Skip to content ↓

Keyser, Hartford sixth-graders muse about art, gods and death via e-mail

Professor Jay Keyser has a bunch of new friends named Nicolas, Kate, Matt, Sonja, Katie, David, Danny, Adam, Traci, Jenn, Russ, Amanda, Kyle, Nicole, Zach, and two guys named Tim.

They're 11- and 12-year-old students in Christina Carpenter's sixth-grade class in the Watkinson School in Hartford, CT.

Dr. Keyser and his new friends have discussed imagery, symbolism, metaphor, Buddhism, Hartford poet Wallace Stevens, Australian aboriginal spiritualism, life and death, and bees and trees, among other subjects.

However, as well as they know each other, they have never met face-to-face. The relationship is a study in distance learning.

This semester, the youngsters have been reading On the Horizon, a collection of poetic myths written by Dr. Keyser, the Peter J. Florez Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy and a special assistant to the provost. He put the poems on the Internet several months ago to coincide with their publication, and Ms. Carpenter saw them and e-mailed him to ask if he would mind responding to questions from her class. Professor Keyser readily agreed.

"They're a very diverse bunch indeed," said Ms. Carpenter of her students. "They're such a group of individuals that they often have a hard time working together. They all want to go their own ways." Nevertheless, they worked in teams on this project, discussing the poems and formulating questions jointly. The questions and answers were exchanged via e-mail.

The dialogue has been thought-provoking and edifying for everyone involved. "Their questions are superb," Professor Keyser said. The students have been inspired to write poems of their own, which will also be posted on the web. A sampling of the exchanges follows.

Students: Why did you name a poem "Why the Gods Do Not Speak"?

Keyser: Perhaps I should have named it "Why the Gods Do Not Speak to Us." In all my poems the gods speak to one another, but for us they are not only silent but invisible. I thought I needed to explain why we can't see or hear them. So a number of the myths are attempts to show "indirectly" that the gods were here.

What gods are you talking about in your poems?

The gods I am talking about in the poems are the gods in the poems. Just those gods. No others. If you want to know more about them, then use your imagination. Whatever you imagine will be true.

One of your poems is called, "How God Made a Hell" but then when you open it, it says, "How god dug a hole" ���������������������������Did you purposely do that?

I really did mean to say that this god was so filled with hatred and horrible thoughts that he could fill up a hole the size of a village with those thoughts. I was hoping that the word "hole" would remind you of the word "hell." They both begin and end with the same sounds, "h" and "l".

Why do you say that the gods are forgotten because we think that they are not?

I don't think most people would connect the beautiful world we live in with the seven gods I write about. That is why I said they are forgotten. But I mean that the gods are forgotten in a deeper sense. The Aboriginals believe that the earth is alive and that to do it harm is a sin. But by doing the earth harm, they mean things that we never think of as harmful.

Do you think that trees are really alive?

I do think that trees are living things. After all, they grow. They give off seeds and the seeds grow into new trees and, of course, they die. What I think you are really asking is, are trees animate? That is, do I think that they can feel things, that they have a will of their own, that they can move around of their accord. Here I have to say that the answer is no. I do not think trees can feel. But I do not think we should respect them the less for that. There are certain trees that have my complete and undying respect. They are called baobab trees. They grow in Africa. I saw them in Tanzania. Those trees are 4,000 years old! They are older than Jesus and Moses. Amazing!

Where do you think death really lives?

Death lives wherever life is. In fact, I think that life and death are two sides of a coin, like heads and tails. You can't have one without the other. The god who wanted to know where death lived might have done well to spend her time in other ways than waiting to die. Death will come to her when it is good and ready.

In "The Flailing God," we would like to know why you used a bee following the god.

I will tell you the autobiographical truth and then I will tell you the artistic truth. They are not always the same. The autobiographical truth is that several years ago I was on an island called Bali which is in the South Seas. It is a very beautiful island and I was staying in a hut with a thatched roof. The hut was in the middle of a rice paddy. The shower in this hut was actually outside! Beautiful flowers and vines grew all around the shower wall which only came up to my chest so that I could actually look out at the forest and up to the sky while I was showering. It was wonderful to get up in the morning except for one thing. I had forgotten about bees. One morning while I was showering a bee actually stung me where I sit down! It hurt so much I never forgot.

The artistic reason why I chose a bee was that it seemed just the right sort of insect to bother a god. It would be small enough and fast enough that the god wouldn't easily be able to swat it. Also, I thought many of my readers were likely to have been bothered in the same way and this would make it easier for them to identify with the flailing god. So I chose a bee.

The title of one of your poems is "Why the Gods Left No Trace When They Died." This doesn't make sense because gods are supposedly immortal. Why then did you write a poem about the gods leaving no trace when they died?

The gods I wrote about did die. They came to Earth. They made it beautiful. They died. They are, after all, my gods and I can have them do what I want. That is the wonderful thing about the world of imagination.

I mourn my dead gods. I wish they hadn't died. But that is the way things are.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 3, 1998.

Related Topics

More MIT News