Friday, October 29, 2010


One reason King Lear is regarded by many as Shakespeare’s greatest play is that it deals centrally with the fundamental human dilemma of egotism vs. altruism, the perennial conflict between the demands of the self and the needs of others.  According to our most revered teachings, wisdom entails selflessness, a kind and generous concern for the well-being of others, even at the cost of self-sacrifice.  At the tragic end of King Lear, Cordelia, the play’s purest example of selfless love, lies like a sacrificial lamb in the arms of her father, dead but sanctified.  Even though the old, wretched king has now but minutes left to live, we see that he is cured of the rash, demanding self- centeredness that possessed him at the drama’s start.  This fond and foolish old man has won his way to wisdom, the wisdom of selfless love.  The tragedy is what his former folly cost.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010


The dim allure of Higher Consciousness,
A subtle summoning from realms beyond
That promises an end to our duress,
Entices us to form another bond.

Relinquishing our ties to ego’s needs,
Emotion-backed demands clouding our minds,
We come to clarity as greed recedes,
Discovering it’s love that rightly binds.


Monday, October 25, 2010


The character inscribed within your soul
In time designs the features of your face,
Showing the world your gravity or grace,
And until then, you never can be whole.



Imagination is our right brain’s glory;
Delineation is the left brain’s story.



Since Nature is so brutal, mortals crave
A supernatural deity who’ll save
Us from the terrors of mortality,
As parents once relieved our misery.

The comfort we still seek in such belief
Can never bring us absolute relief
Unless we somehow abnegate all doubt
That when we die our light will not go out.

Just as the setting sun returns at dawn
And vanished salmon come again to spawn
And seasons glide from winter into spring,
So may the soul abide, a constant thing,

     Eternally returning in its season
     Beyond the reckoning of our dim reason.


Friday, October 22, 2010


O, why, O, why does Keena howl?
Is it for the full moon?
Is it because our neighbor owl
Is hooting the same tune?

But every night while we’re asleep
Our little dog lets out
A melody from somewhere deep
That puts our rest to rout.

As mournful as a funeral
Where grieving widows keen,
Her plaint is more than doggerel—
She sings to the unseen.


Sunday, October 17, 2010


Who is it that you might in time become?
Do you possess a latent destiny
Which shrewd divinatory arts may plumb
Revealing clearly what you’re meant to be?

Or is it better that you not foreknow
But quest continually and ever strive
To realize the ways that you must grow,
Discovering slowly what you need to thrive?

Life’s an adventure and we all are bound
To seek ourselves, becoming who we are
By trial and error till at last we’ve found,
If we are fortunate, our destined star.

     To star in our own lives would be our glory,
      And those who do are then enshrined in story.



Why poetry should not be free
From rhyme and meter’s plain to see
And plainer still to hear, because
It’s not just what it says, but does.

Such verses are a kind of meme
Designed to haunt you like a dream,
Built like a burr and meant to stick
Inside your brain, a memory trick.

Thus may the poet hope to live
By sliding through Time’s winnowing sieve,
For only then is poetry
A passport to posterity.


Saturday, October 16, 2010


O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
(HAM 2.2.258)

Although Hamlet is widely perceived to be unconscionably dilatory in dispatching his fratricidal uncle, Claudius; and it is thought that the young prince, whether out of cowardice or indecisiveness or some other weakness, fails to keep his pledge to the Ghost to “sweep to my revenge” (1.5.31), there is a more sympathetic and admirable way to comprehend Hamlet’s delay.

Like a good detective, Hamlet is nothing if not circumspect. Despite his premonition of foul play and the apparition’s direful indictment of Claudius, Hamlet feels compelled to look around at every aspect of what is transpiring in Elsinore and to corroborate ambiguous uncertainties with clear evidence. He contrives a “Mousetrap” play to “catch the conscience of the king” (2.2.612); yet though that circumstantial evidence appears convincing, he still refrains from murdering Claudius, who seems to be at prayer, lest his uncle’s shriven soul be spared Hell’s torments. Hamlet then proceeds to interrogate Gertrude to wring her guilt from her. But by this time, having mistakenly killed Polonius, Hamlet is hemmed in from further prosecuting Claudius and bringing him to justice—which is a higher end than revenge.

