Saturday, October 25, 2008
Man, I've been so busy... I never sent my fan letter to Ringo Starr before the deadline! What's a man to do?
Don't know what I'm talking about? Well, a few weeks ago, the former Beatle made it known, via a short video on his website, that he would not be answering any more fan mail after October 20th. Here's the complete transcript of this blockbuster announcement:
"This is a serious message to everybody watching my update right now. Peace and love, peace and love. I want to tell you, please, after the 20th of October, do not send fan mail to any address that you have. Nothing will be signed after the 20th of October. If that has a date on the envelope, it's gonna be tossed. I'm warning you with peace and love, but I have too much to do. So no more fan mail. Thank you, thank you. And no objects to be signed. Nothing. Uh... anyway, peace and love, peace and love."
This raises a few questions:
(1) How much fan mail are you actually getting, Ringo?
(2) Aren't you rich and famous? Don't you have, like, people who could answer your fan mail for you? And if you don't have people... hire some! Have you never heard of this concept?
(3) Why October 20th? What was so special about that day?
(4) Don't you think that your "peace and love" comments somewhat conflict with your insistence that we collectively buzz off and leave you alone?
(5) I mean, honestly: you're Ringo freakin' Starr! How much fan mail could you possibly be getting nowadays?
Ringo unleashed his "I have too much to do" message just about the same time I was getting slammed with stuff to do at work. Notice I haven't written any posts in the past week? Oh, I've been writing, all right: in fact, I'm up to the tippity top of my balding head in requests to write college recommendations letters.
Now, understand: I don't mind writing these letters. My students need them, and I'll do whatever I can to help my students. And so, even though writing these letters isn't something any teacher is contractually obligated to do, I nonetheless consider it part of my job.
But it takes time. This week, I wrote tweleve letters; I still have maybe eight more. Each one takes forty-five minutes to an hour for me to write. (I'm convinced the college admissions people probably spend about a minute skimming each letter over, maybe less. But that's a rant for another time.)
Of course, no school will give the teacher time to write these letters. Normal life still goes on. You still have to teach your classes, create your lessons, try to make a dent into your ever-expanding mound of papers.
At some point, you'll try to spend some time with your family. And maybe you'll devote a smidgen of time on your own personal creative pursuits... like that blog you haven't touched in a week. But don't count on it.
Amazingly, you do it. You do it all. As Joe the High School Teacher (no relation to Joe the Plumber), you write those letters. And meet with kids outside of class to talk about their college essays. And coach sports. And direct plays. And advise the Robotics club. (No, I'm no longer talking about myself here. The "you" here is Joe the High School Teacher, remember. I'm not saying I coach a sport or direct plays or advise the Robotics club. I'm just talking about the kinds of extra stuff that high school teachers do beyond their actual jobs. Get it?)
Again, I hope this doesn't come off as "Woe is I." (Yes, that's grammatically correct.) I think teaching is the noblest, most rewarding job in the world, and I'm glad it found me. And I don't mind writing the letters or reading the essays or doing anything else for my students, because they have given me so much in return.
But I am saying this: Who the hell do you think you are, Ringo Starr?
How can you honestly look into cyberspace and tell your fans-- the people who gave you your livelihood-- that you can't answer their letters? And give as your reason that you "have too much to do"? "Too much to do"... are you kidding me, Ringo? What exactly are you doing that's so time-consuming, anyway? You're Ringo, after all, not Bono.
So, here's my appeal to Ringo Starr: Spend one week-- just one week-- as a high school teacher. Or at any real-- i.e. non-Elder-Statesman-of-Rock-- job. Then re-evaluate what it means to have "too much to do."
Peace and love, peace and love-- except I actually mean it.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
I watched a lot of Red Sox on TBS over the past week, and I saw the same creepy commercial about twelve times. And I don't mean the Viagra commercial with the randy old guy dancing around his house.
No, I'm talking about the Direct TV commercial based on the 1982 film Poltergeist. By now, you probably know the deal with these commercials: the Direct TV folks, using their way-cool CGI wizardry, can take actors and put them back into some of their familiar roles.
