Poetry as Unique Communication

Near the edge of Lost Cove.

[This week–a #TBT throwback Thursday that has not been printed on the blog before. In 2003 I was teaching British Literature and serving as Dean of Faculty at Asheville School in Western, NC. The piece below the brackets appeared in the Monday, October 20, 2003 Asheville Citizen-Times as the guest commentary.  The headline, which I did not write, was, “Poetry can reveal to us insights that no other form of communication can.” It came back to mind for me yesterday  as I am working on my own poetry at the Rivendell Writers’ Colony this week over Spring Break. It snowed a bit early Monday morning, making my morning walk around this place even more beautiful than usual. I wrote about it last year when I visited HERE. Unfortunately, despite its remarkable success over the years of its operation, it is closing at the end of this month–the owner of the property has some ideas about how to make better use of it. I can’t think of one–neither can the large number of writers around the region and indeed the country who have benefitted from being here. It has become a remarkable hub of connection for writers of various genre who so often work in isolation. Selfishly, I will miss it. The photographs come from Brinkwood, next door to Rivendell and formerly the Sewanee home of the Percy family where Walker Percy spent a great deal of time–it is now, at least until the end of the month, connected to the Rivendell Writers’ Colony. I included Brinkwood as part of my walk yesterday.]

Apparently the search is being called off (at least in this location) for the the Rivendell Writers’ Colony.

From 2003 (please don’t go looking for Edward Hirsh at UNCA tonight!):

In sonnet 73, Shakespeare asks us to look out into autumn, a particular moment in autumn, mind you, in order to see inside the heart of his speaker—a neat trick, particularly in iambic pentameter.

Soon my students and I will focus our attention on Sonnet 73.  We have to wait for just the right day, and unfortunately for an English teacher trying to work with some sort of course plan, I cannot identify that day until it arrives on the lawn, buried in an assortment of leaves.  The timing must be perfect.   The speaker begins matter-of-factly: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold,/ When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/ Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,/Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”

Among the many reasons I love Sonnet 73 is that I remember reading it at different stages in my life.  Indeed, we must bring the context of our own lives to poems we read: we cannot avoid it.  Edward Hirsh, who will be speaking about poetry and reading his own poetry tonight at 8:00 p.m. in Lipinsky Auditorium on the campus of UNCA, notes in his bestselling book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry that, “reading poetry is an act of reciprocity,” meaning the relationship of poet and reader is, “a highly concentrated and passionate exchange… .”  Just as Shakespeare uses this “exchange” to challenge us to look outside to the natural world in order to see inside his speaker, so too does great poetry challenge us to look out into the world in order to see inside ourselves or, perhaps even better, inside something greater than ourselves.  The truth is both simple and profound: I am different than I was when I first encountered these fourteen lines; however, the lines will be the same as “long as men can breathe or eyes can see” (Sonnet 18).

Hirsch argues that “perhaps poetry exists because it carries necessary information that cannot be communicated in any other way.”  Here, Hirsch makes a statement not only about the relevance of poetry, but more importantly, about the necessity of poetry—it can reveal what no other form of communication can.   To place this statement in the context of our sonnet, we understand some things about the speaker in Sonnet 73 that we cannot come to understand about another human being in any other way, or even more notable, we can understand something about ourselves or others that we could not apprehend without this poem.

As a complement to Hirsch’s book and visit to Asheville, Rick Chess, Literature Professor at UNCA and recipient of the 2002 North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Teaching Excellence, has been leading a reading and discussion series at the West Asheville Library for the last two Tuesdays.  The group will meet two times after Hirsch’s visit as well.  Chess, a fine poet himself, expertly guides discussions of poems, including a number by Hirsch.  The idea that poetry can provide us a kind of insight that no other means of communication can is often at the heart of the discussion of an individual poem.  Hirsch quotes Percy Shelley to make a similar point; Shelley states in his Defense of Poetry that the language of poetry “is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension.”  In my course, Sonnet 73 will provide an apt platform upon which my students can discover that truth for themselves.

One day (many years into the future, I hope), in a moment as brief as late Fall, I will be the perfect speaker for Sonnet 73.  I will be the embodiment of autumn, and my students might just see “that time of year…in me”—but not yet.  Hirsch reminds all of us that the poem will forever be what Osip Mandelstam calls “the message in the bottle,” waiting to provide the solace of sound and meaning even when “that time of year” is beheld in us.

I hope you will take time out from the hectic daily schedules that hold us to hear Hirsch speak and read this evening.  By the way, you can find all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, including the rest of Sonnet 73, at http://www.ludweb.com/poetry/sonnets/. 

