Archive for September, 2009

Considering The Poetic Biopic

It’s a good time to be a dead poet with aspirations for movie fame. Apparently Hollywood has decided that nothing says “serious filmmaking” like biopics about famous poets. Movie studios appear to be hopeful that the combination of film and poetry will also result in a shower of awards – and, in some cases, they might be right and the awards well deserved.

Translating poets’ lives into dramatic film might not be an idea that immediately leaps to mind – after all, poetry is a quiet, contemplative business, not particularly engaging to the outside eye. But, the figure of the tortured, brooding poet still has enough cultural cache to be of interest. In lieu of explosions and car chases, one might expect alcoholism, broken hearts, sordid love affairs, and the thrilling drama of writer’s block.

In recent years, there has been a spurt of films about dead British poets, in particular:

  • Pandaemonium (2000), about Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth
  • Sylvia (2003), about Sylvia Plath (whose Britishness is debatable, I admit)
  • The Edge of Love (2008), about Dylan Thomas

None of these films were particularly well reviewed, and The Edge of Love was excoriated by critics.

The new film, Bright Star, directed by Jane Campion, about the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, appears to succeed where its predecessors have failed. This lovely film captures something about the beauty of Keats’ poems (and poetry as an art form) without becoming a didactic lesson on “why Keats matters.” Campion brings a light touch to the material and allows Keats’ counterpart, the fascinating Miss Brawne, to show as much depth of character and spirit as the poet himself. (View the trailer.)

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The internet is abuzz with rumors about another forthcoming poetic biopic: a film about Robert Burns, starring Gerald Butler.

And, in case the Americanists are feeling neglected, coming next year: a film titled Howl about Allen Ginsburg, starring James Franco.

While I continue to bemoan the lack of a great film about Walt Whitman (and have to make do with Levis’ commercials and films borrowing their titles from his poetry), there is a lot of interesting work being done to bring the lives of poets to life for the modern movie-watching audience.

For a much more thorough discussion of poets on film go to “Writers and Poets on Film” (2007) from GreenCine or Stacey Harwood’s Poetry in Movies: A Partial List” from Poetry.org.

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on September 27th, 2009 |No Comments »

Fall Brings….NaNoWriMo

On November 1, the (10th year!) of the National Novel Writing Month will commence. For those unfamiliar with the event, it’s essentially a “contract” that you make to write a novel in one month. You agree to write a certain number of words per day, and you also agree not to go back and edit those words until the whole blasted thing is over and done with. It’s all about getting something down on the page. Each November my writer-friends keep me updated on their words-per-day count, and every year I’m a bit jealous of just how much writing they’re able to get done. A whole novel! In one month! I’ve always been daunted by this commitment, basically because the whole idea of just getting words down seems to go against my entire writing process (which basically involves six hours spent agonizing over an opening paragraph to a short story, and then another six hours spent re-thinking and then eventually scrapping that opening paragraph). But lately I’ve been warming up to the idea of rethinking this (admittedly non-productive) writing process. Why not dump some words onto a page and just keep plowing on until I’ve got a draft of a novel? There must be something so satisfying about taking on such a task, even if the end result will probably never win me a National Book Award.

So for those of you who want to join me (and I’m still not 100% committed to this yet) first visit: http://www.nanowrimo.org/

Still interested? Okay, then. I’m going to help you get started by helping you create a character by doing what’s called a character sketch. Get yourself a piece of paper and a pencil. Now draw a box in the middle of the page. Inside the box write your character’s name (I’ll call mine Samantha Plain). Next, draw a series of lines away from your box and begin to fill the page with details about your character. What does your character look like? (Samantha Plain is in her early 30s, has a scar on her left leg and a tattoo of a butterfly on her back, etc.) Where did your character grow up? What sort of education does he/she have? What sort of music does he/she listen to? Family? Friends? Job? Habits? The idea is to cluster up the entire page until your character begins to take shape. Don’t be afraid if your character begins to take on characteristics that conflict with each other (Samantha Plain listens to punk music, for example, but likes to wear nice button down shirts with bows at the neck). This will keep your character interesting and realistic. When you’ve gotten to the point where you can imagine what your character might have had for breakfast this morning you can go ahead and stop. You’re ready for the next step. You’ve got your character and now you need a catalyst for your novel. Something to start those words flowing. I find it helpful to think about the worst day of my character’s life (Samantha Plain accidentally hit a bike messenger on her way to her job at the University library!) and then the best day of my character’s life (Samantha Plain woke up to find her front porch filled with flowers!). Chances are one of these moments will provide an interesting moment for your story to begin.

