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I became a teacher by accident. In 1995, I was asked to do a one day school visit in Paterson, New Jersey. I was phoned by Susan Amsterdam, one of the co-ordinators of The Passiac Community college Theatre and Poetry project. This is not the official name, I have never remembered the official name, but Maria Mazziotti Gillan founded and runs it, Susan co-ordinates it, and it is the only program of its kind in New Jersey, insofar as it serves strictly the urban population of Paterson and brings poets to the schools for one day visits. Susan works with the librarians of the various grade schools and high schools. Many noteworthy poets such as Lorna Decervantes, Gary Soto, and Sean Thomas Dougherty have participated.

Susan has one of the most affected mid-Atlantic accents of all time, fully as affected at Marie Dressler when she used to play the put-upon society lady in Marx Brothers movies. She is marvelous. Gillan’s entire staff is amazing, but Susan is the consumate professional, in the oldest, noblest tradition–organized, poised, with a voice somewhere between Winston Churchill, Ray Milland, and God knows who else. I sometimes call the number at three in the morning, just when I need a sense of majesty. I don’t leave a message and no one is there to be disturbed by it: “Hello… This is Susan Amsterdamn.” I am the only human being who has ever gotten the otherwise impeturbable Susan to shout. I have a gift for ruffling the utterly unruffable, but we will talk about this at a later time.

At any rate, I don’t know why I received a call to do a visit. I guess they considered me a poet. I ran a series, had published work, had read in the open at Maria Gillan’s Distinguished poet’s reading. Yes, I grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, so I’m urban, but I’ve never been street in the sense of having the cool. I am the anti-cool, Howdy Doody, El blanco. Yuppies from Long Island are way cooler than me. But the truth is I am arrogant–a wise ass, ballsy, without much shame, and I am a ham, and I like kids. I can talk to kids all day. They interest me. They will never pretend to like you. For that I am forever grateful. The moment a kid learns to pretend in that way, she or he is no longer a kid (usually, when they’ve learned to pretend to like you, they’re a “professional” in the worst sense–not like Susan, a woman I would go to war for). My first reaction to Susan’s voice was “This woman ain’t for real. No one sounds like that in real life. Maria made her up. (Gillan’s office is a Dickens novel–with Maria as the major character. All her staff can talk Maria speak. They know what she means even when she isn’t sure. It’s amazing.) So I met her, and she was real and had a kind heart as well as perfect and affected diction, and, every day, she was driving into the ghetto to do something good for kids who strangely enough, found her utterly affected voice, and inherrent dignity to be pleasing and comforting, just as I did. It was nice to know someone who spoke that well and was not a phony white bitch. Since then, I have played a sort of wayward Arthur to her Sir John Gilgud. (If you want to check out her voice call the center– but don’t you dare do it unless you agree not to leave a message. I’ll know and God will punish you). I think she is one of the ten rightous women of God, one of the holy forces standing between us and absolute destruction.

There’s another woman works for Maria called Arlene. Somehow, Maria Mazziotti Gillan ended up with 2 out of the 10 rightous women of God on her staff. Arlene is Armenian and once payed cash to get my car out of strorage when it had been towed from a street in Paterson. Arlene has been battling cancer for years now. Susan’s husband died, but they’re tough. Once, after a brutal break up (brutal for me, I got dumped), Arlene and Susan phoned me, without provocation, just to see how I was doing. At that time I was probably voted in Jersey as “most likely to commit suicide.” I am an opera, a sprawling mess. I admit it. Hello, I’m Joe Weil, and I am a sprawling mess. Thank God for those who are not.

So, I’m street in only one sense: if you ask me how I’m doing, and you seem to mean it, I will tell you my life story–like some lonely 80 year old neighbor (I am a lonely 80 year old neighbor). I will explain my love life, my lack thereof, my various aches and pains, the bios of my most interesting relatives, etc, etc. I will liberally extend reality or bend it to the shape of my tale, I may even tap dance, if it’s absolutely uneccessary. In short, I talk shit. While this is disastrous among middle class professionals who pretend to like you (You have done the one thing they can not abide–proffered a human exchange where none is called for), it is absolutely vital to entertaining, inspiring, and instructing kids. First law of any work with kids: “Don’t be boring. ” Boring is the job of parents and their regular teachers–to bore them all for the sake of a higher truth. My job is to offer temprary respite from boredom. I find the less kids have, the more easily entertained they tend to be. Honors students like being bored (Boredom in our culture is a sign of power and priviledge, and someone ought to do a study of boredom in relation to the class structure), and so I always cringe when teachers tell me I’m going to workshop with nothing but honors students. It isn’t that honors students are easily bored. That’s parents and teachers who kiss their little precious asses talking. It’s that honors students tend to be the “property” of certain teachers. It’s a sort of brain jock mentality, and they can be total introverts and assholes to the umpteenth degree. My favorite kids to teach are those who have been waiting for poetry all their lives, but didn’t know it: the smart kid who refuses to “work to her potential,” the wise ass who has been waiting to hear one thing on earth that doesn’t sound phony and then hears it in his own poem, those kids. I am also looking for kindness, and openess–the first criteria for whether or not a guest can be effective.

