public diary: monday 17 october
Teaching Yeats today in seminar, he runs into one of those obstacles of affect that seem to be coming ever more steadily as he nears 40.
When he was just a kid, a university student, a professor broke down and called off class after starting to sob real tears while reading a poem by Giorgos Seferis. It was a “classics” class – the sort of thing that the Greek and Latin departments do to boost enrolment. The poem was about ruins, the persistence of ruins, and a dog.
He cannot now find the poem. Search terms lead to false leads. He tries: “Seferis ruins.” “Seferis ruins dog.” “Seferis ruins dogs.” “Seferis Argos.” (The professor brought his dog, Argos, to class each day.)
After the abbreviated class, which he was taking with his now ex-wife, they circled, touched and confused by the display, and said things like “this is what we are too, this is how we want to be,” and returned up the steps to his office.
The dog was there, sleeping. The professor (who soon would be dean) was still sobbing. “Thank you, thank you for caring. It is important that you care. Thank you for that. For that at least…”
That was in 1996 or 1997. He cannot now remember. He did not sob – or even almost cry – teaching, after the post-one-hour-break so that he can have a cigarette – ‘Easter 1916.’ Even after reading them, to start, ‘September 1913.’ But, there was that rare bloom of feeling. Perhaps the feeling best named… well… naming that sort of thing is the stuff of good seminars, isn’t it?
Two things that might have done it. The weird third paragraph of the poem.
Hearts with one purpose aloneThrough summer and winter seemEnchanted to a stoneTo trouble the living stream.The horse that comes from the road,The rider, the birds that rangeFrom cloud to tumbling cloud,Minute by minute they change;A shadow of cloud on the streamChanges minute by minute;A horse-hoof slides on the brim,And a horse plashes within it;The long-legged moor-hens dive,And hens to moor-cocks call;Minute by minute they live:The stone’s in the midst of all.
It’s the moor-hens and the moor-cocks that do it. For reasons he explains to the class. And the utter bizarreness of this, well, entry into the poem, which makes it what it is – which is something slightly other than an exercise in highly passive-aggressive social commentary. The “minute by minute” that redoubles before turning into “within it” and then turning, finally, back into “Minute by minute” one more time. Pastoralia temporalized. Put on the stop-watch. Brilliant, this.
He started the seminar with some quotes, mostly Yeats but he also exposed them to the Adorno thing about poetry and Auschwitz, which he’s always found somewhat abominable, but sometimes abominable things are really good teaching aides.
The other thing? There were meant to be two. Fine: the utter ridiculousness of “Wherever green is worn.” Which picks up the “where motley is worn” of the first paragraph and presses it so tightly into some sort of shamrocked box that you, really, can only imagine it as an product for export. Utter bêtise, which sometimes he rates quite highly in a thing like this, almost overwhelmingly so. And that’s what he’s talking about, export.
He didn’t cry today, but if he had, it would have been about the utter teachability of the poem. Which isn’t quite what that dog-leading classics professor was crying about, but it’s close. Vector that through the Adorno though, which is utterly wrong but still perhaps right in some way that those who read Adorno can’t possibly face up to.