So they insert new footage of Sigourney Weaver into 1987 Aliens scenes, or they take a modern Robert Patrick and have him reprise his role as the evil-liquid-metal-guy from Terminator 2.
Most recently, Craig T. (which stands for "The Guy from Coach") Nelson filmed a Direct TV ad in which he finds himself in the same haunted house from over 25 years ago.
The commercial also reunites Mr. Nelson with that little girl from Poltergeist, Heather O'Rourke, the one who said those iconic words, "They're here."
Brinigng the two back together would be kinda sweet, except for one thing: Heather O'Rourke died 20 years ago, at the age of 12.
Somehow, putting Heather O'Rourke in this commercial strikes me as all kinds of wrong, even though I can't exactly explain why. I didn't mind when Tom Hanks shook hands with JFK or sat next to John Lennon in Forrest Gump. When Celine Dion sang with Elvis on that American Idol special, I was impressed. And I wasn't creeped out when Natalie Cole sang "Unforgettable" with her dead dad. (OK, I'm lying: that was pretty creepy.)
But at least John Lennon and Elvis and Nat King Cole had careers; maybe Lennon and JFK and Elvis died too young, but not as young as Heather O'Rourke. The girl was twelve years old when she died. Twelve. Her career, her life had just begun. (Then again, she was on the last year of Happy Days. Do you think she got to meet Anson Williams?)
I know someone will say I'm making too big a deal out of this, but to me, using the image of a dead child in this way seems so irresponsible, on the part of everyone involved. Yes, in some sense, it's cool that the technology exists to resurrect a person who has been dead for twenty years. But, as always, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.
It's just spooky.
Thursday, October 9, 2008
Why would anyone want to be President of the United States?
It's a legitimate question, this election year more than ever. Whomever we elect is going to inherit an unpopular war, an economy as stable as a 90's-era Robert Downey Jr, a heathcare crisis, and hey, those polar ice caps aren't going to fix themselves. But even in the best of circumstances, you're pretty much guaranteed that half of the populace is going to think you're doing a lousy job.
So I ask again: what would drive a reasonable person to heap-- willingly, voluntarily-- all this abuse onto himself (or herself)?
Oh, sure, you can say something about civic duty and love of country. But I have another theory, one that was inspired by one of my favorite TV shows: NBC's "The West Wing."
For all you non-Wing-nuts out there: "The West Wing" followed the often-tumultuous two terms of President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet (brilliantly played by Martin Sheen). Why "tumultuous"? Well, let's see... over his two terms, President Bartlet got shot; was censured by Congress for not telling the American people about his multiple sclerosis; actually had several MS episodes that left him physically incapacitated; had to find a new vice-president after the first one got caught up in a sex scandal; and stepped down for a short time after his daughter got kidnaped. Plus, he was the butt of a lot of short-guy jokes.
But you have to say one thing about President Bartlet: he knew how to make an entrance.
On the very first episode of "The West Wing" (airdate: September 29, 1999), President Bartlet doesn't appear until the last act, when he dramatically interrupts a conversation between his staffers and some members of the religious right. When one of the religious righters says, "The First Commandment is 'honor thy father," communications director Toby Ziegler corrects her, explaining "Honor thy father" is actually the Third Commandment. (It's actually the Fourth Commandment, but hey...)
In the midst of all this, another religious-guy asks, "So what is the First Commandment?"-- a somewhat unrealistic but nonetheless effective way to introduce President Bartlet, whose authoritative voice booms from the doorway off-screen: "I am the Lord thy God," Bartlet intones. "Thou shalt worship no other God before me."
Now, President Bartlet is, of course, quoting the First Commandment when he says, "I am the Lord your God." But he is speaking in the first-person, so in a way, he is telling the people in that room that he-- i.e. President Bartlet-- is God.
This wasn't the last time the Big Guy's name came up in "The West Wing" (and by "Big Guy," I mean God, not Bartlet-- only in this case, the blurring may be appropriate). For at least the first four seasons-- the ones written by Aaron Sorkin-- Bartlet's Catholicism was mentioned repeatedly.
