Dogs teach us the beauty of silence, humility and lots of stuff. My Daisy is a comfort dog. I love her beyond devotion. She is a source of solace after being dismissed from my teaching job in the MFA program at a university after publishing the following essay. Yes, there are academics who are without talent and resent anyone with even a smidgen of it showing, like the proverbial “slip.”Since I am now a senior citizen it is only right that I retired. but instead of a rousing farewell after almost twenty years of teaching there, I was all alone clearing out my desk, bookcases and cupboards, folding my tent “like an Arab, and silently stealing away.” (With apologies to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). Here is the essay that contributed to my dismissal without even a good bye and good luck from the Department Chair of the English Department. What do you think?
In an institution where the word “retention” is more important than any other these days in academia and professors are maybe the most maligned persons in any corporation, I probably asked for it ? Your comments are always appreciated.
The following essay was posted on an in-house letter to my small class of grad students. It caused a very ugly scene in the Dean’s office where I was forced to write a resignation letter immediately. Thank God there are some blessings in being an artist: One can never suffer the indignity of being roundly and rudely fired!
The incendiary document:
The Dangers of Being Intellectually Arrogant
Recently I invited a guest poet from the Los Angeles underground to the university in celebration of the publication of his second book with a reading/performance for the graduate students in my current Masters class in creative writing. William A. Gonzalez is a self-proclaimed poet from the streets of Pico Union, a district of Los Angeles that boasts the highest concentration of gang activity in the wide metropolis of gang activity. Gonzalez rose through the tough streets of his home and has the scars to prove it. He also has a growing following and a big prize for his debut publication – the “first place winner of the New England Book Festival.”
Mr. Gonzales is no amateur despite his humility and unpretentious presentation. However, he is, despite his lack of pretension, one strong voice for the underclasses, the non-academic, the homegrown, and those who have no voice who may, or may not, be inspired to follow suit and turn away from despair and drugs towards the arts, especially, in this case, poetry and story. As he says often, “I write for them.”
There were about twenty in the audience, students, staff, faculty, and at least one banker. Gonzalez read four poems and one short story. This was followed by a rap poem with Cajun accompaniment played expertly by Jeffrey Martin, the host and coordinator of Open Mic Nights at Luis Rodriguez’ famous Tia Chucha’s bookstore (art center) in Sylmar, California. It looked as if everyone was having a good time–except, the director of the MFA came at the start, settled in for a poem, and then took her things and left. It may have been that she had a class to teach, or it may have been she was told to check in to see that the event paid for by the University (a $200 stipend) was actually held as scheduled. I have no idea why she left abruptly because she never explained it to me, nor does she feel, perhaps, that she has to.
Earlier in the day in the classroom, I had read two poems by Harryette Mullen, a poet with four books in print, and a recent finalist in the National Book Awards. One of the poems was a parody of a Shakespeare sonnet. I was surprised when more than one member of the tiny class objected that it was not poetry. A heated discussion followed concerning just what constitutes poetry. Again, this is a class designated for writers of poetry, not critics.
The Mullen poem came from her award winning book, Sleeping with the Dictionary which is assigned in college poetry writing and poetry appreciation classes alike across the country. In fact I bought the last copy off the textbook shelf at Loyola Marymount where I was attending a conference and had time to check out other professor’s assigned texts during lunch. That particular poem is well-known and Mullen is admired by poets and critics universally. This means I have much teaching to do to elevate the awareness level of some MFA students at Mount Saint Mary’s University as to what constitutes poetry today. Since it is a class for graduate students in a writing program, the harsh response even by one participant means I have some educating to do in a very short time. It also means the system needs a more refined procedure when admitting students to creative writing classes which are not about judgment and criticism of other poets. Perhaps a class in preparation for becoming a working artist is in order.
Mullen’s poem has long been published in the popular textbook Literature (edited by X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia), a text used in more than one of our University undergrad English classes, (I have used it myself often in English 1B, and many freshmen students are familiar with her work now. The poem I read in class is not new like those of Gonzalez since it takes anywhere between five and ten years for a “new” poet to get into the college texts.