Ultimately, Hamlet succeeds in bringing his villainous uncle to justice, in an open court, with the evidence of his treachery palpable to all—a poisoned sword and goblet—and with condemning testimony from the dying Laertes, Claudius’ co-conspirator. Regrettably, tragically, justice applies to Hamlet as well, who dies for his rash and bloody act of killing Polonius, thinking him to be his spying uncle. And yet, given all that the prince has dealt with and endured, the silent rest he goes to seems an end most fitting, not a purgatory like the Ghost’s abode, but a purgation, even a salvation.

Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.



Florida College English Association
panel presentation at Rollins College
14 October 2010

The roots of a course I’ve long taught at Rollins, called Personal Writing, trace back, I figure, to my freshman year in college. I was taking an introductory course in philosophy and reading an anthology with illustrative excerpts from a bevy of famous thinkers, from Socrates to Whitehead. The final exam would expect students to demonstrate their familiarity with major ideas articulated by these philosophers.

While reviewing the anthology before that exam, I got hijacked by a rebellious urge I couldn’t resist, risky though it seemed. Rather than regurgitating positions and theories of the masters, I wanted to argue that such an introductory course should introduce us not only to philosophy but also to philosophizing—that we should be trying to work out our own ideas and positions on some of the problems we had encountered in the various discourses we’d studied.

When the final exam time came and all the various discussion sessions gathered in the general lecture hall to address our common test, I executed my contrarian scheme, writing out my case for a course with a different aim, though taking a few minutes at the end to sketch brief answers to specific questions to show I actually knew some relevant information. But wisdom seems more important than information, I argued, and philosophy means “the love of wisdom,” right?

I did take the prudent step of asking my grad-student section leader to have the main lecturer, Brand Blanshard, read my unorthodox exam.

I seem to have gotten away with my aberration since my course grade came in at the same B level of my earlier grades, and that is all I ever heard about the effect of my sassy gambit.

Many years later, though, well into my 40-year career at Rollins, I devised the course that’s closest to my heart, and that echoes my freshman-year motive of giving students an opportunity to seek their own wisdom and work out something of their own philosophies, in the loosest sense. I have even nick-named my Personal Writing course—with apologies to our philosophy department—“Wisdom 101.”

From the start of the semester, students know that their term-end essay will address the topic: “The Good Life, According to Me.” Bi-weekly essays they write throughout the term—first-person familiar essays, often reflecting on provocative readings—may attempt partial forays into that larger topic. One of our textbooks might properly be titled “Wisdom 101,” though it is actually named Getting a Life: Strategies for Joyful and Effective Living, a sage and accessible little book, by Copthorne Macdonald, an independent scholar who has developed an extraordinary online site, The Wisdom Page (

It’s now many years since starting that Personal Writing course and first using Cop Macdonald’s book. By now Cop has visited Rollins as a Thomas P. Johnson Distinguished Visiting Scholar, and the highlight of his stay was a large public address on the topic: “Wisdom: The Highest Aim of Life and Higher Education.” Arguably an expert on wisdom, Cop has also written two other prudential books, Toward Wisdom and Matters of Consequence, which fortify his credentials.

On his Wisdom Page you will now find the fruits of our collaboration, an online course named “Wisdom 101,” which includes the downloadable pdf text of Getting a Life and of a study guide to that book which I wrote for my students, containing prompts for journaling and essays.

Of course, my primary objective for Personal Writing is to entice and coach students to write good personal or familiar essays, and other elements in the course work to fortify their compositional and editing skills, especially the engaging text Sin and Syntax: A Guide to Writing Wickedly Effective Prose, by Constance Hale. Furthermore, I always require each essay to be revised, with violated rules in Blanche Ellsworth’s English Simplified written out on the revision.

If “the unexamined life is not worth living,” as Socrates, “the wisest man in Athens,” famously said, then I trust that my Personal Writing class inspires and goads my sophescent students to examine worthily and reflect on their own values, aims and ideals—culminating in their formal attempt to articulate a vision of the Good Life for themselves.

