The Poet’s Two Bodies

Professor and Poet
Professor and Poet

Robert Creeley’s story of a poet on a reading tour who is asked by an audience member, “Was that a real poem, or did you just make it up yourself?” elicits laughter. But the question is spookily on the mark. Just beneath the surface of its naiveté lies a real anxiety: that neither the artistic process nor the poet are wholly to be trusted. This has, I suspect, something to do with teaching. Things that can be taught, and those that can’t. There is also the problem of authority, which functions contextually. A bright local light may have no purchase on the national stage, and an internationally-known poet may wander lost through a small town looking for a decent bagel and a cup of joe. My thoughts here are pressured by the question: “where and under what circumstances do we get to be poets?” Certainly not, as Jesus said of prophets, in our hometowns.

If you are a teacher and a poet perhaps you have noticed how your classroom presence, though ostensibly premised on your artistic accomplishments, can be utterly absent of them. I refer to those awkward ego confounding moments when, after the visiting writer has concluded a classroom visit, your beloved students, aglow, turn to you and proclaim, “so cool to meet an actual published author!” Some version of this scenario has befallen me more times than self-esteem will allow me to recall. Cue the despondent crawl to a bustling Student Union, where over a sad packaged sandwich you must admit, egoistically, that all along you have been professing under the assumption that your students, with all the world’s knowledge a few keystrokes away, had looked you up, and had read, if not your entire oeuvre (it is rather overwhelming, isn’t it?) at least a poem or two floating through the glittering digital cosmos. But no. Even if you are teaching them how to write a poem, you are the professor, not the poet. The poet is a body of work, the body of the poet an abstraction, made real only by magic. Though you are in the room, your work is not. An analogy may be made to a diploma: everyone assumes you have one, but no one actually ever asks to see it. There is a measure of trust at work. For the undergraduate community this is especially true, but when a graduate student embraces this trust, then they are not in the room for the reasons I think they are. Why are they there?

One graduate student, whose thesis I advised, told me before leaving town that, though we had worked closely together for nearly a year, she had never read any of my work. Seeing how utterly dumbfounded I was by this confession, this extremely kind and bright young poet then explained that her discomfort at the thought of reading a teacher’s work came from her worry that to do so would be rude or intrusive, or, too intimate. This explanation—so far from the general reasons I might have assumed given an entirely different kind of student, such as negligence, laziness, or a deficit of curiosity—brought two questions to mind: firstly, has the role of professor become too parental, such that, instead of professional adults in a field we have become caretakers assuring safe passage through poetic briars (you cannot live and keep free of them!)? Secondly, can someone cheat on you with your work?

Children often resist or dislike the idea that their parents have extra-parental lives. The painful vision of a parent in a context in which you, the child, are irrelevant. But parents are such by virtue of the fact that they have children. There is no training or accomplishments upon which the role of parent is dependent, no “post birth review” by a jury of one’s peers. The bond is based on love and nurture. Though such tender emotions may enter the classroom, shouldn’t the bond between professor and student, like that of the master and apprentice, be based on a shared care for—not each other—but the work?

The work has a body. The work has a life of its own. As I wrote in my Fragments, “sometimes the poem has more friends than the poet.” Thus the work may be personified. It may be in the room without you. The visiting poet’s work entered the room before the arrival of the visiting poet, while the professor’s work—unless she be of that shady ilk that assigns her own books—waits patiently outside the classroom door. The body of the visiting poet is likely to humanize the body of work, to dissolve its difficulties. To explain, calm, and clarify. While the professor’s body of work, should it enter the classroom, may upset or complicate settled ideas or assumptions about the professor. What would happen should these lines, from my poem “Coastal” enter the classroom: “ . . . Youth bores me. I cannot be excited / by watching others learn things for the first time”? Would a discussion about “truth” and what’s said in poems ensue? Or one about whether a student’s success is premised upon a teacher’s investment and excitement? Perhaps it’s better to leave the work out in the hallway after all.

The case above aside, many students may feel perfectly comfortable with the “professor’s two bodies.” Perhaps it is I that am uncomfortable being in the room with my work. It is a distinct possibility. Modernist leanings have ill-equipped me for small-town notoriety. I prefer anonymity. That, or the fleeting yet focused attention of being a visiting poet myself. There is a distinct pleasure to be had in breezing into someone else’s classroom and playing “the poet.” To being the object of study, as if your work and you were in fact the same. I have learned much about my poems from insightful questions posed by student readers, as long as those students are taking their education on a campus far away from the one where I go about my quotidian existence. This is a puzzle of the local. My predecessor at the University of Maine, Constance Hunting, wore her regional prestige with admirable dignity. She gave readings often, typically finishing with her feminist amuse bouche “Cezanne”: “The man astonished all of Paris / with an apple / but his wife liked / only Switzerland and lemonade.” The local audience knew the poem and seemed never to tire of hearing it. Connie was wise and open. Noticing my resistance to her path, she winked at me with a knowing, if slightly critical, glance. Though she was a light of the local, she knew it was a mask, and understood its viciousness. I won’t soon forget when she turned to Steve and me after a tense reading of “Maine poets” at the close of an NPF conference and, with Maggie Smith-like aplomb, dropped the line: “Everyone knows where the bodies are buried!”

My work, like the nose in Gogol’s story, has been known to go off on its own and have rather more success than me. It has been hobnobbing with prize-winning poets at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for years. I’ve never set foot in the place. But rumors get back to me. This creates a certain amount of emotional ambivalence, as well as genuine terror, whenever I join my work out in the world for a performance. Should that joining take place in my hometown my knots of anxiety tighten all the more. Will my work look down upon me? Will the local judges, from whom you cannot flee but must live with day in and day out, laugh like the panel of scientific judges in Victor Sjöström’s Freudian tour-de-force He Who Gets Slapped? Will the community chuckle with schadenfreude, thinking, “we knew she wasn’t a real poet!” Or, the more likely scenario: my work will be disliked, turning erstwhile friendly grocery story chats into foot-shuffling phone-checking encounters! Enough. Suffice it to say I have never been calm about given hometown readings, which is perhaps why I have only done so four times in the past seventeen years. I recall each of those performances as rather dismal, the “professor” mantle stifling the far more personal, and often vulnerable role my poems ask me to play. This past May, however, I was invited to read in Bangor with Denver graduate Christopher Kondrich by the Norembega Collective. The audience, a skeleton crew of friends, one or two former students, and a couple of strangers, was warm and attentive. Some magic ensued, because for the first time since moving to Central Maine I felt that my poet self was in the same room with my body of work.

Reading to Flowers in Bangor (photo credit Heather Howard)
Reading to Flowers in Bangor
(photo credit Heather Howard)

 

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