The smoke swirls dense and fragrant in the dim concert hall as the Allman Brothers erupt into their closing song. The walls pulsate with psychedelia -- a soaring eagle, a sunset, a wood nymph -- and the fans are heaving their tie-dyed torsos to the syncopation of a churning bass riff.
I been run down, I been lied to, I don't know why I let that mean woman make me a fool.
Ernie Suarez has been here before. In 1973, at Allman Brothers shows in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Nashville in 1976. Atlanta, 1998. Merriweather Post Pavilion, 1999. And as always, he is doing the gawky, head-nodding dance that forty-something guys do to the blues-rock of their youth. Gregg Allman, his voice deep and anguished, wails from the stage: "Sometimes I feel like I been ti-i-i-ied to the whipping post, ti-i-i-ied to the whipping post . . ."
Finally, the music dies, already passing into memory for most of the fans. But for Suarez, New York 2000 is something more: It's English 381 at the Catholic University of America.
He is the professor. And class is still in session.
"Does anyone have any good questions?" Suarez asks, as 40 undergrads crowd around him in a dark corner of Manhattan's Beacon Theater for the conclusion of tonight's tutorial in lyric poetry, Southern-rock style.
In his classes, they have met some of the brightest lights of contemporary poetry, Pulitzer Prize winners among them. Now they are about to talk with another artist: Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks.
"Think about things like structure," Suarez urges, "and the relationship between content and form and subject matter."
Is it any surprise that Ernest Suarez is the coolest professor on campus? His "Poetry and Rock in the Age of Dylan and Dickey" is one of the most popular courses at Catholic University. Between analyses of the works of Sylvia Plath, Robert Penn Warren and other modern poets, students spend a lot of time in their seats nodding to ear-blasting recordings of the Doors, Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull. The March field trip to see the Allmans' annual concert, with backstage privileges, is optional but well attended.
Every couple of years, Suarez teaches a special summer course -- a two-week road trip with 10 students through the musical and literary landmarks of the South in -- yes -- an old VW bus.
All of which would seem to add up to a hilarious academic scam, for teacher and students alike. Except that Suarez is chairman of the English department at Catholic, where last year he won a national award for teaching. He is a recognized authority in contemporary poetry and -- according to his students -- one of the toughest graders around.
For Suarez, using '60s and '70s dinosaur rock to teach poetry is not a gimmick but a mission. It's a means of engaging young people who, he says, regard poetry as a puzzle, yet understand music intuitively. And it's his own personal strike against a jaded academic establishment that has so politicized literature and art that it has forgotten how to enjoy them.
Like the way he enjoys the muscular, mystical verse of former U.S. poet laureate James Dickey. And the intricate, whiskey-soaked blues jams of the perpetually touring Allman Brothers.
"Emotion is the foundation of all art," he tells his class. "When you look at a painting, when you listen to a song, when you read a poem . . . if it doesn't touch you deeply in your being, it's not important."
"Questions?" Suarez asks, peering hopefully at a wall of young faces.
It's a drizzly spring night a couple of weeks after the show, back in a lecture hall on the Catholic campus in Northeast Washington. A wiry, youthful 41-year-old, Suarez has come to class, as usual, in jeans and an old Allman Brothers T-shirt, his dark hair in a frizzy mullet. "I don't look like your typical academic," he says proudly. He's right: He looks like your typical concert roadie.
The topic is "A Blessing," a 1963 poem by the late Pulitzer Prize winner James Wright, which describes a twilight stop by a roadside pasture where the author is greeted by two gentle ponies.
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly, I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Suarez's popularity is evident here: Most poetry seminars have fewer than 15 students. This one has 140, even though the average grade, according to Suarez, is barely above C-plus.
But tonight the class's enthusiasm is muted. Suarez explains at length that Wright's verse, deceptively simple and powerfully evocative, is an example of "deep imagery," here used to describe a moment of pure, transcendent happiness.
"Questions?" he asks. "Follow-up?"
