I’m really glad no one has ever told me shut up about what I learned in seminary, because honestly, without that education I would be useless. I know a fair amount about poetry, knowledge that doesn’t serve me so much when the economy tanks (I can barely count) or when a tire needs changing or a pilot light goes out. The combination of gas and fire: scary. Even when the subject is poetry what I know is of scant value, or . . . take this exchange, for instance. Last night J. Shue and I were talking about something he was working on and I suggested he run it through My Patented Sonnetizer to eliminate waste. He was unsure of sonnet structure, which I assured him he could learn quickly. Learning the form and mastering it are separate categories, of course. I recommended the text I use, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, and went on to say, with a boastful tone, that I had recently whooped up on a villanelle. (I should have mentioned that it was a villanelle about Ezra Pound.) Jim looked up the definition of ‘villanelle’ and came back with: “I especially enjoyed the last line of the definition ‘It is terribly obsessive and can bring out the emotions of any neurotic writer.’” (Ezra Pound was the master of traditional forms, I also could have said.) Then Mr. Shue went to bed. I was left staring at those words, it is terribly obsessive (Pound is, of course, a metaphor – no, that’s not quite right . . . certainly he bears an enormous cultural weight) and can bring out the emotions of any neurotic writer. (Seriously, if you know Pound’s astonishing body of work, along with his scandalous – and tragic – history, even attempting a villanelle was gutsy, and stupid, on my part.)
If I ran my life through My Patented Sonnetizer most of the fourteen lines remaining would be what I’ve learned from Quakers. For instance, I encountered someone – a long, long time ago now – who believed that her mind shouldn’t be damaged by reading literature from or about the Holocaust. OH CHIRREN. May I just say that I was a skyscraper of dudgeon – not out loud, obviously . . . wait. It’s possible a few words leaked out. I forget. But I sure remember what went on inside: I became physically ill, I was so angry. I had a difficult time continuing in the class I loved, because my stomach clenched into a fist every time I saw a person I had formerly respected.*
*Let the record show that she expressed this opinion with a great deal of conviction.
As I said, that was a long time ago. But I learned something valuable from the fraught occasion. Our stoked dudgeon is most high when we believe the cause to be sacred, regardless of whether it is. For me there was nothing more holy than to bear witness to the suffering and death of twelve million innocent people – to have the courage to merely learn what they endured – and to treat the survivors of the genocide with as much respect as is humanly possible. And I had a righteous argument to validate my opinion: the survivors themselves wanted us all to know what happened, believing that we might prevent it from ever happening again.
My colleague didn’t want to live with those images on her memory loop.
While I’m not sorry for the years I spent diligently learning everything I could in both Holocaust history and literature, I’m far less assured that my doing so is much comfort to the dead, or that my effort will have any bearing on whether history repeats itself. I was never going to participate in anti-Semitism, homophobia, the wholesale slaughter of the Roma, intellectuals, or children with learning disabilities anyway, was I, or I wouldn’t have been a student of those classes in the first place. And if a tyrant rises to the office of Chancellor (without even gaining a clear majority of the popular vote! imagine that!) in either our beautiful experiment in democracy, or in the Weimar of the imagination – can’t see how I’m going to prevent it by reciting my favorite Hasidic folk tales. And it’s not my place to force a peer or colleague to take in the details if she would prefer not to have them, whatever her reasons.
What a shock to discover there are people who will argue with the same passion about sports. The location of a ball. Maybe a uniform, I can’t tell what the fight concerns at depth. (Pound’s radio broadcasts out of Italy – this point is just not made often enough – during WWII, were the basis of his trial for treason. He could hardly have been guilty of giving much aid or comfort to the enemy, since his addresses were grounded in economic theory, rather than political. The Axis countries had their own Ministers of Propaganda – they didn’t need an American poet to explain anything to them. His Italian was flawless, it should be noted.)
I’m not nearly so sassy these days. I’m sure I still get the righteousness on, but it helps that there’s no one to hear it but my taxidermy. Also? BARACK OBAMA IS OUR NEW PRESIDENT. It’s going to take at least eight years for THAT to get old.