Wherever I have taught for an extended period of time, I may have bored someone. God forgive me, but the best teachers do not bore. They may terrify, insult, inspire, incite, confuse, or con the students, but they do not bore. A boring teacher is the death of learning. I am not to every student’s taste–especially for those students who need a touch of OCD and a rigid, predictable program of instruction. Hell, I would not want me as a teacher (Too much Irish chaos–the worst kind). Good, inspiring, life transforming teachers exist in every personality type, including introverted (I always preferred cool Alfred Hitchcock types with perfect lesson plans), but, in a 3 hour gig, where you do you hit and run, my style is probably best (except for those teachers who believe there is nothing worthwhile in life that hasn’t been planned down to the last syllable). I terrify the well-prepared. Hell, I terrify myself.

Anyway , I had no idea what to do, so I “talked shit” and the kids talked back and we enjoyed each other. Having read four books a week for twenty years and having memorized hundreds of poems and songs helped, but it still came out as a form of banter. I had some tough moments: once an angry kid called me “a gap toothed, no necked, red faced, bald headed white cracker,” and I wrote the phrase down on the board, and did a lesson on the two syllable put down. I was delighted by how he had said it. He was only in fifth grade, and already miserable for the rest of his life, but gifted in hate, a verbal wizard at making other people feel as bad as he did. I was truly in awe of his intelligence and saddened to the point of love by the utter damage and defiance it invoked. He couldn’t believe I was using his hatred as a lesson plan. Nor could the teacher, who hated the kid, had been the victim of his mouth, and wanted to send him to hell, but, being a coward like Hindley, let the kid run the class.

I gauged the situation. In any workshop situation in the inner city, you may have as many as four wannabe alpha apes: The teacher, the teacher’s aide, and the two or three kids who want to run the show. The teacher might be so anal, and burned out that you can’t even use the chalk, and she or he does her or his bills or study plans while you conduct your workshop. This isn’t “professional” distance. This is just bad manners. I have seen it done both in urban and suburban schools. It is the ultimate way of snubbing an unwanted guest. You are not a guest; you are a temporary intrusion at best. They go out of their way to pretend you don’t exist. Such teachers would be called “stuck ups” in my old neighborhood. Eventually, a kid or a parent would justifiably assault such a teacher. They have no place in our schools. If they think arts in the schools are a waste of time, they ought to speak up and make a fuss; otherwise, be courteous, at least. These are not always veteran teachers. By and large, they are snotty, fairly new teachers who are already smug and stupid. To treat a guest inhospitably in ancient Ireland was a crime punishable by death. Same in Italy and Greece, and in the Middle East. I think you should still be allowed to off the motherfuckers. But here, in corporate America, it is called “professionalism.” Spare me. There are two kinds of heroes: those who can fight, and those who can be generous. Sometimes they are combined. More often, they lean one way or the other. Look it up. A teacher like this can destroy hundreds of souls. I never minded nuns who hit me. I usually deserved it. I minded teachers who acted like prostitutes with a bad trick, who looked at their watches, who picked on and brutalized the same children the children picked on and brutalized. These people are scum. They destroy love. They dishonor Heaven. The best revenge is to realize how sad they must be to live with themselves 24/7.

When I first encountered such teachers, I tried to draw them in and found out they felt nothing but contempt. They were no different than this kid calling me a gap tooth, no-neck, red faced, white cracker, except that they weren’t as honest. They were just as hateful as that kid, but they would retire with pensions, and that kid would end up in jail. So I gauged the situation. This kid ran the class. I knew that. The other kids might not like him, but they obeyed him because he was smarter and meaner, more ruthless, and he spoke for their own anger, their own inner nastiness. They would abdicate the rights of hatred to him, in exchange for sitting idly by while he made sure no one learned anything except his contempt and meaness. I’m nuts enough to consider that his meaness and anger might have been useful, and if it was my school, I’d poll the kids. They could decide if he were elected teacher. I’d then put him on staff, give him a salary and benefits, with the proviso he make up an endless series of lesson plans, and fill out a ton of paper work. He’d be no better or worse than the asshole who was in front of the kids that day, but it ain’t my world, is it?