And then you keep on writing. Until the month is over and your fingers are tired. But in the end, Samantha Plain (or whatever name you choose for your character) will have come to life, and maybe she’ll have gotten married, or divorced, or will have reconnected with a long-lost father. And you’ll have written a novel (a whole novel!) in only a month.

Good luck writers,

Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on September 24th, 2009 |No Comments »

Theorizing Anglo-Saxon Studies in Illinois

It’s not often that you can leave Texas and go someplace sunnier. But the persistent clouds hanging above DFW for the past ten days made the beautiful weather last week in Champaign, Illinois, feel yet more transcendent. It was the beginning of Fall in Illinois, but it felt like the height of summer in England, where even the hottest day is undercut with a note of chill. The huge and verdant campus of the University of Illinois bristled with activity: preachers preaching, protesters protesting, even students studying … in between playing frisbee, dressing up for talk like a pirate day, and practicing tightrope walking. That is the joy of a big state school campus.

Such activity proved a fitting backdrop for the vibrancy of the symposium, co-sponsored by the University of Illinois and the University of Texas at Arlington, that I had traveled to Illinois to attend. The symposium, Theorizing Anglo-Saxon Studies, brought together twelve participants from across North America and the UK to consider how the discipline of Anglo-Saxon studies has engaged and could engage with some of the foremost ideas of critical theory (more information about the symposium is available at http://tass.english.illinois.edu/). The conference was organized around a set of key terms, such as writing, masculinity, violence, hegemony, and law. Each presenter considered both how his or her term functioned in the wider theoretical literature, and how it resonated with the practice of Anglo-Saxon scholarship–the purpose being not only to engender new understandings of Anglo-Saxon material, but also to problematize the theory itself. We heard about Derrida, Marx, Laclau, Foucault, Frye. And in the same breath, Ælfric, Bede, Alcuin, Aldhelm, Beowulf, swords, bones, nuns, saints. Nothing was strange about these combinations. The type of work that is usually marginal to conferences dedicated to Anglo-Saxon studies was suddenly central—and what a truffly, rich center it was. Anglo-Saxon studies might be perceived by some as a bewhiskered, antiquated discipline, but its soul is post-modern.

What else did we learn? That intellectual work is far easier when you can return to a soft bed and a big screen TV after a hard day’s thought, all at reasonable prices and four blocks from the conference site. Thanks to the Illini Union Hotel, two floors of hotel rooms within the student union (overlooking the picturesque quad and far out of earshot of the disco), we were steps from a coffee shop and a food court at all times. Whatever visionary administrator had the foresight to create such a venue certainly deserves our thanks. And if these food offerings were not enough, right outside the door of the Union lies Green Street, where you can find deals on hot dogs, and feast on burritos as big as your head.

Is it pointless for institutions and individuals to spend money on travel, lodging and accommodation for academics to meet up at conferences? Surely such a model of intellectual collaboration is outdated in the digital age, when we can communicate by e-mail, cellphone, facebook or, as I am right now, by blogging? I think the answer to both questions is a resounding “No.” Bringing together a group of academics to engage in discussion in person is still important. The buzz that is created, and is shared, fuels our work and sends us back to our own campuses inspired and enthused about our research and our teaching. So although the clouds still hovered when I returned to North Texas, the overall outlook was sunny.

