Performing Is Learning: A Teacher’s Memoir

May 30, 2022   •   By David Mason


A society is only as healthy as its teachers. Ours, you might say, is in trouble, partly because our teachers often feel underappreciated and unseen. Yet most of us can recall at least one teacher who had a powerful influence on our lives. From high school alone, I remember three: Marge Eggleston, a feisty fisherman’s wife who taught history; Ruth Emery, who taught literature; and Bob Beath, who galvanized the drama program at Sehome High School in Bellingham, Washington.

I want particularly to remember Bob here, the lessons he taught about performance (and life), and how they have echoed through my own decades as an educator. Performance is a way of learning — one of many, but perhaps the best of them all, particularly when it comes to the arts.

Bob grew up in the Skagit Valley, the rich agricultural land south of Bellingham, and was the first of his family to finish college, which he did at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. After years of high school teaching, he would eventually complete a PhD and go into administration, but I remember him best as the bold young teacher whose first year in the high school classroom happened to be my freshman year. I was 15 and he was probably 23, but to us he seemed a powerfully authoritative figure who knew what he was talking about — wired on coffee, smoking with his colleagues in the teacher’s lounge, but in the classroom always giving us the very best of his character. A thin, quick-witted man with a dashing mustache, he was sometimes insecure among his elders, striving to be like the foremost of them. He was devoted to my mother, a professor at the local college. We became close without ever blurring the teacher/student boundary. I knew some of the women he dated, and when he eventually married, the ceremony was performed on our lawn beside Lake Whatcom. During my four years of high school (1969–’73), I acted in at least seven plays, playing a major part in four: The Crucible, The Skin of Our Teeth, Ah, Wilderness!, and Tartuffe. These titles alone indicate Bob’s ambition — Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Eugene O’Neill, and Molière, some of the world’s best playwrights. But I was also given the opportunity to experience disappointment when he did not cast me in a role. I learned to be part of an ensemble, to build sets or stage manage. I cued music for the production of Waiting for Godot — imagine it, a boy backstage, lining up a reel-to-reel tape recording of the second movement in Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, and somehow broadcasting that melancholy music into our school theater. I learned to work with others toward a common goal, bigger than ourselves, involved with beauty that was not superficial, bearing the language of truly great writers. These were lessons in passion, responsibility, and joy.

Was I a good actor? People told me so, and it gave me confidence, but Bob came from a family that punctured big egos, and he deliberately kept mine in check with wisecracks and strict discipline. The point, he taught us, was to be devoted to something more than one’s self. Self-esteem might have been a by-product of the process, but it was not the main thrust of our education.

Having to act meant having to move. It meant one’s body enacted language and the silence between words. One had to be heard. One had to know when and how to be seen intelligently. One interacted with others. And here’s the pedagogical crux: a high school student, even a university student, may not always understand the words he or she is given to speak. Understanding takes time, and it changes over time, which is one measure of what it means to be human and alive and educated.

For all teachers, the question of how we use our time in the classroom is crucial. Teachers now are under far more stringent burdens than they were in the early 1970s, yet I’m not sure we can say our students are becoming better educated. Exams and preparation for exams are important, but time spent in a classroom can also be opened up, made more enjoyable and productive, through performance.

One of my first lessons came through blocking, the mapping of actors’ movements in a scene, a process worked out in rehearsal. In The Crucible, I played Judge Danforth, who eventually sentences the hero, John Proctor, to hang. At some point, perhaps in one of my speeches outlining the legal process Danforth would pursue, Bob saw that I really did not understand the character’s words. The abstractions of justice in early America eluded a boy from a broken home in a far more licentious time. He stopped the rehearsal and walked me through the speech several times while the other actors waited, some of them no doubt impatiently. “This line you say to him, this line you say to these others, this one over here, and now you turn and say this.” I wasn’t thinking, I was walking. I was re-walking, learning a choreography. I still did not fully grasp the scene intellectually, my young brain like a cloud or a murky stream. But eventually, certainly by opening night, I acted a much older man bearing grave responsibility and religious beliefs foreign to my being, and by God I sent John Proctor to die.