I had made a decision on the side of clever. I thought I could defuse the situation by turning his verbal insult into a lesson in rhythm and meter. This was a mistake. I hadn’t been honest about how pissed off and sad he had made me while at the same time he impressed me. His power over these kids was absolute. He was talented. I love talent even when it is aimed against me. I already felt inferior to this kid. When I first wrote his put down on the board, and started taling about syllable counts, he was shocked. I derailed him for a second, but I forgot a kid like this always has some side kick thug– aHimmler whose whole existence depends on sucking his master’s dick. This side kick threw a wet spit ball at me. It splattered on the board and the kids erupted in laughter. The teacher kept writing in her lesson planning book. So much for being one of these lame liberals who make excuses for meaness. There’s no excuse for being mean. This kid had been hurt in life, but he was an asshole, though a talented one, and he was going to ruin the day, so I said to the teacher, “What sort of teacher, sits there and acts as if a guest does not exist? You’re not doing your job, and I’m a taxpayer. Get up and take this behaviourly challenged person out of my sight. I got a job to do. I don’t need to take this.” Then I got on the phone and called the principal. I said this kid had to go and so did his best friend. The principal came up. There was the kid’s statement on the board. This kid spit on the principal.

The great “liberal” extreme is to let angry, ill-mannered children usurp the rights of other kids. I don’t believe in accomadating anger or meaness–in myself or others. I am also bone angry because of what has happened to me, but I know this anger is as much a liability and vice as it can be a virtue. I believe a person should run rough shod over others only when truly provoked. I won’t back down to anyone, but I also won’t be mean to anyone unless they are mean to me first. This is true street code. This is giving propers. Now you say this kid is only a fifth grader, but man, I know him–he’s older and sadder than Satan, and he needs massive help, and no one’s going to give it to him, especially his equally fucked up and mean hearted teacher. The kid spat on the principal, he was taken out of class along with his side kick (The teacher also should have been taken out of class), and I asked the principal if I could have an extra forty minutes with these kids since the next period was open. He said alright. I was able, eventually, to gain control, but I learned a lesson: you cannot con, compromise, or make peace with inpsired and intelligent, and sadistic hatred hell bent on denigrating you (This force shows up sometimes as a fifth grader, and sometimes as a contemptous teacher doing the lesson plan while you try to conduct a workshop). You must remove such evil from your presense, nuetralize it, or find someone who can.

Anyway, I was humbled and I learned the first sad, but pragmatic law of teaching: some kids are smarter and meaner than you are, and they don’t think you have anything to teach them, and they are probably right. You don’t, but if you want to teach at all, get them out of your class as soon as possible or be prepared to become that kid’s bitch.

Almost without exception, my experiences were good, because I was a neighborhood person talking to neighborhood kids–albeit, not the same ones I grew up with, but not that different. I enjoyed myself, something you should always try to remember as a teacher. I brought in my guitar and my harmonica or played a piano in the really old, crumbling schools that still had pianos in the classroom. I talked about my crazy relatives and then got the kids to write about theirs. They played my guitar, sang refrains, sometimes wrote poems that made them cry, that shocked them with their own beauty or truth. I had never even heard of a prompt. Honest. I would let the kids play my guitar, and when they thought I was a leprechaun, I didn’t take offence. Hell, I was short with a red beard, and I looked like one.

I learned the following rules of teaching, rules taught to me by my years as a shit talker, bar poet, and musician:

1. Don’t think your lesson plan is God. Leave some room for deviating, and for the flow of the moment. Teach in the moment, not in the system.

2. Kids want to be useful. Let them pass out the paper. Get them involved. Delegate authority–don’t cling to it. The truly pwerful give power away freely. Ask them questions. You’re not in a one day, one hour work shop to teach them poetry. You’re there to con them into thinking this poetry stuff just might be enjoyable. You’re an evangelist of the arts. Give stuff away. I gave a way books, drums, candy, once, I even gave away my guitar.

3. Teacher’s want “results” or the illusion of “constructive” work shops. Keep the joy, but learn to give the devil her or his due. Have a handy reason ready for everything you do–not for the kids, but for the teacher. Respect the teacher’s place. This is territory and many teachers, besides being control freaks, are also territorial. I sometimes bring my own paper and chalk. The less they have to do for me, the better. The less they feel their space is being violated, the better. Make them think you’re on their side.

4. Never read your own poetry until you are asked. I think it’s nice to read stuff that excites you (by others), but you aren’t the center of the universe. The kids are. You might change someone’s life. Be stupid and naive enough to believe that and realize, the first impediment to reaching someone is your own fat ass self. Get out of your own way.
5. If you are shy, use it. If you are anal, use it. If you are wild, use that, too. Anything used with good will, with true concern, can work. What does not work is contempt.
6. Know poetry well–not just the craft, but the joy. Trust that children are greedy for joy, that they are dying for lack of it. Don’t ever patronize them, even if they want you to.

