Page 15 - Litteratteur Redefining World December issue
P. 15

Litterateur redefining world                      December 2020

                                  "I wasn't in school to learn about literature"

             The psychological pressures of college life are considerable, and there isn't space
             to deal with them here. Cornell had some interesting teachers- including, eventually,
             Paul de Man, who was a major influence on my understanding of criticism and on
             my view of Yeats. There was also an excellent course on Dante taught by Robert
             Durling, and I read Joyce's Ulysses in Arthur Mizener's course. (Mizener's take on
             Ulysses  was  rather  conservative:  "I  want  to  emphasize  the  wonderful  traditional
             novel that Ulysses really is." Not Ulysses as an experiment in liberated language.) I
             wrote considerably less poetry in college than I had in high school, partly because I
             was being asked to consider poetry critically, in ways that were not fully familiar to
             me. What exactly did you mean by that? Was that put in only for the sound?--as if

             that were some sort of terrible thing to do. Robert Durling was my freshman English
             teacher, and I would show him my poetry. I remember his description of my early
             work as "mellifluous Yeatsian vapidity." He smiled as he said it. But he said it. (I
             remember thinking that "Thomas Wolfian vapidity" might have been more accurate.)

             I had hoped that Cornell would give me what I lacked in Port Chester, an intellectual
             community. It gave me something, but it didn't give me that. In my sophomore year I
             took  a  great  many  English  courses.  I  wanted  to  learn  everything  at  once.  What  I
             discovered was that, no matter the period or the writer, Chaucer or T.S. Eliot, the
             same kinds of questions were being raised, questions of irony, paradox, etc. This
             discovery made me realize that I wasn't in school to learn about literature. I was in
             school to learn a grid which could be applied to almost any piece of writing (though
             woe to the writer like Shelley to whom it didn't apply). This was a useful thing to

             learn, but it lessened the authority of my instructors.

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