Thursday, September 22, 2011

Classes Underway + End-of-Summer Poems: Basho & John Ashbery

September is nearly over, the quarter charges forward, my classes have begun.  This fall I am teaching two fiction classes, one undergraduate, the other a graduate workshop. The undergraduate course, "The Theory and Practice of Fiction," is a required course for all the fiction majors and minors, and runs into the winter quarter's midpoint, or early February, making it one of the rare semester-long classes in the university's undergraduate curriculum.  (All three major/minor required tracks, poetry, fiction and nonfiction, have this course.) As part of the class students read short stories by established writers (this year ranging from Anton Chekhov and Flannery O'Connor to Jhumpa Lahiri and ZZ Packer) and (practical) theoretical texts (including Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer) on fiction writing, and produce three draft short stories (as well as in-class reports, critical papers and commentary), which they'll revise and submit by the end of the long-course, at which point I guide them to my colleague who will lead through the writing of a novella, which they'll complete by next June.  They are a very sharp, talented group, and I'm greatly looking forward to working with them. I also have a wonderful MFA student who is conducting a practicum this quarter, and will be joining me as a teaching assistant.

The graduate course is the standard fiction workshop for all MA/MFA students, and it too brims with smart, skilled writers.  Earlier this year, at Reggie H.'s urging, I read Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel, A Visiting from the Goon Squad (Knopf, 2010), and among the many things about this outstanding work that struck me, I realized it might offer another way of thinking about negotiating the relationship between writing short stories and novels, which the graduate students often are thinking about. Egan's consists of chapters that could work as free-standing short stories, and she has in fact said that she wrote two of them first, then thought about how to relate them to each other, which produced the inventive novel that resulted. In addition to Egan's book, with which we'll be concluding the class, I've assigned chapters from works that comprise interrelated short stories, novellas, or near-autonomous story-like texts that also have been termed, by the authors themselves, critics or readers novels. These include texts by Rebecca Barry, Ray Bradbury, Sandra Cisneros, J. M. Coetzee, David Mitchell, Nami Mun, Gloria Naylor, Tim O'Brien, and W. G. Sebald. I'm excited about the potential discussions to arise out of these works, as well as about the work the students will be submitting.

This year I have several graduate literature students I'm working with, several graduate fiction students, and one honors creative writer, who is writing a novel to submit as his thesis.  A lot of reading, and this is only one aspect of my job, but one I'm definitely glad about so far!


Today is the last day of summer. Could I have written that more prosaicly? What about: today summer's over. There's a touch of poetry there. Here, however, are two great poems elegizing summer's end. One by one of the greatest poets of concision, the Edo-era master of haiku no renga and other forms, Basho Matsuo (松尾 芭蕉, 1644-1694), the other by one of the most important living poets writing in English, American poet John Ashbery (1927-). Its opening sentence enacts what it describes, and is one of my favorites among all his poems. Enjoy!

A statue of Matsuo in Hiraizumi, Iwate (from Wikipedia)
[Farewell, my old fan]

by Basho

Farewell, my old fan.
Having scribbled on it,
What could I do but tear it
At the end of summer?



by John Ashbery

There is that sound like the wind
Forgetting in the branches that means something
Nobody can translate. And there is the sobering “later on,”
When you consider what a thing meant, and put it down.

For the time being the shadow is ample
And hardly seen, divided among the twigs of a tree,
The trees of a forest, just as life is divided up
Between you and me, and among all the others out there.

And the thinning-out phase follows
The period of reflection. And suddenly, to be dying
Is not a little or mean or cheap thing,
Only wearying, the heat unbearable,

And also the little mindless constructions put upon
Our fantasies of what we did: summer, the ball of pine needles,
The loose fates serving our acts, with token smiles,
Carrying out their instructions too accurately—

Too late to cancel them now—and winter, the twitter
Of cold stars at the pane, that describes with broad gestures
That state of being that is not so big after all.
Summer involves going down as a steep flight of steps

To a narrow ledge over the water. Is this it, then,
This iron comfort, these reasonable taboos,
Or did you mean it when you stopped? And the face
Resembles yours, the one reflected in the water.

Copyright © John Ashbery, from The Double Dream of Spring, New York: Dutton, 1970, 2011. All rights reserved.

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