Thursday, May 5, 2011

Prof. Wm. Dell

In Prof. Dell's class everyone was addressed by his or her last name.

***

I'd distrusted poetry always. It was an inside joke and I wondered if even the insiders were unsure which line was the punchline.

As a student I was used to figuring correct answers and repeating them for praise. Like a puppy learning to sit for a biscuit. In middle and high school I was an A student. I relished tests. I expected to get every answer right, and although I didn't always, I got close most of the time. I liked being the quick-to-learn pup. It was a part of how I identified myself against the rest of the student body.

I excelled in geometry. I was top of my class in eighth grade science. I did well enough in history and politics; theories and motivations stayed with me even if the dates didn't.

When the time rolled around to take algebra I hit a wall. I was never able to figure––am incapable still––when to solve what. Step one exponents and bits within parentheses? There are two variables, which should I demystify to start with? That's all I could focus on. I couldn't read the design well enough to know where to break ground first. There were rules that I couldn't order coherently. I distrusted algebra. It was an inside joke and even when I did sniff out the punchline it was in braille. I managed to pass algebra and I haven't been back since.

When I got to college the math troubles and the coincident withering of my science interests defaulted to an interest in literature. I'd always been a reader. I was more than happy to spend my days reading and discussing novels, essays, plays, and literary theory. I determined to avoid poetry. An English degree being what it is, I couldn't keep ducking my head when the poetry classes rolled around.

***

Prof. Dell was probably well-suited for a commune somewhere. A place where art and artistic sensibilities could mingle with each other and try to experience an unseen, unspeaking universe behind and under our day jobs and commuter cars and coupons. It seemed that way in class. He was adamant, otherworldly. If he'd been a wee less involved in the subject matter I'd say it was part of a decades-old act he put on for pretty co-eds who were inspired to meet with him after class and behind closed doors. Except that when he was lecturing he was gone. He was speaking from that other universe. That place I'd long distrusted.

We had only the poetry and the lectures. There was a mid-term paper and a final paper. The sum total of our academic output. Miss too many classes and you dropped a grade––your letter appended with a minus. I'd intended to muddle through and try not to roll my eyes too much at the obscurity of the allusions and the secret club mentality of my poetry-buff classmates. Instead I learned how to read. It became a part of how I identified the world against myself.

I can recall so many things I absorbed in what ended up being three classes worth of studying poetry with Prof. Dell. He taught a few things I still, over a decade later, believe to be immutable truths about poetry and art. First, that poetry attempts to put into words those things for which there is no native language. Second, that the full meaning of any individual word, especially when used in the expression of art, is relevant. All of the entries in the dictionary bring their weight to bear on the poetic meaning. And third, that it matters more than I ever thought it could. Without art, we forfeit some part of our humanity we can't afford to cast off.

***

In Prof. Dell's class everyone was addressed by his or her last name. After three classes with him during which I earned top marks on each of my lengthy critical papers, I swear he still didn't know my first name without looking it up on the class roster. I used what I learned in his classes to read and come to intimacy with John Donne, Milton, and Shakespeare. That was the beginning.

***

I don't need to peek at the syllabus to tell you that his first name is William and all the weight that brings to bear.