Lives of quiet desperation . . .

Carpe Diem

Carpe Diem

 

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” ~ John Keating, DPS

I just finished watching Dead Poets’ Society. Or should I say, watching again for 10th, 11th, who knows how many times? Corey could hear me sniffling from the dining room. It’s always this way when I watch this movie, so I space out the time between viewings.

I understand that many people do not understand the attraction of this movie. Many felt that Robin Williams’ appearance was too over the top. For a poetry teacher, he quoted too much Whitman, someone once said to me. Some of you hate this movie because you have been made to watch it. But for me, each viewing brings back some of the best memories of my life.

Mr KeatingNo, not boarding school. Never did that. Never went to a same-sex school. Never had a teacher like Mr. John Keating, either. How I wish that I had. But time for complete truths here: Being in a college classroom, teaching English—poetry, plays, novels, short stories—doing that was the most rewarding job I have ever had. And I miss it just about every day of my life.

I loved to watch minds engage, regardless of the student’s age or background. It gave me great pleasure to watch students look at material that they had seen before or had never seen, and suddenly realize that they really got it. They understood it, and they understood not because I made them think what I thought, but because I allowed them to decipher for themselves. Too many teachers and professors still approach English as if it were written in stone. Classics only include old, dead white men. A poem’s meaning is not up to interpretation. Do not consider the time in which something was written as being related to the work itself.

I used Dead Poets’ in almost all of my applicable literature classes. I would use it in companion with pieces such as Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, as well as poems by Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Bruce Weigl, Nikki Giovanni, Ntzoke Shange, Langston Hughes and countless others. A myriad of voices writing about similar themes, life experiences, points of view. A mingling of past and present.

We would discuss how the period in which the character was placed affected diction, outlooks, actions. We would discuss how the setting of a piece had a direct effect on a character’s actions. Is the setting claustrophobic? Is the setting controversial? Is the setting in opposition to the characters’ conflicts. We would discuss the roles of men and women in literature: the powerless, almost silent mother figure in the movie, the powerless female protagonist in A Doll’s House.

And then, quite often on the final exam, I would take a quote from the movie and have the students use a selection of the works read to explore a theme based upon the quote.

I’d like to think that I never taught the same class in the same way. I never used notecards in my literature classes, only the text, and my students learned that if they did not participate in the discussion, then I would move on to something else, because I was not there to tell them what to think about a poem, or what the author intended with her point of view choice or at what point the denouement of the story occurred. But it was important to me was that they try, they think, they offer their opinions, and they learned to embrace literature in an entirely new way.

“The powerful play goes on, and  you may contribute a verse.” ~ John Keating, DPS 

Old Book SpinesAm I patting myself on the back? No. Am I laying claim to this method of teaching? Of course not. I’m merely sharing with you why this particular movie holds such meaning for me. And why, sitting here now, I find myself feeling the same thing that I always feel after the movie ends: I belong in a classroom.

I cannot tell you how much I miss teaching. College, that is. I learned the hard way that I was not meant to teach middle school. I’m not entirely certain that I would be any better suited for high school, unless it was a progressive high school.

I suppose that I am still holding onto the dream that someday I might be able to get another post at a small college. Who knows? Who knows if I would even like it anymore . . . I think, though, that if I am to be honest with myself (which I try to be), then I would have to admit that there are few things that I would want more.

My friend Mari, with whom I shared an office for most of my time at ODU, is currently teaching part time at a community college in Massachusetts. Being an adjunct at any college or university is a thankless position that pays close to nothing, but Mari does it because she loves to teach, definitely not because she is making any money from it.

I wouldn’t mind a part-time position somewhere, except that adjuncts usually get stuck with composition classes. Unless you are known, it’s damned hard to get literature or writing classes as an adjunct.

But as usual, I digress . . .

“Excrement. That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. We’re not laying pipe. We’re talking about poetry.” ~ John Keating, DPS

The Movie: Twenty years later, and I think that Dead Poets’ Society still holds up well. After all, the movie’s accurate depiction of the 1950’s in setting and costume is never going to be outdated. Where we are  as a society today does not reflect the roles of men and women during that era, something that the movie captures with its secondary female characters: They are all stock characters with very little to do, simply functioning as a stereotypes—the powerless wife/mother, the blonde girlfriend every boy desires, the ditzy girls who are pick-ups.

Father and SonThe timeless aspects of the movie still hold true, as well. For example, the relationship between fathers and sons can still be fraught with an inability to communicate true feelings. The youthful male bonding and search for identity is eternal.

Another aspect of the movie that I have always loved is the cinematography. The golden hues of autumn, sunsets on the water, misty moonlight forays into the forest, and one of my favorite scenes, Knox riding his bicycle through a flock of geese.

Oh, and one more thing. The pool of poetic quotes from which Keating draws is limited, but remember, the era of confessional poetry was just coming into its own. Women had yet to gain prominence in the genre, and I just cannot see the Harlem Renaissance as being a mainstay in the curriculum for an all-white, male preparatory school in New England.

Say what you will, but this movie still speaks to me. And the last scene absolutely kills me.

What will my verse be?

 

More later. Peace.

