Sunday, May 11, 2014

Why Literary Texts Matter

Along the Way (Snowdonia Mountains, Wales. M.A. Reilly. May 2014)
Today on a train from Caernarfon to Porthmadog (Wales) we were joined by an Anglican priest and his companion.  It was apparent that the priest was a regular traveler as Steve, the train conductor, knew him and the companion and began talking with them about the very legend he had just told to Jane and me.  Prior to the priest boarding, Steve had been telling us all about Gerlet's grave as we made our way through the Snowdonia Mountains. We were just arriving at Beddgelert where the legend of the hound (Gelert) originated. 

Here's the legend (from here):
"In the 13th century Llewelyn, prince of North Wales, had a palace at Beddgelert. One day he went hunting without Gelert, ‘The Faithful Hound’, who was unaccountably absent. 
On Llewelyn's return the truant, stained and smeared with blood, joyfully sprang to meet his master. The prince alarmed hastened to find his son, and saw the infant's cot empty, the bedclothes and floor covered with blood. 
The frantic father plunged his sword into the hound's side, thinking it had killed his heir. The dog's dying yell was answered by a child's cry. 
Llewelyn searched and discovered his boy unharmed, but nearby lay the body of a mighty wolf which Gelert had slain. The prince filled with remorse is said never to have smiled again. He buried Gelert here".
Of course, imbued with local knowledge, Steve was able to embellish the legend with a bit of local history. It seems that there was not an actual dog that had killed a wolf in order to protect the Prince's child.  In fact, there may never have been a faithful hound--although that is still disputed.  According to Steve,  a local bard told to drum up business for the town fashioned the tale in order to lure visitors to Gelert's grave. The story was told and retold  until it became the stuff of legend.

Now interestingly, as the priest and his companion bordered the train, they too began to discuss Gelert as Steve mentioned us and the legend.  Immediately, the priest had some words to impart about the legend--although his words were a bit different from Steve's.  As I listened I thought about how telling legends may well bridge the span of uncomfortableness that accompanies awkward beginnings.  You see, the priest had just finished saying mass at Beddgelert.  As the legend conversation wore itself out, Steve uttered a confession (repeatedly). It seems that now he works most every Sunday on the train and as a result he is absent from church services.  He mentioned three ( perhaps even four) times how he regretted his absence from church and made plans (loose ones at that) to attend the priest's mass on a not-too-distant Sunday (9:35 a.m. or so depending on how quickly the priest could travel from Porthmadog) in Beddgelert.

As I listened, I thought about how story organizes us.  How it is human and essential. I wondered about the decision in the US to limit students' access to literary works in favor of balancing informational texts with literary ones. I'm fairly confident that the use of percentages to force adherence to the CCSS is a mistake.  Perhaps, a costly one at that.

Sharing literary works has the potential to bridge differences and in doing so create more empathetic people who via shared literary experiences can become (other)wise.  Bakhtin described this process by explaining how our utterances are dependent. He explained:
“Any concrete utterance is a link in the chain of speech communication of a particular sphere. The very boundaries of the utterance are determined by a change of speech subjects. Utterances are not indifferent to one another, and are not self-sufficient; they are aware of and mutually reflect one another..." (Bakhtin, 1986, p.91).
At the Sea  (Bae Caernarfon,Wales. May 2014. M. A. Reilly)
Make no mistake, I enjoy non-fiction texts, but I do not dwell in the non-literary ones--they do not help me to connect to others via their very language.  Yes, Loren Eiseley makes me pay attention and I can recall the way he describes a spider.  But his work, although nonfiction, is literary.  But the myriad of books about frogs that third graders (and I) read this year via Expeditionary Learning remain fodder. The language from the frog books does not remain with me as I motor through Wales.  I don't lean over and recite sections from these texts to my new neighbors. The texts are not memorable--especially as I know the facts I did learn can be recalled in a moment via my iPhone.

Birds in Flight (Snowdonia Mountains, Wales. M.A. Reilly. May 2014)
But Dylan Thomas's child's voice in A Child's Christmas in Wales and later as a son in Do Not Go Gently Into that Good Night, deeply (in)form my reading of the local landscape, of self and other.  I walked many miles the day before and all along the way I had in my mind--almost as a mantra--specific lines I could recall Thomas reading. Like him, I too was around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep. It is the word, sometimes, that continues to captivate me. At sunset each night, I too rage, rage against the dying light--grasping for bits of text--text I can recall twenty years post reading. I could recall the birds in Thomas's "Poem in October" -- "A springful of larks in a rolling/Cloud." Even when I don't get the words just right--the rhythm and sounds never fail me.

That is what literary texts do.  They make us after years long gone recall not only a bit of meaning, but, perhaps more important the rhythm and sounds--the way the language forms and reforms in our very mouths. These are the texts we wear.

We embody the literary. Yes, we may pay some attention to the informational--less perhaps as most of what we might glean can be forgotten and recalled with the simple voice command, "Siri find..."

And I think that, perhaps, is why the literary text matters so.  It is potentially transforming in ways that informational text simply cannot be.  I think about this after a two hour trip on a train and how it was story that built a bridge between a lapse church goer and an Anglican priest.  It was story that opened enough space for the conductor to confess to the priest his sorrow--and for the priest to listen not only to the story but its feelings and re-welcome the man.

I so wonder about the reduction of literary works in place of this odd and to me arbitrary 50-50/30-70 split that David Coleman and the rest of the CCSS crew have insisted upon.  I do not think this 'shift' is wise.

Thinking about the conductor and the priest gives me pause--gives me human hope.
We might want to ask what we are leaving behind as we adhere to the text 'shift' via the Common Core. There's only so much time to teach and less time to learn at school. What memorable language will your students be able to recall twenty years from now?


Bakhtin, M. M. (1986). Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. by Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

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