Poe faced in Poland
Poe faced in Poland
On the train in 2000 from Keleti Pályaudvar, the Eastern railway station in Budapest, to Warsaw in Poland where I`d accepted a post teaching English language and British History in English, I found myself in a railway carriage with a couple I remembered meeting before on the same journey but under different circumstances. I asked them what kind of books they liked to read and I was slightly taken aback to hear that the woman liked the grande guignol of Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849). It was what reminded me that we had met before. I didn`t let on and cooly I said I liked his poetry and especially Poe`s The Raven (1845). Dark romantic verses about lost love for one beyond the veil, a pathos reflected in the pining refrain from the beak of the poet`s tame bird - `Nevermore` will he see her. But, I said, I preferred William Shakespeare (1564-1616) to Poe.
The teaching of poetry is a useful tool for the language student to receive because it requires rhythm, rhyme, meter, and conciseness of purpose. Careful analysis of English speech by structuralists has shown that English speech is recognizable as a form of iambic pentameter; the form chosen by Shakespeare - acknowledged as one of the world`s greatest ever playwrights - as the clearest expression (though now archaic) of the pattern of spoken English. To find students who`re interested in poetry is, consequently, a dream for any English language teacher. It makes the task enjoyable and, by means of careful instruction, good English can be the result.
`Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never die but once.` (Julius Caesar II, ii, 32-37)
So it may be said of the student who is brave enough to try to write poems in another language. The immortal line - like the immortal bard - is eternal. What Shakespeare means here is `the pen is mightier than the sword`* and his works will live forever (unlike the cowards who don`t want life, the living, or even for the living to live) - although the character (Caesar) here accepts the fact of his own mortality because that`s what he`s been taught (like most of us before Christ`s redeeming of us) to believe. The student who tries to learn through the medium of poetic expression is, therefore, picking up the pen and not the sword as a defence against the evil that men do. This is valiant: but is it brave? It is bravery to live and not to conceive of dying - as Shakespeare actually does here. For him, cowards and the valiant are fools alike; all are cowards until they`re valiant: and then they`re dead. This is why the poet is immortal and those who espouse the pen are brave; to embrace life and the living of it.
I was remembering that, on that previous occasion on the train to Warsaw, I`d been invited into the home of my fellow travellers as an enthusiast who enjoyed the tales of Poe. I talked with them briefly again and they didn`t seem to remember me; so I was about to remind them of how I`d been their guest when I decided to ask a question instead: `Do you mind if I espouse some other kind of fiction?` The woman readily assented and I outlined my tale. The Prussian method of learning by rote is the one employed in Eastern Europe generally and I explained that I was on my way to Lębork Gimnazium to try to break the mould. I recalled how teachers at my school in Bridlington`s Moorfield at the North East coastal resort of Yorkshire would make us redo constantly as a way of reinforcing our self notions of worthlessness.
`But the principle applies also to the megastar,` I told my listener as I warmed to my newly self-imposed role of entertaining raconteur. `Britney Spears` Blackout (2007) album was once recorded where the Al-Jazeera International Academy now does its English language teaching business in Saudi Arabia`s Riyadh (`I won`t teach there for another decade` I mysteriously added), and it was performed by her on the rooftop of the Riyadh Gallery along Olaya Street many years before Britney Spears Mk. II, VII, XXVII (or whenever) was thought of. This is what is meant by `learning by repetition`, I announced to my interlocutor: `The artist and the performer of Blackout 2007 has repeated her efforts with all the angst and pressures attendant upon her first recording. But it is not self plagiarism,` I explicated in 19th Century styl-ee, `but slavery; by those who would have the artist repeat herself and her blackouts ad infinitum for the sake of obtaining filthy lucre for themselves. That Britney Spears is able to recognize the problem is clear from the title of the album Blackout,` I concluded, `and remembering is the key to her newest recording Circus (2008), which means the media circus that surrounds her and keeps her from true knowledge of herself while also being a euphemism for a spyring that, amongst the nations of the world, is known as `the circus`; a ring of evil that prevents those who are under its scrutiny from escaping its enslaving.`
I went on to explain that, although I had a penchant for the Dark Romance of Poe, I liked to write science fiction - and to teach it (I often employ the time-travel tale as a medium that allows students to play with tense). My audience didn`t fully comprehend me (or so I thought) and so I told them I wrote `Scientific Romance`, which is what scifi was termed earlier in its ascendancy as a genre. In `- All You Zombies -` (1944) by Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988), for example, the protagonist travels throughout time to discover that he is everyone:
`You aren’t really there at all. There isn’t anybody but me - Jane - here alone in the dark. I miss you dreadfully!`
