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When did we stop reading aloud?

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The memory is an echo, but the thunder and gallop of the rhythm still quivers in my head:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the Valley of Death rode the six hundred,

the opening lines from Alfred Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade. Back in my home-schooling days when we lived in Morocco, my dear mother, poor lady, was implored to read this poem over and over again by two of my older brothers and I during our weekly poetry class. Sometimes I envied my other siblings who attended the local school, but not during poetry class. We didn’t have to do anything, just listen (and try not to fidget). Sometimes, on a glorious day, the sweet Mothership would take us outside and conduct the lesson in the shade of our back yard. Bliss. Give her half the chance – no, less – and she’ll still whip out an old favourite before you can say, “Mum, do you remember that poem you used….”

Likewise, I will never forget – not in all my life – my Italian professor reading out long passages from the Divine Comedy in Italian. It is some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, and to hear it read in its native tongue is enough to make you melt. You absolutely have to believe me. Amongst my favourites are the mellifluous opening lines of Purgatorio Canto VIII:

Era già l’ora che volge il disio
ai navicanti e ‘ntenerisce il core
lo dì c’han detto ai dolci amici addio,

The above examples illustrate some of the rare scenarios when reading aloud is still practiced and therefore normal: to children and in places of learning. The few other examples I can think of are: in court, at religious gatherings, and readings. Even readings, though, have become an “alternative” passtime. Count the occasions you’ve been to a reading versus gone out for dinner or to the movies. As for religious gatherings, a lot of people don’t. And court, well let’s just hope not.

Truth is, we don’t read aloud very often – and I’m as culpable as anyone. Reading aloud, it seems, has become somewhat of a lost art, a tradition battling an incipient extinction. But why?

One thing is for sure, read a book to a child and you’ll feel quite normal, even grown up. Read a book to an adult and you’ll feel like a complete plonker. Likewise, I know most of us descended into a blind panic when called upon to read during class: our eyes suddenly flittering in and out of focus, the surge of blood to the head as we anticipated a stutter or mispronunciation, fearing the censorious judgments of the teacher, not to mention the merciless taunting of classmates. So that’s clearly part of the reason: we’re embarrassed, or far too self-aware at least. But surely embarrassment alone hasn’t eroded this millennia old tradition.

In my last post on blogging and the history of writing I mentioned that Homer never wrote down a single word of his poetry, meaning – incredibly – that it was passed down orally for centuries. But that was normal back then because no one was very literate. Well, literacy didn’t really exist at all. Then literacy happened, slowly. So people who couldn’t read a story had to listen to one. On top of that, there weren’t very many books knocking around, and those that were, remember, cost you a pretty sum. So going to a reading was a bit like today’s equivalent of going to the library – you have to put up with a few weirdos, it kind of smells, but you get the same thing for free.

But now where are we? Everyone can read and books are as cheap as chips (if you buy them on Amazon). The conclusion, then: we don’t read aloud anymore because we don’t need to. More interesting, though, is that the spread of literacy and availablity of books – both wonderful things – have aggravated the demise of an equally important and longstanding tradition.

Fortuantely, not everywhere has reading aloud become such an atavistic activity. The Italians and their affair with the Divine Comedy is an apropos example.

For centuries in Italy in different piazzas, town halls, and auditoriums the Italians have shared in the prolific Lectura Dantis, the reading of Dante’s Divine Comedy, often in its entirety, over a series of days – weeks, really. (The Divine Comedy, by the way, is composed of three books – Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso – totalling 100 Cantos, each Canto comprising some 130+ lines. Yes, this is one poem. And the entire thing rhymes – and brilliantly, too). This has been happening since Boccaccio’s time, who himself, as orator, partook in the very same tradition in the piazzas of Florence. The beauty of this is that it still happens to this day, lead by, most notably, Academy Award winner and Italy’s cherished Roberto Benigni. Extraordinarily, he recites each Canto from memory. You can find videos of this on Youtube, my favourite being his recital of the last Canto, the climax and apogee of the entire poem. It is exquisite, breathtaking, life-affirming. Trust the Italians: when they do something well, Madonna mia don’t they know how to knock your socks off!

So we’re not all Roberto Begnini, I know. But we can try at least; we can begin to rediscover something of this important and increasingly rare tradition. Not just for tradition’s sake, but because it’s entertaining, sociable, beautiful. So read to each other. It takes some courage, and you may feel a little foolish, I understand. But you’ll also experience joy, trust me. Go on, promise me you’ll try it.

In memoriam: succeeding death with words

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For a girl I know March will always be the hardest month of the year to live through. In this same month is her late brother’s birthday, shortly followed by the anniversary of the day he took his own life.

Already the urge to stop writing and recede into reticence envelops me. For to try to fill the limitless silence between the opening paragraph and this, to speak into that burgeoning emptiness, seems almost ridiculous. Impossible. That a single word of mine on a blog like this could be added, that it might in some inconceivable way affect, change, or heal a truth so devastating, so immovable, so irreversible.

