All the difference

Remembering Dr. Loveall, or how I graduated high school and learned to love poetry

By the end of my junior year of high school, I’d wandered so far from the path to timely graduation that I was lost in the figurative yellow wood of misspent youth. I was a full year’s worth of credits deficient, in English of all things, and had reached a spot where, my guidance counselor informed me, two roads diverged. The first, most often chosen by misfits like myself, led straight to continuation school, where I could make up the work by quitting smoking and writing book reports on Garfield comics. The other path was to simultaneously enroll at the local junior college during my last year of high school, and make up the missing units by taking night classes.

So it was I ended up in a Shasta College poetry class taught by Dr. James Loveall for three hours every Monday night for the first half of 1994. Decades on, those class sessions remain firmly and fondly in my memory because of the respect I developed for Loveall. He was bent, battered and mostly blinded by age when I met him, and hobbled to and from the classroom assisted by his wife, who would sit mostly silent in the back of the classroom, ready to assist him when his body or mind began to falter.

I do not mean to characterize Loveall as a doddering old man, because for the most part his mind was incredibly sound. Each week, he’d choose a sample representing a different poetic form—rondeaux, sonnets, etc.—and delve into how they were constructed, their history and who was known for writing them. We’d also write our own samples in the assigned form each week. He taught us there’s a difference between verse and poetry, and warned us we’d likely write some good samples of the former but none of the latter. Though he’d been published and won awards for his own work since his teens, he claimed he’d been trying for more than 50 years to write something better than “good verse.”

Loveall lectured entirely from memory, each session reciting several complete poems as examples, and peppered his lectures with humanizing anecdotes about the greats, some of whom—like Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas—he’d even seen read in person as a teenager and young adult in the 1930s and ’40s. I particularly remember him talking about Thomas appearing on stage with a cocktail in his shaky hand and proceeding to nervously stumble through his poems for several minutes, but blossoming into a beautiful reader—the best Loveall ever saw, he recalled—halfway through his third drink.

Loveall’s mental slips ranged from minor—losing his train of thought—to utterly magnificent instances when he would lose himself in the literature he’d loved so deeply and for so long, and begin reciting long passages. When this happened, he too would seemingly transform, the years lifting from his crooked frame, a spark lighting his eyes.

On one occasion, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales came up in conversation, and Loveall spontaneously recited the first several hundred words of the work … in its original Middle English! On another, he defused a volatile argument started by the easily offended middle-aged born-again Christian (present in every Shasta College classroom) by shifting the conversation from the Bible’s arguable moral value to its undeniable literary value. He explained how King James commissioned the greatest writers in England to pen the version that bears his name, possibly including William Shakespeare. He paused a moment, then began to recite—with perfect rhythm, meter and dramatic intonation—“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, and God said, Let there be light: and there was light …”

He continued reciting Genesis, word for word, until midway through the second chapter, then he abruptly stopped, stooped again, looked a little confused, and apologized for getting off track. There was, of course, no need; the entire classroom erupted in applause, much of the class rising for a standing ovation. More than 20 years later, I still get chills remembering it.

Loveall’s passion for poetry and literature helped fan the flames of my own. Despite my hatred of high school, he showed me what college could and should be like, which fueled me to keep going. His commitment to his crafts, both writing and teaching, remain an inspiration to me. Had I taken the easier route back then I likely never would have had the honor of meeting him, and others like him … and that has made all the difference.