Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Why We Read, Write, And Teach Literature

One of my adult students recently lost his grandmother. The first night he returned to class, I overheard him talking to another student about his time in the hospital. He said that in his grandmother's last moments, all he could think about was the carriage ride in Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death." Thinking about that poem helped him cope with those last moments.

That is why we read, write, and teach literature. It doesn't always help, and the same literature isn't going to help all of us. Reading, writing, and teaching isn't going to make anything better or lighten something heavy, but it may help us cope as we carry a burden--either helping us make meaning where there is none or live with meaninglessness. As Joan Didion writes, "[For Ramon Novarro,] Writing had helped him, he said, to 'reflect on experience and see what it means.' [...] but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means"(48, The White Album).

For me, in personal tragedy or in larger tragedies such as the explosions in Boston today, I often look for help in the opening lines of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
For my student, in the death of his grandmother, it was "Because I could not stop for Death."

Whether movie, television, music, writing, paintings, video game, or other art or "text," what has it been that has helped you?

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality. 

We slowly drove –
He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too, 

For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –  

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –  

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –  

Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
 first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity –