Poetry Comes and Goes
I have had an odd relationship with poetry in my life.
I went to a Catholic elementary school where we read no poetry. We learned about Catholicism and had a textbook called The Evil Tree about Communism.
After 8th grade, I went to the seminary. An old monastery, with a large inner courtyard and a tall bell tower, it sat isolated atop a mountain surrounded by a forest.
The seminary banned a great many books. Our library stopped in the early 19th century. One year I had a Jesuit priest friend smuggle in Jacques Maritain’s A Preface to Metaphysics. Maritain was the official theologian to the Pope. When the seminary censors found the book, they banned it.
We rarely left the seminary. We rose each morning at 5:55 and went to bed each night at 9:05. We ate bad food in a large dining hall, often in silence.
Each seminarian had a small room with a sink and a bed covered by a thin wool blanket on a straw mattress. We had a manual called The Young Seminarian. Among many other things this manual told us that all women had “lust in their hearts” and should be avoided at all costs. Much later in life, I found out that a good many women did not have lust in their hearts, at least not for me.
There was in the seminary no television, magazines, newspapers, or radio. I was so uninformed that I learned about the Cuban Missile Crisis by accident when I found a stray piece of newspaper in the forest. The page, out of date, said we faced nuclear war. I had no idea whether the rest of the world still existed. In vain I searched the grounds for a later page or two to see what had happened.
The day President Kennedy was shot is a flash bulb memory for me as for so many others. A student came rushing into study hall and said “The President has been shot”. I said, incredulously, “Who, for heaven’s sake, would want to shoot Father Giaquinto”? Father Giaquinto was our rector. Everyone else remembers Kennedy being shot. I remember Father Giaquinto not getting shot.
I did take one class on literature. The class was taught by Father Bicker, a young Maryknoll priest. Maryknoll priests and bothers are missionaries, thus we assumed they were, unlike us, worldly. The Maryknoll seminary, an ancient Asian looking building, sat atop a small hill next to our seminary (a diocesan seminary, training parish priests). The Maryknoll seminarians came to our seminary for classes and sometimes one of their priests would teach a class to help out our regular faculty of Sulpician priests.
Father Bicker devoted his class to the poetry of T. S. Elliot. Father Bicker was young. He would take off his Roman collar and place it on his head like a halo as he recited The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock. We had never seen the likes of it. Here was a young, cool, worldly, and emotional priest, unlike the rest of our faculty. This was my first date with poetry. There would not be another for a long time.
I still remember how I would sneak out of the building at night into the cold metal stairwells to smoke cigarettes and recite The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock. The Seminary allowed us, even as teenagers, to smoke at designated times and places. However, doing so in the stairwells at night while reciting poetry was absolutely against the rules. This made poetry a forbidden fruit. I was not the only one affected this way by Father Becker. He was not invited back to teach.
I eventually left the seminary. I went off to study philosophy, hoping to earn a PhD. I had become fascinated by philosophy when, in one of our classes, our teacher, as an aside, mentioned St. Anselm’s ontological proof for the existence of God. He said that the proof, though it had reappeared through the years, was long thought to be invalid.
It seemed really spiffy to me. I had then, like so many other teenage boys, a fondness for underdogs. Then and there I swore to personally resurrect the ontological argument.
So I hastened to our library to engage in research. Luckily St. Anselm lived in the 11th Century and was not banned. I discovered that the ontological argument fell under a branch of philosophy called “metaphysics”. I discovered, too, that people like Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel had worked in this area. Some of these philosophers had even offered their own versions of the ontological argument or their own aversions to it.
I discovered all this in a very old Catholic encyclopedia. The encyclopedia mentioned that some of these philosophers were on the index of banned books in the Vatican. And they were, all of them, banned in our library.
I wrote and “published” in our seminary newsletter my own version of the ontological proof of God’s existence. It was my first publication. It is now long lost to history.
When I left the seminary I knew nothing about how colleges worked having done high school and part of college at the seminary. All I knew is that I wanted to devote my life to metaphysics.
I went to the University of California at Santa Barbara because a former seminarian studying philosophy at the University of San Francisco (a Jesuit college) told me it was a good place to go for philosophy. He didn’t know much more than I did about how the world worked and I knew nothing.
It was 1967. When I moved from the seminary to the beach town of Isle Vista, the college town for UCSB, I showed up wearing a black suit and tie and sporting a crew cut. Everyone else was barely dressed, had long hair, and smoked dope when they weren’t surfing. Soon I had long hair. I knew so little about women and the world that I was a happy but dazed stranger in a strange land. Lots of things happened (I was gassed by the National Guard) and lots didn’t (sex).
