East Lansing, MI.  Back home in the steady snows of Michigan, I came across an old poem of mine, the other day, that seems like an appropriate riposte to Jeffrey Polet’s recent essay on education and character.  Needless to say, this hardly constitutes a complete response or formal commentary; it merely seeks to paint what contemporary higher education really is, and if the poem is to discuss such present realities, then it must make no reference whatsoever to the intellectual life, moral and intellectual discipline, Truth — much less classroom pedagogy.

I would further note, that this poem addresses several relevant themes we occasionally address here at FPR, from questions of belatedness and nostalgia regarding ways of life, and communal and social forms, to the life of the family and the death of far flung foreign wars.  If only it could also include some specific reference to Jason Peters, it might be a great success, but perhaps mention of his name and talk of drunkeness in the same poem would be redundant.  I leave it to our loyal readers to weed through these oaten sheaves and to pick up on whichever other such notes they may.

 Their Time Up at State College

It’s hard to get your married brother drunk.

Now that you’ve reached the age he was once at

And he’ll tell you for old time’s sake how then,

After a night of shots and beer, he’d toppled

Down a hard flight of stairs.  His future wife

Was there, she took him in her arms and slugged

Him off to bed, laughing at what he slurred,

Before; with combing fingers, held his head

Over the staircase rail.  These two half-grown

Midwestern blond kids up at their state college.

She’d let him paint a flower on her cheek

That evening, right before she and the girls

Lit sweet cigars and found the room with booze.

After he’d let his stomach settle down,

They lay in the twin bed, his kelly jersey

With chipped-off number and once famous name

And her dry, painted cheek upon his chest.

They were young then and aren’t so old just now,

And share this idly to identify

A bit with you, but don’t begin to drink.

Your brother hasn’t finished his first beer

And when you polish off your third, it seems

That you could never have a reckless time

A sugared time, as youthful time as they.

When they surrendered the age that you are now,

you lost it with them.


                                                  You have none at all:

No age, no wild youth to reflect on,

No half-remembered smiling anecdotes,

Nothing to joke about or to regret.

In present company, you are like them,

That is, you take their lives in listening.

To be as they once were, or as you are . . .


When somehow you, unlikable, shy you

Manage to find someone who can match drinks,

The mood turns maudlin and you let a sigh

Within the quiet bar you’ve ended at,

Looking across toward this anonymous

Partner, who can share nothing more than rounds,

You hesitate.  Sip.  And then begin

To tell those stories, near but not your own,

And far, quite far, from any time you know.


It’s always fun to drink up at State College;

I’ve never been but so I’ve always heard.

My brother doesn’t binge as he did then,

But she and him been married some years now.

They actually have a kid now.  Want another.

Can you imagine that?  And me an uncle.

It makes me shake to think about it, yeah,

So many people giving birth and so

Much wrong with this world.  I can’t understand

The war we’re in.  It’s not my war.  The war . . .


This poem originally appeared in The Bend 4 (May 2007)

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James Matthew Wilson
James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. Wilson is also a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, and The American Conservative. He has published five books, including most recently, a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, but has dug himself in for good on the margins of the Main Line in Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and saintly sons. For information on Wilson's scholarship and a selection of his published work, click here. See books written and recommended by James Matthew Wilson.


  1. Write about Frost, JMW. The “sound of sense” is something I can feel. The war kind of jars, ragged jars, at the end of her putting the painted face on his blown out chest.

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