Powerful poems #1: Wendell Berry’s “Enemies”

When I talk about poetry with any student whose only exposure to this genre has been the torture of having to sit for exams, I sometimes start with this observation:

Poets don’t craft their poems so that they can torture you in an exam room; they write to convey something powerful, something that makes them want to create art that in turn creates in them a desire for escape from the confines of prose.

There is power in poetry, and I’m hoping to be able to talk about it in a new series of posts, just to see if I can get a few more people in the world to appreciate this form of literature.

I’ll start with Wendell Berry’s “Enemies” — please click and read it before continuing reading my post!

Quick instructions for reading a poem:

  • Read it aloud, don’t worry too much about unearthing meaning yet. Please don’t forget the title.
  • Check the dictionary for any word you want to think more deeply about, even if you think you understand the word already.
  • Read the poem again — preferably, aloud.

How much we need poetry like this in our age of polarisation. Poet Wendell Berry quite clearly knows this, hailing from a society that is particularly polarised — the US. In Singapore we are perhaps less split along political lines, but we are still prone to the habit of thinking that the people we disagree with are our enemies.

That one word title primes all of my protective faculties. Who are these enemies that the poet wants me to think about? (Grrr, my inner guard dog goes.) I consider those I think of as my enemies, and I am blindsided by the first line’s introduction of a hypothetical: “If you are not to become a monster”. Why should I be bothered with not becoming “a monster”? Shouldn’t I be more concerned with the monstrosity of my enemies? And why, if I am not to become a monster, must I “care what they think”?

The poetic voice points out that there is danger in caring about what my enemies think. “If you care what they think”, he asks, “how will you not hate them”? I’ll reveal a little about myself here: I almost unavoidably think of certain groups of people I find irredeemably selfish as my enemies because I view them as hampering and preventing the larger mass of humanity from progressing in several ways I find important.

I think of the people who support the structures in our world that worsen the problems associated with climate change and resource depletion. I think of our younger generations, who will be growing old in a world that we may not recognise. In 2021, the rich world is already suffering from the ravages of extreme weather. What will this look like in 2070? Or in 2100, when the babies born now will just be finishing their eighth decade of their lives?

I think about my enemies, and I consider what they must be thinking — perhaps they’re greedy, and they just want to generate profit at all costs, the future generations be damned. Maybe they’re an example of pure, unadulterated evil, and that they just want to watch the world burn. And then I catch myself, and I realise: I’m becoming “a monster / of the opposite kind”, just like the poem warns.

If I’m honest with myself, I am capable of harbouring the desire to destroy my enemies. I have become monstrous. “From where then / is love to come — love for your enemy / that is the way of liberty?” Berry asks. The enjambment that leads from the second stanza into the third stanza is a little distracting, as if the text is screaming at me: Pay attention!! Don’t let your focus waver!! You’re capable of monstrosity!!

The text answers me: “From forgiveness.” But I can feel myself resisting the idea that my liberty lies in the forgiveness of those I think of as monsters. I could label that resistance as anger, bitterness, and indignation — and I realise that without the ability to drop those emotions, I remain a prisoner of those feelings that potentially have such a debilitating effect on our bodies.

Personally speaking, I need to be able to understand the motivations of someone I’m angry with in order to be able to move from anger to love. My enemies might, in fact, be suffering with insecurity in spite of the wealth and power so many of them already have. When I sit with that knowledge, I find myself able to find my own insecurity, and to identify how I sometimes have been far less than perfect because of my fears. I find myself less able to hate my enemies, and more able to love them, when I spend enough time with that knowledge.

I can feel, within myself, the freedom and liberty that our poetic voice presents to us when I manage to love my enemies (a freedom that is also rooted in my spirituality that includes the love for our enemies that Jesus called for). My enemies then become “as sunlight / on a green branch” to me – they have provided a pathway for me to experience the nourishment of what forgiving someone feels like.

But it is still important to register that what my enemies have done is, to me, wrong. To my judgement, their actions are destructive. Wendell Berry’s final words in “Enemies” warns me that I “must not / think of them again, except / as monsters like (myself), pitiable because unforgiving.” Perhaps my enemies have chosen their paths because they are unable to forgive. (Are they unable to forgive the universe for not being protective enough of the ones they love? Hmm.) If I allow myself to hold on to my indignation, my hate rises again, and I remember that I, too, am capable of monstrosity.

