The Fool As Teacher: Poetry and Karl G. Kasberg
by Robert Klein Engler
The world in which Karl Gary Kasberg lived and wrote his poems has disappeared from the face of the earth. Karl G. Kasberg’s world has disappeared not because of earthquakes or bombs, but because of time and the political decisions of men who came after him. It was politically expedient to erase Karl’s memory from the college where he taught English poetry.
We have to imagine the southwest side of Chicago, where a giant Indian statue stood on the roof of a cigar store at 63rd and Pulaski to retrieve that world. Jets airliners skimmed over the neighborhood on their way to land at Midway Airport. The buses ran up Nabisco Hill, hardly getting traction in winter snow. Southwest College was first started at Bogan High School, and by the time Karl began teaching English there, his office, and mine, were just desks in a storefront along 79th Street. In this vanished world, the working class boys from the neighborhood around the community college waited after class for Karl to make an appointment so that they could talk about Dylan Thomas over steaming styrofoam cups of bad coffee.
What are the bare facts we can tease out about Karl G. Kasperg? Karl Gary Kasberg was born on March 25, 1932, in Duluth, Minnesota. He was the son on of Gerhardt and Edith Helen (Nelson) Kasberg. He attended Concordia College in 1950 and graduated from the University of Indiana. Karl began his teaching career as an English instructor at the University of Iowa. He taught there from 1955 to 1958. He was then an instructor of humanities at Harper College at Vestal, New York from 1958 to 1960. He then was the fine arts editor at the Binghamton (New York) Sun-Bulletin, from 1960 to1961. Karl was the recipient of the Edwin Markham Award from the Poetry Society of America, in 1966. He served with United States Naval Reserve from 1950 to 1952.
In 1960, the Fine Arts Festival Committee of Harpur College published a small book of poems by K. G. Kasberg. The book was designed by E. R. Homewood. Four hundred copies were made. The book has a black cover, with the title and author printed in white. The paper on which the poems are printed looks homemade, with frayed edges. It is an intimate book, and appears to some readers a timeless expression of the poetic art. Few, if any, make poetry books like this, today. The chapbook also has a line drawing of a young Karl Kasberg. This drawing is one of the few known images of the poet. Karl is shown with a jacket and tie. He looks rather conservative for a poet—a far cry from the hippie image of a bard like Alan Ginsberg. The few who first saw this chapbook had not yet heard of multiculturalism or white privilege.
At one time Karl’s book, Words to Fool Time, published in 1964 was offered for sale on E-bay. To entice the buyer, the seller wrote, “Karl G. Kasberg (1932-1971) was a Santa Barbara resident and poet, winner of the Hogwood Award for The Apprentice Tongue, and co-chair of the Writers’ Conference and instructor at SBCC (Santa Barbara Community College).”
Karl G. Kasbergh was the author of other small books of poetry and the verse play, Cain. These were all published posthumously. Some of his poems are to be found in journals like the Western Humanities Review. Karl was also an Instructor in English at Santa Barbara (California) City College from 1962-1965. He then became an Assistant professor at Bogan College, Chicago (Southwest College in this essay) and a guest lecturer at Athens (Greece) College in 1964. Karl never left Bogan College alive. He died while employed there in 1971. There were no children to bury him or to pass on a dogeared copy of Rilke’s sonnets.
Looking back, it’s hard to talk about Karl Kasperg’s poetry without painting a picture of the social and political context of Chicago, and the ethnic southwest side we both drove to daily. Karl was the first man I met who was a member of that irritable race of poets. At the time I knew Karl, he taught in the English department at Southwest College* in Chicago. Professor Kasberg would brag about one of his former students from the North Star State, the singer Bob Dylan.
According to Professor Kasberg, the folk singer Robert Allen Zimmerman supposedly changed his name to the popular singer we know today as Bob Dylan because Kasberg had introduced Zimmerman to the writing of the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas. Thomas was known not only for his brilliant poems, but also for his excessive drinking.