Plays are literary texts, meant to be both performed and read. We read them, as we read all literature, to have more life, more experience of its beauties and complexities. Simple or one-sided understanding is often mistaken where the arts are concerned. In this, the arts are like life.

Playing Mr. Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth was a release into Wilder’s liberating imagination. I got to play an adult like my absent father with all his passions and foibles and intellectual excitement. And O’Neill’s only comedy, Ah, Wilderness!, offered the perfect role, Richard, for a young, would-be writer like myself. Coming from a broken home was slightly less common then than it is today. My mother was a brilliant woman who drank too much, and also the daughter of a morphine addict, so the plays of Eugene O’Neill seemed fated to me. By the time I graduated high school, I had read nearly all of them — hardly a healthy obsession for a teenaged boy. Long Day’s Journey into Night felt like an evening at home with the Masons. O’Neill’s influence was so strong that at 19 I went to sea in Alaska partly because he had gone to sea. Playing Richard, the comical counterpart of his tragic protagonists, allowed me to spout poetry by Oscar Wilde and Charles Baudelaire — “Be always drunken!” — and also to act drunk (which I had not yet experienced in real life) and kiss a pretty girl (which I had).

The lessons of theater spilled into everything. In Ruth Emery’s class on American Nobel Prize–winning writers, I had fallen in love with Ernest Hemingway. A more challenging obsession was William Faulkner, whom I read with something less than comprehension. My first real summer job at 16, driving a pea combine in the Skagit Valley, allowed me to read books while my tractor inched along a swath of pea vines. I remember reading the Benjy section of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury while driving, looking up from the book now and then to make sure I wouldn’t be spotted by a boss or crash into a fellow worker. I did not get further in that book until college, but it hardly mattered. I was drinking in Faulkner’s language, Benjy’s painfully acute sensibility. The part of me that was also an idiot in the old-fashioned sense, a being soaking in an incomprehensible world, felt attuned to what I read. Then I read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle, and felt I was part of real American history, real West Coast literature.

This too was performance, because I was building a theater in my mind, playing all the roles, seeing them in my own private cinema. Everything was connected — my traumatized family, the world of farmers and fishermen and migrant workers in the valley, my high school English class, my history classes, and the words I was given to speak on stage. Language was a thing said aloud, and oh how I wanted the eloquence of others. I listened to adults talking of civil rights and the war in Vietnam, I argued with Jesus-freaks in the coffee shops of Bellingham — being in my youth a cynical fellow with little faith in anything. The fabric of life and the fabric of words were tightly woven together, inexorably and with beautiful importance.

When I played the religious hypocrite, Tartuffe, I got to extend myself into quite another world. Bob chose the prose translation by John Wood in a Penguin paperback, perhaps rightly sensing we were not agile enough for Richard Wilbur’s brilliantly rhymed couplets, but we still had a rich rhetoric to master, and comic situations suffused with sex.

It was drama, you might object, so of course performance was pedagogy. What about novels, short stories, essays, poems, and other forms of literature? What I hope to demonstrate here is that it’s all theater, that language is best when it is meant to be spoken. The values of theater and those of the classroom are the same. What we want is for our students to become more performative, more demonstrative in their use of language. We want them to have that theater or movie house in the mind, seeing and enacting everything they read. We want them to live with gusto and animation. We want learning to be joy as well as discipline. We want them to learn how to move, to play different parts, to find a degree of confidence in their own voices and openness to the voices of others. We want them to perform, yes, and to play.

II. The Gift of Memory

I got my first full-time teaching job at 35, working for a state university in Minnesota. For more than a dozen years I had supported myself primarily as a manual laborer, with patches of time spent abroad and one short-lived gig as a screenwriter. I do not regret my years outside the academy. They gave me the resilience to withstand academic fashions I felt were counterproductive. But they also made me an odd duck in the job market. More than 100 applications led to three interviews and a single offer to teach in what seemed at the time to be Siberia. But Moorhead State University, as it was then called, turned out to be a very good institution with strong faculty and devoted students, some among the brightest I would ever teach. I was lucky to get the job.

