“The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.” ~ Wallace Stevens

                   

The first time I came across the word concupiscent was in the following poem by Wallace Stevens. I have loved the poem ever since and forced my freshmen to read it every semester, and they would say, “But what does it mean,” and I would say, “Think about it. How can one be an emperor of something that does not last?”

Aside: Stevens said that he thought the word concupiscent was made up . . .

I’m tortured and torturous that way . . .

The Emperor Of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

~ Wallace Stevens

Can’t get this song out of my head: “In the Garden” by Royal Wood

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“Pick a piece of wood floating in the river and follow it down the current with your glance, keeping the eyes constantly on it, without getting ahead of the current. This is the way poetry should be read: at the pace of a line.”~ Vera Pavlova, from “Heaven Is Not Verbose: A Notebook” (trans. Steven Seymour)

A Young Adrienne Rich
This is how I see my favorite poets: young, smoking a cigarette, drinking bourbon

                   

“Tonight I think
no poetry
will serve” ~ Adrienne Rich from poem of the same name

One of my favorite poets died yesterday—ground-breaking feminist and anti-war poet and writer Adrienne Rich.

I remember trying to teach Rich’s poem “Living in Sin” in an American literature class several years ago, and while the poem was considered controversial at one time by taking on the social taboo of living together before marriage, the young men and women in my class didn’t understand the point of the poem as theirs was a generation weaned on living together without any stigma. It was kind of a wake-up call for me. You know, that generational thing.

I remember reading a quote from Rich once that embodied everything I have ever felt about writing: “You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.”

Here is a brief from the SF Gate (SF Chronicle)

Adrienne Rich, one of America’s foremost poets and essayists, died in her Santa Cruz home Tuesday after complications from rheumatoid arthritis. She was 82.

Rich was among the first contemporary poets on the early feminist scene to imagine “the personal as political.” In 1997, Rich declined the National Medal of Arts to protest the House’s vote to end the National Endowment for the Arts. She published 30 books; 19 in poetry and seven in prose.

For a more comprehensive write-upon Rich, click here.

                  

This is my favorite Adrienne Rich poem:

Diving into the Wreck

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
Otherwise
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

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.