20 June, 2009

A random thought

So, how would it be if I were to take it into my head to change the design of this page? I would have to think about a new one. I would have to go through the dreadful html headache to tweak the boring template blogspot offers. I would have to spend precious time doing it. But it might look more interesting. Then again, I don't mind it now. The whole black-and-white theme is rather dear to me. As is the darling sepia picture of Professor Tolkein in his armchair.

Any thoughts?

19 June, 2009

The Forgotten Inkling

What a dramatic opener, no? Charles Williams, the forgotten member of the literary group that so many fans of 20th century literature know and love, friend of J.R.R. Tolkein, Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis, to name a few.

So who is he, and what does he write about? Intrigued by this question and by the relative lack of any information about this fellow, I've been remaining keenly alert to any copies of his works that I find lurking in hidden corners of used bookstores (often his books are drastically overpriced - in my opinion - online) and I know have a respectable collection of his novels. These are often described, by the few critics who address them at all, as "spiritual thrillers". I'm not quite sure what to make of such a description, which seems to me to be unhelpfully vague. There's certainly a rather chilling aspect to those I've read, and they all treat things that our culture tends to consider fantastic - such as souls, ghosts, life after death, etc - as having a very real and substantial effect on the ins and outs of material existence. (I look forward to giving some thought eventually to William's philosophical compatability with Gilbert Ryle, but that will take a few more reads, I think.)

There's a definite power to his writing, which really draws you up into the story, but my one concern with the books - particularly Descent Into Hell (a book very sound in its moral philosophy, but perhaps just a tad questionable in its metaphysics) - is that their plots are dreadfully confusing. I closed Descent Into Hell with a clear idea of what it was trying to say and of the basic arc of moral development among the characters, but without a firm grasp of how or when anything happened.

I exaggerate. I did understand a lot of it, but there were some portions that seemed to get so wrapped up in mysticism that the logic of the plot is defied. Maybe this is an effect he's trying to acheive. I wouldn't doubt it, given his purpose in writing. My judgment as to its literary merit, however, I think will have to wait to give me a chance to do some second readings.

17 June, 2009


So to elaborate on the esoteric reference in yesterday's post, I will give a brief explanation of where I currently am and why.

Location: Chicago, Illinois
Mission: To help mentor and tutor inner-city kids in basic academics and to encourage character formation: good habits, acquisition of good goals and virtues, etc. I'm doing it through a program associated with Opus Dei.

However, I won't discuss that much because it's work and people's privacy is involved and all that. Rather I'll focus my attention on jotting down some impressions of the "Windy City" (which actually is very windy just now, though the city was nicknamed that not in reference to gusty weather conditions, but to loquacious politicians). Not that I'll be writing a lot. As usual, the vast majority of my time will probably be occupied, partly by the program, partly by the fun evening activities we counselors will be doing as a group.

I must say, it strikes me as a very nice city. Other than Boston, I haven't had much contact with American cities, and this is nothing at all like Boston or anything I encountered in Europe. It has a pronounced skyscraper skyline, a forest of surprisingly aesthetically pleasing buildings towering hundreds of feet above you. It's a clean city, especially compared to Rome which, like most Italian cities, has the less-charming side of being rather filthy. And like Syracuse, NY, my mom's childhood homebase, it has a multitude of small ethnic neighborhoods with lots of good ethnic food and families who have lived in the same area since their grandparents got off the boat.

This night we went to get Italian ice (something unknown in Italy, as far as I remember) in the Italian quarter. The place was this tiny family-owned shop tucked at the corner of a row of rather nice apartment buildings. "Mario's" it's called, and the real Mario himself came out and regaled us with a long story about how his dad started him in the business - making lemonade and selling it for 5 cents a cup on the sidewalk - when he was six because he was too hyperactive in school. He proudly told us of his refusal to use computers, palm pilots, calculators, or anything remotely technological (he keeps his accounts on a cardboard box because it doesn't get lost like small scraps of paper do), and his even more vigorous refusal to make it into a franchise, despite his kids' solicitations. What made the tales he spun especially entertaining was the classic Italian American accent he told them all in - all in all, it seemed like he could have stepped right out of the movies (some of which - he said - were supposed to include his stand, but whose directors were firmly turned down when they wouldn't let his own workers stand in as the Italian ice sellers in the movie).

