Thursday, August 25, 2011

A bit of a Rant

I have read many articles in the past few years bemoaning the loss of standards in higher education, and, in particular, the loss of a common cultural set of references. I think the source of much of the complaint is really a reaction to a loss of privilege and the decline of the "educated" class.

A university education used to belong to only a few: those that had the money and those who demonstrated the intellectual abilities to get money in the form of scholarships. The educated few shared a common experience and a shared vocabulary. They read the same "classics", got the same basic science and math, the same basic economics. Out of this group came all the lawyers, bankers and politicians, the men who made the laws, enforced them and controlled the money. Life was good for the educated class of mostly white men.

All this was lost because of the democratization of education. The first serious blow came at the end of World War II with the enactment of the GI bill. Suddenly tens of thousands of men who would not naturally have been able to attend a university were able to. Worse, they believed their children should have the right to attend too, and ideally, all children should have the right to attend the university of their choice.

The universities became crowded with those who were "different, " who did not fit into the culture of the educated class. They were dissatisfied with the classical curriculum and wanted "relevant" education, focused on current issues and employment.

The final blow to the educated elite came with the explosion of the Internet and the democratization of knowledge itself. Now anyone could access the classics (previously available only in expensive university press editions). But more, they could access literature, philosophy, history and political thought from a myriad of cultures. The net effect was to diffuse the set of common cultural references so dear to the educated class. No longer could you count on someone catching a reference to Thucydides or the Book of Job.

To "cultural conservatives this is a defaming of all that is holy, a cultural disgrace, a loss of core values. But what they are really upset about, though they will not admit this even to themselves, is a loss of privilege and power, the loss of a world where they knew all the cues and their position was secure.

Personally, I see the diversification of culture as an increase in richness. The more cultures, the more languages, the more literatures, the better. I love ancient Greek and Latin literature and now, thanks to efforts like Tuft's Perseus Project, I have access to most of it for free. In addition I can access Arabic, Chinese, and African literature. The loss of a set of common references is small compared to the enormous richness of new reference and new vistas. The belief that somehow one culture's literature and languages are somehow superior to other culture's literature and languages is just another form of racism. Democracy in politics and in culture is messy and can be frightening, but is worth the journey.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Little Rhyme

I have always avoided end rhymes. It was one of the those things that a contemporary poet just didn't do. I did, however, often sneak in internal rhyme patterns. I would do things like have the last word of one line rhyme with the middle word of the next line, or other more intricate patterns. Part of the pleasure of poetry to me is the puzzle aspect. Making the pieces fit into some arbitrary structure.

Lately I have been committing two cardinal sins: playing with end rhymes and playing with traditional metric feet. I stooped so low as to write a sonnet:

I imagine that you stand beside me
in meadows high on quiet mountain slopes
where hawks wing in the skies above and see
beyond the horizon of our small hopes
and fears. So much that I would tell you now
if only speech were left on my dull tongue
I would tell vast legends of what and how
it should have been how it should be sung
if sung as I dreamed it sung, but facts
are not as one would wish however strong
the wish. Instead we must accept our acts
and live the consequences, even wrong
in mountains where the sky itself would start
I imagine worlds with us no more apart

No challenge to Shakespeare here.

And then I worked on an elegaic piece--elegaic in the sense that it imitates, in some sense, Latin and Greek elegaic metric. Classical elegy consited in a dactylic hexameter followed by a pentameter line 6/5. In English one could argue the iambic pentameter is equivalent the the classical dactylic hexameter, culturally if not mathematically. So I wrote a metric of a iambic pentameter followed by a iambic tetrameter, with each couplet rhyming. This is my first experiment:

some think with every decision the world
divides—a new world formed, now curled

beside this one, each possibility
explored. Whatever can, will be.

In some parallel world just beyond reach
all that we let get away, each

lost moment, not lost, each failure unmade.
So, in another world, you stayed.

A flock of honking geese wings over head
the rain will arrive before bed

this afternoon spent staring out windows
the dry grass stirs as the damp breeze blows.

Just to be clear, I am not really obsessing about some lost love. The poems just seemed to trend that way.

I tried to avoid direct end stops on the rhyme. Most lines are enjambed, meaning you read through the line to the next. Also there is usually a caesura in the line after the couplet, a pause that keeps the poem from becoming too sing song--or so I hope.

The gist is that is is fun sometimes to play with traditional metrics.

Coming soon--at least I intend. This blog has been offered in fits and spurts--reviews of several books. I have been on a reading jag of late. Included in the reviews will be three books by China Mieville, The Information by Gleick, and a book about the city of Alexandria, among others