Tribute – to Matt Doll, John Skillen, and 20 Years in Orvieto

A couple weeks ago, actually it was January, 2002, my buddy Skillen sidled up to me and said, “Three things, OK? One: ekphrasis.”

I said, “Gesundheit.”

He said, “Not a sneeze.”

I said, “A skin disease?”

He said, “No, poetry.”

I said, “Ekphrasis—poetry?”

He said, “About art.”

I said, “Ah”—(sounding like him, suddenly)—“’About suffering they were never wrong’”—

He said, “’The old masters,’ esatto.”

I said, “Gesundheit.”

He said, “Not a sneeze. Item two, OK? You teach it.”

I said, “Ekphrasis? I don’t…”

He said, “You will.”

I said, “When?”

He said, “November.”

I said, “Where?”

He said, “Orvieto.”

I said, “Gesundh… Orv…?”

He said, “Il mio posto favoriàte.

I said, “But… Ma… Non parle… parlo…

He said, “Non ti preoccupare. Insègnerai bene la poesìa. … In Inglese … OK?”

I said, “OK.”

So I got busy studying… ekphrasis.

(BTW, did you notice in my chat with Skillen there were actually only two things? With Skillen, there are always three things, even when there’s only two things.)

The next November I did disembark from a plane, a train, a funicular, and a bus—on a rainy night, luggaged and tiny and daunted beneath the duomo’s almost audible façade—

a façade—and an edifice—and a town—that would furnish 17 years, 34 seminars worth of looking, and of loading into language what light reveals of artists’ handiworks.

Skillen’s ekphrastic impulse was prescient. Since we launched that course in 2002, scores upon scores of books on the subject—on the encounter between word and image—have found their way into print and onto Amazon. (A recent title is Ekphrastia Gone Wild: Poems Inspired by Art. Is that subtitle a letdown, somehow?) Only did luminaries like John Hollander and WJT Mitchell beat us to the museum gallery punch.

A veritable charm of poets, an exaltation of marvelous poet-teachers, and a few prose-ists, have brought rigor, vigor and love to our writing workshop-on-the-tufa: among them Christine Perrin, Paul Mariani, Julia Kasdorf, Scott Cairns, Hannah Badia, Robert Clark, and twice last year Jeanne Walker—all writers of durable works AND of ekphrastic poetry, some of which can be seen on our anniversary website.

By my reckoning, 175 students have written 1400 poems that engage artworks both notable and humble, and respond to locales and vistas they know by heart and by passeggiata.

I’m almost done. The ekphrastic pairings on the stairs here and above us come from my poetry seminars over the years, in San Lodovico, San Paolo, and the Servi. The writers engage both very old and very new artworks, with varying formal techniques and ekphrastic strategies. When you look & read, you might remark those strategies—the difference, for instance, between a poem that thinks about the artist or her studio or her materials or her model—and perhaps one that attempts to construct a verbal equivalent to the image, through formatting, say, or syntax.

This summer I sifted through files and assemble a portfolio featuring one poem from each student in all of my ekphrasis classes; you can download this if you wish as a PDF. (I’ve printed up a copy; it’s somewhere nearby.)

And now, at last, a word about Matt and Sharona Doll.

My thus-far purple pen pales, peters out when I turn to acknowledge and thank Matteo for his continued commitment to this program we love, and to the ekphrastic endeavors that have been a part of it for so long. Poetry, painting, and their tangling in history are clearly highly favored in our curriculum and in our daily lives.

And in his. Here’s a guy who launches the day with poetry, connecting our dots to words wise and beautiful (saying “you KNOW this”)—reading Seamus Heaney or Thomas Merton or (“but first”) Mary Oliver.

Matt, we love you back, immensely. Sharona, Alesandro, Emmanuella, Karen, Becky, Emily (great friends who allow us a glimpse across the limits of ourselves), thank you for your commitment and your welcome. Add to them John, Susie, Bruce, and Z(ingarelli)—thank you, multo grazie for your work which has allowed us this opportunity for a lifetime.

Delivered September, 2018 at the reunion in the Barrington Center for the Arts.

Introduction – to Tyehimba Jess

This is a poet’s introduction, not a news story, but it’s got a lede, and I don’t want to bury it. The lede is this: that actions in our Florida state capital—certain capital offenses, chewed and digested—have rippled their way to the poems that Our Reader Tonight, our poet-at-large, brought to three thousand students in five sessions over the last two days at high schools near here.

Just yesterday morning, our poet reminded auditorium-fulls about blackface—opening for the students on a big screen an ancient primer on the technique of blacking up—the burning of corks, the grinding-of-them into powder, the adding-to-them of petroleum jelly… And the application onto the skin… “So easy for gentlemen, and ladies, too.”

Then this morning at breakfast our poet read about our state secretary in the New York Times.

The Times, which aren’t a changin’, not enough.

Even before the object lesson, we knew: Our man’s poems are news that stays. For seven years he was devoted to the daily work of recovering personal histories from previous centuries, histories that resonate personally now—for him, and for us; for readers of The Times. What he made from them was Olio, a chronicling in poetry—part performance, part documentary, part eavesdrop, part blueprint—in new forms that first engage the reader’s volition, and then step out from the sewn sections into volumes that stand, and deliver.

To encounter these poems is to remember that their speakers—Blind Boone, Box Brown, the McKoy sisters, Edmonia Lewis—each of them troubled this actual air with larynx and embouchure, with sound waves that are rippling out yet, diminished but factual, toward Ultima Thule—and that the sensibility, the instrument that catches – and renders – and returns them to us must be very fine, indeed.

