Tuesday, April 3, 2012

39. SWALLOWING POETRY

Freshman year at BYU, I made a random selection of classes when I registered.  No one advised me, that I can recall, and if they did I must not have listened.  I ended up with a graduate level art history class, and some other hefty courses, all of which added up to 16 credit hours. Classes, in general, were the last thing on my mind at that point.  There was just so much newness there in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains. So many new personalities, new places, new sights and sounds and smells.  Even the air felt new against my skin.  My hair was silky smooth in all that dryness.  I remember thinking I had probably jumped the gun by hacking it off before I moved to the desert. My former waist length hair would have flowed so nicely away that horrid humidity of my hometown in PA.
At the top of the list of freshman newness was falling in love.  Mmmm, delicious love, with its yummy kisses and stimulating conversation.  The last thing  on my mind were classes.  Not that they were completely unimportant, just not prominently there.  But I did think that my poetry class would be an exception.  I was, after all, a poet.
I had received a scholarship/talent award from the university after winning the New Era Poetry Contest.  They published about a half dozen of my little poems.  Even Dave, all the way over in Italy, and well before I ever met him, recognized my name and picture in the New Era when they announced the winners.  He was a missionary then, and I was the little sister of a guy he used to play ball with.  I defined myself as a poet. My sense of self was polished with a way with words. 
The class was taught by a professor whose name was well regarded, and whose poetry was beloved, especially by the professor himself.  I went into the class confident in my abilities and pretty excited for the easy grade.  
The easy grade did not come.  Even the hard grade did not come.  I recall the devastation of having my work critiqued flippantly before the class.  I can still feel the sting of his scribbled handwriting in the columns beside the stanzas; stabbing exclamation points to deepen the wound.
At night, in tears, I decided to spend the money I did not have to call home.  Calling home in those days required money by the minute, and our conversations were often planned and sparingly executed for the sake of the budget.  But this night I did not care, because I needed to hear my mother’s voice. That voice that first read me poetry; the one that made my own third grade poems sound so…I don’t know…mature.  Mom’s lips forming the words of anything anyone ever wrote made it seem so much better. 
“He hates my poetry!”  I sobbed, knowing she would understand and likely defend me.
 “No matter what I write, whether it’s what I feel I should write or whether I’m writing what I think he’ll like, he hates it!”
Mom listened.  I could hear her breathing on the other end of the line.  I ached to have her arms around me, her slender hands patting my back.  She listened until I was done ranting.
“You take what he has to teach you, chew it up and see if there is anything worth swallowing.  Then spit the rest out.”
I didn’t think there was anything worth swallowing from him.  I was sure he was all ego and shallow mindedness.  In the end I learned to release my ego and see if I could learn.  And I believe I did, though I cannot for the life of me recall anything I wrote during that period, except for that one piece about Roman Duomo not needing to bow to God.  In the end all that mattered to me was that the boy who gave me those yummy kisses wanted me to be his bride.
I’ve thought often of that advice mom gave me, what seems like a lifetime ago.  I whisper it to myself, and to my own children.  I let it echo in my head when I start comparing myself to others.  I can hear her say, “You go ahead and see how you compare to the other people you admire.  If there’s something good you can learn from such an exercise, then go ahead and swallow that.  But you be sure to spit the rest of it out!” And she would probably add that most of it was worth spitting out.
For all those years I sat up with my children, helping them with their writing assignments, I could almost hear the echo of my own mother’s voice as I read their work aloud to them.  Young mothers and fathers…this is a trick I will teach you right now:  read your own children’s writings back to them.  With your mature intelligent voice.  With the poet’s voice.  They will hear more clearly, and write more poetically, and love you more deeply because of it. And they will become better writers.
All of our children are fine writers, if I say so myself.  I think they learned to love the lilt of the human voice as it pronounces word upon word, crafted artistically like literary Lego's. Well chosen tasty words united by poets at heart.
My mom used to bribe all her grand kids to memorize fine poetry.  If they stood up straight, announced the title, the poet, and perfectly recited the poem (at least 8 lines long for the little ones…and they got more difficult as the kids aged)…then Gram gave them a crisp $5 bill.  Thereafter, every time they recited the poem again, they got a Quarter.
 All our children can recite to you poems for which they earned $5.  
The money is gone.  
The poetry remains.
Thanks, Mom.


4 comments:

  1. Thank goodness you listened to your mother. Our lives would certainly be less enriched if you had listened to that professor.

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  2. Oh, bad words. I just lost this whole huge long thing I just wrote. NONONONO.

    What did I say? I talked about my father, who would read us with brutal accuracy - pronouncing every word just as spelled, even when the intent was very clear. And my mother, who - as a chemist - was not the kind to read things as your mother did, though she could be proud and appreciative. My Irish soul came from my father's side, but I did not inherit his evident unwillingness to suspend disbelief - not for anything as insignificant as a child's self concept.

