Scattered and all unlinked the rhymes shall ring,
And make my poems; and I shall not know"--Alice Meynell
I'm fascinated by the ways folks educate themselves. I once briefly worked a job in which I shoveled flyash for a coal-fired power generator. One wears a mask to shovel flyash, because like so many things in life, the energy generated is all well and good, but the by-products prove entirely toxic. It turns out, by the way, that I am very good with a shovel, and a mean hand with a sling blade.
I remember sitting in the company cafeteria, a temp amid the seasoned power plant workers. I heard folks discussing great novels, political theory and bits of personal philosophy. The erudition of the speakers seemed as high as any university lunch table I'd inhabited, in my little mountain university, among the pseudo-intellectuals among whom I feel at home (if perhaps at a dysfunctional home). I was among the blue-collared intelligentsia.
Some of my best friends from high school are intellectual people who would not finish or attend college on grounds I can best analogize to being "conscientious objectors". They teach themselves the things they want to know. They do not depend on having completed a degree to earn their daily bread. In the two examples that come to mind right now, each learned thrift as an alternative to the higher income that a college degree might have provided. My friends felt that college was, when all things were well considered, just one more conformity to which they'd prefer not to adhere.
This strategy does not work for all things, of course. It's very tricky teaching oneself the higher math and science that some intricate research might require.
One cannot become a doctor or lawyer without the degrees (although, curiously, in California one may do a kind of "apprenticeship/clerkship" to become bar-eligible).
In general, though, with the help of the lending library and the used paperback, not to mention the internet, one can teach oneself all sorts of things. Although in our childhoods we are somehow taught that there are "Educated People" who read and enjoy a quality life, and "Non-Educated People" who don't, in fact there are people with the highest degrees who live the most unexamined lives, and people with no degrees at all who think the deepest thoughts.Of course, knowing facts does not equate to "quality of life" necessarily, either.
It's a different strain of thought, but I'll mention that one of my hobbies is reading about distance learning programs. I've never really taken one, though I've signed up for a correspondence course or two but then failed to follow through to actually take the course. In my mind, someday one will be able to get modules of formalized education delivered cheaply and electronically. I even wrote a poem about this, which a kind distance learning expert then published in a book that one can often find on the shelves of huge chain bookstores. It's one page 150. I wonder if life's most sublime secret satisfaction is being present but unread in shops all across the country.
But I've been disappointed that the thing I hoped for has not yet taken place--I want to see the "nearly free" open university arise. There are some models in Europe that are workable, but we have not yet gotten what is sorely needed--education, particularly "liberal education", that costs virtually nothing. Instead, everyone sees distance learning as a revenue device, because the adults who take it presumably have jobs and money. Someday the error of that thinking will become clear, but that day has not come yet.
I believe I've mentioned that I think to myself how wonderful it would be to start a distance learning college which taught nothing of any earthly use. In Naropa, the Jack Kerouac school is for "disembodied poetics". Naropa is a cool school, and they even have a low-residency MFA. Its cost per credit hour is $ 584, which is not really that bad, when one considers that one can presumably work a job and all that. But I envision an "Edwin Arlington Robinson School of Vaguely Well-Intentioned-Poetry", in which each credit hour costs a fraction of that sum, and accreditation is offered by the Distance Education Training Council, which also accredits home study programs in cake decorating.
I love the amateur naturalists who publish little monographs on local flora, and the amateur historians who write articles about little local things for the county historical quarterlies. I admire comet-finders and fish-breeders and people who give talks on things of interest at the public library.
But mostly I like people who just teach themselves something cool, and then just do.
They learn the lingo, and they become fonts of information. They learn the words, and make a Way of them.
I used to be head of a committee at a Unitarian Universalist church which handled arranging for the speakers and programs. When a church has no creed, you have to keep on the lookout for a diversity of folks. Once we lined up a fellow I know through a friend of mine. This fellow came to the business of storytelling not that far before the middle of his life. He tells his tales in archetypal mythic language.
But his "stories" are not linear in the way a myth or saga might be. They're densely packed bursts of ideas, drawn from a dozen traditions, meandering endlessly.
I remember when he spoke to our service he wove a beautiful tapestry of ideas that just hung in mid-air. I'm all for ideas hanging in mid-air, like cotton candy spinning off into the huge metal bowl. When he was finished, people came to me (as people sometimes did about new speakers) and said "I have no idea what he said, but I certainly enjoyed hearing him say it".
I think that sometimes living is like playing with those refrigerator magnets which
people use to spell out poetry. One arms oneself with facts and stray imaginings.
Then the words burst from one, not in a linear order, but they come as they come.
Wilfrid Owen, a man killed in France one week before an armistice ended the war of his generation, said "My subject is War, and the Pity of War. The poetry is in the Pity". But I don't think that poetry need arise from "war" or "pity" alone. I think that the words float around everywhere. No advanced degree is required to understand them. One is inevitably self-taught in that flow of words, even if one is hopelessly influenced by everything around one.
The news this week from Iraq has not been good. Many people on both sides died in heavy fighting. I saw a picture of a 19 year old Texas man who looked barely 14, in the suit they photographed him in prior to his going to Iraq to die. His image became part of my personal poetry last night. He's an image--a random set of a thousand words--that causes me pain and confusion. The poetry in the Pity, perhaps. One can have all the political sentiments one can have about this war--and I do--but no matter what, I want as little loss of life as possible, on all sides.
I like to imagine, though, that one can teach oneself. At dozens of universities these days,they teach classes in Peace Studies. But I'm not speaking of formal education, nor of agitprop on one side or the other of this very complex world situation. I'm thinking of thoughts and the lending library and holy texts and simple deeds.
I do not really go for the theory that one can merely imagine a peaceful world, and one will be that much closer to achieving one. But I do think about how I'd like to learn a bit more personal peace, and then learn how to teach it to others. Not the peace of political theorists, nor the peace of burning incense and flowery words.I'd like to learn the peace of simple kindness, and the peace of silence. My subject would be Peace, and the simplicity of Peace. The simplicity is the poetry.The peace, I believe, begins with the right words, but then it continues in actions. I do not believe that an individual ever finds real peace. But peace hovers in the air, like unused words for a poem not written.