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Poetry Thursday: "To a Dead Graduate Student" - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
Poetry Thursday: "To a Dead Graduate Student"
Some of my Tucson LJ friends, such as _luaineach, deoirfola, and elf_owl, have started up a "Poetry Thursday" in their journals. I put poetry up on De File on a semi-regular basis already, but thought I'd also play along with them.

I'll share the poem I taught in my undergraduate class yesterday. I like using it in my unit on meter because it's a great example of how to make form and content converge. The meter tells a story that reinforces the message of the poem. It's by my onetime creative writing teacher Thom Gunn who was also, unfortunately, something of a nemesis for my wife-to-be. The poem comes from his excellent book The Man With Night Sweats:
To a Dead Graduate Student

The whole rich process of twined opposites,
Tendril round stalk, developing in tandem
Through tangled exquisite detail that knits
To a unique promise -- checked at random,
Killed, wasted. What a teacher you'd have made:
Your tough impatient mind, your flowering looks
Would have seduced the backward where they played,
Rebels like you, to share your love of books.
One of the things I emphasize when I'm teaching this "Literary Analysis" course is that the act of reading must be considered in relation to the act of looking that encompasses it. We're always seeing more of the page than we can consciously read. And we're always reading ahead and behind in ways of which we are rarely conscious. The move to "look for the verb" that readers of German or Latin are familiar with is not one we're used to making in English. But our eyes and brain know things that our consciousness does not. Part of us reads ahead and behind in order to get a handle on tone or to give a particular word the correct accent.

That part of us can also lead us productively astray, however. Take the penultimate line of Gunn's poem. It reads "backward." Over several years of having students read it out loud, I've come to expect it to be read "backyard." As someone in yesterday's class smartly pointed out, the explanation for that tendency to mispronounce lies not only with the fact that we associate the action of playing with backyards, but also that the letter "Y" appears in the word "your" both above and below "backward." The confusion that results leads many readers to have trouble with "backward." This is a mistake that teaches, though, because the association of "the backward" with childhood and the sort of games kids play in the backyard resonates with the poem's theme of tragically wasted youth. Rebels want to stay home instead of going to school. The dead graduate student mourned in the poem apparently had the gift of convincing that sort of non-conformist that rebellion can be achieved within the conventional world of grown-ups. The meter in the first half of the poem testifies to that potential, demonstrating how much positive energy can be generated by refusing to do what is expected.

Mode: salmonaided
Muse: Chrissie Kiss The Corpse - Of Montreal - Satanic Panic In The Attic

6 comments or Leave a comment
elizabeg From: elizabeg Date: November 18th, 2005 04:58 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
When I was in 380 I remember this one day when some girl stopped me after wanting to understand why I cared so much about pronouns, parts of speech, the verbs. I didn't understand why this would be a question but I do think that I told her Latin training had to be a part of it. And then just yesterday I got caught in the whole thing over again while in German class when prof said "future anterior" and I called it "future perfect" but we both knew what we meant--that is one crazy tense, as if a wish made fact. You know. It's funny now because I hadn't even thought then how the free response that I was turning in was all about reworking counterfactuals but it was. Anyway.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 18th, 2005 10:36 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I love counter-factuals. Especially when they're true!
From: bobo_amargo Date: November 18th, 2005 09:33 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)


I like the idea that reading is a special case of seeing. It conforms nicely with an idea I used to toy with, to wit, that there's no such thing as literary skepticism since my relation to text is not simply a relation to an object, but additionally a relation to what used to be called an "object of intention" (e.g., by Franz Brentano). So I'm tempted to claim that another reason why we tend to read "backward" as "backyard" is a reason more deeply concept-laden.

Given Gunn's emphases in _The Man with Night Sweats_ (and throughout his work), it's not unlikely that the grad student in question was a man -- Gunn's "type"? -- and that the man in question was gay. Then those who are "backward" are not just rebels turned away from "the good"; they might also be men assuming a "bottoming" sexual position, classically assumed by the younger, more "passive" member of a homosexual coupling. If this is an interpretive possibility, then things get interesting. To be the gay teacher of a another gay (young) man -- what Gunn probably was to the grad student; what the grad student might have been to like-minded "rebels" had he not died "ere his prime" -- is to seduce that young man away from his probable precipitate desire to establish intimacy exclusively through sex and not through the intimacies of conversational pedagogy (of course, combined with sex [Gunn was no prude]).

Whatever our conscious and unconscious relations to gay sex, especially anal penetration, what I'm suggesting Gunn's getting at here is difficult to swallow, hence may indeed make for the tendency to misprision.

Do I stretch? Am I confusing Thom Gunn with Allan Bloom?
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 18th, 2005 10:20 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: Rearing

To be sure. I try to avoid the biographical impulse in teaching Gunn, because I don't want students to write him off as "merely" gay. But, yes, there's a good chance he was thinking about sex when he wrote this. He was certainly thinking about the Shakespeare of the early sonnets thinking about sex! And to think that I, beclad in a hideous gray motorcycle jackes Kim and I called the "elephant," was once Thom's type. . . :-)

[BTW, it's nice to see you enter the realm of LJ identity, comment-wise.]
From: (Anonymous) Date: November 18th, 2005 11:55 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Abandoning No Hope

Thanks, Virgil. It proved to be as easy as you intimated.

I guess since I have sometimes amused myself with the notion that the telos of English depts. and English study in general is a kind of infinitely iterated Universal Outness, whatever the fallacy by which I make my reading above may be I'm not inclined, as Beardsley and Wimsatt would've been, to call it genetic. That said, I agree that in a lower-level, intro course, it's usually a problematic strategy to lead with an author's (homo)sexuality.

Though Gunn was not, "elephant," alas, was before my time. I wonder what Gunn would've thought of my Members Only knock-off from Sears? Backward, no doubt.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 19th, 2005 12:24 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: Abandoning No Hope

He liked leather. . . :-)
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