Why the Leaden Echo isn’t Enough

Gerard Manley Hopkins can be seen as a poet of despair. In 1991, the Russian composer, Leonid Desyatnikov adapted his poem, “The Leaden Echo,” to music. He assigns a male countertenor the role of the speaker, and the boy’s haunting voice captures the essence of the maiden chorus.

Counter to the rhythm of the music, the repetition of “despair” fades to silence. We are left with nothing but silence and our own thoughts. Desyatnikov understands “The Leaden Echo” very well, but there is one important divergence between Desyatnikov and Hopkins himself. Wait one beat, then two, and nothing happens. There is no airy aspiration pleading with us to turn from our dark thoughts. There is no “Golden Echo” to redound from the walls of the well, saying “Spare!”

Click on image to view Margaret Tait’s short film. Runtime: 6.27

Stopping with “The Leaden Echo” would be like only reading the Inferno and then telling Dante and Virgil that we don’t want to join them any further on the journey. Margaret Tait takes a very different approach to the echo poems. She too includes “The Leaden Echo” with its fears that there is nothing to keep beauty back, that there is nothing to stave off age and wrinkles. She too is quick to despair. But then, the camera pans upward with the still motion of the trees and there is the important echo: “Spare!” Then, many of the same images are repeated, but in a new light, that there is a place where everything that is called fair can remain.

Desyatnikov has privileged one echo to the exclusion of the other, while Tait shows us that each echo needs the other. “The Leaden Echo” contains the seed of what is good in “The Golden Echo.” It is good to value beauty, especially human beauty. It is good to sorrow at the loss of beauty. “The Golden Echo,” in turn, takes what is good in “The Leaden Echo” and magnifies it. Yes beauty is good, the echo suggests, so we should give it back to “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.” Desyatnikov lets one pole stand on its own, but Hopkins presents the contraries together.

There’s something attractive in meditating on “The Leaden Echo” for too long. Maybe that’s why in some ways, Desyatnikov’s interpretation is more alluring than Tait’s. Ill and lonely in Ireland, Hopkins knew this echo intimately. Rarely published, he prayed the lord of life to send his roots rain. His eyes were dimming from pouring over Latin papers rather than delighting in the bright plumage of birds in flight. Even his final poem, “To RB,” moves towards offering an apology:

O then if in my lagging lines you miss
The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,
My winter world, that scarcely breathes that bliss
Now, yields you, with some sighs, our explanation.

And yet, in his final moment, his last word was not the dangerously mellifluous repetition of despair, but “I am happy, so happy.” In his doubts and plaguing sense of artistic sterility, he gave beauty back to “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.” He is not a poet of despair, but a poet of hope and joy.


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3 Reasons Why You Should Read Difficult Poems

Okay, if you have a newborn like me, maybe difficult poems aren’t what you want to look at right now. So today’s rerun is for all those who are ready to get back into reading. For the rest of you who are in the same boat as me, I’m gaining a new appreciation for nursery rhymes. Oh and Milne’s poems are great.

Last time we looked at a possible way to start reading poetry. I suggested maybe choosing poems that seem more accessible, but what about the ones that get labeled inaccessible? Today we’re going to think about difficult poems and why they’re important.


So you’ve got a poem in front of you. You’ve been staring at it so long that your hand is starting to cramp from holding the page down. It starts off in a dead language, and then when you get some English, the syntax is so distorted that it might as well not be. Nouns are verbing and verbs are nouning and then words that you’re pretty sure aren’t English are treated like they are. And then! Then! Odysseus shows up or Aeneas or Orpheus and has the moxie to say something as though you’ve met him before and know all about his background.

What are you supposed to do with THAT?

Let go of the page, take a break and think about it this way: Difficult poems are an invitation. But to what?

A relationship.

Here are a few different ways this pans out.

The Rallentando Effect


We read everything so quickly now, from tweets to listicles to headlines. We’re all pretty adept at scanning text for information. But poetry isn’t about information.

Difficult poems remind us of this when they slow us down. They can’t be reduced to information because the person who wrote them can’t and you as the reader can’t either.

In his essay, On Difficulty, George Steiner borrows an idea from music theory and applies it to poems that slow us down:

The underlying manoeuvre is one of rallentando. We are not meant to understand easily and quickly. Immediate purchase is denied us. The text yields its force and singularity of being only gradually. In certain fascinating cases, our understanding, however strenuously won, is to remain provisional. There is to be an undecidability at the heart, at what Coleridge called the inner penetralium of the poem.