In the first season, for example, Bartlet grasped rosary beads as he agonized over whether to commute the death sentence of a murderer. He often quoted biblical passages, chapter and verse-- a talent he once used to give a verbal shellacking to a right-wing talk show host who used the Bible as ammunition in her war against homosexuality. ("Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7," Bartlet countered. "If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football?") In the second season, we learn Bartlet, while a student at Notre Dame, had even planned on becoming a priest, until he met his wife Abbey.
Instead of becoming a priest, Bartlet cuts out the middleman and becomes God-- or at least, the next best thing. Indeed, throughout the first two seasons especially, we see evidence of Bartlet's "God-complex." For example, in the second episode, after an American plane is shot down, a steeled Bartlet promises to attack the perpetrators "with the fury of God's own thunder." In the next episode, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) talks Bartlet down, warning him against "using American military strength as the arm of the Lord."
And in the second season's finale, "Two Cathedrals," President Bartlet actually calls out God in the National Cathedral, calling Him a "son of a bitch" and putting out his cigarette on the marble floor.
"To hell with Your punishments," Bartlet hisses. "I was Your servant here on Earth. And I spread Your word and did Your work. To hell with Your punishments. To hell with You." (Incidentally, he said this in Latin; writer Aaron Sorkin claimed he wanted Bartlet to talk to God in God's own language.)
Even the other characters treat Bartlet as if he were divinity. For example, in the two-part opener for Season 2, we see a flashback detailing how Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) initially joined the Bartlet campaign. Sam was going to be made partner at a major New York law firm, but when his friend and Bartlet convert Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) showed up at his office, he literally dropped everything to come aboard. Is this or is this not an echo of the biblical story of Jesus convincing his apostles to leave their nets-- and basically their livelihood-- and become "fishers of men"?
Now, Aaron Sorkin never used the term "God-complex" during his tenure as "The West Wing" head scribe. But it should be noted that he did use the term in the movie, Malice (for which Sorkin wrote the screenplay). In the movie, Alec Baldwin's character makes a memorable speech which concludes with the following: "You ask me if I have a God-complex. Let me tell you something. I am God." The name of Baldwin's character: Dr. JED Hill.
Yes, Sorkin does famously recycle names. (Over the course of the series, Josh Lyman saw two psychiatrists named Stanley-- what are the odds?) But the fact that Sorkin had already created a character named Jed who boasted "I am God" could lend credence to the argument that President Jed Bartlet also have a deep-rooted God-complex. After all, doesn't the president have more power than a single doctor?
So, to get back to my thesis: for at least the first two seasons, Aaron Sorkin made the case that the President of the United States-- not his fictional president one, but the actual commander in chief-- may not only have a "God complex," he (or she) may very well want to BE God.
If you think about it, what else but a compelling desire to be the most important person on the planet (in theory) could drive someone to take on such stress, such anxiety, such unparalleled headaches?So we're left with this comundrum: We want our presidents to be smart, level-headed, and reasonable, but the very desire to be president suggests that this person must have something wrong with him (or her).
Presidential paradox, indeed.
(By the way, the divine Bartlet was resurrected a few weeks ago, when Aaron Sorkin wrote a piece for the New York Times detailing a meeting between Bartlet and Barack Obama. Always good to see President Bartlet again. How come our real candidates can't be more like him?)
Monday, October 6, 2008
“The last person on earth sat alone in a room.
No one knows the writer, but I wish I did, because I would pay this person some seriously righteous homage. I love this story. How can you not? The ambiguity allows for so many questions, so many interpretations.
Why is this person the last man on earth? Was there some nuclear apocalypse? Who’s coming to the door? Is this person coming to save him? Kill him? Is there even another person at the door, or has the guy gone insane, after being alone for so long?
Me, I prefer a more optimistic interpretation—namely, that the story is about making human connections. I always believed the guy in the story wasn’t really the last person on earth; he just felt so lonely and isolated that he believed he was all alone in the world. But now someone else is knocking at his door, reaching out to him, breaking his isolation.
I show my students this story every year, to illustrate not only ambiguity but also reading strategies, such as inferencing, questioning, and even connecting. In fact, I can connect personally to this story.