In those days, the university required every student to take a full year of English composition, a series of courses staffed — mirabile dictu — by the English department. Most of us believed that literature provided the best models for writing. We were expected to use essays and fiction in our courses, and in the final term we wanted students to read drama and poetry as well. This meant that no one graduated Moorhead State in that bygone era without taking a poetry class, albeit one that emphasized the writing of expository prose.

Poetry as a requirement? For the jock, the physicist, the chemist, the biologist, the economist? To many at the university it must have seemed folly at best, and at worst pure madness. We in the English department defended our bit of turf against the incredulity of others, including some in the state legislature. Poetry, we argued, was a marvelous way to teach rhetoric — and it is. Poetry teaches ways of meaning beyond the literal — and it does. But still, day after day, I entered the classroom aware that a goodly number of my students simply hated the subject of poetry. Hated it the way one might hate being forced to eat dirt. Some students faced me with crossed arms and expressions of fury and defiance. I remember once pausing outside the classroom door, resting my forehead on its cold surface, and telling myself, “Okay, whatever happens, just love them anyway.”

This is a major problem for any teacher. What are we to do when faced with hostility toward our subject matter? How could I bring my students into the fold and help them become readers of poetry? My answer was simple and hardly innovative. In fact, it harkened back to the oldest teaching method of all — memorization. I announced to my students, both orally and in the syllabus, that they would never, ever, be required to love poetry or particular poems just because their teacher did. One cannot make someone else love anything. They would, however, be required to memorize and recite 100 lines of verse to the whole class. Failure to do so would result in an “F” for the course. No ifs, ands, or buts. This was not punishment, simply a requirement, like the usual essays and exams and class discussion. Within limits, they could recite any poems they genuinely liked, from Shel Silverstein to Sylvia Plath, from the filthiest limerick to a passage from Paradise Lost. I would not tell them what to memorize, though I might on occasion tell them the song lyric they favored was not good enough. I wanted them to find good language they loved and speak it from memory. They could do all 100 lines at once, or recite on different days in increments — a sonnet here, a villanelle there, a bit of free verse — anything, provided they got it by heart and spoke it from memory.

This, it turns out, is the single best thing I did in my decades of teaching. No matter how many of my students later forgot what they had recited, they all experienced something of vital importance to poetry — memory — which is the very method and purpose of the art. [1] Prose passages can of course be memorized. The poet James Wright could reel off pages of Dickens by heart. Great examples of prose like the Gettysburg Address stay in the mind. But poetry at its best is intended to be remembered. Memory — Mnemosyne — is the mother of the Muses. Memory is the essence of the art.

I can hear your objections. I have lived with them for decades. “Oh God, no, my grandmother was made to memorize ‘Casey at the Bat’ in school, my uncle was the boy who stood on the burning deck. Memorization kills learning! It kills creativity!” In fact, the opposite is true. Memorization is a prelude to performance. It is a way of being alive in language, which is the medium of poems as well as sermons, lectures, advertising, and political speeches. Memorizing the best language, speaking it multiple times over the course of years, turns out to be good training for the ear, the heart, and the mind. It releases language from dependence on books or phones and allows us to possess the words fully, to carry them as we walk, jog, swim, dance.

I have lived a life in which it was handy to have stuff memorized, not only when I was teaching. When I left college after my freshman year to work in Alaska, I would often wander alone in the Aleutian foothills, singing Shakespeare (having played Feste in a college production of Twelfth Night) or reciting favorite poems by Eliot and Yeats. I had memorized Eliot’s “Preludes” and “The Hollow Men” in high school to win an oral interpretation trophy at a statewide competition, and those poems have stayed with me ever since, grimly fascinating company. When hitchhiking alone through France, Spain, and the British Isles, living on my Alaskan income, which stretched for years, I would often sing or recite to entertain myself. I did the same when, working as a gardener and estate caretaker in Upstate New York, I found myself alone with the elements. When my first wife and I had saved enough money to live abroad, we settled in a small Greek village, where one neighbor was a great writer of English prose, Patrick Leigh Fermor. A war hero as well as a writer, Paddy had no university education yet knew thousands of lines in several languages by heart. He was one of the most vital men I ever met, a man I emulated in many ways. In 30 years of friendship, Paddy and I often recited poems we loved to each other. It was as natural as breathing.

