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Canon Fire 

Pursuing literary trivia points

Published October 25, 2005 at 11:29 p.m.

How do academic initiates unwind on a Friday evening? They hang out with a couple dozen friends, differentiating Shakespearean sonnets from Spenserian ones. At least, that's what happened last weekend. Rhetorical rivalry and lit-crit competition were the entertainment of choice in the back room at Parima's restaurant in Burlington. The "Buckham Chal-lenge" pitted "Old Farts," a.k.a, faculty, against "Smarty Pants" grad students in four rounds of questions based on U.S. and British literary classics.

After tucking into a Thai buffet, the collegiate crowd was called to order by Major Jackson and Mary Lou Kete. The UVM English profs were moderating the event, wine glasses in hand. A stack of Norton Anthologies was available in case of disputes. "We tried this at home, but decided it was the wrong audience," Jackson divulged by way of introduction. The faculty families weren't game. "They called us geeks," he said.

Jackson then gave each player on the two five-person teams a paddle to raise when someone was ready to produce an answer. Each bore the portrait of a literary luminary, such as Oscar Wilde, Joyce Carol Oates or Chinua Achebe.

"Can interpretive dance be substituted for an oral answer?" inquired one Smarty Pants, whose forearms were solidly tattooed.

"Yes," Kete ruled.

"We can't lose," asserted Old Farts captain Huck Gutman. "If we do, it will be because the judges are corrupt."

The early pitches were mainly softballs. When the competitors were challenged to identify the author and title of the work that begins with the line, "Call me Ishmael," the assembled academics groaned because the answer was so obvious.

Later, things got trickier. In the final round -- called "Really?" -- the moderator would state a phrase, but not explain it. The team whose turn it was had to come up with three answers to a question based on the given phrase, and the opposing side had to choose the right answer -- without ever hearing the implied question.

"The Dream of a Unified Field," Kete offered. After briefly huddling over their coffee cups, the Smarty Pants proudly announced, "Harvard, Yale and U.T. Austin."

"Oh, easy. Harvard," an Old Fart fired back without missing a beat.

"The Dream of a Unified Field is by Jorie Graham, who teaches at Harvard," Jackson explained, in case anyone wasn't keeping up.

The interpretive dance option was only exercised once, after a certain amount of wine had been consumed. To answer a question about The Faerie Queen, Gutman bunny-hopped across the room, demonstrating the rhythm of iambic pentameter.

At the end of the fourth round, Jackson announced the final score: Old Farts 395, Smarty Pants 485. The younger scholars erupted in victorious cheers, and Kete crowned the winners with faux laurel.

How does your book learning stack up? Stump yourself or your friends with these Buckham Challenge questions:

Round 1: Woman Prize Winners

Answer these questions about award-worthy penswomen.

1. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.

2. In 1951, she became the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize.

3. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for her play Top Dog/Under Dog.

4. For what play did Wendy Wasserstein win a Pulitzer Prize in 1989?

5. Who wrote the 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News?

6. Who was the first American woman to win a Nobel Award for literature?

7. Which woman won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000, for Interpreter of Maladies?

Round 2: Famous First Lines

The quotes below begin different literary works. Identify the title of the work for five points. For 10, name the author. Year of publication is worth another 20.

8. "Young Goodman Brown came forth, at sunset, into the street of Salem Village, but put his head back, after crossing the threshold to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife."

9. "I've seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked."

10. "So. The Spear Danes in the days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness."

11. "124 was spiteful. Full of baby's venom."

12. "Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land."

13. "Glory be to God for dappled things."

14. "Tell me not, in mournful numbers, Life is but an empty dream!"

15. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

16. "April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land . . ."

Round 3: Terms of the Trade

Can you talk like an English prof? How many of these words and phrases can you define?

17. Free indirect discourse

18. Objective correlative

19. Scansion

20. Apostrophe

21. Litotes

22. Foil

23. Epithalamion

Round 4: Really?

What's your final answer?

24. "We real cool" -- Which of the following doesn't fit?

a. We play pool. b. We lurk late.

c. We tempt fate.

25. "H.D." -- Which of the following fits?

a. "Tribute to Freud." b. "Sapphic Verses." c. "The Carnival

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Ruth Horowitz


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