The “World’s Shortest Short Story,” you see, reminds me of my first year teaching high school. Why? Because basically, for about six months of that first year, I was that man from the story, the last man on earth, all alone.
Oh, I wasn’t really alone, naturally. But teaching, by its very nature, can be a very isolating job. Some try to put a positive spin on it, say you have a lot of “autonomy.” But really the job can be very insulated and isolated.
“Now, hold on!” the non-teacher might counter. “How can you complain about large class sizes and then turn around and say you’re too ‘isolated’?” Ah, touché…but when I say “isolated,” I’m not talking about a complete lack of human contact. I’m talking about the lack of meaningful interaction with peers, other adults, folks who actually share your pain and can help you get through it.
Don’t get me wrong: my first year teaching high school, I had some great colleagues, and when I went to them for help, I always got it. But they couldn’t help me every minute of every day. Most of the time, just dealing with their own classes, their own separate universes, took up all of their energies.
And all I knew about these other universes is that good things seemed to be happening there. Meanwhile, my own universe seemed ready to collapse in on itself any second and form a black hole.
So, take the natural isolation that comes with the teaching territory, and heap on the feelings of anxiety from believing you’re not only the worst teacher in the building, but quite possibly the worst that’s ever lived—and, yeah, you might feel like the last person on earth, too.
And no, by “stories,” I don’t mean To Kill a Mockingbird or Catcher in the Rye (even though they did buoy me up plenty of times). I’m talking about the stories other teachers told me about their first years.
I’m not sure when or why I decided to ask other teachers about their own first-year experiences, but I talked to pretty much every teacher I knew that year. Not for advice, necessarily, but for anecdotes. And the more people I asked, the clearer two truths became:
(1) “Man, some of these teachers have some really crappy first years!” and
(2) “They want to tell me these stories. Even the really bad stories. And they’re laughing as they tell them. Somehow, they’re proud of these stories.”
Ultimately, their stories eased my mind. And it’s not just because “misery loves company,” although that probably had something to do with it. And it wasn’t just this egocentric schadenfreudic reaction, where I found comfort in knowing someone else had it worse—although, who are we kidding?, that didn’t hurt, either. But I think it was something else: these stories helped me so much because they were my knock at the door.
That’s right: the knock. The knock that told me I wasn’t alone in the universe. The knock that made me realize, “You mean someone else has felt what I’m feeling? Someone else has been overwhelmed by the work, the students, the doubt?” The knock that convinced me, almost against my better judgment, to keep going with this crazy teaching thing. The knock that ultimately saved my career.
You know, I’ve seen some websites made up entirely of rejection letters—the premise being that if you’re an aspiring writer discouraged by all the rejection letters you’ve received, and you see that everyone gets rejection letters, maybe you won’t feel so discouraged any more. In fact, maybe you’ll feel a sense of community with all of these people.
I have yet to find a place like that on the Internet for first-year teachers—a place where they could retreat to when they’re feeling low and read stories from people who have lived to tell the tale. Maybe this can be that place.
So, to any teachers out there who might read this: Why not send in a few of your stories from the trenches? Maybe some new teacher will read them. Maybe you’ll inspire that new teacher to go to work the next day. But mostly, maybe you'll help him realize he’s not alone in the universe.
Saturday, October 4, 2008
I christened them "thorny rhymes" in honor of the song which contains possibly the best (worst?) example of such ridiculous rhyming: Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn." You do remember the chorus, don't you?
Every rose has its thorn
Just like every night has its dawn
Just like every cowboy sings its sad, sad song
Every rose has its thorn
Now, maybe back in the 80s, people thought the words "thorn," "dawn," and "song" rhymed. Of course, back then, people also considered Lionel Richie a sex symbol. Now we know better.
(Incidentally, in the category of the Thorniest Rhymes of All-Time, Steve Miller Band's "Take The Money and Run" can actually give Poison a run for that aforementioned money, thanks to following lyrical wizardry:
Billy Mack is a detective down in Texas
You know he knows just exactly what the facts is
He's not gonna let those two escape justice
He makes his living off other people's taxes
Maybe not as egregious as the "thorn"/"dawn"/"song" combo... but pretty close.)
