Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Few Thoughts about the 2014 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching

In her 1958 novel The Bell, Iris Murdoch wrote:
Work, as it now is, . . . can rarely offer satisfaction to the half-contemplative. A few professions, such as teaching and nursing, remain such that they can be readily invested with a spiritual significance. But although it is possible, and indeed demanded of us, that all and any occupation be given a sacramental meaning, this is now, for the majority of people, almost intolerably difficult.
Murdoch published those words more than a half-century ago; today's situation feels even more dire. While I can't speak for nursing, the teaching profession is, for most people, no haven of "spiritual significance." The human spirit, the divine spirit, the spirit of intellect and art, however one wants to latch onto that metaphor: none has much to do with the daily interactions of teachers, students, colleagues, administrators, parents, let alone any pursuit of knowledge and self-discovery.

But every summer at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, I watch the spirit arise from the ashes. Though I direct the conference, this rebirth doesn't have much to do with me personally. I am not the participants' instructor. In many ways, I am more like the housekeeper or perhaps the gardener, and I use those words in their richest, least pejorative sense. It's my metaphorical job to make sure the windows are washed and the plants are watered, to hang the sheets outside on a sunny windy clothesline, to turn over soil dense with compost and earthworms. Then I step aside and watch what happens.

What happens is that people are happy, in a way they rarely have access to in their daily lives. They wear their hearts on their sleeves: which is to say they talk to one another with vulnerability and delight. They ask questions of poetry, of themselves, of each other; they become excited, enchanted, deliriously overwhelmed, by thought.

Tomorrow I'm going to talk here about an idea that came up during the conference: a possibility that we might use this blog, as I have in the past, as the clearinghouse for a communal reading project. The suggested book was Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, and of course anyone, conference participant or not, would be welcome to participate. But today I'm not in the state of mind to embark on any kind of structural conversation. I'd rather linger a few hours longer in the residual pleasures of the world you conference participants created this week . . . a five-day utopia, in its own way. You are, and have been, and will always be among the great blessings of my life.

Here's a link to some comments by a first-time participant.


Ruth said...

Every year is better than the one before it and I am always blessed to be part of this community. This IS my "tribe."

David said...

Well said, Ruth. And, agreed (and what a gift it is to be able to say that.)