So I remind myself that despite their wrongdoings (that might be right and justifiable actions in a moral framework different from mine), it is possible to love and forgive my enemies. It is possible, perhaps, for me to avoid monstrosity myself.

I recently texted a friend that “the Big Sin of social justice movements is to fail to extend compassion to the oppressor”. I know that many people will resist this by ranting about how nobody bothers to extend compassion to the oppressed and marginalised. But hear me out — maybe we can do both, and maybe progress can be had if we made as much of an effort to understand the pains of the oppressors as we put in the effort to stand with the marginalised.

My sense of things is that those we think of as our oppressors are acting from positions of pain and trauma, even while they cause more pain and trauma. I read Wendell Berry’s “Enemies” as calling for us to end that cycle. I hold on to the hope that we can.

Did you enjoy this article? Did you manage to enjoy the poem? Let me know in the comments!

Tackling student sleep issues (Book recommendation!)

For a number of my students every year, one of the first things I have to do is to make sure they are sleeping properly. The signs are easy to recognise: when they are trying to solve a particular problem (let’s say, figuring out how to respond to a question), their eyes sometimes glaze over. Sometimes they blink and keep their eyes closed a beat too long. Sometimes their eyes are red the moment I see them.

Students with sleep issues can often be very high-performing students, but the fact is, they could perform much better if they were sleeping better.  Some poorly performing students can even make a jump in their academic performance just by being more mindful of their sleep. In fact, I am willing to bet that when they become more disciplined about their sleep, their lives get better in general.

I’ve written about sleep before, but this is such an important issue, that I feel the need to write about it again. To be perfectly honest, I sometimes suffer from insomnia — I’ve been calling myself a semi-regular insomniac for years. In the last month, I’ve actually had a number of weeks of bad sleep, to the point where I realised that I had to deal with it head-on. In the past, my go-to solution had been to go to my doctor for sleeping pills, but this time I wanted to get to the root of the issue. I wanted to really understand why I was feeling and sleeping so badly.

It was therefore with immense pleasure that I found The Sleep Solution by W. Chris Winter, a specialist sleep doctor. The science he presents in this book has been so helpful to me, I’ve been recommending it to my friends and family (particularly those who complain about not being able to sleep). It’s an added plus that Winter writes with a conversational tone that is often laugh-out-loud funny, even if some of his jokes can fall a little flat.

You can read a review of the book here, and you can check the availability of the book at the NLB (Singapore) here. People who have an NLB Overdrive account can get the book here (but most of you should go with the physical book since comprehension tends to be higher).

If you’re a parent or student dealing with sleep issues, go read the book. Well, if you’re human, just read it anyway. You’ll feel better. I’m not even finished with it, and I’m sleeping better already — I’ve even let go of my identity as a “semi-regular insomniac”. It’s that good.

An educator’s perspective on “fake news”

I intend to send this in to the Select Committee that has been formed to tackle fake news in a few days. Comments and suggestions are welcome, but I also encourage my readers to send in their views.

I am a private tutor who teaches General Paper (GP), and new students sometimes say: “I thought I wasn’t allowed to criticise Singapore’s government in my essays!”

When it comes to misperceptions of the world, my new students start off with plenty. It’s already an uphill battle to fight these errors, and I believe that introducing legislation aimed at battling fake news will only further stoke needless fear into a populace already unsure of those (in)famous “OB markers“. This would especially be so if the legislation is aimed at social media, the ground for so much of our political discourse these days.

I completely understand if politicians think that this fear of authority, particularly the fear of speaking out against authority, is a good thing — surely it makes a population easier to control, in some ways. However, considering the current government’s goals, this fear that has worked so well in the past may prove counterproductive now, especially when we consider Singapore’s economic productivity.

Already we are struggling to attain a level of productivity comparable to other developed countries, but this makes no apparent sense: aren’t we topping the charts when it comes to the famed international student assessment benchmark, PISA? Why is this not translating to high levels of productivity in the workplace? My opinion is that the fear of authority — which is so effectively worked into Singaporeans via the education system, national service, and our national bureaucracies — plays a huge role in this lack of productivity.

