Thursday, September 11, 2008

Reading Between The Lines

The following was Part III of a four part post on how to evaluate poetry that I posted on some time ago. is open - I think to anyone - but the other parts of the the blog need permission.

This is the long explanation about why it's both useful and personally rewarding to read good stuff carefully and slowly.

The best class I had in college was 17th Century English Literature. It was the hardest and the one in which I learned the most. Professor Clayton, probably in his 30s, seemed much older to my 20 year old self. His gaunt body moved constantly, his eyes darted around lighting first on one victim, then on another. “What did Donne mean in this poem?” he’d challenge. If your answer didn’t meet expectations you might be ignored, or worse, your response was dismissed as, “Rubbish!” If your reply was more than routine, he might lavish you with, “Point.” And if your answer showed actual insight, he might even say, “Point well taken.”

Needless to say, people quickly stopped raising their hands unless they were certain they knew the answer. Being rubbished was far more likely than being praised. But if there were no volunteers, he would select a sacrificial lamb. To avoid humiliation I began to study ferociously. On the midterm, I got a D. The essay part was fine.. But the exam also included a huge table with columns titled: Poet, birth date, death date, meter, rhyme scheme, imagery, line from a poem. Some of the boxes were filled in. Most were empty. And there was a long list, from a – zz, of the names, dates, and other words, that belonged in those empty boxes. We had to put the letters of each answer in the right boxes. That part of the test was unexpected and disastrous.

All the students who got D’s or F’s had to meet with Professor Clayton privately in his office. Much to my surprise, the cold and merciless professor in class, was warm and friendly in his office. This had been a rough semester for me altogether. My midterm grades were two D’s and two F’s. I launched a new study regimen. Class was from 8-11 every day. I worked from noon to five. I was in the library at six till midnight.

We read Paradise Lost in the second half of that semester and I had more notes than there was text. I noted the meter. I noted the rhyme scheme. I noted each character, the images used for each character, and everything the character did. I also noted Milton’s birth and death dates. I did this with every poet and every poem we had to read. I loved Paradise Lost. With this level of effort, I was starting to see patterns. This character was always surrounded by black, that one by fire. I began to anticipate things before they appeared on the page. Suddenly I was part of the poem and felt its complexity, saw the details I had missed the first half of the semester. I began raising my hand in class, and getting ‘Points’ and occasional “Points well taken.”

What I remember of the Final Exam was the mystery poem. The assignment was to identify the poet. I began to check the rhyme scheme and the meter. I found historical references and could eliminate those poets who had died before these events took place. Eventually, I had eliminated most of the poets. The color green was pervasive in this poem and so I chose Andrew Marvell as my likely poet.

I got a B in the class. My A on the final wasn’t enough to make up for the midterm. But that grade gave me more satisfaction than any A I got. Marvell was the mystery poet and I’d figured it out. In hindsight, I realize that this class didn't just teach me how to only read poetry, but how to read anything, to a depth that allowed me to find its heart. It also taught me that by memorizing what seemed like insignificant details, I could know enough to recognize pieces that fit together and ones that were out of place. I could logically figure out the mystery poet in any situation.

Professor Clayton taught me the value of concentrated work and discipline. He taught me that being prepared with in-depth knowledge, enabled me to take full advantage of the clues. While I decided that I would rather apply these skills to what I perceived as more useful areas than the works of long dead poets, this class on 17th Century English Literature was the class that taught me the most useful lessons of all my college courses.

[If anyone knows Dr. Clayton - I took his class in the English Department at UCLA in 1965 or 1966 - please pass this on to him with my most sincere and profuse thanks.]


  1. Ah, yes, the power of teachers!

    I came across a reference to the Epic of Gilgamesh recently. It's a wonderful story and has a feel of many pre-Western contact cultures. It reminded me of one my favorite subjects that, without doubt, was inspired by an ancient cultures teacher I had many years ago. She was an inspiring and exacting tutor.

    I learned that I can approach other foundation cultural writings with the same appreciation and skepticism, including the holy texts of the near East.

    Art, religion and politics do seem to originate from a common need to tell our stories and shape our world. They each struggle with ends transient and lasting.

    Our job, each generation, is to decide which story to live by. Sarah Palin accepts one version, I another.

    Steve, like you, I see the grace to inform in the arts. Now I understand more deeply why you came to Out North.

  2. September 16, 2008

    Hi Steve,

    Wonderful post describing your experience, so many years later, with an English professor and 17th Century English Literature at UCLA in the mid-1960s.

