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Richard Poirier in 1973
Robert Boenig

In September 1973, while Richard Poirier was its Director of Graduate Studies, I returned to Rutgers to pursue a PhD in medieval English literature. From 1966 to 1970, while he was Chair of the English Department, I had been an undergraduate English Major there. I had spent the three years away from Rutgers studying ancient languages and learning the complexities of textual criticism at Princeton Theological Seminary seventeen miles down Route One from New Brunswick. During my undergraduate years Poirier was, at least for me, a rumor, an impalpable presence upstairs in Scott Hall, where English was then located, the big star, vast and terrible. I hadn't encountered him much. Department Chairs are busy and have reduced teaching loads. I actually saw the University's President, Mason Gross, more often, for one semester he taught a Philosophy course in Voorhees Hall, and our paths would often cross as I was on the way to my own class. He'd always smile shyly and say hello, though he didn't know me.

Poirier taught Introduction to Graduate Studies back in 1973, and it must have met early in the week, because its opening class was my very first after rematriculating. He was a few minutes late in entering, and while the forty new grad students were waiting, I passed the time wondering what I was doing there. I had grown accustomed to the tweedy Presbyterian civility in Princeton, and my fellow students now looked a little wild. A few were lighting cigarettes, which people could do and often did in classrooms back then—but not at Princeton Seminary. One fellow, shortly to become a good friend, was wearing a black cape and a monocle and using a cigarette holder. I was hardly naive, but it was difficult to ignore the difference between the two schools. I didn't want to go back home smelling of smoke. People in my undergraduate classes lit up far less frequently, and no one wore a cape or squinted through a monocle.

Transitions greater than the one I was now making were happening that year. The year was, in fact, remarkable for the convergence of so many liminalities. My own transition was of course foremost in my mind, not only the return to secular studies but also some other things like negotiating a commute from my apartment near Princeton in traffic that, even back then, fluctuated from the annoying to the downright dangerous and, for that matter, readjusting to a Rutgers College which had gone co-ed in my absence. When political, cultural, and critical paradigm shifts take place, we sometimes don't take much notice, only in retrospect fully realizing what had happened. But while they were going on, those of 1973 were hard to ignore.

The Vietnam War, for instance, was in a crucial phase of its long wind-down. "Vietnamization," one big political word among many that had haunted that war, was in full swing. The word euphemized the gradual pull-out of American troops, and its major component was the end of the military draft in June of 1973. President Nixon had originally conceived of the cessation of the draft as a means of undermining the student anti-war protests that were so much a part of college life in the late 60s and early 70s, but by the time Congress had approved the strategy, it had become clear that the war had to end.

Rutgers during my undergraduate years had been a politically active campus, though not quite to the extent of other schools like Berkeley or the University of Wisconsin. There were protests and sit-ins, and the University cancelled all final exams for the Spring Semester of 1970, the term I graduated, in the wake of the shootings by members of the Ohio National Guard of anti-war protesters on May 4 at Kent State. Four students had been killed and nine others wounded. This event culminated a tense academic year, in which the summer of the Woodstock Festival (billed as "three days of peace and music") had been followed by the exposure of the My Lai massacre in November and the invasion of Cambodia in April. There had been "teach-ins" against the war at Rutgers in 1965 (the year before I had arrived), and the Spring Semester of 1968 had been particularly given to anti-war activities there. At one protest, on the lawn in front of Old Queens, Mason Gross had come out to express his sympathy with the protesters.

Poirier shared this sympathy with liberal and radical young people, a sympathy that we did not then expect from our elders, those people Poirier termed the "middle generation." In "The War against the Young," originally published in the October 1968 issue of The Atlantic Monthly and incorporated into his 1971 book The Performing Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971) as its seventh chapter, he writes:

The social systems which organize and rationalize contemporary life have always been ingeniously armed for the day when youth would rebel against the essentially pastoral status assigned to it. Despite pamperings until recently unimaginable, despite economic briberies and various psychological coercions, the rebellion has broken out. Predictably, the response to it is a gradual escalation involving a more naked use of the tactics that were supposed to prevent, but which also helped to provoke, the crisis in the first place: patronizations, put-downs, and tongue-lashings, along with offers of a place in the governing system (if only the system is left intact) and promises that in any case the future itself holds the solution to whatever now seems to be the trouble. If this technique sounds familiar in its mixture of brutality and pacification, in its combination of aggression and absorption, . . . if it sounds vaguely like methods used in other and related domestic and foreign conflicts, then the point is obvious: our society is unfortunately structured, in the prevalent forms of its language and thinking, in ways designed to suppress some of the most vital elements now struggling into consciousness and toward some awareness of their frustrated powers. (pp. 143-4)

