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Cording Connects with his Classes

By Mark J. Cadigan

Robert CordingTo watch Professor Robert Cording conduct a class is to witness a gifted teacher displaying his love of poetry and the process of gathering meaning from it. He engages the students, pulls them into the material, encourages them but prods them to probe deeper. He asks big questions and digs underneath little details. He candidly discusses his own problems as a poet, the nagging, recurring bouts of self-doubt. Ultimately, he leaves his students with a taste of the powerful and transformative effect this concentrated art form can have on an individual.

So it’s hard to believe that Cording—a 25-year faculty member at Holy Cross, the school’s Distinguished Teacher of the Year in 1995, and the recent recipient of the James N. and Sarah L. O’Reilly Barrett Endowed Chair in Creative Writing—hated high school and was so disillusioned with college that he attended classes only sporadically during his initial year.

“It’s such a strange irony that I ended up doing what I do,” says Cording. “All my life, I think I’ve been disappointed by school. When I went to college, I actually thought it was going to be like entering some kind of Zen monastery or something like that—it wasn’t going to be a collection of facts; you were going to gain wisdom, you were going to learn how to live, you were going to understand what the meaning of life was!” He laughs. “It was entirely disappointing at first.”

Even though he skipped many classes, Cording used his time well. He spent a few hours daily in a library, absorbing poetry. By year’s end, he had read poets from “A” to “S” and was hooked.

“I learned how to be my own teacher,” he says. “And, in some ways, more than anything else, what I’m trying to teach my students is how to become their own teacher. If you’re going to be a writer, then your teachers are other writers.” Cording, 53, whose interest in poetry was sparked by reading the Bible’s Psalms as a child and reignited by T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” during high school—“I had no idea what it meant, but it took me by storm”—first showed his own poetry to an English teacher at Montclair State College. “He was very patient,” he says, laughing.

In time, Cording earned his Ph.D. from Boston College, published four books of poetry—Life-list (1987), What Binds Us to This World (1991), Heavy Grace (1996) and Against Consolation (2002)—and contributed more than 300 poems to magazines such as Poetry, the New Yorker, Paris Review, the Nation and DoubleTake. His work has appeared in a number of anthologies, including The Best Spiritual Writing of 2000, 2001 and 2002, the Pushcart Anthology, 2002, and Godine’s new Poets of the New Century. He has received fellowships and grants, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship; in 1992, he was poet-in-residence at the Frost Place.

Cording, who lives with his wife, Colleen (Creevy ’78), and their three sons, Robert ’06, Daniel and Thomas, in Woodstock, Conn., explains that writing is “almost a form of spiritual discipline” for him. “It’s self-reflective about your relationship to mortality, to the world, to those fundamental questions: Who are we? Where are we going? Why are we here? That’s what started me writing—those kinds of questions.”

Those questions also surface in his courses. Believing that education should be intertwined with spiritual life “is the reason I wanted to teach at Holy Cross,” he declares. “If I’m doing anything, it’s relating to students on that level.”

Associate Professor James Kee, an English department colleague of Cording’s since 1981, explains, “In some sense, the key to Bob in all of his various roles is quite simple. For him, to be human means to live with wonder before the miracle that there is a world and that it has somehow given rise to us, to our existence. This basic situation is, for him, an irreducible mystery. As humans, however, we respond to it in an endless variety of ways. It inspires reverence and joy; it perplexes us, leading us to wonder where we have come from, where we are going, what it all means. It afflicts us with the mysteries inherent in evil and suffering—the evil and suffering we must bear, but even more troublingly for him, the evil and suffering for which we are responsible. He writes poetry, he teaches, he befriends people as ways of responding to these elemental aspects of the human condition. Students seek him out because they know that in his courses they will find a place to acknowledge and reflect upon their deepest concerns.”

Kee, who also describes Cording as “one of the most reflective, purposeful and articulate teachers I have ever met,” mentions his longstanding generosity in helping students and graduates learn to write creatively, “above and beyond his ordinary teaching duties.”

“Bob just gave me a ton of confidence in my writing,” says Brian Gunn ’92, who collaborates with his cousin, Mark Gunn ’93, on screenplays and TV pilots, including MTV’s 2gether. “I felt like I was at my best for Bob’s classes, like my brain was firing on all cylinders. He pushed me to excel, and he gave me a glimpse of what it takes to write professionally.”

Bill Wenthe ’79, an associate professor of English at Texas Tech University and a published poet, says that Cording is the best reader of other people’s work that he has ever encountered. “He has a way of giving himself over to another person’s writing, of entering into it and experiencing what’s happening there, without sacrificing his critical intelligence. It’s not a mushy, everybody-gets-a-trophy approach; it’s disciplined—which I think is finally a deeper way of honoring other people’s work.”

Cording says that one of his greatest pleasures is to hear from former students who are still pondering poems, like the woman he taught at Wellesley College 26 years ago who recently sought his opinion. “That’s what I’m trying to teach—that somehow what you want from life is actually embodied and manifested in that kind of poring over things … and that somehow figuring out the last line of a Seamus Heaney poem will make your life happier.” And with that, once again, he laughs.

 

No wonder the Dutch devoted so much attention to the everyday. And, if their subject matter

has lately been discredited (what’s true, the newly rich in love with possession), those painters who worked so minutely knew

in detail how soon we come to our end, and how much effort it takes to build a house where that daily constellation

of events—laundry, cooking, milking, field- work, and the pile of bills that must be paid— are part of the light in a glass half-filled

with wine, the late afternoon sun rayed across a river meadow, the otherworldliness of two children, their concentration stayed

on a risen house of cards as darkness starts to seep into the room and emerge. Patterned carpets, maps, those cross-

points of doors and halls and that wedge of light that nimbuses a hand holding a letter or a face lost for an age

in a moment’s thought: each astonishing, as simply to be living is.

from “The Day After Viewing an Exhibit of 17th Century Dutch Paintings”

 

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