Confessions of a Professor of English
It was beautiful in Berkeley looking across the bay at the lights of San Francisco.
A man from one of the oldest families, who had lived in the Bay Area all his life, told me, “I moved once, to Oakland. But I moved back. San Francisco is where it’s at.” He was writing a book, Queen City of the Pacific. “How do you like it? I mean, as a title?” I said I liked it. I really did. It had a ring.
One day, during my office hour I was reading The Faerie Queene, which I detested but was required to teach, when a pair of heels came running down the corridor. A young woman in a miniskirt went sobbing by my door, and she shouted, “Oh my God!” People came out of their offices. Whittaker who was in the 18th century put out his head. “What was that?” “I don’t know,” I said. “Search me.”
One day Jim Anderson was shot by a deranged former student who walked in with a shotgun. Jim lived, but the graduate student who was with him, jumped up and got the other barrel in his back, and died on the spot.
I mention these things only because they were so unusual. Otherwise time just seemed to go by. But then there was the Free Speech Movement. While trying to teach The Faerie Queene you heard the loudspeakers in the Plaza. . . Goldberg, Aptheker, Mario Savio. The students sat in Sproul Hall. Joan Baez arrived, and led the way, singing, “We shall overcome.” The students lay down and were carried by policemen, and put in paddy wagons.
I left in ’67, and so missed the People’s Park, helicopters spraying students and faculty alike with tear gas. All of that.
What a strange thing it was to be a professor of English! Once at a faculty meeting I heard a professor who shall be nameless say that D.H. Lawrence was “an uneducated man.”
Not that I like D.H. Lawrence. . . Like the author of The Faerie Queene he’s one of the bastards I’m glad I shall never have to meet. Once he threw a little dog he had, I think its name was Biddles, against a rock. But “uneducated”? Oh my god!
I do remember the faces of some students. The happy few. In a few years, I told them, there’ll be no more Departments of English. Not to worry, it will be like the Middle Ages: enclaves of those who can read. And when there’s a famine or plague the people will take them out and kill them. But poetry won’t die, for there’ll always be a poet.
They were listening intently, except for the two in the back. A colleague told me once, “I heard some students talking about you. One said, ‘I like to hear him rave.”‘
Copyright World Poetry, Incorporated Sep/Oct 1997
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