Anyway, I went into my first gig with a guitar, a suit, and a purple ski cap. It was winter, but the cap was strange, and purple, and became an ice breaker. When the kids though my name was “Wild” rather than “Weil.” I didn’t correct them. I knew it was better to be “wild.” I let them play the guitar. I let them be the show. We performed the poems. Most teachers enjoyed it, and many wrote poems themselves (The best kind of teachers). After doing three of these gigs, I thought, “This is fun. I can do this.” I would work all night on the twelve to eight, take a quick shower in the locker room, put on a suit. When I first did this I showed my working class roots by wearing a three piece suit. This is how I was taught to give respect. You got dressed for weddings, funerals, and arts-in the-schools-programs. I had no idea how casual things had become in terms of school dress codes. Weirdly enough, this worked with the kids in Paterson who thought I might be a rich and famous poet because I was dressed like a funeral director.

I lived this double life for the next three years until, one day, I received an offer to work a steady gig at Arts High in Middlesex county, New Jersey. The job was only two days a week for six hours, but I could do it, as well as the Paterson gigs, and still keep my 12 to 8. I was building a rep. Maybe for the first time in my life I was doing something I loved as much as playing the piano or kissing a lover. I’d found my vocation. Like most such things, it followed the fate of my personality: I just stumbled into it while I was doing something else. It wasn’t planned. I am working class to the extent that, unlike most middle class people, I don’t think we really have all the choices we would like to believe we have. Fate enters. Grace enters. Shit happens.

So I was ready to evolve into a new life. It was the late nineties. The economy was booming. Even the American mold making industry was temporarily thriving. I had, in a sense , always been a teacher. For fifteen years, I had taught immigrants on the night shift to read and write English–just for the hell of it, because I liked them (not always, but most of the time). I had read my poetry. Many guys at work thought I was a nut job, but they were proud of me, too–especially when the Newspapers came to the shop to do a story on the “Poet as working stiff,” and I got a couple of them into the picture. I had no thought of ever leaving that world. It was a steady job. Work was always just work. I had no idea Bush and 9/11 were going to happen–that, one week after the Twin Towers went down, I would lose my job of 19 years forever. By that time, without any real effort, by the seat of my friggin pants, and certainly not the sweat of my scholarly brow, I was flying towards the sort of destiny I never dreamed of. What began with the perfect diction of Susan Amsterdam had grown into my full time occupation: free lance teacher, Dodge-Poet-In-The-Schools, Master Instructor in fiction and poetry at Middlesex County Arts High. Not even a bullshit artist like me could have made this shit up. Who said Proust doesn’t pay? Yes, I was all those things–and scared shitless, too. Without trying, without hunger or ambition, I was being forced by economic disaster, to be upwardly mobile. I had been failing to succeed all my life. I had no idea I was failing my way to the top.

Oh–my final rule of thumb: like kids, enjoy them or don’t do it because kids will kill you–and devour you–even if you love them, and especially if they love you. They have an inherrent sense of eucharist. Be sure you want to die for them. They will insist on it.

One of the hardest things to do is to get students to notice the world beyond feelings and abstractions. Feelings and abstractions seem significant. A dolphin balancing a ball on its nose is novel, but so what? Dolphins are of the moment, and although our annoying culture drones on that we should live in the moment, we are mostly lying.

Many ardent “poets” don’t like the world of details all that much because a.) they think it’s no big deal (they never know how boring it might be to read the 100th my lover is an asshole, but I’m her slave poem), or b.) for all intents and purposes, their neurotic parents have cheated them of what is really of value in this world beyond grades, careers, and belief systems (dry stuff, all that).

We say God is in the details and then we spend most of our time avoiding both details and God. Tonight, after a reading, I was parked at a Hess station and I noticed this bush at its edge. Brown leaves were shivering at its center, and a sparrow, who had no business being visible this late at night, sat hunkered down, away from the wind, not very different than a vagrant with a bottle of Hurricane. He would have been lost in the camouflage of his brown and grey and dirty buff had there not been the rather lurid light of the station reaching casually into his kingdom. The fretwork of dried out stems was intricate, the way it is in certain sketches of by Hans Holbein. But I wasn’t thinking of Hans. I was thinking this was beautiful, and all the more beautiful for coming at me in the middle of a gas stop. Either because I am urban and nature must ambush me or because I am contrary, I have never liked “officially” beautiful scenery. I was bowled over and pointed the scene out to my wife who grew up in a pretty rural town and is accustomed to nature looking well, appropriately scenic–not awing her in the middle of a Hess parking lot. I didn’t belabor the point, knowing through years of experience, that my weird bouts of transport are not truly exportable.

