Charles Plymell on Charles Plymell (part 5)

I became friends with a person through poetry circles who read in little newspapers that Huncke and Bremser and I read at a famous punk club on the corner in D.C. I also read at the Shakespeare Library and then introduced Ginsberg at a larger reading he gave in the Shakespeare Library.  I had applied for a NEA fellowship in poetry that year for the work that would eventually be published by Kulchur Foundation, NYC, in my book titled: Trashing of America. About a year later, I received a phone call from the NEA and thought I had finally got my grant after applying all these years. But the person on the other end asked me if I wanted to introduce William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg for their upcoming appearance in D C. I politely declined.

The friend knew Washington inside and out and bet me he could write a press release about me that could get into both the NY Times and Washington Post any time I wanted. It was about the time Reagan was getting settled in office. I began seeing the cowboy hats from California Ranchero cowboys and their legions of blue blazers an khaki pants, even a bumper sticker on an SUV that read; ”Neutralize Mondale.” The cars with Georgia plates were packed up with blues jeans and denim work shirts with ties. Sure enough there appeared a little byline in both papers about a poet in Silver Springs belonging to a group, “Poets for Reagan” that appeared in the NY Times, “Washington Talk.” I thought it would be taken as a joke, but the poetry grants factions that handed government money to their friends found a new excuse to keep me out of their ranks. And the program to which Reagan rebuilt his arts giveaway was strictly academic and having handed my offer of a poetry job at Carnegie Mellon to a begging classmate, I had no prestige as the kind of poet that would receive grants from the Reagan administration. The local newspaper came to interview me in Silver Springs, but they wouldn’t understand it as a joke, so I played along.

It caught the eye of a professor at the University of Maryland who turned out to be a friend of its president. He said they were having a posthumous birthday party for Katherine Ann Porter who gave the university her archives if they would have a birthday party for her every year. I told him the story of her visit to Wichita U. Hart Crane was one of my major influences and she told the story of the time they shared a place in Mexico where he was always wanting to commit suicide. He got on the roof of their little house and declared his intention when she said, “Come on down Hart. It isn’t high enough. You’ll only hurt yourself.” The anecdote was a good ticket to her party where her friends and acquaintances shared stories about her. I applied as adjunct professor teaching advanced composition in their Junior Writing Program. I suggested they change the name to professional writing or advanced professional writing as it required completing freshman and sophomore English courses to get in it. I thought the connotation was wrong and they later changed it to something like the Professional Writing course I would later teach at George Washington University downtown D.C. But for the time being, I was very satisfied teaching a course that finally had some real usefulness, and besides the Chair was on top of her game. She used the proposal as the model for writing, developing the rhetorical parts, such as argument and definition  to develop the whole paper which was evaluated towards the end of the semester by two of us, finally using the letter grade in a sensible way. She invited someone from R. P.I., who was an authority on the “figure” and had published work on the Trope to meet with us. The analogy and metaphor was my specialty, too. Pam was working at the Wall Street Journal, and I asked writers from there to visit my class. So the students got their money’s worth in that course.

I can’t say the same for their poetry program that was a typical sham. I applied to it for a prestigious opening in poetry, but they brought in their own hack undoubtedly to return grant and awards or guest appearance favors. There was no shame in the English Departments. I protested and took my case before an arbitrator.  My poetry credentials and publications where far superior to those of the other candidate. The arbiter was a Black woman, and it was during the purge of old white men, so I had no special appeal in my favor. She ruled on a technicality that the candidate’s tenured faculty supporters brought up. The other candidate had a terminal degree holding an M.F.A., and I only had an M. A. instead of the terminal PHD. So that was a new twist to the proliferation MFA writing workshop programs that were to dominate American Poetry. That’s probably why Professor Coleman at the prestigious Writing Seminars frowned upon them and their new publication: Poets & Writers. I’ve never read a copy nor published in it out of respect for him. I failed to use politics in the poetry biz as usual, so I remained an adjunct but was given courses pretty much as I wanted in addition to the advanced writing course, which I liked. I picked up an evening course. The American Short Story in which I enjoyed the readings since I never cared that much about fiction and was not that well read except for Katherine Ann Porter and a few other short story writers, but I enjoyed the genre and read many literary works for the first time.

