certain, which is a good thing, because I’m disappointed by some of it, and genuinely amused by one comically pretentious and awful instance, but as it comes from someone who takes himself Very Very Seriously as a Poet and Artist and wanted to make sure all around him knew what a superior Poet and Artist he was, I can’t say I’m surprised.
But the primary reason I picked it up is the fact that former West Point Cadet (class of 2007) Marya Rosenberg has a cycle of haikus included that she wrote as an undergrad here. While some of them aren’t as strong as the rest (I got kind of an Andy Rooney in seventeen syllables feeling from a couple, if that makes any sense), there are also some that are as wonderful and brilliant as any haiku you’ve ever read, and perhaps even moreso in the ways they play with and press at the boundaries of the conventions of the genre. Among various fine examples, my favorite:
Springtime at West Point
boys in combat boots, slipping
on cherry blossoms
Overall, the book is an interesting and diverse collection. And I’m happy to see a Cadet’s poetry receiving public recognition as being at the level of our poet laureates. For me, that recognition of excellent writing — and those fine haiku — are sixteen bucks well spent.
I say check it out. Or write a haiku that nobody else but you could write. Or both.
The Section Marcher
You call attention,
report, breeze, windows wide, and
write — your fingers fly.
That dashed-off attempt isn’t very good, and not even close to being anywhere as good as any of Marya’s, of course. But there’s the breeze, windows, fly thing, and it’s what my section marchers do: they’re in charge of the class. They open windows strategically to make sure the air flows through the old classroom; they take attendance, call the section to attention, offer their reports — and then they do the written work of the class, as well. So: seeing the writing of a student from my school has got me doing more writing and thinking. That’s a good thing, and I look forward, hopefully, to meeting more students like the now-Lieutenant Rosenberg.
Mike Garcia, Jim Webber, and Kate Gillen presented on various aspects of the ongoing University of New Hampshire longitudinal study assessing the university’s current writing requirement. Mike led the presentation with a relaxed, comfortable talk offering an overview of the various forms the study has taken and the way it’s evolved over the years. The university has a set of writing-intensive courses, and according to Mike, the study was designed to assess what writing- intensive meant, precisely, and whether as a course requirement it actually did any good: in sum, the longitudinal study responded to the fact that the Writing Program had instituted a writing requirement without any built-in assessment method.
For the past two days, I’ve been at the University of New Hampshire 11th Biennial Composition Conference, where I was part of a panel presenting on “Shame, Shame, Shame: Literacy and the Public Regulation of Affect” that explored the implications of Elspeth Probyn’s book Blush: Faces of Shame for the teaching of writing. It was a good conference in many ways, and as is my habit, I’ll blog my notes on a few of the sessions here in the next few days. One of the enjoyable aspects of the conference was getting to re-connect with Peter Elbow, and he and my friends Lauren Rosenberg and Collie Fulford and I shared a pleasant lunch on the lawn today, talking about matters scholarly and personal.
And for me, the funniest thing was seeing, yet again, how canny a negotiator of the rhetorical situation Peter can be. I recounted some of the challenges and difficulties and complexities of being a professor at a military academy, and Peter — who helped conscientious objectors draft personal essays during the Vietnam war — expressed interest in the way we sell the project of writing at West Point. I told Peter and Lauren and Collie about the ways in which West Point sometimes frames or praises academic achievement in the terminology of athletic achievement, almost as if a highly competitive baccalaureate degree-granting institution doesn’t quite know how to talk about or reward being intelligent in ways that recognize the deeply necessary virtues of smartness for our soldiers and officers-to-be.
I really liked Peter’s response. Put it in physical terms, he suggested. Encourage cadets to do interval training with freewriting: start them at five minutes, and get them to go longer. Ten, fifteen, twenty: who can freewrite like push-ups? If the physicality of freewriting is important, if that act of keeping the hands moving is what brings out ideas, why not treat it like PT, like physical training? If you can freewrite at five minutes and freewrite at thirty minutes, and if you do that three or four days a week for a year, you’re sufficiently trained and honed as an intellectual that you can squeeze out a smart and eloquent paragraph in ten minutes. It’s the habit that does it.
Writing is a muscle, Peter said. Welcome to my gym.
(Addendum: Collie recently clarified to me that the writing/muscle/gym metaphor is indirectly from Keene State tutor emeritus Josh Bond.)