    "It takes at least a couple of decades to realize that you were well taught. All true education is a delayed-action time bomb assembled in the classroom for explosion at a later date. An educational fuse of 50 years is by no means unusual."
    --Kenneth D. Gangel

    Your story about the impact of a liberal arts education brought me back to the mid-1970s at UMass Amherst where I was an English major but mostly still a bewildered kid. I had casually told a friend, a history major, that I was looking for a fifth course that semester, and he recommended one he was taking, called “The Writing of History” with Professor Miriam Chrisman.

    When I attended the first class, I knew immediately I was in way over my head. I decided to stick it out anyway and plunged into an investigation of the riots that had erupted in 1907 during the first performance in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre of “The Playboy of the Western World” by John Millington Synge. It was a fascinating time in Ireland’s too often tragic history. I read voraciously, night after night, including from the rare books archives, and came to understand a depth of Irish literary and political history that has never left.

    That curiosity also led to a year abroad studying Irish literature and history in Dublin, Ireland, where I was able to connect with long-lost relatives and forge deep Irish friendships that endure to this day.

    Mrs. Chrisman helped me learn how to think while simultaneously teaching me how to write. She helped me assemble many disparate pieces of research I had gathered to support a thesis that I was struggling to discover, buried somewhere at the bottom of my class project. I remember spending the good part of an afternoon in her office one day. She had been working over my piece before I’d arrived, tearing it apart, with arrows going everywhere, notes along the margins, long passages filled with ink. Once we sat down together, Professor Chrisman began suggesting shifting of huge chunks of writing all over the place. In those days, we had no computers, of course, so it was literally cutting and pasting, or at least taping parts together.

    I thought she was crazy at first. But she saw something in the paper that I was unable to recognize in my own confusion and despair. She helped bring coherency and clarity out of chaos. I learned for the first time that the nearly subconscious journey that an idea takes on a long, winding road will eventually come to fruition. But you have to stick with it. For the first time, I felt that enormous satisfaction and understanding from finally seeing clearly through all the mud. That still happens with just about every writing project to this day.

    The summation of Steve’s experience with Professor Clayton mirrors my own with Professor Chrisman, which he describes so well in his final paragraph:

    “Professor Clayton taught me the value of concentrated work and discipline. He taught me that being prepared with in-depth knowledge enabled me to take full advantage of the clues. While I decided that I would rather apply these skills to what I perceived as more useful areas than the works of long dead poets, this class on 17th Century English Literature was the class that taught me the most useful lessons of all my college courses.”

    I hadn’t a clue where I was going as a college student or what I’d do after college. But I have kept in touch with Professor Chrisman all these more than three decades since. Her husband, a physician, died a few years ago, and she’s since moved closer to relatives who live in the Boston area. She’s nearly 90 years old today and faithfully returns regular greetings. I’ve told her many times in as many ways I know how the impact of her teaching and her willingness to sit down with a clueless young man.

    A couple years ago, she wrote about one of those times I came to her office. I’d submitted the paper I’d been working on all semester a couple days before. She wrote in a letter in more recent times that I appeared at her office door and asked, “Professor Chrisman, can I write?”

    I don’t know why I asked that question. I had no intention of trying to write for a living or really write for any reason. There was no big design, no grand scheme, no dream of becoming America’s latest literary sensation. I was probably just nervous about wasting her time on me.

    Thirty years later, in her late 80s, she wrote, “The answer is yes.”

    I never did become that great literary sensation, although I have made a living as a full-time journalist and still freelance, sharing a by-line most of the time with my wife.

    After teaching writing, primarily composition and developmental English but also some upper-level non-fiction writing, for more than 20 years for the University of Alaska, I try to give every student that same level of individual attention Professor Chrisman gave me.

    John Creed

  3. Jay, thanks. (I want to say more, but that's basically it.)

    John (aka Oscar) - wow, a 'comment' like that makes all this blogging totally worthwhile. Now, it's time we sit down and have lunch or dinner sometime. When you're in Anchorage, give me a call.

  4. Hello, Steve! Good to stumble across your blog. Hungry Writers is going to official open again as I've finally gotten round to remodeling the place and it is open to everyone again. Drop me a line if you find some time. Take care!

  5. Hey, PB, good to hear from you. As you can see I'm still working at this. I've seen a couple of Hungry Writers emails. Let me know when it's back. And where you are these days.


Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.