Though I love the idea of wisdom and aim to pursue and practice it myself, I know I fall far short of being wise and acting wisely—as is the case, I suppose, with most of us. We are at best works in progress or pilgrims on Wisdom’s Way. Likewise, I would hope, are our students, whom we would assist to become not only more knowledgeable and smarter, but wiser.

The best pocket definition of wisdom I can give you comes from another putative expert on wisdom, Nicholas Maxwell, a philosopher of science at The University of London, who, like Cop Macdonald, as published three books addressing the subject from different angles. To act wisely, Maxwell says, is “to realize what is of highest value to ourselves and others.” To “realize” means here both to comprehend and to bring about, both knowing and doing. Discovering what is of value, then, is wisdom’s object in whatever circumstance we find ourselves. A Good Life must be a life of realized value, a demonstrably worthy life.

The devil, of course (or the angel) is in the details, in finding the right path and then following it. But having first determined that the pursuit of wisdom of our highest aim, we have at least a beacon to illuminate the way. As we say at Rollins, citing our motto, “Fiat Lux.”


Monday, October 11, 2010


Is the educational program at Rollins intended and designed to be more than an instiller of knowledge of various kinds, an up-loader of information and an instructor of information processing, to the end that students acquire the data of history or literature or sociology or physics, for instance, and practice the respective methodologies of those disciplines?

Or is something more fundamentally developmental intended by the idea of a liberal education to which Rollins subscribes—something implied in the old-fashioned phrase, “a scholar and a gentleman”? Thus, not only intellectual development would be Rollins’ aim for its students, but also the inculcation of character, the character of gentility, generosity, kindness—which implies respecting the dignity of others and serving interests over and above personal ambition. This would be done by promoting the well-being of the wider community, both within the College and beyond, in the spirit of a plaque on campus that declares: "Life Is for Service."

Assuming this latter motive to be true for Rollins, then our current deliberations about instituting a Social Honor Code, complementary to the existing Academic Honor Code, speak to the issue of character development and reinforcement, of holding each other to standards of decency, dignity, and integrity. In the area of academic honesty, some specific behaviors are promoted and others prohibited with respect to following the standards of scholarship. Likewise, specific social behaviors would be prescribed and proscribed, some precisely and others more broadly.

But what concerns a Social Honor Code, rather than what explicit laws and rules may designate, is more the “spirit” than the “letter” of the law. The Code has more to do with attitude and intent than with explicit infractions entailing set penalties (which are matters for Campus Security and the Dean of Students to enforce and prosecute). The Code points instead toward the ideals of behavior that members of the College community subscribe to and strive to realize in their interactions with others. What sportsmanship is to athletics, over and above avoiding penalties called by referees, honor and integrity are to the College community at large.

These are standards not so much enforced as exhibited and are easier caught than taught. Therefore, it behooves those who work at the highest levels and those who have been at Rollins the longest to exemplify the Rollins Way of honor and integrity, of dignity and generosity, and of meeting high levels of performance appropriate to their spheres of work. Thus will the spirit of the Rollins Way pass down to new students and to other new members of this academic and social community, influencing them to live likewise.


Saturday, October 9, 2010


For the last hundred years, the Western literary world has labored under the delusion that poetry has generally undergone a transformation from its centuries-long “formalist” tradition into a new mode called “free verse,” which predominates today. However, most contemporary “poetry” is not properly free verse but rather free prose—prose freed from arbitrary margins and many conventions of grammar, syntax and punctuation required of orthodox prose.

Though such compositions look like verse, in that their lines have irregular lengths, those lines reveal no rules of measure, as does verse, which “turns” (the literal meaning of verse) at a set metrical interval. Furthermore, its lack of rhyme patterns and other sonic resonances exemplifies the mode of prose, not poetry.

While etymologically the poet is simply “a maker,” and a poem is something made, a verbal artifact, the long tradition of verse making reveals something more specific in the way of techniques appropriate to verse-craft, which differ linguistically from prose-craft.

