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Thursday, 17 November 2011

Shoe Vanilla


Goody Two-Shoes (cover)
: artist and author unknown, New York, 1888 (text first published London, 1765 as The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, authorship attributed to Oliver Goldsmith [?]); image by Inductiveload, 22 March 2010

In secondary school I was introduced to poetry by a brave, seemingly not very experienced and very probably badly underpaid instructor named Mr Hlavin. Mr Hlavin was the first person I had ever encountered who knew things about poetry.

My fellow students were unappreciative, disrespectful, uninterested. This was on the West Side of Chicago, where poetry had never been and probably never would be at home.

It was a sophomore English class, normally conducted by a white-robed Dominican priest. Mr Hlavin, in his neat grey suit with white starched collar, came only once a week. He was an outsider; he knew that; we knew that. Making matters even more difficult for him, the sophomores were the most unruly students in the school. The sheepish freshmen had devolved into wolfish sophomores whose conduct was so consistently sophomoric that a special wing of the school had been built specifically to house them, and to quarantine them off from the remainder of the student body.

"The Spelling Lesson"
: illustration in Goody Two-Shoes: artist and author unknown, New York, 1888 (text first published London, 1765 as The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, authorship attributed to Oliver Goldsmith[?]); image by Inductiveload, 22 March 2010

Mr Hlavin, a tall, evidently underfed not very old man dressed in that neat grey suit, entered the classroom one autumn day and, bravely ignoring the sneers with which he had been greeted, began writing some lines in chalk upon the blackboard:

When I was one and twenty...

Muffled sniggers spread about the room. It was cruel really, to unleash these rude sophomores upon any teacher. But the priests, who employed corporal punishment, vigorously and impressively, to maintain order, had their own very effective methods of control. The few part-time "lay" teachers, however, were not similarly given to employing beatings to enforce a semblance of order in the classrooms, and were thus, by this significant omission, rendered helpless before the merciless moronic sophomore barbarian hordes. (It should probably go without saying that this was an all-male school. We had no idea what went on in the schools girls were sent to. Can things have been this atavistic? We could only dimly wonder... and perhaps, if courageous, or doomed like Mr Hlavin, imagine.)


Ostra Studios, Violin Student, 1930s

A French female violin student wearing high-heel shoes getting spanked with a violin bow by a strict female teacher
: photo by Jacques Biederer, Ostra Studio, Paris, 1930s

Mr Hlavin suffered most.

He had brought wondrous things to put before these hordes. But every time he turned his back to inscribe a poem upon the blackboard, barely-subdued pandemonium broke loose.

When he turned to face the music, relative quiet fell over the room. In later years, when I came into that circle of the underworld in which it was required that I experience such unendurable moments myself, I realised that, for a teacher, confronted by a yawning, dazed barbarian horde, the next breath taken may well depend, not perhaps upon a thing as lovely as tree, or as iconic as a red wheelbarrow, but upon the next word spoken -- no not so much spoken as desperately flung into this gap surrounded by a void beyond the outer ring-road of literacy.

Tom Clark, in his home schoolroom, with John Keats pondering upon one shoulder
: photo by Mark Gould, 2005

Mr Hlavin spoke to us of many things that became incomprehensible even as they left his mouth.

He spoke of "redge-rick", for example. The mysterious term seemed to refer to a category of literature in which poetry was included. But I had no idea, really, what he was talking about. To raise one's hand and politely enquire about the meaning of this term would have been to risk the general scorn of the entire class. Better therefore to wonder on in silence.

It must have been years before the moment of illumination finally came. Mr Hlavin had been talking about Rhetoric. When at last the lightbulb flickered on, I felt chastened, and ashamed. By then Mr Hlavin had gone out of my life forever. I would never have a chance to go to him, confess my terrible ignorance, and beg his forgiveness for being no better than the rest of the lowing herd of sophomoric barbarians.

