Administrating Poetry
    Gary Wiener
I haven't written a poem in almost two years. I can, in fact, date exactly the moment when the muses flew away, to leave me high and dry, poem-less, in a world without art, never, it seems to me now, to return. It all began the day I left my job as an English teacher and took a position as an assistant principal. English teachers, of course, are full of poems. In fact, I'd venture to say that more poems are generated, per capita, by English teachers than by people of any other profession. Throw in college English professors and it's a lock. When I was an English teacher, poems flowed from me, like, well, like leaves from a tree, to trot out Keats.

But as an assistant principal? No. Nothing, not even a crummy haiku. Assistant principal is about as poetic a profession as garment quality control inspector. You know, the person who puts "inspected by number 18" into the pocket of your new suit. Assistant Principals are disciplinarians. They mete out detentions and suspensions with impunity, all in the name of academic control. They insist, they threaten, they cajole, they explain, they direct. But they do not write poetry.

I have to say that even I, in my former role as an English teacher, never had much respect for assistant principals. No offense to my new colleagues, but it always seemed to me the kind of position one lands in, usually not by choice, when there's very little else you can do in this world. I mean, who the wide world over ever wakes up one day as a youth as says, "Voila! I know my calling in life! I'll be an assistant principal!" It was George Bernard Shaw who coined the now famous phrase, "He who cannot do, teaches," to which an addendum was quickly added: "He who cannot teach, administrates."

My quintessential notion of the assistant principal derives, oddly enough, from that cinematic period piece, "The Breakfast Club." Played by "All My Children" veteran Paul Gleason, Richard Vernon is assistant principal of Shermer High School, Shermer, Illinois, 60062. Vernon comes bedecked in a hideous gray leisure suit, about which, John Bender, the resident juvenile delinquent asks, "Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?" He is continually preening himself when unwatched, and spouts such nuggets as "Don't mess with the bull young man, you'll get the horns," and "Next time I have to come in here, I'm crackin' skulls." With glee he assigns Bender a series of Saturday detentions stretching nearly to infinity.

Richard Vernon, like all of The Breakfast Club's characters, is a stereotype, and as such, does not reflect accurately school administrators everywhere. But there's enough of reality in him, I suspect, to make all of us feel just a bit uncomfortable. Vernon is, by turns, an unenlightened despot, a sadist, a know-it-all or just a plain old jerk. He will never be confused with a poet.

It's not that I feel I must be gainfully employed in an artistic profession to be a poet. One thinks after all, of Wallace Stevens, an insurance executive, or William Carlos Williams, a pediatrician. More recently, Dana Gioia, recently nominated for chairman of the NEA, comes to mind. A former student of mine, who recently won Poetry Magazine's prestigious Ruth Lilly award, is pursuing a law degree. When asked about this supposed contradiction, he states that most of the poets he admires were not primarily academics.

Nevertheless it concerns me that I have been consigned by the fates to such an un-artistic profession. I imagine that part of my problem with this new role is that I no longer speak from my own heart. I used to say things like, "The beauty of this poem by Lucille Clifton lies in its..." Now, instead, I parrot the organizational party line: "You realize that if you continue to fail Health, you won't graduate with your class in June" or "Do you understand why you can't throw french fries around the cafeteria?" I suppose I believe in what I say, but I've got to tell you, sometimes I wish I could take a handful of fries, smothered in ketchup, no less, and go Jackson Pollack on the cafeteria walls myself.

Gary Wiener lives in upstate New York; he was the editor of "Desperate Act" magazine and his poems had appeared in Thema, Poetry Motel, In Posse Review and elsewhere.


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