Monday, March 09, 2009

Influential Writers Annotated, Secondary School

In the years between 7th and 12th grade, I went from being a reader to being a real English student. After taking the Johns Hopkins CTY program exam (basically taking the PSAT as a seventh grader), I moved from my school's TAG (talented and gifted) English class (taught by the beloved Dr. Warren) and was slotted into the local magnet program which had me in an accelerated class with about 7 other students from around the (very rural) county. By 11th grade we were taking courses at a branch campus of the Bitty State U, and so I graduated high school with 12 English credits already. So some of my reading from this period is inspired from early literary study rather than merely "reading for class," but I'm calling a lot of those undergraduate reading for the next post, which seems right, since the context seems to be the operating feature there. At any rate, here's what has stuck with me from late middle school and high school.

Harper Lee
: When I wrote in the earlier post that I have retained an important set of ethics from a childhood steeped in the Bible, reading Harper Lee in the 7th grade may have been the fulcrum that helped transform some of that ethic from my parents' fundamentalist conservatism to something more like a liberal secular humanism. The 'walk a mile in his shoes' bit of To Kill a Mockingbird is a fairly central component to my own ethic, and while it may often make me a bit of a sucker for, say, whingeing students, I can almost always sleep at night.

That, and there's this character in the book who always felt kindred in a way I couldn't talk about much at the time: Dill was flamboyant and unreliable and full of wild stories and I knew I'd fall in love with him in a minute if I met him in real life. Of course, now that we all know he was based on Truman Capote, this impulse means something different, but I'm not sure how true that particular kinship might have been. Certainly at the time I had no real language for sexuality at this age, except that I got teased for being a pansy and a sissy, and I was fascinated by sex (though my recollection is that it was exclusively hetero fascination and desire). The point is that Dill was the first character who felt familiar to me in that way, a way that has as much to do with a kind of hyper-theatrical self-presentation more than actual sexual practice. After all, that's the year I (belatedly) discovered preppy, and began my life-long love of argyle sweaters. So while I may not have identified with the homosexual Dill, I certainly saw myself in a queer Dill.

Bullfinch (of Mythology fame): Last summer, while researching Winterson's Sexing the Cherry I ran across a quote that I immediately sent to Willow, and which she uses now as her email tagline: "Before I knew about books, I knew all the Bible and all the fairy stories. To me, a world without miracles is not the real world." I was never the fairy-tale person that Willow is (I had a Reader's Digest anthology that you can still find today, but that's about it). But I was fascinated early and often with the Hellenic pantheon. As a younger child, I recall having checked out a children's book on the greek gods, traced the stylized images of each of them, and hung them on my bedroom wall.

So in the 8th grade, when Dr. Warren (who had earned his PhD at the height of structuralism) began a long unit on mythologies, we got our Bullfinch's Mythologys out and started in on the deep structure of myth, eventually tracing motifs across cultures and characters. I didn't recognize the kind of theoretical structure in this work until I was in graduate school, but at Dr. Warren's retirement party about eight years ago, we had a very different kind of conversation about myth and the power of story.

Of course here again were the seeds for a skepticism about fundamentalist Christianity, given the fact that so many cultures developed such similar stories to those I had read as a child. Initially, I took the common "These are all shades and slight distortions of the truth of God" approach, imagining that other cultures couldn't help but to observe the majesty of God despite their ignorance, but they were still just echoes. Of course it wasn't long before I began to wonder instead if Judeo-Christian mythologies weren't just the one I arbitrarily ended up with, and that these were all variations on the same kinds of human experiences...(Later I imagined that Judeo-Christian weren't so arbitrary, given how much they emphasize docility and sbservience, but we haven't gotten to Foucault yet...)

William Shakespeare: Dr. Warren is also primarily responsible for my lingering addiction to performing in plays. I had been performing in other ways, mostly singing in church, forever, but he was the first to actually direct me in a play. Our TAG class did a children's Sleeping Beauty in 7th grade, but in 8th grade, we participated in the Folger Library's Student Shakespeare Festival, where we performed a 30-minute version of The Tempest. I adored it. Our production won the festival, and I took home an "intelligent characterization" award (whatever that may mean) for my drunken Stephano. From that moment forward, the idea of not only reading but embodying the book has been my personal passion. I haven't acted for about 13 years now--grad school and small children make doing live theatre very hard--but the idea of giving stories body and voice still remains the most potent form of imagination for me. was in studying that very play that I came across one of my first lingering academic obsessions. It was then that I learned that Prospero's final speech, promising to bury his books, and referencing "The great globe itself" was a metatheatrical reference. At the time, I just thought that was a really cool fact, but it's the kind of really cool fact that has propelled me to many of my central questions, which can effectively be boiled down to, "Where does theatre end and real life begin? or isn't there really any difference at all?" And thus an obsession was born.

