Okay. How many of you out there were forced to memorize this “thrilling” poem in Junior High? How did it improve your life? Or did it turn you away from poetry forever?
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
– By William Ernest Henley
I attended university back in the 1960s. Although I studied English (EngLangLit) I was careful with my credits and ended up with both a Major in English and a Minor in Comparative Literature. One of my professors was a young Frank Lentricchia: I have actually forgotten what the course was (could it have been W. B. Yeats?). Since I was graduating, I was searching around for a decent graduate program which would both accept me and give me enough money to pursue an advanced degree in English. One of the professors I received a recommendation from was Lentricchia. Interestingly, his path for me led to a college on Long Island (Stonybrook), not far from the train station to Manhattan. If I had gone that way, instead of the mid-west college (Washington University) I ended up in, how different would my life have been?
“The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever.” This appears to be a left-handed way of saying, “It’s all fiction.”
Don DeLillo continues with a more specific and even more demanding observation: “An eight-hundred-page biography is nothing more than dead conjecture…”
When I studied rhetoric at the university we had several exercises designed to develop various skills in writing. One I remember well was to write detailed instructions so that anyone could read them and flawlessly perform the task described. My essay was called “Scratching the Grasshopper” and it dealt with the very Southern California effort of paddling a surfboard out beyond the shore break.