Math, Music, Poetry

All year, I’ve been telling my students that poetry = math, much to the dismay of those who prefer one over the other. They’ll be glad to know that I can add music to the equation and it’s still true forwards, backwards, inside-out, and upside-down.

Exhibit A: Dan Tepfer’s performance of Bach’s 1st Goldberg Variation.

waking into the world

Alan Jacobs has mastered the art form of mezzo blogging. For proof, see this brief but insightful reflection on Auden’s poetry and it’s potential literary allusions.

Also, I really hope Alan is right that Auden is referring to Beowulf.

Horae Canonicae,”

“Holy this moment, wholly in the right,
As, in complete obedience
To the light’s laconic outcry, next
As a sheet, near as a wall,
Out there as a mountain’s poise of stone,
The world is present, about,
And I know that I am, here, not alone
But with a world and rejoice
Unvexed, for the will has still to claim
This adjacent arm as my own,
The memory to name me, resume
Its routine of praise and blame
And smiling to me is this instant while
Still the day is intact, and I
The Adam sinless in our beginning,
Adam still previous to any act.”

Most of Auden’s critics know that he read Heidegger, and it’s easy to hear here an echo of Heidegger’s idea of “being thrown” (Geworfen) into the world. John Fuller also finds here echoes of Husserl and Paul Valéry. And all that may be true, but I wonder if there might be another source: Beowulf.

— Read on


Sonnet 116

I recently led/participated in a discussion on Shakespeare’s sonnets. The discussion produced observations and insights that I’d like to record here.

We spent most of our time discussing Sonnet 116–a popular poem to read at weddings–in relation to a few others. Below, I’ve written the poem in full, followed by commentary on individual lines/sections.


Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

1. “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments.”

In the opening sentence, “minds,” I think, is the key word. The kind of love the speaker praises is non-physical and not, therefore, limited by the body. I find this somewhat concerning since it transforms love into a cerebral phenomenon. Does love have nothing to do with the body? For example, does love require the physical presence of the beloved, or is the mere thought of the person good enough? Also, what does it mean to be true to another mind?

This might be reading too much into these opening words. But if the speaker is writing a poem in praise of an abstract concept of love, then he would seem to run the risk of reducing love to a mental function.

There’s also a legal connotation to Shakespeare’s words: “Admit” has a range of meanings, including “allow for the possibility of,” “confess to be true,” and “accept as valid”–all three of which have legal implications. Similarly, “impediment” is used in the Book of Common Prayer’s marriage service–a service that represents both a legal and spiritual transaction/commitment.

The word “true” is also curious: first of all, it’s not used in reference to love or marriage, but to “minds.” It could mean “authentic” and/or “faithful.” If we were to outline the narrative of events implied by the opening sentence, it’s fair to assume that the “minds” were true to each other prior to marriage. In which case, “marriage” is, perhaps, the consummation of each mind’s faithfulness to the other.

Notice that Shakespeare hasn’t even mentioned the word “love” yet. It isn’t until the second half of the second line that “love” explicitly enters the conversation. “Marriage,” which includes/presupposes love, is not love itself, and contains further implications about the hard work required to sustain a marriage relationship. Marriage isn’t always the pure joy of romance. To remain faithful requires intention, diligence, and sacrifice. It’s easy to read the opening sentence of Sonnet 116 and become starry-eyed about the happiness of love and marriage. But, as we’ll see later in the sonnet, love must endure tempests that would derail the marriage of “true minds.”

The scansion in this first line is also interesting: it begins with a trochee (“LET me”), and then resolves in iambic rhythm. Shakespeare is playing with rhythm and meter throughout the poem. He again breaks the iambic pentameter in the twelfth line as well, where he adds a syllable and interrupts the iamb in the fourth foot (“evEN TO the EDGE of DOOM”)–more on that line later.

2. “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove: / O no; it is an ever-fixed mark…”

The poem’s first attempt to define love is to cast it in the negative. It begins, “love is not love,” and then provides two examples: love doesn’t change when the beloved changes, and it does it stop loving even if the beloved no longer reciprocates. The first example carries connotations of physical change–the beloved will not remain physically beautiful forever, so the lover must learn to love despite the inevitable change. The second example is a higher calling: to love without the condition of being loved in return. The problem of time and change permeate both examples, but love, if it is true, will remain steadfast, focused and committed to the beloved.

I’m able to follow the speaker in his definition of love so far, but his insistence on the steady nature of love is bewildering. Given my own experience and what I’ve read of the experience of others, love is rarely an “ever-fixed mark.” The object of love is fixed–what Plato might define as beauty (c.f. Symposium)–but love itself ranges far and wide, sometimes deceived concerning the object of its desire. In what sense is Shakespeare’s love a reliable love?

3. “That looks on tempests, and is never shaken; / It is the star to every wandering bark, / Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.”

