Edward Pols: A Continuing Education
Remembrance of Things to Come, a book of poetry by the late Edward Pols, who taught at Bowdoin from 1949 until 1988, weaves universal themes of love, loss, joy and longing into biographical perspective into the deep waters of philosophy and war.
In 2001, the building at #5 Bath Road, having been refurbished as a home for the Philosophy Department, was officially re-named Edward Pols House. I attended the dedication ceremony, which featured speeches by colleagues and former students. These mentioned Ed Pols' impressive list of accomplishments, but they chiefly consisted of affectionate reminiscence, seasoned by a good deal of more or less awkward humor. Bowdoin is an informal community, and insists on the familiar, day-to-day perspective, a humanizing and sometimes a trivializing of those whom we honor.
During the ceremony, I watched Ed, wondered what he made of all this, and thought about him. I'd met him within a week or so of my first arrival at the college, in the fall of 1968. In some way that I could not define but that registered strongly, he impressed me as an extraordinary man. Over the years, the impression only deepened, to such an extent that, despite the bantering collegiality that pervaded Massachusetts Hall (during all of his career and most of mine the home to both the English and Philosophy Departments) during my formative years there, and despite his own great cordiality, I never got over a certain anxious abashedness in his presence. Something in him inhibited one's normal human impulse, which I do not lack, to whittle things down to one's own size.
The college must have shared something of my feeling. This business of naming a building after him was not the first extraordinary honor it had conferred on its senior philosopher. In 1975, with his most important professional publications and recognitions still ahead of him, he had been named to the new and highly prestigious Kenan Professorship of the Humanities. That honor, like this one, seemed almost inevitable, a no-brainer. No one had more fully embodied and illuminated the humanities than he, just as no one had been so central in developing, shaping, and bringing distinction to the study of philosophy at Bowdoin.
But in the long run, such honors only indicate how a man or woman was regarded; they are strictly nominal, preserving the bare name of the person so honored. Every day, like every other member of the Bowdoin community, I went in and out of buildings that illustrated this point: Sills, Searles, Moulton Union, Coles Tower. Even when I had some slight notion of who Sills, Coles, et al. were, I never thought of them, any more than I thought of Woden on Wednesday or Thor on Thursday. All of us in the room that day could be sure that "Pols" would soon signify, for an ever-increasing majority of people on campus, an agreeable, home-like building at #5 Bath Road, and nothing more.
The college has now recognized and memorialized Ed Pols in a third way, one that involves no fanfare (unless this essay be considered such) but that gives to me, and I trust to others, an unqualified, happy sense of appropriateness. It has published a collection of his poems, Remembrance of Things to Come. They are what I want to talk about now.
I have an imperfect knowledge of the almost invisible and, with one exception, apparently belated poetic career of Ed Pols. Prior to his retirement in 1988, I never heard him speak of himself as a poet, although a senior colleague in the English Department did tell me that Ed had written a poem about John Kennedy immediately after J.F.K.'s assassination in 1963. "A damn good poem, too," he said. It was a concession he did not enjoy making. Those of us in English found Ed's academic work so austere, so highly technical and intimidating that it perhaps seemed unfair to my colleague that he was also favored by the muses. I myself never saw the poem and, because of the diffidence I have mentioned, did not feel comfortable in asking Ed about it.
Except for the Kennedy poem, the other poems in Remembrance of Things to Come appear to have been completed in the years after his retirement, although his papers suggest that many of them had had a long gestation-decades long, in some cases. But in their final form, all of them are the work of a man in his seventies and earlier eighties. He had more reason than most of us will to feel that he might rest on his labors and his honors; furthermore, he had to deal, through most of his retirement, with his wife's long, difficult, and demanding illness. And he continued to be what he had always been, a productive philosopher. He published two books during these last years; one of them, Radical Realism (1992) was singled out for special recognition by the American Metaphysical Society. The manuscript of a third, On Rational Agency, was completed just weeks before his death, in August of 2005.
And yet he found time to write poems and to publish eight of them in literary quarterlies. As anyone who has tried to publish poetry knows, that in itself is no small accomplishment, particularly given the prominence of the quarterlies (The Massachusetts Review, The Sewanee Review) on the one hand, and his disconnectedness from the fragmented, factional, insider's world of poets and poetry editors on the other.
I was aware of these poems because, shortly after his retirement, we had begun occasionally exchanging work with each other—his poems for my essays. I found myself to be qualified as a reader of his work, in the sense that I recognized their provenance and "got" most of their allusions. The influence of high modernism, particularly T.S. Eliot, was pervasive, and that influence had shaped and informed my own literary education and tastes. Beyond that, the poems fleetingly echoed or evoked poets whose works were once the shared inheritance of all English majors: Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Keats, Frost, and (second only to Eliot, and in less obvious ways, as decisive an influence) Yeats.
I liked, and more than liked, the poems, and for reasons that had nothing to do with their pedigree. What I admired, in one poem after another, was how cogently, compactly, and beautifully they managed the difficult task of thinking in verse; and how the decorous intensity of their idiom translated, into the medium of the written word (lifeless in one sense; deathless in another) the seriousness, dignity, and grace I had always found in him.
Read Poems from Remembrance of Things to Come
He put Remembrance of Things to Come together in the last year of his life. I saw successive drafts of it. It contained twenty-one poems in all, ten of them constituting a connected sequence of vignettes, "War's End, World's End." The sequence spans a little more than a year of his life-May, 1944, a month before D-Day, to July, 1945, when the last allied troops, Lieutenant Edward Pols among them, withdrew from eastern Germany and the Iron Curtain descended.
