The economic crisis has touched the university and there have been two major reorganizations of the spring term courses in the month before Christmas, cutting as many classes as possible. Instead of teaching my normal graduate course, I have been assigned the department’s most basic course: Introduction to Literature. This course is a requirement for anyone wishing to graduate from the university. Our equivalent to algebra for beginners. Dave Bartholomae (chair of department and friend of nearly 25 years) obviously thinks that I’ll be out of my depth. None of the class will be literature majors and as it’s an evening class, many will have just completed a full day’s work. I am worried about it being an evening class, many of the students will be dead tired before the class begins and the class lasts two and a half hours, but I jest at his worry that I will be thrown by such novice students of literature. When young I did like to teach at the top of my intellectual range – look, granny how clever I am. But now my granny and, indeed, my mummy, are dead and to teach someone with no training in literary studies to read a great poem for the first time gives me as much if not more of a kick as to explain patiently to a class of graduate students why the category of post-colonial interesting if wrong when first formulated by the Bengali Subaltern Studies as a solution to the failures of national liberation has now become an alibi for refusing to analyse the current world of colonial domination where currency and commodity markets and the economies of illegal drugs and military have imposed a colonialism more draconian than ever imagined by the old empires . However my first class has really thrown me. In a class of twenty less than half have read one novel and only three are conscious of ever having read a poem. This is indeed uncharted territory. I have spent almost all the week planning a suitable course. Two novels – The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye – chosen as much for their short length as their undoubted quality and a series of texts and film adaptations from Romeo and Juliet to Mystic River. I am also going to make them all bring in their favourite song and to examine its lyrics after we have all listened to it.
But first, and there is no ducking this , must come poetry. Each class will start with a poem but before that we must devote a whole class to poetry, to try to make them thrill to that use of language which depends on no aid from music or spectacle. I start with The Road not taken by Frost and they quickly understand the play of tenses which make the poem so compelling. But Marvell’s To his Coy Mistress really gets them all going. The wit of the opening stanza, the horrible imagery of the second ( the worms shall try thy long preserved virginity) and the triumphant challenge to time of the third all work the magic I first encountered in my sixth form. I do not trouble them by telling them that this paean to heterosexual love was, as modern scholarship surmises, written by a homosexual and even possibly written as false proof of his heterosexuality. Marvell seems to have known something of the urgency of sexual love – let’s leave it at that. Shelley’s Ozymandias is also something of a hit. The simple irony of “ look on my works, ye mighty, and despair’ works well with the repeated footage of the toppling of the huge statue of Saddam. In the mid-term exam I will ask whether they think there will be a statue of George Bush and where it will be built.
Spurred on by these successes I try ‘ The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock’. The fundamental stance of the poem – the young man of 21 gazing with comic despair at his middle-aged self is very difficult for a generation, which like mine, has only imagined itself young. But they are all young enough to recognize the pathos of this love song:
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
The class ends and I breathe a sigh of relief. From now on the term will be downhill all the way