As promised, I am going to fill you in on the interesting bits of last month, and then hopefully over the next few days I will catch up to today. The last thing I talked about was the moving of the equipment for the concert, so I will pick up there. The Bach Christmas Oratorio at St. Peter's College Chapel was a huge success, and three of my classmates (Ben, Liz, and Amie) came out to see it. We went to Bar Copa afterward for some hot cocoa and mince pies, which Ben had brought with him. Everyone had had a great time, and we were all especially impressed with the male alto who had sung a number of solos. He is a music student, and he hadn't come to the big rehearsals, so the concert was my first time hearing him. His range is higher than mine! When he first began to sing, I looked around for a girl, and I saw this tall, young-faced boy in a tuxedo standing at the front. He did quite well with some very challenging pieces, as did the other two soloists, a stern-looking bass and a wheelchair-bound soprano (female). I hear tell that someone recorded the concert, so I will try to see if it gets posted online, and add the link here.
Of course, there were two other events before the concert I hadn't had a chance to post about! On Friday 26 November, when I probably should have been working on my Paleography transcription, I volunteered at Christmas Lights Night. This is a beautiful tree-lighting (well, city-lighting, really!) ceremony they do in Oxford that involves lots of singing, mulled wine, and mince pies. There is also a beautiful parade put together by the local schoolchildren, who make paper lanterns in some surprisingly elaborate shapes (there were buses, motorcycles, horse-heads, and balloons!) and then carry them around the streets of Oxford in a big procession that finishes in front of the big tree on Broad Street, which is then lit by a minor celebrity--this year it was the actors from the popular detective show Lewis, which is often filmed in and around Oxford. (I've seen them film at Lincoln a few times now!) In helping to organize this, I was asked to take care of the children of St. Gregory's, meaning I walked along with them and made sure none of them wandered off or got lost or trampled in the crowd. They were 8th years, which means they were probably about the same age as our 8th graders, and mostly girls, with one very brave (and quite young-looking, poor thing) boy named Colm. He carried half of their big lantern, which was shaped like a school bus full of children, for the entire night, while the girls tended to swap off with the other end and with their smaller, geometric-shaped lanterns, which they carried on sticks. I had fun chatting with them, asking what school is like in England, and with one of their teachers, who was walking with us. (She told me that they are always looking for teaching assistants, so I might check it out later this year, once I have decided whether I am staying here or not.) The parade wound from Bonn Square up through the central shopping district, down Turl street and up Brasenose Lane, around the Radcliffe Camera and into Broad Street. We were meant to get there exactly at 6:30, when the lights would come on, and we were pretty close, but as my group was near the back of a very long parade, we got to the tree after it had already been lit. The kids didn't really care, as the whole town had turned out to watch the parade, and they were busy waving at their friends and families and marveling at the carousel and vendor booths that had been set up in front of the Sheldonian and Blackwells. It was really beautiful, and I was so pleased to have been a part of it, though sad that I couldn't stay to sample any of the treats or check out the vendors' wares, as I had to get to work on my exam. Sigh. Maybe next year!
The following day was Thanksgiving II. Having Skyped (or technically, iChat Video-ed) into my own family's Thanksgiving dinner that Thursday, I was glad to be going to one where I could actually taste the food! Everyone was meant to bring something, and I had offered to make candied yams. I had never done this before, but I imagined I would just buy a can or two of yams and cover them in brown sugar. Of course, I soon learned that they don't really do canned yams in the UK (nor do they refer to them as yams), so I had to purchase raw sweet potatoes and do it from scratch. Not knowing how many sweet potatoes were in a typical can, I purchased seven of the enormous and funny-shaped roots and prayed that it would suffice. I got them home and immediately hit the internet to find out what to do with them. A few sites said you had to boil them, skins and all, first, so I pulled out all the pots we had (these things were monsters, and the largest pot in the house could only hold three of them!) and set to boiling. I also had no idea how long it would take to boil them, as the photos on the webpage I looked at showed much smaller sweet potatoes than mine, so I just kept poking them with a fork every 10-20 mins to see if they were soft yet. One very humid kitchen later, I had pots full of orange water, and was afraid I had made a mistake. But I "cracked on," as Will Poole would say, and set to work removing the skins, which was actually really easy; they rubbed right off of the (very hot!) potatoes, and then I sliced them into rings and laid them out in my brand new Pyrex baking dish, purchased just for this purpose at Boswells. I then put some butter in a saucepan and simmered it, added brown sugar, and made a sauce to pour over the yams. Thinking that couldn't be enough, I looked up another recipe that said to dot butter on the potatoes and sift sugar and flour over them...so I dotted butter, made a mixture of a lot of brown sugar and a little flour, and shook this as evenly as possible over the dish. My now-really-sweet potatoes then went into the oven for I knew not how long, so I just kept checking them until the butter had all melted and everything looked nice and dark and smelled amazing. In the meantime I had cut up some colourful old pieces of junk mail and taped them together to form a turkey, which I used as decoration when I got to the party.
