On Finishing the Dissertation

If you have piled up a great rubbish heap of oily rags in the basement for your doctor’s thesis and it won’t seem to burst into flame spontaneously, come away quickly and without declaring rebellion. It will cost you only your Ph.D. union card and the respect of the union. But it will hardly be noticed even to your credit in the world. All you have to do is to amount to something anyway. The only reprehensible materiality is the materialism of getting lost in your material so you can’t find out yourself what it is all about.

—Robert Frost, “On Emerson,” 1959

So Frost wrote in the year of my birth. I first read these words in 1984, during my first year of graduate school. Four years later, I was trying to write a dissertation on Emerson. I wanted to give it up; I wanted to declare the rebellion I’d been more or less tacitly engaged in since I was a teenager, and get out. Instead, I decided on another topic, my sixth or seventh, four of which had to do with Emerson in all or in part. Other proposals had to do with the Tudor translator Philemon Holland, with Bacon’s rhetoric, with James Merrill’s speech of touch.

I was lost in my material.

But the trouble was that it did burst into flame spontaneously, not that it wouldn’t. It burst into flame, I watched it burn out, made my report, and that was that. I might have five pages, I might have forty, I might have 220, as in fact I did have in the summer of 1988: 220 manuscript pages on William James and Emerson. I wanted to hand them over and be done with it.

I couldn’t, or didn’t want to, go the distance with any of those drafts—didn’t even want to type them up. The pleasure and the instruction had gone out of them by then. The instruction and the pleasure had been in the acts of reading and writing, in discovering what I was doing as I went along. I was more a starter than a quitter. I couldn’t finish and I couldn’t quit. I remained the short–distance sprinter I had been when I swam competitively.

I ended up writing a dissertation in three parts: on Robert Frost’s echoes of other poets; on Bernard Berenson’s tactile values; on invective in the Elizabethan prose writers. But that was only after writing two more proposals, one on Frost’s plays and one on Frost as a literary thief. Part One of my dissertation salvaged material from that effort; the other two were based on revisions of an essay on the influence of William James on Berenson, and of my very first dissertation proposal, which I don’t think I submitted: an examination of satiric and erotic motives in the English poets of the 1590s.

Between 1983 and 1992, I started graduate school once and quit it four times before I finished. (I did finish, didn’t I?) Not that I don’t think I got out with a false degree—false in my own eyes, false in the eyes of professors whose respect I wanted, and false in the eyes of my fellow graduate students who wrote true dissertations. But it’s too late for that.

I started into college bristling against the academic protocols of objective analysis, logical argument, and painstaking exposition. I went in spoiling for war and pretending to swim unattached—unattached, but never detached. I got away with mediocrity because I was prickly and did my homework and had a good memory. I couldn’t reason, though; couldn’t think straight, couldn’t “develop an argument.” I knew, by the time I went to graduate school, that I had wasted opportunities in my frictive bearing against academic norms and scholarly discipline. I kicked against the pricks. I was always on the defensive. I abandoned myself to what was asked, but only to a point; then I showed my true colors.

My nine-year career in graduate school can be summed up in a remark Richard Poirier made to me near the end of it: “You always go sideways; you never go forward.” He was talking about some writing I’d submitted, ostensibly a chapter of my dissertation on Robert Frost. A few days later, in September of 1991, I told Professor Poirier that I was not going to finish. He said he thought I’d made the right decision. So did I, until early December, when I opted to write a three-part dissertation, “not recommended,” according to the department bulletin, “for those who wish to pursue a career in academia.” An option, nonetheless. In May of 1992, I was hooded.

When Poirier made his remark about my going sideways, it was clear that he wanted me to go forward. When, nine years earlier, his colleague Bridget Lyons said of the first long essay I wrote at Rutgers, that it was “too French or something, written too much from inside your author instead of from a place outside,” it was clear that she wanted me to be English or something. “I’m worried about you,” she wrote in the top corner, next to a reluctant A. Barry Qualls expressed the same anxiety in his comments on my essay on Bleak House, beneath an equally doubtful B+. For his part, Tom Edwards thought that my “brilliance” in an essay on Swift “occasionally muddied the waters a bit.” As I said, Poirier’s criticism was a summary of my uneasy tenure in graduate school.

