Friday, 31 July 2009

Sonnets, more of.

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year's leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year's bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide

There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, "There is no memory of him here!"
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!
-Edna St. Vincent Millay

[via The Writer's Almanac and Sonnets.Org]

Wednesday, 29 July 2009


I listen to The Writer's Almanac religiously and repeatedly, though I hardly ever remember anything I hear and am often (rather too often) surprised by my own ignorance in my supposed academic field. Once in a while a line or an image will stick and if I don't look it up at the time and make a note of it, going back through all the podcast episodes to find it again can prove difficult - depending on how much detail my sieve of a brain has preserved.

Anyway I'm glad I was able to dig this one up, because I'm a fan of meta-textual poetry (I'm sorry if that makes me sound like a ponce - what I mean is poetry which talks about the act of composition), of playing with form, of Petrarchan love, and of anything which briefly brings the Middle Ages to life. The Almanac gives a rather good introduction to the sonnet, which explains some 'inside-jokes' for anyone unfamiliar with its history and devices.


All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love's storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here wile we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.
- Billy Collins

[via The Writer's Almanac and Billy-Collins.Com]

*incidentally, thank you, Billy Collins, for putting your poetry online. I'm not sure if you make all your poetry so freely available but I sure am glad that this one is there.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Can't win'em all.

The results of my MSt dissertation came back last Friday. I found the news waiting in my in-box when I was in the MCR, about to look up some London restaurants in preparation for going there with Rich. So it turns out that unlike what I expected, I came in with a low two-one (64, to be precise. In our system distinction is what's known as a first, and requires 70 or above, and a second, or two-one is anything between 60 and 69).

I think I let out some kind of terrible howl like a dying/enraged animal and everyone stopped in the TV room. I heard DJ and Sarah ask me what's wrong and I rushed in, fell onto Oli's arm, and told them (in what was undboutedly a rather choked and dramatic voice) that I didn't get a distinction.

And I had tried so hard. GOD DAMN IT.

This put a little bit of a damper on my London trip but it was still nice to be in the big city, eating good food, hanging out with Richard's friends (and never having to look at the map because everyone else knew where we were going!). We went to the Tate Britain's late opening, had some promotional free drinks, ate lovely Thai food and then had some more drinks at a small chilled out bar which looks like someone's living room, hastily converted (I'm sure the effect is intentional). Then Rich and I headed home.

So, back to that non-distinction.

Am I disappointed? FUCK YEAH. Crushed? No, not really. This is, however, the first time in my life when I've gotten anything less than what I aimed (academically) to achieve. Ok, ok, technically it's the 2nd time it's happened - I applied for Oxford as an undergraduate, botched the interview (but got a trip to New York with my brother out of it), and was rejected - so I guess that's the other time. Funny how both of them have to do with Oxford. I'm starting to think that it's a bit star-crossed for me.

But hey, it would have been just as disappointing, I suppose, if I had come here and not found Oxford challenging at all?

Back in April when I received the offer from Keble I blogged: "... part of me is afraid that I'll get there and realize that everyone is: A. 10 x more erudite and B. 100 x more intelligent" [via The Pseudopod]. Well, it has transpired that my fears are partially justified. I wouldn't say that absolutely everyone is more erudite and more intelligent - but hell, most of them are really intelligent and the majority also better prepared (god damn it x 2).

The most interesting thing to me though, is this: up until now I have always been fairly confident of being the 'smartest kid in the class,' as it were. This is of course not in the absolute sense, and I certainly didn't walk around with an overwhelming sense of superiority. But it was also something that kind of propped up my self confidence. If I wasn't the smartest, I was still certain of being not too far off. The fact that I graduated from Edinburgh University with the class prize (highest average grade in my undergraduate cohort) kind of underlined that - and when I received my offer from Keble I was feeling pretty good about myself.

