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Is the World Too Much with Us?
January 8, 2008
"I got a computer fits the palm of my hand," complains Brandon Jenkins in his 2004 song, "The Whole World's Gone Crazy." My Blackberry TSM 8830 fits snuggly in my palm, has the ability to surf the net, sends and receives e-mail, and functions as a telephone. Talking on a Blackberry is a bit like holding a phone book up to my head, but it serves several purposes, and serves them well. Chiefly, it keeps me in touch with this world.
Nonetheless, e-mail messages overwhelm me at times, and are beyond overwhelming at others. Several times I have wondered how to balance these cyber connections and the ceaseless demands of communication with all of my other duties.
Naturally, I turn to great writing to search for context and meaning.
Writing for the Common Man
The canonical work at hand here is "The World Is Too Much with Us" by William Wordsworth. Born in 1770 in the rural Lake District of northwest England, Wordsworth might be best known for The Prelude or "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey." He is also remembered as the closest colleague of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who, along with Wordsworth, is credited with revolutionizing eighteenth century Romantic poetry by writing for the common man, rather than exclusively for the upper class.
I first encountered "The World Is Too Much with Us" in a British literature course at university. Dr. Hoogenaker nurtured a decided affinity for the poet, so we spent days wallowing in "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey," a work which appears frequently in senior level high school courses.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours.
A timeless voice, Wordsworth becomes increasingly relevant as the world continues to change and rapidly intrude on physical and mental spaces once held sacred. He published his great poem in 1807. I pause to consider the passage of two hundred years, think back to the landscape, contacts, and communication styles of Wordsworth's era. Curiously, I become jealous of that world he found too much with him. I wonder if I could be more productive then. I wonder if weeklong gaps of time between contacts with others would drink like sweet elixir. I wonder what isolation is like. I wonder what it would be like to receive an occasional letter or physical caller.
Nature and Reflection,
Or Success and Winning?
Many of the criticisms Wordsworth levels against his contemporaries hold true in today's society. Do we not ignore nature? Do we not focus only on success? Do we not proclaim the value of winning at all costs?
On December 21, four days after my last contractual day for the semester, I received 57 emails (45 in my school account), 14 text messages (four concerning my work), and seven phone calls (five about school matters). On a day I had planned to reflect, write, think — and maybe, if the spirit moved me, do a little shopping — I tended instead to several matters brought about by these communications. At day's end I found myself on an evening stroll having accomplished nothing on my list. Days like this send me into longing for Wordsworth's world. I long for time to think and reflect, long for time to be human.
The poet ends with lines likely considered blasphemous at the time. He pines for the spiritual values of the Pagan as a way out, a positive escape from the world that is too much with him. At least the Pagan could see the ancient gods.
. . . Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
Transcending the Centuries
The pressures Wordsworth described 200 years ago from the developing, changing world of his time also ring true today! Forces both overbearing and intrusive transcend the centuries. I feel the forces bearing down now.
As I was thinking about Wordsworth, I drifted to images of Brandon Jenkins and his 2004 release Down in Flames, on which the song "The Whole World's Gone Crazy" spins second.
Down in Flames is the fourth CD from Jenkins, who is best known as a songwriter in the Red Dirt (Texas, Oklahoma) Alternative Country genre. It contains several songs of literary merit. My favorites are "Finger on the Trigger" and "Red Dirt Town," gritty tunes embedded in the stark, rugged, and desperate world of Americana realism.
The genre of Alternative Country, spun partially out of acts like Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown on the alternative side and acts like Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker on the Texas and Oklahoma country music front, boasts several signature artists: Cross Canadian Ragweed, Stoney LaRue, Robert Earl Keen, and the Mike McClure Band (formerly of the Great Divide).
Jenkins in "The Whole World's Gone Crazy" describes his world as one he distrusts:
I've got a computer, fits the palm of my hand
Somehow the satellites know just where I am
I must be paranoid or crazy I guess
to tell you the truth it scares me to death
I don't leave the ground cause I'm too scared to fly
I don't check the mail cause I don't want to die.