I wondered what the hell the bird was doing there–so late, so visible, and without his flock. Birds huddle together for warmth. Perhaps they were migrating, and this particular sparrow went off course, but I know Eurasian tree sparrows stick it out in winter. Was he an outcast? Was he having a midlife crisis? Was he sick, and wanting the privacy of dying alone? Or best of all, did fate place him there so that, in the middle of my normal doings, I could be reminded of just how amazing the seen world is?

Perhaps I am old and stupid and am not that far removed from a senile nun with the world’s largest collection of Plaid stamps. Perhaps I am too easily delighted by what I consider awe-inspiring. I know only that I was grateful for this vision and went away from the Hess station the way other, more sensible mortals drive out of national parks. If I was in a national park and saw an Elk, I’d be happy, but no more happy than I was to see this out-of-place sparrow hunkering down in the center of a bush beside the green and white Hess station.

I am echoing Williams, who, among other things, is the great poet of sparrows seen in bushes outside gas stations. We do not take him seriously because, being snobs, we want our nature to be appropriately set (as per Mary Oliver). We really don’t care for nature. We care for what it might give us in all the expected ways–but Williams was the wiser poet. In his poem, “January Suite,” he says it’s the strange hours we keep, the sudden joy of noticing a thing on the fly that makes it beautiful. He claims the dome of The Paulist Fathers outside Paterson was as thrilling to him as St. Peter’s Basilica after years of anticipation. I believe him.

Detail, especially the unexpected and perfect detail at the unexpected moment, is the neglected mother of us all, the mother who does all the drudge work and who is never noticed until, perhaps, in the poverty of our lives, we see her crossing the street at dusk, see the brown bag clutched in her hand, and remember she is our mother. No parent says to a child, “I want you to be ready at all times to be stunned out of your intelligence and brought halt and stupefied before the covenant of your own eyes. I want you to notice how traffic lights are so much more vivid before it snows. I want you to remember, for the rest of your life, the sound of my voice in a yard when I called out your name through the dusk. Please. I want you to be truly human. With all my heart. I want your consciousness to win over everything that attempts to murder you.”

These things will not make the child successful. They are, as the utilitarians say, a waste of time. Yet all that we do, all the machinations of our finest plans are so we might “waste” time instead of being wasted by it.

I will give you a little story about a teaching experience I had that pleased me as much as that Hess station Sparrow.

I had a sweet student, in my early years of teaching, who had a great love of books and poetry and hardly any talent. I taught her what a cliché was. I taught, and I admonished. I tried so hard, and so did she, painfully hard, so hard that she reminded me of the tormented student ripping his paper in Joyce, and it broke my heart because I had always wanted to be a great baseball player and I sucked. She was writing lines like:

I know he doesn’t love me. Dying,
pretending not to care, throbbing with hurt fear.
Yet his ashen cruelty takes my breath away.
and I succumb to his worst intentions.

She was not being flip or dadaist. She was being heartbroken, untalented and sixteen.

At first, I forbade her writing about love, and she obeyed me, but it was for naught. Finally, I sat down with her, and spoke of this “cruel” boy. He was a lanky, athletic, inarticulate kid with a pierced ear, and a gloomy countenance, a sure bet to make such a sweet girl an idiot. I asked her to remember one thing he did she thought was cute. She said, when he first courted her, he would hide shyly under cover of his hoody and run his long slender index finger over the bridge of his nose like playing a violin. I said: that’s it! Connect that image to your feelings of being forgotten and bring it to me on Monday. On Monday she came in all excited. She had written:

You no longer draw your finger like a bow
across the hard and freckled bridge of your nose,
no longer play the shyness of your face,
that awkward tune I loved.
Now you look me straight in the eye,
without bow, without fear, without love
and you lie.

Ladies and gentlemen, I danced. If I could have purchased a golden laurel wreath and placed it on her head, I would have done so gladly. She didn’t understand my excitement. She instinctively knew she had written something beyond her usual powers. To see that sort of moment is better than seeing a sparrow or an elk. For me, it was like the first time Helen Keller spelled out the word “water.” I went home and tried to explain this joy to my then lover who said “so what?” My wife never says so what. She is a good poet. She teaches. When someone has done something beyond their powers she comes home and tells me, and I love her all the more because I understand she has just seen her own sparrow at the Hess station.