When I told my uncle what Poirier had said, he told me that I could do two things with it. I could take it as a criticism, adjust myself, and go forward, point by point. Or, he said, I could take it as an insight into my temperament and “go sideways all the way.” I felt the justice of Poirier’s critique. It squared with the comments I’d gotten from other professors on two-thirds of the writing I’d done in graduate school, and half of what I'd written in college. How could so many professors be wrong? On the other hand, I liked going sideways, making associations, crossing boundaries. I worked this way in the poems I was writing, two of which Poirier had published in Raritan. But I couldn’t make up my mind; I gored myself, typically, now on one horn of the dilemma, now on the other. There was no deciding the question once for all; I had to decide daily.

Poirier couldn’t be expected to wait until I stitched a dissertation together from my forward days. As it turned out, he’d pretty much given up on me, and his criticism was intended to urge me on my way out. He was tired of me. I had left him once before, dissolved my dissertation committee, and tried to set up another. It didn’t work. Knowing that I had had Poirier for a chair, other professors demurred when I asked them to be readers. I didn’t help my case by proposing to write on John Jay Chapman, whom none of the professors I proposed to had read.

Jim Guetti said that he liked what I’d written about Chapman, that last bastion of Emersonian radicalism, but that he wasn’t interested “in what’s right about Chapman.” He was interested in what was “wrong with Emerson.” If I wanted to “throw bricks at Emerson,” he’d be happy to work with me. By this I understood Guetti to mean that if I wanted to throw bricks at Poirier, he’d be more than happy to provide them. “You’ve heard,” Guetti said to me one night at a party, after I’d narrated my experience with Poirier, “about the drunk guy who picks up a frozen snake off the road? He puts it in his jacket. When the snake warms up, he bites the drunk. The drunk says, ‘What did you do that for? I saved your life.’ The snake says to the drunk, ‘You knew I was a snake when you picked me up.’”

It almost goes without saying that there were a number of people at Rutgers who thought that Guetti, too, was a snake; it was just a smaller number of people. Poirier’s number of detractors was larger. I liked the way one of them, Whitney Bolton, put it. Like Guetti, he attacked Poirier with the shield of Emerson. “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think Emerson has something to tell us, and those who don't.” Bolton was proud of his aphorism. He was certain that no one would ever mistake him for belonging to the wrong kind. I doubt that he ever made the remark in Poirier’s presence, just as I doubt that Guetti ever offered to throw bricks at Emerson in ear-shot of Poirier. You get a sense of the power accorded to this man when two full professors, both tenured and secure, likened him to a poisonous snake, felt impelled to smash him with bricks, and divided the people of the world based on antipathy toward him.

Emerson says that every man is “an infinitely repellent orb.” Poirier was also enormously attractive. If you’ve seen Albert Finney in The Browning Version, Under the Volcano, and Miller’s Crossing, you’ve seen the only actor capable of doing justice to the port and character of Richard Poirier. I forget who told me that Poirier had a beautiful, rich baritone voice—until something happened to it. Now he strains his listeners and appears to strain himself when he talks (several of us at Rutgers worked up imitations). Some say this strain carries into his writing, which one of his best students characterized as a mixture of Henry James, William James, and Norman Mailer. (Poirier once said with lust that Henry James was “incapable of writing a bad sentence.”) I’d add to that the persona—not the style—of Robert Frost.

There seems to be general agreement that the interview he did with Frost in 1959 seduced Poirier mightily, and that the keynote of his work came out of it: the idea of “the performing self,” a self bent on knowing and not being known, on being skeptical and assured, “dense” but not “difficult”—a self bent on holding people and holding them off with nothing more or less than the sound of its voice.

Of Poirier, little was, and is, known to us. He likes to eat in expensive restaurants and order the most expensive wine. He likes Julia Childs. He likes cats. He likes students who come, as he does, from the working class, passing through Amherst and Harvard along the way. He taught his own father how to read. He was in the army during World War Two. He likes to gossip; his talks with his friend Lillian Hellman must have been something. He lived with a man named Richard Santino, to whom he dedicated at least two of his books, until Santino died of AIDS. He never spoke to us of Richard Santino; he never talked of his daily life.