I went to the chairman of the philosophy department and told him I had come to study metaphysics. He told me no one did that any more. What they did now, he said, was “analytical philosophy”. Analytic philosophy argued that philosophical problems are not about the world but about language and how it applies to the world. Most philosophical problems turn out, on this view, to be confusions about language.
So I became an analytical philosopher, sometimes also called a “linguistic philosopher”. I did well (that’s what happens when you do not know how to get a woman out on a date) and intended to continue for my PhD in philosophy at Santa Barbara.
However, the summer before going back to UCSB for graduate school I (finally) met a girl. The rest is history. I dropped out of school.
The girl got over me fairly quickly.
When I picked up the pieces, I decided it was silly to be a “linguistic philosopher” when you could devote yourself to the actual discipline that studied language “scientifically”, namely linguistics. This was the beginning of Noam Chomsky’s revolution in linguistics. By accidents too numerous to mention I ended up earning my PhD in linguistics at Stanford (which was just up the road from the seminary and thus was my “local college”, so to speak).
Chomsky studied language as an abstract system that served as the basis (the “core grammar”) of all the different human languages in the world despite their “superficial” differences. This abstract system (which constitutes a universal template for how languages can or cannot vary from each other) raised the study of so-called “theoretical linguistics” above the specific contexts of language in use and in cultures.
Being a Chomskian linguist in those early days was heady stuff. We were part of a new thing and a major change, one that attracted a lot of academic attention at the time. Everyone had read every piece of literature in the field, since the clock had started anew in the field only a few years before. Even undergraduates and beginning graduate students could publish and contribute, so much was left to discover, so little was retained from the past.
After I earned my PhD I was lucky enough to get a job on the East Coast. That was where the action was in linguistics in those days, thanks to MIT (where Chomsky was) and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (which was second only to MIT and replete with good generative linguists). I took a job at Hampshire College in Amherst. Hampshire was next to, and part of, a five college system with UMASS Amherst.
Hampshire had opened as an experimental college in 1974 to encourage young wild-eyed 60’s activists not to go to the other four more traditional colleges: UMass, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke, and Smith College. Hampshire was structured like a graduate school for undergraduates. The students did research and took exams at various levels. They did not have to attend any classes, unless they wished to.
I taught syntactic theory, the philosophy of language, and formal semantics. It turned out that Hampshire students were largely interested in the Humanities and did not flock to linguistic courses. In dire need of more students, I and my fellow linguists met to think about how we might entice Humanities students into formal linguistics.
I mentioned that I had heard, but knew nothing, about an area called “stylistics”. Stylistics studied how grammar was put to use to make poetry. Perhaps, a class on stylistics would draw the Humanities students in and arouse their latent interest in grammar. We all thought it was a promising idea. But which of us literary illiterate linguists would teach the class?
I finally volunteered to learn something and teach the class. I asked a friend what I could do to learn poetry fast. She suggested I read The Norton Anthology of Poetry. I did and I was utterly blown away.
I was stunned at how linguistically and emotionally inventive these poets I had never heard of were, poets like William Blake, John Donne, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Keats, William Butler Yates, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, e. e. cummings, Gerard Manley Hopkins (a priest), Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath.
I read in no order. All the poets, from different times and places, stood in one place, because I cared nothing, at that point, about the history of poetry. I just cared about poems.
I learned later that this was how Americans like Whitman had learned poetry in school. They used textbooks that just threw everything together in no order. That was why Whitman did not placidly line up to take his proper place in the European historical order of poetry. He invented poetry anew.
Perhaps because I was a generative linguist, I was fascinated by poetry as both system (grammatical/semantic frameworks that lay beneath the diversity of different genres of poetry) and distinctive, unique, and innovative realizations of the system in “concrete universals” (in Eliot’s terms, not Hegel’s).
I saw poetry as what I thought of as “semantically saturated”. By that I meant that every part and piece of every aspect of the language of a poem (its sound, rhythm, syntax, word choice, parallelism, repetition, semantics, figurative language, and timing/spacing) was meaningful in some way, often in many ways.
Much later my exposure to the semantic saturation of poetry led me to see that when human beings are deeply pressed by harm, love, or confusion their ways with words—often in story form—become semantically saturated as well. We are all of us, then, when hurt or filled with joy, natural poets.
It was this realization that led to my later work in sociolinguistics and discourse analysis, when I eventually moved away from theoretical linguistics. And I moved away because, while formal linguistics taught me that system is important, poems as concrete universals taught me that the concrete is just as important and that any good theory of meaning alive in the world has to simultaneously hold in mind, integrate, and clearly see both the concrete and the universal as one and the same, the way good poetry does.
