Monthly Archives: May 2010

Young People Fighting Old People’s Wars

Memorial Day Today we honor our soldiers killed in the line of duty.  Many of them were idealistic, most of them were young.  I offer up today an enigmatic poem by A.E. Housman that captures, in an understated way, the tragedy of their deaths.  The poem is unusual in that it talks about soldiers having a choice. […]

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A Physicist and a Metaphysical Poet

The gifted nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer knew that his brilliance was not leading him to inner peace. Perhaps he appreciated George Herbert’s poem “The Pulley” for voicing his condition and was soothed by the poet’s vision of final rest.

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Suffocated by Hockey–and Loving It

Sports Saturday  As two championship-starved hockey-rich cities prepare to square off in the Stanley Cup finals (Chicago and Philadelphia), Ljubljana English Department’s Jason Blake once again reflects upon the meaning of hockey for Canadians—and upon the omnipresence of stereotypes about Canadians playing hockey.  While he was distraught at seeing the last Canadian team (the Montreal […]

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Preparing a Gateway for the Dead

Film Friday Two weeks ago our Friday night film group watched Yojiro Takita’s Departures, the Japanese film that won the 2008 Best Foreign Film Oscar.  Given our society’s discomfort with death, it is a film that people must see. (Caution: In the following reflection I’ll be revealing the ending.) Departures is about a young Japanese […]

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After the Mess, Can Obama Be Fortinbras?

I’ve been thinking recently about how every Shakespearean tragedy concludes with a restoration of order.  The stage may be strewn with corpses and the spectator’s heart may have broken into a thousand little pieces, but (as though to provide some reassurance) someone steps forward at the end to set things straight. In Hamlet it is […]

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Interpreting Lit Makes for Better Citizens

Eugene Robinson        Our Commencement speaker two weeks ago was the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner and one of my favorite columnists.  He delivered a message to our graduates with which I fervently agree:  THINK! Robinson told us that he is tired of seeing politics conducted with bumper sticker simplicity.  The real problems […]

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Lies Reveal Who We Wish We Were

Pierre Corneille        I’ve been thinking about lying recently.  One reason is because I recently saw a David Ives adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s 17th century comedy The Liar at the Washington Shakespeare Theater.  Another is because of Maureen Dowd’s interesting NYT column Sunday about politicians who lie when they don’t have to. Dowd is writing about Richard […]

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The Insidious Novels of Ayn Rand

When I first started hearing the name Rand Paul, I thought that it was a political pundit’s joke. I thought the talk was about his father, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, not the man who last week became Kentucky’s Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. Since Ron Paul espouses certain libertarian principles, I assumed that people were […]

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Life Storming Out of the Darkness

Spiritual Sunday Today Western Christians observe Pentecost, the day 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection and 10 days after his ascension into heaven.  Pentecost celebrates the moment when the disciplines saw themselves surrounded by tongues of fire and felt lifted up by the Holy Spirit.  In the Book of John (14:16) Jesus is reported to have promised the […]

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Drama on the Foul Line

In his heyday, his only vulnerability       Sports Saturday The Orlando arena was electric.  The Magic, having lost their first home game against the Boston Celtics, were in a must-win situation.  To lose the first two games of a playoff series at home is almost certain death, but they had fought back from an 11-point fourth-quarter […]

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Celebrating Eliza Doolittle Day

Hepburn and Harrison in My Fair Lady  Film Friday Did you know that yesterday (May 20) was Eliza Doolittle Day? I didn’t either until I heard it announced on National Public Radio.  But I remembered the song from My Fair Lady once they mentioned it: One evening the king will say: “Oh, Liza, old thing, […]

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Befriending, Not Fighting, Grendel’s Mother

I am still vibrating from the powerful student essays I received last week. I talked about one yesterday and will share another today. This is one from a student whose mother is dying of brain cancer. Erica Rutkai (she is letting me use her name) decided to move from California to the east coast when […]

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Sadness over Little Women, 12th Night

Although reading and grading student essays is the most demanding aspect of my job—I graded around 535 formal and informal essays this past semester, as well as reading another 100 essay proposals and early drafts—it can also be the most rewarding.  That’s because I will regularly see students working through major life issues at the […]

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Sumer is ycomen in

I’ve been grading student essays for so long that I’ve barely noticed the succession of gorgeous days that have been washing over us.  My seniors graduated Saturday, however, and yesterday I turned in the grades for the rest of my students, so I can finally acknowledge that “sumer is ycomen in.”  To remind myself and anyone […]

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Children Commence, Parents Let Go

Flowers for Justin This past Saturday St. Mary’s College held its graduation and, as always, it was a time of good-byes. Good-byes are the theme of today’s post. One good-bye was to poet Lucille Clifton, a former member of the faculty whose poem “blessing the boats (at St. Mary’s)” has become a regular part of […]

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I Saw Eternity the Other Night

Spiritual Sunday As a liberal Episcopalian, I have always maintained, almost as an unquestioned tenet of faith, that there are many roads to the top of the mountain and that no one religion has an exclusive highway to God.  Therefore I found myself challenged by an article in The Boston Globe (a tip to Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish for alerting […]

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When It’s Hockey vs. Art, Who Wins?

