A Teaching Career (Part II)

Without irony or apology, I can say that I have liked university teaching over the years because it left time to do other things. This of course plays into the “cushy job” clichés about professors–at least under the old, pre-adjunctification of the profession. I would have led a much less happy life had I stayed in journalism or gone found a job that required be to be on the scene nine to five, five days a week. I suspect I would have become a bartender or waiter. In any case, even working as an adjunct in Bellingham, then in San Diego (where I drove all over the county in my VW Beetle to put together a “career” of teaching gigs at San Diego State & a couple of community colleges). Some days I logged more than a hundred miles in a succession of little Bugs, and then finally a camper van.

I saw an ad for adjunct positions at San Diego State while I was still living in Bellingham & applied for it because I knew I could crash at my aunt’s house for a month before my first paycheck came in. San Diego was, after all, my hometown. My mother had lived and worked there as a young woman.  The position I was hired for also paid a bit better and offered somewhat more work, so I drove the entire length of the West Coast of the US in four days, landing in Chula Vista a few days before the semester was to begin. I loved the big bullpen where all the adjuncts had their desks. No illusions about the class system here.1 But there was a lively intellectual atmosphere–along with a lot of bitching–in the bullpen & I became quite close to ca couple of my colleagues, though those friendships, sadly, did not persist a few years later when I moved east to take a job at an obscure place called Clarkson University, which, in those days, was really a glorified tech school.

My Iowa MFA turned out to be considered an important credential, both within the department at State & among the English Department heads at Palomar CC & a couple of other places. I soon had a very full slate of teaching jobs spread across the county–but I still seemed to have a lot of time to write poems. (I tended to grade papers in big marathon sessions filled with angst & swearing & coffee, leaving long afternoons for rereading Wordsworth & Whitman & Berryman & Bishop only a few blocks from the booming Pacific Ocean. (In which I almost drowned one fine afternoon, but that’s another story: Avoid riptides.) So, despite the anxieties of freeway driving in an underpowered vehicle, the first few years in San Diego were miracle years during which I began to write my first fully adult poems.

And about time, too, since I was in my mid-thirties by this point. (Did I mention I had taken a rather leisurely–even by the standards of the times–ten years to accomplish my BA in Seattle at the UW, from 1969 to 1979? That was something of an extended boyhood!) I was almost thirty by the time I finished up at Iowa & moved back West, having lost my first wife M. during the first semester of grad school–a not uncommon phenomenon, I was to learn. In Bellingham, just before leaving for San Diego, I had begun going out with one of my students (the rules were different then) & she soon joined me in San Diego. That was my wife Carole & we are still together more than three decades later.

Well, that paragraph is a bit of a temporal & spatial mess. To return to something like a narrative, I can pick up with Ocean Beach, perhaps the last real counter-culture neighborhood in San Diego. Leaving my aunt’s guest room after a month, I found a couple of rooms to rent in a beach shack in Ocean Beach. I was still grindingly poor, but Carole joined me & we began to live like the latter-day hippies I suppose we were, shopping at the coop & breakfasting in a couple of fine diners, with occasional Mexican dinners out if the occasion (like a paycheck) warranted it. I was writing the poems that would fill out my first two books, the letterpress chapbook The Light of Common Day and my first full-length book, Customs. I was deeply fortunate that Kim Merker’s Windhover Press did the chapbook–it remains the most beautiful presentation of my work to this day. And the Univ. of Georgia Press also did a fine job of helping me edit (Thanks, Stanley Plumly!) a slightly too-long manuscript into something like a unified whole.

I had been publishing in journals, but these two books convinced the English Department at State that they should give me a (still not tenure track) full-time position. Additionally, the started assigning me upper division Literature creative writing classes to teach. If the job had had any potential of shifting to the tenure track, I’d probably be writing this from the West Coast rather than the East. You would have thought that my picking up my first of two NEA Creative Writing Fellowships would have tipped the scales in my favor, but it did not. Carole & I spent nearly five months in Europe spending the NEA money & soon after returning I was offered the job at Clarkson. It was not an easy decision to make. Neither of us had ever lived anywhere but the West Coast & Carole was now in grad school (in History) at UCLA.

