I am not stubborn, he thinks,
laying all of it on the table in the courtyard
full of early sun, shadows of swallows flying
on the food. Not stubborn, just greedy.
—from “Going Wrong” by Jack Gilbert
With all of us looking at it on the page, Mike reads “Going Wrong,” from Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires. The poem clearly touches many of us on hearing it read aloud the first time. There’s a respectful—maybe even an emotional—silence. Since we have the text in front of us, we can study it as we sit there thinking about what we’ve just heard. Then Christa asks what’s going on in that last sentence, and Matt who’s just figured it out, explains that the speaker has just won his debate with God. Arianna disagrees—“God has nothing to do with the ending,” she asserts, which makes Johanna groan and causes about half a dozen of us to raise our voices in argument. Because I’ve been teaching longer than these young men and women have been alive, I know exactly what to do in this situation. Don’t try to settle the matter, but don’t let the discussion fragment into chaos.
“Let’s read it again,” I say with only enough volume in my voice to make it happen. So we do just that—Abby reads it in her clear and precise way. Again, after this second reading, there’s that sublime appreciative silence after the poem’s final words. “Not stubborn, just greedy”: The syllables ring in our ears. Then Marissa, who’s maybe our shrewdest poem-reader—speaks very quietly about the concept of the poem—“It’s about solitude freeing up the spirit,” she says. “God’s not there, but God is definitely there.” You’d think we’d fall into a chorus of protest in response to such a statement, but at the altitude of intense shared attention to which we have risen, we see how she’s got it right, even if just for this single moment. Talking together, we’ve raised our level of understanding of the poem by at least fifty percent.
The above is a recollected approximation of a shining four or five-minutes, the like of which I facilitated maybe a dozen times in the last undergraduate class I’m likely ever to teach at UVM—English 281, Reading and Writing Contemporary Poetry. Such an experience wasn’t available to me in the first dozen or so years of my teaching, because I’d have misunderstood the discussion as being an argument, which as the teacher, I’d have felt obligated to try to settle. It wasn’t available to me in the second dozen or so years of my teaching because by then I’d decided that my role was to let such discussions take their own course, so that I’d have left it to the students to take it wherever it went. So it most likely would have plummeted toward irrelevance, loss of concentration, and random remarks. It’s only in these last years of my teaching life that I’ve had access to moments when I am the leader of a group that I’m capable of coaxing into fruitful “literary inquiry.”
I know of few more pleasurable or rewarding occasions than the one I’ve described above. When I was in high school, I played saxophone in some pretty good little jazz combos. Once or twice, improvising with players of the piano, trumpet, trombone, bass, and drums, I felt something similar—one suddenly reaches an exact accord with the others: one is also deeply oneself, but the joined people produce something that is beyond the reach of any single one of the individuals. I’ve learned how, in my classroom, to make myself one among the joined poem-readers, and how to move my brother and sister readers into a state of heightened concentration in the project of attempted understanding. An individual can study Jack Gilbert’s “Going Wrong” and get a great deal out of it, but nineteen readers giving the poem their complete attention can reach a soaring level of understanding and appreciation. Soaring is the operative word here—the sensation resembles what a single bird must feel in the sudden turn, dip, or sharp angle in those synchronized flights of whole flocks maneuvering over fields at twilight.
Shared intelligence is a rare and grand experience. It may be most available in undergraduate classrooms because, in that phase of their evolution, young men and women are just coming into possession of their intellectual and artistic lives. Immodest though it may be of me, I don’t think it can happen without a capable leader, a mentor who’s given years of his life to the study and practice and teaching of the subject matter. The leader can’t take on the role of authority (which is mostly pretense anyway). The leader must be immersed with all the others in the effort to grasp the work of art. But such trancelike immersion is a natural response to a painting, a string quartet, a play, or a poem. It’s really what we yearn to do in response to something beautiful witnessed in the company of others—Let’s talk about this thing and try to understand it more deeply.
Seminars are like families. We come to know each other. We take on roles. We learn how to argue, how to agree or civilly disagree, how to make fun, how to cause trouble, how to help each other, how to waste time, and/or how to make a class session productive, exciting, and pleasurable. I wish I could say that I developed my seminar skills through careful study and analysis of small-group pedagogical issues. Not so. My methods have evolved over the hundreds of hours I’ve spent in classrooms. It’s been a matter of my going through the cycle of the semester so many times that I’ve simply adjusted to the family dynamic. I stumbled upon an obvious truth—that if the teacher is less a boss and more a leader, students are actually likely to enjoy each other’s company and to appreciate each other’s writing and thinking.
As the semester’s end approaches, the prevailing spirit of a seminar is almost always that together we’ve worked our way through something memorable and worthwhile. Last classes can be very sentimental occasions. A couple of semesters back, I even heard myself say, “I wish I could take you all home with me.” What I really meant was, Not sentimental, just greedy.
A UVM faculty member since 1971, Professor David Huddle retired this spring.
Originally published in the Summer 2009 issue.