'From joy to joy to joy'

October 18, 2004
November is the time for slowing down and storing up -- nature tells us so. The heat has given over its fiercest bellow; fresh colors surprise us in the sumac and the tallow trees; the nights are growing longer, offering us circadian rhythms within which to prepare for the stillest season. Yet we rush on, out of tune with the south-bound, burbling sandhill cranes -- busy people, working, serving, dealing with the challenges of a frightening international scene -- while earth's cornucopia of days tumbles into burnished gold and harvest moons shine.
I have overlooked autumn in a thousand places -- the hawk that floats in deep blue sky over mown hay fields or the mix of light and shadow that offers messages in the grass. But when I have stopped to smell approaching rain, to feel the wind or to acknowledge the crunch of acorns underfoot, I often have credited poetry with preparing my eyes and ears for the wonder of it all.
The poets pay attention to the turning; they have been here before to lead the way. From John Keats we reap such images as the sun and autumn conspiring "To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees, / And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core ... ."
W.S. Merwin reminds us "it was only as the afternoon lengthened on its / dial and the shadows reached out farther and farther / from everything that we began to listen for what / might be escaping us and we heard high voices ringing / the village at sundown calling their animals home / and then the bats after dark and the silence on its road."
A teacher made me safe to read such poetic lines. A professor at Baylor, a woman who loved words, ideas and the mystery in language, introduced me to Hardy, Eliot, Auden, Housman and Hopkins, among others.
No one is going to make a movie of it -- we weren't dramatic enough, and Mrs. Elizabeth Smith, MA '50, never stood on a table like Robin Williams did -- but I can still see my 1965 version of "Dead Poets Society" as clearly in my mind as if it were captured on a big screen. The students came in and sat down. The teacher entered that basement classroom in Armstrong-Browning Library with quick steps and a no-nonsense demeanor. Standing behind the lectern, she introduced us to the lyric voices of Modern Poetry. When she read a poem, we leaned into the moment as if we were participating in the only thing that mattered in the world. We wanted those lines etched in us. And they were.
Under the professor's leadership, we flew ecstatically with Hopkins' windhover, and we stood numb, our headpieces filled with straw, alongside Eliot's hollow men. Day after day, we mined the texts for precious ores under her powerful direction. And in the process, we discovered poems that took the place of mountains, just as Wallace Stevens said.
Beyond rhyme and metaphor, complex questions rose and fell in that classroom. We began to feel at home with awe, pathos, love, tragedy and contemplation. Then as the bells from the tower rang us into our futures, we moved swiftly along, taking our poets in the ocher bindings with us. I still have that book. Recently, I saw the same edition under the arm of another faculty member here: "Yes," he replied to my query, "I took the course under Elizabeth Smith, and Dylan Thomas' 'Fern Hill' has been my touchstone ever since."
As others attest who are fortunate to have studied great ideas under intense, dedicated teachers, many of us in the early 1960s were endlessly altered by Mrs. Smith, later Githens. And when I hear another of her students, such as former Ambassador Lyndon Olson Jr., crediting her for profoundly affecting him -- well, I feel I've found a friend for life.
Discovering that someone was influenced by the same professors who defined your Baylor years is cause for jubilation, not unlike learning you are both members of a special, secret Baylor society. No, not the NoZe. These societies (so secret we hardly know the names of other members) stretch around the world and across decades, connecting Baylor alumni by tiny, invisible wires of love for a particular class, for a wildly wonderful teacher. For some, their "club" might be named the Friends of Packard Physics; for others, their bonds were forged under the tutelage of a renowned historian.
The Elizabeth Smith Githens Poetry Guild, undoubtedly, would have many names on its rolls. If Homecoming reunions were organized not just by graduation years but also by classes that were catalysts for lifelong learning, how many of us would crowd into her room with copies of that special book, A College Book of Modern Verse, still tucked under our arms. Teach us again, Mrs. Smith! The world has changed, and we are growing older. Cast your spell on us so that we will be safe inside the words, the awe!
Until that happens, I will continue to pay my respects by strolling through the rain of fawn- and lemon-colored leaves, listening to them tick, like the season's clock, as they crisply hit the streets. Perhaps I will go as far as the creek and listen to the rush of gurgling water race off to who knows where. Standing there in the chilled late afternoon, I might study the texture of the bark of a young willow or breathe deeply the smoky scents wafting from neighborhood chimneys. Creatures will come and go. Children's voices and the sounds of their backyard football games will float on the air.
Turning back toward my house, I will watch one of those amazing Texas sunsets, where crimson and fire pour through what Robinson Jeffers has called the "rifts in the screen of the world." And maybe I will quote lines to myself from one of the poems I learned from Mrs. Smith. Yes, I think, Hopkins: "The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil."
The spirit level refilled, I will wind my way toward home with Li-Young Lee's phrases on my tongue: "There are days we live / as if death were nowhere / in the background, from joy / to joy to joy, from wing to wing ... ." When I slip back into our house through the library door, Jim will look up from a biography of Genghis Khan and probably ask, "Where in the world were you?" And I will reply, "Just walking with Elizabeth Smith Githens." Then taking liberty with a line from Philip Levine, I will add, "Nearly forty years ... . Yet I remain 'warm still in the fire of her care.'"

Vardaman, BA '65, MA '80, is associate dean for special programs in the College of Arts and Sciences.
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