Posts Tagged ‘Diana Senechal’

Teaching Tobias Wolff’s “Old School” to Hungarian teens – along with the reasons for rhyme

Thursday, April 16th, 2020

A staircase Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary

Can Hungarian teenagers “get” an American novel set all the way back in the Kennedy Era? For a magical semester, author, educator, and translator Diana Seneschal taught her ninth-grade students at Szolnok’s Varga Katalin Gimnázium a novel by Stanford writer Tobias Wolff – in particular, 2003’s Old School. The upshot: they loved it. She had hauled copies all the way from the U.S. for her 33 students, paid for with an honorarium she had received in the U.S. At the beginning of the semester, Diana wrote me: “In addition, they have already read some Frost, we will read a Hemingway story or two, and I will tell them enough about Ayn Rand that they understand the change in the narrator’s response to her writing and attitudes.”

The reaction from her classes was enthusiastic: “One of the students asked her after the first class, ‘Is this book really for me to keep?'”

“When I told him it was, he said he was happy because he expected to reread it in the future. ‘I think this is my favorite book,’” he said.

The Book Haven met Diana via her translations of the eminent Lithuanian poet (and our mutual friend), Tomas Venclova. So it’s fitting we republish this description of one of the classes, in which Wolff’s fictional students discuss poetry:

The third chapter of Tobias Wolff’s Old School, “Frost,” has the following exchange between the narrator and Purcell (p. 44):

Frost. I don’t even know why I bothered submitting anything, given how he writes. I mean, he’s still using rhyme.

Yeah, so?

Rhyme is bullshit. Rhyme says that everything works out in the end. All harmony and order. When I see a rhyme in a poem, I know I’m being lied to. Go ahead, laugh! It’s true–rhyme’s a completely bankrupt device. It’s just wishful thinking. Nostalgia.

The situation was this: At the beginning of the third chapter, we learn that George Kellogg, the excessively benevolent editor of the Troubadour, has won the first contest and will thus get to meet with Robert Frost. Purcell dismisses the whole enterprise.

Stanford author Tobias Wolff

First I asked the students to explain what Purcell was saying. They did it, point by point. Then I asked what they thought of it. In the first section, one student burst out, “That’s what I think.” A few others seemed to concur. They gave reasons: to rhyme, you have to invent something; rhyme sounds pretty, whereas the world often isn’t; rhyme imitates other rhymes and rhymers. Then I asked whether anyone saw or heard rhyme in a different way. Hands shot up. One student said that good rhyme is hard, so you can admire it. Another said that we are drawn to harmony. Another said that rhyme makes a poem memorable. Another suggested that Purcell was speaking out of jealousy. Then we started talking about how rhyme can draw associations between things.

The other section was more subdued but just as perceptive. Most of them rejected Purcell’s complaint from the start. One student pointed out that you can rhyme with the word “chaos,” in which case you aren’t creating harmony at all. Another said that we rhyme all the time, that rhyme is part of our everyday language. Others talked about how rhyme makes you think.

Author, teacher, translator Senechal

This set us up well for the next lesson, where we discussed the rest of the chapter. When I arrived, I saw students discussing the novel in the hallway.

At the start of the lesson, I played a muffled recording of Frost reading “Mending Wall,” which they had read with me. In the first section, no one seemed to know what was going on until the very end, when one student cried out in Hungarian, “Emlékszem!” (“I remember it!”). In the other section, they recognized it right away. We then talked about the passage in Old School where the headmaster introduces Frost, and the one where the narrator’s understanding of “Mending Wall” changes as he listens to Frost reading it aloud. (This is a fictional Frost, but I can imagine Frost reading like this.)

Then the teacher Mr. Ramsey’s challenge: Aren’t those poetic forms–rhyme, stanzas, etc.–outmoded? Shouldn’t poetry reflect modern consciousness? And Frost’s response (of which this quote, from p. 53, is just a fraction):

Grief, not grievance

I am thinking of Achilles’ grief, he said. That famous, terrible, grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry—sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry.

