Anne McCarty and I hold our “exit meeting” -- the one that faculty members are supposed to have with the five students they’ve worked with during the last six months -- at the Blue Benn diner, Bennington’s best. Anne (Greek omelette and home fries) tells me (short stack of multigrain pancakes with berries and Vermont maple syrup) about the lecture she plans to give in June. (All graduating students are required to give a public lecture and a reading during their final residency.) Anne wants to address the subject of humor in the works of Emily Dickinson [left], Jane Kenyon, and Anna Ahkmatova, three poets who are not famous for their comic side. There seem to be two directions Anne can pursue. She can argue that subtle humor may enhance tragic pathos. Or she can present somber lines and, with Borgesian poker-face, demonstrate that they are secretly hilarious. I doubt that she’ll do the latter, though the possibilities delight me. One could argue, for example, that much of Wordsworth is merciless self-parody but that it requires the advanced reading techniques of Stanley Fish, another self-parodist, to discover this.
Two more “entrance meetings” today. Unlike some writing instructors, I favor the use of specific assignments. For the “packet” of work due at the end of January, my students must choose the best and worst poems of The Best American Poetry 1997. They are then to write two poems, one better than the best, the other worse than the worst. The deliberately bad ones are invariably the most surprising. Because our ideas of “good” and “bad” are, and perhaps ought to be, in flux, setting out to write a bad poem seems to give one the permission needed to try an adventurous gambit one would ordinarily intercept. The assignment for February: write at least one poem in a received form (sonnet, villanelle, sestina, prose poem) and at least one in an ad hoc form such as a menu or TV listings.
Am cutting Rick Moody’s lecture on John Cheever to write these notes. I wonder if Susan Cheever is in the audience. I’ve been writing a poem a day as an experiment, and when Susan and I gave back-to-back readings the other evening, I read mine of November 13, which was inspired by her father’s journals. “I have a date / in my apartment / with a certain great novelist / whose idea of heaven is the men’s room / of Grand Central Station / and hell a prison in a posh suburb / with a swimming pool where / you can feel like a fly in a highball,” I wrote. After the reading Susan said, "I don’t believe I know you," words that sound ambiguous on the page but conveyed ardor in person. That’s when Jill McCorkle turned up. “Are you still writing your poem a day?” she asked. Before I could answer she said, “I wrote two novels this afternoon.”
-- David Lehman