Years ago, a professor told me after my first big important exam in the university that ‘I think we can say that you didn’t understand any of this and should think of a different major.’ I thought I did show in my paper that I did understand something. I just didn’t know much.
It was my first year studying literature and I had had to read 91 books for the exam: fiction, plays and poetry of classic world literature. So, I read Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Flaubert with gusto. But it was poetry I couldn’t get my head around.
One of the questions in the exam paper presented three poems, asked who wrote them and told us to analyse the poems against the time period they were written in. I guessed a name of a poet and waffled.
Needless to say, that the three poems were from three different writers. (Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud, if you must know.) And since I got the poets wrong the rest of the paper was wrong too although I must say that I did work hard on some very creative literary analysis.
I still cannot get my head around poetry, but I do have a favourite poet and a favourite poem. The final three lines of Raymond Carver’s ‘Rain’ keep giving me the shivers:
Would I live my life over again?
Make the same unforgiveable mistakes?
Yes, given half a chance. Yes.”
I’ve decided that I don’t have to know everything about art and literature, but I can still enjoy it.
Reading Scott Fitzgerald, Camus and Austen may not have directly taken me towards a career in trade unions, but it did open my brain up to thinking about human nature, metaphors, history, politics, symbolism and everything else under the sun. Reading makes me feel good. It is escapism and adventure.
I did get my degree because I’m stubborn. It has turned out that being able to dig deep into written word has served me well in union work too. What is case work after all a lot of the time if not digging into who said what and what they meant?
Unionlearn’s Literacy Works Week 25 February-1 March encourages everyone to do just that: enjoy reading and writing.
By the way, I never managed to finish Herman Melville’s Moby Dick which was on the reading list. After six pages I decided it was the most boring book ever. Happy to discuss this though, if anyone has any differing views?