You could read all the class lessons here. Or read her blog Take Away the Takeaway here. Or go to her TED talk here

NYC techie kids buck trend, take on humanities

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

contrariwiseA group of New York City students have taken on an ambitious venture: a finely produced journal, with 128 pages of dialogues, essays, letters, diaries, poems, roundtable discussions, questions, commentary, and art on philosophical topics ranging from time to tyranny. Here’s the kicker: these aren’t lit kids. They’re science kids at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, & Engineering. Not fuzzies, but techies. We keep hearing how kids have to be engaged with gimcracks and videogames and teaching techniques that include smartphones. It’s cheering to see a few kids buck the trend. This kind of thoughtfulness is the very essence of the humanities, after all. (They do, however, have a website here.)

Here’s how the editors-in-chief, Ron Gunczler and Nicholas Pape describe the genesis of Contrariwise: A Journal of Philosophy in a public school that includes sixth to twelfth grade students:  “Juniors in Political Philosophy wrote continuations of Plato‘s Republic, Book VIII – the section in which Socrates and Adeimantus discuss the decay of the kallipolis, city of philosopher-kings. Professor Senechal was so stunned by the breadth and depth of the responses that she felt they necessitated some form of permanence – a booklet, perhaps? She asked the student body for input, and overwhelming feedback indicated CSS needed a literary journal.”

“We had originally anticipated that Contrariwise would be limited to Political Philosophy. It was then expanded to encompass the whole school, and we now represent the entire student body. We didn’t imagine anyone but parents buying copies, but Contrariwise is going national.” And a good thing, too. The first issue was funded by donations. The next will be funded on sales.


Free advice.

Topics in the inaugural issue include Alba Avoricani‘s “Letter from Folly to Platon Kovalyov,” Khadijah McCarthy’s “John Locke on the Nature of Marriage,” and, taking on Hamlet, Sofia Arnold‘s “Claudius: A Flawed Machiavel.” I was rather intrigued by Megan Almanzar‘s essay on freezing time, “The Key to Immortality,” and Fariha Wadud‘s “The Book of Job’s Greater Message.” And especially fond of Daniela Batista‘s cover art, with a peppy bird on the nose of a dyspeptic buffalo. I’d like to know its title, and the story behind it.

The results of their labor arrived in my mailbox unsolicited. I wondered how I got on the mailing list. I scanned the staff page all the way to the end before I recognized the name … ah … this is also the latest venture of the students’ faculty adviser, Diana Senechal, also a translator of the preeminent Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova. Said Diana on her blog here: “This inaugural issue was five months in the making, and here it is. I am honored to have witnessed my students’ inspiration, care, and wit throughout the project—and thrilled to hold and read the book.”

“Sustok, sustok” … this just might be the language of heaven

Monday, October 8th, 2012


"Above all, love language." (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

Diana Senechal discovered the Book Haven, and we discovered her own blog “on education and other things.”  One of those other things was Tomas Venclova, the subject of a recent post on this site.  She wrote about her first encounter with the Lithuanian poet’s verse:

It was in 1988 that I first encountered Tomas Venclova’s poetry. I was a senior at Yale; he was directing my independent project on Russian poetry translation. Knowing that he was a poet, I wanted to read his work (but didn’t want to tell him this). So one day I made a furtive trip into the library stacks. I opened up a volume of his poetry and read the lines,

Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.
Stogų riba sutampa su aušra.
Byloja sniegas, pritaria ugnis.

What did these words mean? At the time, it didn’t matter. I was drawn into the sounds, or what I thought were the sounds. “Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.”

(Later, I learned that they meant, roughly, “Stop, stop. The sentence disintegrates. The border of rooftops coincides with the dawn. The snow proclaims, the fire repeats.”)

Tomas later invited her to translate his poems – an honor, certainly.  But she has some mixed feelings about the poems she eventually translated for Winter Dialogue.  She writes:

Inspired and inspiring.