The economy from here on out is going to be ever-shifting and unpredictable. The current government correctly places an emphasis on lifelong learning, since it is those with the ability to react effectively to such changes who will be more productive in this new landscape. It isn’t just knowledge that is important. What is crucial is the ability to use that knowledge, to test data against reality, to tell falsehood from truth — in short, we need to know how to solve those inevitable problems that arise daily for the modern worker.

The fear of authority acts against this skill of problem-solving that necessarily involves some level of risk-taking, and therefore the risk of angering authority, especially in the context of the modern office.

Witnessing history unfold before us with the presidency of Donald Trump and the attendant phenomenon of fake news is worrying, but we must be careful of knee-jerk reactions that will only set us back as a nation. What we need to combat fake news is a Singaporean public that can think critically for itself. It may be a public that’s more resilient to persuasion, but isn’t that the goal here, to have a public that can resist manipulation by malign forces?

I’m sick and tired (and why I write more effectively than you)

I mean it literally: I’m sick, I’m tired. As I sit typing this, I feel like I’m coughing my throat to shreds, and the lethargy has left my eyes half closed. I just turned my head to look to the right for awhile, and I was surprised by a sharp throb in my head. Ugh. I’m sick.

And for the two days I’ll probably take to recover, I’ll treat myself.

Today I’m treating myself to a book that has been on my list for awhile, Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Night, an account of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps. It’s heartbreaking, it’s heart-wrenching, even though I know from reading other books how horrific those camps were. Reading this has been an exquisite experience of the bittersweet kind, particularly as a reminder of what can happen when decent people close their eyes just enough to the realities of politics.

I don’t mean to give a review of the book, though. What I want to say to all the students who flock daily to my website to read my essays (hi!) is this: I read for fun, and that’s why I write more effectively than most of you. (I also read to improve myself, but I think that’s a topic for another day.)

I appreciate the fact that so many of you are coming here to read my writing, but please register the fact that you need to head out to your libraries and bookshops to get reading material for yourself.

Read for fun. It’ll help.

For the adults/parents who don’t understand why I’m advocating reading for fun, see this research overview of what happens when we read for pleasure (spoiler alert: good things happen).

Creepy lullabies and close reading

Last night, I tried to illustrate what close reading should feel like to my student, and I used the example of our childhood lullabies. Do you remember the lullabies from your childhood? I give you my personal favourite:

Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop,

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,

When the bough breaks, the cradle will drop,

And down will come baby, cradle and all.

I vividly remember my mum carrying me as a young (and light!) child, singing this lullaby, rocking me gently with an almost-manic grin, and suddenly dipping her body and arms on the “cradle will drop” line. Giggles all round, good times for all. Thinking back now, my dad certainly enjoyed doing that too, but he also enjoyed throwing my sister and I up into the air, probably more than the “cradle will drop” thing. (Evidence currently shows that we weren’t dropped too many times on our heads.)

What does any of this have to do with close reading? This is just an innocent lullaby we sing to children to get them to sleep, right?….. riiiiight…?

Well, maybe not.

Some of us may have problems with the word “bough”, since we no longer use the word very often these days. It means “the main branch of a tree”. So far, so good. The bough breaks, the baby falls, ha ha ha. But where does the baby fall from? The treetop. The top of the tree. Look at any tree around you! That’s a fall too far for any baby to survive!

Grim, isn’t it?

And it doesn’t stop there. If we look at itsy-bitsy spider (another one of my favourites), we see arachnophobia (meaning: the fear of spiders) in grand action:

Itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the water spout.

Down came the rain and washed the spider out.

Out came the sun and dried up all the rain.

And the itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the spout again.

What’s a spout? Think of the little teapot, short and stout. Ah, that’s its spout (through which the tea is poured). Careful, there’s a spider there! Though, in this case it’s probably a spout exposed to the rain, which may mean that the spout is that of a water pump. Careful, there’s a spider in your water!!!!

I have to admit that this isn’t close reading, an activity that is much more involved than just thinking about what a spout or treetop is. But if you registered the shock of realising that some of our most treasured lullabies are actually quite grim and scary, that’s the kind of emotion you want to register when you read something closely. Some of the most powerful poems have that same power to shock and move us, and if you get a poem for the unseen poetry section of your exam, you can be sure that there is some kind of power hidden there. You just have to find it.

For more on close reading, I highly recommend Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem (And Fall in Love with Poetry). If you don’t have time for a book (time management!!), you may find the University of Victoria’s guide useful.