The world is too much with Jenkins, too. He admits to a sense of fear and, like others, believes he is paranoid. I cannot personally relate to those feelings. Yes, this world of ours does feel too much with me, but it doesn't scare me. My address floats freely around the internet, and if a surfer dedicated a few seconds searching for credit card information or social security numbers, surely numbers could be found. So be it. I'll deal with what comes my way.
To Letting in the World?
I recently overheard a snippet of casual dialogue that illustrates some commonplace feelings about our world. I was riding with my friend Will on a frivolous little errand to retrieve an antique manure spreader to be utilized as yard art for Will's in laws. Kenny, a mutual friend and owner of the manure spreader, struck up a conversation about cell phones and their use.
Will: Why don't you give me a call tomorrow and let me know when we can leave.
Kenny: You never answer the phone when I call. I am supposed to be the old one here.
Will: What do you mean? I always answer when I'm at home.
Kenny: I know you have Caller ID and Call Waiting. I checked the last time I was at your house.
Will: No way. If we do, I don't know how to use them... if we do.
Kenny: Of all my friends, you are the worst one about staying in touch on the phone and e-mail.
Will: I just hate writing e-mails and answering phone messages. Every time I turn on the e-mail or listen to the messages, I get more work assigned to me in one way or another. I don't want people to be able to reach me. I want to be away from work when I am away. Sorry, man, for being out of touch with you, though.
Kenny: I just don't see how you do it. Are you going to get your teenage daughters cell phones and start carrying one yourself? They need to be able to reach you at all times, no? Are they the only kids without cell phones at their age?
Will: We didn't have them when we were growing up.
Kenny: This ain't when we were growing up.
The conversation between two old friends trailed into silence. By his physical gestures and tone of voice, Will was clearly frustrated with Kenny's chiding accusations. Will was reluctant to change, reluctant to allow the world to be with him at all times.
I pulled out my Blackberry and dispatched a quick e-mail. The conversation switched to trivial banter and fond remembrance. We drove back through the snow towards home, back to civilization.
I thought how strange it was that school teacher Will is so reluctant to change and adapt to technology, while bar owner Kenny gladly embraces it. The teacher's students are growing up in a world very much with them — and they would tell you that they're very much with it. The young waitresses who work at Kenny's Place have likely helped him keep up with the world and stay abreast of the changing technologies.
As my mind often does, it wandered back to the connections I make, in particular the connection between Wordsworth's classic poem and Jenkins' popular song. How does the poetry-pop tunes relationship actually work in revealing meaning? What are the similar themes and shared perspectives that transcend 200 years of worldly change?
Connecting Music and Literature
To Deepen Understanding of Each
We arrive at the essence of the LitTunes project. How can classroom teachers use this pairing to illustrate not only the relevance of "The World Is Too Much with Us," but also other works of literature? What prompts can be created to set the stage for a writing assignment? What other connections can be made between music and literature which not only engage students but also deepen understanding of each?
What would The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) be like if Mark Twain's novel were set in 2008? Would Huck navigate the Mississippi guided by his GPS cell phone? Would he in turn be apprehended much sooner because of the satellites "know[ing] just where [he was]?" Would Huck ignore the Natural world and rely on technology to guide his adventure?
I thought about the many literary works that could be connected to Brandon Jenkins' music. I ponder the possibilities of assembling a team of eight teachers and scholars with wide literary knowledge, teaching them about the music of Jenkins, and then working together to make meaningful connections between lyrics and literary art. I wonder, too, about the opposite proposition: assembling a group of thinkers widely knowledgeable about music and then pointing them towards works of literature by Wordsworth. The group would certainly establish many more connections between the poet's work and pop tunes than the eight connections currently listed in the LitTunes Connections database.
In attempting to make fresh connections, I turn to the students of today to find my inspiration. They have taken the lead in creating new forms of communication, composing most of the 300 billion text messages reportedly sent in 2006. These young folk have tens of thousands of songs at their fingertips, and devote about four times as much of their time to media and electronics as they devote to friends or family. They are wired, musically savvy, and constantly tapping one key pad or another.
Don't you agree that today's students deserve an education attuned to their interests as well as their educational needs?
As we work towards growing LitTunes and deepening the understanding of connecting literature to music, I again urge your involvement in this project. Think about other connections. Think about applications. Think, question, ponder — and be so very, very human in this world we find very much with us.