Charleds Plymell on Charles Plymell (part 3)


I worked on the docks, the best job I was to ever have in my life, but my future as a poet that merged into teaching was just beginning, and I was going to quit that great union job where I worked six hours at night and got paid the extra two hours double time. I could find the best dentist in San Francisco and get anything done and leave his office with a bill that read zero. All eye care and glasses were paid for. If I became ill, I would go to Kaiser Hospital and leave with a bill that was zero. All prescriptions were paid. I didn’t work on my birthday and got paid for it. Best of all, I could call in when I didn’t want to work and then call in when I wanted to. I took time off to avoid higher tax bracket.  I liked the work because it gave me enough exercise and physical activity to keep healthy.  This was the golden age for the union and a golden job. I thought this was the norm for the country.

But the reverse happened; I gave up a good job for a free education I didn’t maximize. In addition, my poetry publications and merits worked against me if I didn’t play the academic role of pretense and mediocrity that identified the poetry of the academe. One of the last holdouts of a literary America in the academe was The Writing Seminars at Hopkins. It was the last of a kind in a field soon overrun by creative writings programs turning out workshop poets by the thousands who could then recycle themselves in the hundreds of creative writing programs proliferating by contests and state and local fellowships in the name of creativity. Again, I saw it as mainly a cover for commerce and social engineering of the Prussian model in a politically correct citizenry that all thought alike. They were “a good thing” and I was a “bad thing” in the following era that was noted as “dumbing down” by many observers.

Two students at different times from The Johns Hopkins University came to recruit me to for the Writing Seminars.  I had to choose what would become a phrase I would hear the rest of my life…a “career choice”, so I decided to get into higher education since that was regarded as the great future. Though my wife, Pam was pregnant and she was at the same time accepted at Berkeley with a scholarship, it seemed like we were still in a “man’s” world. I decided to give up my good union job for higher education and step into that dumbed down world as a teacher.

To a westerner, Baltimore was vast, one of the last real cities in the country. We set up home again in a student ghetto near the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus. The first book I read as a child was “The Boxcar Children”, and it seemed my itinerant lifestyle was going to be modeled upon that. Hopkins seemed a product of the gentile south though it was on the Mason-Dixon Line. I marveled at the miles and miles of brick structures and imagined the labor that migrated into that city. There was no stupid forms to fill out, no run-around. I showed up and told someone I was there, and they said we have been expecting  you Mr. Plymell and directed me graciously to The Seminars. Mr. Elliott Coleman was the founder and director, and he and his secretary ran the whole department. He was from the old school and became a dear friend. He loved good writing and wanted to turn out good writers in any field. Of course literary writing was the sexiest, so that dominated the seminars. He asked me to begin the course by reading some poetry, so that set the tone. P. J. O’Rourke was in the class and seemed polite and quite as a church mouse. Another classmate was Josh Norton, who became a life-long friend and later a publisher with us. He had been crippled since birth and used a cane. I encouraged him to rap it on the huge conference table when conversations became trivial. When Robert Penn Warren came to read his new book of poetry based on Native Americans (called UGH poems by Robert Peters) I nudged Josh and said it was stuffy in the room. And Josh tapped his cane and held up the performance until someone opened a window. Allen Ginsberg had at following at the Maryland Art Institute who invited him every year. He wanted to visit longer to study Blake.  Pam and I asked Mr. Coleman to give him the F. Scott Fitzgerald room if he’d visit our class. He asked me to introduce him and I said, “Drop your socks and grab your cocks, here’s Allen Ginsberg.” Allen was obviously flustered and looked embarrassed and I reminded him afterwards that he was the one who stripped naked at Columbia to gain attention. I was just carrying on the tradition. We later got him a room by the week at the New Albion Hotel in Baltimore to study Blake.