Over the years, as I met poets from Dana Gioia to Anthony Hecht, Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, and Richard Wilbur, I found they were all people with huge stores of memorized language. I remember Wilbur at dinner once reciting “Magna Est Veritas” by the Victorian poet Coventry Patmore:

Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.
For want of me the world’s course will not fail:
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

Wilbur gave it his best God-voice, and I was suitably awed. I recognized it as the forerunner of his own short poem, “On Having Mis-identified a Wild Flower”:

A thrush, because I’d been wrong,
Burst rightly into song
In a world not vague, not lonely,
Not governed by me only.

Both Patmore and Wilbur had seen firsthand the dangers of rampant ego.

A recent documentary film about Wilbur reminds us that he used to play blues guitar — something we might not expect from so formal and elegant a poet. In his ’90s, invited to co-teach poetry classes at Amherst College, he frequently read aloud poems for students. When reading Langston Hughes’s “The Weary Blues” he would sing the title lines:

“I got the Weary Blues
And I can’t be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can’t be satisfied —
I ain’t happy no mo’
And I wish that I had died.”

The students interviewed in the film were charmed and amazed. They got to witness the culture of memory in a poet of real stature and accomplishment.

But it’s not only poets and writers I have heard reciting along my crooked path. My older brother died at 28 in a mountaineering accident, and at his memorial in 1979 a Superior Court Judge, Marshall Forrest (who has since died at 103), recited from memory a poem he had learned in school, Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break.” [2]

From 1989 until my retirement in 2020, I rarely taught any sort of literature or creative writing course without requiring some memorization and recitation. It helped students understand that poetry is, at its root, not so much an art of books as of speaking and singing. It also turned the classroom into a place of play. On day one, students learned they could not pass the course without fulfilling this requirement in addition to the usual work. I’m pretty sure that in all those years I only flunked two or three students for failing to meet that one requirement. Many others wrote on their evaluations that it was the best thing they ever did in an English class.

Each student was applauded for recitation, and I checked off the number of lines recited. Most finished their final recitations just in the nick of time. In some classes, I insisted on hearing them twice — once at the beginning of the term and again at the end — so that they would be more likely retain the lines. This was not always logistically possible. Sometimes I would clear a space between the desks for students to perform and ask them to recite poems to each other, particularly with poems of love or vitriol, all in a spirit of play. I taught many students to sing an absolutely filthy limerick song that would probably get me fired today. I’m still surprised by how easily scandalized our enlightened students and faculty can be.

On very few occasions I met students for whom public speaking was a real trauma, and I allowed them to recite to me privately in my office. The other students seemed to understand. Once, a gifted young woman got up to recite “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service, but two stanzas into the poem she turned white, rolled up her eyes, and fainted on the classroom floor. It was my first class in my new job at Colorado College, and I felt sure I’d killed her. I stopped the class and called for help. Someone escorted the young woman to the campus clinic. After our coffee break (these were three-hour class sessions) she returned and insisted on finishing the poem, which she accomplished without missing a syllable. “It’s okay,” she said, “I faint all the time.”

Recitations would normally take no more than 15 minutes of a given session, after which we pursued the usual mix of lecture, discussion, and performance. When poems were read aloud, we heard them at least twice, sometimes with different emphases or in different situations: “Now, Ernie, read it to Frank across the room, and say it like you’re just discovering each word as you speak.” I had in mind Yeats’s injunction that poetry is “passionate normal speech.” Say it like a human being.

These techniques are not only useful in poetry classes. For years in Minnesota I taught Dickens’s Bleak House in a survey of British Literature. One day I noticed that a long description of Inspector Bucket, who had a funny way of touching his nose when deep in thought, was not getting a reaction from my students. I stopped the class, asked what was going on, and soon realized another major problem in teaching literature. Just because I have a movie palace in my head and do all the acting, directing, set design, and cinematography for everything I read does not mean that my students are the same. Indeed, many of them strain to read novels for content only, trying to enumerate plot details, character names, and symbolic references so they can pass an exam. They aren’t reading for fun. They aren’t seeing a movie or moving their lips over the words. They aren’t relishing the way the story is told. They read Bleak House as if it were a legal brief.

