See You in September

September 15, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROBERT PINSKY: This is the time of year when college teachers, like me, all over the country enter a new year of work, greeting a new set of students.

Here are a couple of poems on that subject–the first poet emphasizing the sour, fatiguing, down side of academic life and the other poet celebrating the adventure.

First, in the negative mode, Theodore Roethke’s little four-line poem entitled “Academic:”

The stethoscope tells what everyone fears:
You’re likely to go on living for years,
With a nurse-maid waddle and a shop-girl simper,
And the style of your prose growing limper and limper.

That unhappy, cynical forecast is in contrast with Barry Spacks’s poem entitled “Freshmen.” Spacks views the incoming freshmen with undeceived, professional eagerness, and the humor of experience.

Full of certainties and reasons,
or uncertainties and reason,
full of reasons as a conch contains the sea,
they wait; for the term’s first bell;
for another mismatched wrestle through the year;

for a teacher who’s religious in his art,
a wizard of a sort, to call the role
and from mere names
cause people
to appear.

The best look like the swinging door
to the Opera just before
the Marx Brothers break through.
The worst—debased,
on the back row,

as far as one can go
from speech—
are walls where childish scribbling’s been erased;
are stones
to teach.

And I am paid to ask them questions:
Dare man proceed by need alone?
Did Esau like
his pottage?
Is any heart in order after Belsen?

And when one stops to think, I’ll catch his heel,
put scissors to him, excavate his chest!
Watch, freshmen, for my words about the past
can make you turn your back. I wait to throw,
most foul, most foul, the future in your face.