I went to Professor Kasberg’s apartment a few times. He had a picture of D. H. Lawrence above the fireplace. Karl was an elegant and sometimes fastidious man, but we had fine conversations over cocktails. Professor Kasberg was especially fond of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry. I remember him telling me once, as he handed me a book of Rilke’s poems, “Poets do not have happy lives.”
Karl G. Kasberg was not a prolific poet. His book, Winter Poems, for example, was privately published in 1962. One hundred copies were printed. The book had 13 pages. Nevertheless, Karl shared with me poems, written while he was at Daley College. He was curious about what I thought. He was curious if I was gay, and who I loved. He was curious if I had actually had a lover, or if I was just in love with loving. I didn’t say much at the time about any of this. I was in love then with a young man from my college fraternity. Because I was born on the southwest side of Chicago, we didn’t talk about loving another young man. It was only when I left for the University of Illinois that I discovered poetry and saw for the first time the most beautiful body I ever saw. Karl knew some story like this was lurking behind my eyes, but if it was to be told, he’d have to pull it out of me with many glasses of wine. I saved the many glasses of wine for the failure of that love.
Now, I consider “The Fool as Teacher“ to be an insight into Karl’s sensibility. It is also a poem about the experience many good teachers share.
The Fool as Teacher
by Karl G. Kasberg
So I am drunk again, sotted with years
Of powerless positions, crocked in a cage
Where letters twist the knotted heart to a burl
Of wooden love. Love in a word appears
Only when blood runs black to taste the page.
What’s to be said to you, to you who twirl
Your pens, daring ink to be dry lines
That may suggest an exercise of wit—
Or want of it? (Tongue, say it black and clean.)
Our learning’s never done in classrooms, signs
Or symbols chalked upon a board, but it
May come when we are drunk. I mean, I mean
That I can teach you nothing you don’t know.
Words inebriate and love . . . is slow.
lost and forgotten
Talking about Karl’s poetry is sometimes like talking about the lost poets Plato mentions in his dialogues. Plato knows their names, but only a few lines are quoted. Their work has been lost to the labyrinth of history and time. Palladas was one of them. Palladas lived in Alexandria, Egypt during the 4th century AD. All we know about this poet has been deduced from his epigrams preserved in the Greek Anthology. His poems describe the persona of a pagan schoolteacher resigned to life in a Christian city, and bitter about his wife to the point of misogyny.
I doubt Karl drank because he was bitter. I suspect he drank because he had desires he could only reconcile with words and whisky. I wish there were more examples of Karl’s poems on my desk, or that he had enjoyed the fame that eluded him. Fame does help more than alcohol to preserve our name and writing, but it did not happen with Karl, and because it did not happen, we see deeper into the world of working class, ethnic Chicago that Karl lived in. To say there was a love that could not say it’s name then, is to say what it was like in 1960s Chicago. And when that love did say its name, it was scorned. It could have been scorn and probably self-hate, too, that turned Karl to drink. In the long run, it turned us all to drink. It’s not easy bringing culture to working class boys, Oscar Wilde aside.
The few who remember Karl, share the same memories: socializing with cocktails and witty conversation at his apartment, and visiting him in the hospital on Lincoln Avenue. According to one informant, Karl was close to a woman on the faculty, but something happened between them. She ended up being afraid of him—in a sad, paranoid way, she even thought he could be laying in wait for her in the bushes when she went home at night. But then she had her own drinking problem.
Karl had a partner, his own age, who taught at Harold Washington College, in the English Department. I met the man on a few occasions and only much later learned that he and Karl were lovers. As far as I know, Karl was a traditional intellectual, who was attracted to bright male, students, but he never had an affair with any of them. One other English faculty member who recalled Karl told me about Karl’s last days without ever mentioning any scandal in Karl’s past. He claimed, “Yes, I do remember Karl Kasburg, but I do not remember ever talking to him. I only remember vividly how ghastly he looked during his final days at Southwest.”
