Working on my Master’s in creative writing found me at odds with two forces, let’s just call them the mother and father of GSU’s poetry department. Bottoms clearly the mother: nurturing of the newbies, had good intuition, disorganized and taught from the heart and often from the cuff. Stokesbury was the disciplinarian, often too honest, organized — not nurturing by a long shot, more demanding than anything. Both improved me and earned my deep respect. Bottoms introduced me to some great loves: Roethke, Bishop, Lowell and (of course) Dickie. Stokesbury led me to unexpected treasures, the main being Clampitt, but not far behind were Snodgrass and Merwin.
Snodgrass, who died Tuesday of lung cancer, I will never forget. In my mind, he’s the author of an incredible line of poetry that oddly enough helped forge my future. (Maybe I’m being a bit melodramatic; drama used to be the bottle I would drink from often — I’ve since opted for other vices, like distraction.) Regardless, Stokesbury was famous for his brutal end of term exams. 60% of your grade depended on them. We had examined probably a hundred or so poems and a few dozen poets — not to mention our own — and Stokesbury (if memory serves me right) picked a line from 6 poems and you had to write complete essays on 3 of them and something brief about the other 3 (identify author, time, title, etc.).
And I saw the line “Freiheit” and I ran with it. Of course it was the Snodgrass’ poem about the Goebbels’ last days in Hitler Germany and their suicide and infanticide. It’s a stunning glimpse into reasoning. Right? Oh no. My mind is wrong. “Freiheit” actually came from Amy Clampitt’s beautiful poem, “Beethovan, Opus 111” about her father burning poison ivy that eventually killed him and the release of life. Stokesbury could read a poem like no ones business and I remember almost breaking into a sweat when I heard him speak the word “freiheit”.
And yet, in spite of the impact, I continue (then and now) to associate it with Snodgrass. And so I ended up with a B in the class. People outside of the academic incest fest that is a creative writing workshop may think that’s no big deal. But to get a B in a Master’s level course — one that is your specialty — it really isn’t acceptable. So I opted out of the MFA and wrapped up my MA (much to the dismay of Stokesbury) and left Atlanta. Obviously other reasons led to this, but “freiheit” is the one that sticks.
Fitting that the German word for freedom led me so far away.
So I’ve returned and watch another dawn break in Atlanta at my desk as the bespectacled librarian and I wonder about freedom and choices and the flow and reason. And Snodgrass is now gone.
How we all stumble.