–Jackie Stodnick

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on September 22nd, 2009 |No Comments »

Literary Tercentenary: Samuel Johnson

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18 September 2009 is the birthday of English Matters, the weblog of the University of Texas at Arlington English Department. It is also the 300th birthday of Samuel Johnson. There couldn’t be a better day to start a blog devoted to the English language and everything one can make of it.

Samuel Johnson was a poet, journalist, essayist, playwright, fiction writer, biographer, conversationalist, editor, critic, raconteur, wit, devotional writer – and his most famous achievement was in none of these fields.

Dr. Johnson wrote The Dictionary of the English Language. It wasn’t the first word-list in English, nor the best-selling, nor the most exhaustive. But it defined the idea of a dictionary for centuries afterwards: a book, as Alan Alda remarked, that’s “got all the other books in it.” Johnson’s dictionary was written with style and elegance, with humanism and good judgment; with endlessly quotable definitions: and it was written by Samuel Johnson alone. The great reference work of the 21st century, Wikipedia, is written by thousands of anonymous collaborators. The great reference work of the 18th century was written by one man in longhand. The only feature common to both is that they were fueled by lots and lots of coffee.

Astonishingly, Johnson’s Dictionary is not available on-line. It is probably the last public-domain text to resist digitization. But James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the great repository of Johnson’s conversation, is on line. So is Dr. Johnson’s tragedy Irene. Johnson’s delightful intellectual fantasy Rasselas (a sort of English answer to Voltaire’s Candide) is on line. Johnson’s austere and noble poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, is on line. His extraordinary collection of anecdotes and critical commentaries on his predecessors in English verse, the Lives of the Poets, is on-line. For good measure, Johnson produced an edition of Shakespeare, and while the whole thing is not on line, large sections of the prefaces are.

Dr. Johnson was the most quotable writer in the English language, perhaps ever. He was the precursor to Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, and Steven Colbert: the great-grandfather of snark. But rather than take up my entire inaugural post with great quotes, I will cite just two.

The first concerns an error in the Dictionary. Johnson had defined “pastern” as “the knee of a horse,” which apparently it’s not. When a reader called him on his mistake and asked why he’d made it, Johnson replied, “Ignorance, madam, sheer ignorance.”

The other is my favorite passage from Boswell’s Life of Johnson. It’s in Chapter 21.

On Saturday, July 30 [1763], Dr. Johnson and I took a sculler at the Temple-stairs, and set out for Greenwich. I asked him if he really thought a knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages an essential requisite to a good education. JOHNSON. ‘Most certainly, Sir; for those who know them have a very great advantage over those who do not. Nay, Sir, it is wonderful what a difference learning makes upon people even in the common intercourse of life, which does not appear to be much connected with it.’ ‘And yet, (said I) people go through the world very well, and carry on the business of life to good advantage, without learning.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, that may be true in cases where learning cannot possibly be of any use; for instance, this boy rows us as well without learning, as if he could sing the song of Orpheus to the Argonauts, who were the first sailors.’ He then called to the boy, ‘What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?’ ‘Sir, (said the boy,) I would give what I have.’ Johnson was much pleased with his answer, and we gave him a double fare. Dr. Johnson then turning to me, ‘Sir, (said he) a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge.’

We hear a lot these days about motives for education: credentials, job skills, a stronger economy, “excellence.” To defend and promote what we do as teachers and students of English, we have to talk the talk of active learning initiatives, continuous quality enhancement, measurable outcomes.

But Dr. Johnson is talking about something different. “Desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind.” Not desire of learning outcomes, still less of credentials, still less of amassing credits via the most convenient delivery system – but of knowledge actually worth giving what you have. We should keep Dr. Johnson’s boatman in mind. Who knows? We might get a double fare.

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on September 18th, 2009 |4 Comments »

Welcome to our new blog

This is the new blog for the Department of English, a place to write about news, events, and all the myriad ways that books and reading impact on our lives.

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on September 3rd, 2009 |No Comments »