The lone and level sands stretch far away

“Aeolian sand-ripples at Southbourne”, from Waves of Sand and Snow (1914)

I was looking for a public domain photo on  publicdomainreview.org to use in a post and I came across the sand photo that appears above.

I don’t know if I should attribute finding that photo to serendipity, synchronicity or artificial intelligence because I had just previously been looking at the poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley online. It’s a poem that could certainly be illustrated with a photo of sand.

Here’s the poem:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare”

You might have read this in some literature class as it is often anthologized because it’s a classic and because publishers like poems in the public domain (no fees to pay).

It was the early nineteenth century when Shelley wrote this poem. Most people didn’t know Ramesses II, “Ozymandias.” This obscure Egyptian king was a tyrant, a megalomaniac. The statue he had built of himself was of immense size – a colossus.

The Ozymandias Colossus – a fallen memorial temple of Pharaoh Ramesses II, West Bank, Luxor, Egypt.. via Flickr

The statue has fallen and Shelley’s view of it (probably in a photo) is of the legs remaining with the head and body fallen.

The inscription survives and tells us that Ozymandias had the statue erected to memorialize himself and his works. But not only has the state fallen but so has the empire he once ruled.

This sonnet is usually taught as a lesson on how power is temporary, Ozymandias’s works have crumbled and disappeared, his civilization is gone, man’s hubris, and about the insignificance of human beings to the passage of time.

Looking at the End of Roads Not Taken

Two Roads – CC via geograph.org.uk

The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost is one of the most-read and best-known American poems.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

I taught that poem a number of times to middle school students. The easy and common interpretation is often that the speaker (Frost?) chose a less-traveled path in life (as a poet), and that “made all the difference.”

My young students sometimes observed (perhaps with some guidance from me) that that road “less traveled” did initially look grassier, less used, and wanting travelers –

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

but the speaker quickly erases that thought by saying:

Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

The road taken wasn’t really less traveled or so unique.
“So then, what’s the point,” a student would ask.
“I think it’s about regret,” I suggested.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

You believe you’ll have another chance to go down other life paths – but you won’t.  You might have the chance to go off the road or come to another fork in the road of life, but you cannot go back to that earlier decision and get a do-over.

There were always students who argued this idea. And they should question its validity. They are young teens and have a ways to go before they hit big decision forks in their path.

I remember one student giving an example that went something like this. You have to pick where to go to college. You narrow it down to a Big University and a Smaller College. You pick BU, but after your first year, it’s not what you had imagined. You could transfer sophomore year to SC.

“Yes, you could do that, ” I concede. “But you are not the same as that freshman you were last year, and SC isn’t the same as it would have been last year. You can’t go back to senior year of high school and change that decision.”

Students didn’t want to believe that.

Sometimes they would ask if I had regrets about the roads I chose – my college, my major, becoming a teacher, getting married, having children, and so on.  Honestly, I like to believe that I don’t have regrets – mostly because I know there’s no going back and that changing any one thing changes everything that follows.

I’m like that person in the poem.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

With a sigh, I realize that every decision made a difference – sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

After a few years of teaching that poem, I began to wonder if that was the lesson I should leave my 13-year-old students. They were already learning sometimes through grades and sports and competitions that you can’t do anything you put your mind to doing.

It was many years later that I learned that Robert Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” as a joke for a friend, the poet Edward Thomas.

As with Frost’s actual stopping in the woods on a snowy evening that inspired another famous poem, this poem was inspired by a walk and a fork in the road.  Frost said that Thomas was really indecisive about which road to take and had wondered later if they should have taken the other road. But when read the poem to a college audience, the students took his “joke” quite seriously.

That doesn’t surprise me. Students heading to high school, or heading to college or graduating into the world of work are all at a place on the road where choices will matter.

I very vividly recall watching the film The Graduate when it was screened in college during the end of the year exam period. When Benjamin is “just floating here in the pool,” his father asks him, “Have you thought about graduate school?”
“No,” says Ben.
“Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?”
“You got me,” answers Ben.

That answer got a tremendous ovation from the crowd. Probably not the response that the scene received from most audiences.

In my old classroom, I had quotations posted that ringed the room and I still collect quotes. One that was on the wall was from one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut: “Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.”

These quotes may have been apropos when teaching the poem – though not very optimistic: “Why didn’t I learn to treat everything like it was the last time. My greatest regret was how much I believed in the future…  I regret that it takes a life to learn how to live.”  –   Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

We make choices and sometimes later we decide that a choice was a mistake – or at least we now think it was a mistake.  Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray:  “Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.” That’s an odd way of thinking about it.

Woody Allen, who back in the day was a kind of character in my classroom, has the final word on the ultimate regret: “My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.”

But Yogi Berra might have had the best advice for my young students when he said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

 

Sheltering at Home

The weekdays blurred into the weekend as we all are sheltering at home. I’ve been writing a lot, but mostly poetry and email to say in touch with friends. Nothing seemed like the right thing to write about this weekend in Paradelle in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I spent an entire afternoon drinking tea today and paging through a book of paintings by Vincent van Gogh. It was therapeutic. Maybe I’ll write about that this week.

Posts here appear on weekends but, as I said, weekday, weekend – it’s all the same.

I should be used to this because since I have retired the days have already been blurring, so I should be used to this “new normal.” Except, this time is not chosen retirement from normal life. And retirement doesn’t mean staying in the house and avoiding your family, friends, neighbors and places you have been going to for years.

Here’s one poem that came out of this time inside. It wasn’t written about the pandemic, but maybe it is about that.

