Charles Plymell on Charles Plymell (part 6)

We were driving through my home state of Kansas when I suggested we visit long- time friends, William S. Burroughs and James Grauerholz.  After dinner, Mr. Burroughs signed a copy of his book for my son and asked him about Missoula and talked about how his father used to take him fishing up there. I told him I had gotten the dorm bug when against my better judgment we had stayed at the dorm that was emptying, and I had come down ill. After he signed the book, he said, “and I have something for you” and went to his medicine

Burroughs, Plymell, Grauerholz

cabinet and got me two one-shot plastic cups of his medicine. I asked if I needed them both, and he looked perturbed and said that I knew my own system. I drank one, but hesitated to leave a bit in the other saying that I had the bug and didn’t want him to catch it. He said he wouldn’t. We were from the older generation who helped friends and was expected to “know thyself.”   My son drove and Mr. Burroughs said the medicine would kick in after we got passed Kansas City. It did, and by the time we got to Kentucky, I was cured of the bug. I asked my son why he didn’t engage more in conversation with the famous author abut his fishing in Montana, and he said he couldn’t think of anything to say! I hoped his seeing altruism in action would make up for the grade in his English class and the lame treatment by his professor.

Some faculty at any institution that hired me seemed to have had suspicions of me and my impressive publications, and thought I might jeopardize their jobs in some way, and didn’t care for my direct approach toward students. As far as I was concerned discussion of literature could have stayed in the parlors of the 19century and students could study the rhetorical values of the changing language in speech and writing.  I would be seen as old fashioned. They could read all the books they want. I just didn’t require my students to buy the 4lb anthologies and readers. They purposely change a bit ever year to keep the requirement of a new edition, plus a handbook and usually a favorite author(s) that they utilized only a few pages from. That was the norm and when the students went to the bookstore to buy books for my class there were none on the shelves. The college bookstores didn’t like that because it didn’t make them money and the students were frustrated and thought an armload of books would automatically make them intelligent. When they arrived in class puzzled and empty handed, I told them I had a different approach to writing that began with a clean slate and involved thought and using the vast library systems. I told them handbooks were plentiful around English departments, gathering dust until they are thrown out or they sold for usually less than a dollar at used bookstores or library sales. Their contents vary by a little, since grammar and syntax are old and if they learn everything in whatever book they find, they will know a great deal more than they did to begin with. I told them it was good to have a reference book for grammar and that most of it should have been learned in what we used to call “Grammar School.” In that sense most of it would be remedial anyway. A few brighter students, blessed with good teachers in the past, caught the drift and others saw the light after much unnecessary work freeing their minds of the damage they had accrued arriving at college essentially illiterate having come through primary and secondary education system.

When I substituted in high school I saw how the teachers had begun to mimic university English departments to discuss stories instead of learning to write. It was much easier to calm a disruptive class by story telling and fuzzy romantic shared sympathy with various protagonists and events. Teachers had to be popular. But by the time students got to college their complete rhetorical thinking could be expressed as “bad thing or “good thing” and their main vocabulary was “stuff,” “like” and “y’know.” or if they adopted a more professional vocabulary the added the universal euphuisms, “positive” and “negative” which were limited to battery terminals in my unschooled youth. Sometimes I became so tired of theses clichés in class, I would begin signing the old Andrew Sisters’ tune: “You got to accentuate the positive/ eliminate the negative / latch on to the affirmative/ and don’t mess with Mr. In-between. They were puzzled and giggled. I found that teachers didn’t teach grammar in “grammar schools” because most of them didn’t know it themselves and they couldn’t maintain popularity with bored disruptive students who hated the thought of it. I presented tricks to illustrate how English grammar and usage could become complicated and told them I it was impossible to write a sentence exactly as I said it. They promptly put pen to paper at the ready and I dictated the sentence (using the number two here as symbol) “There are three 2’s in the English language.” I reminded them how difficult it is to heed Bacon’s words that ‘Writing maketh an exact man,” to remind them that writing is work.
I began teaching in the late 1960’s when I left the docks in San Francisco. I had tutored a bit in Metaphysics at Wichita U. to help out my professor. It came natural to me when others couldn’t seem to get it. I later required all my students to read Bedford “A Brief History of Rhetoric and Composition”. Students were always perplexed about the expectations of English instructors whose pedagogy varied as much as the person, so I thought what the hell, if  the other disciplines  made them learn concepts in their field they should know that history. That would also prepare them for the varied expectations of their professors and could ask them what period they identified with. Unless the professor became pretentious thinking the student pretended to know more than they, it should serve both parties. Bedford denoted “The 1960s: Classical Rhetoric, Writing Process. And Authentic voice.” The writing process was a valuable part of my teaching The Proposal at the University of Maryland. My Program Director had written a book on the subject of rhetoric and writing. I found some dedicated teachers, too in what Bedford lists in the 70’s as ”Cognitive Process, Basic Writing and Writing across the Curriculum which became popular and easy for me since I favored science and could use that as well as the more philosophical rhetoric of argumentation I had mastered in philosophy long ago and was an essential part of the proposal.

