A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
On a recent drizzly Sunday afternoon, I walked six blocks to the UPS store and sent off a box of papers to my archive. Housed in Rutgers’s Alexander Library in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the Rachel Hadas Papers now consists of some forty boxes of my correspondence, drafts, and so on, dating back to 1992. This particular box contained printouts from my visits, usually one each semester, to the freshman English composition classes taught by my Rutgers-Newark colleague John Straus during the years 2006 to 2017.
It works like this: a week or two beforehand, John gives the students a few of my poems and solicits written questions about them—questions he then passes to me. My responses, when we all get together in the classroom, including the inevitable digressions, form the contents of the visits to John’s class. Intellectual panhandling, John calls this long-standing practice. I’ve thought of writing about these visits, or perhaps collaborating with John on a piece about them, but haven’t yet done so. Should I feel a pang, then, to be shipping off this carton full of folders stuffed with student questions? If I ever want to write about my time spent in John’s classes, won’t I need to consult all this paper?
Writing in detail about what transpires in the classroom is like catching a butterfly by one fragile wing and then pinning the hapless creature to a board, the better to examine it. The butterfly dies in the process. Even if I’d kept the papers I just shipped off to New Brunswick, I would lack the patience to write an account. I’d have to reinvent so much! The paper trail is a one-sided correspondence: it records the students’ questions, but not my answers.
This paperwork is true to the dynamic of teaching. Henry Adams said: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” I’d go a step further: the teacher may not even know where, if anywhere, his influence starts. Yes, we’re all in the classroom together; but who is listening, and what are they hearing, and who will retain what? It’s not only that I have no way of knowing where or whether my words will find a foothold; it’s that once those words have, in the Homeric formulation, escaped the fence of my teeth—once they’ve flown out into the air—I’m inclined to forget them. Those winged words certainly don’t need to be packed in a box and sent off to an archive. They take up no space at all.
Teaching literature is an elusive business. There is a text; there are students; there’s a teacher. This assembly leaves plenty of room for idiosyncrasy and improvisation. Teaching a course on myth in literature last spring, I thought to bring three different hats (baseball caps, actually) to the classroom, labelled respectively “Myth”, “Literature,” and “Writing”. My original intention was to don whichever hat seemed relevant to what the class was doing at the time. But of course the subjects don’t divide up that neatly; I’d have been changing hats all the time.
Looking back over the steady trickle of poems I’ve written about teaching in the thirty-odd years I’ve spent in and out of classrooms, I find a lot of references to the classrooms themselves. More specifically, I find references to classroom doors. My poem “Conklin 455, 3:55 PM, Wednesday, March 3, 2004” captures the moment I stood, hand on the doorknob, before walking into the classroom to teach poetry. Earlier that day, I’d learned of my brother David’s death. In “Pomegranate Variations” (1994), a poem about teaching the myth of Persephone and actually bringing a pomegranate to class, I quote myself as saying “Behind shut doors we’re safe. / Now out with it.” At the end of the poem, “The hour is over. Tentatively someone / from outside tries the door.”
My classroom poems from ten or twenty years ago seem to be speaking about a much less alarming world than the one students and teachers live in now. I was recently reminded in another way of how the profession of teaching has changed. In a book entitled Awake at Work (2006), Michael Carroll stresses the importance of paying attention on the job, of being mindfully alert to conditions that may change at any moment. Carroll lists professions “where letting go of preconceptions and being fully present to circumstances as they unfold are absolutely vital: air traffic controller, fire fighter, emergency medical responder, teacher.” Somehow I doubt that Carroll thought of saving lives as one of the things a teacher has to be “fully present to.” I imagine he was thinking of the way emotional and cognitive weather can quickly change in the classroom.
But now teachers are being asked to be prepared for the same kind of situations that are the daily experience of firefighters and other emergency responders. Ashley Nicolas, who served in Afghanistan before becoming a high school teacher in the US, recently wrote a detailed account of the routine process of drilling to prepare her classroom for an attack. “My classroom would be one of the first an attacker coming through the front entrance would see. So I set out to make it a ‘hard target’….The classroom was big, with doors at opposite ends….I pondered how to construct impromptu barricades to delay or confuse an attacker.”
Six months ago, as my Mythology in Literature class at Rutgers-Newark was reaching the end of its leisurely reading of the Odyssey, the shootings at Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, once again changed the sense of what a school means, what a classroom is. We had been talking about Homeric similes, which are adept at, among other things, evoking human violence by referring to the natural world. I found myself thinking of the slaughtered Suitors near the end of the poem (Odyssey 22, Fagles translation):
Odysseus scanned his house to see if any man
still skulked alive, still hoped to avoid black death.
But he found them one and all in blood and dust…
great hauls of them down and out like fish that fishermen
drag from the churning grey surf in looped and coiling nets
and fling ashore on a sweeping hook of beach—some noble catch
heaped on the sand, twitching, lusting for fresh salt sea
but the Sungod hammers down and burns their lives out…
so the suitors lay in heaps, corpse covering corpse.
Just before this simile, Odysseus spares the lives of two men, who “scurried out of the house at once / and crouched at the altar-stone of mighty Zeus— / glancing left and right, / fearing death would strike at any moment.” At the scene of the Parkland shootings, The New York Times reported that Deputy Scot Peterson, who remained outside the high school for several minutes after the shooting began, was seen “seeking cover behind a concrete column leading to a stairwell.”
When I wrote “Conklin 455” in 2004, my threshold moment was balanced between my beloved brother’s not unexpected death on the one hand and poetry on the other—poetry my brother and I had shared, poetry I was about to go in and teach. Fourteen years later, in the same Conklin Hall, but in what feels like a different country, my threshold moment might be about death ready to burst in and hunt down my students and me. Poetry doesn’t work all that differently. Who the recipient is, what will happen to his or her words, isn’t in the poet’s control. As to where those words come from, questions like, “What were you trying to say?” and “Where do you get your ideas?”—the kind of questions students ask me year after year—are doomed not to be answered, or not answered satisfactorily. For they are the wrong questions.
When my father Moses Hadas, a classicist who taught at Columbia, died in 1966, I was seventeen. Now that I’m older than he ever lived to be, and have myself spent decades in the classroom, his occasional writings about teaching speak to me directly. In a late unpublished talk “On Teaching the Classics in Translation” he drew a useful distinction:
It is easier to lecture about the time and place of a book, the culture that produced it, the special historical or linguistic problems involved in it. It is harder…to face the book as a masterpiece and to help the student understand why it is a masterpiece….If you dodge the book and conceal your fecklessness by loud noises in the outworks, the whole enterprise becomes fraudulent. There are crambooks from which your students can get all the knowledge you purvey with their bare feet on the table…
And Moses also wrote, in Old Wine New Bottles: A Humanist Teacher at Work (1962): “what goes on in my own and a thousand other classrooms is more important than the large affairs carried on in the shining palaces of aluminum and glass downtown”—the business “palaces” of midtown Manhattan. But my father never spelled out exactly what he said in the classroom.
Rachel Hadas is a poet, essayist, and translator. She is the author of more than twenty books including Poems for Camilla, Questions in the Vestibule, and Strange Relation. She lives in New York City.
From Piece by Piece: Selected Prose by Rachel Hadas (Paul Dry, 2021). Included in Vox Populi by permission of the author.