Indeed, it is.

And prescient, too.

Tyehimba Jess is a native of Detroit who lives and teaches now in New York City. His first book, leadbelly, won the National Poetry Series. Olio, his second collection, won the Pulitzer Prize.

It’s with great pleasure and gratitude, Tyehimba, that we welcome you to our stage tonight.

-Delivered in January at the 2019 Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Tyehimba was brilliant and warm & welcoming to students, festival goers, and to me.

 

Introduction – to Aja Monet and Elizabeth Acevedo

A highlight from this festival is an event that only I and Dr. Blaise Allen get to witness—which is when, in sequence, two poets step to a lone mic in front of a thousand sullen students—and read, and perform.

I could have said, “perform magic,” seeing as how these poets can turn student rabbits into rabid tigers.

—or maybe said “perform surgery,” on account of how these two stand up to stimulate the internal organs of empathy and recognition and resolve.

Is it too soon in my intro for all this?—to say these two poets perform a thousand acts of justice and mercy and salubrious upbraiding—in high schools?

Well, that is what they do—to those “thousand sullen students.”
They perform, they perféct, they deliver, they detonate certain time lapse detonations.

They make, of those students, a thousand splendid suns.

I said “two poets.” It’s true I could have said “raconteurs, rhapsodists, scops, bards, balladeers.” I say again: two poets, who assess from the page, and arrest from the stage, with throat & tongue, and timbre & timing & gesture—in form and moving. How express and admirable.

I say móre: the just poet justices; keeps grace—with sass; vibe; sauce.

I said we “get to witness.” I could have said we “get in the midst of”—“get mixed up in”—because to engage their poetry with eyes & ears is to engage it with skin, and follicle, and capillary. Even tear duct.

As I have seen, and you will shortly know.

Please welcome them to our stage.

-Delivered at the 2018 Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Aja Monet (above left; her poem “The First Time” is here) and Elizabeth Acevedo (above right; her poem “Hair” is here), brought brilliance to schools and the festival stage.

Introduction – to the Mayhem Poets

For the last couple of days, while the poets in Old School Square were workshopping and craft-talking, our two guests tonight were word-cajoling in high schools around Palm Beach County.

This is proper & fitting, because for the last half-score years, while we-all were on vocation, so were they—

vocationing—verbally, vocally, day-in and day-out, in theatres and gyms like this one all around the world.

And yesterday, while our new president was trumpeting in the streets, children in those same schools were dying – with laughter, and holding their breath, and handling words at once true and kind—

kind because vulnerable, and therefore full of power and authority.

Watching our guests from a fold-down seat didn’t just make me want to be them—
to imp my wing on their wit and talent and savoir faire

watching them made me mindful of,
grateful for those first permissions we all felt to love a poem—
to “belovéd a poem,” by Simic, or Perillo, or Roethke—and hear that voice that spoke up from the page, to us.

And for.

That’s what our guests are always up to, gig-after-gig,
voicing live from the stage what is scary, and scandalous, and scanned,
and granting permission to folks-young-as-we-were to speak—
and that in poems.

Here’s a little video of a student slamming a poem for them after one of their shows…
(Kidding—we have no screen here. But it happened.)

Legit now: Mason, Scott, hanging with you has been a highlight for me this week.

Year after year, you
bring the Mayhem Poets, you
get mayhem, poets.

Please welcome them to our stage.

-Delivered at the 2017 Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Scott Raven and Mason Granger (l to r), two of The Mayhem Poets, regaled a couple thousand students with poems like this one (“What You Want”).

Introduction – to Poet Marc Kelly Smith

Robert Pinsky says that poems are musical scores, to be performed by the instrument of the body. The lungs, ribcage, larynx, the tricky tongue and shaping mouth (some of you heard Kevin Young mention embouchure), the resonators of skull and nasal passages, upheld and amplified by the diaphragm—all these concert together (with pitch, posture, and pulse) to release a poem’s music—

And I haven’t mentioned the face, its members express and admirable as a portable Mummenschanz.

Well. Our guests tonight would seem to agree.

What do you need to know about them? Little to nothing, I expect.

Should you know that Marc Kelly Smith invented the poetry slam at a Chicago bar in 1984, and that he’s been doing it nonstop ever since—a three hour set at the Green Mill every Sunday night, the longest running show in Chicago and poetry slam history?

Does it matter to you that, though there are manifold films/CDs/books about slam, Marc has kept on resisting the co-opters and franchisers with a sweet old-fashioned belief that poetry SLAMS BEST on the fringes, in real bars, in real neighborhoods, in gatherings of the original and inexpert?

Does it make a difference to you that, over the last two days, our man engaged a couple thousand high school students, embodying how a shy person can trust and venture LANGUAGE—and that he got all of them performing, and dozens of them up on their feet, mics into their hands, their voices fat in surround sound?

Should you be forewarned he doesn’t think of himself as a slam poet?

—or that, even so, he’s complained publicly about effete poems feebling forth from page or stage, so that this week our chevalier, Miles Coon, may have greeted him with, “Why am I bringing you to this festival?” (But, of course, he did—a tribute to both.)

—or, finally, that after the DuhamelLuxShapiro reading on Tuesday, this man, who seems never to need a printed page to bear The News, exclaimed, with his slightly Chicago vowels, “That was fantastic. So good, that if I’da heard dem when I was young I wouldn’ta had to invent slam poetry!”

