Posted by: annmariegamble | November 22, 2009

I Was a Child Freshman English TA

tower of booksWhen people ask what books influenced me, they’re usually expecting a list that could double for some Great Books High Literature syllabus, especially if they know my father was an English professor.

In fact, my exposure in that genre is pretty sketchy, but it wasn’t because I wasn’t reading. For one stretch of middle school, I read a book a day (thank goodness for libraries). The school librarian recommended books. The school librarian’s mother was our next-door neighbor, and she loaned me romances that she’d saved from her youth (I thought they were too mushy). One of the grad students in the English department always asked what I’d been reading (and always listened to my answer). Another loaned me his childhood favorites (the adventures of Raggedy Ann and Andy).

But it wasn’t all books that I read. One of my father’s duties at this college was teaching freshman comp, and I was fascinated by the stacks of papers he brought home. This was his work, though. It took a while before I worked up the nerve to ask if I could read them.

My dad said I could as long as I didn’t get them out of order. My duty was to count words and point out spelling mistakes; my dad wrote the corrections so they’d be in his handwriting. I didn’t just count, of course: I read all the papers as I went. Eventually I got introduced to his colleagues as the only person he knew who enjoyed reading freshman English essays. They’d gone to prom or homecoming or whatever as well as read fifty thousand essays about it, but to me the papers might as well have been National Geographics.

To talk about poetry, he gave an assignment to analyze the lyrics of a rock song. He was writing his dissertation on the meter in Milton’s Paradise Lost, but he’d realized that you could engage undergraduates more easily by asking them about rhythm and blues. The kids picked a song, copied out the lyrics, and then wrote about its poetical features. After a couple semesters, he joked that he was going to change the assignment to “any song but ‘Hotel California.’” That and “Stairway to Heaven” got analyzed by several students in each class looking for a song with something profound—obscure therefore poetic—to say.

I didn’t get the college kids’ interest in angst. My favorite essays were the ones about songs I knew, especially Beatles songs, whose tunes I knew along with the lyrics. Most of the essays were straightforward analyses of the song. The one I still remember was the Beatles, “She’s Got a Ticket to Ride.” I don’t know how closely the author stuck to the assignment: he’d written a story instead of an essay. The narrator was living with a woman who was falling out of love with him. They came back to the apartment in the evenings and no longer had anything to say to each other. She would be leaving him soon, he could feel it—she had a ticket to ride. It seemed inevitable yet inexplicable to me; adults who were trapped.

I hope this student got a good grade in English Comp and is living a happy life. He wrote a great story.

1969 angst, Italian style

You don’t know
what did I that day
when I met her.
At the beach I made a clown of myself
to put myself in view of she
who was joking with all the boys
except me.

Why, why, why, why
did I like her?

She loved me, she hated me,
loved me, hated me,
she was against me.
I wasn’t her boyfriend
and yet she suffered for me
and to make me jealous
that night next to the sea
she went with you.

Now you come to ask me
where is your wife.
You had to have imagined
that one day or another
she’d leave you.
You married her
knowing that she
was dying for me.
With your money
you bought her body
but not her heart.

One day I saw her
entering my room.
She looked at me—
silent—
expecting a “yes” from me.
From the bed I arose
and looked at her.
She looked like an angel.
I squeezed her body
She gave me her lips.
She said, “I’m yours,”
but I stood like a stone.

I loved her, I hated her
hated her, loved her
I was against her.
If I hadn’t been her boyfriend
it was her fault.
And an unexpected slap
I gave to her beautiful face,
sent her back to you.

I went back to bed
crying, I was dreaming of her.
She looked like an angel.
She held me to her body,
gave me her lips,
said “I’m yours,”
and I kissed her in my dream.

AlltheLyrics.com

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