"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Monday, January 28, 2013

An excerpt from Tobias Wolff's "Old School"

A poem requires a design -- a sense of orderliness.  Part of our pleasure in the poem is that it is a well-made thing -- it gives pleasure through the authority and sweetness of the language used in the way that it is used. 
~Mary Oliver

One of my resolutions for this new year is to read and memorize more poetry.  I also want to read more fiction.  Last weekend, I picked up the novel Old School, by Tobias Wolff (I was sitting in the rocking chair with my nine-month-old son, who had just fallen asleep; I didn't want to wake him, and among the books on the shelf that was near at hand, I decided on this one).  As it turned out, it was an excellent choice.

The story is told by a high school senior and would-be writer at a prestigious Northeastern prep school in the 1960s.  Every semester, the school arranges to have a famous author come and speak as a guest of honor.  In the course of the book, we witness visits from Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, and a planned visit from Ernest Hemingway that never comes to pass.  I found it an engrossing read, not least because of the constant references to enduring authors and their works, which made the book a quasi-educational experience for me.  Also, I simply loved the setting.  I freely admit it: as a public school teacher, I'm jealous.

Perhaps my favorite passage from the novel is in the chapter in which Robert Frost visits.  After his talk before the students and faculty, he takes some time for questions.  The resulting exchange between Frost and a young faculty member by the name of Mr. Ramsey pretty well expresses, I think, my own views about art, particularly poetry, and the endurance of ancient truths amidst the onslaught of our modern age.  With warm regards for Mr. Wolff, for providing a work I thoroughly enjoyed, I have transcribed that passage at length here (the use of quotation marks to designate speakers was not employed by the author, though interestingly this seems to present no difficulty in following what is being said).

     Your work, sir, Mr. Ramsey said, follows a certain tradition.  Not the tradition of Whitman, that most American of poets, but a more constrained, shall we say, more formal tradition, as in that last poem you read, "Stopping in Woods."  I wonder --
     "'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,'" Frost said.  He put both hands on the pulpit and peered at Mr. Ramsey.
     Yes, sir.  Now that particular poem is not unusual in your work for being written in stanza form, with iambic lines connected by rhyme.
     Good for you, Frost said.  They must be teaching you boys something here.
     There was a great eruption of laughter, more caustic than jolly.  Mr. Ramsey waited it out while Frost looked slyly around the chapel, the lord of misrule.  He was not displeased by the havoc his mistake had caused, you could see that, and you had to wonder if it was a mistake at all.  Finally he said, You had a question?
     Yes, sir.  The question is whether such a rigidly formal arrangement of language is adequate to express the modern consciousness.  That is, should form give way to more spontaneous modes of expression, even at the cost of a certain disorder?
     Modern consciousness, Frost said.  What's that?
     Ah! Good question, sir.  Well -- very roughly speaking, I would describe it as the mind's response to industrialization, the saturation propaganda of governments and advertisers, two world wars, the concentration camps, the dimming of faith by science, and of course the constant threat of nuclear annihilation.  Surely these things have had an effect on us.  Surely they have changed our thinking.
     Surely nothing.  Frost stared down at Mr. Ramsey.
     If this had been the Last Judgment, Mr. Ramsey and his modern consciousness would've been in for a hot time of it.  He couldn't have looked more alone, standing there.
     Don't tell me about science, Frost said.  I'm something of a scientist myself.  Bet you didn't know that.  Botany.  You boys know what tropism is, it's what makes a plant grow toward the light.  Everything aspires to the light.  You don't have to chase down a fly to get rid of it -- you just darken the room, leave a crack of light in a window, and out he goes.  Works every time.  We all have that instinct, that aspiration.  Science can't -- what was your word? dim? -- science can't dim that.  All science can do is turn out the false lights so the true light can get us home.
     Mr. Ramsey began to say something, but Frost kept going.
     So don't tell me about science, and don't tell me about war.  I lost my nearest friend in the one they call the Great War.  So did Achilles lose his friend in war, and Homer did no injustice to his grief by writing about it in dactylic hexameters.  There've always been wars, and they've always been as foul as we could make them.  It is very fine and pleasant to think ourselves the most put-upon folk in history -- but then everyone has thought that from the beginning.  It makes a grand excuse for all manner of laziness.  But about my friend.  I wrote a poem for him.  I still write poems for him.  Would you honor your own friend by putting words down anyhow, just as they come to you, with no thought for the sound they make, the meaning of their sound, the sound of their meaning?  Would that give a true account of the loss?
     Frost had been looking right at Mr. Ramsey as he spoke.  Now he broke off and let his eyes roam over the room.
     I am thinking of Achilles grief, he said.  That famous, terrible, grief.  Let me tell you boys something.  Such grief can only be told in form.  Maybe it only really exists in form.  Form is everything.  Without it, you've got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry -- sincere, maybe, for what that's worth, but with no depth or carry.  No echo.  You may have a grievance, but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry.  Does that answer your question?
     I'm not sure -- but thank you for having a go at it.
     You wouldn't have guessed, seeing Mr. Ramsey settle back with a smile, that he'd just been stepped on by Robert Frost in front of the whole school.


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