Saturday, September 26, 2009


[Last night our department's graduate program held a "faculty juvenilia" reading, in which faculty members were invited to read specimens of the embarrassing things they'd written in very early youth & by the way to proffer "words of wisdom to our graduate students. I was unable to unearth any of the atrocities of my childhood or high school years – hopefully they've mouldered to dust in a closet of my mother's house – but I was able to turn up my file of undergraduate poems, opening which felt rather like cleaning out the fridge after two months' absence – ie many stomach-turning science experiments to be disposed of.]

Introducer: Mark Scroggins, after 4 years of geekish isolation in high school (most notable achievement: Latin club, for god's sake) & uncountable years of geekish, isolated intellectual humiliation in college & grad school, is now circling the drain of his middle years, exposing his ignorance at every turn to colleagues & unfortunate students. He 'teaches' modernist & postmodernist poetry & culture, though he doesn't believe in postmodernism anymore, & leads poetry writing workshops, though he suspects that poetry writing can't really be 'taught.'*

MS: This poem, which I wrote when I was an undergraduate – & which, as you can see, was actually typed on an actual typewriter [holds up sheet of onionskin] – doesn't seem to have a title. One of the few things I knew that still proves true is that titles are important, and hard. But if I had titled it, it would have been called "The Fish." I will read it in my best William Shatner voice, so you know it's poetry:
When I was a child, I love to play
at fishing in the shallow pond behind
my grandfather's house in Alma, Texas,
dropping strings and pebbles into the water,
roiling the bottom mud in watery dust-clouds,
chasing the tiny fish that crept along the slime.
The water of the pool was clear, the fish
as sharp and shiny as minted coins;
I could see them move from left to right,
but when I tried to touch them with a stick,
they were not there.
The mind is a fish,
and moves in a medium, turning around
barriers and nosing muddy depths,
darting and circling until it returns
to chase the self it cannot catch, to find
the pond dried up, and with it the frogs
and minnows;
and my grandparents moved away.
I had forgotten it all, but for the clearness
of the water, the way the scales, refracted,
flashed the sunlight to my grasping eye.
So what "words of wisdom" can be derived from that calcified but still slightly smelly turd? I wrote it for a professor who endlessly drilled into us that the iambic meter was the true genius of English verse – so it's roughly iambic, at times intrusively so. He told us to write about things we knew & cared about – so I wrote about my childhood & my grandparents' pond. He told us to let the specific experience open up to a larger insight – so I cooked up some crap about "the mind" and memory.

In sum: while I agree wholeheartedly with the smart & even inspiring things my colleagues have just told you – don't believe a thing we say.

*Yes, I composed that intro myself.


Amy said...

Did this juvenilia reading really take place, or is this an extremely inventive and amusing frame for your find? And if it did really take place, why on earth was I not invited? I would have brought my video camera! :-)

undine said...

That's brave. And I can't help noticing that the poem follows the best New Yorkerese poem pattern of concrete image, reflection on/explanation of the metaphor, and abrupt image as conclusion.

Anonymous said...

Amy--the event was for the graduate students, though I did send the invite to the faculty email list so I'm not sure why you didn't get that--my mistake, I imagine. Though that video camera would have been taken from you at the door. --Papatya

Vance Maverick said...

Isn't it a truism that artists have to move beyond the models they're given? In other words, by definition, they have to do something that their teachers can't directly prepare them for.

So, on the one hand, your student effort isn't embarrassing at all -- it's solid prentice work (though that analogy fails precisely in that art is not like craft). And on the other, the moral you draw from it is one your students already know, and surely think they've absorbed.

And further, this makes me wonder about pedagogy. Sometimes teachers offer exercises that are plainly "just" exercises -- sonnets, life studies, gavottes. But at some point they have to challenge students to produce "real" work, even though most will follow models, that is, in effect, will do exercises.

(And yes, I suppose I'm rehashing a particular ideology of art here, but I think your embarrassment hints that you subscribe to it too.)

ruth lepson said...

started the zukofsky book & got distracted but will happily return to it, as it's a fascinating read. so it's wonderful to come upon your blog & see what you have to say about the Day turmoil & Obama's book & vitamin B12 & other matters of interest. thanks!