To be a teacher is to be a midwife. You bring the child to bear. You stay up all night. If things go wrong, you question yourself. You want to have an open sesame for every soul you encounter. You want something to open in them and for them, and when you are at your best, you don’t care if they ever say thank you. This girl continued to be only fair to middling compared to my other gifted students, but years later, she still reads poetry. She has two children and a dog, and she can’t remember why that lanky boy broke her heart, or, if she remembers, she laughs. The gifted students are the elk in the park and I am grateful to them, but I am, perhaps, partial to the sparrows. I don’t know what they are doing there, without a flock, and huddled alone.

We say “show, don’t tell,” but this is a lie. We should say, “All true showing will tell, and all true telling will contain a sparrow, and, in the middle of doing what you need to do, you will waste time, and you will notice what makes you human beyond all the lies we tell.”

Grammar didn’t come natural to me. The first time, when I learned there was such a thing as grammar, when we were introduced — like, “Daniel, meet grammar,” “Grammar, Daniel” — things did not go smoothly.

It was more like sliding bare-bottomed down a sandpaper hill.

I was in first grade, and we had “writing time.” The teacher was young and teaching a split, first-and-second grade class. There were too many students, and even at 6, 7, 8 and 9, we knew her control was kind of tenuous. The class was always on the edge of anarchy. As the year went on, the teacher, Miss Lane, added an increasing number of “quiet times” into her lesson plan. We had story time, where all of us were supposed to put our heads down and listen to the story. We had writing time, where you could go anywhere in the class room, sit anywhere, lay anywhere, as long as you were quiet and turned something in at the end of the hour that looked like writing.

I loved writing time. I went to the little side room where the assorted recess equipment was kept and spread out on the floor and chewed my pencil and wrote. I remember the first story was about a saber-toothed man. It was awesome. He was part superhero, part prehistoric creature, and he was walking through the woods, a saber-toothed man.

I’m pretty sure that was the whole story. My strong suit was description, not narrative arc.

I got it back about a week later. Maybe it was two weeks. Miss Lane had, in that time, very carefully murdered my story. As far as I could tell, she hadn’t paid attention to the story part of the story, which was awesome, but she had marked each and every sentence as wrong. That’s how I learned what grammar was. She’d written “GRAMMAR” on the top, in the same bleedy, red, felt-tip pen she’d used to draw angry squiggles all over my story.

I felt kind of like I’d just been criticized for walking. Or breathing. Like, this was something I felt I knew how to do. It seemed like it was just natural, I’d been doing it and everything had been fine, and now someone stops me to tell me there are rules. And I’m doing it wrong. I was walking along just fine, and now I’m getting yelled at.

“STOOOOOP! That’s NOT how you walk!”

“Wait, what?”

“Are you ignorant? Are you from a bad family? Is your family poor?”

“I don’t understand.”

“There are rules. And everyone knows them except you. It’s called GRAMMAR. Now everyone thinks you’re stupid.”

This was how I became a descriptivist. I have since learned that there are some really good reasons to be a descriptivist. At the time, though, it was purely defensive. I was a descriptivist in exactly the same way I was a put-your-arms-around-your-head-and-duck-tivist when the 6th graders yelled “faggot” and threw rocks. It wasn’t exactly a philosophical decision.
The one grammatical correction I remember, from that murdered story, was about how you shouldn’t start sentences with conjunctions.

“What’s ‘conjunctions’?” I said.

“Like ‘and,’” she said, “or ‘but.’”

“You can’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“It’s against the rules. It’s GRAMMAR.”

The whole idea that there were rules, out there somewhere, was a little disturbing. How was I supposed to know what they were? Who decided the rules were the rules? Also, they seemed kind of arbitrary. What was wrong with conjunctions? Was I the only one who was starting sentences with conjunctions and I just never noticed that no one else did it?

This is a little like wondering if you are retarded, and everyone’s just been too nice to tell you. Or maybe they tried to tell you, and you were just too slow to actually get what they were saying.

But wait — I wasn’t the only one who started sentences with “but” or “and.” The Bible has sentences that stat with “but” and “and,” which meant that my grammar was like the same as God’s.

I tried that defense with Miss Lane, but she said I was still wrong. She didn’t say so, but apparently she would’ve marked up God’s writing too.

Which didn’t really make me feel better. And I still didn’t like grammar.

I did learn grammar, eventually, though not from Miss Lane. A whole slew of copy editors and editors taught it to me during my time as a journalist, and I took several years of Latin in college, where I got poor grades but finally figured out what “dative” meant and what an adjective was. I figuring out how clauses worked in the middle of an Episcopalian morning prayer service, where they used the old prayer book, which has a lot of archaically-constructed sentences. I’ve actually spent a lot of time with grammar in the last few years, as I’ve been working as a grammar teacher, teaching German university students who want to study English, and as a freelance proofreader and line editor. I think about that first experience I had, though, that slide down a sandpaper hill, when I hand back papers I’ve marred with my markings.