“The strength and weakness of my translations was that I tried to preserve the sound, rhythm, and form of the original—or, rather, to recast the poem in comparable sound, rhythm, and form. When it worked, it worked splendidly (for instance, in Tu, Felix Austria,” “Pestel Street,” and “Autumn in Copenhagen”). When it didn’t, it came across as stilted. I don’t regret taking this approach. I do wish, in retrospect, that I had trained my ear to hear the translations in themselves. I always heard the originals behind the translations.”

As a teacher, she worries about the lack of quietness in our world, the lack of silence within us. Natalie Gerber made similar observations about her own university students in upstate New York – I quoted her a bit here.  Diana Senechal’s proposed solution?  The reading, writing and memorization of poetry.  Joseph Brodsky would certainly have endorsed her suggestion – we had to memorize hundreds of lines.

I was so enthusiastic about her recollections that I immediately downloaded MP3 version of Venclova’s album “Winter Dialogue: Chants from the Holy Land, and shall go to bed listening to the Lithuanian language.  After all,  Czesław Miłosz said it just might be the language of heaven.

Why reality holds little love for poets

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

Venclova: "Above all, love language" (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

“To travel through time, a poem must possess a unique intonation and perception.”

I’d never read the late great Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky‘s essay on his friend and fellow poet Tomas Venclova (they also shared a common fate, ejected from the U.S.S.R. a few years apart), but last week I rummaged through the Stanford Libraries to find the Lithuanian poet’s Winter Dialogue so that I could find the Brodsky essay, “Poetry as a Form of Resistance to Reality,” which was included as a foreword to the volume.

It didn’t disappoint:

Venclova’s poetry fits this requirement perfectly. His intonation is striking for its restraint and low-key quality, for the conscientious, intentional monotony that seems to be trying to muffle the far too obvious drama of his existence. In Venclova’s poems the reader will not find the slightest sign of hysteria or the slightest insistence on the uniqueness of the author’s fate, an insistence that logically presumes the reader’s compassion. On the contrary, if his poems postulate anything, it is the awareness of despair as a habitual and exhausting existential norm, which is temporarily overcome not so much by an effort of will as by the simple elapse of time.

I have The Junction: Selected Poems, and look forward to comparing its choices with the total collection of Winter Dialogue.  In any case, one particular poem, which the poet himself discussed in recent correspondence, has become a particular favorite. From “Tu, Felix Austria” (translated by Diana Senechal):

Death is not here, she always looms.
The tones of the bells come closer;
she lives in granite, heat, wine,
and bread, in chestnuts entwined
with acacias. She roams
in dreams. History is part
of death. Galileo, not Hegel, was right:
eppur si muove.  A dense, charred
sphere revolves into night.

What at first seemed real is just a denial
of time. There is no revival
in sleep. Nothing and clouds extend
through the window. Death
is not here. Death is at hand.
She rides around in the cage of the room,
crosses out the next calendar date,
then looks in the mirror and meets
you face to face.

Brodsky continues in the introduction:

Venclova’s song starts at the point where the voice usually breaks, at the end of exhalation, when all inner forces are used up. In this characteristic lies the exceptional moral value of his poetry, because the ethical focus of the poem is in its lyricism rather than in any narrative element. For the lyrical quality of the poem is in effect a sort of utopia attained by the poet, and it conveys to readers their own psychological potential. In the best circumstances, this “good news” provokes a similar internal motion in readers, moves them toward creation of a world on the level suggested by this news. At the least, it liberates them from dependence on the reality they know, making them aware that this reality is not the only one. That achievement is not small, and it is for this reason that reality holds little love for poets.

Tomas Venclova tells the story of how he was deprived of Soviet citizenship on video here.  Curiously, the story involves Algirdas Avižienis, the kindly professor from Kaunas who showed me Czesław Miłosz‘s rural birthplace.