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This little "essay" is a minor but hopefully delightful and entertaining as well as ultimately insightful contribution to the history of the annals of poetry. Bear with it. You will probably not regret it. And you may even gain an unsual glimpse into the art of teaching (and writing and reading, too).

On a Poem by Gary Shank


Steven C. Scheer

I hope that reading this piece will be as enjoyable as it has been (at this point, as it will be) enjoyable to write it (or to have written it). Gary Shank is NOT a poet. He is a professor of cognitive psychology. As he used to say (and perhaps still does) with a twinkle in his eyes, "I am not the kind of psychologist who helps people" (he has helped me a great deal just by having been my friend for just about 24 years now anyway). We first met in the fall of 1980 when he came to join the faculty at the then still viable Saint Meinrad College, a small liberal arts institution in the "rolling hills of Southern Indiana." The place was - alas! it's no longer in existence - a Catholic Seminary, where the students (all male) were considering a "priestly vocation."

Dr. Shank and I quickly became good friends. He introduced me to semiotics (drafted me would be a better description), telling me that it was related to structuralism, which gave rise to deconstruction, so we were all in the same "controversial" and/or "disreputable" boat in the eyes of those too close to the line you are supposed to toe (keep your toes on) when you are a traditionalist. Dr. Shank once referred to "us" semioticians as a bunch of "creative misfits."

When I picked him up to drive to the airport to fly to Utah for my first Semiotic Society of America conference, I even made up a little ditty, following a song all my readers, I am sure, will recognize:

We are off to see the wizard,
The wonderful wizard of signs.
If ever a wiz a wiz there was,
The wizard of signs is one because
Of the things he signifies.

The wizard in question is, of course, the now retired Thomas Sebeok, famous (at least in semiotic circles) already in the late 60s and early 70s when I first encountered his work in graduate school. To make a long story short, I added semiotics to my arsenal of academic subjects. Provided one doesn't get carried away, one can always glean insights from various and sundry approaches. I still think of T.S. Eliot's remark as, well, remarkable: "There is no method except to be very intelligent." He says this in an essay called "The Perfect Critic," by the way. Not bad advice. The implication is that only those who are not very intelligent should perhaps rely on method and method exclusively in their endeavors to make sense of the world and of ourselves in it. Never mind.

Now Gary Shank is not your ordinary professor. For one thing, he has a great sense of humor. I'll just give you one example, a typical one (even if the event in question is not something that happens on a daily basis). Before I ever met him (not too long before), Gary had occasion to hear the brilliant and blind "Homer" of the 20th century, Jorge Luis Borges, whose strange "philosophical stories" are incredibly enchanting flights of fancy - nay, feats of imagination. It so happens that on this particular occasion, when Gary Shank was still a graduate student at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, he happened to have been the last to have a copy of one of Borges's books signed by the author. Borges, in a momentary lapse, handed his pen, together with Gary Shank's copy of his book, to Gary ("his" is nicely ambiguous here, for the book was Borges's in the sense that he wrote it, but Shank's in the sense that he owned it - the pen, of course, was Borges's alone, but then it became Shank's). When the female friend and companion who was with Gary on this occasion (whose identity I never learned or registered), asked him what he was going to do with the pen, Shank's unhesitating response was: "I am going to go home and write a Borges story." That's Shank for you.

Many years later, when he had to write a self-evaluation at Saint Meinrad College, where I was his chosen advocate at the time, he wrote a very creative one. It was so creative that the members of the committee who were elected to evaluate his performance as a teacher were all offended. Needless to say, I was delighted with the piece, though (if I remember it correctly), I may have warned Gary about the trouble he might be getting himself into by using such an unorthodox "essay." Bureaucrats in general aren't famous for their sense of humor. And members of certain committees at a college or university may not be much better (they may actually be worse, if that's possible). In any case, I also made enemies at that time when I defended this splendidly "rule-breaking" self-evaluation and pointed to Thoreau's famous remark about mistaking the one-and-a-half-witted person for a half-witted one if we only understand one third of his/her wit. I am still proud of Gary for having stuck to his guns. He is one who usually (perhaps always) does what is unusual, but what is also brilliant and, at times, brilliantly eccentric (and brilliant eccentricity can get any genius into trouble, as history repeatedly attests to this).

Okay, it's time for me to come around to the real topic of this particular story (which is itself, I take it, an eccentric little essay of the personal kind) - namely, that Gary Shank is NOT a poet. He and I have long parted academic ways, but we have kept in touch, either by e-mail or - mostly - telephonically (as Gary prefers a live conversation with an old friend). Actually, we have on occasion even had personal reunions (and we may be long overdue for one again some time in the not too distant future).

Well, as I was saying, Gary Shank is NOT a poet (though he is a lot of things besides a semiotician and a cognitive psychologist - he may even be a poet, for all I/we know). In any case, just a couple of days ago as of this writing (and today's date is August 25, 2004), he sent me e-mail into which he pasted what he called "a forgotten poem." He wanted to know what, as a literary critic and writer and even a poet, I thought of it. At first I didn't even realize that Gary Shank was the author of the poem in question. I even speculated that it might have been "composed" by some machine equipped with AI (artificial intelligence). But then I read it again. Printed it out and read it some more. By this time one of my early hunches was becoming clear - namely, that Gary Shank was actually the person who wrote the poem in question. There are two clues to this, the "title" and the final section of the poem. Since then Gary sent me another short little note by e-mail, asking me what I thought of his poem (at first he didn't tell me that he wrote it himself - he might have surmised that I would know this. The trouble is that once - a long time ago - he sent me a poem composed by a machine, so he was still under suspicion - remember his eccentric sense of humor, too).

