Perhaps we professors turn to satire because academic life has so much pain, so many lives wasted or destroyed. On the spelling corrector on my computer, when I click on English, the alternative that comes up is Anguish. Like the suburbs, the campus can be the site of pastoral, or the fantasy of pastoral—the refuge, the ivory tower. But also, like the suburbs, it is the site of those perennials of the literary imagination John Updike names as “discontent, conflict, waste, sorrow, fear.”
In the Hall of Passing Snidery,
we made remarks called barbs
because they hooked inside of us,
lodged where even now we cannot
pull them out without more hurt.
But what comfort in our smallness,
as if to know that campus—buildings
in collapse, the wounded sculpture
of the founding father’s head—
was to know the minor damage
mediocrity could do, restricted
to a few acres at the water’s edge.
No one would ever hear of us.
Our talent was plotting how best
to kill ambition, with a memo
or an ad-hoc committee convened
in the dank of June. We taught
grammar and logic in the Atrium
of Ache, rhetoric of cut-to-the-quick,
arithmetic of whom to subtract first.
We taught the honed angles
of geometry and music in sharps.
We taught astronomy,
the magnificent gravity of regret.
As for our young colleagues—
in the Unfitness Center, we tied stones
to their waists to make them sink.
In the Great Hall of Belittling,
in the Cafeteria of Our Hungers,
in the Conference Room of No
One Gets Out of This Alive,
we observed their defeated slump.
We have made you like us, we said.
To those we despised the most,
we gave tenure, a permanent office
in the Department of Hate, a certificate
stuck with the seal of our discipline,
each name calligraphied in red,
as if there really were a soul
to sign away, and all of us overseen
by some administrative devil
in the Center of Faustian Bargaining.