I don’t know if that stuff matters to you now as he approaches the stage. And truth is, you’d get it all for yourself; so this intro is just me glossing the goods beforehand.

Here then, more chastely: Following on thousands of performances in nightclubs, concert halls, libraries, universities in venues worldwide, he brings his malleable, effectual, appealing self to our precincts tonight.

Here is all you need to know.

Welcome, Slampapi—Marc Kelly Smith.

-Delivered at the 2016 Palm Beach Poetry Festival.

Introduction – to Poet Dominique Christina

Having learned a lesson earlier, I hope to carry fewer coals to Newcastle in this introduction of the poet Dominique Christina.

The catalytic Dominique Christina, I might effuse.

But you will shortly write your own superlatives.
What, then, will suffice for me here?
A few instances, perhaps:

—OK, for instance, Dominique Christina didn’t begin, hadn’t thought of performing a poem until six-or-so years ago. She was writing poems—her first, best love. Then some-smart-one said, “Dominique, you should stand up and say these things.”

—for instance, what was she doing then but teaching English, to students with certain troubles who, but for the grace of Dom, were headed down and out, maybe away, maybe for good. A dozen years’ worth of alleged incorrigibles have leapt to her high bar, looked for her kindly lash, and got her good graces in the classroom.

—for instance, when regarding a stadium-full of high schoolers, like she did this week, she will not stir the sanctioned myths of sweetness and light, will not denigrate or prevaricate thereby. She will cut what matters, cut quickly to your matter. Hear me: Were you there, you would watch 800 embodied aspirants writhe, and recognize, and rise to their feet at her accurate beck and call.

—and for instance, you would watch them come boldly forward to meet their provocateur, to touch and hug her, and be hugged hard in return, and to take selfies—yes—

—and (for instance) what MAKES them crowd into the frame with this secret sharer, this slinger of dark-and-bright, is nothing like what compels a pic with Beyonce or Bruno. What is it that compels? It is what she tells them in words and non-words: “You are magnificent. The world needs you. And you gotta SHARE you.” For that we all get in line.

Jamnasium, I tell you (for final instance) that nobody I know of has better intuition, quicker reflex, agiler access to what must inflect a poem’s passage. Or to what will bring the cowed student to her feet, and then to the stage (by a reliable tug on the wrist, and arm round the shoulder blades), there to speak her own truths.

These rarities the slam world knows—she’s a champion five times over—

—and tonight, we will relish our own instance of this coalescing—of grace and impulse, of verve and conviction, of pith and moment.

Dominique, come now and read us your scripture.

-Delivered at the 2016 Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Dominique regaled 2600 students with this poem (“The Period Poem“), among others. You should click to it.

Remarks – on the poems of John Updike

I discovered John Updike’s poetry before his prose, as a college student, reading The Carpentered Hen and Facing Nature on the rocks of West Beach a few miles north of here.

I wrote him a letter praising his work, quoting lines like

“Hosannas of cotton and hallelujahs of wool,” and
“The elms seemed swaying vases full of sky,” and
                                             “They smile because
They know we know, they know we know.”

And he wrote back saying, “Thanks for your kind words about my poetry, which I’ve been neglecting lately, probably due to a dearth of kind words.”

He wouldn’t neglect it for long, of course.  Poetry comforted him, he said, “with its hope of permanence, its packaging of flux,” its “triumphant sense of capture.”  He called his poems “my oeuvre’s beloved waifs.”

I love the humor and the metaphors in his poems—his eye for resemblances, for connecting dissimilar things to help me see them better, which is a mark of genius, according to Aristotle.

You get his genius (and his humor) in this short poem, one he wrote when he was 21.

Why the Telephone Wires Dip and the Poles are Cracked and Crooked

The old men say
young men in gray
hung this thread across our plains
acres and acres ago.

But we, the enlightened, know
in point of fact it’s what remains
of the flight of a marvelous crow
no one saw:
Each pole, a caw.

collected in The Carpentered Hen, 1958, Harper & Brothers. “I still remember the shudder, the triumphant sense of capture, with which I got these lines down, not long after my twenty-first birthday.” J.U.

 

And again, his metaphor-making, in this poem, the last I’ll read.

Before I read it I’ll say:
I loved living near him, bumping into my absolute my favorite writer in the world, at the post office or Harry’s or KC’s or The Book Store—a shop, I expect, he single-handedly put on firm footing.  That he was living and writing and driving his gray Taurus around here ennobled this shore, and me, in some way—

     “as in some mythologies [to quote him]
     beautiful gods stroll unconcerned
     among our mortal apprehensions.”

Alas, this is not the same place without him.

 

The Melancholy of Storm Windows

We touch them at the raw turns
of the year—November
with its whipped trees and cellar sky,
and April, whose air
promises more than the earth
seems willing to yield.
They are unwieldy, of wood, and their panes
monotonously ask the same question—Am I clean?

No, the answer is.
They fit less well, we feel, each year.
But the weather lowers,
watery and wider than a tide,
and if a seam or leak of light shows, well,
nothing’s perfect under Heaven.
Our mortal shell,
they used to call the body.

In need of paint, they heave
up from the cellar and back down again
like a species of cloud,
shedding a snow of flakes and grime.
They rotate heavy in our hands; the screwdriver
stiffly twirls; the Windex swipes evaporate
in air ominous of coming worse
or, at winter’s end, of Easter entombment,
of cobwebbed storage among belittling ants
while the grasshopper world above basks.

