Seems a good time to read some C. P. Cavafy


The days of the future stand in front of us
Like a line of candles all alight—
Golden and warm and lively little candles.
The days that are past are left behind,
A mournful row of candles that are out;
The nearer ones are still smoking,
Candles cold, and melted, candles bent,
I don’t want to see them; their shapes hurt me,
It hurts me to remember the light of them at first.
I look before me at my lighted candles,
I don’t want to turn around and see with horror
How quickly the dark line is lengthening,
How quickly the candles multiply that have been put out.

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Henry Louis Gates, Jr., on the values of literature

Amen, brother!

Read this talk of his.

I’m also struck by the contrast between this essay in the NYTimes Book Review (Oct. 31) and Marjorie Perloff’s depressing and deluded essay in a recent issues of the LA Review of Books arguing that Humanities and literature departments have lost their way because we don’t teach literature as a self-referential “system.” (Perloff advocates returning to Roman Jakobson and Russian Formalism as some sort of cure. Ugh. The Russian formalists had some genius ideas about form but—unlike great Russian novelists and poets!—they disdained thinking that literature had any way valid way of engaging with ethical questions.).

If we teachers of literature are going to engage with and inspire the new generation of students—the majority of whom are students of color, btw—we have to be able to teach reading literature as more than just a set of techniques. Gates provides one good way of thinking of literature as soul- and citizen-making. In the same issue of the Times Book Review (for Oct. 31), a review of Farah Jasmine Griffin’s new book on Toni Morrison gives those of us in the humanities another way forward.

Swarthmore students want freedom dreams; they don’t just want a tool kit—though we give ’em cool interpretive tool kits too ? What good is a tool kit if you don’t know how to _use_ it properly?

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Donald Rumsfeld Tries to Enter Into Heaven

(as retold later by the Devil)

… into the known


or maybe it’s

      an unknown 


      Donald comes

to the Gates


A large book

      swings open

hard to see

      the pages

but it seems

      they hold

long lists of


inscribed in 


He’s not 


to speak, nor

      to write

memos and


memos.  After

      a pause

comes word of

      his new


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16 postcard-length meditations on the Game of Thrones ending

Does this really need a spoiler alert?  OK, spoiler alert.  Don’t have a meltdown.

Dany touching the Throne of Swords in the snow in 8.6 completes one of the dream-visions she had in the House of the Undead in the last episode of Season 2.  In Season 2 she resisted the dream-temptations given her by her captors, and woke up to roast them using her new baby dragons’ fire-power.  (For more on this topic of Dany resisting temptations of power in Season 2, see this link to an earlier post on this blog.)  Finally succumbing to her desire for the Throne in season 8 totally fits her character, and her delusions.  Her speech to Jon in 8.6 (and Clarke’s acting) were just right.  Note how her “break the wheel” speech was actually about the power to reinvent the wheel, absolute tyranny calling itself freedom, etc.  Only Tyrion is able to appreciate the irony of that.  However, the white savior narrative generated around Dany remains intact, unfortunately, in both Martin’s text and HBO’s eight-season interpretation.  For more on the sad ironies of this at a moment when writers of color are doing remarkable things in the “Fantasy” genre, see below.


So if the old maester-scribe whose name I can’t remember included all the details of HBO’s Season 8 in the big book of chronicles that Sam decided to call A Song of Ice and Fire, that means George RR Martin is being cast now as basically a copyist, not really an author  Ha ha.  Since the ending is already done, what’s taking Martin so long to transcribe it & present it as his own?  If you’re curious about this, I have an answer at the end.  It’s only partly tongue-in-cheek.


Not sure we should be happy with Brienne’s fate, either as a knight or as a scribe.  After getting betrayed by Jaime, she is rewarded by having to write down the heroic version of Jaime’s story, without any mention of the many things they did together??!!  (Remember the bath scene and the months on the road, etc., not just the bed they finally shared.)  Women can be writers as well as knights, but they still must serve the patriarch’s narrative?  Sorta complicates the feel-good equity moment of Brienne’s knighting, no?  She’s finally gotten Knighted and then was on the sidelines while the last battle played out.  Now … what?  What does an unemployed Knight do all day?


