Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Some Thoughts + Poem: Robert Frost

More news has come out about the student who went on the murderous rampage at Virginia Tech, much of it very upsetting. One of the first things I thought when I heard he'd been an English major and creative writing student was that he'd studied with Nikki Giovanni, who is the senior poet in that department, and it turns out that not only was that the case, but that Giovanni and her students had been so disturbed by his work--she has spoken of how "mean" it was--that she threatened to quit the institution if the university didn't removed from her class. (For a tenured professor, and one of the most distinguished faculty members at the institution, to make such a demand it should have sent up a thousand red flags.) The professor who tutored him after his removal from that class, writer and program director Lucinda Roy, also noted his obvious emotional problems, stating that he appeared to be the "loneliest person" she had ever come across, and repeatedly urged him to seek psychological help, even offering to walk him to the university's counseling center herself. She also reported him to several different university authorities, and it turns out that he did finally receive a psychological evaluation stating that he was "mentally ill" before he was then released, after a subsequent evaluation. Roy is on record as saying that she now wonders if she could have done more--she has said that if she could have carried him to the counseling center she would have--but all of the accounts I've read lead me to believe that she, Giovanni, and the English department did what they were supposed to, and what they could. As news accounts have repeatedly stated, there are many legal and procedural limits on what faculty members, administrators, and colleges and universities as well can and may do.

Today, on NPR, I heard several discussions about how faculty members, and in particular, creative writing teachers, might respond when they noted signs of psychological and emotional turmoil, as well as potentially serious disturbances, in the students' work. I won't go in to the university's procedures, but I will say that over the decade or so that I've been teaching college-level creative writing and literary studies, from graduate school onwards, at different institutions, I've encountered several instances where I've had to discern, based initially on the student's work and then on discussions with the student, whether I was facing merely an overcharged, somewhat scary imagination, or something more serious. Only once, I believe, did the situation warrant my speaking to someone in a senior administrative position and handing over a copy of the student's work, and that occurred some years ago when I received a two-page parodic piece--neither poetry nor fiction--that was a multi-page, relentlessly racist rant. The other students in the class were so upset by it that they could barely comment on it, and it worried me enough that I did show it to the director of the program in which I was teaching. He reassured me that I'd done the right thing, and that the program at least would be on notice concerning this student. I didn't, however, consider the student was violent and I made a point of engaging him and the rest of the class in a discussion on the theme of racist and offensive writing, the writer's responsibilities and ethics, and how to deal with such kinds of work.

He did seem to register that it was offensive, though he did not apologize, and later approached me as if he'd done nothing wrong. In other cases, when I've received very troubling work--such as a story about a violent, avenging aborted fetus, or a story about a white man who elaborately and cruelly castrates a black man over a white woman, etc.--I have tended to go ahead and discuss the works in class, while also making sure to speak directly with the students on a one-to-one basis. I keep in mind that we live in a violent and violence-saturated culture, and that students' experiences reflect this in various ways; they may also have been subjected to personally violent traumas and abuses, and I do always consider my classes spaces where they can write about anything they're motivated to explore, with the aim of learning the craft of writing and how to become better readers and editors. I periodically encounter stories that include scenes of violence (or drug use, for example), some of it graphic, but I do not make the simple equation that the student is troubled or a danger to herself or others. At the same time, if I ever do have a situation that I think may be potentially dangerous, I will use the various channels the university makes available to address them, and as the director of an undergraduate creative writing program now, I have conveyed this to my colleagues.

In the radio discussions today, one of the NPR hosts asked where teachers drew the line. I tended to agree with the responses I heard, and I'd add a few: if a student's work frequently described suicides or ended with one, that would provoke immediate concern. If the violence in a story seemed out of proportion with the narrative, or the characters, that would provoke concern. If the student's work was consistently violent and offensive, or luxuriated in descriptions of abuse, torture, and so on, that would provoke concern. If a student's work appeared to be a personal attack against another student in the class, that would provoke concern. And then there were many other possible flags that could arise. At the same time, I strive not to mistake students' imaginations and imaginative works for mirror reflections of the mimetic realities of their lives (I do not teach creative nonfiction), and I am quite aware that, as I say above, they and we all live in a violent and violence-drenched society. It has always been thus (as Richard Slotkin and other scholars have persuasively argued). There are more than a few literary works--and countless films, video games, TV shows, etc.--that students might encounter in classes, or in their own travels through literature, that contain quite horrific violence, graphic and stomach churning scenes of sexual violation and abuse, racially, ethnically, anti-Semitic, gender-based, homophobic, and other kinds of offensive discourse, and so on. (I can vividly recall the trauma of having to sit through class discussions Huckleberry Finn in high school, as some of my classmates took delight in repeating the N* word over and over, or, in another class, reading Faulkner's brilliant but very nerve-wracking short stories "A Dry September" and "That Evening Sun," the latter of which includes the looming threat of chilling violence and almost a page of the N* word. I loathed the former book for years, while I think I've always been able to deal with Faulkner.)

