I am writing this from a desk on the top floor of Massey College, looking out over the courtyard on a beautiful sunny morning. It is a scene from every movie about scholars in long gowns thinking deep thoughts. It is a dream from a long, long time ago. And it's an alarm. It's time to wake up.
In 1990, I defended my doctoral thesis. One of the examiners was then the Master of Massey College. And it wasn't until today, wondering why I was reluctant to go to the dining room for breakfast, that I realized I had made a choice. I wasn't here because I needed a bed close to my training. I was here to remember, to revisit the spectacular debacle that was my thesis defense and see it with new eyes.
I'm not sure why it has taken more than 20 years for me to know, absolutely, that Yeats, the poet we were discussing on the day in late summer 1990, would have been baffled by the conversation. I was young and fiery and I had written a beautiful, complex study of how beauty confronts violence and the deep roots of different kinds of injustice in the world. They - the examiners - were the leading edge of the baby boom (or just before) and every door had opened to them. They inhabited the pretend castles of universities, living solidly middle class lives without much need for quiet desperation.
I look back at my younger self and say, Be Brave. What they are saying is wrong for you and wrong for Yeats. He would be confused and unhappy to find that the middle class was using his writing to show that good poetry could smooth desperate violence into meaning and elegance. Yeats made meaning out of rage and embarrasment and his love for broken, hurting people. How could his point be to make these people more satisfied with themselves?
On that day so long ago, I argued that Yeats wrote poetry to disrupt, to pull the mind in different directions, to show that we must respond to unthinkable evil and hurt but we must not shape it into something that is safe. It is not safe. He was never safe. And on that day, so long ago, the Master of Massey College (a woman) suggested quite kindly that I could not see the flow and perfection because I had two babies at home who must have disrupted my thought.
They passed the thesis that day, because it was undeniably good. But they passed it with faint praise and without support. In a time of excruciatingly few opportunities for young scholars, I was done.
And yet, here I am, twenty years later. Like Yeats, I am on the outside, not really part of any system. Like Yeats, I work to discover how it is that we are shaped for a world of such disruption. I teach people who have been hurt and trapped and show them that they already have what they need to look forward, to shape their meanings and their relationships, to see beauty. Like Yeats, I do the work I do because I love it and because I know that being on the edge of the systems you observe offers you a point of view where you can see useful things.
He never lived in a quadrangle. And as much as I love the designs of Ron Thom, neither will I.