Vanilla planifolia (flower): photo by H. Zell, 29 April 2009

In one of his poetry classes, Mr Hlavin used another term that, in my terrible state of innocence and endarkenment (not quite as bad as the truly awful "invincible ignorance" which, we were told, inevitably afflicted those poor savages who had no souls, because they dwelt beyond reach of the word of God), equally mystified me. He was, I now surmise, attempting to make a certain poem -- I can't remember which one -- seem a bit less intimidating to us, by explaining that the author had written it in youth. He wanted to let us understand that it was possible for a young person to write poetry that was perhaps of itself not very good, but was, in effect, "good practise", preparing the way for later, better efforts.

Such youthful poetry, he explained, was called "Shoe Vanilla". At least that's what I thought he was saying. The misunderstanding was perhaps only natural. Mr Hlavin had an unusual way of speaking -- educated, that was it. An unfamiliar accent. And then too this world of which I speak was a vanilla world. I imagined a pair of vanilla shoes -- something like white bucks (I had a pair of those, part of my marching band uniform, they were very hard to keep clean, indeed the job of marching on a muddy halftime football field, while simultaneously playing the clarinet, I found nearly as difficult as, and for that matter quite a bit less interesting than, the job of trying to figure out poetry).

"Two Shoes, Ma'am, Two Shoes"
: illustration in Goody Two-Shoes: artist and author unknown, New York, 1888 (text first published London, 1765 as The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, authorship attributed to Oliver Goldsmith[?]); image by Inductiveload, 22 March 2010

Would you like to see some of my Shoe Vanilla, people?

File:Vanilla planifolia 1.jpg

Vanilla planifolia (flower): photo by U.S. National Park Service; image by Toapel, 23 July 2005 (USNPS)

Well, I must confess my Shoe Vanilla archive, alas, has become, over the years, almost as impoverished as poor Mr Hlavin had looked, back then, in the aforementioned early barbarian days. But there are one or two bits of the stuff still left, breeding around semi-harmlessly like small funguses in the depths of the mildew-forested closets.

Vanilla planifolia (flower): photo by H. Zell, 29 April 2009

I was reminded anew of this by accident, recently, in the course of a Google search. Google searches are often like fishing expeditions in polluted rivers. One is as likely to hook an old shoe or a deflated bicycle tire inner tube as whatever it was one had been looking for.

An old shoe... and then it hit me. An old specimen of Shoe Vanilla.

And at last, after all these one-and-twenty-and-many-more years, I understood that Mr Hlavin, that lovely, earnest, doomed poetry teacher, had been talking about juvenilia.

Vanilla planifolia (flower): photo by H. Zell, 29 April 2009

Drugs are a tuition,
and tuition is teaching,
but in French tuer is to kill,
and so in France drugs are killing

What does it mean to “make a killing”?
It means to make money,
and money is a means
to certain kinds of killing,

as for instance dropping millions of pennies
on someone from a helicopter.
Money can also be used to buy drugs, helicopters,
or to pay for your tuition,

but money, drugs, and killing
are not the sort of pursuits
a person should pursue with his tuition
if he is a student in France or America.

TC: Going to School in France and America, from Airplanes (1966)

Airplanes by Tom Clark (cover by Tom Clark), Once Books, 1966

File:Logo ens lettres sciences.tif

Nouveau logo officiel de l'
cole normale supérieure, Paris: image by Edelagrandiere, 1 September 2010


Nin Andrews said...

I remember teachers like that, and the strange thing is how much, in spite of circumstances, they influenced us.
I had a tennis coach once who was from Australia who was always telling me to put more pear on the ball. Power, I figured out much later.
As to teachers, my son had a teacher, Mrs. Gargoline, who taught the year he went to a Catholic school, a miserable experience for him. Mrs. Gargoline was brought back from retirement, and she insisted the children learn to write. My son liked her but what struck me as peculiar was that many of the parents complained she was overworking their children, robbing them of childhood. They had to write a paragraph a night. This was for 7th grade.

