(1) Howard Davis’s first job after
leaving graduate school was as instructor of an undergraduate evening course,
Interpretation of Poetry. He was to teach it in the General Sciences Building, because the English Department
offices and classrooms were closed for the summer for renovation. Howard had
stage fright—he'd had this fear ever since he was seven and played The
Artichoke in a school play and forgot his lines. He was sure he’d forget his
lines tonight, too, and wouldn’t be able to get across, to a roomful of
strangers, his own passion for poetry.
The classroom was in the basement of the science building, at the end of a
long, ill-lit corridor, wedged between a science lab and an abandoned
office. Behind the lectern loomed a dark-wood cabinet through whose
glass doors one could see rows of glass jars, each holding what appeared to
be specimens for a biology experiment. They were much larger than the
specimens Howard recalled from his undergraduate days in Biology 101, and
they floated in a mysterious, murky liquid.
After the students had settled in their seats, after the paper shuffling and
conversation—most of it concerning the ghastly Things in the jars—had
stopped, Howard cleared his throat and began his lecture. “Poetry has its
origins in song;” he said, “however, many students find its language
problematic, because it differs from the language of science or philosophy.
It evokes, rather than explains directly.”
The students were watching him, expressionless. Had he lost them completely?
He stumbled on. “Let's consider a short poem I’ve photocopied for you here,
Emily Dickinson's, ‘A narrow fellow in the grass.’ ” He passed around the
photocopied poem, then read it aloud.
“What animal do you think the poem is about?” he asked. “The title tells
you.” The students now looked as nervous as he felt but were still silent. He
knew they were afraid of giving the wrong answer.
Finally, a young woman in the front row asked timidly, “A worm? Worms are
narrow.” She added, a little defiantly, “And
(7) “That’s close,” Howard said. “But not
quite right. Anyone else?” Moments passed—hours, in Howard’s mind. Poetry
could not be communicated, he decided. Why had he not become a stockbroker,
as his father had wanted him to?
(8) Finally, a young man in an aisle seat
raised his hand. “A snake?” he ventured.
(9) “That’s right! A snake.” Howard wanted
to jump from behind the lectern and shake the young man’s hand. “Now
Dickinson felt close to nature,” he continued a little more hopefully, “but
take a look at the last line of this poem. When she sees the snake, she feels
differently. In her words, she feels ‘a
tighter breathing/ And zero at the bone.’ What do those lines say
to you? Emotionally?”
(10) After another long silence, a young
woman in the third row raised her hand. “It’s like those jars,” she said.
Most of the other students just looked at her, but one or two nodded
tentatively. “That’s how I felt when I first saw those jars tonight. I
couldn’t breathe for a minute, and my hands got cold. Really cold,” she said. “What are
those things, anyway?”
(11) “Yeah,” said a young man in the back row.
“What are they? Some kind of a Stephen King deal?”
(12) Howard couldn’t answer their
questions, but he didn’t care. His own breathing had suddenly gotten looser
and his hands warmer. Maybe he had stage fright and hadn’t explained the poem
as clearly as he would have liked. But the young woman—and the Things in the
jars—had explained it perfectly. He looked out over the classroom gratefully.
Maybe it wasn’t going to be such a long summer, after all.