Most traditional short poetry is called “lyric” for its musical qualities, as if it might be accompanied by a lyre or other instrument, and because it might be sung, not just said, summoning vocal effects beyond what prose calls for, were it read aloud. Reading poetry aloud is de rigeur because the poet writes for the voice and ear as well as for the intellect and imagination. Not so for prose, or not nearly so much.

I argue, therefore, that our generic categories be adjusted to reserve the use of the word poetry for verbal compositions with distinctively musical oral qualities—which is not to say that some eloquent prose may be denied the epithet “lyrical,” to the extent that it affects to a degree the techniques of poetry in rhyme and resonance. Otherwise, shorter literary pieces that lack such aural traits should be named free prose rather than free verse. Reserve the word poetry for measured lines with lyrical designs.



Language grows. New expressions and idioms continually emerge from people’s imaginations and morph as they circulate through many brains— transmogrifying memes.

When first you hear or read a new mimetic construct, a fresh idiom, it’s likely to be puzzling, and there’s no published dictionary to help (although Uncle Google probably can). So what you likely do is try to infer a meaning from the context—from the sentence in which it occurs and from the tone of voice or facial expression or gestures that, when it’s spoken, accompany and illustrate it.

So it was recently when I noticed students of mine using the idiom “called out.” In fact I must have provoked the usage myself since apparently I had “called” one of them “out” on some remark or behavior she had expressed, that fact was publicly proclaimed, and chagrin on the part of the student seemed to be the result.

From that I inferred that “calling out” means having the finger of accusation or blame or rebuke pointed at you in a public situation, a kind of discovery or outing with intent, perhaps, to shame.

But now I wonder if there’s a more picturesque etymology to the phrase. Is there a specific circumstance when a person is literally “called out,” as in a game of hide-and-seek: “I see you!”—and then you run for the tree called “Home.” Or might the picture be a squad of army recruits standing stiffly at attention before a sharp-eyed sergeant looking to “call out” a rookie soldier to step forward from the line-up and be “dressed down” for an unpolished belt buckle or a rumpled bunk bed?

I also wonder whether “calling out” and “ratting out” are related expressions. Literally, “ratting out” seems to depict (like “ferreting out”) a process of discovering a varmint in your house or barn and ousting it—except that this “rat” is figurative and in fact a nasty person rightly reported to the cops.

All right, having exhausted my recollection and imagination, I’ll now turn to Uncle Google to see what the collective consciousness of the World Wide Web can reveal.

At the top of the ever-interesting Urban Dictionary’s citations (hence, the most popular entry) is this:

“To challenge someone in some way. Or to put someone on blast.” Then this example: I don’t think you’ve really lost 300 pounds—you just say you have. Produce some Before & After photos. I’m calling you out.

That last remark reminds me that you “call” your opponent in poker to have him show his hand to prove he’s not bluffing: “Put up or shut up,” which confirms the idea that to call out is to challenge.

OK, I think I’ve got that idiom nailed. Next job: track down “to put someone on blast.”



“Beware of being so open-minded that your brains fall out,” goes an old saying. But then there’s also the opposite danger of being so close-minded that your brains can’t breathe in any fresh ideas and become stagnated in their unshakable certainties. Somewhere between open to anything and closed to everything must lie the Golden Mean of human mentality.

But the greater danger of the two, I think, is close-minded absolutism, a fundamental fixation on a single perspective, on an ultimate prescription for comprehending the world and the lives of human beings by an ideological imperative, a doctrinaire worldview that brooks no deviancy, invites no debate, and tolerates only compliance and obedience to the established norms.

The struggle here is between the extremes of license and tyranny: run-away libertinism vs. locked-down despotism. What lies between is the ideal condition of responsible freedom, the freedom to think innovatively, creatively, outside the boxes of precedent and convention, the freedom to explore alternatives and discover things previously unknown or unthought—yet combined with responsible concern for the consequences of such novelty, both negative and positive, since innovation always disrupts the status quo.

What’s called a “liberal education” deals centrally with this dilemma. While it seeks to liberate the mentality of students to be open to new thoughts and variant ideas, it also respects and studies the traditions and conventions that lie behind and that have shaped today’s cultures and worldviews. Both preservation and innovation motivate a liberal education, but “Truth” it sees to be in flux, not absolutely fixed and certain; and yet not wholly relative.

