The week following the death of Arthur was pretty frantic. The end of the semester was upon us, one portent of which was that I had a major paper due on Wednesday that I had mostly researched but hadn’t even started writing (if you’ve gotten the impression that academics consumed an insignificant part of my waking hours, even with the research part temporarily suspended, let me correct that misunderstanding). Exams would follow in short order. Just exactly what I didn’t need in my life was a looming command performance to address Ms. Doubletree’s creative writing class on ‘a topic of my choosing.’ Well, I guess things could have been worse: she could have propositioned me.
So I did what I always do in those circumstances: tackled the tasks I had to do, procrastinated over the rest. Blitzed through the research paper in a single night, a skill that I’d long since perfected (actually, I had gotten better; taking dictation from The Grail had the unexpected side benefit of improving my typing). Graded a big stack of U. S. History papers, giving over to the task just enough of my brain to do it well while the rest took a nap. I even made a little time for Layl’Annie. Over a bowl of homemade ragout we got into a long and passionate but not at all acrimonious discussion about the crippling impact of form on creativity, as amply demonstrated in the music of Vivaldi and the poetry of Alexander Pope. Layl’Annie was big on soups and stews, and as a mathematician she had a soft spot for order and form. But unlike Vivaldi and Pope, she didn’t take it to excess.
And in the ten minutes or so that I had left over after all that, I held a mini-wake for Arthur by drinking one Holy Grailful of wine while sitting on the sofa with my feet up. I knew that I’d have to find time to mourn after the semester was over. Hardened cynic that I am, the utter waste surrounding the events of Arthur’s death deeply moved me. But I didn’t have time for that now, so I tucked it away for later (we cynics are good at that).
What I didn’t do was any conscious preparation for Ms. Doubletree’s creative writing class, other than the minor hedge of filing away the conversation that Anne and I had as a fallback position in case I found myself on Thursday night standing in front of the classroom with absolutely nothing else to say.
Which is almost what happened. Except that about an hour before the class, I finally slowed down long enough to listen to The Marquis, who apparently had been trying for several days to make a suggestion but kept finding all the phone circuits busy.
All of your life you’ve been looking for an opportunity to stand in front of a captive audience and berate Mrs. Harrigan for how she ruined poetry for you. Don’t you suppose that everyone else in the class has had a similar experience? Here’s your chance! Go for it.
Ms. Harrigan! Soap Box Speech Number Seventeen. What a magnificent idea! With The Grail to give me a little polish, I didn’t even need to rehearse that one.
When I got to the classroom there were a score of eager young artists already there, waiting with pens and notebooks, ersatz basins to catch whatever pearls might drop from the lips of the Invited Guest. They obviously didn’t know that what they were about to get were turdlets from the mouth of one Bradley Schuster, an unpublished historian being dragged kicking and screaming into the ranks of the unpublished authors. Although I was only a year or two older than most of them, they looked touchingly young. Pristine in their pursuit of art, innocent of the unreasonable demands of reality. When Ms. Doubletree entered the room, they gazed upon her with more adoration and adulation than even tenured professors got, if such a thing were possible.
Ms. Doubletree didn’t look anything like she had in Dr. Sandeman’s office. There, welcomed and revered though she might have been, she was an outsider. A foreigner hesitant because of the strange customs she found herself in the midst of: graduate-student-advising, tenure-pursuing, and grant-eliciting, rites every bit as bizarre as prurient dancing around a dead white stag or cutting off the tip of your penis because Yahweh said to. Here she was among her own, a high priestess of the goddess of literature, surrounded by neophytes celebrating with their own exotic rituals: writing from the heart, being true to their art, beating back the alluring demons of money, fame, and happiness. She had even swapped her jacket and slacks for the garments of her priesthood, jeans and a collarless blouse (not quite a tee shirt, but first cousins at least). Here I was the outsider, sitting with my hands carefully folded in my lap, waiting to see which spoon the hostess picked up first lest I unwittingly stir my sonnet of coffee with a dactylic soup spoon, oh horror of horrors.
I wasn’t allowed to wait long. “Tonight we have a special guest whom I’m sure we will all enjoy. This is Mr. Bradley Schuster, a lifelong historian.” She used a little poetic license there, since I had been a student of whatever they chose to teach me for most of my life, and only in the last few years had I earned enough freedom to be allowed to choose for myself. But I deemed it impolitic to correct her. “He has recently decided to abandon Clio for a more demanding muse.” And for my taste, this was a bit flowery to describe taking dictation from a damned cup. “I’m sure his dissimilar yet fresh perspective will be of interest to us all. Mr. Schuster.”
Dissimilar yet fresh perspective, my ass. This petty despot in blue jeans, taking refuge in the inviolacy of her position, was putting me to some obscure test for her own nefarious purposes. And she was perfectly willing to waste fifteen or thirty minutes of the lives of every student in her class to conduct this examination. Suddenly I wanted very much to do well, even if I later decided that hell no, I wasn’t going to fictionalize The Grail’s story, I didn’t care what they said.