`A revelation,` I expounded in the manner of Poe, `which tells us everything we need to know about the dungeons we inhabit and call schools. Who among us is being abused and murdered in the past or the future because of the gender we currently have? Are we being victimized for being hermaphroditic? For being female once, or for being male once? Is it the truth that we are both male and female (as it says in the Bible: Genesis 1:27: `Male and female He created them both`) and this is the reason for Heinlein`s character`s lament? Our true selves have been sundered by the evil - like a couple forced to divorce by evil circumstances manufactured by the evil themselves. It`s the first step to self-awareness and forthcoming self-hood. The knowledge that one`s sexuality is also other allows one to perceive that one`s dreams as a woman are memories and not deviations. It opens the window on genuine perceptions that can belie the sex-gap. If I`m a woman somewhen, I can even be My Wife too; or anyone in the past, present or future: the boundaries are gone and all is possible.`
Here are some Heinleinian rules of thumb composed by `Jane` which I recommend be given to the budding student of English tense and any would-be time-travel story writer:
`Never Do Yesterday What Should Be Done Tomorrow.
If at Last You Do Succeed, Never Try Again.
A Stitch in Time Saves Nine Billion.
A Paradox May Be Paradoctored.
It Is Earlier When You Think.`
Having gained permission of my travelling companion to write scifi, I began to muse and hit upon a new definition; stories in which other people were `written out`. `In this sense SF is akin to Poe,` I postulated; `in his dark fantasies reality is expanded to include the improbably macabre as well as the impossibly unusual. For example, in SF an alternative reality is created in which the world we are used to is expunged and the people we know from our everyday lives are, as it were, excluded from the events. It`s a little like a security blanket, or blanket security. Noone can get into your material - or yourself. One`s oeuvre becomes one`s invincible fortress.` Indeed SF has been called a power fantasy, but it would be more legitimate to describe it as a thin red line or a line drawn in the sand. This is my world and evil which I seek to exorcise through my work is held in abeyance and cannot gain admittance until I`m ready to submit my work to a bona fide source of output in which my demons are routed in the publisher`s process because they`re the ones the evil plagiarists seek to possess me with. `Plagiarism is then definable as a crime against God,` I went on; `the introduction of evil into the Garden and the attempted exclusion of the Author from his own oeuvre.`
`It is,` I petitioned them, `the life of the imagination that is the greatest gift we have and the intrusion of evil others into the secret places of our mind is what plagiarism is. The abusing of a soul through the tormenting of the divine medium of a creative consciousness is Satanism (whether we defer to God, Allah - or, in Hungary, where I like to live, Isten). The stealing of the products of one`s intellect is, therefore, a torture upon the artist as well as a foreshadowing of the intent of the thief - murder!`
`This is why the protection afforded to the stars of, for example, our Hollywood and Bollywood firmaments cannot be overly protective, and the development of young stars is preeminent. To steal from either source is to declare an intention to murder because the thieves don`t want their victims to be in a position to complain about their thievery. Plagiarism is not only theft but the declaration that the life of an artist or author of a work is valueless.`
`How many artistic lives have been snuffed out or truncated in order to promote the big lie?` I demanded of my hearers. `Here`s the truth,` I laid it bare for them; `human beings are immortal and the living continue into the future upon a hidden path. A very old Miley Cyrus (1992-) - perhaps now a Wise Old Woman retired from performing as Hannah Montana - may trust herself (now `repeated` in America as a teenager) to use her path. The new superstar is highly talented but, without knowledge of her own destiny, she will unknowingly repeat - and only a small part thereof - her Older Woman`s previous programme.`
`To understand this,` I went on undeterred by the frowns the unpersuaded are wont to turn upon the madman, `we would have to view people as software, and time as an illusion. The Australian Aborigines have a concept that fits. They call it Dream Time. Tribes would travel to a spot where they`d hunted before and kill and eat the same animal. Not the same type,` I emphasised the point, `but the very same animal. This means that we exist in futures tangental to our own existence. The Arabs call it Jennah or `the hidden` and we understand it as Paradise or Heaven. This is where our immortal selves reside; but the past contains our software, as it were. If it weren`t for an evil system,` I raised my voice, `we would be able to visit ourselves! In dreams we get an inkling but nightmares are an instance of what is being done to us - or has been done to us - in our past or future. The fact that we are not helped by ourselves in whatever present we inhabit means that evil is preventing us from realizing the truth,` I breathed deeper. `It`s a path upon which we are waylaid by footpads - our talents exploited, lives taken away, our possessions stolen. Then we`re left to remember what was (if we can) while we await their further acts of rapine and murder as we sit at our desks in the torturers` dungeons we call schools.` The train had reached their station and my fellow travellers charmingly left the compartment with much handshakings and kissings of the cheek. I could rest assured I had won my case.
