Monthly Archives: July 2010

Using Beowulf to Defend Lebron

Sports Saturday Lebron James has been taking a lot of heat recently for joining the Miami basketball team. (Did you catch the pun?) This past trading season was termed “the Lebron Sweepstakes,” and teams from around the country trekked to Cleveland to play court to “King James.” James made the occasion particularly gaudy by persuading […]

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At Films Abroad, Why Do I Laugh Alone?

Film Friday Vic: What film are we talking about?
 Lin: Does it matter what film?
 Vic: Of course it does.
 Lin: You choose then.  Friday night.  Not in a foreign language, ok.  You don’t go to the movies to read.                                […]

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Moments of Perfect Being

Today we head home after having spent a delicious week in our Maine cottage with our sons Darien and Toby, along with our daughter-in-law Betsy and Toby’s girlfriend Candice.  We immersed ourselves in memory and tradition while we were here.  Portraits of my great-great grandparents John and Remember Berry Swett, are on the wall, as […]

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Gripped by a Tyrannical Love

Since I am vacationing in Maine and spent time yesterday with my favorite cousin, who is a huge Edward Arlington Robinson fan, I devote a post to the state’s greatest poet.  Whenever I visit Dan Bates in Gardiner, we have to visit Robinson’s grave and look at his house. My favorite Robinson poem is “Eros […]

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Mama Grizzly vs. Real Grizzlies

Sarah Palin has been recently celebrating “Mama Grizzlies”—by which I think she means “women who are so mad that they’re not going to take it anymore.” But has anyone noticed that she advocates policies that make life a lot harder for actual grizzlies? Whether through calling for drilling in the Alaskan National Reserve, denying the […]

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Blaming Loved Ones in the Face of Death

Edvard Munch, The Sick Child  Imagine the following situation. A couple has been married for decades but now he has contracted a terminal illness and is dying. His wife has always prided herself on being there for him when he needed her, but now she feels helpless. Meanwhile he is scared and angry and is […]

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Churchgoing: Delightful and Unexpected

Spiritual Sunday Thanks to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion for alerting me to this wonderful passage from John Updike’s “Churchgoing” (which appears in Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, 1962): There was a time when I wondered why more people did not go to church. Taken purely as a human recreation, what could be more delightful, […]

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Poker Adventures of a New York Novelist

Sports Saturday This past week my novelist friend Rachel Kranz was visiting after having busted out of the World Series of Poker tournament in Las Vegas. She made it to Day 4 (out of 9), which was pretty good considering that she has only been playing for three years. Still she was upset, as good […]

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The (Out of Control) Passion of Mel Gibson

Mel Gibson in Braveheart  Film Friday Mel Gibson is in the news again with recorded rants against his girlfriend that are so vicious that even his ardent supporters are backing away. (You can learn about, and even listen to, the rants here but I advise caution.) I’ve never been a Gibson fan and this website […]

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Is There a Price for Doing Evil?

In a dinner conversation with academic colleagues and novelist Rachel Kranz, we grappled with the question of whether those who commit atrocities pay a price for doing so. I came to the conclusion that it is a question that novelists and poets are sometimes better at answering than academics.

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Defending Miss Watson

Many readers of Huckleberry Finn enjoy laughing at Miss Watson’s approach to teaching Huck. She tries to use the Bible to scare him into good behavior, insists that he sit still, and prohibits him from smoking and drinking. Romantics that we are, we make fun of her educational philosophy and find her a hypocrite, especially […]

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So You Want to Tell Your Story . . .

Balthus My friend Rachel Kranz, author of the novel Leaps of Faith, is visiting us at the moment, and we were talking about the number of times that people approach her about writing a book about their lives. As they envision it, they will tell her their stories and she will write them up. We […]

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Europe and America, Fantasy Projections

North Americans have regarded Europe as a cultural Mecca for a long time and often use their summer vacations to travel there as though on a pilgrimage.  This has been true of a number of American writers, including Mark Twain, Henry James, the ex-patriots of the 1920’s (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein), and T. S. Eliot.  […]

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Rising Again to Dance

Chidi Okoye (Nigeria)  Spiritual Sunday I refute Berkeley thus, Samuel Johnson famously said. And kicked a rock. Bishop Berkeley was the 18th century idealist philosopher who asked how we know reality is really there if we are dependent upon our senses for perceiving it. Is the rock in existence when we turn our backs? Johnson’s […]

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George Steinbrenner, Not a Hollow Man

Sports Saturday Mistah Steinbrenner—he dead. So I imagine T. S. Eliot announcing the death of the legendary Yankee owner this past week. That’s because, if one goes by Eliot’s famous 1925 poem “The Hollow Men,” one could not say that “the Boss” was “Shape without form, shade without colour,/ Paralysed force, gesture without motion.” In fact, an […]

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The Magic Flute and Teenage Hormones

Film Friday The nature of Spain’s World Cup victory over Holland seems to have stuck with me all this past week.Spanish elegance won out over a Dutch “kick ’em in the legs” strategy (check out the state of hero Andres Iniesta’s legs here), and I have been writing about Prospero triumphing over Caliban and John […]

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And Universal Darkness Buries All

Yesterday I talked about irresponsible political commentators and politicians and how they reminded me of the scribblers that John Dryden was worried about in the 1680’s. In the 1740’s Alexander Pope was even more pessimistic about the threat they posed. In The Dunciad he imagines an inevitable cultural slide until “universal darkness buries all.” Harold […]

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Enough Already, Rush, Glenn, Shadwell!

