On Being Insubordinate
Bread Loaf School of English, 3 July 1957
Typed transcript, 13 p. RBMS / C-4 / Cook, Reginald Lansing, 1903 – 1984 / Verbatim, vol. 3.

This [the microphone for the tape-recording] ought to be a loud speaker but it isn't. This is just to incriminate me so I can't deny anything I've said. It is true that I have a very bad cold. I haven't the usual voice and you look very far away back there. You frighten me. Doc gets this all mixed up about me being an exporter or an importer. He doesn't know what the two words mean, I think. [Laughter] I was always an exporter. I went over there [England] to plant something on them and I planted it. That's all there is to it. And I went home to see how the harvest was growing all those years. That I had planted there was there.

Just a funny little thing that interested me the most that has come to me since I came home. Ed Lathem, who collects rare books over at Dartmouth, has got acquainted with people over there. He has been there for a year and he got acquainted with Gilbert Murray, and Gilbert Murray had one of my first little editions of 1913 himself and gave the little book to Ed Lathem to bring home. That's interesting to me that somebody as interested in the Greeks as he was all the time should have picked up my little book back there in 1914 when only a few picked it up. That's the little triumph.

Now I'm sure I'm not going to he heard way back there. It disturbs me.

Now I'm going to talk to you a few minutes just before I start reading. I'll speak to you as teachers who are here for the summer. And I want to tell you that I know what you're here for or ought to be here for with the emphasis on the ought. You ought to be here to find out what it is not to be much mastered, too much teachered, taught. All I know about slavery is that you want all slaves to he obedient. And that's what our school system mostly is—you must be slaves, obedient to the system. See. And that's all right but I often wonder where you begin to get insubordinate. See. Where you start to be an insubordinate.

I've just been looking it up for myself in history. I always wondered how Caesar became so insubordinate that he became the greatest master the world has ever known. See. Better than Dr. Johnson. More of a master. The greatest master the world has ever known. And he started with just kind of cheap Catilinian insubordination. He played along with Catiline, that bad man. He began just to be dissatisfied with it. Now this is the way I see it, the way a person passes out of slavery into. mastery—not by wars and things but by saying I have a right to know what it's all about in religion or government or education or poetry. I have a right to know what it's all about. I don't ask to be original or different. But I have a right to know what it's all about. That's all. Now you can keep people—It's better to keep most of them—from knowing what it's all about. See. You want them where you can handle them. The system wants them that way, the government wants them that way, and the masters want them that way.

But this thing is—to me psychologically—when the first stirrings of insubordination waken in people, something that's worth being insubordinate about. See. That's part of it too. Very important. Little boys that are called delinquent all over the world today in England, Ireland, just the same as here. I know a lot about them. They're just insubordinate about the wrong thing. See. Its premature with them, I guess. It gets started too soon. Just that. It's the same thing that made Julius Caesar disturbed there. And what I'd like to see. I'm going to make this pretty short. What I'd like to see Bread Loaf known for is bringing teachers up to the point of getting unslavish, of getting to know for themselves what it's all about. Is it about just degrees? Is it about tickets for—you know—the cards and the clubs—and the educated clubs? I don't know why they call that that. They call it a rat-race. I don't know what that means. But it's after that card of admission to the inner circle or the place where you get a half decent salary.

If Bread Loaf is only competing with all the summer schools—if it wants to stay right in competition with them, let it stay in servitude or else go the other way. Let it do what I would like to see it do—bring people here who would arouse people to want to know what it is all about. Is college worth going to? I go around saying it isn't. I told them over in England I'd rather get a degree from a university than an education any day. [Laughter] And they all appreciated it. They took my side about it. That's the whole business.

