By Suzanne Greenwald
Some poems, like teachers, stay with you.
It was 1989 when Professor C.D. Wright walked into our Senior Poetry Seminar, wielding a big, unapologetic Arkansas drawl, denim jeans, and cowboy boots. She looked as if she’d just stepped out of a Wrangler’s ad, not an Ivy League Faculty Lounge, with its din of clanking china, throat clearing, and itchy, tweed blazers.
We knew then we were in for some serious learning.
Like her writing style, C.D.’s teaching style could stop you in your tracks. Bigger, harder questions snuck up on you suddenly:
“What meaning had you made in your own life?”
“In the lives of others around you?”
“How would you now go on to tell a meaningful story? ”
One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, the 2003 collection she wrote, in collaboration with photographer Deborah Luster, captured her gift for pointing out truth and beauty in unsuspected places:
“Try to remember it the way it was,” she wrote.
“Try… to remember how I hoped to add one true and lonely word to the host of texts...”
C.D.’s syllabus read like a patchwork garden, tossing heirloom seeds to plant in the soil right under our feet, cultivating new crops of thoughts.
CD’s selection of contemporary odes was nothing like the garden variety ones from Freshman Survey Lit, all puffed up with glory for a person or event. On the contrary. CD’s swatches of American odes woke us up to the “utopia of our day,” with fresh voices like she’d liberated the poetic genre from an overly, cluttered Drama Club closet, filled with gilded lyres and broken nightingales.
Under her grace as Guardian and Gardner of this new American Ode, C.D. selected contemporary poems written about simple glories, unsung heroes, little things that make us smile.
Rather than Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” C.D.’s required reading included Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You.”
Her assigned readings drew us inward, like moths to her professorial, porch light. These newfound words scorched our fingertips and singed our souls.
In one assignment, C.D. boldly instructed, as if swinging back through her professorial, porch door, after shutting it and reconsidering another way in:
“Also a long paper treating one or more of the poets/poetries in a significant way or a series of original odes. Intention to write a paper or a series of odes must be declared early in the term.”
It followed, then, that we’d also show up to class one day to find a questionnaire of ordinary and extraordinary questions waiting for us on our desks:
“What is the most difficult job you ever held? In what way was it difficult?”
“What grows in your family’s yard? Who grows it?”
“What is your education?”
“What is objectivity?”
“What is art?”
“Is goodness possible?”
“Approximately what are the dimensions of your closet in your family’s house?”
By the Semester’s Add/Drop Deadline, no one dared walk away; things were just getting deep.
Besides, the sun was starting to peek through the Downtown Providence Biltmore Hotel sign, and the Del’s Lemonade Truck would soon be pulling up to the curb. Nothing said “spring” like those striped, paper cones of tart, yellow and pink slurries, like coaxing the sun through a straw after a long, New England thaw.
On new spring days like these, C.D. held class outside. Naturally, she’d be the first to kick off her cowboy boots, sitting criss-cross on the College Main Green.
Counting down the weeks before graduation, C.D. passed out empty shoe boxes, or “Agee boxes,” as she called them, named for the Modern American poet, James Agee.
We had just read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a collaboration between Agee and Photographer Walker Evans, filled with portraits of Depression-era, deep south, sharecroppers, and snippets of their real and imagined dialogue.
C.D. pointed out the book’s “fusion of social conscience and artistic radicality.”
The day she handed out the shoeboxes — curious looking, unconventional writing tools — the class’s real dialogue went something like this:
“We’re not making dioramas, like when we were in kindergarten, are we?” one senior quipped, challenging her rigorous intent. His eagerness to get on with the “Real World” was not matched by the rest of us. We were fine, staying put on the grass. What’s the rush? Why not kindergarten, even for a day?
“We’re making dioramas,” C.D. slingshot back to cynical, East Coast student, leaving him in the dust of her ‘Don’t mess with Arkansas’ tone of voice. Without breaking a sweat, she circled round, handing out the shoeboxes.
The instructions on the box read:
“I want you to compose a box which re-creates your life as an individual. This is not an exercise in narcissism, nor a romantic gesture, and though it is far from a writing assignment, it is germane to our study.”
In hindsight, I imagine C.D. sitting cross-cross on the grass, adding fictional, further instruction:
“Your box is your poem,”
“Your box is your art.”
“Your box is your life. Fill it with something real. Something meaningful.”
James Agee once wrote, “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron...”
For the final class, C.D. asked us to meet at her house, bring a dish and “an exemplary, modern American Ode.”
For a college senior who hadn’t really learned to cook yet, I brought a block of native, Narragansett Cheddar and a box of Ritz Crackers. Their golden crumbs reminded me of what C.D. had left us as a teacher, and also of a James Agee poem, the same one I brought to our last class. It spoke to the moment, and it still lingers today:
“…in all we have sought, and in each detail of it, there is so keen, sad, and precious a nostalgia as I can scarcely otherwise know…”
Suzanne Greenwald is a College Consultant, and Co-Author of, “Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads.