The Big Game

by Emily Bedard, Roosevelt High School

When you teach, you inevitably pass on the lessons of your teachers, sometimes so frequently that an idea starts to seem like your own. Then something triggers your memory of the person who gave you the gem when you were a student. When this happens, the insight itself becomes suddenly fresh and essential all over again, with a new naked importance.

The poet Jack Gilbert, who died at age 87 in California earlier this month, was my teacher for a single semester during my MFA at the University of Montana. Gilbert was impatient, crotchety, piercingly insightful, and fiercely dedicated to the craft of poetry. During one memorable workshop, he made the cranky pronouncement that if we, the students, weren’t going to go for the Big Game, well, then what was the point of us writing in the first place? He urged us either to write about death and love and passion and fury and loneliness, all the thorniest emotions, or to just admit we were artistic lightweights and go play badminton or something.

Years later, I do not give daily thought to Gilbert or to the hours I spent as his student, but I think about the Big Game all the time. In fact, I use that exact phrase every semester with my sophomore WITS classes at Roosevelt High. But I had, I must admit, sort of forgotten the source. When I saw Gilbert’s obituary last week, I knew I owed him a belated thank you.

In addition to saying thank you, it would also have been nice to tell Gilbert that the exciting thing about urging 15-year-olds to go after the big emotions and the complex ideas, is that they actually DO it.

They might do it by asking brutal questions, as Christian F. does here:

Ever walk down a hall
completely blind?
Ever swim 100 yards
without limbs?
Even though it doesn’t seem
so, I’m dead, but breathing.

They might do it by capturing the power of an everyday thing, as in this ode to red paint by Grace N.:

It has broken free from
Its cage
Time and time again
A crimson bull burning through Paris
A scarlet fox darting out of its hole
It consumes others
Like fire
Devouring the yellow to birth
A boiling orange

Or they might do it, as Mackenzie B. does here, while describing a strange night scene of horses caught in a struggle between dancing and dying:

Fragrant scents
Lead them
To battle
Like music.
 
In the vineyard
They dance
And die while
The moon is falling.
 
Wounded silhouettes
Fall silently and
Without noise
They ascend.

I think Gilbert would be glad that someone—a lot of someones at Roosevelt High, anyway—can be trusted to take poetry so seriously.

He might not, however, be as pleased with something else my students do in their poems, and that is to be relentlessly, inventively funny. In another heated workshop on a snowy Missoula evening, Gilbert bitingly dismissed the purpose of humor in poetry. As I remember it, his stance was that poetry that aimed to be funny was a kind of simpering copout, a cowardly tap dance away from difficulty.

But here I part ways with my teacher and side with my students. That is one of the many gifts of the WITS program—seeing young people in the act of writing is a vital learning opportunity for the teacher, too. High school students can be startlingly funny, smartly funny, heartbreakingly funny on the page. And, I would argue, they need to be.

If you are a young person alive today, trying to sort out the weird, possibly bleak, inheritance your elders have shaped for you, you need to be able to lift the curtain on the ludicrous and flip sobriety upside down onto its careful comb-over.

As a writer, as a human, a sense of humor is going to give you a lot of mileage. It may, even, be one of the creatures clustered under the heading of the Big Game. And so we finish with this poem by Isaac M., written on love poem day and titled, perfectly, “Shazam.”

Oh Pumpkin, I wish I could say
that I love you with all my heart
but it’s so overused, such a cliché…I must
find a new organ to dedicate to you.
My mind you may find too small
to fit in. I lost my appendix when the tree
fell last summer. My spleen does something
important, I’m not sure what. Rooming with
mashed potatoes would suck, so my stomach
is out. My liver is ticklish, I donated
my extra kidney, stay OUT of my colon,
and be careful if you choose my lungs…
Why not just stay in my heart?
It’s worked so well for so long.
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2 Responses to “The Big Game”

  1. Thanks for posting this, Emily. I can tell that Gilbert must have been a character, perhaps as Roethke was on the UW campus, though I do not know if that’s a fair comparison. Can you recommend any of Gilbert’s books or articles on poetry? Thank you.

  2. Gilbert was definitely a character. I’m really glad I got the chance to spend time with him. He was so unapologetically a poet — it was great. As far as books go, I have always loved The Great Fires, and I have also heard that his recent book of collected poems is lovely, though I haven’t had gotten it yet myself. Thanks for the comment and happy reading!

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