a halloween poem
October 29, 2013

The Rodent
with many apologies to Edgar Allan Poe

Once upon a school night dreary, while I graded, weak and weary,
Reading many a quaint and scribbled essay slipped beneath my office door,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my office door.
“‘Tis some sophomore,” I muttered, “tapping at my office door –
Only this and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak November;
And each separate blogging ‘Tuber cast their tumblr on my floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; – vainly I had sought to borrow
From their gifs surcease of sorrow – sorrow for the lost JSTOR –
For the dear, omniscient search box whom the scholars named JSTOR –
Nameless here for evermore.

And the papery, sad, uncertain rustling of each freshman essay
Thrilled me – filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“‘Tis some student there entreating entrance at my office door –
Some late tutee entreating entrance at my office door; –
This it is and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Yes, hello? Come in!” I called, “Your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my office door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you” – here I opened wide the door; –
Darkness there and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no adjunct ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “JSTOR?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “JSTOR!” –
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the office turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something in the ceiling venting;
Let me see, then, what is rending, and this mystery explore –
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; –
‘Tis the heating, nothing more!”

Open here I flung the grating, when, with many a squeak came skating
Down the shaft a snow white squirrel of my college days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of Dean or Trustee, crouched above my office door –
Crouched upon a bust of Schiller just above my office door –
Crouched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ivory squirrel beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance he wore,
“Though thy tail be scarred and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient maven wandering from the campus tour –
Tell me what thy college name is on your ghostly campus tour!”
Quoth the rodent “Nevermore.”

Much I marveled this ungainly rat to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning – little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no learned and tutored being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing squirrel above their office door –
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above their office door,
With such a name as “Nevermore.”

But the squirrel, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered – not a hairy ear he fluttered –
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other things I’ve lost before –
On the morrow he will leave me, as my notes I’ve lost before.”
Then the squirrel said “Nevermore.”

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some untenured Master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his books one thesis bore –
Till the coursework of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘Never – nevermore’.”

But the squirrel still beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned chair in front of rat, and bust and door;
Then, upon the pleather sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous rat of yore –
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous squirrel of yore
Meant in squeaking “Nevermore.”

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the squirrel whose rodent eyes now burned into my scholar’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s pleather lining that the gif-light gloated o’er,
But whose brownish-pleather lining with the gif-light gloating o’er,
It shall light, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the light grew lighter, lumined from an unseen citer,
Some Chicago-styled writer whose words flickered my whole screen o’er.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy Provost lent thee – by these scholars he hath sent thee
Respite – respite and Zoloft, from thy memories of JSTOR;
Quaff, oh quaff your kind Nyquil and forget this lost JSTOR!”
Quoth the rodent “Nevermore.”

“Pundit!” said I, “thing of evil! – pundit still, if squirrel or devil! –
Whether I.T. sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted –
In this school by Horror haunted – tell me truly, I implore –
Is there – is there use in Questia? – tell me – tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the rodent “Nevermore.”

“Pundit!” said I, “thing of evil! – pundit still, if squirrel or devil!
By that Wifi that bends above us – by that Web we both adore –
Tell this prof from huffpo dying if, from all your campus scrying,
she shall clasp a reviewed journal from the archives of JSTOR –
clasp a peer-reviewed citation from the depths of dear JSTOR.”
Quoth the rodent “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign of parting, rat or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting –
“Get thee back into the tempest and that ghostly campus tour!
Leave no white hair as a token of that lie thy snout hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken – quit the bust above my door!
Take thy nose from out my heart, and take thy paws from off my door!”
Quoth the rodent “Nevermore.”

And the squirrel, never quitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
on the pallid bust of Schiller just above my office door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a spambot that is dreaming,
and the gif-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted – nevermore!

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Winter is almost over
March 11, 2012

…and so is my second to last term as an undergraduate.  I finished my final poetry portfolio this afternoon, so those 16 poems, some of which have already been posted, will be steadily making their way to the internet.