Drogon has learned something important about human beings:  thus the melting down the Throne of Swords.  Of course, without a Throne to fight over, humans probably find something else to fight over, given the stuff we’re made of.  I thought Drogon’s morphing from Alien-like monster to the mourning of their* “mother” was pretty powerful, and even better I liked the way in which — admit it — the Jon Is Toast story-line we all expected was suddenly changed.  The dragon understood that maybe the Throne caused all the fighting, so like a Zen master with fire-power they melt down what everyone thought they wanted.  Clever,  But see next topic.  *we don’t know Drogon’s gender, do we?


So the solution is parliamentary democracy (but with 6 kingdoms rather than 7) and with all the different “tribes” living in their separate spaces, developing their own mostly self-sufficient economies along with enough trade with each other to bind them together via mutual trade networks.  Is that really the solution for eternal peace?  Economically, perhaps it makes sense: countries with extensive trade networks tend not to go to war with each other.  (However, see the point about Braavos bankers below.)  But there’s an ethnic/racial subtext here.  Isn’t the GoT ending Multiculturalism Light?  Which is in fact Ethnic Nationalism Heavy?  That is, every tribe to their own Territory and things will all be fine?  Dothrakis back to Dothraki-land, the Unsullied to Naath, Wildings with their new adoptee Jon to North of the North, Yara back to the Iron Islands,  … you get the picture.  What are the implications of this Fantasy for the world, including the US, after 2016?


Characters-of-color story-lines in Game of Thrones got repeatedly under-written and under-developed by the show-runners and script-writers throughout the 8 seasons.  Which means that on TV “fantasy” is reaffirmed as the domain of Whiteness (especially Celtic whiteness) just at the moment when, in print, really revolutionary scripts about what Fantasy can be and can do are being authored by writers of color!  Hopkinson, Solomon, (Marlon) James, Jemisin, Belleza, Adeyemi, and many others, not to mention ancestors like Delany and Butler (and I’d add Le Guin) …


The writers had no idea what to do with “Yara” either….


On the other hand, Sansa’s shut-down of mansplaining at the 8.6 postwar council meeting was priceless.  Her new Northern crown was pretty cool too, design-wise.  Anyone else notice how her hair got redder and redder over the last few seasons?  She’s definitely going full Celtic on us.


Speaking of supply-lines and finances, a favorite topic of the new Sansa, aren’t the bankers from Braavos rather pissed with this “ending”?  What happened to all their investment money?  Who pays those Lannister debts?  The negotiation scene between the Bankers’ representative and King “Broken Man” Bran has great comic potential, but we didn’t get to see it.  Would be even better if Bronn “Coin Man” Bronn were at the table.


Speaking of comic potential, the best scene in 8.6 that no one’s mentioned is this one:  reluctant Hand Tyrion nervously rearranging all the chairs before the committee meeting, in the hopes that it wouldn’t turn out to be the usual mixture of stuff that happens when human beings meet to set up subcommittees, which is boredom, subtle insults mixed in the all the niceties, and god-awful new work assignments for all, report back to us on your “progress” with those sewers next week please.  If you didn’t laugh during the discussion of brothels, something is wrong with you.


Yeah, Ser Davos might have been a better King than Bran.  Hint:  always vote for the “Do I have a vote?” person.  But of course Bran has so much charisma and will be great, just great, at persuading people to do what they don’t want to do….


Bran probably can foresee that all the different “nations” or “kingdoms” will be fighting again in a generation or two, if not within the next decade.  If the big previous long war was triggered by adultery and a kidnapping, some similar knuckleheaded business could re-light antagonisms again, regardless of trade networks, right?  And while the surviving leaders were deliberating over “what government should we go with?,” why didn’t anyone ask Bran to warg ahead and see if he can see what the future holds?


