What is the best class you’ve ever taken?
I learned a lot from a “folk” class I took at UVA that exposed me to the perils of retreating to the ivory tower, but I have to pay homage where homage is due: a gut survey class I took as a budding English major when I was a first-year at Virginia. It was one of only a handful of classes I’ve ever taken with over a hundred students in it, and I’d sit in comfortable anonymity for an hour a week in a stadium-style auditorium, taking laborious notes in my gridded notebooks, with my overly-neat handwriting. Much of the class felt a lot like exercise: the logging and display of definitions, dates, authors’ first and last names, successions of plot points. There was a rigor and symmetry to it that I rather liked in my sophomoric understanding of the world, where everything — in academics and beyond — sat tidily on one side or the other of an equal sign. Alliteration, iambic pentameter, Beowulf, the Magna Carta, bards, artistic patronage, litotes, blank verse, Shakespeare, metonymy. The History of Literature in English: Part I.
And then one afternoon, Professor Clare Kinney stood at the center of the dais and broke free from what I had perceived as the snug exegetics of her lecture on Shakespeare to say this:
“Poetry.” A dramatic beat passed. I looked up. “What is poetry?” I rifled through my list of definitions. And then:
“Poetry is a distillation of emotion. It is the most reductive, pure expression of emotion you will find.”
I remember shifting in my seat, blinking. My pen poised above my page, my note-taking interrupted. And then a furious scribbling-down of her commentary, thoughts moving like deer after gunshot.
I had previously thought of poetry as undisciplined. Much of it seemed free-form and vague, like Monet: you might catch an impression of something, but it was imprecise and half-formed. Even Seurat-style poetry — more prescribed in its movements, conforming with various conventions of rhyme and meter — felt to me hazy, flimsy, and in my most unkind and naive of readings, cutesy in a cloying kind of way. To my mind, the laze and gesture of poetry was inferior to the crispness and pique of expository writing.
Against the beam of Professor Kinney’s comment, my assumptions undressed themselves. I realized that the conventions of poetry could also be implements of discipline in the hands of a worthy poet, the channeling of a wild flow of emotion into the confines of a pre-fabricated network of pipes. Anger, love, jealousy, hurt molded into something fine. There was shocking restraint — even self-abnegation — in such work. I marveled at poetry with new eyes, wondering at the expansiveness that lay just beyond the form in front of me, as though it were a skeleton that had been burned of flesh. What had it looked like before? What preponderances had given way to this slightness of form?
I have thought often of Professor Kinney’s words, and in realms beyond the literary. As an entrepreneur, I learned that constraints can be a good thing in business: they engender creativity and force a kind of ruthless prioritization that is healthy for a young organization. Limited resources reform The Big Vision (a BHAG, business students call them — Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal) into something small and workable, disciplining even the biggest dreams into the simplest versions of their constituent parts. And that boiling down is critical, both for product development and for clarity in terms of what you are selling, and to whom.
I have also thought about Professor Kinney’s words as a new mother. Motherhood: its own kind of poetry, alternately languid and piquant in its strumming of the heart strings. My time to myself has been more than cut in half: I have perhaps four hours to myself on days I am home alone with her, two while she naps and two after she’s gone to bed, before I retire to sleep myself. I find myself again at the lab table, reducing and trimming my list of priorities so that they fit within the prescribed timetable. Would I rather shower or read? Empty the dishwasher or walk the dog? I have given up the thought of exercise beyond the multi-mile treks I make around our neighborhood walking our dog and running errands each day, and come to terms with it. I’m more inclined toward self-care of other varieties: reading, writing, cooking, sitting beside my husband in the sprawl of sporadic conversation over the course of an hour in the evening. Time, it turns out, is not simply one of the axes of human existence: it is an expression of my values. And so I am at peace with how I spend my free time, as I find it well-calibrated with who I profess to be: mother and wife first, reader second, writer third. I would prefer to be well-read and thought-filled than cut and trim — for now. This may change. I would rather pass an evening hearing in drips and drabs how my husband passed his day, or what he thinks about the news, or whether we should splurge on a fancy turkey from Dickson’s Farmstand Meats for Thanksgiving (<<the best butcher we have found in Manhattan, but their turkey costs $7/pound!!!), than out on the town. For now. This, too, may change.
Professor Kinney’s comment not only changed how I thought about an entire literary form, but how I conceived of the notion of constraint, a term so often tethered to the negative in our lexicon.
Constraint, she taught me, can also yield purity of thought, a shedding of the inconsequential, the ballyhoo, the fat.
Constraint, I learned, is the unseen doula of poetry, in all its forms.
+The above post reminds me of the benefits of being a perennial student.
+These tweed heels are SO GOOD. And currently under $100. Twiggy-esque!
+Writing about UVA always reminds me of my dear friend A.
+This bow-front, green-fur jacket is…incredible.
+My mom has always told me I look good in brown. Brown feels like such a drab color, but I agree with her — and especially agree with her when I was a natural brunette. This sweater hence caught my eye. (A good last-minute score for Thanksgiving if you celebrate on the casual side!)
+These leather camera bags can be personalized with hand lettering and racer stripes. LOVE!
+This flower-embroidered sweater is incredible. Frida Kahlo meets Ralph Lauren.
+I’m a pragmatic cook. How about you?