He keeps his eye out for geniuses and is usually disappointed. He doesn’t spend time with mediocrity; when it speaks, he leaves the room or looks at his watch if he can’t. Impatient, fickle, petulant, malicious, capricious, charming: he has been called all of these things. The closest bit of autobiography he seems to have written is a single sentence on Frost in what is now a coda (1982) to his 1977 book, Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. In it, Poirier says that Frost was a “mature seventeen all of his life, and that’s better than some of us do.”

I went to Rutgers because, as a senior in college in Professor John Wren’s course on Frost and Cummings, I heard Poirier’s voice in his book on Frost as I had never heard a voice in a book of literary criticism before. I wanted to study with him, and I wrote him a letter saying so. He wrote back, saying that graduate school didn’t work that way, at least not until the dissertation stage, when such an arrangement was possible. Until then, he said, I would find that there wasn’t “a lot of academic bowing and nodding at Rutgers.” I was to find out that there was, and that Poirier, who was on the receiving end, and the others, who were standing in line to bow and nod, had tacitly agreed to call it by other names. Richard Poirier was the man of the house. Rutgers was his wife (“I am wedded to the place,” he had written in his letter to me).

On the other hand, Poirier was right: there wasn’t a lot of academic bowing and nodding at Rutgers, because Rutgers wasn’t much of a house, and nobody was home much. The professors who could live in New York did; the professors who could live in Princeton did; the rest of us lived in New Brunswick or Highland Park or Menlo Park. And none of us ever called Rutgers by its real name, The State University of New Jersey. Though it was a commuter campus at the graduate level, we all liked to think of it as I did growing up and listening to college football scores: as one of the Ivy League schools. The graduate students in English in Murray Hall formed the only cohesive group at Rutgers that I knew of, and we quickly atomized around various professors. Poirier’s office wasn’t in Murray Hall; he had his own house, Parker House, up the road. You seldom saw Poirier in Murray Hall, where the English Department offices were, but you knew that it was his department.

Poirier’s aloofness and our therapy were of a piece. When I learned, while helping to move a refrigerator, that several members of the junior faculty at Rutgers discussed Poirier with their therapists, I wasn’t surprised. I discussed him with mine, and so did other graduate students, with theirs. But Poirier, like Matthew Arnold’s Shakespeare, did not abide our questions. I dreamed of Poirier, but never discussed those dreams with my therapist. In one, he and I and Robert Frost and Gertrude Stein are standing in a hallway, waiting to see a professor during office hours. In another, Poirier is walking up ahead of Frost and me, and Frost is telling me that he liked one line of one of my poems that Poirier published in his journal. I ask Frost if he liked the other one, but he doesn’t answer.

I don’t think any professor at Rutgers worked as hard and as steadily as Richard Poirier, which made him hard to work for. He told me once that he preferred the English system, where the student writes the dissertation and puts it on your desk when it’s finished. I think I speak for most of my fellow graduate students when I say that we didn’t go to graduate school for the English system. We went to find our true parents; for our pains, we found ourselves infantilized. And it didn’t stop with course work, which was like stormy Monday; or with orals (Tuesday’s just as bad); or with the dissertation (Wednesday is worse); or with the job market (Thursday’s oh so sad). We wanted constant supervision and attention, constant recognition and approval. Fifteen years of being graded wasn’t enough: we sentenced ourselves to another term of seven to ten, as if for good behavior.

Things would be easier now, because we’d made it into that solitary confinement where the lowest grade you could get was a B+. At the same time, we knew that a B+ in graduate school equaled an F in college. If you earned more than two of those, you’d be encouraged to take your Master of Arts and go into advertising, which some of us did, and write copy like “Got milk?,” or go to work for the Educational Testing Service, which some of us did, to devise SAT and GRE questions.

Most of us got hung up, or hung out, when it came to the dissertation. I passed my orals. The year of reading for them was a golden age, and the luster lasted through the let-down of a two-hour exam in which I was asked, among other things, what the term “Jacobean” referred to. During questioning about my knowledge of Frost, I offered to recite a short poem before discussing it. “Don’t,” was the reply. Still, the pleasure of reading and passing lasted through the summer, and I brought it with me into Poirier’s office that next September.