Stacked, they savor of the crypt,
of the unvisitable nook
and the stinking pipe, irreparable.
In place, they merely mitigate
death’s whisper at the margins,
the knifing chill that hisses how
the Great Outer cares not a pin for our skins
and the airtight hearts that tremble therein.

We, too, are warped each fall.
They resemble us, storm windows,
in being gaunt, in losing putty,
in height, transparency, fragility—
weak slabs, poor shields, dull clouds.
Ambiguous, we have no place
where we, once screwed, can say, That’s it.

collected in Tossing and Turning, 1977, Knopf
-remarks delivered at Lynch Park in Beverly, Mass. Some of John’s children were present, including Michael Updike, who is a sculptor. He had not known the “Telephone Wires” poem, he said, and later carved it onto the back of Updike’s gravestone in Plowville.

More Updike Remarks, More Updike Poems

Like John Updike, I grew up in Pennsylvania (in my case Lancaster County instead of Berks) and then came to New England for college; and until 2009 we lived here in Essex County together in view of Great Misery Island and Bowditch’s Ledge.

Of course, there the similarities between us end.

Or do they? No winner of Pulitzers or other laurels, I nevertheless find in John Updike’s poetry moments that I recognize as certifiably me. Here’s an instance:

 

Thoughts While Driving Home

Was I clever enough? Was I charming?
Did I make ay least one good pun?
Was I disconcerting? Disarming?
Was I wise? Was I wan? Was I fun?

Did I answer that girl with white shoulders
Correctly, or should I have said
(Engagingly), “Kierkegaard smolders,
But Eliot’s ashes are dead?”

And did I, while being a smarty,
Yet some wry reserve slyly keep,
So they murmured, when I’d left the party,
“He’s deep. He’s deep. He’s deep”?

-Collected in Telephone Poles and Other Poems, Knopf, 1963.

This piece of light verse from the ‘50s is obviously me, just better turned out, more winningly and memorably voiced. (You’ll know already that John Updike considered the publication in The New Yorker of such light verse, first in 1954, as launching his professional writing life.)

Thirty years later, reading these poems on the beaches of Manchester and Beverly Farms, I repeatedly, reliably felt a “triumphant sense of capture”—which is how he described the shudder he felt after writing a good poem. A splendid man!, I thought, to feel these things, as he himself wrote about James Joyce, in “Wife-Wooing”: “A splendid man, to feel that. Splendid also to feel the curious and potent, inexplicable and irrefutably magical life language leads within itself.”

Exactly.

Here is another light poem, gamely led by language’s life.

 

I Missed His Book but Read His Name

“The Silver Pilgrimage,” by M. Anantanarayanan . . .
160 pages. Criterion. $3.95.
– The New York Times

Though authors are a dreadful clan,
To be avoided if you can,
I’d like to meet the Indian,
M. Anantanarayanan.

I picture him as short and tan,
We’d meet, perhaps, in Hindustan,
I’d say, with admirable élan,
“Ah, Anantanarayanan,

I’ve heard of you. The Times once ran
A notice on your novel, an
Unusual tale of God and Man.”
And Anantanarayanan

Would seat me on a lush divan
And read his name—that sumptuous span
Of “a”s and “n”s more lovely than
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan”—

Aloud to me all day. I plan
Henceforth to be an ardent fan
Of Anantanarayanan,
M. Anantanarayanan.

-Also found in Telephone Poles and Other Poems. He later learned he’d been mispronouncing the name and therefore stopped reading the poem aloud.

In the first poem, it’s the word “smarty” (“and did I, while being a smarty”) that’s spot-on, while not merely rhyming with “party.”

In the second, I enjoy (and I think he did) the flat, deliberate inexactness of the word “tan” (“I think of him as short and tan.”)

As a college student tossing and turning through the pages of Midpoint and Facing Nature and Telephone Poles, it was hard not to want to be John Updike. Still, “I had the timid sense to see that you do not will to be John Updike; you fall into it at birth, ripe from the beginning” (to appropriate The Centaur).

I’ll finish now with a poem set in a place many of you know well, Cape Ann Golf Course. I expect John Updike and I played Cape Ann at the same time on occasion, though I never bumped into him. There I never fail to say “the ball wobbles up and with a glottal rattle bobbles in”—or, on that peerless fourth hole, to recite the paragraph that contains the equally peerless “A divot the size of an undershirt was taken…”

Here’s the poem: “The Great Scarf of Birds,” written in 1962.

 

The Great Scarf of Birds

Playing golf on Cape Ann in October,
I saw something to remember.

Ripe apples were caught like red fish in the nets
of their branches. The maples
were colored like apples,
part orange and red, part green.
The elms, already transparent trees,
seemed swaying vases full of sky. The sky
was dramatic with great straggling V’s
of geese streaming south, mare’s-tails above them.
Their trumpeting made us look up and around.
The course sloped into salt marshes,
and this seemed to cause the abundance of birds.

As if out of the Bible
or science fiction,
a cloud appeared, a cloud of dots
like iron fillings which a magnet
underneath the paper undulates.
It dartingly darkened in spots,
paled, pulsed, compressed, distended, yet
held an identity firm: a flock
of starlings, as much one thing as a rock.
One will moved above the tress
the liquid and hesitant drift.

Come nearer, it became less marvellous,
more legible, and merely huge.
“I never saw so many birds!” my friend exclaimed.
We returned our eyes to the game.
Later, as Lot’s wife must have done,
in a pause of walking, not thinking
of calling down a consequence,
I lazily looked around.

