The Poet's Perspective: Time travel and 'The Problem of Magnification'

September 06, 2010

Robin Becker, the 2010-11 Penn State laureate and professor of English and women's studies at the University, is sharing several of her poems via video during the 2010-11 academic year, aiming to engage people "in the deep pleasures of poetry -- language crafted and shaped from words, the 'ordinary' material we all use every day," to explore how and why poems move us.

"The Poet's Perspective" is a weekly poetry video series scheduled to appear during the fall 2010 and spring 2011 semesters on Penn State Live and in Penn State Newswires. Prior to each poem, Becker offers her thoughts about what inspired her to write the piece, then poses a question to consider. Below, in "The Problem of Magnification," the poet considers an occasion of role-reversal when a student of science became the teacher.

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As a teacher, I spend a lot of time writing syllabi, coming up with assignments and responding to student writing. When the roles reverse, when the student becomes the teacher, I relish the widening of perspectives, the surprise and pleasure of finding myself a student. In the following poem, I record my response to one of those unexpected moments.

Question to consider: Role-reversals sometimes yield interesting material. Under what conditions might you imagine reversing roles?

The Problem of Magnification

Today after class, my student explains to me
how he and his roommate plan to trap
history between two enormous mirrors they will install
in space. He is particularly interested in South American countries,
wooden boats circumnavigating the globe.
Kindly, my student instructs me in the development
of laser technology, he persuades me with heroic accounts
of electromagnetic radiation, fabulous as any resurrection.
History, he says, is all matter,
and matter cannot be destroyed. A lasso of light sparks
from his chalky fingers as he describes the problem of magnification.
Today you would lose the fine hairs on Magellan's arms,
the grain in the wood of his mast. Soon, he assures me, technicians
will perfect the lens, the light will refract,
and the boys will see the trees of Tierra del Fuego
as they appeared to the Portuguese commander.
Tonight my student and his roommate elucidate the elegant equations.
Their dormitory room is a planetarium
of faith, earth a lonely place, miles from anywhere
a penciled circle on the small schematic diagram.

"The Problem of Magnification" is from Giacometti's Dog, by Robin Becker, © 1990. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the publisher.

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Robin Becker will visit several Penn State Commonwealth Campuses this fall; view her schedule of appearances at online. To read or watch videos of previous poems in the series, click here. To listen to an occasional podcast series where Becker and a small group of students and faculty discuss one of her poems, visit "Liberal Arts Voices."

  • Click on the title image above to watch Penn State Laureate Robin Becker read 'The Problem of Magnification,' the third poem in her weekly video series.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated November 18, 2010