At the beginning of the sequence, which concludes the volume and which is an important, powerful thing, he addresses the young soldier he had been:
Make your wide prospect once again my own
And hide the straitened one I now must bear.
Throughout the poems that follow, the young soldier is "he," "the young man in American uniform," or simply "the young man," as though his essential self were beyond recovery. And yet this distancing of that man, even as it makes him anonymous, paradoxically seems to abolish the years between Professor Pols and Lieutenant Pols. The third person narrative has the immediacy of a novel within its retrospection. The anonymity of the protagonist places the emphasis less on the private hazards of war, and more on an enveloping action—the victory that was coming, and the irreparable losses-individual and cultural, material and spiritual-that were inseparable from it.
This sense of a separation between the man who writes, now in the final approaches to death, and the actual occasions of the poems—a boyhood outing; a sabbatical year outside Florence, thirty years earlier (the subject of three poems, and clearly a time of an unlooked-for inward awakening)—is not confined to the war sequence. It runs throughout the volume. It is easier to say what the tone is not than what it is. It is not bitter; it is not nostalgic; it does not glorify or regret the man he was. The war sequence is deeply somber; the Tuscan poems are full of the joy of an uncanny recognition, as though he had discovered, without intending to, a homeland that he had previously known only through intimations and longings.
I have now read the poems through a good many times, and have found myself thinking more and more about their ordering in the book. It is not chronological, either in terms of the composition of the poems or of the experiences they describe. The effect is musical, and it is complex. I can only quote from the "Leaving Leipzig," the last, magnificent poem in the war sequence and thus in the volume as a whole:
such unity of song
we cannot even give one quality
a single name, for its exulting is
a grieving and its grieving an accepting.
In the past year, Elizabeth Pols, Ed's daughter; George Core, the editor of The Sewanee Review, and I have occupied ourselves with getting Remembrance of Things to Come into print. It was George who, knowing that ordinary commercial publication would be virtually impossible, suggested that the college act as a publisher. I took that suggestion to President Mills, and he responded as wholeheartedly and unhesitatingly as any of us could have wished. Elizabeth, having a career's worth of familiarity with such matters, has designed the book and overseen its printing. I have provided an introduction to it. And so now it exists.
Many alumni—those who graduated twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years ago—will have an interest in these poems that begins with their memories of the man himself. The same is true of those of us who were his colleagues. But memory, personal acquaintance, and some connection to Bowdoin are not necessary for one to feel the power of this work. After all, George Core at The Sewanee Review knew Ed Pols only through some poems that came, among hundreds of others, across his desk. He not only published several of these, and not only published, after Ed's death, a fine poetic memorial to him by Denis Corish, who succeeded him as the senior member of Bowdoin's Philosophy Department; he also was unflagging in his determination to see Remembrance of Things to Come into print, and did so. He did this not for the sake of Pols, but for the sake of poetry.
When I wrote the introduction to the collection, I attempted, in good English professor fashion, to emphasize a theme that seemed to me central, giving the collection its impressive coherence. I think that for the audience of this magazine—almost exclusively people who are or have been members of the Bowdoin community—and particularly for those who are currently undergraduates or recent graduates, I would emphasize something different, something closer to what we are, in our more serious moments, about. The poems say a great deal and they exemplify a great deal about the uses of education, of knowledge as augmented by experience, and experience as augmented by knowledge. Throughout them, a deeply and broadly learned man does not speak with the authority of his accomplishments, or with the other kind of authority that came from his experience of war, travel, long life, and the looming fact of death. He speaks instead as one for whom the questing mind and spirit do not lead to any final attainment, achievement, or resting-place. It is the role of the student, not the professor, that seems to have kept his imagination alive, and to have allowed it this final, rich expression. He did not confuse the acuity of his wonderfully honed and tempered intelligence with a reduced vulnerability to the brute facts of experience, or to its joy; and he did not consider that the brutality of the facts or spontaneity of joy excluded them from lyric deliberation. In one of the Tuscan poems, he concludes wryly that
the only house worth owning is
the house that's not your own.
The value of the Humanities has never been self-evident, and it has come under particularly hostile interrogation in recent decades. The question is whether literature, and the arts in general, conceal or reveal, constrict or liberate, give us something that can be claimed as a kind of truth, or only mask the prejudices of Power and the prerogatives it claims for itself. Ed Pols would certainly have asserted that they reveal and liberate, that their claims are neither false nor dispensable. But assertion, even in the scrupulously exact, almost legalistic language of academic philosophy, can scarcely amount to proof. To assess that value, we must consider particular cases, and make up our minds. These poems do not tell us what conclusion we should reach; they simply give us, in a highly concentrated form, the evidence of an education that encountered (as educations always do) realities it never envisioned, and sought to give them form, meaning, and permanence. In several of the poems he speaks of how reading, study, and contemplation, for himself and for others, leads to imitation, and imitation becomes something else—a metabolizing that
Shall give you back surprised
Your very self.
He was a husband, then a soldier, then a scholar, a father, and a man much honored by his college and his profession. And then a poet. He did not assume this last role lightly. The poems that he left us face the erosions of age and the immanence of death squarely. They are not an afterthought or a gesture of farewell. They culminate and distill a life that was utterly exemplary for its wholeness and steadiness, its accountability and its responsiveness.
To order a copy of Remembrance of Things to Come, call the Bowdoin Bookstore at 800-524-2225 or
visit the Bookstore online.