April 2013 From Director
April is National Poetry Month, and because I’m a poetry fan, I decided to consult the poets (and not the researchers this time) about the life and work of the professor. My first thought was a recollection – of reading Leslie Adrienne Miller’s 1990 poetry collection, Staying Up For Love, and finding the lovely poem called “My Students Catch Me Dancing.” Here, Miller describes an encounter with students who have glimpsed her practicing ballet; the moment reveals a complicated privacy because as a teacher, “I’ve said/ too much about devotion, art, a whole life/ concentrated in the movement of words/ across a page, fingers across a keyboard . . .” Our passion in the classroom sometimes strikes the student as a mysterious depth, as it should.
Miller, a well-known poet and Professor of English, allowed us to reproduce her poem – you can read it here – and she also consented to an interview with me. In the interview she reveals the back story to that poem, and talks about it as “a kind of argument for my students,” likening the discipline and practice required for great writing to the devotion of the dancer. She also talks about how teaching enriches her writing; I hope you’ll read the interview and enjoy this poem as much as I have. And thank you, Leslie.
Some poems address teaching itself, like Margaret Atwood’s “You Begin.” Contemplating the lives of my students, their difficulties and challenges to come, I sometimes think of Atwood’s poignant address to her young learner: “This is the world, which is fuller/ and more difficult to learn than I have said.” Mary Ruefle’s poem “The Hand” goes inside the mind of that student who knows the answer to a question, but chooses to stay silent, looking out the window instead: “a robin is ruffling its feathers/ and spring is in the air.”
Sometimes, while writing comments on student papers, I think of lines from Philip Larkin’s poem “Talking in Bed,” which is not about teaching at all but about an unhappy couple, trying to talk and struggling to find “Words at once true and kind/ Or not untrue and not unkind.” Larkin is one of my favorite poets, and his poem, “The Trees,” an ode to trees “coming into leaf,” makes me think of the feeling most academics share about September, about the new school year and its promise of a new beginning: “Last year is dead, they seem to say/ Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.”
Last Spring, Minnesota Poet Laureate Joyce Sutphen (also a professor of English at Gustavus Adophus) visited campus to read her poems and talk about the value of poetry. She advocates memorizing poems as way of keeping them close at hand. I wish I could say I’ve done that; I’m working on it. I certainly agree with her that poetry provides a fresh angle on our daily lives, one that may inject a needed dose of compassion or imagination. Imagining the inner life of that student who won’t participate opens a possibility for connection and learning.
Do you have a favorite poem about teaching? I’d love to hear about it. And Happy National Poetry Month.