On Wordsworth

Rich Russell
Jay Peterson
Brit Lit II

1 Feb. 2018

[Reading Response #2: Wordsworth]

As I re-read Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a Cloud,” I kept thinking of two concepts: ecotherapy and 9th Grade English. I remember having to recite this poem in front of the class for some reason (because it was in the textbook? because I have always been fond of flowers?), and though I only still have committed to memory the first four lines, I have inflicted them in spontaneous recitation upon many since that time: when visiting the Lake District, for example, or the floral department at Shop Rite around Easter. What’s interesting in this poem is both the experience of the “host, of golden daffodils” and then the recollection of that experience from the couch; and then, for me now, my initial experience with the poem in English class and now the memory of that initial experience: remembering a poem about remembered daffodils. Memory has come up several times this week: in World Literature (though I can’t remember why; ha!––something in a Richard Blanco poem, I think, about his memories of Cuba) and also as we discuss facts and truth in Creative Writing. I have found myself thinking about William James, too, trying to remember something in his theory of memory about the experience and then how there is a copy or image made of that experience which is what we actually “recollect in tranquility:” almost a treachery of recollection, then––there is always a distancing (like an insistent em-dash), several removes from what has actually occurred.

But there has also been so much written recently about ecotherapy: how nature can lower our stress levels and improve our physical health (I mean, duh), even if we are just staring at trees while sitting for hours munching chips and sipping Pimm’s cup in the shade. I remember the title of one Atlantic article from a few years ago, “The Nature Cure,” and also a recent book called The Nature Fixthat discuss doctors who are prescribing nature as a remedy for certain illnesses and to help speed recovery after surgery. This seemed obvious to the Romantics and to the Transcendentalists of two hundred years ago; only now are scientists coming to study the reasons how. What’s interesting, though, is that for those who can’t have ready access to nature, scientists have supposedly shown that there are benefits to even just having a computer wallpaper of a beach scene set or a picture of a forest taped up on a windowless office wall. This had me wondering if there isn’t some study to be had about the psychological and physiological benefits of reading Wordsworth. Has a study like this already been done? It feels like it must have. Can the act of reading about daffodils lower the blood pressure while filling the heart with pleasure? Somewhere, someone must be studying the intersection of ecotherapy and bibliotherapy; some scientists floating above the readers above the poem, seeing the host of words and measuring their worth (had to be done).

But back to the treachery of tranquility(is that what I said?), those beginning two lines with the wandering, floating speaker––which have always reminded me of Emerson’s transparent floating eyeball––conjure someone who seems already removed from the action: not part of the dance at all but only able to participate when in recollection.

landscape photography of field covered with yellow flowers

Photo by Takao Numata on Pexels.com

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[As of setting stylishly be-socked foot in the classroom on September 4, I am a tenured Assistant Professor of English here at the college. Here is part of the opening narrative I put together for the tenure packet.]

I have spent most of my life here at Atlantic Cape Community College. When I was four or five, I went to the daycare center in “J” building; I remember parading around campus on Halloween, collecting treats from the secretaries in the offices. When I was a bit older, I can still recall certain magical days over spring break or other holidays being locked in my mom’s office in “B1” or allowed to hide away and read in one of the silent study rooms in the library. In middle school, I attended the ACC Summer Kids Camp, taking lessons in chess and karate. In high school, before dual enrollment existed, I spent the summer after my junior year in Adjunct Professor Rich Weems’ Creative Writing I class;[1] after my senior year, I enrolled in Psychology 101 with Dr. Marty Marino. When I graduated from high school, I did what many eighteen-year olds do: I went away to a small college in Virginia, built near an old Civil War battlefield, a place that looked idyllic enough in the brochure. I thought I was supposed to study something like medicine; I was miserable. When I left one weekend in October and decided not to return, I was unsure what the world would make of me. In January, during what had become the winter of my discontent, I enrolled as a full-time student here at the college. Working with Mary Yoa, Ron McArthur, Jim MacNair, and especially Gerri Black that spring semester, I felt the beginning of something take root and begin to develop, an appreciation for the human experience as expressed through our history, social and technological developments, and our writing. I graduated the following spring with associate’s degrees in General Studies and Liberal Arts and was accepted to New York University, where I completed my bachelor’s degree in English. Looking out at my own classes here at the college, both during my years as an adjunct and now for the past five years as an Assistant Professor of English, I am reminded of Whitman (and of reading Whitman in John Pekich’s Humanities class); Whitman, who writes in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” that “I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence, / … / I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me.” In the same rooms where I once watched my professors and waited for my life to begin, only to realize later that it already had, so, too, do my students now watch and wait. Where I wondered or worried about where life was headed, while already well upon the journey, my students now wonder and worry, looking to me for direction, me who has been there––and who knows how it is.

