I’ve watched his eyelids sag, spring open
Vaguely and gradually go sliding
Shut again, fly up
With a kind of drunken surprise, then wobble
Peacefully together to send him
Home from one school early. Soon his lashes
Flutter in REM sleep. I suppose he’s dreaming
What all of us kings and poets and peasants
Have dreamed: of not making the grade,
Of draining the inexhaustible horn cup
Of the cerebral cortex where ganglions
Are ganging up on us with more connections
Than atoms in heaven, but coming up once more
Empty. I see a clear stillness
Settle over his face, a calming of the surface
Of water when the wind dies. Somewhere
Down there, he’s taking another course
Whose resonance (let’s hope) resembles
The muttered thunder, the gutter bowling, the lightning
Of minor minions of Thor, the groans and gurgling
Of feral lovers and preliterate Mowglis, the songs
Of shamans whistled through bird bones. A worried neighbor
Gives him the elbow, and he shudders
Awake, recollects himself, brings back
His hands from aboriginal outposts,
Takes in new light, reorganizes his shoes,
Stands up in them at the buzzer, barely recalls
His books and notebooks, meets my eyes
And wonders what to say and whether to say it,
Then keeps it to himself as today’s lesson.
David Wagoner, “For a Student Sleeping in a Poetry Workshop” from the October 2002 issue of Poetry magazine. Copyright © 2002 by David Wagoner.
This poem was written by the American poet David Wagoner, who as well as being an extremely successful poet and novelist has also taught at the University of Washington since 1954, where he is now an Emeritus Professor.
This poem resonates with me, because there are times when I have given lectures and certain members of the audience have drifted off. Normally I consider myself to be quite an empathetic speaker, and I put a lot of time and effort into preparing these sessions, so it hurts when I see that I am so boring that I have sent some of my students to sleep!
However, I know that sometimes I am being overly harsh on myself, and that several factors have probably contributed to the students’ retreat into dream: a late night, an early morning, a lack of caffeine, a warm room, etc. I also know that I have been guilty myself on more than one occasion of falling asleep in even the most fascinating of talks.
What I love about Wagoner’s poem is how gentle it is; it doesn’t admonish it simply observes and reflects. You can imagine that when the student’s eyes meet those of the teacher in this poem (who I take to be Wagoner himself) they are not met with anger or annoyance, but a gentle disappointment. I used to have a teacher at secondary school who would send us out of the classroom for yawning, no matter how much we protested that it was simply an involuntary reaction to oxygenate our brains! Such admonishments left me feeling worried about yawning, but they didn’t leave me feeling guilty about it. The gentle disappointment of Wagoner however would have made me want to stay awake, especially if I could hear lines like “Of feral lovers and preliterate Mowglis” on a regular basis.
– Sam Illingworth
What do you think of the poem? Did you enjoy it? Have any students ever fallen asleep in your class? How did this make you feel?