Last week when I complained about Christopher Hitchens, I think I was reacting as much to the incessant chatter of pundits as to Hitchens himself. At present there appear to be non-stop voices competing with each other to see who can make the most outrageous claims or confrontational statements, whether on talk radio, cable television, […]

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The Tea Partiers Who Would Be Senators

I was rereading Rudyard Kipling’s entertaining story The Man Who Would Be King the other day, and it got me thinking about some of the Tea Party candidates for Senate, like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Rand Paul in Kentucky.  Allow me to explain. Kipling’s 1888 work is about two enterprising good-for-nothings, Dravot and Carnehan, […]

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Spanish Yin, Dutch Yang, and Shakespeare

The commentators called it an ugly game, but I found something compelling about Spain’s victory over the Netherlands in yesterday’s World Cup final. And after all, regardless of what happened earlier in the game, how can one argue when the winning goal–and a beautifully struck ball at that–occurs just minutes before the end of overtime? […]

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When It’s Hard to Pray

Spiritual Sunday I’ve been thinking about why it’s sometimes hard to pray for help. Perhaps it’s because asking for help seems an affront to our prideful self sufficiency. Perhaps it’s because we fear that we are not worthy to receive it. I think of how Coleridge’s ancient mariner is so filled with self-loathing that he […]

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The Poetry of Spanish Soccer

The incomparable Xavi  Sports Saturday Spanish sports is having a great year. First of all, Spanish forward Pau Gasol was a major reason why the Los Angeles Lakers won their 16th championship in an archetypal series against the Boston Celtics. Then we were officially ushered from the Age of Federer into the Age of Nadal […]

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Talking to Kids about Movies

Stand by Me (Rob Reiner, 1986)  Film Friday First, a quick prayer of thanksgiving: my father, who is responsible for my love of literature and film, underwent successful surgery on a blocked artery Tuesday. He had been experiencing sharp pains and a stent was installed. Such are the miracles of modern medicine that, by Thursday […]

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Mockingbird, Powerful but Problematic

Harper Lee  National Public Radio reminded me yesterday that this summer is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I have written a couple of times about the book, once talking about its importance to me growing up in the segregated south and once examining Malcolm Gladwell’s critique of […]

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Our New Poet Laureate

W. S. Merwin  A very fine poet, W. S. Merwin, has been named our new poet laureate. Because he was a friend of my former colleague Lucille Clifton, I was able to meet Merwin when he visited St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He lives in Hawaii and has been working hard to preserve their rain […]

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Christopher Hitchens, Literary Bully

I confess to bristling when I hear the name Christopher Hitchens.The intellectual provocateur has been in the news recently, first for publishing his memoirs and second for contracting throat cancer.Although he is smart and well read, he has always struck me as a self-righteous intellectual bully, one who is more interested in toppling icons than […]

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A Poem for Heroes and Mass Murderers

Since the World Cup is underway in South Africa, I watched Clint Eastwood’s Invictus last week, about the 1995 World Cup Rugby Tournament held in South Africa.  Based on a true story, the film notes that, while in prison, Nelson Mandela, like many black South Africans, would root against the South African rugby team, beloved […]

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Christ as a Wounded Knight

Spiritual Sunday I received some very confusing signals from the high school I attended.  That’s because it was an Episcopalian military prep school.  I remember hearing the phrase “church militant” and marching to church to the strains of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” (“marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before”). Years later […]

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Poetry at Wimbledon

Sports Saturday I’m still trying to process the Ghana and Brazil defeats and will write about the World Cup in the next two Friday posts.  For the moment, I’ll take a breather and turn to tennis. Trust Wimbledon, the classiest of the tennis tournaments, to work poetry into the occasion.  I wrote last year about […]

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The Greatest Generation’s Citizen Kane

Charlie Kane sold to a bank  Film Friday Several weeks ago I wrote about the impact that the movie Citizen Kane had on my father in the months before he was drafted into the army in 1942. I was so fascinated by his response that I collaborated with him on an article about what Citizen […]

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Declining Numbers of English Majors

I mentioned yesterday an article in American Scholar (Autumn 2009) on “The Decline of the English Department: How It Happened and What Could Be Done to Reverse It.” (My thanks to my father for sending it to me.) The author’s solution: put literature first.  Which I indeed think we should do but doubt that it […]

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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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