Go Ahead: Blame My Crazy Thinking on Poetry! (Personal Reflections, Pt. VIII)

Golden Treasury

I skipped this “personal reflections” blog entry last week, because of a delightful visit by our four grandchildren over their spring break from Montessori School. So I was out scootering on Berea’s campus, eating ice cream, making breakfast pancakes, playing “Candyland,” and generally horsing around  for a week with Eva (age 7), Oscar (5), Orlando (3), and Markandeya (1 ½).  It was all great fun – unforgettable moments to treasure now and anticipate in the future.

It was all much more rewarding even than fashioning a blog entry, which I also love to do – though not nearly as much as being “Baba” for those four.

In the meantime, I heard from friends who could relate personally to what I had written about my best college professor, Fr. James Griffin. More than one former classmate had similar reminiscences of “Tiffer” (as we used to call him). Others with different backgrounds recalled professors like him who were  demanding, uncompromising , and (above all) eye-opening about literature, images, metaphors, similes, that (in the Tiff’s words) “capture, contain, and communicate” the reality they symbolize.

Many of us were also blessed with teachers of rhetoric who demanded short sentences confined as much as possible to subject-verb-object constraints (SVO! SVO!).

Such exchanges with friends made me realize that I could blame Fr. Griffin for the “Hamilton” fiasco I recounted at the beginning of this series.

Remember that Fr. Griffin had us wearing out our paperback Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of Poetry. We had to read and reread those metaphysical poets, keeping track of the images they used and finding new meaning in those word-pictures each time. Similarly we combed through Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen and others. We learned to interact with their characters and talk about their thoughts, actions and motives as though those fictional women, children, and men were agents of flesh and blood. (I remember falling in love with Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice and Nancy in Oliver Twist.)

Such readings had us constantly looking below the surface for hidden meanings and feeling triumphant and increasingly confident when we discovered them.

And there’s the “Hamilton” connection. My response to the play wasn’t the first time my children objected to my diving below the surface to reach some “outlandish” conclusion. For instance, I remember us arguing about my take on Tom Hanks’ “Captain Philips.” I saw it as a typical self-congratulatory “cavalry to the rescue” story that demeans indigenous people while exalting the U.S. military. (You can read my review here.)

Such “readings” of literature – and life – are guided by questions like these:

  • What’s really being said here?
  • What’s not being said?
  • What’s apparent?
  • What’s not?
  • Whose class interests are being served here – the oppressors’ or that of the oppressed?
  • What’s the ideology behind this presentation?
  • Does it support the status quo or subvert it?
  • How does this relate to history as told by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, or by Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America, or by Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, or of Monica Sjoo’s The Great Cosmic Mother?
  • What can I learn from this about my own life?

That’s the sort of thing I began to learn from Fr. Griffin during my freshman and sophomore years at our seminary in Milton, Massachusetts. Later on, people called it “critical thinking.”  And (to be truthful), the approach sunk in only gradually over the years. I mean it’s not like I suddenly became a critical thinker as a college freshman or sophomore. On the contrary, I was mostly reluctant to challenge received wisdom. Remember I was trying to be an obedient model seminarian who followed all the rules.

(Next week: Learning to Read Even the Bible with Critical Perspective)

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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