When I began teaching Hampshire students about the wonders of poetry, they would moan each time I named the poem I wanted to talk about. I came to realize that they had “had” the poem in school and that school had turned them off to that poem and eventually to all poetry. They could not see the poem as strange and wonderful. Since I had no idea what they had heard in school, I introduced them to the poem as part and parcel of my intense excitement as a linguist in having discovered these strange marvels of language.
Each and every student eventually recovered their drive for poetry. This made me believe that poetry is an inborn instinctive drive or need for all of us. Sadly, though, this drive—like the drive for making art and for learning—is too often killed by school. It was then and there that I realized I had been granted a great gift. I had not read poetry in school.
Poetry led me to see that all human meaning making is semantically saturated when we humans are at fever pitch. Poetry also led me to see that school too often limits—not frees—meaning, joy, distinctiveness, invention, and humanity.
It became a great mystery to me why this was so. Perhaps, my bemusement was partly due to the fact that I had spent so long in a seminary that was not really a school but a quixotic mission.
Reading poetry beyond T. S. Eliot for the first time led me, too, to see that I had always and everywhere in my Catholic upbringing been immersed in poetry. It was in Genesis, in the Psalms, in the Parables, in the Gregorian chant, in the words of the mystics like St. Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross, in the Deus Irae, in the Stations of the Cross, in the Gloria at Mass, in the Hallelujah at Easter and much more. And it was also in the deep silence in our dark dank grotto on Good Friday, as I prayed in what I did not then know was poetry, alone, and saw God.
So I got more out of the class than the students did. I enticed some of them to linguistics, though not many. But I enticed myself to a journey from syntactic theory to an immersion in language in the world and in hearts and souls. I did not give up system, structure, and universals, but I now went looking for them in the mud of life. Earlier I had missed the importance of the mud for the system. Many of my colleagues in the social sciences have, I believe, missed the importance of the system for the mud. That mud has structure and it conforms to “laws”. But that structure and those “laws” are made of mud.
And then things went on, as they always do, for years and years. As they went on, the state of the world seemed to me to grow worse and worse. I devoted my reading, more and more, to nonfiction rather than to novels and poetry. Reality seemed to me stranger and stronger than fiction, a fearsome and cruel thing for many and—in the end—for all.
I have long written for my living. I am not an artist. At best I am a craftsman. I have sought clarity for myself and others. I view clarity—like cleanliness—as a minor, but, nonetheless, important virtue. And, God knows, it is hard to be clear and hard to stay clean, especially for me now, since I have moved to live on a farm.
Years went by. The seminary and Hampshire receded into the long ago past. I got old. And then older.
I moved to Sedona Arizona for the final act of my academic career. Like all old people, I saw Death on the horizon, patiently waiting to take me from dust to dust.
I grew depressed, regretful, repentful. Life, career, academics, trying all seemed meaningless. The “autism” of my childhood—the desperate need to escape people and their suffering—returned with a vengeance. But added now was “survivor’s guilt”. Why had I gotten so much, and so many others so little in our one and only one shot at life? It seems desperately, stupidly, wildly unfair.
Then things got worse. I got allergies.
Sedona is at just at the right elevation to host the largest juniper forest in the world. Like many others, I became wildly allergic to the junipers. Allergies can have many different symptoms. Mine, as they combined with my Dark Night of the Soul, were two: I felt my body decomposing like a corpse and I had an inescapable inexplicable craving to write poetry, something I have never done, or even so much as contemplated, before in my life.
At any moment, day or night, sober or drunk, unbidden, the call to poetry came and I would take out a yellow legal pad and write poetry. I had not written on paper for decades. But the caller demanded pen and paper. Was the caller a muse? [http://garnpress.com/authors/james-paul-gee/ and jamespaulgee.wordpress.com].
The muse demanded that I write poetry, but gave me no new skills. I was still the plodding craftsman, doomed now to write poetry. I did not pour my heart and soul into it, rather my heart and soul poured into it, little aided or controlled by me, the muse’s servant at best, its dupe at worst.
I did not write for others. I did not write to be read. Judged all my life, as all of us are, I did not care about whether the poetry was good or bad or nothing. I did not care whether experts or inexperts liked it or not.
It came, then it went, in the interim it saved me.
It saved me to face death with aplomb. Well maybe. I don’t know.
It passed. Taken away as it came, unexpected, unbidden, ununderstood.
Something else my bout with poetry did for me was this: It let me know I know and understand nothing. Nothing. That is a hard message for an academic. But I live with it now on a farm, with animals, post poetry.
In my life poetry has come and gone. Its next coming for me will be Dies irae, dies illa.
Let Whitman—certainly not me—have the last word:
I think I could turn and live with animals,
they are so placid and self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole ea
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