A Tournament of Hunchbacks

Cody Walker
June 30, 2014
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Last month, at the University of Michigan, I took part in a faculty institute on pedagogy and the arts. We shared teaching strategies and classroom can-you-believe-its. (One professor reported a student telling him, “I can be present in class for 60% of the time, but for the other 40% I need to be on Facebook.”) We also reflected on our own values, as they apply to the integration of the arts and teaching. This is roughly what I wrote:

I go back to that idea of the poet as maker, and the possibility of empowering students to see themselves as makers, too. I want them to feel like they’re collaborating with something bigger than themselves, that they’re contributing to a conversation that began several millennia ago. Otherwise (maybe) we’re lost in the multiverse.

From Mary Ruefle’s “Kangaroo Beach” (collected in Madness, Rack, and Honey): “When Borges, visiting the Sahara, picked up a little bit of sand, carried it in his hand and let it fall someplace else, he said, ‘I am modifying the Sahara,’ and he wrote that this was one of the most significant memories of his stay. What Borges did is what we do when we write poems after millennia of poem writing. We aren’t saving the Sahara, we are modifying it, and you have to be irreverent to think you can modify the Sahara in the first place, and sincere in your attempt to do so.”

Some of my favorite hours have been spent writing poems—but if anyone had been watching me (hunched over at Panera, with pen in hand, mostly looking at the parking lot), they would have thought, Man, that looks boring. But it’s not boring: it’s when I feel most engaged, most myself. And I want students to have access to that space inside themselves.

I’m reminded today of these conversations and musings because it’s Czeslaw Milosz’s birthday. Milosz made so much, modified so much; his poems have a place on many of my syllabuses. In Ars Poetica?,” he writes, “The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person, / for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, / and invisible guests come in and out at will.” Milosz both welcomed and worried over those guests. Asked about the poem by Robert Faggen for The Paris Review, he answered, “My poetry has been called polyphonic, which is to say that I have always been full of voices speaking; in a way I consider myself an instrument, a medium.” “Ars Poetica?” ends with a proclamation that I don’t fully accept (but that I love anyway): “poems should be written rarely and reluctantly, / under unbearable duress and only with the hope / that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.”

(Do you subscribe to A.Word.A.Day, Anu Garg’s daily blast of words, words, words? You should. Today’s entry includes a line from Milosz’s 1978 poem “Notes”: “Not that I want to be a god or a hero. / Just to change into a tree, grow for ages, not hurt anyone.”)

My most beloved teaching artifact (more and more the right word, in this age of e-everything) is the course packet. For years I’ve put together collections of poems, stories, essays, and cartoons, always with an eye toward the imagined arc of the class. The final page has often consisted of a single poem: Milosz’s “A Confession” (translated, as many of his poems were, with Robert Hass). I’ll pick it up at the midway point:

Who would have trusted me? For they saw
How I empty glasses, throw myself on food,
And glance greedily at the waitress’s neck.
Flawed and aware of it. Desiring greatness,
Able to recognize greatness wherever it is,
And yet not quite, only in part, clairvoyant,
I knew what was left for smaller men like me:
A feast of brief hopes, a rally of the proud,
A tournament of hunchbacks, literature.

Milosz

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