So I declared the classroom a rehearsal space, assigned parts among the students, and directed them to act out every sentence in Dickens’s prose until, at long last, laughter ensued. “You mean he’s really saying that?” “Yes, he is!” Likewise, Virginia Woolf is best appreciated by saying her sentences aloud, letting them move you even to the point of tears. I have often barely been able to restrain myself from weeping in a classroom over the beauty of some great literary passage, and I frankly do not mind. I want students to see a human face, not an institution. Take George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” — what can you do but have students read aloud its most tragic passages and see the image of that poor dying beast, which is just as important, indeed inextricable from, the essay’s postcolonial point?

The point in literature is never the point.

III. Poetry Out Loud

Here’s an instruction: go to YouTube on your computer and type in “RSC Playing Shakespeare.” You will call up a series of videos made in 1984 by the Royal Shakespeare Company, using some of the world’s greatest actors, including Ben Kingsley, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, Sinéad Cusack, Peggy Ashcroft, and others. Introduced by the director and teacher John Barton, these films provide a good introduction to performance as pedagogy. The first episode reminds us that Shakespeare himself gave excellent instruction on performance through the words of Hamlet:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such a fellow whipped for o’erdoing Termagant. It out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.

Snobbery, perhaps, but also a fair condemnation of bad acting.

John Barton turns a small rehearsal space into a classroom, just as I advocate turning the classroom into a rehearsal space for at least some of your class time. If you teach in 50-minute or one-hour units, you might use these techniques only once or twice a week, or weave smaller moments of performance into your lessons. Model performance yourself. I often found it useful not to be tied to a book when I taught, but able to trace back over passages from memory. Stock your own memory as best you can, but even when dealing with words you do not have by heart, try saying them more than once with varying emphases. This is what Barton has his actors do. He gently corrects them when needed but trusts their intelligence to surprise him. Sometimes it’s just a matter of changing the pace of what you say — make it faster or slower, louder or softer. Barton teaches English versification, particularly the iambic pentameter tradition, as well as any poetry textbook ever written, partly by allowing actors to wonder aloud how to say this stuff.

Let me be clear: I am not advocating that teachers imitate the elocution and manners of English Shakespearean actors. Far from it. We have to use our own voices, and you certainly don’t have to be an actor to perform any text. To paraphrase Wordsworth, we should speak literature, particularly poetry, like a person speaking to people, or to oneself. Make it real, make it live. The “Playing Shakespeare” films are simply wonderful examples of intelligent literary discussion, because theater people know that literature is performance, and so is the teaching of it.

The oldest friend I have in the literary world, Dana Gioia, agrees that literature and performance are linked. We have often recited poems to each other. He even memorialized one such occasion in “Three Drunk Poets”:

Do you remember where we were that night,
three of us, walking down a small-town street,
reciting poems from memory?

We would not turn around, we vowed,
until one of us ran out of poems. Some ideas
seem brilliant when you’re blitzed.

First came the easy ones — Shakespeare,
Tennyson, Dickinson, Poe. Yeats
took most of a mile, Frost another.

We spoke in turns — Larkin and Kees,
Stevens and Millay — each poem a sort of confession.
“No more Millay!” our friend begged.

A passerby would have looked away embarrassed,
but we strode beaming like ambassadors
exchanging costly gifts.

The street became an empty country lane,
silvered by the moon. “Look!” you pointed back,
“We have outwalked the furthest city light.”

Half a mile later, we reached Catullus,
and a coyote joined the contest.
“Where the hell are we?” groaned our friend.

By then it was nearly 3 a.m.,
and so we headed back to town —
walking in silence — still not sober.

Intended as a comic performance, the poem is accurate to my memory of that night. I might have sung in Greek to match Dana’s Latin, as I often did when tipsy in those days.

