Aaron M. Moe

Assistant Professor of English at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame

Semester Mantra, Fall 2015

cosmosThis semester, I am starting off one of my classes (and discussing later in my other courses) Walt Whitman’s “Vocalism,” which is my mantra.

We are also reading Carolyn Hill’s “Changing Times in Composition Classes: Kairos, Resonance, and the Pythagorean Connection.”

Why? To be a good reader and writer, one must have a sense of the resonance of language. Learning to kick at the right time on a swing has EVERYTHING to do with the sense of timing while reading and writing. And not just the timing of ideas, but of the material resonance of language “slumbering forever ready in all words” as Whitman puts it.

The challenge? Finding ways to teach this resonance, this enchantment that the Pythagoreans (Hill reminds us) saw coursing through language and the cosmos.

Whitman, too, gravitated toward the resonance/energy in language and the cosmos, and his poem suggests that we must be awake to how our bodies confront and experience the elemental forces of the earth in order to develop the “divine power to speak [and write!!] words.” For though the poem does not explicitly address the “divine power” to write words, Whitman hints at it through the “tympan” trope late in the poem: “I see brains and lips closed, tympans and temples unstruck, / Until that comes which has the quality to strike and unclose.” A tympan refers to the cloth/membrane/pad used in the art of printing in order to regulate the pressure of the imprint. (For the etymology and word history of “tympan,” see the Oxford English Dictionary.) In other words, it “feels” the resonance of the actual physical process of printing something on paper. Whitman had an intimate knowledge of the printing process as he placed many of his editions of Leaves of Grass in print himself (see Whitman Making Books / Books Making Whitman).

“Tympan” also suggests the resonance of a tympani or any other drum made out of a skin stretched taut and then struck.

For Whitman, printing a book meant engaging with the heft of all the tools of a printer, and therefore the moment of printing a word had its own strike as if one struck a drum. We lose this sense of resonance found in earlier writing technologies when we write on a computer, but we can still become sensitive to the resonance of fingers striking keys. And when we read something in print or online aloud and with our body, we can reclaim the word’s originary energy it possessed when it first struck a page (or screen) where it now slumbers.

Many students think that language belongs to the high culture of “Standard English,” and that writing well means learning all these (human-constructed) rules. But such a perspective eclipses what can happen when we make the body the starting point for reading and writing (rather than the mind).

Walking out in a rainstorm or swimming 50 yards out into Lake Michigan are essential “prerequisites” for grappling with the elemental force of language as readers and writers. This is what Whitman argues in “Vocalism.”

Another prerequisite? Begin reading more pages aloud—with all of the gestures of speech—instead of subscribing to that destructive monotone of silent reading. Even reading aloud a paragraph a day amidst a semester’s worth of reading can do wonders with regards to one’s sense of the material resonance of language and its connection to the cosmos.

We must reclaim the spell that happens when letters spell a word (for more on this, See Abram’s “Ecology of Magic” and this interview).

Where can such an approach lead? I hope that students have the freedom to create their own resonances in the material structures of the sentences, paragraphs, and essays they write.

Take a look at the resonance of Frederick Douglass’s sentence on being a fugitive slave from his narrative:

Let him be a fugitive slave in a strange land—a land given up to be the hunting-ground for slaveholders—whose inhabitants are legalized kidnappers—where he is every moment subjected to the terrible liability of being seized upon by his fellowmen, as the hideous crocodile seizes upon his prey!—I say, let him place himself in my situation—without home or friends—without money or credit—wanting shelter, and no one to give it—wanting bread, and no money to buy it,—and at the same time let him feel that he is pursued by merciless men-hunters, and in total darkness as to what to do, where to go, or where to stay,—perfectly helpless both as to the means of defence and means of escape,—in the midst of plenty, yet suffering the terrible gnawings of hunger,—in the midst of houses, yet having no home,—among fellow-men, yet feeling as if in the midst of wild beasts, whose greediness to swallow up the trembling and half-famished fugitive is only equalled by that with which the monsters of the deep swallow up the helpless fish upon which they subsist,—I say, let him be placed in this most trying situation,—the situation in which I was placed,—then, and not till then, will he fully appreciate the hardships of, and know how to sympathize with, the toil-worn and whip-scarred fugitive slave.

And so, what happens when the body experiences not only the elemental forces of the earth but moreover the brutal forces of the slave system? How does one endure? What happens to language and identity as a result of living through such forces?

I want students to discover the relationships between writing, structure, resonance, torment, and the body in Douglass’s sentence. Perhaps we will discuss the well-known passage where Douglass places his pen in the deep gouges of his feet, and how writing is a way to engage the brutality experienced as a slave and yet to move through it emerging with a complex and nuanced and shifting identity that paradoxically finds rest amidst a turbulent sentence. MLK has an innovative 318 word sentence we might discuss as well. Why does the sentence structure matter? It resonates with the body, and it helps the body confront the brutal resonance of torment all the while claiming power over what has happened. A transfiguration of sorts manifested in language. The body pervades the African American vernacular, and it is no wonder how spirituals, jazz, the blues all hinge on the body as the music works its way into the sinews and joints to promote healing.

I want students to know that such sentences are possible to write, and that they can be written if we have an increasing sensitivity to the resonances of language and of the body reading/writing the sentence.

I look forward to discussing the spell of Douglass’s sentence and how it resonates with identity; to exploring the connections between swimming, swinging, and sentences; to emphasizing how language arose from the body, first and foremost, and how the body can continue being its home; to seeing whether such an approach revitalizes one’s sense of place amidst language, the earth, and the cosmos.

My hope is that students will be spellbinded by the resonance in what they read, that they will develop their own sense of resonance as writers, and that they realize the relatedness of butterfly nebula, butterflies, and the print found bound in the pages of a winged book.


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