Things I Learned at University

How to bike on cobblestones and where to signal right.
How to walk through doors held by Old Etonians
and not scowl. How to make myself invisible in seminars
by staring at the table. How to tell Victorian Gothic from Medieval.
How to eat a Mars bar in the Bodleian. When to agree
with everything in theory. How to cultivate a taste for sherry.

Where to bike on the pavement after dark. How to sabotage a hunt.
When to sunbathe topless in the Deer Park. When to punt.
How to hitch a lift and when to walk and where to run.
When not to address my tutors formally. How to laugh at Latin puns
and when to keep quiet and preserve my integrity.
How to celebrate an essay crisis. When to sleep through fire alarms.

How to bike no-handed, how to slip a condom on with one.
When to smoke a joint and when to swig champagne.
When to pool a tip and how to pull a pint. A bit of history.
When to listen to friends and whether to take them seriously.
At the same time how to scorn tradition and enjoy it.
How to live like a king, quite happily, in debt.

Kate Bingham, from Cohabitation (Seren, 1998)

I found ‘Things I Learned at University’ in a pile of books on a table at the Arvon Foundation. Browsing without a great deal of expectation, it was doubly welcome to come across work so alive and witty. Furthermore, I had the strong sensation that it was a good deal more serious than it pretended to be. I read it cover to cover in one go.

The wit of ‘Things I Learned at University’ is twofold. From the use of the past tense in the title we learn that the person writing the poem is not the person doing the learning, but a person writing about another person. The magic shift in perspective created by hindsight allows experience to be presented, without commentary, with wry and affectionate summary.

Secondly, the poem is playful with the notion of what constitutes ‘learning’. The only formal education mentioned in the poem is ‘a bit of history’. All other knowledge is to be gleaned from a gentle subversion of that old cliché the university of life: pulling pints, cycling on pavements, living in debt etc. In the poem’s own terms, it neatly scorns tradition while enjoying it. Think how different the poem’s tone would be (and the reader’s response to it) had it been called ‘Things I Learned at Oxford’.

Formally the poem appears to grow more conscious of itself the longer it goes on. I relished the buried half-rhymes of ‘Etonian’, ‘Victorian’ and ‘Bodleian’; of ‘theory’, ‘sherry’, and ‘agree’. Linking these words in sound is only half the fun: repeated in list form they start to create dynamic whorls of nonsensical association, beloved by the surrealists and student drinking-games. Which is perhaps the point.

I savour, too, the looping rhymes in the second and third stanza: ‘run’ and ‘puns’ with ‘one’; ‘integrity’ with ‘history’ and ‘seriously’. The seriousness of the poem can be found in these formal pleasures, but it is there, too, in knowing ‘when to keep quiet’, becoming ‘invisible’ in seminars, and ‘when not to address my tutors formally’. These moments are about confidence, identity and language, of learning to use them in order to fit in, the growing awareness of the catastrophe of using them with the wrong people, or at the wrong time.

Like all great poems, all of this learning is worn lightly. It comes to us in the form of a list. It might have been dashed off during an ‘essay crisis’ or while rolling a joint. It gives the impression of not being the real thing at all. Deep down it knows that it is.