Diner Coffee

Two Hours of Coffee at the Diner

My newly retired friend says every day is a weekend.
A month of Sundays like that Updike novel, he says.

No, no, says his longer-retired wife
Every day is Wednesday. Weekends have no meaning now.

They are saying this to me because I’m nearing retirement
but I don’t want to hear either of those theories of time.

I want my days to continue to be 24 hours,
my weeks to have five weekdays and a weekend.

I tell my friends this and they laugh.
You’ll lose track of the days, she tells me.

If I didn’t have this phone calendar reminding me,
I wouldn’t know what day it is, he says to his iPhone.

None of this is making me feel good about retiring, I say.
You’ll get used to it, my long-retired friend says.

We all lift our coffee cups and drink and I realize
that two hours have passed without me realizing it.

There Will Come Soft Rains

As a follow-up to my earlier post  on the disappearance of humans from the Earth, I offer “There Will Come Soft Rains,” a 1918 poem by Sara Teasdale. The poem imagines nature reclaiming Earth after a war that has led to human extinction. It is interesting that she wrote this poem 25 years before the invention of nuclear weapons.

 

There Will Come Soft Rains

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

 

Ray Bradbury wrote a story in 1950 that used Teasdale’s title as its title. The story shows us a world in which the human race has been destroyed by a nuclear war. Bradbury was writing during the “Cold War” era when the devastating effects of nuclear force was frequently in the news.

What I’m Listening To: Self-Promotional Edition

I post here occasionally about what I am listening to in the podcast/online/radio world.  I still listen to many podcasts (too many, my wife would say) and I will update the list at some point, but this brief edition certainly falls under the category of self-promotion.

I have listened to the daily podcast of The Writer’s Almanac since 1993. It began as a public radio show that was harder for me to catch every day. I was glad when it became a podcasts that I could subscribe to and have waiting on my phone. It ran on public radio through 2017 and episodes are archived online. Now, the show is available as a podcast and online on the host’s, Garrison Keillor, website.

I had listened to Garrison Keillor starting in 1974 on his radio show A Prairie Home Companion. I loved that voice and his ad-libbed weekly stories of the fictional town of Lake Wobegon.  I went on to read his short stories and novels. You can label him as author, storyteller, humorist, voice actor and radio personality. He hosted that show through 2016 when he retired and passed the reins over to others.

I was lucky to have three of my poems featured on the Almanac this month. I really enjoy hearing other people read my poems and that is not something I get to experience very often. The links are below and you can read the poems there online, but I strongly recommend that you listen to him read the poems. The poems are at the end of the program, so you could fast-forward through the news, but I enjoy the news of the day every morning as much, sometimes even more, as the poem.

Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, New Jersey. This Gothic beauty was the original setting of my poem, “Shame.”
“Shame” is a serious poem that came from an experience I had as a young man in a beautiful cathedral.
The other two are less serious, though not totally meant to be funny.
“Who Shows Up at My Poetry Reading” portrays the kinds of people I actually have had show up at readings. The poem often gets laughs when I read it, though fellow poets may be more likely to just nod in recognition.
My poem, “Somewhat Optimistic Horoscopes,” came from reading an actual horoscope column online. The short-form horoscopes tend to be pretty positive, though you might get a warning prediction once in a while. What I thought was missing was ones that were somewhere in-between.

The Secret in Teaching

classroom

I met a woman this past week who had been my student 30 years ago. She recognized me and (as I had always told students at the end of the school year) she introduced herself wisely – “I’m Lisa and you were my eighth grade English teacher.” Some synapses fired enough that I did recall her by her student last name. She is now married with two children, one in 8th grade, and she is a teacher.

I have reconnected in person or in Facebook with a surprising number of former students who went into teaching. I’m not presumptuous enough to believe that I had something to do with their career choice, but I’d like to think that I at least modeled some good lessons and behaviors.

She was nice enough to say that she loved my class and still remembered certain lessons and books we read and even a few things I had told them that didn’t really have to do with our classwork. She asked me, “What do you think is the secret to being a good teacher?”

That is a difficult question to answer. I gave her too many possible answers (enthusiasm, willingness to experiment and fail, love of your subject…) but when I got home I thought of a poem to answer her.

The poem is one I occasionally used in class, though I’m not sure it is as good a selection for students as it is for teachers.

That poem is “The Secret” by Denise Levertov. The two girls in that poem remind me of Lisa (not her real name) and others who would come in after school sometimes to talk. At times, they had a question about an assignment or something we read or talked about in class, but once and awhile I knew that their initial question was a pretense to ask or talk about something not really part of the curriculum.

In Levertov’s poem:

Two girls discover
the secret of life
in a sudden line of
poetry.

I’d like to imagine that Levertov actually did have two girls come to her like in the poem. As a poet, I would love to have someone come to me to say that a line of my poetry did that.

Levertov continues:

I who don’t know the
secret wrote
the line. They
told me

(through a third person)
they had found it
but not what it was
not even

what line it was.

You read a line or someone says something in class and it is a revelation in that moment.

No doubt
by now, more than a week
later, they have forgotten
the secret,

the line, the name of
the poem. I love them
for finding what
I can’t find,

and for loving me
for the line I wrote,
and for forgetting it
so that

a thousand times, till death
finds them

Lisa, what is the secret? I know that it is not just one thing, but I know that an important part of it is:

they may
discover it again, in other
lines

in other
happenings. And for
wanting to know it,
for

assuming there is
such a secret, yes,
for that
most of all.

 

I am so happy for Lisa and for any of my students or any teacher who want to know the secret, and for assuming there is such a secret. Yes, for that most of all.