“Don’t write about the hands thing,” he said—and there went my dissertation, and my luster with it. Ideas and essays that he had thought “original” when I was in classes with him no longer seemed so.

“Okay,” I said.

“So what will you do for your dissertation?” he asked. I had no idea. “Come back again and we’ll talk about it.”

At two minutes, that was the longest visit I’d had with Poirier in four years. It took six months to recover from.

I had no strong feeling about “the hands thing”—or, all I had was a strong feeling, plus all the essays I’d written over the past four years. I didn’t know what “the hands thing” was all about. I had simply gotten an idea, probably in college, probably while reading Keats, about the cropping up of hands and touch in poems. It struck me as odd that poets should try to describe their hands, and to ascribe to them more power than they seemed to possess—the power of thought, for example. In my life, touching was one of the few things I did that seemed to require no words. When I was making love, I was quiet, I didn’t talk. I used my hands for touching, feeling, caressing, hugging, holding, stroking, parting, opening, inserting, withdrawing, combing, tickling, outlining, lifting, squeezing, brushing back. I wrote an essay about Keats’s sense of touch in my Late Romantics class at the University of Colorado with Gerda Norvig. Keats’s “globed peony” hadn’t struck me as a visual image, or as an idea—the world in a flower. It struck me as a tactile image: the peony would fit in your hand (I tested it in a neighbor’s garden I worked in); the peony asked to be taken in your hand. Similarly, when Keats in talking about “negative capability” supposed that a billiard ball might have a feeling of its own roundness, I took him to mean that he had at some point done something with a billiard ball that had nothing to do with billiards. He’d picked one up off the table to feel it in his hand, its weight, its smoothness, its roundness. As for suggesting that the ball might be sensible of its own roundness: it was the kind of sensible remark my grandmother might make. By the time I was finished with course work at Rutgers, five years later, I had written papers about hands and touch and tactile imagination in Bacon, Shakespeare, Robert Burton, John Bunyan, Emerson, Dickens, William James, Bernard Berenson, Pound, Eliot, Frost, O’Neill, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Harold Pinter, and James Merrill.

Poirier told me once in his office that I reminded him of someone he knew in high school, a kid who could balance himself—this is what I remember—on his little finger. Something about my work struck Poirier as impressive, but trivial and juvenile. My performances may have seemed original and remarkable at first, but they looked peculiar and superfluous later. The other problem had more to do with academic accounting, I think, and it was raised by Bridget Lyons, who was then Director of Graduate Studies. She asked me how I was going to situate such a study chronologically. What period was I going to concentrate on? I couldn’t very well talk about Dickens and Burton and Pinter and Frost in the precincts of a single dissertation. How would I sell myself? What would I say I was on the job market? Renaissance (we didn’t yet say “Early Modern” in 1987)? Modernist? Add to this the fact that I was going to be writing about American authors, too: the thing was impossible. I had to stick to a field, a period, a national literature.

“Come back when you’ve thought it over and we’ll talk again.”

Six months after he told me not to do “the hands thing,” Poirier accepted a proposal I’d written on Emerson, William James, Frost, and Stevens. As I look back on it, it seems as weak as the proposal I’d first submitted to him three months earlier, on William James’s Principles of Psychology as a literary work. He hated it. Why did he accept this one? Because those were the writers he was interested in, the writers he was teaching, the writers he was thinking and writing about. When he rejected the first chapter to come out of that proposal—and there was no reason he shouldn’t have—I sought out a new chairman and a new committee. When that didn’t work out, I went back to Poirier with another proposal, this time on Frost as a literary thief, a poet who carefully echoed earlier poets, especially lesser poets no one would think to hear in him, but also great poets, to whom Frost would make casual references that, had they come from Eliot or Pound, critics would have tracked down and written notes, queries, and articles on. The fact that Poirier accepted this proposal surprised Suzanne Hyman, his managing editor at Raritan, who said that Poirier didn’t take back those who’d left him.

