Search
  • Gail Wilson Kenna

When my turn came in the British Literature class, it was my first time to stand in front of students and teach a poetry lesson. Back then ditto machines were used, and Mr. Hines gave me a "master" on which I could write four Edward Fitzgerald quatrains. That day in class I distributed copies that had a slightly purple hue. This strikes me as ironic now, given that my first quatrain was a bad choice for a teen audience.

"Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough

A flask of wine, a Book of Verse, and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness

And Wilderness is Paradise enow."

This awakened Cory, whose mother was a popular and respected history teacher at FUHS.

"Really? Enow?" he laughed. "And what's with the capitals?"

I had no answer that day to Cory's question, though "poetic license" might have been clever. I did decide after reading aloud this quatrain, not to pass around the book with Edmund J. Sullivan's pen and ink drawings in Fitzgerald's 1859 Rubάiyάt, with nudes cavorting on six pages. I did identify Fitzgerald's use of iambic-pentameter, and his rhyme scheme of aaxa. There were exceptions to this pattern, which I did not mention. I would not have used the word, melancholic, to describe Fitzgerald's translation. But later in college as a literature major, I studied the Elizabethan world view, with its four humours for human beings: choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic, and sanguine. But a perceptive teacher like Mr. Hines must have seen me as melancholic in the lingering sanguine 1950s. This teacher was mysterious and probably identified with Fitzgerald who claimed, "the thoughtful soul to solitude retires."

That day in class I related what I knew about Omar Khayyάm, who lived from 1048 to 1131 (the dates vary). I would have explained that a rubάiyάt was a foursome of rubάi; that Omar was a famous astronomer and mathematician; that after he lost political favor, he embraced an epicurean existence and found consolation in wine and fleeting Time. Over seven centuries later, this Persian poet spoke to Edward Fitzgerald. Then in the early 1960s, his translated verse spoke to me: "when many knots unraveled by the Road; but not the Knot of Human Death and Fate." And when, "there was a Door by which I found no Key; there was a Veil past which I could not see."

If an adolescent wanted not to be mocked, a sure way to achieve ridicule was to be serious and melancholic in a sanguine, secretive age like the Fifties and early Sixties. If my lesson bored and befuddled my classmates, Mr. Hines gave me an A for taking on Edward Fitzgerald.

I have forgotten two of the quatrains on the purple-tinged page I gave to classmates. The last one I recited from memory. I still recite it today. These four lines form the basis of a chapter in Beyond the Wall, my book from 2000 about Venezuelan legal and penal injustice, still relevant today, and soon to be re-printed.

"The Moving Finger writes; and having writ

Moves on. Nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a line

Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it."

Next time: Adolescent Salvation in J.D. Salinger

32 views1 comment
  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Weeks ago, I admitted that since fourth grade I've been a mathematical ignoramus. Yet to get to Edward Fitzgerald, the translator of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and to understand why my English teacher, Mr. James Hines, insisted I choose Fitzgerald, means discussing an essay written before the assignment to teach a poet to our British Literature class.

I mentioned last week that Mr. Hines was ahead of his times; that he used peer editing before the concept was introduced to me in the late 70s through a UC/Berkeley program. Mr. Hines often gave essay assignments, but this time the subject was our choice; and the essay would be read by another student. My "critic" was a friend and tennis foe, Terry Andrews.

For my essay I settled on machines because I disliked them as much as numbers. Which is why I appreciated Thomas Hardy's hero, mayor Michael Henchard, and his tragic reluctance to embrace modernity, and the arrival of trains to rustic Casterbridge. I gave my essay the title, "A Dam Machine Will Rule Our Lives." Dam stood for "divine automatic machine," which I argued would eventually govern human minds and subvert human bodies in a god-like mechanistic world. Obviously, I did not envision positive effects from robots and argued that they would be caricatures of Man (woman seldom used then). Critic Terry gave my essay a grade of D. He said my title was in error, that I had implied a swear word but misspelled it as Dam, then repeated a word, which made it Divine Automatic Machine Machine. Given the ineptness of the title, Terry saw no reason to further discuss such a poorly argued essay. We were all given a grade as critics. What Mr. Hines gave Terry bought a 'gale' of laughter from me.