Poirier was doubtless writing these words in the immediate wake of the 1968 protests at Rutgers. They comprise his version of Gross's sympathetic remarks to the protesters sprawled across the lawn outside his office window. They are, characteristically, uttered from a larger stage with an audience primarily made up of members of the conservative middle generation, not the protesters of the radicalized youth. And Poirier is careful to situate Vietnam as one of a larger group of issues he associates with the revolutionary youth:

The intellectual weapons used in the war against youth are from the same arsenal—and the young know this—from which war is being waged against other revolutionary movements, against Vietnam, against any effective justice, as distinguished from legislative melodrama, in matters of race and poverty. (p. 144)

As a young person then, I'm not so sure I knew this. I took part in protest simply because I wanted the violence to stop and was not then, as I am now, interested in making those connections.

I think something more than Poirier's insightful political analysis is on display in these opening remarks of "The War against the Young," for I there hear the voice of Poirier the teacher. It is a powerful pedagogic technique to treat students as better than they actually are. It is a kind of intellectual siphoning: if you want your students to be literary critics, treat them as if they already are, and if you want them to grasp the complexities of politics, war, and social justice, assume that they already do.

In 1973 I returned to a Rutgers that had become politically quiet. The war wasn't officially over until 1975, but there was, for the moment little left to protest about. The revolution seemed over. With the cessation of the draft in June 1973, there was a feeling that we had turned a page and were ready to move on. We were wondering what to do next, now that the Age of Protests was seemingly over. In that 1968 essay, though, Poirier speaks as if a radicalized future were inevitable. Citing Roland Barthes (at a time before so many people found it fashionable to do so), he writes:

"Power, or a shadow cast by power, always ends in creating axiological writing," as the French critic Roland Barthes puts it, "in which the distance which usually separates fact from value disappears within the space of a word." To prefer "rationality" to "revolution" is good Time magazine language. It can't be faulted except by those who feel, as I do, that a revolution is probably necessary if rationality is to be restored to a society that thinks it has been operating rationally. (p.148)

Over forty years after Poirier wrote these words, the revolution has not occurred. A member of today's middle generation, I daily watch my college students interact with the world largely by means of their cell phones, content with their place in that world. If youth doesn't replenish itself in quite the way Poirier later in "The War against the Young" implies, he at least knows how to ask questions still pertinent today:

Before asking questions about the propriety and programs of young militants who occupy buildings, burn cars, and fight the police, let's first ask what kind of a world surrounds these acts. (p. 154)

Poirier's sympathy for the young extends to its culture as well as its politics. He was one of the pioneers of cultural studies, as his essay "Learning from the Beatles" attests. The piece was first published in 1967 in Partisan Review and was later incorporated into The Performing Self as its sixth chapter. I hadn't yet read The Performing Self in September 1973, and when one of my friends mentioned his piece on the Beatles, I assumed it was mere posturing, a literary analysis of sub-literature as an attention-getter. But I was wrong, as I eventually found out. The essay is not a literary analysis at all. It is instead a cultural analysis, primarily of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In 1973 I hadn't yet realized that a work of popular culture could stand up to rigorous intellectual analysis; I was ignorant because so few people were then doing this kind of work. I was wrong also because Poirier is not at all condescending towards the pop culture he treats. He seems genuinely to like the Beatles and their quirky, allusive songs:

Culturally speaking, the importance of the Sgt. Pepper album is that it finally put the Beatles, in the summer of 1967, beyond the shabby treatment or defensive patronizations of any of these factions. It isn't enough to say that it was then the latest and most remarkable of the thirteen albums composed and performed by the Beatles since 1964; some such claim could have been made for each album when it appeared. Sgt. Pepper wasn't in the line of any continuous development. Rather, it was at the time a sort of eruption, an accomplishment for which no one could have been wholly prepared. It therefore substantially enlarged and modified all the work that preceded it. Those who took it in this way went back to the earlier Beatles as one might to earlier Mark Twain after something as astonishingly unexpected in its brilliance as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (p. 115)

I had been conditioned to responses to the music of my generation by members of the middle generation far less generous than Poirier. My father, who like Poirier fought in World War II, is still capable of vituperative remarks against the likes of Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger, as anyone sitting in the room with him during their recent Super Bowl performances could attest. Though they are now on the exiting cusp of the present middle generation, their music falls on my father's deaf ears as inexplicably bad "young people's music." "How can anyone listen to that noise?" he still redundantly asks.