The damnable grades were still a problem of course. What used to be parlor-talk appreciation and critical conversations in the educated elite of the 19th Century was now something I had to create some gimmick to determine a grade for. It was a large class size and the students were all women, so I could at least fantasize while teaching. The large evening class had to meet in the Physics/ Engineering building . I had already befriended the Chair of Physics, an Indian fellow who offered good conversation about his theories of the begining of life. My class of the Short Story was in session one night when a male student walked by. The building was busy with males mostly foreigners coming to study engineering.  He was puzzled by an all-woman class and asked as we were dismissing,” What Courses is this?” I replied, “Oh, this is a course in Women Studies.”  He continued on with a puzzled expression.

The next semester I taught a course through a Community college’s Prison Program. This took place in a huge 1930’s building between Baltimore and Washington known as “The Cut.” Its denotation may have been of geographic origin, but its connotation was certainly nefarious. I approached it when a buzzing, guttural cacophonic sound grew louder from the iron barred windows like pissing in a stool amplified over a hundred decibels punctuated by territorial throaty shouts and groans. It was my first image of a hell on earth as each of a series of steel doors slammed and locked while in the tiers above, filth, spit, and sweat stirred and fell like a dust devil of confetti reflected in the light shards. Rarely did I see someone of my race until I met the white man who was the college program director in a room stuck back into the bowels of the gray concrete, brick and steel. The guards who escorted me weren’t armed for obvious reasons. After an introduction, I sat behind my desk and laid out the syllabus to be gathered and stapled. The students were curious. Some came up to the desk to look at the papers while more wanted theirs. My idea of efficient collating was to pile each page and have each student take a sheet as they walked in front of the desk and then staple them. I made a mental note to make sure I put the stapler back into my briefcase. It seemed the natural order they wanted was to come up to the desk and each handle the papers and circulate them among themselves asking each other if they got he right pagination, and so on. It was a curious process, more rooted in social interaction than efficiency. What was I to do, punish them? To my amazement, they all got the right order and returned to their seats promptly awaiting a discussion in less time than my method of arranging order. It was a bit alarming at first, for me to witness a “rush,” but I reflected on how stupid it would be of me to demand discipline and make them do a simple task my way. I thought of what I had seen in public schools where teachers would spend valuable time and stress sternly organizing a behavior their way at the fear of losing control and concocting reprimands for those who didn’t follow directions!  Maybe teachers could learn something in a place their reprimands would be foolish. I reflected on what a time study in efficiency might prove removing the daily habits from brainwashing. I imagined such a subtlety as being the behavioristic germ of what might contribute to the prison population.

Plagiarism was another topic that was big in my other writing courses. It was a big problem of the day.  Thinking, reflecting, or original ideas, if the possibility indeed exists, was unknown to most students. We called the problem “patchwork plagiarism” and it was difficult for students to develop a thesis without incorporating another’s words. Many writing teachers were concerned with this complex problem while others didn’t know or care.  Only the most of famous literary lions could use it, one without disguise. I was to discover. I began lecturing my students in prison about it as I did in my other composition classes calling it stealing another’s words….until self-editing kicked in and I quickly moved to another topic.  The moral and ethical considerations seemed anachronistic while lecturing murderers and felons. Besides, we wrote a lot of papers about experiences that fit the “authentic voice” period outlined in the Bedford History of Composition and Rhetoric.