In my last post I said that to write poetry, for me, means to wrestle with words. It is the same with letters and messages of condolence. For the most part such messages, I sense, are a rarity. Not because we are lazy nor because our compassion doesn’t encompass someone else’s grief, but because words come awkwardly – or don’t come at all. We fear platitudes.

Yet eulogies and epitaphs are common place. Common place, but mainly unnoticed, and seldom spoken of. We skip over them in newspapers. We pass them by in graveyards – those tablets of stone on which is written one commandment only: live. They are hardly inconspicuous, but their existence is almost clandestine.

We seem to have a peculiar relationship between words and death. There is certainly discomfort, naturally. But I wonder if there is also neglect. Not an active, irreverent neglect, but a neglect of passivity born out of the discomfort we feel. We are coerced into silence. I don’t think it should be like this. I am painfully sensitive to clichés, but I don’t think death has to have the last word. We do. We who are still alive.

Shakespeare hit the nail on the head square on when in his closing rhyming couplet of Sonnet XVIII he wrote,

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

We must continue to succeed death with words. Be it an epitaph or a letter of condolence, we must continue to write. And we must continue to read. When we don’t, we neglect the sorrow and we forget the memory. More than this, we fail to participate in an experience of truth. Because truly, I don’t know what else can begin to heal the pain of death and the loneliness of grief except truth. Lies won’t, and neither will denial.

One of the hard things I know for the girl who lost her brother was the lack of acknowledgment she received after he died. It’s no one’s fault; she doesn’t blame anyone. Words don’t come easy. But in the silence that has been left is a sense in her that his death has been forgotten, or that it is somehow taboo. It is not taboo. It did happen. So just to acknowledge it, just to begin to fill that void of loneliness with words, is something. We must continue to succeed death with words.

Today is the second anniversary of her brother’s death. And so today I am writing to remember this, to acknowledge the sorrow, to remember the memory.

M.C.C. 03.05.1969 – 03.22.2010

Why we read

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C.S. Lewis is supposed to have said that we write not to be understood, but to understand. Of course, writing can be – and very often is – a screen onto which we project our opinions, beliefs, and experiences for the world (or a few blog followers) to see and understand. But writing, as any writer will tell you, is by and large a cathartic experience. The very opinions, beliefs, and experiences we are trying to recount aren’t perfectly lucid to our own eyes until we’re actually done writing them. Well what does this have to do with why we read?

This:

I don’t quite view writing to be some antipodean friend of reading; that is, I don’t think they’re opposites. They are, however, two wildly different adventures indissolubly bound together. But in this case, if we write not to be understood, but to understand, then we read not to understand, but to be understood. Let me say that again: we read not to understand, but to be understood. Again, of course we read to seek understanding, as anyone who has studied anything knows. But frequently when we read, especially something like a novel or a poem, we take part in an experience of identification. The characters we love (and loathe) the most, the parts which touch us profoundly, the words which remain etched in our memory are those we identify with the most. Not always, of course. But very often. The identification is part affirming; it speaks to who we are. In this way, we read to be understood.

Intertextuality

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare famously presented his Elizabethan audience with what at the time was a highly innovative motif: a play within a play.  In 2010, Christopher Nolan’s film, Inception, explored the perplexing possibility of a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream (within a dream?).  Intertextuality follows the same paradigm: it regards the concept of a text within a text.  What exactly defines an intertext is, to a large degree, quite nebulous.  However, an example of what an intertext is not would be if I wrote the following:

Such optimism and hope recall the words of T.S. Eliot, “And all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

This is a quotation, a verbatim reference attributed to the author.  An intertext has similar roots but is somewhat more discreet; somewhat more wily.  Compare the example above to this – an excerpt from an e-mail written to me by someone very dear to my heart, the beauty of which almost knocked the wind out of me:

I remember, suddenly, sweetly, the peace and the sparkling air of your last night the FIRST time we met, sitting there on my porch swing, feeling warm next to you, feeling right next to you.  All shall be well, said the night sky.  And the frost said, All manner of thing shall be well.  And my heart echoed All shall be well and All shall be well.  And the Spirit said, All manner of thing shall be well.

This is an intertext.  And a brilliant one at that, if the reader will excuse my bias.

But why am I writing about intertextuality?  For one, because intertexts, especially when executed well, have a certain enchantment to their subtlety and hiddenness; there is something delightfully surreptitious in their creativity.  Perhaps more importantly, though, an inclusion of an intertext is, by its very nature, a recognition of what has gone before.  It is, in a way, a respectful acknowledgement of the literature from which it has come (although we are not to assume that an intertext is always respectful.  An intertext can also be employed as a form of parody).  This recognition of past literature is, in my view, essential for a full appreciation of both writing and reading.  As Wendell Berry wrote in his essay, The Responsibility of the Poet, “We can only write poetry because poetry has already been written.”  And it is, of course, the same for all forms of literature.  Just as you and I have come to this exact moment in time because of generations upon generations of marriages and births, so also has the literature of today (old or new) reached us only through the millennia of what has preceded it.  Intertextuality, then, affirms literary lineage.