Between the Partisan Review version of "Learning from the Beatles" and its inclusion in The Performing Self, the Beatles broke up and went their separate ways. Others had been trying to take their place—the Grateful Dead (whom Poirier in 1971 vaguely terms "a group called the Grateful Dead" [p. 169]), Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, David Bowie, and emerging "singer-songwriters" like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Yusuf Islam, who still called himself Cat Stevens. Country Western music was beginning to push its way out of Nashville and into the mainstream. Disco music was looming. As Poirier notes in "Rock of Ages," Chapter 8 of The Performing Self, the three days of peace and music of Woodstock had morphed into the violence of the Altamont Festival, where members of the Hell's Angels were implicated in the murder of a young black man. A guitarist, I had performed pop music as an undergraduate, but by 1973 I was listening exclusively to classical music, gradually transitioning into a performer of early music on the lute, as I am today. It may have taken me a while to read Poirier's piece on the Beatles, but I now wish I had read is sooner, for it is full of critical insights as quirky and interesting as the songs on Sgt. Pepper. I might then have stayed with pop music longer than I actually did.

When Poirier came through the door for the first class of Introduction to Graduate Studies in September of 1973, his appearance confirmed that social conventions had shifted during my three years away from Rutgers. My male professors, both at undergraduate Rutgers and at Princeton Seminary customarily wore jackets and ties. Poirier was that day in shirtsleeves with his collar unbuttoned. The pencil-thin tie and dark jacket of so many 60s professors, including him if we can judge from some old pictures, was gone. This was interesting enough, but what really caught my attention was something else. He began that first class as if it really were its second, still a week away. He didn't introduce himself, as I find myself invariably doing at the beginning of each course I teach. I have never been inclined to arrive a few minutes late, and I could not do so today, even if I wanted to, because the demands of today's classroom technology are too great. I must arrive early to log into the room's smartboard and set up in advance the websites and video clips that have become a large part of my teaching. But no one imagined that technology in 1973. Poirier's slightly late arrival, lack of an introduction to the course, and immediate attention to literature were all, I guess, calculated—the informal dress and lateness as a statement that he would follow his own conventions, the lack of introduction an acknowledgement to us that he knew that we needed none from him, the immediate attention to a literary work almost a moral imperative that asserted literature as the proper focus of that day's class, of the whole course, of our future careers. It all, of course, was a performance, an enactment of the performing self.

The profession that he was sharing with us was also very much in transition in 1973. A number of alternative modes of criticism, including cultural studies and feminist analysis, were just beginning to offer viable alternatives to the close reading of the New Criticism that had long dominated literary analysis. My undergraduate years had been devoted to learning the tools of reading closely—concentrating on detailed attention to words and the structures they created. Much of my graduate work employed these methods as well. But in retrospect what I learned doing this at Rutgers did not entirely conform to the expected patterns of New Criticism. Irony and ambiguity, the classic concepts of that criticism, were often there, but the analyses were frequently edgy, off-center from New Critical norms. They were often, to use a word again, quirky.

One can sense something of Poirier's misalignment with New Criticism in The Performing Self. Some of the critics he cites, like Roland Barthes, were soon to be central to the postmodern criticism that supplanted the older mode. His book's own transition from the literary concerns of its early chapters, where Eliot, Joyce, and James loom large, to the cultural studies and political analysis of its later chapters mirrors the movement of the literary profession subsequent to the book's publication. Its subtitle, "Compositions and Decompositions in the Languages of Contemporary Life," assumes a postmodern critical stance, and prefigures the deconstructionism that was to become so famous in later years.

The reading list for the course I took from Poirier in 1973 was quirky, a bit scattered, and very interesting. If memory serves, we did James's The Portrait of a Lady, some poems of Frost, Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. The course did not, in other words, focus on bibliography or professionalization, as do introductions to graduate studies at other institutions. What I remember most from the class is not pioneering work in progressive modes of criticism—though that was evident enough—but instead Poirier's exacting reading of short passages of the works we covered. We functioned on the level of words and learned to back up generalizations with those words, with syntax, with allusions—close reading with an edge.

He enjoyed these authors as much as he enjoyed the Beatles. That is not to say that he bought into the unreflective worship of authors that one occasionally finds among the New Critics and the historicists that preceded them. But he did not endorse "the death of the author" either, or, for that matter, blame his authors for socially retrograde constructions. He once in class termed Shakespeare—hyperbolically but not ironically—the "god of the English language." What I best learned from him was that postmodern criticism, cultural studies, and performative analysis need not preclude love of literary achievement. One can go forward without leaving everything behind. It is a valuable lesson, even after thirty-six years.

Contributor's Note

Robert Boenig is Professor of English at Texas A&M University. He is the author of Chaucer and the Mystics and Anglo-Saxon Spirituality, and with Andrew Taylor is co-editor of the Broadview Press edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. He is a Contributing Editor to The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, and his articles have appeared in a number of journals, including Speculum, JEGP, and The Chaucer Review.

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