We agreed that we’d move our digs East but that she would continue at UCLA until we figured out what was going on. We were bi-coastal fir two years, until Carole received her MA & decided not to pursue the PhD. I think it was her legitimate decision–she didn’t want to teach–but I still feel bad about her not finishing the doctorate, which she could have done with ease.

Thus began my Clarkson teaching career, which would run twenty-seven years, until a couple of weeks ago. I’m not going to try to produce a narrative of all those years, but will shift gears in the next part of this account & write more about teaching itself, in the classroom, rather than my particular experience of it as a job. [To be continued . . . ]


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  1. It was probably stronger at State than it would have been at University of California branches–the full-time faculty at State knew they were in the faculty underclass when compared to the faculty at U-Cal, so they enforced their local privileges pretty strictly.

Favorite Poems: “Gnostics On Trial”

Even if Linda Gregg had not written many other fine poems, “Gnostics on Trial” would assure her a place among the poets who have written seriously about our moral dilemmas. Technically, it is hard to imagine a better put-together poem, its compact form packing a terrific moral & aesthetic (which the poem argues are the same) wallop. Gregg’s poem is a faultless example of the short lyric as practiced since the mid-twentieth century. And there is not much on the horizon, I think, likely to take the place of this now venerable form, or mode, of poetry. The short lyric remains essential even as new & hybrid forms proliferate around it & it seems to be holding its own, occupying the place–the evolutionary niche–formerly occupied by the sonnet.


Until a couple of months ago I had never taken a sedative stronger than a couple of Valium & that a very long time ago. Without intending to minimize the severity of the current epidemic of opioid abuse, I do not understand the attraction. About an hour after taking two 5 mg tablets of Percocet, I experience a fifteen minute period of mild euphoria followed by drowsiness, but if I don’t catch that wave I move through the sleepiness to a state of comfortable alertness. After that, all bets are off. Sometimes the alertness will continue for an hour or so, sometimes I will simply fall into a deep sleep for three hours or so. But over the course of days, the cumulative effect is dull drowsiness that makes it difficult to write except in short bursts. The drug also slows down the digestive tract through which it passes, lending another cluster of unpleasant symptoms. The radiation treatments I begin tomorrow are supposed to relieve much of the pain in my back, which in turn will allow me to reduce the amount of Percocet I’m taking. I hope so. I have poems to finish. 

Necessary Limits

Over the last few days I’ve been watching documentaries on contemporary visual art, many from the PBS series Art:21. Over & over again, across multiple genres, approaches, political commitments & media, the artists talk in a number of different ways about working within limits. The limits artists employ are self-imposed, even when they are drawn from tradition.1

Why would so many different artists voluntarily constrain themselves with what can appear to be arbitrary limitations when, presumably, they could work without limits? Could an artist just pick up the brush-camera-pen-keyboard-saxaphone & start wailing away in genius mode? Seems doubtful, and yet over the course of my writing & teaching life I have run up against the idea that “creative” equals “no rules.” This strikes me as some sort of vulgar utopianism.

My former teacher Donald Justice, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1980, remarked at about that time that he regretted not living in an era when there was a period style to work within & against. That’s one kind of limit.

The Elizabethan theater needed a form of language that could sustain a declamatory mode of acting. The newly emerging poetic line, the iambic pentameter, was suited to this kind of drama, but of course a set verse form is a limitation. But then Shakespeare came along & used this limitation–among many other things–to produce works of genius within those limits. Shakespeare would not have been able to write Lear or The Tempest, to select the two plays I always return to.