Because most of Karl’s poems are unknown or even lost, his life becomes a metaphor for the lives of many who spent their career at Southwest College. Their lives are unknown, today. Much of their work has been lost. Especially, since the Democrat Party politics of Chicago surrendered education over to Affirmative Action and a type of ethnic cleansing that valued votes over academics. I suppose if Karl had lived longer, he may have seen the foolishness of our college deans and party hacks, but then again, maybe not. He may have welcomed same-sex marriage and gender politics, but I don’t think so. Like many gay men half a century ago, he had refined taste, both in liquor and poetry. I’m sure he would have opposed the tastelessness of poetry slams, today, or he would attend them, if forced to, drunk. Let the victims declaim. As Auden knew, poetry slams change nothing. Words inebriate, but love is slow.
No essay about Karl Kasburg’s poetry should overlook his verse play, Cain. Cain, the first murderer is also the first artist. It seems safe to say that in this play we see the beginnings of the gay artist’s attack and war with organized religion. After karl’s death, this attack would blossom into an outright attack on the Catholic church and the advancement of same-sex marriage.
in the beginning…
When Karl first joined the faculty of Southwest College, the community college movement in Chicago was just getting started. Karl, and many others like him, joined the faculty with high hopes of reproducing a traditional liberal arts education and making it available to citizens of Chicago’s working class neighborhoods. There was something of a community of scholars at Southwest College, even though certain things were kept hidden. Gay relationships, for example were known, but they were never talked about. That’s probably what attracted me to the faculty in the English Department. My heart and my writing were drawn to the closeted members of that department.
I remember visiting Professor Kasberg when he was in the hospital fighting with his last illness. He was dying of alcoholism. It was 1971. The remnants of the 60s still smoldered on campus, clouding the poetry we struggled to write. I look at the remnants of those years, the old literary magazines with their abstract art covers, the yellow newspaper articles about the arts festival in upstate New York that Karl attended, the dry papers from Karl’s file I keep. They have a reaching about them that exceeded their grasp. Half a century away, they all look so old yet so innocent.
On the hospital grounds, it was a brilliant October afternoon. Everything had the hard edge of light on it. You knew then the natural world was dying, preparing itself for winter, but it was so crisp and blue, so orange and red and gold, that the fallen leaves seemed like a treasury of coins that could buy a few more days, or a few more hours from the barbarians of snow that were massing behind the clouds. Such is the glory and ransom of light in autumn.
I brought with me to the hospital a copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem Herbst and a rose. Looking back, it probably was not prudent to bring the rose. I later learned that after Rilke’s death a story circulated that the poet died from an infection caused by the prick of a rose’s thorn.
Herbst was one of professor Kasberg’s favorite poems by Rilke. He wanted me to read it to him. So, I read aloud: “Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,“ The leaves fall, fall as if from far away“ “. . . Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen unendlich sanft in seinen Händen hält.“ As I read, I realized that Professor Kasberg was waiting for a door to open.
Each year, as autumn comes around, I remember Rilke’s poem. Among other things, this poem opens a door for me not only to the memory of Professor Kasberg, but to an image of how I always wanted to live in a quiet circle of artists and writers. Instead of that fictitious circle of peace and beauty, we lived like many other poets in a world seasoned with the turmoil of working-class politics and institutional upheaval. Because of that spice, I may have seasoned Rilke’s words with a hope that is my own, a hope that is translated but not written. It is to be found by reading between the lines.
by R. M. Rilke (1875-1926)
Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,
als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;
sie fallen mit vereinender Gebärde.
Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere Erde
aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.
Wir alle fallen. Diese Hand da Fällt.
Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen.
Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen
unendlich sanft in seinen Händen hält.
translated from the German by Robert Klein Engler
The leaves fall, fall as if from far away.
From withered gardens in the sky they fall,
to teeter with the grace of letting go.
Among the stars, the dark earth also
falls, alone and grave along the way.
We all fall. Look, these hands will fall.
It is the way, a drape of leaves, a pall.