I feel this same sense of synchronicity when I am in my current office, which used to be Gerri’s office (where I would come to sit and to work as a student and editor of Rewrites; now the advisor to Rewrites); sitting in the same chair that once belonged to former department chair Mary Tower. Here, as I meet with students or (as English coordinator) adjunct professors, there is a sympathy I find with our shared history both as a college and in my own personal story. In November 2013, when I led the IRC book discussion on Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I was reminded by the authors that the etymology of the word educationcomes from the Latin ex(“out of”) and ducere(“to lead”): thus, a leading outof knowledge. This is supported in an active, democratic learning space, which I first experienced in my Master’s in Teaching program at The New School (formerly, New School University). In this program, I took classes my first semester with titles such as Curriculum and Pedagogy in Urban Schools; Language and Learning (in which we traced our own relationship to English in a language autobiography); Youth, Identity and Culture; and Teaching for Social Change. Our readings included works by Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Mina Shaughnessy, and Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children. We also received placements for our observation and student-teaching work that first semester. Because at the time I was living in Astoria, Queens, I was paired with a Language Arts teacher at Middle College High School, a charter school on the campus of LaGuardia Community College. Students at Middle College who graduated with a high GPA were provided free tuition to attend LaGuardia; students who were successful at LaGuardia were given scholarship money towards completing their bachelor’s work. This was long before neighboring programs, such as New Jersey’s STARS. Now, as I look back, I see in my time at Middle College High School the delicate intersection of my experience as a college student, my work as a high school teacher, and my future as a professor at the community college.

The week before I began my observation work at Middle College, September 11th happened. When classes resumed the next week, students in the Language Arts class were beginning Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which takes its title from W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming.” The teacher passed out the poem and read through it with the students. “The centre cannot hold,” Yeats writes. “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Sitting in a classroom across the river from where the twin towers still smoldered, the students were immediately animated in their response. One student claimed, “This guy predicted 9/11!” All of us across the country, but especially in the city, lived in a trance-like state of carrying on that September. But in the classroom, I found there was something more than just a performance of normality. I found in the classroom that there was a sanctuary, too. The world may still have seemed to be falling apart outside, as we were reading “Things fall apart” (Yeats), but we were able to, if not make sense of what had just happened, find a certain comfort in our discussions. I still find that solace when I am in the classroom today. We are led out of ourselves in order to connect with the work of others and to articulate (usually in writing) our own ideas and experiences. As literary scholar Harold Bloom notes in “How to Read and Why,” “Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures. It returns you to otherness.” As writers, we want to know that our experiences and ideas matter to our audience: “to make them believe,” as Henry Miller demands, and as I urge my students. It is also why my favorite essay, which I often use in Composition I, is Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” In this, Lorde says, “Your silence will not protect you. [… It] is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive, by taking part in a process of life that is creative and continuing, that is growth.”

I know that I have grown as a teacher since my observation and student-teaching work at Middle College; since my years at Northern Highlands Regional High School and at Mainland; since my time spent as an adjunct at Atlantic Cape and at Stockton. I have grown and yet not forgotten, for the art of teaching requires frequent and active reflection.

