No Pane of Glass

I was reminded again last November that the Web is wonderful.   It was commonplace to say that a few years ago, but our sensibilities to the wonder of it were quickly deafened by the appalling barrage of Internet hype.

It now sounds embarrassingly naive to enthuse about the Web being a "global town square", where people "of all nations and values can meet each other and provide resources to each other for the Common Good of All Humankind".

That touching, early-90's techno-utopianism has long been put in the shade by the blinding spotlights pinned on huge media congolmerates, like the recently minted AOL-Time-Warner-Etc-Megacorp.   Espouse it these days and it comes off like 60's nostagia for La Revolucion.

Then I was beachcombing along the shores of the information ocean a few weeks back and found the object of a twenty-three year search as easily as asking for it.   And so I fell head-over-heels again for the Web.  

I speak not of the technology so much, as the real Web - the Web of people all over the world that love certain things, love them enough to share.   The new communications technologies have only allowed us to find each other much better.

In the depths of the winter of early 1977, I was taking a freshman English course at the University of Calgary.   This in itself was a little odd; engineers generally take the easiest, and closest-to-scientific thing they can for their few required humanities courses.   It was odder still that I was in the poetry course.   It was nothing short of dangerous to confess this to other engineering students.

But some poems would simply grab my brain and not let go - I was compelled to memorize them and repeat them to myself now and then.   This often happened with T.S.   Eliot poetry I did not even really comprehend, as if the mysterious attraction were independent of whether any message was even communicated.

It happened a few times during the course, once with remarkable power, and in remarkably frustrating circumstances.

The course professor was very young and sharp and energetic.   The theatrically crusty older professor of my previous English course, Alan Cairns, was surely describing her when he spoke of the "...young girl who got the only position open in this department this year, beating out 72 PhD applicants - mostly because she's been published 3 times."

Her name is Dr. Barbara Belyea and I'm delighted to see that she still works at the University of Calgary.   Dr.   Belyea provided us with an extraordinarly thought-provoking exercise.   She handed out sheets of paper containing several poems - poems that lacked title, author, date, or any familiarity to any of us with our high-school Norton Anthology educations.

She then stressed that some of these poems were actually quite famous, (even if not in the Norton Anthology). Some were more obscure, some were favourites of hers but very obscure, and some she really didn't like.   Yet another was her own work.

She then discussed a few of them briefly, on a purely academic level and without hint of preference.   And then invited us to write a short paper for the next class describing what we liked or disliked or at least saw in them - a paper that would not be graded but would be read and comments supplied back to us.

It was something new to us as freshmen.   She forced us to make up our own minds, uninfluenced by any learned opinions on which poem was great and which was minor.   She never asked us to guess which poems were which, and she never did tell us anything about their titles or authors.   There really was no right or wrong answer.   There were simply poems that we liked and poems we didn't.   All these years later, I still think of it as one of the most educational experiences I had in University - a place that, after all, is supposed to teach you to think for yourself.

I remember the sheets were "gestetnered".   That, for the children out there, was a dreadful copying technology that smelled up schools and wore out teacher's arms on into the 1980's.   The victim was compelled to crank a device that rolled sheets across a drum, copying the original onto each with some wet process that created blurry, faint, light-blue images that were unreadable below ten-point type.

I held onto one of the gestetnered sheets on through my first degree and years after, stashing it folded up in my poetry text, until it slipped out during one apartment move, I suppose.   It was a sad thing about watching children playing in the snow and reflecting that adults do not enjoy the world in that involved, immediate way.

I kept looking for the poem in books as I came across them.   I don't know why I didn't simply ask Dr. Belyea right after the course was over - stupid pride, I suppose.   One year, long after the blurry blue sheet had been lost, I realized that I no longer had a good memory of it - I have a number of poems in my head, and years can go by between efforts to haul one out for a few repetitions to refresh it.

Then the search began in earnest - I had truly lost the poem now, and wouldn't get it back until I found it in a book.   I spent some weekend afternoons in the University library, looking through collection after collection.   Finally, around 1990, I broke down and went to the University after work and visited Dr. Belyea in her office.

She couldn't have remembered me, but was sympathetic, and no doubt rather amused by my plight.   But she couldn't remember the poem, either.   Her notes for that early course were long since gone. She did remember bits of it, but only a few more lines than I did - and not the title or author.

My search continued, but was now a morose, despairing thing.   I didn't spend any afternoons at it again, just immediately flipped through "titles and first lines" indexes in poetry books when I happened across a new one.   Nothing.

By the mid-90's, I began typing the fragments I remembered into search engines on the Net.   Nothing ever came up, though I had to wade, of course, through heaps of irrelevant material, checking.

That petered off, too, and I didn't even do that for a few years.   Last November, it hit me that the Net had no-doubt doubled in size again since the last time I'd thought of it, and I gave it another whirl: I punched
"no fall of snow"
into Altavista.

A moment later, I was clicking through to one of the free "vanity" publications on the "GeoCities" site, this one apparently entered by Jack McDowell, presumably a teacher at St. Andrews Scots School, of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Mr.   McDowell, or one of his students perhaps, had made a private project of a small site providing works of women in literature - including a page on Elizabeth Jennings, a prolific British poet since the 1950's.

The corporate might of AOL-Time-Warner had not ended my long search; a single teacher had, as another had begun it.   Somebody else who liked poetry and wanted to make some favourites available to everyone.   The Web was pure magic again for a moment, as it had not been for many years.   My heart's desire had flown to me from across half a world, from a school that I would have not believed in the existence of a few moments before. (A Scots school in Argentina? )

I sent off a thank-you note to Mr. McDowell via the school, and bookmarked all the sites involved, and saved the file, and all that - more than a little choked up the whole time.

Then I read the poem again, and a cold feeling began to grow in the pit of my stomach.   I was no longer so happy I'd found it.   Across the decades, it had turned into something of an accusation:

Poem in Winter

Today the children begin to hope for snow
And look in the sky for auguries of it.
It is not for such omens that we wait,
Our world may not be settled by the slow
Falling of flakes to lie across our thought.
And even if the snow comes down indeed
We shall still stand behind a pane of glass
Untouched by it, and watch the children press
Their image on the drifts the snow has laid
On a winter they think they have made.
This is a wise illusion.   Better to
Believe the near world is created by
A wish, a shaping hand, a certain eye,
Than hide in the mind's corner as we do
As though there were no world, no fall of snow.

Elizabeth Jennings

Twenty-three years, marching further away from childhood.   When I had first read that poem, I might still have the odd snowball fight with my classmates on the campus.   I could no longer remember the last one.

Decades of further retreat from the taste and smell of the world, more hours of each day spent in offices, and books, and lately, in computer simulations and databases - a day of skiing or hiking a rare and time-expensive luxury accomplished through much scheduling and planning.   Entertainment was so often yet more books and television and movies - and computers.
...hide in the mind's corner as we do... as though there were no world ...

It then struck me that I was looking at an illusion.   It was not even a real object, not even a humble and blurry faint-blue gestetnered sheet of paper.   The poem itself was on my monitor.  
...behind a pane of glass ... untouched by it

Touched by it, I got up abruptly from the droning machine, threw on a coat, and went out into the harsh, blustery fall night, which showed no signs of snow at all.

But was real.

Roy Brander

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