I learned that I was naturally teaching the classifications listed in the Bedford history, so I had a great deal of confidence knowing I was doing something right. I had no trouble with “Authentic Voice” with my students in prison. They certainly had enough experience and the rhetorical ability to identify lies and ethics. We discussed the obvious class and criminality differences of them going to jail for using smack when walking down Georgia Ave., while a doctor with MD plates could drive in Georgetown using smack and not be stopped. They could have talked to Aristotle all day.  And there was always the enormous topic of drugs, so there was no end to the authentic voice about a universal problem. In the 80’s cocaine was the drug of the lions of finance and politics. Pam and I were invited to chili parties with recognizable names inside the beltway. Once, I would be guided away from the rooms of pot and lines of coke because it was assumed I was old and square. It seemed each decade highlighted different drugs, the scourge of society which worsens today obviously because it’s lucrative.

In many ways the incarcerated students desire to learn made them the better students. I made it clear that there is a standard, correct language that they needed to master if they wanted, and they did want to. I also made it clear that there is their personal language that is as important in expression and understanding. The two just had different purposes. Their personal idiom was rich in the figure, the analogy, and nuances that at times were needed for immediate survival. The standard and exact language they were learning was also important for survival. There were no problems once we understood that the freedoms in language were not to be controlled, but learned for specific purposes. That was generally my philosophy in later years when we moved back to New York and I taught in prisons there. Gradually the prison population changed and that philosophy gave way to attitudes in language that stressed conflict. The old society that cons had set up gave way to younger, more dangerous students who didn’t care about the distinctive purposes of language and wanted to force their idiom into the mainstream or use it for self -gratification without regard to differences in perception.

During the period of multiculturalism and feminism, the prison population increased and it was younger, more desperate and hardened by the unfair, racist, Rockefeller laws of the state. That created more problems in attitude, and not much interest in learning standard English. I taught in Upstate prisons through various community colleges. One had a female teacher in the program that I shared a ride with. I remember once when the guards escorted us through the halls at the end of the period they told me to get at the back of the line and put her in front. She took it personally and said it was offensive to her and that she deserved equal consideration. I told her to let them do their thing. Obviously an old man hostage is more expendable than a pretty woman hostage. I taught at other prisons for Community College programs along the Hudson. It was gradually getting worse. My class was interrupted once by guards after someone who had bashed out another’s brains. The guards said it was a “lover’s quarrel” One offender gave me a history of his pedophile offenses starting with his time the orphanage and all the throw-away kids in cities up and down the Hudson. The numbers and activities stunned me, the pitiful new normal of a culture now built on greed and political corruption set the tone for morality. When I taught in the youthful offenders program, a guard had to be in class with me. That was at Mike Tyson’s alma mater. A murderess was a fine student until she went into a rage during class over what someone said to her. Two guards pulled another kid from class whose ass was bleeding and sneerd “AIDS”.
I began teaching in regular community college 45 minutes from our village in Upstate New York. I like the community college teaching. The Chair was Indian and was in physics, so we had a polite relationship. I could do what I wanted and design my own courses. I rarely saw any other faculty other than when I taught the night course. The only other times I was on campus was to turn in my grades and collect my paycheck. Community colleges seem to have a lot more to offer students individually. There were rooms full of computers and it was the time they would be prominent in writing, so I just moved my classes into computer rooms and let them have at it. Student staff was always available help them with computers problems and many helped each other. I knew very little. Most students from foreign countries lived in the dorm. There were many students from Japan. Somehow I had in mind that kids from Japan knew all about computers, but I learned from them that was not the case. They said in their pre-college schooling that they had no computers at all. Their education officials thought it was wiser to have students interact and learn social skills and to help each other in lessons until the all felt equal in the basics. They figured that students could learn computers on the job in their professional life when the time came. I don’t know if that philosophy continued. I learned that they had no knowledge of pre WW2 history. It wasn’t taught in their schools, so I never brought it up. The majority was agnostic or apostate. Some were Buddhist or Shinto while most of the regular students were Christian. I did assign papers for them to explore politics and used quotes from Koestler that they liked very much. Since Writing Across The Curriculum was popular in Composition courses at that time, many assignments included science.
One of my favorites was an exploration of process and analogy of the much- studied T4 Bacteriophage. It became such a popular assignment, I used it at any level taking in grade schools and high schools in the Poets-in- the -School Programs which were usually two week residencies. Its components of process from virus to bacteriophage was perfect for teaching.  What did its head look like? Its legs, its body, its hypodermic needle and how did it work its nefarious process was fascinating to all students. I think the poet, Kenneth Koch started the Poets-in-the-Schools Program by taking authentic poetry of the masters into the classroom and uses imagination and words that knew no boundaries or theories, no rules, no guidelines in the mimetic process of students writing their own poetry. “Words and Ideas” again liberated students and gave them freedom of words. That, in itself, was revolutionary to compulsory education. The authority for this probably came from the poet, Archibald Macleish, who said a poem doesn’t have to mean, but be. This was a concept more difficult for teachers rather than students.  I could hear the ghost of Horace Mann and the King of Prussia exclaim from their graves: “What, no meaning?” Remnants of this program exist today; In the 70’s there were federal arts monies given to the states to hire poets to visit schools, usually in two week residencies. The idea was to bring a real poet into the classroom and give him or her free reign in students making poetry.