Foggy early morning at Pondview at the Rivendell Writers’ Colony


From the early morning of my last full day at Rivendell
Sunset from the west facing bluff of the Cumberland Plateau the last evening of my visit.

Rivendell Writers’ Colony: Cultivating Creativity

Rivendell’s Third Floor Studio with fog threatening to invade
“Rivendell seems to stand less as something built on the Cumberland Plateau than something pulled up from within it.”

Just outside Sewanee, Tennessee, a large, beautiful stone house called Rivendell sits just off the lip of the aptly named Lost Cove, an enclosed cove where all the water that falls within its boundary drains into a sink hole. Lost Cove lives in the imagination of all who have visited it and seen its landmarks: Natural Bridge, Buggy Top Cave, or Big Sink. Rivendell, a name drawn from the vast imagination of JRR Tolkein, seems to stand less as something built on the Cumberland Plateau than something, with its local Warren Point Sandstone exterior, pulled up from within it. The gift of the place to writers is inspiration; its danger is nostalgia, particularly for someone like me who has known it since I was eighteen years old, several days into my freshman year at Sewanee in 1983 when I found myself out there shooting skeet off the bluff as the coming evening dark climbed the eastern slope across from us. 

Screen Shot of Lost Cove detail from USGS Sewanee Quad Topographic Map (Rivendell is toward the middle on the left side. Big Sink is at the bottom middle).

Rivendell is now the home of the Rivendell Writers’ Colony, and I spent Spring Break there working on revisions to poems, while sharing the house with three novelists (Heather Jones, Nathaniel Popkin,and Jackie Zakrewsky), a short story writer (K.K. Fox), an artist and screen-writer (Rachel Kice), and a poet (Adam Vines). It was an extraordinary experience during which I was hugely productive in my work and deeply inspired by the the writers who were there. [I tried to spot the best link for each writer with varying success]

I am pretty good at keeping the different parts of my life separate. Interestingly, this blog, Ross All Over the Map, gives me a space where the different corners of my life–from education to photography, from poetry to folk art, and from music to travel–can mix, or at minimum share the same platform. Since my arrival at St. George’s in the summer of 2015, virtually all my posts have had relevance to my work as Head of St. George’s Independent School; however, when the blog began several years ago when I was Upper School Head at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, I tended to let it go wherever my thinking led me. Today’s entry is reminiscent of that original generalist edge.

View out the third floor window

While I was in Atlanta, Westminster and the Poetry @Tech Program at Georgia Tech worked together bring poets, Richard Blanco and Ron Smith, to Atlanta.  Because of that effort, I met Travis Denton and Thomas Lux who together led Poetry@Tech (Travis remains in that role, while Thomas passed away early in February after battling cancer. You can find his obituary in the New York Times HERE). I have been fortunate to stay connected to Travis. A dedicated teacher and a fine poet, Travis has helped me work through my own collection of poems, tentatively titled, The Kiln. He is generous and kind, and he is a scrupulous and demanding reader–perfect. In fact, the challenging nature of his comments regarding my work led me to recognize the need to head to Rivendell in order to provide the sustained attention for which the poems were starved over the last couple of years as I started a new job.

My time at Rivendell reminded me of the vital importance of quiet time, as well as attending to my interests beyond school. Interestingly, a March 17 piece in the Harvard Business Review titled, “The Busier You Are, the More You Need Quiet Time” echoes this idea. That piece ends with this thought: “The world is getting louder.  But silence is still accessible—it just takes commitment and creativity to cultivate it.” I find that in order to be my best for my work, I must allow for this sort of “cultivation.”

So I will continue to work on poems, and I will finish this collection, and I will move onto something new (I have a couple of ideas…). For now I am looking forward to my next conversation with Travis to discuss the current state of The Kiln. I am also looking forward to school today.

[One unexpected and exciting outcome of my time at Rivendell was that on our last night all together, each of the writers read some things that we had either written or revised while there. To have the opportunity to hear such fantastically creative work still in process from such talented writers was a particular treat. Adam Vines, a fine poet (see “Lures”) and the editor of the Birmingham Poetry Review, generously asked that I send him a few poems after I read. As a result, one of the longest poems in The Kiln will be included in the Spring 2018 BPW issue.]

Differentiating Traditions From Bad Habits #tbt

In 2011 while working at The Westminster Schools, I wrote a piece titled, “Differentiating Traditions and Bad Habits.” I was reminded of it this week as I have been spending some time during our Spring Break near the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, which also happens to be my alma mater, as well as the seat of some wonderful, often eccentric, traditions. Some of the traditions are in fact atavisms in the world of higher education–for accomplished students the wearing of academic gowns fits this bill, for instance. Sewanee is steeped in tradition and, like all institutions, it has been hampered by bad habits masking as traditions.

