Goshen College home page

GC English Department Blog

The Poetry of Music

March 9th, 2010

No, the title is not a metaphor.  I literally would like to highlight some of the poetry that can be found in some of the lyrics of music.  Its easy to forget that the most abundant and accessible form of poetry for the vast majority of us is music.  Its probably worth paying attention to.  This is one of my favorites, and I hope to have more to come.  If anyone has suggestions of great poetry in music, I would love to hear it.

Nightingale / December song
By Spencer Krug (of the band Sunset Rubdown)

So let me hammer this point home: I see us all as lonely fires that have burned alive as long as we remember. But like all fireworks and all sunsets, we all burn in different ways: You are a fast explosion, and I am the embers. And though your flames are quick and mean, they will not last the year, but expire like a sudden falling star, that only nightingales had seen, before migrating to southern jungles. And in this way you will come find me in December.

He said he’d like to move to Nashville to master the guitar, where he would live a single day the way I live a single year. He covered his body in mud, went hunting for the sun, and then went swimming in a lake of holy water. You are too hot for me. I am too slow for you. You are a fast explosion and I am the embers. You need the one who slowly burns, and burns to stay alive. In this way you will come find me in December.

So let me hammer this point home: I see us all as lonely fires that have burned alive as long as we remember. But like all sacrificial virgins, we all burn in different ways: You are a fast explosion, and I am the embers. And though your flames are quick and mean, they will not last the year, but expire like a sudden shooting star, that only nightingales had seen, before transforming into bluebirds. And in this way you will come find me in December.

Identity

March 9th, 2010

One thing that I love about studying English (though I suspect that it is true in many other fields as well) is its continuing ability to express my identity.  I don’t mean that in a “writing helps me express myself” kind of way, but rather in the sense that analyzing and studying literature enables one to find patterns of identity.

I was writing a reflection in one of my classes in which we were asked to consider what our particular critical standpoint was.  I suspect that my initial reaction was similar to most people in the class; I thought to myself, “I don’t have any particular critical standpoint or inclination.”  But, when I stopped to think about it I found that I did to some extent.  When I write papers my first instinct is, almost without fail, to write about women and gender.  Surprise!  I’m pretty sure that makes my critical standpoint to be at least nominally feminist.   (As a male, I question how truly feminist I can possibly be.)

But beyond this one example, in taking numerous literature classes and critical theory, I found my temperament.  I know what I like, and for the most part, I know why.  Just being a part of English studies, I have honed my ability to predict what I will and will not enjoy.  For example, taking my experience in the classroom, I can pretty accurately predict that, at any given moment, I would probably rather hear a lecture or take part in a discussion about gender than I would like to watch a football game (though, the two issues have some interesting overlap).  And while I realize that makes me sound strange to many people, I am glad to have that self-knowledge.

Has English English, or any other area of study helped you find out who you are?  Do you think that identity formation should be a more intentional part of a college education?  If you have any thoughts, please, feel free to comment, or email me at jacobs11@goshen.edu if you’d rather more anonymity.

Deeper Reading = Deeper Thinking

March 8th, 2010

I spent many hours working on a paper the other day.  This, in itself, is not particularly notable.  Instead, the sense of intense, almost unshakable focus that came afterward made me think.  I took a break, visited with some friends, and found my brain obsessively revisiting my topic, probing, exploring, writing phrases and ideas along the wrinkles of my gray matter.  And when I returned to finish my paper, the thing flowed from my fingertips into the keyboard almost effortlessly.  I was in the zone.

Now, beside the little bit of necessary bragging, I think that this experience was notably not of my own creation or skill.  This feeling has become more and more common for me as I have studied at Goshen.  And I think that it comes from reading deeply.

I know that I for one have felt the constant presence of the internet: that luring call that says one more video, one more quippy blog post, one more article, one more flash game, one more kitten, one more, one more, one more.  And, for the most part, I enjoy it.  These things aren’t mere distractions; they are, quite often, pleasant distractions.  We continue to watch You Tube videos of cats because we find them adorable.

