Opting In

by Matthew Koslowski on June 30, 2010
in Anecdotes

I have an imperfect memory from the beginning of a middle school — was it sixth grade? Seventh? — science class. But it stands out singularly in my memory of my schooling.

It was the beginning of the year, perhaps even the first day of school. He called on me. I don’t remember what the question was. But I do remember how I felt.

I sat there, uncomfortable, searching. I felt my body growing tense. I felt first embarassed and then afraid.

“I don’t know,” I said, little more than a whisper.

He smiled. “That’s the correct answer — for now. You don’t know, but you will learn. Why else are you in school?” He turned to the rest of the class, “Does anyone else know?” And then he continued with the lesson.

Until that point in school, things came naturally to me and I remember feeling dread and panic that I didn’t already know something. How can I not know this thing? I felt relief and gratitude.

I don’t know that the teacher knows what a gift he gave me that day. I hope that he knows — that he intentionally asked something we unlikely to know, to remind us why we are in school — but I continue to wish that I could tell him. But I think the greatest gift I can give is to learn from his example and give that gift to my students.

Although I still dislike being wrong, I have carried this lesson with me. I know now that being wrong and being ignorant is not a permanent state.

Diving into Poetry

by Matthew Koslowski on June 23, 2010
in Essays

“A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore, but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.”
– John Keats in the film Bright Star

Bright Star has become one of my favorite movies since I saw it twice in theatres. And my favorite scene from the film is the poetry lesson that John Keats gives Fanny Brawne. Fanny states she does not know how to work out a poem, as so many of us would say if someone asked us how to work out a poem. Keats responds with the above.

The last few nights I have watched again and again and again this particular scene. Keats gives an entire year’s worth of poetic instruction in that single scene.

* * *

Lately in discussing poetry with my friends, they say, “I am no expert in poetry,” or “I do not understand poetry,” even before we have discussed a poem. If I were to ask a friend what they thought of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club or Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream, would they say, “Oh, I am no expert in novels”?

No, they would not. The very idea is ridiculous.

Read more..

José Saramago, Nobel Laureate, Has Died

[Photograph of José Saramago. Photocredit: Wikimedia Commons]
José Saramago, Nobel Laureate 1998
November 16, 1922 – June 18, 2010
The world of letters has lost another light.

José Saramago died today according to his publisher. He was 87 years old.

I am mostly ignorant of Mr. Saramago’s work. I began reading The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis and found the story wonderful and strange. It tells the story of Ricardo Reis, a “heteronym” used by Fernando Pessoa, who continues to live on after Fernando Pessoa has died. A heteronym is different from a pseudonym in that each heteronym possesses a separate history, temperament, philosophy, and writing style, whereas as a pseudonym refers to the author.

The writing career of Mr. Saramago flourished later in life. He did not become a full time novelist in his late fifties, “after working variously as a garage mechanic, a Welfare Agency bureaucrat, a printing production manager, a proofreader, a translator and a newspaper columnist” (from the New York Times obituary).

His work serves as a reminder that not all great artists are great while they are young, a foil to our obsession with youth.

Obituaries

On My Recent Silence

by Matthew Koslowski on June 17, 2010
in Announcements

Dear readers and friends,

June has provided a number of surprises for me. Please bear with me a little bit longer while I navigate some of these changes.

I have been having some excellent conversations about poetry and art — only in the real world, not online. I have been working on my own writing — just not my blog — and nothing that I am quite ready to share. I have begun to swing dance, in addition to the other dancing I already do, so I have even less time than I did before.

So, while I adjust to the new schedule, please be patient with me. I will have some good posts in the next week and I will try to make it up to you for the two Wednesdays I have missed.

Sincerely,

 

Matthew Koslowski

Scientific Literature

Medicine, law, business, engineering are necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love are what we stay alive for.

–John Keating, Dead Poet’s Society

She said, “I didn’t take any literature courses in college. The only courses I took were in technical writing for the sciences. They were in the English Department, even though writing for the sciences isn’t literature.”

I grew sad thinking that scientific writing is no longer literature.

One of the first essays I published on Literature&Literacy was about this very topic. There was a time when the word “literature” was used to encompass all of the written word and the word “poetry” was used to encompass both prose fiction and verse. At that time, being literate included having a knowledge of the scientific writing of the day.

But I cannot fault what she said. I do not read Scientific American nor Nature. I do not read Popular Mechanic nor MAKE Magazine.

And that also makes me sad.

While I am not wholly ignorant of contemporary science, I am nearly so. I chalk this up to the sciences becoming increasingly specialized. Little seems to be written for the popular audience, though want of finding might be from want of looking.

I remember sitting with friends in college for dinner. They were all scientists of some sort — physicists, biologists, astronomers — and they each knew enough about the others’ work to understand the conversation. I believe they were talking about string theory. But what they were talking about was so beyond the physics I had studied in high school that I just felt stupid.

And perhaps that feeling of ineptitude, of stupidity, of a dumbness kept me from studying the sciences.

The sciences that interested me most were the brain sciences. Although I finished with degrees in the humanities and the history of art, I chose schools based on whether they offered undergraduate degrees on neuroscience. And I do occasionally read some on neuroscience. Some of the most useful ideas I’ve encountered about our minds and how they function came from reading Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. And Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time left me with a sense of wonder.

My interest has always lain in how to live in this life, how others live in this life. Technology interests me only so far as it is part of my life and people engage it. In some ways, I dislike technology because it removes a human element from our life; yet, I do not want to see people’s bodies ache from back breaking labor like in Millet’s The Sower.

Science does not answer these questions.

For that reason both the sciences and the arts are necessary. They have different domains and do not work to answer the same questions.