The more money that was put into it, the greater it was politicized. It was lucrative for the poet, around a hundred dollars a day visiting two or three classes during the school day. I worked in Delaware, Virginia. Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York. At the time my schedule didn’t fit that well in Maryland, so I just to visited with another poet to get the hang of it. This was in Montgomery County Maryland in whose college programs I taught in prisons. They seemed very thorough with Federal and state monies in the arts programs. At one time our daughter went to the same elementary school as did Senator Sarbanes’ kid. It was predominantly Black as in a handful of White kids, representative of the district and there were no problems. It was  a very well run school and had a good principal. As I visited schools all around the Northeast, I began to sense what kind of school it was by meeting the principal, who set the tone and by going to the teachers room to feel the vibes. If the principal was phony, the whole school had problems, simple as that. There was no such thing, nor ever has been a “standard” in compulsory education.  There is only a standard in propaganda.

I have kept on my shelf through the years a little chapbook published by the Maryland Arts Council of kid’s poems in the program while I was there because it contains some of my favorite poems, The first would probably not be allowed now because it would cause a problem in political correctness:

The Italian people’s socks are quick to sing
Italian socks are quick to sing for people
Italian people sing on high squeaky quick socks
Italian people sing quick sock songs….
Roz, grade 4
Finally the skyscrapers
are my mountains
And the neon signs
my stars
once I left No Hopeville
Sheri, grade 7
It’s like a wheel barrow
that carries people around
the middle of town
for me who is left a beep
and gave a kiss to a car
Steven, grade 5

Generally 3, 4, 5 graders were natural poets and their minds were still free from numbing down and what a few commentators would to call dumbing down. But with kids in those grades, I could fill volumes with poetry as fresh as some of the best lines history whether in be the didactic homey phrases of Egyptian poetry, the island poets of ancient Greece, Italian Provencal Poets. It was lively compared to the poetry that was to be written in the proliferating academic workshops. There was some dada by fifth grade and some sentimental love folk singer stuff by high school. I could see how “creativity” would be forced out of them by the 5th grade and become a word with no meaning.  Many teachers saw a the program as a threat, while others were just happy to get away from the little monsters for the period. My experiences were diverse enough. I taught in Willington, Delaware that included 2nd graders playing Vivaldi and was entertained in the homes of DuPont executives.  In Virginia, they all said, “yes sir”, in Oswego NY, snowed in.  I had a friend who taught in a Catholic high school in the ghettos of Philly. I was free to rap or dis the system and with the kids also who liked KISS in the public schools. Generally the Catholic schools had better education. I saw the whole gamut of kids in schools in the Northeast. Pennsylvania had a huge program and there were regional directors who taught poetry themselves plus made extra money administrating the program. Knowing that poets tend to be whores and pimps, I acted on a hunch that a woman I knew got a lot of programs by screwing the regional administrator, so I dropped some hearsay that got me all the work I needed. Of course the poet-politicos moved in and took over. There were meetings on how to spend all the arts money. Gerald Stern was from Pennsylvania and became administrator for all the state moneys for the program. He was and is involved in the poetry politics of money during the best times of federal and state awards to poets. Now I see his name at the Poetry Foundation site. He had a knack for politics in that program. There were greedy poets as always. One had the top paying professorial job in California P.A. and acted like he knew me well to Mr. Stern and said we had hung out together in San Francisco. I met him for the first time at the program meeting in Pennsylvania. He took time out from his college job to work in some of the lucrative poets-in -the-schools jobs. He later burned me as well as others by publishing us and selling our work to special collectors.

2 Responses to “Charles Plymell on Charles Plymell (part 6)”

  1. A great read, but then Plymell knows how to put down a line, stripped bare of all BS and readable to the common man and woman out there, and not just the pompos ass academic boys and girls who could never fit into his shoes.

  2. Jason Hardung Says:

    I love reading about Charles.

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