There is none. His students sit slumped in their sweat shirts and baggy jeans.
Poetry, he knows, does not come easy for most of them. But for him, it always did.
To the despair of his parents -- teachers who emigrated from Cuba when he was an infant -- Suarez was an indifferent student in high school, kicked off the baseball team for his long hair and inattention to geometry. Holed up in his room, he would turn up his stereo, rattling the walls of their home in sleepy Naples, Fla. -- the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, the Grateful Dead and especially the Allman Brothers, real Florida boys whose soulful slide guitar and complex rhythms spoke of broken hearts and Southern back roads like those he knew himself.
Music led him to literature -- first the Beat poets, such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg, and iconoclast authors like Ken Kesey. References in their works inspired him to pick up William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury." Which changed his life.
"I didn't understand a damn thing, but I knew there was something special here," he recalls. "That made me realize the way literature could tap into the human spirit."
So a quarter-century later, Suarez stares at these quiet youngsters for just a second, then moves on.
"Now we're going to look some more at deep-imagery poetry," he says. "And we're going to do it in conjunction with the Doors."
Soon the room is vibrating to an edgy drum intro, a vamping bass line, a rumbling organ. And then comes the voice of Jim Morrison -- silenced a decade before these students were born, but familiar to them through their parents' record collections and the eternal spinnings on classic rock radio stations.
You know the day destroys the night, night divides the day. Tried to run, tried to hide. Break on through to the other side!
"Okay, just with that much of the song, what's happening here?" Suarez asks the class. Break it down sonically, he tells them. When do the drums come in, when does the beat speed up -- and what does that pacing signify?
This time, the hands go up. "He's giving a scenario," one student volunteers, "and then it, like, explodes."
"Get specific," Suarez says.
"I got the sense that when all the instruments come in like they do at the end of the verse, they're pushing you to break through to the other side."
"Yeah, very good!" says Suarez.
He explains: "Break On Through" echoes a classic theme in 20th-century American poetry, the desire to break through the confines of superficial society and smothering media into "a more authentic experience," a way of life "that is not mediated, that is experienced directly."
She get . . . she get . . . she get . . . she get HIGH!
Suarez stops the music again, after a sprawling, free-form organ solo. "What's the organ solo doing here?" he asks.
A different student speaks up: "It kind of shows he's broken through for a second and is exploring -- that he's at a point where he wants to stay for a while."
Suarez suggests something more. The organ solo seems intended to transport both the singer and the listener -- but to where? Remember, the last song on the album is "The End," a morose celebration of death. Listen again: The line that comes just before the song ends in an instrumental blare of chaos -- The gate is straight, deep and wide.
The gates of Heaven? Suarez suggests.
Could that be what the Doors were breaking on through to?
A young woman with long blond hair and a tiny nose stud raises her hand, her brow wrinkled.
"Maybe it's just me," she says. "But I always thought of it as just being a very sexual song -- building up like an orgasm. . . . Jim Morrison, you know, was a very primal, sexual person."
Suarez nods politely, his mind on loftier concepts.
"Well, yeah, that is certainly in there, too."
Poetry Through Rock
The chairman of the English department lives in Kensington with his wife of nearly 20 years -- a childhood friend, now a grants administrator for the National Science Foundation. Their two sons love to read and play baseball and, at ages 9 and 15, have a total of eight or so Allman Brothers concerts under their belts.
He is working on a book about Robert Penn Warren, and a first novel about the last season of professional baseball in Cuba. When students come to ask him questions or confer about their papers, he's usually playing the Allman Brothers in his office.
Suarez -- who also teaches courses on Southern authors, modern American poetry and the literature of World War II -- designed "Rock and Poetry" to show the parallels between the two art forms during the late 20th century -- the way T.S. Eliot influenced Bob Dylan, for example, and the way rock influenced poets of the 1960s.
But the real reason for making his students listen to music was to help them learn how to hear poetry.
