by Carol Muske-Dukes

“Even before a gunman killed five people and injured several others… at North Illinois University, a small but growing movement had been underway at universities and state legislatures, to allow students, faculty and staff to carry guns on campus.”
USA Today, Feb. 15, 2008

I sing of arms and the campus.

As a poet and professor of English and poetry writing, I can imagine it: the cold sheen of gunmetal gleaming under my desk, the small deadly stockpile of weapons at my feet. The AK7 and the Uzi, the semi-automatic assault rifles.

Before I pass around the roll sheet, I pat my live ammo belt — a life buoy of bullets around my waist. The students adjust their shoulder and hip holsters. Class begins.

What will I teach while looking at my students through cross-hairs? Undoubtedly the same curriculum, the same questions of character and metaphor, the same poets whose voices we listen to now. Emily Dickinson, for example:

“My life had stood, a loaded gun …”

Students with ill minds and suffering spirits, like their healthier peers, have often sought out courses in literature and creative writing. But the need for clarity and catharsis is desperate and unbalanced — and without the satisfactions that a strong-minded study of aesthetic self-expression can provide.

For someone tortured in the mind, this may the last stop, the last hope to describe indescribable bleakness and a sense of impending doom. Professors of writing, though not psychologists, are students of human behavior, and the study of literature teaches the lessons of life.

Those of us who are writers work at recognizing and staying sensitive to trouble in the mind, trouble in the soul. And it often doesn’t take a great deal of experience and cultivated awareness to pick up on signs of potential violent behavior in a small workshop, seminar or one-on-one conference.

Years ago, at the country’s most famous writers’ workshop at a Midwestern university, I had a graduate student in my literature seminar who stopped taking his lithium medication and began to document, in detail, the disintegration of his self — even as he began to threaten others in the classroom.

When I spoke to the administration about him, I met with what has become fairly standard unwritten policy: I was told that this student “had to hurt somebody” before the university could take any action to restrain him.

The student’s behavior (and psychological disintegration) worsened, and he did indeed hurt somebody. He tried to cut the throat of a bartender at a university hangout, a bar near campus. Witnesses said he was raving about carrying a firearm.

Poet Nikki Giovanni, who taught creative writing to Seung Hui Cho, the Virgina Tech shooter, saw something deeply alarming in his writing. She shared her concerns with a department head, who informed university administrators, who did little to closely monitor or follow up on a psychological time bomb — with the resulting horror of recent headlines.

Images of death and depression are familiar to teachers of writing and literature. Great literary moments gleam darkly with melancholy and despair. When Milton writes, “Within him, hell he brings,” he is eloquently expressing a tortured state of mind. “We die soon,” cry the gang members in Gwendolyn Brooks’ famous poem, “We Real Cool.”

A student who is mentally falling apart and possibly violent may attempt and even succeed at expression, out of an intense and tragic need to communicate. But the need to continue indicating the wound will remain more powerful than what is on paper. Finally, the failure to articulate the torment, the incapacity to successfully explore in language the minefield of  mental anguish and fantasies of aggression, will blow-back into the “real” world.

James Joyce brought his daughter Lucia to Carl Jung to be psychoanalyzed, and when Jung described her dark and violent fantasies to him and declared her schizophrenic, Joyce protested that his own reveries were identical to Lucia’s. But the difference between the two, Jung responded, was that Joyce dived into his fantasies then re-surfaced. Lucia, he said, fell into the depths of her imagination and drowned.

Clearly, when psychological detection and clinical diagnosis and assistance are a partial answer to this firestorm of campus violence — along with strict across-the-board gun control — why are some legislatures and universities bent on creating High Noon on campus, encouraging the possibility of legalized massacre of our students and faculties?

“You may hide in the caves, but they’ll be only your graves
But you can’t get away from the guns.”
Rudyard Kipling

OK, here’s a creative exercise for the gun lobbyists and the opponents of gun control who are supporting these suicidal measures: Instead of turning teachers into gunslingers, how about listening to Emily Dickinson again and imagining what she has imagined?

She has called up, in her poem, a voice we’ve never heard before. Try to picture it as it speaks in its cryptic chilling syllables — the Loaded Gun with a message:

“For I have but the power to kill
Without the power to die.”

* * *
Carol Muske-Dukes is a professor of English and creative writing and founding director of the graduate program in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. Her most recent novel is “Channeling Mark Twain” (Random House, 2007). The author of seven books of poetry, her most recent collection, “Sparrow” (Random House, 2003), was a National Book Award finalist. Visit her website at

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