Saturday, July 24, 2010


I have long been an admirer of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and today, reading again about his theories of “inscape” and “instress”, I thought about the collections of teenagers that make up each of my English classes.  Hopkins studied scenes in nature with great care, hoping to detect that which made each scene totally unique, and I often find myself wishing that I could discover the secret something that makes each of my class sessions a one-of-a-kind phenomenon.  In 9A, for instance, the same kids come day after day, but each day – maybe even each moment – there’s a subtly different makeup or motif in the class, something that renders it, for that moment, a class beyond compare. Hopkins would look at the same tree at five different times in a day and say it had a different “inscape” each time – a different makeup, composition, perhaps even character – and I could say the same about a given group of students.  “Instress”, if I understand it correctly, was Hopkins’ term for the force that both energizes and holds together the inscape of every scene and object in nature.  Even a totally motionless tree, according to Hopkins, contained within it a distinctive kind of energy that made it possible to remain a totally unique tree at any given moment. It seems odd to me, but this concept perfectly applies to my classes, each of which seems to fizz with concealed energies, even when stock-still and silent. What’s interesting is that, like the instress in nature, these hidden energies appear to transform moment by moment.  Even a relatively relaxed 10-minute discussion, when I watch and listen with care, can simmer almost visibly with ever-shifting forces, much like a grove of quiet trees quivers, though imperceptibly, with its hidden life. In a poem called “On a Piece of Music”, Hopkins says that “good grows wild and wide”, and I see that in my groups of students, each of which is wild and wide, moment by moment, in special and matchless ways.

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