The rise of the fairway above was tinted,
so evenly tinted I might not have noticed
but that at the rim of the delicate shadow
the starlings were thicker and outlined the flock
as an inkstain in drying pronounces its edges.
The gradual rise of green was vastly covered;
I had thought nothing in nature could be so broad but grass.

And as
I watched, one bird,
prompted by accident or will to lead,
ceased resting; and, lifting in a casual billow,
the flock ascended as a lady’s scarf,
transparent, of gray, might be twitched
by one corner, drawn upward and then,
decided against, negligently tossed toward a chair:
the southward cloud withdrew into the air.

Long had it been since my heart
Had been lifted as it was by the lifting of that great scarf.

-Collected in Telephone Poles(The title poem also lodged itself in me permanently.) In his Collected PoemsUpdike cut the first and last stanzas from this poem, which I chastised him for at a church fair in Beverly Farms.
These remarks were delivered at the Congregational Church in Ipswich, with Updike family members also speaking.
Today is the anniversary of his passing, on January 27, 2009.

Introducing Mark Sargent (and a pitch for the Liberal Arts – on 11.18.16)

When they said unto me, “Mark Sargent is coming,” I said unto myself, Nice.

Then they said unto me, “The entire Bible department is at a conference: you have to introduce him.”

But don’t we want one of them at this moment?
-Like Mark Cannister: “Humanities aaaaaaand Mark Sargent, reunited and it feels so good, aha ha ha ha ha…”
-or Sharon Ketcham: “Pastoral care IS imagination, right? So is relationship??? Right?”
-or Marv: ♫ “Hiney matov. Our Father Abraham traveled from Ur. Our speaker Mark Sargent traveled from… wherever…” (Canister: Aha ha ha ha ha…)
-or Ted Hildebrandt: “OK, ok, you guys!—you and Mark Sargent are so, really Imaginative—ok—I just know Jerusalem, ok?” (Canister: Ah! Aha ha ha ha ha…)

Well, they’re not here.
So.
Here’s mine.

For 16 years as provost at Gordon, Mark—hang on, when I was a student here I had no idea what a provost was: let me tell you it’s the chief academic officer, the person responsible for stuff that isn’t fundraising, student life or budget—so, stuff like curriculum, extra curricular programs, faculty, accreditation—OK?

—And Mark Sarg—hang on, when I was a student I had no clue what accreditation was: it’s the establishment of an insti-blah-blah just kidding.

So: Mark Sargent was our academic leader from The Year You Were Born to The Year You Got Your License. (And in The Year You Were Two, he hired me, which was good for me, but maybe not… so good… for you…)

I wouldn’t think it’s the easiest thing in the world to be a provost: all those constituencies to please, intellectuals so passionate about their bailiwicks, lots of moving parts—plenty of room for friction.

But Mark was good at negotiating all that.

—Probably because he was a literary guy. He himself had come into the academy in the humanities, as a literature prof, and like all lit profs he’d learned to value multiple perspectives, and to evaluate contending claims—and how to employ words “to their best advantage.”

And this served Gordon well: though always, at heart, a book lover, Mark here championed
-the sciences, backing green chemistry before it became the usual thing,
-and the social sciences, broadening the scope of The Center for Faith and Inquiry and JAF,
-and education, bolstering our graduate Education programs,
-and the fine arts, endorsing life drawing and medieval mystery plays and difficult films.

By all of which I mean: he was championing the Liberal Arts.

Speaking of film, early on, Mark launched the Provost’s Film Series here, and during his tenure he caused-to-be-shown more than 120 films, by my count, each preceded by some provocative prose of his (maybe provocative is the wrong word)—and then followed by some thought-provoking discussion. (For CL&W credit.)

When he left to be Westmont’s Provost in his home state, I realized that he’d also done a ton of writing here—not just scholarly articles, but personalized pieces, to introduce new faculty, or roast departing ones, to offer congratulations on new babies or birthdays or anniversaries or attained degrees, to celebrate excellent teaching, and to memorialize the passing of dear colleagues.

Often, a friend of mine was heard to say, “Mark Sargent always writes things we wish we could have written.” Too true. Come to think of it, I wish he had written this introduction.

And now I’m nearly done with mine, except to add this: that I came to rely on the integrity with which he did his job—and to admire his “seemingly effortless artfulness, and playfulness,” to quote another colleague.

Earlier, I was hyperbolizing about great literature being one secret to his success. Hey now: great literature (and film) does train the imagination, strengthen the moral imagination, and thereby help us work out, with God’s guidance, a life that is worth leading.

Today I can’t think of anyone I’d rather hear speak to us on “Lives of Imagination” than Dr. Mark Sargent. Please join me in welcoming him back to Gordon.

-Thanks JL for the artwork.

Twelve Years On: a Toast to Kristina & Chad

Sometime Chad embarrasses me.
Strike that. Let me take ownership.
Sometimes I choose to get embarrassed, and Chad happens to be nearby.
Does that ever happen to you?

So, I’m talking with one of my young First-Year Seminar students, saying to her, Well, no, I don’t think Anne Lamott is a going to Hell even though she says swearwords—and suddenly here comes Chad, right up to me, slips his arm around my neck and grabs my nipple—yes, I said nipple, I have them, men have them—and right in front of her starts whispering, “Shhh, shhhhh, it’s okay, shhhhhh.”

My student, who has just re-read the Left Behind series, stands there feeling… conflicted. Me, too.

Like that true story of Chad? Here’s another.

