September 29, 2015KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsReading

–the academy

Five weeks ago–“5w”–my friend Jane Lewty–janelewty–posted a screenshot of a few stanzas to Instagram. The highlighted words indicated that she had been searching for the poem online, and found it in Google Books, perhaps, by entering some line remembered or misremembered–“the,” “academy,” “Think of”–“Think of the academy,” perhaps, which is not actually a line in the poem, but served as sufficient terms to search:

It is illusion, the academy.

In truth, the ideal talking-place to die.

Only the landscape keeps a sense of growing.

The towers are floating on a shifting sea.

You did not tell the truth there, nor did I.


Think of the process–moments becoming poems

which stiffen into books in the library,

and later, lectures, books about the books,

footnotes and dates, a stone obituary.

Do you wonder that I shun the academy?


It anticipates my dying, turns to stone

too quickly for my taste. It is a language

nobody speaks, refined to ritual:

the precise writing on the blackboard wall,

the drone of requiem in the lecture hall.

It was August; school was starting. I hadn’t known the poem before, but I knew in those few stanzas that now I would need to read it each year at that time.

There is a Jewish prayer, the Shehecheyanu, which is a short blessing of thanks–for new experiences, special occasions, and so forth. I remember my family reciting it on holidays, or when someone came home safely from a trip. It’s supposed to be recited at times of pleasure and happiness, not sad times. Despite knowing this, the minor key of the tune we sung, or the seriousness of my parents, made the Hebrew words sound and feel bittersweet to me. The prayer thanks God for allowing us to reach “la z’man hazeh”– to this season, time, or moment. But how can one say that prayer without thinking of those who didn’t reach the season with us? It’s hard to think of time at all without a sense of reflection–(Time, passage of.)

In the privacy of my mind, I think of poems like the poem Jane posted–“The Academy,” by Scottish poet Alastair Reid–as personal “Shehecheyanu” poems, poems that I will carry with me and return to season after season to celebrate with the particular bittersweetness of poetry.

Every year in October: Stephen Dobyns’s “How to Like It” and James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.”

Every year in March or April: Gwendolyn Brooks’s “To the Young Who Want to Die” and William Carlos Williams’s “The Widow’s Lament In Springtime.”

Why do I want to celebrate with sad poems? Why is the prayer I remember the best a blessing in a minor key?

“The Academy” begins:

I do not think of the academy

in the whirl of days. It does not change. I do.

The place hangs in my past like an engraving.

I went back once to lay a wreath on it,

and met discarded selves I scarcely knew.

“The Academy” ends:

I do not think much of the academy

in the drift of days. It does not change. I do.

This poem will occupy the library,

but I will not. I have not done with doing.

I did not know the truth there, nor did you.