So next time you’re puzzled by a poem that may mean you’re on the right track. Some poems can’t be understood on the first reading, let alone completely mined.

The Poet Respects You

When accused of writing difficult poetry, the English poet, Geoffrey Hill, responded that it all boiled down to respecting the reader:

In my view, difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings. So much of the populist poetry of today treats people as if they were fools. And that particular aspect, and the aspect of the forgetting of a tradition, go together.

A Modest Proposal 1729 Cover

Not actual endorsement of baby eating

So when Odysseus or Aeneas show up, it’s actually a good sign that the poet respects you. Or in the world of prose, as crazy as it sounds, when Jonathan Swift in “A Modest Proposal” tries to convince you to cook and eat Irish babies, that’s actually a wonderful sign that he respects you so much to trust that you would never do such a thing.

Allusions and irony and satire and all the things authors do to add layers to their writing increase intimacy with the reader through mutual respect.


The Nature of Poetry

It could be that the poem is slowing you down to focus on something important. Or it could be that the poet is showing you respect as the reader. At bottom, it could be a unique aspect of poetry that necessarily requires re-readings beyond the choice of the author to respect the reader. As William Stafford put it “poetry is language at its most intense and potentially fulfilling.”

This blog post needs just one reading. Maybe it just needs to be skimmed. A novel can be read once a year every year for life (LOTR for instance) but you can still say you’ve read it if only once as a teenager. But if you’ve read a poem only once then you haven’t really read it. Poems require multiple readings because the language is so dense, each word is doing so much. Novels and short stories, especially the good ones, can share in this same experience, but it’s a principal feature of poetry.  That’s the mystery of literature. Each re-reading brings out something new. Just maybe then, when you come across a difficult poem, that’s an invitation to come back to it again and again as little things about it start flaring up in front of you.

It’s like looking at the night sky. Just glance at it and go back into to the lamplit room and maybe you’ll have the impression that the sky is overcast. But stay out there and wait for your eyes to adjust and just maybe you’ll see a few more stars and the faint sliver of the moon.

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Multicultural Books Matter

Here’s another rerun post everybody! Either I’m not sleeping and Eleanor won’t stop crying, or she’s very very late. Either way, I’m sure children’s books have become a part of our daily life, so let’s think about why multicultural books matter:

Over at Scribbles on the Wall, Mariana Llanos has a great post about why we need more diversity in children’s literature. I don’t know much about that genre [UPDATE: Ha! this was so long before we knew about Eleanor coming into our lives.], but I know that this is something we struggle with when transforming literature courses to be more inclusive.

For this campaign, I would like to offer an interest approach I developed for a difference, power, and discrimination course. It was designed to allow students to visualize and deconstruct their own assumptions. As a formative assessment, it can also give us a baseline of how students think about literature.

First Day Interest Approach: What is Literature?

Have students take out a sheet of paper and write down the following three things: their definition of literature, two qualities/key words from that definition, and an example with the author. Explain that the definition won’t be collected or shared so that they will have total freedom in writing it.

Offer two possible ways to go about finishing this: 1) start with a definition, derive two qualities from it, and offer an example that epitomizes those qualities, or 2) start with the example, brainstorm the qualities based on the example, and then write a definition based on those qualities.

Give students five minutes to complete this. Then pull up the literary movements timeline below on a projector.

In many ways, this is an attractive and useful representation of literary movements, but it’s exclusive focus on European or American authors highlights an underlying bias in the canon.

As you slowly move down the timeline instruct students to stop you if their example comes up. When stopped, ask those students who their example was. Then ask why they think their example was included on the timeline (they can draw on their definition or key terms if they wish). After scrolling through the timeline, ask students who haven’t had a chance to speak yet to share their examples. Ask them why they think their examples were not included on this timeline.

Depending on the responses, open up a discussion about the timeline in general. Point out that it is a general literature timeline and not limited to the English language (for instance, it includes Russian and French writers).

Possible discussion questions:

  • Why do you think this timeline starts with Beowulf? What would you start it with?
  • Are there any movements that you would add? Why do you think Chinua Achebe isn’t on here? Where are the Harlem Renaissance poets? What about the magical realists?
  • What does this timeline suggest about its creator’s view of literature?

Context set (pass out syllabus): We began by looking at our own instinctive views of literature. Then we compared it to a timeline developed by the Literature Network as a representative of the traditional view of the canon. In this class, we’re going to push back against these assumptions about literature and the makeup of the canon. We’re going to explore voices that might not be included in timelines like this, and consciously examine how they stretch our own understanding of literature.