Truths are provisional certainties, some of long standing and deeply rooted, others more tenuous and dubious. If a liberal education is absolute about anything, that would be its aversion to absolutism, paradoxically. That we are “relatively certain” about this or that proposition or truth-claim is as good as human knowing ever gets because learning continues: new facts, new hypotheses, new theories continually arise; while Truth, like a beckoning phantom, continues to lure us into novel dimensions of thought.



The declaration that follows is my attempt to articulate a persuasive case for our prospective “social honor code.”

When you join the Rollins College community, you should know that you are entering a culture of honor and integrity, a culture that esteems and cultivates specific values and behaviors often absent in society at large, and often disparaged by the media of popular culture.

Rollins aims to be more than a mirror of the extramural world, but rather to develop citizens of honor and integrity, qualities often sadly lacking in business and the professions, as well as in social and personal dealings.

While it is ostensibly the charge of religious institutions to develop virtues and build the characters of their congregants, according to the values taught by their scriptures, religions should not be the sole inculcators of personal rectitude, especially in an increasingly secular society.

A civil society requires institutions that teach not only civility but also respect, generosity, caring and solicitude—doing good unto others and not harming them, respecting and protecting the essential dignity of all people. One word sums this up: kindness—the recognition that we human beings are all kin and thus deserve to be treated kindly.

Therefore, Rollins College, in league with like-minded institutions of higher learning, proclaims that part of its mission (a humanistic, not a religious mission) is to encourage and inculcate in all members of its community behaviors that demonstrate care for the rights and well-being of others and that do not demean others’ dignity. Rollins College claims thereby to practice a culture of honor and integrity.



I feel your pain, my sympathies go out,
My neurons mirror what your neurons suffer;
I know intuitively what you’re about
And tender tenderness, but wish you tougher.

For when you agonize, your grief is mine,
And only when you’re healed and whole can I
Be well, for so much do our souls align
That if you thrive I thrive, or die I die.

Let’s make a compact, then, that we’ll be kind
Not only to each other but ourselves,
For digging deeply, each in each, we find
We are the same, no matter where one delves.

The root of our complicit empathy
Reveals itself as shared identity.



I suppose I’m as creative and inventive as many a writer of stories, but I’d rather make up reality than fiction.

I’d rather imagine how real things of the world, our ways of being and doing, might be better than they are, and then figure out how to change those ways accordingly, making stories that come true.



I write verses in traditional forms like sonnets and iambic pentameter couplets because I enjoy reading great poems in that traditional style and seek to imitate, emulate and update its artistry, turning it to contemporary matters and idioms, while preserving its ancient musicality and lyric allure.

Let other poets experiment and innovate, as they have done over the last century, establishing new aesthetic parameters, new modes and manners of poetry—which at root indicates nothing more than “something made,” the poet being but “a maker.” Yet what I prefer to make are words that sing, sweet words in measured verses, rhythmically aligned, that carry out a thought, yet bring more sense to sense through aural harmony.

(For those with ears to hear, the previous sentence contains a quatrain.)



It came to me! Yet came to me from where?
I’m sitting here, when suddenly from thin air
This notion pokes my brain revealing how
Or what or where or why I’m seeking now,
And all comes clear, the mystery resolved,
With nothing seeming rational involved.

Is this a sub- or super-conscious feat
Proceeding from a dark, sublime retreat
Or dropping from on high, a heavenly gift
That sets my mind right when it’s gone adrift?
I’ll ponder this conundrum patiently
And wait to see what answer comes to me—

Perhaps it’s both, or there’s no up or down
But only in, where inspiration’s found.



The animus, the energy, the force
Of our vitality—élan vital,
Mysterious, unfathomable source
Of every earthly creature, great and small—

What can we do but worship this with awe,
Perhaps personify it as a god
Or Mother Nature, red in tooth and claw,
Who raised up human beings from a clod?

Instead of worship, we might emulate
This same creative force, seeking to find
By science how to pry and extricate
The means by which this Wonder was designed.

And yet for all that scientists may try,
They’ll never answer the prime question: Why?