June 24, 2016

Hermann Hesse on Books and Reading

Books and reading don't always get a lot of respect and attention these days.

German-born Swiss writer and painter Hermann Hesse wrote an essay titled “The Magic of the Book” in 1930 that is a reminder about why we love to read books and how important that simple act can be.

The essay is in his posthumously published My Belief: Essays on Life and Art.
Among the many worlds that man did not receive as a gift from nature but created out of his own mind, the world of books is the greatest… Without the word, without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity. And if anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space, in a single house or a single room, the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books...

We need not fear a future elimination of the book. On the contrary, the more that certain needs for entertainment and education are satisfied through other inventions, the more the book will win back in dignity and authority. For even the most childish intoxication with progress will soon be forced to recognize that writing and books have a function that is eternal. It will become evident that formulation in words and the handing on of these formulations through writing are not only important aids but actually the only means by which humanity can have a history and a continuing consciousness of itself...

The great and mysterious thing about this reading experience is this: the more discriminatingly, the more sensitively, and the more associatively we learn to read, the more clearly we see every thought and every poem in its uniqueness, its individuality, in its precise limitations and see that all beauty, all charm depend on this individuality and uniqueness — at the same time we come to realize ever more clearly how all these hundred thousand voices of nations strive toward the same goals, call upon the same gods by different names, dream the same wishes, suffer the same sorrows. Out of the thousandfold fabric of countless languages and books of several thousand years, in ecstatic instants there stares at the reader a marvelously noble and transcendent chimera: the countenance of humanity, charmed into unity from a thousand contradictory features.

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) was born in Germany and later became a citizen of Switzerland. As a Western man profoundly affected by the mysticism of Eastern thought, he wrote many novels, stories, and essays that bear a vital spiritual force that has captured the imagination and loyalty of many generations of readers. In 1946, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for The Glass Bead Game.

June 17, 2016

Dear Poet - 2016

Many classrooms participated in this year’s Dear Poet Project during National Poetry Month writing letters to poets. The Academy of American Poets received over 1,300 letters!

Take a look at the correspondences between students and poets who serve on the Academy of American Poets Board of Chancellors: https://www.poets.org/national-poetry-month/dear-poet-letters-2016

June 13, 2016

Lin-Manuel Miranda's Sonnet at the Tony Awards

Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

When Lin-Manuel Miranda accepted his award for best score for Hamilton at the Tony Awards last night, the audience might have expected hip hop, rap or freestyling. But he chose a sonnet as his acceptance speech form.

The sonnet not only acknowledges the show and his wife, Vanessa, but also references the tragic shooting massacre in the early morning hours of the day in Orlando, Florida.

My wife’s the reason anything gets done
She nudges me towards promise by degrees
She is a perfect symphony of one
Our son is her most beautiful reprise.
We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.
I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story
Now fill the world with music, love and pride.

June 5, 2016

Fairy Tales

Illustration by Yuko Shimizu from The Wild Swan

Fairy tales are a type of short story that typically features fantasy characters (dwarves, elves, fairies, giants, gnomes, goblins, mermaids, trolls, witches) and usually some magic or enchantments. They differ from other folk narratives such as legends which generally involve some belief in at least some truth to the tale.

We usually think of fairy tales as children's literature, but authors have also written modern and more adult fairy tales.

Like many of us, author Michael Cunningham read fairy tales as a child, but he continued to wonder about what happened after the tales ended. In his collection of stories, The Wild Swan, he answers that question for a number of fairy tales. Cunningham is best known for his novels The Hours and The Snow Queen (which was inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story).

He gives us a a modern day lazy boy named Jack who lives in his mother's basement rather than get a job. One day he trades a cow for some magic beans. His poor widowed mother is stuck with this kid who is "not a kid who can be trusted to remember to take his mother to her chemo appointment, or to close the windows when it rains." But her opinion of him changes when he climbs the beanstalk and comes back with bags of gold. Mom invests in stocks and real estate. They build a mansion for themselves. He climbs the beanstalk again, More gold and they are able to buy everything they ever wanted. But Jack goes back again for even more gold even though "there's nothing left for him and his mother to buy."

In "Kissing the Toad" by Galway Kinnell, he takes that idea that appears in several fairy tales.

Somewhere this dusk
a girl puckers her mouth
and considers kissing the toad a boy has plucked
from the cornfield and hands
her with both hands;
rough and lichenous but for the immense ivory belly,
like those old entrepreneurs
sprawling on Mediterranean beaches,
with popped eyes,
it watches the girl who might kiss it,
pisses, quakes, tries
to make its smile wider:
to love on, oh yes, to love on.

We also use the term "fairy tale" to describe something unusually, perhaps unrealistically, optimistic, as in "fairy tale ending" or a "fairy tale romance." Of course, not all fairy tales end happily, and some are quite grim (or Grimm).

In her book, Transformations, Anne Sexton has a number of poem-stories in her retelling of seventeen Grimms fairy tales, including "Snow White," "Rumpelstiltskin," "The Frog Prince," "Red Riding Hood" and "Rapunzel". She takes the original story and gives it a modern turn that goes much further than the modern Disney version of the character, as this opening to the poem shows:

A woman
who loves a woman
is forever young.
The mentor
and the student
feed off each other.
Many a girl
had an old aunt
who locked her in the study
to keep the boys away.
They would play rummy
or lie on the couch
and touch and touch.
Old breast against young breast…
Let your dress fall down your shoulder...

For this month's prompt, you may choose from several fairy tale possibilities:
- Continue a classic tale, or following Cunningham and Sexton, rewrite a classic for our times.
- Choose a part of the plot or an element from a tale, as Kinnell did or as in A.E. Stallings "Fairy-tale Logic."

I found in my local library a copy of  Disenchantments which anthologizes a good number of modern day fairy tale poems.

Submission Deadline: July 3, 2016