And now, to the clamor of exactly no one, I present... a whole new batch of thorny rhymes!
Miley Cryus, "See You Again"
I've got a way of knowin' when something is right
I feel like I must have known you in another life
'Cause I felt this deep connection when you looked in my eyes
Now I can't wait to see you again
Now, I like this song. I do. I fully admit it. I like the "Sunglasses at Night"-esque tune. I like the shout-out to her best friend Lesley. I even like the st-st-stutter line (which cost her millions, I'm sure, in potential endorsements from the National Stuttering Association).
But trying to pass of "right," "life" and "eyes" as rhymes? What kind of shoddy lyric-writing is that? Come on, Miley-- what are you, sixteen or something? (Oh, wait...)
Huey Lewis and the News, "I Know What I Like"
I like things that don't change
Because the more something changes, the more it stays the same
I might be simple, take it easy sometimes
But I can be stubborn when I've made up my mind
Here, Zen-Master Huey was probably hoping he had bent your brain so profoundly that you wouldn't notice the lyrics didn't actually rhyme.
Now, stay with me: first, he says he likes things that don't change. Then he qualifies that statement with the oft-quoted truism that the more things change, the more it stays the same.
So, if we return to the first statement with that qualifier in mind, he's actually saying he likes things that don't stay the same. Ergo, he likes change.
So when he says that he likes things that don't change, he's actually saying he likes change.
How's your mind, unsuspecting blog-reader-- blown?
Alanis Morrisette, "Ironic"
It's like rain on your wedding day
It's a free ride when you've already paid
It's the good advice that you just didn't take
And who would've thought, it figures
While everyone was so busy gleefully pointing out how this song contains no actual examples of irony, Alanis snuck under the rhyming radar with "day," "paid," and "take." (And, no, that's not ironic, either... just sneaky.)
While we're on the subject... something has always bothered me about the Alanis song "Hand in My Pocket," which contains the following:
What it all comes down to
is that everything's gonna be quite all right
I've got one hand in my pocket
And the other one is flicking a cigarette
What it all comes down to
Is that I haven't got it all figured out just yet
I've got one hand in my pocket
And the other one is giving a peace sign
Now, these lines don't rhyme... which is fine, since nothing in the entire song rhymes. Hey, no crime there, if that's what she's going for. But why not simply switch the "cigarette" line with the "peace sign" line, to rhyme "cigarette" with "yet"? It seems such an easy and logical rhyme to make.
(Maybe this was an overlong set-up for a small point, but this has bugged me for the last thirteen years. Thanks for letting me get this off my chest. I feel better.)
Don McLean, "American Pie"
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn't take one more step
Ah, one of my favorite Rhyme-Crimes: Rhyming a Word with Itself and Hoping No One Will Notice.
You can find other great examples of this in Deep Blue Something's "Breakfast at Tiffany's" ("It's plain to see we're over/ And I hate when things are over"), in Foreigner's "Hot Blooded" ("You don't have to read my mind/ To know what I have in mind"), and even in the great Beyonce's "Irreplaceable" ("I could have another you in a minute/ Matter fact, he'll be here in a minute").
And yet, maybe we can give Don McLean a pass on this one, because (a) the song is nearly-eight minutes and about six billion lines long, so one off-rhyme is no so bad; (b) it's one of those great Deeper Meaning songs, even if no one exactly knows what that Deeper Meaning is; and (c) let's face it: "American Pie" and "Vincent" are really all the guy's got. I say, let's not ruin Don's one shot at immortality by quibbling over a thorny rhyme.
Neil Diamond's "I Am... I Said"
"I am"... I said
To no one there
And no one heard at all
Not even the chair
"Now, hold on," the astute reader may say, "these lyrics do rhyme. So what are they doing on this here list?"
Of course, you're right: these lyrics do, in fact, rhyme. But I wanted to include them because they're just patently absurd.