But I didn't intend to write about that so much as to say, shoe vanilla is a beautiful. I love the way you've depicted this experience, figured out what he was saying, and written on this subject.

TC said...

Thanks a lot, Nin. That's really nice. I can feel my redge-rick improving already.

That would certainly have been a mystifying instruction from the Aussie tennis coach. Put TOO much power on the ball, and it will go all pear-shaped.

To write a paragraph a night should be considered an opportunity and a privilege, a pleasure, not a punishment.

After all, paragraphs can be quite short. Like this one.

Anonymous said...

I have at home a dungish heap of old journals, most written while gripped more by adolescent anxiety than by actual angst. Almost all where filled before my flirtations with academia exhausted my curiosity. Two scoops of shoe vanilla, these -- the journals and diplomas -- the à la mode of my life in language. Embarrassed always; regretful, only rarely.

ACravan said...

I enjoyed this a lot -- the story, the history, the pictures. I've always enjoyed the poem. In a happier and more productive and peaceful way, your story reminded me of an experience I had in art history graduate school when I was taught by a very famous English art historian/museum curator who had relocated to NYC and the Met. He was a vain and very nasty man (a terrible teacher too) with one of those Oxonian accents that was completely inpenetrable and unintelligible. I think a poet sitting in one of his lectures might have been able to free-associate a book a day based on the sounds he made (you couldn't really call them words) and the beautiful images on the screen behind him. He disliked me because I was a "hippie" and failed to appreciate how hard I was trying to understand what he was saying. The only thing I took away from the course was that he once discovered a small Donatello that was being used as an ashtray. This happened while he was attending a cocktail party in London and, of course, smoking. I'm sorry I never saw him after I left the school because I would definitely have approached him and asked him what Anthony Blunt was really like. He would have been a person who knew. Curtis

gamefaced said...

pretty good shoe vanilla there. riddled with commas i'd rip them all out and fiddle the breaks

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...


This wonderful post really hit home for two reasons 1) I spent most of my adolescent years helping my father shine shoes in his shoeshine parlor in Raymond, Washington (Here’s a piece written some time ago about our main competition) and 2) I also had such a sensitive cultured high school teacher who bore the brunt of many a verbal assault on his person; in fact, he was the only teacher who ever gave me the gift of a book—a first-edition hardback copy of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, which I still have, by the way.

Julia said...

I loved it, Tom

How stupid adolescent are when they waste their opportunity with good teachers!
I did it once with a music teacher. But our class had its punishment: he became the dearest teacher for younger years and he formed and conducted many musical groups in our school. So we had what we deserved (and he had it as well)

TC said...


Affecting anecdote indeed. I was much moved. Here is something dedicated to you, by way of roundabout response. (History, that endless round of circles with circles...)


TC said...


Always chastening yet useful to look back into the honest struggling articulations of one's youth. Well, I say that, but not really from experience. My own copious journals of all those forgotten aeons have long since gone with the wind. I mean quite literally, a closet full of writings left at my mother's home were, as I much later learnt, blithely incinerated. Then again, perhaps it's a mercy. The only thing I was sorry not to have been able to return to were five volumes of journals of sundry ragtag travels (hitchhiking, youth hostels & c) about the continents of Europe and Africa in the early to mid 1960s. Those I would like to have kept, but only because the details of all those wanderings are pretty much a blur to me now: vivid details shining out from a vast blurry thicket of memory loss, that fickle final friend.

TC said...


In my next lifetime (yeah, right) I am going to make sure all my Shoe Vanilla goes naked and unpunctuated into the great world... of bacteria, or nematodes, or whatever sphere to which I am relegated.

TC said...


Poor Mr Hlavin was certainly underappreciated by everybody but me, and as I've said I lacked the courage, then, to say so. Peer pressure, that undying monster, won the day.

It's always touching to think (hope!) that underappreciated teachers are later appreciated.

