The Moment



November 1945

Ted crooks a finger into his shirt collar and tugs. Faculty members are hanging up their coats and scraping chairs along the floor to rearrange the student lounge for the meeting. The heat in the room brings out the smell of damp wool and mothballs from the coats.

Ted is sorting through the jumble of thoughts bouncing around his mind. The ring of starch rash under his collar shoots prickling bolts of heat to his nerve endings. His finger is prying the side of the collar, trying a create a pocket of air. This faculty meeting is one of a series dedicated to discussing teaching. Catherine "Kit" Osgood is the first speaker for the literature faculty. She says, "We believe in literature as metaphor, not as a mere bundle of ideas; and we believe in getting the students to relate their literary experience to their other experiences, to believe in the specific experience of a poem or play or novel and to make it a part of their own lives. This is a difficult and extremely complex job, but we know it is essential and we know it can be done."

Ted, describing his verse class, states that the method of the class "is associational, but with a core of reference. We went into the differences between prose and poetry." Knowing he has a mostly sympathetic audience he candidly adds, "I began the first time in a wrong way, talking about what the differences are. They wrote that all down, but it didn't mean much." He is finding his pace and feeling the excitement the classroom brings, he is talking faster, trying to get all the ideas out a once. "Only working with a concrete thing means anything at all. l was way out ahead of them most of the time. If you do believe that a class should be a unique experience you get way ahead of them, you have to be getting them back on the road pulling the process back." He knows his words are spilling out on top of one another. Some of his colleagues have quizzical looks. He's unsure if they are pondering him or the ideas he is expressing. He moves onto a concrete example of a class assignment. "They all brought in six copies so everybody could see them, and it took a whole week to go through those poems in class." He pushes his chair back and leans forward. "I tried to suggest what was wrong, what was right, and still try to keep the class moving. I was sweating like Wendell Wilkie. In some cases after cutting the thing right down a student would come up to say, 'you weren't very specific.' So I said, 'all right, here are five points, Bing, Bing, Bing.'" He finally breathes. The room is so warm. He leans back in his chair.

He closes his eyes briefly. The discussion about teaching literature continues, revolving around the distinction between learning by studying literary forms and learning by creating within literary forms. Ted hears Peter Drucker's Austrian accent in the voices. Peter's unhurried pace and careful wording give the impression he is thinking aloud, asking the question equally to the group and to himself. "Isn't it true that the stress has become more and more discipline, reading and writing, formulation of ideas, organization, etc.?" Stanley Hyman refutes this saying, "We are stressing the creative more than the disciplinary." Ted sits up in his chair. "You set up a conflict there," he explains, and continues: "The creative is disciplinary. The simple business of learning by doing, while it is not the only way, is a way. It is the hardest task."

From the Archive

Biography

In 1943, distinguished poet Theodore Roethke joined the literature faculty at Bennington College where he was challenged to develop himself as a teaching poet. He collaborated with his friend and fellow faculty member Kenneth Burke on The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948). Burke played a crucial role in the development of Roethke's pivotal second work. On Theodore Roethke's poetry Burke said, "In fact, I guess I sometimes read the whole of Bennington, at its most magic moments, into some of his lines-and it does have magic moments, as do some of his lines." Stanley Kunitz, another Bennington luminary, said Roethke was "the poet of my generation who meant the most to me, in his person and his art." Theodore Roethke won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1954 for The Waking. He also received two National Book Awards and Yale's prestigious Bollingen Prize in 1959.

Sources:
Shaw, Mary. "Minutes of the Faculty Meeting" Bennington College Archive 14 Nov. 1945. Print. http://hdl.handle.net/11209/5429
Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes. American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.
Jay, Paul, ed. The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley: 1915-1981. New York: Viking, 1988. Print.
Kunitz, Stanley. "Theodore Roethke." The New York Review of Books 17 Oct. 1963. Print.
Mills, Ralph, ed. Selected Letters of Theodore Roethke. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968. Print.
Seager, Allan. The Glass House: the Life of Theodore Roethke New York: McGraw Hill, 1968. Print.