Winter Poems

My words are waiting in their fading
ink dresses, lined up on paper park
benches in the springtime of their
long adolescences, waiting for your
wandering eyes, waiting for your
fumbling tongue to let loose all their
consonants and deep-held sighs,
until they sleep with your fingerprints
and wonderings on their skin,
their lips parted in soft silences.

They are every mystery I have
managed to scrawl in dark pen,
every tired beauty I have watched
and wept for. They are every
silent thing I have wished to say,
every warm hand held while
walking, head down, into the wind.

the future freaks me out
September 8, 2011

I must apologize, not to my readers, but to my blog itself (herself? himself? I think my blog is beyond gender).  I had made an unspoken and largely unacknowledged promise to my blog that I would post regularly, and I have been trampling all over that promise this summer.  So I’m sorry, Blog, that I have been neglecting you.  Perhaps I will write you a poem, and then wallow in the intellectual conundrum of whether a poem dedicated to a poetry blog is meta or simply bizarre.

But all that is perhaps beside the point that I wish to actually make in this post.  I want to share what I have been writing instead of poetry.  Over the course of the summer, I have been putting together applications for the Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships; the former would allow me to study English at Oxford for two years, and the latter would allow me to study Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia for one year followed by another year studying Issues in Modern Culture at University College London.  This should hopefully explain why I have been dedicating absurd amounts of time and mental effort to these applications.  So because these applications have been my major writing projects for the past month and because they have to do with my interest in poetry, I thought I’d post them (or rather, just the Marshall essay, since it is more poetic).  Perhaps it will be genuinely interesting for some of you, perhaps it only matters to me.  Be that as it may.  My blog will appreciate the post.

    Kierkegaard once asked of his own work of philosophy, “is this poem perhaps like a proverb, of which no author is known because it seems as if all humanity had composed it?”  Sometimes when I have finished a poem, I ask this of my own work, hoping the answer is yes.  In lines made beautiful by rhythm and imagery and alliteration, I hope that in that beauty there runs a strand humanness – something that defies my own particularities and closes the gap between author and audience, something that goes beyond an everyday poetic pleasantness.  Poetry, for me, is not necessarily about sounding good; it is about saying something utterly and movingly human.

Creative writing in general, then, is in my mind a form of humanistic inquiry, and because of this, I have found my interests in college divided between writing and philosophy. Ever since reading Brave New World in high school, I have been captivated by certain philosophic dilemmas: Should humans allow their natural urges to lead them in decision-making?  Is religion necessary to human existence?  Is the happiest way of living the best way?  These questions and others like them became more than a passing interest after my first year at Carleton; I have purposefully sought out classes that grapple with these very questions and give me the opportunity to read works by thinkers like Aristotle, Hegel, Luther, and Kierkegaard.  When it came time to declare a major, I designed my own – Self, Community, and Interpretation – and it has allowed me to devote my studies to these scholars who address the issue of what it means to be human in a way that transcends the fields of religion, philosophy, and political theory.  I find myself faced with topics varying from the life of Alexander the Great to the role of women in contemporary Islam, but whether it be an ancient philosophy text or a recent book on the sociology of religion, I have come to realize that these seemingly unrelated works are frequently dealing with the same issues.  Just as theologians must clarify their understanding of human nature to come to conclusions about the relationship between God and society, political philosophers must similarly establish a stance on human nature to assert that a certain type of state is best.  These are the sorts of problems that never cease to fascinate me.

This line of inquiry that I find so animating and vital has led me to pursue research beyond my coursework. Carleton awarded me the Hanson Ethics Fellowship, providing me with a stipend to do independent summer research.  Concerned by the deconstruction of ethical frameworks undertaken by postmodern scholars, I studied the relationship between personal identity and ethical authority.  In the work of Kierkegaard and Sartre, I was shown the despair of individuals left stranded without a moral compass, and in the writings of late 20th and early 21st century religious scholars, I found a solution to this moral floundering through models of religious community better suited to our liberal democratic age.  And I, being a student of both the political and the religious, offered my own solution (with great trepidation): an empowerment of the democratic state as an ethical guide for individuals seeking direction.