The opening writing prompt might be something to revisit at the end of the course to see if our definition of literature changes or stays the same

Why care about this? Because it is so easy to see others through a single story, but by reading novels, we can expand our understanding of persons and places. As Chimamanda Adichie put it, “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

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Literary Pilgrimage to Andalusia Farm

Operation Eleanor either hasn’t commenced yet or we’re in the in the hospital having her right now. With the delay, I’m extending our reruns with this post about our pilgrimage to Flannery O’Connor’s home last year. There will be a few more posts like this during March, and then we’ll have a new post on medievalism late in the month.

Spring is a time for pilgrimages. Along with the insects, shoots, and flowers, we’re waking up. We can leave our solitary heated rooms and travel together to the homes of beloved authors. It is a time, to breathe the same sweet air of past generations, like Gerard Manley Hopkins did:

Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace.

As moderns, we’ve lost this ritual. We don’t want to be woken up. We prefer the lethargy of shaded rooms and the pseudo-pilgrimages of screens. When T. S. Eliot writes that “April is the cruelest month,” he is subverting Chaucer’s famous line from the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales: “Whan that april with his shoures soote / The droghte of march hath perced to the roote.” Instead of traveling to Canterbury in honor of Thomas Becket, we long for the winter that “kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow.”

But we don’t have to be surprised by summer. In the spirit of Chaucer’s pilgrims, I left the “unreal city” and journeyed to Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia Farm in Milledgeville. I’m not a city person, so I felt myself relaxing as Atlanta traffic gave way to dairy farms and tractor dealers. We had some O’Connorish podcasts planned, but listening to “A Good Man is Hard to Find” just didn’t seem quite right on a road trip. So instead we looked for a Southern Gothic playlist:

When we got to the house, I was excited to walk up these same steps.

Past the spacious covered porch on the left is Flannery’s bedroom. As someone with lupus, she would need to be on the first floor, but I’m still amazed she made it up the steep steps in the front.


Something about the room with its old bed and airy windows set in cracked walls reminded me of “The Enduring Chill”:

Holding onto the banister, he pulled himself up the steep stairs, across the landing and then up the shorter second flight and into his room, a large open airy room with faded blue rug and white curtains freshly put up for his arrival. He looked at nothing but fell face down on his own bed. It was a narrow antique bed with a high ornamental headboard on which was carved a garlanded basket overflowing with wooden fruit.

…he lay for some time staring at the water stains on the gray walls. Descending from the top molding, long icicle shapes had been etched by leaks and, directly over his bed on the ceiling, another leak had made a fierce bird with spread wings.

20160306_175022151_iOSNext is the dining room. Seeing a copy of Flannery’s self-portrait in person, I couldn’t help thinking that this should have been the commemorative stamp. I also kept telling myself that the tchotchkes were Regina’s (Flannery’s mother) but I’m not so sure.

20160306_180536978_iOSWe found this treasure in the laundry room. I asked and it seems that this little Therese portrait is original to the house. It might seem strange at first to associate our image of O’Connor’s dark stories with a Carmelite nun, but there is a kinship between the two brilliant writers with their short painful lives.

O’Connor describes her reaction to seeing a portrait of Therese in The Habit of Being:

I have just read a very funny book by a priest named Fr. Robo—on St. Theresa of Lisieux…. He has managed (by some not entirely crooked means) to get hold of a photograph of her that the Carmelites have not ‘touched up’ which shows her to be a round-faced, determined, rather comical-looking girl. He does away with all the roses, little flowers, and other icing. The book has greatly increased my devotion to her.

Outside, the peacocks and peahens may not be wandering the grounds anymore, but they can still have the last word from their perch.

The Hill house looks like something out of an O’Connor story. This 19th century plantation cottage was the first house on the property.


Can’t you just see Mr. Shiftlet walking up to it?

The old woman and her daughter were sitting on their porch when Mr. Shiftlet came up their road for the first time. The old woman slid to the edge of her chair and leaned forward, shading her eyes from the piercing sunset with her hand. The daughter could not see far in front of her and continued to play with her fingers. Although the old woman lived in this desolate spot with only her daughter and she had never seen Mr. Shiftlet before, she could tell, even from a distance, that he was a tramp and no one to be afraid of.

We ended our pilgrimage with the last plot of ground where Flannery ended.


In the last few minutes, I kept thinking how different this felt from our pilgrimage to Faulkner’s Rowan Oak. I’m still not sure why, but I think there’s something to how these two “postage stamps of soil” influenced and were influenced by the personalities of the authors.