What are we after? I often think of Lucretius. That's where I've been browsing around about Catiline, and Lucretius stirring about the same time. He [Lucretius] went off quietly by himself; he didn't run with the politicians and mix up in the mess of that time, but he was thinking about it all. And he was being insubordinate about the gods. He quotes Ennius, I know. Ennius says somewhere: "I say, as I have said, there are gods but they don't take any interest in us." See. That's Ennius. And Lucretius nicked that right up there. "I say, as I have said, there are gods but they don't take any interest in us." That's insubordination. And the most magnificent passage in Lucretius' poem [On the Nature of Things, Bk. I, Lines 52-73] is about the defiance of his master—the person beyond him—Epicurus—who says in the Latin studies first of all against the monster in the sky called religion, that defied it you know—then he went on to see if there was anything there and found there was nothing. Great stuff insubordination. And you can throw away religion, and you can throw away education, and you throw all away all you can of it and see what you have got left.

I was very closely associated with one of the wild men of his time, Mr. Meiklejohn. They've been celebrating him down at Amherst. They're so sorry they treated him badly now. And he's an old friend of mine; he's a stout one, a little man but stout, you know. One of those, you know, who want to know what it's all about. And you don't have to find out, you know. The master is the person who thinks he's come near enough it so the others better take it from him. He has no tenure. You can't take him out. That's all. If it got into print and got around that that was the thing stirring at Bread Loaf then it would be out of competition with the other summer schools that don't care about that. They're submissive to the system. Nine tenths of the colleges, and the teachers in the colleges, are submissive to the system or to somebody that's just over them. See. [You know you've got to be] There's all sorts of things in it. I'm not going into it at length. But how do you manage it? It's one of those psychological things how you pass from servitude to mastery. By what steps in life, by what reading? By what books? By what people that you listen to, by what poem. And it's such a long story that it ought to be the whole story of education. It's the book of the worthies, what the worthies have done. It's the great book, you see. No summary of psychology or sociology can do it, or touches it all, it's such a vast book of the past. I've get myself started on this a good deal from hearing Doc about Dr. Johnson. But I've been thinking about it. But there's something you know, something in education. And when I doubt it all, what do I doubt? I don't want less than an education from the thinking minds of America, I want more than an education. See. An achievement—achievement—and you can go on from there. Achievement in what?

I talked down at Smith College once not so long ago on how you can tell when you're thinking. And that's got a lot to do with it. How can you tell when you're thinking? Do you think you're thinking when you're just nicking or catching on? And that's in it too but if you haven't taken all that as just an example of daring to use, to dare, you know, that's what it's about. The best thoughts you've ever had from anybody are just a challenge to you to have one too. Come on and have one. Let's see you have one. Let's see you wreck something. It may save you. All right!

The approach to it [thinking] in schools must I'm sure be in the selection of the people who make the gang. That's all. How much daring, how much? Let me tell you. I know a parable. I know somebody [Richard Wilbur] who thought that Chaucer was to be looked at greatly as a poet—as one of our English poets—first of all, and that he was right with you, you know. That first of all, and not a thing to be approached by a scholarship, primarily. The system makes him that. The system has damned him to that. See. And I know somebody—a poet—a distinguished poet [Richard Wilbur], everybody says, saying it more and more, young poet, who asked in a certain college [Wellesley] to he allowed as a poet to teach Chaucer as a poet, and they laughed at him in the faculty meetings. And he has gone to another college [Wesleyan] where they've hired him to do that—to teach Chaucer as just another poet like himself. With a double salary. [Laughter]

I can remember under Mr. Meiklejohn back in those days, we thought—looking at education, looking at what it's all about—why is everybody confined to his department. Is there some reason for that? And one of us in the German department and one of us in the English department decided that we'd teach philosophy and we did for two years. But all the old slaves around us, see, all of them, went around thanking God they didn't pretend to know more than one thing. [Laughter] And after we'd bowed to them for two years we quit, you know, out of pity for them. See. Two parables in one. Two parables. See. That's all got to do with this thing of what lies beyond it—just the same as in religion, just the same as in poetry. I could take an evening with you about what bothers a person like we'll say Ezra Pound. What ailed him? It was insubordination. The question was whether he was insubordinate about what was worth being insubordinate about, you know. That's the question. But anyway it was insubordination. And I'm for it, you know. Just the same as Catiline was. Caesar was for it. But he managed to disengage himself from the follies of it. He managed to make contemptible both Catiline and Cicero. Isn't that funny? I was brought up to think that Cicero never was wrong. But I've come to see a little differently.

