On Essays and Physics

In October of 1985, for a series of spiral-bound books, I typed up as many as I could of my early poems (essentially, juvenalia) on my dad’s IBM Selectric II typewriter, using the Prestige Elite 72 typing ball—or “element,” as IBM called it. I wrote a long essay about myself and my poetry to introduce all 148 pages of the third volume, and recently came across it. My high school English teacher was Mr. George Goodburn. Not only did he introduce me to haiku, in 1976, but also set me on the path to writing essays. Here’s what I discovered in my 1985 introduction to my poetry collection, Chronology: Volume Three:

By the time High School rolled around, I had lost my British accent, and was going to [boarding] school in Alberta. Once there, Mr. Goodburn was a strong influence in my early years of high school. He was my English teacher in grades 10 and 12. He introduced me to literature in general (Shakespeare, and so forth—we did Hamlet in grade 10). He also encouraged us to write essays, stories, and poetry, although he focused most of our attention on essays. One little essay I wrote, called “How to Write an Essay” (which “contradicted” itself by being purposely opposite of what I said you should do), Mr. Goodburn gave me an A on—he said something to the effect that “this is not in keeping with the assignment, but is so above and beyond what can be expected, that I must give it an A.” That was in 1977. Somewhere along the line, he also said, “You will make a fine essay writer someday” (or “technical writer,” or something like that), at the end of a logical, methodical, well-reasoned, but probably verbose essay. He also gave me 15 out of 10 points (a fifty percent bonus!) on one assignment on “emphasis” in sentence structure, tricks which I remember to this moment. [I had colour-coded each of the tricks, and he said he wanted to keep my assignment as an example to show future classes.] His grade and accompanying comments made me think I could be a writer, and by believing in me, he was showing me how. Very few people got A’s in his class, but I was one of them.

Immediately after this part of my essay came the following two paragraphs, about a lampoon of a Keats poem I did for Mr. Goodburn’s English class:

Another thing I especially recall is the time we studied John Keats in grade 12 with Mr. Goodburn. Keith Schwartz, Brian Ford and I had to give a class presentation on “Ode to Psyche.” Keith didn’t help very much, Brian discussed the meaning of the poem, and I gave John Keats’s life history and [said] how it affected the poem and so on, but the high point of our presentation was when I read “Ode to Physics.” It was our lovely little lampoon on the Keats ditty we were supposed to be studying. I did most of the writing, Brian helped a great deal, and Keith not at all, but we had loads of fun with it. I don’t know, when I read it, if the class enjoyed it, though. Certainly dear old Mr. Goodburn didn’t like what it was about.

You see, right after English, Brian and I had Physics (which happened to be taught by Brian’s dad), and we were always struggling to finish our Physics assignment in English class. Brian and I, silly as we were, sat alone in the front row, right in front of old Mr. Goodburn as he rocked back and forth on the skinny little podium just beyond our feet. Naturally, if he had anyone’s desks to look at, it was ours, but we persisted with our Physics anyhow. Goodburn, of course, did not appreciate our carrying on, and took pains to reprimand us, to no avail. The problem with Physics was that we were scrambling to finish our assignments (sometimes), or comparing answers, whereas our English was always finished beforehand. If we hadn’t been two of the three or four out of 30 students who got A’s, I’m sure we would have been in trouble. Anyway, “Ode to Physics” was all about the situation, and I sincerely hope Mr. Goodburn appreciated our lampoon. I like to think he did.

And here it is—“Ode to Physics”—written, according to my dusty notes, on 18, 19 January 1979 (“with some help from Brian Ford”) in Lacombe, Alberta:

Ode to Physics

O Teacher! hear these tuneless formulas, wrung

By sweet examination and remembrance dear,

And pardon that our problems should be done

Even in thine own English class.

Surely I dreamt today in English, or did I study

The more-important Physics with awakened eyes?

I wandered in a classroom thoughtlessly,

And on the sudden, fainting with surprise,

Saw two fair subjects, couched, side by side.

In deepest thought beneath the flickering roof,

Of English and funky Physics, ’tween which

there rang a bell, scarcely heard.

Mid hushed, square-rooted flowers, fragmented essays,

They became black ’n blue in budding battle.

The physics book lay calm-breathing, on the glassy desk,

My mind embraced it, and its problems too,

The student was scolded, but did not bid adieu,

To be disjoined by class-time slumber,

And ready still these tests to outnumber

At tender bell-ring ending English class

The poetic boy I knew

Trots away, as a happy, happy Einstein,

To his Physics true!

Well, obviously, ahem, at least for me, physics didn’t stick!

Note: For comparison, you can read the original Keats poem (of which “Ode to Physics” parodies only the first 23 lines) at the Bartleby site. To read more about the Keats poem, visit the Wikipedia page. A bow of gratitude to Mr. George Goodburn, wherever you are.

—14 November 2009

Today I learned that my high school English teacher, the one who first introduced me to haiku, has died. George Goodburn was born on 11 March 1922, in Nottingham, England. I hadn’t known that he was from England, like me, and don’t recall him having any accent, but he apparently came to Canada at age two. He died 26 July 2015, in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. He was 93.

—9 September 2015