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There is a Place: Mourning with Poets

Today is the 2nd anniversary of Leonard Nimoy’s death. Here’s the post I wrote when I first heard about his passing, posted on February 27, 2015. I remember I was in office hours for a technical writing class, and I remember that it was best that no students showed up.

David Marcus –  Lieutenant Saavik was right: You never have faced death.

Kirk –  No. Not like this. I haven’t faced death. I’ve cheated death. I’ve tricked my way out of death and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity. I know nothing.

Marcus –  You knew enough to tell Saavik that how we face death is at least as important as how we face life.

Kirk –  Just words.

We now are having to face death. I don’t want to inflate a person I never actually knew, but I feel a strange sense of loss after hearing of Leonard Nimoy’s passing. I’m reminded of when I first heard of Joey Ramone’s cancer. Or watching John Paul II slowly decrease and die. Foundational figures from my childhood are disappearing. I did not expect Spock to die again.

When my godmother passed, I was researching Tennyson’s great elegy, In Memoriam. That day I decided to put aside my research and take up the poem the same way Victoria did, as a tool for mourning. I only had a few cantos on hand at the time and was taken in by the last lines of Canto 121, Sad Hesper o’er the buried sun:

Sweet Hesper-Phosphor, double name
For what is one, the first, the last,
Thou, like my present and my past,
Thy place is changed; thou art the same.

Phosphor and Hesper are the respective names for the morning and evening star. We know that there is only one celestial body, the planet Venus, but they appear different in the sky as the day passes. I was comforted to think that her place has changed but she is the same.

But that change in place is still drastic. The loss is still real. What can we know about this place? Maybe we can know that Hesper is still Phosphor, but that doesn’t stop the sun from setting. Hopkins tells us more in his poem, “The Golden Echo:”

There ís one, yes I have one (Hush there!);
Only not within seeing of the sun,
Not within the singeing of the strong sun,
Tall sun’s tingeing, or treacherous the tainting of the earth’s air,
Somewhere elsewhere there is ah well where! one,
Oné. Yes I can tell such a key, I do know such a place,
Where whatever’s prized and passes of us
Never fleets móre, fastened with the tenderest truth
To its own best being and its loveliness of youth: it is an everlastingness of, O it is an all youth!

Reading can be a constant reminder of death and loss. It can be a hard truth sometimes that these writers and artists we love died before we discovered them. It can remind us of the people we have lost. But there is a place.

hopkins memorialIn St. Aloysius Church in Oxford, there is a place, a holy water font dedicated to the memory of a Father Gerard. It can be heartbreaking to see such familiarity in the name. He was just Father Gerard, and the Paravicini family loved him enough to make a memorial for him. With its veined marble, it feels so symbolic of his poems because he was “of reality the rarest veined unraveller” as he wrote of Scotus. At the same time, it is beautiful and yet ultimately exists to welcome us with the refreshing wisp of blessed water hidden inside. It’s his well that echoes back to us “Spare” as it gives beauty back.

It’s all more than just words. It is how we face death.

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Filed under Consolation, In Memoriam, Poetry

What Novels Teach Us

With our new daughter coming (or here, who knows what’s happening, that’s why we’re in reruns [yes I know that’s a run-on, give me a break, Eleanor won’t stop crying]), I’ve been thinking a lot about why novels are important and how I should introduce her to reading. Okay, so maybe our newborn isn’t ready for a letter from my favorite monk who died before she was born. But you might be:

Victorian ShelfieThere is so much to recommend novel reading. Not only are novels perhaps the most delightful invention ever made, but they can improve our capacity for empathy and understanding of the minds and emotions of others. Reading can even be useful for managers who want to improve their ability to think ambiculturally.

But even with all that, I think the most compelling defense of novels that I have ever come across was in the final letter of a monk to his community. You can read the letter in its context here and my post on his passing here.

March 12, 2015

Dear Abbot Gregory and Confreres,

It seems fairly obvious to me that my earthly days are reaching their conclusion. As this comes to be, I would like to say a profound Thank You! to God for life, faith, you my confreres, my family, vocation and friends.

I loved my childhood days in Idaho and have loved my life at Mount Angel over these 63 years. I thank all of you who have been a part of my life at Mount Angel. The monastic life is a wonderful charism in the Church and has resonated well with my life: community, silence, choir, obedience and reading—all growing out of the Liturgy. I have loved the teaching charism in the Seminary. Teaching those who will carry on the faith is a privilege for which I am very grateful.

