The VA (the value added tax of class servitude)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The VA (the value added tax of class servitude)

The Veterans Administration, popularly known as the VA, at some point set up its health system in Southern California so that its hospitals were located next to major colleges or universities. In San Diego, there is a huge VA center next to UC San Diego; in Los Angeles, the VA is on the flip side of the 405 freeway from UCLA; in Long Beach, the hospital is adjacent to CSU Long Beach. I went over to that VA the other day to work on getting some veterans benefits for my mother, who was a WAVE in World War II. She receives medical care through both Medicare and a program called TriCare, which is available to the surviving spouses of career military personnel. She will need to be in an assisted care home at some point in the near future, though, and I wanted to get information about her benefits.

Walking around the grounds of the VA complex, I felt on one level as if I could relax in my performance as a college teacher. How much chance was there that I would meet up with a colleague in a building at the VA? In fact, when was the last time any of the tenured professors I have taught with or studied under or conversed with at conferences would have found themselves visiting the VA? It is a social ghetto, in certain ways, and the fact that it is right next door to the campus only mounts the spotlights on the three hundred and fifty-nine degrees of separation between military and civilian life. Power extends from the organization of space itself, and the milieus one is assigned are meant to delimit your activities in a manner befitting one’s station in life. That I find myself at the VA, in hopes of finding a remedy for my mother’s plight, is only what might be expected, given the initial terms of my childhood enlistment. I remember a spokesperson from Brotman Hall who greeted the cohort of new faculty at CSULB in 2006: “When one has a Ph.D.,” she said with utter sincerity, “class is no longer an issue.” Even if one has severed all contact with one’s family, I doubt that’s true. To the credit of my colleagues, a skeptical murmur of disagreement ricocheted around the room.

I did, in fact, have one teacher who was a veteran, and he was perhaps the crucial teacher in my development. In the fall of 1967, I ended up enrolling in classes at San Diego State, mainly because my application to UCLA’s theater department had been turned down. I would be successful the following spring in gaining admission, but in the meantime I decided to study at SDSU and found myself in a poetry class with a young poet named Glover Davis, who had studied under Philip Levine. I had never heard of any of the poets Davis taught me about in the 1967-1968. I was 19 years old when I started studying in his classes and by the time I was 20 I had learned more from him than most MFA students learn in their two or three years in current programs.

Glover Davis’s class would serve as a prime example of how Don Allen’s The New American Poetry ended up as the most influential anthology of the past half-century. After his discharge from the U.S. Navy, Davis had enrolled at Fresno State University and had moved on to the Iowa Poetry Workshop, where I believe one of his classmates was James Tate. I took poetry writing courses with him as well as a survey of poetry course in which I first read Hart Crane’s The Bridge as well as substantial amounts of WC Williams. We read Williams first, so encountering Crane was initially a bewildering experience. I was utterly intrigued by Crane’s dense lyricism and imagery, but how could his poetics be reconciled with Williams’s? Which side was Davis on? He seemed to be presenting an equal case for each poet, and I found myself unable to decide between the two. In the end, I liked Crane’s sense of the line better than Williams, whose sense of enjambment never really matured.

One of the best parts of the year was a chance to attend readings by Allen Ginsberg, Philip Levine and Robert Mezey. Ginsberg didn’t read “Howl” or “Kaddish,” but instead gave a powerful reading of “Wales Visitation,” which even the conservative member of the English faculty, John Theobald, appreciated. Ginsberg by far attracted the largest crowd, but it was his talk in the afternoon that made an equal impression. In retrospect, I have to concede that the overwhelming emphasis on male poets in Davis’s canon would have been daunting for the female students; perhaps this is part of the reason for Rae Armantrout’s unflattering characterization of Davis in her memoir. She neglects to mention, however, that he would have been the first teacher she had to have praised at length the writing of Denise Levertov, with whom Rae went on to study at UC Berkeley.  Memory can be capricious, and maybe Rae wasn’t in the class in which I remember Davis giving “The Sharks” a close, deeply appreciative reading. Davis was perhaps the most fortunate encounter I could have hoped for at that point, given my limited options. For the first time, I encountered a man who embodied a masculine variant of physical prowess that was also vulnerable to the subjunctive.