In cases where I've taught works that might fall into the above categories, such as J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition, or Kathy Acker's Great Expectations (I have never dared to teach Isaac Babel's remarkable short story "Crossing into Poland," which a professor introduced me to in grad school), I've always tried to prepare the students in advance, provide a context for the works' content and the writer's aims, and examine specific and broader ethical, political, and social issues. As I noted in a prior blog entry, some works, like Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, for example, are so blood-drenched that I've known people who refuse to read them, and I understand why. (I have never had cause to teach that or any of his books, though I might do so next year.) J.M. Coetzee, as is well known, dedicates an entire chapter of his novel Elizabeth Costello to the very topic, and has the eponymous character "confront"--literally, as the novel does also in a philosophical manner--the writer Paul West, whose novel The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, includes a wrench description of the brutal death of the eponymous aristocrat and military leader who attempted and failed to assassinate Adolf Hitler. (He also authored a book about Jack the Ripper that is not for the delicate of heart.) In the cases of most literature, the violence in the work did and does not correlate with any personal tendency in the author for violence; a number of Shakespeare's plays, especially the tragedies, contain violent scene after violent scene, such as Macbeth (Duncan being murdered in his bed, for example), Hamlet (poisoning that raises boils, a stabbing, etc.), Lear (eyes gouged out, etc.), Othello (the strangling and the suicide, etc.), the attestably gory Titus Andronicus, and so on, and few suggest that all this violence reflected something warped in the author himself (though he was living at a time when the state was waging wars and killing Catholics and dissidents without hesitation). I am not suggesting that student's drafts of whatever sort and Shakespeare or McCarthy are equivalent, but I am underlining the fact that one cannot so easily jump to conclusions, which seems to be what some in the media and blogosphere are doing. In addition, there are disturbed authors whose works do suggest something deeply amiss, but in a number of cases the suggestive material doesn't consist of such obvious signs. I have never read Slobodan Milosevic's poetry, but I doubt that it contains strophe after strophe of killing ethnic Albanians and other Muslims, Croats, Slovenes, and anyone not a Serb, but I could be quite wrong.

I also thought back to one of my earliest college-level teaching gigs, in New York. I had a student who wrote short fiction pieces, and at least one short story that freaked some of the other students out. We reached an impasse at one point when the student's dismissive comments upset some of the students, and I ended up having to send him out of the room to talk with him, letting him know if he didn't get his act together, he couldn't return. He did shape up, and came back. He was also, by a long shot, one of the most talented students I have ever taught; he could write quite impressive poets, deeply grounded in images and striking metaphors, without trying, and had a natural skill at figurative language in general that most of the other students could not grasp. He just needed to grow up, and he did. But today I thought, if he'd threatened me or used some of the rhetoric in his work outside it, I probably would have needed to take more serious steps. And I realized, I didn't have any guidance at all about what those steps should be. So one of the things I hope that comes out of the Virginia Tech tragedy is that institutions clarify what options faculty members, students and staff have when they think something may be seriously wrong.


Poems, poems. Here is a poem from the last century that strikes a different note, a Frostian paradox, I suppose; it is among other things a hymn to beauty and to nature, and to our capacity to conceive of the former, both in art (the poem) and nature, our capacity only to partially grasp the latter, and the relation between the two. It also includes a perfect example of the rhetorical device of paradiostole (another form of polysyndeton, or construction with conjunctions), which the poem's title and theme, you will notice, call for; the man really knew what he was doing. It originally appeared in Harper's Magazine in 1920:


WHY make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,
When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue?

Since earth is earth, perhaps, not heaven (as yet)—
Though some savants make earth include the sky;
And blue so far above us comes so high,
It only gives our wish for blue a whet.


  1. it is so sad and i think it is really hard to decipher if someone is crazy in a creative writing class, but Nikki Giovanni felt something

  2. Clay, it is very sad. I think with time and experience you can recognize when someone is deeply troubled, but it's often a fine line, and most troubled students are not going to harm anyone but themselves, and need help to ensure their own safety and well-being. Nikki obviously was very disturbed by the work, but then so were some of his other professors. She's been around long enough to know when and how to take a stand. It's tragic that all the efforts to get him help and address his problems didn't work or pan out.