My first academic year at the University of North Texas will be over in a few, short weeks (tempus really does fugit). Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about one of my favorite poems by Richard Wilbur, “The Writer.” It’s a poem about learning and teaching, how difficult both kinds of work can be, the dangers that a teacher can fall into when s/he forgets the challenges of being a student, the risks involved when we make ourselves vulnerable enough to learn something new:
The Writer In her room at the prow of the house Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden, My daughter is writing a story. I pause in the stairwell, hearing From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys Like a chain hauled over a gunwale. Young as she is, the stuff Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy: I wish her a lucky passage. But now it is she who pauses, As if to reject my thought and its easy figure. A stillness greatens, in which The whole house seems to be thinking, And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor Of strokes, and again is silent. I remember the dazed starling Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago; How we stole in, lifted a sash And retreated, not to affright it; And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door, We watched the sleek, wild, dark And iridescent creature Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove To the hard floor, or the desk-top, And wait then, humped and bloody, For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits Rose when, suddenly sure, It lifted off from a chair-back, Beating a smooth course for the right window And clearing the sill of the world. It is always a matter, my darling, Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish What I wished you before, but harder.
The life of learning is always a matter of life and death, or it should feel that way when we take our task seriously. So, today, as I lean forward, almost able to smell and taste the long summer ahead, I wish what I wished for my students before–the delights of reading, the pleasures of language, the rewards of critical thinking and self-reflection–but harder.