To clarify what he means by “ever-fixed mark,” the speaker employs a nautical metaphor. Love is Polaris, the north star, guiding every wandering ship through bad weather. As such, it’s real value is unmeasurable. But this metaphor doesn’t actually answer the question I asked in the previous section: it merely restates, with great emphasis, the thesis that love is fixed.

4. “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks / Within his bending sickle’s compass come;”

Now the speaker returns to defining love in the negative: “Love is not…” and “Love alters not…” But I’m still not convinced that the speaker has made his argument any clearer. He continues to emphasize the non-corporeality of love. Unlike rosy lips and cheeks, love won’t succumb to time’s sickle (…I have an image of the Grim Reaper walking around in this poem killing everything except love).

5. “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, / But bears it out even to the edge of doom.”

At this point, pronouns become important. I think the “his” and “it,” here, refer to time (and perhaps everything else “time” stands for: decay, change, death, etc.). Love bears the changes of time to the very end, which may mean simply death or some kind of divine judgment day.

The speaker also returns to playing with the meter and rhythm of the poem (see point 1 above). Metrically, the line “But bears it out…” contains eleven syllables instead of the usual ten. I like to think that it’s a metrical representation of the content: like love, the meter bears its meaning out to the very end, falling off the edge of doom with that extra syllable. It ultimately resolves in an iambic foot, but not before breaking the rhythm half way through.

Apart from the way the meter echoes the content of the line, I also get the sense that the speaker is straining to say what he means. The speaker is making a profound, some might say irrational, claim that love bears the changes and decay of time even to the edge of doom. Why would love remain faithful in this way? What benefit is it to the lover? Is the poet actually praising love or lamenting the sad fate that love, in its true form, imposes on anyone it pulls into its gravitational orbit?

We don’t get answers to any of these questions. Instead, we simply transition to the couplet.

6. “If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

It’s interesting to me that the speaker doesn’t end with a grand gesture to the glory and joy of love. Instead, he simply asserts that what he’s said is true whether we like it or not. And just to up the ante, if his previous description of love is not true, well then no one has ever loved and he’s never written about it.

At this point, I’m not sure what the speaker is up to in this poem. On the one hand, he’s speaking eloquently about love, presenting readers with a beautiful vision of faithfulness in the marriage of “true minds.” On the other hand, there seems to be a subtle irony implied in the couplet and in the lack of any clear definition of what love is. I don’t want to read the poem too cynically. But right now I’m not convinced that this is meant to be an uncritical ode to love.

Sabbath Poetry: G.K. Chesterton

I’m reading (and teaching!) G.K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse. It’s a lot of fun, especially if you’re willing to set aside things like “historical accuracy” and revel in the idea and legends of Alfred the Great.

In typical Chestertonian fashion, here’s a great section on the differences between pride and humility:

Pride flings frail palaces at the sky,

As a man flings up sand,

But the firm feet of humility

Take hold of heavy land.


Pride juggles with her toppling towers,

They strike the sun and cease,

But the firm feet of humility

They grip the ground like trees. (IV.256-63)



I read “Ozymandias” with my 7th, 8th, and 9th grade writing students today. I was not prepared for the intense discussion that followed.

At first, they rolled their eyes that we were reading poetry. As we read the poem, we worked on finding the narrative and saying what we see. Twenty minutes later every student in the class–including my 7th graders!–knew what the poem was about and had very strong opinions.

We landed on the question, “Is it true that everything we do will be forgotten someday?”

One 8th grade student didn’t think so. His evidence? Michael Jordan. According to him, because Jordan is the greatest basketball player to ever live, and because everyone loves his “Air Jordan” shoes, it was not possible for him to be forgotten. Some of the other students quickly pointed out the flaws in his example, but the question was still being contested when we finished class.

It’s always a strange moment for me when I see students become intensely interested in something as revered as Shelley’s poetry. But I also love these moments. Despite the tendency to compartmentalize learning, and then to categorize people as a “Math Person,” a “Literature Person,” a “Science Person,” etc., our curiosity is actually unbounded by such arbitrary delineations.

No one is actually a “Literature/Math/Science person.” We’re attracted to Goodness, Truth, and Beauty wherever we happen to find them.

Poetry with High School Students

Part way through the 2017-2018 school year, I stumbled into a new routine with my 10th-12th grade literature students. Every Friday, we designated the whole class period to reading and discussing a single poem.

I can’t say when exactly this idea occurred to me, but I’ve always enjoyed breaking up the usual class routines with poetry. At my previous school, I occasionally hosted “Poetry Geek-out Sessions.” I would bring in a poem, read it with the class, and then I’d let my enthusiasm for poetry do the rest. It was a simple lesson in close reading. It also didn’t hurt that the students enjoyed watching their teacher lose his mind over a handful of words on a page.