Actually, by that time (by the time I was absolutely sure that Gary wrote it) I was totally enamored of the poem in question. In fact, I'll pay it the "ultimate" compliment by saying that I wish I had written it myself. I used to say this about papers Gary Shank presented at various and sundry conferences as well. But the strangest thing about this poem is (and that's Gary Shank for you all over again), that it's supposed to be a SYLLABUS containing a READING LIST for one of his courses. In fact, the title of the poem (without quotation marks) is: PUTTING TOGETHER A READING LIST FOR MY SYLLABUS. And it's dated "17 February 2000," followed by the professor's name: Gary Shank (and even his academic e-mail address).

The poem is (in my humble opinion) magnificent. Its speaker recounts childhood memories, playing a game called "Whiffle Ball" near a cemetery. Unlike many contemporary poems, this one (though its language is very contemporary nonetheless) need not be paraphrased (which would be a fallacy anyway), as its "story" is quite available to the reader. I'll just say one more thing: in the final section we realize that the speaker of the poem is "Professor Shank" himself. And we also gain a poignant insight into what it means to teach: how we try to help our students to forget, while we also try to understand. This statement may not mean much as I phrase it here, but once you get to the final section of the poem, it will grab you with what Wordsworth called that something "far more deeply interfused" than what our powers of paraphrase are capable of. And so, without further ado, here is the poem itself, to which I have given a "new" title (and I hope I won't be reprimanded for this):

Forgetting to Understand

Gary Shank

I.

You remind me that our evening skies were flyash gray
But I remember many clear pale blue afternoons.
Where were we?
Down at the far end I see the white stucco box of
The Saint Matthew's Church Parish House.
At our end, between our green bank and the yellow clay
Mud-rut driveway,
Was our gnarly snarled wire fence.
To the left edge were the iron railing and the gate
And the sidewalk and Norwood Road.
At the right edge, where the lawn dropped sharply down
Into wild honeysuckle and cedar and scrub maple,
Were "The Woods."
Caught between these boundaries, in the memory cube of space,
Was the cemetery.

II.

We played Whiffle Ball Home Run Derby
Here in my Grandma's front yard.
One person stood behind our fence, in the cemetery,
To catch and throw back the ball.
Down here at our end there were only a few graves.
Most of the honored and ancient dead took their rest
In the shadow of the Parish House.
Back here were the two little girls,
Each with her own white marble obelisk
And the fresh earth mound of "Chewing Gum" Harry Carwithen,
Another Army vet whose trajectory took him well past the battlefield.
These graves were far apart and easy to dodge
When you were shagging Whiffle Balls.
And no one could possibly crush a Whiffle Ball hard enough
To reach the solitary giant pine that stood sentry
Over the Grandfather I never met
Or my tiny Aunt Marjorie or my tiny Uncle No Name
Or my Uncle Nelson, slain by a runaway Fascist elevator in Italy,
And where my Grandma Sadie,
Watching us from her living room window,
Would herself soon enough lie.

III.

Every hospital I ever saw, when I was a kid,
Had a big smokestack somewhere.
We kids told each other:
"This is where they burned all the stuff left over from operations,
Or where they took that lost leg,
Or that lost arm, or that lost eye.
Where they took all these little pieces, bizarre and disconnected,
And turned them into smoke and ash
And then they were gone."
And the dark adult inside each one of us told the others:
"This is where they cornered the Frankenstein monster,
And the Wolfman, and the Zombie,
And they burned them all to a crisp.
And this is where bad parents take their dead babies
And pitch them into the pulsing bank of fiery coals."
You bury your dead.
You incinerate your mistakes.

IV.

I once held a box full of human ashes.
I was surprised how dense it felt,
How substantial, which was strange
Since the wind picked up the ash easily enough
And now he is gone.
And I am struck by the thought that the two little girls
With their white marble Whiffle Ball obstacle course stones
Would be barely into their fifties at this time.
Had they died today,
Would they find their way into little dense redwood boxes?
Would they clutter the wind for a moment and then vanish?

V.

Did I forget to introduce myself?
I work for a university.
We have never been busier here.
Part of my job is to teach people to forget.
A lean memory is an efficient memory.
And it is a full-time job turning a cemetery into a crematorium.
Have we really cluttered our landscape with too many headstones?
We help each other create electronic smoke that
Swirls and is then blown away.
And then there is the other half of my job.
I am also paid to understand.
But how can I hope to resuscitate the saints and martyrs of reason
When one grassy mound looks like any other?
How can I hear your story
When you have burned away the overtones
And the harmonics of your ancestors?
And how can we play Whiffle Ball
When we are standing on a ragged black cloud?

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Copyright 2004 © by Steven C. Scheer. All rights reserved.