This is a human activity that transcends cultures and identities. It is the culture of memory, open and available to all who seek it, everywhere on earth. When he became chair of the National Endowment for the Arts earlier in this century, Dana remembered such nights. Among the many innovative programs he dreamed up was Poetry Out Loud, which has since become a mainstay for high schools across the nation. Performance competitions for students who memorize and recite poems are held at the local, state, and national levels. The results are often astonishingly good, and the whole process offers life-changing affirmations for students of every race, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background. As poet laureate of Colorado for four years (2010–’14), I would emcee the state competition in Denver, an event that was pure pleasure. I got to meet dozens of excited students, as well as their teachers and even some of their parents. “Since 2005,” the program’s website says, “Poetry Out Loud has grown to reach more than 4.1 million students and 68,000 teachers from 17,000 schools and organizations in every state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa.” It is, in short, a resounding success, hopefully a permanent fixture in American education.

IV. Change Your Location

For most teachers, it may be hard, even impossible, to leave the classroom. You may be constrained by time, by regulations or safety concerns. I do want to say, though, that it can be refreshing to have a class meet in an unusual location — out in a field or on a basketball court. I once had students recite in a squash court where their voices resounded within the walls. Teachers who are able to travel with their students to different locations, even to different countries, have particular challenges, but also great opportunities to use performance as pedagogy. In my years teaching at Colorado College, I frequently taught in Turkey and Greece. Even with the logistical stresses of guiding a group through a foreign country, I felt the teaching rewards were greater than anything I could achieve on campus. I will offer just two examples here.

In the spring of 2002, my students and I arrived in Athens by sea from the island of Kos, off the Turkish coast. Our subject was ancient drama and we had been traveling to theaters throughout the Aegean region. It happened to be Easter Sunday. The city seemed nearly empty, many people having gone home to their villages to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.

The previous two days of travel had prevented me from holding class, and I needed to get something done — students were to perform scenes from Sophocles’s Antigone. So I wandered from our pensione into the old neighborhood, the Plaka, looking for a space in which to hold class. I found an empty square near a taverna named for its spreading plane tree. The walls were close enough to contain our speech and make it audible, the mix of sun and shade just dappled enough that it would not blind us. So we began.

We were all exhausted from our journey — the ferry had been late and we had slept badly for a night on the wharf at Kos. We were also wrung out from the state of the world, the attacks on the United States the previous September, the signs of oncoming turmoil in Turkey. So here we were, performing speeches from a play more than two millennia old, and the argument between a heroic young girl and her uncle, an old tyrant, took on unexpected resonance. The argument, it seemed, was between piety and power, the individual conscience and the State. “The play might be set in Thebes,” I told my students, “but the audience in Athens knew that it was very much about them, about this city where you are performing now. It was first staged just over the hill there in a theater I will show you tomorrow. This is what theater is. It is a spectacle witnessed by a crowd of people brought to one sacred place, and the people know they are being shown an image of their own society, their own universe, their own gods.” I could tell them that the words they spoke aloud were of vital importance not only to the ancients, but also to them and their troubled world. I could also have said these things in Colorado, but the feeling would have been entirely different.

My second example took place on the Island of Lesbos some years later. I was teaching philosophy and lyric poetry with my friend and colleague Jonathan Lee, a professor of philosophy. Jonathan had good Ancient Greek, I had some command of the modern tongue, and we mixed ancient and modern writers in our syllabus. On Lesbos, of course, we taught Sappho, using several translations as examples. We also read chapters from Anne Carson’s excellent book on Sappho, Eros the Bittersweet. I remember sitting in the shady courtyard of our pensione with the students and a stray dog they had adopted, reading Sappho. When we got to her most famous poem, Fragment 31, I could see there was some confusion as to the poet’s meaning, largely because our students were not yet imagining the scene, the situation of the poem. Here it is in a translation by Chris Childers:

He seems like the gods’ equal, that man, who
ever he is, who takes his seat so close
across from you, and listens raptly to
your lilting voice

and lovely laughter, which, as it wafts by,
sets the heart in my ribcage fluttering;
as soon as I glance at you a moment, I
can’t say a thing,

and my tongue stiffens into silence, thin
flames underneath my skin prickle and spark,
a rush of blood booms in my ears, and then
my eyes go dark,

and sweat pours coldly over me, and all
my body shakes, suddenly sallower
than summer grass, and death, I fear and feel,
is very near.