My problem, and I suspect many other people feel the same way, is when those distractions become the norm.  When we wish to focus, to think deeply or to really consider, and we find ourselves checking our email almost against our will  (note: I quite literally did this in the middle of this sentence).

Being an English major has, for me, been a partial antidote to this.  My time spent in front of a computer, equal parts connected and disconnected, is countered by the time that I spend reading.  And not just reading, but reading things slowly and reading things which require ongoing concentration.  Regardless of the value and enjoyment that I find in what read, the simple process of reading counters today’s frenetic culture.

If I owe the English department nothing else, I owe them my current ability to focus when necessary.  I see deep reading as enabling deep thinking, which is applicable to any number of topics.  And that is a good thing.

Our Spam is Hilarious – Part 3

March 8th, 2010

Here we go.  Another gem from our spam.

Hi there, I found your blog via Google while searching for first aid for a heart attack and your post

Who knew? Turns out that English, with all its other virtues, can help save you from heart problems.

Finding the Words

March 8th, 2010

Writing is hard.  It requires an understanding not just of what the writer wants to say, but also of what the reader wants to read or has the ability to understand.  Communication is usually a two way street.  When speaking, we naturally tailor our speech to our audience.  Church communication is different than home communication is different than a debate is different than a conversation between two close friends.  The listener, simply by being present, directs conversation almost as much as the speaker.  This natural process helps to engage both parties in communication and ensures that even if both sides aren’t speaking, both sides are shaping the conversation.

Writing, on the other hand, is a one way street.  When people write, they are putting down their thoughts as they hope the reader will understand.  It either takes extreme clarity of thought, or a work of creative empathy, guessing at the experiences, feelings, and understandings of the reader.  The best writing is both.  But because the audience in writing is mostly invisible at the moment of creating, the author has no real ability to gauge the reception of her work.

This may be obvious to the point of banality, but sometimes simple truths put things into perspective.  Perhaps this means we should all have more sympathy for professors who have to grade stacks of papers, each of which make their own blind stab at relevance and interest.  Perhaps it means professors should have more sympathy for their students who are trying to gauge, not just what they wish to write, but what their professor wants to read.  Perhaps it means being a little less critical of a weak Hollywood script.  Perhaps it means nothing at all.  But at very least, it cant hurt to be mindful of.

Writing is hard.  Have sympathy for those who do it frequently.

Sociable English

March 3rd, 2010

I often make fun of English, though much more in person than in print.  Just the other day I commented that my holey flannel shirt and patchy facial hair (it was Februhairy) was a trial run for my eventual career as a homeless person.  And while I think it should probably go without saying that studying English does not, in fact, lead to a life of destitute poverty, there is a similarly common stereotype of English majors: the isolated artist producing work that no one else cares about or understands.  I’m sure there are cases of this, but a recent experience reminded me of the common fallacy of this stereotype.

A few days ago I pulled my head out of my books and homework long enough to go to the campus coffee shop to refuel.  When I got there, I ran in to a number of friends including a fellow English major.  He was sitting with a limp little sign advertising that he, as a TA for an English class, was there to help people with their papers and homework.  No one, it seemed, was particularly in need at that moment and so he instead sat reading a book for yet another English class.  I sidled into the chair across from him and struck up a conversation about Critical Theory and Practice, the one class that we share.  We had recently been studying postmodernism and had a paper on the subject due in a few days.  I brought up the paper, not thinking that I really had much to say, and mostly expecting it to fill up some small talk space.  What happened instead was a full blown, impassioned discussion of postmodernism and the work we were doing.  It turns out that, though I was not excited thinking about postmodernism abstractly for a paper, I was thrilled to talk about it in person.  And, when I returned to writing, our conversation had set my mind abuzz with new, exciting ideas.  Isolation is the enemy of English studies, not its natural end point.