I was late leaving for Jason's house (the boiling process took longer than I had anticipated!), and I had to get all the way across Oxford to Jericho with this burning hot dish (I borrowed Jackie's vegetable box to protect my fingers), so you can imagine what a spectacle I was, running awkwardly and trying not to slosh hot sugar sauce all over the place. Amusingly, when I got there and pressed the bell, nothing happened, so I ended up having to shout up at the window like Romeo just to get in. Jason has a beautiful two-floor flat, with an enormous kitchen/living space that has fun hardwood floors (I say fun because I spent some time sliding and pirouetting about in my socks...). They had started eating before I got there, but they were excited to add my yams to the mix. Everyone was amazed at how good they looked and smelled, and then when they started to dig in there were exclamations of joy from all over the room, so I guess the experiment was a success! Aside from my yams, there was the turkey and a rice stuffing done by Rachel, a cranberry salad made by Liz, a green bean casserole (which was surprisingly awesome!) made by Robby, mustard greens by Jason, some lovely rolls a la Susie, Will brought cider, and I can't remember who brought apples. Then for dessert there was Rachel's pumpkin pie, Amie's rice pudding pie, and some brownies brought by Jason's friend whose name is escaping me right now. We all said what we were thankful for, and we toasted to the holiday. There was so much amazing food, and such great company, it was a fantastic night! [Funny side note; as I am typing this I have my "soundtracks" playlist going on iTunes, and the theme song to Tail Spin just came on. This is making me giggle, because at a late point in the night of Thanksgiving II, we were discussing childhood cartoons, and I burst into a rendition of this, among others like Gummi Bears, Darkwing Duck, and Eureka's Castle...]
The next day I raced in the IWL-Bs, on a freezing cold day (there was ice on the docks and on the oars). We had not been in our proper lineup at all that week because of people being ill or having conflicts, so we were a little nervous. We also had a reputation to maintain as the fastest boat on the Isis! We went out there with a focus on rhythm; we had to hold a rate of 32 strokes per minute, and we'd had trouble holding that during the week. Miraculously (or as a result of adrenaline), we found that rate within the first five strokes, and we held it the entire race. We had Wolfson college behind us, who supposedly had a strong crew, so we really wanted to hold them off. Despite getting our rate early, the row felt sort of slow and heavy, and Nicole and I were pretty certain Wolfson had gained some water by the end of it. We were cold and tired and a little down when we climbed out onto the icy dock, but we went home semi-hopeful. When results were released the next day, we were in the #2 spot, but not after Wolfson, whom we had beaten after all. The Oxford Academicals, with whom I rowed in 2009, were apparently now the fastest boat! This made us a little pouty, but I went on Facebook and congratulated some friends from that team. Susan sent me a reply that said there was no way the time was right, as their boat had been mostly novices, and that they were contacting the race organizers. Sure enough, a few hours later there was a new results list sent out...with Lincoln W1 in first place yet again! ::dances:: This of course means we are going to have to work hard during the break to maintain our fitness so we can hold that place next term, and we are already looking forward to a spring training trip in Banyoles, Spain. Exciting!