Yet, there is One who regards us all,
whose hands hold us ever as we fall.
contra el destino…
It’s not my intention to argue that Karl’s poetry is on a par with the poetry of Rilke. Such arguments are for the literary critics at the University of Chicago. I do want to suggest that the poem by Rilke is an insight into Karl’s taste and what he and many at Southwest College aspired to 50 years ago. Since then, it has been all down hill at Southwest College in terms of taste and aspiration. A new generation has come with their own concerns and their own destructive politics. All this has been guided by the local politicians for the sake of votes and elections. No one today will deny that a decision was made to turn Southwest College into an all Latino school for the sake of keeping the Democrats in power. In 50 more years will a new literary critic announce that its all the same light that generation after generation was seeking. Karl saw the light in rainbows. After him, others saw it in infrared.
We don’t know when Karl wrote his insight into gay love, the poem Keeper of they Keys. We do know it is true to gay life in 1960s Chicago.
Keeper of the Key
by Karl G. Kasberg
Say your pious heart keeps
My love locked up within,
Stands guard and never sleeps.
But O my little one,
No need to fetter him
With Prayers, he will not run.
Your holy prison threw
Off my love’s chains: your heart:
The jail I escaped to.
Is it possible for anyone, gay or straight, to throw off love’s chains? We know if love and politics are related, then it was impossible for Southwest College to throw off the chains of Democrat Party politics. After 50 years, that college has sunk into the tar pit of mediocrity. But that’s OK, because the college faculty, students and administrators deliver votes every election day for the Democrats. The prison of progressive conformity is no longer a holy prison, it’s just a prison without taste or poetry.
After his death in 1971, the quiet erasing of Karl Kasberg’s world proceeded from one election to another. Eventually, E. R. Homewood, who taught English at Harold Washington College, headed up an effort to preserve Karl’s work. Karl’s verse play Cain was published, and in 1973, there were plans to publish more of Karl’s poetry by The Ontario Press. Those plans never came to fruition. There used to be a pair of stone flowerpots by the doors to the main building. They held mums and marigold in fall. Then, with the incoming neglect, students used them to snuff our their cigarette butts before going to class.
Some foresaw the neglect to come, but preferred to do nothing. Others denied that Chicago politics required the ethnic cleansing of Southwest College and the neighborhood around it. Most faculty members went along with the transformation in order to keep their jobs and retirements. Attempts were made by some faculty to publish the literary magazine Oblique, but by 1995, even that magazine was discontinued. When the transformation was complete, the college’s webpage announced that the college was now, “…a Hispanic Serving Institution, (that) continues to respond to the changing needs of Chicago.” The Nazis could not have engineered a population replacement program any better than the Democrat Party’s program that transformed Southwest College. Only a final irony remained. Those who may have objected to Karl’s alleged homosexuality, never objected to the undeniable ethnic cleansing that erased a community.
If you were to visit Southwest College today, you would see a shell institution. It looks the same on the outside, but is radically different on the inside. If you were to ask a member of the English department at Southwest College about Karl Kasberg, they may look at you with wonder and dismay. No one teaches Karl’s poetry, let alone shares the history of the early college with their students. Why should they? The politics of revenge has all but obliterated this history, and what is left but the bones of dead white men. Indeed, the times they are a changin’, as Bob Dylan once sang. But is spite of songs, this change has to be judged. What came after Karl Kasberg was not just change. It was also a mistaken change. It was not a change for the better, but a change for the worse. To point out that change for the worse, today, is to risk being thrown out.
As it happens, while I write this, my stereo plays Adiós, Muchachos. Carlos Cardel sings the song with a voice that is half in Buenos Aires and half in New York City.
“Adiós, muchachos, ya me voy y me resigno,
Contra el destino nadie la calla.
Se terminaron para mí todas las farras.
Mi cuerpo enfermo no resiste más.”
“Goodby my boyfriends,” is what Karl would have sung if he knew Spanish. And today, 50 years after we scraped the ice from our windshield in the Southwest College parking lot, hurrying in the cold darkness after our night class was over, I imagine Karl driving home on the salty streets. He weighs his time. He wonders if he is the fool as teacher. In 50 years the working class white boys will vanish from the southwest side of Chicago. The college will fall into the hands of vengeful Latinos. Karl’s name and poems will be forgotten by Juan and Maria, who major in computer science and law enforcement.