At my Polish school in Lębork was awaiting me a further devotee of Poe, a pupil who said she favoured his Dark Romance over `all other kinds of fiction`. This was the kind of breakthrough I`d been looking for to test my newly formulated ideas. I`d given the students the task of writing poetry one morning and she`d composed a type of Petrarchan sonnet after I`d introduced the class to a few Greek poetic forms. It was the poem that saved her from an anonymous 2 rather than the 3 (from a highest mark of 5) we finally determined to be her final grade after she petitioned the headmistress. Maria, like all of the other pupils, was working towards what used to be called in the UK a `school leaving certificate`, and which is called in Poland the Matura. Maria`s poem had Hecate as a persona and ruin as a theme. She told me that the type of nature that figured in the poem was that of her `mother`. I began to form a Dark Romance about her. In my fantasy I was reminded of who she actually was. I`d known her before and she had an eponymous poem by which everyone who could remember would remember her, from before plagiarism and slavery. The sonnet, I decided, was about herself; she was her `mother` and the whole of the poetry - of which her efforts were merely a barely recollected fragment - had been given to me once in a small black volume called `The Hand of Black Maria`. An excellent work that I had come to know because of the reason the young girl was oftimes wooed: `The Land of Black Maria`
The refrain at the end of each stanza was `For the Hand of Black Maria` but Maria was a magnet for `the Prussian method`. She didn`t know who she was and, for those who don`t know who they are, lands and titles may as well not exist. Maria was a princess and a heroine in the poem I `remembered`; a `thumb` of Queen Elizabeth II (1926-). One who wooed Maria was, in fact, therefore wooing the British Crown! The unscrupulous would take her hand and keep her land and not tell her about it. Dastards! I mentally penned, now thoroughly esconced in my role as Dark Romantic.
I `remembered` how I`d been a pupil at Lębork school with Maria as a boy and I`d been told it was a `tradition` to go back there as a teacher and be properly `graduated`; but I hadn`t expected to find the same students I`d been with as a child - and there they all were! It was the Prussian method reified; the students were being repeated! Maria perhaps didn`t know her own story, and was struggling to grasp for poetry that would give meaning to her life in the sonnet she`d composed. Unconsciously she was plagiarising herself; gnawing at her own future. But if the slaver has the old collar, he doesn`t need a new one; the pupil kept in ignorance of his/her greatness increases the stranglehold of the Prussian method on past, present and future.
It`s the duty of the teacher - ELT or otherwise - to nurture what he can see of the burgeoning bud on the bough in the certainty that there will be future fruit. Learning by `rote` is like a loveless marriage; only the form remains. In the case of the ASLO Grammar school in Lębork the forms - like 3b - were repeated. But would there ever be a reappearance of the fruit? What I saw in the classroom were buds after the Fall. As a teacher I take it as my undaunted responsibility to give encouragement; to ensure that a blossoming is followed by a fruition and that the fruit is put back on the tree: and that is why Maria`s 2 out of 5 became a 3.
* Lytton, Edward Bulwer in Richlieu, first performance Covent Garden, London, 1839. The prophet of Islam, Mohammed (Blessings and Peace Be Upon His Name) said `The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr.`