Required Reading: The Medicine of Poetry

September 10, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 5 4 min read

I write this on the board:

                                               It is difficult

and turn to face my new students. They are singularly, uniformly uncomfortable. The room is hot despite the open windows, the fluorescent lights hum above, and now there is the embarrassment of a dull half-sentence dangling unended on the board. They think I have stopped mid-thought, suddenly discovering that I am in the wrong place, writing the wrong thing to the wrong students. They are embarrassed for me. Where is the rest of her sentence? Where do these words belong?

                                               It is difficult
to get the news from poems

What they want is my name on the board, the course title, the required texts: something to reassure them that both they and I are in the right place. What I have given them is nine words in synthetic purple dry-erase ink on an empty white board. But for most of the students – it’s written all over their faces – the word “poems” has provided for the first time in their lives not anxiety but relief. Poems: they must be in the right classroom, and they understand where this is going.

                                               It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                 yet men die miserably every day

The girl closest to the door has read all fifteen words – check – and now considers the exit, the fresher air outside, the sunny lawn. The girl who is tall even in her chair has recorded these lines dutifully in the first page of her empty notebook, and her hand is poised expectantly for what is to come. The boy in the college sweatshirt closes his eyes and waits impatiently for the period, the syllabus, the news.

                                               It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                 yet men die miserably every day
                                                for lack

Doesn’t she know how quickly we can read, how many of these words we can read at once? This feels difficult, indeed, to sit in silence with these words in the slowly lapsing minutes. But some of the students – their eyes are closed, too, but in a good way – are patiently climbing up and down this ladder of language, unable to articulate it but viscerally aware of what is coming next:

                                               It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                 yet men die miserably every day
                                                for lack
of what is found there.

Ahh. The closure of a period, the comfort of grammar. It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. Someone broke this good, sensible sentence into bits, and the students have put it back together again, and now, the room is at ease.

“Who wrote this?” I ask.
The students offer their guesses: Shakespeare, a philosopher, a journalist.
But a few of the students – even the girl by the door! – say, “a person who thinks that what saves lives is poetry.”
“Who might disagree with that thought?”
“A doctor,” says a boy who clearly agrees with his hypothetical doctor.
“What might a doctor think saves lives?”
“Medicine,” says a girl who agrees with the boy who agrees with the doctor in question.
“Guess again: who wrote this?”
It’s too obvious not to chime in: a doctor; a doctor?; a doctor!

                                               It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                 yet men die miserably every day
                                                for lack
of what is found there.

Asphodel, That Greeny Flower by William Carlos Williams, doctor, poet.

But one of the students – which one, I’ll probably never know – is holding the doctor-poet’s strange, greeny dactyl in his mouth, looking forward to his walk home alone so he can say it aloud, dum da da, Asphodel, already composing his own words in white space, already wondering whose life he might one day save.

is an Adjunct Professor of English in Albany, NY. She is an alumna of the University of Rochester and the University of Maryland. She was the 2006-2007 Writer-in-Residence at St. Albans School for boys. She is currently writing a novel, a collection of short stories, and a memoir, respectively and tentatively titled Jumping Season, The Nothing Room, and A Girl of Thirty.

5 comments:

  1. Where there was only one pair of footprints in the sand – that was when William Carlos Williams was carrying you.

    *

    At the end of his lecture an atheist teacher held up a piece of chalk. “I’m going to drop this piece of chalk,” he declared. “And if William Carlos Williams exists, he’ll keep it from breaking.”

    *

    One day an atheist professor asked his students whether God created everything that exists, and they said yes. Triumphantly the professor declared that God must have created evil, since evil exists. In that case God must himself be evil, and the Christian faith a myth. But one student stood up. “Does cold exist?” he asked his professor. The professor said yes. “In fact,” the student said, “cold does not exist. According to the laws of physics, cold is simply the absence of heat. Does evil exist?” The professor said yes again. “Once more you’re wrong,” the student said. “Evil is simply the absence of God, it is what happens when men do not have God’s love in their hearts. Like the cold that comes in the absence of heat, evil does not exist in itself.” The professor sat down.

    The name of that student? William Carlos Williams.

  2. At the beginning of the semester an atheist professor tried to disprove the existence of William Carlos Williams. “If William Carlos Williams exists,” he said, “then he’ll knock me from this lectern.” For fifteen minutes he stood at the lectern, taunting William Carlos Williams. “Here I am, William Carlos Williams,” he said. “I’m still waiting.” Then one of his students, a soldier just released from active duty, strode to the front of the classroom and punched the professor in the face. The force of the blow sent the man flying from the lectern. Struggling to his feet, the professor said, “What’s the matter with you? What did you do that for?” The soldier replied, “William Carlos Williams was busy, so He sent me.”

  3. In these facebook/twitter/cable news-infused 24hr days, I wondered what use, in delivering the news, do poets have, if any? When I googled to find Williams’ exact quote I got this article. I love it for the end. Thank you!

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