I try to remind them and to remind myself what grammar’s good for. Besides beating people over the head, besides flaunting one’s class or excellent education, besides pedantry and dickishness, what grammar does, what grammar can do, is give one excellent control over language. I am still a descriptivist — I believe usage is paramount, that there are no rules, really, only use — so grammar is not, for me, about being right, but about breaking down the language and taking it apart, so that one can know how it works and can make it work most effectively. I try to teach it the way I would teach mechanics.

It’s like, I sometimes tell my students, I know you know how to breathe, but I want to teach you how to breathe so you can run for hours.

What grammar did for me was enable me to analyze sentences. This has made me a better writer, but also — and this is something I’ve never seen promoted in a grammar book, never heard in a grammar rules rant — it made me a better reader. I am able, now, in a way I wasn’t before, to analyze a writer’s writing by looking at the writing itself. I can dig in, on the sentence level, and see what’s happening.

Consider a few examples, just looking at how independent and dependant clauses are used. I teach clauses to my students so they’ll know how to avoid sentence fragments and comma splices in their academic writing. I want them to be able to identify simple, compound and complex sentences, and use a variety of sentences to write with a more sophisticated rhythm. Too often, beginning writers, especially those, like my students, who are writing in their second or third language, write with the rhythm of a Dick and Jane book. It’s just DUM dum dum, DUM dum dum, forever and ever. I teach it for the sake of their writing, but it’s also helped me be a better reader.

For example, Joan Didion opens her novel Democracy with a single complex sentence, followed by fragmentary rephrasings, followed by a simple sentence that’s repeated with increasing complexity, increasing specificity. It’s structured as a struggle to find the right phrase, and the altered iterations expand outwards like ripples:

“The light at dawn during those Pacific tests was something to see.

Something to behold.

Something that could almost make you think you saw God, he said.

He said to her.

Jack Lovett said to Inez Victor.

Inez Victor who was born Inez Christian.

He said: The sky was this pink … ”

Then, in crescendo, Didion lets this sentence that’s the sentence of a writer trying to write, trying to find the right words, take off and just go. It’s a description of the pink of the Pacific island sky after the blast of a test bomb and it starts with a banality and unfurls from there, a description that tells us more about the man than the sky described, and then as it almost falls apart she puts in a comma and a complete sentence — a comma splice, technically an error — as if everything should be ignored and this is the thing, the sentence has resolved with the phrase the narrator wants:

“The sky was this pink and the air was wet from the night rain, soft and wet and smelling like flowers, smelling like those flowers you used to pin in your hair when you drove out to Schofield, gardenias, the air in the morning smelled like gardenias, never mind there were not too many flowers around those shot islands.”

Her comma splice communicates this need to re-state or re-phrase, which captures both the problem of the moment of these two characters and the whole novel’s expression of an ennui that isn’t boredom but an inability to exactly say. The whole problem or project of the novel is expressed, actually, in that comma splice, which is brilliant, I think, and which I wouldn’t have known except that I’ve been focusing on clauses.

Or consider, for another example, Walt Whitman’s poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Almost the whole first stanza is dependent clauses — “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking, / Out of the mocking-bird’s throat,” — cascading down in one long sentence without a subject until, finally, in the 20th line, we get the subject “I.” There’s a missing “what” for 19 lines, and an ambiguity about the subject of the poem that is sustained by the structure of the sentence.

A lot of times people talk about Whitman like he was just wild, like his free verse had all the structure of a kite-high hippie dance. If you look at it, though, if you look at the grammar of it, this is a very carefully constructed sentence that very carefully puts the “I” of the poem in a very specific relationship to the world around it. The grammar isn’t incidental to Whitman’s poem; it is the working out of a major part of Whitman’s project.

One doesn’t need grammar to read Whitman or Didion or anyone else, of course. It’s not even necessary to read them well. Part of what makes good writers good, though, is their ability to sometimes, somehow, do everything they’re trying to do with the placement of a single comma. I want to be able to read that comma, to see what’s happening when the subject of a sentence turns up in a place you wouldn’t usually find it.

I know that’s not the point of grammar, and it certainly wasn’t what Miss Lane was trying to teach me when she wrote GRAMMAR on the top of my paper, but this is the other thing that grammar’s good for.

For most of us, I think, grammar is a brutal, brutal thing. It doesn’t come natural. Most of the time, even the word signals a fear, a panic even, at being embarrassed about being wrong. There’s something about it that can evoke deep shame. We imagine our mothers’ being embarrassed for us, as embarrassed as if we’d went out in shit-stained pants. We’re afraid of grammar because “grammar” means making stupid mistakes — there, their or they’re, or something like that — and we imagine stupid mistakes being taken as evidence of our real intelligence and value. That’s too bad, though, because it doesn’t have to be that way.