Stories and discussions became the better way to introduce writing to those who had a wealth of experience and then concentrate on documenting a thesis in further papers. Ironically, it was the only place I could use the word “nigger” when joining the discussion. The word was commonly used in many contexts.  Its useful connotations seemed universally accepted; for example, in the open discussion of the movie “The Burning Bed” with Farah Fawcett, students described her as that “welfare nigger bitch”, or “nigger welfare bitch” in the vernacular. I made my philosophy clear at the onset of any such course that I wasn’t there to try to change anyone’s idiomatic language. There was a big public discussion of Eubonics at the time. On my syllabus I always quoted Bacon’s words about reading makes a full man, speech makes a quick man, and writing makes and exact man, and my goal and purpose was to teach the standard correct language of commerce and society for the benefit of the student. They understood completely and there was no problem. They wanted to learn. Many times we discussed music while brainstorming topics. Some knew the lyrics of the L.A. group, Sly and the Family stones: “Don’t call me niggah, whitey/ don’t call me whitey, niggah,” and so on. Significantly, our state controlled education system has almost made the word synonymous with a hate crime. And the media has made the old problems in speech much more volatile and racial instead of shutting up about it.

For their first paper these particular students were rich in stories of personal experiences. One story of an old lifer began in the Carolinas. As a boy he would go around to pop machines with a crowbar. One time he couldn’t comprehend why the police was behind him one day and cuffed him to take him to jail. He thought that’s what the machines were for, that’s where the money came from, like we would think of ATM machines. That started his life of crime. Years later, I saw him on T.V. shaking hands with President Clinton instituting a program for elderly criminals to be set free on the premise they were too old to do any harm. The course wasn’t all that rosy. We were brainstorming topics for one guy to write about and I asked him to write about his experiences at night on his job cleaning the cafeteria. He was a lifer, looked down sadly and said, “you never want to hear about what goes on there.” Another student who had a noticeably small head and was diminutive in mind and body disagreed with a murderer discussing a topic. The murderer nodded for him to go into the bathroom with him. It was obvious to everyone what was expected, but in sodom and decorum, we paid no attention. The next semester, I taught at the correctional facility next door. I liked the poetry of one of the prisoners, Victor Dove, and published his poems through Cherry Valley Editions with no institutional aid, and the Program Director upon seeing his book shook my hand in gratitude.

I remembered the foreboding complaint I had heard from the parents behind me at my graduation: that there weren’t jobs for their son who had to pay the great cost of attending a prestigious university. It wasn’t long before MFA programs proliferated and recycled their creative profession. At the time of this writing I have been sent an ad for Poets & Writers with a cover story “The Top 50 MFA Programs,” which led me to wonder how many were out there! I had avoided the publication since its inception out of respect for Mr. Coleman who at the time must have seen its encroaching mediocrity better than I. Nevertheless, they keep my name on their mailer through the years, and it has been impossible to remove. Like the literary Politburo numbers look good to the State.  My role as a poet/professor had again become a hindrance and Amerikan culture succeeded in making poetry a “product-absolute” of the academe.

I began picking up all the part-time work I wanted in the many Community colleges and Universities in the area. I taught a professional writing course at George Washington University. I never got adjusted there because I had to find a place to park and find the damn class room that seem hidden in a labyrinth of downtown D.C. buildings. Further, I had no office space of my own to confer with individual students as the position required because Maya Angelou had her spread of two rooms, one adjacent her office to conduct her promotions and publicity for her Hallmark Queen poetry enterprise. As a part-timer, I had to meet with students wherever I could. I had nothing whatsoever to do with poetry there anyway. No one knew I was a poet, and I kept it quite. I had enough trouble finding the classroom. Then one day, I parked for a moment to run in to deliver my grades. I came out to see a huge piece of medieval iron locked to the front wheel of my car, known as “The Boot”. I tried to find out how to get it removed, but the ones to set me free only came by at certain hours. In addition, I had to present a hundred dollars cash at the proper office in the city building in another part of town. Luckily, Pam was working nearby at The Wall Street Journal, a good place then, who treated their employees nice and invited them to all their parties and we were able to put together the required cash of one hundred dollars. Then I got in line for to pay the clerk in the downtown office and then another line to have the police issue the order to unclamp. I then took that document to a policeman near my car to call the boot release patrol on their next round.  I came there only to finish up my course and never went back.

