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Not For Sissies

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The following is a guest post by Denise Gallo, supervisory librarian for the Acquisition And Processing Section, Music Division at the Library of Congress.

Denise Gallo at her desk at the Naval Air Station in Sigonella, Sicily.

Until I turned to musicology in the late 1990s, I taught college English. Most semesters, I was constrained to read (and correct) sentence fragments and make sure my students didn’t dangle participles or use commas to splice two sentences together. Some semesters, though, I got to teach literature surveys. Hesitant at first, the students would warm to the short stories and poems, eventually coming to see that the experiences and emotions expressed by their authors often matched their own.

For several years, I taught sailors and Marines on a military base in Sicily. Spending evenings with Frost, Browning, and Whitman took us all away from what was happening—at that point, the daily threat of attack by Muammar Gaddafi. One night, a Marine guard interrupted the class with news that the nearby island of Lampedusa was being fired upon with short-range missiles. All Marines were to return to the barracks and naval air crewmen to the air field. Amid the sound of books slamming shut, one student muttered, “I wish we could have finished this one!”

Rock from the island of Lampedusa, given to Denise Gallo by a Marine student of hers.

That night’s poem was—and still is—one of my own favorites: “Ulysses,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In it, Homer’s hero has grown old and seems doomed to spend the rest of his life meting and doling “unequal laws unto a savage race, / That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.” Restless, Ulysses longs to return to the sea with his mariners, “Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me.”  I think it’s important to pause over that particular phrase, “and thought with me” (emphasis mine). Leaving his kingdom to his son, Telemachus, Ulysses gathers his men. “We are not now that strength which in the old days / Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are.”

It’s the final line, however, that packs all the power, and perhaps the line at which that Marine would have loved to arrive that night: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Not only does it give us reason to continue and never surrender, no matter how old we become (ahem…), but it offers solace in the strength and sheer force of human will.

Poetry, as my sailors and Marines would tell you, is definitely not for sissies.

Comments (3)


  2. Some genuinely wonderful blog posts on this internet site, thanks for contribution. “There is one universal gesture that has one universal message–a smile” by Valerie Sokolosky.

  3. Denise, I hope all is well. It’s been almost 30 years since we were your students. Cyndi Harrison and I were catching up last night sharing our experiences at NAS Sigonella between 1990-1992. We both recalled our shared love for you and your teaching style. Even though it’s been 8 years since this original post I hope it doesn’t yield but seeks, finds and strives to find your inbox. All the best, Will Capp

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