Thursday, 6 September 2012

I and the Institutions

'I' go into UEA this morning. 'I' pick up MA to mark, 'I' deliver things, 'I' talk over things. 'I' meet people.

That's five statements with an I at the front of them. I must be thinking about what I do. In fact I am, so this is a somewhat 'I' based post. Indulge me: it's that kind of thinking. I won't do it again for a long time. But maybe you do something like this too?

I am thinking primarily about institutions, and myself in institutions. It's strange leading an institutional life. I have been a half-time member of staff at various places since 1988 which is what I have preferred. Why have I preferred it that way?

It may be that I am not really an institutional kind of man. I have never had an ounce of institutional ambition. I never wanted a career in that sense. I have done things when asked, and have run a number of things without any certainty that I was the right person for it.

The mechanics of institutions are demanding. They are not quite the same as jobs. They are a kind of organism.

I taught full-time in schools between 1975 and 1988, as head of two different departments at two very different schools, but I always felt I was doing it with half my mind, and was always relieved when things went well. I don't suppose I ever did it for the greater glory of the institution: I did it because I taught people and because they depended on me and I wanted to do as right by them as I could. The organism went on much as it always did.

I probably rationalised that it was healthy to keep half a mind on other things, whatever the main thing was. In my case the other thing was the main thing: it was writing. And maybe it was good not to set all my mind on writing. Sometimes I wondered whether I had such a thing as a whole, undivided mind. I still do. The mind is itself a rather strange organism, but an organism that is not, in my case, very much like an institution.

It needs luck to be able to survive like this, and I have had luck, more than I deserve. So I went to the art school in Norwich when invited to write a course. I had never written a course in my life and hadn't been on the staff of any institution of higher education, but I wrote the course went there to teach it.

It made a great change from school. At school one had to be a responsible adult. At art school one had to be a responsible teacher. Having gone to art school myself I loved the ambience of the place. Little by little the course built and became an extraordinary thing. I am not sure how that happened. It involved my colleagues, I am sure of that, but it was something to be proud of, and a little dizzy about. It hadn't seemed difficult planning and delivering courses. It was an anxious kind of fun. In fact it was like a fun fair tolerated by the institution.

Meanwhile the other life went on, rushing ahead, dashing off in all kinds of directions, which was lucky for me as I have a short attention span. It is a deeply intense attention span but it is rarely long. All my life it has gone on in sprints.

The art school changed as an institution - not that I ever thought about the institutional aspect of it very much but I couldn't help feeling things and noticing things. The institution turned a little fraught and dour: it lost something of its messy joy. Then I was invited to apply for a post at another institution: a university.

And here I am three-quarters of the way through the normal expectation of a life, at this other institution which is still just an institution, albeit a big institution, one the size of a proper concept, and I'm still not wholly there.  I still don't care about a proper career yet I have survived and perhaps even prospered. I have enjoyed the kinds of happines an institution can offer to those who have never quite become a full part of the institution, the happiness of human contact, of floating ideas and feelings, of learning about language and how it passes between us.

Occasionally - quite frequently in fact - I have felt guilty for not quite being of the institution. That guilt could be tiring. But then I reasoned that the only reason the institution wanted me there was because of what I did outside the institution, because I could be faintly feral in a well-mannered, considerate, quite gentle kind of way.

So one thinks these things over. What will this great 'I' of oneself be best fitted to do with what time is left to it?

Hence all these 'I's in this Exemplary Life, 'I's watching each other with a degree of animated interest. What will 'I' do next? 'I' must think about it like a responsible adult.


Harry said...
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Harry said...

Am reminded of the great reprimand from the 20th Century Japanese Zen Master Kodo Sawaki to a star-struck, adoring novice:

"What are you gawping at? Don't you see it's about you!"

I think you have done wonderfully to survive this long as a poet without being put into an institution! :-)