But now I'll say a few poems to you.

Take even the subject of versification. See. If I hadn't been through years and years and years of consideration about it all, what it's all for, what it's about, what it is, I wouldn't be here tonight. [The same kind of thing] Mine is a milder thing. You can almost say that anything that's commonly said—a stitch in time saves nine—say, anything that's commonly said like that is worth looking at twice to see if it isn't entirely wrong. Just for the fun of it. As I look at certain of my poems and I don't have to point them out to you to give them away in that way but some of them are just that—my little defiance somewhere at what is commonly thought. You'll be interested to know probably that over in England in one of my lectures my subject was in praise of the East India company and Lord Clive.

I can't be in the mood to talk. I think I'll read. Where will I begin? I understand that some of you up here are putting on one of my poems as a play and that sets me thinking about my own career. And the poem they are going to put on is "The Witch of Cöos". Is that right? And lately, when I heard of their putting it on, I thought to myself: "Do I read it or do I act it? Do I go all out and impersonate in it? Have I begun to do that by imperceptible stages?" I read my poems to begin with and I really think I begin to impersonate more than I used to, often.

I'll read you that poem. Want to hear me impersonate it? I lost the place. I had the place right in front of me. [Rumbles around and finds the poem in his book] Here it is. See. I have an old woman here to impersonate and she's as old as I am [i.e., eighty-three]. I have the advantage of being her age but I have the disadvantage of not being an old woman. Or I wouldn't be so insubordinate. "The Witch of Coös." [Reads first three lines] [When Frost read "Two old-believers" he interjected] "\"That means they were old-fashioned… people; old-fashioned ones. I heard a lot about them in Ireland lately. They didn't want me to take too much stock in the talk about it so they blamed it all on Madame Blavatsky. Did you ever hear of her? And they said, 'Think nothing of it; it's nothing disastrous.' "Two old-believers." [Interrupted at line 90 and not completed on tape]

[Says "Away" fumblingly] I'll say it again. [Repeats "Away."]

That's all of that one. Here's another little one. I don't want to stumble through them. I guess I'm tired. I'll take what I've got here [i.e., in Complete Poems; not new unpublished ones like "Away"]. Here's the same kind of mood as in this sort of thing you see. You're fooling with the structure of the world. That was considered again and that has been written about many times. I remember when one of the fellows asked for a Guggenheim to write a message on the structure of the human race. That's years ago when I was down in Florida. And he came to me with his project. That's what is called a project. [Laughter] I just wrote on it until I favored the discussion of the human race as thoroughly epic.Now this is my epic on that subject. [Reads "It's Almost the Year Two Thousand."]

That's a Northumbrian pronunciation of books. [Laughter] I've been talking lately about all these pronunciations we were talking about the other day. He had rhymed books with deluxe in his poem. What were we talking about—the pronunciation of after. Is it the Jack and Jill poem? Or something of Shakespeare. [To Kay Morrison] Was it? Do you remember'? [No reply] Well, anyway, isn't it amusing? I didn't think at the time… "Jack and Jill went up the hill/ To fetch a pail of water." See. Pronounce the word water the way the Irish do. And you go to Ireland to find out how they used to say it in England. [Laughter] That's what I've been.. laughed at. "Jack fell down and broke his crown/ And Jill came stumbling after." See. No doubt there's that "after," right in that poem. My grandmother said it that way. But she didn't pronounce the water right because she wasn't Irish. She said the war-r-ter. I've heard her say that. These pronunciations are… wherever you are when you see words that don't quite go just say: 'I heard my grandfather say them.' [Laughter] Some counties in England…Lincolnshire.