That Monday night I went to a drinks reception for the telethon callers. This wasn't an overly exciting event--very informal, held in the development office, just an hour long--but we were greeted by some influential alumni, including one woman named Lynn Shepherd who has just published a novel called "Murder at Mansfield Park." I talked to her for a little bit about novel writing, but we were unfortunately interrupted before I could ask her about the procedure for approaching publishers. The next evening was a much more exciting event: the inaugural lecture of the new Professor of Poetry. His name is Geoffrey Hill, and he is a poet and professor who looks like Santa Claus and Dumbledore put together, and he is a marvelous speaker with a stentorian voice (despite his chest cold and sore throat that night). He speaks slowly and carefully, but with gravity. He recites German poetry with a powerful edge to his voice, with spat syllables and angry vowels. French he speaks almost mockingly, drawing out the endings with a frown/sneer. When quoting other authors, he does their voices (or his idea of their voices), like a parent reading a story to a child. He points and taps and bangs the table for emphasis. Really an incredibly dynamic speaker, and very conscious--he stumbled over words once and shouted "dammit" into the microphone, and later he stumbled again and said "oh, ffffffffor Christ's sake!" His lecture was entitled "How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester," which is a line from Shakespeare's King Henry IV, Part ii. I don't know exactly what he meant by it, actually, unless it was to make fun of his own white hairs, because he was certainly a bit of a jester! Although I took extensive notes, there is no way I can give a complete sense of his lecture here, but I have recorded some quotations below. (As he said of Shakespeare's Sonnet 66, "The total effect cannot be paraphrased; it can only be delivered by the words and the rhythms themselves.")
Memorable Moments from Geoffrey Hill's Lecture
Is poetry perjury?
"I do apologise for this stupid, stupid infection. (pause) In that particular case I mean my chest, not poetics!"
"I am a traumatized old man, and my opinions, particularly on contemporary poetry, are decidedly peculiar."
"Contemporary poetry already receives far more encouragement than it deserves."
"There is very little original in what I have to say, except that as a poet of the secular millennium I have a problem with original sin itself, which must put me among a select group of weirdoes."
"Blackmore, along with Trilling, represents the finest of American literary criticism in the 20th century. Even in his misjudgments there is a form of love."
He laments the "loss of the ontological reader over the last century. Its a tragedy."
Blackmore wrote that the art of poetry, versus the manufacture of verse, is distinguished by the animating presence of a fresh idiom that adds to the stock of available reality. "Isn't that great? I wish I'd written that."
"If I were to offer anything to the young poet, aside from the conventional revolver and glass of brandy, I'd say don't try to be sincere. Don't try to express your innermost feelings. But do try to be creative."
"Austen is probably right; a poem is not *real,* the way a...railway notice is real."
Regarding the disgust in Shakespeare's Sonnet 66: "You hear it if you're an ontological reader."
Poetry is its own tautology, where the thing becomes the meaning. "...that which was horizontal leaps as you pronounce it into vertical, or as if non-dimensional thought became three-dimensional."
"Accessibility has no place in poetry or poetics."
"When did it begin, this fantasy, that the literary scene of the day is a national treasure, when what it resembles most is a landfill?"
Re: his predecessor as Professor of Poetry, Christopher Ricks (whom I have met, and adore), he calls him "an inspired and inspiring choice." "I think he is the only younger critic whom Empson genuinely admired. Speaking as a traumatized old man, I do regret his decision to publish the book on Bob Dylan [this is the book C.R. sent me in 2009! It's sitting on my night stand back home]. As a verse writer, he is simply not good enough to deserve even the protracted suspended animation of [Ricks's] mind."
"When Ricks is at his best, and he is so more than the rest of us, he can move the axis of the earth with his little finger. But Dylan is not an axis. He is, at best, and effective skimmer."
Closing lines: "Intrinsic value may be just a figure of speech, but it is a meaningful figure of speech. And when you say there has been a reduction in intrinsic value, people generally know what you mean."
He then walked out (hunched over his cane, looking frail in his flowing Oxford gown) to a standing ovation that shook the room, and did not stop for a very long time. I was thrilled to have been there, and I look forward to the next lecture (the professorship comes with an obligation to do a 15-lecture series). I went to the reception room afterward to meet him, though he really wasn't feeling well and couldn't stay long. They were selling copies of his books there, and I flipped through the Selected Poems to get a sense of his writing. His early work is quite beautiful, though the more recent collection was rather harsh and dealt with contemporary problems. Nevertheless, I liked him enough to purchase the book, and I got him to sign it for me, so I now have autographed books from the 43rd and 44th Oxford Professors of Poetry. I wonder if I can make this a running tradition...
Well! I have been typing for so long that my fingers ache, so I think I will end on this delightful note. ( ::sings:: Laaaaa! Wasn't that delightful?) I have only brought us to 1 December, so look to hear more from me very soon about how December has gone so far. I hope everyone is enjoying this snowy winter--I hear back home in Jersey a quarter-inch of snow caused hour-long traffic jams. We are meant to have snow all day tomorrow, and I hope to get some pretty pictures of this old city with all the modern stuff whited out.
Take care for now, and keep smiling!