Friday, 15 August 2014

Not Bad

A post at First Known When Lost included a poem that I first read thirty or more years ago. Reading it again, I found myself transported back there, (perhaps all this Proust is affecting me more than I'd realised), to the day when I did first encounter it, sitting on an uncomfortable metal and plastic chair in a small room belonging to a professor of English at the Australian National University.

There were several of us in the room, all fresh from school, all - I suspect, although I can only really talk for myself with certainty - rather in awe of the elderly man whose room it was. Each week he spent an hour making it clear that we bored him.

He did this wordlessly, but very efficiently. Using his armoury of barely noticeable gestures and minute changes of expression, he conveyed the weary knowledge that he had seen - or perhaps seen off? - wave upon wave of new students just like us. Year after year they had entered the university, fresh and excited, and passed through his classroom. Not a single one of them had ever ruffled his infinite self-regard. The reason for this, of course, was that they were all, like us, dumb. That was the problem in his view. He didn't need to engage with us to know that we were irremediably superficial.

He, on the other hand, was wise. Which was why it was not his job to engage in an exchange of ideas. That was not the function of a tutorial, apparently. No, the function of a tutorial was to gather us together so that we could sit at his feet and receive the benefit of his wisdom. Whether any of it would remain with us was a different matter. If it didn't, well, at least he'd tried.

Looking back, I'm amazed at my own meekness. I never objected to this state of affairs. I never questioned the proposition that this teacher was our superior and that engaging, discussing, encouraging us to form our ideas into words was not his job. I read what I was supposed to read, I thought about it, I had my own impressions, but I never questioned that the professor was the one with the answers.

Possibly he was, but after the particular day I'm thinking of, I was never certain about him again. We were reading Wordsworth's ballads at the time, and that morning we came to the poem, quoted by First Known When Lost, that begins 'A slumber did my spirit seal'. The professor read it out to us - he loved the sound of his own voice, I realise now; how funny that it's taken me all this time to recognise, or at least to articulate the fact, that vanity was one of his dominant features - and then he looked around the room. Unusually, he invited us to comment on the poem. 'Does anything strike any of you about those lines?' he asked.

One or two brave souls produced their tentative observations. The professor did not reply. Clearly what they'd said was feeble. Then, as if he were a matador flourishing his cape, he made his own pronouncement. 'The striking thing about this poem', he told us, 'the really striking thing, is that it is very, very bad.'

I think his intention was to shock, and he did - at least he shocked me. What shocked me most was that he was clearly enjoying the feeling that he had tricked us. He'd made us think that we should treat the poem seriously when really it was unworthy of our attention.

I have rarely felt so confused - and that confusion has remained with me to this day. After all this man was the scholar. He was the professor. He knew about these things. That meant he must be right. If he said the poem was bad, then it must be.

'It's just doggerel', he insisted, 'it's utterly banal- just look at that final line, "with rocks and stones and trees". That line is quite beyond redemption.'

I looked at it. It was the line that had stood out for me, but I hadn't realised it was terrible. While it certainly lacked lushness - as First Known When Lost points out it relies almost entirely on single syllable words - I thought that lack of lushness was part of what made it odd and interesting, or, at the very least, arresting.

The line had strangeness, it seemed to me, and, in its bald statement of a terrifying fundamental truth, it seemed very modern. The stark image of someone who had once been a living being who had been able to provoke love from another, now rendered inanimate, a thing amongst many, part of the undifferentiated clutter of the earth, the rocks and stones and trees, struck me forcefully. I had thought it was not banal but powerful.

Sadly, ever since, whenever I've read that poem, I've been quite unable to read it unhindered. That professor from all that time ago is still at my shoulder. 'It's dreadful', he whispers, 'it's a really bad poem.' I will never now be able to make a proper judgment about it. His vehemence and the authority I attributed to him has erased my ability to see the poem clearly. With his airy dismissal, that teacher poisoned that poem once and for all for me.

Which means, I suppose, that he did manage to teach me one thing, if only unwittingly. He taught me that unsupported value judgments of the kind he made that day, backed up by nothing but personal opinion, are worse than useless; they can actually be destructive. On that day he took a good poem, ("No, ZMKC, it isn't a good poem, it's a terrible poem" - can you hear him, he's still at it, damn the man), and, in the interest of making himself feel just one skerrick more superior, he vandalised it. It wasn't what I expected from a university and I don't think it's what higher education - or indeed any education - is supposed to be for.


  1. He reminds me of several men I've encountered in academia, all of whom seemed to have a problem with the young, particularly the opposite sex. At the time I also accepted that they had the right to treat us with contempt.

    Behind the facade of arrogance, I think that they were racked with frustrations - career, sexual or social - and took it out on the easiest target.

    1. It turns out my husband was at school with the same professor's son and stayed the weekend with them once when he - my husband - was young. They went to a bookshop and my husband bought a book about Kitsch (this is how the whole incident came up - while packing, I asked where the hell the book had come from) to impress his friend's father. All eager eyed and nervous he showed the professor his purchase while they were standing at the checkout. 'I wouldn't have bought it', came the response. I suppose there is a kind of pleasure in making others unhappy - do you think?

    2. It sure is an easy route to dominance, chopping down someone who is coming to you for approval. I've been on the receiving end of that, as well -- from both professors and respected family members. Thank goodness I recognized it before taking it up as a habit and doing it to my own sons.

    3. Sadly though, nastiness is always with us, I fear.

  2. I gathered from acquaintances that graduate students teaching intro courses to freshmen used to like to browbeat any poor souls who mentioned a liking for the poetry of Rod McKuen. I remember little about McKuen's stuff, and expect that the grad students were correct about his quality. What I do know is the browbeating did not lead the freshmen to repent and swot up the great works of literature: it produced a resentment of the instructors, and probably of the department and its classes. I suppose you might be able to make snobs out of the more docile students that way, but is it the way to make critics?

    1. Exactly. The idea surely is to develop thinking and the ability to formulate reasoned argument, not just instil prejudices. I hope we now live in a brave new world where nothing like this happens any more.