Tuesday, January 25, 2011

`It Is Every Thing and Nothing'

A fifth-grader who in September was flummoxed when asked to write a sentence of minimum components – subject, verb, object, correctly spelled – on Monday wrote a coherent, grammatically correct paragraph of five sentences, all in less than thirty minutes. Even more pleasing and unexpected, it was interesting to read. Part of the explanation is my enforcement of unwavering attentiveness. We sit in a quiet room, door closed, alone with the language and our imaginations. Word by word, we craft sentences, no excuses accepted, in the same way we might learn to stucco a wall or prepare arroz con pollo.

The rest of the explanation, probably the greater part, taught me a lesson I already knew. On my first day with him, I asked if he had visited a park lately. He had, with his father. I asked him to describe the experience in a sentence or two and he choked. Literally, he couldn’t put a word on paper, so gradually I changed strategies. Instead of verbatim autobiography, I had him describe objects, other students and teachers, in enough detail to distinguish them from others. I wanted to avoid self-portraits and turn to still lifes, and had him write sentences about other people, real or imaginary, sometimes from their point of view.

On Monday, inspired by a book he’s reading, he wrote a story told in the voice of a young indentured servant (his words) in colonial Boston. He named the kid Pablo (“He’s Mexican!”). He works for a baker, cutting firewood, beating carpets (his words) and hauling water from the pond. Something about shedding the burden of self and entering the being of another set this kid free, at least with a pencil. He seems to have absorbed the lesson of John Keats who insisted “the poetical Character…it is not itself - it has no self - it is every thing and nothing - It has no character…”

This kid is no poet but the principle stands. Often the imagination flowers only when turned outward, where it flourishes in otherness. In his book length interview with Philip Hoy (Between the Lines, 2001), Anthony Hecht elaborate on Keats’ insight:

“…Keats, who said the poet had no personality of his own, no identity. In any case, this sort of thing is not for me. I have in fact tried to disguise myself in my poems, and have adopted the voices of persons wholly different from me, including women. Novelists do this sort of thing all the time, while many readers and critics seem to deny this privilege to the poet, or to doubt that he is able to do it. Some of the most grotesque misreadings of my poems have been made by those who assume that all my poems are voiced in propria persona.”

1 comment:

samuelwood said...

Interesting point about getting students to speak and write. They often seem to be embarrassed to speak about themselves or abstract ideas. This seems good way of creating a safer subject. I'll definitely be trying it with my students.