Then I came to Oxford and lo - where the hell did all these smart people come from!?!? (insert shock and dismay). I went from not really ever having to ask questions (except questions which touch on ideas not already covered) to really, really wanting to hit the panic button all the time (hello, Ralph). From feeling really on top of my work (whilst feeling like I was working hard - but not too hard), to feeling like I couldn't possibly work hard enough even if I entombed myself with books in the Bodleian.

But on the plus side, I found myself surrounded by really really cool people! (ok, that's a mild exaggeration. Some of them are dull as sticks, though undoubtedly intelligent. But I'm really lucky to have found lots who are both intelligent and interesting). Being in such a intellectually stimulating environment for me is like taking the best conversations from fifty or sixty parties, stringing them together, then re-setting the lot in the Keble MCR or somewhere else in Oxford.

The first couple of times I got this feeling I thought that it couldn't possibly last - then we had this dinner in hall, for St. Mark's Day (also college founding celebration), where Rich and I sat across from Ouldo, a mathematician. Throughout the meal he gave us a pretty invigorating (both in terms of content and manner of delivery) lecture on the beauty of mathematics. It was entropy for starters and mathematics as a system of representation for main course. We followed it up by talking about pornography (both in terms of what we individually prefer, but also our ethical quandaries) over dessert. Looking back, our conversation pretty much proves (to me, at least) that being in this place means that there is always stimulating conversation to be had - whatever the subject. The fact that people are generally quite willing to talk about their research and not at all bothered by having to pitch it to a layman means that I have info-tainment in its best form (personally tailored rather than mass produced by the Discovery channel) all the time.

So I'm pretty grateful for that.

On a more personal level though there is something good about being surrounded by people who I am (secretly) certain are more intelligent than me. All of a sudden I discovered that I don't have to be defensive any more (because I've already lost). I've always been stupidly competitive and often need to (surreptitiously) feel like I am better than people around me in one way or another in order to buoy up my self confidence. Well, here I am - not the prettiest (not that I ever thought I was), not the coolest (didn't ever think I was that either), and definitely not the smartest (two-one! I tell you!).

And miraculously, I'm still me. My friends are still talking to me (I do occasionally fear that they think the less of me because I didn't get a distinction, but I sincerely hope that it's only my inner fears talking). In fact, never in my life have I ever been part of such a loving and close cluster of friends (I used to think that I'm more a satellite - circling around different social clusters). I've also never been happier.

Speaking to others about my recent academic failure has helped me put things into perspective (that's usually the case with me, I'm a talker). The other day Chava and I were walking down the road just by Acland Lodged and I told her that I didn't manage a distinction. She said (very matter-of-factedly): 'But you'll still go on to live a worthwhile and productive life' - I had to agree (and hope fervently that she's right!).

So I'm going to leave Oxford feeling deeply humbled rather than on top of the world, but that's really not such a bad thing. I've found that what makes me me to me is not necessarily a product of being brainy or being the best. Like I have tried to convince myself (with varying degrees of success), it's not a competition - and thank fuck for that, because if it were a competition, there's just no damn way that I'd be able to win'em all.

Back to that distinction (insert string of expletives here) - I tried. Maybe if I had done something different, such as not writing about something I've previously written about (having 'done' flytings in undergrad I found it hard to keep things fresh for myself), not joining the Kebelles (Keble MCR women's fun crew and subsequently, by accident, Keble Women's 2nd crew), or not socializing as much (hello, Trinity MCR Exchange, MCR black-tie, President's Port, and drinks for so many other reasons on so many other occasions) - well, maybe then I would have done better.

But that's really rather beside the point.

Now I have July and August to spend in Britain. Most of that time will be spent down south in Oxford, with my new found family, many of them friends who are going their separate ways after what has seemed like such a short time together, followed by a week back up in Edinburgh catching up with old pals, tying up a few loose ends, and then a one-way ticket back to Toronto on the 31st (insert mild panic).

As ever, the only way to go is forward.