So I slipped a finger through the hole in my belt pouch as I stood up, having taken the precaution of charging The Grail up just before we came in. We’re going to talk about poetry? she pouted. I don’t know anything about poetry. Can’t we just give them an oratory on the Harvest Dance? Obviously she too had been trying to get my attention to offer suggestions for a while.
Nope. Poetry it is. Trust me on this one, lady.
Putting on my best ‘Ah, Shucks’ grin, I walked up to the front with a lot more swagger than I felt.
Trust it is. Speak, and I will polish.
“How many of you are poets?” I began. “Or, let me put it more generally. How many of you write poetry?”
Hands went up everywhere. More than half of the class, bless their innocent souls, were here to improve their proficiency as poets. The rest would no doubt have confessed under questioning to having penned a verse or two in their formative years before they realized the inherent marketability advantages that fiction has over poetry.
I went over to the blackboard and wrote the following lines, which I had been forced to memorize as part of Mrs. Harrigan’s class (or maybe even earlier):
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose erstwhile mouth is pressed
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast.
“Would one of you take a stab at telling me what this poem means?” I asked innocently enough. I let the silence lie there for a minute, inciting guilt among the silent, before continuing. “Come on, there must be some English majors out there. You’ve done this stuff for years. You’ve probably even analyzed this particular poem before. Any of you non-poets want to give them a hand?” I gave the bait a little jerk or two, trying to make it look plump and juicy.
Finally one terribly bright-eyed lad, braver than his comrades, volunteered his best effort. “The poet is using the obviously understated adjective ‘lovely’ to encompass all of the life experience that he shares with the tree. He is also hinting at the sentiment that he will state directly in the last couplet, that as a human his appreciation of and oneness with the life experience is less than that of the tree, which although inanimate, is the creation of nature.”
“Thank you very much,” I smiled and nodded to him, letting him wonder if he had done well or not. I waited for maybe another twenty seconds, letting The Cup time my pause as Merlin would have done. Then without warning I attacked.
“I hate poetry,” I snarled. “I hate every iamb ever penned, and every dactyl too. I cannot even look at the word ‘o’er’ without gagging.” Their unison gasp was barely audible, but wide-eyed looks were everywhere.
“I hate Walt Whitman, one of the greatest American voices. I hate Keats through no fault of his own, I hate Eliot, I hate both of the Brownings. Especially both of the Brownings.
“I hate poetry because Mrs. Harrigan taught me to. That myopic, silver-haired lady without a drop of malice in her body brainwashed me into hating poetry during my formative years. She was my freshman high school English teacher, and yes, she had plenty of help, propagandists doing their part to prepare me before I got to her class or reinforce the lesson after I had escaped.
“Her method of teaching such loathing was simplicity itself. After every poem, she always asked, with her grandmotherly sweetness ‘Now what does that poem mean? ‘
“And now that it’s too late to change, I have learned that poems don’t mean anything.
“Actually, that’s not accurate. I should say: I have learned that poems don’t mean. Art doesn’t mean. That’s the major difference between art and technology. If I write E=mc2, that’s supposed to mean something—and I suppose to some people, it does.” A hesitant chuckle told me that they were recovering from their shock a little. “But it certainly isn’t art.
“Archibald MacLeish put it precisely and succinctly in his masterpiece, Ars Poetica: ‘A poem should not mean / But be.’ But unfortunately, we were brainwashed by Mrs. Harrigan before we were mature enough to understand MacLeish.”
I paused dramatically before asking, “How many of you were taught English by Mrs. Harrigan?”
One lanky girl with long black hair raised her hand immediately. The students sitting around her were too shocked by her impetuosity to respond immediately. Then one of them raised his hand and a moment later, another.
In a minute or so all hands in the room were up. There may have been a couple of them who didn’t necessarily agree, or even have a clue how all these people knew Mrs. Harrigan. But they weren’t going to stand out by leaving their hands down. I might ask them a question directly and give them a chance to crucify themselves.
“You dream of writing great poems, or stories, or novels, and are willing to do whatever is necessary, even labor through this class, to learn how to write better. But if in your mind a poem or a story has to ‘mean’ to be great, why don’t you just shoot yourself now. Make the world a better and safer place for the next generation of English students.
“I thank you for your attention. Ms. Doubletree.”
I was halfway out the door before the girl with the long hair started clapping, and as I walked out of earshot I thought I could distinguish a few others joining in, although there was no wild roar of applause. Too late I remembered that I hadn’t softened that comment about shooting themselves. I hoped The Grail hadn’t turned a figure of speech into a campus massacre, but The Marquis persuaded me not to go back. Ms. Doubletree had that sly smile I’d seen before, but I wasn’t going to guess what that meant, either. I had either passed or failed the test, and I’d roast in hell before I spent time worrying about which.
Wow, dear, The Grail chimed in once we were back on the sidewalk. I guess I’ll have to learn to trust you more often. I basked in the gentle praise. Maybe we should start a new religion?