All this is preamble to my point. There is certain elegance in being an educated person. When one looks back at the history of education it has always been expected that that privileged minority who can afford the polish and frosting impossible for a street urchin will practice noblesse oblige or at least do their best to feign humility in front of something they do not know or understand. A poetry-making class in a creative writing MFA program is not for making critics whose judgment is a critical factor. Standing before a block of marble with a torso inside calls for humility. Inspiration raises a supplicant’s voice and heart. There is no room for arrogance, no matter how learned the poet, when inviting the muse. There is no person as old- fashioned or pathetic as an arrogant pedant. Shakespeare called them “fops” and he showed audiences how to laugh at this kind of pompous nonsense in more than one play.
The ability to wonder is a beautiful thing that can be lost when one is a “know-it-all. If nothing else, art must provoke wonder without the opinionated response of critics who have been likened to eunuchs who watch it done every night in a harem but cannot do it themselves. And of course, educated people know that art must be respected like the dog dancing on his hind legs. “It is not how well he danced, but that he can do it at all.” There are, of course, different kinds of dancing.
This is a call for open-mindedness in students who want to be artists. Critics can sit outside the workshop in the dark to boo or clap their hands as they see it, but they are not onstage making art and do not speak to the performers who, after all, are so very busy.
In truth, art is, as Shakespeare says of Cleopatra, ever-new. If you have your ear to the ground, you can hear the advancing machine, an artistic movement that is wholly new, wholly now. Those who think they have heard it before are not really listening, and when making judgments are displaying an embarrassing arrogance. Just as the world becomes new with each generation, Art steams ahead. There has never been and never will be another poet like William A. Gonzalez or Harryette Mullen despite those who may copy them one day.
As my fifth grade teacher, Sister Anne Mary, told me while making me a poet, “We criticize in proportion to our ignorance.”
Every day I am learning that teaching is hard work. I am a bifurcated poet/teacher. The poetry business is a wide and deep world growing every second, a place where there is room for everyone who ventures, but not the mocker, the critic, the judge. Teaching in a university is not as wide. It is for those privileged who can afford to learn acceptable proper standards of pre-ordained excellence as contained in a canon to be passed on to the next generation of students with tuition.
The artist at work, almost always poor, struggles to break free of confinement and create the “new,” to bring something into being that was never in existence before the artist made it. (Just looking at the art of the Communist era can quickly show what happens when art is controlled by critics.)
Art must be free if it will be nourished. I see my job as poet teaching in an MFA program as a sharing of my joy in exuberant freedom of creative expression with my writing students, and my job as a teacher is to show how to inhabit that world where premature judgment can stifle an artist’s progress. To paraphrase Archibald McLeish, “A poet should not mean, but be.”
One of my favorite contemporary philosophers, Alain de Boton, often reiterates old Buddhist wisdom, “Do not be wiser than necessary, but be wise in moderation.” And “The man who thinks he knows does not know yet…” and “The happiest man is a man without thought.” Now, let’s see what else the interesting and exciting poet named Harryette Mullen is up to now.
~~~~Agatha Christie, senior citizen at work! Yes~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Did you recognize him?
Raymond Carver at work. Yes, This great writer was the first person I interviewed for my TV show in Santa Clara, CA.
I was in grad school with his wife, Mary Ann. Anyone else in that 18th C. Lit class with Dr. Hans Guth? “Oh those were the days, my friend! We thought they’d never end.”
Oh would it not be wonderful if someone has a tape of that show? His first ever TV appearance.
—–I am parting with this precious first edition, signed twice by Ray–once “to Joan” and once for you now——————–Browse the gallery for description. Price: $3,500.—(This is a rare collector’s item that will increase in value)——————————————-
Thought for the day
“Heaven goes by favor. It it went by merit you would stay out and your dog would go in.”—Mark Twain