There are those today who blame gays for the destruction of civilization. This might be the outcome of a movement that fell into the hands of the Marxists and has been used for political ends, ends Karl may never have imagined. In Karl’s time, many closeted gay men saw themselves as defending the values and art of Western civilization, not destroying them. If Karl had lived, he may have seen how the youthful idealism of the faculty was eroded. They were mostly straight, but were not defenders of Western Civilization. After a while, they all became educational whores, aspiring to be courtesans—only because courtesans get paid more. A few had another option. They became bitter queens.
Some may ask, why the turn to politics from poetry in our memory of Kasberg? The answer should be obvious. Karl Kasberg’s poetry was all but forgotten by his colleagues not because he was a bad poet, but because political changes forced an ethnic cleansing of the college where he taught. After the original faculty was displaced by a Latino administration, there was no need to remember Karl, or others for that matter. Remembering Karl would call attention to the events that made it necessary to forget him in the first place. Nobody in the new college administration wanted that.
The point of looking at a poem by Karl Kasberg is that what few poems we have, those poems are better than many poems written today. Likewise, the invaders who took the place of the original faculty at Southwest College were worse than the ones they displaced. To say this is to oppose all that the present Democratic Party stands for, with its multiculturalism and diversity, just for the sake of votes. Consider the poet Karl Kasberg fortunate. He did not live to see the structure of evil that engulfed Southwest College. It can be said that by passing, the fool as teacher fooled them all.
It is by words that we remember. Those words often turn to dust with the papyrus or paper they are written on. Let us imagine that it is 1969, again. There are no CDs or cellphones, but there is still paper and words to go around. We listen to the songs of Bob Dylan on our stereos, remembering to flip the record over from side A to side B, so that the needle doesn’t scratch like claws on our front door. With LP, it’s easy to forget to do the flip, especially after a few martinis.
The last night class at Southwest College is over. Traffic on Pulaski stops at the red light on 79th street. Brick bungalows, with their tidy lawns surround the college. The Polish and Irish families who moved here worked hard to escape the inner city. Their kids are blooming now. Some of them are awakening to an attraction they cannot put into words.
As Karl drives to his apartment in South Shore, he loosens the thin, dark tie he learned to wear in the 50s, with a white shirt and tweed jacket. He reminds himself that he needs to buy a new ribbon for his typewriter. Then there is that stack of essay exams that demand to be graded. Still, maybe a drink or two at his favorite gar bar, The Trip, will do him good. That means heading downtown. But it’s already past ten, so he decides to go home. There’s vodka in the cabinet.
As he heads east on 79th Street, Karl can’t get out of his mind the David Susskind Show he saw on TV the other night. Susskind interviewed for the first time on national television a homosexual. The man was outspoken, but he wore a brown paper bag over his head, with three holes cut for his eyes and mouth.
Karl then thinks about the class he left behind. There is the middle-aged plumber who came to college on a dare, and the pretty sophomore with her hippie hair cut, and the shy boy who always scribbles in his notebook. Karl wishes the boy would pay more attention to the iambic pentameter lines in Shakespeare, but the boy is excused because he is beautiful. Besides, Karl suspects the boy is writing a poem. I know he was writing one. The boy told me so as a man, one night much later, over much wine. We’re both still hoping for hands to hold us tenderly as we fall.
*The community college referred to in this essay as Southwest College actually had three names over the last 50 years. The college started life as Bogan Junior College, was then named Southwest College, and then, when Mayor Daley died, it was named after him. Today, it is still called Richard J. Daley College. For the sake of this essay, I refer to all three as simply Southwest College.
Robert Klein Engler lived in Omaha, Nebraska. His long poem, The Accomplishment of Metaphor and the Necessity of Suffering, set partially in New Orleans, is published by Headwaters Press, Medusa, New York, 2004. He received an Illinois Arts Council award for his “Three Poems for Kabbalah.” If you google his name, then you may find his work on the internet. Some of his books are available at Lulu.com and amazon.com.