04 January 2010

Dolce Far Niente

I thought of Ben Sweet today.

Lovely, irascible, erudite, puckish, Ben Sweet.

Ben--no one I knew called him "Professor Sweet"--was a wonderful portly professor who taught for a time out at what was then called Community College of Denver, Red Rocks Campus. I know little else about his life or his death. He was in theater, I know, but where I knew him from was his classes out at Red Rocks.

He taught several classes on British history, and British Literature, I believe.

One of my proudest achievements in all my academic career was a comment that Ben Sweet made on a poem I had turned in to him. I was consciously mimicking the delicious over-the-top euphony of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I still remember this ancient poem of mine word-for-word. . .but would not, I'm sure, save for Sweet's delicious critique.

You have to understand that Sweet was an exacting critic. He was not mean--anything but--but he wore a flinty, no-nonsense exterior when it came to the subjects he loved. Here the subject was the English language. More than that: Poetry. Here he did not kid around. . .though that flinty mask always held a gaily glinting eye beneath a bushy eyebrow.

I had labored on the poem, working hard to get the sounds just right. It was short and not very deep, but stuffed with sound.

I waited for it to come back from the teacher. Ben Sweet was one whose opinion really mattered.

The single note-book paper sheet came back with Ben's comment at the top. "Almost good," it said.

From this man, those two words meant more to me than any number of facile As on papers from other teachers. It still thrills me, and I think of it often: "Almost good." Wow.

In addition to his British History and Literature classes, Ben taught his own invented course, one that was personally important to him. It was called "Jesus and the Challenge of Being Human."

Sweet's idea of Jesus was very particular and often at odds with popular images, and he spent the first class period making that very clear. His Jesus was muscular, bold, radical, and above all, socialist. Ben Sweet told us in that first class that he embraced socialism to begin with because Jesus was so deeply a commited socialist.

This afternoon I sat in a bar. Since I don't drink, I don't often sit in bars. But this place is right across the street from where I live, and it is a pleasant little place. Suddenly something Ben Sweet once said came back to me, and, thinking about it, slowly the whole amazing man appeared in my imagination.

He said it in that first class period of his Jesus class. It was a quote I so loved that I immediately wrote it down, repeated it often, and have never forgotten it.

Ben was in a fine fury about Jesus and who he really was. He was dissing most popular conceptions. With his feet planted wide, arms gesticulating, he said with rascally hellfire, "He's not just some bleedin' heart, hangin' on the cross, telling you not to have a beer or say damn!"

Sleep peacefully, Ben Sweet.