Grammar can be empowering. It can be about being a better writer and a better reader. It was, eventually, for me. I now know that it can be about knowing how the language works, instead of just driving along, listening to the rattle and choke under the hood, waiting, clenched up tense inside and waiting, until the whole thing breaks down.

This is not my first year of teaching high school English, but it is my first year teaching at one of Portland, Oregon’s lowest-achieving high schools. There is much to say about my students’ backgrounds that might explain their sub-standard reading and writing: they come from a variety of places, including the mountains of Southeast Asia, refugee camps in Africa, former Soviet republics, Pacific Islands, etc; the neighborhood culture is, in general, one of generational poverty, which means that many students lack good role models and education-minded guardians at home (or they transfer to other schools in the district, as more than half of the neighborhood’s students have done based on their No Child Left Behind right to attend successful schools); a lack of steady educational funding and organizational constitution has created tremendous instability in this particular school in recent years; and this list of could go on forever.

But I’m not writing to regale you about the challenges of public education in North Portland. What I’m interested in today is how writers think about and cash in on unintended slips in language. For example, my ninth grade students recently wrote essays about a novel in which a character wakes up from a coma. In every third paper, however, I found this character waking up from a “comma,” and immediately wondered if I myself could capitalize on their typo by using it in a poem. This reminded me of hearing Matthew Zapruder talk to a gathering of graduate poetry students last year (myself among them) about his process in writing one of his books.

First, Zapruder told us, he had the romantic notion to write the whole thing on a typewriter. Second, he told us that when he made an error, he let the typo remain in place of the consciously intended word, with the rationale that typos plumb the depths of our consciousness and contemporary word processing suppresses or erases evidence of our subconscious language about the world. Zapruder seemed to feel that his typos weren’t missteps, but expressed what he perhaps truly, if only deep within, was trying to say.

Clearly, this is not what was happening in my students’ papers. The fact is, bless their hearts, some of them do not appear to know that “coma” and “comma” are different words. This suggests that Zapruder’s approach could, in the wrong hands, lead to automatic writing—which of course points to the experiments of Gertrude Stein and a whole host of early 20th Century ideas about the structures of our minds, identities, the occult, and language. I’m dubious about this as a process for writing good poetry, despite the scant mathematical possibility of a hypothetical monkey, given enough time and a typewriter, randomly recreating the works of William Shakespeare, and/or all of the “Chicken Soup for the [insert your typo here] Soul” books, and/or Matthew Zapruder’s poems (which I admire), and so on.

Yet this approach to writing also reminds me of the classical notion of divine-inspired artistry. In a more positive light, Zapruder’s method invites a muse, disguised as Accident, to write his poems. Per my own romantic leanings, I’m far more willing to accept this as an approach to making poetry. The poet, in this schema, is conscious of his or her agency as a conduit for divine creation. Mebdh McGuckian’s wonderful poetry springs to my mind here, as I long ago heard her use the word “vatic” to describe her process. Yet in this same discussion McGuckian was quick to mention that she remains highly conscious about words and their apt usage—she asserted that you only get to use some words once, and then never again. The word “fontanelle” was the example she gave as one that she never will be able to use twice, even if her subconscious or muse might will it. One’s ability thus to revise, to assert his or her consciousness on the muse’s inspiration, is required. The Ancient Greeks themselves were well aware that some people were better “conduits” for poetry than others.

Lastly, as a final thought on accident and inspiration, my students’ coma/comma confusion also reminded me of a poem by Stephen Dunn. “His Town,” which appears in Different Hours (which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize), bears the epigraph: “The town was in the mists of chaos. –A student’s typo,” and the first stanza reads:

He wasn’t surprised. What town wasn’t?
Everywhere the mists of property, the mists
of language. Every Main Street he’d known
shrouded in itself. The mist-filled churches
and the mist-filled stores in strange collusion.

For Dunn, accident is supple—a point of possible redirection from we expected or intended to go. In his student’s error he finds not a rueful mistake but a useful “mist.” And perhaps this is a clue about how to think about accident and inspiration. When lucky, our mistakes may become mists. We may credit the divine or the murky depths of ourselves for such slips, or we can acknowledge the great mistiness of where everything comes from, including our mistakes. For in the end, concern for from whence the products of our lives spring might amount to a bit of pedantic frippery—psychology, spirituality, whatever. Yet somewhere, someone will always be waking from or slipping into a “comma,” including the best educated, the most grammatically and syntactically refined of us. We should remember to thank our proverbial gods for this.