Tuesday, August 04, 2009

writing and revelation

My older daughter Stephanie recently moved from Long Island to Berkeley to work as a Kaiser doctor in the departments of emergency medicine in Vallejo and Vacaville. She and her husband Mike are presently staying in the ground floor apartment of my ex-wife's home in Berkeley -- an apartment I helped to build shortly after we moved to Berkeley 27 years ago, in 1982.

Mike, a carpenter and general contractor, is working on an enlargement of the apartment in exchange for the rent: a sweat equity deal of sorts that seems to be working out reasonably well. But there are issues. A big one has been what to do with the accumulated debris of 28 years of marriage and six moves. All those cardboard boxes in the basement! Some of them unopened since 1976, when my ex-wife Margaretta and I moved from East Haven to New Haven as I was completing my fourth year of graduate studies at Yale University.

A compromise had been reached, I'd learned. Steph and Mike would tackle the job bird by bird. They'd open a few boxes, examine the contents, consult with Margaretta, decide what to keep, what to discard, and what to recycle, then move on to the next few boxes.

One of these initial boxes, however, was opened, closed, and put aside. Its moving label read "Home Office. Books. His." Steph called me to ask if I might pick up the box as part of my upcoming trip to bring my "lobster pod" to Alameda Island. Why not?

After I'd dropped off my boat at Soren Hansen's Woodcraft shop, and we'd had lunch at the Little House Café around the corner from Soren's boatbuilding operation, we headed up towards the Berkeley hills to retrieve my box. Mike, mindful of my weak lower back, hefted the box into the back of my car. I'd had no occasion, therefore, to examine its contents until later that afternoon, when I arrived back in San Jose and brought the box into our living room.

The first items surprised and amused me: the subfusc gown -- a black vest really -- that I wore as a graduate student at Oxford when attending tutorials, a cute picture of me at about age five, a somewhat disorienting picture of my dad at a younger age, looking for all the world like a young girl, a college T-shirt, and my college BA diploma.

Then came the books. As soon as I saw the top one I knew exactly what they were. The red cover with the words "poems," "ballads" and "sonnets"; and as one opened the cover, the oval lithograph of the poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with his large expanse of forehead, short beard and mustache, left hand holding a felt hat tipped provocatively "open" to the viewer, right clutching his dun colored vest, and deeply inset dark eyes looking menacingly out at me.

I was back, almost instantly, to New Haven in the summer of 1979. Rossetti's "Poems, Ballads and Sonnets" were sitting on the high drafting table I used for a desk, and I was reading over a chapter of my dissertation that I'd written the previous summer. Even with my kindest critical eye, I could tell it was painfully convoluted and overwrought: a prime example of what Oxford's Dame Helen Gardner called the "lemon squeezer" school of literary interpretation.

The house was quiet. Stephanie and her mother were abroad on a research trip to Paris and Venice. My younger daughter Holly was at a summer kindergarten program just a few blocks north from our New Haven home.

My feeling in looking over my work of the previous summer, and reading over the poems that would serve as the focus of my next chapter, was of overwhelming nausea. As a poet and as a man, Rossetti was difficult to like. He was self-absorbed, obsessive, demanding of others' attention, given to long bouts of depression. His poetry seemed to me to reflect these qualities; it had a hot-house quality to it that I found particularly distasteful, requiring a degree of willingness to be drawn into the poet's lushly overwrought interiors. I did not wish to be drawn further into this world, either by Rossetti's poems or by his equally lush and overwrought paintings. So what in the world was I doing writing a dissertation on the poetry and paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti?

What compounded my problems were the consequences of not finishing my dissertation. I'd just finished my second year on the faculty at Teachers College (Columbia University's graduate school of education) and I loved what I was doing in the related fields of English Education and Composition Studies. If I did not finish my dissertation this summer, or at the very least make significant progress on it, I could say goodbye to my Teachers College position, and for all I knew any future at all in higher education.

These problems were of course further complicated by my back and forth movement over the past two years between teaching English Education classes at Teachers College during the school year, then returning each summer to the very different set of questions and problems posed by my dark-eyed poet/painter. How could I possibly find something worth writing about in the works of this little known Victorian artist, when my heart was increasingly drawn to the compelling issues faced by teachers at the secondary and college levels in the field of English Education?

My day-to-day strategy for coping with my sense of distress was simple and satisfying. As soon as I completed a page of writing, I'd go out and shoot hoops in our backyard. I was getting some work done, very slowly, and my shooting percentage was certainly improving, but I could not help but feel the hoops were slowly gaining the upper hand.

I was spending one hot and muggy summer morning gazing out at my backyard, thinking that perhaps this morning the hoops should precede the writing, when I chanced to pick up a book I'd read, rather cursorily, a number of years earlier. It was a study of Shelley's mythmaking, written by one of my teachers at Yale, Harold Bloom. It had grown out of his own dissertation on this subject, also completed at Yale University. For some reason the passage that caught my eye was a discussion of Shelley's "To a Skylark." I was familiar with its opening stanzas, as it was a favorite with anthologists of my parent's generation:

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

It's vitally important, Bloom argued, to pay attention to the fact that the distance between the poet-narrator and the skylark is dramatically increasing with each successive stanza. In fact the bird has already soared so high before the poem begins that the poet can no longer see it, but only hear the "profuse strains of unpremeditated art" with which it sings. With each succeeding stanza, therefore, the poet must refine his capacity to hear, must re-train his ear to detect, the ever-receding melodies of the bird's unpremeditated song. To put it simply, the ceaseless soaring of the skylark is inextricably linked, for the poet, to the appeal of its "full hearted" song.

And to put my own response to Bloom's argument equally simply: I'd never thought of looking at the role of the poet, or more generally of voice and inspiration, in quite this way. That we start by hearing an already distant air, and as we strain to hear its glad-hearted melodies, it is already growing getting more and more distant from us, soaring away from us we labor to hear its song. The speed of that skylark's flight, and the fact that it was flying upwards and away from the poet, even as the poet was attempting to capture and remember its song, presented a riveting and arresting picture for me of what Shelley was up to in many of his poems.

And then I realized, quite suddenly and with a degree of comprehension that I find difficult to account for even today, that this was what Rossetti was up to in virtually all of his.

It was a single moment, really, and of course I went on to write and re-write many subsequent pages and chapters, and to shoot many hoops, before I completed my dissertation the following summer. But it's as if I'd been given a gift, wholly unlooked for and in a sense wholly undeserved. As a result of this gift, I was able to see everything that in my previous study of my menacing-looking poet-painter had been vexing and harassing in an entirely new light. I experienced the writing of my final chapters as something pleasurable, something I looked forward to, something that I knew I could do with integrity and even with occasional insight.

So what might we make of this story of writing and revelation, of perseverance well beyond the bounds of logic or probable success? I would suggest the following moral. That what we experience when we write is quite like listening for the full-throated, glad-hearted sound of that skylark. As I've discovered from co-directing a great many summer institutes, and being a full participant in two, we start by hearing only the dimmest echoes of our colleagues' and our own voices. But with a day-by-day training of our ears, and a growing faith that each of our colleagues, as well as ourselves, does indeed have a voice to be heard, we begin to hear them. And it's this very faith that helps to transform the hesitant whispers of those initial days into the full-throated howl of the final days of a summer institute.

As Shelley reminds us in the concluding lines of his poem, what we learn over the days and weeks of the summer institute is that our colleagues, like the skylark, will "teach [us] half the gladness" that their "brain[s] must know." And that with this knowledge and heart, such "harmonious madness" from our own "lips [will] flow," the world will "listen then," just as we are "listening . . . now."

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