Hey, I like Neil Diamond, and I like the song. But... "not even the chair"?? Not even the chair??? Inexcusable. What does that even mean? What chair? Why are you talking to it? And why do you think this chair would be able to hear you?
Consider this a Thorny Rhyme subset: when an artist achieves a rhyme, but does it in such a completely goofy and non-sensical way, he would have been better off not rhyming.
Still, the "not even the chair" rhyme looks Longfellow-ian when compared to Van Morrison's "And It Stoned Me," which-- in addition to rhyming "backs" with "fence" and "poles" with "road"-- contains possible the worst simile in the history of music:
And it stoned me to my soul
Stoned me just like jelly roll
And it stoned me
"Stoned me just like jelly roll," huh? Hey, unless Irish folks put something in their jelly rolls that I don't know about, that's just some pretty awful lyric-writing right there.
OK, that's all I have for now... but there are more thorny rhymes out there. Many, many more. If anyone out there in hears more examples of thorny rhymes, please send 'em in. Together, we'll help expose this lyrical corruption!
(For more example of misrhymes, see the folks at Am I Right.)
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
You have to love the poem's core paradox. Ozymanidas, the self-proclaimed "King of Kings," commissions a statue of himself-- not only as a testament to his great and sustaining power but also to guarantee his immortality. Of course, hundreds of years later, all that's left of this statute-- and, by extension, of Ozymandias himself-- are shattered fragments: the head, the legs, and the pedestal. Literally and figuratively, the King of Kings has been swallowed up by the sands of time.
Basically: not so much with the immortality thing for King Ozzy.
Ah, but here's the paradoxical rub: by writing this poem, Shelley is immortalizing him, but as symbol of mortality. The statue didn't remain, but the poem does.
Now, I'm not saying I came up with that; it's a pretty obvious paradox, after all. But I have a few other cool, semi-unobvious observations, too, about the poem. And so I present...
Dursin's Five Cool, Semi-Unobvious Observations about "Ozymandias," for Teachers, Students, and Folks Who Want to Look Smart at Cocktail Parties.
(1) You notice how much distance Shelley is trying to put between the reader and Ozymandias? Instead of just talking directly about this fallen king, he starts the poem with a narrator, who is relating a story he heard from a traveler, who tells the story about a sculptor who made a statue of a king.
When I brought Shelley's funky set-up up to my students, one young man said that, by putting this much distance between the reader and the subject of the poem, Shelley is reflecting the content of the poem in its form; Shelley basically reinforces how lost and forgotten Ozymandias by burying him underneath all these layers (the reader, the narrator, the traveler, the sculptor, the king). Good stuff.
But another student disagreed, suggesting that organizing the poem in this way showed how this king was not completely forgotten, because at least one person, the traveler, knows the story. So, in a way, the structure contradicts the fundamental message. Also good stuff.
They're both right, of course. That's one of the great ancillary benefits about teaching English-- learning to coexist with irreconcilable contraries.
(2) Just today, another student came up to me after class with an "Ozymandias" story. (We all have them.) Apparently, she was visiting Hamilton College, and she sat in on a class where the students were reading Robert Frost's poem "Directive." (Too long for me to re-print here; kindly follow the link.) And one of the students remarked something like, "You know, this poem reminds me of 'Ozymandias.'"
Color me definitely intrigued-- there's probably a grad school thesis somewhere in that connection-- but also tragically inequipped to comment on it. I've read "Directive" before and always found it impenetrable. I can see a few surface connections between the two (e.g. Frost's description of "a house that is no more a house/ Upon a farm that is no more a farm/ And in a town that is no more a town"), but I don't know enough about "Directive" to go deeper. Any help out there?
(3) Maybe it's just me (and I know it's not, because after I thought of this, I found this same comparison elsewhere on the Web), but Coldplay's "Viva la Vida" seems to explore exactly-- I mean, exactly-- the same tensions that Shelley does in "Ozymandias."
Think about it: both the song and the poem describe the fall of a prideful king. ("I used to rule the world," the song's narrator says in the first verse, but now "I sleep alone/ Sweep the streets that I used to own.") Yes, the king of the song falls during his lifetime, and there's no evidence in Shelley's poem that his king is ever aware of his ironic fall from grace.