I picked up some pretty good courses at another George, George Mason though a Chair, who wanted to be a poet (I’ve forgotten his name, too). At the same time, I was offered two courses in Poetry at American University. Why they need two courses, I don’t know, but they were willing to let me meet them casually or arrange them about any way I wanted. Even with this somewhat endearing offer, I was already committed to the two courses at George Mason and to juggle schedules and drive the Beltway was too much. It turns out a poet I had gone to Hopkins with was at American University teaching poetry. Unfortunately at that time she was excited about having invited the “great” English “writer” D. M. Thomas to read at the university and visit her classes. I leafed through his celebrated book that was just published and lines about the Nazi poking his bayonet around in the pile of bodies in the mass grave into a survivor’s privates was compelling. It reminded me of the horrors when the Methodist Minister’s party raided Black Kettle Band and tromped babies under their horse hoofs and cut out the women’s pubis to decorate their saddle horns and cut off their breasts to sew together to sell as novelty purses on the train and on Turk St. In San Francisco, leaving the mutilated beings screaming to death on the prairie.

Fictionalized accounts of the Holocaust never interested me anyway. To document it in writing was one thing, but I didn’t understand the appeal of horror. I found the real account of D.M. Thomas’s story in Babi Yar, and soon critics were proving he plagiarized the whole book. I had two courses at George Mason and my prison course, so I turned down the poetry courses at American. The person in the English Dept. at George Mason who wanted to be a poet, had heard that D.M. Thomas was appearing at American and invited him to George Mason. I attended his reading, which was almost word for word Babi Yar. After his reading, a group made up of mostly faculty and literati gathered around him and I said loudly,” this guy’s a phony”. Susan Sontag looked down her big nose at me. Everyone was embarrassed, but I was proved correct. None of them admitted to their ignorance at having got hoodwinked by literary fame. I was to see later what the power of tenure that pretentious professors can bring upon an institution and get away with it.
I made up my syllabus for a regular English course that I had never taught: World Literature. Since a lot of the students were from nearby CIA, I told them they could have an extra copy for their office. I was not that well read myself in World Literature, so I’d have to pull something out of my hat. Pam had just bought me a large paperback titled THE TIMETABLES OF HISTORY A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events. It had lists across its pages: History; Politics; Literature; Theater; Philosophy; Music, and so on, with the dates vertically in a column. As I leafed trough its pages I was fascination by the full pages of the ancient Greek Period and the crowded entrees in that time as well as the modern era and the almost blank pages of the Dark Ages. It was a fascinating opportunity to flesh out the bits of knowledge throughout history. All the categories had a common denominator of literature, so I was safe. I told the students they didn’t have to purchase a hundred dollars worth of textbooks because I was going to make a copy of several pages and use the cut-up method to slice dates and events and historical figures of copied strips in a “hat” for each student to choose an assignment. If they didn’t like the one chosen, they could pick another. The idea was to take a person, event, movement and write about everything during its time that surrounded it in historical context. Nowadays, I think the book it’s on line, so it’s simpler than that. The students loved to connect information on the scraps of paper to everything around their lingual archeology to become an authority of a body of knowledge built around a particular bare-boned fact. It was a hit! Their papers enlightened me and they could use the library for it’s intended purpose and didn’t have to purchase a hundred dollars worth of books from the textbook scam to lug around. I didn’t know until much later, as if through ghosts or metempsychosis in Gilman Hall, that I had had carried the predilections of Hopkins first professor, Basil Gildersleeve. I had just read an article on him in my Alumni Magazine, which helped motivate me to write this reflective memoir of my past teaching experience and found a juicy quote from him. “Scrap knowledge is the bane of many scholars. Not to see a thing in its connections is not to see it at all.”  He had gone to Berlin to visit August Boeckh whose own pedagogy stressed using a minutiae of particularized knowledge as a springboard to an overall understanding of and entire subject. All of a sudden I felt I didn’t always things against the grain, after all. In 1896 Gildersleeve noted that, “ the teacher who does not rise from the particular to the universal does not live up to the measure of his prophetic office.” (To Understand Ourselves, Michael Dirda, Johns Hopkins Magazine, Fall 2009) Finally I was liberated and was to see when I visited “grammar” schools and high schools how compulsory education became such a failure.  When visiting a class asking a question, seeing the kids waving their hands to the question the teacher had gone over with them earlier as to when an event took place was just game show pedagogy. When I asked why such-and-such event took place, the students were blank. Not only was their training counter to thinking in relationship to larger components, they lacked the syntactic ability to connect their thoughts in a rhetorically recognized fashion.

