When I was a freshman at a small Catholic University, a charming and wise professor, Brother Andrew, instructed us in Literature. As he was calling roll, he would pause on the name of an unresponsive student and say in his droll and unhurried way: “No Mary (or Carol, or Robert) here today?” No response. “Nobody cares about Mary?” and remain with Mary we would until he was certain that she was not in the room before moving on to the next name.
That slow and deliberate manner marked his teaching as well. We worked almost primarily with poetry that semester. And although we studied many wonderful poets from Coleridge to Hughes, we only had one homework assignment for almost 4 months. We were to read and re-read TS Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” between each class session. As an ardent admirer of Eliot’s I wasn’t complaining, but I did wonder if we would wear out our welcome at Prufrock’s place before mid December.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Each time I pored over the words I found something new. Those exquisite lines! How could one ever tire of them? Can’t you visualize the “evening spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon the table?” And the “yellow smoke that slides along the street, rubbing its back against the window panes?” Time and space seemed to freeze allowing for “a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of toast and tea.”
More than 30 years have passed and I am sure Brother Andrew has passed as well, having been in his 60s when he taught us. But I still bring to mind the words of that poem often and perhaps more as I “grow old, I grow old…” and have indeed “seen the moment of my greatness flicker,” in many ways. Even more than the verse itself, Brother Andrew passed on a legacy of knowing that there is a possible universe inside one poem , and that when we walk through the door and make our home there, time will stand still for us, even as we “measure out our life with coffee spoons.”