September 2017

[1]This class was held at Mainland Regional High School, where ten years later I would return to teach in their English Department, though I could never have foreseen any of that at the time. Only in retrospect can one fully trace all the predictive threads of a life.

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From an email to Fran, 12/13/17

Francis, we are in the last tight squeeze of the semester. One more day of classes for me and then exams next week. I was speaking to a student yesterday about this time of year. She was saying that she always feels stressed at the end of the fall semester, what with finals and the holidays; and how she finds the holidays difficult, being neither religious nor much for consumerism. I offered that it was also a difficult time for some because we are going into the dark time of the year, but then mentioned the first line from Theodore Roethke’s poem of similar title: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” I think there is some comfort if we see this time of year as a time of reflection and re-visioning.
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Porching, 6/19

Uncle Bob: If I could relive any year––

Karen: Ooh, I love this game!

Uncle Bob: It would be the summer of either ’67 or ’68.

Karen: And you, Mr. Russell? Oh, I know…

That year in London.

Uncle Bob finds it much cooler on the other side of the porch. He peers over the rail. But just look at that sky, he says.

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Week 1: Thomas Cole and the sublime

THE passion caused by the great and sublime in nature is astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. The mind is so entirely filled with its object that it cannot entertain any other, nor reason on that object which fills it. Astonishment is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; its inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect. No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as terror; and whatever is terrible with regard to sight, is sublime. ––Edmund Burke, Elements of the Sublime

Another fall semester begins tomorrow.

Here I am sitting at the kitchen table listening to All Things Considered and considering everything 19th Century. Over the course of fifteen Thursday afternoons, we will listen to a nation struggle to find its sleepy voice, eventually awakening into electric song.

I realize: the last time I taught 19th Century American Literature was the semester of “the Sandy storm,” as one ESL student wrote.

When I was visiting Cedar Grove this summer, during a late-June stay with my sister in Hudson, I decided that this is who I would begin with on Day 1, after introductions and the syllabus are dispensed.


Kaaterskill Falls (1826)

Scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has never been lifted affect the mind with a more deep toned emotion than aught which the hand of man has touched. Amid them the consequent associations are of God the creator––they are his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into the contemplation of eternal things. ––Thomas Cole, “Essay on American Scenery,” American Monthly, January 1836

River in the Catskills (1843)

In this age, when a meager utilitarianism seems ready to absorb every feeling and sentiment, and what is sometimes called improvement in its march makes us fear that the bright and tender flowers of the imagination shall all be crushed beneath its iron tramp, it would be well to cultivate the oasis that yet remains to us. […] Yet I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away––the ravages of the axe are daily increasing––the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation. The wayside is becoming shadeless, and another generation will behold spots, now rife with beauty, desecrated by what is called improvement. ––Thomas Cole, “Essay on American Scenery”

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow (1836)

At a lecture last fall for the Stockton exhibit Tomorrow is Never, the artist Emily Weiner projected Cole’s The Course of Empire to illustrate our human fascination with architectural deterioration.

As she clicked through each slide, I felt such a frisson of ruinenlust run through me.

The Course of Empire: The Savage State (1836)

The Course of Empire: The Consummation (1836)

The Course of Empire: Desolation (1836)

Cole, too, will help to introduce themes of American Romanticism as we move to the Gothic; with works read for Week 2 including the first three chapters of Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly; Or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker; Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and Ichabod; and Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” […]

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“I mean, to whom do you beautifully belong?” ––Henry James

Remember?––it was on that hot day in April when we sat out in the quad under a tree. I gave you-all the article from that month’s Atlantic on the end of whom; and asked, “Will any of us really miss it?”

Even I do not think that I will miss it; not that much, anyhow. Like a relative who passes, and condolences are sent, but you admit, “We weren’t very close.” So: it was not a question to be asked. This was not a vigil for whom. The bell had already tolled for whomWhom (denied love) dies young, Menander.