Still, both texts deal with the elusiveness of earthly power. (Compare Shelley's crumbled statue to the song's castles that were built on "pillars of salt, pillars of sand.")
To all English teachers out there, I say play "Viva la Vida" for your students when you teach "Ozymandias." You can show the students how cool you are. Oh, yeah, and the juxtaposition of the two will reinforce the twin themes of the transcient nature of power and the impossibility of material possessions to withstand the onslaught of the passage of time. That too.
(4) If you're not familiar with the movie The Emperor's Club (and you're probably not, because, for some reason, that's one of those Great Movies That No One Has Seen. Why that is, I have no idea. Everyone has seen Dead Poets Society, and The Emperor's Club is far superior. I might even have to devote a whole post to this grave oversight someday. Where was I? Oh, yeah...), one of the initial scenes of the movie contains an indirect echo of "Ozymandias."
Mr. Hundert (Kevin Kline) is a brilliant, slightly-stodgy, and (of course) inspirational high school teacher of Greek and Roman history at an all-boys private school. On the first day of the year, he traditionally has a student read a plaque that says the following:
"I am Shutruk-Nahunte, king of Anshand and Susa, sovereign of the land of Elam. By the command of Inshushinak, I destroyed Sippar and took the stele of Niran-Sin and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my god. Shuktruk Nahunte, 1158 B.C."
Mr. Hundert then asks the class who Shutruk Nahunte is, saying that they can even use their textbooks. "But you won't find it there," he says, for indeed, "his accomplsihments won't be found in any history book."
Shutruk Nahunte, according to Mr. Hundert, is utterly forgotten by history because he didn't make a lasting difference in the world. Says Mr. Hundert: "Great ambition and conquest, without contribution, is without significance."
Sound like anyone else we might know? (Hint: it rhymes with "Fozzymandias"...)
I was so proud of myself for coming up with this connection. But here's the icing on the connection-cake: I didn't come up with this connection! The writer of the story on which the movie was based did.
The film was inspired by Ethan Canin's short story, "The Palace Thief." The first chapter of the story introduces Mr. Hundert and his Shutruk Nahunte bit (spelled "Nahhunte" in the story). Then Mr. Hundert (the narrator) reveals something else he does as part of his first-day ritual:
"... I had one of them recite, from the wall where it hangs above my desk, Shelley's 'Ozymandias.' It is critical for any man of import to understand his own insignificance before the sands of time, and this is what my classroom has always showed my boys." (Italics mine.)
Part of my was exhilirated that my connection had textual precedence, part of me bummed out I didn't think of it first. (Foiled again!)
(5) This last one might be my favorite thing I learned about "Ozymandias" over the past week. Apparently, Shelley had a contest with his friend Horace Smith over who could write the better poem about this king. So they both wrote sonnets, and they both submitted them to the same magazine, The Examiner.
Now considering Shelley's poem is a widely-known staple of English literature, and pretty much no one has ever read or even heard of Horace Smith, I guess you can figure out who won the bet. Still, I think Horace got the fuzzy end of the legacy-lollipop. To be honest, I didn't find Horace's poem that bad. Check it out for yourself:
In Egypts sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows.
"I am great Ozymandias," saith the stone,
"The King of kings: this mighty city shows
The wonders of my hand." The city's gone!
Naught but the leg remaining to disclose
The sight of that forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when through the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the wolf in chase,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What wonderful, but unrecorded, race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
How did it all fall apart for Horace Smith? Two factors, I think:
(a) Shelley beat him to it. Shelley's poem was published in The Examiner on January 11, 1818; Smith's was published on February 1, 1818. (Remember when Armageddon came out a few months before Deep Impact? Just like that!)
(b) Writer Guy Davenport summed up the difference between Percy and Horace by (allegedly) saying, "Genius may also be knowing how to title a poem." And indeed, Shelley's knack for titles have helped him in the long run.
What do I mean by that? Well, while Shelley called his poem "Ozymandias," ol' Horace called his "On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below."
Not bad, as far as titles go... but lacking a little panache, you know?