My deal at Hopkins was all paid and included a small stipend. I had given up my insurance at Kaiser in San Francisco and Pam had our daughter, Elizabeth, in a city hospital in Baltimore. In those days, I was not permitted in the delivery room. My deal was to teach a course, “Words and Ideas” to freshmen students, I liked that name. It was probably Mr., Coleman who thought that up, or maybe historically the university didn’t want to call it English 101, since Harvard had “stolen” the first English Department professor and had instituted English Departments at Harvard in the early days and created that department for all universities to follow. At the end of my teaching career, I was convinced that one of the first things a university should do is abolish the English Department as such. Having worked in many of them, I saw first hand their waning importance. They were the Prussian system whose methods conformed to a social order fragmenting whole ideas into subjects easily fit into 50 minutes punctuated by a bell or hideous buzzer. Gone forever was the early historical American character to prepare the individual to think for himself and to be self-reliant. I didn’t know at the time just how much the system was designed to turn out obedient workers, servants to government, clerks to industry, and citizens who think alike while learning how to be correctly subordinate, recycle themselves into the institution, and pass along their methodology to new crops of unsuspecting students.
It was the last year of the all-male institution at Hopkins. I reported to my supervisor who was from the English Department but had supervisory authority over Writing Seminar Fellows who taught the freshman course ‘Words and Ideas” instead of English Composition. I was late for our first meeting for which he reprimanded me. He then piled his required books on my lap: The Old Man of the Sea, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in The Rye, a couple other of his favorites and his required handbook, all of which I had looked at but never really read in my college Freshman days at Wichita University. Maybe “The Old Man.” it was easy reading. I said I didn’t expect students to buy all these. If they wanted to read, they could go to the library. If they needed a handbook, the used bookstores were full of them.  I stood up and placed them back on his desk. He became flustered and red-faced and threatened to tell Professor Coleman of my behavior and get me fired. I told him to go ahead and that Coleman would probably slap his knee and laugh. Then I decided to call his bluff and became serious. I said, “I don’t know what your game is mister, but I just had a hard trip here and am having a hard time anyway. I just come from working on the docks, and we carried longshoremen hooks in our belts partly to make sure some fool doesn’t try to make life more miserable than it is. My boss there had a deep scar in the corner of his mouth from such a hook. It was a reminder for men to respect other men.” I turned and left.
A couple of weeks later I had heard that he was no longer at the university. I never knew what happened, but I met my first class. I asked all the young and nervous kids what their biggest fear was about being there. They said their biggest fear was keeping up their grade average so they wouldn’t be drafted and couldn’t become doctors. It was during the Viet Nam war and the draft was heavy. I mimicked the line from the “Treasure of Sierra Madre” and said grades? We don’t need no stinking grades! I told them I didn’t believe in the grading system and had just come off the docks and that they were probably more formally educated than I. They appeared shocked so I said I reserved the right to grade, but I didn’t care for the grading system. The institution requires grades, but I’m quite happy to give you all A’s if that’s what you need to continue your studies and keep out of the draft. But you have to always examine your fear as if you had been conscripted into combat to kill another, like the kids your age did under Eisenhower’s brother, and respect them. I expect you now to think. Think about everything.  Come to our meetings or else I will think you’re playing me for a fool. I want to see the effort, and I want it to be correct and professional. I don’t like trouble, so this doesn’t have to get to Ike’s brother. They looked puzzled. You know, he’s the president of the University, but did you know that when I was a kid in college back in Kansas, a “raisin” by the name of Welch (you’ve probably drunk his juice) said Ike and his brother were communists. What do you think about that?  There is always a war of ignorance.  I want to see that you are winning that war. Unlike many in my field, I am only interested in empirical evidence, experience, thought and primary source material or well-documented secondary sources. No stealing! Remember that. I know you are trying to “read” you instructor and thinking whether you should drop out now or not. So I have prepared a quiz for our next meeting. Since this is the first assignment, I will grade you on your answer, They groaned and I wrote the question on the board: WHY ARE YOU HERE? The next meeting the answers ranged from the practical to the philosophical as I expected. One was finally brave enough to ask what the grade was on his essay. Oh that, I replied, I have to defer to ancient Chinese philosopher who said:  “They have all answered correctly; that is, each in his own nature.” None dropped the course.

