Essay by C. Dale Young
Faculty member C. Dale Young’s essay “The Veil of Accessibility: Examining Poems by Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch in Light of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness“ appears in The American Poetry Review.
The earliest memories I have involve reading. In fact, when I go back, when I return to the past, so much of what I can recollect in the farthest reaches are books and the experience of reading books. Sometimes the memories alone conjure up not just the act of reading and the works themselves but even the feel of the paper, the smell of the bindings, the dusty yellowed halo pulsing away as the book’s leaves are slammed shut. If part of being human is the act of telling and listening to stories, then what does one make of the act of reading, an act that is both story telling and listening? The brain must construct story even as the eyes capture the words the writer has left us. The human brain will construct story from almost anything. Painters have long been aware of this, the fact that if only a few icons or images are presented on a canvas the viewer will construct a narrative.
And yet, despite the fact that as far back as I can remember I recollect books and the stories in those books, my engagement and desire to make stories, to write, all seem to stem from a very specific moment in time: the Eleventh Grade. In the dark and at times horrific period of my life also known as my Junior Year of high school, I had a teacher named Kathy Doody. Yes, this unfortunately named teacher, Miss Doody, was the most laissez fare teacher I had ever had. She was thin but not anorexic. She wore her hair up in the way a librarian might but never would for fear of looking stereotypically like a librarian. She wore round and unfashionable at the time glasses that could almost be called spectacles. She was, for lack of a better phrase, a rather bookish-looking woman. And despite the fact she was old in the way our teachers always seem old to us when we are students, she was, quite likely, in her late twenties then. She was truly the oddest of my high-school teachers, and it could even be suggested, without much argument to the contrary, that she didn’t really want to teach at all. And yet, despite this, she was in fact teaching 4 periods of English Literature. But no one could deny the fact she loved books and loved to read. It was in her class that I was introduced to both the poetry of W.B. Yeats and the fiction of Joseph Conrad. It was in her class that I did a presentation on Yeats during which I recited Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” a dense and perplexing poem that captivated me and captivated my classmates who heard me recite it. It was in that class, as well, that I first read the simple, yes gloriously easy to understand novella, Heart of Darkness. If one were to have requested a vote, I am without a doubt certain that the majority of the class would have said Conrad’s story was easy in comparison to Yeats’ poem.
Imagine my surprise then when a few years later, in college, I re-read Heart of Darkness only to realize that this novella was anything but simple. In fact, with each and every reading of Conrad’s odd and quirky novella about the journey up the Congo in search of the brilliant Mr. Kurtz, an all-around genius of a man, I am struck again and again at how much more complicated and difficult this work is. I have read Heart of Darkness now 21 times since that after-school afternoon in the autumn of 1985 while friends of mine stewed outside waiting for me to finish my homework so they could watch the then still new channel named, stupidly, Music Television. How is it that such a complicated and complex story is told in such a way that this book is read by high school students, loved by them, and is in many ways deemed accessible despite the fact it is anything but that? But I am jumping ahead of myself, because this is not a question I posed to myself then. This is a question that has risen up through me over quite a number of years. And the question itself is complicated and, at this point in time, I am not even sure there is a palpable answer. But this question is one that arises for me over and over and seems applicable not just to Heart of Darkness but to a number of other works as well. And despite the fact my first inkling of a need to ask this question arose from the reading of Conrad’s novella, poems are what bring me back to the question as time passes.