Part-time faculty pretty much have a gypsy’s life. The college always had a number of first-year courses taught by part-time faculty. They were a cushion. Full-time faculty even those on “permanent contract” could be released for reasons of financial exigency. Extra courses taught by part-time faculty could be rescheduled for the full-time faculty. Despite some ups and downs in enrollment in the 1990’s, no full-time faculty were ever released.
One of the part-time faculty had invited the author of our literature anthology to visit her class as he lived in the Boston area. To the amazement of all, he accepted. I attended the class meeting as well. The stage for ambush was set.
The author had a section on poetry in the anthology. He noted that there were good poems and “ordinary” (not so good) poems. He noted that an example of an ordinary poem was Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.” Hence the ambush. My father never finished high school. His father tuberculosis affected all areas of family life. Our apartment in New York City had no artwork on the walls. However, near the kitchen was a framed copy of “Trees.” It was my father’ favorite poem. My father read the newspapers, not literature. My mother, whose health limited her mobility, was a voracious reader. She rented books from the lending library at the local candy store and my father stoked her reading with four newspapers a day.
I sat in the back of the room. The students were on their best behavior. All had done the assigned reading; they were attentive, and they asked good questions. I sprang my trap at the end of the class. I asked our guest if he was calling my father ignorant because he admired “Trees.” His good-natured answer was that he wasn’t calling my father ignorant. Rather he was merely trying to point out that some poems were better than others: the language was more specific, clearer, more precise, sharper in the better poems. “Trees” was “just OK.”
I noted that it was my contention was that all poems were like little birds. Every winter a small group of sparrows would shelter themselves in the rafters of my garage. The entered through a hole in the soffit. Every spring I swept out little mounds of the evidence of their presence. I didn’t have the heart to put them out into the colds o the hole in the soffit remained and the mounds were a small price to pay. I told the class that some poems were like the sparrows. No bird is plainer than the grey and brown clad sparrow with its single, one-note chirp of a song.
But I said the sparrows were birds and we are not. You can analyze the poems and the sparrows but if you labored too hard and took them apart, you killed them! You could take them apart, but you could not put them together again. All birds and all poems are in some way beautiful.
I asked the students if they could name a single living American poet. Most could not: some thought that Robert Frost was still alive. Then I told them about Stan Proper. Stan was a professor on our faculty. Stan taught only first-year English. His real love besides his teaching was poetry. Stan wrote a poem every week: 52 poems for the year, just like clockwork. Some of my most treasured books are the slim volumes of his published poems that he signed and gifted to me. By my lights, some of his poems were very good, other less so.
The point is that Stan loved the work. I have written only one poem in my entire life and Stan wrote one a week for years! I have found that you can tell people why you think one piece of work is better than another, but you really can’t tell people what to like: you can’t legislate taste. But the value is not just in the product, it’s also in the process. One must try not to hurt the birds!