In thinking about influences, I focus on one of my most foundational ones, not a poet or poem but a teacher, Mr. George Cohn, that I had for both terms of senior honors English in high school. Mr. Cohn—I always addressed him that formally, even years later—pushed us (we thought unmercifully and yet we were all delighted to have him again for the second term: he made us work hard, but we were excited by what we were doing and eager to get to class each day). I can see him now, physically compact, with thinning light brown hair and always natty in his fitted three-piece suits. We thought he was old—to teenagers anyone older than they are is old—but my guess is he was in his early thirties at most, young and energetic and dedicated to making his bright students think.
He was an acolyte of the New Critics, so he made us look at works untethered. With poetry, he’d give us a poem, wouldn’t tell us anything about it, not even the title, not even who wrote it, and he’d tell us to get together in groups and analyze the poem, all on our own. Today, a student or group, if they chose (and they probably would choose) could easily not only identify poem and poet but also pull all sorts of analytical information from the internet. Oh, what they would lose. We would get together at someone’s house in groups of three and four, with typed copies of the poem in hand, and flail for a while, wondering how in the world to begin, complaining about what agonies Mr. Cohn put us through, and then slowly, gradually, we’d begin, looking at word choice, perhaps, maybe sounds, to begin somewhere, then asking why the poet did that and asking what the poet was trying to achieve with this. We would take the poem apart, jigsaw puzzle in reverse, and gradually, slowly we would put it back together shinier, newer, glowing with an interpretation we had developed, a structure we had built and believed in passionately. Mr. Cohn’s rule was that our interpretation had to take everything in the work into consideration; we couldn’t leave out elements if they were inconvenient, if they didn’t fit: Everything in the poem had to fit in with our interpretation of it. Mr. Cohn’s rule not only made us very careful close readers, it made us confident in the validity of our air-tight, solid analysis.
Each group would bring in its analysis the next day. Yes, the very next day! I recall it that way most definitely (with all the clarity of memory). He never did give us a lot of time to do assignments the way other teachers did. When we complained, he’d look at us skeptically and ask, “Do you really need it? If you do, okay, but you’re smart people, you know you don’t really need all that extra time to do this.” Mr. Cohn was a taskmaster. He would hand out the required readings for the term, whatever was in the senior year curriculum, and say, “Read these by next week.” A daunting task, to be sure, but this was Mr. Cohn’s honors English, and we knew he, and we, did things like that there. He was right, of course, when he said we didn’t need a lot of time. We could get the assignment, whatever it was, done, and done well, in the time he gave us. He just pushed us to do it. He kept up the pace. We complained, but we came to know, just as he did, what we were capable of. The idea, with the required curriculum, was to get it all out of the way quickly so we could do the real work of Mr. Cohn’s course. We’d complain about the agonies he put us through, but it was exhilarating nonetheless. Mr. Cohn’s class was 6th period. We couldn’t wait to get there. The day after our groups met, we couldn’t wait to share our interpretations of the poem. All the groups would present, and we’d very enthusiastically champion our own interpretation. At least initially. We had very spirited discussions picking apart every aspect of every interpretation. It was exciting, it was thrilling, it made us think even more deeply than we had in our individual groups, and, boy, were we thinking deeply then: Our brains were generating enough heat to melt Antarctica. And in class, we gave off sparks, we were Tesla coils, we were lightning bolts. And Mr. Cohn stood by, a smiling referee, not leading the discussion, but gently guiding it with an occasional question or comment, sometimes putting salient points on the board to help us keep track as we broke down the various analyses, allowing for possibilities, for different, yet still potentially valid, views that broadened the scope of our understanding. And Mr. Cohn would smile as he watched the school’s best and brightest go at it, becoming better than best and brighter than brightest. In the end, he would give us the name of the poem and tell us who wrote it, but by then that was secondary to the meaning we had discovered, not only in the poem but in ourselves. There was more to see than surfaces, more to know than the obvious. In Mr. Cohn’s class, we learned the nature of the quest that the most determined of us would be on for the rest of our lives. In Mr. Cohn’s class, we developed the tools within ourselves to go on that quest. In Mr. Cohn’s class, we began to be the people we might become if we took the challenge he gave us. In my yearbook that June, Mr. Cohn wrote, “To Barbara, Who always searched for the deeper meaning. Don’t stop!” Mr. Cohn’s challenge. I took it. I’ve traveled the road he set us on. And I thank Mr. George Cohn.
Barbara Novack is Writer-in-Residence and member of the English Department at Molloy College. She founded and hosts Poetry Events there and, off-campus, presents highly regarded creative writing programs and workshops. Her books include the novel J.W. Valentine, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and finalist for Pushcart Press Editor’s Book Award, full-length poetry collection Something Like Life, and chapbooks Do Houses Dream? and A Certain Slant of Light, both finalists for the Blue Light Press Poetry Prize. Her most recent book is the full-length poetry collection Dancing on the Rim of Light (Blue Light Press, 2020).