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Archive for the ‘College’ Category

There was a stabbing over the weekend at a party in my sophomore-year dorm.

I never understood why UMass students would come all the way to Amherst for a party (unless they were invited, that is). I would imagine UMass threw many more — and better — parties than we did. And it’s kind of a hike, unless you drive, and we all know how I feel about that. (I suppose there could be a designated driver, but in my experience, those don’t really exist.)

Of course, I only went to one UMass party, with Julie, because her friends from high school were visiting someone there. It was a frat party. As I remember it, we stayed for about five minutes and then walked home, probably stopping at Bertucci’s on the way because that place makes the most amazing bread I’ve ever eaten, served straight out of the oven.

photo by Plaid Ninja

photo by Plaid Ninja

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Second semester of my senior year of college, I did an independent study with two other students and Professor Pritchard. We asked him to define the class for us–esentially, to teach us whatever he most wanted to teach us. We read Roth, Mailer, Bellow and John Updike’s Rabbit series. For class, we sat in his office and chatted about books and other things. I remember reading three of the Rabbit books over a period of 24 hours. I’m not sure I broke even to eat; I certainly didn’t sleep.

Here’s Pritchard talking about Updike with Sue Miller (whom Pritchard had brought to Amherst that same semester to teach a fiction-writing class, which I also took). Perhaps you’ll get a taste for why I insisted on taking as many classes with this man as possible.

Side note: My father studied with Pritchard when he was at Amherst, back when Amherst made all of its students take an English class. Flash forward 30 years to my time there, and Amherst didn’t demand I take any class I didn’t want to take. I can’t say for sure, but I think I chose to take close to 20 classes in the English department, out of 34 total. My only regret is that I didn’t take more.

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This kicks the inaugural poem’s ass (as did Rev. Lowry’s variation on it):

I must say, I did not love Elizabeth Alexander’s poem. I wasn’t going to blog about it, because even though I taught poetry-writing at NYU, I really don’t know much about it, and I don’t even like to read a lot of contemporary poetry. But I’ve been bolstered by reading a host of not-so-doting reviews of the poem and the performance, so I’ll say a bit of my piece.

This poem seemed so subdued for the occasion–and what an occasion!–and the way Alexander read it was so stilted and uninspired. Why was she so monotone? Why did she jerk through it so awkwardly? It turns out that, aside, for some reason, from the first few stanzas, the poem’s lines break at logical spots. Why did she break them so awkwardly when she read them?

In my first class with him, William H. Pritchard spent a couple of class periods teaching us how to read a poem, making us go around the room line by line until we got every line break, every comma, every transition right. There’s a difference, he’d say, in the length of a pause between lines not separated by punctuation, lines separated by a comma and lines separated with a period. A comma within a line gets a shorter pause than one at the end of a line, which gets a shorter pause than a comma at the end of a stanza.

He wasn’t against pauses. He just wouldn’t have inserted them into a non-punctuated phrase contained all within the same line. He would have said that if the poet had wanted you to pause there, she would have told you so with a line break or punctuation (and her choice of which would have told you what kind of a pause to make).

“A woman. and her son. wait. for. the bus.” Why? It sounds like “See. Spot. run.”

I did like this line: “the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.” The poem’s language, for the most part, doesn’t interest me, but I like that line. I like the line about the teacher saying “Take out your pencils. Begin.” I liked the way she read that line, too.

The problem, perhaps, is that an Event Poem such as this one is focused so much on a message. How can it encapsulate what this day and this man mean? I don’t usually like poetry (or fiction, for that matter) that is built primarily around conveying a message. I like metaphor and all of that, I like complexity of meaning, but I don’t like a poem that tries first and foremost to say something. I prefer it to be concerned, instead, with saying whatever it happens to say in an interesting way. It’s all about the words and how they’re put together and how the poem is telling you to read them. But this is a commissioned poem meant to commemorate a hugely important day, so maybe the assignment, and the weight of it, are to blame here. I’ll have to check out Alexander’s other work.

That said, I didn’t find the poem’s message particularly powerful, either, except in spurts here and there, and that only upon rereading it myself without all those awkward starts and stops.

I do like that the only presidents who’d had a poet read at their inaugurations before this were Kennedy and Clinton. That is good company, I’d say.

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