Returning to the point I made in the opening paragraph, the reason why defining an intertext can be so problematic is precisely because of this lineage: in every book can be found traces of another book, if not multiple books.  An intertext, therefore, could be quite accidental.  But this is not problematic to the theory of intertextuality itself; indeed, it is the very premise of intertextuality.  And this is the point I want to make: intertextuality demands we recognize that a book is not a self-contained work, despite its definite beginning and final full stop, despite the fact it is bound, encased, opened, and closed.   It is, if you think about it, quite a striking and profound idea; to suddenly think that a book – so tangible, so set in stone, is in fact, metaphyiscally speaking, fluid.

Ars Poetica

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If you’ve ever studied poetry or creative writing, you’ve most likely come across the phrase Ars Poetica.  And if you’re anything like me, the very whiff of Latin, its archaism and stuffy classroom memories of monotonous rote learning (porto, portas, portat…), will have the tendency to impose one of the following effects on you: sleepiness, frustration, or disinterest all together.  But let us be brave and broach this subject – if only briefly.  Follow me, if you will.

Ars Poetica, strictly translated, could read as ‘the technique/method of the poet’, though is more widely understood and referred to as ‘the art of poetry’.  Coined back in the good old years (circa 20BC)  by folks like Horace et. al, and resurfacing with unalloyed obsession by Renaissance humanists, it came to be the subject matter: what is ‘good poetry’.  But of course, it didn’t end with the Renaissance; the dialogue continued with the Romantics and through the Victorian era, each with their own dos and don’ts, and pretty well stumbled, exhausted, into the 20th century, falling at the feet of the giant, Post-modernism.  If you want to see an excellent illustration of what Post-modernism did to the notion of Ars Poetica, watch the memorable scene from Dead Poets Society, when that delightful preface, ‘Understanding Poetry’, written by a certain Dr. J. Evans Pritchard (Ph.D.), gets blissfully torn to shreds.  I must say, I hold somewhat reserved sentiments towards the whole idea of Post-modernism (whatever it really is); however, that aside, one of the better things, I think, that Post-modernism has achieved (if we can even say that), is that there no longer exists a collective conscience that rigidly defines what is or isn’t a good poem, as the scene from Dead Poets Society so aptly proclaims.

And so now Ars Poetica has come to mean something quite different – and far more agreeable, too.  Owing to the fact that Horace’s Ars Poetica was a treatise concerning the nature of poetry, that is, a piece of writing about writing, it has come to categorize poetry written about poetry.  Rather like, in part, the poem from my previous blog entry.  And here is another example I penned a couple of years ago, entitled
‘Poetical Enlightenment’:

Gripped in winter’s restlessness
for onward passage,
impatient with anticipation,
like a lover
waiting for a train.

The relief of arrival;
the penning of a pending poem.

Getting to know each other through literature

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Part of the established pattern of my week is to meet once with two friends of mine. In its strictest parameters, the rendez-vous is a reading/creative writing group; in reality, it’s three guys getting together who may (or may not) share and talk about what they’ve been reading – and on the very rare occasion what they’ve been writing. It should be known, though, that throughout most of my late adolescent and adult life, I have been quite suspicious – and maybe even disdainful – of such intellectual coteries.  Most probably for the reasons of my (hypocritical) disliking of pretense, not wanting to appear less intelligent than my fellow man, and perhaps greatest of all: my fear of  being exposed as a fake.  It’s a peculiar tension I’ve known seeing that I have always studied literature and, for the most part, have felt very affectionate – indeed, passionate – towards it.  I don’t know what exactly it was this time that persuaded me otherwise to join this particular group, but what I want to express now that I have, and what I cannot deny, is that meeting with these two friends of mine to share and discuss literature has had quite an unforeseen and – dare I say it – profound effect on me.  And it’s the word ‘share’ that is the important one here.

Now, without wanting to give a lesson in ethics, sharing, as we all understand, renders a possession immeasurably more satisfying than if it’s kept to oneself (provided our sharing is unbegrudged).  Simply because: sharing brings us closer together – and it is no different with literature.  And the part that I have known to be profound, is experiencing  how literature has been the medium through which I’ve got to know better these two friends of mine; it has allowed me to glimpse further into their lives.  Because hearing how each one understands, say – a poem by Pablo Neruda, or even the nuance of one word, brings me nearer to understanding who they are as individuals.  Or perhaps, as often happens, they’ll reveal how certain images within a given text evoke different memories from their lives, and suddenly you’re learning things about someone you might otherwise never hear; suddenly the richness of someone’s life is woven into the richness of a text, and vice-versa, each imbuing the other with a tangible vivacity.  Not only, then, am I learning something new about this text, I am learning something new about this person.  Depth and meaning are being delightfully saturated.  Sharing literature with people, therefore, discussing it, savoring it, sucking the marrow out of it (to borrow a phrase from a famous poet and favorite film of mine), can be like a two-way lens: one seeking out new meaning in the literature, the other casting light into each other’s lives.