“Poetry leaves one vulnerable.”
–Ms. Hamilton, my 8th grade Language Arts teacher, to me
This remark (she wrote it on a poem of mine) came to me out of the blue while teaching yesterday. It was the kind of Madeleine-biting recollection you almost have to sit down from. I hadn’t thought of that whole thing for a while, but I told almost all of it to my AP Literature students, who were typically moaning over an assignment I’d given them:
“When I was in eighth grade I was madly infatuated with this girl named Stacy.”
“Did she know?”
“Oh I’m sure she did.”
“Did it ever happen?”
“She was out of my league. Or at least my crippled self-esteem decided she was, which is more or less the same thing. The point is, I wrote a poem about her, called, oh God, it was called, ‘She.’ How awful. And it was all about this ‘she’ figure who bewitched me in these different ways, or made life worth living, whatever. And then I, and I can’t remember if the teacher asked me to or I volunteered–”
Memories lost to the past forever. This is going to a motif today, children.
“–but I read it aloud to the whole class. Which she was in.”
“Did the class know?”
“I think the class next door knew, I was vibrating at such a high hormonal frequency. Dogs were probably whining across the street. And anyway, my teacher wrote on my paper the next day that she was proud of me, or something, and she added, ‘Poetry leaves one vulnerable.'”
I was saying this to encourage my students, whom I was asking to be a mite exposed themselves. It was day one of our whirlwind poetry exploration, and here’s my assignment; you can have it:
- Show obligatory clip of Dead Poets Society. What will your verse be?
- Ask students to make a private list of five times when they felt a strong feeling. “The time when ______.” Emphasize that this is completely private, even you won’t read it, but that they will be using it later (so they actually have to do it).
- Encourage students with examples, including both common when we feel strong emotions (deaths, births) and quotidian ones: “The time last Saturday when I lay down in bed and felt the clean sheets and thought, ‘I don’t have to wake up to an alarm tomorrow.'”
- Tell students to choose one of these times, and write a verse of poetry that conveys that feeling, without revealing any of the actual details which inspired the feeling.
- Resist urge to explain what you mean too much, or give too many examples.
- Possible example when they pressure you into it: “The fledgling robin beaked his way to the edge of the nest, looking down at the seeming abyss below. Suddenly, impossibly, he pushed himself off, and started to fly.” Explain that this is what it felt like to leave for NYU. And is also a pretty lame example.
- Know in back of your mind that this may help students see how, as an English teacher colleague of mine once put it, “It’s nice to know what zeugma and chiasmus are, but really it all comes down to metaphor.”
- Wonder if you will find anyone weird enough to just write a list of adjectives.
- Make each student stand and read her verse. No explanations.
The point of this (which, in classic DG fashion, I only remembered to tell one of my classes) is to activate in them the idea that they do, in fact, have strong feelings, perhaps more often than they realize. This is a variation of an exercise I made up last semester when I was trying to workshop Chekhov with Intro to Acting students (fail). I felt that you won’t be successful with this stuff, or won’t get anything out of it, if you’re not in touch with yourself as a feeling, bleeding, snotting human being.
I don’t like poetry. But I like it more every day. I mean as I get so OLLLLLLLLD. And as I approached how to teach poetry for the first time in eight years, I thought about the distance between me and my students, and how it was even greater than last time. I’ve had so many more feelings than them, I thought. Mostly I was thinking of despair and massive quantities of self-loathing, but I’m sure there are others.
So I did this with them. And, (it’s one of the great mysteries), when you tell students to do something, they usually do it!
It was really lovely–and I don’t often wax emotional about classroom moments–to see these kids stand up and read their little invisibility cloaked hearts out. Some of them felt what Ms. Hamilton meant when she wrote to me. It’s a brave thing to admit that you have a feeling. I was going to say “especially as a teenager” but I hesitate. What feelings do we admit to on a daily basis other than our typical rage and frustration and boredom? Oh and love too, love, yes, but not the kind of thing I felt when I wrote “She,” God help me. That can’t be sustained, and it’s a good thing too. Life can’t be lived at that frequency.
“Exposing a sincere emotion nakedly like that at the Devon School was the next thing to suicide.”
–John Knowles, A Separate Peace
But I was driving home tonight and another sense of vulnerability came over me. I briefly entertained the idea of digging up my copy of “She” and reading it to the class, tit for tat. Problem is, there’s no way I still have any copy of it. And I keep a lot of shit, especially of the emotional variety. But that one’s gone.
And a lot is gone. And while I kid myself by thinking that writing offers me some kind of permanence…while I actually at times sacrifice the interpersonal for the sake of my writing, and even on occasion have made wounds for and through my writing (and vulnerable after all comes from a root meaning “wound”), do I imagine someone some day is going to dig through my hoary hard drives? Or scroll forever through my archived Facebook profile to see every pithy thing I said?
I’m not being self-pitying; I’m aware that some people read the stuff I write, and some people may continue to after I die, but zoom out far enough and it all fades away. And so I thought, poetry leaves one vulnerable, because in putting something down on paper we are remembering that we die.
Only that didn’t feel quite right.
Because the other part of what I was feeling was that the feeling itself had died. I know I liked Stacy, but even if I had the exact words in front of me, I wouldn’t feel them again.
“I think you’re courageous…to dare go visit…what I mean is, to face the fact, that we have lost those feelings forever.”
–Clarissa Vaughan, The Hours, David Hare’s screenplay
I happened to have just reread Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry-Picking,” in preparation for teaching it tomorrow. In it, and you should read it (again), the speaker makes a shift near the end (always look for the shift, scholars) and contrasts the way he felt as a boy with the way he feels now. And so you have a double departure, as the poem itself is about a lost feeling, and the feeling that inspired the poem is lost; it’s in the past. And poor Seamus is dead and gone too.
I know Ms. Hamilton didn’t mean all this morbid stuff when she wrote that to me.
“How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
–Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
Years passed. Stacy and I made an effort to stay in touch with each other, even as she started a family. It was sometimes awkward, and occasionally easy. The last time I saw her, I believe, was for a gin and tonic or two at a trendy suburban place. She had her husband and kids, and I had to rush off to shepherd my production of The Vagina Monologues, which we no doubt laughed at as perfectly capturing something about the differences between us and our two trajectories. And we were joking about perhaps never seeing each other again. She said to one of her kids, “We don’t know, this could be the last time you see Mr. Daniel.” And, turns out, it was.
Because you can beat a dead horse, but.
I try not to see the creepiness in the zombified relationships I sometimes carry out online, pretending to still be in someone’s life when the opposite is true. It can be weird, yes, but when radio silence finally comes, when it’s clear that you will never, ever again, I’m not sure it brings any better peace. It more likely just leaves one feeling, well…
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears…in…rain.
–Roy Batty, Blade Runner