Does Chad ever leave you *unusual* phone messages? “You have ‘14’ new messages. … ‘9th’ new message…”
“Yo yo, que pasa, what’s up where you been? Why I can’t find you? I’m ‘mon slap your side and so on.”
This as I’m hurrying to a candidate interview with Herma Williams and Mark Sargent—
“I’ll slap you all over your side etcetera you don’t call me. Why come you nevuh call me, Silly, I give you seven slappety-slaps about your face—”
“Oh—hi, Herma, be right in—”
“—already left you maybe 8 messages, you slappy-pappy-slapper—” *flute sound*
“Oh, hi, Provost Sargent; big interview, eh?—“ *loud flute* “Uh… can you give me a second?—”
*more flute* “You hear me play that flute and so on? I cuh play that all over your side, etcetera—”

I never know if he says anything important in these “MESSAGES” because I always delete them before I get there.

Once I got this email from Jud’s email address. Verbatim, it read:

MARK,
IT CAME TO MY ATTENTION THAT YOU HAVE BEEN HARASSING YOUNG WOMEN ON CAMPUS ABOUT THEIR UNDERPANTS. ONE GIRL CAME INTO MY OFFICE WITH TEARS IN HER EYES, HAVING BEEN, IN HER WORDS, “TORMENTED BY A FACULTY MEMBER.” I LIKE YOU MARK, AND I HAVE COME TO YOUR AID DURING A NUMBER OF MINI-SCANDALS WHICH HAVE SPROUTED WITH YOU SOMEHOW AT THE CENTER, BUT THIS CANNOT GO ON. PEOPLE AROUND HERE RESPECT YOU AS A CREATIVE DRAMATIST, AND YOU SHOULD NOT TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THAT TO LOOK AT WOMEN’S ANATOMY. WERE ARE ALL FACED WITH THE SAME CHALLENGES AND EACH DAY IS A NEW BEGINNING. I’M GIVING YOU ANOTHER CHANCE, BUNNY-BOY, BECAUSE – unmentionable unmentionable —
JUD

The next day I got a real email from the real Jud: Verbatim:
Mark, I just turned on my e-mail and found this. Last time I saw Chad he was sitting at my computer at home. I’m afraid that this is the result! Sorry! Jud

This is what makes me ask: What must Chad have been like as a 10-year old? A 6-year-old? I picture his parents late at night:

JUD: Jan, what is this being we have brought into the world?
JAN: I don’t know, Jud, but love him—love him.
JUD: Yes, but—I want to be the president, and I’m worried—
JAN: Jud!
JUD: The big cheese, Jan!—head honcho, the smack daddy of Gordon College!—and if that little guy—
JAN: Then you practice, Jud; practice being president—of this troubled little college we call Chad.
JUD: You’re right. Help me, Jan?

OK. But for all this, (borrowing from Gerard Manley Hopkins)—but for all this, Chad’s good nature is never spent. There lives in him the dearest, freshness, deep down things. True.

And if, at times, I choose to be embarrassed in the vicinity of Chad, I also choose to feel—no, let me be accurate—Chad makes me feel good. This same Chad makes me feel good about myself. Makes me feel good about life.

He lives fearlessly. I’ve almost never seen him hang back or cop out, and he takes you along into discomfort zones that you can survive. —Like, for me, some spans of time in Latin America, a place I wasn’t interested in and now love. When this happens, you emerge a bit better and a bit braver.

He loves beauty, and poetry, and excellence. He’s got a great eye, in so many quarters and fields, and he helps us see beauty better, I think. And he makes beauty, too, in paint, in film, in theater, in words. In gatherings of people.

Chad’s an unfailing, shameless promoter of his friends: he’ll brag about you right in your presence. He can’t help himself; he’s drawn to the stuff about you that’s special, that’s extra, and by affirming it as he does, he makes you a little bit more of whatever it is. He improves you. What a gift that is. Because of Chad I think Will Whittlesey is the funniest guy on earth, but do I know him?

And, get this: for a year, Chad called his girlfriend “Doctor” Harter. Who does that?

I mean He’s proud of you.

And he’s a loyal fellow, which is also a way of saying he loves deeply. Why does he make fun of your quirks?—because he loves. As long as I’ve known him he’s been this way. Here’s sort of what I mean: one morning he and Jud and I went fishing, and because of a malfunctioning winch, as we backed down the boat ramp Jud’s brand new boat leapt off its trailer, slammed onto the asphalt, and went grinding horribly down toward the water. Jud shouted, “Oh no, not again!” And later, after repairing the boat, of course Chad had to make fun of Jud a little. “Oh no, not again!”—but he couldn’t really do it. He said, “It’s so funny, and it’s so sad I want to cry.”

Well. He has that in him, a sweetness that makes you put up with certain shenanigans.

And now I come to the reason for the season: Kristina. In a way, today these qualities that I admire—Chad’s joie de vivre, his celebration of his friends, his eye for beauty and excellence, his sweet loyalty—are matched and consummated by Kristina. I mean, get this: since he met Kristina, Chad has actually become a nicer person. The things I love about him are denser, and the things I detest about him are in need of professional care.

But I misspoke: not “since he met Kristina.” I should have said, since he fell in love with Kristina, because the latter happened when the former did. O how many pictures, how many bragging emails did he send me? How many nagging phone messages did he leave ordering me to instantly come meet her?

Kristina, I know that Chad does love nothing in the world so much as you.