During my time at Hopkins, I taught a class at Federal City College in D.C. A position of poet-in-residence at Carnegie-Mellon was in the works for me. I almost accepted the tenured track position which led to Chair, but along came a classmate and said how much he would like that job. Like the track field years ago in Jr. High when I was made captain of the team and a teammate cried because he wanted it so badly, I said he could have it. As I write this in old age with only $740 a month from Social Security to live on. I realized that I should have taken the poetry job at Carnegie-Mellon. This country respects promotion and greed. To give up things is to be a fool. It was a difficult lesson for me. I had Indian blood that in the stream of consciousness never gives up things entirely but rather shares them and waits for them or something better to come back. “Indian giver” was the white man’s vernacular for expecting something back. It was not normal.  Another classmate wrote me that the person I handed it off to is still there building an empire of academic poetry publishing.

I found part-time jobs in the area to supplement my stipend from Hopkins. One was at St. Mary’s college at the first capital of Maryland, a beautiful place where I taught an English Composition course. I went back to St. Mary’s after I graduated where they gave me a full time assistant professorship. Robert Bly came down for a few days and read some poetry, and I started a little poetry fest of cookouts and swimming in the bay. I taught regular college English courses. I surprised one student who wanted to compare Shakespeare and Hank Williams. I told him that I often thought about the similarities of idiomatic expression in the sonnets and in some of Hank Williams’ lyrics and that would be a good study. In another mistake, I quit that job at the year’s end and the chairman said he had 300 applicants for it!  At my graduation from Hopkins I heard a parent of one of the students grumble that there were no jobs for such a costly education. Mine was free, but at that, I had given up my job on the docks, which was always my favorite. Plus my field was being purged of old white men.  P. J. O’Rourke was in pretty good shape. He had come from a well-to-do family and this was just a step for him as he went on to Harvard and the Lampoon to further his funny business. I was ashamed I let down Mr. Coleman and the institution that gave me a free ride. But he was a real poet with real class and could understand the ways of the outcast.

Once again the Prussian influence of state and central education institutions came to the rescue in the form of the creative writing industry. My old friend from Wichita U, who never came to class and later shipped out when we lived in San Francisco, docked in Baltimore to visit and I introduced him to Professor Coleman. He enrolled in the Seminars and became a confidant of Mr. Coleman’s and stayed with him until his death. One of Professor Coleman’s students, John Barth, took over the Seminars and quickly ushered in the fateful industry of NEA-MFA-PhD classes of subsidized creative society and academic fiction, his specialty. I got labeled as a Beat poet, but tried to separate myself from it when I taught in colleges. I learned that the curricula couldn’t exist without categories and labels, so I had to juggle my professional needs and expectations to meet others’ interpretations. After not taking the “career choice” path at Carnegie-Mellon, my life became a series of teaching jobs, while my wife worked to help support the family. We ended up staying with friends from the St. Mark’s on the Bowery Poetry Project, who lived in upper Harlem, when in a rundown tenement building, one of my old students from the Words and Ideas course spotted me. He was at Columbia studying journalism and was taking a course that had works by Allen Ginsberg. I had mentioned to him when he was my student that a friend was going to read from his works at professor Coleman’s Seminar class and said I’d make room for him if he wanted to attend. He, of course didn’t, but remembered those years later in our conversation and he said, “Hey you didn’t tell me that Allen Ginsberg was going to be there.” I said, “You didn’t ask.”


One Response to “Charleds Plymell on Charles Plymell (part 3)”

  1. Linda Lerner Says:

    I really enjoyed reading this, as I did your previous one. How you would hate what’s become of college teaching today, and what teachers have to do in academia to keep their jobs. Essentially, students are taught to pass tests, write essays according to a specific formula. I never got a phd, and poets don’t get full time jobs, unless they endear themselves to some chair, do enough of what they’re supposed to do and then only get some version of a full time position.

    I hope that you continue with these autobiographical excerpts.

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