“Who Wants to Be a Scholar Anyway,” “The Academic Strategic Planning Blues,” “Ballad of the Executive Director of Alumni Affairs”: the titles in my poetry folders suggest that I write a lot of doggerel when I’m all steamed up. Most jobs present occasions for indignation, even when you like the work and feel fortunate to have it. I’m starting my 18th year at this selective liberal arts college, and while the job itself is a great fit for me—the emphasis on teaching and support for scholarship hit the right balance, and I have brilliant, dedicated colleagues—university and local culture still estrange me on a regular basis. Co-education came late, in 1985, and it was painful. The Civil War is still underway: General Lee is buried on campus and the local paper is full of letters, this week, from people who want our town to fly the Confederate flag. Undergraduate rates of sexual assault are too high. I love my students but know that a few of them must be committing those crimes; the dissonance is hard to live with. Things are better than they were, and being a full professor in a strong department insulates me somewhat, but these aren’t great consolations.
So when, in 2005, the planning committee for the 20th anniversary of coeducation asked me to commemorate this milestone poetically, I was electrified and stumped. My standard response to writer’s block (tellingly) is to conduct research. I studied occasional poems by Heaney, Auden, Brooks, and others. I also trudged down to Special Collections, where press coverage of coeducation is archived (we co-educated so late that the national media made a fuss). The latter was pretty horrifying. Some professors, alumni, and administrators argued eloquently for coeducation, but they won because finance aligned with feminism: men’s single sex colleges could no longer attract large numbers of highly qualified applicants, resulting in shrinking student bodies and loss of prestige. Coeducation’s opponents, meanwhile, flaunted obnoxious bumper stickers, and to the press, certain anonymous professors lamented the dilution of a noble enterprise.
I thought, okay, the asbestos gloves of form for dangerous materials, but I need a capacious form that can handle prosey rhythms. I labored over a sestina, toned it down, toned it down some more, and then tested it on friends, who still found it intensely angry. Clearly addressing coeducation head-on was a bad idea since I couldn’t celebrate that fraught occasion. Plan B: a totally different poem in tribute to a series of women students. Them, I could celebrate.
Neither the poem I presented (“Office Hours”) nor the one I kept to myself satisfies me. Maybe the process spelled doom in itself. I write first drafts in an exploratory way, turning off the editor’s voice and my compulsion to be nice; I couldn’t do that here. Ambivalence is my engine and I had to mute it. “Office Hours,” felt honest, at least, drawing on my direct and positive experience of coeducation as a teacher who arrived after the controversy. I’d be totally game to try again, but the whole thing does make me think of a student evaluation I once received: “I learned that writing poems is easy but writing good poems is really, really hard.” Writing good joyous poems is harder than writing good ambivalent ones. Writing good joyous poems for a specific audience on a specific topic might require divine intervention.
A veteran professor declared, seriously, ‘The education of women is a trivial matter. The education of men is a serious matter. I don’t think the frivolous and the serious should mix.’ -from a Newsweek article by Ron Givens on co-education at Washington and Lee University, October 1985
The banner, a bedsheet really, cleared its throat as day-
light changed George Washington to gold: “NO
MARTHAS,” it politely recommended. Serious
banter draped beneath a finial image of the gentleman
whose once-warm original gave necessary sums
and his name to Washington Academy. Tradition
honors his largesse even though, says tradition,
George liked Martha. “A Roll in the Hay, but Not All Day,”
bumperstickers prescribed, heedless of allergy, but some
feared that immoderate exposure to women, with no
respite from estrogen, could harm young gentlemen
more than sexually-transmitted rhinitis. Serious
fears in frivolous words but their frivolity is seriously
funny, admit it, and shocking, as if tradition
might really mean privilege only for gentlemen,
gentlemanly in wallet more than character, not today
but back in the eighties, of course, when privilege brought not
just good cars, shoes, and liquor but keys to some
fraternity-shaped hay barn. Crass capital, sums
and debits, admitted women, found the Titanic. Serious
money ebbs and flows with SAT scores, and, no
joke, Goshen was in drought. Wealth is a tradition,
too. Brushing hayseeds off the sheets, Yesterday
went to bed grumbling; Tomorrow woke the gentlemen
with perfume and pink curtains. A gentleman
does not lie, cheat, or steal, suggested somebody,
or gripe about girls during African famine. The days
of men swimming naked in the gym pool sank into serious
dusk. Of course, we still pontificate about tradition
with little frivolity and less sense of history. No
school year stumbles by without slurs, although no
one drinks bourbon in legwarmers or whines, ungentlemanly,
that “everybody is worried about academics” now. Tradition
originally meant surrender or betrayal. Some
say it does still. Is Martha lucky to be here, seriously,
or does she surrender, betrayed, every day?
The gentlemen were seriously lucky that Martha
respected no tradition, flounced bravely in past Gorbachev,
Reagan, New Coke. Prevailing like Live Aid, like some MacGyver.
Jeanne placed her backpack
so that the pink triangle
pointed square at me.
The “C” hit Nora
like spume on a cat: green sparks,
salt, then pride and grit.
Meg left her poems and
fled. The poems themselves, bolder,
stayed and stayed and stayed.
Up North I am a
dogwood May, said Carroll. Here
I am heat, flood, storm.
In England I felt
like a woman, Lisa said.
Here I just feel black.
Kyle’s illness brightened
her, like snow in the sun. She
will heal everyone
she meets. Stanzas can’t
contain them or Rebecca,
Jessica. My cramped office,
rough as an eggshell,
cannot confine them.
Washington and Lee holds them
just a little while,
like a rockfall on
the interstate, like the soft
banks of a spring creek,
like a phrase or an
idea you consider while
it considers you.