And here this toast falters when it should be strongest and truest, because it doesn’t convey—I can’t convey—how ebullient, how giddy and grateful and peaceful I am about you two. I tried to say this when I said, “We will” during the service, and I’ll try to say it again by eating and drinking and dancing now, and I’ll try say it more by loving my wife. It’s the same thing Jud & Jan, and Susan & Russell, and Susan & Bob want to say today; it’s something we’ll all almost say, with our hearts lifted and our glasses charged with champagne. Something just like hip-hip hooray.

So, friends: here’s to Kristina & Chad—the most excellent couple.

-True enough, true enough twelve years ago; true enough this very month, too.

The Fife & God’s Mouth – a Senior Breakfast Speech

The plaintive cry of the fife.
[fife—almost play]

In your mind pick a number from 1 to 4.

You chose 3.

Who picked 3—raise hand.

If you didn’t, pick 3 next time.

If you didn’t pick at all: [tsk tsk]
choose this day whom you will cooperate with…

The fife.
[—almost play]

Senior breakfast.
Breakfast?
Whose good idea was that?

“We’ve worked ourselves to pulp for 4 years, let’s kick back and celebrate—at breakfast.
[fife—almost]

“Whew! What a fast! Anyone else been fasting? Let’s break, I’m starving…”
[fife—]

“To commemorate your 55 years of dedicated service, we honor you here at this farewell breakfast...”
[fife—]

“Dude, I proposed over a candelit breakfast…”
[quickfife—]
“Yah, he got right down on his knee in the middle of breakfast…”
[fife—]

[French] “Good morning, monsieur, madame, may I start you out with an appetizer—oh, that’s right, it’s breakfast.”
[fife—]

Breakfasts are for people who can’t stay awake in the evening… the other kind of seniors.
[fife—]

“LIVE FROM HOLLYWOOD, it’s the 87th annual Academy Awards—at BREAKFAST.”

There’s a reason they don’t do that.

Think of the stars & celebrities—at breakfast.

Samuel L. Jackson: “Mhmm! That is a tasty danish!”
Ian McKellen “Not just a poached egg, my good man.”
Nicholas Cage: “I don’t care! I don’t think we should be eating sausage!…”
[sorry, that was actually Keanu: “What do you mean ‘half & half’—which half?”]
Al Pacino: “Ok, ok, ok, muffins—gweat, we gotta eat muffins… Bwing ‘em.”
Bill Murray [cigarette]: “Are you planning on repeating this every year?”
John Lithgow: “I’ll have an omelet!—with a side of hash brown.”
Tom Brokaw: “That sounds lovely, I’ll have an omelet also, and a jelly roll.”
[I don’t know why Tom Brokaw’s here, how’d he get a ticket?]
Jack Nicholson: “Soft shell crab, por favor. [passes hand over forehead] And that’s probably not grapefruit juice.”
President Bush: “This whole thing: it was my idea, see? My menu. My scrambled eggs.”
Bill Clinton: “If it were up to me, my preference would be to do it as late as possible…”
Mark Sargent: “Moons over my hammy?”

See, dinner—dinner’s at the end of the day, and you’ve come to the end of college, but breakfast is at the awkward beginning of the …

Ohhh….

Ok, all right. Well, there are some things I want to say to you, Senior Breakfast Class. Now that you’re beginning—you better lose yourself in the music, the moment, you own it, you better never let it go; you only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow; this opportunity comes once in a lifetime, yo.

That’s not quite what I mean, I have trouble finding the right words.
So I’m going to quote someone instead, let him speak for me. I bring you this passage from Steven, a text from earlier in Steven’s life and work—Steven Martin—and it’s one he set to music, too, so:

[fife—]
I don’t know how to play this thing.

OK, here it is, deep, deceptively simple admonishments for a time such as this:

Be courteous, kind and forgiving,
Be gentle and peaceful each day,
Be warm and human and grateful,
And have a good thing to say.

Be thoughtful and trustful and childlike,
Be witty and happy and wise,
Be honest and love all your neighbors,
Be obsequious, purple, and clairvoyant.

Be pompous, obese, and eat cactus,
Be dull, and boring, and omnipresent,
Criticize things you don’t know about,
Be oblong and have your knees removed.

Be tasteless, rude, and offensive,
Live in a swamp and be three dimensional,
Put a live chicken in your underwear,
Get all excited and go to a yawning festival.

And to that I add:

Strive to be at least as tall as Jennifer Beatson,
Yearn to dress as well or better than Ron Kay,
Endeavor to be half as articulate as Dick Perard,
Don’t be worried until your laugh gets louder than Dorothy Boorse.

If you need a kidney you know who to go to, Sue Hakes still has one,
Try to be as passionate about something as Irv is about Johnny Cash,
Know that it’s ok not to be as smart as Elaine Phillips or Suzanne, no relation,
Realize that wearing Birkenstocks may make your voice one crying in the wilderness like Paul Borgman.

You can always apply for a job with Public Safety,
This song’s not as good now as it was and meaningful,
Just you try to be as cheerful as Pat the lunch lady is,
Let us all seek to live as long and whistle half as well as Grady Spires.

Music goes with Message, you see.
The few other things I care to say, with or without music, are also pilfered material.

One is: He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

And if Paul’s not your thing at the moment, this: For I know the plans I have for you, saith the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.

And if prophets aren’t your bag right now, try: Why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the fire, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

And if Jesus just ain’t all right with you at the moment, then I care to say, from myself:
Speak up, complain, argue, shout,
wrestle with the angel;
maybe she’ll wrench your thigh.
Be hot or cold: God shall keep you in God’s holy mouth.
And, as often as you can, put God in your mouth: go to communion.
I’ve been at that place, and at times all I could do was go to the Eucharist. Good.
Stay at the table.