Now that I’m back in the classroom this year, I’ve made my poetry geek-out sessions more scheduled and more conducive to a student-led discussion format. Don’t get me wrong. I still bring in poetry that, as Emily Dickinson says, “makes me feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” So the students are hardly deprived of my tendency to make a fool of myself. But in this context, I’m more self-conscious about making sure students are doing the work of close reading.

At the beginning of each class, I give students two rules to follow every time we read and discuss poetry:

  1. Say what you see.
  2. Find the narrative.

Prior to our discussion, we read the poem out-loud at least three times using different readers. The goal is to hear how the same poem can elicit different cadences which in turn produce different understandings. Whereas some students will pause at the end of each line, others will read with the syntax. The effect is palpable. Where one reading left students puzzled about the meaning of one stanza or line, another will clarify it beyond all doubt.

During the discussion, we’ll talk about things like meter, rhyme, enjambments, and figurative language as we encounter them. For example, we had a “light bulb moment” reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock last year when we realized that Eliot had cleverly used meter to echo Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” speech at the beginning of the poem.

  • Hamlet: “To be or not to be that is the question.”
  • Prufrock: “To lead you to an overwhelming question…”
    • Both lines are five and a half feet long and follow an iambic rhythm. They also begin and end with the same words (To…question). Given Prufrock’s themes of growing old, of action vs. inaction, and of the trouble with appearances vs. reality, it’s safe to assume Eliot was thinking of Hamlet the whole time.

My primary goal during Poetry Friday, however, is to help students grasp the content of a poem. This is not a class dedicated solely to learning about the complexities of poetic form. (Which I love, by the way, and some day, I’d love to teach a class that dives into the complexities of meter, rhyme, etc.). My focus on Fridays is to help students experience first-hand how poetry can change the way they see and experience the world. I think this is important because most students have an adverse reaction to poetry–e.g., “It’s too weird.” “Why don’t they just say what they mean in a simpler way?” “Poetry is great for some people, but it’s just not my thing.”

If my experience teaching poetry has taught me anything, it’s that the instinctive reaction to dislike, to disregard, or to politely reject poetry is symptomatic of never having connected with a poem in a meaningful way. And I can’t blame students. Reading poetry is a participatory activity. Unlike the majority of their other reading requirements and habits, students cannot passively receive the information of a poem, much less quickly skim a poem for a “basic understanding.” Poetry is demanding. You must slow down, concentrate, and patiently allow the words and images percolate in your imagination. Then you must listen for the way the words and images resonate with each other and with their various social, etymological, and historical contexts. It’s hard work. But my goodness it is worth it every time.

To use Gerard Manley Hopkins’ phrase, poetry helps us see the world “charged with the grandeur of God.” The sound of lake water will transport you to Innisfree. The color black will elicit visions of nobility and divine grace. And hope will forever be a thing with feathers.

The other day I was once more reminded of why reading poetry with students is worth it. We were reading W. H. Auden’s poem, “As I walked out one evening.” In the middle of a lively discussion, I noticed that one of my students, (I’ll call him Joe) was silently squirming in his seat.

Quick background on Joe: he’s a 10th grade boy who loves his truck, his knives, and all your usual outdoor hobbies–hunting, camping, etc. Joe does not care for school. He’s not a bad kid, but it’s clear that his mind is always elsewhere.

So, when I saw Joe looking uncomfortable during our discussion, I had to know what was going on. For all I knew, maybe he really needed to use the restroom. I asked what he thought of the poem and of the discussion. He sat up straight, grimaced at the poem, and then fell back into his seat. He said that he did not expect the poem to end the way it does. It begins with idealistic lovers, and then transitions into a meditation on the destructive nature of time, the deterioration of relationships, and culminates in a haunting line: “You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.”

It still wasn’t clear to me why Joe would look so unsettled. Finally, after a short pause, he said, “Usually when I read poetry I just think of it as pretty words on a page. It doesn’t affect me. But this one makes me feel something.”

I struggled to contain my excitement. Thankfully, I had enough self-control not to push him to say more than he was willing to say. Instead, we continued to talk about how and why the poem could produce such an effect in us. The class ended without any profound words on the power of poetry, and by the grace of God I avoided impersonating Mr. Keating. The poem made him feel something, and that was enough.

While I may not know everything that was going on in Joe’s heart and mind, I can say that he’s been a little more attentive in class since then. Poetry has changed his world a little. And that’s enough.

UPDATE: 9/10/2018

Credit where credit is due: I get many of my ideas for poems and discussion questions from the Saint Constantine School Podcast, Poetry Corner. Like my set up for Poetry Fridays, Timothy Bartel’s episodes follow a simple structure. He provides some biography for the poet and poem, reads the poem, and then does a close reading. Bartel is also a poet in his own right.