All right now. I'll stop this. And I've been talking a lot about this drama thing. You listen to me now. I'm going to dramatize another one. See. How far do I tell it? I'm going to talk where drama's going on exclusively this summer in a few days. And what I'm going to tell them is that my object is just the dramatic line; to make sentences that almost act themselves, you know, for the government, and then transfer dramatic action and more than transfer, a compulsion, a demand. And if it doesn't do that there is no fun in it. [You] just make statements no matter how beautiful in thought and all that. [In] this one watch me lay it on this time. "Provide, Provide." See, that's the name of the poem, "Provide, Provide."

[Reads "Provide, Provide"]

See all sorts of tricks. Do I put them in or are they there? When I say, "No memory of having starved." Is that the way to say that?

And as I've told you here before when I did that down in Washington, when the New Deal was at the height, I had right in front of me a friend of mine, pretty close to the presidency he was, sitting right down there. And at the end, I said: "Better to go down dignified/ With boughten friendship at your side/ Than none at all. Provide, provide:" And then I looked at him and said: "Or someone else will provide for you." [Laughter. He smiled and his wife laughed…]

Here's a little one called "The Hardship of Accounting" that's very appropriate now. I'm having to account for the money I spent for the government in England. And it's quite a job to account for it. And I don't care. Let them account for it. [Laughter] I made this a long time ago when I was bothered by the income tax, that's all. Let me get the tone right. [Reads "The Hardship of Accounting."] Invent is the heart of it. That's why I'd like to see the income tax done away with. I'd vote for anybody who would do away with it. Just because I don't like to use my invention all the time.

All right. Now I'll say some of the old ones. [Turns page of Complete Poems.] I won't say this little one.

This one is one I thought of taking parts of and calling by different names. And the name of it would be "An Abandoned Road in Ripton." About an abandoned road in Ripton. Two little stanzas of it. And the beginning and the end, I guess. I can't dispense with them. The poem is called "Closed For Good"—an abandoned road.

[Reads "Closed For Good."] [Thunder]

That's one of another kind, isn't it?

Some little poems like this that I almost never say. I walk the streets of cities at night, late at night, and. see one light, you know, somewhere. And if it's a college place I know somebody's getting ready for an examination or a paper. But if it's an ordinary town, I know it's somebody that has to have a night light, you know, an innocent person.

[Reads "A Night Light" Repeats]

Another kind, too, I like to fool around. See. I didn't look too long. Not too long. Right on the dot. I work late in the evening. This is called "Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening." I'll go back to some of the early ones. [Starts to read "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," but the rain interrupts the reading. After an interval] Can you hear me now? I think we can hear now. You tell me when to go. Shall I try something a little noisier than that "Stopping By Woods on a Snow Evening," something like "Mending Wall"?

One of the queerest bits of news that happened to me over there in England was in this "Mending Wall" that I thought was as plain as the nose on your face, you know. We got talking…about obscurity. And this fellow Graham Greene sneaks up: "I think one of the obscurest things I've read in your line, "Good fences make good neighbors!" That's what he said. And I said:"'You must remember I didn't get that up. I was only quoting from the Panchatrantra." [Laughter] I lied. That stopped him. He thought [the line] was something very old and sacred [sarcastic]. This always amuses me…. That's the funniest thing that ever happened to me in conversation with it ["Mending Wall"].

Somebody once said to me the only thing for which you will be remembered is something you didn't write: "Good fences make good neighbors." Somebody said this to me in my earlier days. put I thought that was an easy one. But Irwin Edmen said to me once: "Good fences make good burglars." And I puzzled over that. And I thought he was talking philosophy, you know, if you didn't make love there would he no quarrelling. See. That's easy. Put he didn't mean that. He just meant the plain fact: Good fences [i.e., handling stolen goods] make good burglars. That was a good one. I'll say the poem.

[Reads "Mending Wall"]

[The rain was pouring down again during the reading of "Mending Wall."]