Robert Frost:
I read "The Road not Taken" for the first time as a younger child, and really loved it, and when we read several Frost poems during the semester of poetry in Dr. Warren's 7th grade class, I was really hooked. Frost became my first bona-fide literary love. It's hardly surprising, given Frost's general accessibility, and his penchant for the obvious, but also multi-layered metaphor. But I was a pretty depressed 13-year-old, and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" helped find a way to contend with my only bout with thoughts of suicide. So Frost extends out from my initial brushes with C.S. Lewis and allegory and metaphor and conceit and all that great figurative stuff, but he also extends forward into a period of the academic study of literature, bridging two different phases in my reading life. And he maybe saved my life a little bit, too.

In the 11th grade, I took an Introduction to Poetry course where we flew through the Norton Anthology of Poetry in 14 easy weeks. It was essentially a very good course in New Criticism, (fancy that, I got my New Criticism after my Structuralism), and the final exam was essentially to do answer a lot of vocabulary questions (synecdoche, trochee, spondee) and close readings of two poems. In that three hour exam, I did fine with the vocab and the first close reading, and with 90 minutes remaining, I focused my eyes on "Design," which for whatever reason I had not yet read, or read closely. In that 90 minutes (and you'l forgive the obviously gendered metaphor, but I was 16, after all), that poem unfolded for me, petals of image and meaning opening to reveal more and more beautiful petals. The professor, a late-career satellite campus guy on a 4/4, was decidedly blase about the sheer joy with which I emerged from that exam, but the idea that I could spend that much time (and I took all of it) unpacking 14 lovely lines spnning out idea upon idea thrilled me. I wrote my senior term paper on death imagery in Frost, and it's all downhill from there.

I got a copy of Frost's complete works from my folks that year for my birthday or christmas, and I devoured that thing. The following spring, I had taken it on a fishing trip with my Dad and some friends, and we got caught in a wicked storm: boats much larger than ours capsized that day, and the ten-minute ride out over calm water was a two-hour return trip over 20-foot swells. I bailed water the entire trip back. Frost's collected poems were never quite the same. I carted the waterlogged book around to college, and flipped through it a couple of times after that, by the time I finally parted with it, I had moved on to e.e. cummings and T.S. Eliot (see below), and then on to Anne Sexton and John Ashbery, when I read poetry at all. But the pleasures of unfolding this poem like a flower, petal by petal, remains one of my most passionate teaching stories, even if I haven't read a Frost poem closely in years.

C.S. Lewis: I already talked about Lewis's Narnia books, but in high school, a librarian introduced me to Screwtape. Lewis's Screwtape books, were for me the height of a period where I was deeply invested in reconciling the faith of my upbringing with my own rational mind. It's a long and glorious tradition: from Augustine to Locke and Pascal and onward. But I'm a narrative-driven guy, I guess, so Screwtape it was. And while I went to the devil only a few years after, my rather constant low-level struggle to reconcile any sense of the sacred with my actual understanding of the world and the universe seems to have found an early incarnation here.

T.S. Eliot: In that same poetry class where Frost made close reading come alive, I met J. Alfred Prufrock. This was one of those places where I had to mull over writing I admired vs. actual influence, and I still struggle with it, not because Eliot's poetry wasn't influential, but because I admired and still admire it so much. Eliot's sense of difficulty, gorgeous language, and bleak outlook seemed so in tune with what I was thinking of for myself that I can barely express it.

First of all, I still revel in the way that Eliot expresses the impossibility of action, the insufficiency of language, and the despair of actual connection in such stunningly beautiful language. I'm hardly the great seducer, but reading Prufrock aloud has been en effective courtship tactic at least once (and I wink at Willow here), although a quite ineffective one at at least one other point. But Eliot was a natural follow to Frost's more obvious "difficulty" and sinking my teeth into "The Waste Land" still remains one of my favorite teaching tasks...

Eliot's collected works has replaced Frost's on my shelf, and I've always wanted to find a way to write about his drama, if not his poems...

A.A. Milne: All through high school, I was often disappointed that the mermaids wouldn't sing to me, if you will. My two biggest unrequited crushes ended up being very, very close friends who thought of me as a little brother while they dated my best friend/archnemesis, Tom. Lori was the second of them, and the homecoming queen at that. I was flabbergasted that she'd even give me the time of day, and yet our friendship grew out of all sorts of common interests, despite the uneven physical desire. At any rate, as graduation gift, Lori gave me a copy of the collected Pooh stories, and we read them together sometimes, and spent a fair amount of time talking about whatever while poohsticking--racing floating sticks under bridges.

Maybe Lori was trying something, maybe she wasn't. We hooked up once after high school, but it never amounted to anything. But what is left is that simple little book, one that allowed me to imagine myself childlike. That's always been difficult for me, particularly given the fact that I had spent a lot of my life being precocious. Even now, as I read Pooh stories to my kids, I have to remind myself that sometimes, it's not just ok, but a really good idea to race sticks under bridges, or to spend some time putting a popped balloon inside a pot, and taking it out again, or taking a walk on a Windsday. Milne may not have been as much of an influence as anyone else here, but sometimes I wish he were.

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