832: The Illiterate

832: The Illiterate

832: The Illiterate


I’m Jason Schneiderman, and this is The Slowdown.

I am an unlikely person to be sitting in the host chair of a show called The Slowdown. I am not known for being slow, or calm, or relaxed. My natural speaking voice can be so fast, that in one of my first years of teaching, when I told a class to take out some paper and something to write with, they just sat there staring at me, not moving at all. After the third time I said it, I realized that I had been so excited and had been speaking so quickly, that my students had completely stopped understanding anything I had said. I took a deep breath, and speaking as slowly as I could bear, I said, “Ok, what. Was. The. Last. Thing. I. Said. That. You. Understood.”

When the class realized that I really wanted to know, that they weren’t in trouble and that I needed their help to be a better teacher, they told me. It was something I had said nearly five minutes earlier. So we worked out a system where, if I started getting too excited about the lesson and sped up too fast to be understood, they would raise their hands, and I would know to slow down. I think it’s true that many teachers spend their lives teaching the lessons that they need to learn themselves, and maybe I’m here so I myself can learn to slow down. Believe me, I need it too.

Today’s poem is about another kind of slowing down. It’s about taking time to turn over and over the mysteries of gratitude and the ways in which desire makes us strange to ourselves. William Meredith wrote this poem as a gay man in the years before Stonewall, when same sex desire was heavily policed and criminalized. To be openly gay was to have very few protections in this world, and this poem is direct only in its indirection, hiding in plain sight. Meredith uses the mysteries of writing and the figure of illiteracy not to pin down what it meant for him to know love, but to open up the space where love might be seen in all its confusions.

The Illiterate
by William Meredith

Touching your goodness, I am like a man
Who turns a letter over in his hand
And you might think this was because the hand
Was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man
Has never had a letter from anyone;
And now he is both afraid of what it means
And ashamed because he has no other means
To find out what it says than to ask someone.

His uncle could have left the farm to him,
Or his parents died before he sent them word,
Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.
Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him.
What would you call his feeling for the words
That keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?

“The Illiterate” by William Meredith from EFFORT AT SPEECH: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS © 1997 William Meredith. Used by permission of Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press.