Eight Public Cases

Norman Rockwell, Russian Schoolroom, 1967.

1.

Our teacher (young, malevolent, witty) was holding forth about the “curlicues and inefficiency” of Derek Walcott’s poetic style. Our teacher said, “It’s like he wants to go to the kitchen to get a banana. So, he dresses up like Henry James, striped pants, fresh pressed—tails, top hat—and stands with supreme dignity on the curb next to his bed. A Rolls-Royce pulls up silently. It is dazzling, five hundred pounds of chrome front and back, and a chauffeur jumps out—white gloves—opens the passenger door for Walcott. Walcott glides into the seat, frowning deeply and nodding toward the kitchen. He is now sitting bolt upright. The chauffeur closes the door, takes his own place, and drives six feet to the kitchen. He hops out, assists Walcott toward the kitchen counter, where the bananas—somber yellow with coffee-colored freckles—are situated in an animated rhombus of light, rain seeded, coming from the kitchen window. At which point we are doomed. Those bananas will turn to baby food before Walcott is finished describing them … ” We all laughed, but one of the students said, “Yes, but doesn’t that description apply to the first three quarters of the Norton Anthology—?”

Comment. It does if you think Shakespeare and all those people were just describing bananas. The real question isn’t whether the description applies to the Norton; it’s whether it applies to Walcott. And here is an aphorism: Every laugh—deflects.

2.

—I understand you insist on a difference between an academic drudge and an academic drone. Explain.

—The drone takes every teaspoon’s worth of information she wishes to impart and beats it up into a mousse that fills four cubic yards of space. The drudge busies herself establishing the existence of irrelevant relationships between ideas. Other than these things, they have everything in common.

—So according to you, the poseur is in danger of becoming a drone, and the crank is in danger of becoming a drudge.

—No. There is no “becoming” in this picture. One is a drone or a drudge from birth.

Comment. Long time ago, during the equivalent of “orientation week,” one of the professors emeriti told us a joke. He said, “Just remember, when you get the Ph.D., don’t let anybody put Dr. in front of your name. It doesn’t stand for doctor; it stands for drudge.” Somebody muttered, “Pretty sure it stands for drip.”

3.

One of the students (spastic, romantic, doofy looking) was complaining about the packet of translations we had been assigned: “This stuff is utterly void of color or pungency. It’s like those No Fear Shakespeare books. The left-hand column is Shakespeare; the right-hand column is what Shakespeare would be like if he had no poetic skill.” Our teacher (crinkly eyed, unflappable) responded, “You’re acting like the right-hand column has no right to exist unless it approaches the value of the left-hand column.” Somebody else cut in: “No, she’s saying there’s no point in looking at the Mona Lisa if your glasses have just been dipped in orange juice.”

Comment. Every laugh—deflects.

4.

On Fridays, the teaching assistants were allowed to hold court. One of them (tattooed, stressed out, moralistic) was on a roll, near the end of the first semester: “The problem with Rousseau was he had some kind of brain defect that prevented him from understanding why people hated him. The second half of the Confessions, it’s like a little kid wrote it [whinging like a tragic toddler]: But I didn’t do anything! And it’s true he never attacked anyone with his fists. Instead, he just walked around like a supremely stuck-up snit his whole life. Hated everybody, exposed everybody to passionate gusts of self-pity, longed for applause, applauded himself … Hmm, why should anybody hate him?”

Comment. That TA did understand something about hate, but I want to ask you: How is it that Rousseau was able to supply readers of the Confessions with all the information necessary to the above analysis—without coming to the same conclusion as the TA? Surely most of us escape understanding by means of denial, which is to say, it is we who have the “brain defect,” and yet …

5.

“H.D. did it to people, innocently, helplessly, all her life. She made them think she was the answer to their deep needs, but then it would turn out her brains were mainly occupied, giddily, with things that don’t exist: God, gods, ghosts, healing energy, the Cosmic Oneness, and so on. But, see, according to my philosophy it’s very bad to hate on people for not being what you need, so I have to think about this. I must either acknowledge that it’s too late for me to actually be a good person on this point (and so I must resolve to at least behave better), or (more excitingly) figure out some way to be a good person.”

Comment. Once upon a time, there was a block of bubble gum, and the block of bubble gum said to himself: “All my life they have told me my fate is to die, beaten to a pulp, in the mouth of a child. But I shall escape this.” So the block of bubble gum hid himself in the space between the bucket seats of a 2001 Volkswagen Jetta. And it is true that he never wound up in the mouth of a child or of anyone else. Instead, he dry-rotted into a disgusting square of pink crud. Moral: there is no escape from death, so would it not be better to go out in a splash of glory, with some living being blowing bubbles through you?

6.

Our professor had just read, approvingly, some passages from a famous belletristic poetry critic. One of the students got antsy: “I hate it when commentators whip up a vast froth of associations and curlicues from a couple lines in their favorite poet—as much as to say, Look at all the stuff contained in those two lines! It’s not contained there. Austin and San Antonio are not contained in Houston; they’re just nearby. If we’re talking about Houston, and you start going on about San Antonio and Austin, you’re just bragging about how well you know east Texas.” Our professor responded, smiling: “I, personally, am obsessed with getting credit for how well I know East Texas.”

Comment. This is what we like to see. Fearless student, quick with a metaphor; good-humored teacher, master of double-edged irony. Yet one has to wonder at the wisdom of the captain who insists on going down with his ship when there’s plenty of room in the life boat. There’s even a good-looking midshipman offering a hand.

7.

—I’m fed up with you and your poetry quotations.

—What do you mean?

—The way you quote poetry left and right in conversation.

—Why is that so annoying to you?

—’Cuz you do it to hint that you think in poetry quotations. You want me to believe you’d never just say, “Okay, well, where do you guys wanna eat?”—if there were a line in Yeats that meant that. You would think, and you would say, the line in Yeats.

—How do you know the impression I’m trying to give you is false?

—From your eyebrows.

Comment. When high-level literati go mano a mano (or better say cejas a cejas) there’s just no telling who will win. Better arguments, superior wit, more germane evidence—none of these things necessarily prevails. Therefore, at least with regard to their outcomes, one might as well watch the flipping of a coin. Is it possible to think in poetry quotations all the time? And supposing it is possible, is it ignoble to want credit for doing so? Heads; tails. Tails; heads.

8.

Mr. Neglected Sad Sack, who was supposed to give a poetry reading in Los Angeles the following week, was complaining elegantly to a student: “Nobody’s gonna show up to my thing. They’re all gonna think, Why go when nobody’s gonna be there? See, they only wanna go when everybody’s gonna be there.” He paused and added: “They’re not looking for food for thought; they’re looking for food for talk.” Mr. Neglected Sad Sack’s student tried to cheer him up: “Well, but that’s how you’ll know when you’ve become important! You’ll give a reading in a big city and all the other celebs will show up!”

Comment. Once upon a time, a poet named Mr. Neglected Sad Sack had a student named Little Lord Sadly Lacking in Tact. Sad Sack had a great deal of experience coining epigrams; Lord Lacking had a haiku-poet’s mastery of saying things without saying them. Both had bright futures ahead of them, and when Sad Sack eventually died, Lord Lacking, now white haired, spoke memorably over the urn of his old teacher’s ashes. The only people present were two close friends of Lord Lacking and the janitorial people associated with the venue.

Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.

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