Jon certainly is slow-witted.  As was the dialogue between Tyrion and Jon in the jail.  If those speeches about Duty and Love went on much longer I would have asked for a Drogon intervention.  But Jon got a good ending.  Did you notice that we heard Ghost’s whine off-camera before Jon reunited with him and atoned for his ignoring Ghost in the earlier episode? I know I was being emotionally manipulated by the show-runners at that moment … yet I sure did enjoy it.


What happened to Arya’s white horse?  Re-joined the Dothraki?  Her lines about heading “off the map” and “west of Westeros” were my two favorites in the Finale, along with our being reassured that she had Needle with her for the journey.  Guess she listened to the advice she got from Sandor Clegane about revenge.  RIP Sandor.


So where do dragons go to bury their dead, and what do they do afterward?  Sad to think there will be no new dragons born.


Perhaps George R R Martin hasn’t published the final books in this series because he’s discovered another manuscript full of stories excluded from the Song of Ice and Fire canonical volume that Samuel Tarly showed us in 8.6!  Martin has sometimes been at home trying to collate and cross-reference the two, but mostly that labor is proving so difficult that he repeatedly leaves his writing desk in the dark to go celebritize under the bright lights at Comic Con and other events….  It’s not true that “nothing can stop a story”:  celebrity fan adulation can.  Hmmm.  Perhaps Martin should hire not Bran the Broken but Bran the Story-Man to be his ghost-writer?


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download Ecotone and/or Spleen (my 2 new poetry chapbooks)

Ecotone // 14 poems by Peter Schmidt, about wandering through the natural world …

A downloadable pdf, from Pixel Press / Swarthmore

You may also download SPLEEN (political poems protesting + reimagining the fate of society and nature).

=====For either or both, see my Poetry Chapbooks link in the black Menu banner (above).=======


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Cultural biases built into Gmail and FB autocorrect spelling

Two examples:
1. No matter how many times I type a student’s name, Shaoni, in Gmail, Gmail’s autocorrect always wants to convert that to “Shane.” Ditto for Facebook. Shaoni is a South Asian name. Shane is a name popular with those who revere American westerns, etc. (There’s a famous YA novel and movie called Shane from the 1950s, about a renegade loner-hero with a heart of gold.)
2. Gmail and FB do the same with the last name of a Latino author I’m teaching this semester, constantly “correcting” Urrea to “Urea” (which means urine!) despite repeated corrections of this “correction” made by me.  (Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The House of Broken Angels, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, and other novels.)
Wouldn’t it be possible to add some simple AI where if a suggestion were rejected more than 3 times by the same user the system could “remember” that? Just a (hopeful) suggestion.  (Yes, I know it’s possible to reject suggestions by clicking on the little X button. But when you’ve got lots of typing to do and email etc. to get through, having to reject repeatedly wrong prompts really is a waste of time.)
We all know that Google and FB have other quirks (to use a too-mild word) that are more damaging to our society than imperfect autocorrect algorithms. But how about using some of their millions to pay a few bright 20-something coders to fix these problems?  They’re not, actually, unrelated.
Or am I mistaken and all this is an Apple autocorrect issue?  (I use a MacBook Pro.)
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On Contradictions in Nathaniel Rich’s “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.”

Nathaniel Rich’s issue-long essay in this week’s New York Times Magazine receives a title worthy of a play: “Losing Earth: The decade we almost stopped climate change. A tragedy in two acts.” It’s definitely worth an hour or two of your time—and it’s accompanied by powerful photos by George Steinmetz of global examples of climate change in action. However, for all its fascinating research and dramatic storytelling, Rich’s essay is fundamentally flawed both in its narrative and its contradictory conclusions.

On the one hand, plenty of evidence is marshaled to conclude that “human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations” (66).

