You are the Bread and the Knife

This semester I'm teaching a course in contemporary literature. In many ways, it's an ideal course. I get to assign all the books I've been meaning to read, and I get to mess around a little bit.

Today, on the second day of class, I wanted to make a move that's common in a course that tries to talk about literature that fits into a historical period. If you teach Shakespeare, then you need to spend a little time helping students of today understand what it was like to live in Elizabethan times.

Why? Because we ask students to project themselves a little bit into the time period so they don't make the mistake of judging past works of art according to contemporary standards that wouldn't have been in place then.

So what's a body to do when the time period you want to explore is your own?

I am uncertain that it's safe to assume that students have a clear understanding of this era. I think a little help framing and contextualizing things can be a big help.

So in my attempts to do this today, I tried to curate a few things to show how print is not the final (or most interesting) form literature can take. In order to make my point, I shared some videos of Billy Collins' Poem "Litany."

The text of the poem is over on the right. The first video is of Billy Collins reading the poem himself and offering a little insight into the process and giving a little background. 

The second video is of this viral YouTube video from last year of a three-year-old kid reciting Collins's poem. The first video is pretty deadpan and hilarious. The second poem is downright adorable.

Take a look for yourselves.

I'm really interested in what digital media is doing to support the spread of traditional art and literature. I'm also very interested in the way that digital media is restoring some of the oral qualities of literature.

Mostly, I love this poem, and that little kid.


Billy Collins

You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine...

-Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine. 

NB: I found this wonderful NPR story on Collins and the little kid. I think it says a lot about how little writers will actually ever know about what people do with their work.