Tuesday, September 20, 2022

No More Salingers

Can any single author truly be the "voice of a generation"? Will any author ever represent such common generational ideas that we trust one voice to speak for all? Having written my master's thesis on the Canadian author Douglas Coupland, pegged the voice of Generation X, I take a look at that conundrum with this recent piece for The Curator magazine.

I once read a pop culture essay which identified thriller writer John Grisham as “this generation’s Charles Dickens.” Part of me smiled at the cool insight the reference provided to an author I enjoyed escaping with; the other part of me rolled my eyes in snobby contempt for such an outrageous, aloof, and absurd statement. Can any writer truly be compared to Dickens, and if so, wouldn’t a writer like Jonathan Franzen or Toni Morrison more likely be the Dickens of Grisham’s generation? Or perhaps a better question is: can we be done with tagging any contemporary writer as “this generation’s” Dickens or Twain or Austen or any other distinct voice from the past? I’ve felt this way often, most recently with the rise of Irish writer and Trinity grad Sally Rooney, who by age twenty-seven was garnering raves for her first two novels, Normal People and Conversations with Friends, and who was referred to by her editor at Faber & Faber as the “Snapchat generation’s Salinger.” Perhaps it’s time to end the “voice of a generation” moniker and let Salinger and the others rest in peace while allowing all authors to just be themselves.

In her most recent work, Beautiful World, Where Are You? Rooney has taken aim at her literary celebrity, portraying a young novelist’s discomfort with her fame and the expectations that come from speaking so aptly to and for a large demographic, in her case the Millennials, which may or may not be “the Snapchat generation.” In creating the character of Alice, a famous author who has just released her third novel and laments both her success and her valuing of that success, Rooney takes a meta-fictional and clearly sardonic approach to being the latest Salinger. As Alice secludes herself in a seaside cottage for much of the novel, though occasionally jetting off to Paris for a book tour, it’s easy to understand the tug-of-war that has been the life of celebrity novelists in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Would Rooney’s fans actually be impressed with the comparison to Salinger? Would they even consider being the next Salinger a compliment? With what we know now of Salinger’s not-so-private life, the answer is probably not. And that’s all more reason to end the tradition.


Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Le Mot Juste

One of my favorite lessons to teach is about the power of "the right word." That's the focus of one of my recent columns for The Villager.

According to Mark Twain “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Twain was undoubtedly a master of language, and when I teach rhetoric, Twain’s sentiment is central to understanding effective word choice. The goal is to affect the reader with what the French call le mot juste, “the right word.” One way I introduce my students to the power of diction is through the three-word poem. I learned it from a colleague, and one year it produced a true work of art, which I share with my students. The following is one of the best three-word poems I’ve ever read.




The students always laugh, or nod approvingly, at the blunt criticism of math, a nemesis to many. However, the lesson is not just about the rhetorical effect, but about how the writer achieved the final product through numerous drafts. His initial poem was “I Hate Algebra,” which was mostly an expression of anxiety about an upcoming quiz. In revising, he decided the source of angst was algebra, not him. So, on revision he removed the word “I” and added the contemptuous word “sucks.” The second draft became “Algebra Really Sucks,” which is certainly an improvement. However, the writer realized “really” is actually a weak modifier and doesn’t enhance the effect. The final draft is powerful and effective for the feeling it evokes, emphasized even more through intentionally poor grammar.

My plan is for students to craft a three-line poem, using the most effective language, and to explain their writing and revising process. The simple structure – just three total lines – is not too overwhelming, as I’m not a fan of forcing kids to be creative and poetic. The lesson is introduced through imagism, the style of poetry developed in the 20th century and popularized by Lost Generation poets like Ezra Pound. The conciseness of the genre makes it accessible and less intimidating to students while also encouraging tight command of language. We begin with Pound's classic poem “In a Station of the Metro”:

In a station of the metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough.

As students make sense of the poem by discussing word choice and structure, the word "apparition" is key, noting the suddenness of the appearance. The use of the colon reveals meaning through analogy, as the faces are fragile, delicate, diverse, and vulnerable "petals on a wet black bough." The simplicity of the poem creates its impact, which is meant to be immediate and momentary, rather than expansive and drawn out. Imagism captures a moment, intending it for observation, much like a painting or sculpture.

