Somehow I keep finding myself perched on a table in front of a bunch of perky twenty-year-olds, stirring up a conversation about some dreadful woman in a poem or story who is too sexual, or even just too friendly, for being so damned old.
For a while, my avoidance of those conversations was quite skillful. I neatly sidestepped, for instance, the artist-collecting salonnière in Ezra Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme”: I mentioned the modernist practice of staking one’s literary claims by tearing down some less than perfectly brilliant not-young female person, quoted the bit in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” about the “old bitch gone in the teeth,” and moved on. After all, that was our first session on international modernism, so there was “A Retrospect” to discuss, and “In a Station of the Metro,” and “A Pact,” and those translations based on Fenollosa… Having managed this clever escape from my poetry students, I landed in a composition class for which we’d read the Grimm version of “Snow-White” and various contemporary revisions. Uh-oh. I had some ideas about whiteness to throw around, especially given Neil Gaiman’s wonderfully disturbing retake in “Snow, Glass, Apples,” but we couldn’t evade that persistent stepmother (or mother in the earliest versions), driven by an unholy desire to remain beautiful when she should be ceding her place in the spotlight. How does the original differ from the Disney version? I asked, so we proceeded to the gruesome ending in which the stepmother is shoehorned into red-hot iron footwear and forced to dance herself to death. Yes, we agreed, she wanted to be a spectacle of gorgeousness, and according to fairy-tale logic she’s punished by this grotesque-mirror version of being the belle at the ball. Feeling myself the center of all eyes in the room, I shifted uncomfortably. The subtext became even more glaring when we moved to Anne Sheldon’s poem, “Snow White Turns 39.” One of the students proposed, reasonably enough, that the final line could suggest a death-wish. Aw, I lamented, having to admit he could be right—I wanted her to become empowered by smashing that mirror! They all laughed surprisingly hard, as if my plaint were extremely funny. I scowled at them suspiciously.
Yesterday, back to the poetry class. Assignment: Prufrock and Other Observations, which crackles with failed broadcasts between men and women. Sometimes a youngish speaker can’t quite manage cocktail chatter, as in the title poem, or romantic silence seems to authorize artistic creation, as in “La Figlia Che Piange.” Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady,” though, brings that problem of the talky, lonely, desiring older woman to the forefront again. There I am, a middle-aged woman who just wants to talk about art, teaching a poem to college students that’s ABOUT a tiresome superannuated Juliet trapping a bored college student with her embarrassing speeches about how much she values his conversation about art. The speaker’s “self-possession gutters”—he feels moments of sympathy, guilt, self-doubt—but he ends up more or less fantasizing about her dying already. Kind of a Mrs. Robinson situation, one student remarks. I’m thinking: kind of like me.
Poems change on you from decade to decade—it matters who you are when you read them. Who you are also matters in the classroom. Long ago, a friend told me about teaching English in Japan. She asked her supervisor why her students were nearly all male. It had been arranged that way because sexual chemistry helps students learn, she was told. That assumption is wrong in so many ways—it assumes universal heterosexuality, for one thing—but it’s not entirely crazy to assume that the ages and sexes and characters of students and teachers affect their relationship. There is an emotional intensity to teaching. It’s appalling when teachers abuse their power and become sexually involved with students, but of course parties on both sides of any lectern have feelings about their interactions, ideally enjoying each other’s intellectual company very much. Literary people find literary conversation exciting. I’ve had many enduring friendships spring from the intimacies of teaching: who gets my English-nerd jokes better than the student who’s taken my classes, read all the same books, learned everything I think about the works that matter most to me, and mused with me about writing as twilight deepens past the office window?
So it gets to me now, when I see some version of myself in a text I’m teaching and she’s ridiculous. I’ve always had some privileges in the classroom. My mostly-white students don’t get angry or fall silent when I bring up race, for instance, because I’m white—some of my colleagues get much, much more resistance to that necessary topic. I also appreciate how aging has conferred authority, some of it earned, some of it just a side effect of looking more like my students’ mothers now than their sisters. I did have a senior undergraduate ask me on a date once, when I was his TA in grad school, and it was terrible—I should have explained seriously why I couldn’t say yes, but instead, assuming he must be mocking me, I laughed, and then his feelings were hurt and my chances of teaching him effectively for the rest of the term were pretty much blown. It’s a good thing to have achieved immunity from propositions!
I really don’t need to be the fairest in the land. In fact, it’s very clear from this vantage that I did my future self a big favor when in my cute-as-a-button twenties I staked my self-worth on intellect and art. But I would like to continue to be interesting to all kinds of people despite? because of? my literal and metaphorical gray hair and avoirdupois. I’m still the heroine of my own tale, ambitious as ever. More so.
If I ever write another fantasy story (I just found Joseph Harker’s review of the last one here, by the way), the protagonist will be female, on the better side of forty, and well-rounded in every sense—no adorable Narnian moppets, disenfranchised warrior sons, or thin fierce adolescents like Katniss. In the meantime, maybe I have a poem to write. Don’t worry, all you woman-leery hobbits out there: “Portrait of a Lady My Ass” is just a working title.