16 June, 2009

More JPo?

Huzzah! I'm quite excited and have good reason to be. I'm here in Chicago (long story, may be told later, if I feel like it) and was just talking to another English major from the University of Dallas. She's graduated, went on to graduate school at Christendom, and now has a masters from that school, I believe.

Anyway, I decided to ask her advice about taking six classes during the Junior poet semester. Would it be at all feasible, I wondered? A teacher and several (non-jpo taking) students had strongly discouraged it when I first signed up, so I had been second-guessing myself for a little while. But this most marvelous UD-er assured me that it might be tough, but it was definitely possible. And worth doing, too, since (and this was my reason for taking all six in the first place) they're really awesome classes which are either required for my major or won't be offered again during my time at school.

So here's the tentative list for next semester, the first one that I'm really excited about since I'm finally getting out of core classes (which are great but rather too easy) and moving on to some upper-level high interest stuff.

  • Literary Study I (i.e. Junior poet)

  • Medieval Literature

  • Elementary Russian I

  • Russian Novel

  • Irish History

  • French Literary Traditions II

01 June, 2009

Junior Poet and the (crazy?) upcoming semester

So this fall I'm going to be starting the famous Junior poet project that all UD English majors must complete before moving on in their academic careers... well, I mean, they could always scurry off to some ignominious alternative if the prospect of delving into the life and works of a single major English-language poet is too daunting. We leave them that choice. Yet no self-respecting English major would do that, not even one so intimidated by poetry as I.

Yes, I hate to break it to a scandalized world, but for all my obsession with the great classics of every age, I am not a fan of poetry. As a kid I hated the lack of storyline, and even more, despised the blatant emotionalism that characterized so much of it. I'm thinking Tennyson of Byron here, really, or maybe one of those typical English didactic poets who addressed poor Victorian children about the virtues of the ancient Romans. That these characterizations are a gross over-simplification I am well aware, but my childhood experience mars my enjoyment of fine verse nonetheless.

Yet I am slowly beginning to shed this prejudice, which means that there's some hope for me in the upcoming semester. I trace the first loosening of my unflinching disdain to my sophmore year in high school when I really read and listened to "The Raven" for the first time. Yes, it's an emotional poem, but the pulsing urgency of the rhythm captivated me, appealing as it did to my fascination with the sound and cadence of language.

Literary Traditions II at UD was another important step. I had a quite brilliant English teacher for this class, whose common-sense approach to poetry helped to weaken my vague idea that most poetry people were hopelessly head-in-the-clouds types who believed - in classic Rousseauian fashion - that the words of the poet came straight from the mouth of the divine forces of nature. And we covered a remarkable variety of verse, so with my exposure to the form somewhat increased, I began again to be delighted by the variety of styles, tones, rhythms, and so forth.

But for this class I return to the one poet I really have liked through all this time: T.S. Eliot. Some dislike what is seen as a tendency in his poetry to put all human experience under a microscope to examine the most common human emotions scientifically. He does have a penchant for intellectualization, but it is not so much an emotionless intellectualization as one that rebels against the simple conventions of poetic expression: why does the subject of poetry always have to be love, for instance, and why always the same two or three well-worn metaphors, once fresh, but now seldom more than lazy imitations of the brilliant poets of the past? And why must poetry idealize emotion for its own sake, as Rousseau and his ilk would have it?

There is a certain pessimism and cynicalness in his pre-conversion poetry, it's true. He's disillusioned with the world, caught up in a vortex of questions about the impact of temporality on human life, on the effect of language on human knowledge, on the apparent meaninglessness of modern life. These are concerns he retains after his conversion, but they are approached in a different way once he turns to Anglican Christianity to find a solution. There is still a sense of dissatisfaction with the world, but it is a dissatisfaction that points to a solution, often only subtly. There's no longer a feel of emptiness in the poems, as you end with after reading The Wasteland and his repetitive, slightly ominous, yet almost forlorn invocation of the thunder at the very end.

Anyway, those are just some preliminary ramblings on the fellow's work, based on my as yet quite superficial readings of his works. Plenty more musings will likely follow, because I think I'll probably have the subject on my mind more than once in the coming six months.