March 06, 2003
Pocket Bob

It is only in isolate flecks that
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

--William Carlos Williams, "To Elsie"

I once had a professor we called Bob.

Bob was indeed his name, but we only referred to him that way out of earshot. I attended his classes in 20th century American literature, possibly as an undergraduate and a graduate. I remember some of the authors he particularly liked (the discussions of Robinson Jeffers seemed to take an especially long time) and my poetry books are heavily annotated around the ones he really liked: the "tattered heroism of endurance" of Edwin Arlington Robertson's Eben Flood, "we get no peace" in the margins of T.S. Eliot's "Gerontion"; "a party of the real in the face of death" next to "The Emporer of Ice Cream." It was a good class.

He was also a favorite of mine for his brief but interesting tangents, which would crop up depending on the mood. Charlie Parker, Madonna, and Stanley Crouch's Notes from a Hanging Judge, which had just been published, all rolled through the discourse that semester. I'm still not sure why except that they had captured his interest somehow and he felt like sharing. Look at all these things, he was saying, aren't they great? And you don't think they will fit together, but it's all part of the picture, and it's OK. Most memorably, there was a strange combination of intellectual severity and benevolence.

(He was also a very nice man in person, calling me at home and saying "That's all right, dear," when I left a rasping message on his answering machine explaining why bronchitis had kept me from turning in my paper on time.)

In the years after I left school, I kept missing that quirky combination. I started telling my friends I wished someone would invent a "Pocket Bob" that I could carry around. It would be my talisman against boredom and stupidity and would emanate ideas and still, somehow, be comforting.

I returned to the idea of Pocket Bob upon reading this interview with Stanley Crouch the other day. The interview itself is kind of wooly, but the shock of recognition of his name was enough to bring me back to those days in the classroom.

It occurs to me that those days were pre-Internet, pre-Gulf War, pre-go-go '90s. In the intervening years, I wonder what Pocket Bob has told his students. On days like these, I wish I could have heard it.

Thanks, Bob. And good night, wherever you are.

Posted at March 06, 2003 08:56 PM