Even their textbooks seemed wrong. Their “Language Arts” texts would teach them games of comparison as a substitute for a more extended rhetorical devise, the analogy, and so on. I was beginning to see a pattern that dated back Gildersleeve’s time when Harvard created the first Professorship in English to steal him from Hopkins. Childs was determined to “turn the study of English from rhetoric to literature.” He delegated correcting his students compositions to faculty underlings so he could lecture in literature to his large captive audiences and develop the English curricula for Harvard that all institutions would follow forever, eventually giving us the pompous publish or perish English professor, and the beginning lecturer with their ten pound anthologies and favorite author’s books, required though study might use just a few pages. In Prussia, the specialist knew best. This mimetic methodology led to grad students themselves creating worthless workshop publications for credentials. The study of literature seem a good turn in the Harvard influence of the Nineteenth-Century America, but the model would soon become derivative to the extent of damaging the real asset of thinking and writing. I saw this in the many universities and colleges I taught at, and saw it in primary and secondary schools when I visited the as a poet or substitute. I realized that English departments in a particular physical place might become a thing of the past the virtual world and there would be no need for the Harvard model at all.

Meanwhile I had to get my own progeny through this bamboozled system of education especially evident in the field into which I had befallen. I picked up my son from his freshman year at the University of Montana, which he enjoyed, and it was on the other side of the U.S.  As we traveled back, I naturally asked him about his studies and grades, particularly his English course. It was of course the German model of the 19th Century from Harvard based on literature. It was in the 1990’s, which Bedford listed as “The Challenge of Diversity” in which feminism and multiculturalism were at their zenith. He said he had written a paper on Sylvia Plath, one of whom they were required to read. His teacher said she had given him an “A” for the course as she was hastily leaving for a women’s poetry workshop. I asked what his thesis was in his paper, and he said something like he took issue with Sylvia Plath and her spineless attitude towards her father.  He said after he got his grade report he received  “B” though she had assured him he would get an A and would keep the students’ papers to make sure of the grades. He said he didn’t know who to go to with the complaint that he was lied to. I told him grades are sacrosanct to the instructor and that she had compiled them quickly before she left campus. They are the only leverage they have against students and that she couldn’t care less about your paper and is at her conference forgetting all about you and the course, except, that you said something against Sylvia Plath.

5 Responses to “Charles Plymell on Charles Plymell (part 5)”

  1. If this is Part 5 are parts 1 thru 4 avilable?

  2. I managed to find #s 2 through 5, but not #1. Can someone help?
    Many thanks

  3. Finally, what you have provided is a fantastic read.

    As for you Charlie Plymell, hurry back to Lawrence.

  4. Linda Lerner Says:

    I’m really enjoying this. Keep on with it. I hope that you’ll eventually get all
    the parts published.

  5. Joe–sorry part 1 wasn’t under Charlie’s archives. Now it is,

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