"F for critic."

This meandering memory provides a clue as to why Mr. Hines might have thought I should select Edward Fitzgerald, in whom I found these lines. "I came like water, and like 'wind' I go." And the line, "divorced old barren Reason from my head," is perhaps how Mr. Hines saw me. He knew my tennis dream had ended the summer before senior year, and possibly thought this line would resonate: "Thou shalt be Nothing. Thou shalt not be less."

No irony that today Dam would provide an answer in seconds to, "Who is Edward Fitzgerald?" and provide anything I might want to know about this poet. In l961 I had only the Fullerton Public Library as my source for research. What I found on Edward Fitzgerald was scant, though I did find a copy of the Rubáiyát with enchanting illustrations of each quatrain. I know now, if I did not know then, that good luck graced Fitzgerald. His special friend, Edward Cowell, spoke Persian; and Cowell attended Oxford University where he discovered the original Omar Khayyám manuscript in the famous Bodleian Library. By 1859, with his friend's help, Fitzgerald wrote his version in English of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.


Next time: How Edward Fitzgerald's "silk road of the imagination" intersected my life.

  • Gail Wilson Kenna

An example of this was Mr. James Hines at Fullerton High in 1960-61. This teacher was using 'peer editing' before I ever heard this term in the Bay Area Writer's project through UC/Berkekey. Mr. Hines reflected another idea that I heard discussed the summer of 1978. Students should be taught writing based on practices of writers, not on theories of academic pedants.

More than anything, I loved that Mr. Hines was an ardent storyteller, not about himself but the literary world. I remember the day he described his short flight on a puddle-jumping plane in Mississippi, when William Faulkner sat down beside him. After gaining courage to speak, he had asked, "Would you care to talk, Mr. Faulkner?" The one-word answer? "No."

Yet Mr. Hines read every novel and short story that Faulkner wrote and spoke to the famous author by marking his books. And this 'marking process' is why he had students in British Literature purchase Thomas Hardy's tenth of fourteen novels. I still have that Pocket Library edition of The Major of Casterbridge. The tiny 4 by 6 paperback cost 35 cents. Inside the book, written in pencil on otherwise blank pages, are 110 words that Mr. Hines expected his students to look up and learn. This "task" was not assigned to improve our SAT scores but to enrich and deepen our ability to read, speak, and write English.

He assigned The Mayor of Casterbridge because it had two aspects of a great novel: a human action of substance, and a hero of genuine magnitude; and we were expected to trace and to understand Michael Henchard's tragic fall.

Along with the words Mr. Hines expected us to learn, he taught us marks to use while reading the novel (and rereading it). I am studying those marks now on the book's inside cover: a provocative statement= *; all new words underlined; twice underlined words related to important points, or were words Hardy frequently used, which he wanted the reader to notice. An exclamation mark was a clue to something plot related! Two exclamations meant something of real plot and thematic importance. Any foreshadowing was to be set within {brackets}. And below each chapter's Roman numeral, we were to give the chapter a title and write a brief explanation of what happened in it. "Mark your books," Mr. Hines repeated often, this man who sat on his desk and imbued me with a love of literature and taught me to converse with an author as I read.

For years in book clubs and while teaching literature classes, it has bothered me to meet persons who cannot bring themselves to make marks in books that they own. These readers end up with a tabula rasa. Yet they seem to think it is possible to discuss a fine novel after one unmarked read. They should have had Mr. Hines for a teacher of literature in their youth, when they were "green in judgment."

Besides asking students to grade and comment on each other's essays, this astute teacher had us select British poets who were not in our British Literature textbook. Then, one by one, we would teach 'our' poet to the class. The list of poets was long and many names unfamiliar to me. I remember how Mr. Hines paused beside my desk and pointed to a name I did not know. "That's the one for you, Gail." Enamored with my teacher, I was not going to argue.

But who was Edward Fitzgerald?

Next time, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

FOLLOW ME

  • Facebook Social Icon