Some of you may have heard of my plan of life for all of us: Jesus Christ, Church, Liturgy, and novels. (Novels teach us the mystery of the human family—our brothers and sisters on their own journey to the glory of God.)

And so, my brothers, I thank you for the privilege of spending my life in this Monastery with you. Please pray for me and know that I will be praying for you.

In the Lord and Saint Benedict,

Father Paschal

“Novels teach us the mystery of the human family.” Think on that for a moment. All the other reasons to read novels flow from it. We increase in empathy because the more we gaze upon this mystery, the more we see that we share in the same frailty, that we’re the same family. We become ambicultural because all cultures are part of this mystery. This is not a shroud separating us from understanding, but a bottomless well that we can continually look through and discover something new. Have you ever had those moments when you finished a novel and you just had to sit for a moment and let the remembered plot fill your mind and your senses. You weren’t thinking deeply or analytically about it, but you also weren’t ready for the next novel. You were just being with the text. That was when you entered into the mystery of the human family.

I think I’ll stop there before I start feeling like we need another Kirk hug.

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Are Our Souls Compasses?

Don’t worry! My wife is not actually three thousand miles away. This is a rerun post. We’ve either had a baby, or are in labor, or are so close to labor that we’re getting everything together that we need.

This post about poetry and marriage is perfect for Valentine’s day though. Especially since this might just be our last one before Operation Eleanor commences.

So no comments about how I’m a terrible person for leaving my pregnant wife in Oregon. We are both in Georgia.

My wife is three thousand miles away. She is in Oregon finishing up some work and I’ll be picking her up at the airport in a few more weeks with the same excitement of our first date.

Click for SourceWhen we first embarked on this foolish idea of living in different states as I started my work at Emory and she trained her replacement, I had thought of John Donne’s poem, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” I had almost thought of sending it to her with the same intent of consolation. In the poem, the speaker uses a conceit, an elaborate metaphor that is sustained throughout, to understand the effects of absence. In this conceit, the souls of the lovers are one, like the legs of a compass, which are spatially apart but linked by the same handle and hinge:

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

A compass may be a material thing, but this is a disembodied view of love. The soul is given precedence without a body. Other people are “laity” before the “love so much refined” of the speaker and his beloved. Mourning, the pains of the heart, are forbidden before the enlightenment of the soul.

I’m glad that that isn’t the poem I wrote down for her.

As I’m counting down the days until her plane leaves for Georgia, I’m experiencing the mourning that Donne forbids. I miss most the little things, her daily presence. Jack Gilbert describes this in Highlights and Interstices:

We think of lifetimes as mostly the exceptional
and sorrows. Marriage we remember as the children,
vacations, and emergencies. The uncommon parts.
But the best is often when nothing is happening.
The way a mother picks up the child almost without
noticing and carries her across Waller Street
while talking with the other woman. What if she
could keep all of that? Our lives happen between
the memorable. I have lost two thousand habitual
breakfasts with Michiko. What I miss most about
her is that commonplace I can no longer remember.

Click for Source

Breakfast Time by Hanna Pauli

“Our lives happen between / the memorable.” All the action of love and familiarity is hidden in the enjambed line. The “two thousand habitual breakfasts,” the whole length of Waller Street, everything. Everything in a space between lines. An absence smaller than the gap between the legs of a compass but deeply felt.

Perhaps this makes me a “dull sublunary lover” but I miss my habitual breakfasts with her most.

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Operation Eleanor


You may have noticed the numbers ticking down on the right over an ultrasound picture. Sometimes we look over at the countdown with excitement. And other times we avoid previewing posts because we don’t want to be reminded how little time we have left to get everything together.

That countdown means we’re very close to the commencement of Operation Eleanor. And that means I’m going to take a little break from the blog.

No worries, I’m not going completely silent. No, we’re going to enter into the time-honored tradition of reruns. That’s right, along with 30 Rock and Star Trek and BtVS, you will also be able to binge some Golden Echo.

The posts will start next week, and right now are planned into early March because, let’s face it, I probably won’t be sleeping much during that time, and I don’t want to inflict that kind of babbling on you.

Until we start our regularly scheduled programming (perhaps with some Eleanor pictures!), I have something you can help me out with.

Below is a board where we’re gathering books that we want Eleanor to grow up with, and we would like suggestions. What are the essentials? What do you wish you had known about from the beginning? What traumatized you as a kid, making you wish you had never read it?


Filed under Education, Operation Eleanor