Sunday, May 22, 2011

Reflections: Student Poets of the Mid-70s

I’ve been carrying a folded sheet of paper from a yellow legal pad around in a manila folder in my bag for a couple of months now, not quite sure what to do with it. I still don’t know, but what ever follows below will have to be the answer. Here’s the set-up:

In my job in the archives of the University libraries, I have what is sometimes the privilege, sometimes the tedium, of processing collections received from various sources, to be kept (more or less) in perpetuity. By “processing” what is meant consists mainly in evaluating, arranging, indexing (or inventorying), and describing the contents of a collection. The collection in question here is comprised of two small boxes of papers once belonging to faculty author, Walter Tevis.

Tevis taught in the English Department here, mostly in the 1970s. He was also a writer of fiction. I am very fond of his novels, about one of which I have written previously. He may be best remembered today through the film adaptations of three of his novels: The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Hustler, and The Color of Money. David Bowie starred in the first of these films. The Hustler starred Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason; The Color of Money featured Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. In the early 1980s, Tevis resigned from the University, divorced his wife, and moved to New York City. He was about to become rich and famous when he died quite young of lung cancer. The few papers, about a part of which I will now be writing a few words, were somehow left behind here in Athens.

In processing the Tevis papers, I came across three or four manila folders containing student poetry. Since I write poetry, these interested me enough that I read them all. As I read, I realized that these poems, written by college students in the mid-1970s, were in many cases not what I would have expected them to be. I began to take a few notes, based on my shanghaied expectations. I don’t have any exact metrics. The first note at the top of the page is “over two dozen.” I think that this refers to the number of different students whose work is represented in the collection. As I remember, there were a few more females than males represented. Most of the writers had submitted multiple poems; a few names were represented by only one. It is not clear if these poems were submitted in response to specific assignments (“For the next session, write a poem concerning your family” or “Compose a poem expressing your feelings about your favorite season of the year”, etc.), or whether the students were writing about anything that they were moved to write about. The poems seem to have been written over the course of at least two academic years. Tevis may not have been the sole instructor. Some of the poems were clearly drafts which had been discussed in class. Some bore written remarks, presumably made by an instructor, in the margins. Here are my very sketchy notes, with a few brief remarks (in italics) about why I made each one:

1. They express pain

• loss to time
• lost love
• death
• separation
• dysfunction
• loneliness

That they “express pain” may be the least remarkable thing about these poems. Late adolescence/early adulthood can be a painful stage of life. The thing I found most remarkable about this aspect of the works is that themes such as “loss to time” and “death” do not strike me as being preoccupations of the young. “Lost love” I would expect, and “separation” and “loneliness” are cognates of that. “Dysfunction” is an aspect of the family life that is all too common, and not surprising as the central idea of the poem written by a college student.

2. Girls write about sex (2 incest); Boys write about love (usually lost)

What I found interesting and counter-intuitive here is that it is the young women whose poems about interpersonal, intimate relationships tended to expound (sometimes rather graphically) upon the passions of the flesh. At least two of the poems, by different women, in this small collection flirted with descriptions of incestuous incidents. The boys, on the other hand, tended to wax tender and sentimental on topics related to love. But maybe boys who write poems are not the posturing tough guys in our world?

3. Write about parents, grandparents, siblings, lovers

These relationships, providing the content of a large percentage of the poetry in the collection, are listed here in rank order. I would have expected the last (lovers) to be first, the first (parents) last, and the middle two (grandparents, siblings) to be all but non-existent. Although, grandparents, being less familiar, more exotic, and perhaps more “romantic,” due to their links to a past which seems quite distant to the young, might, for that reason, have been expected to out-rank parents.

4. Write about summers, autumn, winter (seldom), spring (not an issue)

I was very surprised to find that the seasonal poems concentrated heavily on summer, with autumn coming in second. I would have expected spring (with its traditional links to romantic love) to take first place; but it was not represented at all. I would have expected winter, with its easy metaphorical links to death, loneliness, and other obviously “poetic” themes to have been second to spring. Instead, we have summer in first place. The summer-oriented poems were primarily about family vacations at the shore, or at a cottage on some sylvan lake. They were not about beach blanket bingo. I found this surprising. Autumn, with its colors, and metaphors of the impending end of things, is perhaps not that surprising as a topic for college students (except that autumn is the beginning of the academic year…)

5. One about the Berlin Wall; one about the Birmingham bombings

Perhaps the most surprising thing to me about a collection of poems written by college students from the period of the mid-1970s was the almost total lack of political themes. I found one poem about the Cold War, as represented by the still very intact Berlin Wall; and one poem about the church bombings in Birmingham, Alabama--an event which predated the immediate experience of persons the age of these poets.

This has been quite a long post, concerning things which may be of virtually no interest to anybody but me; and which may, in fact, be totally devoid of meaning. But at least I can now stop carrying that silly sheet of yellow paper around. I’m done with it.