Saturday, February 28, 2009

Garth Greenwell on "First Morning"

Almost three years ago, I left a PhD program and took a job teaching English at a high school in Ann Arbor. While all sorts of things—in both the outer and inner circumstances of my life—have changed because of that choice, least predictable have been the changes in how I write. During years of graduate school, my poems had become increasingly inward and cerebral: landscape entered them only as allegory; there was almost no place in them for other people. When I was able to write again, the summer after that first year, I found that having been thrust into intimate contact with the lives of seventy adolescents had shifted my imaginative priorities. For the first time in several years, my most intense experiences were taking place outside of books, outside of my own head. I needed my poems to help me process those experiences.

I found myself thinking back to the first events of the year. It’s a tradition in my school that in the first week of fall semester each grade takes a class trip, a bonding experience for the kids—and, I half suspect, a trial by fire for the new teachers. After a single day of class, then—still disoriented, only just having begun to learn kids’ names—I found myself in West Virginia for three days of camping and white water rafting. During the bus ride down, I had the first of what would be many conversations of a kind and intensity found only in adolescence, and I remember very clearly feeling that I had been caught by something, that there was no possibility of escaping care for these young people and their lives.

It’s difficult for me to talk about these poems. I’m not aware of any theoretical agenda or conscious formal conceit while writing them, other than the basic pattern of a stanza. From one perspective, “First Morning” feels more or less like a transcript of experience: there really was a boy dancing in the fog that morning; there really were cows watching bemusedly our camp. From another, everything feels altered, if not entirely made up, and there are fundamental things in the poem’s dynamic that I can’t articulate. The relationship between the poem’s two encounters, for instance—the boy in the fog and the cows by the fence—isn’t clear to me. I know that the existence of such a relationship is crucial, and that the extent to which it is charged determines the extent to which the poem “works.” But I can’t express even to myself precisely what that relationship is.

What is clear to me is that the relationship isn’t easily schematic—that the cows don’t simply “represent” one or the other (the speaker, the boy) of the poem’s human participants. This troubled some of the poem’s earliest readers, who wanted the animals to be more assignably allegorical, to be more obviously an image for the desire the speaker turns away from. I do think the image of the cows is bound up with that desire, but I hope in a way that doesn’t make of Eros a simple division of predator from prey. Instead, I want the image to be somewhat more true to the way in which desire is always (or has always been for me) an experience in which predation is inextricable from proneness.

What I want this poem—and all of the poems I’m trying to write about teaching—to convey is the dilemma I feel most intensely as an educator. On the one hand, I feel a sharp sense of protective love for my students, a desire to hold them back another moment from the world they long for so fiercely. But balanced with this desire is the knowledge that I serve as an agent of that larger world, that the very process of education is the process by which we learn to seek the world’s sweetnesses—sweetest among them Eros—which are at once so intoxicating and so quickly ground out.