Yet, unwilling to end, apparently, so bleakly, the essay then veers in its conclusion to hoping for some sort of future “revolution” sparked by young people and driven not by reason but by fear:

“At some point, the fears of young people will overwhelm the fears of the old. Some time after that, the young will amass enough power to act. It will be too late to avoid some catastrophes, but perhaps not others. Humankind is nothing if not optimistic, even to the point of blindness. We are also an adaptable species. That will help. … Rational argument has failed in a rout. Let irrational optimism have a turn. it is also human nature, after all, to hope” (66).

But why should a revolution be needed? Why was reason routed? The article clearly shows us why, yet its conclusion hesitates to name it. It’s corporate capitalism’s power and money acting as an invisible hand to alter the course of both the global economy and American democracy. It’s not “human beings” as a whole who are the villains because of a flaw in our nature. The oil and gas industry—and many others, including chemical and timber companies, and agribusiness giants like Monsanto, all of whose collaboration with the oil and gas conglomerates goes largely unexplored here—intervened. At first they used “collaboration” and sponsorship of scientific research and meetings. Then they turned to outright and covert nullification, using both mass media and secret lobbying and cash. So are “we” really to blame?

The article also shows no interest in chronicling the story of others fighting climate change who were not elite scientists testifying to elite congressmen.

Perhaps the most startling sentence the Times judged to be fit to print: “But in order to become a revolutionary, you must first need to suffer.” Hmmm.

Rich has a novel well worth reading. In that form he can be more daring. It’s Odds Against Tomorrow, which imagines how the citizens of New York City and the surrounding area will adapt when most of the 5 boroughs are flooded and tall buildings are repurposed as islands.  It’s hardly a first-rate novel, but is definitely intriguing.  Odd that the Times’s bio on Rich neglects to mention it.


Postscript: there IS a great novel that’s emerged out of the climate change/science revolution crisis. It’s the Moby-Dick of our Anthropocene era, and a masterpiece: Richard Powers’ The Overstory (2017).

In this novel novel, humans seem to be the main characters until it begins to become clear that trees are the true protagonists, the heroes of time, for only they (and other plants) can take carbon out of the air and generate oxygen and many other things. Whatever carbon-sink technology humans may be able to come up with, it will never be able to match plants’ way with greenhouse gases.

To tell this overstory (Powers’ clever pun), like a great tree this epic spans millennia, not a mere decade or so, or even 75 to 100 years. To save the human, we must first decenter and corral human arrogance. This novel plots how to do that. It also deconstructs the narratives of our allegedly postindustrial/postcolonial era with as much encyclopedic ambition and panache as Melville did with the discourses of nineteenth-century industrialism and imperialism.

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Garbage In / Garbage Out: Why is Facebook Using Its Powerful Resources To Help Teachers Teach Bad Common Core Standards In AP English Classes?

Facebook on its Summit Learning Resources Site for K-12 English & Language Arts teachers is now promoting ready-made lesson plans for teaching Common Core standards. Sounds good, right? But many of the lesson plans are screwed up because so many of the Core standards are so inane. For instance, under “characterization” (how literary narrators use different methods for revealing a person’s habits, motives, effects on others, etc. in a story) the lesson plans follows the Core in making insane distinctions between “indirect” and “direct” characterization, with NO clear discussion of what this distinction is, much less why it’s important to know it.

I’ve checked the answers below that Facebook and the Core Curriculum claim to be “correct.” But: WHY are the lists of features in question 3 below examples of “direct” characterization, whereas the techniques listed in question 4—like showing us a character’s speech, actions, or thoughts—”indirect” rather than direct characterization? Why is presenting us with visual description DIRECT characterization, whereas giving us what a character does or says (or thinks!) INDIRECT??

The direct/indirect category distinction as presented below is nonsensical and poorly defined, yet it is then to be drilled into the students as the gospel truth. If a student raises a hand and says she or he doesn’t understand the whole system is set up to make the student feel dumb. And pity the poor teacher who has to explain the difference between direct and indirect using the examples given!

