Monthly Archives: June 2011

Fight the Power, Check Out a Book

Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night is an unusual combination of fact and reflection, probing the nature and meaning of libraries.

Posted in Manguel (Alberto) | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Leadership 101: Grade Obama

Andrew Sullivan says that we should not look for a savior in gay rights issues because, in America, “we save ourselves.” The sentiment also appears in a Lucille Clifton poem that appeared following the assassination of Martin Luther King.

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The Round Jubilance of Peach

Sink your teeth into Lee Young-Li’s poem about peaches and let it carry you into a sensation that is so deep that it banishes death.

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The Vital Importance of Being Gay

It is possible to read a gay subtext into Oscar Wilde’s “Importance of Being Earnest.” For one thing, “Earnest” was slang for homosexual in late 19th century England, and a collection of homosexual verse entitled “Love in Earnest” was written by an Oxford classmate of Wilde.

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When God Doesn’t Seem to Be Listening

George Herbert’s frustrations at not communicating with God are understandable because the words we use to pray will always feel inadequate. Rather than this being bad, however, we should learn to be humble. It is good that we feel wounded by our words because it is in our brokenness where we most feel God’s presence.

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Golf Suddenly Seems Green Again

Something happened in the course of the recent U. S. Open tournament. Lucille Clifton’s poem is about the “damn wonder” of renewal, and golf is catching a whiff of something fresh in the boy-faced Rory McIlroy.

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An All American Family, with a Twist

“The Kids Are All Right” strikes a blow for traditional family values within a same sex marriage.

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Chaucer Predicted Hugh Hefner Debacle

It sounds to me that Hefner wasn’t cuckolded only because he wasn’t yet a husband. And while I don’t really care about either of them, I take a Chaucerian satisfaction is seeing a pretentious man outplayed at his own game.

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At 60, a Comfortable Old Scarecrow

Having just turned 60, I’ve been thinking of Teiresias. Wise though the blind seer may be, his advice doesn’t help others that much. Aging, in other words, appears to require humility.

Posted in Eliot (T.S.), Euripides, Johnson (Samuel), Sophocles, Yeats (William Butler) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Comments closed

Nothing So Sensible as Sensual Inundation

Poetry, with its eye on what really matters, can help us taste food again. Mary Oliver’s “Plum Trees” reminds us to eat with full awareness.

Posted in Eliot (T.S.), Marvell (Andrew), Oliver (Mary) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments closed

Date Rape or Cultural Misunderstanding?

Reading “Passage to India” for the first time in decades has given me insights into a date rape that I became involved in years ago involving an Ethiopian and an American student. How much, I wonder, can be attributed to cultural misunderstanding?

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Touching the Divine through Poetry

Think of religious visionaries as the early poets, those who have found ways to gesture towards (not encapsulate!) the divine. The religious poets who have come after help keep religious language from getting stale.

Posted in Shelley (Percy) | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

James as Telemachus to Wade’s Odysseus

Lebron James is not the king but the sidekick, not Michael Jordan but Scottie Pippen. In literary terms, he is not King Odysseus but Prince Telemachus. His teammate Dwyane Wade is the king of the franchise.

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King (and Eventually Queen) of Masks

The Chinese film “King of Masks,” followed by a concert of Chinese women performing on traditional Chinese instruments, demonstrated China’s new synthesis, liberated women reclaiming ancient arts that the Communists had tried to erase and from which women had been excluded.

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The Novel that Changed the World

When it comes to literature changing lives, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is the gold standard for what is possible.

Posted in Stowe (Harriet Beecher) | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Sam Spade Takes on Sarah Palin

Something about Monday’s debate amongst Republicans vying for their party’s presidential nomination reminded me of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon.” They are all chasing after a legendary black bird that seems to be priceless but all too often turns out to be a lead simulacrum.

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Mutton Mouths and Butter Bodies

Jennifer Cognard-Black notes that food, being perishable, presents museums and historians with a challenge. To study what and how people ate, we must look for related artifacts, including written recipes.

Posted in Simmons (Amelia) | Tagged , , , , | Comments closed

Trollope, the Cure for What Ails Our Politics

David Brooks uses Anthony Trollope’s novel “Phineas Finn” to examine a very pressing issue, the tension between independence and service in our politicians.

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Pentecost Flames, Fireflies’ Crooked Street

Walcott turns to his Caribbean childhood, spent in Santa Lucia and Trinidad, to find God. It is as though his mind must travel there because he is having trouble hearing God in the cities, with their cold streetlamps lining the regulated sidewalks.

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I Must Down to the Seas Again

I can imagine my student sailor liking John Masefield’s “Sea Fever.” She knows what it’s like to give oneself over to “the gull’s way and the whale’s way” and how the wind can feel like a whetted knife.

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An Inhumane Immigration System

A Hollywood ending to “The Visitor” would shield the viewer from a tragedy that is re-enacted hundreds of times daily in detention centers around this country. Instead, we are given the stark reality.

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Obama, Unconventional Epic Hero

Maybe Obama is like Beowulf, who watches out Grendel operates and allows the monster to strike first before responding. Then he reaches out with a firm grip. Bombast and theatrics are for others. His aim is to save the hall.

Posted in Atwood (Margaret), Beowulf Poet | Tagged , , , , | Comments closed

Poetry to Read at a Hippy Wedding

Today is my wedding anniversary so you get to hear how I wove poetry into the ceremony. W. B. Yeats, Archibald MacLeish, D.H. Lawrence, and the Song of Solomon all made appearances. Get ready for time travel back to a very different era.

Posted in Bible, Lawrence (D. H.), MacLeish (Archibald), Yeats (William Butler) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Comments closed

Family, Secrets, and Food

The focus on secrets in novels like Secrets of the Tsil Cafe and Fried Green Tomatoes led St. Mary’s student Nona Landis to look at the way that “secrets played out in my own family, especially with regard to recipes and dishes.” The following article is about her father’s “Seafood Bisque” and how it is “intimately but mysteriously connected to my family and to me.”

Posted in Averill (Thomas Fox) | Tagged , , , , | Comments closed

Reading Whitman: My 15 Minutes of Fame

My 15 minutes of fame came when I read Walt Whitman’s “Oh Captain, My Captain” to the people of Slovenia. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. As today is D-Day, it seems a good time to tell the story.

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This Is the Golden Morning of Love

A wedding poem seems appropriate for June. Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s lovely “Marriage Morning” draws me, maybe because it captures some of the anxieties of the wedding day and not just the joys.

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Should Canadians Root for the Canucks?

One would think Canadians would be rooting for Vancouver over Boston in this year’s NHL finals. But as Canadian author Michael McKinley sees it, “Vancouver isn’t really Canada because you can’t skate outside.” By this rationale, Boston is more Canadian than Vancouver.

Posted in Borges (Jorge Luis), McKinley (Michael) | Tagged , , , , , | Comments closed

Palin, Bachmann, and All about Eve

The rivalry between Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann about who will be Tea Party queen reminds me of the 1950 Betty Davis film All about Eve. The parallels are so delicious that I have to share them with you.

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Classic Lit and Transformative Epiphanies

A student wrote, “By forcing myself to examine my ideas and Dr. Faustus more carefully and within the lens of my experience, I had several epiphanies that I feel were transformative both to my essay as well as to my understanding of my experience with depression.”

Posted in Marlowe (Christopher) | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

Viola, Lost in the Friend Zone

If literature can change our lives, then there should be something in the play that would help get these women out of their friend zones. Imagine Twelfth Night reframed as a “Dear Abby” column dispensing relationship advice to young adults.

Posted in Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , | Comments closed


  • 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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