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End of an era

John Mahoney's last class

john mahones and studentsI waited for class to begin in the small and lavishly Gothicized Gasson lecture hall, stern-faced portraits of Cicero, Webster, and other edifying exemplars emblazoned on the walls and arched ceiling. Professor John Mahoney, retiring after 47 years in BC's English department (though he will be professor emeritus starting next year), was about to teach his last class of English 358, "Poets, Poems, Poetics," an upper-level course of about 40 students. Would this be a sentimental journey, an hour and a half of him waxing nostalgic? Would he maybe dig deep, one last time, into Wordsworth, his specialty? The students who entered the room and found seats were nicely groomed young men and women in pressed khakis and clean jeans. There were few piercings in evidence, few outward signs of "poetic" eccentricity.

As it turned out, the last class was not a one-man farewell show. Instead it was a symposium, with three outside panelists: Robert Barth, SJ, a BC English professor; John Anderson, a poet and lecturer in BC's English department; and Katherine Douthit, a painter pursuing a graduate degree in applied linguistics at the University of Massachusetts. Anderson read some of his own poems, and Douthit showed two of her paintings and discussed the parallels between visual art and poetry. ("Representational art," she said, "is more like a declarative sentence; abstract art more like a poem.")

However, it was the students who really ran the symposium. There was a student moderator, Nicole Cotroneo '02; three student presenters, Stephen Calme '03, Kevin Skelly '02, and Jonathan Farina '02; and three student reciters, Joseph Halli '05, Katherine Johnson '03, and Michael Lombardi '03.

Professor Mahoney was simply the gracious host, a tall, slender man with a generous air. At the beginning he briefly welcomed everyone, explaining that it is his custom to end each upper-level class with a symposium like this one. At the end he said a sweet, short goodbye to this particular class, thanking them for a semester of "being there and working hard; a tribute to the fine arts," as he must have similarly said goodbye to every class at the end of every semester. In between his welcome and his goodbye he said nothing at all. There was no "last class" pomp. The fact that this was his last class was never mentioned.

The students who recited handled long and difficult poems from memory: Thomas Hardy's "The Convergence of the Twain," John Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," and "The Paper," by panelist Anderson. The presenters scarcely referred to their notes. Calme went first, offering definitions of poetry, including the elegant "poetry arranges words to transcend words." Skelly spoke to imagery and poetic language, saying that imagery is what makes poetry timeless. Farina traced poetic theory from Plato to the moderns. All told, they gave a brief and nuanced look at what had been covered in the class over the semester. When Professor Barth, a Coleridge expert, followed up with questions for each presenter, their answers ranged widely— over Oscar Wilde's influence on contemporary theory; Coleridge's distinction between imitation and copy.

In the end, I may not have heard Professor Mahoney teach, but I did hear his teaching. For some people, like Mahoney himself, poetry becomes a lifelong pursuit, and for others, perhaps for many in his classes, it simply becomes another part of life. Stephen Calme, during his presentation, recalled a moment early in the course when Professor Mahoney had issued a challenge: "OK, describe in two simple, declarative sentences what it is like to be in love." There was silence. "You see," Mahoney had said, "you can't. You have to use poetry."

Susan Miller

Susan Miller is a freelance writer based in Boston.

Photo: Lee Pellegrini

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