Teaching Lessons

The Joyful Music of Poetry

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By George O’Brien

May 16, 2016


 

We did not call him Mr. O’Hara, which was his name. We called him Pig, a typically cruel schoolboy tribute to his looks. And indeed his cheeks did sag into chins innumerable, he had a boozer’s pitted nose, and his dress code was more egg-on-tie than academic robe. His bulk made him waddle, and his attempts to haul himself up on the stool behind his desk were accompanied by many a mournful sigh. It was as though we had to mock him, ignorant of how otherwise to deal with the spectacle he presented, our callowness screening us from any thought of what might have brought him to this. In return for our disdain, he tried to teach the Irish secondary school English curriculum.

These classes were more than usually unruly. But despite our disrespectful racket and the part I thought I had to play in it, Mr. O’Hara soldiered on. Eventually, this must have struck me. And it was not only that his whiskey-softened rumble of Ozymandias and Paradise Lost caught my ear. I also noticed that there was something like joy for him in his recitals. Try as we might to get on his nerves, we could not touch the poet’s words. The measure and the pleasure of them saw him through. He would sometimes add to lines his own verbal check-mark, following, I remember vividly, Wordsworth’s “Breaking the silence of the seas / Among the farthest Hebrides” with an almost merry, “Very good, William.” Very slowly, I got a glimmering of how respect for the text mattered too—or perhaps most of all.


George O’Brien is professor emeritus of English at Georgetown University.


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