A Few Things From The Vault

Two Poems and a Prose Poem From the Past

angel-statue-cllose-up

Poem #1

Remembrance of Monday Afternoon Past

for Josh

 

How can I explain to you

what it is to hold someone you love until she dies?

I cannot prepare you for that moment of separation—

it is something so unspeakably personal

that to watch it, to intrude upon it

almost cannot be forgiven.

If I try to tell you about the silences

that

enclose and isolate,

you will not understand

until you,

too, have felt them.

I cannot describe for you

the desperation

with which you will try to pass

life

from your arms to hers,

but you will come to know this,

too, as I once did.

When the moment comes,

you will not be ready,

but you will recognize it for what it is—

that last instant

in which possibilities still exist. 

 

angel-wings

Poem #2

These Are The Only Truths I Know

 

I.

The wait’s begun again,

The long wait for the angel

For that rare, random descent.

— “Black Room in Rainy Weather,” Sylvia Plath

 

After holding my breath for this long,

if I exhale now, I will die.

Have no doubts, my friend.

Diving into the wreck,

searching for the salvageable,

it never occurred to me

to take heed

of all that had happened above

and around me. My

single‑minded sense

of what is just,

what is true,

did not allow for

the company of strangers or

their own pitiable laments

about love

and life,

or, more tellingly,

about loss.

 

II.

We do not rid ourselves of these things

even when we are cured of personal silence

when for no reason one morning

we begin to hear the noise of the world again.

“City Walk-up, Winter 1969,” Carolyn Forché

 

I never noticed that woman over there,

the one who was drowning, not waving.

She, too, drifted into this miasma, then

vanished. The words of her sad entreaty

misplaced, floating in vain

too far from shore to be heard. The other one—

the one whose soul betrayed her so completely,

left her two small children playing unaware,

sought comfort in

the only philosophical certainty in life:

death (not truth).

She is now but a footnote in her husband’s poetry.

And the other, the poet against forgetting,

when she saw the broken glass

embedded in the walls of the colonel’s fortress,

did she notice the poet’s heart

hidden among the hundreds of scattered human ears?

 

III.

 . . . We did this.  Conceived

of each other, conceived each other in a darkness

which I remember as drenched in light.

I want to call this, life.

But I can’t call it life until we start to move

beyond this secret circle of fire

— “Origins and History of Consciousness,” Adrienne Rich

 

There were signs everywhere,

some true, others

misleading, taking me

across a landscape for which there was no map.

Sometimes, I could no longer see—

an impenetrable fog,

Looming, the Fata Morgana stung my eyes,

crept into my dreams,

offered only a cruel discordance,

falsehoods in the night,

where only truth should reside.

 

IV.

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

— “Late Fragment,” Raymond Carver

 

In the moments before my soul

surrendered to the sea,

I thought I heard you

speak my name as never before.

You called out:

“You are beloved.”

(It was what I had waited so long to hear)

I could have been mistaken. Perhaps,

it was only the wind and the waves,

conspiring to confuse me once again.

 

V.

but if you look long enough,

eventually

you will be able to see me

— “This is a Photograph of Me,” Margaret Atwood

 

And yet, my dearest friend,

there is no escaping the final truth—

It is here, in this unfocused picture. Look

at the ravaged smile,

a disturbing, melancholic dementia

unmasked. This snapshot

was not meant to capture

the disintegration of blood and bone—

(but it did).

In the millisecond it took

for the shutter to close,

everything faded.

This is a photograph of me you

were never supposed to see.

 

VI.

The abandoned live with an absence

that shapes them like the canyon

of a river gone dry

— “Brother-less Seven: Endless End,” Marge Piercy

 

I have put into your hands

validation: I was at peace

once. Once, I was whole.

Those who cocooned

the golden threads of my muse,

kept them beyond my grasp

for my own protection—

give them this glimpse

of my legacy. Convince them:

Behind these unfocused, sepia halftones,

lies the proof: I had finally acceded

to fate, accepted life

for all that it was

and was not.

(I was still alive,

then) They do not need to know

how uncomfortable I really felt

in my clothes. My friend,

it is a small deceit

for which you need not feel guilty,

for I have left you

with little choice.

 

VII.

The lover enters the habits of the other.  Things are smashed, revealed in new light.  This is done with nervous or tender sentences, although the heart is an organ of fire . . . echo is the soul of the voice exciting itself in hollow places

—The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje


Once, the blaze of promise stoked

the fevered, impassioned heat

deep within the hollow chambers

of my heart. Now,

even love’s most gentle kisses

cannot nourish the scorched core

of my soul. It will not be embraced

only to be abandoned.

Forewarned by the memory of ashes

from countless other burnt loves,

I can no longer embody

the destructive force

of this small, red wound

alive, inside. Nor can I sustain

the healing power

of its flickering pulse.

If I am to smother the flames

of this most tender of vessels,

and most cruel

I must dive deep below

the water’s surface, beyond redemption.

It is the path of sorrow,

it is the road of regret.

It is the loneliest of hunters.

 

VIII.

And the musky odor of pinks filled the air.

— The Awakening, Kate Chopin

 

Put out the light, and then

put out

the

light.

 

Prose Poem4theroad2

I thought that I would put out three very different styles from different periods in my oeuvre (to date, that is).  Thanks for reading. More later. Peace.