As enthralling as I find my coursework and research, the craft of writing itself is never far from my thoughts, and in fact, my work in college has proven to me that attention to the means of articulating an idea is just as important as attention to the idea itself, for there is always more than one medium through which to communicate a thought. As a writing tutor, I constantly advise other students to think of meaningful ways to get their points across; I ask them if descriptions of concrete examples might support their conclusions more robustly than an abstract argument.  When organizing a publication for the organization I help to run, Dialogue on Education at Carleton, my co-editor and I encouraged our peers to share their views on the college’s approach to education not through academic essays but through poems, anecdotes, personal reflections, and any other medium that would powerfully convey their ideas to the Carleton community.  Even in my sophomore writing portfolio, I made a point of including a short story that I believed exemplified all the criteria of a successful academic essay, and in the poems that I write while studying philosophy, I find that the intellectual exploration they permit is often just as fruitful as outlining an academic research paper.

My courses, too, have shown me that literature has great philosophic potential. In a political philosophy class, my professor included Shakespeare on the syllabus; in the work of Paul Tillich, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, whole chapters are dedicated to discussions of the existentialist literary movement; and in a class on Russian literature, I discovered that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are philosophers as much as they are novelists. When choosing a topic for my senior comprehensive thesis, I have found myself compelled by philosophy in literature, and I hope to research existentialist theology not alone but in conjunction with the literature that is in dialogue with it, particularly the work of T.S. Eliot.  Being able to incorporate literature into my major while also continuing to take creative writing workshops has for me been a personal exemplification of the dual nature of poetry.  It is beautiful in itself, in its rhythms and lyricism, and the construction of a poem is truly a craft that demands skill and patience.  But there is a beauty, too, in what is said that goes beyond how it is written, beauty that is present in even the most poorly written philosophy paper.  The task, then, of the poet – that is to say, my task – is to be both a philosopher and a wordsmith, conveying the beauty and power of an idea through a medium that can, through its own power, instill that idea with even more meaning and force.

Andrea Gibson and Slam Poetry
April 13, 2011

In case you didn’t know, we are currently in the midst of National Poetry Month.  On my own college campus, this has come to be overshadowed by the fact that it is also Carleton’s Pride Month, and though there is no shortage of poetry-related events on campus, the Gender and Sexuality Center is proving to be tough competition in the struggle for student support and recognition.

An event that I recently attended was in the spirit of both things we at Carleton are honoring this April.  Andrea Gibson, an internationally acclaimed slam poet, performed at the Cave, Carleton’s own student-run pub.  The place was packed.  Standing-room-only packed.  People-listened-from-outside packed.  You get the picture.  I suppose that when you tell a campus full of LGBTQ/poetry enthused/politically concerned students that the 2008 winner of the women’s world poetry slam is coming to campus and that her work deals with themes that “deconstruct gender norms, sexuality, class, patriarchy, and white supremest capitalist culture,” you can expect that the hearts of many students on campus will skip several beats from the sheer prospect of the joy they know will accompany her performance.  (Here‘s her bio, in case that quote sparked your interest.)

The hype is well-deserved.  Of all the events I have been to during my time in college, Gibson’s slam performance is my favorite, without question (I say this as both a poet and a budding member of the LGBTQ community).  Her poems were shockingly personal, a way of approaching poetry that I have yet to master/give in to, and as you would expect from a professional poet, her willingness to reveal to us her deepest emotions and private experiences is moving, inspiring, so many other -ings that I need not list.  But instead of asking you to take my word for it, I’ll let Andrea speak for herself:

She says that “A doctor once told me I feel too much,” and her feeling is contagious.  When she smiled as she spoke certain words, I wanted to laugh, and when she held her hands out to the audience and seemed to cry and beg for us to listen, I listened hard, with my whole being.

It’s poetry like hers that makes me want to write poetry – to write it better and read it louder.  My own poetry seems feeble next to hers, or perhaps just meeker and self-aware and quiet, so I hope that in exposing whatever readership I might have to Gibson’s work, I haven’t lost you all to her words.

And you can look forward to another post about famous slam poets in the near future.  Tomorrow, Anis Mojgani and Derrick Brown will be performing on campus, and I have high expectations…