    I was a poet back then too. I still have things stuck in folders and boxes, copies of old poems, some illustrated. Things I forget till I find them. And when I find them, I realize that I was good.

    When I was in grad school, it was the hot time for the new brand of LDS poet and writer. I knew all three of those guys. And I read a little of each. The stuff was so deeply navel-gazing, I was bored - I have never found other people's angst a nice way to fill my drowsy personal moments. So very self-important.

    One of my professors, Clinton - I can't even remember his last name now. I had several classes from him - lit crit and creative writing. He was poet laureate of the university back then - why, I really couldn't understand. I think that he probably made up the position himself and filled it. His work was so self-important, so ringing with self-satisfaction. With the form of significance but little impact. Probably because it was so obscure. I have a story about that, and I'll tell it to you some day.

    He would publicly decry the shallow minds of the lds people, who shelled out tons of money for Pearson's warm and fuzzy coffee-table free verse (he said she was a self-admitted charlatan- whatever that meant) - but who would not buy HIM. HE was DEEP. I remember wondering if the man had any real skills - like changing a tire or fixing a toilet, anything that would make him real and substantial and worthy of teaching other people's children (for money). I mean, he was nice - but so feather brained and self-impressed.

    I much preferred the work of my friend, Kira - a girl of remarkable talent and delightful mind. We were both in his creative writing class, and he drove her absolutely wild. He'd read her beautiful, dancing things and say, "Ah - yes. I hear echoes of (fill in the blank) in this—" It made her wild, that he would think her fresh verse was just something pulled in the wake of some other writer. Her eyes shone when she was furious. I thought she was just magnificent.

    In the end, I left graduate school, just about the time I should have been putting together my thesis. I had grown too emperor's-new-clothes about the deal, totally disenchanted with what seemed to me a puffed up bunch of people pretending hard (got to keep those paychecks coming) that what they were doing had any real significance at all. Talking about literature. Hmmm. Vital.

    I wanted to do something real, so I went of to teach high school - which was TONS more real, actually. And wasn't about the professor - but about the kids.

    Anyway, your mother was right. And mostly, wise people do a lot of spitting.


    When I was in grad school,

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    Replies
    1. Well, since you mentioned names, I will admit that the professor was Clinton Larsen. I suspect, now that I'm grown, that he had a delicate sense of self and grew his ego too large in response.
      Anyway, it matters more to me what a teacher like YOU thinks of my writing. Thanks for always being so encouraging and supportive! It means more to me than you can possibly know!

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  3. Oh - and see? I hadn't even found this answer. I am so sorry it's taking me so long to come out to play. I've been trying so hard to get these books into e-form, and then make the decisions about how to do print - learning curves all over the place, and lots of moments of wondering why I'm doing this to myself. It's not like this is even as useful as genealogy.

    But how funny that Clinton was your bug-abear. He was such an ass. (I mean that in the most four footed way) I remember finally having had it with all the self-appreciative posturing that was so rampant in that department (not Cracroft, though - I will always love him) and when Clinton gave me some poem extolling the Hebredies - some romantic era poem - and was asked to do a critical analysis, I tore the thing to shreds. I stopped playing Emperor's New Clothes and called a spade a spade - sneering at the smarmy imagery and the sugary, emotional language that I found so excessive, soft and meaningless.

    I remember right now, sitting in his office as he read my paper. And then he looked at me with those bloodhound cheeks of his and, sounding VERY unsure of himself: "Do you really feel this way about this poem?" And suddenly, I was the adult, and he was the supplicant. And I threw all political care to the winds and said, "Yes, sir - I certainly do." And he didn't know how to answer me. I came away glowing with righteous power - having thrown off the chains of expectation and been totally honest in my reactions.

    That's my last memory of him.

    I think I also remember Clifton Jolly sitting in his office after Elder Packer's very memorable devotional - the one where he had the rock music suddenly blast out in the middle of it, and when he went after the English department - how they were teaching lit that crossed the line, in the name of teaching classics. I loved it - it came right when I was in the middle of a Middle English Chaucer class - and boy was he one filthy little dude when he wanted to be.

    Anyway, after that meeting, there was Clifton, with index cards he'd used to take notes, leaning eagerly forward and saying to Clinton - "We can get him on THIS point and THIS point." And the strangely strong me pushed my way into the office and told them both they should be ashamed of themselves. You don't "get" an apostle of the Lord - you LISTEN to him. I told them they were arrogant jerks. it wasn't long after that that I got the teaching job in Jordon school district - and English class - that was the only reason I'd gone to grad school to begin with - needing the accreditation. So I had my creds and walked away from grad school having had a couple of years I enjoyed - especially teaching Freshman English - but that had so little significance to me, I couldn't wait to leave and do something real.

    I wish I'd known you when you were taking that class. I'd have killed tigers for you.

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