I also share poems from an American Buddhist monk named Joe Wagner, whom I met years ago in Taiwan. Joe's poetry is linked to his meditation and intention to live deliberately and self-aware because "poetry has the ability to stop the reader from thinking about life and directly experience it instead." That insight suggests a meditative quality. In his three-line poems, Joe’s philosophy of poetry seeks brevity as a goal. If a poem is too long, it risks losing the reader to the inevitable wanderings of the restless mind. If the goal is to impact that mind, the poem must stop the reader from thinking too much. I share several examples of Joe's poetry, revealing them slowly, one line at a time, which enhances the effect of the words.

The sadness of eating


On Christmas Eve

The power of the poem comes from the simplicity of the language and the structure which emphasizes the starkness of the moment. Another example perfectly captures a moment in every teacher’s life, one which students are generally aloof to.

Classroom quiet

The children

Take a quiz

Each poem produces insightful and enlightened nods and murmurs in the classroom. The kids get it. When I ask students to create a three-line poem, they also submit an analysis of their process. While I don't require numerous drafts, I do expect that their analysis paragraphs reflect an idea of revision and editing. These poems are also presented to the class. However, unlike my lesson, these poems are simply recited and received with no comment or analysis in class. Many produce great reactions, from gasps to sighs to laughter, and students hopefully grasp an appreciation for “the right word.”

Saturday, September 3, 2022

A Person on Whom Nothing is Lost

To begin the school year, I always share with my AP Lang students the concept of "the unending conversation" via the parlor metaphor from Kenneth Burke. That idea was also my column for The Villager.

"Imagine you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, [one] too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress."

The previous scenario from Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941) serves as a metaphor for what the esteemed rhetorician and philosopher deemed the “unending conversation.” It’s the situation all people find themselves in by simply joining history as it is in progress. We’re all late to the party, but we’ve also all arrived just in time. It’s the job of our lives to “listen for a while, catch the tenor of the argument, and put in our oar.” Burke’s parlor metaphor is the spirit around which I frame my classroom each year, and the tradition of the unending conversation is the guiding factor for nearly everything I read, write, and teach. My goal is always to ask my students to think, as well as to think about their own thinking. Not only should they have a deep understanding of what they actually know, but also what they don’t. That will serve them well in becoming what Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers envisioned as integral to a free society – an educated citizenry.

When my students in AP English Language & Composition sit for the national exam each May, they never know what sort of content they will be asked to read, analyze, and write about. One writing prompt might ask them to analyze rhetorical choices made in a speech by Queen Elizabeth, rallying her forces at the battle of Tilbury in 1588. Another might ask them to use their general knowledge to develop a position on the difference between dissent and disagreement, citing examples from history, literature, current events, pop culture, and personal experience. Regardless of the question and their familiarity with it, they need to be able to “step into the parlor” and participate in the conversation. No matter what the game is, they need to be ready to play.

As they become better readers, writers, and thinkers, we try to take the advice of esteemed American author Henry James who encouraged students to be people “on whom nothing is lost.” The goal is obviously not to know everything, which is impossible. Instead, it’s about building a body of knowledge and familiarity with many ideas, concepts, facts, theories, etc. It’s about being an informed, educated person who has some knowledge, along with the ability to synthesize what they know with any situation. It’s about becoming a fully actualized human being, a true adult.

James described his advice this way: “The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it.” The person on whom nothing is lost is the ultimate goal and the desired result of a classical liberal arts education. It’s why we learn about everything in school, as opposed to simply that which we are interested in, that which we like and find easy, or that which we will need for a job.

Of course, the advice from Burke and James is not just about how we educate ourselves – it’s also about how we live our lives. That’s why I encourage my students to be interested in everything, especially the unfamiliar. Take time to notice the world. Be aware and mindful of the mundane as well as the exciting. At one time in our lives, we were insatiably curious. We wanted to know everything. We incessantly asked how and why. And if we are living as we should, then we have never lost that desire to know.