Sports Saturday Jason Blake, who reports on North American hockey for us from Ljubljana, Slovenia, has contributed this column in the wake of the Montreal Canadiens’ remarkable back-to-back 7-game playoff victories over first the top-seeded Washington Capitals and then the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins—the first time an eighth-place team has ever performed such […]

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Casablanca, a Film for Every Occasion

Film Friday What is it about Casablanca that makes it applicable to practically any occasion?  A couple of weeks ago I referred to it when comparing Goldman Sachs to a casino.  Then a couple of days later Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen mentioned the scene of rounding up suspects when writing about Arizona’s new immigration […]

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Finding Resolve in the Face of Brokenness

As oil continues to gush unabated into the Gulf of Mexico and as blame (never self blame) gushes from the mouths of company executives in Congressional hearings, we start to see more clearly the results of Dick Cheney’s attacks on oil company regulation. We are at a strange juncture with nature. On the one hand, I […]

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Better Austen than Bronte on the Court

An interesting New York Times column by David Brooks has me doing some more thinking on Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s enjoyment of Pride and Prejudice.  Here is some of what he wrote: About a decade ago, one began to notice a profusion of Organization Kids at elite college campuses. These were bright students who […]

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Elena Kagan, Lover of Pride and Prejudice

Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennett      Elena Kagan, current nominee for the U. S. Supreme Court, is a “literature lover” who used to reread Pride and Prejudice every year.  So we are informed by a fascinating New York Times profile.  Does this tell us anything about what kind of justice she will be? I wrote last year […]

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Are Dystopian Novels Useful?

The new Arizona immigration law, which authorizes police to engage in racial profiling (even while claiming not to), has me thinking back to Almanac of the Dead, a 1991 novel by Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko.  This imaginary recreation of a 21st-century future predicted this would happen. I don’t like Almanac the way I like Silko’s […]

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Motherhood, an Astounding Ministry

Annunciation, Philippe de Champaigne (1644)     Spiritual Sunday Here’s a poem by Denise Levertov for Mother’s Day.  I dedicate it to my own mother and to the mother that I’m married to.  I also dedicate is to Maurine Holbert-Hogaboom, at whose funeral I read it ten days ago.  It was one of her favorites. Levertov imagines […]

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Take Me Out to the Luxury Boxes

Sports Saturday We’ve long had an active poetry series at St. Mary’s, and periodically a wonderful new voice will swim into my consciousness.  Bruce Cohen from the University of Connecticut is the latest.  Cohen has a wonderfully wandering surrealistic style.  Often, as in the poem below, he gives us a narrative that is easy to […]

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Fiery Speech in a World of Shadows

Film Friday I owe my love of film to my father, who for years ran the “Cinema Guild” at the University of the South/Sewanee. When I wrote two weeks ago about Meet Me in St. Louis, my father talked about seeing the film as a G. I. in Europe.  “We saw the film as directed […]

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Literature and Student Life Stories

This post will have to be quick because it’s been a busy week.  I’ve been involved in marathon grading sessions, attended a full day of senior project presentations (including one that I mentored on Hans Christian Andersen), met with multiple students who are revising essays, and have just returned from a session where students read […]

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This Fragile Earth, Our Island Home

On Monday I talked about how Silko says that, if we are to end our destructive (and ultimately self-destructive) assaults upon the earth, we must come into spiritual alignment with it.  I’m aware that appealing to Native American religions is sure to draw jeers from certain sectors of the political right, especially the Rush Limbaughs […]

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The Dangerous Power of Metaphor

Standard Oil as octopus in an early 20th century cartoon       Today I want to talk about metaphor and its use in political discourse.  Metaphor, or more broadly figurative language, is at the core of what makes literature literature.  Figurative language packs a punch because it is doesn’t confine itself to the literal level.  It connotes […]

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Witchery Unleashed in the Gulf

Just days after celebrating the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, we experienced the greatest oil spill in U.S. history. And it is still going on! I can’t begin to express how discouraged I am about the news. I have boycotted Exxon since the Valdez tanker spill fouled the Alaskan coast in 1989, and here we […]

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Dazzled by Dreams of the Body

Ten years ago my 21-year-old son died on the Sunday following Easter.  The coupling of the tragedy with the celebration of Christ’s resurrection makes my questioning of the religious observance all the more acute.  Do I really believe that Jesus rose from the dead?  Is there life after the death of our bodies?  Or if […]

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Pitchers and Poets Avoid the Obvious

Sports Saturday Some of my favorite moments as a father came in watching my three sons play sports.  Justin, my oldest whom I am remembering this week, was a fine baseball pitcher and outfielder.  Two plays especially stand out for me: a diving catch he made as centerfielder in an all-star game when he was […]

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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