We believe: help thou our unbelief.
Suffer us not to be separated
And let our cry come unto Thee.

At all times and at some times especially you will be Exiles.
We began this year with Dr. Johnson, acknowledging that.
Remember?—

By the waters, the waters of Babylon
We lay down and wept, and wept for thee, Zion
We remember, we remember, we remember thee, Zion.

Remember these dear hearts, Dear Heart, now that You’ve come into Your kingdom—is my breakfast prayer for you.

-Still is.

Why Orvieto?

Orvieto. A hilltop town between Rome and Florence, but so what?—good for you, Orvieto, enjoy your exotic hilltop self, but why would I go there? I already did the pulling-up-stakes thing, and am now settled in the dorm where God has shown me. Besides, they don’t speak English there, they mangia in Italiano cuesto. (Which actually means “they eat in Italian this.”)

Hey, I, Mark Wacome Stevick, teacher of poetry-writing in Orvieto, get you. Example?

First time I’m there, my feet are fondling the firm cobblestones when a shiny Norwegian couple swings up and hits me with, “Mi scusi, dov’è il duomo?”—(“Where’s the cathedral?”)—Ok, good—but I, because I only listened to the “Sing Your Way to Italian” CD twice, can’t really break bread with them—so what do I do but don my Apology Face and explain:

Non PARLI Italiano”—which I later realize means, “YOU don’t speak Italian.”

“I’m so sorry, you don’t speak Italian…”

So that’s why they went away snickering.

A funny story, and true.

But is it valuable?

* * *

M was a student from Messiah, a Mennonite. She wrote this poem about the crucifix that hung in the convent library where we had class. Here it is.

To the Crucifix

Jesus Christ I must confess
I’m staring at your chest again,
Your naked hairless body hung
Here on this wall again
Good God and don’t you know it’s
Got to be indecent.

High Christ I’ve cried so long for this pierced
Passion but popping up here
Now and again and forever
For Christ’s stake
An indecent eternity you bleed
One has only so much hair to
Bathe your feet in.

Christ I wonder if to relieve you
One took out one solid nail
That held your hand,
If your right arm dropped
Heavy across down the face
Of the sad glass clock
That fixes you,
The minute hand towards the
Half hour
Swung a circle that would
Move you once
So we could look away.

 

crucifix for blog 3

 

K went to Houghton College. Most afternoons at 5:00 she walked to a service at a convent where the nuns are cloistered and silent but for the singing and prayers of their services. Once she took me. She said the Amens right with the sisters, and afterward they smiled audibly at her through the bars in the chapel. She told me those services might be saving her faith.

W was a Gordon guy, and he was constantly arriving home noisy and happy after some dinner or service or concert with his friends the Lardanis and the other charismatic Catholics—people who were so salty, so irrepressibly incandescent that the new Bishop of the entire region invited them to hold services in his private chambers.

And a couple days before that semester ended, something took me to W’s room. He was in there among a heap of clothes and books and scraps of poems, crying fat tears. And he didn’t kick me out, and I said something like what you’d try to say then, and after a while he said, “In my life I’ve never felt such belonging.”

In his life.

M’s poem is one that I’m glad got written. It’s honest and surprising and maybe a little worrisome. Honest like the woman at the well: “That chump’s not my husband.” Surprising like the woman who said, “Yeah, but even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table.” M’s poem reminds me that God loves problem children like Jacob and David.

—and like M, K and W, who were learning a new faith language in Orvieto. Or maybe adding new words and sentences and silences to the language they already speak. How do you get to the place where you fall in Love—where the Amens are finally true and truly meant? For them it was by pulling up stakes again and wandering, not commuting like Americans, but wandering like foreigners—

into white rooms pinned with crucifixes,
into chapels of communicative nuns,
or into homes where, though you hardly speak Italian, the table is laid, and you’re made to understand: Mangia. Eat. Mangia!

Mangia.

-Delivered some years back in a Global Education convocation.

Toast – the 1992 ECA Drama Class

In accordance with tradition
And the laws of elocution
I have metered here and rhymed some ruminations—
About the goals that you’ve achieved
And all the little ways you’ve peeved
Me, so get ready for some grim illuminations.

As I faced the class last autumn
It seemed I was at the bottom
Of an overgrown and steep and stony trail;
And though I hiked with gut and gumption,
When we made the spring produmption
Mr. Kirby wore a business ponytail.

This year I laid heavý emphásis
That to keep the pick-ups fast is
How to stop a play from crawling like a tortoise;
And you tried hard, though I should mention
That when our crowd seemed taut with tension
They were really stiff as boards from rigor mortis.

This was only the beginning
For a group whose daily sinning
Took forgiveness to an exponent of seven;
Could God have known, when He decreed,
“You must absolve the absenteed,”
about the 50-hour workweek of Jay McKinnin?

We built Our Town in just ten weeks
And if we peopled it with geeks—
Still, on opening night I felt it in my stomach:
Not ‘cause the wedding vows were magic
Or the graveyard lines were tragic
But because the curtain call was highly comic.

Now I’m left with wishing-well,
Though if by now you cannot tell
What I mean to say, you haven’t paid attention:
He who began His work in you,
In which I’ve helped, will see it through
And bear you on until the great day of completion.

Congratulations,
Blessings and prayers,
And fond, fond regards,

Mr. Stevick

-pic: “You Can’t Take it With You,” with Becky Wooster, Tim Sidmore, Tim Larson, and Ben Adelman.