Who or what came up with this direct/indirect distinction, defined it this poorly, and then determined that it had to be taught in AP English classes across the country as part of students’ essential learning?

Judge for yourself using these examples, taken directly from the Summit Learning Core Curriculum site. The “•” marks the “correct” answer, according to Common Core.

Question 3: The process by which an author creates characterization through the explicit use of description adjectives, phrases, and epithets is known as . . .

• Direct characterization

Indirect characterization

Question 4: The process by which an author creates characterization through a character’s speech, actions, thoughts, physical appearance, and relationships with others is known as. . . .

Direct characterization

• Indirect characterization

If you’re curious to see more examples of how tech platforms are accelerating rather than helping solve the crisis in education (due to the garbage in => garbage out effect), check out Facebook’s Language Arts Summit Learning models for yourself:

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On Canons and “Headcanons” in Cultural Studies

Yes, “headcanons” (one word) is a term. Has been for awhile.

Interesting conundrum: while the idea of an agreed-upon “canon” has been treated with increasing skepticism in literary studies (though not by all parties), the concept thrives in popular culture, especially fan culture. Though its meaning slightly changes. Here’s the definition of canon and a corollary, “headcanon,” from Urban Dictionary: “Used by followers of various media of entertainment, such as television shows, movies, books, etc. to note a particular belief which has not been used in the universe of whatever program or story they follow, but seems to make sense to that particular individual, and as such is adopted as a sort of ‘personal canon.’ Headcanon may be upgraded to canon if it is incorporated into the program or story’s universe.”

So pop culture acknowledges how subjective a “canon” can be, but it also yearns for the authority the word “canon” once had, and grants that authority to show-runners and story-lines when their show’s details (especially plot developments) appear explicitly to confirm a particular interpretation that was circulating among the fanbase. In some cases, particular fanbase theories or “headcanons” actually influence creators working on new episodes. Happened with Charles Dickens’ serial novels in the 19th century, and happens now.

What seems to have been jettisoned is the old notion of a key set of works in a particular genre that represent the best and the most influential works in that field, ‘canonical’ models for others to copy and try to surpass or challenge. But has it? Pop cultural history hardly does away with the idea of “canonical” works you need to know well if you’re going to have any claim to legitimacy in that cultural field as a fan or creator (or both). Its fans are fanatical (and can argue fanatically) about what’s the “best” in a given terrain or network vs. what’s more secondary or tertiary. And pop culture also repeatedly proves T. S. Eliot’s famous notion that a strong new work rearranges the past (the canon), elevating the status or importance of some of its predecessors or antecedents and consigning some other works suddenly to seeming rather old-fashioned or out of it (which is one reason for why works slip out of the “canon”).

Some canon-drums for you to think about today…

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Why Judith Butler is Overrated

One of many reasons why Judith Butler is grossly overrated: Here’s a passage from her new book Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, followed by 2 brief comments of mine, one a translation of Butler-ese into regular English. Overall, she’s trying (and failing) to shape a theory of collective action.

“[W]hen bodies assemble [in] public space (including virtual ones) they are exercising a plural and performative right to appear … that asserts and instates the body in the modes of the political field [to deliver] a bodily demand for a more livable set of economic, social, and political conditions no longer afflicted by induced forms of precarity” [the latter’s a word meaning in a continually ‘precarious’ position due to economic, social, and political conditions. I’m not criticizing Butler’s use of this word].

a) translation: “when bodies assemble they are protesting being hurt and are demanding change.” To which i would add, “well, duh.”

b) this “theory” applies equally to a Donald Trump rally (at least, as its participants perceive it) as to a Take Back the Night rally in support of rape victims. Therefore how is this “insight” at all useful, other than allowing people who read this kind of prose to feel they are theorizing (from a safe distance) support for activists elsewhere?

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