Constraints, or limits, are highly productive. Even a hang-loose West Coast conceptual artist like John Baldessari says, in his Art 21 segment:

Not so much structure that it’s inhibiting–I mean there is not wiggle room–but not so loose that it can be anything. I guess it’s like a corral–a corral around your idea that you can move but not too much and it’s that limited movement that promotes creativity. [John Baldessari]

But even within the most rebellious forms of Modernism & post-modernism, artists impose systems–corrals, as Baldessari calls them–such as William Carlos Williams’ half-imaginary phrase-based triadic measure. Even though this prosody has turned out to be largely non-transferable (I know–I have tried it), as a limit it allowed WCW to write “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” “To Daphne and Virginia” & other poems from his late period.

I’m scheduled to teach Introduction to Creative Writing in the fall. It’s a class with which I have had a love / hate relationship over the years, largely because of the issues sketched above. I’m going to design a version of the class with this notion of productive constraints at its heart.

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  1. There are of course limitations that artists do not control, though they should be aware of them: economic conditions, certain forces of personal history, the politics of the state in which the artist lives / works, etc.

Best Three Dylan Albums?

I’ve started posting various sorts of lists in this space, inspired partly by Greil Marcus’s collection of columns, Real Life Top Ten, but without Marcus’s hipster edge or focus on popular culture. My knowledge of popular culture is not nearly so wide, nor my taste so inclusive, as Marcus’s, but I know a thing or two about Dylan, not so much as a figure (or personality), but as a poet. People don’t worry much these days about whether or not Dylan is or is not a poet—whether he meets the qualifications—but in my younger days it was a question of some importance, at least to some of us who had begun to see poetry (or all things) as a powerful mode of perception. Dylan himself had clearly thought this—after all, he had dropped in on Carl Sandberg and announced himself, however awkwardly, as a member of the tribe. Later, he seems to have dismissed the question as beside the point, though the songs of his great period are studded with references to poets & poetry.1

I seem to have buried my thesis in a footnote. I’m getting ready to teach Dylan’s songs in my Literature of American Popular Music course2 and since I don’t have more than three or four class periods to cover the territory, I have to decide what to focus on. So just pick my favorite tracks, right? If my students were just young friends in my living room, that would be fine, but even at this late stage of my academic career I feel some compunction to heed the institutional imperatives of the classroom. Well, then, choose Dylan’s “most important” work. But important on what criteria? Historical? Cultural? Musical? I could fake a discussion of the first two; the third would be more of a stretch. In fact, I’d already decided, though I had quite realized it until this morning. It’s a Literature course, as I mentioned above: one of the assumptions behind the course is that at least some songs overlap the domains of the literary. Which means that next week I will teach what I take to be Bob Dylan’s three most literary records. It is perhaps a little unfortunate that all these records are from early in Dylan’s career, but perhaps I’ll be able to fast-forward to a few tracks from Blood on the Tracks & Love and Theft.


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  1. I’d go so far as to suggest that Dylan’s best songs have been written at times when Dylan has conceived of himself, however awkwardly, as a poet—or, perhaps, self-consciously, as an artist.
  2. I don’t presume to teach “popular culture,” but only its “literature.”

Geoffrey H. Hartman, Who Saw Literary Criticism as Art, Dies at 86

Long associated with the Yale School of criticism, Professor Hartman examined a wide range of subjects, including Wordsworth, Judaica and trauma.

Source: Geoffrey H. Hartman, Scholar Who Saw Literary Criticism as Art, Dies at 86

I met Dr. Hartman in 1985 when he was lecturing at Northwestern, where I had landed with an NEH Summer Seminar fellowship to study the British Romantics. He seemed like a friendly, American element in the massive fortress of Yale School criticism. That was also the summer I heard Umberto Eco lecture—a presentation that was followed by a Q & A taken over by Stanley Fish, who tried to undercut Eco’s optimistic pragmatic approach to language with his own slick nihilism, but wound up gutted like a flounder, standing there in his ice-cream suit at the back of the auditorium while the somehow rumpled & elegant Eco turned to speak with a group of undergraduates. I was there when titans grappled! That was a good day to be a fly on the wall.