My point, if I have one, is that when I think of English students I don’t think of people who can’t stand people and are so caught up in their own world that they miss out on everything else.  I think of people who happen to love activities, reading and writing, which generally require some solitude. Nonetheless they (we) love to explore the worlds and ideas that they find on the page with anyone and everyone.  Students of English may be a bit incorrigible, but few of them suffer from self-isolation.  English, in its myriad forms, is and will remain a social activity because, at its core, it is about communicating.

Theory v. Lit Survey – FIGHT!

February 28th, 2010

So, despite having been an English major for quite some time, I am only now taking Critical Theory and Practice — which is, for all intents and purposes, the introductory course to upper level English classes.  One of the main messages I have been getting from the class is that a reader can interpret a text any number of ways and defining if and why a work is good is pretty much impossible.  So the problem for any English class is considering what to teach and why.  From my experience the English canon is pretty much entirely received; we mostly still read the “classics” of literature, or, as someone in my theory class noted, “the books that we are supposed to read.”  Why, if much of that canon was established before Critical Theory had its day, do we continue to read specific hallmarks of “great literature?”  Especially if the insights of theory teach us that if “great literature” exists at all, we can’t really explain why.

Read the rest of this entry »

How to Write Badly Well

February 9th, 2010

My recent post about how much I enjoy sifting through this blogs spam made me think about a fantastic and telling blog that I found.   This spam seemed to follow the rule “Always Use a Thesaurus.”  What I thought was interesting about this blog was the way reading it made me feel like I was becoming a better writer.  Or at least, a less bad one.  It works as a pretty effective list of things not to do in your writing, and, by offering humorous examples of each, does a pretty good job of ensuring you won’t soon forget them.  It’s definitely worth a look.

Our Spam is Hilarious – Part 2

February 6th, 2010

spamAs a follow up to the greatness of the last spam that I told you about, I wanted to share with you another recent round of goodness.  Enjoy.

Advantageously, the post is really the sweetest on this precious topic. I concur with your conclusions and will thirstily look forward to your coming updates. Saying thanks will not just be sufficient, for the exceptional lucidity in your writing. I will immediately grab your rss feed to stay abreast of any updates. Gratifying work and much success in your business efforts!

Ahh yes.  I glad whoever wrote took such pains to use big, unnecessary words, otherwise I might not have noticed that it was spam.  Except… I don’t really have business efforts.  Not really sure where they got that.

The Literary Novel as Genre

February 5th, 2010

I just read an interesting blog post, (which, btw, is more worth reading than my summary of it) describing an almost comical overstatement made in a review of a “literary novel” published in Britain.  The Book, The Opposite House, by Helen Oyeyemi was asserted by this reviewer as being the first book to address the effect that migration could have, not just on migrants, but on their gods (or God) as well.  However, this assertion overlooks a book, American Gods by Neil Gaiman (a book and author which/who I cannot recommend enough), which, six years prior addressed the same idea, and did so in a notable, widely read and critically acclaimed way.  The overall point of the post was that people writing, reading and reviewing “literary novels,” which are here defined as a group of books being published by a small, elite publisher in britain, miss understanding their own works when they dismiss more low-brow writings.  The literary novel became a genre, rather than a group of particularly worthy books within the larger body of works within the greater body of books.

And while this post caught my eye particularly because I have a bias toward hearing people praise Gaiman’s works, it serves as a useful reminder that we (or maybe just me), as English majors, or minors, or as literary elitists occasionally need to pull our heads out of our academias long enough to notice the rest of the world — if only to be able to better, and more completely explain why the thing we read, write and talk about, are so good.  If criticism and high-brow art cannot recognize what else is going on in the literary world, how can they hope to justify their existence, muchless explain their relevance?

This is one place where I must commend the GC English department.  It has been expanding its offerings and including in its intellectual pursuits topics such as Science Fiction and Graphic Novels (comic books, if you aren’t familiar with the more fancy-pants name).  And recently heard rumblings that a Fantasy class may also be in the works (who knows, maybe American Gods could be a text book?)  I think that these classes not only do a great job of bringing additional interest to the English department from students who otherwise might not give English a second glance, but it also does a good job to reground people who have been too long in the more traditional English department classes and have maybe started to lose track of what else gets written.