But alas, I fear there are left on this earth far too few latterday incarnations of Mr Chips (the truly dedicated teacher), and almost no student appreciators of anything but that ultimate mirror-mirror-on-the-wall of high school-cafeteria level popularity, Facebook.

TC said...


About Blunt, an engima wrapt inside a mystery, and a still very interesting mystery at that. There are however numerous clues.

The BBC miniseries Cambridge Spies is worth checking out. The Beeb has managed to squeeze two discs out of the story by introducing some useful background stuff -- "special features". The best of the features, a 45-minute History Channel documentary entitled "Spy Web: The Cambridge Spies," is included on the second disc. This piece fills in many of the historical and cultural gaps left by the miniseries (though the documentary itself is not without its flaws: while adding a much-needed serious -- and at times necessarily negative -- perspective on the actions of the Cambridge five, it inexplicably grows oddly melodramatic and swells the evil-sounding string instruments whenever the narrator says words like "communist" and "homosexuals" ...this is both perplexing and stupid at the same time).

Also included is "A Cambridge Spies Historical Scrapbook," a collage of incredible material including BBC news obituary broadcasts of the spies, an appearance from Kim Philby on Soviet television at the age of 75, footage of Anthony Blunt from 1965 taking us through Buckingham Palace on an art appreciation tour (totally absorbing!), and footage of Blunt's testimony in 1979, confessing his transgressions on camera. This material is nothing short of astonishing in its coolness, and though it barely amounts to half an hour of footage total, the collection of old archival material places the whole story in a real-life context so effectively, that without it, this DVD set would be a mere shadow of itself. A small but at some points essential touch, each of the supplementary features (including the previously mentioned History Channel biography) is helpfully subtitled. Nice.

ACravan said...

What has always impressed me (funny word, but you'll know what I mean) about Blunt is how a person could keep that many things in his mind and pursue such varying activities and identities (if that makes any sense). I try to juggle things, but get easily confused. My teacher, by the way, was the late Sir John Pope-Hennessy. He was a very difficult person (not just his weird, impossible locution), but I was lucky to study with him, even if the course mostly amounted to lectures in My Triumphs in Attribution. But he and his brother were very much members of the Burgess/Blunt crowd. As I recall, it was easy to see how the Donatello might have been transformed into an ashtray. I will check out the materials you suggest. Thank you. This is a subject that interests me a lot. Curtis

TC said...


Yes, he was evidently the all-time master of "multi-tasking".

James Fox is also brilliant at playing Blunt in another BBC film "A Question of Attribution", which centers on Blunt's relations with the Queen, who is played wonderfully by the amazing Prunella Scales.



"Redge-rick," "shoe vanilla," and there's Tom in his old classroom with Keats looking over his shoulder -- thanks for this look back into the dark backward and abysm of time. . . .


motionless grey clouds against shadowed
ridge, shape of bird moving in branches
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

which appears for the first
time, object physical

which suggests it refers to,
then again, this time

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
line of cloud on horizon across from it

TC said...


And thank you... twice.

The second, for the beauteous Cloud/Ridge, just arrived.

Otherwise --

motionless grey clouds

-- here, too, with rain falling from them ...onto the inexorable roaring-and-beeping behemoth road graders, obliviously bulldozing-away out front.

Anonymous said...

Without that irritable reaching after fact, o Tom, keep Shoe Vanilla just as is, accompanied by those sexy photographs. What a lovely turn.

TC said...

Thank very much, Martha.

Whenever I reach irritably after fact and reason, anyway, I'm sure to catch something.



Thank you, good to hear CLOUD / RIDGE has arrived, and thank you (twice again) for your words on back cover. Meanwhile, the clouds of yesterday have gone away (quel surprise), and without them a now gibbous moon is back, ever a bit eastward at first glimpse then moving along to the west. . .


light coming into sky above still black
ridge, white half moon next to branches
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

graphite on paper inscribed
on left, another hand

lies there, something about
it, which at the time

grey white clouds to the left of point,
shadowed green of ridge across channel