"Students have lost a sense of form," he says. Too many of them, he found, wanted to approach poems as if they were word games, doggedly chipping away at the verse as though it were a cipher with a secret decoding key. They didn't understand the way that good poetry was meant to speak to the reader, through the artful blending of structure and tempos and voices.
Which are, after all, the same things at work in good popular music. "You get the solos, the bass, the interplay of different lines repeating themselves," he says. "It's not what the words mean -- it's the interplay of musical lines, the repetition of musical themes, such that even very simple words take on emotional impact."
So in Suarez's class, he wants his students to analyze why some songs pack the emotional wallop they do. It means that they spend a lot of time making good old-fashioned rock-and-roll sound pretty esoteric. But then, he says, they finally have the tools to understand poetry.
Sure enough, after half an hour or so on the Doors, the stereo is turned off and the photocopied poems come out. It's time for "Falling," in which James Dickey conveys the impressionistic last thoughts of a woman tumbling from an airplane. Another exercise in pacing, not unlike that of Jim Morrison.
"Watch what Dickey does with punctuation here," Suarez tells the class. "He creates clusters of words within the lines to create images the writer wants to isolate."
Emphasis on Art
The unkempt hair. The tie-dyed shirts. The integration of drug-fueled, sex-addled rock music into the literature curriculum.
Ernest Suarez might look like the archetypal campus radical, a bomb-throwing cultural relativist out of William Buckley's nightmares, but scratch the surface and you find a traditional scholar.
He attempts no Freudian interpretation of the poetry in his classes, no Marxist theory. That kind of "literary theory" was the fashionable approach when he was starting his academic career as a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin. It was the late 1980s, the era of political correctness and dismantling the canon. Suarez says he gave theory a try, but "it was missing what made literature important to me."
The literary theorists "turn art into sociological artifacts," scoffs Christopher Wheatley, a like-minded English department colleague at Catholic who teaches modern American drama and Restoration literature. He complains that too many English scholars are interested not in "what Jane Austen has to say, but how she's unconsciously part of a patriarchal structure. . . . They keep discovering that Shakespeare was sexist -- what a concept!"
Suarez found a happy home at Catholic, where he started in 1991, and which mostly sat out the political firestorms that wracked many English departments in the 1990s. It's a place where he says the emphasis can be on art -- why it is great, why it is aesthetically sound -- rather than the politics it represents.
"We value how the art works," he says.
Meeting the Artists
With close-cropped graying hair and an open-collared shirt, Butch Trucks doesn't look like your typical rock drummer. More like your typical poetry professor from a small liberal arts college. Fresh from his post-concert shower, he is holding court in a dingy room behind the stage at the Beacon, ready to take questions from Suarez's students.
These personal meetings are another part of Suarez's strategy -- this semester, he has organized readings on campus with poets like Pulitzer Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa, Donald Hall and Henry Taylor.
Suarez sounds a little giddy, like a fan club president, as he makes the introduction: "We've got a great, not just a rock drummer, but American artist here."
The first question to Trucks is predictable: "Who influences you the most?"
The answer: "Debussy."
"Yesss!" whispers one Catholic student, apparently a fan of French classical music.
But writers, too, Trucks says -- Proust, Tolkien, Vonnegut, Hesse, Dante. And most of all, Faulkner.
"Oh, he's magic," the drummer says. "Faulkner has opened passages in my brain. You do things you'd never expect."
Later, Suarez is pleased with the session. It's important for his students to meet artists, he says, so that "the music or poetry or the art form is a live thing for them, rather than a product that just exists statically and commercially."
But what really inspires Suarez's students is not necessarily the example set by the artists. It's the example set by their number one fan.
"He's the head of the English department, but he hasn't compromised his values and passions," explains Jonathan Donnelly, a 23-year-old student from New Jersey. "People are impressed by that."
Standing at the threshold of adult life, Donnelly and his classmates are obsessed with the question of whether they will be able to make a living doing something they love.
"That's what everyone wants," says Donnelly. "And he" -- Suarez -- "is doing it."