But Poirier does pretty much what he wants to. Suzanne herself had been a graduate student at Rutgers, and had come under Poirier’s influence. When he handed back her first paper, he told her that she should quit graduate school. She did—but there she was, Managing Editor of his journal. We talked about him when I worked there, reading submissions, mostly of poetry, and commenting on them. Suzanne said that she found Poirier “sexy.” I was amazed. Of all the things I had found him, sexy was not one of them. Suzanne insisted that men and women alike were mainly attracted to his sexual energy. I couldn’t see it or feel it. He seemed to me one of the least sexual men I’d encountered, even as he teased out sexual feeling from, say, Shakespeare’s use of the word “space,” when Antony says of Cleopatra, “Here is my space.”

It was his mind that astonished me. My first course with him was a seminar on Emerson, in my second semester at Rutgers. We were to read and be prepared to discuss “Self-Reliance” on the first day of class. I think I read the essay three times. By the time I went to class, I’d probably underlined half of it, made notes in the margins of every page, and written several pages of thoughts on it. Before Poirier had spoken for ten minutes, I wondered if I’d read the same essay he had, he’d found so many things in it that had escaped me, things that seemed obvious and true the moment he said them. Poirier had me; Emerson had me. From January 1984 to May 1992, I lived, it seemed to me, more intensely in Emerson’s pages and in Poirier’s reading of him than anywhere else. I’d read for twelve, fourteen hours, and go to bed reluctantly. When other students wanted to know where something was in Emerson, they were pointed my way. I even managed to make Emerson’s essay on “History” come alive for Poirier, who hadn’t thought it worth spending time on before. In short, Emerson, and Poirier along with him, fucked me up for almost nine years.

In those nine years, I found out that I wasn’t alone. Stephen Emerson Whicher committed suicide, apparently just after finishing an essay on Emerson—having spent his scholarly life thinking about and writing on Emerson. I was told stories about graduate students who had written and finished and torn up, and written again and finished again and torn up again, dissertations on Emerson. Myra Jehlen, a Rutgers professor, told me that Sharon Olds had her dissertation on Emerson’s poetry rejected. I was told about assistant professors who couldn’t finish books on Emerson, about one professor who’d essentially spent his career trying to write a book on Emerson. Fellow graduate students at Rutgers were driven up the wall by Emerson, as Thomas Carlyle had been, as Yvor Winters, the poet and Stanford professor, had been. Winters liked to demolish Emerson in front of his students. When they would object that Winters was taking something Emerson had written out of context, he would say, “There is no context in Emerson.” Winters even blamed Emerson for the “spiritual drift” of modern American poetry in general, and for the suicide of the poet Hart Crane in particular.

Poirier seemed unfazed by all of this. Attempts to pin Emerson down, like Whicher’s, which has Emerson reveling in freedom for ten years and then resigning himself to fate, or to get rid of him altogether, like Winters’s, seemed equally absurd. And yet Poirier’s own book on Emerson never materialized. What he wrote instead was a book of “Emersonian Reflections,” followed by yet another prefaced collection of Emerson’s writings. It seemed to Poirier’s secretary, who typed his manuscripts, that he’d been elaborating essentially one lecture for a decade. So it seemed and seems to those who thought and think that Emerson had and has nothing to tell us: that the Sage of Concord elaborated essentially one essay for fifty years. The same thing—over and over again. That’s how Frost struck the poet James Merrill, who sat at Frost’s feet several times, and heard the same thing every time, and was bored. “The squirrel in going from limb to limb makes the forest one tree,” Emerson wrote. Every great writer, and every great critic, is a squirrel like that.

In September 1991, I went to see Poirier, to tell him I was quitting graduate school. “Good,” he said. “That’s a good decision. You have your own way of doing things. I don’t think a logical extended piece of writing like the dissertation suits you. It’s a useful critical tool for training professional literary critics who will go on to train others. I believe that. But if I were in your situation—I don’t mean yours specifically, but you know—I would teach in a private school, or a college like Amherst, and you don’t necessarily need a doctorate for that. I’m here—I see myself now—trying to save people from this terrible professionalism. College students are, most of them, no good, and graduate students . . .”

But I didn’t quit. I re-upped and finished in six months. That I did has hardly been noticed to my credit in the world, but I noticed, which isn’t the only thing that matters.




Paperback: 86 pages
Publisher: Lumen Books
(June 1, 2007)
ISBN: 0930829646


Paperback: 86 pages
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