School of Thought
It is a new semester at our local community college and, once again, I find myself in a room snugly populated with 44 other students. This is an English class and, not surprisingly, most of us are English majors. At this course level, it is rare to find anyone who is not taking English as a major. These are not the fun English comp classes where you breeze through Raymond Carver, pop out a couple of essays, and sneak out with a B. No, this is the rocky ground where old and middle English are studied in depth, usually with the implied question “Where did we go wrong?”
We are starting with Beowulf as expected because as writers, and most of my fellow students are writers, and as poets, few of us are poets, this is where everything begins. There are older poems, older stories weaving in and out of time and history like a thread binding all of our ancestors but for the English language here is where the writing starts—square one. Some of us revel in the opportunity to burrow into the poem while others simply go through the motions to get the credits and move on. I am surprised by how many self-proclaimed poets feel that exploring their poetic roots is more of a chore than a treat.
During the mid-class break we descend on the coffee cart strategically placed just outside the building and closer, I note, to the English department than the Anthropology department. I figure this is for two reasons: one, the Anthropology students would rather have to search for the cart; and two, English majors have been know to turn violent if kept from the scones. After securing my tea I drift off to the side with the would-be Anthropologists and eavesdrop on my fellow English students. The volume of complaints always amuses me during the first few weeks of class. Usually the younger students are the loudest, taking exception with just about every aspect of college classroom conduct. But for this class I am focusing more on the poets. For the most part they are talking about the typical community college issues: lack of parking, the cost of parking ($75.00 per semester), how the budget cuts have reduced the classes offered, and more of the same. I also note that those in the class most adamant to have everyone note that they were are poets are also the ones complaining the most about having to read Beowulf, and next Chaucer, and next The Fairy Queen. I am surprised that they are so uninspired to explore the foundations of their chosen art form.
Throughout my life I have often sought out the company of other artists. Sometimes musicians or painters, dancers or sculptors, writers or poets: I enjoy their company and try to get a better understanding of each art form. In each discipline I have found that the artist sets aside a specific amount of time per day to practice—not just work on the piece that they have in process at the time or to run through the pieces that they enjoy or that challenge them but to actually practice. Dancers go to the studio and stretch for hours to keep limber, musicians run scales or do finger exercises to better maintain control of their instrument. It is said that John Coltrane practiced 18 hours a day when not in the studio or performing. I do not know if this is true but I do know his work and that it would be impossible for anyone to play that well without the dedication this rumor suggests. It is obvious that in order to master an art form, artists must dedicate themselves to their craft, sacrificing personal time and comfort for the pursuit of their art. Yet I have met few local poets who express any interest in exploring the forms and disciplines of poetry.
The prevailing opinion is that if it is not prose it then it must be poetry. This terrible falsehood has swept through the poetry community like a virus, and shows no signs of abating. This is post hoc, ergo propter hoc at its worst. Often what is passed off as poetry is just prose with staggered line brakes and other times it seems little more than a rant. When a poet proper takes the stage, more often than not they are met with confused silence followed by uncertain applause. I tire of the long drawn out confessional pieces that would be better left for the AA or ACA meetings or, better still, brought to the psychiatrist’s office for a nice Freudian catharsis. Sadly, what passes as poetry and what poetry is by definition are two very different beasts.
Could I be the only one who finds it strange that many poets in the community do not know who the laureate is? When Billy Collins was the laureate, I read one of his poems at an open mike. As I left the stage the emcee of the poetry reading asked, “Who is that poet?”
As an admitted academic, I do spend a lot of my time reading very old poems. The Iliad is my current default book to read when not otherwise involved in schoolwork, and this may color my view on of the poetry offered at local venues. Still, I can’t help but think back on the artists I have known who make it their job to learn their art to the best of their abilities; those who study other artists not to emulate them but to learn the craft; those who make it their purpose to not only master the art but to try to further it. Our current poet laureate teaches English, as did our last. As a poet striving to be the very best at his art, I am not surprised that people immersed in the study of the language are moving the art forward.
I continue to go to English classes for I see each one as a poetry boot camp. Every class I complete helps me hone my craft, helps me understand the poetry form better so that I may write a better poem. As I return to class after the break I take out my Norton anthology, my book darts, and my highlighter, preparing once again to confront Grendel and the old words. I know deep down inside that here, at square one, lies the key to better understanding my language, art, and the poets who have come before me.