Then, you-there (singular girl) said, “How is it used?” and I said, “As an object pronoun. If you can pair it with him or her, then you should use whom. At least: that’s how I always remember.”

And just when we had almost conceded––to just let it slip away––to say, “One day they will see whom written in our literature and, like something from Shakespeare; sneer, ‘Did people really used to talk like that?‘ and”––you-there said you were going to start to use it in the everyday; to keep it, object dropped into your pocket, all the more precious for being unwanted, all the more grotesque for being half-dead, and take it out at parties or in casual conversation.

“I’m going to start to use it now that I know how,” is what you said.

And I, because it gave me such hope for some reason (so beautiful to think that one girl saying that she would not just let a derelict word go-gentle should inspire such a desperate tenderness in me: that maybe all of it still mattered, at least for a hot moment in April under the tree), I smiled then; and said, “I hope that you do, Rachael.”

For whom will beautifully belong to you now––is what I mean.

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TST: “Let’s Go”––Matt & Kim

Miss Williams & I went to the Matt & Kim show at the HoB in AC last month.

Such a fun time!

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TST: “Golden Revolver”––San Cisco

My sister sends me songs she’s recording/mixing on Thursdays; ones to inspire me through the next week (or at least through the weekend). Most of them are TOP SECRET.

She calls this practice “Theme Song Thursday.”

Here’s my theme song for you this Thursday, sister.

You can find love in the most extraordinary places
Hiding away so no one can trace them
You duck and weave through the maze of hatred,
And found yourself something but you kept it all

So why would I try?
When you’re not even remotely, remotely kind?

Madison and I took in the San Cisco show at Johnny Brenda’s last month.

MADISON AND I had a quick bite beforehand at KRAFTWORK down the street from JB’s. Amidst hipsters and over homemade ginger beer, we talked about people in life who appear to be, in Madi’s term, “flailing.” But we are not flailing; do I seem to be flailing? (She said I did not.) People who need to “take their blinkers off this time and maybe…”

Maybe you will find what you’re looking for; is heavenly the sky
Slow down and read the signs
Cause you’re going too fast and you’re leaving us behind.

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“So that butter––can’t be butter, then.”

Two weeks ago (April 2nd), Lauren and I attended the American Vegan Society‘s spring dinner at Atlantic Cape Community College’s student-run Carême‘s restaurant.

Nota bene: While Lauren and I are not strictly vegan (she and her hubby went out for steaks this past Saturday), we rather fancy ourselves omnivorous bon vivants.

Confession: I was a vegetarian for six years during high school and as an undergraduate. I started eating meat again the summer I spent with another Lauren in another city.

We found seats at a table featuring a retired couple and a man with his mother-in-law.

The first course was waiting for us.


SPRING ROLL with pineapple drizzle

Second course was maybe my fav.


PURÉE of CARROT SOUP with cardamom drizzle / sweat pea

A mixed green salad followed. Then the fourth course / MAIN.


“SALISBURY STEAK” with tempura ring, mushroom demi, sweet potato whip, and snow peas

(This “steak” was comprised of lentils, tempeh, and potatoes.)

Coffee & dessert.


DONUT with jam and vanilla bourbon whip


“It’s margarine.”

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“Oh, Brother. Thank god for you.”

––my sister texts.


“Yes. [With everything…] Then I think, but Rich understands me, so I’m ok.

My sister had lost her key. But she found one: another one.

“It is good you got a key. That seems significant somehow. Like that scene in Mrs Dalloway.”

…the aeroplane shot further away again, in a fresh space of sky, began writing a K, an E, a Y perhaps?


“My friend Emily once told me that, when she was feeling depressed about her own life, But Rich Russell still loves me, and that she felt ok again.”

…he could not read the language yet; but it was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty, and tears filled his eyes as he looked at the smoke words languishing and melting in the sky and bestowing upon him in their inexhaustible charity and laughing goodness one shape after another of unimaginable beauty and signalling their intention to provide him, for nothing, for ever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty!

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