David Lehman's post last week about suicide prompted this comment from Jeff Oaks, Managing Director of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series. It's worth highlighting here because it illustrates how a seemingly small gesture by a caring teacher can have a transformative -- possibly life saving -- impact on an impressionable student. In addition to being a fine teacher, Milton Kessler (1930-2000) published several volumes of poetry, including The Grand Concourse. His poem, "Comma of God," was chosen by Heather McHugh, for The Best American Poetry 2007.
"I had a a great teacher, Milt Kessler (left), at SUNY Binghamton who was reading poems I had given him in hope of being let into his poetry workshop. He couldn't understand, he said to me, why everything was always fading away at the end of my poems. I didn't have an answer then, but it was because my vision, such as it was then, was tied into the recognition of mortality, which both sweetened everything around me, and made it impossible to ever feel like I could have happiness. His answer was to get up from his desk, look out his window, which then looked out over a large field of wildflowers. Then he said, Come here. I stood up next to him at the window. He took my hand in his, which really freaked me out, and said, Look at all that life. Isn't it wonderful? Just look at it. And we stood looking at that field for a minute or so, holding hands. Then he let my hand go. We went back to where we'd been sitting. I honestly don't remember what we talked about after that. I was still buzzing with life. That was a transformational moment for me who'd grown up among a lot of unhappy adults; I'd imagined that unhappiness was all I had to look forward to, and maybe even unconsciously had begun to create a poetry that would prepare me for that inevitability. Milt worked so hard to get us to fight against simple closures in poetry, to embrace what was difficult to say and feel, and to bear the weight of those things as a privilege, as a responsibility. To be angry as hell in a poem. Not to just feel nostalgic or blue because that was the fashion. To not give up. I wish someone would write the book of writing assignments that encourage that!" -- Jeff Oaks
Thank you, Jeff, for this moving anecdote.