In independent schools, we are susceptible to the dangers of confusing the two as well. Virtually every school, no matter its history or position, faces challenges in this arena. With this in mind, I am posting my first #tbt blog post from 2011 below:

differentiating traditions from bad habits

I have been thinking today about the difference between traditions and bad habits in schools. It can be so difficult to distinguish between the two that we don’t even try to untangle them from the larger cultural fabric of the school.  But we must try to do exactly that. It may be helpful to think of it this way: imagine that every school has a ledger that marks the long-term debt of bad habit against the revenue of tradition.  My fear is that an audit of that ledger in many of our institutions might reveal that bad habits are costing us more than we choose to recognize.

We are drawn to bad habits—they can be seductive, and we often provide them cover by calling them traditions. Bad habits give institutions practice in the arts of rationalization and self-deception. While traditions bring us together in ways that allow us to reveal our individual best as well as the best of the institution to which we are attached, bad habits are more likely to bring us together in a co-dependence that allows us to repeat myths back and forth to the point we think they represent truth itself.

As we engage the conversation in my school regarding how to become a sustainable Progress Culture, it is necessary to identify the real traditions and thus be ready to preserve them against all comers. It is equally important, however, to spot the bad habits masquerading as traditions. Sometimes what we call traditions are really only atavisms stifling our thinking. And dangerously, in order to preserve such bad habits, we siphon resources—financial resources, as well as resources of good will—away from innovation.

Perhaps the worst of our bad habits in schools is our tendency to tell ourselves what we can’t do (or what our constituents will never accept) even when we believe there may be better way forward than the way we have always done things. In so doing we limit our influence, and we diminish our ability to lead.  Conversely, if we work diligently to break this bad habit and drive it out of the school, we will extend our influence, and we will increase our ability to lead.


Heading to My 25th College Reunion: The Speech I didn’t Give

[On Wednesday evening I delivered a brief talk, entitled “Lives Worthy of the Sacrifice,” as part of our Cum Laude and National Honor Society Induction Ceremony at The Westminster Schools. While I worked on the speech, I made one false start.

Given that I am headed toward my 25th college reunion at The University of the South in Sewanee, TN this weekend, I thought it timely to post a fragment from that early, and now aborted, draft.  What follows are its first three paragraphs.]

Right after this ceremony I will drive to Sewanee, TN for my twenty-fifth college reunion. I distinctly remember alumni weekends when I was in college when a bunch of old folks would roll into town and onto campus. To me, most of these people seemed goofy, hyper-nostalgic, and awkward. They walked around campus as if they were getting used to gravity again after a long time spent in space. They seemed uptight, they often laughed too loud, and many talked too much. They were like some rare breed of five-year cicadas that showed up to make everyone uncomfortable for a brief time before disappearing again.

Recognizing that my undergraduate feelings toward this crowd of alumni were more than ungenerous, I see now that I was in dire need some sort of attitude adjustment about these good people who cleared their calendars just so they could return to a place, their college, their alma mater, that held such powerful and lasting meaning to them—and time has provided me just such an attitude adjustment, time has likely provided it for your parents, and the smart money says that time will provide it for you. The adjustment is centered in this: given that life is hard, yet endlessly rich with challenge and possibility, we each need friends, passion, and humility to endure and to excel. Tying ourselves to the institutions and people that have nurtured us and sustained us is an expression of need, love, and gratitude. Going back to a school for a reunion is a return to a familiar place in the midst of our lives that are forever changing.

Economists and Politicians are always looking for leading indicators, those measures that tend to predict the future accurately.  It is possible that gaining membership in the National Honor Society is one of these leading indicators, but truth be told, I am more certain of the efficacy of another indicator: curiosity.

[At this point in the talk, I planned to point out a statistic about curiosity I heard during a meeting of school heads and CFOs from independent schools at a meeting I recently attended.  According to the research presented at the meeting, there is at least as great a correlation, if not a greater correlation, between measures of curiosity and college success as there is between the SAT test and college success. When I look back at my education, and its continuing trajectory, I intuitively sense that this is true, and I am certain that curiosity is the factor that drives us forward as life-long learners. It is not just in knowing that we are educated, but in knowing to ask more and again more. When I get back to the Mountain this weekend, I know I will find old friends who remain readers, questioners, arguers. I will find people who are deeply engaged in their communities. I will find people who are actively and purposefully learning and endlessly curious.  The undergraduates are likely to see us as goofy, hyper-nostalgic, and awkward, but I will know we are at least goofy, hyper-nostalgic, awkward, and curious.   Maybe I’ll come back to this thought at next year’s ceremony.]