Is the speaker Sappho or someone else? How can we know? What do we think we know about Sappho that makes us determine an answer? Then who is being addressed in the poem? “That man,” or someone else? Ah, so there is a “you” in the poem, a third person. There is a geometry here. So I had a young woman speak the poem to another young woman across the circle from her, and I had a young man sit next to the second young woman, whispering into her ear. I staged the poem, if you will, and the students got it. Our discussion of everything else — emotional states, the kinds of language used in various translations, the fact that the poem was a fragment rather than a complete work — came out of the geometry we had established in our performance.

I could go on in this vein. Something ineffable happens when your teaching is inspired by the spirit of place, just as Socrates says in Phaedrus that he will take his inspiration from the stream he walks beside. A classroom that can in any way be opened to the world makes that kind of inspiration possible.

V. Creation as Performance

When I found myself teaching creative writing at Colorado College, I had to adapt to an unfamiliar culture in which students were deeply concerned with their own creativity rather than the words of others. I had never been part of a creative writing program myself, and had written my PhD dissertation on the poetry of W. H. Auden, a figure quite removed from me, much as I loved his writing. My Colorado students were worldly and sophisticated. Yet they too needed guidance and they too put up resistance. In my first years in the new job, resistance to such traditional techniques as rhyme and meter was very strong. I did not care whether my students became “formalists,” to use the broad term with which I have often been associated myself. But I wanted them to know traditional methods because I saw that they would not be free artists if they were ignorant of the past. They would be making choices from a limited palette rather than the full range of what is possible in the language. Just as I had to learn how to conduct creative writing workshops, how to foster a social atmosphere of trust and helpful criticism, I wanted them to learn about a world where poets had not been coddled by institutional structures.

Writers have egos. Writers want and need to have some kind of response from readers, and creative writing programs are founded upon this promise of being read. My first students in Colorado were emerging from a period of romantic isolation, a pedagogical delusion that creativity came straight from the unfettered soul, and that learning anything antithetical to one’s own tastes and desires might damage the sensitive psyche. Luckily, in more recent years, there has been a cultural sea change. Whether it is due to the popularity of poetry slams, hip-hop, the arguments of poets like the New Formalists, or all of these things, students now understand that meter and rhyme are not moral or political choices but linguistic ones. They are part of the free artist’s reservoir of techniques. Writers who have practiced and read more kinds of poetry are freer to choose what they want to become than poets who have been limited only to so-called free verse or any other kind of poetry. I made it clear that I did not consider it my job to tell anyone what sort of poet to become. My job was to make sure they knew what choices they could make, so they could make them freely and change them freely over a lifetime of writing.

Nevertheless, creative writing students have sometimes howled with protest when I required them to memorize and perform poems, and only grudgingly came to admit it had done them some good. Just as musicians learn multiple melodies and train their bodies to respond to them, so poets can rewire consciousness by learning works by others. Sometimes students pleaded with me to let them recite their own poems to meet the requirement, but I held firm: “That would defeat the purpose of the exercise. I want you to learn about other writers, not just yourselves.” If, when the class gave a reading at the end of the term, anyone wanted to perform her work from memory, that would delight me, and delight their audience as well.

The best writing is written to be spoken aloud. That is why so much academic prose is unreadable, intended only for stressed and befogged inner lives. My teaching life was given to this truth. The joy of performing language aloud, even in the first tentative stumbling efforts, changes the way we read and write. It makes us better thinkers, better readers, better participants in the culture of the imagination, which may be one of the qualities that saves humanity from itself.


The former poet laureate of Colorado, David Mason now lives in Tasmania, the island state of Australia. In 2022 he will publish Pacific Light (poems), and next year Incarnation and Metamorphosis (essays). His selected poems, The Sound, appeared in 2018.


[1] One former student, Jon Mooallem, memorized poems in classes with both Dana Gioia and me at Colorado College. He later wrote in the New York Times Magazine about how reciting poetry helped him keep a friend awake and alive after an accident in Alaska.

[2] I have an essay on the generational impact of this poem in my book The Poetry of Life and the Life of Poetry (2000).